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.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

An unidentified Hydrobiid

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

This is not exactly a species summary because the shells shown here have not been identified. I may get a chance to compare them with examplars of various species in its family in the DMNH collection, but it is more likely to await a visit from a freshwater snail expert. Several are known to visit from time to time.

The classification of species in the family Hydrobiidae has been brought pretty well under control, unlike the family Pleuroceridae on which I've focused the past several species accounts. This closeup through a low-power microscope of shells that seldom exceed 5mm in length illustrates the characteristic look of a Hydrobiid: the spire greater than the shell width but not exceedingly so, a straightforward conical spiraling shape, and a round-to-teardrop shaped aperture.

This species in particular has a ridge running along the whorls, so I suspect a species with "carina" in its name, though it may instead be Pyrgulopsis nevadensis Stearns, 1883, considering where these were collected! Hmmm, maybe I'll track this one down; few Hydrobiids are carinate.

I chose this lot to illustrate more about museum process. At the time this lot was obtained from the Department of the Interior there was little information entered on lot labels in general. The space below the museum name, where the identification is normally presented had nothing filled in at that time. Assuming the species I named above is found to be correct, a newer label will have the following in that space:

nevadensis Stearns,1883

The date below is the date of collection, followed by the collector's name. Older lot labels, mainly prior to about 1940, designate the collector with the Latin abbreviation leg. Recent usage further abbreviates this to the "bang" or exclamation point. The right side of the label below the catalog number is devoted to the collecting locality. A specimen is most valuable when its original location ("provenance" is the favored term) is most accurately known. Material donated to a natural history museum that cannot be located at least to the country is pretty useless and is likely to wind up in a "show cabinet" if it is showy, and in a grab-bag for giveaways otherwise.

The other label shows that Dr. T. A. Pearce, currently at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, identified ("det" means "determined") the family this lot belongs to, in 1997, but went no further at that time. He was here for a conference a few days ago, the 18th Mid-Atlantic Malacologists meeting, aka MAM, but didn't take a look at the Hydrobiids. Maybe on a future visit.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Presenting CWWN v03 - The Christian (1)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Watchman Nee established the Gospel Book Room and began publishing The Christian newspaper in 1925, and produced 24 issues over the next two years. Volume 3 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee is the first of six volumes containing the entire run of articles that Nee wrote for The Christian. Material written by others is not included, but a full index of all articles is at the end of the sixth volume (v8 of CWWN).

This volume is in two sections. The first 104 pages contain six articles titled "Meditations on Genesis", on the first two chapters of Genesis. Nee opens with an explanation of "The Gap", condensing the discussion by G. H. Pember in his 1876 book Earth's Earliest Ages*. He briefly yet comprehensively adduces the proofs and other indications in Scripture that, as my mother told me sixty years ago, "A lot happened between the first two verses of Genesis." Nee shares, in much more detail than my mother did, how the six days are not the original creation, but a re-creation after an earlier creation had fallen into disaster and judgment. Most importantly, he shows that an understanding of The Gap, which some commentators have called "an interval of unknown duration", began in the Third or Fourth Century, including in the writings of Augustine (this translation of CWWN has "Augustus"). Thus The Gap is no reaction to modern geological studies, nor to any idea that the Earth is millions or billions of years old. When Augustine wrote early in the Fourth Century, his notion of a Gap was no doubt a duration of "myriads", or tens of thousands, not millions of years. But the principle remains.

The first article also, but briefly, decries the notion of biological evolution and Darwin's theory. Watchman Nee was firmly anti-evolution, as are most of his followers today. This occasionally rankles me, and I occasionally discuss the proper understanding of both the theory of natural selection and of the relevant scriptures, to show that evolution is no threat to revelation, and the Biblical story of creation cannot in any way be used to pronounce judgment on biological science. This review is not the venue to discuss this further.

The other four articles primarily concern the dispensational and spiritual meaning of the six days of (re-)creation. I received much help as a young Christian, learning how the steps in the six-day process are mirrored in the process of spiritual growth that we all undergo. Nee focuses more on the dispensational progress of God's purpose through the generations from Adam onward unto eternity, while not neglecting the personal aspects.

An aside: the theological term "dispensation" is translated from the Greek word οικονομία, or "economy", and economy is understood as its decomposition into "home" and "law". Your economy is how you run your house. So with God's economy. Thus, whereas God has a purpose or plan, this plan is carried out in different ways in different eras. Each is called a different dispensation in older theological literature, but it is better understood as the economy of God for each era. Thus the era of Moses' Law, called the dispensation of law or the Jewish economy, describes how Jehovah God dealt with His people Israel from the time the law was given through Moses until the time of John the Baptist, who announced in the Messiah a new economy, which is being carried on today in this, "the church age" or the economy of the churches.

Watchman Nee had more to say about the church economy in his "Meditations on Revelation", the long section that comprised Issue #2 of The Christian, and takes up 74 pages in this translation, including a four-page outline of the subjects of Revelation. Focusing on the statement of Jesus to John in 1:19, "…the things which you have seen and the things which are and the things which are about to take place after these things," he shows that chapter 1 deals with the first item, "the things which you have seen," chapters 2 and 3 deal with the second, "the things which are," and the rest of the book is prophetic, dealing with "the things which are about to take place after these things." In particular, "the things which are" refers to the condition of seven selected local churches in about the year 95 AD, as exemplars of the prophetic progress of the economy of God for the churches throughout this era. Nee wrote about this in more detail in later issues of The Christian and in other publications.

