Saturday, March 29, 2008

Case of the Late Night Bees

I've been under the weather since last week end and really haven't been outside much since Tuesday evening. So I guess nature decided to come to me-at least in a more pleasant form than a cold virus. We had just finished watching the KU Villanova game when I spotted this bee flying around the living room light fixture. Turns out to be a solitary bee in the genus Osmia a common visitor in my yard where they like to visit Vinca minor. Well since it is harmless, and especially since it was a male bee..I just let it fly around and sat back down to nurse my cold.

But a few minutes later came another bee-this time a female and then another female. Now this presented a little mystery-where were they coming from? After all one bee...OK it got in through a crack in a window fixture somewhere or maybe through the mechanism for the patio door. That has happened before. But that didn't make sense. I remembered that Osmia are hole nesters so maybe there is a hole somewhere that goes from inside the house to the outside. That would be disturbing since Osmia use preexisting cavities-either hollow stems or holes bored by some other insect. I looked around and couldn't find any inside and decided to let the matter rest, take some pictures and go to sleep. Seems I 've doing a lot of that this week!

The males are about a third smaller than the females-the females are about 10mm long and have shorter antennae than the males. Two of the bees decided to mate on my living room rug as well-male on top as is typical for most insects.

This morning I realized that we still had a couple of wooden chairs that normally sit on our patio; we had brought them in as extra chairs for Easter dinner and I just haven't gotten them back outside. If the bees somehow had developed in the chair I ought to see the remains of a mud nest plug below the chair. Sure enough the a nest plug sat under the second chair.

In my best CSI mode I took a picture and carefully upended the chair revealing the nest. The original hole is 10mm in diameter, the actual nest opening is roughly 5mm in diameter.

And the nest was still occupied! Also there is still another nest in the other side of the same piece of wood.

So after getting my pictures of the new bee, I put the chair outside. That will set my wife at ease.

Osmia are important native pollinators and are even being raised and used commercially. They are in high demand in orchards given the decline in honey bee populations. See

Full sized images are on flickr and clicking on this bee will take you there:


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Big Dog of a Robot

While people are running around in a panic over the economy, new innovations are constantly happening. It's beginning to look like robots are the new "Next Big Thing". Of course robots have been used for years in the assembly of automobiles, but what's new are completely independent robots that can coexist with us as part of our daily environment.

Most familiar are iRobot's rug and floor cleaning robots. But iRobot also makes a number of robots for the use in dangerous environments. If you watch CSI or similar shows, you may have seen these 'bots.

So check out this video from a start up company called Boston Dynamics which has developed an autonomous robot called Big Dog:

I am not sure what the loud noise is due to. But since Big Dog doesn't seem to make the noise when tethered to cables, perhaps the noise is due to some sort of power generator.

Speaking of iRobot, people I know who use the rug cleaning 'bots all have super neat houses and they probably really don't need the robot. So as an iRobot stockholder, I keep trying to get the company to beta test its housecleaning robots under real battle conditions- namely my house.

What are they afraid of? Don't they want to see if they can pass the cleaning 'bot Turing test?

Needless to say, these robots do raise a number of ethical issues. As robots become more and more autonomous do we want robots to make life and death decisions in the battlefield? I would argue probably not. But decision making speed is important so this will put pressure on developers such as iRobot to work towards robots that can make independent decisions to kill, at least in certain situations.

Can use of these robot weapons be justified in terms of the rules of war? Ethicists have begun wrestling with those sorts of issues. Here for instance is a paper from the Georgia Institute of Technology: Governing Lethal Behavior. It is a large file. The article notes though that we already have semi robotic systems in place that do make decisions whether or not to fire.

This paper quotes a government study which says:

"Armed UMS [Unmanned Systems] are beginning to be fielded in the current battlespace, and will be extremely common in the Future Force Battlespace…
This will lead directly to the need for the systems to be able to operate autonomously for extended periods, and also to be able to collaboratively engage hostile targets within specified rules of engagement… with final decision on target engagement being left to the human operator….

Fully autonomous engagement without human intervention should also be
considered, under user-defined conditions, as should both lethal and non-lethal engagement and effects delivery means."

