Redux: the Springtime of Robins

The robins are BACK, they don’t intend for you to miss them, flying like bats out of hell, tearing up the mulch, yelling at everybody and stalking around, sticking their tummies out. Wherever they’re going, they need to get there fast so they take a shortcut through my porch.  I was out one morning trying […]

The robins are BACK, they don’t intend for you to miss them, flying like bats out of hell, tearing up the mulch, yelling at everybody and stalking around, sticking their tummies out. Wherever they’re going, they need to get there fast so they take a shortcut through my porch.  I was out one morning trying to get robin poop off the porch floor and the local 2-year old came over to find out what I was doing. “Why do robins poop?” she said, and at this point I said I had to go back in the house.

This earlier expose of robins and sex first ran on April 13, 2012.

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Photo by gardener41

Kiss of the Assassin Bug

    I was bitten the other night. I would have taken a picture of the turgid, blood-filled bug that stuck its rostrum inside of me for a liberal helping of hemoglobin, but my girlfriend smashed it with a rock and spattered the thing while I cheered her on. It was hard to resist the killing. Normally, I try and treat other […]

 

 

I was bitten the other night. I would have taken a picture of the turgid, blood-filled bug that stuck its rostrum inside of me for a liberal helping of hemoglobin, but my girlfriend smashed it with a rock and spattered the thing while I cheered her on. It was hard to resist the killing. Normally, I try and treat other creatures with kindness, but this one stole from me. I was glad to see it go.

The assassin bug, subfamily Triatominae, is one of the true bugs, a class of ambush predator that injects venom into prey, liquifies their interiors, and sucks them inside out. In the case of this subfamily, they are obligate blood feeders. They are also known as cone-nosed beetles, and kissing bugs, for their tendency to take blood from around the eyes or mouth of a sleeping human victim. They inject an anesthetic into the skin of the host as they feed, so at first, you don’t feel a thing.

We’d been sleeping in a sandstone alcove in southern Utah, a place where these bugs hang out to suck from woodrats that nest in the cracks between boulders. Gorgeous spot for a camp, here’s a pano of the place, our camp in the lower right:

In the morning, we found the engorged thing under her sleeping pad. It was so swollen it could barely move, a translucent red jelly bean with legs flailing for purchase. At first we didn’t know who’d been bitten, until the swelling began on my arm. By the second day, my forearm began to balloon.

According to the Encyclopedia of Entomology, “Many species are vectors of the trypanosome Trypanosoma cruzi, the etiologic agent of Chagas disease, or American trypanosomiasis.” Chagas disease. Great. This comes from a parasite the bug picks up from woodrats. It is not transferred through blood into humans, but through the assassin bug’s feces. The victim starts scratching, and parasitic eggs from bug poop are transferred from fingertips into the eyes or mouth, where the parasite can enter the host and continue its life cycle.

What worried me at the moment was not Chagas, but the pain and the size of my forearm, and the red streaks under my skin lining their way toward the inside of my elbow, the direction of my heart. As we carried our gear through canyons, I paused at waterholes to scoop up mud and pack it around the infected area. A poultice is a home remedy, nothing I learned anywhere, it just made sense. Generally, a poultice is made by mashing herbs and plant material into warm water or natural oils, applying the paste to draw out infections. The ‘herbs and plant material’ in this case were in water that had come down with the rains, and the decayed roots of horsetails mixed with whatever algae grew between the soaked sand grains.

Long before the use of penicillin, mold from bread, milk, or cheese were used as home remedies, applied to infections. Science may have perfected the treatment, but there was a time when we knew what to do from our own experiences of trial and error passed down through human history. In this case, I thought the rot at the bottom of a waterhole might help. Did it? Hard to tell. It was cool to the touch and felt good. And we gave it a face, taught it how to talk.

 

This isn’t a plea to protect yourself and avoid sleeping on the ground. It’s just a damn bite. Worse things are happening all the time. This is the give and take of being out there, Circle of Life and all that. I’ve slept in more alcoves than I can remember, and I will continue to do so. This sort of thing is why we live.

Day three, the swelling went down. A poultice was no longer needed. Other than the marks of the bites where the assassin bug had taken two pokes into me, the wound appears healed. Life has returned to normal. Whatever that means.

