Friday, March 30

Friday Bird Blogging: Short-Eared Owl

I really don't have a lot to say about this bird except that I've been looking to get a picture of it for a long time now. This is the first sighting I've ever had of one, and I think I did okay with it. The picture above links to thumbnails of five pictures. Watching it hunt, by the way, is really cool. It swoops low to the ground (similar to a Northern Harrier) and scans, diving down when it sees something that interests it.

Sunday, March 25

Not Separate and Unequal

Black teenager--shove hall monitor, go to prison for seven years.

White teenager--burn down house, get probation.

White man--run down black woman and her 3 year old grandson in truck, get probation and an order to send the family a Christmas card every year.

"Shaquanda started getting written up a lot after her mother became involved in a protest march in front of a school," said Sharon Reynerson, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, who has represented Shaquanda during challenges to several of the disciplinary citations she received. "Some of the write-ups weren't fair to her or accurate, so we felt like we had to challenge each one to get the whole story."Among the write-ups Shaquanda received, according to Reynerson, were citations for wearing a skirt that was an inch too short, pouring too much paint into a cup during an art class and defacing a desk that school officials later conceded bore no signs of damage.

To some in Paris, sinister past is back | Chicago Tribune

Friday, March 23

Friday Bird Blogging: Nuthatch

From a recent AP Science Article:
Nuthatches appear to have learned to understand a foreign language — chickadee. It's not unusual for one animal to react to the alarm call of another, but nuthatches seem to go beyond that — interpreting the type of alarm and what sort of predator poses a threat. When a chickadee sees a predator, it issues warning call — a soft "seet" for a flying hawk, owl or falcon, or a loud "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" for a perched predator.

The "chick-a-dee" call can have 10 to 15 "dees" at the end and varies in sound to encode information on the type of predator. It also calls in other small birds to mob the predator, Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington said in a telephone interview.
This is something I've mentioned to my psych students before, though it's all been theoretical-- the idea that language for birds can translate across species when a predator is involved. I'd always suspected that they had very different language for "ground predator" vs. "sky predator" but never took the time to confirm it.

Tuesday, March 20

Population and Enivornmentalism

Larry comments that we never talk about overpopulation with respect to environmentalism. He's right that overpopulation is a big deal. Personally, I tie this in with birth control and sex-education. We know from experience that this isn't just about birth control, but about education and oppression-- undeveloped countries in which women are given serious options in their lives (something that comes with education) tend to have lower birth rates than those in which they're given no real options.

Monday, March 19

Four Years Later...

And it's one great big mess.

The UK Times Online has a headline that says "Iraqis: Life is Getting Better, with the choice quote:
The survey of more than 5,000 Iraqis found the majority optimistic despite their suffering in sectarian violence since the American-led invasion four years ago this week.
The thing is, you can get the original polling data here (it's a pdf file). In it you can find that only 49% of the respondents think that Iraq is better under the current situation than it was under Saddam Hussein. We tore apart their country and left it in ruins for some cause which has yet to be clearly and consistently articulated and 49% think that it's an improvement.

Wow. Heckofa job.a

"Greeted as liberators," indeed.

Saturday, March 17

Modern Jackass: The Global Warming Edition

This is a tough issue for me. In reality, the science speaks for itself. Global warming is real. Humans contribute to it. You can argue about the degree to which we continue, but you can't rationally argue that there is no contribution, nor can you rationally argue that it's not a big deal.

So instead, global warming deniers are not relying on reason. They're relying on propaganda and emotional arguments. They're relying on mocking the science and using such buzz words as "alarmist."

And they're quite good at this.

So we have to be clear: it's not just about getting the science and the information out there. It's not just about winning the argument. It's about winning the argument in a way which is clear and obvious to people and hits them not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one as well.

And in doing this, we need to present clear and simple alternatives for everybody.

The thing is that, to an extent, we're succeeding at this. Retailers are finding that if they promote their eco-friendly nature that it's profitable to them, so they're trying to change their image by becoming better corporate citizens. People are using the phrase "carbon footprint" in everyday language. This is all good.