Note the last sentence. Now warfare often is constrained by various sorts of rules of engagement and conventions, but what's going to happen when these systems begin to fall into the hands of a determined foe who isn't constrained by the same sorts of rules. What about our government finding some justification for a previously taboo use of these systems? And I am not being partisan here. Linguistic shenanigans are not a monopoly of Republicans or Democrats, shocking as that may be.

Suppose humans are left in the decision making loop. Is the result going to be any better? As warfare becomes more and more like a video game, will the detachment of humans from the actual battlefront lead to greater abuse of these systems?

Geesh! What ever happened to those good old ethical issues-embryonic stem cells for instance. We haven't adjusted to issues raised by those technologies and here is a whole set of new issues. And I just want a 'bot that can clean my floors!

Cross posted from Dangerous Ideas.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More spider pictures...

My friendly jumping spider came back and I was able to get some better pictures today.

Looking at ya'

Looking at 'ya.

IMG_4736 copy

I dare you poke me with that finger again!

IMG_4735 copy

This one is great blown up.

IMG_4735 close up

A close up of the previous image showing the detail.

These are all taken with my Canon Rebel SLR digital and my 100mm macro lens.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Winter Guest

I love jumping spiders and I surprised this one in my stairwell today.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Second Life Field Trip

My genetics syllabus had for the first time a field trip scheduled as part of the lab. Not to a see some exotic genetic oddity or a biotech company. Instead, I decided to take my students on a little excursion in Second Life to Max Chatnoir's Genome Island. I blogged about Max last year and she has made many changes to her site making it much more open and easy to navigate. So, with the help of JCCC's Education Technology Center which provided a computer lab with Second Life ready to go, today Friday the 14th was the day for the trip.

I have been in Second Life for almost three years been in world with groups of faculty. But I had never led a group myself. During Wednesday's lecture, I gave them a little show and tell about Second Life and developed a brief tutorial for them to read about how to register and create an avatar. They had to do the registration process to get a basic account on their own as an out of class assignment. Most students managed to do that without any difficulty.

In the computer lab today I had them log on to the Second Life client. This puts them in Second Life's orientation area. I had them move to a quiet spot where I had them add my avatar, Simone as a friend and also join a group so that I could talk to them and send them teleport notices if they got lost.

The group's notice had a note card with landmarks to the sites were visiting today. I asked them to keep this note card in their inventory but leave it open as a small window.

By the way, Second Life's orientation site is much less confusing than when I had to go through the process, but with a group it seemed best to do my own orientation.

So I had them immediately teleport to my land via a landmark on the note card and showed them the basics of moving and interacting with objects for maybe 5 minutes. Here is my main avatar Simone waiting for them to arrive. I had a scripted sign ready to show them how to interact with objects-in this simply to get another copy of the note card.

Here is some of my class arriving at my land for their brief orientation.

Then we were off to Genome Island where Max Chatnoir was graciously waiting for us. Max, in the white coat, first took us to Mendel's Abbey and garden where she has a very nice simulation of Mendel's crosses. One nice feature, is a link to an Excel spreadsheet where students can record the phenotype of the plants produced by successive breedings. We also saw a work in progress-a translation game where students could play the part of tRNA's selecting the proper amino acids. A very cute breeding experiment involving sex linkage of coat color in cats is also worth a look.

Next we went to Genome Tower. This used to be an enclosed skyscraper like affair, but Max has nicely opened it up by having platforms connected by ramps, the platforms being ringed by barriers to keep the visitor from falling over the edge. Some of my old favorites are still around such as the fruit fly lab and the human chromosome exhibit shown here. She has refined and added new things such as a comparison between the chromosomes of different mammals showing regions of chromosomal synteny which is a type of homology allowing scientists to infer the sorts of chromosomal changes that may have happened in the evolution of a particular group of species.

In real life Max has done some interesting things translating protein and DNA sequences to sounds. She says that hearing the amino acid sequences reveals organizational patterns not apparent visually. Here are some of my students with Max at her protein music station. An exhibit has mp3 files of the results. But given time constraints and lag we didn't get to listen to the files. We are just doing protein structure as part of this will require a return trip.

