Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Drive-up ATM, why are you so HIGH?!

The branch of my bank near my mom's house got a new ATM machine with an automatic check scanner. I have two issues with it. One, if you don't have to fill out an envelope it's mighty easy to forget to endorse the back of the check. They should really warn you to do that on the screen before the animated GIF of shoving the check in the slot.

The second issue is that the whole machine is so damn HIGH! I can't reach it from my car window. The prevalence of SUVs in America has changed the standard install height for drive-up services? If it was a walk-up it would have to be lower to accommodate people in wheelchairs I bet.

If the thing has the dexterity and computing power to sort 30 checks inserted in a stack and scan them all and recognize the amount then it seems a simple next step to put the whole thing on hydraulics and have facial recognition line the damn thing up with my window. It also doesn't make sense from a user interface perspective to have a number pad to put in my PIN, which I could reach no problem, and then insist I reach WAY up to the touch screen to answer all the other questions. What if the touch screen was more vertical and had the selections duplicated at the top and bottom?

It's like the ATM designers just aren't even trying.

Slow, expensive internet in America

South Korea has faster, cheaper internet than America (according to CNN Tech). This article explains a lot of the reasons, like the obvious one of population density, but I'm interested in the lack of American competition since it's related to my previous post about how monopolies ruin it for everybody. I accept that my internet connection is not going to be as fast as somebody in a metropolitan area. But the fact that it's almost as fast and LESS EXPENSIVE is a complete failure of technology to me. I suppose it's a failure of government, too, which is harder for me to wrap my mind around. I have to keep reading articles like this until it sinks in.

This article also includes an International Broadband Speeds Map. I bet the arctic regions of Canada aren't that fast any more than the desert of the Western United States has cell phone coverage. I would like to see this kind of analysis done for metro areas around the world with similar population density. That would be a better comparison.

Update: Interview with Verizon CEO shows he is a complete tool.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Political platform, computer platform

After I found out that Apple doesn't buy TV advertisement time on Fox I started thinking about how computer choice mirrors politics. In my immediate family there are some conservatives who use Windows exclusively. The liberal ones use Macs. My liberal step-sister who did spoof Sarah Palin impersonations during the election once chased a thief down the street for stealing her iPhone off a café table.

I began a mental tabulation of all my friends' computers and politics. The most conservative ones have no Apple products at all. The ones that have Windows machines but have a liberal streak at least have an iPod or an iPhone, or they recognize the faults of Windows.

My friends who aren't liberals or conservatives but libertarians like Macs but won't buy new ones because they are think they are too expensive. They tend to favor Ubuntu or the kind of tiny Linux you can run off a flash drive.

Is that the connection to politics -- the price? Some people are willing to pay more for something elegantly designed that encourages them to be creative. Other people will use the same busted backwards-compatible bullshit forever.

I posted this computer-choice-mirrors-politics concept on Facebook and my libertarian friends immediately piped up with their opinions (that they are just cheapskates.) My friend Steve Kuck used "osnostic" to describe his use of multiple platforms. Another one of my friends who recently got a Macbook commented that she liked that term. So today Steve registered the URL (and for more careful spellers) and quickly set up an open source web site to host a forum for people who are having difficulty getting one OS to do something they can easily do in another. He found his first example by going to the Apple MobileMe site which told him his PC running Ubuntu was not supported. (It will let him view my Galleries on just fine though.)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010


The internet is full of scams and hoaxes. But so is the real world. Sometimes tools on the internet can easily reveal something that isn't what it claims to be.

This morning a friend of mine sent me a press release announcing that the company where he works had just merged with another company we'd never heard of. I searched the name of the new company and came up with their website. It looks bogus to me. What do stock photos of skyscrapers have to do with them? The address says they're in California but I recognize one of those buildings from Atlanta. Are they implying they have investments in these places or offices or what?

So I put their address in Google Maps and got the street view. It's a one story UPS Store. I believe they rent mailboxes with suite numbers in the address instead of calling it a box, just for the purpose of making businesses sound more legitimate than they really are.

I hope the CEO of the company where my friend works did the same 1 minute exercise I did and confirmed the legitimacy of this corporation before he signed a contract with them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Smoke from cooking is bad for you

In a timely follow up to the prescribed fire smoke topic yesterday there's an article on Discovery News today about the danger of smoke from broiling hamburgers and frying chunks of chicken in a wok. Researchers found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known carcinogens, in vapor and particulate form in the cooking fumes. They haven't made a firm link to cooking and cancer, but they're working on it. A study over a decade ago in China found higher rates of lung cancer in women, who do most of the cooking, compared to men, who smoke more tobacco.

