Fantastic World

Fantastic and magical things in our world, and how they relate to fantasy fiction.

To dream, perchance to write

Plenty of people don’t pay any attention to dreams. Dreams to them are nighttime entertainment to ponder a second or two and then be forgotten. Some others take dreams way too seriously and believe that they foretell the future (I’d personally say only one in 500 dreams has anything to say about what we are going to do in the waking world.) Others just forget about dreams the minute they wake up and claim they don’t dream. Psychologists say everyone dreams at night, and these often can be recovered in hypnosis.

Writers who ignore dreams do so at their peril. Because what’s just weird and amusing to most people can be rich fodder for stories, characters, and even plot lines. I go over my dreams when I wake up in the middle of the night, just to see if there is any useable material there. (No, I don’t write them down, and I should, but I’m just too darn tired. I can’t read the handwriting in the morning.) At awakening, I do the same thing and pay special attention when a similar dream seemed to be playing over continuously during the night. Those mean something, even if I’m not sure what.


I long ago got rid of those books that are supposed to explain dreams to you. They explain common symbols that are significant to a wide group of people, but don’t have much to say about my own dreams. I look for similarities to my life, a character who remains memorable long after the dream is over, and, of course, the landscape of dreams—in cosmic, space-like settings, in a house, deep within a cave. All of this can spark a story idea.

I once had an idea for a short story and went to bed imagining the characters, then what their dialog might be, and I gave it a hazy plot as I was drifting off. That germ of a story took off in dreamworld. When I woke up, I had the entire story ready. I got out my computer, started typing—and with just a few revisions—had that short story nailed down in about two hours. I read it over a couple days later and decided to send it out to the little literary magazines that publish these things. Indeed, it was published in a journal called Folio. Since I hadn’t been lucky selling my novel ideas to anyone at this time, this publication meant a lot to me. And it gave me an enhanced appreciation for dreams.

Now when I’m stuck on a plot point, or just can’t make a character interesting enough, I “sleep on it.” And most times it really works. Even if I only get a couple usable sentences from my subconscious, it’s usually enough to send me off into a new and more fulfilling direction.

I’m convinced that not enough writers pay attention to their reveries and they could greatly improve their work if they’d just pay attention to the mind’s night-time wanderings.

I once talked to a writer who said he often pulled all-nighters just to get his word count up.

“No!” I said. “You are sabotaging yourself. You’re probably losing some great ideas by not dreaming, and word counts are meaningless if they really don’t have anything new or daring to say. “ (I’m really against the daily word count method of writing. It makes what should be inspired work feel dull.)

He was a bit shocked and I don’t know if he changed his ways. But I told him all-nighters are for term papers (and he was long beyond that). Sleep is for writers.

I’m happy to report that my work-in-progress is replete with dream material, some of it remembered from long ago, some of it new. And it’s making the writing feel more inventive. The words just flow. Am I keeping it all? Well, when it’s time for the second draft, we’ll see if some of this is extraneous. But right now my best advice to all you fledging writers out there is to turn off the late-night news (it just repeats anyway), get some sack time, and see if you don’t start coming up with some dreamy fiction.


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The Phantom Ponytail

Fantastic World

Back in 1839, some workmen struck a lead box and dug it up. It turned out to be a coffin—for a head of hair, minus the head. At first the workers threw the hair away until some thought it should be examined. The workers were mystified that there was no skull, just hair. Yet the long hair, done up in a plait, was resting on an oak “pillow.” They assumed it was a head of female hair—although hairstyles have changed through the ages and it easily could have been a man’s coif. Because the hair was found at Romsey Abbey in Southhampton, England, many thought it was the hair of an abbess or a saint.

Young Jamie  Cameron, 23, and archeological scientist saw the head of hair when he was a child.

“I thought one day when I’m grown up I might be in a position to be able to try and work out who this person might have been,” he told the BBC. And just so, after studying at Cambridge and Oxford, he is trying to answer that question.

