Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Just not that into you?

(A dance of nurses, but the dance I attended was more exciting than this one appears.)

The call came on a Wednesday and on Friday night my college roommate and I jumped into his red Chevy convertible and headed off to the nursing school down the road.  We met the two girls who had invited us, but they were so short.  It just wasn't going to work.  So we politely cut it off, split up, and reconnoitered the room full of dancing nursing students. 

Within an hour we were each dancing with a freshman student nurse who turned out to be roommates at the school.  Later, we went out for a hamburger in the convertible, which must have been impressive, and by the end of the evening it was obvious that the girl my roommate had been dancing with and I were muy sympatico.  I called her the next week, we went to the OSU homecoming dance the following month, and we were married in three years.  Simple.  Now, four dogs, six cats, and three children later, we are still married 44 years after that Friday expedition.

Meeting the right person seemed so easy then.  But last night I watched "He's Just Not That Into You" on tv for the first time, and I was reminded of how difficult it seems to be for young people to develop satisfying relationships in recent decades.  And finding that ONE right person is nearly impossible, or so it would seem.  My conclusion is also supported by dozens of conversations I have had with my students over the years.  I won't be so pretentious as to offer a solution for these difficulties, but my observations suggest that the older you get and the more experience you have with potential partners, the more difficult this all gets.  It is like trying to choose a cell phone.  There are simply so many models that come with so many different plans that it is difficult to settle on the package that is right for you.

But let's analyze this fundamental issue of human ecology a bit more.  There are two aspects to the "problem".  First, you have to encounter that right person and, second, you have to recognize the right person after you have encountered them.  I'm betting that #2 is a more common problem than #1, given that most of us encounter hundreds of people every month.  There may be dozens of Mr. or Mrs. Rights all around us; we just don't know which ones they are.

But maybe I've made that too simple.  We "encounter" lots of people every week, but we don't really "meet" most of those whom we encounter.  You would never know who the right one is if you sat next to them at Starbucks if neither of you uttered a word.  I used to talk a lot more than I do now, and my wife has always given her words away freely, so this was not an issue for us in 1965.  We opened up completely with our thoughts and goals and hopes; we hid very little.  What's the point of false advertising, given that the other person will eventually learn the truth anyway?

So that is how it went.  In hindsight, it seemed simple and easy, but I am sure there was a bit more to it than that.  There was a huge dose of serendipity involved as well.  If that short girl had not called my roommate, if we had not gone to that dance, if my roommate had not had a convertible, if I had not worn that sexy cranberry sweater, if they had not played the Bristol Stomp at the dance, if she had not moved her hips in exactly that way, if, if, if...........  But I wonder if the movie that I saw last night had been made in the '60s, would we have even understood it?  I just don't think we would have been that into it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The depth of our environmental concerns mimics our evolutionary heritage

(Early humans probably traveled only short distances and only worried about short intervals of time into the future.)

Last year at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association in San Diego, CA, University of Missouri professor David Konisky reported on the results of his survey of 1,000 adults regarding their environmental concerns in a paper titled "Environmental Policy Attitudes, Political Trust and Geographical Scale". “The survey’s core result is that people care about their communities and express the desire to see government action taken toward local and national issues,” said Konisky, a policy research scholar with the Institute of Public Policy. “People are hesitant to support efforts concerning global issues even though they believe that environmental quality is poorer at the global level than at the local and national level. This is surprising given the media attention that global warming has recently received and reflects the division of opinion about the severity of climate change.”

In other words, people are more concerned about what happens in their own backyard than they are about the global environment. “Americans are clearly most concerned about pollution issues that might affect their personal health, or the health of their families,” Konisky said. Global warming ranked 8th among the environmental concerns reported by the respondents.

Is this really an unexpected result? On the surface, it seems surprising that given all the media attention to the problem of global climate change (e.g., rising ocean levels, melting glaciers, demise of polar bears and penguins, mass extinctions, shifts in agriculture, etc.) that it would not rank as the number one concern among a sample of Americans. But thinking as an evolutionary biologist for a moment, something I try to do a lot, the results could be viewed exactly as expected.

Throughout the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 1.8 million years BP until about 11,000 years BP, humans lived in relatively small nomadic groups, or clans, of related individuals. They probably did not live much past the age of 40 and they probably did not travel long distances. The landscape must have been a dangerous place, so I have to presume that individuals went only as far as they needed to obtain the requisites of life: food, water, animal skins for clothing, wood for a fire. Occasionally there would be a dispersal event to colonize new territory, but the world you knew was only as large as the area you walked during your relatively short life. What another hominid clan did three valleys away had no effect on your life whatsoever, and it seems likely that humans living 100 miles apart never even knew of each other’s existence. What I have briefly described here is what evolutionary psychologists call the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” or EEA. That is, conditions of life during the Pleistocene were such that humans were selected to be adapted to that environment, where life was short and known distances and effects were spatially small.

But times have changed. Now, the lifestyle of Americans, or Europeans, or Chinese threatens the well-being of a Bangladeshi living on the coast through the effects of global warming and rising ocean levels. The demand for furniture in Japan made of tropical woods can eliminate the habitat and homeland for native wildlife and humans living in parts of Indonesia. Radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine resulted in resettlement of more than 300,000 people locally, but the fallout was detected in North America. And on, and on, and on.

Somehow we have to rise above our evolved concerns focused on immediate issues of time and space, but I still do not know exactly how to bring that about. We are all at least aware of how local actions can have global effects, and that is a start. And many of us pay lip service to our responsibility to future generations. But it seems to me that overcoming the "small distance-short time" dilemma is critical to solving 21st century environmental problems. The evolutionary problem is simply this: what is best for us and our family right here and right now may be harmful to others further away and not yet born. This dilemma manifests itself over and over again. Recognizing it is a first step to overcoming it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I hate irises

(Just look at this cheap, gaudy flower.  Disgusting.)

I am an avid gardener.  The action of putting a seed in the ground and watching what it becomes is truly amazing, and you don't have to pay for college when it grows up.  In fact, if it is a vegetable, you rip it out of the soil when it matures and you eat it.  Pretty cool.  If it is a non-edible flowering plant, you watch it grow until the day it begins to flower, and you admire it, or smell it, or brag about it.  But there are some flowering plants that are common in human gardens that I don't like at all.  I hate irises, for example, and peonies and gladiolas.

I have long known which flowering plants were on my hate-list; this list is many years old.  But what the heck is this aversion to certain plant varieties or species all about?  After all, I find all living organisms truly interesting and biologically beautiful, including the tick that causes Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria.  So what is it about an iris that would prevent me from ever planting one on my property or buying them in a flower arrangement?

I think these plant dislikes must be an aversion based on childhood experiences or associations with these plants.  My mother had irises in her garden around the edge of our yard as a kid.  I always remember them not doing all that well.  They were often buried in weeds, falling over, and they just looked cheap to me--like inexpensive costume jewelry.  I think I hate glads because they remind me of irises.  And peonies, let me count the ways.  I grew up near Van Wert, Ohio, which at one time was known as The Peony Capital of the World, because of all the commercial peony farms in the area.  They used to have an annual Peony Festival with a huge parade; when I was in high school, the marching band that I was in used to march in this thing every year.  I remember it being hot and humid and exhausting on that day--all in the name of peonies.  My mother also had this plant in our yard and all I ever remember about this plant is the sticky flower buds and all the ants climbing up and down the stems all day.  Heat, humidity, ants, stickiness, and an uncomfortable marching band uniform.  I guess that would do it.

But the flower I choose not to grow or even consider growing is the rose, and this one is complicated.  During the last 20 years of his life, my grandfather became a rose grower par excellence; he had been an auto mechanic all his adult life.  He had a rose garden with over 300 varieties in it, all neatly arranged in raised beds, all labeled with their proper name on a tag that stuck in the soil in front of each plant, and complete with a large water fountain in the middle of the garden.  It was absolutely beautiful, and the Gavin Rose Garden was locally famous.  He gave talks at the local rose society, was written up in the local newspaper nearly every year, tested new varieties of roses sent to him by the big rose companies, and supposedly had a new rose variety named after him (although I have never been able to confirm this).  To this day, my two younger brothers, who are also avid horticulturalists, will not grow roses and have no desire to do so whatsoever, even though we have great memories of playing in that garden as young boys and admiring it as we got older.  (Actually, my youngest brother just told me that he has gotten into growing heritage rose varieties.  Traitor!)

