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loose ends of from the close of a chapter in life September 20, 2015

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– why do leonardo and michelangelo get a chance to design fortifications?

  because gunpowder was new and charles viii had just shown up in italy to trash everything

– “A vast man, olive-colored like his coat on old, old roller skates, gently shifting his weight as he rolled down the hill”

– commemorative wedding frisbees

– because sometimes one needs a fantasy novel (as yet unread): http://www.amazon.com/The-Name-Wind-Kingkiller-Chronicle/dp/0756404746

– fast unfolding of communities in large networks: http://arxiv.org/abs/0803.0476

– gary klein, on when we’d trust AI:

Accuracy and reliability are important features of collaborators, but trust goes deeper. We trust people if we believe they are benevolent and want us to succeed. We trust them if we understand how they think so that we have common ground to resolve ambiguities. We trust them if they have the integrity to admit mistakes and accept blame. We trust them if we have shared values—not the sterile exercise of listing value priorities but dynamic testing of values to see if we make the same kinds of tradeoffs when different values conflict with each other. For AI to become a collaborator, it will have to consistently try to be seen as trustworthy. It will have to judge what kinds of actions will make it appear trustworthy in the eyes of a human partner.

– irene pepperberg on experiment design:

I am reminded of one of the earliest studies to train apes to use “language”—in this case, to manipulate plastic chips to answer a number of questions. The system was replicated with college students, who did exceptionally well—not surprisingly—but when asked about what they had been trained to do, claimed that they had solved some interesting puzzles, and that they had no idea that they were being taught a language. Much debate ensued, and much was learned—and put into practice—in subsequent studies so that several nonhuman subjects did eventually understand the referential meaning of the various symbols that they were taught to use, and we did learn a lot about ape intelligence from the original methodology. The point, however, is that what initially looked like a complicated linguistic system needed a lot more work before it became more than a series of (relatively) simple paired associations.

– peasants have historically always lost their uprisings, with brief exceptions in the last few centuries because guns were a great equalizer

– “if you have no more to tell us than that one barbarian succeeded another on the banks of the oxus or ixartes, what use are you to the public?” (voltaire)

Awaking in New York, by Maya Angelou

Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.

– the movie Zatoichi, the blind swordsman (as yet unwatched)

– the movie Robot & Frank

– the end of history illusion

Daniel Gilbert’s name for the fact that people always predict less personal change for the future than they either report for the past, or than they will report for the interval once it’s done

– the original steele & sussman lambda papers: http://library.readscheme.org/page1.html

Mary Catherine Bateson, on a future with AI:

Will we be better or worse off if wishful thinking is eliminated, and perhaps along with it hope?

– a poem by e.e. cummings

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles


MaddAddamites and other futures July 26, 2015

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As usual, I’ve been listening to audiobooks while photographing caterpillars and doing other repetitive tasks in the lab. Some of the first books I listened to this summer was Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. They’re really good, although some of the characters have a questionable grasp of some aspects of biology. When that happens in fiction, I’m never quite sure whether it reflects on the character or on the author. Regardless, the trilogy is a very interesting vision of a post-climate-change, post-apocalyptic world.

That was the only problem with listening to those books here and now. When everyone’s saying next year will either be a normal year or even drier than this one, the last thing you want to be asking is “what if there are no more normal years?” So since then I’ve stuck to space-based science fiction or classic literature. I’m currently listening to War and Peace, because marching through the Russian winter with Napoleon is about as far away from dried-out Palo Verde as I can get.

The little things July 26, 2015

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June 26, 2015

I ran into the naturalist/graduate student giving a couple a tour this morning. This isn’t unusual, since the easiest way to see lots of different (vertebrate) animals is to go west along the road, and the easiest way to find lots of caterpillars is to go west along the road. Tours often give me a chance to see animals I wouldn’t otherwise notice or see well, since I don’t carry binoculars. In this case, it was a crane hawk perched far back in a tree. It looked like a typical dark-colored hawk except for its long bright red legs so I made the appropriate noises and went on working.

