Sunday, August 31, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For...

The other week I was bemoaning the fact that I had very few monarch butterfly larvae on my milkweed plants. I had only seen one and I figured that was it. Yesterday, I found one of my milkweeds pretty much stripped of leaves-not decimated because that would imply only one of 10 leaves eaten. Looking more closely I found 9 or 10 fat monarch larvae some of whom were really desperate acting and chomping down on the flowers.

larva eating flower

Well so now I have this superfluity of monarch larvae destroying their food source! I was mowing the lawn
, something that should have been done yesterday, when I noticed several branches on my ornamental cherry, which I had just planted this spring were stripped by these cute larvae. I am not sure what kind they are, and have a request for ran ID out in some of the insect forums I am on. Maybe some reader here knows about these guys.

W can not tell a lie...

I probably should spray, but I'm betting they pretty much grown so I don't think they will strip the whole tree. But they are making a good attempt at it as you can see here.

sawfly larvae having a group feed

Unlike the monarch larvae, these guys live in groups-vicious packs actually. When they are disturbed they have a characteristic pose: both front and read ends up. Kind of the insect equivalent of the Yoga exercise known as the bow.

sawfly larvae disturbed

There are, by the way, lots of group living larvae and here is an excellent overview with plenty of pictures. Unfortunately my "pack" is not shown.

At this rate I will never get my yard work done!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Xylocopa Busted!

I've blogged on these wonderful carpenter bees before, but I never tire of taking shots of them. The other day I caught some in the act! Stealing nectar that is.

If you look closely at the head of the bee you can see it is biting the flower near the tubular base, the calyx. They do this to get the nectar that's in the base.

Here is another shot of a carpenter bee doing a bit of stealing:

So people often have this notion of bees and flowers being in one happy little mutualistic relationship- the reality is always more complex! In fact perhaps that leads to a good rule of thumb -

Truth is generally more complex than what we believe.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama and McCain on Science

Several people have asked for my take on the two Presidential tickets with respect to their attitudes toward science. So here goes.

From my perspective, there are good things and bad things about both candidates and science. Looking at the official web sites, Obama appears to have the better fleshed out positions and there are some important differences.

McCain seems more supportive of the idea that we need to consider nuclear power as part of our new energy mix, a stand I actually support given the new safer reactor designs that are available. Obama’s position on nuclear power is less clear.

McCain’s position on the space program is more similar to mine since I believe that a strong space program including a manned component along with robotics is vital to our long-term security and technological innovation.

Obama has been openly skeptical of NASA’s current direction and it is not clear to me that he has the same enthusiasm for the Space program that McCain has.

But see this article from SpaceRef:

where the Obama campaign has fleshed out a detailed set of proposals. So maybe my initial impression is misplaced.

Obama seems more committed to increasing government support for science and science education than does McCain at least according to this article:

Of course what will happen when campaign promises meet economic and political reality is not at all clear.

The article has a good comparison between the two candidates stand on other science related issues.

With respect to global warming (I mean climate change) their positions are similar on the surface. However Obama seems less willing to rely just on free market forces to respond without targeted government investment in development of new technologies.

Both candidates support a so called cap and trade system for trading carbon credits but Obama seems to be arguing that if we are not careful the system will end up benefiting oil and coal producers.

Obama is more enamored with use of biofuels such as ethanol than I might like. Indeed he has the endorsement of the American Corn Grower's Association:

McCain sometimes seems to be positioning himself as a bit like William Proxmire whose “Golden Fleece” awards were meant to expose government boondoggles but from time to time merely exposed Proxmire’s ignorance or unwillingness to find out why scientists do some of the seemingly crazy studies they do.

This McCain tendency was highlighted when he poked fun a study of DNA in bears, not understanding that these sorts of genetic studies are useful for understanding the biology of bears and managing bear populations. Maybe this is just be an expression of McCain’s maverick streak, but it could play out in bad science policy.


My unease about McCain is heightened now that we have the VP choices. Biden is known as a strong science advocate who supports embryonic stem cell research.