 

Images: Wikipedia and Daiva Chesonis

 

Litterbug

On Saturday, Earth Day, I went for a run. About a mile in, I came upon a bald, middle-aged man. He wore a leather jacket and a Bluetooth headset. I was perhaps twenty feet from him when he chucked a crumpled plastic bag on the ground. Then he got on his bicycle and started peddling […]

On Saturday, Earth Day, I went for a run. About a mile in, I came upon a bald, middle-aged man. He wore a leather jacket and a Bluetooth headset. I was perhaps twenty feet from him when he chucked a crumpled plastic bag on the ground. Then he got on his bicycle and started peddling away.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The man wasn’t moving very fast. I had time to yell. I imagined myself saying, “Excuse me! Sir! You dropped your bag.” This made his action sound like an accident, but I what else could I say? I wasn’t looking for a confrontation.

Instead, I did nothing. I let the man ride off. I left the bag where it lay. I kept running. And for the next 43 sweaty minutes, I thought about the man, the bag, and my reaction.

I can’t remember any specific anti-littering advertisements from my childhood, but they must have been effective because I don’t litter. Ever. I carry trash in my pocket or purse. When the wind takes a gum wrapper or a napkin, I chase it down. I could try to throw a plastic bag on the ground, but I’m not sure my hand would unclench to release it. Not littering is engrained in my muscle fibers. I have anti-litter muscle memory.

So when I saw the man ditch his plastic shopping bag, it felt like an affront. It’s 2017! Who litters? With the myriad of complex environmental problems threatening the planet, not throwing trash on the ground seems like the least we can do. Seriously. The very least.

People can change, and studies suggest that disapproval is a powerful littering deterrent. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to admonish the biker. Why?

I came back to this question again and again as I ran. And I think I now have at least a partial explanation. First, I am in no position to criticize someone for being a poor environmental steward. Sure, I don’t litter. But I take long showers. I use bleach in the washer sometimes. I fly across the country. I buy bottled water in the airport. I often drive instead of walking. I forget to bring my reusable bags to the grocery store. My daughter wears disposable diapers. And on and on.

I am very much living in a glass house. Throwing stones seems petty and potentially reckless.

Second, littering seems like such a minor offense when you consider the full scope of environmental crimes being perpetrated by humans. Oil companies spill millions of gallons of crude. An entire community drinks lead-tainted water. Reefs are dying. Polar bears are dying. Giraffes are dying. The Arctic Ocean is rapidly becoming an enormous plastic trash patch. And then there’s the climate . . . oh god the climate.

So while I was deciding whether or not to confront the man on the bike, I started to think about all of these other catastrophes, and my body began to feel heavy. I was consumed by . . . not apathy exactly. More like deep resignation. We’re f*&$ing the planet. What does this bag even matter?

But I should know better, of course. You have to start somewhere. So three miles into my run, I turned around and retraced my steps. I picked up the bag and carried it home. I didn’t save the planet — I can’t. But I made a small and quiet stand against resignation.

***

Image courtesy of maxi2k6 via Flickr.

Mrs. Whitcher and the Renegade Numbers

In 1938 a wallet manufacturer called the E.H. Ferree company had a genius idea: to show people just how well cards would fit in the wallet, by using a placeholder. This was before credit cards and before many drivers licenses were small enough to fit into wallets. So the thing they used to showcase the […]

In 1938 a wallet manufacturer called the E.H. Ferree company had a genius idea: to show people just how well cards would fit in the wallet, by using a placeholder. This was before credit cards and before many drivers licenses were small enough to fit into wallets. So the thing they used to showcase the wallet was a social security card. The card they placed in each and every wallet was only about half the size of a real social security card, and that had “specimen” printed in red all over it. The placeholder card was fake in almost all ways but one: The social security number on it was real. It belonged to the secretary of the company’s Vice President and Treasurer, a woman named Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher.

The wallet was sold all over the US in Woolworth stores. And soon after it hit the shelves, people started using that social security number as their own.

According to The Social Security Administration, at the peak of the Whitcher confusion, 5,755 people were using her social security number. In total, they say that over 40,000 people have reported her number as their own. Eventually the Social Security Administration voided the number, and gave poor Mrs. Witcher a new one. But not after the FBI showed up at her house, asking why so many people were using her number.

As long as we’re using numbers and names to link our true selves to our various state issued identities, these kinds of confusions will probably never stop. Sometimes they’re small, hard to avoid mixups. There was a delightful story in the Guardian recently about a woman who thought her identity had been stolen, only to find out that instead she simply had the same name as another woman in the same city.

Other times they’re more careless, like the social security wallet. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Tommy Tutone song “867-5309” which is a working number in plenty lot of area codes. When the song came out in 1981, it was immediately a nightmare for anybody with the number. And some say the calls haven’t stopped since the song was released. In 2004 someone tried to auction the number off on eBay with a New York City area code. The auction was shut down by Verizon, but not before it had reached $80,000.

