Sunday, December 4, 2011

A voracious appetite for novels

(My wife could probably read all the books shown here in a month.)

My wife spends more time reading novels than she does talking to me, and she talks to me a lot. During the past three weeks, she has finished eight novels, and she is half-way through the ninth. Of the approximately two dozen authors she loves to read, they, collectively, can not publish fast enough to keep up with my wife's appetite. She sends them notes of encouragement from time to time to spur them on: "Do you really need to take a vacation this year, when you should be writing?", "Please don't get another dog; they take up a lot of time." "I recommend you limit your family size to only one child. Valuable energy is expended on raising children." "If I were you, I wouldn't spend precious time watching tv." "Coffee, or some other strongly caffeinated beverage, might improve your efficiency."

Her book habit was also getting expensive. At about $12 a pop for a new paperback, I was having to cut back on my cigars and scotch. On more than one occasion, she bought a book at the store only to get home and realize she had already read it. The publishers had changed the paperback cover, and she had not recognized it. So I strongly encouraged her to use the public libraries, which she resisted because the new books were always checked out, and there was that dreaded due date when we had to drive into town to return the book, and who knew what germs were hidden in that Ludlum plot from a previous reader's sneeze. But eventually, she acquiesced. Sometimes I do win an argument with Management.

Actually, there was a time when she had no choice but to use a library.  During 1986-87, we lived in Monteverde, a remote village in the Tilaran Mountains of Costa Rica mostly inhabited by American Quakers.  Quakers hold education in high esteem, so they had a nice little library there.  There was absolutely no place within a 4-hour drive to buy a book that was worthy of my wife's attention.  The library was within walking distance of the farm house we were renting, so she spent a great deal of time there.  In addition, the house we rented was owned by the family of a former law professor from George Washington University, and it contained a very nice collection of books.  After my wife had read everything of a fictional nature in that house, she started gobbling up the novels in the Monteverde library.  At the end of that year, I noticed that she had not been reading for a couple of weeks.  When I asked her about visiting our local repository of novels to resupply, she quipped, "I've done that library."

So we returned to the states, and to the plethora of large public libraries and bookstores that abound.  Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring!  Heaven on earth!  Hosanna in the highest!  Out of the wilderness we have come, into the light of a Barnes and Noble, of libraries on wheels, of more ISBN numbers than one can fathom, and into the country that boasts The Library of Congress with 33 million cataloged books.  I would soon become a book widower again.

Finally, back at home, I kissed my wife goodbye, dropped her off at the Ithaca library, and reminded her that we have an anniversary coming up in eight months.  Could she spend some time with me on that important date?  It wouldn't have to be all day, just a few hours in the evening for dinner or a movie?  She wondered if it was OK if we went to a restaurant that was well-lighted, and not too noisy, a place suitable for some light reading?  I suppose the waiter could put another candle on the table.  Maybe he could also turn down the romantic mood music they usually play there.  We could order ahead so that the hostess would not have to interrupt us very much with questions about entrees and dessert.  When the big night came, everything came off without a hitch, even though my wife's book bag knocked over a glass of cabernet sitting in front of me.  Small price to pay for some quality time alone with the woman I love.

At present, my wife is working her way through the tiny library in Danby, where we live.  This should take only a few weeks.  But you know, the irony of all this is that I published a digital book in April, and my wife has yet to read it.  What's up with that?  I'll bet if I used the pen name "Daniel Silva" or "Jeffery Deaver", she would have devoured my book while the ink was still wet, so to speak.  But I'm not complaining.  After all, if I need to know something about international spies, or fingerprint analysis, or explosives used by terrorists, all I do is ask.  I rarely use Google anymore.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black bears are returning, and I like it

(Ben G, a bear cub who lived in our house for a few weeks, a long time ago.)

I've waited 31 years for this day.  And then this week it happened.  We had definite evidence of a black bear in the neighborhood.  Two neighbors reported damage in their backyard that can only come from a bear, and one had the unmistakeable photo of muddy bear prints on his deck.  Bears have been reported sporadically in my county for about a decade or so.  I always assumed it was probably a young male who had dispersed from Pennsylvania to the south, but then a sow with cubs was spotted a couple of years ago.  Bears are definitely here now.  (New York State has always had three viable bear populations: on the Allegany Plateau in southwestern NY, the Catskill Mountains, and the Adirondacks.  But bears were extirpated in the rest of the state more than a century ago.)

We moved into our home in the young forest of upstate New York in 1980, when the trees on our property were only about 20 years old.  The hill on which we live had been a cattle pasture until 1960, so when the cattle were removed, trees with wind-blown seeds started to invade.  The forest was not very impressive, as forests go, for our first decade or two there.  But then, it began to look and feel like a real forest.  The trees got larger, dead trees fell over from wind or disease and began accumulating on the ground, patches of ferns and mosses and forest wildflowers like trout lily began to flourish.  Ash and maple and aspen were beginning to be replaced with oaks and hickories.  If I could just live another couple hundred years, I would really be impressed at the maturity that can only come with time.

But our 12 acres is not an island.  Our property is contiguous with hundreds of acres of more mature woodland, some of it part of a state forest.  So the bear template was in place on the landscape; it only needed to get older, more bear-like.  The habitat on my hill is no longer great for pheasants, grouse, or cottontails; it is now habitat for turkeys and bears and a wonderful variety of woodland songbirds.  All we needed was to add a couple of bears from Pennsylvania and, voila, you have the start of a viable bear population.

In the early 1980s I stood in front of the picture window in our living room and told my wife that before we leave here I'll bet we see a bear from this window.  Well, that has not happened yet, but it will.  It's getting close now.

For this old naturalist and nature lover, why is it important to have bears back in this ecosystem?   There is something special when you live or spend time in an environment where all or most of the biotic elements are still there.  In the case of bears, it adds a certain mystic or mystery to the forest that was not there before.  I don't have trilliums in my forest either, but their addition would not increase my wonderment nearly as much as having bears.  There is also an element of danger, of now having to look over your shoulder once in a while.  Not as intense as some places.  I spent a little time in East Africa, where there are elephants, buffalo, and lions, animals that can kill you in a New York minute.  And although black bears kill about as many people in North America every decade as grizzly bears (, the cost/benefit ratio of having black bears here is tolerable for me. (Because black bears are found in virtually every state, and grizzlies are found in only a few, the encounter rate between humans and black bears is much higher than the encounter rate with grizzly bears.  Only a tiny percentage of these encounters results in an attack).

