City Boy At A Farm Auction
This was originally posted in December 2007, but since I'm doing something similar this November, I thought I should remind myself about what I'll be facing.

My cousin and I grew up together, but our lives took different directions.  I'm a computer person and an educator.  He was a farmer until his death a few years ago.  I'm a computer hobbyist and have a lot of computers and computer parts laying around.  His hobbies involved bigger things: Tractors, cars, steam engines.  Unfortunately that interest isn't shared by any of the surviving cousins or other relatives, so eventually my aunt took the farm auction route.  I hadn't been to a farm auction since I was a kid, but I had to play a major role in this one, and  I'm still recovering from the first half of it, three days later.

I took Tuesday off from work and went up there Monday evening so I could help with the last minute prep.

This was Tuesday:

Got up around 5:30 am on Tuesday morning and started bundling up. Lined jeans, snowsuit, thermal undershirt, heavy jacket, lighter bright orange 'don't shoot--I'm not Bambi' jacket, orange cap that drops my apparent IQ 25 points.  And heavy boots that no longer fit, no matter how hard I tried to get my feet into them. I scrambled and came up with a pair of basketball high-tops. I figured I might get by with them, and two pairs of socks, one of them super-heavy thermal things. Wrong.  City boy mistake.  When your feet get cold your whole body is cold.

Neighbor and I went out and opened the gates for the auctioneer and his team at 6:30 am, then went down to try to get a big farm machine called a Haybine started. The Haybine was the crown jewel of the auction, expected to bring at least ten thousand, and probably a lot more. Someone snuck in the night before and cut some wires, hoping that we wouldn't be able to start it and they could buy it for a third of what it was worth. They would then replace a ten dollar wire and resell the thing for what it was actually worth. Fortunately, my aunt's neighbor was a good enough mechanic to spot and fix the problem. Since I know little about farm machinery I got posted to keep an eye on the Haybine to make sure nobody tried that trick again.

I spent several hours babysitting the Haybine, with my feet gradually getting colder through the tennies before they finally auctioned the thing. It went for a good price.

This was a huge sale. My cousin (aunt's now deceased son) collected big stuff. There were 21 tractors, and 18 cars and trucks in the auction, almost all of them his. There were hundreds of other big pieces of farm machinery. We had worried that there wouldn't be enough people to buy all of this stuff. That turned out not to be a problem. The auctioneer gave out around 800 bidding tickets. They usually figure about three to four people per ticket, so there were probably between 2000 and 3000 people at this auction at its peak. It attracted farmers from at least four states.

The crowd was interesting to watch. There were young and old, big and small, but everyone there was Caucasian. No African Americans. No Asians. No Indians. No Arabs. There wasn't anything keeping people of any of those ethnic groups away except lack of interest, but they weren't there. There were a number of Amish at the sale, along with people from the local Mennonite group. Some of these guys looked like they were at an age where they should have been having one of these sales instead of going to one. Some were young and tough looking. I saw several guys who looked like they could have picked up the front end of a tractor and plowed the rest of the field that way if they had needed to--enormous, muscular guys.

There was also a wide range of temperaments and attitudes, from friendly, open and helpful to surly.  On the helpful side, a couple of my aunt's neighbors have been extremely helpful.  I don't know how they were able to do as much as they did while keeping their own farm going.

The auctioneer had quite an operation going. He had a trailer where you could buy food, water, and hot chocolate. The cold air made people hungry and he charged enough to make a good profit without making people feel ripped off. I had something like four of his three dollar sloppy joes during the day.

The auction started at ten o'clock. The auctioneer drove his truck along rows of machinery, with a crowd of several hundred to a thousand following. The guy had enormous stamina. He had someone sub in a couple of times for half an hour or so, but other than that he just kept going. There had been an ice storm a couple of days before, but people ignored the packed snow and ice to keep following him.

The sale was supposed to end at 5 pm, but when that time came there was still more to sell, so they broke out the flashlights and kept going. The neighbor and I stayed until the very end. The crowd gradually dwindled as snow began to fall and the wind picked up, but there were still several dozen people following the truck and bidding was still enthusiastic. By this time I had been on my feet and out in the cold nearly continuously for over twelve hours. I was moving slow. A lot of the bidders were still going strong.  These old boys are in shape.  Finally the auctioneer got through the last of the stuff a little after 6:30 pm. The neighbor and I walked back to the house through an increasingly heavy snowstorm. We got to the house, had a cup of hot soup, and I was asleep in under five minutes.

