Thursday, January 28, 2010

Notes for Today

  • I'm not sure this has anything to do with science, but...there needs to be a place for weird pictures on this blog. This is it.
  • Here's an interesting article from Seed discussing why as peer-reviewed science is becoming more and more open access, while popular newspapers are moving more and more towards a pay-only access model.
  • I'm not a huge fan of economics, but I do think of it as ecology with dollars instead of genes, if that makes sense. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, but this article is interesting. So Naples, FL was designated the most overvalued housing market in 2006, prompting one anonymous commenter to state: "I firmly believe the market will continue to appreciate at rates unmatched throughout the country. The fact of the matter is that the southwest Florida is what some call a "sheltered" market. Being one of the most desirable areas to live in the United States, there will always be a strong and true demand for the area." Or how about Aubrey Ferrao: "We are bullish in Collier County," he said. "I see nothing in the market to scare me." From the same article: "Michele Harrison, president of the Collier Building Industry Association, said the worst has passed, as other local, state and national headlines have acknowledged the market has started to turn. "If I were in the market to purchase this is the time I would be looking," she said. "Right now." The Wall Street Journal also featured Naples during this which a commentator in Naples replied: "WSJ, why don't you do an in-depth, responsible, RESEARCHED article on how the average, educated, local investor has fared." Riiiiight. Cue the article, also written in 2006, regarding workers fleeing Naples like rats from a sinking ship. And today? "Today, Naples real estate sells at a 29% discount and the median home price is just $165,500, down from more than $390,000". I know we've seen these articles a lot, but I still don't understand how so many people could be so delusional.
  • Pandas are pretty interesting. Now we know even more about them.
  • An interesting conversation (if a bit long) on the Endangered Species Act (close to my heart). I'm going to have to think about this before I know what to take away from it.
  • I love stylized phylogenetic trees. Here's someone who built one using (of all things) powerpoint. Was that really the easier format?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes for today

  • Stress. Overthinking. This is why I can't stop eating pizza. From the article:
"Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits."
In other words, if you have a lot to think about, you're a lot less likely to eat healthy.
  • Conventional wisdom is typically a load of crap. Proving conventional wisdom wrong is usually an invitation for people to dislike you. Especially when you're challenging the use of the word 'trauma' to describe sexual abuse.
  • Saying that the Mars Rovers have exceeded all expectation seems understated at this point. Way back in 2004, it was exciting for the rover to even get off its delivery vessel. Of the two rovers, Spirit is now stuck in the sand and unlikely to ever move under its own power again. The little rover did get 10 kilometers, and took some amazing pictures (scroll through the Wikipedia article for some highlights).
  • There are new reservoirs being built all the time, often to promote recreation. The reality is that you really don't want to be playing around in those reservoirs (or eating the fish) for the first 15-30 years. Why? Mercury. Mercury is a really widespread pollutant that volatilizes into the atmosphere and re-distributes all over the planet, then falls out in a fairly even layer. The most isolated places on earth still have substantial mercury contamination. So soils and plants have much greater mercury loads than they once did. When you inundate an area after constructing an impoundment, much of that mercury breaks down from organic forms and becomes bioavailable again. And as a result, fish tend to accumulate really high mercury loads.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Notes of the Day

  • Women don't do well in math because....women don't do well in math. I know, it is circular isn't it (and not even true!)? But I think there's something true in there. I think young women tend to be shaped by the expectations of their parents, peers and teachers (who tend to encourage the belief that math is boring or lame or hard). More evidence of that here, where researchers found that women teachers tend to pass on anxiety about math to students. I don't have a daughter, but if I did, I'd probably be buying her this book.
  • This article is interesting. The head of the IPCC has been accused of conflicts of interest, which this article tends to think stands in place of substantial debate (i.e., there is not a lot of substantial debate to be had on climate change, and therefore the critics are left to attack the people who have done the research). Although I agree that's what is happening, I don't like dismissing the importance of conflicts of interest to decision-making. If you talk to the scientists who do research for Monsanto that demonstrates the non-toxicity of Roundup (for example), you understand that those people have often convinced themselves that they are doing everything right. Whether they think that because they work for Monsanto or whether Monsanto hired them because they think that is irrelevant: The work is skewed towards certain perceptions. The same is true, to a greater or lesser degree, for everyone. The potential biases should be obvious.
  • There's still a lot of oil from the Exxon Valdez up in Alaska. But hey, Exxon had to pay all those damages right? Right? Hmmm. Ok, so maybe they payed $380 million of a $5 billion dollar decision. Whatever.
  • Did you know the Valdez is still in service? Yeah. It has been renamed the Dong Fang Ocean.
  • There's really nothing that isn't cool about slime molds (except their appearance...there's actually a variety called 'dog vomit'). Apparently, they can even solve complex problems.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Notes of the Day

