Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Strange dreams

I woke up dreaming of geese. Large, gray African geese, the type that can make even a Jehovah's Witness think twice about stepping into a yard. We used to have such geese -- they scared the bejesus out of everyone who had the misfortune of turning their backs on the velociraptors waterfowl. But that was over 30 years ago. . . so why am I dreaming about geese now?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Dark Banquet

This was one of the niftiest books I'd read in awhile. I picked it up in the gift shop at Hot Springs National Park back in September. The author starts off by talking about vampire bats -- the subject of his original Ph.D. research -- but gets into describing a variety of predators and parasites that live on blood. Did you know leeches used to be one of the preferred treatments for hemorrhoids? Physicians would put little silk leashes on the wee beasties to make sure they didn't wander too far afield while fulfilling their therapeutic mission.

The popularity of leeches for treating a wide range of human ailments almost drove one species of leech (Hirudo medicinalis) into extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. The demand was so great that more leeches were being harvested than the natural reproduction rate could sustain. Fortunately for the leeches, medical practices changed and leeching stopped being viewed as a cure-all for every ailment. Leeches never totally vanished from medicine and are still being used today, but their application is much more specialized.

Interesting though the leeches were, the best part of the book is probably the section on vampire bats. Vampire bats pose all sorts of challenges for researchers. Among other things, they can be remarkably fastidious -- it's hard to keep some species alive in captivity. There's apparently more involved in bat care than just wandering down to the local slaughterhouse and requesting buckets of fresh blood. You also need a flock of donor chickens that the bats can sample occasionally -- maybe there is something to that staple of vampire fiction, the life source or life energies? Characters in vampire novels are always complaining that, yes, it is possible to survive for awhile on bags of blood pilfered from the Red Cross, but it's not enough -- every so often a vampire needs to get its blood from a real live victim.

One thing that surprised me was learning just how tiny the typical vampire bat is. Seeing a drawing of the preferred position of one species while feeding on chickens roosting in a tree makes it pretty clear that the image perpetuated in horror films -- the huge flapping monstrous bats that look like they could suck an ox dry in record time -- is well removed from reality. Vampire bats are tiny. Of course, if you get dozens of the critters all wanting to feed on just one or two animals, the host animal is going to be in trouble pretty quickly. Farmers in Trinidad lose chickens fairly often to vampire bats -- one bat may not take enough blood for the bird to notice, but multiple bats can cause anemia severe enough to kill a hen quickly.

Illustrations in the book are nicely done and do a great job of complementing the text. As science books go, this one was a joy to read and one I'd highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in biology or the natural world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Isolation has its charms

One of the great things about moving back to the U.P. has been the relative isolation from the mindless noise machine that is the mainstream media. We're so far out in the boonies that we can't be tempted to sell our souls to Comcast or Charter, and we're not feeling sufficiently television-deprived yet to fall for a sales pitch from DISH. We are now enjoying a life refreshingly free of noise from the chattering classes.

Oh, there is radio, of course, if I feel the need for a news fix, but local news tends to consist of reports about lost dogs, and national news is courtesy of NPR -- and NPR, regardless if it's Morning Edition or All Things Considered, is valium for the ears. The discourse is always so thoroughly modulated and toned down that they could be telling us a giant flaming meteor is heading straight for earth and we're all going to be dead before sundown, and the listener reaction would be to yawn and think, oh, good, now I don't have to feel guilty about eating that second Danish.

That's not to say we haven't been leading a totally television-free life. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (i.e., the Intertubes), I can indulge my C-SPAN addiction (although I've been able to ignore it for the past week), and we can view some news and opinion programs: both Al Jazeera and Russian TV do live streams of their programming. I love Al Jazeera. They do long reports on serious issues, quality reporting on real world problems that would never make the cut on any U.S. network, broadcast or cable. Last night I watched a fascinating piece on controversies in wildlife conservation (the general theme was is it worth it to invest millions of dollars trying to preserve an iconic species, e.g., giant pandas, or should preservation focus more on preserving species diversity and habitat?) (Is it worth it to keep pandas going if the only places they can survive are in artificial environments like zoos?). Maybe a program like Frontline on PBS would do a similar report, but I'm skeptical. 

Of course, even Al Jazeera could not resist wading into the weeds that are the Herman Cain campaign. The latest revelations about Cain did absolutely nothing to dispel my belief that he never intended to be taken seriously as a candidate. His campaign organization was close to nonexistent, he manages to say something truly stupid on a regular basis, and he had to know reports of the harassment claims (and their subsequent settlements) would eventually surface. His plan had to be to simply raise his profile to the point where it helped up his speaking fees and (if he got lucky) land him a gig on Fox News as a commentator/co-host. Instead, in the bizarro world that the current members of the Republican Party inhabit, the more inept and sleazy Cain looks, the higher his poll numbers go. It's a whole new level of It's Okay if You're a Republican. The same folks who were outraged, truly, truly outraged that Bill Clinton had an intern volunteer to perform sexual favors are just fine with the Pizza Man grabbing some unsuspecting woman's head and shoving it towards his lap. The stupid, it burns.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Time to unpack the mittens

The weather forecast was for 1 to 3 inches. We're up to at least 6, and it's still coming down.

Update: Grand total appears to be a little over a foot of the type of snow kids love -- wet and sticky, perfect for building snowmen.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sweet Jesus, we're moving to Mordor

We've moved. Sort of. We still have to unload the U-Haul at the storage unit, but we're definitely back in Upper Michigan. It does feel good to be back on the tundra even though there were a few moments along the way -- like when I saw that black wall of clouds on the horizon that just seemed to scream SNOW! while heading north on I-39 -- when I started wondering just what type of idiot decides to move North in November.

If we are lucky (or smart) this will be the last move we do that we actually do ourselves. When and if there's a next time, I have no intention of being the poor sap actually schlepping the boxes on to the truck. I always think of us as being rather nonmaterialistic, not the type of people to have a lot of "stuff," but it felt like it took forever to get our not-much-stuff out of a small 1-bedroom apartment. I kept thinking this was going to be an easier move than the one from Omaha to Atlanta because I'd thinned things out more (including donating a couple large pieces of furniture to Salvation Army). I was wrong. It took every bit as long to load the truck this time as it did back in 2007.

Now that we're here, of course, the S.O. and I have to figure out how to integrate our not-much-stuff into a cabin that's already fully furnished. I need to set up a home office space for my computer so we won't be pushing and shoving over whose turn it is to use the laptop, which is going to be tricky because we're both pretty thoroughly addicted to wandering around the blogosphere. And I need to go shopping for a parka -- it hit me yesterday that here we are, back in the land of winters that last 6 months, and I no longer own a jacket designed for surviving snow and subzero temperatures. It may be above freezing outside today, but that's not going to last much longer.