The Frightening Truth Behind the Collective Intelligence of Swarms

Crowds scare me. Seriously, if I had to list my top ten fears of all time, getting sucked into a crazed mob would probably rank number one. The scariest scene from the film “Natural Born Killers” isn’t all the horrors Mick and Malorie dish out. Nope. It’s when the prisoners mob the warden and tear him apart. Frightening.
Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Whenever I see a mob of people I get nervous. Mobs rob us of individual thought. People do things they’d never do when thinking rationally. Now, Scientists are beginning to understand why. People have known all along that collective swarms act differently.
Aristotle stated quite succinctly that “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” So then swarms of creatures function as more than just a bunch of individuals. Take the locust for example. It’s just a grasshopper. Plain and simple. But under certain conditions is transforms into the plague that is the locust.
A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER Published: November 13, 2007

A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER
Published: November 13, 2007

Iain Couzin, from the Collective Animal Behavior Lab in Princeton, recently discovered that locusts don’t work together out of a common goal. Nope. Each one wants to save its own butt. When the locusts get too close to each other, the nip at their abdomens. Unresponsive locusts become food.
It makes me wonder if human mobs react similarly. When the crowd hits critical mass (a certain density of people) folks bump and elbow you. Ultimately the individual gets pushed in the direction of the mob. Well, you get pushed or you get trampled.
Couzin discovered that three simple factors control swarms of creatures: Alignment (the desire to move in the same direction), Attraction (trying to stick together in a group), and Repulsion (even sticking together, creatures still want to maintain a certain distance).
You can see this everyday while driving on the freeway. All the cars have the same direction (of course, the road takes us the same way), yet there exist clumps of cars. Drivers are naturally attracted to other cars. If you’ve ever been tailgated you know this. The tailgater sticks close to you. If you switch lanes, the tailgater speed up to the next car. Repulsion plays a part to keep the drivers from crashing (usually).
Animal swarms do this naturally, typically as a defense. If the alignment is not that strong, the animals swim every which way. A tighter alignment, produces that doughnut shape we see in fish. The tightest alignment creates flocks of birds that veer and swoop as one. The birds aren’t a super-concious being (as some believe). Each bird is simply following the cues of the nearest dozen or so birds. Sticking close, but not too close. Amazingly, when a hawk heads toward the swarm of birds, they seem to react as one. Even the birds farthest from the hawk (that could never see it) veer away.
This amazing video shows starlings at Otmoor shifting and flying as one.
Want to learn more, check out the article from Wired.
Now, just keep to your feet in crowds, otherwise you’ll end up like the poor locusts.
Tim Kane

Let Me Download Your Book for Free (It’s My Religion)

What some people won’t do to get around supporting artists. I’m not one to prop up big corporations and their tireless lawsuits against  kids copying music. Heck, I made my share of mix tapes and gave them away. But as a writer, I understand that if you give everything away, you can’t support yourself. Novels, songs, movies—these all take months and years to create. We all love the idea of the starving artist, but I also like to pay my rent.


Now there’s a movement in Sweden where copying and disseminating information is protected under the umbrella of religion. Yes, it’s true. The Swedish government has recognized Kopimism as an official religion. What are the doctrines? Glad you asked:

* All knowledge to all
* The search for knowledge is sacred
* The circulation of knowledge is sacred
* The act of copying is sacred

Sounds a bit scary doesn’t it. This is movement born from the hacker culture. By hooking onto a religion, the Kopimists can also gain political leverage. Does this mean that US hackers can claim amnesty for religious reasons? Probably not yet.

Looking through the official Kopimism site reveals some puzzling contradictions. On one hand, they state: “All people should have access to all information produced. A gigantic Boosting Knowledge for humanity.” This makes sense. Why hide valuable information? My first thought goes to helpful drugs that can benefit everyone.But then I spot this a few lines down: “The absolute secrecy is holy in the church of kopimism.” Doesn’t this contradict what they just said about shareing?

A Kopimist marriage. Not sure why the priest is dressed like V for Vendetta.

A Kopimist marriage. Not sure why the priest is dressed like V for Vendetta.

The Kopimist Church of Idaho (Yes, our Idaho) has a more straightforward approach. They want to send books to people in South America or Africa. Not bibles, but books. Any books. Pure information. This form of information sharing I can get behind. It’s like humanitarian aid for the mind.


Interestingly, this religion is officially tied to The Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent site that allows people access to movies, and music. In order to keep their servers away from copyright enforcers, The Pirate Bay has purchased remote drones to carry the servers 8,000-9,000 feet above Greek airspace. If the Greek government agrees, this could tie the Greeks into breaking copyright laws.

