31 August 2008

Sunday sermon: Death and personal immortality

We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency1.

Only in so far as I am identifying my mind with an absolute or unconditioned mind can I see any probability of my survival, and the more I do so the less I am interested in my private affairs and the less desire do I feel for personal immortality. The belief in my own eternity seems to me indeed to be a piece of unwarranted self-glorification, and the desire for it a gross concession to selfishness. In so far as I set my heart on things that will not perish with me, I automatically remove the sting from my death. I am far more interested in the problems of science than in the question of what, if anything, will happen to me when I am dead2.

When people die, their relatives and friends behave as if there were some moral significance in the dead body. They ignore the fact that the “last remains” are just that, the material that happened, at the time of death, to provide the medium of expression for a human life3. Our morticians insist that we buy expensive hermetically sealed caskets, so I suppose we may look forward to a much longer period of decomposition. Doubtless the hermetically sealed casket will go down in history as one of the crowning achievements of Western civilization4.

1. Verbatim from Jacques Monod, Chance & Necessity, 1971.
2. With slight changes from J.B.S. Haldane,
When I am Dead, 1927.
3. Verbatim from George C. Williams,
The Pony Fish’s Glow, 1997.
4. With slight changes from Howard Ensign Evans,
Life on a Little Known Planet, 1968.

29 August 2008

Have you ever taken a snail to Constantinople? (I have)

A recent search of Google Books using the keywords "snail" and "Constantinople" produced several hits. One of them was Method in Almsgiving: A Handbook for Helpers, by Matthew Weston Moggridge, published in 1882. It had nothing to do either with snails or Constantinople, but featured this statement on p. 97:

Patience and a little cold-cream are said to have taken a snail to Constantinople...
I suppose the implied meaning is that if a creature so slow as a snail can eventually reach Constantinople (but from where?), then a patient human being (with a little help from ointments and the like) will sooner or later accomplish what he/she set out to accomplish.

Then I got curious about the origin and the exact form of this proverb, if I may call it that. Was it patience and a little cold-cream have taken a snail to Constantinople or patience and a little cold-cream will take a snail to Constantinople or something else along those lines? And who said it and when?

Searching the Internet via Google using various combinations of “snail, Constantinople, cold cream, patience” or possible fragments such as “snail to Constantinople” did not produce anything even remotely relevant other than the cited book itself. Nevertheless, some noteworthy quotations featuring Constantinople and snails surfaced.

For example, this one from The sons of Erin; or, Modern sentiments by Alicia Le Fanu (1812):
Fitz. Yes, Madam, I have measured some ground;—France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Prussia—East and West Indies-—North and South America-—Newfoundland and the Cape of Good Hope—Botany Bay—Turkey, which I think the finest country in the world. Pray, Madam, were you ever tempted to go to Constantinople?
Or this one from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) (1831):
[Quasimodo’s] salient angles fitted, so to speak, into the retreating angles of the [Cathedral] till he seemed not its inhabitant, but its natural tenant. He might almost be said to have taken on its shape, as the snail does that of its shell.
As for the pedigree of the saying about taking a snail to Constantinople, however, I am still in the dark. Pray, my readers, enlighten, if you can, me or Deniz over at The Girdle of Melian.

28 August 2008

A butterfly that may have been laying eggs

As was mentioned in this post, one of butterflies I photographed last weekend was a Strymon melinus (gray hairstreak). I took several shots of that particular individual and later when I was looking at the pictures on my computer, I noticed that in most of the pictures the butterfly had the tip of its abdomen curved down towards the flower buds it was perched on.


I thought the butterfly was probably laying eggs and the brownish object sticking out from near the tip of its abdomen in the next picture was perhaps one of its eggs (it is more clearly visible in the original high resolution image).


I sent these 2 pictures to 2 lepidopterists I am in touch with, Torben Larsen and Don Harvey and both responded. One of them said:
...it is a female Strymon melinus exhibiting oviposition behavior. They usually lay eggs on flower bud of legumes or mallows, tucking them out of sight (between bracts, buds, etc.). The eggs are white, if I recall correctly. What you are seeing in the second photograph are the pair of ovipositor lobes at the tip of the abdomen (not eggs).
And the other one said:
I would think it is examining the plant in question while considering laying eggs. However, there does not yet seem to be a full commitment to so doing. I was going to suggest checking against the plant, but it seems that S. melinus will eat practically anything! The type of place is suitable for laying.
So now I know that a butterfly's downward curved abdomen is an indication of oviposition or at least, preparation for it.