I am interested enough in this question about plant aversions that I wonder if others have experienced the same.  Let me know.  Will an unpleasant interaction with some plant as a child cause you to dislike that plant for the rest of your life?  Do you outgrow such a thing?  Is an interaction even necessary to dislike the species? 

You know, one approach in gardening is to create thematic gardens: a herb garden, a garden containing only blue-flowering plants, a rock garden, etc.  Maybe I should have a garden that contains only plants I hate--call it the God-awful Garden.  I would plant irises, gladiolas, peonies, and a few rose bushes together in one bed and then I would treat it as badly as I could.  I would never weed it, or water it, or fertilize it.  I would walk on it regularly, let the dog urinate on it, and encourage deer to browse there.  Maybe, if the poor plants survived all of that, my aversion would change to admiration, and I would want to grow these varieties all over the property.  Ummmmmmm....nah!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Denial, conspiracy, and the state of the environment

(I just can't figure out where all the oil is going.)

We have all done it. We want to blame someone for nearly everything bad that happens to us. In the case of oil prices, there are several likely suspects. Exxon-Mobil is making huge profits, speculators are driving the price up because of their trading in oil futures, there is too much oil in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and China is hoarding oil.

In fact, a CNBC poll last year during the peak of gasoline prices showed that respondents believed that only 15% of our oil problem was due to consumers; the remaining 85% believed it was due to speculators, OPEC, President Bush, Congress, or big oil companies. It could not possibly be the case that demand exceeds supply, because that would mean that they, or we, or I am using too much oil. If we are using more than can be produced, that might mean that economic growth has a limit of some kind, and that is nothing we have ever had to contemplate.

In fact, we still reject the notion that there is a limit to growth, because, if true, it would adversely affect all types of measures of our “quality of life”: the creation of new jobs, the increase in the value of my stock portfolio, the nation’s GDP, same-store sales this year over last year, and so on. We reject this unpleasant scenario and replace that specter with an attempt to find out who is doing this to us. Once we identify the criminals, we can alert our government who will punish the offenders or pass new legislation and, thereby, fix the problem, or so the thinking goes.

On the other hand, that same week I heard three “experts” on financial markets, all of whom I have come to respect over the past 8 years, come down on the side of basic supply and demand as the fundamental cause of high oil prices---Warren Buffet, Jim Cramer, and Boone Pickens. Pickens, the legendary oil man from Texas, actually said that the world can produce 85 million barrels of oil per day at present, but the global demand is currently 87 million barrels per day. And the International Energy Agency report released earlier that week estimated that by 2030 we will be able to retrieve about 100 million barrels of oil from the ground per day, but the demand then will be about 116 million barrels per day. If the latter number is greater than the former, then there will be demand pressure on the price of oil. Of course, this is not to say that speculation has nothing to do with the exact price of oil at any given moment, but as the adage goes: “Speculation gets the price of a commodity to where it was going anyway, only faster.”

I hear this same conspiratorial sentiment when discussing global climate change with the man in the street. It is all a scam perpetrated by ivory tower scientists and left-wing liberals like Al Gore and weirdo environmentalists. Someone is lying to us because THEY want US to behave differently, so THEY can benefit from our changed behavior. THEY are making up this grand story so THEY can become rich and famous. If THEY were correct that humans are causing climate change and this change is going to be bad for us, then WE would have to do with less, WE might have to curb our growth as a society, WE would have to drive less or drive smaller cars, or WE would have to turn off the lights frequently. THEY are doing something to US!

It should be obvious at this point in this little tirade that I believe as Pogo stated several decades ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There is really no one else to blame for this state of affairs but us: our individual consumption and, likewise, the collective consumption and waste of a huge and growing human population currently numbered at nearly 7 billion. Remember that there is a net annual increase in the human population of about 80 million people per year; a decade ago, the net increase was about 100 million people per year. Currently, that means that every year there are about 100 million new people reaching driving age, regardless of what the driving age is in the country in which they reside. Now, most of those people will probably never drive a car, but I think you get the idea. It is tough to increase the supply of oil, or to reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change, when the demand is increasing inexorably.

Supplies and prices of commodities or other necessities of life will not be resolved easily or quickly. And neither will global environmental problems like climate change or conservation of biodiversity. But I continue to believe that no problem is likely to be solved unless we understand the true cause. Pogo was a wise opossum.

(For a thoughtful essay on economic growth and population growth by Steve Kurtz, click on the title of this blog to find Growth: Salvation, addiction and cessation.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The pooping Labrador retriever

(Zeus and DrTom don't know nothin bout no deer leg.)

I have a dilemma that I would like to share.  Our black Lab Zeus needs to go outside to relieve himself several times a day.  I know, I thought I had purchased the model that didn't need to do that, but I was wrong.  I even thought about not feeding the guy any longer so he wouldn't have to poop or pee, but when I do that he gets all lethargic and isn't any fun. 

But here is the real problem.  I want to just let the dog out when he has to go and let him in when he wants back in.  But Management insists that we walk him on a leash each time (the "we" in that sentence really means "me").  This seems ridiculous, because we live on 12 acres of forested land surrounded by more forested land.  Who wants to walk a dog in their pajamas when there is a foot of snow on the ground and it is 15 degrees, and we are over 100 yards away from the nearest house, and the dog likes to have a little freedom, and I enjoy watching him frolicing around the property, and the traffic on the road is not THAT bad.  But THAT is the problem.  Zeus will go down to the road when he follows the scent of deer that have passed through our woods.  My wife is afraid he will get hit by a car and I understand that.  So Management usually wins this argument, like she wins most of our arguments, and I walk the dog on a leash.

But sometimes, when it is really early in the morning, and my wife is still asleep, and there is almost no traffic, I cheat.  SHE will never know.  So on this frigid Saturday morning, Zeus and I got out of bed, and I let him out the back door.  In a few minutes he returned to the door to be let back in, but he was carrying something in his mouth.  (Dogs only carry things in their mouths.  But if you don't add that phrase, "in his mouth", the reader just might picture the dog carrying an item in some other way, and I don't want that distraction right now.)  When he stepped inside, I immediately recognized the item as a deer leg, a fresh deer leg with hair and skin and sinew and bone marrow dripping out from the femur.  Crap!  You see, there are often dead deer scattered about the landscape, and this Lab can smell one a mile away, and he loves the smell of deer. 

Zeus was so proud of this prize, but you see my dilemma.  If Management discovers the leg, she will know I let the dog out without a leash, and I will receive a tremendously forceful tongue lashing that I would really prefer to avoid.  If I just throw the leg in the woods near the house, the dog will simply bring it back again the next time I cheat.  Remember:  I didn't buy a poodle that never has to relieve themselves.  I bought a pooping retriever.  This leg will be like a piece of scotch tape that you can't get off your fingers.  Throw away, and retrieve, throw away, and retrieve.

So I put the leg in our kitchen wastebasket under the sink.  And as soon as the bag is a little more full, I will tie it up and take it to the can in the garage.  Zeus knows the leg is in there and I know the leg is in there, but Management is clueless.  Thank goodness she does not have a Lab's nose.  I know that Management thought it weird of me to be anticipating when she wanted to throw some trash in that wastebasket.  I immediately jumped to her side as she wiped her mouth with a napkin and said, "Here, let me throw that away for you."  And that is the way I played it, although I replaced her napkin six times for one bowl of soup.  I know she thought that napkin:soup ratio was a little over the top, but it worked.  I kept her away from the leg-filled wastebasket, and the secret was safe with Zeus and me forever.  Until Zeus returns for another helping of that carcass that is out there, somewhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How a customer in a shopping mall is like a predator-prey system

(A dead caribou calf that was picked off by a J.C. Penney merchant as the calf was passing by the front of the store.)

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable, scintillating, and memorable 3 hours walking around the Crossgates Mall in Albany, NY yesterday (can you hear the sarcasm in my voice?).   As we strolled leisurely along (with me complaining bitterly about wasting my life here, and telling my wife that she is not the boss of me), I felt exactly as I did as a kid when I went to one of those old-time carnivals.  As you walked down the midway, you would invariably pass a "barker" who tried to get you to come inside, and spend a hard-earned dime to see the 2-headed cow, or snake boy, or some other bizarre freak of nature.  I'm always on the lookout for blog topics, so I tried to open my mind and absorb as much of the inane trivia as I could in this super-stimulating environment of lights and sounds and food courts.  And then, as I passed in front of the 177th store out of the 250 shops and restaurants in this giant shopping center, the topic for today's blog came to me.

