31 January 2013


Recently my father and I were talking about the epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., and the debate over proposed gun control legislation.  We agreed that ~

  • most people misunderstand the term "assault weapon".  Military assault rifles (e.g. the M-16 or the AK-47) are capable of both semi-automatic fire (a single squeeze of the trigger will fire only one round) and full automatic fire (a single trigger squeeze will fire multiple rounds, for as long as the trigger is held down and the ammunition supply lasts).  Most civilian assault weapons visually resemble military assault rifles, but are only capable of semi-automatic fire ~ just like my old Remington .22 rifle or my Glock .45 pistol.  One round fired per trigger pull.
  • most people misunderstand the meaning of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the NRA has deliberately distorted the meaning to its own ends.  The 2nd Amendment reads in its entirety as follows ~ "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  At the time of its passage, the U.S. did not maintain a standing army, and relied on state militias in time of conflict.  Today, we obviously do maintain a standing army, and state militias have evolved into the National Guard (and do not include small private self-styled "militia" groups of anti-government survivalists).  Clearly the definition of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" has become subject to legal and scholarly interpretation, especially when you consider that the founding fathers could not possibly have predicted that weaponry would become so much more sophisticated and lethal than the muskets of the day.
  • the fact that there are nearly 300 million firearms in private hands in the U.S., more than the other developed nations combined, is a clear case of overkill.  The ease with which most adults can legally buy guns, often without a background check or waiting period, is the path by which so many guns fall into the hands of criminals and psychopaths.
  • the level of gun violence in America has long since passed the point where regulation is needed.  Why not treat gun ownership and use like we treat car ownership and use?  We require drivers to pass knowledge and skills tests before issuing a renewable driver's license.  We also require that every vehicle be licensed, registered and insured.  It makes perfect sense to require every gun owner to pass a gun safety class and demonstrate firing skill on the range (as well as pass a criminal background check and undergo a psychological evaluation) before issuing a license to carry or use a firearm.  Similarly, every gun should be licensed and registered, and liability insurance should be required.
None of the above should be interpreted to mean that I am anti-gun.  I am a gun-owning liberal, and have been all my life.  (See Confessions of a Liberal Gun Owner)  I simply recognize that with freedom comes responsibility.  I received hunter safety training as a teenager, military weapons training in the Army, and safety training to qualify for my state-issued concealed carry permit.  A gun is an absolute last resort, precisely because it is a lethal device.  But I would not hesitate to use my weapon if an assailant threatened innocent lives, including my own.

During our talk, my dad mentioned an anecdote that appears to justify private gun ownership and resistance to gun regulation.  Allegedly, Adolf Hitler passed laws that first regulated, and later removed the right of citizens to own guns during his ascent to power.  The implication is that attempts to regulate gun ownership in the U.S. could lead to a powerless citizenry.  The anecdote is false, and the implication is therefor illogical.  Here's what happened ~

Germany passed its gun registration law in 1928, five years before Hitler's rise to power.  Hitler didn't need to take away the guns of Germans ~ they loved him and elected him.  He won with propaganda, not gun laws.  Further, in 1938 Hitler actually liberalized gun laws in order to put weapons in the hands of younger and older men.  The only people who were subject to restrictive gun laws were citizens of conquered countries, as well as oppressed minorities like Jews.

Here and here are my information sources.  And here is a comprehensive discussion on the gun law debate in the U.S. today, presenting both rhetoric and facts.

30 January 2013


I'm a longtime fan of the NPR radio show Car Talk.  Co-hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi, brothers who run one of Boston's premiere auto repair shops, are lively and hilarious as they respond to the questions of callers with car problems ~ their knowledge is encyclopedic as they sort through possible solutions to try to parse out the answer to each mystery.  It's like listening to grown men revert to adolescent boys as they feed off each other in good-natured teasing.

Each has developed his own philosophy on certain age-old questions, and each staunchly defends his position.  An example is this ~ should one buy a new car and keep it for the duration of the warranty, and then trade it in on another new car?  Or should one buy a quality used car, maintain it, and drive it until it collapses of terminal metal fatigue?

I fall in between.  I've bought both new and used cars over the years, and in both cases I've kept the vehicle until it is on its last legs.  My 1995 Ford Explorer (the best 4-wheeled vehicle I've owned) has been a champ when it comes to reliability and performance, but with 160,000 miles on the odometer, it is getting a little long in the tooth.  I've never experienced a major breakdown or failure, but that may be about to change.  Three months ago, I got in to run errands, and even though the starter was turning over, the engine refused to catch.  Oddly, the next day and every day since, it has started with no hesitation.

Until today, when it showed the same symptoms.  I'm far from being a competent mechanic, especially with today's complex computerized engines, but it seems like a fuel feed problem to me.  The AAA man who showed up in response to my call agreed, saying it is most likely the fuel pump or the fuel injectors.  He showed me a trick ~ turning the ignition key to "on" but not far enough to engage the starter, the driver can listen for the hum of the fuel pump.  If that hum does not materialize, the pump is the problem.

