Thursday, June 26, 2008

Predators and Parasites

A college friend of mine, Marina, has been reading some of the articles on my blog. I think she must have been reading some of my stories on Predators (Wolf Politics Continue or Close Encounters), or maybe even some on Parasites (Parasitic Wasps). A few weeks back she sent me a book recommendation on parasites and predators:

by Scott Westerfeld

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I used one of my Audible subscription credits to get the book on my ipod and have listened to it over the past few weeks.  Its a fascinating little novel for someone who likes either predators or parasites. The author introduces each chapter with a true story about a some weird parasite and it's lifecycle. He then integrates many of the parasites or at least their methods into the rest of the novel. Its well done. Be warned that a few of the parasite stories are a bit freaky. Any way, it is an enjoyable book and provides a real education along the way.

Speaking of books, I have just finished my self study of statistics in preparation for my return to school this fall.

Introduction to the Practice of Statistics w/CD-ROM
by David S. Moore, George P. McCabe

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Through the process my study skills slowly improved and my skills in the exercises also improved.  In hindsight, I am very glad I put forth the effort. I expect my transition into classwork to benefit as a result.  Now I have started working through my textbooks for the fall. For my Technical Communication course the textbook is written by my professor.

Technical Communication
by Mike Markel

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Its been a fairly easy read so far. Since it is lighter than my Biology textbook I took it on my last business trip to read on the plane.  The big book is my Biology textbook:

by Peter H Raven, George B Johnson, Kenneth A. Mason, Jonathan Losos, Susan Singer

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I am just starting on this one.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Further Public Transportation Growth in Idaho

A month ago I posted an update showing recent growth in the use of public transportation in Idaho's Treasure Valley in a story titled - Gas Prices Curbing Use?  Based on a new press release from Valley Regional Transit, it appears that the growth is still accelerating.

According to the release, Inter-county bus service (between Canyon County and Ada County) use has grown 78% in the October 2007-May 2008 as compared to the same period a year earlier (11,338 rides in April 2007 versus 5904 in April 2007).  Wow! This is great news for our air quality and fuel conservation.  The Boise bus system ridership jumped 7.3% in the same periods.

Once again I acknowledge that higher gas prices have difficult and disproportionate impacts on some people, but at a macro level I do believe that the market impact is significant enough to shift behaviors in a positive direction - conservation, investments in alternatives, increase in housing density, etc. These behavior shifts are the reason that I have long supported an increase in gas tax to fund alternatives. Had we done this back when gas prices were low, we would have many more options available today.  Our short term focus in America and in Idaho is costing us now.  When will we learn that the future requires investment.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Laugh Out Loud

The following cartoon could not have come at a better time. In light of my yesterday's rantt on airline fees and poor service, joined by this morning's experience trying to check in for my flight home (do you want to upgrade to first class for $159, do you want more leg room for $49,... no I just want a seat!!), I was rolling when I saw this cartoon.  "Screw U Airlines" is perfect!

Reprinted with permission via a license. I had to pay $10 for the rights to post this.  A bit steep, but this toon was worth it!

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Despicable Excuse for Service

Luckily over the past year my employment has not required me to travel as much as it had previously. When I do travel, the deterioration of customer service by the airlines just becomes more and more obvious. I have a few observations from one of the airlines I regularly fly.  I would love to change airlines, but there are not a lot of non-regional choices serving Boise.

I won't say the name of my nemesis airline, but it does start with a "U" and rhymes with "nited".

The first event occurred about 6 months ago in Milwaukee. The plane was late arriving, but we were told that we could not change flights as ours would still likely make it to Denver on time to catch my flight home. Once we boarded, it was determined that we had to take on more fuel due to bad weather in Denver. As a result, we needed two people to get off the plane. The airline came on board and asked for volunteers. None.  They then said that the plane would not move until two people volunteered to get off.  There was no offer or incentive.  Numerous people asked if alternative routing was possible. The response was not sure, but you could go up to the counter to check. Of course, once two people exited the door, the plane would be leaving.  There was no effort put forth to help people decide other than we were going to sit there until two people got off.  Eventually two people volunteered.  I was amazed.

The second issue is a subtle change which occurred recently. The "U" airline started charging for seats with more legroom.  The result is that those sections are empty and the rear section is full. When you check in you cannot get a seat assignment as the non-premium seats are full. The result is that we had the opportunity to stand in line for 45 minutes to get a ticket with a seat. Today the counters were understaffed.  One staff person was doing everything. The result was that everyone could not be processed in time and the plane was late departing. This is the second flight in a row with this problem.