In behavioral ecology there is a concept called "swamping the predator".  The idea goes like this. In any predator-prey system, there is an evolutionary race going on between the predator that wants to capture the prey and eat it, and the prey that is trying not to be captured and eaten.  One evolutionary strategy for the prey is to give birth to their babies within a short, circumscribed period of time.  The result is that these easy-to-capture baby prey are born en masse; predators can capture them easily, but predators can only capture and eat so many babies during any given day or week.  In addition, with every passing day, the babies are growing larger and faster and, therefore, they soon escape the "window of vulnerability" to the predators.  The result is that a smaller percentage of prey are killed than if they were dribbled out over a longer period of time.  That is, the prey have swamped the predator with overabundance during a short period of time, with the result that more prey survive overall than they would if they had been born a little at a time over a longer period of time.  This model is exactly what caribou do in the presence of wolves.  Any female who gives birth outside of the high-birth period has a much higher probability of losing their calf to wolves than if they had enjoyed the relative protection of the high synchronicity of births by all the other females.

Back to the mall.  The shops are the predators and the people walking around the mall are prey.  And we are susceptible prey.  After all, why would we be meandering around that place like a baby caribou if we did not have cash or credit cards in our pockets and some tendency to want to use some of it?  The shop owners know that and we know that they know it.  And if you are carrying packages from purchases already made, it is like the wolf seeing a limping calf. You are dead meat.  Other merchants know by this sign that you are vulnerable, that you have already deposited your big toe in Victoria's Secret, and that you will likely leave a finger with them next.  We can be consumed by many predators on a single day, at least until we run completely out of money. Bits and pieces of us can be consumed by the insatiable appetite of a dozen different stores in an afternoon.

But this system is different than the wolf-caribou system in a couple of important ways.  First, in the mall, the predator is not mobile; the shop stays where it is located within that building.  It can not run us down and rip the dollars from our pants and purses.  Similarly, we can choose NOT to be prey as long as we want; we can choose NEVER to be prey if that suits us.  So the weapon of the predator in this system is their ability to entice us into their lair with music, sexy displays of underwear in their store window, attractive fragrances emanating from their front door, and well-dressed and attractive young people working as clerks inside.  Once inside, they rely on the persuasiveness of those clerks, large 25% OFF signs next to their merchandise, and cash-back offers if you use a plastic card issued by them.  Second, most of us will be prey, sooner or later, but we get to choose exactly who our predator will be--The Gap, Ruby Tuesday, Best Buy.  And the third difference between the wolf/caribou system and that of the shopping mall/consumer system is this.  When we use our credit card, we are not being eaten today, but we are promising we will allow ourselves to be devoured within 30 days, when the bill comes due.  As Wimpy used to say, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

It is said that the holiday season is a season of giving.  As a behavioral ecologist, I see it as a killing field.  I see the frozen tundra, with dead caribou littering the horizon as far as the eye can see.  I see white snow with random scrawling of red blood dripped around a decorated pine tree.  I hear the howling of wolves and the bleating of baby caribou, and the entire scene scares me to death.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A pretty lousy holiday poem for friends and family

(St. Peter's Square at The Vatican.  Every year at this time crowds gather to hear the annual reading of DrTom's holiday letter or poem.)

It’s time to write this ‘09 letter,
I really have no thyme.
But Robin warned me that I better,
Or else I’ll feel her cryme.

The kids are doing pretty well,
In several states they liiive.
The boys out west, our girl is swell,
So thanks we need to giiive.

Our daughter’s still the only wed,
The boys still play the fieeeld.
But she is happy, so she said,
Her loneliness is heeealed.

Our grandkids are a lively gang,
They like to kiss their mum.
“Am I chopped liver?” loud I sang,
Yes grandpa “you’re a bum”.

My wife still works from dawn to dark,
While I trade stocks, do mayle.
But life’s not really all that stark,
Good times they swiftly sayle.

This season is a jolly one,
It’s full of love and joyz.
But watch you do not eat a ton,
Cholesterol destroyz.

If you want more of Tom’s weird proses,
You need to read his blogggs.
He writes of nature, life, and roses,
Of bird, and bug, and frogggs.

We hope this ditty finds you great,
Your heart, your lungs, your headed.
We wish the same for your best mate,
Whose name we have forgetted.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What does cigar smoking have to do with global warming?

(Cover of Cigar Magazine.)

Recently I experienced a convergence of two of my interests that was totally unexpected. I was catching up on past issues of Cigar Magazine when I came across an article in the summer 2008 issue titled “Secondhand smoke and global warming: More connected than you think?” by James M. Taylor. I could not even imagine how smoking and global climate change could be interrelated, so I read on. Realize that CM is a first rate glossy magazine and, in my opinion, is the best rag on the market about all things cigar.

Although CM is a fine resource for finding ratings on various cigars, the history of the industry, new products on the market, etc., there is always a theme running through its pages critical of anti-smoking legislation and the general problem a cigar smoker has in finding a suitable place to indulge in their most cherished hobby. There is plenty of anti-government, anti-Big Brother, and even anti-medical science between the covers of CM. Anytime a writer for CM finds an ounce of reason to believe that medical science got it wrong—that smoking is not as harmful as claimed or that the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is unfounded—they will articulate their argument as forcefully as they can.

So in Taylor’s piece in CM, he uses the “debate” about climate warming as an analogy for the medical science/anti-smoking issue. Taylor claims that there are more scientists who believe that global warming either does not exist or that it is not caused by humans, and he cites the “Global Climate Change Project” and refers us to the website that hosts this project at Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The site claims to have 31,000 signatures from scientists and other highly-educated people who do not believe in the scientific conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activity. Taylor’s argument is that the media often ignores, exaggerates, or misconstrues the “scientific community” in its reporting to the public. Fair enough. But in this argument, he is claiming that the REAL scientific community with respect to global warming is that group who signed the Petition (rather than the climate scientists who authored and signed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report), and that the media is ignoring the Petition Project group. If the media is ignoring these “real” scientists and telling us that climate change is imminent, the media may also be hyping and exaggerating the claims of medical scientists who tell us that smoking is not healthy. His fear is that such propaganda might result in special restrictions and higher taxes for cigar smokers. But this logic all seems to be a sort of anti-intellectual attitude borne out of fear that we may not like the messenger’s message.

There are many criticisms of the Petition Project and these are well-articulated in an essay blogged by Gary J. Whittenberger on eSkeptic in November 2008. I will not attempt to reiterate the points made by Whittenberger regarding what is wrong with the results of the petition, because that is not the point of this essay. My point is that it is usually difficult for the public to know who the real experts are on some topic, to know who is summarizing the experts’ views accurately to the public, and to distinguish what is truth from what we want the truth to be. Taylor does not want the medical profession to be correct about the harmful effects of smoking or its impact on cigar smokers; if all true and the public takes it seriously, cigar smokers might have to change their smoking behavior even more than they have already. Similarly, many people I talk with in the general public do not want climate scientists to be correct that global warming is caused by human activity because, if true, we might have to change our behavior regarding our energy consumption.

Humans have a proclivity to believe what they want to believe, or to continue to believe what they have always believed. I hypothesize that this tendency is usually adaptive, and that what worked in the past is likely to work in the future. But those days may be over. The earth is strained to capacity and changes occur rapidly now. The future may not look like the recent past at all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Paul Sherman's lesson on giving credit where credit is due

(Professor Paul W. Sherman lecturing DrTom once again about giving credit where credit is due.)

I was reminded by my old friend Paul Sherman just today, that I need to make sure I credit those whose ideas I use in these blogs (P.S. Sherman, pers.comm., 12/10/09).  I was always told to give credit where credit is due (R.P. Gavin (father), summer 1955).  I learned to cite references properly a long time ago (Mrs. S. Gingerich (high school English teacher), fall 1963).  I have always believed that we should do what we would like others to do to us (Christian Bible, spring, long time ago).  So from now on, I am turning over a new leaf (Acer rubrum, Linnaeus), and I will not forsake anyone who contributed an idea, or a dime (Philadelphia mint, Ben Franklin, 1778), to making my blogging (= weblog, and from Wikipedia, "The term "weblog" was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997. The short form, "blog," was coined by Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com in April or May 1999.  Shortly thereafter, Evan Williams at Pyra Labs used "blog" as both a noun and verb ("to blog," meaning "to edit one's weblog or to post to one's weblog") and devised the term "blogger" in connection with Pyra Labs' Blogger product, leading to the popularization of the terms.") a success.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Senescence sucks: The final chapter (part 6)

(An elderly Eskimo on an ice floe in the final days of his life.  I would do this now, but I hate the cold.)