The Power of "Get Over It"
Recycle alert. I first posted this about seven years ago, but I think it makes a great deal of sense now, as it did then.
As a general rule, Americans don’t care much about history.  Those Americans who are fascinated by history find their neighbors’ disinterest in it annoying and a little scary.  At the same time, lack of interest in history usually means a lack of interest in multi-generation blood feuds, or in righting perceived injustices done to remote ancestors.  The prevailing attitude to old injustices is “get over it”.  That’s an easier attitude to have in a multi-ethnic society that has lost maybe one war (two if you’re a southerner) in the last two-hundred plus years and has never lost significant territory to an enemy (again, unless you're a southerner).  At the same time, in a way it’s also a triumph of common sense.  Nobody sane in the US seriously wants to go back and have another round with the Vietnamese even though we could probably win.  Nobody sane wants to re-fight the US Civil War or re-impose slavery.   The Vietnamese War and the US Civil War are over.  The losers lost and the winners won and that’s the end of it.  Not happy about the results?  Get over it.

If you look around the world you’ll notice something.  The real dead-end basket case countries and regions are usually the ones where old injustices or perceived injustices are most remembered and most important to people.  Look at the Middle East with its oil revenue poured into re-fighting its many age-old feuds.  Look at the Balkans and the way the countries there periodically tear themselves and each other apart.  Even within countries that are predominantly prosperous, groups that dwell on old injustices tend to end up in pockets of poverty.

None of this is to say that ignoring history is good, or even that ignoring old injustices is good.  The reality though is that both the villains and the victims of history are for the most part dead, or have one foot on the banana peel.  Anyone who played a decision-making role in World War II would have to be at least in their late nineties by now.  Anyone who was a soldier in World War II has got to be pushing 90.  Good, bad, villain, victim—if something happened in 1945 or 1948 the people truly responsible are dead by now.  If something happened 500 or a 1000 or 2000 years ago, not only is everyone involved long dead, but most of the descendants of both sides probably have some ancestors who were part of the other side.

The other reality is that dwelling on those old injustices tends to lead to situations where the guys who would normally be holding up convenience stores end up running around with AK-47s and RPGs in the service of one side or the other in the dispute.  When that starts happening on a major scale, anyone with brains and/or money heads for the nearest exit.  You end up with a downward spiral as jobs evaporate and people fight ever more bitterly over the remaining scraps of value.  And of course a whole new generation of injustices are created, which will undoubtedly be used to justify the next round of victimizations.
'Get over it' isn't the perfect answer.  It does have some downsides, but it does work.

An Adams family dynasty in the US?

Let’s say George Washington retires on schedule after two terms. He goes back home, but instead of dying two years later at age 67, he lives well into his 70s as an elder statesman, unifying the Federalist party. His Vice-President, John Adams, is elected in his place as happened historically. However, Washington's continuing prestige is enough to swing a historically very close re-election fight from Thomas Jefferson to Adams, in spite of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts.

Adams is very much a Republic kind of guy, but with the Democratic/Republicans (main opposition to Adam's Federalists) out of power for another four years, they become more radically anti-federalist. They were already purporting to annul federal laws in some states. Maybe a radical fringe actually rebels against the Federal government or conspires with Spain to seize some of the western territories, as Aaron Burr has been accused of doing. Historically, John Adams lived another 20+ years after his presidency, so maybe he decides to run for a third term, given the radical nature of the opposition and maybe gets a nod from Washington to go for it. (Not sure if Adams would go for it, and really not sure that Washington would endorse him, but if the opposition was looking more radical, maybe Adams would run and Washington might support him). That part is both crucial and iffy.

