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How (not) to send money to Nicaragua July 27, 2014

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Thomas Friedman has been claiming for the last nine years that the world is flat: that we are all economically and electronically connected, for better or worse, til death do us part, yadda yadda. This certainly seemed true when my sub-letter from Spain was casually making electronic transfers to pay for everything from rent to shipping a forgotten cell phone. I didn’t even have to cash a check. So when I was planning for this field season, how to pay my field assistant didn’t even rate a thought. Electronic transfers were the way to go!

Unfortunately, regardless of how flat it is between Spain and the United States these days, there’s still an awful lot of topography between the US and Nicaragua. And it all seems to be up hill. When my assistant was getting ready to leave in the last week of June, I started looking into how to make a transfer. I immediately ran into an obstacle at either end: my credit union does not make international transfers, and my assistant does not have a bank account. After briefly contemplating having someone make an electronic transfer to the graduate student/naturalist’s bank account, and having her withdraw the money for my assistant, we settled on what seemed like a much simpler alternative: Western Union.

So I went to their website and carefully filled out the money transfer form. That got me an email saying that they just needed to check a few things. Followed, a few hours later, by another email saying that they could not complete the transfer. With that utter lack of information, I did what any person, frustrated by the vagaries of ecommerce might do: I tried to resubmit the order several times, using two cards and slight variations of address, in an attempt to unjam whichever piece of processing machinery had gotten jammed.

This not only failed, but when I tried to pay my monthly station bill, I discovered that one of my cards had been frozen. One call was sufficient to get them to unfreeze the card—my flailing around apparently having set off their fraud detectors. But it took another call to someone else to find out that they have a policy of not paying internet Western Union transfers because they are so likely to be fraudulent. When I asked if they could make an exception, since I was right there telling them I wanted to make the payment, the person on the other end said something about “international transfer something something”. Whatever that was, it translated to “no”.

My field assistant did get paid eventually, because I got someone to make a phone Western Union transfer. I couldn’t do it, because I don’t have any international calling capacity, other than Skype. I don’t need anything else, unless something complicated comes up. After a field season and a half, I’m realizing that something always does. So as soon as I get back, I’m opening an account somewhere that does international transfers and getting an international calling card. Because as far as I can tell, the world is still round.


Back to our regularly scheduled programming July 27, 2014

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As you may have noticed, we’ve had some technical difficulties for the last week or two. Those have gotten fixed, and I’m putting up the next post tonight. To catch up, I’ll try to do Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday posts for the next couple of weeks.

Test 1-2-3 July 19, 2014

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anything but that.

Bargaining for rain July 10, 2014

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June 22, 2014


Every four or five days we go without rain, I try to bargain for it. Like any good superstition, there is a ritual to this. I hunt up the graduate student/naturalist and complain that I need rain for my plants and caterpillars. She has a vested interest in it not raining yet, since she’s catching crocodiles in a few water-filled lagoons that will disappear when the marsh fills completely. So she argues that the marsh can’t fill yet and I argue that the plants need rain, and we eventually agree that a few hours of rain each day would suit both of us. At this point, she gestures grandly to the sky and commands the weather gods to let it rain. Unfortunately, they don’t listen to her any more than they do me.

Sacrificing to the field gods seems to be working better. In my lab, we say that anything we lose in the forest—a Sharpie, a roll of flagging tape, a GPS, a wallet—is a sacrifice to the field gods for success in our endeavors. When I told the graduate student that maybe I should trying losing something, she told me not to lose my field assistant. I agreed that that would be very bad (also difficult, since we go in opposite directions), and that losing my GPS would be too much, but that maybe a Sharpie or something would do.

Yesterday, we lost the station’s GPS, although not in the forest. A course staying here used it, but packed it up instead of the course’s GPS. This was the best possible way to lose something—they left their GPS here and made arrangements to send the station’s back once they reached their next Organization for Tropical Studies field station. And this morning after they left, it rained.

Postscript: We had rain each day for five days, but none after that. The truly superstitious might tie this to the return of the station’s GPS.