After I finished looking for caterpillars, I rode back to the station with them. On the way back, I spotted a male long-tailed manakin. It was mostly black too, but with a red cap, a bright blue upper back, and two really long tail feathers. Unfortunately, the couple was on the wrong side of the car, so neither one of them got to see it. We tried to get out and find the manakin, but it flew into the forest.

It’s a sad truth that most of the animals here will see, hear, or smell you and take evasive action long before you spot them. Insects are the exception. Here’s the one non-caterpillar I was able to take a picture of today:

You think I'm joking? That fly's not getting identified without a microscope.

A fly (Diptera). To tell you more, I’d have to look at the wing veins and see how many bristles it has on its shoulders.

Frustrations and apologies July 21, 2015

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July 21, 2015

If anyone is still reading despite my erratic postings or lack thereof, my thanks and apologies. My excuse isn’t that I’m totally lacking in self-discipline, but that the vast majority of it is currently keeping me plodding along on a very frustrating project. One part of my research—the part where I’m trying to measure the effects of many different caterpillar shelters on caterpillar survival—is going as well as can be expected given the lack of rain. The problem is another project—to switch caterpillars from two different species into each other’s shelters and see how much differences in survival are just caused by the shelter itself.

Unfortunately, both the plants the caterpillars eat and the butterfly adults are particularly vulnerable to dry conditions. When the host plants first sprouted in early June, I watered patches of them daily so they’d look appealing to the females laying their eggs. Then some big herbivores (maybe deer, maybe iguanas) started eating the plants in one bite. A couple weeks ago, the adults finally appeared and started laying eggs on the plants. But when the caterpillars hatched, they built shelters that were very different from the ones I expected them to build. I spent a few days trying to figure out whether I could still do the experiment if they were building several different types of shelters instead of the one type I’d expected. I decided to give it a shot and switched a few pairs of caterpillars.

That was when the herbivores came back and ate a bunch of my plants, caterpillars and all.


Normal posts will continue soon. I promise to put at least two more up by the end of this week.

Drawing a line July 16, 2015

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June 20, 2015

Today we had mondogo (tripe) soup for lunch. It was well-prepared, tender, and quite unobjectionable. However, there were also some large gobbets of clear gel. It tasted like a combination of unflavored gelatin and a chunk of pure fat, like on the edge of a pork chop. I decided that one bite of this new mystery food was quite enough. So what was it?

After a while, I put together the faint burned smell in the air and bones in some of the other soup bowls and came up with bone marrow. I remember the odor from a time when I helped roast marrow bones, essentially on a dare. I don’t know how bones can still smell burned when they’ve presumably been boiled, but the smell’s memorable and, for me, off-putting. I didn’t try any of the marrow after I helped cook it, and I would have been perfectly happy continuing that.

On the other hand, I can this to the list of organs I’ve eaten the next time I teach a pig dissection in lab. I find it a little disturbing how much credibility telling my students I’ve eaten tripe gets me.

Postscript: A week or so later, I was forced to acknowledge that I’ve occasionally been eating liver here for the last three years. At first, I thought the difference in flavor and texture was a result of marinating beef. Then I realized that the cooks serve some pretty tough cuts of meat without the benefit of marination and decided not to think about it further. This blew up when one of the student researchers here had some on her plate, was told in Spanish what it was, looked disgusted, and put it back in the pan. I didn’t catch the Spanish, but I had a pretty good guess as to what it was. I guess all those pig dissections were good for something after all.

Racing the Red Queen July 8, 2015

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Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen has become a favorite metaphor in biology for anything that is constantly “running…to keep in the same place”. I hoped the timing of caterpillars here might work like that—if the rain is n weeks late, then the caterpillars will be n weeks late. Unfortunately, Palo Verde’s more like a whirligig.

The timings of the weather, the plants, and the caterpillars are interconnected and difficult to follow. To add another layer of complication, each year I’ve arrived at a different time. The only reliable benchmark I have is the timing of a caterpillar I’ve been studying all three years (Calpodes ethlius). In 2013, I started looking for caterpillars June 5th and found my first mature C. ethlius caterpillar the same day. In 2014, the first dry year, I arrived May 24th and didn’t collect my first C. ethlius until June 11th. This year, I didn’t collect a mature C. ethlius until June 20th.