So now we have basically the same party in power for the first twenty years of the US constitution, (though Washington was not officially a Federalist). We've had no examples of a peaceful change of power between political parties, and John Adams has a politically active son (who later became the sixth president). John Adams has Washington's nod for a third term. Maybe Washington dies before the question of a fourth Adam's term comes up, but the precedent of more than two terms is set. Adam's son, John Quincy was born in 1767, and didn't historically become president until 1825, so somehow they would have to close the gap between a fourth John Adams term, which would end in 1812, and John Quincy becoming old enough to be considered ready for the presidency. Probably one more John Adams term would do it, taking us to 1816. John Adams retires. John Quincy Adams takes over the family business of being president. Then all it takes is a politically active third generation in the family and the US is a monarchy in everything but name.

BTW: Both Adams family presidents were very committed to Republican ideal (the ideal of a Republic, not the modern party of that name) and would have been appalled at the idea of becoming a dynasty if the issue was put to them that way. They would have to be pushed into becoming a de facto dynasty by political pressures and fear of the opposition if this was going to happen.

True, historically the Federalist party kind of imploded, not too far into the game. On the other hand, the opposition would probably become more radical the longer they were out of power. And that opposition had Aaron Burr among them, which could lead to very destructive in-fighting. With a more extended time out of power, I can very easily see the anti-federalists sprouting a more radical, violent wing that tries to forcibly resist the federal government, and (as noted) maybe even trying to set up its own country in the west (as Burr has been accused of trying to do historically). The anti-federalists would claim that the American Revolution has been hijacked and has essentially recreated the British monarchy, while the Federalists would point to, and genuinely fear, the anarchy of the French Revolution and also fear that the anti-federalists want to bring back the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation.

This could end up as a very different US. Jefferson could get away with the Louisiana purchase because his credentials as an anti-federalist were strong. I'm not at all sure Adams would make the same decision, because he would be more vulnerable to accusations of abuse of power. So probably no Louisianna purchase, which meant a much smaller US, at least for a while. As to who would end up with the Louisianna purchase, I don't know. The British might invade it when they returned to war against Napoleonic France. It might become part of Mexico, though undoubtedly with litle real Mexican control for many decades. Maybe it would become a refuge for anti-federalist settlers carving out mini-republics in the chaos, with nominal loyalty to Spain or Mexico. Those republics would have nearly twenty years to develop under very tenuous Spanish rule before Spain was kicked out of Mexico.

The federalists had a strong anti-immigrant wing, partly a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. They would probably clamp down on immigration, slowing US population growth, at least until industrial expansion revealed the need for a bigger workforce.

So, a US that remains smaller and less populated, at least for the first several decades. A chaos of weak backwoods Republics hostile to the US government on the frontier. An increasingly entrenched elected Adam's family monarchy. Not a US I would want to live in, but it might be a fun place for a novel. What do you think?

Alternate industry and alternate pop culture
I've been toying with alternate technology and alternate pop culture to put into my alternate history novels. That can be fun, but I like to have good reasons why things turn out the way I have them working in my alternate histories. That's tough with technology and pop culture.

I don't know how typical the computer industry is, but personal computers took the path they did through a maze of eccentric personalities, most of them forgotten now. Chuck Peddle (inventor of the 6502) had a major influence, both by being a brilliant engineer and not nearly as good as a manager/entrepreneur. Death camp survivor Jack Tramiel (founder of Commodore) had a huge impact on the path of the personal computer industry in the early days, both because he had an excellent eye for where the computer market was going and because he could be a loose cannon who had trouble managing a large company effectively and would not let anybody else in his sphere of influence do so. If the computer industry is typical, the only way the specific shape, as opposed to generalities like: "computers would get smaller and cheaper" can be determined is by very detailed looks at the specific industry.

So many what-ifs in the early days of computing. What if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hadn't gotten together? Brilliant engineer/salesman meets hard-core engineer who could make the sales visions into reality. What if IBM had taken the personal computer market seriously and kept their operating system proprietary rather than giving Microsoft de facto control over it? What if a promising early kit computer manufacturer had figured out that their packaging was frying their chips before the problem bankrupted them? What if the CP/M and S100-bus guys had been able to make the move to 16-bit computers more effectively? What if online services like Compuserve, GEnie and Prodigy had expanded faster and become the way most people got online? There was a time in the late 1980s and 1990s that it looked like that might be the way things went.