Surprises July 6, 2014

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Almost all of the day-trip visitors who come here are surprised for a variety of reasons, most of them unpleasant. Surprise #1: You need to reserve a boat ride on the river in advance. I’m not sure how so many people know about this boat ride and don’t know that you need reservations, but there it is. Surprise #2: The same goes for meals. If there’s a big group already here, it’s easy to feed an extra person or two, but when it’s just us, there’s only just enough food for us. These are the standard surprises. There are also special ones, like the frog in the toilet.


A few days ago a family of four arrived in the middle of lunch and discovered Surprise #2. Before they headed back to town and food, the mother went to use the restroom. When she came back, she announced with mild horror that “there was a huge frog in the toilet!” If she had spoken with amusement or enthusiasm, I would have responded in kind, since it was a first for me too. Frogs in sinks and showers, yes; frogs actually in the toilet, no.


Instead, I said “I’m not surprised,” as blandly as I could. (And I wasn’t, particularly, given the sinks and showers.) Surprise #3 is, broadly speaking, this: “Nature” doesn’t stay politely outside at Palo Verde. In fact, with the exception of a few airtight, climate-controlled spaces, “nature” doesn’t recognize much of a difference between “outside” and “inside” at all. People who don’t accept this have a very uncomfortable time here. And because they tend to be vocal in their discomfort, I tend to want them to leave as quickly as possible.


So I act as if relatively unusual visitors like frogs in toilets or army ants are daily guests whenever horrified people are about. “I’m not surprised” was a much tamer reply than I could have given. Some that occurred to me before I restrained myself:

“That’s why there are two stalls—in case one is occupied.”

“Oh, that’s our pet frog Roberta. Don’t worry, we’ve trained her to jump on the handle when she’s finished.”

or even:

“You think that’s a surprise? One time there was a baby crocodile in there.”


It would be pretty easy to make the last one true, since the graduate student/naturalist is rearing a bunch of hatchlings in the lab. Sure, someone would need to put the crocodile in.   But once there’s been a crocodile in the toilet, saying  there had been a crocodile in the toilet wouldn’t be a lie.  That I find this tempting means I need a few days without surprised visitors.

A message from the subjective future July 3, 2014

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July 3, 2014


After Costa Rica beat Greece on Sunday, I decided that I probably should say something about the World Cup, and that I should probably post it now, instead of in two or three weeks.

Five-second recap: Costa Rica has made it into the quarter-finals of the World Cup (= soccer), which is in Rio de Janerio this year. I mention this for any of you who live under a rock when it comes to sports. I generally live there too, but Costa Rica making it to the quarter-finals is a big deal, so it’s even made an impression on me.

Although it’s a big deal, there hasn’t been a lot of fuss about it here. People are watching the games, or listening to them on the radio, but there isn’t much celebration or discussion after the fact. I think that’s mostly due to how few people are at the station at any given time—there are usually fewer than eight of us. And people who sign up to work two-week stints at field stations with seven other people are usually pretty quiet.

We’ve had several biology courses stay here over the last two weeks, and they’ve been the most vocally and visibly invested. Watching the Costa Rican and United States matches was nearly mandatory, one course brought a large Costa Rican flag along, and students and faculty alike have congratulated staff members on the team’s wins. (I don’t understand the logic of the last, which is one reason why I like living under that rock.) One of the students was arguing that if Costa Rica made it to the finals (unlikely), they should drop whatever they were doing and go back to San José, while others speculated on the riots that might ensue from a Costa Rica vs. US semi-finals or finals match (very unlikely at the time, and impossible now). All of which made me appreciate the advantages of sticking out the World Cup someplace with only seven other people.


Hoping for rain June 30, 2014

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June 13, 2014


When you’re hoping for rain, every change, no matter how momentary, becomes a sign. That the day is still or windy, sunny or cloudy, thick with mosquitoes or not, all these things, singly and together, become possible signs that rain is coming. This morning dawned not just cloudy, but misty, and I hoped that that might mean that it would rain. It did, but only just enough to wet the dirt.