See these links from The Scientists and Engineer’s For America (SEA) web site about Biden:

See also this analysis from Scientific American:

According to the Scientific American analysis, Biden is less enamored with clean coal technology than Obama saying we ought to export it to China given that countries rapid building of coal fired plants.

Biden’s attitude toward the space program is hard to assess. One tidbit from the blog Science Politics is Obama's plan to resurrect the National Space council which is chaired by the Vice President. This could raise the visibility of science in an Obama administration.

Palin’s views on science are less clear but she supports teaching creationism or at least letting it come up in discussions about evolution.

At least she seems to recognize that climate change is real and we need to respond to it. Of course she’s from Alaska where the effects of human activity on climate are pretty hard to deny. I suspect that she would not support embryonic stem cell research given her anti choice stance.

Biden has made his feeling about intelligent design and creationism quite clear. According to the SEA article Biden is quoted as saying about intelligent design and creationism:

“"This is reversible, man. This is reversible. We don't have to go down this road. I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!”

By the way McCain believes in evolution:

He is quoted as saying:

“'I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view,' he said. 'I happen to believe in evolution. ... I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.”

Obama is more forthright:

"Evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels."

One refreshing thing is that both McCain and Obama have pledged to avoid the politicization of Science that has plagued the current administration. See this link for details:

See also

So there you have it, my take on what the two tickets are saying about science and technology. Both tickets have to be an improvement over the current administration at least at the very top, though I am disturbed about what McCain’s VP choice suggests about his real attitudes toward science.

For more on the candidate’s science positions see these links fro the American Association for the Advancement of Science:



and this link from Physics Today:

On balance I believe Obama has the better fleshed out positions and seems more likely to support science aggressively. I am bothered by McCain's Proxmire like dismissal of science he doesn't understand as evidenced by his bear DNA comments, and his running mate's misconceptions about science are equally disturbing.

So just based on science policy, this admittedly liberal geek is giving Obama the nod.

Well there goes McCain...

I see that John McCain has picked Alaska's governor Palin as his running mate. Intriguing choice since McCain likes to position himself as a maverick. But science wise the choice is a bit flaky, Palin seems to have bought into the beguiling argument that schools should teach both creationism and evolution. She is quoted here in the Anchorage Daily News:

"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

Later on in the same interview she did back track a bit and qualified her remarks saying:

"I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

Of course the state Republican platform according to the same article says that:

"We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory."

And that merely echos the common misunderstanding people have about the meaning of the word theory in science.

Clearly though regardless of what she thinks about creationism and its cheap suit version intelligent design, she doesn't understand much about science. Too bad because I honestly felt this was an election where I could "kick the tires" to choose between two great tickets. But John McCain certainly hasn't helped himself here among moderates and certainly hasn't boosted my opinion of his science policy. If he wanted to go the conservative evangelical route he should picked Huckabee.

To give Palin her due she doesn't seem to have the sort of skepticsm about climate change that one might expect. But then again considering how rapidly Arctic climate regimes are being altered by global warming, she probably wouldn't be able to survive politically unless she supported programs to help her state cope with warming.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Getting to be fall

Dead Cicada Killer

The wasps are dying after the rush
Mad to fill nest with prey and eggs.
They lie curled on the bricks
Embraced by death and drying in the sun.
Black and white they terrorized deans
and students around the door by Strong Hall.
People complained; wasps were sprayed
Impatiently for them to die.
But the wasps frayed wings said
Death was coming anyway.
And as for fear of stings,
I have only known one person
To be stung and that be me
Reaching into a net, my hand
Closing over the wasp and getting
One quick jab of summer.
Then the pain was gone,
The wasp free to die, her young feeding
On cicadas, asleep from their stings,
Her young slowly turning
Into next summer.

