Archive for the ‘cheers’ Category

pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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The cute, fluffy bird world hit the science big time two years ago when Chris Templeton of University of Washington deciphered the information contained in chickadee calls. He found that the birds’ alarm calls went beyond a simple “Watch out.” They also gave a heads-up about what kind of dangerous predator was around.

This week, Templeton and former advisor Erick Greene are back in the news with reports that nuthatches listen in on those chickadee calls and decipher the information contained in them. This sort of interspecific codebreaking is a little like your dog listening in on your conversation and learning whether you are headed to the park or to the vet.

We’re willing to forgive AP reporter Randolph Schmid for misspelling the eminent Dr. Greene’s surname in the national press. Why? Because he pulled off an amazing feat of journalistic intrepidness when he sought an expert’s independent opinion on the findings. He called up Charles Eldermire at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is one of the country’s great resources about birds and science.

That in itself is good journalism. But did reporter Schmid realize that Eldermire, when he’s online, is none other than the Contemplative Nuthatch himself?? Not only that, but the kid spent his master’s degree research studying chickadees. So Schmid has found arguably the single most qualified expert to comment on breakthroughs in nuthatch-chickadee communication. His reporterly fortitude simply boggles the mind. Kudos!

And if the newspaper reports left you wanting to hear more, check out the Nuthatch’s own take on the research, complete with discussion of the fine points, links to background articles, and a sound spectrogram of the chickadee calls themselves. Nice work.

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robotsally.jpg Lest you worry that the Scribbler has gone all-climate, all-the-time, here’s video of a robotic salamander that walks and swims.

The research was published last week in Science. It’s a tour de force involving translating a theoretical model of a salamander’s neural system into a physical model that’s eerily reminiscent of the real thing.

This work must represent a pinnacle in the authors’ scientific careers. I’m happy for them, then, that they made their robot a cumbersome, meter-long prototype the color of a school bus, ensuring prompt coverage at Nature, Wired, the BBC, MacNewsWorld, the Washington Post and right here at brandung.vogel.gekritzel (OK, I’m a few days late, but I was imprisoned in a Bavarian castle for most of the weekend).

Cool graphics aside, this work is fascinating because it’s a glimpse of evolutionary research as performed by a neuroscientist. The group started with a simple system of nerves that can make an animal swim. Then they looked for subtle modifications to the network that could make a long body undulate and its appendages wiggle in such a way that the creature could gain traction at a lakeshore and then haul itself onto land. (Here’s video of the robot clambering out of Lake Geneva.)

No fewer than 14 videos and numerous photos are available at the robot’s webpage in the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these folks back when I stopped enrolling in math classes?

What I like about this research is the implication that, if you’re imaginative enough, you can still make major scientific contributions while standing ankle-deep in water and playing with a glorified Lego set.

(Image: A. Badertscher, Biologically Inspired Robotics Group, EPFL)

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condor_crag.jpgMy completely anonymous housemate was out climbing at Pinnacles National Monument a few weeks ago. The place is an intriguing jumble of rock pillars southeast of Monterey, California. But with pictures like this one, where giant vultures dangle their scruffy necks above approaching rock climbers, it might just as well be the Karakoram.

But these are California condors, reintroduced to Pinnacles just two years ago as the 20-year-old captive breeding program continues to expand its horizons (the public can attend another condor release here April 21st).

In the mid-80s, scientists captured the entire world’s population – all 22 of ’em – and started a last-ditch breeding effort. Surviving against all odds, the grizzled adults and their hand-puppet-raised offspring grew to nearly three hundred in number, and 138 now fly over the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Pinnacles, and Baja California – wild once more, give or take the occasional large-mammal carcass and annual lead checkups biologists provide. Next time you find a California quarter in your pocket, look for the condor on the tails side, soaring over Half Dome.

Our alert climber/photographer zoomed in on the top-left bird (above), snapping this closeup. Against the white underwings you can see the bird’s patagial ID marker, which also carries an antenna for radio-tracking.

condor_wingspread.jpgThese birds are immense. The partial wingspan you see here is casting enough shade to keep most of us cool during a nap – add what’s out of view and we’re talking nine feet. Bigger than your front door.

I like this last picture – a bird soaring against a hillside – for its sense of massiveness and the way you can feel the wind shearing through the upturned primary (wingtip) feathers. We’re talking about 20 pounds of bird cruising through the sky with all deliberate speed. The pic is a little grainy, but let’s cut the photographer some slack: he was dangling from a belay, camera in hand, a hundred feet up. And the condors were getting closer.


(all photos: the completely anonymous housemate)

(more Pinnacles condors here, on the Condor Cam)

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My Uncle Owen was having tea with my mum when the topic turned to dinosaurs.

The next thing he said was this:



The triceratops
lived on such slops

As lush river-grasses and leafy tree tops

It lolloped along
like a rabbit that lops

It trod on small creatures that burst with loud pops

Then, all of a sudden,
its history stops

Kind of sums up the whole of the Jurassic, huh? He says he learned it as a schoolboy nearly 60 years ago in Eastbourne, UK, but doesn’t remember who’s responsible for it. Here’s to science education that sticks.

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nuthatchsamba.jpgJust want to send you over to Contemplative Nuthatch for a fantastic piece of DIY nature show. A recent cold winter morning brought droves of birds out to the Contemplator’s suet feeder. He was ready with his digital camera and 1-Gb flash card.

The budding Atten-boy produced a nature show for the new millennium (or at least as long as YouTube lasts), with a remarkable assortment of birds that you can, depending on your inclination, appreciate for their wintry beauty or race to identify before the scene changes.