27 August 2008

Chi Po, Bu Fu and the latter’s one-eyed bulbul

Oscar Mandel is an emeritus professor of literature at the California Institute of Technology as well as an author of poems, plays and stories. In 1964 he published a novella called Chi Po and the Sorcerer. A Chinese Tale for Children and Philosophers. Since then he revised the story and published a French edition of it in 2004, but having failed to find a new publisher for it in the U.S., he put up the story, now with the reversed subtitle, A Chinese Tale for Philosophers and Children, on the Internet this year for all to download for free from here. How can we ever thank him enough for his deed?

The hero of the story is Chi Po, a young lad who wants to become a painter. One day, while wandering up a mountain, he runs into Bu Fu, a seemingly ill-tempered old sorcerer who lives in a cave with Stefan, his one-eyed bulbul. Bu Fu becomes Chi Po’s painting teacher and, with a bit of Taoism here and a touch of Zen there, opens his pupil’s eyes to seeing the things around him in a different way and teaches him "the fullness of emptiness and the emptiness of fullness."

"Only the piddling paint-slapper paints everything,” Bu Fu had said. “We with a morsel express the banquet."
Eventually the two become friends. But after Bu Fu reveals his secret on a faithful day following a thunderstorm, both Chi Po and the bulbul desert the sorcerer each to go his own way, while Bu Fu stays behind in his cave. (No need to despair, a story like this can only have a happy end.)

This is a funny, entertaining, easy-to-read story flavored with frequent tidbits of eastern philosophy. But P’u! to Oscar Mandel, for he didn’t run his spell checker or proofread his manuscript carefully before putting it up on the Internet.

On page 10, "orogenous" should be erogenous (unless the author was referring to orogeny); on page 11, "immoirtal" is supposed to be immortal; on page 29, the last sentence would make more sense if it were, "And that was pretty often, because by now he had [lost] much of his fear of the old sorcerer, and even the horrid beard did not trouble him anymore"; on page 35, "taveren" is tavern; on page 56, an extra space was left between "creaking" and the comma after it; on page 57, "wherre" is to be where; on page 77, the sentence "'He accepts!' thundered Chi Po’s, running to Bu Fu" should have said "thundered Chi Po."

Typos aside, there are plenty of useful spells to be memorized and lessons to be learned for all of us in Chi Po and the Sorcerer.
"Do you confess yourself a loyal subject of the Emperor, willing to shed your last drop of blood for him?"
"My last drop of blood is unstintingly his to command."
May we all be as loyal to our emperors as Bu Fu was to his.

26 August 2008

Tangled innards of a snail or how we know the intelligent designer was a klutz

This is the 2nd part of Snail dissection in progress: Oxyloma retusa. The 1st part is here.

In the previous post I expressed my confusion about a certain muscle I had observed among the genitalia of the land snail Oxyloma retusa. I thought the muscle in question was inserting near the junction of the vagina and the penis.

Subsequent and more careful examination of the dissection revealed that I was slightly mistaken about where that particular muscle was going. But, first, here is a picture for orientation purposes. We are looking into the snail's head with the overlaying skin as well as the mantle conveniently removed out of the way. The buccal mass is where the radula resides and the ring-like organ immediately below it and encircling the esophagus may be called the snail's brain, for that's where all the nerves coming from different corners of the snail's body congregate.


Now, for a larger picture from a different angle, click on the thumbnail.

I forgot to add a scale bar; the penis plus epiphallus was about 3.8 mm long.

Find the retractor muscle entering from the right and its 2 branches that I labeled 1 and 2. Branch #1 passes in between the penis and the vagina and goes to the right (upper) tentacle. The branch #2 is what I colored green in yesterday's drawing. I thought it was inserting near the junction of the vagina and the penis. But as you can in the big picture, branch #2 actually continues further to the front of the snail's head. Nevertheless, it is also attached to the base of the penis by some fine connective tissue fibers. So, I wasn't that wrong.

The drawing below, showing the branches of the columellar muscle of Helix pomatia, is from the last volume of Libbie Hyman's incomplete series The Invertebrates, published in 1967 shortly before she died. She attributed the original drawing to a 1916 publication by someone named Trappmann. The muscle she labeled 4 is what I labeled 1, while her muscle #2, which I colored green, is the same as my #2.


Quoting from Hyman [italics mine]:
In [Helix pomatia] the [columellar] muscle, after leaving its origin on the columella, forks into right and left parts, of which the smaller right part sends a branch into each tentacle on that side and then loses itself in the tissues of the foot.
So now I know which muscle I am working with. The new problem I have is that the branch (#2) that is supposed to be going to the lower tentacle (not visible in my photographs) doesn't go there in O. retusa as far as I can tell. I followed it carefully as far as it went, but it never went down to the lower tentacle; it simply lost itself on the inner side of the skin. Perhaps that is what it does in the Succineidea.