Commentary-the poem came to me the other day when I found a dead cicada killer on the side walk at my campus. For some reason I just thought.."hmmmm getting to be fall" and the rest fell into place. Cicada killers are big wasps that dig burrows, hunt and sting a cicada, stuff it into the burrow and lay , I believe, one egg on the paralyzed cicada. Next summer the young wasps emerge.

These are big wasps maybe a third longer than the image as it probably appears online and people really do get terrorized by them. But the wasp is merely intent on hunting and they do not sting unless you do something stupid as I did.

Unlike honey bees, the sting and associated gland does not pull out so when they sting a person, the pain is intense but brief. In fact the pain is a lot less than either a honey bee sting or a hornet sting- a lot less.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where's the Food?

Me in Second Life as Velociraptor:

Where's the food?

See my Second Life Biology blog for more details.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's really hard...

It's really hard
to take a picture of a praying mantis with a cell phone...

when the insect...

is trying to grab your phone.

A New Second Life Blog...mine that is.

This Spring I will be on Sabbatical, doing some Second Life projects for our introductory biology courses. As part of the plan, I am to document my activities in a blog. That blog has been set up with the not very original name of Second Life Biology( where my avatar Simone will be your main host. So at least some of my Second Life coverage will be shifted there, especially the more geeky aspects of Second Life issues including minutiae of scripting and various other sorts of geek attacks.

All right so it is Biden...

OK it's not Bayh but Joe Biden. Probably a good choice that complements Obama's perceived weaknesses in foreign policy. Oh yes I did get the text message but some smuck spoiled the surprise for most people by posting Obama's choice to the web.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Strip Tease Act?

With all the hype about Obama's possible VP choice, some commentators are going a bit overboard. Consider this quote from Fred Barbash's Politico column on Yahoo:

"A weeks-long strip tease, ending with a naked Joe Biden or Evan Bayh—or some other safe but unsexy choice—might prove deflating."

um yes, deflating indeed.

P.S. and yes I am signed up to get the text message. Now do I keep my cell phone on all night so I can get the message even at 3AM? Do I risk...deflation?

Update! a local TV station is claiming to have seen Obama Bayh bumper stickers and is reporting this on on their news.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

***Warning Second Life Geek Attack**

Alan Levine over at his blog NMS Campus Observer, posted a way to get your in world Second Life profile as a web page(more or less). This would be useful if you wanted to display your profile to people that do not have the Second Life Client or don't want to load it.

He discusses a way to hunt up the appropriate URL by poking around in Second Life. He writes:

"Where does that link come from? I pondered. Obviously, the last part is some sort of asset ID, like each avatar has the equivalent of a texture’s database ID. I poked around URLs at many of which return XML data, and my hunch is the search engine that you use in world is XML based.

So I went in to Second Life, poked around my profile, all of the bizarre advanced settings looking for this magical string that might identify CDB Barkley via URL."

And this is really cool. I was intrigued and decided to play with this. And I will illustrate with my profile (Simone Gateaux). Go to and put an avatar's name in the search window in the upper right hand corner of the SL home page:

A new search window will open with a drop down menu. From there select SL People and run the search. Here are the results for my avatar, Simone Gateaux:

The first link that appears works like a SLurl and clicking it launches the SL client just like a SLurl. For those non geeks who are completely lost, the SLurl is a web link that loads the SL map and opens it to a specific location to which you can teleport if you have the Second Life Client.

The second link opens up the same sort of modified web version of the avatar's SL profile that is used in the actual Second Life client. So here is mine:

Grab off the page's url from your browser, for instance for me the link is

and you have it!

Thanks Alan for the interesting problem and solution!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Death of a Colleague

Last week one of my colleagues died and yesterday there was a memorial celebration for her at the School. Her name was Betty Bullock and she was in our sociology department. Betty was a wonderful person and I had just started to get to know her when she took ill. We were planning a learning community between biology and sociology and we were working on how to frame the materials in a way that showed the connections between these fields. To us the connections were obvious, all about relationships and function and evolution at all levels whether we were talking about molecules, cells, the communities of sometimes distantly related cells, that make up multicellular organisms, or the communities of communities that make up the ecosphere.