And it appears to be mine, though only intermittently.  I've been putting off taking my truck in to my regular mechanic for a thorough diagnostic exam of all systems, mostly because I can't afford the repairs I suspect the vehicle needs (brakes and minor electronics come to mind) .  But I may have to swallow my careful budgeting and bite the financial bullet, sooner rather than later.

Like most Americans, I'm dependent on my vehicle, even if only for three days a week.  I've babied my Explorer (my son calls it an Exploder), and it has stood the test of time.  I hope to get another ten years and/or 100,000 miles out of it.  As it ages, each milestone becomes just a little more expensive, until one reaches the point of diminishing returns.

And then what?  I'd love to have a vehicle which gets excellent (40-60 miles per gallon) mileage, sits high enough that I can see in traffic, has decent cargo capacity, yet is small enough to park easily.  SUVs have received a bum rap, in my opinion.  They are quite versatile.  Hopefully by the time I'm ready to say adios to my Explorer, car companies will be producing mid-sized SUVs with hybrid engines for fuel economy, and a proven track record for reliability.  Hey, it could happen.

29 January 2013


Over the course of my lifetime, I've had one horse, three parakeets, six dogs, and nine cats as pets.  During the past thirty years my animal companions have been exclusively cats.  When you have a feline friend for whom you've taken responsibility, one of the fundamental questions you must face is whether to allow your cat to roam outdoors or be kept inside.

If you're a cat, the lure of being outside is obvious ~ being able to laze in the sun, patrol your territory (which can be surprisingly large, depending on the habitat in which you live), graze on grass or any succulent greens, and chase the occasional bird or butterfly.

Being kept inside feels more restrictive ~ how many times do we see indoor cats perched on a window sill, gazing wistfully out at the world?  And yet for the health and longevity of the cat, it offers major advantages ~ no exposure to vermin like ticks or lice, no risk of being run over by a car, no possibility of getting chewed up in a fight with a dog or another cat or some form of wildlife, no nettles or burrs to cling to the fur, no risk of over-exposure to the weather.

In my youth, I allowed my cats to roam outside during the day (weather permitting), and brought them in before sundown.  They totally enjoyed their freedom, and seemed to have the best of both worlds.  But as I matured, I opted to keep them indoors.  The benefits of doing so greatly outweighed the risks of outdoor freedom.  Like my cats, I wish the world were a safe place for them to be allowed out.  But I love them, and want them to live long and healthy lives.

A number of years after making that change, I learned that free-roaming cats are responsible for the deaths of millions of birds each year.  A more recent study discussed in today's NYTimes fleshes out the numbers, alarmingly ~

"Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that domestic cats in the United States ~ both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it ~ kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year (my emphasis), most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

"The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation.  More birds and animals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills, and other anthropogenic causes.

" .... the new report is likely to fuel the sometimes vitriolic debate between environmentalists who see free-roaming domestic cats as an invasive species ~ super predators whose numbers are growing globally even as the songbirds and many other animals the cats prey upon are in decline ~ and animal welfare advocates who are appalled by the millions of unwanted cats (and dogs) euthanized in animal shelters each year.  All concur that pet cats should not be allowed to prowl around the neighborhood at will, any more than should a pet dog, horse or potbellied pig, and that cat owners who insist their felines 'deserve' a bit of freedom are being irresponsible and ultimately not very cat friendly.

" .... the new study estimates that free-roaming pets account for only about 29 percent of the birds and 11 percent of the mammals killed by domestic cats each year, and the real problem arises over how to manage the 80 million or so stray or feral cats that commit the bulk of the wildlife slaughter .... Yet even fed cats are profoundly tuned to the hunt, and when they see something flutter, they can't help but move in for the kill."

That last paragraph is worth thinking about.  One cannot assign blame to the cats themselves.  Stray and feral cats are simply trying to survive, and even well-fed home cats are responding to their hunting instincts ~ in short, just being cats.  In all cases we humans bear the mantle of blame.  We allow our pets to breed indiscriminately, and those young which can't find adopted homes are either turned loose to fend for themselves, or are placed in animal shelters (where the odds of euthanasia to adoption can reach 20 to 1).  Thus we are the source of the stray and feral cats.  And our choice to let home cats roam outside is also a failure of responsibility.

The long-term answer is to spay or neuter all pets.  I adopted my two cats from the local Humane Society.  The fee for each included neutering, innoculations, and a clean bill of health.  If you adopt from a private owner, the same precautions should be taken.  Similarly, programs exist to live-trap and neuter stray or feral cats, to reduce their population over time.

We owe it not just to our cats but also to the billions of wildlife victims, for whose deaths we humans are ultimately responsible.

28 January 2013


Above is a chart showing the 15 largest predators ever to live on Earth, past and present.  You can click on the image to enlarge, but for more magnification and clarity, click on this link, then click once more on any portion of the chart.

It is an impressive assembly.  Note that two are alive today, in the depths of the ocean.