In 2003, the movie Bruce Almighty flashed a phone number for God. 776-2323. It didn’t give an area code, which meant that movie goers would go home and just add their own. A woman named Dawn Jenkins, a glassmaker living in Florida, told CBS that she was getting 20 calls an hour from people who wanted to speak with God. In San Fransisco, the number rang up an actual church whose pastor was named Bruce, if you can believe it. In the U.K. a man named Andy Green told the BBC he was getting 70 calls a day, and that he was considering suing Universal over it. “I have hardly slept” he said at the time.

As a quick aside: Starting in the 1960’s, TV and movie producers would always use 555 numbers, because they aren’t given out to anybody. Instead, 555 numbers are generally used for internal phone company services. And according to TV Tropes, the numbers 555-0100 through 555-0199 are actually reserved totally for fictional use. Although many producers don’t like to use them, since savvy audience members know the numbers are fake, and it can snap them out of the movie for a moment.

In 1955, a Sears ad printed a phone number which you could call and talk to Santa. The problem was the number didn’t go to Santa, and it didn’t go to anybody who worked at Sears. It actually went to a top secret red phone on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup. A number that, according to his kids, was only known by four-star generals at the Pentagon and Col. Shoup himself. When the red phone rang, it was a big deal. And then it started ringing off the hook with kids who wanted to talk to Santa. Thankfully, Col. Shoup took it well, and actually turned the phone line into a Christmas favorite: the NORAD Santa tracker.

There’s something thrilling about these stories to me. They’re a reminder that this orderly system of names and numbers that we’ve built is really just one slightly misguided decision away from collapsing on us. A reminder that we’re relying on a set of spreadsheets, a series of randomly assigned numbers, to keep us all in order. But that those spreadsheets and numbers can indeed fail us. I’m the only Rose Eveleth in the world, as far as I know, which is great for when I forget to bring business cards. But there’s something appealing about being able to fade into a sea of other John Smiths or Sarah Millers. There’s something enticing about stories that break the illusion that these numbers define us and keep our identities safe and in their individual little boxes.

Then again, if this kind of thing actually happened to me, I’d probably be as annoyed as Mrs. Whitcher, who later would say of the folks using her social security number as their own: “I can’t understand how people can be so stupid. I can’t understand that.”

Numbers Everywhere, photo by Bridget Coila, Flickr

Mrs. Whitcher with her actual social security card and the fake one from the wallets. Credit: Social Security Administration.

Redux: Bees Are Us

This post about honeybees originally appeared May 2015 here on LWON. I still love bees and they’re still in trouble, so I figured I’d draw attention back to how amazing they are. So, here’s your big buzz for the day. Enjoy! ——– Early the other morning, I woke up to a strange humming noise. My […]

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This post about honeybees originally appeared May 2015 here on LWON. I still love bees and they’re still in trouble, so I figured I’d draw attention back to how amazing they are. So, here’s your big buzz for the day. Enjoy!

——–

Early the other morning, I woke up to a strange humming noise. My first thought was the ceiling fan motor was petering out, but it turned out the sound was coming from outside. So I stepped out onto my little balcony for a look, and listen. The hum hummed louder. It took a minute before I could focus on what was in front of me, but then suddenly I saw them. Bees. Thousands of bees. Maybe tens of thousands. The massive swarm hovered just there, not terribly far from my face, a full-on cyclone of insects.

It was an awesome thing.

It wasn’t a total surprise. My neighbor keeps three honeybee hives in his backyard (and shares the spoils all around, probably to shut up those ready to complain). Apparently, there had been a coup of sorts in one of them: Occasionally, about half the workers in a hive snatch up the queen and find a new palace, slamming the door on their way out.

Imagine trying to make a decision about real estate with 10,000 opinions to consider. Fortunately, bees don’t work quite so independently. To prove it, the swarm moved as a single thing, rising and falling with its contours intact. Within, of course, it was a madhouse of movement, bees zigging and zagging every which way like popcorn in a popper. But it all held together in a beautiful way.

Finally, apparently having decided my yard lacked the homey feeling bees like, the whole massive thing rose like a single balloon and moved off over the trees. The hum faded like a lawnmower powering down. (It was pretty early on a Saturday for mowing, but bees I can forgive.)

