Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America – now a (pricey) iPhone app

The Sibley Guide to Birds is now available as an app for iPhone and iPod Touch. Check it out at the iTunes app store (here).

Here’s a review of the app, which just hit the iTunes store earlier this week. While I own and like the paper copy of the Sibley Guide to Birds, I’m not quite ready to drop 30 bucks on this app yet. The most interesting feature seems to be the bird song collection, which apparently includes multiple recordings/variants. Sounds like an audio equivalent of the multiple illustrations which distinguish the paperback Guide – if so, the app becomes more compelling as an alternative/companion to iBird Explorer Pro, which I have become used to on my iPhone, and which seems to be better designed as an app, and has a few more features – perhaps. Unfortunately, unlike a paperback field guide that I can browse through in a bookstore before purchasing, there is be no way to try this app out before buying it! But, whom am I kidding – I’ll probably get it anyway, eventually, just as I have the paperback Sibley as a backup to my preferred National Geographic Guide. One can never have too many field guides – and the publishers of these eGuides are counting on that kind of thinking from a (sizeable) niche market. But why aren’t they dropping prices at least below that of the paperback edition? Why does the otherwise successful app store pricing model (low price+high volume=profit) not apply to these field guides? If anyone reading this has bought the app, I’d love to hear what you think!

Alison Gopnik on medicating children and the difference between science and journalism

Alison Gopnik (author of one of my favorite books: The Scientist in the Crib) offers an excellent critique of Judith Warner’s new book about medicating children. Gopnik’s review is really well worth reading because of the clear distinction she makes between journalistic and scientific investigation, and the real questions we miss by not applying the scientific approach. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a truth verging on a truism that journalism is about telling stories. But what exactly is it that narratives—good stories—do for us? Stories work because they explain important or unusual or compelling events in terms of our everyday psychology—the causal principles that we all understand by the time we are 4. A good journalist explains why the health care bill failed, for example, by telling us about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of the wavering senators. 

But science isn’t about applying the causal principles we know about. It’s about discovering causal principles we don’t know about. Psychological science, in particular, is about using evidence to find new and unexpected causal explanations for our actions and experiences. It’s not about using our everyday psychological knowledge to explain what we do. When psychologists do that, we rightly accuse them of just telling us what we already know. 

This is especially true when scientists are trying to explain the conditions we vaguely call “clinical” or “dysfunctional” or “pathological.” After all, people aren’t pathological when they are angry or frustrated or sad because of what they want or believe. They are pathological precisely when we can’t explain their miseries in the normal way—when the successful author suddenly kills himself, or when the bright child with loving and concerned parents just can’t read no matter how hard she tries. Clinical scientists try to use evidence to discover the less than obvious causal principles (his serotonin level was too low, she can’t process language sounds) that can explain these events.

Read the rest of the review if you are concerned about excessive use of medication to control children’s behavior. The other key point is that science isn’t about confirming common sense notions of causality, but about overcoming the limitations of said common sense and finding real causes. That’s worth remembering.

[Hat-tip: @BoraZ]

Alligator vs. Burmese Python – A reptilian battle over the Everglades

The above remarkable video footage is part of the excellent, and frightening, new documentary “Invasion of the Giant Pythons” that aired on PBS’s Nature program last night.

Burmese Pythons transported and bred halfway across the planet for sale to people who want them as pets without apparently any notion of how big the beasts can get, and who then release them into the wilds of Florida, again without any thought as to how seriously they are fracking up the Everglades ecosystem while “solving” their little growing pet problem! Isn’t it remarkable how many astonishing ways we find to screw up the ecosystems on this lovely little planet we inhabit? Watch the whole film, which I imagine will be available online soon.

How the Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses its unique beak


David Sibley, of the Sibley Guides to Birds fame, recorded the above video of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, foraging in the mudflats of Thailand where they winter. In an expanding upon the observations annotating the above video, Sibley proposes a hypothesis about how these lovely little birds use their odd bills more like shovels than spoons:

Before seeing the birds, most people assume that they use their bills to swipe sideways through the water, in the manner of the true spoonbills (genus Platalea), sensing and grabbing food items as they pass between the flattened tips of the mandibles. But in reality these sandpipers use very little sideways motion in their feeding. There does seem to be a bit more sideways movement of the bill than in other small sandpipers such as Red-necked Stint, but these are subtle, irregular, and tiny movements and nothing like the rhythmic sideways swiping of true spoonbills.

Coming up with a new hypothesis proved difficult. At first I couldn’t detect any difference in the way these sandpipers fed compared to the stints. They do tend to keep their head down and their bill in the water for longer stretches than the Red-necked Stints, which have a more frenetic foraging action dipping their bill briefly into the water and mud and then raising it again, over and over. Also, the Spoon-bills seemed to feed exclusively in water – I never saw one feeding on open mudflats.