Now, click back on the thumbnail for the larger picture again and take another look at the convoluted arrangement of all the pieces around the genitalia. The branch #1 of the muscle goes in between the penis and the vagina and under the vas deferens; the branch #2 goes under the nerves from the tentacle; the vas deferens, on the other hand, has to go around the branch #1 and the nerves just to get to the other side.

Would an intelligent designer–if he was truly intelligent–be satisfied with such a messy creation? What we have here is the product of a blind evolutionary process that was tinkering with what was available to it without any concern for neatness as long as everything it came up with passed natural selection.

I will finish with a couple of quotes. The 1st is from John Maynard Smith (The problems of biology, 1986):
There are many features of animals which could be improved on, and which are as they are because of the legacy of the past...This kind of maladaptive feature would be hard to explain if we had been designed by an all-wise creator, but it is to be expected if structures change their functions in the course of evolution.
Can we consider the convoluted arrangement of the inside of a snail to be maladaptive? Perhaps, but even if it weren't maladaptive, Maynard Smith's point would still be valid for the seemingly unnecessary complications that we are seeing.

The 2nd quote is from François Jacob (The possible and the actual, 1982):
In contrast to the engineer, evolution does not produce innovations from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it a new function or combining several systems to produce a more complex one. Natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior. If one wanted to use a comparison, however, one would have to say that this process resembles not engineering but tinkering, bricolage we say in French.

Evolution the tinkerer, it seems, doesn't care much about neatness.

25 August 2008

Snail dissection in progress: Oxyloma retusa

I have dissected several specimens of the land snail Oxyloma retusa and figured out the make-up and the arrangement of the components of their genitalia. But at the moment I am a bit confused about the relation of the retractor muscle of the right tentacle with the genitalia.

I normally take photographs, but last nite I had time only for a freehand drawing. Although I am not very good at it, drawings are useful–if they make sense later–to establish a quick record of whatever one is observing.


In most pulmonates, the retractor muscle of the right tentacle passes between the penis and the vagina. Why is it there and not out of the way, say, underneath the genitalia? That's because evolution doesn't work with pre-planned designs and is not concerned with neatness. Whatever works stays around even if it's a bit awkward.

To those of you who are not familiar with the complicated genitalia of pulmonates the above drawing will not mean much. Just find the arrow labeled "retractor of right tentacle" and then notice that the darker colored retractor passes between the vagina on the left and the penis on the right (remember, they are hermaphrodites). What is confusing me is the branch of the retractor that I drew in green. That branch seems to insert to the base of the vagina and I don't remember noticing that in other species of pulmonates I have dissected. I will examine this particular dissection again later tonite and try to sort things out. I will also take pictures.

I will end with a disclaimer: This is a work in progress and my interpretations presented here are subject to change. Use them at your own risk!

Part 2 is here.

I waited patiently for 71582788 minutes

The pictures of the dead Epargyreus clarus I photographed yesterday were still on the camera's CompactFlash memory card when I mistakenly erased them last nite. They were not really important, but I decided to try to recover them anyway. The card, by SanDisk, had come with a file recovery software called RescuePro. I started running it and this message appeared on the screen.


That would be 1193046.5 hours or 49710.2 days or 136.2 years! So I waited.

It took about 71582788 10 min to recover the erased pictures. Later, when I was saving the recovered files, the same message came up again, although it took even less, only a few minutes, to write them to the hard drive.

RescuePro recovered the smaller JPG files, but missed the Olympus RAW files that were also on the card.

24 August 2008

Sunday's butterflies


I photographed this one Friday afternoon in Seneca Creek State Park. I didn't know what it was other than that it was a skipper of some sort, so on Friday nite I posted this picture on BugGuide.net. A few hours later someone suggested that it may be a dun skipper (Euphyes vestris). The last time I thought something I had photographed was a dun skipper I turned out to be wrong. But the head colors of that butterfly and this one are indeed different.

The next one, also photographed in Seneca Creek State Park was easier to identify: Strymon melinus (gray hairstreak). They were featured before in this post.


Last and least, a dead Epargyreus clarus (silver-spotted skipper).


I found this one on the sidewalk near my house. It is a common species around here, but I think this is their first appearance on the blog.

22 August 2008

Pictures from high above 12: Salaberry Island, St. Lawrence River


Here is yet another aerial shot I took during my flight to Montreal in July. It shows the northeast tip of Salaberry Island on St. Lawrence River; Montreal is just about 20 km to the further northeast. But don't let the orientation confuse you: the top of my picture is south.

Here is the picture from Google Earth oriented in the traditional way with north towards the top.


The picture from high above No. 11 was Oneida Lake & Brewerton, New York.