Below you will find the identity and approximate size stats for each creature, expressed in the metric system.  (For equivalency, note that a meter is about 3.28 feet, a tonne is about 2,204.6 lb., and the abbreviation MYA stands for millions of years ago, i.e., the approximate time span when each creature was alive on the planet.  Here are the entries in order ~

  1. Sperm whale ~ 20.5 meters, 57 tonnes, alive today
  2. Mauisaurus ~ 20 meters,                    65 MYA
  3. Megalodon ~ 18 meters, 70 tonnes, 25-1.5 MYA
  4. Spinosaurus ~ 18 meters, 9 tonnes, 106-93.5 MYA
  5. Basilosaurus ~ 18 meters, 6 tonnes, 40-34 MYA
  6. Tylosaurus ~ 17.5 meters,                  85-80 MYA
  7. Mosasaurus ~ 16 meters, 17 tonnes, 70-65 MYA
  8. Predator X ~ 15 meters, 45 tonnes, 147 MYA
  9. Titanoboa ~ 15 meters, 1.2 tonnes, 65-58 MYA
  10. Gigantosaurus ~ 14.8 meters, 8 tonnes, 95 MYA
  11. Carcharodontosaurus ~ 14 meters, 17.5 tonnes, 100-93 MYA
  12. Elasmosaurus ~ 14 meters, 2.2 tonnes, 85-65 MYA
  13. Colossal Squid ~ 14 meters, 0.5 tonnes, alive today
  14. Tyrannosaurus Rex ~ 13 meters, 8 tonnes, 65 MYA
  15. Deinosuchus ~ 12 meters, 10 tonnes, 80-73 MYA
On the enlarged grid, each square corresponds to 1 meter, and a 1.75 meter human figure appears as a size reference.  It is appropriate that we should appear, for though we are diminutive in size, we are undeniably the most deadly, opportunistic predator of all.

27 January 2013


International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victim of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people, and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, before and during World War II.  It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly on 1 November 2005.

27 January is the date in 1945 when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.

To those who see little relevance of this history to the present, bear in mind that the horrors of the Holocaust happened only 70 years ago ~ during my parents' youth.  At least 36 attempts at genocide have been perpetrated since World War II.  The past is prelude to the present, unless we instill in every new generation both the knowledge of what happened, and the determination to never allow such abomination to recur.

26 January 2013


Here are several websites at which to pass some pleasant weekend time.

  • Online jigsaw puzzles ~ interactive, with varying levels of ease or difficulty, and a wide array of visual themes.  (example above)
  • Surfing the galaxy ~ a composite image made up of over 1200 photos taken of the night sky.  You can pan, zoom, or warp to your heart's content among the tens of millions of stars in the image (a tiny portion of the hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way.  For a shortcut to the Milky Way Center Regional Mosaic, click here.
  • Earth in metamorphosis ~ a 5 minute video montage of images taken from orbit, of the changes our garden planet has endured as human numbers have skyrocketed. 
  • Does the universe have a purpose? ~ a 2:35 video in which astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson responds, with humor and insight.
  • Flashmob Carmina Burana ~ a 4:12 video of one of the finest flashmob events ever orchestrated ~ which is saying something.  I only wish they had performed the entirety of Carmina Burana, but perhaps this intro will lure viewers to an orchestral concert.
  • Baby animals ~ admit it, this is the one you've been waiting for.  "Awww" photos of a wee pig, giraffe, chameleon, elephant, alligator, duck, deer, hedgehog, cat, dolphin, sloth, panda, seal, puffer fish, rabbit, mouse, skunk, hippo, octopus, penguin.

25 January 2013


Vindication!  Nicholas Carr in his Wall Street Journal essay ~ "Lovers of ink and paper, take heart.  Reports of the death of the printed book may be exaggerated.

"Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital .... Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter.  Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency.  The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly, and purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets.  It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed book, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books ~ a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

" .... Beyond the practical reasons for the decline in e-book growth, something deeper may be going on.  We may have misjudged the nature of the electronic book.  From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novel representing close to two-thirds of sales.  Digital best-seller lists are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances.  Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

"These are, by design, the most disposable of books.  We read them quickly and have no desire to hang onto them after we've turned the last page ....  Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital.  They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call 'real books' ~ the kind you can set on a shelf.

"E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format ~ an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback.  That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don't necessarily stop buying printed ones .... There's something about a crisply-printed, tightly-bound book that we don't seem eager to let go of."

I've weighed in on the side of printed books in this forum many times.  There's no pleasure quite like settling in with the heft, smell, and feel of a book (preferably hard-bound).  Inherent in the moment is a feeling of permanence and comfortable solitude which light-emitting devices seem to lack.  And yes, I'm aware of the irony in your reading this using a light-emitting device.  Trust me, if I could manage to go back and transfer all of my blog content, including illustrations, to a hard copy format, I would do so in a heartbeat.  I've devoted nearly five years of my life to publishing a wide variety of material here.  I'd love to have it all in book form.

24 January 2013


Holly the cat lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.  She was born feral, then adopted and lived as an indoor cat.  Last year her humans started taking her on road trips, Holly seemed at ease.  Things changed one night during a stay at an RV gathering in Daytona Beach, 190 miles to the north.  Someone opened the RV's door, and Holly bolted into the night.  Disoriented by strange people, hundreds of RVs and fireworks, she did not reappear.  Her humans were distraught, but eventually had to return home, without Holly.