By the way, CJ Carella does a lot of generally pretty good alternate computer industry and popular culture speculation in his New Olympus Saga books (Apocalypse Girl and Doomsday Duel), which surprised me because I didn't expect detailed alternate history world-building from a series that injected thinly disguises pulp and comic book superheros into our world in the 1920s and 30s as the point of divergence.

More of What I've Been Reading
I finished reading Steven King’s Joyland, which turned out to be quite good, thought there is little science fiction to it. The ghost of a murdered girl at a slowly declining amusement park and a college-aged kid discovering himself, all told by the college kid decades later, when he was in his sixties. It was very well done. Steven King is a strong writer. After I read one of his books I find my writing veering toward his writing style, which I'm not sure is a good thing for me. He writes well, but it's his voice, not mine and I'm not sure getting closer to his style makes my writing stronger. There are a lot of things you can get away with if you're Steven King that people won't accept from a lesser known author--things they won't trust the lesser-known author to get right.

From one of biggest name authors in the business to somebody I had never heard of, though that's probably because I haven't been trying many new science fiction authors for at least a decade. I picked up Hard Magic Book 1 of the Grimnoir Chronicles, by Larry Correia on the recommendation of someone I trust from one of the alternate history forums. Overall, it was worth looking at. The first two-thirds of it were pretty strong.  I did notice a definite weakening around two-thirds of the way through, but it did pick up and finished strong. The idea has some similarities to Apocalypse Girl, which I talked about a few posts ago, though the approach is quite different. Most of the population is normal, but a certain percentage have some degree of magical powers. The magical powers are supposed to have appeared before the Civil War.

I can't tell whether the author is working off of a reasonable time-line given the point of divergence, or if he just randomly tossed in historical characters. The very apparent and well-thought-out timeline was one of strengths of Apocalypse Girl and the others of that series, in my opinion.

In Hard Magic, I hit a spot in about 80% into the novel where right in middle of the climactic fight scene the big bad spouts off a very long paragraph of infodump that stopped the action entirely while the villain tells us about his childhood. That’ll cost him a star in my review. Well, maybe half a star. I guess that doesn't mean a lot since I don't give stars, but the exposition bit should have come long before that point and in easily digestible chunks. Oh well. Who am I to talk? Too much infodump is something I always have to fight against, so I can understand the impulse.

Hard Magic is still a good novel overall. It could have used tougher line-editing, with the most apparent flaw being a lot of places where the author uses ambiguous pronouns--“he” used to refer to multiple people in the same sentence. I can usually figure out which person each “he” refers to, but I have to slow down and parse the sentence, which pulls me out of the book. I also figured out a key plot twist about two chapters before it was revealed, which kind of spoiled it for me. Spotting the plot twist might be part of me being an author and reading books as an author--looking for authorial tricks. I would be interested in seeing if other people spot the twist early too.

I want to emphasize that in spite of those problems, this not a bad book at all. The action sequences move well. They're very compelling. The conflict is well established. The big bad and subsidiary bads are truly nasty--with enough depth that you understand their motives and really root for them to be defeated.  The heroes are not bad either, with considerable depth of characterization.

And, as a bonus, the novels features pirates in dirigibles, dirigible battleships and dirigible aircraft carriers, a huge air battle involving pirates boarding a dirigible. Very cool stuff.

World War II What-If: Axis Information Superiority Versus Allied Material Superiority
Historically, the Allies buried the Axis under an avalanche of steel--tanks, planes, artillery, as well as a superiority in manpower. If that wasn't enough, they also had information superiority, with high-placed Soviet spies in Germany, with Ultra, which read German high-level codes, the British double-cross system, which turned every German spy in Britain into a double agent and so on.

What if the Axis somehow got and retained information superiority? Was that possible and if it had happened, to what extent could it have offset the inevitable Allied material superiority?

German code-breakers did sometimes break into British and Soviet codes and their successes had an impact on the Battle of the Atlantic and sometimes on the eastern front. Let's make the point of divergence September 1939. In the confusion of the fall of Poland, Germany captures the bulk of the Polish cryptographic team that made most of the early Allied advances against the German Enigma machines. They also capture the material and machines the Poles used to decode the messages. The discoveries give German cryptography, both offensive and defensive, a huge shot in the arm. If Poland, with its limited resources, can break into German codes to the extent they did, how much more can France and Britain do?