21 August 2008

How slugs evolved from snails

Speed Bump by Dave Coverly

The old news about Papillifera papillaris from Cliveden

Early this morning the BBC reported the "discovery" of the clausiliid land snail Papillifera papillaris in Cliveden, a large house from 1851 in Buckinghamshire, UK*. The snails are believed to be native to Italy and have been introduced to some other countries along the Mediterranean, but had not been found in the UK until recently.

Although the BBC report, without actually giving a date, creates the impression that the P. papillaris colony at Cliveden has just been found, the record dates to 2004 and the unnamed "snail specialist" who actually identified the species was Janet Ridout Sharpe. She reported the find for the first time in March 2005 in the AMG Newsletter #7 (p. 6).

Subsequently, I wrote a note about my finding of the same species in Istanbul, Turkey for the AMG Newsletter #9, p. 6, which prompted my friend Burçin A. Gümüş to present even more records from Turkey in the AMG Newsletter #10, p. 6. (Why were they always on p. 6?)

A picture of a P. papillaris shell is available in this post.

Incidentally, according to this recent ICZN opinion 2176, the correct name of this species should be Papillifera bidens Linnaeus, 1758.

*Appreciations to budak for posting a link to the article after this post of mine.

20 August 2008

Why their prophet is better than the other guys’ prophet (or vice versa)

The latest book I downloaded from Google Books is the volume 3 of William Turner’s Journal of a Tour in the Levant published in 1820. This is the more than 550-page account of Turner’s travels in Turkey and the Middle East in 1815.

I haven’t read the book yet, but while skimming thru it, the following sentence on the bottom of p. 528 attracted my attention.

The Greek priests are very fond of pointing out to the Turks the first verse of the 110th psalm, to which they have often boasted to me, the infidels could give no answer, as it can only relate to the supremacy of Christ.
Before I proceed, an explanation is necessary to clarify Turner’s statement: what he means by "Turks" is "Moslems who are Turks." I should also point out that most Turkish peasants of the 1810s were illiterate and probably did not know enough Arabic in any case to understand the Koran, which had traditionally been supplied in Arabic (and was translated into Turkish only relatively recently).

After I read Turner’s statement, I got curious about the first verse of the 110th psalm that was so "decisive" a weapon in the struggle of Christianity against Islam. Lacking a copy of the Bible, I e-mailed Deniz and she got back to me with the subject verse.
The Lord said to my Lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool.
At first, this was a puzzle to me. I couldn’t see any significance in it. I had my lunch and went out for a walk.

While walking, I started thinking about the 110th psalm and suddenly understood its significance as if I had received an inspiration from above! So there is a God! Ha, Ha, Ha...

The Greek priests were probably implying that not only was God directly communicating with Jesus, but that he was also letting Jesus be his "right hand man," so to speak, and that at the same time, assuring Jesus that he was going to subdue Jesus's enemies. In summary, it seemed that God was siding with Jesus.

If the poor, illiterate Moslem Turks could have read and understood their Korans, they could have easily come up with an equally effective and unanswerable (by the priests) counter statement from the Koran to establish the supremacy of their prophet Mohammed. For example, here is what the opening paragraph of sura 72* says:
He [Allah] has taken no wife, nor has He begotten any children.
And according to sura 48:
Mohammed is Allah's apostle.
So, there you have it; the Greek priests were wrong. Or were they? There are probably many more statements in the Bible and the Koran that demonstrate that Jesus and Mohammed each is more supreme than the other. But who is right and who is to decide? Certainly not me, for I have left all of this below me a long time ago.

The deeper issue here is that we are dealing with 2 religions that supposedly believe in the same god but nevertheless have conflicting teachings. If they resolved their conflicts, they would become more or less one and the same religion. But neither side would accept a resolution, because that would mean that their previous conflicting "God-given" beliefs were in fact wrong.

As long as each side thinks theirs is the "true" religion and continues to stick to their conflicting beliefs, all arguments and counter arguments are pointless, unresolvable and just stupid.

*From the translation by N.J. Dawood published by the Penguin Books, 4th ed., 1974. Exact wording differs between translations.

19 August 2008

Hummingbird graffiti




Photographed in Germantown, Maryland a month ago.

18 August 2008

How to mark a snail shell

I had always used waterproof and fadeproof ink to mark the shells of live land snails. However, one problem with ink is that it isn't absorbed into the periostracum but stays on it and, sooner or later, even the most "permanent" ink flakes off. Nevertheless, I have had some success with ink-marking of live snails. For example, shells of live Vertigo pygmaea marked with a Pigma pen remained marked over about 4 winter months. But in that case, the snails were mostly dormant and didn’t do much crawling around.

