Sunday, May 22, 2016

The birds that live among us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, suburbs

I remember as a child living near the shore of Lake Erie, the morning chorus of birdsong that woke me in the spring and early summer. I taped it once, and I wish I had kept the tape. There seemed so many birds of so many different kinds…

I may have inflated it in my memory over the years. Some of the places I have lived since, didn't seem to have such a variety of birds. South Dakota, for example, just has fewer species because it is South Dakota, not Alabama. But recently I have been paying attention when I am out in the early mornings. It may be that here in the Mid-Atlantic the number and variety of singing birds is much the same as what I remember from fifty years ago in Ohio. Now I find a book that explores the relationship between bird numbers and diversity as they relate to different levels of urbanization: Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, by John M. Marzluff. A portion of the page space is well spent upon illustrations by Jack DeLap, a gifted natural history illustrator.

In ten chapters the book explores the relationship that different bird species have with our "built landscape". Chapters one through seven gradually paint this picture, primarily about species diversity:

  • In temperate regions, such as most of the United States and Europe, the number of different species is the least in inner cities; it is the greatest in suburbs; and it is somewhere in between in rural and forested areas.
  • In tropical regions, the trend is more linear: The greatest diversity is seen in the forests, the least in cities, intermediate levels are found in the suburbs.

In more absolute terms, the level of bird diversity is quite similar in suburban areas over most of the inhabited Earth. But in tropical forests the diversity is several times greater than in temperate forests. Also, worldwide, cities are bird-poor. In general, five very adaptable species are found wherever humans are: House Sparrows, European Starlings, Mallard Ducks, Canada Geese, and Rock Pigeons. Any place that didn't already have these species present, people brought them there, and they have flourished. So much so, that seeing large flocks of pigeons, frequently called "rats with wings", is a sure sign you are in an inner city.

To my observation, a city center is characterized by pigeons, sparrows, and starlings, while Canada geese and mallards favor the suburbs, which also have sparrows and starlings, but where pigeons are rarely seen. Of these five species, only the starlings and sparrows are truly abundant in forests, while meadows and farmlands tend to have very large flocks of starlings and substantial numbers of Canada geese.

Dr. Marzluff has led groups of students on numerous transects and species counts—these days the hip term is "bioblitz"—to confirm and quantify these effects. American suburbs provide two primary attributes compared to cities and temperate forests:

  • A greatly dissected forest-and-field landscape, with numerous mini-habitats that appeal to quite a variety of bird species. Other species that require large forested tracts avoid suburbs.
  • 55 million Americans spend $3 billion yearly on bird food and suet, and hundreds of millions more on bird feeders, birdhouses, and related equipment.

Several studies have shown that feeding wild birds causes a significant increase in the number of species, and the absolute numbers, of birds in an area. However, the suburbs also harbor a deadly enemy of small birds: millions of house cats, which kill at least two billion birds yearly in the U.S. I wonder, has backyard bird feeding increased the bird population sufficiently to offset the numbers taken by cats?

Of course, not all birds like birdseed or suet. Nor do they like the broken-up landscape of a suburb. Such bird species are "avoiders", and are rarely or never found in suburbs. The "adapters" seem to be tolerant and are about equally abundant in suburban yards and forests, while "exploiters" are more frequently found in the suburbs than elsewhere. But not all suburbs are of equal quality from a bird's perspective.

A friend of ours just bought a newly built home in a 55-Plus community. We saw the place when he asked us to accompany him to inspect it before signing the deed. The whole community is green grass and houses, and all the grass, to my semi-trained eye, is a single species of fescue. There are a few trees planted around the "community building" and other shared facilities. Otherwise, the entire multi-acre property is a green desert to all birds except American robins and starlings, which eat earthworms and yard insects. Fortunately, there are indeed earthworms in this development. I do hope many of the new homeowners will plant multitudes of shrubs and trees and flower beds; then springtime mornings will resound with something more than the robin's "Cheerio" calls.

My neighborhood was developed 60 years ago, and includes a substantial chunk of forest. Every yard has large trees, shrub plantings, flower beds, and various amounts of lawn grass. Off the top of my head, I recall that we frequently see or hear robins, starlings, several kinds of sparrow, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches, catbirds, mockingbirds, mourning doves, swallows, and tanagers. Less frequently we see a couple kinds of woodpecker, geese (overhead; none have ever landed in our yard), vultures (frequent roadkill squirrels), red-tailed hawks, crows, jays, and orioles. I suspect if I recorded the morning chorus and teased out all the bird calls, there'd be a few more that I haven't yet identified. I am only the most casual of bird watchers.

Chapters 8-10 are more of a call to action. To favor birds in our neighborhoods, we need to foster a greater variety of native shrubs and trees (Azaleas are pretty but don't have much to interest a bird), and grow plants that also favor the birds' favorite insects. Butterfly bush brings adult butterflies, but a variety of spices and herbs are food for many of their caterpillars. A little lawn grass is good, but most yards could do better with less (and you'd spend less for lawnmower fuel!).

Cities can do more also. Every urban area has abandoned and unused land. Some of this can be deliberately planted to favor wildlife. Several instances are described of cities that deliberately increased their "emerald necklace", leading to a more pleasant city for all their residents; the familiar "rails to trails" initiatives are a great example.

As long as Earth's human population numbers in the billions, we will have cities and suburbs. The urban population will most likely double in another generation, even if total population growth slows. So will suburban population, meaning the area occupied by "single family homes" and townhomes and small-scale condo/apartment developments will double in area. With a little forethought, this can benefit wildlife overall, rather than decimate it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The softer side of mollusk studies

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs

I have about another week to go for my data-gathering project, and then I'll return to snail inventory. A volunteer showed me another project that is going on. A lot of jars of squids are being sorted and prepared for storage in updated cabinets. This is being done in the "wet lab" because the storage medium for soft specimens is 70% alcohol. The wet lab has the best ventilation, and even then the atmosphere can get a bit heady! The current curator is a squid expert, so the squid collection is slated to grow rapidly.

