The Book Exception

The second most notorious bug in Universe 42 was known as the Book Exception. The Book Exception was a joke entered by an anonymous programmer (probably Kevin) that altered space-time (gravity) on the exposed side of a book creating what is most easily described as a “gravitational vacuum”. The book, or really any printed material, experienced an otherwise imperceptible increase in gravity on the exposed side and would be sucked in that direction*. The result was not just an increased tendency to fall over when standing straight, but in special circumstances, the book, if it were say leaning to the left, could actually rotate up to the vertical and then fall to the right. If books or papers were stacked lying on their sides the Book Effect caused the top book to very slightly raise, reducing friction. Then the second book or paper would begin to experience a reduced, but present, Book Exception field, and so on. The result was that stacked books or papers had a tendency to autonomously slump to one side or slide wildly when being moved.

The most fiendish aspect of the Book Exception is that it applied to books and papers. Unlike other artifacts, paper products are:  1) inherently bendy; 2) generally have an asymmetrical architecture (spine and tail); 3) are often placed on shelves where half the book was protected from observation; and 4) are found in the company of either people who want nothing to do with them (office workers) or people who are more fascinated by the information they contain than how they behave. Thus, despite millions of people witnessing effects of the Book Exception daily, there were a myriad of reasonable excuses to ignore it.

The first person to discover the Book Effect was Hito Higawa, a Japanese architect who was convinced the universe was out to get him. Interestingly it was that paranoia that simultaneously drove him to study why his books kept falling over, and once he had discovered the Book Exception, the reason why no one believed him. Higawa’s work was only accidentally discovered after his death when a Twitter meme #BBFOMHY (“Books be falling on my head, yo.”), went viral.

It was, of course, the Book Exception that allowed inhabitants of Universe 42 to definitively show that they existed in an entirely simulated Universe, and, if appropriately applied, made a barn raising that much easier.

 

*Note: the gravity fluctuation was created by weakening the separation of the membranes of the multiverse, therefore the orientation of the increased gravity was independent of the region’s dominate gravity body, for example the Earth.

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Professor J. Blucher and The Problem of the Classroom

I thought I would share a funny story of what recently happened to a colleague of mine. The fellow in question, Professor J. Blucher, was recently trying to schedule a room for his undergraduate class, Mastering Sextants. This year the class, which usually numbers only a handful of students, had nearly 150 sign up. Initially he surmised that perhaps people were finally taking global warming seriously and had decided to brush up on their nautical skills. However, it was later discovered that, due to certain constraints in the new course offerings software, the class was listed as: MASTERING SEX. So you can understand how some people might have been lead astray.

My friend was now tasked with scheduling a room large enough to accommodate all these students, at least for the first class. I was in his office, admiring some pocket gopher bacula, when he made his call. I gather that he first spoke to a lady named Bethany. All seemed to be going well when suddenly Professor Blucher, who always seems a little lost but has his moments of lucidity, said, “I don’t want eight rooms, I only want one room.” After a bit of silence he then said, “I assure you ma’am, there are. May I please speak with someone else?”

Well, it seems, if I got the story straight, that Bethany was a bit of a history buff. Apparently she had been reading about a particular anti-bellum courthouse nearby and came across a mention of an old French law (from the late 1700’s) stating all government buildings were prohibited from having more than 20 seats in any given room. From this Bethany knew there weren’t any rooms large enough to accommodate a class of 150. So she must have first done some math and later said something like, “There aren’t any rooms with more than 20 seats at this university.”

Bethany handed Professor Blucher off to, maybe Carl?, I forget. Again, things seemed to be going well, Blucher even got a room, 515 Ferguson Hall, but then I realized I’d taught in that room and it had at most 30 desks. Professor Blucher mentioned this to Carl, went silent for a while, then said, astonished, “But it doesn’t work that way,” then, “Could I please speak with someone else?”

Well, again this is coming after the fact, but Carl was a senior supervisor. And as such he had access to the room profiles in the computer. So Carl signed Blucher up for the room, then changed the number of seats available in the room profile to 150. Apparently after Professor Blucher said “But it doesn’t work that way,” Carl replied, “I’m a senior supervisor. I know I can add seats to a room. ”

My poor friend, who is rather ill at ease using any communication device, was now visibly wavering like a parched man in desperate need of shade and water. The next person he spoke with was named Joan. Professor Blucher explained the situation: he was in need of a single classroom with enough seats to accommodate 150 students at one seat per student, etc., etc. Professor Blucher readied his pencil to receive a room assignment, then said, “Are you sure? How many seats does that room have?” Silence, then said, “Oh dear,” and gave the sigh of a man who has lost all hope.