In the eastern U.S., we sanitized the environment several centuries ago.  We cleared almost all of the forest, we shot or trapped all the big predators, we made the world safe for toddlers.  Western Europe has been this way for a long time; scenic pastoral vistas, but boring as hell biologically.  We were on our way to becoming as "safe" as western Europe, but the return of bears suggests we might be able to save some of what we almost lost.  Now, let's see what we can do about wolves and cougars.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My personal ambivalence on Veterans Day

(GIs raising the flag during WWII.)

Last week we "celebrated" the day when the country recognizes our military veterans.  I am a veteran of the Vietnam era, although I was sent to Korea instead.  I abhorred the idea of having to go in the first place, I never wanted to be there after I got inducted, and I couldn't wait until it was over.  Because of my reticence about the entire experience, I never allow myself to feel proud for having served.  While I am technically a veteran, I never feel like one.

In 1968, I was drafted into the Army, but then enlisted instead of accepting the draft.  In those days, you had 30 days to make this decision once you received your draft notice.  Enlisting meant that I had some choice over what I might do for an "occupation" in the Army, but it meant spending three years in the service instead of two.  That is, you paid for getting a little choice (no guarantee) by spending an extra year in the military.  I wanted to accept the draft and take my chances, but my wife insisted I enlist and get some choice.  She didn't want me to end up in the infantry serving in Vietnam, but I did not want to spend more time in the Army than I had to spend.  The biggest disagreement we have had in 43 years of marriage occurred over this issue only two months after getting married that year.  We argued, she won, and I enlisted for three years.  In hindsight, she was correct as usual.  I was one of the lucky ones.

I relate the disagreement between my wife and me as an admission that I did not want to be in the military, I considered it a waste of three years of my life, and I rebuked the idea that our country should have gone to Vietnam in the first place.  Therefore, I never feel as though Veterans Day relates to me in any meaningful way.  On that day, I mostly think about WWII vets, my father's generation, and the incredible sacrifice they had to endure to fight a global war that was justifiable.

The Vietnam era presented a serious dilemma for hundreds of thousands of young men who did not want to serve, and who did not want to go to Vietnam.  My friend and college roommate dropped out of university, was drafted, and six months later was killed in Vietnam.  He saw his 4-month old baby only once.  My mother and my wife's parents disagreed with our belief that the war was not justified; my wife and I praised the anti-war demonstrators while our parents cursed them, although with the passage of time they came to agree with us.

As a result of this internal conflict in draft-age males, some men simply checked out of American society and left the country for Canada.  Some of them figured out a way to fake the results of their physical exam so they could fail.  Some joined the National Guard so they could remain in the states.  Some had important relatives or friends who could influence local draft boards.  Some went AWOL after being inducted.  Others did as they were told, and were later killed or wounded in Vietnam.  Now, three decades later, we have a Vietnam War Memorial that stirs more emotions in me than any monument I've ever seen, and Americans happily vacation in Vietnam.

Sometimes governments force individuals to make decisions about their lives that are almost impossible to satisfy.  Deciding whether to participate in a war is probably the most poignant, because the costs to individuals are huge and measurable, and the benefits are rarely clear.  But on Veterans Day we honor those who served, without being able to comprehend the complex set of emotions that is certainly still within them.  With the benefit of hindsight and age, the reasons for our earlier choices become clearer. If we had to make those same decisions today armed with a lifetime of observations of the world and the way it works, they might not be so difficult.  But when 20-year olds are encouraged or forced by national policy to make these same decisions, the responsibility for their choices should rest with us all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I'm multitasking as fast as I can

(Men can multitask about as well as women, if they simply over-commit.)

You have probably noticed that I haven't written a blog since May.  The main reason is that I have been promoting the book I published in April, and I have not had the time to write.  A real writer would not have this problem, but I only play one on the internet.  In addition, I am spending time trying to be a good husband, father, brother, grandfather, and great uncle, cut firewood, tend gardens, trade stocks, and be a responsible pet owner.  I should return to the regularly scheduled program this fall, so don't forget about DrTom!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The little bird who could

(Dark-eyed junco nest on the right front tire of my Elantra)

This is my favorite time of year, primarily because migrant birds are returning, and breeding has begun.  Dark-eyed Juncos are now in the woods all around my house, males are singing, and their hormones are raging.  I parked our Elantra in the driveway yesterday and, this morning, a junco was building its nest on top of the right front tire.  The nest is comprised of long strands of dried grass.  I felt badly about it, but I can't let that car sit there for the next month while the bird finishes its nesting cycle.  So I drove to town, which obviously destroyed the starter nest (I have to actually say that the nest was destroyed, for the economists who might be reading this blog).
When I returned home I parked the car in the same place.  Within two hours, the bird was busy building a nest in the exact location on the tire again.  I promptly removed the material, hoping that this junco gets the message: you will not be successful building your nest on a car's wheel.

Usually any bird's nest that is disturbed early in the cycle, like this one was, is enough to cause the bird to change locations immediately.  Once the female is incubating, she will rarely abandon a nest unless it is completely destroyed.  So I was surprised that this bird, probably the female, tried to build in the same place, given that the first attempt was obliterated.

A few years ago, we had a pair of juncos build a nest on a ledge in our garage.  We normally keep the garage doors closed, so we kept trapping the birds inside.  I gave up, left the doors open, and they fledged several young.

Notice also, that the Korean Hyundai was parked next to the American Jeep.  The junco chose the Korean car over the American.  Could juncos be used by the American automotive industry to decide what the public will choose to buy in the future?  Could they be used to help us decide who the next Super Bowl winner will be?  Or American Idol?  Food for thought.

In the end, I wish her well.  May your babies grow and thrive----------elsewhere.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Royal Wedding and Us

(DrTom was asked to give the bride away at the Royal Wedding, but the bride's father insisted that he do it.  So DrTom stayed home with his wife.)