  • Underwater mushrooms. Actual pic here on the cover of Mycologia.
  • This is an interesting story about another problem with physicians prescribing drugs their patients do not need (or maybe its more about advertisers convincing patients they need something they don't. Basically, if you give a drug to people who don't really need it, and then you test its effectiveness, it isn't going to show up as very effective. Really, this is just homeopathy in the guise of legitimate medicine.
  • The story about Macho B's death in Arizona (apparently the first jaguar confirmed in the U.S. in years) is a little confusing. Here is the Arizona Game and Fish Department's official story: They did nothing wrong. This is a federal species, however, and the feds disagree. If the feds decide to pursue legal action, the Arizona G&F is going to have a severe headache. The weird part to all that: Reading between the lines, the USFWS decided to completely abandon the Jaguars during the Bush presidency.
  • Nobody likes to turn lakes into algal bowls. Turns out another reason (that is probably obvious) is that the benthos of these eutrophied lakes becomes homogeneous.
  • Birth weights of babies have decreased over the last twenty years, a result that is so counter to conventional theory that one of the researchers is quoted as saying: "We tried really hard to explain it away, but we were unable to." (wonderful science, btw) My hypothesis: we're starting to see the cumulative effects of the myriad chemicals we're spewing into our food, water, and air.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Hydrologic Connectivity

So yesterday I linked to an article about the benefits of dams. Then I read through my emails, and find someone has sent me this article, entitled:

"Ecological benefits of reduced hydrologic connectivity in intensely developed landscapes."


Ok, so the fundamental point of this article is actually pretty obvious. Take a look at the following figure from that paper:
If you think about the caption here, I think you'll find that it doesn't make any sense unless you replace 'hydrologic connectivity ' in the first sentence with 'aquatic ecosystems' or something similar. The entire paper treats hydrologic connectivity as an essentially 'physical' process that affects the entire ecosystem, so I think that is what is being implied here.

What are we seeing in this figure? What we are seeing is a simplistic representation of multi-dimensional environmental space. Instead of an n-dimensional space (where each dimension is a different environmental variable), this figure has been condensed down to just three dimensions: Biological variables, environmental variables, and physical variables. I think this is a good way to think about the effects of different management practices.

Now the first example the authors describe involves changing just the physical characteristics of a particular location. So, for instance, you restore natural stream flows to an area otherwise regulated by a dam. Assuming you are successful at doing this, you've moved the ecosystem properties towards the 'desired' portion for physical characteristics, but you haven't actually gotten into that area because the biological and chemical characteristics are still way outside that 'idea' space.

This is the only idea the authors treat explicitly with this figure, but almost everything else they talk about can be related back to this figure. That example shown in the figure itself (moving from X to X') implies that it is possible to change the physical environment without changing the biological and chemical environment. That's probably not the case very often. As the article I linked to yesterday shows (and numerous examples are also in this paper), removing a physical barrier can open up a previously isolated reach to invasion by non-indigenous species. When you move closer to the 'ideal' space by moving along the physical axis on this figure, you're actually moving further away on the biological side.