Last winter I started ink-marking the shells of some live Triodopsis with Staedtler Permanent Lumocolor pens. The last marking was on 17 April when I marked 9 adults with a green pen. On 7 August I found 2 of those snails but their marks had become so fragmented that I didn’t realize they were marked until after I put them under the microscope.

So this time I decided to try something different and filed small notches into the lips of the shells of about a dozen Triodopsis and released them back where I had collected them.


The snails will probably repair their lips, but I am hoping that the scars will still be visible. I remember reading about this in a paper, but I haven’t had a chance to dip up the citation. Obviously, filing marks on shells wouldn’t be practical in the case of tiny species like Vertigo.

If I ever recover any of those Triodopsis, I will post an update here.

17 August 2008

Weekend's field trip: where did all the snails go?

Gina Meletakos and I went on a field trip in a wooded park this weekend. The weather was perfect–it had rained the night before, so everything was wet, and it drizzled lightly on and off while we were looking around–and there were many rotting trunks with loose litter around them–seemingly perfect spots for land snails. But, despite our 2 hours of scrutiny, we found only 5 species of gastropods. We did have a good time, though.

There were the usual Ventridens ligera and the carnivorous Haplotrema concavum. We put them near each other hoping that H. concavum (right) would make a meal out of V. ligera right there and then. But while the former was taking its time to emerge from its shell, Ventridens quickly left the spot.


Besides the introduced slug Arion subfuscus and the little native snail Zonitoides arboreus, we saw several of these juvenile native philomycid slugs, probably Philomycus carolinianus. This one was munching on a fungus growing on a dead tree.


Gina also caught this little froggie for a photo session. If I am not mistaken it was an eastern American toad (Bufo americanus americanus). Let Gina's fingers be the scale (and she's going to get warts now).


15 August 2008

Pelidnota punctata: grapevine beetle


I saw this big beetle (~25 mm long) on a sidewalk yesterday in College Park, Maryland. It kept opening its wings, but couldn't get itself off the ground. I also see in the picture that it may have been missing most of its right front leg. I think my Pelidnota punctata had seen better days and was on its way out.

My insect books narrowed the identification down to a couple of species and then, using the abundant pictures on BugGuide.net, I was able to select the grapevine beetle as the correct one. I have also posted this picture here on BugGuide.net.

Note that the legs of this specimen were brown; if you go thru the pictures on BugGuide.net, you will notice that there is a variety (different species?) that has black legs.

As its name implies, the grapevine beetle is supposed to feed on grapes. But I found this outside of a small wooded area. I don't think there were any grape plants in the vicinity.

Note added in the evening: Coincidentally, Myrmecos Blog also had a Pelidnota punctata picture today. That specimen has black legs and the wing covers seem to be more orange than those of my specimen.

14 August 2008

Fradulent call for manuscripts in the name of Elsevier

For the second time within the last month or so I have received a peculiar e-mail purporting to be from the publisher Elsevier and calling for the submission of manuscripts in all “Fields of human Endeavour. [sic].”

Several pieces of evidence make it obvious that these e-mails are not from Elsevier:

1. The e-mail I received today came from [elsevierpublishers@gmail.com] and asked that the manuscripts be sent to [elsevierpublishers@live.com]. The e-mail addresses of large companies like Elsevier don’t end with extensions of free e-mail services such as "gmail.com".

2. The text of the message was poorly composed and written with each line of the 1st paragraph capitalized. Elsewhere within the message, odd words were capitalized as, for example, in the sentence, “The paper Length [sic] should not exceed...”

3. The e-mail indicated that “Papers submitted will Be [sic] sorted out and published in any of our numerous journals that best Fits [sic].” You don’t just send a manuscript to a publisher and expect them to pick a journal for it. The author picks an appropriate journal and sends it to the editor of that journal. Besides, each journal usually has different requirements for how the manuscripts should be prepared. There is no generic manuscript format (unfortunately) that would be suitable for all journals. Therefore, a publisher wouldn’t call for manuscripts without also directing the prospective authors to where a set of “instructions for authors” may be found.

4. The e-mail was signed as “Rex Hammond(Prof.) [sic]”. This is an unusual format for stating the name and title of someone who is supposedly in charge of a journal. A more normal format would be something like “Rex Hammond, Ph.D., Editor in Chief, name of the journal”.

5. Finally, Elsevier is aware of these e-mails (here) and indicating that they are fradulent.

I suspect this is either a joke or a crude ploy of some sort perhaps to steal unpublished manuscripts. The warning from Elsevier also mentions a request for payment, although the e-mails I received didn't say that the authors would be asked to pay a fee.