People don't think of squids when they hear the word Mollusk. If they know the word at all, they think clam or snail. There are about 80,000 species of clams and snails and their nearest relatives (mussels, for example), and most folks have seen many different kinds of seashells. But we seldom encounter squids, other than an occasional bowl of Calamari soup or some chunks of "ika" (the Japanese word) at a sushi bar.

There are squids of all sizes in the oceans, from Architeuthis dux, the 50-foot (15 m) Giant Squid, down to Idiosepius pygmaeus, a bit under a half inch long (~1 cm) when at rest. Measuring a squid is tricky. Being boneless, they are very flexible. The standard measurement is mantle length; the mantle is the squid's "body". The arms can be longer or shorter than the mantle. The two tentacles can stretch to much longer than the arms, but at rest are 2-3 times as long. Thus the largest Giant Squid, or its heavier cousin the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), may have a mantle length of 6.5 feet (2 m), with roughly equal arm length, but the tentacles can stretch 35-50 feet (10-15 m), leading to maximum "stretched-out" sizes for these two species of 50-60 feet (18 m).

About 300 squid species are known, but almost every mid-ocean collecting cruise brings back specimens or photos of a new species.

This small jar is about 4 inches high (10 cm), holding a specimen about two inches in mantle length. This is a full grown adult of this species. It is a little smaller than the ones used for Sushi or Calamari soup. Species from this size up to about the size of your arm are the most common, and are a food source for sharks and other predatory (and quick-reacting) fish.
The jar seen just above is at the lower right in this image, next to another specimen of similar size and a jar containing three specimens of a much larger spotted squid. Their mantle length is close to a foot (0.3 m). I didn't read the labels, so I don't know the species of any of these.

Keeping a squid collection is a bit like keeping a caterpillar or spider collection. They don't dry out well so you need to preserve them in alcohol. Many people enjoy collecting seashells or insects, because the shells arrive at the beach already cleaned out and easily dried, and insects dry out readily. But softer-bodied critters are only collected by those who really love the subject. I don't think we have any specimens of squid that somebody just walked in saying, "Hi, I picked this up at the beach the other day and I thought the museum might like to have it." It happens with seashells, all the time. Squids? Not so much. But our curator loves studying these softer, but not necessarily gentler, mollusks (all squids are predators).

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Murder most Fowl

kw: natural history, birds, eggs, predation

A few days ago my wife noticed an eggshell in the driveway. Without much thought, we guessed it was from a hatched robin egg. It is the one on the right. The next day I saw another one, the one on the left. But it wasn't this clean. It had some yolk inside and yolk dripping from the side. I washed it out and off, and sat it next to the other to dry.

We soon recognized that both were victims of predation by a bird. The yellow smears on the first egg, which are sticking some bits of grass to it, are also dried yolk. Robin eggs are frequently punctured and eaten by crows and jays, and several other birds that are secondary predators (primary predators are the raptors such as hawks and eagles). Mammal egg predators take the whole egg, run off with it and crunch it down whole.

It is sad but true that "cute little birds" can be as vicious as any tiger. Except that "vicious", a word derived from "vice", is a human term and applies to humans. Neither tigers nor crows are vicious in the human sense. They kill to eat. They must kill or die. There are birds that more closely fit the term "vicious", such as starlings, which puncture eggs in a nest and drive off the parent birds so they can take over the nest.

So how do you tell when an egg shell you find is from a hatched bird, not a "murdered" one? The hatching chick pecks a girdle most of the way around the shell, then pushes to finish the crack. When you find a half shell with peck marks most of the way around, that is from a normal hatchling. The parent birds usually carry each half in a different direction away from the nest, 20 or 30 yards, maybe farther. This misleads predators as to the location of the nest with its vulnerable hatchlings.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Music distribution - no more "buggy whips"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, music, digital music, copyright, law enforcement, paradigm shifts

Nearly twenty years ago I was introduced to Limewire by a friend. While he was rabidly downloading all the songs of his favorite bands—and thus committing "music piracy"—I had no interest in anything contemporary. I have little interest in music composed after about 1910. I felt lucky to find digitizations with pretty good quality of very early recordings of Western, Country and Western Swing music, and downloaded a pretty good collection of that. Whatever wasn't already in the public domain at the time, probably is by now.

After a safety lecture I attended a police detective was asked how the police decide which laws to enforce. A major point in the following discussion was that a law cannot be enforced unless the rate of voluntary compliance is at least 85%. In the realm of traffic control, we find that stop signs and stop lights are obeyed at levels exceeding 95%, in most places, anyway; but speed laws are so routinely flouted by so many drivers that the "effective speed limit" is between five and twenty miles above the posted speed. I know that on those sections of I-95 north of Baltimore that are posted 55 MPH, to drive slower than 70 is to risk being rear-ended. I have been driving along there at about 70, and been passed by traffic, including state police vehicles, that must have been going over 80!

What do you do when the majority of folks flout a law? Eventually it is either changed or becomes ignored. This can take time—the "noble experiment" of alcohol Prohibition lasted 13 years—but the result is inevitable. Society will pass through a painful period during which many "pioneers" wind up with figurative arrows stuck in them. Then a shift occurs, and soon enough the law enforcement establishment finds itself with something more pressing to do. Whether the now outdated laws remain on the books becomes moot (Prohibition was an exception: having been enacted by Constitutional Amendment, it had to be similarly repealed).

Prior to about 1960, duplication of musical media was difficult and expensive, so people bought "records": 78's, 45's and 33's. The invention of the cassette tape recorder initiated a low level of "music piracy", and as the machines got better and cheaper, the practice became more widespread. But then 1982 happened. Music went digital, and the first commercial CD was pressed. That same year a friend of mine bought one of the first (and rather costly!) portable CD players, and let me listen to a classical selection with his ear buds (also a rather new product). It was astounding! Compelling audio, completely free of hiss, pops and other artifacts of even the best 33-1/3 RPM platters.

Once anything is in digital form it can be reproduced exactly. Many tape cassette recorders of 1982 were very good, but a copy of a copy of a copy was clearly inferior, and the music industry had very expensive machinery to play master tapes into platter-making machinery that did not degrade the precious master, even after it was used many times. Think about it; how do you make a million copies of an analog (LP) album?