After several days of observation I noticed that while their bills were in the water the Spoon-billed Sandpipers were pushing lumps of mud and algae ahead of them, using their bills as shovels to move mud around. They always look a bit “husky” and thick-necked, which comes in part from this habit of pushing the bill through the mud, as they use their body for leverage and push with their legs. It’s not unusual to see one of their feet suddenly slip backwards under the effort of pushing. Once some mud or algae has been lifted the bird very quickly works the bill tip around underneath it, then moves on. This video shows the shoveling motion clearly in the last scene. (The video will be a little sharper if you click here to open it in YouTube and select 480p).

This seems like a plausible hypothesis to explain the unusual bill shape. The broad bill tip could be used as a shovel to get under and lift up loose substrates, and then would make an effective tool for finding and grabbing any small invertebrates that were in the slurry of mud and water flowing in behind the lifted material. This could also explain why they cover so much ground on the mudflats. If they are looking for loose bits of mud/algae/etc. that they can lift to search for prey, these might be scattered across a wide area, forcing them to walk in search of these foraging opportunities.

Have you ever seen these birds forage? Are you in a position to make more observations in other locations to see if they do the same thing? I am not, much to my regret while watching the above video… Given the rapidly declining populations and our ignorance about even their basic biology, it is clear that the spoons these birds are born holding in their mouths are far from silver ones! Can we at least find out how this marvel of evolution, this wonderful spoon-bill, works before we are forced to bid adieu to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper?

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Yet another reason for Israel to become the 51st of the United States of America

For they too have, among the top echelons of their government, “scientists” in charge of public education who do not accept the evidence for evolution or global warming! Wow:

The Education Ministry’s chief scientist sparked a furor among environmental activists and scholars Saturday with remarks questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming theory. The comments from Dr. Gavriel Avital, the latest in a series of written and oral statements casting doubts on the fundamental tenets of modern science, led several environmentalists to call for his dismissal.

“If textbooks state explicitly that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don’t believe the evolutionary account is correct,” Avital said yesterday.

“There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula,” he said. “If they keep writing in textbooks that the Earth is growing warmer because of carbon dioxide emissions, I’ll insist that isn’t the case.”

Now isn’t that further evidence of the strong cultural ties between the US and Israel? Doesn’t it lend support to the long-argued case for making Israel the 51st state of the US? Further evidence of a shared anathema to science comes courtesy of the NCSE, suggesting that this anti-scientific rot is not limited to the political upper echelons of Israeli government, but may be rather widespread among the general populace as well:

Unfortunately, Avital’s views on evolution may be shared by a sizable segment of the Israeli public. A 2006 survey of public opinion in Israel by the Samuel Neaman Institute found that “a minority of only 28% accepts the scientific theory of the evolution [sic], while the majority (59%) believes that man was created by god,” while according to the 2000 International Social Survey Programme, a total of 54% of Israeli respondents described “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals” as definitely or probably true, placing Israel ahead of the United States (46%, in last place) for its public acceptance of evolution, but behind twenty-three of the twenty-seven countries included in the report.

And I’m (sadly) gratified to find a shared brotherhood with my biologist colleagues in Israel who find themselves rather unexpectedly having to bat down this kind of inanity.

Where are the outposts of the American Empire? A complete list.

Pretty much all over the globe it seems:

Just as Hadrian succeeded Trajan, Domitian succeeded Titus, Nero succeeded Claudius, and Caligula succeeded Tiberius, so Kennedy replaced Eisenhower, Nixon replaced Johnson, Reagan replaced Carter, and Obama replaced Bush.

Same empire, different emperor.

The extent of the U.S. global empire is almost incalculable. We know enough, however, about foreign bases, physical assets, military spending, and foreign troop levels to know that we have an empire in everything but the name.

There are, according to the Department of Defense’s “Base Structure Report” for FY 2009, 716 U.S. military bases on foreign soil in thirty-eight countries. Yet, according to the expert on this subject, Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis, that number is far too low: “The official figures omit espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude — e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.” Johnson places the real number of foreign bases closer to 1,000.

This same Base Structure Report states that the DOD’s physical assets consist of “more than 539,000 facilities (buildings, structures and linear structures) located on more than 5,570 sites, on approximately 29 million acres.” The 307,295 buildings occupied by the DOD comprise over 2.1 billion square feet. The DOD manages almost 30 million acres of land worldwide.

Read the rest of the above post to find the complete list of the outposts of US empire that have endured through various Emperors, including the current one. Interesting that this crops up just as I’m beginning to work on filing my taxes to support this empire…

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings