Monthly Archives: August 2007

Cafe Scientifique comes to the Central Valley!

Yes, indeed! Starting next month, we finally have our own Cafe Scientifiqué here in the great Central Valley of California. I’m excited to be involved in launching this, as I’ve been trying to get one going here for a year or so – and look forward to a good turnout.

The full email announcement is below the fold, and I’ve set up a website with additional information at, and a Google Group for email announcements.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Welcome to an exciting new forum for talking about science, engaging in dialogue about current science with non-scientists, and generally raising the science culture in our valley: the Central Valley Cafe Scientifiqué!

What’s a Cafe Scientifiqué? I think of it as a science/nerd equivalent of a poetry reading, or Fresno’s Art-Hop events, or the philosophers’ Socrates Cafes. It is a free-wheeling discussion of a science topic, centered around a presentation from a scientist, in an informal setting outside the normal channels of academia. Meetings are therefore usually held at a local cafe or pub where anyone is welcome to wander in (including, especially, people who don’t normally seek out science seminars or lectures on campus), listen to a brief science talk, and engage in thought-provoking conversation over food and drinks. These cafes started in the UK a decade or so ago, and have spread throughout the world – our closest ones are several in the Bay area.

Our Cafe Scientifique will meet on the First Mondays of every month starting on October 1, 2007:

Venue: Lenny’s Bistro Deli, in River Park, north Fresno, across from the movie theaters.
Time: 6:30-8:30; with the main presentation starting around 7:00 followed by discussion.

First topic: Cute, cuddly, and dead – so what’s killing sea otters?
Speaker: Dr. Paul Crosbie, Biology Department, CSU-Fresno

Please visit our website for further details. And if you wish to keep up with announcements of future events via email, please join the valleycafesci google group, accessible through a link at the bottom of our main page.

Please share this announcement with anyone you think might be interested. We look forward to having you there for some good conversations!

On attracting wildlife (ok – birds!) to your backyard

Its still hot out here in the valley, but I am looking forward to the autumn, and the arrival of our backyard companions for the winter – especially the White-Crowned Sparrows pictured above. Do you have a bird feeder in your yard or are thinking of setting one up? Do you worry about the merits of doing so? What’s a bird feeder’s carbon footprint, for example, if you just buy commercially grown and sold seed from the grocery store? Or are you willing to go the extra mile to actually create a wildlife-friendly habitat (perhaps even a certified one)? If you answer yes to any/all of the above, check out the recent Ask Umbra column over at Grist for a good discussion and advice to get you started. Apart from this column itself, and its prequel, there is a lot of useful information in the comments threads.

Of course, my own research on urban birds suggests that our provisioning of bird-feeders (and abundant food waste) creates a radically different (and much more predictable) food supply regime in cities, resulting in fatter birds and larger populations (of many but not all species) in the short term, and potential weakening of selection pressures in the long-term leaving them more vulnerable to other changes in habitat.

To take just one example: is simply providing seeds (even if you use a mix of seeds) enough? Seeds are great for adult birds of many species, but most species still need insects to feed their young, and if we are not careful, we may be creating an attractive sink habitat where all the adult birds want to hang out for the easy food, but there isn’t enough for them to actually raise babies! An ecological trap, in other words.

Could the recent decline of House Sparrows throughout the old world (their original home, yes!) and in parts of the new, for example, be because they’ve become too dependent on our largesse (and our food harvesting and wasting habits), and become stuck in our ecological traps like fast-food junkies? I suspect so. One comprehensive study in the UK found that lack of insects to feed the young was a key driver of population declines. Surely what we are doing to their food resources is more more important than the alternative hypothesis popular in some quarters that cellphone towers are causing these mysterious declines? Or does the electromagnetic radiation from these towers really work in even more mysterious ways?

So where do I stand on the issue? I don’t think we need to stop feeding birds – after all we started the problem by paving / building over their natural habitats, so it is only fair that we compensate them somehow. But we need to do more than simply buying those bags of seeds from the grocery store and putting them our in nice little (or big) feeders in our yards. We need to think more broadly about the ecology of these birds we attract to our yards, and try to provide them with whole habitats rather than just fast food. And Umbra Fisk and her readers offer a number of good suggestions on getting that ball rolling in your yard.

Happy backyard birding this winter then!

The world without us…

I’m looking forward to reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (awaiting shipment from Amazon), especially as it seems like a good companion piece to George Stewart’s classic Earth Abides from the late 1940’s, which I read this summer. Perhaps I should do a review of both together. In the meantime, Weisman appeared on the Daily Show to plug the book resulting in this excellent interview:

The joys of Fern-watching?