I’ve been writing about honeybees (and other pollinators) for a dozen years, starting with the first round of “Colony Collapse Disorder” that got us all thinking about how much we rely on them for our food. (A lot.) But this isn’t about the pollinator crisis. You see, before this day I was a swarm virgin. This was my first sighting of a textbook-perfect swarm. And watching it stay whole despite all the moving parts got me thinking. I suddenly decided that a bee colony is sort of…mammalian. Almost human! It’s a stretch, but hear me out. And humor me a little.

First off, bees are hairy. Their hairs are made of chitin instead of our keratin, but still, it’s furry stuff. And yes, bees are cold blooded, but the hive as a whole thermo-regulates. It’s able to warm up by way of individual bees’ metabolic activity and muscle contractions that resemble shivering. So the heat comes from within. Kind of endothermic, isn’t it? (By the way, researchers just discovered a warm-blooded fish, the first known. Cool.)CSIRO_ScienceImage_61_The_European_Honeybee_Apis_mellifera

Now, it’s true that bees lay eggs. But they take care of their kids. Mom (Queen) has a whole village of nannies. Nannies feed the young a sort of milk (royal jelly). Moms and drones (reproductive males) make love a bit like we do, albeit in midair. Moms are a little bit slutty, having many partners in a row—certainly not unheard of in our own colonies.

Full disclosure, though: The tip of the drone’s penis rips off and blows into the queen’s reproductive tract during sex. Which doesn’t usually happen when people get it on. But still, there are parallels. Like this one: Those sexual males just lie around all day, unemployed, watching TV, waiting for their big moment in the sky. After sex, they die. (See above penis mishap.)

And talk about loyalty to family! After Mama’s one wild night, the colony truly treats her like royalty…better than many of us treated our mothers, no doubt. Her kids stick around, helping around the house, taking out the trash. Maybe they complain about boring chores or sharing rooms with hundreds of siblings, maybe some get grounded. Who knows?

But most grow up to have real jobs, as nurses, food-deliverers, construction workers, janitors, guards, morticians. A few necessarily turn into those drones, sprawled on the sofa, drinking directly out of the milk carton, waiting for sex. It’s all so…familiar.

And eventually, when the house gets too crowded and the queen becomes careworn and floppy in the upper arms, its time to find a new home for herself and the most loyal of her family. Maybe a nice condo in the city. As for the rest of them? They can just stay behind in that crappy old hive and who cares that there’s a new, younger queen taking over the old queen’s bed. Bitch.

So…honeybees. Every hum has a story.

Redux: Dust on our crust

This post first appeared on April 24, 2013. Unfortunately, the problem of dust on snow has not gone away. Since I wrote this post, NASA has gotten involved in studying snow on the Grand Mesa. I wrote about the NASA project for FiveThirtyEight. Spring is a nervous time for skiers and farmers. I’m both of these, […]

This post first appeared on April 24, 2013. Unfortunately, the problem of dust on snow has not gone away. Since I wrote this post, NASA has gotten involved in studying snow on the Grand Mesa. I wrote about the NASA project for FiveThirtyEight.DustOnSnowApril2010_01
Spring is a nervous time for skiers and farmers. I’m both of these, and every April I watch the weather even more closely than usual. As a skier, I’m waiting for crust — the year’s most magnificent snow conditions.

Spring’s warm temperatures compress the winter’s deep snowpack and when the freeze/thaw cycles line up just right, a firm crust forms on the top of the snow. This crust provides an ideal surface for skate skiing. In mid-season, skaters are confined to the groomed tracks, but come crust season, you can ski anywhere and everywhere without slogging. Conditions are fast and fun. It’s skiing at its finest. Crust cruisers often find themselves spontaneously emitting sounds of glee, such as “yippeeee!” 

In a good year, our crust season at the Grand Mesa can run into June. But great crust skiing depends on clean snow. White snow melts evenly. It forms an even crust that’s ideal for skiing.

DustOnSnowApril2010_12Introduce some dust to the snow’s surface, and conditions degrade — fast. Dust is dark, and it absorbs heat and expedites snowmelt. For skiers, dust means for an uneven, scrappy snow surface that makes for lousy skiing. It can also make skiing more dangerous. Research by Chris Landry at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies has shown that dust can increase avalanche danger by creating unstable layers within the snowpack. These layers of instability provide a sliding surface for snow to come crashing down the slope.