13 August 2008

For my smart blog readers

We own a condo that we rent out, but because we are quite ignorant of the local landlord-tenant regulations, we leave all the paperwork and rent collection to a property management company. A recent letter from them started with the following salutation:

To all our valued property owners
"It is nice of them," I thought, "to appreciate their clients."

But, wait! Being the capitalists they are, do they instead mean To all our "valued property" owners? Maybe. Who knows?

The next time I write to them, I think I will start out with:
To my depreciated property manager

12 August 2008

White stork in Turkey

When he wasn't dealing with the mosquitos of Asia Minor back in the spring of 1765, Richard Chandler was touring the countryside and taking notes for his subsequent book Travels in Asia Minor: Or An Account of a Tour Made at the Expense of the Society of Dilettanti.

On the west coast of Turkey he encountered white storks (Ciconia ciconia) to which he referred as cranes. This is what he wrote about them:

The cranes were now arrived at their respective quarters, and a couple had made their nest, which is bigger in circumference than a bushel, on a dome close by our chamber. This pair stood, side by side, with great gravity, shewing no concern at what was transacting beneath them, but at intervals twisting about their long necks, and clattering with their beaks turned behind them upon their backs, as it were in concert...The crane is tall, like a heron, but much larger; the body white, with black pinions, the neck and legs very long, the head small, and the bill thick. The Turk call it friend and brother, believing it has an affection for their nation, and will accompany them into the countries they shall conquer. In the course of our journey, we saw one hopping on a wall with a single leg, the maimed stump wrapped in linen.
I don't know about conquering other countries, but the white storks have maintained their special relationship with the country folks of Anatolia.


Almost every village in Turkey probably has at least one stork nest on a tall building, a minaret or even a lamp post. I photographed these 2 nests in a village in southwest Turkey in May 2007. I don't really know how wide a "bushel" would be, but the nest in the photograph below was indeed quite large. Interestingly, it appears to be getting some structural support from the electric cables. I wonder what they would do if they needed to make repairs or replace the cables.


In Turkey, the storks or their nests are almost never maltreated. Unfortunately, however, according to this report, the breeding population of the white stork in Turkey may have declined in recent years.

11 August 2008

Reflections on snail photography—Part 1

The most useful photography book I have ever read is Alfred A. Blaker's Handbook for Scientific Photography (1977). Despite the fact that the book was written when photographers didn't even dream of digital photography, it is as useful as ever, because most of the book is about "general techniques" or rather, about various lighting methods and which to use depending on what type of object one is photographing. Among the specific objects discussed in the book are pinned insects, eggs, fossils, crystals, impressions, potted plants, leaves, coins, glass laboratory equipment and so on.

Some of Blaker's lighting techniques are elaborate set-ups, while others are exceedingly simple. An example of the latter is the use of a simple white card as a reflector to obtain more even lighting when the object being photographed is illuminated by a single light source.

Here is an example of the use of a reflector card to photograph a live snail. My light source was a flash (Olympus FL-36) attached to the camera (Olympus E-500 + 35 mm Zuiko) with a flexible cable and hand held from the right at a distance of about 25 cm away from the snail. The snail was crawling on a glass plate with a neutral gray card below it. The picture on the left was taken without a reflector card. Not surprisingly, the side of the snail's shell facing away from the flash didn't get enough light. The picture on the right was taken with a small piece of white card serving as a reflector behind the snail (arrow). Now the shell is more evenly illuminated.


The snail was a Triodopsis sp. that was the subject of this post and which I still haven't identified. The diameter of the snail's shell was 12.1 mm.

Part 2

10 August 2008

Pictures from high above 11: Oneida Lake & Brewerton, New York


This is another aerial shot I took during my flight to Montreal in July. It shows Oneida Lake and the city of Brewerton in New York. North is towards the top of the picture. The large spot at the bottom that is the same color as the lake is not a smaller lake, but the shadow of a cloud that I cropped out.

It took a while to find it in Google Earth. Here is the picture from Google Earth.

And here is the map from Google Maps.

The picture from high above No. 10 was George Washington Masonic Memorial.

08 August 2008

A secret crawlspace in the bathroom but no bones inside


We are having one of the bathtubs replaced. When the guy removed the old bathtub and a part of the dry wall behind it, he discovered a large empty enclosure behind the wall. I got excited, grabbed a flashlight and peered inside, hoping for Akhenaten's mummy or Thomas Say's lost notebooks or a portal to another universe or at least a bag of doubloons for crying out loud. But, alas, there was just dust.

Now we are trying to decide what to do with all that extra space we are suddenly endowed with. A closet of some sort is being planned.

07 August 2008

Yogrum: a new Turkish blog

I started writing a new blog on August 1st. The posts on Yogrum are in Turkish.