The strongest portions of this long article are two. Firstly, Nee strongly exhorts all Christians everywhere to actually read Revelation. In the early Twentieth Century the book was severely neglected by most, as being too hard to understand or too contentious, on one hand, and was subject to the most flamboyant flights of interpretation by a few enthusiasts on the other. Here both pernicious trends are combated very distinctly. Secondly, Nee shows how this book is related to numerous prophecies in both Old and New Testaments, most particularly Daniel, but also several strong prophecies in Paul's writings and in Jesus's statements in the Gospels. He shows how, just as many former prophecies were fulfilled literally, so will the prophecies of the apostle John; to spiritualize away their meaning is damaging to faith.

Watchman Nee was almost alone in his understanding that "the Rapture", or the "taking away" of the believers, is to happen in stages. Numerous verses that seem to point to different times of being caught up to Christ show us that certain believers are taken up "pre-trib" as some like to call it, and some are taken up "post-trib". I can do no better than to quote:
"All those who have the cross working profoundly in their life will be raptured. Those who are saved generally but who are mingled with the world and who go along with sins will remain on the earth and will pass through the great tribulation. Only the overcoming saints will be raptured. The remaining saved believers will pass through the great tribulation until the trumpeting of the seventh trumpet. Then they will be caught up." (p 174)
The section closes with the briefest sketch of "the things to come," before the outline at its very end.
* Full title Earth's Earliest Ages, and Their Connection With Modern Spiritualism and Theosophy. In Pember's day, those were fighting words.

Friday, April 01, 2016

The Ruddy Anculosa

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

In the early and middle 1800's most new species of the "mud snail" family Pleuroceridae were put into two genera, either Melania or Pleurocera. These and a few other genera were all in the family Strepomatidae, which was later changed to a subfamily, Pleurocerinae, in the family Pleuroceridae.

Today's species was named Anculosa rubiginosa in 1841 by Isaac Lea, a prolific student of freshwater mollusks. At present its exact classification is contended, and I have provisionally listed it as Leptoxis rubiginosa (Lea, 1841) until the matter is settled. The note by John D Parker summarizes what he knew in the 1950's. Other populations in the Coosa River have been found, and also in some nearby rivers, possibly as introductions from boating or water bird migrations.

I looked at these specimens as compared to other species from the same river, and figured that Dr. Lea was kind of reaching for a name. At the time, the genus Anculosa had dozens of named species, with more to come. These are "ruddy" only by comparison with others that are darker brown or gray-brown. I wonder, does the term "ruddy" include a color I'd call Roan?

I have recently spoken to an expert on the American freshwater snails, who tends toward the interpretation of the Pleuroceridae as containing somewhere between five and 20 true species, with numerous minor local varieties that are nonetheless parts of a few large, interbreeding geoclines.

The term "cline" refers to a graded variation over some spectrum. In paleontology, a chronocline is a gradual change over time. For example, a common living species of scallop has on average 18 ridges on the main part of the shell (ridges on the ears are not counted). Perusing a collection containing many specimens of this species, one might find examples with different numbers of ridges, ranging from 16 to 21. In a sequence of fossil beds covering a modest span of time, perhaps less than a million years, we might find that a gradually changing environment has reduced the vigor of the surf, and that the oldest scallops of the same species have fewer and heavier ridges. If you collect enough specimens from such a section, you might be able to chart the change in average number of ridges, and perhaps the changing minimum and maximum number. Glory-seeking students working in an area with spottier coverage of the same sedimentary sequence might decide that the earliest specimens, perhaps with 12 ridges, and later shells, with 15 on average, are different species and should get new names in the genus containing the modern species. But the reality is a gradual change over time with no distinct change. The whole sequence is a chronocline.

We need to be aware that the term "geocline" is being used by geologists in place of the older term "geosyncline", referring to a basin filled with a sequence of sediments. I am using the term in its phylogenetic sense, of a variation in the appearance of a species across some region. The most famous example of a geocline is the Herring Gull, a familiar species of North America and northern Europe. Careful examination of specimens from different places shows that they vary across that region in size and background color, just a little. However, further east across Siberia, the variations continue, particularly a continued darkening of the gray color; and further West across northern Alaska, the color gets paler. Across the Bering Strait, you see what appear to be two species of whitish-grayish gulls, and I have been told they don't interbreed when an occasional stray crosses the strait. Yet these two "species" are actually local varieties, the two ends of a continuous ring, a geocline of gulls.

With that in mind, we might ask, how could multiple populations of small mud snails, living in the rivers of the eastern United States from Georgia to Massachusetts, be in genetic contact with sufficient frequency to maintain their status as a single breeding population? Water birds. In particular, long-legged wading birds such as egrets and herons. Herons tend to stand still for long times, wholly immobile, watching for prey. As slow as they are, snails would have plenty of time to crawl onto a heron's foot or leg. During the season of breeding and just after, snail spat land everywhere, and some will land on the feet of wading birds. Later on the bird flies off with its cargo, and some snails will exit once it is again standing in water, perhaps in a stream dozens of miles away. In human terms, gene flow by this means may seem very slow, but in terms of genetic speciation, it is more than fast enough to keep the gene pool mixed.

Species classification is continually under tension between "lumpers" and "splitters". For the first century or so of mud snail studies in the U.S., the splitters prevailed, leading to a situation in the late 1990's that about 1,000 species had been named in the family Pleuroceridae. It is much more likely that there are fewer than 100 true species in this family, and if my friend is right, perhaps fewer than ten. I foresee a possible flurry of defining various "forms", such as happened some years ago with the species Liguus fasciatus (Müller, 1774) of Florida and Cuba, a walnut-size tree snail that has about 50 color forms in Florida and 70 or so in Cuba. Their differing colors are often quite striking. But they are all now considered a single species.