Falling leaves and stuff

October 15, 2010

Nice clear, brisk, breezy fall day, and the pigeons are out swooping around feeling frisky.  So are the people – dodging pedestrians and cars dashing randomly into the street on the way in.  A few blocks after an ambulance passed in the other direction with lights and siren, there were another ambulance and a police car stopped in the middle of the road picking up after what looked like a pedestrian crackup.  Three blocks past that, screeching tires as a line of cars going the other way  came to a sudden stop, the last 2 not as quickly as they might have wanted.  Less than half a mile past that, two cars off the road, one up against a tree, and a police car collecting information.  Luckily I make it a practice not to gawk at accidents, so I was able to see and avoid the car which came darting out of a side street into my lane as I passed the accident scene.   Supposedly there is a law now banning use of hand-held phones while driving in this state.  Drivers are taking that as seriously as they take the traffic regulations, and I’m betting it will be enforced as rigorously as the traffic regulations are presently enforced – randomly and sporadically, but generally ignored by the police.  It’s a shame, really – if there were no laws, or the laws were enforced, I suspect the driving would be more predictable.  As it is, about a quarter of us try to obey the laws all the time, maybe half of us try to obey the laws when it’s convenient, and the rest simply drive as the whim takes them.  That makes for a very dangerous and unpredictable mix on the roads.  It’s similar to the situation on the highway, where about 10% of the drivers are driving at or below the speed limit, maybe 60% are at up to about 10 mph above the limit, and the rest are doing 20-30 mph or more above the limit, and weaving in and out, tailgating and cutting drivers off.  I’m amazed every day that I don’t see more bad accidents.   I still don’t understand why so many drivers insist on forcing their way into a lane, cutting off a car, when there is up to a mile of clear road behind that car.  It can’t be simply testosterone poisoning, since young women do it as much as young men.  Taking out frustrations?  Blind arrogance?  Something else?

In other news, the butterflies are gone now – no more Monarchs cruising past, and the flowers are bare of anything other than a few late bees and an occasional wasp.  Another Peregrine flypast at work; one of these years we’ll have a nesting pair here.  Another dead migrant at the base of the new building; this one was a sparrow, at least.  With the warbler numbers dropping off so much, I don’t see them dead on the sidewalk much any more in the fall.  We were doing an outing last weekend and saw a sort of minor kettle – about 8 Turkey Vultures, maybe another 6 Black Vultures and a single Red-tail.  I haven’t seen a real kettle of hawks in maybe a dozen years or more – I wonder how the numbers have been looking at Cape May and Hawk Mountain.   A big Araneid has moved into our porch and has a good-sized web up in the corner.  Looks like Neoscona crucifera.  It was fun watching her build the web initially – we first noticed her dangling upside-down from the eaves, holding her legs in a very odd manner.  It was only when looking at the photos later on that the silk was visible – she was laying out the initial anchor line, and once that was solid, she got the framework up and the spiral spun pretty quickly.  I don’t know how much longer the pickings will be good near the porch light, and she doesn’t really look big enough to lay yet, so she may overwinter and go for more next year.  I’m not sure how often or how regularly Araneids do this, and I also don’t know if the pattern is changing as the winters continue to get warmer.

About 2/3 of the trees are still green, but a fair number are brown and dropping leaves.  Not much color change apart from the Blackgums; even the poison ivy is more yellow than red, where it is changing at all.  Doesn’t look like a good foliage year, and I bet this will be the new normal.

Before I forget

October 12, 2010

One nice thing about science is that it’s still done by people, so that you can see pretty much all the range of behaviors and attitudes in science that you’ll get at the most insane political gathering.  Different proportions, maybe, but the same range.  Thinking about various things like the wild-eyed political insanity that has gripped the GOP over the past few decades, and other things like the contentious issue of ‘Global Warming’, I was reminded of the controversy over the ancestry of birds.  Over a century ago, with the discovery of Archeopteryx, it was proposed that birds are dinosaur descendants (BADD) – after all, take away the feathers from Archy and you’ve got just another small dromeosaur-type theropod.  That didn’t last, of course – it soon became ‘common knowledge’ that birds could not have come from dinosaurs and therefore had to be descended from some other archosaur line.  I suspect the need for that determination may have come from the prevailing view in the early part of the 20th century that dinosaurs were great, plodding, cold-blooded brutes which could not possibly have given rise to such zippy things as birds.   When John Ostrom described Deinonychus in the 1960s, that view got a jolt – suddenly some dinosaurs looked active, speedy, even possibly warm-blooded.  Bob Bakker took that idea and ran with it with notable success, being a photogenic kind of guy who wasn’t shy about publicity, and then John Horner’s dinosaur nesting discoveries and popularization of Armand de Ricqles’ dinosaur bone studies made dinosaur ancestry of birds look very plausible.  The not-BADD camp naturally didn’t accept this sort of non-traditional thinking and set out to again find reasons why the apparently obvious could not actually be correct.