I will miss Betty not only for the small connection we had built before she got sick but also for the lost chance to build our learning community, Betty and I. Nothing will be that community but I know what to do and what she would want too. Keep on going and make a community for biology and sociology and so yesterday I went to another friend, in sociology, who knew about what Betty and I were planning. Are you interested? Can we do this? Let's talk. It will not be the same learning community and we will have to start from scratch, but we both know Betty will be with us.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Science Friday in Second Life!

I am not much of an online chatter. I've tried chat rooms for instance and found them too confusing for my addled brain and in Second Life I have been to openings and parties and found them difficult to handle. But then I am sort of a solitary type whether in first or second life.

But I decided to look for some SL event Friday when I was spending a ton of time in SL rather than working on my Syllabuses (or should that be Syllabi?). So I decided to visit Science Friday, which if you are a listener, you know Sci Fri is streamed in to SL and to the Science Friday site and during which the host of Science Friday is in World.

And I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the communal experience of listening in SL with a group was compared to just listening on the radio.

The avatars actually chatted (mainly texting) during the program's audio stream. I should point out that the host Ira Flatow was in World but not his guests. What I found though was that first of all the chat was surprisingly on topic. Second of all, though I did not contribute a whole lot, the chat in parallel with listening to the audio stream really forced me to pay closer attention to the broadcast than I otherwise might have. And this is in spite of the texting going on constantly during the broadcast.

Granted, the audience appeared to be really interested in the topics, but it would be interesting to test listener retention of material when just listening while in SL versus having real time messaging and social interaction while the material is being presented.

Here are some shots of the session from my Flickr stream:

Science Friday in Second Life

This shows the audience..thank god for camera controls so that even though I was sitting in the audience I could effectively look at the audience including myself.

And next a shot of the Ira's avatar...

Science Friday in Second Life

Now if only I could get an autograph.

If you are a Second Life member and have SL on your machine the Science Friday Site SLurl is

Not much to see in the Science Friday sim itself but right near by is all kinds of neat science stuff so explore around! More on some of the new science stuff later...

To get you started visit Science School at

Friday, August 08, 2008

Japanese Beetles in Kansas

Last week my wife and I went to Big Cedar near Branson and I was surprised to see Japanese beetles all over the plantings. This insect is a major pest back East because it will eat just about any garden plant and loves roses.

Japanese Beetle

Since I have not seen this beetle in Lawrence, I decided to see what's known about its distribution in Kansas. It turns out there is a very nice data base called NAPIS, the National Agricultural Pest Information System. or “Pest Tracker”. Looking up Japanese beetle gives an information link with pictures of the sort of damage the grubs can do to lawns, tips for controlling the insect. They don't mention what we used to do when I was young namely pick the beetles off and plop them in jar of rubbing alcohol.

Alas there doesn't seem to be any quick fixes, but that is typical for most pest species. Instead the suggested approach outlined here is an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. IPM involves monitoring larval and adult populations, cultural practices and yes judicial use of appropriate pesticides and where practical biological control with pathogens that attack the grubs. For the Japanese beetle there are several biological control options including parasitic roundworms, bacteria such as Bt which you can buy locally, and milky spore.

The other thing to check is the distribution map on Pest Tracker. Fortunately this map has just been updated for the Japanese Beetle. Check out the full sized map on the Pest Tracker site.

Notice the beetle is widespread in the East and it appears to be moving into Kansas. In Douglas County, it has been found in surveys but is not widespread. There is one hot area of infestation, namely Wichita and the Kansas Department of Agriculture blames infested nursery stock for this.

So look at the beetle picture carefully. The beetle is easy to identify by the white markings on the side of the abdomen, the greenish metallic thorax and orange wing covers. If you see it collect one for verification, contact the local extension bureau for advice and don't bring uninspected plant material from another area into Kansas.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Visting Here in Second Life:

Torley Linden is known for his quirky but always useful Second Life tutorials and now he has gotten his own island called tonight Simone went over to have a look.