About a week ago, Management had the bright idea that we should attend the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton.  I had not remembered receiving my royal invitation, so I looked all over the house for it.  I found a number of old lottery tickets, a couple of laundry receipts, and a key I had been looking for in pockets of my jackets, but no wedding invite.

Then, she explained that we were not actually going to the wedding, but we would attend it remotely in my den by watching it on our flat-screen tv.  However, we would dress appropriately for the occasion, as if we were actually there.  So I set the alarm for 4am, we arose, dressed, and laid out scones and coffee and a bottle of champagne.

Below are some of the photos taken of us by the paparazzi.

DrTom in his tux (yes, I actually own one), with champagne in hand.

Management, sporting the Fascinator hat she fashioned from items she had around the house, which are attached to a paper plate.  As cheap as this hat was to make, it was not the worst looking hat at the wedding.  (See Fergie's daughter)

Kate had asked me to give her away, but I couldn't make the affair in person.  I, in turn, asked her father if he would do the honor.  He reluctantly agreed.

These events often make me weepy.  I love weddings!
Management and I finished off a bottle of champagne before 6am, which is a first for us.  Did I mention that I love weddings?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Life at DrTom's" is now out!

  Life at DrTom's: Mostly Humorous Anecdotes by a Mostly Retired Cornell Professor 
                                                             by Thomas A. Gavin
Description: "Life at DrTom's" is a diverse collection of easy-to-digest anecdotes about human behavior, wildlife, children, wives, and more from the perspective of a retired Ivy League professor. DrTom taught classes in biology and conservation at Cornell University for almost 30 years, and he conducted research on birds and mammals in the U.S. and abroad. But he has found that observing humans and describing the human condition are as interesting as the study of wild animals. DrTom writes with a somewhat cynical view about his own species in a way that will make you say "hey, I never thought of that."
Spanning six decades, DrTom describes the colorful experiences that vary from studying squirrels on a cattle ranch in Idaho, living in the rainforest of Costa Rica, attending a geisha-like party in Korea, playing tennis for Ohio State, to smoking a cigar while sipping a scotch in the forest surrounding his New York home. These moments have sharpened his power of observation and informed his impression of what makes human behavior so curious. But this life-long exploration of what makes life interesting has generated the tangible he celebrates the most—the memory of these rich encounters.

Readers will have no difficulty relating to DrTom's observations and conclusions about the experiences he shares. You will see yourself in many of the uncanny situations in which he has found himself as a father, grandfather, husband, teacher, and retired baby-boomer. Regardless of your age, gender, or educational background, the prose will make you laugh, or pause, or think more deeply about what you see around you.
To see the Table of Contents, Sample, and to order a copy, go to

Monday, April 11, 2011

DrTom's Woodland (photos only)

Wild turkeys in winter

Amelanchier flowers

Poisonous and psychoactive basidiomycete fungus Amanita muscaria, with an unknown psychoactive liquid

Red maple in autumn
Black-capped chickadee at cavity entrance in small red maple

It ain't July
Looking up at quaking aspen

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What do Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen, and Moulay Ismail have in common?

(Charlie, Tiger, and Moulay would have a lot to discuss if they ever got together, and it wouldn't be about golf.)

The answer to the question in the title is SEX.   More specifically, they all have had sex with many different women during their lives.

We do not know the exact number, but it is probably safe to conclude from all reports that Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen have had sex with dozens of women, both of whom still have a looooong way to go before they're finished with their sexual lives.  Certainly the number of sexual consorts they have had is greater than the number reached by most, or all, of you reading this essay.  But, in fact, that is exactly what a behavioral ecologist expects.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an essay here posing why people become avid fans of sports teams.  My hypothesis was that those individuals who followed and proclaimed their allegiance to a football or baseball team were enhancing their status, at least a little.  And I recognized that this phenomenon of being a fan is more common in males than in females.  I should have written this essay first, and then that one, because that would seem to be the more logical order in which to present these ideas.  But I'm old, and this is my blog, and I can do anything I want here.

The idea here is that men seek as high a status as they can muster, and with that status, comes access to women.  And this has been going on for millions of years--in Homo sapiens, and in all the ancestral species before that.  Realize that men all over the world are seeking high status by trying to excel at whatever they do in life (e.g., whether being a surgeon, a golfer, an actor, a warrior in the Amazon, a politician, or an assembly line worker), because the payoff for millennia has been to leave more offspring than those who don't.  And, as we learned in that out-of-order blog of mine, men don't have to be conscious of all this evolutionary stuff; they do it because it feels good.

Of course, this would all work only if there is a correlation between the number of women with whom a man has sexual intercourse and the number of children he sires during his life.  But, you are saying, women can have all the sex they want and not get pregnant, because of their use of contraception.  But that is a relatively new development in the evolution of humans.  I have never thought that men seek women to have more children, but they seek out women because sex feels good.  It is the proximate goal to have sex that drives this system in the short term, not the ultimate outcome of leaving genes in more offspring.  Over our long history, however, more sex must have equated to having more children, on average.

By the way, one of my favorite activities is to google famous people, and then to read the Wikipedia account of their lives.  Usually those accounts contain a "Personal" section, which details the number of times the person has been married, the number of children they had with each wife, and maybe the number of non-wife lovers they had during their illustrious life.  Think of a few famous men you know, and do this little exercise.  I think you will then agree that they seem to have had a lot more "encounters" with females than you have, or than most of the men you know.  And those numbers reported there are just the official tally.

But how successful reproductively can one man be?  Let's introduce Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif (the "Warrior King"), who ruled Morocco from 1672-1727.  Moulay ruled for a decade longer than even Qaddafi has ruled Libya.  Moulay Ismail was a particularly ruthless and bloodthirsty ruler, who used to kill his servants on a whim.  It is said that he once slit the throats of two servants just to try out a new blade he had been given.  But the Alaouite sultan's claim to fame for our purposes was that he is thought to have sired more than 1,000 children, the most in recorded history.  By 1703, he had 525 sons and 342 daughters; less than two decades later, he tallied his 700th son.  One biologist calculated that to produce this number of children from the vast harem of wives he amassed, Moulay would have had to copulate, on average, with 1.2 women every day over the course of 60 years.  Tiger and Charlie have some catching up to do if they want to capture that record.