No need to go further. Using analog media degrades the media. Using digital media may also degrade the media, but before it is too far gone, you can make a perfect copy and just keep going. Once audio and then video went digital, it became apparent that the physical medium, the CD and later the DVD, was just the "camel" to carry the musical "cargo". If your cargo is so light you don't need camels any more, then what?

"Then What" is ably and aptly described in How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt. He chronicles the shift in music distribution over the period from about 1985 to 2005, twenty years that produced a generation that thinks of music as "free", but who revere musical performances and will spend as much to see a concert as football buffs spend to attend a Superbowl.

The invention of digital music recording and playback made the "record" industry obsolete, but the CD industry that replaced it lasted only about as long as Prohibition. While CD's continue to be made, they are a tiny market compared to the distribution of music and video without the "camel". And most of that distribution is free, or nearly so. Stephen Witt's book shows how it happened, following the lives of three significant people, and their associates.

They are like the three jaws of a lathe chuck. Seemingly independent, they worked together, unknowingly, to clamp down on music-as-it-was and replace it with something entirely new.
Jaw 1: MP3 encoding of sound. Protagonist: Karlheinz Brandenburg. Impact: Digital sound files around 1/12 the size of the "source", CD-encoded audio, making audio files practically free, if not legally free.
Jaw 2: The destruction of the "camel". Patsy-then-Protagonist: Doug Morris. Impact: As the richest music promoter, cornered the market on Rap (more than once), led portions of the legal battle against "music piracy", then flopped the entire industry from disc-supported to ad-supported (the YouTube model).
Jaw 3: The mega-pirates who became more capable distributors than "the industry". Protagonist: Dell Glover, one of the few pirates who actually profited from illegal distribution. Impact: His insider position enabled him to release the music from Doug Morris's stable of artists one to three weeks ahead of the official schedule, via an organization called the Scene, partly helmed by "Kali".
The first "cutting tool" of the lathe was the legal establishment, from the Justice Department and FBI in the US to similar agencies worldwide (mainly in the West). Once the well-heeled music industry began to cry foul, they worked for years to pierce the veils shrouding the established pirates. Publicly targeting musical consumers, the "downloaders" backfired, but they eventually caught up with the leaders of the various major pirate networks. Their efforts amounted to nailing the barn door firmly shut after all the horses had fled…and had built new and better barns! The second "cutting tool" was the public, including juries that in a few cases declined to render a guilty verdict, but even more the millions who found it unreasonable to spend as much as a dollar per song to record music. Soon enough, they found a new place to spend the money thus freed up: Mega-concerts, the more extreme the better.

Though the book reads as smoothly as a novel, it is a work of crack journalism. You might either love or hate any of these three men, or their associates. Each played his part (yes, "his"; the number of women involved can be counted on the thumbs of both your feet). The protagonists of Jaw 1 and Jaw 2 got rich; Jaw 3 did well enough until being passed through the meat grinder himself; he escaped with his life, and made peace with life in a new kind of world.

FYI: Under current law in the US, copyrighted work is protected for fifty years after the death of the performer or creator, if a person, or 75 years after the death of the person (or the last person, if a group such as the Beatles) when the copyright is assigned to a corporation. So if your favorite composer or performer died before 1921, no matter who held the copyright, it is now voided, in the US. In some other countries, the term is quite a bit longer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Gleaning from an archaic database

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs, indexes

For the past couple of weeks I have set aside the inventory I was doing so I could gather data from the museum's original "database", the ledger books that were used in the 1970's and 1980's. They are the original records for the first 160,000 lots that were added to the collection, or Accessioned, to use a curator's term. As it happens, the other records of Accessions are incomplete: Using them we had been able to assign an Accession Code to less than a quarter of the computerized data records I've been working with. So we decided to "slay the dragon". I am going through these books:

I took this picture just after putting away the two books I was using today (I just noticed that I shelved one of them upside-down). Each book seen here contains about 400 pages. With 40 lines per page, and a full ledger being a two-page spread (equal to one 2-sided sheet), each book can hold about 16,000 records. Six smaller books used the first year or two have about 250 pages and hold up to 10,000 records each.

The books are heavy so if I'm rounding up more then two I bring a rolling cart. The rolling cart, waist-high, is just right for me to use at a standing desk. While doing this data gathering I have been putting my keyboard and mouse on a box atop my desk so I can stand and work. It is a refreshing change.

This is a portion of the right page of a ledger spread. The leftmost column of the spread, located way off the image, holds the catalog numbers for the specimen lots. I am gathering the donor records, and assigning Accession ID's to each group of lots from a donor.

A page like this is slow going. The names of seven donors are visible. I am assuming that the fourth line, referring to G. M. MacCoy, goes with the lines below for the "G. M. MacCoy Collection". I also recognize the names of John E. du Pont, the founder of the museum, and Dan Steger, who donated all his shells at once. Mr. du Pont tended to bring in shells in ones and twos and sometimes hundreds throughout the year. We decided to gather all donations by any particular entity (person, group or organization like another museum), for a particular year, into one Accession. Thus these two items can be gathered with Accession records that I'd already started. But the other names will need new Accession records created for them. The goal is that every lot is associated with an Accession ID.

A page like this, or better yet, several such pages in a row, makes the work go much faster. I can record the first and last catalog number for this set of records, and go to the next Accession. One thing that makes the data gathering tricky is that the people filling out the books tended to do a few pages of a large donation, then one or a few single lot donations, and then return to the big one they were doing. We may use pre-assignment of catalog numbers in the future, but these past records are as they are.

