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four-oranges.jpg

As if the Apple folks hadn’t made Macs cute and quirky enough straight out of the box, other people are writing freeware to turn your MacBook Pro into a seismograph.

It all started in early 2005, when Apple decided to put motion sensors into the new laptops. Why, you ask? So that if you happen to be playing Frisbee with your laptop, the computer can sense the dangerous accelerations and pull the disk drive head off the disk, safeguarding any tax records or blog archives you haven’t backed up recently.

Enter Seis Mac. Download the freeware and moments later you’re watching the results of your nervous leg-jiggling in three dimensions. There’s even free calibration software in case the fact that the graphs don’t precisely zero out disturbs you.

Here at the Scribble headquarters, we borrowed a handy MacBook Pro, downloaded SeisMac and started waiting for an earthquake. We’ll let you know when we feel one. In the mean time, we made a quiz for you.

Match the graphs in this post to the cause:

blue-danube.jpg jiggling.jpgvolleyball.jpgwmd.jpgfour-oranges.jpg

(a) a bouncing volleyball

(b) four oranges being unsuccessfully juggled

(c) the Crystal Method playing their big hit “Weapons of Mass Distortion”

(d) a table that didn’t seem nearly so unsteady until we ran Seis Mac

(e) your humble Scribbler waltzing with the MacBook donor

And that’s not all the quirky freeware out there. You can download a program that shows you a near-real-time, 3-D view of how your computer is oriented in space. (You do have to be looking at your computer in order to see the view of your computer, but that’s beside the point.) Soon, you may be able to play your favorite video game simply by shoving your laptop around the table.

Of course, what all this giddy experimentation does to your poor disk drive reader remains unresearched. But Seis Mac creator Daniel Griscom has a detailed disclaimer that only gets better from its first paragraph:

If you’re waving your laptop around watching Seis Mac graph the accelerations and your laptop slips from your hands and goes flying out of a tenth story window, it’s not my fault.

Thanks to Adam Soule for the tip.

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creeping bentgrassIt’s happened, just like the hippies said it would.

A genetically modified grass has drifted off an Oregon golf course and hybridized with some closely related local grasses more than two miles away, New Scientist reports. The grass, called creeping bentgrass, is a kind popular with greenskeepers for its ability to form short, dense mats that look a lot like Astroturf.

But as we learned in Caddyshack, maintaining the perfect green is a nonstop headache. The solution: genetically modify the grass so it’s resistant to Roundup, a popular pesticide. That way, you can dispense with any actual weeding and just soak the place in Roundup. Voila: creeping bentgrass everywhere.

But did they stop to think that grass is wind-pollinated and grass species hybridize more frequently than genres of music? Uh, no. They just told the FDA everything would be fine and kept planting.

Now the FDA is asking for an environmental impact statement, presumably so they can take swift action. Beginning after the drafting, review, comment, decision, and appeals processes have concluded.

Anti-GMO rallies produce lots of news footage involving people who dress up as ailing monarch butterflies or Frankenfood and dance like Deadheads. These protestors draw the derision of coolly efficient molecular biologists who say, rightly, that there is a third world out there starving and it doesn’t have time for our organically grown middle-class fears.

But of all the objections to GMOs, this is the one that has always bothered me:

When we make GMOs we make something new, and then we lose the ability to stop making it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a full-day’s vitamin A in your rice (although allowing the gene-tinkerer to “own” the new breed ought to be abhorrent to pretty much anyone with a genome). There needs to be a compelling reason to tinker: Feeding the hungry, yes. Creating a designer golf course that loves pesticides, not so great.

It took us 30 years to realize that DDT was a mistake (our enthusiasm for it was so great that DDT chemist Paul Muller won the Nobel prize in 1948). At least DDT doesn’t have the ability to draw energy from the sun coupled with a single-minded drive to replicate itself.

This story isn’t exactly ocean or bird related, but it makes me mad as hell. Personally, I’d rather just have Astroturf golf courses.

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welcome to moss landing

A warm welcome to summer tourists, from the Moss Landing chamber of cormorants.

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ventana in the sunMy first trip out on an MBARI boat, the R/V Point Lobos, happened last week. We left Moss Landing at 7 a.m. amid pigeon guillemots and sea otters. Barely 3 miles off shore we were bobbing in calm seas 300 m above a humpback whale skeleton that Bob Vrijenhoek, Shannon Johnson, and other MBARI scientists have been watching for a year or so now.

Turns out there’s a wacky kind of tubeworm that lives off the bones. It’s called Osedax, a weird little pink frilly creatures that waves in the current like the topknot on a Fraggle. Turns out its closest relatives are deep down at hydrothermal vents, living in 400-degree water totally dependent on chemosynthetic bacteria. How they got here we’re not sure.

Three hundred meters is small change for an undersea canyon that drops to more than 3,000 m within a dozen miles of shore – but it’s still a bit far to send a human down to. That darn repressurization, you know. So down goes the ROV Ventana (that’s the robotic praying mantis thing you see at the top of this post). ROV stands for remotely operated vehicle, a submarine that two full grown men steer from under a battery of monitors belowdecks on the Lobos. A little bit like Jason.Ventana rack-out

Just to reassure you that it’s not all backbreaking labor, here we are on the way back to shore. Two interns (Shawn Meredyk and Sarah Rizk, plus the aforementioned Shannon Johnson) relax before the somewhat malevolent gaze of Ventana.

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From Ferrell’s Donuts on Mission Ave., Santa Cruz. They’re open late, much to their dismay.

donut sign

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manipur bush-quailTwo years ago, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker swooped out of the mists of extinction. It landed briefly on the trunk of a bald cypress in Arkansas and then, with a few beats of its white-trailing-edge wings, bounded back into oblivion.

It looks like another bird half a world away is trying the same trick. The Manipur Bush-Quail, unseen and presumed lost for 80 years, has been spotted by an eminent Indian ornithologist. Cornell University is facing criticism over its blurry video evidence and subsequent inability to re-rediscover the Ivorybill, but so far there has been no such skepticism for the bush-quail’s discoverer. Anwaruddin Choudhury’s single sighting report seems enough for now. The BBC has details.

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ctd at sunsetAfter last year's record red tide in New England, the research ships were out early this spring. I got to go along on a sampling trip in early April. We took Woods Hole's R/V Tioga and spent the day in Massachusetts Bay hauling water on board and sampling it for tiny Alexandrium cells.

Red tides (more appropriately called harmful algal blooms because they're not always red) happen when some particular phytoplankton (including Alexandrium) multiply into great numbers. Each cell produces a very tiny amount of toxin as a byproduct of its daily routine. The output is so little that they're not harmful as long as they stay in the water; the trouble starts when filter feeders like clams and oysters concentrate the cells into even greater numbers. Eventually, you eat a clam, you get paralytic shellfish poisoning, and you suffocate. Yikes.

Fortunately for all you chowderheads, newly developed models indicate we probably won't have nearly so bad a red tide season this year. On our sampling trip in early April there were very few Alexandrium in evidence. This picture is the tops of the Niskin bottles we used to sample water. We snap those lids shut at precise depths to capture a discrete sample of water. Then someone with a strong stomach, like Bruce Keafer, hunches over a microscope belowdecks and picks through the algae soup looking for Alexandrium. The rest of us look at the sun going down behind Cape Ann.

low tide harbor And, okay, here's one more. Just before quitting New England for the shores of Monterey Bay, I got a classic low-tide harbor shot. This one is at dawn in Rockport, Mass. File under "quaint."

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