Should we condemn these self-serving, sex-seeking males of our species for their dastardly way of life?  If we are going to assign some blame for this behavior, we need to look further than the males themselves.  Females share in the blame, for if they had not been attracted to high-status men for eons, this system would have broken down long ago.  Remember that for men, quantity is everything in sex, while for females, quality is paramount.

In addition, all this striving to be the best you can be has probably resulted in most of the accomplishments in art, music, architecture, medicine, sports, and science attributed to men.  Think for a moment how different history would have been if this biological relationship between status and reproductive success had been different from what it is.  That is one heck of an interesting mental exercise. If that doesn't give you something to think about when your electricity is out, go back to playing Scrabble by candlelight.

Article first published as What Do Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen and Moulay Ismail Have in Common? on Technorati.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What I learned on Facebook during the first week of March 2011!

(Some profound statements from my friends on Facebook this week.)

All quotes were copied and pasted from Facebook exactly as they were written.

Ryan A. asks “So... if one was trying to decide between a trip to Alaska (fly fishing, wildlife-viewing, hiking, camping, and maybe rafting) or Belize (tanning, snorkeling, fishing, wildlife-viewing, hiking, and umbrella drink drinking) in the next year or so, which should it be?”

Ryan A., I would split the difference, a compromise of sorts. I would go to Nebraska in August. You could eat corn, watch the Cornhuskers prepare for the coming football season, and visit Cabela’s main store in Sydney. They have cold beer in a can, but bring your own umbrellas.

Samantha D. startles us with “It's a very Sunday kind of Sunday :)”

And you know, tomorrow will be a very Monday kind of Monday, and the next day will probably be a very Tuesday kind of Tuesday. But I’m just guessing about all that.

Gus G. is curious if there “Was there a Rally to Save the American Dream yesterday in New Orleans?”

People from New Orleans have a dream. They simply hope that the city is not sitting permanently in 1-2 meters of ocean water by the end of the century. In the meantime, go to Mardi Gras, eat jambalaya, and burn lots of oil. If New Orleans is flooded, more people will go to Nebraska with Ryan A. for vacation.

Nancy S. instructs us “If you LOVE ME:) Comment this status* If I'M A GOOD FRIEND:) Like this! If you ever had a CRUSH on ME* POKE ME! If you HATE ME+ Message ME saying WHY? If your BRAVE POST this as your STATUS!!”

Well Nancy S., I guess I am just not that brave. I do love you, but this business of asking people to “poke” me, in public, on a social network is way too loose and liberal for me. I prefer the privacy of my own home.

Cynthia S. ask about how we feel with “Do you need to be rich and famous or would rich be enough for you ♥ Know what feels best for you. It's easier to receive when you know what you are looking for :)”

Is this some kind of trick question? Are you kidding me? I need to be rich AND famous. Why do you think I write these stupid blogs? I want people to click on the ads so I make money, and I want them to talk about the guy who wrote these hilarious quips so I become famous. Come on Cynthia S., don’t make me choose.

Marleen Ⓥ van B. implores us with “You will begin your journey on a new path with the willingness to step off a cliff into the unknown. You will bring little provisions with you, ready to create or find what you need along the way. The sun at your back, your dog to accompany you, Your carefree pose stands testament to this search for the new adventure, to the faith you have in yourself to forge a new path”

I think that young hiker did all of this a couple of years ago, the one who got trapped under a rock for days. They just released a movie about his real-life experience, where he had to cut off his arm with a pen knife. No Marleen van B., I’m going to step off a cliff in my living room in front of the tv, with a bag of taco chips, and a Bud Lite. But I’m going to “forge a new path” by trying a bag of those blue corn chips for the first time.

Jenny L. N. complains that “I don't mind living in a tiny house. In fact, I hear it's cool to live in a house that's way too small for you. I do mind living next door to a moron who apparently has a lot of time on his hands. I say the time he spends tearing up his yard racing radio-controlled trucks around could be better spent shoveling up the giant piles of dog crap that have been accumulating in his backyard for nearly two years.”

But Jenny L. N., you are missing the point entirely. Your neighbor is trying to perfect his skills with the radio-controlled truck by guiding it through his dog shit-strewn yard without hitting any of those piles. That’s way more fun than setting up Lego obstacles.

Lizzie D. tempts us with “Cooking black bean stew w Green chile roasted in New Mexico and spicy rice :)”

Lizzie D., are you married? I have two single sons who love spicy Mexican food.

Doc Karen P. L. admits “I'm hungry. Hmmmm. What to eat...what to eat....”

Doc Karen P. L., if you like blue taco chips, come on over to my house. If you want something more substantial, go to Lizzie D.’s.

Abbie H., Margaret H., Jenni S. and 56 others like this.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why Muammar Qaddafi is only a Colonel

(Why he never promoted himself to General, I'll never know.)

Did you ever think about this?  Muammar Qaddafi has been the supreme ruler and dictator of Libya for more than 40 years.  He is the commander in chief of the armed forces, the high potentate, the big pooba, the cat's meow.  Officially, he is Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.  The President of the United States doesn't have a title nearly that long, and look at what a big deal he is.

By contrast, in my house, I am officially the lowly Firewood Gatherer, Floor Cleaner, Wall Painter Second in Command to Blond Management Person, and I left the Army with the rank of Sergeant. Certainly, Qaddafi should be ranked as high as possible if he is leader and guide of a whole revolution.  I don't see why the guy isn't an 8-10 star General.

I have a couple of possible explanations why Qaddafi only holds the rank of Colonel in the Libyan military.  Maybe he is a shirker of sorts.  Being a General has lots of responsibilities.  You need to review the troops, sign many important papers, and salute thousands of soldiers of lesser rank.  You need to get up early in the morning to accomplish all these tasks, and the Colonel may have decided it is just not worth it.

Plus, being a General means you have really become entrenched in the establishment.  You are then part of the Board of Directors, so to speak, rather than an average Joe. You have to act more dignified.  You can't just hang with the boys, smoking a hookah and eating stuffed pigeons.  What's worse, Qaddafi might have to give up his voluptuous blond companion Galyna Kolotnytska, who is his Ukrainian "nurse".  (I'll take the disease he has, thank you.)  So the lifestyle change that comes with being a General just may not be viewed by Qaddafi as desirable.