The Germans pour resources into cleaning up flaws in their own cryptography and attacking codes of their enemies (and their own Allies for that matter, being Germans). The code-breaking war goes back and forth in 1939 through early 1943, but by January 1943 the Germans have achieved decisive information superiority. Maybe they help the Japanese fix the flaws in their codes, or more likely they restrict Japanese access to German secrets due to the known vulnerabilities of Japanese codes. They give the Japanese sanitized summaries of the Japan-relevant material, much like the western Allies did with Ultra information they sent the Soviets. Without Ultra helping the Brits pick up German spies the Germans have a working spy network inside Britain. They're reading most Allied codes, both of the Soviet and the Western Allies.

On the other hand, the Allies have amassed crushing superiority in material and the disparity is only going to grow. That sets up a clash between material superiority and information superiority. Which one wins?

I'm going to caveat this by saying that I have serious doubts about the Germans doing what it takes to gain that kind of information superiority and about them having a rational enough world view to take advantage of information superiority if they got it. Hitler often had key information and ignored it because of his ideological fixations. That being said, how much influence would Axis information superiority have on the course of the rest of the war?

What I've Been Reading
I’m in Amazon Prime and that entitles me to a choice of one of four soon-to-be released Kindle books every month for free. I have started the last three choices, and enjoyed the parts I’ve read, but haven’t finished any of them yet. Artful is one of a growing subgenre of books that take a famous character from history or literature and add vampires or vampire-hunting to their repertoire. In this case, the Artful Dodger has escaped his just fate and is thrust into a vampire conspiracy against the British royal family. It’s not badly written, but for some reason I got bogged down about a third of the way through. I just started The Empty Quarter, a thriller set in the modern day Arabian peninsula. Again, it seems well-written enough, but it got shuffled down my reading list by other books. I’m just starting a mystery called A Cold and Broken Hallelujah set in modern day California. It has grabbed me more than the other two have. I’m a mystery reader if there is no science fiction handy.

Pushing the Amazon Prime freebies down my reading list: Doomsday Duet by C.J. Carella, last Point of Divergence distro’s guest author. It’s a sequel to Apocalypse Girl, the superhero/alternate history crossover. It’s really good stuff, cleverly raising the stakes for the alternate Earth and setting things up for a showdown in the next book. I highly recommend both books.

I also read The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross. This is the latest book in the Laundry series, where Lovecraftian monsters are real and can be loosed into our world by the wrong computational or mathematical algorithm. In “Rhesus”, essentially stock brokers come up with an algorithm that changes them into vampires of a sort. I’ve enjoyed most of the Laundry books, though I thought the one before Rhesus was the weakest of the lot so far. Rhesus gets the series back on track, expanding on the Dilbert meets James Bond, fights Cthulhu essence of the previous books.

Sunrise, the third book of the Ashfall Trilogy (Yellowstone super-volcano blows, destroys most of civilization), was also a “read at every spare moment” thing for me. Mike Mullin’s did a good job of bringing everything together for the last book. Some of the ideas the survivors used to, well continue surviving, were really quite clever.

I’m also about halfway through Steven King’s Joyland, which so far is quite good. The ghost of a murdered girl at an amusement park that is slowly declining and a college-aged kid discovering himself. It has been very well done so far.

In non-fiction, I read Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal, which was highly recommended by Chris Gerrib, one of my author friends. He was right to recommend it. Excellent stuff. The naval battles off Guadalcanal are overshadowed by Midway, but they were very dramatic and close-run things, mostly involving duals between Japanese and US surface units, with carrier air power playing a subsidiary role, though airpower from the US base at Henderson Field played a key role.

How to Grow An Intelligent Alien (Part 2)
In the last article I talked about the patterns of brain size in animals here on Earth. What does all of this tell us about growing alien brains?

To get really big brains, you need a highly nutritious source of energy that is available in complex and patchy patterns, and that is accessible to a lot of competitors.  You need long-lived animals with a lot of investment in a few off-spring. You need a certain minimum level of stability in the environment lest the balance shift toward the cockroach strategy.