I suppose most people would be very bored doing this kind of work, but I have an odd kind of mind. I am interested in learning about the people whose collections built the museum's collection, and I also pay attention to the collector names. The more familiar we are with all these people the easier other tasks will be, including the inventory work I hope to return to in another week or so.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Window into a warrior's world

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, navy seals, training, memoirs

There aren't many jobs for which the training, education and other preparation required can take longer than one's subsequent career. Navy SEAL is one of them. In Brandon Webb's case, he was in the Navy four years, doing whatever was needed to move him closer to being assigned to BUD/S, the training program for SEALs, before BUD/S itself took up a lot of another year. At that point he was a SEAL, and spent a year as a helicopter spotter and gunner. Then he was invited to train as a SEAL Sniper, which took up a good chunk of the following year. At age 28, after another active year, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he took part in the January 2002 raid on Zhawar Kili, the mountain complex to which al-Qaeda had fled after being bombed out of Tora Bora. Not long after that he was assigned to the Training Detachment. In the four years that followed he and a handful of others reworked the program to radically increase the effectiveness of Navy snipers; so much so that the Army sought their help with their own program. During this time he trained Marcus Luttrell, who wrote Lone Survivor, and who credits Webb's training in stealthy stalking with saving his own life. In 2006, at age 32, Webb left the Navy to embark on a fulfilling post-SEAL career that draws heavily on the particular skills and training and experience he received as a SEAL. His explicit SEAL training may have totaled a couple of years, but his time in the Navy can be divided into nearly equal halves: Seven years leading up to his certification as a SEAL Sniper, and the eight years that followed; and 2/3 of that was training the next generation of snipers.

That's a basic outline of what we read in Webb's book The Making of a Navy Seal: My Story of Surviving the Toughest Challenge and Training the Best, written with John David Mann. Usually you might think of such an outline as a spoiler, but read the book. Knowing what is coming doesn't spoil a thing. Re-living it with Webb as he and his co-author practically drag us into his life, that is the real pleasure of reading this book. And for an armchair warrior like me, it has the added bonus that I didn't have to get the bruises or feel the thirst along the way.

It is a comfort knowing that, in spite of this country's quisling leadership, there are still those who train far, far beyond what is possible for most of us, to engage the ruthless and wily enemies that still plague us, and ensure those freedoms that undergird the wonder that is the United States of America.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Presenting CWWN v04 - The Christian (2)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee continues his "Meditations on the Book of Revelation" from Volume 3. I am not entirely sure which volume(s) of The Christian these articles appeared in.

The first 80 pages of this volume comprise the meditations of Chapter 1 of Revelation. The rest of the volume, more than 150 pages, cover Chapter 2, the letters to Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos. In later works Watchman Nee wrote about the whole book of Revelation. In The Christian he wrote only about Chapters 1 through 3. He also wrote, quite a bit later, a study of just Chapters 2 and 3 that was published under the title The Orthodoxy of the Church, which presents a much more mature view of the seven letters to the seven churches.

Thus I will do no more than to mention an item or two that indicate his room to grow, from this point in his life as someone not yet 25 years of age. He rightly presents Christ in the heavens as a judge of the churches in Asia and by typological extension, as judge of the churches throughout this age of grace. However, he misses the implication of the girding about the Lord's breast. He calls it the girding of a priest at rest. At rest, there is no girding at all. Girding about the loins in the usual manner is for labor or for fighting. The breast indicates love, and for the Lord to be girded about the breast is to show his loving concern in the midst of judgment.

Nee also, extending a certain word to the messenger of Ephesus (the threat to remove the lampstand) and another to Laodicea (spewing out from his mouth), concluded that God had entirely rejected the church, and that all these messages are meant for individuals, and most particularly, "he who overcomes". Beginning just four or five years later, he more rightly determined that not only the church remains on the earth, but that God's workers for the establishing and edification of churches, the apostles, continue to be raised up. Our word "missionary" is the Latin translation of the Greek word for "apostle". True missionaries are apostles.

It is true that God has rejected those human establishments called "churches", that have so thoroughly deviated from the Biblical pattern that few indeed are those who understand the word "εκκλησία", from which we get such words as "ecclesiastical". It means "those called out". The simple pattern in the New Testament has been encrusted with twenty centuries of tradition and it is all the traditions that God rejects. Gatherings of believers that are more political than spiritual (the majority) have indeed lost the lampstand, and are testimonies not to God and His works but to human glory in religiosity.

Had brother Nee been so unfortunate as to die before 1928 or 1930, his writings would be taken as evidence of someone who threw out the baby with the bathwater. Thankfully, he ministered another two decades and more, and his ministry matured into a balance scarcely achieved by any of the most ardent servants of Christ. This I view this volume as a touchstone, a springboard into later ministry as God showed him, more and more clearly, how He works with His people today.

Monday, May 02, 2016

More two-in-one specimens

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs

A recent acquisition at the Delaware Museum of Natural History contains loads and loads of fossil mollusk shells and related specimens, presumably of Pliocene age. I am entranced by the species that will grow on a shell. This first image shows a coral that was getting started on the upper spire of a snail shell. The shell is a bit less than 1.5 inches (35 mm or so) across, and the coral polyps were around a quarter inch or less (5-6 mm) across. We can also see at least two small oysters had taken up residence. I suppose they hope that the snail grows faster than they do! But some untoward event killed them all and buried them in fine sand and mud where they remained for several million years.


The next photo is a view of the 3" x 6" box the shell above is in, along with other shells of the same species. All of them had "riders", usually barnacles, though I see one shell to the right with larger oysters upon it.


It is early days for this "collection"; at the moment it is a pile. Sorting is just getting going. Comparing this with photos I've published over the past few weeks, we can answer the question, "What is the difference between a hoard and a collection?" Answer: "The Index". The collection manager and his volunteers are busy sorting like with like, and then he gets to identify them, or in some cases send photos, or the shells themselves, to experts who can identify the harder ones. And there's always the chance that a few shells will stump every expert and possibly lead to the designation and description of a new species!


In addition to mollusk shells, I can see at least one coral specimen and a couple of other items that look suspiciously "non mollusk". Considering that all the natural history museum collections of the world may have, so far, discovered only one-tenth of the existing species…well, this work never ends.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Some two-in-one specimens

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs

This week one of the museum volunteers has been putting lots into acid-fee boxes for shelving. I happened by and noticed that some of the snail shells—I didn't ask which species—had extra residents.

If you look closely at the first image, you'll see that about a third of the shells have a hermit crab showing. I pointed this out to the volunteer, who hadn't yet noticed. The collection manager, who was nearby, had an interesting story about the associations of different animals in their habitat.

He told of a paper he read that described certain crabs that were found on certain corals. The author stated that each species of crab favored certain species of coral. So the next time the collection manager was at the Smithsonian he asked to see their shelved lots of some of those species of coral. No crabs could be found! When he asked, he was told that the crabs and molted crab shells that were collected with the coral had been removed and were housed with other crabs in their own section of the museum.