Joan was going to assign Professor Blucher room 101 in Stephen’s Hall. Apparently, in response to his two questions, she replied that, while she didn’t know anything about the rooms in Stephen’s Hall, the building certainly was big on the outside, so she knew it had to have rooms large enough to hold 150 people. Insert “Oh dear,” here.

Suddenly Professor Blucher stood up, straight backed, shoulders square. He had a hard look in his eyes- focused on the opposite wall, oblivious to my presence. He said in a loud clear voice, not yelling, but with confidence and authority, “Get me a scientist!” It echoed around his small office. I’m sure Joan was nearly deafened.

The events of the next fifteen or twenty minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life. Luckily Joan was able to find a copy repair man and put him on the phone. Professor Blucher was a man afire, grilling the copy repair man on logic (inductive and deductive), observation, testability, falsifiability, evidence, and the pitfalls of tradition, authority, and guessing. He ran the man through inventive scenarios to test his ability to deal with rational evidence and discard irrational gibberish. Never have I seen a mind so quick and agile, poke and prod, teach and test. Finally, finally when he was content that he was speaking to man who could see the world through the eyes of a scientist, Professor Blucher posed his final question to the copy repair man, “How would you KNOW if a room had enough seats for accommodate 150 students at one seat per student?” The room went silent, I stopped breathing, time stood still. The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tiny to my ears half way across the room, “I would go to the room and count the seats.”

VICTORY!

Professor Blucher slowly lowered himself into his seat, his back still ram-rod straight. Finally he had found someone who was willing and able to use science, actual observations of the universe, to confront The Problem of the Classroom.

Ultimately a suitable room was assigned and the class size dropped to only a handful of students by the second week. Professor Blucher has returned to his passive, slightly lost demeanor. Sometimes, when I pass his office or see him in the halls, he’s mumbling to himself, running what happened over and over in his mind. What Professor Blucher had learned, but simply could not bring himself to accept, is that for some people there’s more than one way of knowing.

Extension Pete in: The Case of “The Title Would Give it Away”

 

Scenes from a party: an unnecessary beard; a knot of people in the kitchen; chatter; cold draft by the door; wine glasses bedazzled with baubles; cheese and crackers.

Extension Pete found himself at a departmental get together. Inane chit chat with coworkers was coupled with an inability to find a comfortable place to sit and an endless wanderlust to flit from conversation to conversation with people he normally avoided in the Ivory Tower environ.

Conversation finally exhausted, Pete turned to examination of the artifacts on display in the house-museum; priceless family kitsch, collections of items reminiscent of a lifestyle past, relics standing as silent boasts of faraway travels and grand adventures. Suddenly the universe twisted on itself and Pete was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the background of a photo on the wall—featuring happy revelers of a new year’s eve party four years past, one wearing a very encouraging dress—enclosed in a glass display case was an old fashion dry goods balance holding a giant old dictionary on one side, and a fossil ammonite on the other. A sign behind the dictionary declared “POSSUM” in tall, bold, golden letters that stood out against the earth tone surroundings.

Pete had a moment of panic, he had seen this before, the case, the balance, the ammonite. Why, how? But as suddenly as the panic came, it left. The slow gears of his genius mind (so he saw it) physically forced his confused muscles to move his head to the left where, across the room he saw that selfsame glass display case. There was the balance. There was the dictionary. There was the ammonite. “POSSUM” was completely obscured by the dictionary but when we squatted down he was able to read, “POSSUM brand U.S. NO. 2 Porto Rican Sweet Potatoes. Packed and Shipped by La Haye Bros. Leonville, LA.” Ah, the advertisements of yesteryear had flair. A portly young possum with a curly tail had placed its front foot protectively on a fat young yam.

The meat (not possum) came off the grill and into the kitchen. Suddenly people were heaping foodstuffs onto plates, moving through the line holding glasses, utensils, napkins, trying not to spill or slosh. People settled and Pete tucked into an interesting corn-based casserole. Conversation ebbed and flowed and finally hit upon the wine. Everyone agreed it was good. Where was it from? Temecula Valley, southern California. Funny story, a case had been bought years before, some drunk, then forgotten and the remaining two bottles were only rediscovered a few nights ago. Hurrah! Even stranger the crate seemed to have all but vanished, only a thin outer veneer was left, the slats could be crushed like pie crust.