DustOnSnowApril2010_02Dust is also dire for farmers, because it hastens the spring runoff. Snowmelt that should come in a slow, steady flow instead rushes down the mountains in perilously fast torrents that send mid-summer’s irrigation water downstream in a mad spring rush. Snow scientists Tom Painter and Jeff Deems published a study in 2010 showing that the dust on snow phenomenon robs the Colorado River of about five percent of its water each year. Painter, Landry and Andrew Barrett, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, quantified how dust alters snow melt rates by simulating snowmelt in 2005 and 2006. They made two simulations — one to represent the dust-covered snow conditions actually observed those years, and the other to represent snowmelt had the snow remained dust-free. The simulations suggested that dust caused the snowpack to melt out 22 to 35 days earlier than it would have without the dust. 

The dust clouds come from the surrounding desert. The Southwest’s ongoing drought makes soil dusty and prone to being kicked up by the wind. Human disturbances from grazing, oil and gas drilling and recreation harm the fragile cryptobiotic soils that normally anchor and nourish the soil.

In 2009 and 2010, Colorado was hit with several apocalyptic dust storms that packed the sky so full of red with dust that the sun was all but invisible. The sky rained mud. It felt like the end of the world, not just the ski season.

Several so-called dust events have hit Colorado this spring. The NASA photos below show plumes of dust that blew over Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah on April 16.

DUST1
Before the dust storm.
Dust2
Dust plumes blow over Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah on April 16, 2013.

Since the April 16 dust storm, fresh snow has fallen on the Grand Mesa, and as of Monday, the crust skiing remains excellent. But I’m not holding out for an extended crust season. Already, the last dust layer is poking through in spots, and all it takes is one big dust storm to end the ski season for good. If it were just the skiing, I might not mind so much. But come summer, our orchard and vineyard will be thirsty, and I can only hope that the spring runoff hasn’t sent our August water overflowing the streambanks in May.

Images: Researchers from the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies measuring dust on snow at the Skyway weather station by Christie Aschwanden

NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response.

Tropical Science

A few months ago I found myself south of the border working on a story for Scientific American about the glories of really small brains. When I say south of the border, I mean south of the Mexican border and when I say small brains I mean really really small brains. Like those of a […]

A few months ago I found myself south of the border working on a story for Scientific American about the glories of really small brains. When I say south of the border, I mean south of the Mexican border and when I say small brains I mean really really small brains. Like those of a wasp whose whole body is smaller than a single-celled paramecium.

Just let that thought tumble around in your head for a second.

Kind of amazing right? I learned about two relatively similar species of spider who are so different in size, putting them next to each other would be like a normal man standing next to a giant 250 miles tall.

Tumble that one for a second too. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

My guides in this amazing world of miniaturization were William Wcislo and William Eberhard* at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. Both are excellent scientists and their facilities were second to none (Wcislo get money from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to do some truly cutting edge science involving photons and bee navigation).

Which, I have to say, kind of surprised me. After all, when I think about the words “tropical” and research” I think of either some northern researcher venturing into the jungle for a few weeks or a second rate facility neglected by a corrupt government. I couldn’t have been more wrong and the Williams were more than happy to set me straight.

Wcislo, a behaviorist by training, came to Panama in the late nineties to study how honeybees are able to navigate under a full moon. He quickly realized that the jungles of the south held a treasure trove of research.

“More people should work in the tropics,” he says, “you can always find wild animals. No need to keep them in the lab.”

Research on live animals, sad though it may be for some of us, is and always has been crucial to the pursuit of science. But interestingly, those animals aren’t very diverse. Do you know how scientists know so much about medicine? Because of rats. You know where we learn about genetics? Fruit flies. Want to understand basic neuroscience? Go look at a C. elegans roundworm.


Hardly worth all the attention it gets

These so called model organisms are the backbone of science and the foundation for most of what we know about the living world. And yet they weren’t chosen because they are the perfect models for brains or genes, it was because they won’t die easily.

“There is a danger in using model organism,” says Eberhard. “Many scientists spend a lot of time raising lab subjects and only studying animals that are easy to raise.”

Northern scientists have become paralyzed by the need to have easy-to-get subjects that won’t die off in the winter. So they have become masters of the genetics of fruit flies that are now far different from their wild cousins.

And what if C. elegans neurons aren’t so typical after all? What if rat physiology is totally different than human in some key way to one’s project? Then the work is useless – a problem that constantly plagues basic biology research.

This is why Wsiclo and Eberhard don’t just work in Panama but are based there. With a verdant, evergreen jungle out their backyard, finding research animals is easy – you just go out and find them.