Dressed in a full body suit worn by forensic police officers, Cameron opened the display case at the Abbey, took the hair and cut off a small sample. Then he passed it to a team of archeological  scientists at Oxford’s “Relics Cluster.” They carry out tests on all sorts of ancient objects, including hair.

The scientists put the hair swatch in an oven-like machine for gas chromatography mass spectrometry. Then the respective molecules were shown on a graph.
Dr. Thibault Deviese, a worker at the research lab for archeology, said that it looks like there was pine resin in the hair, which Cameron says may have come from overseas. Radio-carbon dating suggested a time in the mid to late Saxon era, Cameron said.

The result showed that the person almost certainly died between the years 895 and 1045. They also discovered from the proteins in the hair that the person dined on fish.

Many people would like to think it is St. Ethelfaeda, a local saint, said one of the researchers. But test results haven’t revealed much more. Cameron, however, thinks it is possible to do more intricate DNA analysis in the future.

But the question remains: who wore the phantom ponytail?

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Dolphins chatter is really language

Fantastic World

We’ve known for years that dolphins are pretty smart. People regard them as intelligent as monkeys, but they move in a deep silent world where we can’t make out their language or understand the many ways they use their sonar projections.

Well, Holli Eskelinen of Dolphins Plus, a research institute in Florida, plus some co-workers from the University of Southern Mississippi have discovered that dolphins not only can work together to solve a problem, but they talk to each other while they are doing it. At the research institute, dolphins were present with a locked canister filled with food. The canister could only be opened by one dolphin pulling one loop and the other doing the same with the other loop.

While dolphins are pretty smart they aren’t often presented with puzzles in the wild, so several of the six porpoises waved off the experiment. However, one pair of dolphins worked together to open 20 of the canisters in as little as 30 seconds. In four other trials, a single dolphin opened the canister on his own, but it involved a  much tricker set of maneuvers  and took longer to execute.

It wasn’t just the fact that the dolphins worked together to get their food that wowed the researchers, it was the fact that they were chattering with each other quite rapidly during the tests. Dolphins tend to make sounds while they are off on their own, but when they are with another dolphin, they tend to make a chattering sound, which is still quite randomly used.

When doing the test, the dolphins who worked together highly increased the amount of chatter and seemed to be directed at the issue of canister opening. The dolphin who opened the canister on his own didn’t chatter.

“This is the first  time that we can say conclusively that dolphin vocalizations were used to solve a cooperative task,” Eskelinen told New Scientist magazine.

“The study clearly shows that dolphins using vocal communication to jointly solve problems, said Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University. “The results point toward the possibility of a dolphin language that enables team problem solving.

But then we already knew that didn’t we? Flipper wasn’t chattering at his owners tor no reason at all. Too bad we still can’t understand dolphin language. But the day will come, I’m quite sure.

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Dino dinners were dead or alive

Fantastic World

Quick! When you think about a Tyrannosaurus rex, what comes to mind? Gaping jaws, jagged teeth, and the ability to run you down for a speedy snack.

Well, some of them were predatory like that—certainly they were kings of the dinosaur world—but scientists are saying that many in the tyrannosaur class, including juvenile tyrannosaurus rexes and velociraptor, got by by scavenging. Scientists from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, used such unusual tools as “Sims”-like computer games to gauge how often the dinos went after their prey or ate the carcass of a previous kill.

Rather than being like the fierce, voracious dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” the new research shows that many of the tyrannosaur class were more like scaly, featured hyenas. Irish and Scottish researchers  have shown that scavenging would have been a rewarding strategy for carnivorous dinosaurs.

dinosaur-1114628__340Lots of today’s predators rely on scavenging to supplement their caught dinners. Lions scavenge nearly 50% of their food in some populations.

The scientists say that direct hunting uses up vast amounts of energy and scavenging is nearly food for free. Dino’s who mostly scavenged were dilophosaurus and Utahraptor.