The moral of the story is that the mere existence of a particular species in a particular location is not the only thing a biologist wants to know. Population ecology is about the relationships among all species in an assemblage. Thus, when a certain species is collected, the species found near, in or on it also need to be noted. In the case of the crabs and the corals, a database search for all species collected at such-and-such a location can help an ecologist re-unite them and other species from there and study the entire assemblage.

This image is a closer look at some of the shells and their residents. I see at least five hermit crabs here. It is very likely that they all are the same species. It is usually possible to determine at least the genus, if not both genus and species, of a hermit crab without pulling its remains out of the snail shell. Soon, we hope it will be not just possible, but economical, to pull a few hairs from the leg joints and use DNA analysis to determine the species of crab.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Some museum catch-up work

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs

About a month ago I wrote about the processing of a collection of seashells and related material that had just been donated to the museum. Here I look at some "old business" that the new collections manager dug out of storage and began "doing something about."

In the first picture we see about ten trays of "Unionids", freshwater mussels of the family Unionidae, being checked by one of the volunteers. Alex, our collections manager, had already checked the classification for those lots that had identifications (we call them "determinations") and made determinations for as many of the rest as he could do within a few days' time. Other volunteers had also, at his direction, entered the data for these lots into the mollusk department's database. That done, Alex printed labels for them and this volunteer is gathering certain ones to pair them with their new labels and check for consistency. They will wind up sorted by genus and species and then be put away in the cabinet room.

This other picture shows some material that is not nearly so far along in the process. The specimens are still in the tubs that they arrived in. I did not take a close look at them. I suspect that, if the collector who donated them was careful and thorough, they will have determinations and information about the date and place of collection. At the very least, these will have a date and place, or they would not have been accepted in the first place. (Well, maybe they'd be accepted anyway, if they were nice enough for use in the demonstration cabinet or for giving away at an event for kids.)

Many amateur shell collectors attain great expertise to identify the genus and species of many or most of what they collect. The best become self-trained curators, and it's even better if they gain a mentor or two by belonging to a "shellers club"; there are two such clubs in nearby parts of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Shell Club and CenPennBeachcombers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Polarized light photography for absolute beginners

kw: photography, photographs, polarized light, polarizers

Many years ago I had a film SLR camera, and a rotating polarizer that I could fit to the main lens. If you have a digital SLR or other camera with removable lenses, and the front of the lens is bigger than about an inch or so in diameter, the method described below won't work with that camera. But read on anyway if you like, particularly if you also have a point-and-shoot or even a superzoom camera with a smallish lens.

When light scatters it gets partially polarized. Our eyes do not distinguish polarization so we don't see these effects without a special filter. One kind of scattering is off a shiny, or somewhat shiny, surface. This causes glare if the surface is not metallic; polished metal reflects light without affecting its polarization.

Light striking asphalt, for example, is polarized almost completely when the angle of the light from the vertical is about 50-55°. Light reflecting off auto paint is also polarized, not quite so much, and at slightly larger angles. This is why polarized sunglasses help you see to drive safely in sunny conditions. When you are driving into the sun, much of the light reflected off the road and your car, and other cars, is polarized horizontally, so such sunglasses have vertical polarization and block the horizontally polarized glare.

Light scattered by air molecules is also polarized. Not completely, but about 80% as these pictures show. The greatest polarization is at 90° from the sun, which is about perfect for photos like these. Instead of a special-purpose polarizer I used my polarized sunglasses. The camera can focus right through the lens.

With the sun behind and above me I could shoot at a high angle into the Dogwood tree. The upper photo was  taken without the polarizer and shows the relative brightness of the flowers and the sky to ordinary vision. The second was taken with crossed polarization, so most of the light was blocked. This makes the sky look quite a bit darker. The third was taken with the polarization direction of the sunglass lens parallel to the sky light's direction, and shows the sky looking brighter than in the first picture. This is because the polarizer blocks half the light from the flowers, but lets most of the vertically polarized sky light through.

This trio of pictures, in the same order, shows apple blossoms and young leaves against a similar patch of sky. It produces quite lovely effects, and gives you flexibility to adjust the relative contrast of foreground objects and the sky.

A polarizer can make a partly cloudy sky look lots more dramatic, by darkening the sky around the clouds. A deeper blue sky just looks better for many kinds of landscape photography, and also for some kinds of portrait photography.

The tricky part about using this technique is to hold the camera and press the shutter with the right hand while holding the sunglasses with the other. This is why folks with a DSLR or other camera with a lens that accepts filters will spend $30-$70 for a rotating polarizing filter.

This is more of a "life hack" method for cheapskates like me! And it is a way to learn how polarization works before shelling out for a special filter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Less daffy than I thought

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, life situations

Dave Barry has written a bunch of books, 38 according to the end papers of Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry. Some 25 of them are a genre I'd call "humorified autobiography", including this one. And I suspect that many of his chapters, or parts of chapters, began as material in his long-running column in the Miami Herald.

In view of the fact that he's a couple years shy of 70, this book seems to cover about the last three years, with flashbacks all over the place. "All over the place" is a good description of his style(s) of humor. He has remarkable range, from studied exaggeration ("…our youth soccer experience involves spending many hours in parking lots during heavy downpours…") to wild exaggeration (reviewing Google Glass, he suggests a few things, including "It should be able to shoot pepper spray") to absurd exaggeration (the chapter "Cable News is On It", which begins with tepid non-reporting of a near-non-rumor and passes through "Bob, it's to soon to speculate, but if Americans aren't fully prepared to shoot and eat their neighbors, they have as much chance of survival as a moth in a bug zapper" on its way to nuclear apocalypse).

He ends with a letter to his infant grandson, which largely centers on the reasons why mustard and ketchup don't need refrigeration. A point to ponder: the condiments in restaurants are left out all day…

I guess that's about as much review as I can wring out of this one. Fun.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

You would have to be a brilliant octopus

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food service, restaurants, waiters, autobiographies

When I was about 16 I worked as a busboy for a summer, at a resort hotel. The hotel had two restaurants, one rather upscale and one more like a "family restaurant". Prices and service differed greatly. I was assigned to the downscale one, using a "bus tub" to clear tables. On the "other side" the busboys dressed similar to the waiters, in black slacks and a starched white shirt, and used a stylish tray to unload a table. Neither place was overly busy; most days there was a pretty steady flow of customers.