Time passed ~ two months, in fact.  Who could have predicted that on new year's eve, her humans would receive a phone call from neighbors saying that Holly, "staggering, weak, and emaciated, struggling even to meow", had appeared in their backyard.  Against all odds, Holly had found her way home.

No one knows how.  We know from scientific studies that migratory animals (birds, insects, turtles, fish) are able to navigate over long distances using olfactory cues, the position of the sun, or the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field.  Lost domestic animals who make epic treks to return home are more of a mystery.  Documented stories of dogs covering unknown territory exist.  Stories of cats are more rare.

But they happen.  In 1989 a lost cat in Russia found its way home, 325 miles away.  In 1997 a cat's family moved from Utah to Washington, but the cat determinedly returned to Utah, a journey of 835 miles.  That same year an Australian cat traveled 1000 miles to reach home.

In America, probably the most famous animal trek appears in the book The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.  Three pets owned by the same family ~ two dogs and a cat ~ trekked nearly 300 miles through the wilderness of northwest Ontario to return home.  The story was made into a 1963 movie, and remade in a 1993 movie.

The NYTimes article on Holly's story has been making the rounds on the Internet.  In the article, animal behaviorists speculate on how she managed to find her way, but there is much yet to learn.  All I can say with certainty is that if one of my two cats became lost, my heart would break.  And if, weeks later, that lost cat appeared at my door, I would be weeping for days.

23 January 2013


Bad news for those who are fat ~ "if you are overweight, your chances of dying in a car accident are greatly increased, according to a new study.  It found that heavier people are up to  80% more likely to die in an accident than drivers of a healthy weight, with obese women most at risk.

"The research, published in the Emergency Medicine Journal, found that fat people are propelled further forward during a collision because their additional soft tissue prevents the seat belt tightening immediately against their pelvic bones.

"The study, which took place in the U.S., included 6,806 drivers involved in 3,403 collisions, of whom 18% were classified as obese, 33% were overweight, and 46% had a healthy weight.  Its findings show those who are most obese, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 or over, were 80% more likely to die in an accident than drivers of a healthy weight."

By now most people are aware that fully one-third of the American public (including children) are obese, and another one-third are seriously overweight.  If you have any doubt, or if you've been in denial, check out this height-weight chart.  Just look in your gender column, and find the row corresponding to your height.  Where they intersect is your acceptable weight range.  Note that generally speaking, the lower your weight is within that range, the better your overall fitness, assuming you eat well and exercise regularly.

The increased risk of death in an auto accident is only one entry in the list of dangers from obesity, joining increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, infertility, osteoarthritis, gout, liver disease, multiple sclerosis, back strain, and a medical laundry list of other conditions.  Obesity is not only preventable, it is also a drain on the healthcare system, for which we all pay.

20 January 2013


Olympia, Washington artist Chris Maynard, after years of thought and experimentation, has come up with his own art form ~ delicate sculptures made by cutting the silhouettes of birds from actual plumage.  He collects molted feathers from zoos, private aviaries, and nonprofit rescue organizations, sketches possible designs, observes birds, and when he has a good feeling about it, transmutes it all into sculpture using fine surgical tools.

Smithsonian recently posted an article featuring six of his designs ~ the sculpture shown above (click to enlarge) is made from Great Argus pheasant wing feathers.  Smithsonian notes that "Maynard's exhibition 'Feather's Second Flight', including 25 of his works, is on display through January 20 at the Row House Cafe in Seattle.  From January 25 to February 15, his feather art will be shown at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia.  Maynard and Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist and author of the new book Feathers, will be giving a lecture at the center on February 2."

You can learn more about the artist and his creations at his website, Featherfolio.

19 January 2013


For two years in my early childhood, I was privileged to attend the Bynum, MT, elementary school.  The community is tiny, occupying perhaps four square blocks.  Students from surrounding farms and ranches rode the school bus each day.  It was a compact edifice ~ three classrooms and three teachers for eight grades.  I was there from mid-first grade to mid-third grade, and sat in the same classroom with the same teacher the entire time.

There's something to be said for such an arrangement.  At first glance, one might think the work load on the teacher must be enormous, until you consider that there were only 5-8 kids per grade.  It must have been relatively convenient to cycle from one grade to the next, with those not being taught directly working on their assignments, all under the watchful eye of the teacher.

Recess was a challenge to our imaginations.  The tiny school had only a slide and two swings (if memory serves), so we had to be creative in organizing games.  Winter was a special challenge ~ but also provided its own opportunities, in spite of the cold.  Imagine a swarm of busy, bundled-up young engineers digging child-sized tunnels into the deep snowbanks at the edge of the playground, or erecting snow forts from which to launch vigorous snowball fights.