Then again, maybe the guy is just a wimp.  After all, it is reported that he fears flying over water, prefers staying on the ground floor of hotels, and almost never travels.  That is, he is afraid of heights, water, and movement.  I suppose if I had been born in a Bedouin tent in a desert country, I would have no early experience with certain elements in the environment and that I might come to fear them later in life.  But I assume his birth tent had no voluptuous blond in it either, and he apparently adjusted to the trauma of being near one of those as an adult.  And how many Ferraris were parked outside that tent?  Nada.  But Qaddafi got over his potential fear of this vehicle enough to buy some, even though camels are more useful in that part of the world.  So his early experience can't be the reason he refuses the high rank.

So it is somewhat of a mystery why the man did not make himself the head of the General staff of the military.  Maybe the guy is much more modest and humble than the West thinks.  Maybe he believes in giving credit where credit is due, and he did not see himself worthy of the rank of General.  Maybe he failed the written exam a General needs to pass, so he decided he would study harder and try again later.  But it is probably none of those reasons.  After all, when you are surrounded by a bevy of international models, you own a bunch of Ferraris, you don't have to gather your own firewood (like some of us do), and you have a nurse who is built like a brick hammam (= Arabic word for bathroom), who cares what your rank is?

Rich Text Article first published as Why Muammar Qaddafi is Only a Colonel on Technorati.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What I learned on Facebook during a snowstorm on 2/25/11!

(Facebook has taught me sooooooo much.)

All quotes were copied and pasted from Facebook exactly as they were written.

Ruthie M. G. agonizes with “'s true, I never know what I'm gonna be in the mood to wear...The shoes are easy, black and brown sandals and flip flops in 2 colors...AND my Nikes for my long morning walks !!!” 

I hear ya Ruthie M. G.  I have a similar problem.  I’m particularly partial to my Nine West retro wooden platform sling-back with 5" heel and 1" platform with stud accents for grocery shopping.

Anna V. R. announces “Day 1 of my raw food lunch deliveries - sushi and kale chips and cauliflower rice! With wheat free sauce!” 
Congratulations Anna V. R., you have apparently developed the perfect low-cal, low-carb, low-fat, and absolutely taste-less, meal.  You should write a cookbook full of these recipes, but make the pages ink-less as well.
Cathy F. offers “Start with the end in mind and the journey will be easy. Clear your mind of the obstacles, focus, have a clear vision of how it would be or look like. You must Dream big, be clear on your goals and remember I m possible.
Have an AWESOME day FRIENDS !!!” 
It used to be “I’m OK.  You’re OK.”  But apparently the new mantra is “I’m possible.  You’re possible.” 
Elizabeth L.-A. says “There are 2 types of people in the world, those that sit at home on the couch watching TV, eating popcorn and gaining weight by the minute, And then there are those that read books like "Success in 10 Steps" so they can learn the skills to be successful in Network Marketing.
Help me out here Elizabeth L.-A.  In which of these categories do the peasants of Ethiopia, or the rebels in Libya, or the monks of Tibet fall?
Issaree S. says “There's only TWO types of people in the world; the ones that entertain and the ones that observe. Well baby, I'm a put-on-a-show kind of girl. DON'T like the backseat, gotta be first!"
OK.  Now stop.  Issaree S. and Elizabeth L.-A. need to get together and decide once and for all how many types of people there are in the world.  However, if what Issaree S. means by her second category is that she reads Elizabeth L.-A.'s book, then there would be only three types of people in the world.
Lark M. warns us “If you hoot with the owls, you can’t soar with the eagles.” 
I’m totally confused now.  I thought if you walked with turkeys you could not fly with eagles.  Besides, owls are thought to be really intelligent and wise; eagles are big dumb brutes.  No thanks Lark M.  I’ll just keep on hooting.

Doc Karen P. L. puts us on noticeGive me a little time. I'll be poking some people soon. Hope you've got what it takes to receive it.”

Judas Priest!  I really like this Facebook friend, but this was totally unexpected, and it seems inappropriate for a university prof.  Besides, my wife will not like this at all.

Alice B. wonders “why can't people understand how to use a traffic circle? Clearly posted is a yield sign not a stop sign! This means you don't have to stop unless a vehicle is already in the circle and you cannot enter safely...Idiots!! Now that I've vented hope everyone has a Happy Friday! ♥”
Yea, I wonder about this all the time.  When I approach a traffic circle, I usually zip directly to the inner lane, go around the entire circle three or four times as fast as I can to build up centrifugal force, and then fling out into the outer lane before exiting the circle light-headed and giddy with excitement.

Heather S.just loves the sort of people that only have time for you when they want something and as soon as they have it, you no longer exist!”
Now that I have your Facebook quote Frank, POOF!, I have already forgotten your name.

Tara R. J. likes this.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What I learned on Facebook on President’s Day 2011!

(The stuff you hear on Facebook is enough to make your ears burn.)

All quotes were copied and pasted from Facebook exactly as they were written.

Daphne C.-H. told us that she “Just participated in the Free Preview of "Flabulous to Fabulous in Fifteen" With The Fitness Angel Free Online Class ...IT WAS GREAT”  

I love alliteration as much as the next guy, but the flabulous to fabulous thingie is a little off-putting.  I suggest this Fitness Angel change her slogan.  What about “Tonnage to Funnage in Ten”?
Peter G. describes his whereabouts by the nano-second, when he says “it is a spectacular day here in los angeles. out on the boat in marina del rey. the ocean is glistening and santa monica bay has never looked better. off to speak tonight in thousand oaks. tomorrow in redondo beach and tuesday in pasadena. and new york for cbs. hope everyone is having a great and well deserved weekend”  
I think we get it; you’re in California.  Man, this guy should be a Travel Correspondent.  Oh, he is.
Marwa W. El-F. stated that: نطالب المجلس الأعلى للقوات المسلحة المصرية التدخل الان قبل غدا لحماية الجالية المصرية في ليبيا من بطش شديد من النظام الدموي الليبي .. لقد سمعنا جميعا التحريض السافر في خطاب نجل العقيد القذافي علي المصريين المتواجدين في ليبيا .. نكرر الوضع خطير ويجب التدخل الان قبل غدا، حفاظا علي ارواح اكثر من مليون ونصف
مواطن مصري
منقول - برجاء النشر
Aside from the misspelled words and poor grammar in Marwa W. El-F.’s statement, I refuse to marry a woman who whines incessantly about needing a man.  (P.S. There is no way anyone will know who this woman is, given the way I abbreviated her last name.)
Paula O. sent me and 76 other friends this one: 
“A new fortune cookie has been delivered to you.
Click the cookie to find out what it says!
Read your fortune: Click here”

Thanks Paula O.  But if you don’t mind, I am going to save this and not open it until I have dinner at the Peking House on Friday.