I was puzzled at the end of the first week when another busboy called me over at the end of the day, saying, "Don't leave until we get our tips." Busboys get tips? I found that the waitresses on our side, and the waiters on the other, pooled a portion of their tips, which was evenly divided among the busboys. It never came to much. It was equal to an extra hour or two of my meager pay.

I found Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter on a New Books shelf at the library, but learned that while it is new to the library, it had been out for eight years. The author is "The Waiter", and while his identity is now known, I'll leave that for you to look up. He was anonymous when the book was published, and for a few years thereafter.

The book consists of reworked postings from the weblog Waiter Rant., in which the author chronicled his experiences waiting tables and later as floor manager (elsewhere called a headwaiter) at an upscale restaurant in New York. I feel lucky that my short experience in the restaurant business was in a sleepy resort hotel, rather than a Zagat-rated pressure cooker in the Big Apple!

The Waiter gathered together material on about twenty subjects, so while the book is "redacted autobiography", it is mainly topical. Two topics that run throughout and across the others: screwy customers and insane owners. The Waiter writes that perhaps 80% of restaurant customers are nice folks who enjoy their meal, cause no trouble, and leave a decent tip. Ah, but that other 20%! Some may tip very well but are otherwise evil or insane; some are very demanding, even pathologically "entitled"; some seem proud to leave a tip of 8%; and some seem to either hate the staff, or love them to the point of obtrusive obsession. Here's a tip to you as a customer: go there for the food, be nice, behave yourself like you had a mother who raised you well (whether that's true or not), and tip well.

At the resort hotel I was paid half of minimum wage. plus my share of 10% of the pooled tips. In the case of us busboys, it was because seasonal workers are exempt from minimum wage laws. But the wait staff were paid only a little more, and tips were supposed to make up the bulk of their pay. This is true in most American restaurants, whether a place is open seasonally or not. And so it is at "The Bistro" where The Waiter worked. He was paid about 60% of minimum wage, plus tips. Now, at a Zagat-rated place, in which 2-4 patrons could consume $100 worth of food and $200-$500 worth of liquor in an hour or so, a 15% or 20% tip can come to quite a lot. Unless a customer doesn't like something and so leaves little or no tip…or is just a poor tipper or even a non-tipper. In an old Reader's Digest joke, someone says, "Oh, at restaurants I never tip." Asked whether he gets bad service on later visits, he says, "I never go to the same place twice." In a small city like mine I'd run out of places to eat before the year was out.

Let's work the math backward. A tiny apartment in NYC is likely to cost $1,200 monthly. A frugal waiter can eat all his meals at the restaurant, or eat enough at the one or two meals he is there so he doesn't need to eat outside. But a fellow still needs another few hundred bucks a month besides rent. So, let's figure you gotta pull in about $2,000 for twenty days' work, or $100/day. Base pay is $4.25/hr, or $42,50 for a ten-hour day (not uncommon). But only half of those are "busy" hours, so you need to get at least $57.50 in tips in about five hours. If everyone were to tip 15% (they don't), that means moving nearly $400 in food and drinks in those five hours. Realistically, while some customers might tip 20% or even 25%, the average is below 15%, with so many poor tippers and non-tippers. So to break even, a waiter has to move more than $500 worth of food every single day, and double that to have some spending money of his own. That isn't easy, even if the owner or headwaiter assigns you to the more lucrative section of the floor plan.

Restaurant owners want to make money. Most of them want to make a lot of money. This generally means they understaff, and at the place where The Waiter worked before The Bistro, the owner, or a floor manager, demanded bribes from waiters to work "good" sections, and a variety of other kinds of petty graft. At best, waiters work hard. All too frequently they work so hard they finish a day exhausted, dripping sweat, and might have a rash in their butt crack from rushing back and forth in sweat-soaked underpants. Thus this post's title. To do what their boss expects, a waiter at The Bistro and any similar place would have to be a brilliant octopus.

Waiters live in a different world. They work while we play. They do their shopping and other "outside stuff" while we either work or sleep. If they go to a movie, there is never a line or a full theater. And they don't love holidays. They tend to hate Mother's Day and other "holidays", which for them are days filled with more-obnoxious-than-usual customers in larger numbers. It is amazing how many folks either fear or hate their mother, and it seems to all come out at the restaurant to which they take her. In fact, it is almost universal that people let their guard down when they eat, so if they are capable of pathological behavior, a restaurant is where they are most likely to show it.

I have often wondered how the American way of tipping arose. Is it because of our historical devotion to meritocracy? Almost everywhere else in the world, tips are usually not "expected", and where they are, 5%-10% is plenty. Before I was 25, the usual tip in America was 10%, then somehow that shifted to 15%. In 1967 I ate a restaurant meal, and the bill came to about $5. I put a Kennedy half dollar next to my plate as I got up to pay the bill. The waiter was nearby and said, "Excuse me, sir? The customary gratuity is 15%." I said, "I give God 10%. Are you better than He is?" and continued to the register to pay. But I gradually got used to 15%. Now many places have a note, either on the menu or on the bill, suggesting 18% or 20%. I seldom leave more than 15%, plus maybe a little to make the total a round number. But much more frequently I eat at a buffet, where 10% is still OK because the wait staff do much less work per table, or at a fast food place where tipping is not expected.

Even The Waiter says tipping over 20% is usually gauche, unless you got a "divine" level of service. And while tipping comes up again and again in the book, it is about much more than that. A "fine" restaurant is a pressure cooker for extracting bad behavior from customers. Also from the employees. The hyper-stress of working at places like The Bistro drives a majority of the staff to various kinds of substance abuse, and heavy drinking, mainly (but not totally) after work, is almost universal. It becomes a vicious cycle. The Waiter admits to a nearly nightly need to tank up with several cocktails, and that can cost a lot, though sympathetic barkeeps that knew him well would often comp a drink or two. So he has to work harder and force himself to smile more to get more tips to support his drinking habit. No wonder he got out of the business once he started earning money from his book deal!