A final stroke of genius is the soundtrack – a warm and gentle Brazilian number that sounds as if little nuthatch feet are dancing on the hi-hat. Definitely worth 3 minutes of your day.

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In an understated stroke of genius, some clever folks have proposed that we start paying attention to our power meters.

You know, those cobwebby boxes that cling under your eaves like big gray fruit bats. The ones with the quaint row of dials quietly ticking off your power usage with analog precision. It wouldn’t stretch the imagination to envision a cuckoo popping out at every hundredth kilowatt-hour.

So here’s an idea worthy of the Information Age: How about moving the meter indoors, where we can pay attention to it? How about making it digital, so it can read out our usage at any moment? What about posting real-time electricity prices online so we can make up our minds about when to run the dishwasher?

Most of us know, dimly, in a theoretical sort of way, that electricity prices fluctuate during the day. And bargain shopping is a fairly universal trait in modern humans. Now, at least in Chicago, people can put the two together by checking their meters against rate information online. There’s real-time price information as well as an archive of rates – a quick survey indicated a more than five-fold change during just the last two days.

So, when will PG&E in California put this into effect? As the New York Times reports, it’s not really in a utility’s best interest to enable our bargain shopping instincts. But then again, California has major energy demands – and shortages. So while their website gives no indication of real-time metering for customers, they’ve already got a program in place to help large businesses monitor (and optimize) their usage.

Although economics figure highly in this piece of news, it goes without saying that keeping track of energy usage would allow us to reduce overall demand. Which would reduce environmental impact as well. Cheers to Chicago’s Community Energy Cooperative!

Footnote: Like a lot of brand-new great ideas, people were thinking of this one back in the energy crisis of the 1970s, as the Times article reports in a mystified tone of voice. But like fuel-efficient cars, for some reason, the meters just never got off the ground. Maybe they will this time around.

(via Plenty magazine; image courtesy Steven Vandenburg, NOAA)

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Trapdoor on the seafloor

operculum.jpgLast February, the head Scribbler and some compatriots were sitting on the beach in Hawai’i (at the Banzai Pipeline, to be specific). One of us noticed that scattered amid the large, corn-colored grains of sand were lots of tiny, shiny white discs. On closer inspection, they were glossy spirals about the size of a pencil eraser, with a satisfying heft and the sweet liquid clink of marbles when you rolled them in your hand. They were opercula, said the group’s paleoceanographer.

The operculum is the snail’s equivalent of a hobbit’s door – a neat, round entrance that can be shut up securely to protect the occupant from intrusions by the outside world. When sea snails die, the operculum drifts away, separate from the shell, someday to wind up dashed on a distant beach by a barreling 4 to 6 foot Pipeline bomb.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t trouble you with such details – even though, as it turns out, operculums are an age-old ingredient in incense. But in absently reading about them this evening I ran across this beautiful website dedicated to “the humble operculum: a celebration of the diversity and beauty … of this neglected element of gastropod mollusca.” The page has fine photos (like the ones above) of more than 35 types of shells that switch to the corresponding operculum when you mouse over them. Good enough to win webmaster Nancy Smith a Web award from (no kidding) worldwideconchology.com

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The Al Gore Union


For brief minutes at lunchtime today, I was on the other side of a cavernous ballroom from the gray and blue pixels in the center of this photo. It was Al Gore, carrying his message of hope and responsibility to 5,000 scientists who don’t need to hear the dire part of the “Inconvenient Truth” talk.

Gore put the problem as simply and forcefully as it needs to be put: we are witnessing a collision between our planet and our species. At the same time, the free exchange of ideas that Gutenberg invented and our founding fathers built a nation on has been stymied by the one-way information flow of television.

Using Abraham Lincoln’s word, he charged scientists to “disenthrall” the nation from the shared illusions that allow economists, TV programmers, and the rest of us to think only in the short term.

Citing this administration’s infringements on the freedom of government scientists, but stressing that the problem goes beyond Bush and Cheney (and beyond political parties), he asked how we could have become so desensitized to stories like these when they appear on the news.

In a talk that ranged from a brief (but very funny) Clinton impersonation, to tropospheric ozone, to the amygdala, to Mahatma Gandhi, Gore nailed his message. To call them his lines would make the talk seem calculated. And even though it must have been, Gore managed to be funny, friendly, strident, expansive, impassioned, and utterly authentic.

The proof was in the pudding. Speaking to the largest body of earth scientists on the planet, who else could get away with saying that by committing ourselves to the cause, “streams of energy will flow and converge, and they will remove obstacles from your path.”

As Gore finished, the standing ovation seemed spring-loaded. Oceanographers swelled; volcanologists erupted in applause; seismologists beat their hands together with tectonic force; solar physicists radiated enthusiasm; biogeochemists fizzed; I think even those wretched Mars rovers paused for a moment in appreciation. For three glorious minutes of ovation, it had become the Al Gore Union.

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David Attenborough suggests the battle against climate change could start with a “moral change.” Such as, the BBC reports, the one Attenborough grew up with during World War II, when wasting resources was viewed as simply wrong. This shift in attitude might finally get us past that tired excuse that small differences can’t produce large results. After all, he says, “It’s not that we thought we were going to defeat Hitler by eating a lot of gristle.” But they finished their supper anyway.

Of course, charging emitters 14 bucks per ton of carbon dioxide sounds like a pretty sane suggestion, too. Particularly coming from a Harvard economist.

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