Yesterday, I had my follow-up visit with the doc who did the upper GI endoscopy procedure a few weeks ago.  With his scope he looked around in there and took some biopsies.  Turns out I have eosinophilic esophagitis, a disease only discovered in 1978 at the Mayo Clinic.  Not as bad as it sounds.  It is an accumulation of white blood cells in the esophagus, where they should not be, caused by allergens of some type.  It results in food sticking in that pipe for a few minutes on occasion, which is not pleasant.  Treatment is to shoot a steroid inhalant into the mouth twice a day, and then swallow it.  Do this for six months and then see the doc again.

Then, this afternoon, I finally had the follow-up visit to get the results of the sleep experiment I did a month ago.  Remember those 1,000 pages of data?  As expected, I suffer from sleep apnea.  Treatment is to wear this mask that injects air into your mouth while you sleep, a thingie called a CPAP, which reduces the apnea.  We'll find out soon if it makes me feel young again.

So let's summarize.  I have arthritis between two vertebrae in my lower back, I suffer from peripheral neuropathy (which I have not discussed), I have eosinophilic eosphagitis and a hiatal hernia, I exhibit sleep apnea, and I have high cholesterol.  All of this simply proves my point that as you get older, all sorts of systems and parts of your body deteriorate (= senescence).  (J.F. Fries' classic study in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 lays all of this out beautifully.  Over the past century, average longevity has increased dramatically, primarily due to reduction of juvenile mortality due to infectious disease.  But maximum longevity has not increased and is not likely to do so, even if we eliminated all diseases.  Maximum longevity is about 85, with only 1 in 10,000 persons making it to 100.  Organ dysfunction simply takes over with advancing age, regardless of any disease process.  The goal, therefore, would seem to be as vigorous as possible until the predicted, and inevitable, "terminal drop".)  My list of medical afflictions is probably pretty standard and, fortunately, doesn't include anything really serious.  For example, when I was diagnosed with neuropathy, my neurologist said to me, "Tom, this is not what is going to kill you".  Oh great!  I love surprises.  Cancer, heart attack, Mack truck, step bare-footed on a rusty garden rake, or stray bullet from a deer hunter?  The possibilities are endless.

It is said that the Eskimos put their elderly on an ice floe when they are near death and send it out into the frigid waters.  This could be a rural, snowy myth--not sure.  But I hate the cold.  In the U.S., we spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 1-3 months of life, and then die anyway.  So I have been pondering what would work for me.  When it is obvious that I am on death's door, here is what Management can do to hasten the end inexpensively:

1.  put me in front of a tv and make me watch NFL football for 24 hours straight while eating Lay's plain potato chips; to cut the time in half, turn on Fox News

2.  wheel me into a room full of cell phones, which are all ringing, bonging, and vibrating; to speed up the process, make sure that some of the ringtones include the William Tell Overture or rapping by Eminem

3.  have a dozen students who I haven't heard from in 10 years contact me to write them a letter of recommendation for law school

4.  take me to Cornell, and have me sit-in on faculty meetings in five different departments in the Ag College in one day when they are discussing budget issues

All of those suggestions will bring the end more quickly and save someone a lot of money.  But for the finale to be more peaceful, and more pleasant, please do the following for me.  Place one of my blue canvas folding chairs in my forest under a large red maple, and then leave me alone with a bottle of scotch and a lap full of cigars, and a dog.  Latin music playing in the background would be a nice touch, but that depends on the cost.  Don't be too extravagant.  The music doesn't have to be live.  Dominican cigars, not Cuban.  A cocker spaniel, not a French poodle.  And 12-year old scotch, not 18.  Then I can drift off wondering why I had been such a gall-darned cheapskate all my life.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The culture of science and the theory of evolution

(Young Charles Darwin.  For a great read on his early life and explorations, see "The Voyage of the Beagle".)

I find constantly that the general public doesn’t understand how science works, especially how university scientists do their work. For example, the university pays us a salary, gives us an office, and requires us to teach some courses (that applied to me before I retired). Then, they expect us to develop an active research program, but they usually give us no money to accomplish that. We have to find all of that money from funding agencies by writing research proposals, and this is a very competitive process. The National Science Foundation only funds about 10% of the requests they receive. If you do not develop this research program, you do not get tenure, and you lose your job after about 7 years.

This is relevant to the issue of doing research on evolution, or on any other established theory in science. If one of us could disprove Darwin’s theory, we would become absolutely the most famous biologist of the century. We would undoubtedly win the Nobel Prize for Biology, be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, obtain all the grant money we could ever use, be offered the very best university positions, get the best graduate students and that large corner office---in short, life would be really, really sweet. No one gets rich or famous in science by repeating what is already believed to be true; you make a name for yourself by being the first to come up with something new. Scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief. We go to scientific meetings, and we sit there and say to ourselves: “I know I can do better than that guy”, “I just know he is wrong and I am going to prove it”, “That SOB is full of %4$##”.

But after 150 years, Darwin’s theory still holds. There is almost no working biologist out of 10s of thousands who does not conclude that the theory makes sense, that enormous evidence supports it, and that nothing in biology makes any sense without it. Evolutionary biologists (FYI, I am not even categorized professionally as an evolutionary biologist) argue about mechanisms of natural selection all the time---whether meiotic drive is more important than mutation in bringing about change in species, whether genetic drift is more influential than selection, etc. But the overall theory always wins as the best explanation for the data.

Every so often the creationist community finds someone who will write a pamphlet or small book claiming that evolution can not be true. If they are lucky, they find someone with a Ph.D., but this is never taken seriously by the scientific community, because the arguments contained there are easily refuted. The same goes for arguing about the age of the planet. Thousands of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists have spent their entire lives over the past 300 years or so trying to get the best answer possible to this question, and they arrive at an estimate of about 5 billion years. Are all these people in some giant conspiracy to overthrow creationism? No. They did their work and that is their answer.

One more thing---what does the word “theory” really mean. On the street, we use that term all the time: “I have a theory why the Yankees are doing so poorly”, or “I have a theory why it is raining so much lately”. These are not theories in the scientific sense at all; they are hypotheses, which are of lower rank than a theory. In science, a published theory is a really, really big deal. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on universal gravitation and his laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection are considered as close to facts as we ever get in science. They are comprehensive, well-considered, well-tested, well-argued.

It really is time for creationists to give up their reluctance to acknowledge organic evolution via natural selection as the formative process on this planet. Realize that Darwin’s theory never had anything to say about the very origin of life in the universe. Darwinian evolution is about the process of how life changes once it started; the same process would apply regardless of where in the universe life got started, however. So, I suppose, religious folks could then fall back on the role of their creator in the beginning. There are scientists who believe in the existence of some higher power, and who also believe that life evolved on this planet via natural selection. And that is fine if it gives you solace. What happened at the very beginning of the universe is incomprehensible to me. But then, just a few centuries ago, the fact that there was a large body of land west of Europe before you reach Asia (now called North America) was incomprehensible to almost everyone.

One goal of mine on this portal is to stress the importance of conservation, but another is to introduce evolutionary thinking. This will take some time. It is an extremely powerful tool to use to understand life on this planet, and to understand the behavior of all organisms, including humans. All sorts of human behavior start to make sense (e.g., racism, greed, love, aggression, infidelity, etc.) once you begin analyzing life as a cost/benefit ratio with survival and reproductive fitness as currencies. Once you begin to view the world through this lens, I doubt you will ever go back. It is downright fun!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cell phones: The device I love to hate

I have hated cell phones since their inception. Maybe it is because I have always hated talking on the phone to almost anyone at anytime. I just don't like to talk that much, so the act of actually carrying around a device in your pocket where people can talk to you anytime is totally repulsive. Maybe it is because my family and I lived in Monteverde, Costa Rica in the mid-1980s, where we had no phone. Mail was delivered only once per week, and any mail from the states took about three weeks to arrive. And there was no internet there then. And we had no car. And life was pretty good there. So I know we can live happily without cell phones.

But there is more to it than that. It is the almost narcotic-like attachment that other people seem to have to their cell phones that repels, angers, and disgusts me. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, so I know what that kind of addiction is. When you are a smoker, you can't wait to get out of a meeting or a class so you can go someplace to light up. For the past decade, when I saw students leave a classroom, the first thing they did was to retrieve their cell (remove the pack of cigs from their pocket), flip open the cover (flip up a cig from the pack), dial a number (light up), and begin to talk (take a drag). Of course, this sequence is then followed by a slight smile of pleasure as you hear the voice of the person you called (as the nicotine hits your lungs). This compulsion to use the phone as soon as it is socially acceptable to do so looks exactly like the cigarette smoking habit with which I was all too familiar.