“In effect, these species occupied a Goldilocks zone,” Dr. Kevin Healy of Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences told
EurekaAlert, a science website. “They were big enough to search large areas in order to find carcasses and defend them, but not so large that simply moving became too energetically costly.”

But the scientists agree that the dinosaurs could not have lived by scavenging alone. “Practically all species (ing this class) would have likely shown predatory behavior,” Healy said.

So, it’s still not safe, if they clone a t-rex, to go near it for a pet.

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You gotta do what moves ya!

The Writer’s World

There’s something about moving (as in moving all your belongings) that doesn’t sit well with the writing process.

First, the muse (If you have one) decides things are way too messy to be around and goes on a holiday. Ideas? Poof! Out the window. Meanwhile those ugly old boxes lurk in your office (and living room and dining room and, well, everywhere) making you feel that you are decidedly out of place. (“What does she do?” “She writes.” Guffaws all around cardboard mountains.)

I have an odd way of getting going on a new book. I write the first draft by hand. I feel closer to the creative process that way. But all those notebooks cause  clutter, so they were consigned to a box that said “Open me first!). Now I’m just going freeform on the computer screen. I should like the freedom but I don’t. I feel naked and exposed. I like my old habits.

There’s also the usual allotment of time the author gives him or herself for writing a day. Some writers insist on 1,000 words a day. Not me! I’m much more free-form. If I find that I can do a 2,000-word chapter in a day and the take some time off for new ideas that works. Other times I do 500-word bites at a time. I’m not a slave to word-count rules. Other writers get to know their characters by writing little vignettes where they go out for coffee together. Not me! Wasted verbiage! If it’s good enough to put on the page, you can work it into your story, ice cream and all. Others get up at dawn to draw on their newly awakened mind for inspiration. The only inspiration I can even begin to find early in the a.m.  is in the New York Times over an overamped cup of tea. Mornings, who needs ‘em? And what’s worse is that the older I get, the less I can stay in blessed dreamland. Is this some kind of joke?

But now that this little moving bit of disarray is creeping into my day, I find myself much more likely to pitch in and pack rather than face a blank page. Manana, Manana. I have started to do some character interviews (on this blog) just to get the creative process going. I pay more attention to my dreams now and imagine my characters in them. And I’ll stay up late writing (or thinking about the next writing turn, which is just as important). But no mornings yet. Heck, that’s why I quit the day job.

This thing isn’t going to be over soon, either. We close early next month—and then my darling spouse goes on a two-week business trip. I’ll have to keep the new house going and check on the old one, all while worrying about getting what I need for the laundry room, bathroom towels, etc. Then the movers will show up and whole hell will break loose.

Are my characters sharing in this experience? Well, let’s just say that by the second chapter I have a character unpacking books at her new high-rise condo. I should have lots for her to do by the time the chapter ends.

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Another Character Breakout!

My characters are quite aggressive. They often argue with me long after a writing session is over, and, at least on one occasion, took over my blog. Well, here comes another character who feels a need to speak out. I’m only going to interrupt her with a few questions:

I’m Veronica Stevens and, so far anyway, Lynn’s leading female character. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind and I can’t seem to get Lynn to put all my concerns on the page.

For one thing, I’m a recent widow. My beloved husband Matt succumbed to cancer about three months ago. No, I know the date, it was EXACTLY three months ago. After clearing out the bills, dealing with the will, and getting the funeral taken care of, I was just

a rag with no motivation at all. Someone suggested that I move somewhere more exciting to put my copy editing career into high gear. (Matt had always subsidized my job, which didn’t pull in a living wage.) So I went through all my business cards and saw that most of my clients were from the Chicago area. And those who weren’t, well, the Internet makes that not a problem I decided that a short hop from my old home in Milwaukee to a high-rise in Chicago’s Loop would definitely change my life—and I hoped in a positive way.