One game is vivid in my memory ~ Fox And Geese.  A maze of paths was trampled into a flat area of snow ~ curves and intersections and dead ends, sometimes with two paths running closely parallel for a short distance (see the model train layout above for an approximation, though our paths were more irregular and unpredictable).  A designated child played the fox, similar to "it" in tag, and the remainder were geese.

On a signal, the fox would try to catch one of the geese, thus swapping roles.  Ah, poor fox ~ he or she could only walk, while the swift geese could run.  Ah, poor geese ~ they had to stay on the paths, while the wily fox could jump from path to path, if two paths ran close enough together.  Thus the layout of the path maze was critical, and a good maze allowed both fox and geese to use their advantages in movement.

Many years later, my then-partner and I and our blended family of three children were visiting her relatives in winter, near Reno, NV.  No one there had heard of Fox And Geese, so I laid out a path maze in the snow and showed them how the game was played.  Everyone had a ball, laughing and shrieking ~ the adults perhaps even more than the kids.  It gave me a warm feeling to share something so special from my childhood.

18 January 2013


Yes, my cat can read.  But he's not really that bright ~ when we play chess, he can only beat me one game out of three.

17 January 2013


I've always thought it is possible for a heterosexual man and woman to be friends, without sexuality getting in the way.  Not only possible, but a reality in my own life.  Perhaps I'm the exception that proves the rule.  You see, a new report published in Scientific American examined the viability of platonic relationships between men and women, and found the following ~

"Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common ~ men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together.  However, the possibility remains that this apparent platonic coexistence is merely a facade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.

"New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility ~ that we may think we're capable of being 'just friends' with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for 'romance' is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.

"In order to investigate the viability of truly platonic opposite-sex friendships ~ a topic that has been explored more on the silver screen than in the science lab ~ researchers brought 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends into .... a science lab.  Privacy was paramount. For example, imagine the fallout if two friends learned that one, and only one, had unspoken romantic feelings for the other throughout their relationship.  In order to ensure honest responses, the researchers not only followed standard protocols regarding anonymity and confidentiality, but also required both friends to agree ~ verbally, and in front of each other ~ to refrain from discussing the study, even after they had left the testing facility.  These friendship pairs were then separated, and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.

"The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships.  Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa.  Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them ~ a clearly misguided belief.  In fact, men's estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt ~ basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends.  Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends.  Because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual.  As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends, and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

"Men were also more willing to act on this mistaken perceived mutual attraction.  Both men and women were equally attracted to romantically-involved opposite-sex friends and those who were single.  'Hot' friends were hot and 'not' friends were not, regardless of their relationship status.  However, men and women differed in the extent to which they saw attached friends as potential romantic partners.  Although men were equally as likely to desire 'romantic dates' with 'taken' friends as with single ones, women were sensitive to their male friends' relationship status and uninterested in pursuing those who were already involved with someone else.

"These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being 'just friends'.  What makes these results particularly interesting is that they were found within particular friendships (remember, each participant was only asked about the specific, platonic friend with whom they entered the lab).  This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naive females.  It is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways.  Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance with their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships.  The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation ~ one that is actually platonic.

" .... So can men and women be 'just friends'?  If we all thought like women, almost certainly.  But if we all thought like men, we'd probably be facing a serious overpopulation crisis."

I have a few problems with the above summary.  It seems to me that the summary over-simplifies and generalizes (in short, stereotypes) the feelings of male and female genders, when in fact each gender contains a range of feelings and responses.  Perhaps the original study addresses this shortcoming in its raw data.  To the extent that gender responses are made to appear uniform, to that extent does the summary do injustice to diversity within genders.  There are surely general behavioral tendencies, but they are not universal.

The final statement about 'If we all thought like women/men' I find glib and a bit offensive, in that we do in fact face a serious overpopulation crisis, one which outpaces the planet's carrying capacity to sustain us.  Earth could reasonably support one-tenth of our current 7 billion population, with little threat to wildlife and wilderness.  As matters stand, we are rapidly decimating wildlife and the habitat we all share, and driving accelerated changes in the climate we inhabit, with no relief in sight.

16 January 2013


Among the world's wildlife, there are two primary means by which humans induce extinction.  One way is simply killing individuals until the population is decimated below its ability to sustain reproduction.  The other way is to destroy the habitat which feeds and shelters wildlife.

It is the removal of habitat (in the form of our own pubic hair) which accounts for a dramatic decline in the incidence of pubic lice worldwide (see scanning electron microscope image above, click to enlarge).  The Bloomberg headline states it plainly ~ Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species.  "Pubic lice, the crab-shaped insects that have dwelled in human groins since the beginning of history, are disappearing.  Doctors say bikini waxing may be the reason.  Waning infestations of the bloodsuckers have been linked to pubic depilation, especially a technique popularized in the 1990s by a Manhattan salon run by seven Brazilian sisters.  More than 80 percent of college students in the U.S. remove all or some of their pubic hair ~ part of a trend that's increasing in western countries.  In Australia, Sydney's main sexual health clinic hasn't seen a woman with pubic lice since 2008, and male cases have fallen 80 percent from a decade ago.