That's just one example of how things can go wrong. There are lots more in this paper. The authors break them into 7 categories, but I really think you could group them into 3:
  1. Attracting native species to bad habitats
  2. Allowing non-indigenous species to invade native refuges
  3. Radically altering watershed biogeochemical dynamics (This one is tenuous to me, they talk about removing farm ponds and consequently losing all the sediment and nutrient removal those ponds do. I'm skeptical that this is really occurring, but I can get into that later. They equate these farm ponds to fulfilling the same functions beaver dams used to do...again...I'm skeptical.)
Unlike the paper I referred to the other day, this paper seems to fit a need in the literature. There's been a general sense in the stream ecology community that if you fix the physical habitat then the ecological community will follow along. This has led to work by people like David Rosgen to restore streams so that they function morphologically like natural streams. This view has also been supported by ecological theory (e.g., Poff and others suggesting discharge is a master variable controlling stream ecosystems). With the examples in this paper, Jackson and Pringle suggest it isn't going to be that simple:

Restoration of hydrologic connectivity in a disturbed landscape moves an aquatic system towards a new ecological state, with which we often have little experience and which may have undesirable ecological attributes. (pg 44)

They also quote Saunders and Tyus (1998):

The potential for success of flow management strategies will depend on the extent to which target species or communities are limited by other factors, such as contaminants or the presence of nonnative species, that may not be responsive to changes in the flow regime (pg. 427)

This kind of thinking can lead very quickly to paralysis. The reality is that almost all our ecosystems are under assault from some anthropogenic stressor. Figuring out the right way to alleviate these stressors almost always involves 1) great cost, 2) great societal commitment, and/or 3) great desire. There's never much difficulty finding people who care greatly about fixing these problems, but the money and commitment tend to be more scarce. So the people who care tend to focus on the easiest problems to fix. Removing a dam is easy. All you need is a back-hoe and an operator. Removing an invasive species is hard. In the U.S. we spend billions of dollars just to keep invasives at bay, I'm not aware of any that have actually been eliminated.

So as a result, people tend to plunge ahead fixing what they can (without thinking about the other impacts) or they tend to get bogged down by the myriad of other possible negative outcomes and don't do anything.

I'm not really sure there's a great solution here.

Jackson, R.C. and C.M. Pringle. 2010. Ecological benefits of reduced hydrologic connectivity in intensively developed landscapes. BioScience 60:37-46. doi:10.1525/bio.2010.60.1.8

PS. Let's think about those axes a little differently. How easy do you think it is to move an ecosystem along those axes? My feeling is that moving something along the biological aspect is impossible for some biological variables: Once a disease or invasive species becomes established, it's just there forever. On the chemical side, we probably can change the chemistry of an aquatic ecosystem pretty readily, but it isn't going to be cheap. The physical axis, on the other hand? Well, we move dirt all the's practically the default state of being for humans. That's why we see the emphasis in restoration on physical restoration.

Notes for Today

  • So apparently there's a website called OKCupid. Dating site I guess? Anyway, the site's operators apparently like doing sciencey-type data analysis. This is interesting, but I'm not sure where this knowledge applies outside of online dating. I'm, essentially, thinking this is a courtship display that provides less knowledge to potential mates than virtually any other alternative.
  • Humans: Really pretty clever. Artificial glaciers.
  • In an AFP story reporting on NASA's finding that the last decade was the warmest ever recorded (so going back to 1880), the authors manage to bring up the completely irrelevant "climate-gate" story. Is that journalism I smell? Or is it bullshit? I'm honestly having a hard time telling.
  • My Ph.D. co-advisor David Lodge is quoted in this largely downbeat article about the discovery of carp DNA in Lake Michigan. There have been millions of dollars spent trying to prevent the carp from getting into the Great Lakes (coming up the Mississippi/Illinois River). Although there seems to be some hope by some that this may not indicate live fish are present, David's quote seems telling: "I think there's not another plausible explanation for the presence of DNA that we've found other than that there are live fish in the vicinity." [I hope that sounded better in audio than in print]
  • The goofy thing about the invasion of the Great Lakes through the Illinois/Mississippi River Pathway is that it is completely preventable. We maintain that connection for shipping. Sure, the shipping accounts for approximately $1.5 billion and potentially thousands of jobs (my intuition tells me these numbers are inflated, but...), but the sport fishery of the Great Lakes alone (not counting all the various watersheds that would also be subsequently invaded) is a $7 billion dollar industry (and even more jobs) that spans several states and two countries.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random Horned Lizard Photo

For reasons I don't fully understand, horned lizards tolerate being held better than any other lizard I've ever seen in the wild. This pic is from last summer.