Links about her work with John Dunn on protein and DNA music:

This link plays samples of the music...wonderful.

We also visited Scilands orientation site. This is a nice alternative to Second Life's normal orientation and had I known how nice it is, might have opted to run my students through it rather than orient them at my Second Life home. There are also teleport sites to other science sites, commercial, academic and government.

All in all a very interesting trip. There were a few minor glitches. One was that our lab's computers did not have the latest Second Life client with the built in media browser and there was no web on a prim. Lag was a problem and the immediate student complaint because of it was that Second Life was slow. Indeed chat was slow which made things confusing. We did have maybe 20 people in the same sim (simulation) at various times and all the chatting combined with various objects whispering to us combined with the lag made it a bit difficult to play with Max's experiments. There were also a couple of amusing teleport problems.

After about 2.5 hours it was time to take leave of Max, who was most patient with me and my group of Second Life novices. From my perspective as a teacher the trip was a good introduction to Second Life and the students seemed to grasp the idea of how Second Life worked. After leaving Max we returned to my home where I showed them a few other things, such as building and a bit about scripting. I left them with a WEBCT/Blackboard assignment namely to provide some feedback on their Second Life experience-what they liked and didn't like and why. It will be interesting to see their written reactions.

So if you are going to take a group of Second Life Novices here are some tips.

1. Do some advance planning and determine whether you are going to have them go through Second Life's orientation or take the group to another site for a less confusing orientation. Since it had been three years since my Second Life birth, I created a new basic membership avatar to run through the registration process just to see how it had changed. I made a quick and dirty tutorial for them including pictures of the registration process and what students would see in Second Life. One nice improvement is the avatar selection screen which gives the new Second Life citizen a wide range of avatars to start from. My student really seemed to like that.

2. Create and have the students join a Second Life group to facilitate keeping every one more or less together or at least in the same universe worked very well. I think my group size - 15 students- is probably the maximum size to handle at least if you are going to intensively interactive sites such as Genome Island.

3. If you are visiting a site- try to let the site owner know you are coming. At least in the Science sites the owners or creators love to show off their stuff. They also like to see how visitors react to things on their site. Again scope out the site before you go and have some idea what you want them to see.

4. Warn them of potential problems. For instance since when you log on for the very first time you get dumped into Second Life's orientation, I warned them to get out of the way of new avatars coming in behind them. Also I warned them a about the possibility of "griefers" and that they could encounter mature areas with explicit sexual materials.

Being with them in a lab where they could see my view projected on a screen made dealing with any problems easier. Plus they go to see several amusing teleporter incidents.

One thing I might have done in retrospect is give them some Second Life money (Lindens) to spend since they just got free basic memberships.There were several vending machines in the science areas selling shirts and other goodies for nominal fees say 10$L and that might have been fun. Fortunately Max had outs of free shirts for the group.

Thanks to Max for graciously taking the time to show us around and JCCC's Ed Tech Center for providing lab space for our trip.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Delicate Plant


I get periodic alerts from our local garden store when new succulents arrive and among the recent arrivals was this really cool little plant. The label said Kalanchoe and I almost passed the plant by because I don't have good luck with this genus. I like growing plants but it just seems that some common things just elude me even though people with cast iron thumbs instead of green thumbs can get them to grow in groves. Aloe vera is another such plant.

Either I forget to neglect them or the cat knocks the pot over or a sudden tornado flings the pot against the house and the plant gets sucked into a vortex and deposited in Missouri somewhere..stuff like that. Why just yesterday I lost a Cyclamen to our dumb as a post Siamese cat, Carl who decided to knock the pot on the floor, a cyclamen that belongs to my wife's boss and was loaned to me to nurse back to health. It was doing great too. Maybe I can salvage it.

Oh back to my new plant. A little search on the web on my cell phone while at the garden store suggested that this plant belongs to a section within the genus Kalanchoe called Bryophyllum from Madagascar that includes one of those nifty plants called mother of thousands that grows new plants asexually along the leaf margins. My plant based on matching pictures-I know dangerous to do this- appears to be K. Bryophyllum porphyrocalyx.