If I see someone driving their car while talking on a cell phone, I literally want to ram their car with mine. They are putting other people's lives in danger so they can find out whether they were supposed to pick up Miracle Whip or real mayo at the grocery, or whether Emily or April is picking up the kids after soccer practice, or whether Harry should get black olives on the pizza he is about to pick up. I don't really know what those drivers are talking about, but I will bet my dog's first born that 99% of the time it is about nothing important. The cell phone is mostly for chit chat, gossip, and entertainment in a life that seems boring without constant digital stimulation.

So for many years, I resisted getting a cell. After all, if I ever wanted to make a call on the fly, everyone with me always had one. Cell owners are all too proud to offer up their phone for use, to show you all the neat things it can do and how kewl it looks. I parasitized this pride for a long time and, in the process, probably saved thousands of dollars in cell phones and cell plans.

However, last year my wife and I got our first cell. We actually have two landlines at home, but my wife’s work often has them both tied up for hours or days. Our children insisted that we get a cell so they can contact us during the day if necessary. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But I am still basically clueless. I can dial and receive a call, but I don’t know how to text, to send a picture, to retrieve a message, or even to put it on vibrate. I really don’t care to know, because Management can do some of these things. It is a basic model that we got free with our plan, so it is not a “smart” phone. Therefore, I guess it must be a dumb phone.

My ignorance about cell phones can result in some interesting moments. A few months ago, my wife handed me the cell that she had just put on vibrate to put in my pocket in a restaurant in Albany, NY. A few minutes later, I felt a very strange sensation coming from my mid-section. I waited, it passed. A short while later, it happened again. I jumped out of my seat, wondering what was happening to my stomach. I was about to alert my wife to dial 911, because this is not normal. When you get to be my age, you wake up every day wondering if this is the day you get THE CALL. Turns out, I was getting A CALL, just not THE CALL, from the cell in my pants. I always thought that vibration machines were supposed to bring pleasure, not trepidation.

Then, last weekend, my daughter and her family decided to go to the local mall when visiting us. After she left, I realized I needed to call her about something REALLY IMPORTANT. I dialed her cell from my cell, because Management was using our landline. As soon as I dialed, another cell phone that was sitting on our kitchen counter began to ring. Not our phone; we only have one. I hung up, ran over to answer it, and no one was there. I redialed my daughter on my cell, and the same thing happened again. What an incredible coincidence that that cell rings at exactly the same time I am using mine. I hung up again, jumped across the kitchen to answer it quickly, but no one was there. I HATE PHONES! About an hour later, I realized I was calling my daughter’s cell from my cell in the same room. I guess if I had not hung up my cell, I could have had a pretty interesting conversation with myself.

It should be clear by now that I hate cell phones, and I suppose I always will. The myth we tell is that cell phones were developed to make our lives better, but they were actually developed so companies could make money selling them. But in addition to the irritations enumerated above, there is another. On nearly every hill of any size in America, there is a cell tower. Another bit of environmental degradation, another bit of visual pollution, another ugliness on the landscape. All this, so Harry can find out whether he should get olives on his pizza. Go progress!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My wife, the amenity thief

(Are these items found in a hotel in Hong Kong or in my bathroom in Danby, NY?  Answer: both.)

Step into any hotel room with my wife and you will immediately notice that there is no soap, no shampoo, no body lotion, and no bath cap in the bathroom.  Nada, zilch, zero.  Because you only just checked into the room, there is no way that you already took a shower, forgot that you did so, and used up all those products.  No, the answer to the disappearing amenities in the room is that they are already in my wife's bag.  I admit, somewhat sheepishly, that my wife is an amenity slut. 

As I flip through my bathroom at home, I see shampoos from Sheraton and Radisson hotels, body lotion from the Hilton Garden Inn, and sundry products from hotels or pensions in France and Costa Rica that we visited years ago.  We almost never have to buy shampoo for our home.  In fact, my wife could open a small boutique with nice smelling lotions from around the country and the world.  Bed, Bath and Beyond watch out!  There is a major competitor coming to a town near you and her name is Robin.  Mind you, my wife is not a true thief.  She does not steal towels, or bath robes, or pillows, or the tv remote from hotel rooms.  She takes only those items that they place there for your use; it is just that in her case, she "uses" them all within minutes of hitting the room.  Nothing illegal or immoral about this, but it is damn irritating to her roomie----me.

How am I supposed to take a shower or dabble moisturizing lotions over my dried up skin if she has them stowed away?  I have learned that on the second day of our stay, I watch for the housekeeping lady.  I slip out of the room, and I tell her I will gladly carry the amenities into our bathroom to save her the trip.  But I surreptitiously slide a shampoo or two into my pant's pockets for later use.  Later in the day, I have to calm my wife when she begins complaining about housekeeping and how they skimp on bringing ample amenities to the room.  When she is about to call the front desk, I quickly draw her attention to the mattress on which we just slept: "I feel a bit itchy this morning honey.  I'm going to check the underside of this mattress for bed bugs", I say, acting as uncomfortable as I can.  I took entomology in college, so she trusts my observational skills when it comes to insects.  I spend a good 6-8 minutes examining the surface and finally conclude there is nothing there.  "I must just have dry skin", which is true for sure since I HAVEN'T SEEN BODY LOTION SINCE 1976.  My ruse works.  By the time I finish looking for the fictitious bed bugs, she has forgotten there was no daily replenishment of her sought-after booty, and we move on to the lobby to look for free newspapers or magazines.

I like traveling with my wife most of the time.  And she is generous to a fault.  We have friends who run a lodge in the Adirondacks in New York.  When they visited us last time, my wife gave them a supply of loot from her hotel visits that they will use to furnish the bathrooms in six cabins.  Not sure what those guests will think when they read "Holiday Inn" on the soap in their room.  But if cleanliness is next to godliness, does it matter from whence the cleanser came?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The dispersal of human offspring

(Human offspring disperse for the same reasons as these dandelion seeds, but the effects of dispersal are quite different.)

It is normal in birds and mammals for young to disperse from their birth area.  There are a variety of biological explanations as to why this is adaptive.  A common reason given is that dispersal reduces the chances of offspring mating with their parents (or competing with them for resources like food), which would result in a higher degree of inbreeding and a higher probability of recessive, deleterious genes manifesting themselves in the offspring of such a mating between close relatives.  In birds, females tend to disperse farther than males from their natal area, and in mammals, males tend to disperse farther than females.  Again, if male and female siblings disperse different distances from where they were born, they are less likely to encounter each other when they reach reproductive age and, therefore, siblings are less likely to mate with each other.  So, while birds and mammals have different sex-specific dispersal patterns, the effect is the same.

We are all familiar with the bad jokes told about human inbreeding (=incest) in communities where everyone stays near home, and there is little movement of new humans into this isolated community.  This is probably an extreme case for humans.  I have to figure that for most of human history (3-4 million years), young males probably dispersed to nearby villages, probably no more than miles or tens of miles away.  After all, they had to walk.  Once they got there and were accepted, they found young females to mate, settled down in their new digs, and had babies.  Young female humans probably stayed near home more often, although the details of all this varied with cultures around the world.  In some cultures, females are simply kidnapped from nearby villages and brought to the male's home.  Important as well is that in this ancestral system everyone knew everyone else within the home community, and they probably knew almost everyone in all the neighboring communities. 

But in recent times, meaning decades or a few centuries, this pattern of relatively short dispersal distance and everyone knowing everyone else changed dramatically.  Many young people still remain in close proximity to their parents and to where they were born; they retain close friendships with many of their peers from high school.  But many others disperse hundreds or thousands of miles from their family, their birthplace, their homeland.  This can be a somewhat painful experience for those of us who enjoy being with our adult children on a regular basis.

This diaspora-like phenomenon has consequences for society as well, I believe.  Human behavior seems to be influenced and tempered mostly by peer pressure.  We tend to be on our best behavior when we are being watched by people who know us and who know our family.  Our family, in turn, puts pressure on us to behave in a socially-acceptable manner.  When humans move to a community where literally no one knows them, human behavior has a tendency to change.  I am not familiar with studies that document this, but I am betting they exist.  In other words, when you are not directly accountable to a social system in which your status is known and familiar to others, I predict that, on average, humans will be somewhat more likely to engage in immoral or illegal behavior.  For this pattern to emerge in the data, we would need to examine a sample of thousands of individuals who dispersed and compare their behavior to thousands of similar individuals who did not disperse.  If entire extended families dispersed together, I think my prediction would be weaker.