Some notes for today:

  • This study annoys me:  Favorable fragmentation: river reservoirs can impede downstream expansion of riparian weeds.  Why does this annoy me?  A number of reasons:  1) there are individuals who are going to take this as evidence that dams are beneficial to the environment, regardless of the context (If you don't believe me, you just don't know), 2) There doesn't appear to be anything novel here.  Yes, these impoundments are barriers to biota....we knew that.  So the novelty is that they are also barriers to non-native biota?  Really?  That's novel?,  and finally 3)  Why does this study get published in  Ecological Applications?  What is the standard there?  I can't get my random thoughts published in a crappy journal, and these guys quantify something everyone already knew and they get an Eco Aps citation?  I'm not angry, but really?  
  • I really am beginning to like the Public Library of Science (PLoSONE).  The articles are written in a manner that invites everyone to understand them.  The abstracts include a 'background' and 'conclusions' that makes it a lot easier to digest.  Which is all a nice way of saying that if it weren't for PLoSONE I probably wouldn't care about a remnant population of a plant I've never heard of before, but because of PLoSONE I found out that someone stumbled on a relic, clonal population of Palmer's Oak in Southern California and discovered it predates the receding of the glaciers.  I find that pretty cool.  I imagine being the student who stumbled on that tree thinking to himself: Man, I thought I knew my trees!  What the hell is this!?
  • If you didn't understand the magnitude of global climate change, this post probably won't help.  But the idea does:  The world's ice is melting!  
  • The Ehrenfest paradox.  Gosh...I don't think about this stuff very much anymore.  If you've got a couple hours to puzzle over relativity...well, you could do worse than thinking about the rotation of a rigid object at near-light speeds.  I think the reality is that nothing stays rigid at near-light speed, but I always wonder if that is true.  And then I start to wonder what rigid/solid means, given that atoms are mostly open space....and I need to stop thinking about this or give up the rest of my day.
  • I'm not sure I totally buy the points in this article, but the grass-fed animal can be an extremely sustainable meat option.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Notes for today

  • I've wanted a tankless water heater forever.  But I've always run up against the problem of the initial costs.  The actual device is incredibly expensive and at least in my house, you can't just swap it out with the old tank heater.  Here's another analysis that seems to make the same points.  I think the real question is:  Why are these things so expensive?  I'd love to know.  Reddit seems to think the tankless water heaters aren't yet ready for prime time either.
  • I haven't had much time to read Carl Zimmer's stuff lately, but it still looks interesting.  He seems to be continuing his parasite obsession (which is neat), and I honestly don't think I understand lethal mutagenesis yet.
  • I find it fascinating that we track the killing of an animal as abundant as deer to the degree that there is a reasonable expectation that we should know who killed a particular animal.  And as a result, not knowing who shot the huge mule deer at Cabela's in Kansas City is a mystery.
  • The people involved in the anti-vaccine movement are completely off their rockers.  At what point does feeding your disabled kids industrial chemicals become reckless endangerment?  Is someone calling SRS for these kids?
  • Bad Astronomy is not something I read regularly anymore.  Maybe I should.  Here's a video of the moon circling the earth from the Deep Impact.  This is more impressive than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Political Position and Carbon Footprint

So I stumbled across this link on reddit to a list of U.S. states CO2 emissions per capita and for reasons I'm not clear about, I immediately was reminded of this list.

And so I made the following chart.

Yes...there seems to be a relationship between political position and CO2 emissions. The exponential regression between those two variables is apparently statistically significant and has an R2 of 0.37 (the equation is 21.37-1.02^Conservativism = Per capita output). I say apparently because I'm only assuming I haven't screwed up the stats. [Editors note: Although apparently I did switch the axis labels...damnit!]

I would assume this is part of what drives the political polarization of how to respond to climate change.

Notes of the Day:

  • Free online version of "The Taste Makers" book, which seems like it could be cool, if you're a foodie like me who constantly wonders about the origins of food.  Haven't had a chance to read it yet.  Linked from the ECOLOG Listserv.
  • Map of the thickness of the Earth's Crust (awesome!).
  • Asteroid collisions?  Or something?  I don't know, haven't gotten to this yet.
  • This is why I stand at my desk:  Sitting is not good exercise.  Standing isn't great, but it is a heck of a lot better.  Let me tell you, if I could figure out how to put a treadmill under my desk, I would totally do it.
  • This article on the effect of trout on birds is pretty cool looking.  I say cool looking, because I can't read it (no open access?).