Lorraine D. informs all of us who never took an astronomy course: “However long the night, the dawn will break.” African proverb
Carol D. brags that “my ferrets have run of the house. also have a very big walk in run and living quarters. they are totally loved and cuddled.”  
I’m not impressed.  For 30 years, the mice from the forest surrounding our house have had the run of our house, and I don’t have to take the time to love and cuddle them.
Narine H.  advises “Always act as you are waring (sic) an invisible crown.”  
I tried this yesterday, and it worked.  The pawn broker looked at me like I was crazy, and refused to give me any money for the diamond-studded thing I told him I had on my head.
Wesley S., a former student of mine, announced “Hi all I went to a party at 7pm and I am still drunk please comment when you see this.”   
Given that it was only 7:05pm when Wesley S. posted this, it must have been one hell of a party.  And what comment could I possibly offer?  Drink slower!
Ruth S. puts all men on notice with “Whatever u give a woman she will make it greater. Give her sperm, she will give u a baby. Give her a house, she will give u a home. Give her groceries, she will give u a meal. Give her a smile and she will give u her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what she is given. So if u give her crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit. Hope 2 see every girl on my friend list repost this :)”  

But I’m not sure this system Ruth S. describes is all that fair.  I have given my wife sperm thousands of times, and she has given me only three babies.

Cathy K. and 6 others like this.

Article first published as "What I learned from Facebook on President’s Day 2011!" on Technorati.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What I learned on Facebook the weekend of 2/19/11!!

 (Facebook.   You gotta love the banter.)

All quotes were copied and pasted from Facebook exactly as they were written.

Kelly Z. had Edward Abbey over for dinner, but I wasn’t invited.  Besides, I thought that guy died a couple of decades ago along with the rest of the Monkey Wrench gang.  Bon appétit.

Patricia H. told everyone “Good night…..xoxo”.  

I love getting kisses from strangers, as long as the tests don’t come back positive.

The Toronto Raptors reports that “DeMar DeRozan put down two impressive dunks in the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday, but it wasn't enough to the finals, where Blake Griffin took the crown.”  
I had been wondering about this event for months, wrote it in my appointment book, but then forgot to watch it.  Nice reporting Raptors.
Sherry C. R. told us that “Marie Antoinette was beheaded for less….” in response to a political outrage by another FB poster.  That poor French girl’s head has been used in this way for 200 years.  I suggest we let the poor thing rest in peace and not use her “la tête” for a while.

Darcie G. warns her friends “who so kindly insist on setting me up with their dear friends: I will make it easy. Think Denzel Washington, Luis Miguel, Adam Rodriguez and Mof Def all wrapped into one. Ready, set go ... ; )”  
I had to google Mof Def to find out who he is.  But then I learned that Darcie G. misspelled his first name.  It is Mos Def, but I still didn’t know who he was.  Here is the scoop:  Darcie G., you will not get fixed up with a cool guy if you can’t remember his first name.  Guys are funny that way.
“DO NOT COPY or download to your computer without prior written permission from Jack R. B.”  
This guy had a nice photo of a male Hooded Merganser, but I can’t show it to you, due to his warning.
David A. warns Sean:  “Sean, look at what the GOP House is passing. This is what they'll do if they win the Presidency and Senate. These aren't cosmetic differences. They're the difference between neoliberal (admittedly bad) and batshit insane.”  
Now, I’ve been a mammalogist for about 40 years, but I knew nothing about bat shit making you insane.  Exactly how does that work?
Mark L. asks “Anyone remember what this green stuff underneath the snow is called?” 
Mark L., you must be a student who never sees any money, but you were lucky enough to find a $20 bill.  Way to go buddy.
The Ottawa Senators tells us: “Just a reminder to bring a pack of diapers to tonight's game against the Bruins & win great prizes! Check out this amazing cause by learning more at:”  
Are you kidding me?  I quit carrying diapers around more than 25 years ago, and I’m not starting up again now.  This is why I never attend hockey games.  They are as insane as batshit.
Susan S., Margaret H., and 77 others like this!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is the behavior of sports fans explainable?

 (Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the world champion Green Bay Packers.  Hang out with this guy to really enhance your status.)

I warned you in my first blog about 18 months ago that we would eventually get to some gritty topics about human behavior.  Up to now, we have been mostly just messing around with the humorous aspects of the human condition.  But I want to tackle some fascinating elements of our species (at least they are fascinating to me, and this is my blog, and you are not the boss of me).  And although I am not a professional card-carrying behavioral ecologist, or sociobiologist, or evolutionary psychologist, I have followed this literature for nearly 40 years.  It is about the most interesting non-fiction reading there is, in my opinion.

My closest colleague at Cornell, Paul Sherman, does carry a valid card of the type listed above, and I have been strongly influenced by his thinking.  He proved to me that asking questions about animal behavior (humans are animals) and then posing possible answers by thinking about how natural selection works can be productive and stimulating.  I think it is a fun type of thought experiment.

I have been in wonderment for decades about the motivation of those who so passionately root for and idolize their favorite football or baseball team.  I just don't get it.  Sure, I supported my teams in high school, and hoped they would win the regional or state tournaments.  I wanted the football team to win rather than lose when I attended Ohio State University.  But as those years passed, I found that I couldn't care less if any particular team won or lost and, in fact, I got to the point where I can't stand to watch any sports on tv.  So I am naturally curious about this conspicuous human behavior displayed by tens of millions of people worldwide, and which enables a relative handful of star athletes to become famous and fabulously wealthy.