Interested in muscle structure around the brain? Collect a few hooded beetles from the forest. Want to understand how brain size affects behavior? Get a swath of local orb web spiders. Don’t worry, there’s plenty to choose from and they’ll be there all year long.


Phaethornis striigularis. A very clever bird with a very small brain.

The stunning diversity of life out their back door has allowed Wsiclo and Eberhard to ask fascinating, sweeping questions that aren’t limited by species. For instance, they’ve found that a spider 600,000 times smaller than another makes the same number of mistakes while weaving a webs as a larger spider. Meanwhile, their students have been able to apply their ideas to to vertebrates and have uncovered some interesting oddities with hummingbird brains.

There are some things for which it’s good to have a model organism – a single species that has been studied enough to fill a library of papers and bred to the point where you know exactly what you are getting. But the best science isn’t about answering questions about roundworms, it’s about understanding how the wider world operates. And for that you need diversity.

Walking out of the institute, not for the first time in my career, my head was spinning and my mind was blown. As I listened to the insects emerge around me after a passing storm, I thought about all the things that might be going on in their tiny heads. I wondered how a critter that weighs five micrograms (or five thousandths of a milligram) even has a brain at all. I thought about spiders that have transferred part of their brains into their legs because they ran out of room in their skulls.

But one question kept popping up. Looking over a forest of more research subjects than an army of scientists would ever need, I wondered why more scientists aren’t based in the tropics.

 

* Some of my original titles were “Where There Are Wills, There Are Ways” “Williams Conquering” and “When the Bills Come Due.” This is why I am not paid to write titles.

The Community Listservs of the People of LWON

  Emily Underwood, Friend of LWON, posted on Facebook a collection of topics from her community listserv. Lions (mountain lions) Free blue heeler Sick chicken Ann doesn’t know exactly where Emily lives but it sure isn’t Baltimore.  Ann’s community listserv looks more like this. 2nd Quarterly Citizen’s Decision-Making Training (formerly known as “Shoot Don’t Shoot”) […]

 

Emily Underwood, Friend of LWON, posted on Facebook a collection of topics from her community listserv.

  • Lions (mountain lions)
  • Free blue heeler
  • Sick chicken

Ann doesn’t know exactly where Emily lives but it sure isn’t Baltimore.  Ann’s community listserv looks more like this.

  • 2nd Quarterly Citizen’s Decision-Making Training (formerly known as “Shoot Don’t Shoot”)
  • Children’s clothing and kitchen items needed for Syrian family
  • Former bishop up for parole after less than 2 years.
  • Guest Lecture – Renewable Energy and Social Enterprise in Africa
  • Does anybody know this p.o.s that broke into my sister’s house today.
  • Low-frequency hum

Cassie lives in Madison.

  • We haven’t been placing our bins out correctly–have you?
  • Jaspers Sad Update
  • Spot light fishing along shorelines and river banks.
  • Found Debit card
  • Citgo on Sherman ave sold?
  • Electric tankless water heater – pros & cons? tips?
  • Example of clover or thyme lawn to visit?
  • Beaver traps removed

Jasper the dog has an inoperable brain tumor, in case you’re wondering. Oh, and the Citgo did get sold to a man who owns several gas stations and runs them like open air drug markets. So, yes, please do boycott the Sherman Ave. Citgo.

Richard lives in New York City

  • What is a community listserv? (Stop rolling your eyes, everyone!  I really don’t know.)

Rose also lives in New York City

  • We just yell our complaints out the window/at strangers on the street.      

Helen lives in a neighborhood of Northwest DC with lovely gardens and strong opinions. Oh, if only this was the time of year for people to be upset about the National Park Service culling deer in Rock Creek Park.

  • ISO Long Iron Pry Bar to Borrow
  • Liriope plants
  • Looking for garden volunteers THIS SAT at the Takoma Triangle Native Garden
  • Happy for the Sunshine & Spring Weather!
  • Tax Day March Sat., DC Mall: ‘Release Your Returns’
  • Anyone have a small fridge I can borrow til Thursday?

You’ll be glad to know that there were several offers of small loaner fridges.

It’s unclear where Craig lives, or maybe he lives not in space but in time; but in any case, he had to borrow Telluride’s listserv.

  • Rescue Rez pups need a home from near Gallup, NM.
  • Lightly used climbing slings $5 each
  • I have searched high and low in this town for a sacred space. I have dealt with thugs and tyrants…
  • Outside shower tent for sale.
  • 1975 Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar for sale.