Well, I don’t know how much or how long these people actually watch ferns (not that that wouldn’t be entertaining if one could only alter the flow of time; see below the fold), as opposed to simply finding, identifying, ticking on list, and moving on (which, come to think of it, is what most bird-watchers do also, anyway), but this article in a recent New Yorker certainly makes the activity sound delightful:

There is no end to the odd things that New Yorkers do on Saturday mornings. This, at least, is what drivers must have thought recently when they had to slow down to avoid a line of a dozen people flattened against the enormous embankment of the Park Avenue railroad trestle, peering with magnifying glasses and monoculars into tiny crevices in the stone. Passersby stared, asked questions, and even took photographs. Police officers stopped their patrol car and watched with suspicion, or with bewilderment—until they caught sight of the T-shirts many of us were wearing which bore slogans such as “American Fern Society” or “Ferns Are Ferntastic.”

Thus begins this lovely little report of a weekend fern-watching romp (an annual Fern Foray) undertaken by a bunch of pteridophiles and bryophiles in the middle of New York city, written by none other than Oliver Sacks! I sure hope the article remains available online. And surely any society of watchers of whatever corner of the biosphere must really have its priorities correct if it can not only pause amid the rush of Manhattan to peer at crevices in the embankment of urban railroad trestles, but also count Oliver Sacks among its ranks and hold Darwin as its icon! Isn’t that enough to make you want to go looking for ferns?

But the article is much richer than merely an account of the fun they had, or lovely word-pictures of various species encountered. It actually portrays an intriguing picture of the distribution of cryptogamic (pteridophytes mostly, but also some bryophytes) diversity in midtown (or is it uptown?) Manhattan, with interesting changes in species occurrence / composition as they moved along the Park Avenue viaduct, until

…suddenly, strangely, at 110th Street the ferns stopped. From that point north, there was a startling, lifeless desolation, as if someone had decided to eradicate all signs of cryptogamic life. No one knew for sure why this was so, but we quickly crossed over to the sunny side of the trestle and began to work our way south again.

But, surely, someone must know of some explanation for this abrupt boundary? Someone has studied it, yes? Is this boundary set by geophysical/climatic/biological factors? Or sociological ones? Or is this yet another example of how often we ecologists and evolutionary biologists ignore the life that thrives amid our most extreme human enterprises to chase after more remote wildlife? This urban reconciliation ecologist wants to know – so if you are a fern-fancier or live in New York or both, and know of an explanation, or know someone who does, please let me know!

And now, if you are not averse to manipulating how time flows, or slowing down your perception of it, tell me: would you remain unmoved by this truly wonderful and amazing sight?

YouTube for Science

Yes, indeed, now you can get video versions of the latest scientific publications! Or rather, video commentaries/summaries by the author(s) of papers (with accompanying electronic reprints) to help you digest the latest discoveries. Yes – SciVee is here, courtesy of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).Kinda like getting a talk about a paper to go along with the paper. Should make for some interesting viewing, eh? If you find watching scientists blab about their work enlightening/entertaining, that is…

And here’s a graphic illustrating how it works.

Why doesn’t the US outsource their elections to India?

The US presidential election is still some 15 months away, yet the media have already (for months) been filled with election campaigning and debates and a whole lot of inane chatter. How I wish this “world’s most powerful democracy” (should that be ??) would take a leaf out of the way elections are run in the “world’s largest democracy” – my home country India! Not only does that enormous chaotic multi-everything nation with a largely illiterate voter population thrice as big the US pull off nationwide parliamentary elections without butterfly ballots or hanging chads or other dieboldic fiascos, the non-partisan and constitutional Election Commission of India actually conducts the entire national elections within a period of two or so months, not years!! Yes, you read that right – the entire Indian parliament, all 543 of its seats, are contested and voted upon in perhaps a third of the time taken up by the primary cycle for choosing presidential candidates in the US. Of course, there are things India could learn from the US also, but how to run elections is certainly not one of them. So why doesn’t the US outsource the running of their elections to India as well?? Indians are better at it than at much of the call center business.

Meanwhile, if you are fed up with mainstream media coverage of how much “green” the candidates are raising in campaign contributions, not to mention how much of it they are spending in personal grooming and other trivia, but are more interested in how “green” the candidates’ policies are, you might get some answers in Grist magazine’s series of interviews and commentary on the candidates. And you might also have noticed that I’ve added a sidebar widget from the series to the left here to help you keep up with the latest in Grist’s coverage of the election.

Only 15 more months to go… we’ve had parliaments and governments that’ve lasted shorter durations than that in India!

So you think you can offset your carbon emissions?

I may have to use this video in my classes to explain what carbon offsets are all about. Might be worth an entire session of discussion in my upcoming human ecology class – don’t you think?

For more, and to offset your own extrapair activities, go here.