This story had a moral. At a restaurant, be nice and tip well. The server almost certainly has a much tougher life than you do. He or she is not "a loser". You or I would crumple within the first hour of doing their work.

I looked up a few things. The Waiter has written another book. He's an excellent writer. I wish him well.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Jury duty for beginners

kw: civic duties, jury duty

I was getting close to finishing a book, when I was assigned to jury duty. The way it works here is this: A month beforehand you get a letter. It includes a questionnaire you need to fill out and send in. You are allowed to ask to be excused, but you need a very, very good excuse. There is a phone number that you are instructed to call after 5:30 the evening before your assignment begins, to see if you will still need to report. There is a long recorded message that tells you whether your group must report, and if so, it is followed by a long message telling you where and when and how to report, and what to bring and what not to bring. About half the time your group or "jury pool" will be excused in the first phone message. Frequently a larger than usual number of cases will be resolved without trial, either by a plea bargain arrangement in a criminal case, or a pre-trial settlement between contending parties in a civil trial. Then one or more groups of candidate jurors will be excused in the phone message. In the past twenty years I have received the letter six times, but have actually had to go to the courthouse only three times.

A jury assignment is one day or one trial. If the phone message says you must come in, there is a 3-4 minute message, and you need to listen to all of it. It boils down to this:

  • Where to park, with the proviso that only the first 165 jurors will get their parking pass validated by the court and thus receive free parking.
  • Where and when to enter the courthouse. In my case, the time was 8:30 AM, and the doors to the building open at 8:15, so getting there too early on a cold day is not advised.
  • What to bring: The letter, any book you might want to read—you might be there six hours or more—and money or credit card to buy lunch if needed.
  • What not to bring: Anything electronic, such as cell phone, computer, or tablet, nor a camera (digital or film) or any device containing a camera. Even a FitBit is disallowed. No food or drink allowed.
  • During jury service on subsequent days we were allowed to bring our lunch and drinks and snacks.
So, I was to report, if required, on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. When I called, my group, Group 1, was required to report, and I did serve on a trial. Here is a timeline of the events:

Timeline (approximate; from memory, transcribed daily)
Day 1, 4/12

  • 0815 Arrive and park
  • 0820 Enter the courthouse and pass through Security
  • 0835 Long line; check in; get parking pass validated. The juror candidate waiting room holds ~300. more than half full.
  • 0845 Welcome by a judge.
  • 0850 Opening instructions; people are called up to make corrections or additions to the questionnaire they mailed in, or to fill one out otherwise.
  • 0900 More instructions; roll call.
  • 0920 I headed to restroom, but the call came to send the first group to a courtroom, so I returned to the waiting room; I was not called.
  • 0930 Got my restroom time.
  • 0935 Got a soda and sat in "cybercafe" reading.
  • 0950 Another group is called to a courtroom; this time I am included. A bailiff instructed us and led us to Court 6A.
  • 1045 60 of us had been called. One (initials C.C.) didn't answer, but clerk missed it. Only 59 made it to courtroom, causing the bailiff some concern.
  • 1105 Voir dire (preliminary questions) begins. The judge outlined the case. Questions are asked of us such as, "Do you know anyone involved in this case?" or "Do you have concerns you may not be able to be impartial in this kind of case?" 20 have a Yes answer and go to speak to the judge and the lawyers. This is one kind of "sidebar", held at the end of the judge's desk farthest from the jury. During any sidebar the bailiff turns on a white noise machine that hisses at us through speakers above the jury box and the spectators' benches, so we can't possibly hear what they say.
  • 1145 Voir dire ends. 15 were excused and 5 retained, leaving 44 for the challenge phase. 12 of us (including me) are called to the jury box. Lawyers for both sides have a number of "peremptory challenges" they can issue, and also they can give a reason to excuse someone.
  • 1205 After both legal teams are "content", we have a panel of 12 plus 2 alternates. 11 have been excused, so 19 are left in the potential jury pool. At some point "C.C." is called, and is not there. Now they know who went missing (I don't know what they do about it). The judge issues pre-trial instructions to us.
  • 1220 The judge releases us for lunch, with instructions to re-start proceedings at 2PM. The bailiff, Jose, takes us to the jury deliberation room, and tells us to return by 1:45 so he can get us into the courtroom on time. Some time is given to Q&A. We get big "JUROR" stickers so people will know not to talk to us.
  • 1235 We head out for lunch, and are shown where to meet the bailiff at 1:45 (1345). I get a sandwich at a Dunkin Donuts in the subbasement. I sit and eat with two other jurors; we talk about "everything but".
  • 1345 We meet the bailiff at the designated spot and he takes us to our room.
  • 1410 The bailiff ushers us to the courtroom. The trial begins. It is announced that one witness will use interpretation from Spanish. A couple more questions are asked about knowledge of Spanish. Two jurors are taken to speak to the judge, and pass muster. The judge wants to be sure that their understanding of Spanish won't cause them to neglect the interpretation, otherwise they might have a different take than the rest of us on what was said.
  • 1420 Opening arguments by a prosecutor, then by the defense attorney.
  • 1445 The judge announces a break. We spend it in the deliberation room.
  • 1505 Back to the courtroom. Testimony begins.


Outline of the case: The defendant, Marshall Brown, is alleged to have been one of at least three men who invaded a home in Townsend last year. Six people were in the home, the homeowner, a woman aged 71 (as she testified), her daughter, her granddaughter, the granddaughter's boyfriend and the couple's two small children ages 1 and 3. Shots were fired by and at the daughter; only she was hit, and in the leg. The boyfriend was beaten and money taken from him. He and his girlfriend's mother were hospitalized as a result. The three invading men wore disguises and gloves, but left evidence behind in a rush to leave after two of the women called 911. No other details are needed here.

Testimony was taken from the three adult women.


  • 1625 The judge recesses for the night. We will resume at 10AM. The bailiff takes us back to our room for final instructions and tells us to meet him at the same spot as before at 9:45. We go home.