"The trend suggests an alternative way of stemming one of the globe's most contagious sexually transmitted infections.  Pubic lice are usually treated with topical insecticides, which once included toxic ones developed before and during World War II.  While they aren't known to spread disease, itchy skin reactions and subsequent infections make pubic lice a hazardous pest.  Clipping, waxing, and shaving the groin destroy the optimum habitat of pubic lice."

So now we can add hygiene and comfort as reasons favoring bikini waxing ~ augmenting the visual and tactile pleasure which many men and women experience when one or both partners are well and thoroughly groomed.

Note ~ lice species may specialize in their preferred habitat, with head lice residing on the scalp, body lice hiding in clothing, and pubic lice nestling "in the coarse hair of the pubic and perianal areas".  Among especially hirsute individuals, these parasites may migrate from their preferred habitat to other parts of the body.  All of which lends credence to the notion of habitat removal in the pubic and underarm areas of sexually active people.

Bikini waxing ~ who knew?  Small wonder that a majority of college-age women and men in the U.S. remove all or part of their pubic hair, with the grooming trend gradually making its way into older age cohorts.

15 January 2013


Dr. Carin Bondar is a biologist, science writer, and filmmaker.  Her latest just-completed project is a whimsical, informative ten-part documentary video series called Wild Sex.  Here is the promo from the series trailer at earthtouch.tv ~

"Let's talk about sex.  And not just any old sex.  The animal kingdom is a wild place ~ and it's got mating habits to match.  We're getting it on with kinky rituals, titillating pheromones, post-coital cannibalism, golden showers, orgy marathons, and penises that put King Kong to shame.  Biologist-with-a-twist Dr. Carin Bondar is stripping down to the bare truth of nature's X-rated side."

Please bear in mind that the material is about animal sex, not human sex.  Yes, I know, we're animals, too.  But I think you'll find lots of scenes to blow your mind, arouse your interest, and tickle your funny bone as you watch these animal mating stories.

Below you will find links to the trailer, and to each segment of the series.  A nice feature ~ you can click on the trailer and then relax, as each succeeding segment automatically begins when the previous one ends.  Or you can skip to a title you find appealing.  Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a wild ride!

David Kroll at the esteemed Forbes website reviewed the Wild Sex series, saying in part ~ "Carin's a real pro on film and ~ well, yes ~ she's rather attractive to a large demographic,  The episodes are pretty racy depending on your background (episodes include sex toys, bondage, etc.), the language is frank, and Carin is the prop for much of the narrative.  But it's not cheap or exploitative ~ the presentation aspect of science communication has been part of Carin's science live as far back as she can remember."   Kroll's piece includes an embedded video interview with Dr. Bondar.

So there you have it.  This biologist had a lot of fun watching the series.  I hope you do, too.

14 January 2013


The eponymous music by Jean Sibelius, accompanying scenes from the "Finland" episode of the "Wild Scandinavia" documentary ~ here.

13 January 2013


I've long been intrigued by the lock picker's art.  In movies and on TV shows, it seems that spies, criminals, and police detectives have all mastered the ability to insert two oddly-shaped metal shafts into a lock, do some mysterious finger dance, et voila! ~ the lock springs open, and entry (legal or illegal) is secured.

Lock picking turns out to be not all that mysterious, once one has gained instruction and practice.  Above is an animation showing the movements of a typical pin tumbler lock's innards as the key is inserted (click to enlarge).  Here is a web link to an animation illustrating the opening such a lock with picks rather than a key.

It is not only cops, bad guys, and spies who pick locks.  Most frequently they are employed legitimately by locksmiths.  Here is a description of the process, including locks, tools, and legal status.

12 January 2013


Irrationality ~ "an action or opinion given through emotional distress, inadequate use of reason, or cognitive deficiency."

We have an experiential and intuitive understanding of emotional distress.  As for the other two, George Dvorsky in The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational suggests that "it's important to distinguish between cognitive biases and logical fallacies [inadequate use of reason].  A logical fallacy is an error in logical argument (e.g., ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, circular arguments, appeal to force, etc.).  A cognitive bias, on the other hand, is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking ~ a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability)."

Here are some important cognitive biases to keep in mind ~

  • Confirmation bias ~ the often unconscious act of preferring those perspectives which affirm our pre-existing views.
  • Ingroup bias ~ overestimating the abilities and values of our immediate group at the expense of people we don't know.
  • Gambler's fallacy ~ putting undue weight on previous events, believing that they'll somehow influence future outcomes.
  • Post-purchase rationalization ~ subconsciously justifying the purchase of something totally unnecessary, faulty, or overly expensive.
  • Neglecting probability ~ our inability to grasp a proper sense of risk or peril.
  • Observational selection bias ~ the effect of suddenly noticing things we didn't notice before, and wrongly assuming the frequency has increased.
  • Status quo bias ~ a conservative tendency to stick to our routines, assuming another choice will be inferior.
  • Negativity bias ~ paying more attention to, or giving more credibility to, bad news over good news.
  • Bandwagon effect ~ going with the flow of the crowd without critical questioning, in order to fit in or conform.
  • Projection bias ~ ascribing to others our own attributes, thoughts, or emotions ~ or assuming that others share our assumptions and opinions.
  • The current moment bias ~ our difficulty in altering our behaviors and expectations to better our future lives.
  • Anchoring effect ~ our tendency to compare and contrast only a limited number of items.
Dvorsky notes that over 100 cognitive biases have been identified.  Browsing through them is an education in the varieties of self-delusion.