Jennifer lives in Silver Spring in a diverse neighborhood called Wheaton Woods that has pretty much no woods left. (There is one area of dense trees in a park where drug deals go down, according to neighborhood lore and police records.) It has a lot of 1950s brick colonials and, nowadays, young couples with dogs and/or small babies. Someone somewhere has a rooster.

  • Looking to borrow overhead projector this weekend
  • Help identifying bird — photo not for squeamish
  • More problems with Wheaton post office–complaint submitted
  • Bee swarms. It’s that time of year again!
  • Young men–Mormons–going door to door
  • Lenox crystal and beer mugs
  • Packages stolen from front stoop
  • Well, he’s back–the fish killer–look out for prehistoric bird
  • Found Goat

 

Cameron lives in Santa Barbara, which she once thought was made up entirely of Oprah and her friends. Oprah definitely doesn’t live in her neighborhood, but lots of other people do. And they’re mostly worried about the extremely tight and expensive rental market and water. And bees.

  • Bee swarm by food land
  • Family looking for a home to rent
  • Semi-Annual Recruitment for City Advisory Groups Now Underway
  • Free Hands-on Drip Irrigation Workshop Sat, April 15
  • Anyone know this orange tabby cat?
  • Good spider?? What is this??
  • Looking To Display Rare Record Collection 

Christie lives in rural western Colorado.  

  • Hunters blind $50
  • Eight Bottle Wall Wine Rack
  • Ford F-150 Grill Guard
  • Looking for tree stumps or rounds that will stand on their own, about a foot tall, so my baby goats can have a playground this spring.
  • Infant Car Seat $50
  • Does anyone know of any easter egg hunts in town?
  • We have Inflatables for rent for your next Party: Birthday, Office, Graduation
  • I have used Verizon Wireless for a long time and find it has good service nearly everywhere I travel except HERE. I am so tired of waiting several minutes for the simplest up/downloads. Even voice reception is marginal. Does anyone know how we might petition VZW to upgrade our local service?

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Photo in order by: ElizaAustin KirkJordan RichmondJörg SchubertDan ReedScrubhiker (USCdyer)Scrubhiker (USCdyer)PhilippJ.H. Fearless — all via Flickr

The Kind of People Whose Neighbors Are Sad When They Move Away

I have neighbors who were also friends who have just moved away.  I look at their house now and they’re not in it, it’s empty, they’re gone.  I’m sad.  Why should I care so much? It’s what urban America does, it moves away — stays a while, then moves somewhere else.  I’m used to it. […]

I have neighbors who were also friends who have just moved away.  I look at their house now and they’re not in it, it’s empty, they’re gone.  I’m sad.  Why should I care so much? It’s what urban America does, it moves away — stays a while, then moves somewhere else.  I’m used to it.  These people whose daily cycles, real worries and deserved joys, faults and virtues, parents and children, and cars and gardens I know so well, I now know at best via Facebook, maybe Christmas cards, “we should get together again sometime.”  Fine.  That’s the way it is.  I’m still sad.

Meanwhile, I’ve given some thought to what you might do to be the kind of person whose neighbors are sad when you to move away.  I started looking for research in the social psychology of groups but it’s the wrong field; it’s about how groups function for good or ill, and not about how to be a certain kind of person.  Maybe I’m talking about moral philosophy.  Maybe Aristotle covered this; maybe Montaigne did; I don’t think Kant did.  But I’m not looking it up.  Instead I’m going to make a specific list of action items and we can theorize another time.

Show up on the doorstep with a plate covered with plastic wrap and say – obviously lying – you had some banana bread with chocolate chips left over, or you made too much turkey with portobello mushrooms.

Wear understatedly elegant clothes so casually that your neighbors will feel that just by living on the same street, they too are understatedly elegant.

Have occasional parties whose guests you are so surprised and delighted to see that they feel they’re honoring your party with their presence.  Give them cheese with a little ash line in it, French bread you bought at a bakery on the eastern shore, plus a lot of cheap champagne, plus green olives, and in particular, hot crab dip.  Propose toasts almost randomly, but give the reasons for the toast in great detail.

Help your neighbors hang heavy pictures on two hooks so that if a picture is bumped or dusted, it can’t tilt.  Your neighbor never would figure this out in a million years.

Smile easily.

Be honest with your neighbors when the goldfinch feeders they’re using are the kinds goldfinches don’t like.  Then get on the internet and help find the right kind.

Help a neighbor arrange the old photos of her mother on a poster for her mother’s memorial service.  Know your graphic design and the best glue choices.  Know that during the design and glue process your neighbor will want to take breaks.