At this Pete stood up, mid-bite. “Give me a second,” he said staring into nothingness. Then, a declaration: “I believe I have simultaneously discovered and solved a mystery!” Conversation stopped and all eyes focused on the buggy brainiac. “The mystery is, why is the dictionary getting lighter?” With a dramatic, sweeping motion he pointed an accusatory finger at the scale in the display case. Everyone shifted their gaze. “You can see in the picture on the wall,” shifting digit cum pointer, “that four years ago the dictionary and the ammonite were at the same level, you can read ‘POSSUM’ clearly above the dictionary. But now, the ammonite has sunk and the dictionary has risen. ‘POSSUM’ is obscured. The dictionary is lighter.”

Pete paused to let everyone work it out for themselves. The balance hadn’t broken, the stone ammonite wouldn’t have gotten heavier, so clearly this mess was all the dictionary’s fault.

“And, I have solved the mystery,” he paused, and with extreme elocution stated, “Cryptotermes brevis,” another pause, “Walker.”

Mostly puzzled looks, but at least one “Ah!” of understanding from the far right.

Cryptotermes brevis,” stated Pete as explanation, “is a drywood termite; it doesn’t require contact with moisture or the ground. Subsequently they keep to themselves and can happily exist in an isolated piece of wood for quite a long time. They can’t survive in the wild here, but sometimes get shipped in. Their schtick is to completely hollow out whatever they are living in but leave a thin outer veneer. You don’t know they are there until you grasp their abode and it crumbles…” he shifted his eyes to the host, “like pie crust. The termites were in the wine crate years ago. They exhausted their food supply and moved on, some made it to the dictionary where they have been happily censuring the English language, one word at a time. Let us away to the other room and celebrate my victory.”

A cluster or curious gathered around and after opening the case Pete gingerly lifted the dictionary’s “lid”. A network of tunnels was revealed, full of scurrying, fat, white termites. Blunt faced soldiers with dark black heads heaved onto the outer lip, antennae twirling, spoiling for a fight. Gasps, congratulations all around.

Turning to the crowd Extension Pete said, “And this shall forever be known as The Case of the Disappearing Dictionary!”

Fin.

 

THE DUNG BEETLE: Cleaning up bullshit one idea at a time. This Week: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

We hear this all too often, but it is completely wrong. Of course it’s fun to say, mostly for two reasons: 1) it makes the speaker seem open-minded and wise, superior to the surrounding listeners; and 2) because it does that fun word flippy thing (which I’m sure has a specific name well known to literature teachers and poets).

Simple caveat: “Absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence” is absolutely correct. I think this is what most people mean when they use the other phrase.

Second caveat: An “argument from ignorance” is different beast all together. I’m interested in situations where good observations have been made, tests have been run, etc.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” —let’s state that a different way. Failure to find evidence for thing X cannot be used as evidence that thing X doesn’t exist. Let’s apply this to a real word situation and see how it turns out.

Is there an elephant on campus? We have no sighting’s, no prints, no poo, no damage to vegetation, no noise. If “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” then how do we comment on the probability of the presence of an elephant on campus? In fact, all we have is “absence of evidence”.

Now let’s try the unicorn. Do unicorns exist? Should I be scared of a goring when walking home late at night? Should we put aside some unicorn habitat so they can run free and mate and have baby unicorns? There is an absence of evidence for a real unicorn, so again, how do we go about gathering evidence of its absence?

All this does not mean, however, that later evidence may come to light and we must refine our ideas about the universe. That is an understood aspect of the Thing we call Science. But as it stands, if we go looking, and don’t find anything, then yes, we can use that as evidence (but not proof) that what we’re looking for isn’t out there.

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Frenzied Fleas

A knock at the door, an approaching smile, the door opens.

Says the man on the stoop: “Hello, I’m Extension Pete,” dramatic pause, “Entomologist Detective!”

“I know, I called you,” says an engaging young mother holding a wide-eyed baby on her hip.

“Good.” Not at all deflated that she wasn’t overwhelmed by his appellation, he continues, “What seems to be the problem?”