Thus, there are good biological reasons why human offspring might disperse from their natal area, but this dispersal may also have effects, or unintended consequences, in societies where it is common.  I love playing these mind games with myself to see where it leads me.  Having just helped one of my sons disperse even further away from home than he already was has caused me to focus on this topic again.  (In the case of my son's recent move, I am more concerned about what his new community will do to him than what he will do to it.  This must be a common parental reaction.)  I was always fascinated with dispersal in the mammals and birds I studied, but there is nothing quite like thinking about human behavior to get the juices flowing.  Of course, human dispersal is another one of those book-length issues, but maybe this little essay will start you thinking about the movement of people in a new and creative way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Don't date a stripper from Vegas!"

(Punk's Place in Candor, NY will not have the same appeal after my son works in this Las Vegas nightclub.)

"Don't carry your wallet in your back pocket", is a useful piece of advice when walking around the streets of Las Vegas.  I have known that one for a long time, although I am a bit black and blue having my wallet bouncing around in my underwear.  Besides, I went to use the bathroom in the Venetian casino last night and the darn thing flipped into the urinal.  Thank goodness I wasn't at a Sahara urinal.  There must be a better place to store my money and credit cards.

My son and I have been in Vegas for five days and we have been given tons of advice on how to gamble here, where to find an apartment, what parts of the city not to live in, where to eat, and which shows to see.  It seems that everyone is an expert and we are novices here, so we are all ears.  Yesterday, a real estate broker told my son that whatever you do, don't date a Vegas stripper.  This advice was amended last night when a friend of my son's added cocktail waitress to the forbidden list.  (I actually dated a majorette from the marching band back in the day, but that is just between us.) The fact that we even have to have this conversation will put my wife on edge as we observe our "baby" sidle into Vegas life.  I guess that is why she sent me to help with this transition and she stayed at home.  So, I interviewed six strippers and three cocktail waitresses last night and I agreed with his real estate broker that Ryan should not date women who work in those categories.  I want to be thorough.

On the other hand, there may be some hidden (I use this term very loosely) advantages to taking up with women of this sort.  I would guess that they are somewhat used to being chilly, given their normal working attire.  Therefore, you could probably turn down the heat in the winter and save on the fuel bill.  I doubt they are ever pick-pocketed on the street, cause they have so many interesting places to hide paper money.  No thief would ever think to look there.  Financially speaking, it might not be so bad.  A good stripper or cocktail waitress at one of the high-end places in Vegas makes more money per year than a university professor.  Maybe my son wouldn't have to work at all. 

Thinking creatively, maybe I should stay out here and become a male stripper so I could return home with some loot.  Is there a market for a 63-year old, white-haired male stripper wearing only binoculars?  There are certainly plenty of elderly women wearing blue jogging suits who might want a break from those slot machines of an evening.  I'll check the classifieds today. 

P.S.  Don't worry Robin.  Either I will be home soon, broke as usual, or I will arrive home a few weeks late, with money hiding in places where thieves never go.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Denver, and I’m homesick

(I'm confused.  I flew to Vegas, but I might be in Paris.)

For the past week, I have been in Denver, Colorado visiting our sons. Denver is large and growing rapidly, as is the entire Front Range of Colorado from north to south. Driving on the highways is reminiscent of driving in southern California. The area is full of young people who immigrated here from Ohio, Illinois, New York, and other places where life has ceased to be exciting enough. They come here for skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, and camping in the Rocky Mountains nearby, and when in Denver there is plenty to do. The city boasts professional teams in baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey, plenty of parks, bike and jogging paths, restaurants and bars of every stripe, interesting museums of art and history, and a good zoo. But I’m bored stiff. What the heck is my problem?

I’m bored because my primary activity in life, aside from blogging and trading stocks, is learning about, and living in, the woodland around my house. In short, I miss my forest in upstate New York and the “backyard ecology” that I practice there. Normally, an ecologist loves to travel to new places, because there are new habitats to explore, new birds to observe, new trees to appreciate. But in the city of Denver, that is not very satisfying. Oh, there are trees everywhere, but almost none of them should be here. Denver was built on the short-grass prairie of central Colorado—the native vegetation was only a few inches tall. Trees would have been limited to the banks of streams and rivers, and they would be cottonwoods and willows. The trees in the city now are mostly native to some other region of the U.S. or to another country: ash, Russian olive, Chinese elm, and Tree of Heaven, that native of China that I absolutely detest outside of its homeland. An irony is that we drove around a neighborhood yesterday with street names like Ash, Birch, and Cherry. Rub it in my face!

My issue here is that there is vegetation everywhere, but it does not constitute a “habitat”. Most homes have attractive green lawns, scattered trees planted in the yard and along the sides of the house, and a variety of flowering plants in gardens. All of this takes nearly daily watering, of course. But that is another complaint I have, for another blog. Nothing I criticize about Denver is any different than what I would say about almost any city in the world. We reconstruct a poor facsimile of the natural world that we took away when we built the city in the first place. For most, this is apparently just fine. In my case, I can’t wait until I go to the airport. But first, I have to spend time in Las Vegas, the Mecca of Facsimiles---Vegas even has the Eiffel Tower, which I always thought was in Paris.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The 60s, and other memories of the way it used to be

(They were radicals, but they were correct.)

Another year, another birthday.  What the heck?  I'm now 63 years old, but I don't feel a day over 62 1/2.  I attribute this amazing youthfulness to eating properly and exercise.  And, of course, a scotch and a cigar a day probably contribute as well.  I will go so far as to say that if you smoked one cigar a day and drank one scotch per day, you would also not feel a day over 62 1/2, even if you are 30 years old.  That combination of alcohol and nicotine has amazing restorative properties, and I am living proof of that.

Having lived this long, I have witnessed some interesting changes in practices and attitudes in many aspects of American life.  For example, I started school at age 5 in the first grade.  We lived in a somewhat rural area about a mile from the school.  To get to school, we walked.  But to do so, we walked along a country road, crossed a busy highway, and a set of railroad tracks.  Years later, the fathers of two of my friends were killed driving across those same tracks, so it was no joke.  After a couple of weeks of my mother walking with me, I was free to make the walk alone both to and from school.  There were some other kids making the same walk, but can you imagine parents letting any kid even twice that age do this today? 

I loved baseball when I was 9-12 years old, so I wanted to play on the local Little League team.  I tried out for 3 years and was cut from the team each year.  It was done like this.  The day finally came to announce who made the team.  The coach read the list and those of us who did not make the team, turned our backs and walked home while the coach started passing out the team shirts and caps to those who made it.  I distinctly remember the cheers of joy from those guys who had made the team, as they tried on their new gear.  I was devastated each time.  Our parents were not there.  We always faced these events on our own.  However, after the third turn down, one man started an additional team with those of us who did not make the Apaches team.  Our Sioux team then actually beat the Apaches during the regular season, which was one of the sweetest days of my life.  In those days, we always knew that success was not guaranteed, and that you had to prepare extremely well in a competitive world.

When I was in junior high school, I got paddled by the teacher in front of the class at least once each year for some infraction of some rule.  Usually this involved talking in class when we were not supposed to be doing that.  I was not alone.  Today, that kind of corporal punishment would be definite grounds for a law suit.

Then, there was the decade of the 60s, which was amazing in so many ways.  When we were first married, my wife worked full-time as a nurse and I was a student.  She could not get a credit card issued in her name in those days; it had to be issued in the husband's name.  Crazy, since she was making the money and I wasn't. Of course, now, we don't open the mailbox without there being an offer for her to accept a new card.

I mostly remember worrying about the military draft during the 60s.  It was all any male thought about.  Would I be called?  Could I escape it somehow?  If we stayed in university, we were safe until we graduated.  Maybe the Vietnam War would be over by then.  I remember a couple of guys when I was attending Ohio State whose grade point average (gpa) was right on the cusp of flunking out of school.  (In those days, universities actually flunked students out and they went home.  Seems much less common today.)  I distinctly remember these particular guys taking an exam in a course we had together.  If they got a D on the exam, their gpa would dip below the minimum needed and they would flunk out.  In the mid to late 1960s, that would almost certainly mean you would be drafted into the army within months, probably sent to Vietnam, and possibly killed or injured.  Talk about pressure when taking a math or biology final exam.