11 January 2013


In the science fiction series Star Trek ~ The Next Generation, one of the principal characters is a sentient android named Data, serving aboard the starship USS Enterprise.  Data was created to replicate a fully functioning human, but was deprived of an emotion chip.  Hence during much of the series, he tries earnestly to understand (even emulate) human emotional behavior.

Enter Spot, a cat adopted by Data.  Spot is an independent sort, even by cat standards.  Data is the only member of the crew to whom he becomes attached.  The whimsical relationship between two species so alien to each other is at times deeply poignant.

During one episode, Data composed a poem dedicated to Spot.  Here it is, as only Data could express it  ~

Ode to Spot

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

10 January 2013


When I was a lad, back during the Crimean War, corporal punishment was accepted as the norm in my family, in our community, and I suspect in American society at large.  Even though I was by nature well-behaved and eager to please, there were moments when I crossed the line of acceptable behavior.  A scolding was usually sufficient (heavily laden with doses of shame and guilt) to correct me, but from time to time I received a spanking by hand or a belt.

There were several unique incidents when the punishment was more severe.  Twice during my adolescence, one of my parents became incensed and actually broke objects across my back (a toy rifle once, a 1"x4" plank once).  And when I was much younger, a sadistic uncle (father of my favorite cousins) lost his temper while I was visiting them, took me outside in the dark, made me pull my pants down, then grabbed me by the ankles and raised me upside-down with one hand, and beat me severely across my bare bottom with a metal-studded leather belt.

Even before I became an adult, I resolved that I would never strike my child.  My son was born on my 30th birthday, the best possible gift.  He grew to become a sweet, inquisitive,  and cooperative boy.  The only times I remember becoming angry at him had more to do with my life struggles than with anything he was doing.  I suspect that's true for most parents.

On only two occasions did I break my promise, both when he was around 8 years old.  Each involved a swat delivered in anger, something which grieves me to this day.  I betrayed both myself and my son, all because the stresses in my life at the time overwhelmed me.  How I wish I could go back and take those moments back.

As I've learned more about what makes people tick, my conviction has solidified ~ spanking our children only teaches them that violence is an acceptable solution to a problem.  We (most of us) cringe when we witness a parent spanking or slapping their child in public.  Yet if we intervene, we incur the wrath of the parent, incensed that we dare interrupt their parenting.  Too often the view is "I was spanked, and I turned out alright."

Alas, that is not accurate.  A Washington Post article points out the following ~ "That spanking does hurt children, and not just for the five stinging minutes that follow, has become a matter of consensus among many social scientists.  Most of the studies are observational (no one has dared to bring kids in for a few laboratory whacks).  But hundreds of findings have suggested that spanking correlates with a range of problems.  The most often cited link is between spanking and future aggressive behavior, but research has also found that spanked children are more likely to drop out of school, suffer psychological problems, and abuse their own children."  (emphasis mine)

Spanking is child abuse.  Parents in most European countries are stunned by the extent to which American parents (and sometimes teachers) physically punish our children.  Between 65 and 75 percent of Americans accept spanking as legitimate, and between 70 and 90 percent of American parents spank their offspring at least once during childhood.

As the Post article notes, there are efforts underway to purge this mentality from our national mindset, in much the same way that we've made drunk driving and smoking unacceptable.  A social movement against violence in the home is gaining momentum.  The goal is "nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa."  (see map below, click to enlarge)

I support that movement.  There are many ways to instill acceptable behavior, and to correct behavior that is disruptive.  The book Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman (an American mother living in Paris) is an excellent introduction.  Our children deserve to grow up knowing that home is where they are completely, permanently, and lovingly safe.

09 January 2013


Paul Fussell was a combat veteran of World War II, a historian, university professor, and author whose work has won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.  He is best known for his writings about World Wars I and II, which explore what he felt was the gap between the romantic myth and reality of war.  He made "a career out of refusing to disguise or elevate it."

Following are several exerpts from his memoir Doing Battle ~ The Making of a Skeptic.

"Life was good and easy, and I called Life 'friend'.  I'd never hidden anything from him, and he'd never hidden anything from me.  Or so I thought.  I knew everything.  He was an awfully intelligent companion ~ we had the same tastes (apparently) and he was awfully fond of me.  And all the time he was plotting up a mass-murder."
      ~ quote from Wyndham Lewis

(After the mass execution of German prisoners of war) ~ "[for many participants] the result was deep satisfaction, and the event was transformed into amusing narrative, told and retold over campfires all that winter.  If it made you sick, you were not supposed to indicate.  I was beginning to understand what a marine sergeant told Philip Caputo during the Vietnam War ~ 'Before you leave here, sir, you're going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy'."