I've heard of many other similar issues from friends. Its amazing that we have let the service degrade to such a rude and inefficient manner. I look forward to my return to school this fall which will decrease my ability to travel. I hope my boss follows through on his commitment to decrease my travel.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Null Survey

A few months ago I volunteered for the U.S. Nightjar Survey Network. This is a multi-year survey of Nightjar populations.  The Nightjar is a family of birds. The survey is led from the Center for Conservation Biology of the Department of Biology at the College of William & Mary. The Nightjar survey is taking place in 37 states with volunteers each signing up for a survey route. The survey must be performed within a certain window in June when the moon is near full. I signed up for a route near Cape Horn near Stanley Idaho. This past weekend was the optimal time allowing the survey to occur just after dark.  Next week was an option, but the moon doesn't come up until 2 am.

Nightjars make up a family of 8 species of birds in the United States. Here in Idaho we primarily have two species the Common Nighthawk (not actually a hawk) and the Common Poorwill.

Karyn and I took advantage of the weekend to go camping in the Stanley basin, one of our favorite places. Karyn's parents decided to join us although I was skeptical about their commitment to spend most of the night out counting birds. In the end they were great troopers and helped a great deal. We chose Friday night for our first attempt since the weather had to be clear. If it wasn't we would have to try again on Saturday. As it ended up, Friday was clear and unbelievably calm and beautiful. We started in an old ghost town named Wagontown near Cape Horn Idaho. The route had been predetermined by the survey network. Our job was to wait until dark, count all of the Nightjars we heard in a six minute interval and then move down the road one mile.  We would then repeat the six minute count and once again move a mile down the road. Ten counts later we would be done.

We started right at 10pm. The moon was high and the last light of the sun had just left the sky. We started the timer.  There were birds singing everywhere.  How could we hear the Nightjars with all of the noise? Two minutes into the first count the forest fell silent. All the day birds had just finished singing for the evening. In hindsight we should have waited a few more minutes to begin.  The first count completed with no Nightjars. We moved on to the second stop. None here either. At the third stop we didn't find any Nightjars but we did hear an owl.  I couldn't place which type. In the van I quickly played all of the owl sounds I knew to be in the area. No match. On to the fourth count. No Nightjars.

The weather was completely calm and the sky was clear.  The stars shined brilliantly above as we hoped to hear the whistle of the Poorwill. Nothing. At the sixth stop there were no Nightjars, but we heard another owl in the distance, same type. The remaining stops produced the same results. No Nightjars, unknown owls in the distance. At one stop two Sandhill Cranes not far from the road started their call. That definitely wakes a person up in the dark near midnight. A protesting Killdeer could be heard in the distance. Was it our disturbance or was there a predator about?

The tenth stop finished just after midnight. No Nightjars for the evening. Regardless, it was a very enjoyable evening and well worth the effort. A survey indicating that there were no birds is just as scientifically important as one the returns many birds. After filing the paperwork I have fulfilled my obligation for the survey for this year. I plan to be back out on the same route next year.

The next day I was still intrigued by the owl call. I took out my ipod with BirdJam loaded on it and played the nocturnal playlist (bird calls of all the nocturnal birds in the western United States). As Karyn and I listed the answer played over the speaker. The Boreal Owl! I didn't even know we had them in Idaho. Multiple guidebooks confirm that there should be a population in this area. Rare but not unusually so. In a couple of weeks when we return to Stanley I hope to go try to find one of the birds.

In all it was an excellent weekend of bird watching, tandem cycling, and on Sunday we hiked the Boundary Creek trail for a great vista of the Sawtooth mountains. Here is Karyn posing from our lunch spot.

Update: July 7, 2008: After consulting with some Idaho bird experts it is highly unlikely that we were hearing Boreal Owls in the distance. This past week we returned to some of the survey locations to see if we could either find Wilson's Snipe or Boreal Owls (sounds very similar). We found multiple Wilson's Snipe, thus I conclude that it was Snipe we were hearing in the distance on the survey night.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Memories of Whales

I found a humorous video on a blog friend's site today at Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted). The video brought back memories of my childhood. The video is of a whale that washed up near Florence on the Oregon coast back in 1970 and how it was dealt with. The memory returns as I was actually there. I grew up a few miles away.  I was 4.5 years old at the time and our family went out to the beach to see the dead whale! This was big excitement for the small sleepy town where I grew up. I remember being there when a man with a knife carved the hole in the side of the whale. The hole is visible in the video.

My brother and I wanted to go to watch when they ultimately "dealt" with the whale, but our parents said no. In hindsight they were wise in this regard.  Watch the video to find out why.