It hasn’t rained for the last two weeks, and it’s starting to show. I didn’t notice at first, because everything is still almost overwhelmingly green, but once you start to see it, you can’t help but constantly notice it. It’s easiest to see along the sides of the east-west dirt road that is my collecting route through the forest.

PV14 06-14-14 (9599)


The same plant species grow on both sides of the road, but it’s difficult to tell, because all the plants on the left side are wilted from too much sun and too little water.

Something about tropical weather, or maybe being marooned at Palo Verde, makes everyone exceptionally passive about the weather. Despite the fact that I’m eagerly awaiting the rain, it only just occurred to me that I could look at a weather forecast. So I put Bagaces (the nearest town as the car drives) into The Weather Channel website. It predicts a few more days with little chance of rain, but very good chances at the end of the 10-day forecast. Here’s hoping.


Postscript: There was no rain within that 10 day period. I didn’t keep checking the forecast, so I’m not sure if it changed, or if Bagaces, which is a ridge and 30 km north of us, got rain but we didn’t. I guess I could check the observed weather on The Weather Channel website, but what’s the point?

Call for (audio)book recommendations June 25, 2014

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Counterintuitively, my “field season” routine  involves spending 1-3 hours a day in the field collecting caterpillars and 8-10 hours in the lab taking care of them and collecting data.  Most of that time in the lab is spent on tasks monotonous enough that music only keeps my attention for a few hours at a time.  But too much of my attention is required to listen to something requiring responses (like Spanish lessons).  Thanks to my public libraries, I can borrow audiobooks online, so that’s what I started doing midway through last field season.  Killing two mosquitos with one swat, I did my work and also made it through Moby DickThinking Fast and Slow, and Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative , as well as quite a few other books of various lengths.

Since I’ve just finished Volumes II and III of The Civil War, I’m looking for recommendations.  Someone’s already suggested I listen to Game of Thrones, but other recommendations, fiction and nonfiction alike, would be greatly appreciated.  Just leave a comment or send me an email.

Guy talk June 25, 2014

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June 6, 2014


Another US graduate student is staying here for a week, and he also has very limited Spanish. At lunch today, he had a conversation with one of the station workers who speaks very little English. He was explaining to the grad student (in Spanish) that he was a grandfather four times over. The student responded in Spanish with double entendres about what he (the student) had been doing, or would like to do, with the man’s daughters. Why this was a bonding experience instead of incredibly offensive I don’t know (maybe he only has sons), but they both seemed quite happy with their mutual heterosexual badassness.

Although when the student tried to call someone a “badass” in Spanish, the guy in question looked horrified and pointed, a bit frantically, at one then another of the women sitting next to him. I suspect that “You are a badass” came out as “You have a bad ass”, but I can’t be certain. I hope so.

“I’m a snake! I’m a snake!” June 23, 2014

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One thing that many humans, including biologists, find fascinating about caterpillars is how many of them look like other organisms or objects. There are caterpillars that people think look like sticks, leaves, flowers, bird droppings, moss, and snakes. Of course, humans are also the animals that invented Rorschach tests, so it’s an open question whether these caterpillars also fool animals with less imagination or less reliance on color vision.

Consider some caterpillars that have “eyes” and “faces” and might be trying to pass as some sort of snake:

Caterpillar "faces" from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

Caterpillar “faces” from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

I find some of these caterpillars more convincing than others, although the authors argue that a caterpillar-hunting bird that sees the “eyes” of something that might be a predator and sticks around to figure out if it really is a predator is probably not going to survive. After all, the bird only has to be wrong once.

But there are some caterpillars that are fairly convincing snakes. (Or snake heads—caterpillars just aren’t long enough to be whole snakes.) This is one of them, although as far as I’m aware, it doesn’t look like a particular snake:

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae -- the swallowtail butterfly family)

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae — the swallowtail butterfly family)


One reason it’s so convincing is because whenever someone bothers it, it does this:

PV14 06-05-14 NIKON (267) - CROP



All that’s missing is a hiss.


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