But it's not enough. We need to truly transform how we look at this planet and how we interact with it and we need to find a way to do so which doesn't so much lecture people as encourage them to change in their own way. I constantly see people who want to find a better way of doing things, but don't have the resources or the tools to do so. We need to help them find those tools. Low-energy light bulbs and fuel-efficient vehicles are a start, but that's all they are. We shouldn't be thinking of 50mpg as fuel-efficient. We should be thinking of that as the absolute minimum standard for fuel efficiency. Until we change that mindset, we're not going to really solve the problem.

Friday, March 16

Friday Bird Blogging: Killdeer

A couple days ago, I saw my first Killdeers of the season, a sure sign that Spring is around the corner-- these birds are a little larger than the common grackle and can be found in open fields and marshes. They will nest in areas with human populations, which makes them both more successful and more vulnerable than other plovers. They're probably most well-known for their broken wing trick. When a predator is near their nesting area, they will flop around as though they have a broken wing, trying to lure the predator away from their nest.

They also, however, do another trick with much larger creatures. From Cornell's bird guide:
The broken-wing act used to lead predators from the nest would not keep a cow or horse from stepping on the eggs. To guard against large hoofed animals, the Killdeer uses a quite different display, fluffing itself up, displaying its tail over its head, and running at the beast to attempt to make it change its path.
When you picture this, remember the size of the creature-- smaller than a pigeon-- running in full force at full-size horse, to try to change its course. That's what I call chutzpah.

Thursday, March 15

Modern Jackass: The Sex Edition

There's a little blurb in the Roanoke Times which reads:
Teens who lose their virginity earlier than their peers are more likely to steal, destroy property, shoplift or sell drugs than their virgin counterparts, according to one of the first studies to look at what happens in the lives of teens in the years after they start having sex.

The study, reported in last month's Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that those who had sex early were 26 percent more likely to be in trouble than those who waited, even years after their sexual debut and well into early adulthood.

The average age of sexual initiation varies widely -- between just older than 11 and 17 depending on the school, with an average age of about 15, according to federal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Researchers from Ohio State University looked at national survey data for about 7,300 teens from grades 7 to 12, and compared the students' sexual behavior with that of teens within their own schools.

Those who had sex later had delinquency scores 20 percent lower than their "on-time" peers. Waiting had a protective effect.
Several things about this:
  1. It doesn't actually name the study or give a source for it. It does reference the data which the study used, but that data is a large data poll which many researchers use, and is sometimes used to exaggerate the importance of a "study" which is, in fact, simply an analysis of data someone else has done.
  2. It doesn't indicate whether or not the research is peer reviewed. It turns out that the Journal of Youth and Adolescence doesn't indicate whether or not the research is peer reviewed either. In other words, we don't know if this is peer-reviewed research or not.
I bring this up because it's a common practice for people to use non-peer reviewed "research" and present it as fact, without any real support behind it. In this case, we're dealing with a newspaper reporting on an alleged science story without any peer-review or clear science behind it. In this case, having managed to track down the original piece (abstract can be found here), there's no indication whatsoever that, as stated in the Roanoke Times article, "waiting had a protective effect."

This, in fact, belies a common misunderstanding about how correlational research works: even if you take the research on face value, we don't know if sexual activity causes delinquency, if a tendency towards delinquency causes teen sex, or some other thing entirely. Correlations do not equate to causation. Even more important: there are two crucial flaws with this investigation:
  1. While they separated out people who reported having "forced" sex, they didn't separate out those who were unable to consent to it-- they just referred to "intercourse." It's not uncommon for children who have sex with adults to fail to classify it as forced in self-reporting, even though they're not able to rationally consent.
  2. dealing with self-reporting is always a bit tricky-- in a society which discourages teen sex, children who are sexually active may be less likely to self-report. Similarly, children who have engaged in delinquent behavior may be less likely to self-report as well. It's very possible that those children who are more willing to report on sexual activity are also more willing to report on delinquent behavior, just as those who are unwilling to admit to one are unwilling to admit to the other.
This long rant is simply my way of saying: don't believe what you read without doing a little investigation-- when someone presents research to you as fact, be skeptical. This especially applies to any claims about what sexual activity may or may not cause.

Saturday, March 10

Why are the Checkpoints Back?