In particular, it is curious how a person can become so emotionally vested in a team on which you have never been a player, or excited about the outcome of a team from a school you never attended, or remain overtly loyal to a team from a city in which you have never even lived.  To a behavioral ecologist, this is all extremely interesting.  (Realize that this little essay is not about the person who loves the game of baseball or football or basketball so much that they could watch any two teams play and love every minute of it, and not even care who wins.)

I don't have a lot of data on which to build a little theory about this fascinating behavior of humans, but there are some observations about which we can probably all agree.  Here they are:

1.  the majority of fans that follow most teams are men; most of the most passionate fans are men

2.  the most avid male fans are of prime reproductive age (15-50)

3.  the passion is so elevated that in many (or most ??) cases, fans of one team literally hate other teams and/or hate the fans of opposing teams, hurl incredibly insulting epithets at them, etc. (for spine-chilling evidence of this, check out the numerous Facebook fan pages of sports teams, but don't let your young children read them)

4.  in many (or most ???) cases, fans advertise their commitment to their favorite team by wearing jerseys, jackets, ball caps, or belt buckles, and put team bumper stickers on their car

This behavior is interesting, because we ecologists are always analyzing what organisms do in terms of cost-benefit analysis.  So in this case, how do fans benefit from supporting their favorite team?  They must get more than it costs them in terms of time and money, or it seems unlikely they would continue their support?  Aside from the fan who bets money on the outcome of a game, most fans stand to receive no immediate material benefit from their team doing well.  So where is the reward?

Now, most of you are not students of natural selection, I assume.  So, you are probably saying that people follow their teams because "it feels good", "it is enjoyable", or "I feel a sense of pride when my team does well". But the behaviorist wants to know why it feels good.  If it is enjoyable, then it almost certainly serves some other purpose biologically.  Why do we like sugar?  Because it is sweet.  But biologists then ask why does it taste sweet?  The biological answer is that it tastes good to us (and probably to most mammals) so that we will seek it out and ingest certain foods that contribute to our nutritional well-being and, thus, our survival.  The same kind of answer follows the question about why sex feels good.  If sex were painful, humans would have intercourse less often and, presumably, have fewer children on average compared to a group of humans where the act was pleasurable.  I am simply asking the same question about why so many humans follow their favorite sports teams so passionately.

At this point, I need to introduce the concept of "status", which has a special meaning in biology.  There are many factors that can contribute to an elevated status in humans: wealth, notoriety, physical beauty, intellectual acumen, physical prowess.  Status is important, especially for males, because females are attracted to men with high status.  High status males have more mates during their life, copulate more, and leave more children (or at least they did before the era of easy access to contraceptives in developed societies), which is the all-important currency that drives evolution.  Thousands of scientific studies show this relationship for non-human animals.  The data for humans are more difficult to obtain, but if you search Google for scientific studies by P.W. Turke and L.L. Betzig 1985 (Those who can do: Wealth, status, and reproductive success on Ifaluk), E.A. Smith 2004 (Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?), or R.L. Hopcroft 2006 (Sex, status and reproductive success in contemporary United States), you will find convincing evidence that status matters a great deal to humans.  But you already know that status is important to humans, and that we try to raise ours all the time.  This is true of humans in every culture and society everywhere in the world.  And if I asked you why we seek status, you would probably say something like "because it feels good".

There is little doubt that professional athletes have high status.  The Super Bowl that I watched Sunday exhibited some of the elements that contribute to the status of the participants, aside from the obvious financial payoff.  The President of the United States watched the game at home, and a former President was in attendance at the game along with numerous high-status movie stars.  Then, there is the presence of the U.S. military, which I have never understood.  Regardless of how that association ever got started, the military pageantry just before the game, the singing of the National Anthem, the military fly-over, and the segues to our soldiers in Iraq who watched the game lend credence to this football game as an important event in America.  That is, the Super Bowl is a really big deal, watched by more than 100 million viewers.  As Michael Douglas stated in that somewhat emotional segment before the kickoff, "This is so much bigger than just a football game."  If you think that the "head man" or chief of a Paleolithic village of a couple hundred people had high status among his villagers, then the status of the quarterback of the winning Super Bowl team must be off the charts.

What then about the fans?  I have long thought that the idolization of celebrities that is so common among humans is a status-enhancing behavior.  Or, at least it is a behavior that is a vestige of an age-old desire to be close to the source of power, wisdom, or wealth.  Perquisites that enhanced survival and/or reproductive success must have flowed to those who were confidants of the clan or tribe's chief throughout most of human history.  Today, if I were a close friend of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or the Queen of England, I would likely obtain some tangible benefits.

And so we are strongly attracted to famous, wealthy, and powerful people, even if it is from afar.  We celebrate them, idolize them, dream about being with them or at least seen with them-------of somehow having our lives and our fortunes touched by theirs.  To help prove this point, imagine that you flew from New York to LA, and you happened to sit next to Angelina Jolie on the plane.  I will bet you my next three Social Security checks that the first words out of your mouth when you joined your spouse or friend at the terminal would be: "Guess who I sat next to on the plane?"  It would probably be the most significant event that happens to you all month, and you would talk about it with whomever would listen.  Importantly, your status would be enhanced, at least for a little while, because of this experience you had with the famous celebrity.

We may not be conscious of the possible enhancements to our well-being if we were to be befriended by one of these high-profile people, but that lack of awareness does not lessen the potential benefits of such an association.  Anyone with higher status than ours is a person with whom it is worth fraternizing, so in a global world the number of such people is extremely high.

It should be obvious by now that my hypothesis is that our tendency to follow a sports team, and to advertise that fact to others, is just another example of attempting to enhance one's social status.  It is a cheap and easy tactic to use; being a sports fan is the poor man's approach to bettering your position.  But there are certainly other explanations for this behavior.  For example, maybe people (essentially men) become a visible fan of a team because nearly everyone else in their social group or community is already a fan.  By NOT being on board, you could be viewed as a weirdo and, of course, your status would suffer accordingly.  But that is essentially the same idea; namely, maybe your status will not soar because you became a fan, but it might decline if you do not.

I have not discussed how we might test this idea or other predictions we could make based on it, but this blog is already too long.  Another time. I could be dead wrong about all of this, and I strongly invite your alternative explanations.  However, as I have long believed, the wrong hypothesis is better than no hypothesis at all.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Not the Super Bowl again!