She invites him in with the wave of her hand into an empty house full of boxes. “We just closed on the house last week and started moving in. A couple days ago the baby and I moved some boxes in, and when we got back to the old house she had some fleas on her. It was weird, I caught them with tape, and then, I don’t know, there’s just so much going on, I forget about it. But then it happened again yesterday!”

The excited young man is snooping about the house, peering in corners and closets, gently probes a box marked FRAGILE! with his boot, hears some tinkling, and retreats quickly.

Eye contact: “Any pets at your other home? They might have picked something up from the neighbors.”

“No pets. No cats or dogs,” shake of the head, “We’re planning on getting some though; children that grow up with two or more pets tend to have fewer allergies,” coos at baby.

Authoritatively, “You should get a llama. They’re the Gentle Camel.” Resuming inquisition, “Are there any pets here, in the house or maybe strays that live under the house, in the neighborhood?”

“No, no pets in the house. The last owners had a cat, but they’ve been gone for months. I haven’t seen any strays in the neighborhood. But the baby hasn’t been outside. I carry her from the car to here and then put her in her chair or let her crawl around.”

Lifts gaze from a box with the overly Dickensian label “Christmas Past” and shifts attention back to mother and child. “Whereabouts has the bundle of joy been crawling?”

Mother leads the way, pointing from spot to spot in various rooms, comments on cute things child did while in each spot: had fun in Kitchen slapping linoleum and listening to resulting sound; frightened and intrigued by border between linoleum and tile of utility room; overcame previously mentioned fear of tile and entered utility room to gain safety of mother’s ankle; use of traction provided by carpet in back bedroom to produce sudden bouts of speed crawling.

The tour ends. A grandiose statement from the young man: “I believe I have solved the mystery. But first we should celebrate with some homemade root beer. I shall return.” Exit Extension Pete.

Return, doorbell, greetings, bags on counter in kitchen, root beer extract, sugar, dry ice, mother sets about finding/cleaning a pitcher. Root beer is made, chitchat, baby is entranced by vapor. After the glasses are drained, “Well, that should be enough time, let’s go check,” and our sleuth leads the way to the back bedroom, opens door, peers in.

Scattered over the floor, a few remaining chunks of dry ice sublimate away quietly. Several glue traps rest sticky side up on the floor, each bespeckled with fleas. The good mother’s expression is translated as, “What sorcery is this?!”.

The reveal: “Fleas has a life cycle similar to the butterfly. There’s an egg, then a larva—a squirmy, wormy thing like a caterpillar or grub.” Eye contact to make sure she was following, hand gestures for emphasis. “Once the larva gets big enough it spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa, just like a butterfly or moth. Eventually the pupa becomes an adult flea. But fleas are professional parasites; they aren’t at all interested in being adults unless there is something to eat. If there is no physical movement, heat, or carbon dioxide an adult flea can hang out in the cocoon for more than three months. These fleas are leftovers from the previous owner’s cat. Once everyone moved out, they just sat tight waiting for someone else to come along.

“Fleas are in carpets, rugs, or cracks against the wall, not on tile or linoleum. The baby provided all the stimuli needed to wake the fleas up, and this is the only place the baby has been where some could be hiding out. Voilà: fleas on a baby. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice woke the rest up. Mystery solved and confirmed.” Big grin.

“That’s amazing!” Retreating from room entrance, “How do we get rid of them?”.

“Well there are any number of chemicals, you could steam clean the carpet, you could pull it up and put down hardwood. Probably you don’t have to worry about immature fleas, those have either died or become adults. That should make control easier.”

“You’re amazing Extension Pete.”

“I know I am.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

“I need no payment. Just know that wherever there’s an entomological mystery I’ll be there, for I am…” dramatic pause, “Extension Pete: Entomologist Detective!”

Curtain.

Curatorial Perambulations I

What is the Best “Collecting” Strategy for an Arthropod Museum?

A species consists of a population made up of individuals. Much information about a species can be found in one specimen (especially morphology). However, information about a population (=variation) requires many specimens that exhibit the ranges of morphological and genetic variation, distribution, phenology, etc.

Considering that resources are limited, what’s a curator to do? Maximize number of species for morphological vouchers, or maximize specimens of a particular species to create a robust representation of the population?

Short answer:

Do both! Get pretty much everything.

Long answer 1:

When trying to identify an unknown, even a single identified specimen can be incredibly helpful. Endeavors that benefit greatly from even a single specimen include classes, key creation, field guides, voucher collections (physical and photographic), checklists, etc. So maximizing species has benefits.