According to this site this plant grows about 35cm tall and is a common ornamental and hanging plant. Still I think a handsome looking plant compared to those garish Kalanchoes one sees so often in the stores. Besides even common plants hold surprises if you know where to look or just happen to stumble upon them.

Tonight I decided to take a few more quick macros of the plant which is now producing pollen. Take a look at this funky green pollen. I don't think I have seen guacamole colored pollen before, but here it is.



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Are You Listening?

Well, if not, listen to this tirade against gays.

Courtesy of Bialogue.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Scare tactic alert

The Intelligent Design Community is eagerly awaiting the release of that boffo documentary exposing the academic cabal surrounding Darwinism (gee maybe I should write for the Discovery Institute), "Expelled", starring that well known scientist Ben Stein.

Since I am clearly in a boffo mood today, I call your attention to the latest buzz. According to the New York Times, Michael Moore he of Sicko fame was dis-invited from a screening of Expelled.

Allegedly, according to the film's promoters, the film has some rough edges and not considered ready for "professional scrutiny". Of course it is ready for screening at various mega church groups who have lost any ability to think critically so rough edges won't bother them so long as the film is appropriately anti evolution and paints evolutionary scientists as totally dogmatic and picking on the poor Intelligent Design Advocates.

What I found interesting is that Stein in commenting about the film says:

“there’s just a lot of people who don’t believe that big science and Darwinism should have a stranglehold on academic life, and they have been waiting for a voice.”

Notice how now there are two enemies. One is Darwinism, but the other is "big science." I suppose that is something like big Church (oops). But the term "big science" perhaps harkens to a more innocent time when scientists labored alone in their labs-that's the type of science the Intelligent Design people do except they don't have labs.

Big science....hmmm yes a lot of science is done on a massive scale and there are certainly a number of reasons for that. Some of that has to do with the complexity of the problems that face us today. But big science- and lets throw in big technology to boot- has been around since the 1930's and is not going away. Anyone read about the Manhattan Project?

Big science-sounds scary but Mr. Stein can pine for the good old days but remember that he and others who use this phrase in a disparaging way are simply trying to avoid applying critical thinking to understanding the world around them. They don't want to because critical thinking would show the weakness in the Intelligent Design idea and that would mean no one would go see his film.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

What happens when we die?

I'm not thinking of the big question here, but as our lives get more and more online, what happens to all those pieces of stuff that we leave online? And equally important, will anyone know we are gone as opposed to merely lost interest or a bad connection?

Well a Second Life cyber friend of mine, Mike Burleigh has set up a cyber memorial oriented mainly to Second LIfe Life Residents who have died.

The memorial is at Second Life users who are on a machine with SL installed can paste the slurl into their web browser to launch the SL map and teleport over.

Seems macabre at first until you think about how intertwined we are with the web.

New Features in Second Life

One thing Second Life users have long been screaming for is better integration with the web. Linden Lab's new Second Life client finally address these issues. First is an integrated media browser that allows the user to open a web page in a dedicated Second Life window rather than launching an external browser page. This feature works like OnRez's internal media browser.


What is really cool is that I can open my blog page and work on my blog from within Second Life. I am not sure if OnRez does this. But as a blogger I think this is really slick to be able to do.

SL has also introduced the ability to display a web page on a Second Life object or prim. This goes a a long way to enabling complex displays including large amounts of text on a prim, something that up to now has taken some really kludgy work arounds. To the left is a picture showing my avatar, Simone, with the media viewer interface on the left and my blog displayed on a prim.

There are some limitations. Right now you can not have multiple web pages displayed on the same parcel. Also the visitor cannot interact with the web page. So even though the web page's scroll bars show up on the prim, the user can't interact with the page.


However, if I am giving an in world presentation on my land or land where I have permissions I could control the display of pages from within the media browser. It is a bit clunky but you could do it. I think this would be most useful for web pages with URL's that include targets to areas with the page, or blogs where you want to display different entries.

Second Life's official blog has more information for Second Life users about these new features.