The idea for a Turkish blog came to me rather suddenly in July. I had had some topics in my mind that I wanted to write about, but I didn't quite know how to fit them into Snail's Tales, because I thought mostly Turkish readers would be interested in them and writing something like that in English wasn't going to be useful or appropriate. So, one day I decided it was time for a Turkish blog. I ran the idea by my sister and nieces, Deniz and Simla. They thought it was a good idea and supported me.

I have never done much writing in Turkish. So I am hoping blogging in Turkish will also help me develop my Turkish writing skills.

For the time being, I intend to post on Yogrum only twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. The majority of the posts will be about the Turkish language, Anatolian toponymy (one of my pet interests), Anatolian history and culture, reviews of Turkish books or books about Turkey and such. Inevitably, there will be some overlap with what I post here and in fact, my 2nd post on Yogrum was a review of Lord Kinross's book Europa Minor that had already been the subject of this post on Snail's Tales.

Incidentally, yogrum is an archaic Turkish word that is not used anymore, at least in Turkey. I found it whilst looking thru the oldest known Turkish dictionary, Divanü Lugati't-Türk by Mahmud of Kashgar, which is dating from the late 11th century. Yogrum denotes the amount of flour or dough that can be kneaded at a time. It thought it was an appropriate name for a blog where each post represents more or less one idea.

This is also an experiment to understand how a new blog builds up readership (or doesn't). Today so far Yogrum has had 10 readers. Woo hoo! At the same time, today's post was the 1st one Google has so far indexed. So now I am hoping the number of hits will slowly pick up.

How the mosquitos of Smyrna were fond of tender dilettante skin back in 1764

I have been reading Richard Chandler’s Travels in Asia Minor, and Greece: Or An Account of a Tour Made at the Expense of the Society of Dilettanti that I found in Google Books. This is the 3rd edition that was published in 1817 in London; however, Chandler’s trip took place much earlier in 1764.

On arriving in Izmir in the heat of the summer, the city that was known to Chandler as Smyrna on the west coast of Turkey, he notes (p. 78):

...the mosquitos, or large gnats, which tormented us exceedingly by their loud noise, and by repeated attacks on our skin where naked, or lightly clothed, perforating it with their acute proboscis, and sucking our blood, till they were full. A small fiery tumour then ensues, which will not soon subside, unless the patient has been, as it were, naturalized by residence; but the pain is much allayed by lemon-juice. At night they raged furiously about our beds, assaulting the gauze-veil, our defence, which, thin as it was, augmented the violent heat to a degree almost intolerable. Their fondness of foreign food is generally but too visible, in the swollen and distorted features of persons newly arrived.
I found several points in Chandler’s account curious and questionable.

First, that he found it necessary to explain what a mosquito was and what it did shows that he didn’t expect his contemporary British readers to be familiar with them.

Second, he fails to mention that a mosquito’s “tumour” actually gets itchy, unless that is what he means by “fiery”.

Third, does lemon juice really help ease the itchiness of a mosquito bite?

Fourth, despite his claim, I don’t think a person can become “naturalized” or accustomed to mosquito bites to the point of not being bothered by them. A more likely explanation for the apparent lack of visible mosquito bites on the locals’ bodies is that they were probably used to the heat and could sleep wearing clothing that covered their bodies or perhaps under the sheets and thereby avoided the mosquitos.

06 August 2008

05 August 2008

Vitamin C and cancer: is Linus Pauling partially vindicated?

Chen, Q., Espey, M.G., Sun, A.Y., Pooput, C., Kirk, K.L., Krishna, M.C., Khosh, D.B., Drisko, J., Levine, M. (2008). Pharmacologic doses of ascorbate act as a prooxidant and decrease growth of aggressive tumor xenografts in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0804226105

In his paper1 Evolution and the Need for Ascorbic Acid, Linus Pauling concluded that the optimum daily requirement of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for a human being was about 2.3 grams. Pauling’s argument was based on his calculation showing that 2.3 g was the total amount of ascorbic acid in foods (mainly vegetables and fruits, but no meats) that a human would need to consume to fullfil a daily average energy requirement of 2500 kcal.

From there, Pauling went on to claim that mega doses of ingested vitamin C were good to cure not only relatively minor inconveniences like the common cold but also deadly cancers. Ironically, Pauling died of prostate cancer.

There were two flaws in Pauling’s original argument. First, he seems to have ignored the fact that Homo sapiens evolved to be an omnivore. Consequently, Pauling’s exclusion from his menu of animal flesh, which doesn’t contain much ascorbic acid (also see this post), but provides a lot of calories, created a skewed daily menu that was unnaturally high in ascorbic acid. Second, just because a daily food composition, put together to provide enough calories, contains 2.3 g of ascorbic acid, doesn’t necessarily mean that that much ascorbic acid is optimally required. The amount of ascorbic acid or any other micro nutrient in a menu created solely to provide enough calories could be an incidental outcome of the specific composition of that particular menu.