Do you need hands or something similar to manipulate the environment? Hands may help, but initially the boost in brain-size may be from an unintuitive source.  It’s easier for an animal to have a large brain if it has a short neck Think about a human-sized head on an ostrich-type neck. Wouldn’t work so well, would it? If you make an ostrich-length neck thick enough to support a human-sized head, you’ve added a lot of weight to the animal. In a close chase, that extra weight could be fatal.  So why can’t the neck be shorter? The animal has to eat and drink. That means that either the neck is long enough to reach the ground, or the animal has to find some other way of bringing food and water to the mouth. That means that an animal with some kind of grasping organ like hands, a trunk, or a prehensile tail pays a smaller price for a large brain the one that doesn’t have one. The grasping organ then allows the animal to develop more flexible behavior.

If an animal spends most of its time upright, the large brain costs even less in terms of neck mass, because the neck muscles don’t have to work as hard to hold it up. Purely water-living animals get some of the same benefit because the water supports their heads. A water dwelling or upright animal won’t automatically have a large brain. It just costs them somewhat less than normal to have one. Ironically, Hollywood’s preference for upright aliens has at least a little justification.

Large brains probably cost flying animals more than they do non-flying ones because of the selective pressure to keep weight down, though fruit-eating bats and birds tend to have proportionately large brains than insect-eating ones. There are upper limits for the size of a flying animal though, and that in turn limits brain-size. A human-sized brain in a body small enough to fly would be quite a trick.

Those of us that came through school a few years ago are often conditioned to think of animal development as a progression. It goes something like: fish, amphibians, reptiles, early mammals, progressive mammals, monkeys, apes, and then us.  That’s not the way life really works.  The reality is that animals of all kinds compete for a variety of niches in a variety of ways.  Fruit-eating birds are very formidable competition for apes and monkeys.  So are fruit-eating insects.  The niche determines many of the characteristics of the animal, though the ancestry determines how an animal exploits that niche.

There is no guarantee that monkey and ape type niches will always be occupied by monkeys or apes.For example, in South America most of the niches that leaf-eating monkeys occupy in Asia and Africa are occupied by tree sloths. Tree sloths aren’t our type of animal, but they are formidable competitors in their niche. Unfortunately, marsupials apparently never developed a truly monkey/ape-like branch, though they did develop animals that paralleled a lot of other types. A group of marsupials apparently developed in a somewhat monkey-like direction in South America before monkeys arrived there, put then died out when real monkeys arrived. Much of Australia was a rainforest at one time, but as far as I can tell, none of the local marsupials developed into major fruit-eaters, though there are quite a few vaguely monkey-like leaf-eaters.

In an alien environment, don’t necessarily expect only one progression leading to one type of intelligent life, and especially don’t expect the progression or progressions to follow the same patterns they did on earth.  It’s probably better to scrap the analogy of a tree of life and visualize a field of life, where in certain areas a combination of fertile niches and the right ancestry lead to more intelligent animals, and where other areas are less fertile or the ancestry of the current niche occupants keeps them from growing too intelligent.  Is that helpful? Ready to build a brainy alien?  I hope so.

How To Grow An Intelligent Alien (Part of my Cocktail Party Science series) (Part 1)
This is a slightly updated reprint from an abortive series I started seven years ago, but didn't have time to keep up with. I hope it's useful.

How To Grow An Intelligent Alien (Part 1) (Lessons From Apes, Bears, Elephants, and Cockroaches)

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So, how is that extra brain-size paying for itself in mammals in general and especially in monkeys, apes and humans?  Presumably through increased intelligence, but what is that?  Intelligence in animals isn’t a single set of abilities.  It isn’t necessarily tool use or ability to communicate.  I see intelligence as the ability to use memory and brain processing power to alter behavior in a way that makes the animal more effective in its environment.

Brain size by itself doesn’t automatically do much for an animal.  It takes the increased brain size, plus the mechanisms to use that additional brain size in some way.  Think of it in computer terms.  When you add memory to a computer, the computer may run a little faster or a little more reliably, but the real payoff is that now you can do things that really weren’t practical before like video editing or 3D animation. In animal terms, the larger brain allows more flexible behavior.  At a certain point it allows learned behaviors to be passed on from generation to generation.  The next step is allowing learned behaviors to be passed from generation to generation without having to be demonstrated to the next generation.  That’s where we are to a certain extent.