Well, now I’m in my classy South Loop apartment and was shelving books. I started getting sad become some of the volumes were ones that Matt and I loved to read together. Now he was no longer there to listen to my vision of “The Lord of the Ring’s” Rivendell or hear a sweet re-reading of parts of “The Princess Bride.”  To keep from crying I bent over to pick up an extremely boring physics book to reshelf  and out of it fell an x-ray and medical report. It showed that Matt was dealing with more than cancer. There was another condition that could kill him. When he went into remission, he insisted on taking things slow and easy, and now I see why. Because Matt was on the road to recovery near the end. The chemo had done wonders and all the numbers were going in the right direction. Then, almost in a flash, they were summoning me to his bedside. We had about ten seconds to hold hands and say “I love you,” Then he was gone.

My friends back in Milwaukee think I should show this report and ask them if this other medical condition caused Matt’s demise, And then, I think, what does it matter? He’s still gone.

LYNN: Veronica, what do you want to do to get one with your life? Do you have any hobbies?

You know, someone at a Starbucks asked me about that when we were chatting, and I said I was going to miss Milwaukee because I couldn’t garden here. A girl behind the counter jumped up and said, “No, that’s not true. Chicago has community gardens.” I found out that by going out of my congested neighborhood to an area with park land, I could rent a plot where I could grow anything I would like. This really has me excited and I’m going to go to the Park District offices right away and find out about a plot of my own.

LYNN: You better just call, the Park District office is too intimidating in person. Veronica, what about making friends? What do you plan to do about being alone in the city?

Well, it’s daunting, but I thought I’d try to sign up for some of those field trips the park district offers. And dance lessons! There have to be some people who like to dance and be chatty too.

I’m not looking for men, mind you. I’m much too raw for that.

Although I had a disturbing dream in Milwaukee that I was an Egyptian priestess and a lower-ranked priest came up to talk to me. The attraction was instant and I felt I had met my soul mate. When I woke up, I felt a little guilty this happened so close to Matt’s death. But, damn, I’d like to meet that Egyptian man.

LYNN: Would you know him if you saw him—in this life?

Of course. And he’d be attracted to me. I’m taller than I was in my dream. I’m actually 5-foot-7, and I’m a pretty young-looking 35. I think I’d have no trouble attracting him.

LYNN: So, you are thinking about meeting men!

I’d be a liar if I didn’t say yes. Let’s just say I’m not looking too hard.

LYNN: What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?


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Solar, solar, everywhere

Fantastic World

So you think it’s pretty cool that you installed solar panels on your roof to collect free energy from the sun? London has a way of making that achievement look pretty small.

On the water, east of London, the British just have finished building a 23,000-solar panel floating array on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir at Walton-on-Thames.

“This will be the biggest floating solar farm in the world for a time—others are under construction,” said Angus Berry, energy manager for Thames Water, told the Guardian newspaper. “We are leading the way, but we hope that others will follow, in the UK and abroad.”

The $8.5 million pound project will allow the solar structure to treat the area’s entire drinking water plants for decades. It will provide clean drinking water for 10 million people in London and south-east London. The idea of putting solar panels on water is that that it is largely unused, whereas such an area of land would be quite expensive. The project does not harm sea life, and fish are easily able to swim into areas where the solar panels don’t block sunlight.

The British Government has slashed subsidies for solar and wind power, but Berry said this will not effect the QEII project, but might have an effect for future products.

Want to get a look at the QEII solar project? Good luck. It’s only visible by air from Heathrow Airport (or from a few apartment buildings in the nearby area).


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Unearthing Cambodia’s Treasure

Fantastic World

Using lidor, a sophisticated remote sensing technology that is similar to radar, an international team of archeologist headed by the University of Sydney’s Dr. Damian Evans, uncovered a hidden city around the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat. In what is now a dense jungle, the lidor (which they used by flying over the area in helicopters) uncovered roads, temples and even a hydraulic water system that once sustained a city that was the greatest medieval complex in the world.

At its peak in the 12th century, the city of Angkor covered 1,000 square kilometers. London only reached that size 700 years later.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire, which encompassed all of present-day Cambodia and much of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. The city of Angkor had about a million residents.