An Easter Scene

An Easter Scene.

Playing in the Melon Patch

Playing in the Melon Patch.

Should I Kiss the Frog?

Should I kiss the frog?


Simone meditating. Torley does bill himself as the Resident Enlightenment Manager of Second Life.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Some Petty Sniping

Tonight I was prowling around the web and stumbled across the American Council on Science and Health's website ( which is a non profit that describes itself as:

“...a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.”

Their basic viewpoint seems to be don't sweat the small stuff in terms of health risks but keep focused on the big stuff and that is reflected in their risk assessment website ( which indeed is lot's of fun.

What caught my eye is a bit of sniping going on in the science policy advocacy world. On the main ACSH page is a link CSPI vs ASCH ( CSPI is the Center for Science in the Public Interest ( It turns out that CSPI attacked the credibility of ACSH in a press release. The press release deals with a very important problem in evaluating credibility science reporting, especially alleged scientific information put out by advocacy groups- namely who do these groups really represent?

Here is what CSPI says about ACSH in its news release(

“ accounts often fail to identify the funding sources of ostensibly independent nonprofit organizations that are quoted on health and medical issues. For instance, a real group called the American Council on Science and Health is largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies and is widely quoted downplaying various risks to public health or discrediting studies indicating risks to health. In the pages of The New York Times it is sometimes blandly cited as a "science advocacy group," a "private health education group," or a "group that describes itself as 400 doctors and scientists who release position statements on science and the environment." Elsewhere, the Times more helpfully has described the group as a "consumer foundation in Manhattan that is in part financed by industry," or as a group that is "financed in part by the food industry. “

Well ACSH of course fired back:

“ACSH has a long history of going where the science takes us, even when that science is counter to the interest of its funders.

For instance, ACSH regularly criticizes industries who are guilty of

· making unscientific and overstated health claims
· promoting dangerous natural supplements
· failing to tell the truth about scientific issues, as in the case of industry's failure to defend the safety of genetically modified foods.

Of course, we are known for pointing out the dangers of tobacco in all its forms: Smoking is the #1 public health threat in the world (you wouldn't know this from listening to CSPI). But it's not just tobacco. ACSH regularly criticizes all of those responsible for distorting the truth about important public health issues -- including those who demonize specific foods as causes of obesity, a favorite tactic of CSPI.”


And ACSH then goes on to note:

“We encourage reporters and the public to consider sources of bias beyond corporate funding alone. For instance, from which foundations does CSPI gets its money? Do reporters ask about their project-specific funding from left-wing foundations whose stated goals are to increase governmental regulation and take away choices from consumers?”

Of course if ASCH were so concerned about this maybe they ought to take the lead and be more transparent in how they report their funding sources on their web site. About all I can find in terms of funding from their annual report ( is that ASCH received about 2,879 million dollars in revenue, 2,470 of which comes from funders as opposed to memberships and sales. It might be nice to have a better idea who those funders are.

How about CSPI? CSPI has a full page devoted to its funding sources ( and states:

“CSPI is primarily funded by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and individual donors. Private foundation grants make up approximately 5% to 10% of CSPI's annual revenue of $17 million. Nutrition Action Healthletter accepts no advertising, and CSPI accepts no corporate funds or government grants. CSPI's audited financial statements and its IRS Form 990, both of which conform to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, are available for inspection. CSPI also maintains a strict conflict of interest policy for its staff and board members. CSPI extends its sincere gratitude to those foundations and to the thousands of individuals who provide support for its advocacy programs. “

The list of foundations hardly seems to be left wing, so I wish ASCH would have been more specific about which organizations have a goal of increasing government regulation. Clearly these two organizations ASCH and CSPI have different political slants, different funding sources and play to very different audiences. I wish reporters ask more questions about funding sources, but advocacy groups of all stripes ought to take the lead and be open about where they get their funding. Personally I believe ASCH when it claims to be relatively independent of their funding sources, and CSPI implicitly makes the same claim, and they are probably correct in doing so.