Subsequently, it was demonstrated that in rodents oral intake of ascorbic acid could not produce plasma concentrations larger than 0.2x10-3 M (information from reference 2). Presumably, a similar limit also exists in humans, making oral intakes of large doses of ascorbic acid pharmacologically useless.

Now a paper2 that just got published demonstrates that direct injections of high doses of ascorbic acid significantly decreases growth rates of various tumors in mice. Injections result in elevated levels of ascorbic acid within the tumors, because they by-pass the gastrointestinal barriers that otherwise prevent the passage of high amounts ascorbic acid into the blood. The mechanism of action of ascorbic acid is believed to involve the creation of hydrogen peroxide, which appears to be more toxic to cancer cells than to normal cells.

In this example, daily injection of 4 g ascorbic acid per kilogram of body weight slowed down the growth of pancreatic tumors in mice (bottom curve) as compared to the control group (top curve). [Fig. 2E from Chen et al.]

However, the catch is that ascorbic acid did not cure the mice of their cancers; it only slowed the growth of their tumors. Nevertheless, Chen et al. end their paper on a cautiously optimistic note:
Although our preclinical mouse data showed that tumor growth was significantly decreased (Fig. 2), the use of pharmacologic ascorbate as a single agent was not curative. As modalities in cancer are often combined, these data suggest that pharmacologic ascorbate in combination with other therapies deserves further exploration for treatment of cancers that otherwise have poor outcomes, such as pancreatic and ovarian carcinomas and glioblastoma.
Some of the credit still goes to Pauling.

1. Linus Pauling (1970). Evolution and the Need for Ascorbic Acid. PNAS, 67:1643-1648. (pdf).
2. Chen et al., Pharmacologic doses of ascorbate act as a prooxidant and decrease growth of aggressive tumor xenografts in mice. PNAS, published ahead of print August 4, 2008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0804226105 (abstract).

03 August 2008

Don't let the National Weather Service ruin your party

What good is a prediction if it's subject to change during the time period it is supposed to be useful? A prediction that keeps changing by large amounts before a predicted event happens (or doesn't happen) is practically useless for long-term planning and is an indication of either of 2 things:

1. The "predictions" are actually wild guesses or made-up numbers to satisfy those who are expecting a prediction.
2. The phenomenon that is being predicted is the outcome of the complex interactions of many factors that may be subject to random fluctuations and is, therefore, inherently unpredictable. Consequently, the "predictions" are actually wild guesses or made-up numbers to satisfy those who are expecting a prediction.

A typical example of changing predictions was provided yesterday by the National Weather Service. Early in the morning, when it was quite cloudy, they were predicting a 100% chance of thunderstorms for where I live.


Early in the afternoon, it was starting to get sunny and the chance of thunderstorms was now 60%.


The initial "100% Tstms" meant that we were absolutely, definitely going to have thunderstorms: if it had been possible to observe a large number of weather conditions identical to the one we had yesterday morning, on the average, each and everyone of those conditions (100%) would have produced thunderstorms. But when the "prediction" later became "60% Tstms Likely", it became clear that the earlier predicted absolute certainty was baloney, because it had been subject to change. If you say to me "The chances are 100%, but that may change later", then the chances are not 100% and the only thing that is certain is that you don't know what you are talking about.

If a prediction keeps changing, then it's not a prediction. The NWS's lowering of its prediction from 100% to 60% was quite substantial and clearly illustrates the unpredictability of complex events like localized thunderstorms.

General weather patterns are predictable, but are not of much use. For example, predicting that there will be some thunderstorms somewhere in the state of Maryland sometime during the next 24 hours is neither impressive nor useful.

It was important for us to have an accurate weather prediction for yesterday, because we had an outdoor party planned for the late afternoon. After I learned about the 100% chance of thunderstorms, we briefly considered postponing the party, but then decided to go ahead with it anyway.

At the end, we never had thunderstorms; it didn't even rain. We did feel a few drops for a few seconds at one point, but nobody even bothered to get up and go inside. So much for predicting the weather.

The party was good with plenty of food and wine.


01 August 2008

Pictures from high above 10: George Washington Masonic Memorial

I took this picture soon after taking off from the Washington National Airport on the way to St. Louis, Missouri on 29 June. It shows the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.

The picture from high above No. 9 was a triangle on the ground.

And now a message from our sponsor

Old advertisement on the side of a building in downtown Montreal, photographed last weekend.