Day 2, 4/13

  • 0915 Arrive to park; the lot is full; I park at DoubleTree, a block north. I don't have a pass that can be validated so I'll have to pay. We will receive $20 daily for lunch and parking.
  • 0945 We meet Jose at a hallway corner, from which we all proceed to our deliberation room.
  • 1020 Proceedings begin. The boyfriend testifies through an interpreter, but sometimes answers before the interpreter can interpret, and sometimes he answers in English. We also hear testimony by the officer who first responded to the 911 calls.
  • 1110 A break is announced.
  • 1125 We return, to hear testimony from the other police officers and detectives on the case. We hear testimony from the detective who collected the evidence and took photos. We and he are shown about 50 photos, which he identifies and describes.
  • 1215 Lunch is called; we are to return at 1:15 PM. 
  • 1330 Proceedings resume. We hear testimony from experts in fingerprints and DNA.
  • 1410 A break is announced.
  • 1430 We hear testimony from the nurse who treated the woman who was shot and see photos of the entry and exit wounds in her upper thigh.
  • 1600 The judge recesses for the night. We will resume at 10AM.


Day 3, 4/14

  • 0845 I park in the courthouse parking lot.
  • 1020 Proceedings begin. We hear testimony from the primary detective. The prosecution rests its case.
  • 1115 A break is announced.
  • 1145 We return; the defense calls a single witness, the defendant's mother. The defense rests.
  • 1215 Lunch is called; we are to return at 1:45 PM.
  • 1400 Proceedings resume. We hear closing arguments by first the prosecution, then the defense. Finally the prosecution is given a short, last word. At some point we have an unscheduled 15-minute break because the court stenographer's machine breaks. This interrupts the defense attorney's closing argument, requiring her to revisit a portion of it.
  • 1600 The judge, not wishing to give us 30-45 minutes of closing instructions and then send us home immediately, recesses for the night. We will resume at 9AM.


Day 4, 4/15

  • 0815 I park in the courthouse parking lot.
  • 0835 We are taken to the jury deliberation room. One juror doesn't show up. After a marshal fails to contact him, one of the alternates is chosen.
  • 0930 The trial resumes. The judge thanks us, and dismisses the alternate juror who is not needed any more. The judge reads instructions for the jury and the law's stipulations regarding each count against the defendant.
  • 1015 We are sent to deliberate. This takes a while to get going. We have been given all the evidence that was presented, except that a firearm has a lock on the trigger. We determine that we need a DVD player to view again the detectives' interview with the defendant. We send a note with the bailiff.
  • 1100 The bailiff brings a menu and order sheet from a local deli, because it is clear we will be here through lunch. We continue discussions while the order sheet passes around.
  • 1130 The bailiff returns and we send the lunch order with him.
  • 1215 The bailiff brings the requested DVD player and a screen on a stand. We set it up and begin to view, but the bailiff returns with our lunch orders. We break to eat, and continue discussing in a desultory way.
  • 1245 We play the DVD twice; the second time we skip a couple of parts. It helps clarify what we recall and determine some conflicts that neither legal team has mentioned.
  • 1430 It is clear that we have an impasse on the main charge. The whole "crime" includes two events that are 12 days apart. The defendant was most likely present the first time, when the robbers cased the house, but for 10 of us, it is not established that he participated in the second event, the actual overt crime. We seem in better agreement that he is at least "in the know", and thus guilty of conspiracy. We send a note asking the judge if, by finding him guilty of that one charge, we are then constrained to find him guilty of all.
  • 1500 The judge summons us to the courtroom where he explains that all charges are independent and are to be judged separately.
  • 1510 Back to the room. We vote, and find that we are split 9-to-3 on just the conspiracy charge, the 9 being for "guilty", and the 3 for "not guilty" being different from the 2 who are for "guilty on all counts", while the other 10 are for judging "not guilty", primarily because of the poor prosecution.
  • 1500 We are at an impasse. We ask the bailiff how to declare that we are hung. He tells us, and we send the appropriate note. We are immediately summoned to the courtroom.
  • 1510 In the courtroom, the judge announces a mistrial, based on the hung jury. He thanks us and sends us back to the room where he will speak with us. In the deliberation room he tells us not to feel bad, that it is now up to the prosecutors to decide if they want to retry the case or drop the charges. One way or another the case will be completed. It is not up to him to dismiss it.

There is a lot of detail here. The singular lessons are

  1. There is a lot of waiting, for many reasons. One in particular: during jury deliberations, if one member must leave the room, such as to use a restroom (there are two just adjacent), or to pass a question for the judge to the bailiff, all discussion must stop until all 12 of us are present.
  2. In both civil and criminal cases, settlements or plea bargains most frequently happen at the last minute, on the day for the trial, when juror candidates have been brought into the waiting area. Their presence puts pressure on the parties if they feel any ambivalence about their chances of winning a jury trial.
  3. The bailiff is your biggest friend during a trial. Our bailiff, Jose, was one of the best. On the third day he had a scheduled day off. The bailiff that day was competent, but not nearly to Jose's standard. It makes a difference.
  4. The police detectives did a pretty good job, but we could see there was a certain amount of sloppy work. A lot of evidence was produced, most of it pretty useless to us.
  5. We really wished certain questions had been asked. The one eyewitness to the defendant's likely presence, at least on the earlier date, was not asked to identify him in court. There was no "That's the man!" moment. The one eyewitness who looked deep into one attacker's eyes during the invasion event was not asked if the eyes of the defendant were the same. I was expecting a Perry Mason moment when a ski mask was pulled over his head and he was brought close to the witness. Maybe she'd been asked if they could do this and declined, being too terrified of being that close to him again. It is quite possible.
  6. Eyewitness testimony is seldom of high quality. Circumstantial evidence is much more reliable. Either this or that item was in such and such a place, or it wasn't. But in this case too much hung on a single fingerprint (possibly among many; the evidence analyst never said), which was on a roll of duct tape. At a construction site, everyone's fingerprints get on every roll of duct tape! The defendant worked in construction.

I am sorry we could not produce a verdict. I am not sorry for this experience. Potential jurors are not required to serve after the age of 70. By the time I am again eligible, I'll be well over 70, so I guess this was my last chance to serve on a jury.