(Maybe the Super Bowl frenzy is all about the snacks you get to eat while watching.)

This year I am trying to get pumped up for the big football game.  I guess the Steelers and the Packers are involved. 

You see, I hate football and I just can’t watch it on tv.  I tried to watch a couple of Super Bowl games over the years, but I never seem to make it past the first quarter.  I think I have watched maybe two football games in their entirety in the past 40 years. 

I know there must be something wrong with me, and I am seeing a specialist about this.  But she just doesn’t know what to prescribe as an antidote.  So I have taken treatment into my own hands, before I go so far as to check myself into the Mayo Clinic to find out what is wrong with me. 

My wife and I are ready.  I cleaned the tv screen with Windex to make the image as inviting as possible.  I vacuumed the carpet in the living room so I am not distracted by lint on the floor as I sit there during kickoff.  And I went to the grocery store yesterday and bought some great snacks.  We are going to have shrimp cocktail, one of my favorites.  I wonder if this is how most people make it through a game---they just buy lots of comfort foods and gorge themselves for three hours until the final gun.

But I am simply tired of being left out of conversations in public places.  This next week, everyone will be talking about the fumbles, the TDs (I just googled TD and found out that this is short for “touchdown”), the interceptions, and the half-time show. 

And anyone who did not see all those highly-touted commercials that cost $3,000,000 is considered un-American.  During WWII the Allies would ask an intruder who won the World Series.  If they didn’t know, then they were assumed to be a German soldier.  I have always worried that I might be stopped by some authority who would ask me to describe the Bud Light commercial on last year’s Super Bowl.  But because I would not know, I would be arrested as a subversive terrorist from Yemen.

So I have my snacks and my cleaning supplies at the ready.  I also have a little cheat-sheet with the names of the two teams and their colors written down to avoid confusion when the two lines of players run together and get all mixed up.  But as a backup plan in case I run out of snacks, I am checking HBO to see what movies might be showing Sunday evening.

Article first published as Not the Super Bowl Again! on Technorati.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sleep-talking, the fun I have after dark

(After dark is when my fun really begins.)

I have always been able to find ways to entertain myself.  When I was a kid, I collected things: baseball cards, soda bottle caps, coins, stamps.  I played baseball, cowboys and Indians, and pretended I was Peter Pan saving Elaine, the cute little girl next door, from something bad.

More recently, with the children grown and gone, I play hide 'n seek with our black lab in the house, kibitz with people I don't know on Facebook, read a couple of books a week, and stroll through the forest around my house as though I were a Cayuga Indian stalking a deer with a bow.  I've never actually met a Cayuga Indian, if any still exist, but I pretend that I'm walking stealthily around on dry leaves as I assume they must have done in this very location.

Mostly, I love to tease my wife and play my own brand of games with her, something which she often sees coming, but which she understands is a part of our relationship.  For example, she always wants to read in bed at night, and I don't.  So before she gets to bed, I often hide her book somewhere in the room, and pretend that I am asleep.  But she knows that one too well.  "Tom, where did you hide my book?  I know you are not asleep."  Or, I will unscrew the light bulb in the bedside lamp so that when she tries to turn it on to read---well, you get the picture.  Or, when she is ready to go to sleep, she insists that I turn over and face the wall nearest my side of the bed so she can cuddle for a while.  But instead of turning 180 degrees to establish the position she wants, I actually turn 360 degrees to end up in exactly the position I was in originally.  So, in pitch black dark, I'm excited with anticipation when she discovers that her face is not near the back of my head, but it is actually touching my face.  I get giddy just before she lets out a little scream of surprise when she realizes her nose is unexpectedly touching another nose.  I love that one.

But on occasion, I also have another opportunity for entertainment because my wife has this interesting ability to talk in her sleep.  In the middle of the night, she will utter a perfectly coherent, complete sentence that wakes me from sleep.  I awake quickly enough that I hear and understand every word she says.  I wish I had written all these down over the years, because by now I would have enough material for a book titled "A Sleep Talker's Guide to the Universe".

It is also obvious that her utterances are a direct manifestation of what she is dreaming or thinking about.  Last week, our 2-year old grandson had tubes put in his ears to reduce the incidence of ear infections to which he is prone.  Two nights ago, Management spouted off the following sentence: "There should be a shine off the tympanic membrane." Realize that my wife used to be a Registered Nurse, so she must have been dreaming about ear anatomy and its characteristics, although I don't know if the tympanum ever shines.

But the best utterance was years ago when my wife still worked as a R.N. in the Emergency Department at the local hospital.  She was always bringing the stories of her work home with her---the amputated arm of the day, the broken bone protruding through the leg, and the usual heart attacks, kidney failures, and drug overdoses.  After 20 years of that, I felt I had learned so much about the medical profession that I almost went into private practice to treat trauma patients.  Follow that up with watching the tv series ER for about five years, and I could have taught medicine at a university.  One night while we were sleeping, the sleep talker went into action.  "Give him .5 of epi (meaning 0.5cc of epinephrine), STAT!", I heard her say with obvious panic in her voice.  This time, I thought I would try to talk back to her to see if she registered my response.  So I said, "No, make that 10cc of epinephrine, STAT!".  She definitely heard me.  She became immediately agitated, started moving her arms and legs like she was trying to stop the lethal injection about to be given by this new doc in the ER who looked a little like her husband, and she repeatedly said "No. No."  It was great.

I realized then that I had unleashed the power.  So for many years since then, when my wife starts her monologue, I whisper into her ear something like "Cheese omelette with mushrooms", and the next morning she asks me if I would like an omelette for breakfast.  "Oh sure, that sounds nice", I say naively.  Or, "A Porter-Cable rotating sander for my birthday".  When she presents me with my birthday gift a week later, I act totally surprised.  "Wow, I've been wanting one of these." And, "You probably have as great a husband as anyone you know."  For the next couple of days she keeps telling me how lucky she is to have a guy like me, and that I'm so special, although she can not remember exactly why.

Last night when we went to bed, she announced that she was going to read before turning off the light.  And then, "Tom, did you hide my glasses?"  Of course I did.  That was entertaining, but the real fun begins AFTER she goes to sleep.

Article first published as Sleep-talking, the fun I have after dark on Technorati.