I was lucky.  I graduated Ohio State, got drafted, and ended up in Korea.  All in all, that was a valuable and interesting experience, and not dangerous.  In Korea, I was in military intelligence and lived undercover as a civilian, but I mostly spent my time playing ping pong, bridge, and third base on the softball team.  I had been sent to language school for a solid year before deploying to Korea, so I was nearly fluent in the language at that time.  My wife and young daughter joined me there, we lived with a Korean family in the village, and we learned a lot.  The army did not want my wife to come, but there was no law against a U.S. citizen going to Korea, and my wife would not take "no" for an answer.  This was pretty much SOP for my wife during our military years.

So times have changed for the better in some ways, and probably not for the better in other ways.  I often wonder, and even predict, if the last half of the 20th century may have been as good as it ever was in human history and perhaps as good as it will ever be, all things considered.  In time, I will build this argument and present it for your critical analysis.  But several centuries will have to pass before this idea can be tested fully, so you will have to let me know how it comes out.  Just send me a text message.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cats: our feline friends, or are they?

(Cat eating a bird it has just killed.)

About a decade ago I had a student in my Conservation Biology class named Scott Boomer. We were discussing the problem of non-native organisms that week, and Scott told me he had kept some interesting records on the behavior of three cats that he and his wife had at that time. The cats (one male, two females, and all neutered) had access to food and water in Scott’s apartment around the clock. The three natural predators had the habit of capturing prey outside and bringing it back to Scott, often dropping it at his feet or putting it in their bathtub. Scott is a biologist and he was able to identify all the prey items returned to his apartment over a 2-year period.

The list included:

Mammals: 5 deer mice, 2 woodland jumping mice, 5 Eastern chipmunks, 4 meadow voles, 1 gray squirrel, 6 star-nosed moles, 4 short-tailed shrews, 1 cinereus shrew, 2 little brown bats, 1 Eastern cottontail

Amphibians: 2 green frogs

Reptiles: 1 Eastern painted turtle, 3 Eastern garter snakes

Birds: 3 common yellowthroats, 2 black-capped chickadees, 1 house wren

Total: 43 animals

Now, there are about 90 million cats in the U.S., according to the 2005-2006 National Pet Owners Survey. A certain percentage of those cats never go outside. But anyway you run the numbers, the collective mortality on native wildlife by U.S. cats must total millions of individuals of dozens of species. In some places in the world, feral cats, those that have gone completely wild, are responsible for the demise of rare species of birds. The Stephens Island wren (a flightless species) in New Zealand went extinct in the late 1800’s due to the island’s cats, or so that story goes. The wedge-tailed shearwater in Hawaii is also impacted by cats. Conservation biologists actively control cats (as well as non-native rats, mongoose, etc.) in such places today, especially on oceanic islands.

We hear a lot these days about our “ecological footprint”, or the impact that a human has on the earth’s natural resources and ecosystems. I doubt that our pet ownership is included in these calculations. Remember that I tend to think in terms of quantity and quality of habitat for biodiversity. I usually think of our “habitat footprint” as defined by the boundaries of our house and the lawn surrounding it. But the effect of that living space penetrates further depending on the chemicals we use on the property, how far away we or our children trounce on the environment, and the influence of our pets, of which cats are probably the worst offenders. There are zones of concentric circles beginning with the epicenter of the house itself, which include areas of decreasing influence on the fauna and flora that is there now, as one moves respectively outward. Cats probably have an effect in each of those zones, but they may represent the only threat in the outermost circle, which is perhaps several hundred meters from the edge of the house.

In fact, last year someone built a new house about 100 meters from the edge of my woodlot. For the past few months, I have had two cats roaming my property that I am sure live at that house. I have not had cats on my property in 20 years. And so it goes. We increase our collective ecological footprint, we chip away at the quantity and quality of wildlife habitat and, in my opinion, the quality of life is diminished just a little bit more---again.

In these few paragraphs I wanted to increase your awareness of an idea that perhaps you have not thought much about--- how that lovable pet cat of yours is possibly reducing the biological diversity in your neighborhood. I do not intend to explore a detailed solution to this problem, although attaching a simple bell to your outdoor cat would probably reduce its kill rate. You might be thinking that cats kill organisms that people do not like very much anyway, so what the heck. But I can assure you that every one of those species killed by Scott’s cats represents a unique and interesting biological story. Remember that not so long ago, nearly everyone thought it was fine to shoot, trap, or poison wolves, mountain lions, and eagles.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Senecence sucks: The sleep clinic (part 5)

(This woman in the Sleep Clinic is sleeping like a baby---a robot baby.)

Last week I had a sleepover at the hospital.  My wife made me report to my family doc at my annual physical that I suffered from sleep apnea, where you stop breathing for periods of time and then gasp for air.  Snoring is usually associated with this.  Apnea is, of course, disruptive to your normal sleep and can affect the body's ability to restore and repair itself.  I think my wife has the same affliction, so I sent an anonymous message to her family doc yesterday.  I squealed like a stuffed pig.

I packed my pajamas, a pillow, some reading material (see below), and a toothbrush and headed off in the direction of all those scrub gowns and the Sleep Clinic at 8:30pm.  All I knew was that I had to sleep there all night.  I didn't prepare anything.  After all, I have been sleeping my entire life.  How difficult could this be?  Just to make sure I could sleep, I went into my den and pulled Prosser's Comparative Animal Physiology off the shelf, a textbook I used 30 years ago.  A few minutes of reading about osmotic balance in the Chondrichthyes should do it.  If not, maybe there is a baseball game on tv.  Ten minutes max.  I'll be out.

But when Mike the technician appeared in my room, I realized there was a bit more to all of this than just a leisurely snooze.  He explained that he would be monitoring me during the night from his observation room, but that first he had to "wire me up".  He proceeded to clean up spot after spot on my body with alcohol, then smeared a glue-like gel in all those places, and then attached an electrical lead to each of those areas.  This is way more than I do each night at home before going to bed, and my wife used to be an ER nurse.  Maybe I kiss her good night, but nothing electrical.  When he finished, I had 24 leads attached to my head and a couple on my chest and lower legs, with all wires leading to a box on my night stand. Mike also attached devices in front of my nose and mouth to monitor my oxygen level and respiration.  Judas Priest!  I'm ready to begin filming Frankenstein now.  Sweet dreams.

But seriously, after I was wired, I was fearful about turning on the tv.  What if Mike wired me incorrectly and when I turned on the television I saw Desperate Housewives inside my head, for the rest of my life?  Was he an electrical engineer at Cornell?  He didn't look like one, and I've seen plenty.  The wires are supposed to transmit electrical signals from MY brain to HIS instruments in the observation room.  But what if the polarity got reversed and HIS machines sent impulses to MY brain?  I'm never going to get to sleep now, and I read all there is to know about osmotic balance in fish.

Fortunately, there was a baseball game on the tube.  By the third pitch, I was sending data to Mike's machines.  I slept more or less normally, for me. Tough to move or turn on your side when there is a half mile of wires running from your body. I would not do this during the summer when thunder storms are common. If lightning hit the hospital, I would probably look like Wiley Coyote after his own dynamite blew him up. (Which reminds me, how can a mammal not outsmart a bird? A coyote's brain is the size of an apple; a roadrunner's brain must be no larger than a few apple seeds. Come on Wiley. This is embarrassing.) 

When Mike greeted me in the morning, he was all too cheerful.  He removed the wires and other monitors, and gleefully reported that he got about 1,000 pages of data that now needed interpretation.  Amazing, in 30 years of doing scientific research, I never generated that much data.  How could I possibly accomplish all that in one night while asleep?  What a fool I have been all these years, staying awake, and working like a dog to gather a little data, sometimes only a datum.  Maybe our university students have had it right all this time.  Many of them must have generated copious amounts of data right in front of my eyes while I lectured.  I left the Sleep Clinic hurriedly, and bought the first legal stimulant I could find.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What in the world is Danby?

(Make sure you come with a full gas tank.  We have no gas station.)

The late Carl Sagan, who was a professor at Cornell, once said that Danby, NY was nothing but an IGA store along the side of a highway.  Well, those were the good ole days.  That store closed a couple of years ago, and our only gas station burned down about the same time.  The elementary school closed in 1980, the year we moved here, so our children had to be bussed into Ithaca.  Closing the only school in a small town causes the place to lose spirit and a bit of its identity. Sad, really. Danby does have a small town hall and a nice looking church.  Danby's most famous resident was Martin Luther Smith, who graduated from West Point in 1842, and served as a general in the Confederate army.  Geography was not his strong suit.