Most arthropod collections have geographic and taxonomic strengths/biases (see this brilliant paper: Ferro and Flick 2015), that is, they are often dominated by local specimens. (How overlap between “museum range” and species range affects our understanding of a species’ distribution is an interesting idea, but not for this essay.) Retaining a large number of specimens of local species may add greatly to the overall understanding of a species’ population, after all, who else should be collecting these beasts? So maximizing specimens of species has benefits.

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to consider its inverse: What shouldn’t a curator do? Which specimens are of the least value?

(Generally speaking!) The specimen that carries the most morphological information is the singleton. Every other specimen of that species provides less and less morphological information, they only contribute information on variation. The specimens that provide the most population information are the outliers (geographic, temporal, etc.) because they help define extremes. Therefore, the specimens that carry the least information represent a species, life stage, time, AND place that is already represented by another specimen in the collection.

Specimens of the same species collected at the same time and place are often called a “series”, usually defined as 5, 10, or 20 individuals. A series is an important tool for the arthropod collection. It assures that plenty specimens are collected to account for breakage, individual variation, sexes, cryptic species, and abnormal abundance of rare species. But a series can go too far (this is less true for alcoholic preservation where 50 specimens may take up no more room than one). Maybe pointing 100+ ptillids from a single litter sample, or 1000+ throscids from an emergence study is unnecessary (the author is guilty of both).

Perhaps the best strategy for a collection manager is to maximize both: 1) the number of species; AND 2) specimens of a particular species, but work to keep redundancy of those specimens below a maximum threshold, and therefore not squander resources on “lower value” specimens.

Long Answer 2:

Not long ago museums had exclusive (more or less) resources such as museum workers, specimens, literature, etc. A user had to travel to the collection to use the resource. And, even though it seems obvious, the collection either had the resource or it didn’t (getting the resource, even a paper, took time and money).

Digitization of information (and all that that entails) has changed the landscape of cost and access to materials. For example, to peruse The Canadian Entomologist a reader no longer needs to travel to a museum or library—and to possess The Canadian Entomologist a collection no longer needs to have actual copies. It makes little sense to purchase Volume 1 (1869) when it is available for free online. (I’m not saying don’t expand your library, just make wise decisions.)

For collections a “resource spectrum” has developed. One end consists of resources that are fully digitizeable and can be created, duplicated, and/or passed around with ease including specimen label data. The other end consists of those things which cannot be digitized: the smell of naphthalene, a rousing debate over lunch about whether termites are cockroaches, and above all, physical specimens.

Digital “shadows” of specimens can be created, label data, photographs, DNA, etc., but an actual specimen cannot. The cost of obtaining specimens will almost certainly increase with time. Paperwork associated with obtaining, transporting, depositing, and holding a specimen has increased greatly. (These delusional handicaps placed on researchers and institutions are an important and too often overlooked cost/impediment to collections and research, but that’s a topic for a different essay.) The point is, from the standpoint of a multigenerational collection, now is probably the best (cheapest) time to obtain specimens (and other non-digitizeable resources).

As was mentioned above, even a single specimen provides a lot of information about a species. Additionally, a collection either has a specimen, or it doesn’t. Borrowing a specimen from another institution costs time and money. (Enormous amounts compared the first edition of The Canadian Entomologist. Cost to download the first edition of The Canadian Entomologist = $0.00. Cost to mail a package = $10.00. Therefore mailing a specimen is infinity percent more costly than downloading a free paper. That’s just math.)

In this scenario, increasing species diversity is the best strategy for small or extremely resource-limited collections. Population level information, such as distribution, phenology, etc. can be supplemented through other online specimen-level databases (but beware! see paper cited above).

My overall proposal is that museums should ACTIVELY work to increase their taxonomic holdings AND actively work to help increase the taxonomic holdings of other museums.

Now is the cheapest time (cost will only increase in the future), and actual specimens have clearly emerged as the highest “value” artifacts in a collection (because they are non-digitizeable). It is not inappropriate to imagine a future where all midsized and larger museums have one or more representatives of every order or family of insect, arachnid, etc. known on the continent, or even representatives of every genus (or species of the smaller orders: the 13 smallest orders in NA north of Mexico have a total of 511 spp. Five specimens of each species = 2,555 specimens, or 0.2555% of a million specimen collection.)

Something to mull over…