I was quite surprised yesterday to discover that driving south on I-91, just after the intersection with I-89, the border patrol checkpoints had returned. These disappeared some time ago as the Boston Globe reports, no actual terrorists were caught at these checkpoints. It was pretty much all mairijuana arrests (in Vermont! say it ain't so!).

So what's the deal? Why did I have to get stopped and asked if I were a citizen?

Friday, March 9

Friday Bird Blogging: The Common Grackle

These are birds which generally look black in their appearance, but in certain light can appear iridescent and multicolored. I always wondered why this was and had thought it might be a seasonal variation in plumage. It turns out that there's something else going on.

There's a great Birdwatcher's Digest piece about why we consider some birds to be blue, despite the fact that there are no feathers anywhere in the world which are actually blue.

Wednesday, March 7

The Case Against Impeachment

So here's the thing: I have no personal doubt in my mind that this president deserves to be impeached, nor do I have any doubt that it would be just for him to be impeached.

That said, I'm not a supporter of the idea that we have to impeach Bush right now. I just don't see the point of pressuring our representatives to impeach him when we have a lot more direct and pressing matters to deal with. Impeaching Bush will not get our troops home. It will not help us become more fuel-efficient. It will not solve anything.

I totally get the move to impeach. I totally get the broader and philosophical reasons for doing so. I just don't see what it does.

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.

UPDATE: One sidenote about this is that it's still fine for towns to vote to support it, and for Jim Douglas to try to scuttle it is a fairly underhanded move.

Saturday, March 3

Goodbye, Melissa

Melissa used to hide behind things in order to attack my feet as I walked by in the mornings. She was foul-tempered and mean, sometimes, but in her last year, she grew affectionate and incredibly friendly.

It was about a year ago when we first discovered the cancer on her leg. She would have died quickly, but we tried a radical approach, doing a major amputation on her right rear leg in the hopes to get all of the cancer. We know it was a chance, at best, but that didn't make it any easier when we discovered last Fall that the cancer had returned.

She did really well for a time; the amputation was successful and after a month or so, she was moving around as usual, able to jump from place to place, though sometimes needing assistance. She was still able to stalk my feet and, for a time, she was very comfortable with everything. When the cancer returned, it still wasn't too uncomfortable for her at first. This week, however, it just became all too much for her.

I don't need to go into the details here. The short version is enough: the balance of the discomfort vs. the enjoyment she got from simple things (we spoiled her like crazy as of late) was just too much. There's no doubt in my mind that we did the right thing here. This is the third cat we've had to had put down in the last year and a half. This is the first time it's felt like the timing was perfect: no fear that we were doing it too early. No sense that we'd waited longer than we needed to. It's still incredibly difficult, and really painful, but at the same time, it all feels like we did exactly the right thing at the right time. She went peacefully and calmly and, as usual, I'm torn between missing her dearly and being glad that she's no longer dealing with pain and discomfort.

But all of this, really, is just my long way of saying goodbye. She was mean and sneaky, but she was also incredibly friendly and adorable. In sort, she was a cat, and a really awesome one at that.

Juxtapositions that Make Sense

Our weather alert this morning? "Dense Fog Advisory"

And now this from Daily Kos:
Harry Reid's tacit support for the Fox News-sponsored debate in Nevada seemed hard to beat.

But apparently this is his "fuck Democrats" week, because the Senate had dibs on choosing the deliverer of the "Weekly Democratic Radio Address", and guess who got it?

Non-Democrat Joe Lieberman.
I think "Dense Fog Advisory" is an understatement.

Friday, March 2

Friday Bird Blogging: Juvenile Bald Eagles

Last weekend we took a visit to Parker River Wildlife Refuge and, as happens occasionally, there was not a whole lot of particular interest. So we decided to check out Amesbury instead. After a lot of far-off looks of juvenile bald eagles (and some nice views of full adults), with lots of cool shows, we were ready to head home when we were rewarded with a spotting of a juvenile just sitting in a tree over the Merrimac river.

This bird sat around for more than an hour as I took photos of it, trying to be ready for when it eventually would be sure to fly off. It never did fly off while I waited, but I got some amazing pictures of it during the time it was there. (the image on the right links to all the eagle pictures from the day, all of which are of juveniles).

UPDATE: this morning I did an animation loop of a juvenile Bald Eagle in New Hampshire. What do you think?