Sit on your front porch having a glass of wine and when your neighbor asks if it’s ok to join you, say “oh yes, please, we’d love that,” and mean it, even if you’re tired and your dinner should come out of the oven in five minutes.  Just go inside for a minute and turn the oven down.

When you go over to your neighbor’s and find a visitor who is knitting, ask the visitor to help you start a shawl because you have yarn so beautiful you bought it even though you don’t know how to knit.  Be amazed at the visitor’s teaching abilities.

Know one sparrow from another.

Ask your neighbors — in the kindest, most careful possible way — questions that are a little impolitic.  Where did you grow up and why did you leave? Did you get along with your mother? How many times have you been married? Why did you quit that job?  Listen carefully and then recount your own small town, your relationship with your mother, the number of your ex-spouses, and your job history.  These are all just stories, after all, and what do people have to share except their stories?

Emit the kind of rays that a campfire does, so that people just naturally want to come sit by you, and so that just by looking at your house and knowing you’re there, your neighbors feel protected, surrounded by warmth, safe as houses.

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Photo by Lawrence OP, via Flickr

First, AI came for our volunteer jobs

In 2007, while a researcher at Oxford, astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski co-founded what would become the largest online citizen science project to date. Galaxy Zoo involved several hundred thousand volunteers pouring over images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to classify galaxies. Significant discoveries were made, dozens of journal articles published the results, and another site, […]

In 2007, while a researcher at Oxford, astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski co-founded what would become the largest online citizen science project to date. Galaxy Zoo involved several hundred thousand volunteers pouring over images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to classify galaxies. Significant discoveries were made, dozens of journal articles published the results, and another site, Zooniverse, launched to apply the same process in other fields.

Since then, and in part as a result, citizen science has become all the rage. Funding agencies are keen to support it, the concept has proven useful, and it’s a popular pastime for those whose passion for science must be expressed outside of working hours. But just as the movement has earned its chops, it may be about to be upstaged.

“I think the whole old approach of ‘Let’s crowdsource it to the whole internet’, that’s I think somewhat if not largely superseded’” says Schawinski, now at ETH Zurich. “Just because thanks to machine learning, we don’t need half a million people to go click away at galaxies anymore. I think that is probably over.”

Galaxy Zoo sorted about a million objects, but looking ahead to data streams that astronomers will be analyzing, the numbers will be more like a billion or a trillion objects.

“That’s not crowd-sourceable even if everyone on the internet stopped looking at cat videos,” says Schawinski.

Part of the issue is that astronomy simply has more data to process than other fields. Schawinski recalls a forum on Big Data in which a pharma CEO attempted to convince the room of the importance of new analytical tools.

“He was saying how ‘a single human genome is as much data as the Hubble Space Telescope has taken over its lifetime’, to which I was giggling and thinking, ‘yeah, the Hubble Space Telescope is a tool that was developed in the 80s,’” says Schawinski.

Now, astronomical systems generate that amount on almost a daily basis.

The ETH team is currently developing neural networks to tackle the influx, as well as to extract more value from old datasets, rather than just building newer and more expensive telescopes. The idea is that, while current machine learning trials involve training the network on a few thousand pre-labeled images, eventually they would like to leave the machine unsupervised with large databases and have it come back with its own ideas of how the universe is organized. Perhaps it will produce an entirely new way to classify the heavenly objects we take for granted.

After four hundred years of tinkering with taxonomies using the scientific method, astronomers now have the chance to look outside of our species for a second opinion. The trouble is, neural network technologies have been developed to recognize images on a human scale–pictures of cats or bedrooms or faces. Astronomical images, in contrast, have a much larger dynamic range. Most of the pixels register at zero, and then a few are very bright.

After several frustrating trials, the team found that stretching the images using a hyperbolic sine (usually used to make starscape images easier for humans to perceive) also makes it easier for the neural network to find patterns. Their approach has implications for machine learning in other areas of science.

“If you look at proteinomics, they have exactly the same problem. The dynamic range of their spectrum is very large,” says Ce Zhang, who leads the computer science portion of the team. “Hopefully in the next couple of years, we can have a neural network just designed for astronomy. That is my dream.”

It’s an admirable dream, but it somehow lacks the soaring soundtrack of the citizen science dream. Perhaps we millions of humans chiming in from all over the world–only to be made redundant–can somehow hold on to our unity of purpose. Perhaps we can redirect our efforts to an even greater cause.

Image: NASA – the Crab Nebula as seen by Hubble