But it is not that bad, if you don't like crowds.  I always said I would not live in a city if it was so busy it needed a traffic report on tv.  And the best town of all is one where the elevation is greater than the population; Danby almost meets this criterion.  We have a populaton of 3,000 and Danby is at an elevation of about 1,500 feet.  (By the way, I just tried to get this information off the Danby town web server, but I repeatedly got a Fail to Connect message, so I had to go to Wikipedia.  Maybe we lost our server also.).

The residents in Danby mostly work in Ithaca, a 20-minute drive away.  It is rural, with some dairy farms, hayfields, and forests, including some state land called Danby State Forest.  We boast Jennings Pond, where you can fish for bass or swim, after the community cleans up the beach in the spring.  We have a volunteer fire department to keep us safe.  Lots of volunteering around here, and I am not very good at that.  Many people heat their homes with wood and there is some logging of large trees to help pay the taxes.  We are located in the southern part of Tompkins County, where the soil is not as good as the northern half, but it is hillier and there is more forest.  The farms are smaller and not as productive as those to the north. Within a mile of my home, there is a small and tired cemetery with dates from the 1800s.  Danby is my kind of place.

Whenever a new house is built in the U.S., I detest it, as the human footprint grows larger on the land. I long for the day when the only new house built is constructed on the foundation of an old one that had to be taken down. If a new house is built within a mile of my home, I am depressed for a month.  At present, I have another three weeks to be depressed. Residents of Danby are economically stressed generally, and so everyone does what they have to do to make it in the short term, but who speaks for the landscape and for the long term?

In the evening I sometimes sit outside around a bonfire in my woods and listen to the Barred Owls calling and the coyotes whooping it up a short distance away.  One of my favorite scenes is when I walk away from the fire in the dark and look back at the light and embers shooting up into the forest canopy.  I imagine that it might have looked just like that in this very place 300 years ago when Cayuga Indians gathered around the heat to keep warm.  I can spend all day in my woods doing chores, but it really doesn't seem like work at all, although I would have complained bitterly about it as a young boy.  What changed?

I live at the top of one of the hills in Danby. If I urinate in the drainage ditch alongside my driveway, those molecules flow into a stream down the road, then into the Susquehanna River, and eventually empties into Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore. If I walk 100 yards up and over the ridge and then urinate, it flows through small creeks and streams into the southern end of Cayuga Lake and out the north end, then through a couple of rivers to be dumped into Lake Ontario. That great lake empties to the east into the St. Lawrence River, which flows another 750 miles to the northeast into the largest estuary in the world and the north Atlantic. I used to recite this story to my students when they visited my property, but they never seemed as enthused in hearing it as I was in telling it. So depending on whether I want to send a little "message" to Maryland or to Quebec, I urinate outdoors either on this side of the hill or on the other side. This morning I am in the mood to say "bonjour" to our friends to the north, although it will probably take a month for the message to arrive.  Entertainment comes cheap on this hill.  But Danby is a place where one still has the luxury of sending a liquid message.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Of invasive plants and Big Macs

(A McDonalds in Cairo.  Your order please.  Hamburger or hummus?)

One of the first-hand observations I have made over the past few years is the tendency to homogenize the world’s biota, especially plants. Jacaranda trees native to Brazil are common as ornamentals in Nairobi, Norway maples native to Europe are common on the streets of eastern U.S. cities, and the bird of paradise flower native to South Africa is found in nearly every city in the tropics worldwide. The botanical situation reminds me of the proliferation of franchised fast food restaurants, where you can now find Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Cairo and Kampala as easily as in Louisville. The homogenization of biota and the homogenization of cultures disturb me.

I tend to bond with habitats like most people bond with their friends or their pets. I also bond with humans and dogs, so I am not totally weird. But I have a close affinity to every place where I have spent considerable time: the meadows of upstate New York, the riparian habitat along the San Pedro River in Arizona, the sagebrush community in Idaho, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and, of course, the forest around my home in Ithaca. When a real estate agent is asked to name the three most important aspects of a home’s value, they usually say “location, location, location.” Similarly, we biologists often say when asked to name the three most important elements in conservation, “habitat, habitat, habitat.”

Very simply, habitat is where an organism lives. It is comprised of the plants, animals, and microorganisms in a particular location. The species composition of a habitat is determined by many factors, but it includes the climate, the historical path leading to species’ colonization or evolution in that location, the interaction of species over time, geology, soils, and more. Each habitat on earth is absolutely unique—they each have their own physical appearance, their distinctive sounds of birds, frogs, and insects, and their complex blend of odors. I am convinced that if I were blindfolded and dropped into any habitat where I have ever spent any amount of time that I could identify where I was by simply smelling the air. The ponderosa pine forest of the Kaibab Plateau and the cloud forest of Costa Rica come to mind. The sounds would make it even easier—vermilion flycatchers along the San Pedro River, bellbirds and black-faced solitaires in Monteverde, cicadas (different species) in Ohio or Las Cruces.

Now, before my ecology friends jump all over me, I realize fully that habitats are not static. Habitats change over time. The habitats I love will not be the same a century from now. During that amount of time, some ecologists would say that the habitat has changed or matured; some would say that it has become a different habitat altogether. I am not interested in that debate. I just do not want readers to think that I think these entities are unchanging. I have watched the woodland around my house change dramatically in 30 years. Therefore, I am not arguing that we do whatever we can to prevent habitats from changing. That would be folly, and would be an unwise strategy biologically.

But I am arguing that we do what we can to allow habitats to develop along a more or less “normal” path. We can also argue for a week about what is meant by “normal” or “natural.” I am bored with that argument. Simply put, there are certain events or conditions that I define as “unacceptable”, and which I think are an impediment to following a normal path to change.

One of the unacceptables is the human-assisted invasion of a habitat by plants or animals that are native to some other part of the world. That is a no-brainer for me, and a reason I spend many hours per month eliminating Tartarian honeysuckle, multiflora rose, autumn olive, and common buckthorn from my woodland, four species indigenous to Eurasia. I know they were not here a century or so ago, so when I see them it offends my sensibilities. From a conservation perspective, I am not even sure there is a practical reason to eliminate them. Certainly, if they became superabundant, they would exclude native plants from growing there, with the result that some ecological interactions between those native plants and other organisms would be disrupted or extinguished. But when they are in limited abundance, their greatest danger may be that they will not remain at such low densities. I eliminate these plants because I can; the large Lumbricus earthworms that are so common in my part of the world are not native here either, but there is little I can do to diminish their numbers.

To me, there is a certain parallelism between what I observe in our native habitats and what I observe in cities around the world. When I am in a foreign country, the last place I want to eat a meal is in a Pizza Hut or a McDonalds (in fact, I guess they even kind of offend me here). And when I am in a forest near Ithaca, NY, the last plant I want to see growing there is a European or Asian species. In both cases, something is being lost and, although I can not put to words exactly what that loss is, I believe it is important.  But it goes something like this for me: The invasion of our landscapes with non-native plants is like a technician at the Louvre deciding to "touch up" the Mona Lisa with watercolors.  The average person would not even see the difference, but the art expert probably would.  The act of changing the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, would transform this important and beautiful object from what it was to a different piece of art.

On the other hand, are Costa Ricans or Egyptians offended when they see an American franchise restaurant in their cities?  Possibly not.  They might even think it is chic that they have this international influence.  I don't get offended to see a Chinese restaurant in Ithaca, but seeing a Pizza Hut in Alexandria bothered me a great deal.  Maybe I am uncomfortable because I fear that these restaurants, and these invasive plants, will not simply be an addition to what was already there, but that they will come to replace the original.  This creeping sameness makes the world less diverse and less interesting, but does that bother anyone else?
So I pull and cut and sometimes spray and my students think I’m that crazy ex-prof who would rather declare war on invasive plants than talk on a cell phone.  How weird.  And I eat rice and beans in Costa Rica instead of Big Macs, and I eat hummus in Egypt instead of pizza.  Is this what happens to us as we age?  We rebel at "progress"?  We cuss at the automobile for replacing the horse, or lament that email caused the extinction of the hand-written letter.  Or that friends were replaced with acquaintances. Or that family time was replaced with sitcoms.  I wonder, maybe I just have too much time on my hands.