"When V-E Day was announced, I did celebrate by consuming a can of warm beer I'd been saving.  But there was no pleasure in it.  The reason is suggested by Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's British girlfriend.  She said of the end of the German war, 'No one laughed.  No one smiled.  It was all over.  We had won, but victory was not anything like what I had thought it would be.  There was a dull bitterness about it.  So many deaths.  So much destruction.  And everybody was very, very tired.' "

"My first year at Pomona [college, following World War II ] confirmed me in a number of attitudes that would remain and intensify.  One was the abandonment forever of the high school and collegiate impulse to be 'popular' by joining, or at least not offending, the herd.  I now became a conspicuous non-joiner, and have never happily joined any group since.  I became obsessed with the imagined obligation to go it alone, absolutely, and teamwork became for me a dirty word.  I became irrationally angry at any attempt to coerce me into group behavior or to treat me as if all human beings are the same.  I developed an indignant suspicion of quantitative ways of describing or measuring human talents and values.  I was now convinced that my duty was criticism, meaning not carping, but the perpetual obligation of evaluation."

08 January 2013


Yesterday's visual post was more an illusion than a legitimate puzzle.  Today's is solvable, so long as you think both inside and outside the box.  If you think you have the answer, click on "comments" below, and record it.  You will find the solution by scrolling down ~ no peeking!





40 squares!  illustration below, click to enlarge.

05 January 2013


From my old, old, old friend Bill in Chicago ~ 9 Things You Didn't Know You Could Do Online.  At this link you'll find how to ~

  • Find your ring size
  • Measure your pupillary distance (above, useful in ordering glasses)
  • Find the seat map of any flight on any airline
  • Design and print your own 3D creations
  • Hire someone for one-time tasks
  • Create your own police sketches
  • Take dozens of MIT physics courses ~ for free
  • Visit older versions of almost any website
  • Find years' worth of your congressperson's votes
BONUS ~ You can find Kelley Blue Book new and used car prices and values here.  You can also look up someone's criminal record for free here.  That congressperson, perhaps?

04 January 2013


The 2012 Audubon Magazine photography awards winners have been announced ~ photo submissions were divided into professional, amateur, and youth photographers.  This stunning image of an American Kestrel (above, click to enlarge) won in the professional category.  Wait until you see the grand prize winner ~ click here to view the slide show of the ten winners, with captions identifying the birds, the photographers, and the settings.

03 January 2013


Last night during the PBS Newshour, Ray Suarez interviewed journalist Claudia Kolker, author of a new book titled The Immigrant Advantage, which challenges readers to think about what they might learn from immigrants.  Kolker's research approach was simple ~ asking legal immigrants the question "What's the smartest thing that people did in your home country that you want to hang on to while you're here, and the rest of us ought to copy?"

The responses she received often centered on "the very practical day-to-day skills of living ~ childbirth, dating, courting, pooling money instead of going to banks, inter-generational living arrangements .... These are some of the practices that made the United States what it is and that we have forgotten, and really forgotten fairly recently."

Here is the seven-minute interview on video, as well as a transcript.  Also on the Newshour website, here is Kolker's summary of the top seven things Americans can learn from immigrants.  They include ~

  • How to save
  • How to mother a mother
  • How to eat
  • How to learn
  • How to court
  • How to be a good neighbor
  • How to shelter
(Claudia Kolker was a freelance reporter in El Salvador from 1992-1995, where she covered the Salvadoran postwar recovery as well as social issues throughout Central America, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

02 January 2013


Two years ago, the prolific Sheril Kirshenbaum published 20 Things You Didn't Know About .... Kissing.  I only recently discovered the list.  Here are a few entries ~

  • Scientists are not sure why people kiss, but some think the answer lies in early feeding experiences.  Through nursing, infants may learn to associate lip pressure with a loving act.
  • And yet kissing is not universal, leading some experts to think it might actually be a learned behavior.
  • Love is the drug ~ dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with desire and reward, spikes in response to novel experiences, which explains why a kiss with someone new can feel so special.
  • Holding hands and kissing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, thereby lowering blood pressure and optimizing immune response.
  • A passionate kiss has the same effect as belladonna in making our pupils dilate.
  • One milliliter of saliva contains 100,000,000 bacteria.
For more on the history, physiology, and variations of kissing, check out Sheril's article.

So is kissing healthy, or is it a great way to spread germs?  Perhaps both ~ here is a point-counterpoint discussion.  Me, I'll take my chances.

01 January 2013


From Wikipedia ~ On this day in 1983, "the ARPANET changed its core networking protocols from NCP to TCP/IP, marking the beginning of the Internet as we know it today.  (visualization of routing paths pictured)."

Thirty years.  At no time in human history has our world changed by orders of magnitude so swiftly as during these three decades.  Buckminster Fuller was not only right, he was prescient in describing the accelerating pace of change in technology, population, commerce, creativity.  What a shame that he did not live to see the full blossoming of the exchange of information and ideas and images, all made possible by the Internet and affordable personal computers.  The world's library, at our fingertips.

We live in times of wonder.