The original justification for this evolutionary impossibility, back in the early days of the 20th century, was that dinosaurs had no furcula (wishbone); not just that – they had no clavicles (collar bones) from which the furcula is formed.  Whoops – turns out they actually did; those bones were there all the time, just damaged or misidentified.  OK, then; well, no dinosaurs had feathers – that held up for a while until the Chinese sedimentary beds were opened up, that preserved dinosaurs in detail as fine as the Bavarian beds that gave us Archy, and from which we now know that a variety of theropods had feathers.  Well, how about this: birds have a semi-lunate carpal in the wrist; dinosaurs don’t!  So there, you think you’re so smart!  Well, just as with the furcula, it turns out that the semi-lunate carpal was there all  along, just misidentified or not always part of the skeletal remains.  Each time The Reason is removed, another Reason is proposed to explain why birds cannot have come from dinosaurs, but what it boils down to is “We have our conclusion; we just have to find something to support it!”  Never mind all the similarities, structurally, physiologically and even behaviorally; there must be a difference that will conclusively prove to us that it’s all simply an incredible level of convergent evolution!  The latest Reason is that the reduced hands of birds have lost different fingers than the reduced hands of theropods.  An interesting argument, certainly, but just as with all the other Reasons, one has to wonder why one factor (which may or may not actually be correct) should over-ride the myriad of other factors pointing in the opposite direction.  The tricky bit, of course, is that what little we know about dinosaurs is based on what fossil evidence we can find.  In the first place, this can often be somewhat inconclusive (even to the point of allowing multiple interpretations), and in the second place, people being people, it’s quite impressive how everything can be seen only in that way which supports our desired conclusion.

We humans have an immeasurable ability to see only what we want to and explain away or simply ignore anything that doesn’t fit our desired reality.  You see it all around, in politics and the press; in sports and religion; in dating and marriage.  We can even invent a reality to live in, and try to force the world to fit into it with us (usually with tragic results).  Then, of course, the usual cry goes up:  “I didn’t mean for this to happen!”  “Nobody could have predicted this!”  “It’s [somebody else]’s fault!”, but then, of course, it’s too late to do anything useful about it except try to clean up the mess as best possible and convince ourselves that we were completely correct, but that some bizarre fluke of history or act of God made things turn out this way, and nothing could have prevented it.  ‘What a piece of work is man’ – not only do we not learn easily, we frequently get rid of what little we’ve learned, I guess because thinking makes our heads hurt.

minor update

October 7, 2010

Have to remember to summary the late summer – butterfly finals, bird and spider finals, rabbit nest in front yard, etc.

Yesterday was the last day of Chimney Swift stragglers around the big stack next to the building; no sign of them today.  Instead, a flock of Blackbirds over the hospital looking like a hawk in the offing, but I didn’t see one.  We’ve had a yearling Peregrine bopping around a bit, so maybe, or maybe one of our local urban Sharp-shins.  Speaking of urban wildlife, a dead Raccoon in the road this morning, looking very healthy and well-fed (before it became road-kill last night, anyway).  Haven’t seen the (resident?) Red-tail in months, so presumably gone to greener pastures or killed by one of the local gang-bangers; the neighborhood shooting has gone way down since the Cedonia gang seems to have successfully absorbed us and fought off the Harford Road guys, but we still have action most weekends.  No more auto-weapon fire, thank goodness; back to the big handguns and shotguns, and once in a while a whack that sounds more like a .225 rifle or some such.  The old standby 9mm seems to have gone out of fashion; I hardly ever hear the pop-pop-pop any more.  Presumably the .44s and Desert Eagles are the new handgun of choice among the discerning thugnoscenti.