This photo comes from a Merseyside Police demonstrate their new aerial surveillance drone in Liverpool. Don't expect The Pirate Bay to work like this any time soon, though

This photo comes from a Merseyside Police drone in Liverpool.

What’s the future for the Kopimist movement? Will governments grant them the ability to bypass copyright law? If so, I think you’d see a lot of cheap people flocking to this religion. It’s like the Napster of intellectual property.

Tim Kane

Genetically Engineered Animals for the Future

Scientists will always tinker. While they mostly seek to improve the world, some scientists stray into Frankenstein category. Now that the genome has been hacked open, also sorts of possibilities pop up, from the useful to the ridiculous.

Say you often can’t find your cat when she wanders around the house at night. Problem solved. Get a glow in the dark cat.


Yes, it’s true. South Korean scientists meshed a cat’s DNA with a red fluorescent protein. Why did they want glowing kitties? Just because.

Although some of the genetic engineering works around possibility for science’s sake. Not everyone needs a glowing cat. But what about a dinosaur? Look at a modified Umbuku Lizard.


Those wings aren’t glued on. They were dormant in the lizard’s genes. A little tinkering brought them out. Scientists believe that this lizard is a descendent of the Pterodactyl, which lost its ability to fly some millions of years ago. To date only 6 of these flying Umbuku have been produced and they are kept seperate from the natural Umbuku due the risk of cross breeding.

Some genetic tinkering can produce results we can all use. Consider the fact that nearly all paper comes from wood pulp. However, you have to kill the tree to make the paper. What if you didn’t? Trees produce leaves every season. A Swiss-based company saw the possibilities. They engineered a tree whose leaves look like sheets of paper. That’s right. Just pluck a sheet and get writing. Bonus, the tree lives.


Up to this point, scientists have combined like items (plant with plant or animal with animal). Here comes the fern spider.


This is one of the first animal/plant hybrids. The Italian Wolf spider (Lycosa tarantula) was crossed with a ponga fern (Cyathea dealbata) to test the survival rates of creatures with camouflage.

Finally, this tinkering can be simply for the purpose of beauty.


The Japanese company, Suntory, managed to create a blue rose called “Applause.” Blue roses don’t exist in nature. Many horticulturalists strive for this coveted goal. The company mixed rose genes (Old Garden ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’) with a delphinidin-producing gene from a pansy.

The future certainly looks strange. I don’t know how I’ll use my glowing cat, but at least I can pull a sheet of paper from my tree. Alas, if only it grew money.
Tim Kane

Evolution Gone Awry (The Disturbing Art of Patricia Piccinini)

If you’ve never seen Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures, then you have missed out on a whole world of weirdness. Take a look at the photo below from “The Fitzroy Series” (2012). Look at the mix of an actual environment and the sculpted creatures. The boy sleeping in the bed? He’s probably a sculpture too.


She uses a combination of  silicone, fibreglass and human hair to create her sculptures. Often she pairs her bizarre beings with imagined future beings.

She also offers a series of sculptures that cause the viewer to question whether this is a creature that once lived or possibly a result of laboratory tinkering. Take a look at “Offering” (2009). Is this a dog? Perhaps a werewolf cub? It certainly evokes a warm babyish feeling.

offering 2009

Now take a look at “Newborn” (2010). Perhaps this is the offering grown a little larger?

newborn 2010

This little guy looks comforting yet disturbing at the same time. Are those arms? Fingers? Tentacles? I’m not sure. Does it have a trunk?

In her series “Aloft” (2010) she shows an ominous nest dangling above viewers’s heads.


From the second story, viewers can see inside the nest. Note that the boy didn’t craw in there. He’s sculpted.


Yes, disturbing is this artist’s middle name. I don’t know what worries me more, the giant larval creatures or the kid about to tumble to the floor.

Finally, look at one of her most recent projects “Welcome Guest” (2011). Here we have more full grown creature paired with a child.

Welcome Guest

As always in Piccinini’s sculptures, the children look happy and calm when faced with the bizarre or unusual. This piece makes me wonder what the welcome guest evolved from. Those claws are disturbing.

To see more of Piccinini’s sculptures, visit her website.

Tim Kane

Creepy Critters and Insect Transformations

My life seems to be dominated by bugs. (Thankfully with no current infestations, though I could be jinxing myself.) It all started with a book: Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart. I was pulled to it like flies to dung. I’d already read her previous book, Wicked Plants, and it was astounding.