As the high cost of brains implies, intelligence isn’t necessarily the most adaptive way to go.  I use cockroaches and elephants to illustrate the tradeoff involved.   Elephants are very long-lived, and very intelligent in their own way.  Cockroaches are short-lived and rely mostly on instinctive behavior to survive.  If something new comes into an elephant’s environment, it has to be able to adapt to that something new.  If something new comes into a cockroach’s environment, the individual cockroaches have far less ability to adapt to it, but that doesn’t matter because they can quickly breed new cockroaches that are adapted to it.  Elephants simply can’t do that because it takes too long to make a new elephant.

In computer terms, the individual cockroach has a highly polished set of routines in read-only-memory to call on. If those routines don’t work in a new environment, then new cockroaches come along with slightly altered routines that do work in the new environment.  In computer terms elephants have a lot of memory and very elaborate and flexible routines to make use of that memory in order to modify behavior.  They have to be able to adapt to changes in their environment over their seventy-year life-spans, and they are.

Most animals are somewhere between cockroaches and elephants in this tradeoff.  For instance, a gerbil has some elements of flexibility and some elements that are inflexible.  I had gerbils and way too much free time on my hands in high school, so I can tell you more than you probably want to know about their behavior.  One rather odd thing about gerbils is that they have no natural fear of predators.  A gerbil that has never encountered a cat before will attack it.  As near as I can figure out, gerbils figure out what is dangerous in their environment either by personal encounters or by having older gerbils in the colony drum their feet when something dangerous approaches.  That’s flexible, maybe even too flexible for the gerbil’s own good.

On the other hand, in some ways gerbil behavior is very inflexible.  Gerbils love to explore, so I tried a couple of experiments when I was back in high school (remember, way, way too much free time).  I put a gerbil in a container shallow enough that it could jump out, but deep enough that the jump was difficult.  I set the container next to the arm of the couch.  Then I waited.  The gerbil would inevitably jump up onto the couch arm and pause there to look around.  I would then pick it up at set it gently back down in the container.  This would go on for 10 to 15 cycles with absolutely no variation.  Then, usually after the 12th time, the gerbil would stop, wash its face and look over the situation.  It would then repeat the jump and pause one more time.  After I put it back it would jump again, but this time it would dodge as soon as it landed.  I was ready for that, grabbed the gerbil and put it back.  The gerbil would repeat the new set of actions 10 to 15 times, then repeat the face-washing and looking things over.  It would then repeat the set of actions one more time, then add a new variation—usually jump, dodge, then run.

The new tactic was always added onto the existing sequence, and it was always a logical answer to the challenge.  This would go on until I either found something better to do, or the tactics got effective enough that I was afraid the gerbil would get away.  As I recall it, gerbils would retain their new set of tactics for a couple of weeks or maybe a month.  A more ‘intelligent’ animal would probably develop the more effective tactics much more quickly, and that undoubtedly does have survival benefits.

Is an elephant better or worse adapted overall than a cockroach?  It depends on how stable the environment is.  Elephant-style adaptation tends to work well in relatively stable environments and cockroach-type animals tend to be marginalized.  In extremely unstable environments the cockroach approach seems to work better.  Want to bet on which type is most likely to recover from a catastrophic asteroid strike?  Elephant-style adaptability is also expensive.  As I mentioned earlier, big brains take an enormous amount of energy to support, so animals don’t grow them without having a very good reason to.  The brain has to allow the animal to access enough additional energy sources to offset the energy drain, or selective pressures will lead to smaller brains.

So what kind of animal grows large brains here on earth?  As I mentioned earlier, fruit-eating and omnivorous monkeys and apes generally outclass most carnivores and herbivores at a given size.  Monkeys with a diet mainly of leaves tend to be intermediate between fruit-eating monkeys and carnivores, probably because their relatively poor quality diet makes really large brains too expensive.  Dolphins have noticeably larger brains than apes.  Seals overlap the bottom of the monkey/ape range.  So do bears, though in the case of the bears, the overlap is entirely due to the Malaysian Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus), which is almost exactly in the middle of the ape/monkey range.