But from my perspective neither organization ought to be engaged in the sort of over the top sniping of the other and stick to the important health issues at hand. So a pox on both their houses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a real person who receives no funding from industry or wacko private foundations on the left or the right and I occasionally eat hot dogs, foods with trans fats and enjoy taking risks by eating genetically modified corn and using a cell phone though I rarely use pesticides and believe the case for global warming is pretty solid. Oh yes, I I'm pretty liberal and a registered Democrat.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Now it's showers!

Conservatives-OK to be fair-religious conservatives, have gotten a new hot button issue, namely the recent spate of laws protecting transgendered people from discrimination. True to form, these conservatives have been raising the specter of men in women's rest rooms or as this article notes-men in showers.

Geesh-first of all someone who is not planning on SRS (Sexual reassignment surgery), such as a non op TS, is not going to go into a public shower. They don't want to call attention to themselves. Likewise in terms of rest rooms, if a male to female TG needs to use the rest room, she is going to use the one that will call the least attention to herself, which unless she is totally unable to pass, is going to be the ladies room.

The opponents of non discrimination laws aims at TG's are in part exploiting what my fellow blogger, Larry Arnhart, might call the yuk factor, that in a sense comes from our evolutionary history and informs many of our moral decisions in spite of our attempts at rationalizing morality. I think most of us who identify as transgendered understand the yuk factor issue whether we want to admit it or not and that plays into our desire to just blend in and be left alone.

But the opponents are also playing upon stereotypes and fear. Consider this comment from a site called Americans for Truth referring to a Colorado proposal:

"anyone–regardless of their biological identity–will be welcome in the men’s or ladies’ room, including cross-dressers, men who self-identify as women, women who self-identify as men, and people who haven’t made up their minds. To make matters worse, Colorado defines “public accommodations” as everything from malls, restaurants, and schools to small and even home businesses. The other side says this is about discrimination. But the chance of offending a few people hardly justifies putting everyone else at risk, which is exactly what SB 200 does."

The site then goes on to mention the potential use of this law by sexual predators:

"For every transvestite who takes advantage of this law, there are a dozen sexual predators who will see this as a chance to put women and children into a vulnerable situation."

Really? Let's get real. Are there sexual predators out there? Sure, but I don't think anti discrimination laws are going to help them in any significant way. After all we do have laws against lewd behavior.

Consider, if I might be so indelicate, when you go into a rest room do you ever really see people displaying their genitals? Even in the men's room where the possibility is likely, because of the nature of the plumbing, such displays would typically be considered lewd. Of course, maybe my rest room experience is atypical, but I don't think so. People tend to be fairly private about rest room activities-whether through some innate or cultural imperative, I don't know. So I am not really concerned about the sexual predator issue.

And I do understand the fear. After all, the other night en femme in Kansas City at a meeting I had one of the men at the meeting escort me to my car just as the women did. There really are predators out there. Only most of them aren't in the ladies room.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Speaking of sex education...

...or at least the bee part. Yesterday I went to Prairie Park in Lawrence for some picture taking. But it was so humid I lasted about two hours. Probably going out at noon was not the best idea. The worst part was not the heat but just keeping the sweat away long enough to focus. At any rate this is a nice shot of a female bumble bee top and her male suitor.

Bombus suitor

Originally they were coupled and I will leave it to the reader's anthropomorphic imagination to guess what she might be thinking or "saying"-aside from maybe "buzz off."

A motivational poster of Richard Dawkins

A Flickr and Second Life contact recently put together this wonderful poster for Richard Dawkins. Me thinks Dawkins would love it!

Sex ed problem to be solved in Kansas!

It's easy according to Alan Detrich who is running for a spot on the State Board of Education:

"When you teach children that they are apes, they will reproduce like apes," he wrote in a questionnaire. "Stop teaching evolution, and the sex ed issue will take care of itself."



Now do I file this under humor?