But that nine day difference isn’t the whole story. In 2014, the plants the caterpillars eat had already sprouted when I arrived. This year, I didn’t see any of the host plants until June 7th. So the weather’s messed up, the plants are responding to the weather, and the caterpillars are responding to both. The only good thing about this is that I’ve been able to collect lots of caterpillars from species that were already finishing up when I arrived last year. But don’t ask me to predict when anything will happen next year.

Tabebuia again July 5, 2015

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June 9, 2015

PV15 06-09-15 (16242)

The forest has lit up with patches of yellow—the Tabebuia trees here are blooming. Since we’ve had rain five days out of the last seven, I was really confused. I even checked whether the trees were really Tabebuia. Someone told me no, they were cortez amarillo, and I became even more confused. A quick check of a tree guide cleared things up: Cortez amarillo is the common name for Tabebuia ochracea and whichever name you call it, the tree blooms at both the beginning and end of the dry season. Normally that would be in April, but this is the most rain Palo Verde has had all year.

PV15 06-09-15 (16228)

Arrivals June 29, 2015

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June 9, 2015

One field course arrived yesterday, along with my field assistant. Another course, run by the same organization, arrived today. I don’t know who came up with that scheduling idea, but the station is packed. We were originally going to be sleeping at the ranger station, but there turned out to be one room left for us.

I’m glad my assistant’s arrived, and not just because I’m overworked. It took us a while last year to get really comfortable with each other (two introverts with a language barrier does not an instant friendship make), but we did. Google Translate and laughing about animal antics can help quite a bit with camaraderie. And between the field seasons we used email to work on our language issues. I wrote in Spanish, she wrote in English, and we corrected each other. It definitely improved my Spanish, although more for discussing biology-student activities and logistics than any generally applicable social conversation. Her English is better too, but our combined field and lab notes are still a mixture of English and Spanish that would probably seem illogical to anyone else.

Glorious mud June 24, 2015

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June 4, 2015

It’s rained three times in the last week, and it’s finally mucky enough for rubber boots, at least in the wetland, although “wetland” is still a misnomer. Where there would normally be several feet of water, there’s none. Instead, there is a flat expanse bordered by the forest and the spikes of reeds where there is still water near the river. In between, it looks like a kitchen sponge seen from the viewpoint of an ant. The ground is level but riddled with cracks and holes and covered with a creeping spiny tomato relative like a Brillo pad.

At first the fine black silt was dried in geometric clods, appearing nearly crystalline. Enough pressure turns the clods into tiny round beads, and rain has dissolved them into real soil and real mud. Farther up, on the road, there is even a puddle or two.

It’s official… June 20, 2015

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June 3, 2015

The park parataxonomist* thinks my handshake is funny. When he came to the station last year to identify some of the plants my caterpillars eat, our introductory handshake seemed to turn into one of those extended squeezing contests that supposedly establishes which of the participants is the stronger guy. Since a) I’m not a guy, b) he’s at least six feet tall, and c) his hand could cover most of my head, I had a little trouble believing that a firm handshake from me was enough to set off a strength contest. Maybe he just crushes everyone’s hands.

However, we went over to the rangers’ station for a celebratory dinner tonight and I can now make a definitive report: it was a squeezing contest. When we shook hands this time, I got a firm, non-crushing handshake. Afterwards, he made a fist, said “duro” (hard), and laughed. At least I’m memorable?

Speaking of memorable, he also gave us nance fruit to try. I find asking for English names for a lot of the fruits here pretty useless—either they don’t have one, or they won’t mean anything to anyone who isn’t already familiar with tropical fruits. Nance, as far as I can find, doesn’t have an English name. Each fruit was about the size of a gumball, yellow, and mostly seed. The texture and taste were unique: mealy apple with an undertone of overripe orange. To be fair, these were reportedly a little under-ripe, but I’m not feeling very motivated to give them a second chance.

* A parataxonomist is someone who isn’t formally trained as an academic taxonomist but is extremely experienced at identifying specimens. An academic taxonomist is usually an expert on particular families of plants (or insects); a parataxonomist is usually an expert on the plants (or insects) in a particular area. This parataxonomist literally wrote the book on the trees of Palo Verde.


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