When I was in high school, 21 whales washed up on the shore in the same place. Learning from earlier mistakes, they decided to burn these. It took a week! What a pleasant place our town was during this time, which just happened to coincide with tourist season. We left on a vacation to avoid the smell.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Parasitic Wasps

Lately I have been posting on my favorite science stories of the week (or every other week as it may be). A few that have come out in the last few weeks has me thinking that I might want to focus some of my studies on bugs. I am not sure that's such a great idea for someone who is allergic to bees! Anyway, here are two fascinating stories about wasps. Both were provided by one of my favorite sciency blogs - Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The first story, Parasitic wasp turns caterpillars into head-banging bodyguards, involves a Glyptapanteles wasp that attacks a particular type of caterpillar (Thyrinteina leucocerae). As many wasps do, this wasp lays its eggs inside of the host. The larvae then eat their host from the inside out before breaking through the skin. The caterpillar lives on and the larvae stay nearby.  When ever a predator to the larvae arrives, the caterpillar violently swings its head at the intruder.  The caterpillar eventually dies, but not before the larvae have transformed into adults. The researchers proved that the caterpillar decreased the death rate by 50%! While they aren't sure of the exact method, a top hypothesis is that a few larvae remain in the caterpillar controlling its functions for the good of the others. Wow.

The second story, The wasp that walks cockroaches, is similarly amazing. Here a female Jewel Wasp (Ampulex compressa), upon finding a cockroach stings it twice, once to immobilize and once to inject venom into its brain.  The venom doesn't paralyze the roach.  The wasp then grabs the antennae for the roach and walks it like a dog back to its nest.  It then lays an egg inside the living host.  The researchers have been studying what the mechanism is to accomplish this feat.  They have proven that the venom doesn't interfere with motor skills or the ability to fly. It appears to affect the signaling mechanism in the brain. The cockroach can recover from the venom, but not before the egg hatches and it is eaten from the inside out.

Apparently humans aren't the most exploitative creatures in nature as previously thought.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008


It was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time. Before each decent my stoker whispers to me "don't crash me!" Yet our speed grows as our confidence grows.  Today the limit was reached. That self calibrating function that occurs when gravity, speed, and a small miscalculation combine to form a rather abrupt stop that can only be caused by flesh on dirt. The good news - no injury to bike or riders.

In last June's post, El Conquistador de Montanas, I described the vehicle of our passion. A Ventana full suspension off-road tandem that has consumed the majority of our riding over the past year. We still ride the road tandem and our single mountain bikes from time to time, but the El Conq is the favorite. As our skills increased so does the speed. We are able to ride most of the trails in the area, but our favorite is the "Hard Guy" trail as it is built for wide open speed with a 2500 ft descent. 

Today our route was a bigger loop heading up Rocky Canyon, across the Boise Ridge, and then dropping down onto the Hard Guy trail. This is about 3 hours of steady riding for the 30 mile loop with about 4000 feet of climbing. Two hours in we started down the Hard Guy trail.  Our friends Doug and Gary riding their single bikes followed as they usually cannot keep up with us on this descent. Karyn suggested that we might want to take it easy as we had been pushing the limit as of late. She thought that with Doug and Gary following I might be inclined to push it a bit more than normal. What?  A male ego interfering with my judgment? How could that be? I agreed to ease off a bit.

Just a few minutes down the trail we entered a steep, dark, tree covered section with a rut in the bottom. The key is to ride one side of the rut and then cross to the other side in a deliberate move, crossing back over before the clean exit. All was well through the first few moves, but then I realized that the exit was no longer clear. A new foot deep rut had been carved by a recent storm. It wasn't there last weekend. I tried to stay up on the right side of this rut, but as ruts often do this one sucked in the front tire of the tandem. If our momentum was 100% aligned with the rut it wouldn't have been a problem, but our forward momentum also had a right to left motion to it. The result is that the bike came to an abrupt stop, similar to tripping while walking. While the bike stopped, I did not. I flew away from the bike landing in a sage bush just as I somersaulted over and back up onto my feet. A perfect no injury landing. Unbelievable.  The dynamics of a crash are different for a stoker. Karyn rode the bike to the ground landing in the soft sand that had eroded from the rut. It was all very impressive.  We dusted ourselves off, picked up the gear that had flown from our pockets, checked out the bike, and all was well. Needless to say the rest of our descent was much more constrained.

I wish I could say that this will or even could be the last time, but as most people who ride know, "there are those who have crashed and those who will". Crashing is one of the risks of the type of riding we do. In 17 years of riding tandems we have only crashed 5 times.

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