_77664683_angkorwat624.jpg      The largest structure of Angkor is Angkor Wat, which is still uncovered and attracts millions of visitors a year. Angkor Wat covers an area four times larger than the Vatican.

The hydraulic water system, which emerged as the most staggering achievement of this ancient culture, harness monsoon waters in  complex network of canals and reservoirs. The harvested water provided food security for the residents of the city, and made the city’s noble class fabulously wealthy. They used this wealth to build some of the most amazing temples on earth. One temple contained so much gold that its value to day would have been $3.3 billion.

Disaster struck for the Khmer empire when they paid more attention to building temples than to maintaining the hydraulic network. And just like in some modern cities, when the infrastructure crumbled, the populace suffered. Eventually, large climate shifts across southeast Asia brought the city down. Tree ring samples recorded sudden fluctuations between dry and wet conditions. Lidar maps show a huge flood that must have overcome the city’s water network.

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Old-time fairy tales older than you think

Fantastic World

Do you think that “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rumpelstiltskin” are relatively recent fairy tales—going back maybe a couple hundred years?

Some anthropologists and linguists think otherwise. They say that the origins of these and other tales go back some thousands of years, with one—“The Smith and the Devil—going back to the Bronze Age.

“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” Durham University anthropologist Jamie Tehran told Science News. He explained that when linguists study a language’s evolution, they are tracing grammatical and phonetical structure though time.

Tehrani and Sara Graca da Silva of the New University of Lisbon in Portugal studied 275 magic-based stories. Taking statistical analyses of the relationship between folktales and language left them with 76 stories that they thought could help estimate folktale age.

Four stories had a high probability of being associated with Proto-Indo-European language, the precursor language of Germanic and Romance languages.

Beside being quite sure of the ancient date of “The Smith and the Devil,” the team also found early versions of “Rumpelstiltskin” (then called “The Name of the Supernatural Helper”) and “Beauty and the Beast.” The language-story pairings say the stories originated 3,000 or 4,000 years ago.

“We don’t invent culture anew every generation,” Tehran said. “We inherit a lot of our culture.”


“Rumpelstiltskin” (left) and “Beauty and the Beast.”

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A lost underground arises

Fantastic world

The prehistoric cave paintings of Lescaux, France, have been a wonder that millions have gone to see. The paintings of animals and other objects were painted with meticulous care by people living in the region 18,000 years ago. The cave paintings became a Unesco World Heritage treasure since 1979.

However, by 1963, scientists had discovered that the throngs of tourists breathing and bringing in moist air were ruining the fragile microclimate of the cave and endangering the art. The French closed off the caves, but always wanted to find some way to make the artwork accessible to the public again. Finally, they decided a few years ago to reproduce the paintings and show them in a special museum in the same area, in the Dordogne region of France.

It took three years for artists make faithful copies of the artwork, engraving, sculpting, chiseling by hand and using small paintbrushes, even some tools used in dentistry. The art experts are now transporting 46 separate segments that make up the full copy of the Lescaux paintings and putting them in a semi-buried hillside in Montiganac, near the cave where the Lescaux paintings were found.

There are almost 2,000 cave paintings of rhinos, horses, deer, bison and panthers. The artists said they were humbled by the experience of re-creating the artwork.

“They are extraordinary technicians,” Francis Ringback, artistic director of the project told The Guardian newspaper. “Reproducing animal likenesses from memory and with their highly vivid movements.”

The end product will look as much like the real thing as possible. It will have the same darkness, smells, humidity and temperature. Visitors even will be greeted by a sounds of a dog barking, which was what the caves discoverers first heard in 1940.

The $63,168 million dollar project used cutting-edge technology to mirror the original as closely as possible. Three-dimensional scans were projected on walls, which let artists “trace” the originals using natural pigments. This is the second life-size replica of ancient cave paintings to be completed in a year in France. Before this project, President Francois Hollande inaugurated a facsimile of Grotte Chalet, containing prehistoric art dating back 36,000 years.

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