Among marsupials, opossums and the Australian marsupial carnivores do very poorly in the brain department, with brain sizes for opossums averaging around 14 percent of the brain you would find in a comparably-sized monkey and the Australian marsupial carnivores (Dasyures) in the 14 to 21 percent range.  That puts them at about half the brain size of a typical carnivore at best, though some of the weasels and some of the members of the mongoose family come close to overlapping the marsupial carnivores.  The extinct Tasmanian wolf does quite a bit better, at around 30 percent of what you would expect from a monkey it’s size.  A comparably-sized placental wolf would be at around 65%, but the Tasmanian Wolf does beat out quite a few placental carnivores.

Kangaroos and wombats do quite a bit better than the marsupial carnivores.  They actually overlap the carnivores fairly substantially.  The extinct marsupial lion, which was actually related to kangaroos rather than other Australian marsupial carnivores like the Tasmanian devil, apparently had a brain-size almost indistinguishable from normal carnivores in the same size range.

So what does all of this mean?  In terms of land mammals on Earth, the key to a large brain seems to be an omnivorous diet, with fruit as the major component.  That holds true mainly in the tropics because of the huge number of species of fruiting trees that a fruit-eating animal has to keep track of, and the high level of competition for the fruit.  Get to a big fruiting tree the day after a big troupe of monkeys found it, and you get famine instead of feast.  The Malaysian Sun Bear is somewhat convergent on monkeys and apes in that it is small, exclusively tropical, a good tree-climber, and a major fruit-eater.  It seems to also be convergent in terms of brain-size.

Marsupials have a somewhat different pattern than ‘normal’ (placental) mammals in that the largest brain-sizes are seen in big herbivores, possibly because they developed the same kind of thick interconnection between the two hemispheres of the brain that ‘normal’ mammals did. Opossums and the Australian marsupial carnivores never developed an equivalent interconnection and they may not be able to develop specializations between the hemispheres as easy as other mammals.

There are no marsupial equivalents to the omnivorous/fruit eating monkeys or apes, though sugar gliders and their relatives are in some ways vaguely monkey-like..  Sugar gliders are also somehow very alien in a lot of their behavior patterns, based on the one I had as a pet—somehow a different way of being flexible and somewhat intelligent.  (to be continued)

What If the US Had Kept the Bulk of the US Fleet on the West Coast?
Up until May 7, 1940, the US Pacific Fleet was headquartered in California. FDR ordered the headquarters shifted to Pearl Harbor, where he hoped it would serve as a counterweight to the Japanese. The then head of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral James Richardson, along with most of the navy's top brass, were totally opposed to the move, because they felt, rightly it turned out, that stationing the fleet at Pearl exposed it unnecessarily to Japanese naval power. Admiral Richardson ended up resigning over the issue.

Let's say that Admiral Richardson was a little better at bureaucratic infighting. He manages to delay the deployment to Pearl by maybe three weeks, until late May 1940. By that time, it is pretty obvious that Germany may very well take France, leaving Britain alone and vulnerable. The prospect of a German victory gives another reason to delay moving the fleet further away from the now seemingly vulnerable US East Coast. The actual fall of France and the threat to Britain sends the US scrambling to shore up defenses in the Atlantic and moving the Pacific Fleet thousands of miles away from the US mainland doesn't make a lot of sense in that environment. The bulk of the fleet stays in California most of the time,though with the same steady trickle of vessels heading into the Atlantic that happened historically.

Throughout late 1940 and into 1941, the US becomes more and more committed to the Atlantic, culminating in the same undeclared naval war against German we fought historically in the summer and autumn of 1941. The bulk of the fleet stays in California, with occasional visits and exercises by part of the fleet in Pearl.

December 1941 rolls around and the bulk of the US Pacific fleet is in California, with maybe three or four heavy cruisers circulating in and out of Pearl. The Japanese carriers barely had enough range to attack Pearl Harbor. They can't get within range of California. What do the Japanese do? Avoid attacking the US? Attack other US assets in Hawaii? Attack the Philippines first? How does having the battleships that were historically sunk or damaged at Pearl available change the course of the war?

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