I’m only halfway through, but the descriptions of bed bugs kept me up at night (glancing around the room for possibly critters). One of the most intriguing insects so far is the Asian Giant Hornet. Not only is this creature gigantic (50 mm), it raids bee hives the way Vikings pillaged English towns.

viking wasp

One wasp will reconnoiter the hive, tearing off the heads of bees and bringing them back to its young. Then it smears pheromones and attracts a massive wasp raid. All the bees are destroyed, the larva and honey stolen away.

What really takes this to the next level is the defense that the bees mount. Too small to fight the wasp directly, they team up. The bees know that if they can dispose of the first wasp, the others won’t come. They lure the scout wasp inside the hive. The bees then proceed to flap their wings furiously, raising the temperature to a blistering 116 degrees. This cooks the wasp. The danger is that if the temperature kicks up a few more notches, it kills the bees.


This isn’t the only literary insect encounter. I’m also currently reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. The second story, Reeling for the Empire, is both repulsive and alluring at the same time. It centers around Japanese women stuck in a modernizing nation (mid-nineteenth century). To compete with Western silk spinning machines, the Japanese alter their women to transform them into silk worm. They grow fuzzy body hair and rip off their fingernails to pull out the silk that builds in their bellies.

This is an illustration created by moonasi for the New York Times. Click to see the original.

This is an illustration created by moonasi for the New York Times. Click to see the original.

Cap all this off with the fact that my local museum, The San Diego Natural History Museum, has a bug exhibit  (Dr. Entomo’s Palace of Exotic Wonders) featuring glowing scorpions, millipedes, bird eating tarantulas, and vinegaroons.


It’s enough to make you twitch and glance over your shoulder for bugs. At least I’m not degrading to the status of Upston Pratt from Creep Show. Not familiar? In the story, titled “They’re Creeping You Out”, a cranky tycoon has “bug-proofed” his penthouse (Howard Hughes has nothing on this guy). Suffice it to say, roaches find their way in, both to the apartment and his body.

Creepshow – They’re Creeping Up on You! from Veetrix on Vimeo.


Enjoy the insect world. They outnumber us 200 million to 1.

Tim Kane

Ear Flapping Vampire

Imagine a vampire as a head with gigantic ears, that soars toward victims to devour blood and inflict curses. While doing research on Camazotz, a Mayan death bat, I stumbled on one of the most bizarre vampires I’ve every heard of. The chonchon.

The legend hails from the only native people that remained independent in South America. The Mapuche not only resisted the Incan Empire, but also the Spanish. Their name derives from Mapu (of the land) and Che (people).

On version of the chonchon story has that when a person dies, the ears will grow to an enormous size, and it will year away from the body.

I found this picture a Spanish site about the Chonchon.

I found this picture a Spanish site about the Chonchon.

A more complete myth involves a kalku (a sort of mythical sorcerer that works with wicked spirits). The Kalku transformed into the chonchon only on moonless nights. The sorcerer uses a magic cream along the throat (this somehow helps separate the head from the body). This version of the creature has feathers and talons and the ears serve as wings. Only other kalkus can see the chonchon.

 Tim Kane

Authors Are Software Developers

I was installing the latest version of Microsoft Office when it struck me: authors are software developers. Or they should be. Think about. Now that books are digital, authors create the product that Kindles, Nooks, iPads consume. What if authors embraced this rather than fled from it?

Think I’m crazy? School districts are already learning about the tricky situation of purchasing ebooks. A textbook is a thing that can get old, ripped, or wear out. Once a school district buys it, it can milk that book for many years (often way past when it needs to be updated). For an interesting aside on this matter, read how companies are dealing with ebooks and libraries. But buying a set of ebooks for a school is more like purchasing a software subscription (or at least is should be). Read more at digital book world.

Take your favorite author. One of mine (that’s still publishing) is Stephen King. Say, instead of me buying (or not buying) each book he puts out, what if I could subscribe to the author. Then I would have his new releases delivered to me. Maybe for authors not so first tier, companies could offer genre book subscriptions, with authors packaged together. This would be most beneficial to authors because they might appear in multiple packages and earn money from each one.

The services wouldn’t be much different from Satellite radio stations of when you choose your viewing packages for satellite or cable. The reader would get instant access to both existing books, but more to come. Maybe even some exclusive material (like those bonus tracks on iTunes) that would warrant the subscription service.

Authors would get a steady flow of income because subscriptions are a pay per month service. The author simply has to keep producing stories (or software) to fill the reading void.

That said, I wonder which authors would be the next Microsoft (the company that build software we all can’t live without).

Tim Kane