I am writing this blog entry while I eat a Caesar salad with chicken on it. I fried it in a wok. I used olive oil and not peanut oil though, and I cooked it outside on the front porch like I always do. I wasn't really thinking of saving myself from lung cancer when I established the habit of cooking outside, I was just trying to keep the moisture out of my house and keep the surfaces in my house free of clingy grease and odors and moisture. Fastidiousness turns out to be healthy!

This isn't my supper tonight. It was dark and I didn't know I was about to find out that cooking fumes contain cancerous agents. But it is my outdoor cooking spot with my invention of spinach artichoke dip smeared in a pita bread and cooked in butter. That's good snackin'.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Satellite data on wildfire carbon emissions

Controlled burns produce less greenhouse gas than wildfires. This is obvious to those of us who know about prescribed fire, but now there is satellite data to back it up and a Discovery News article about it. This particular study is aimed at Western forests.

Back in Georgia they're dealing with the smoke issue. This PDF report from the Georgia Forestry Commission puts it succinctly. "Drift smoke from prescribed fire and wildfires concerns urban dwellers who understand very little about natural forest processes. Future Georgians must come to understand the life sustaining properties of healthy forests, important to their very livelihood, and the natural role that fire plays in ecosystems." So the Forestry Commission came up with a plan to get people to quit their bitchin'!

The Federal air quality guidelines are also a problem for controlled burns. The Georgia Prescribed Fire Council wrote a letter to the EPA in 2007. "We consider prescribed fire smoke to be a 'socially acceptable' source of emissions that is acute, not chronic like other types of pollution. Prescribed fire is a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk. We will strive for the recognition from EPA that prescribed fire is a tool that can enhance human health and safety and cleaner air in many regions, and thus should be encouraged through EPA policy and/or rule." For the one day a forest makes smoke in a year it spends all of them converting carbon dioxide to wood. Well, mostly in the summer.

Just in case there's some confusion over what carbon sequestration is, let's take a longleaf pine tree. Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide from the air and water taken up from the roots and converts it to wood. In general the amount of mass a tree adds equates to that mass of carbon dioxide taken out of the air. This is carbon sequestration. The only way the carbon can get out again is if you burn it. The needles from longleaf pine trees are highly flammable. We try to burn up what falls off the tree every year or three. That carbon is released back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and converted to elemental carbon -- soot. But the weight of the needles that fall is less than the weight of wood the tree added that year. There is a net sequestration of carbon. If the fire is very hot the nitrogen goes back into the air as well. Robb White believed that a cool fire allowed the nitrogen to go back into the soil to fertilize the trees but I haven't been able to confirm this in peer reviewed journals. Either way, the result of the burning is more longleaf pines adding mass all along their trunks and plenty of diverse ground cover preventing erosion and supporting healthy animal communities.

There was a summit in Tallahassee this month about air quality as it relates to agriculture. I heard a little bit of it on the radio. There seems to be concern that new air quality legislation doesn't exempt smoke from prescribed fires.

I hunted around on the internet for more information on this but it frankly just makes me tired. There are so many REGULATIONS. So many committees, so many councils. I'm so glad nobody has tried to make us jump through any more hoops than we do. I don't really understand how the air quality regulations can be enforced. We often burn off between Christmas and New Years. If Georgia has already reached it's quota of pollution for the year will we have some sort of EPA inspector at the gate with a citation? How can they possibly measure this? Right now we just call up the Forest Service when we want to burn and if the wind isn't too terrible and it's not too dry they give us a burn permit over the phone. You tell them about how many hundred acres you want to burn and they don't even act like they're writing it down.

I apologize for the lack of conviction in this essay but that's sort of the point. It's hard to figure out what's really going on with the EPA these days. And hard to get worked up over something I can't imagine being enforceable. Georgia is clearly pro-fire when it comes to forests and anti-fire when it comes to burning construction debris in Atlanta. And they are also anti-up-in-your-business when it comes to anything way out in the country. I hope the promotion of smoke acceptance goes well. I'll keep posting videos and pictures of it as my little part of making it mainstream.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monopolies took my job and this guy's fingers

Yesterday I read a very long, thorough article in the Washington Monthly called Who Broke America's Job Machine? (Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman) To boil it down for you, apparently it was Ronald Reagan. No net gain in jobs in the years between 1999 and 2009. From the 1940's to the 1990's every decade saw at least 20% more jobs at the end than they started with.

The article outlines some of the debatable answers for what went wrong and then goes into a long explanation of how monopolization is to blame, effectively because it hinders innovation and invention. During the tech-stock bubble jobs were created like crazy. All of us scientists were employed. It was awesome. During the housing bubble most of us lost our jobs. Over 100,000 electrical engineers just stopped being electrical engineers, which they don't mention in this article. They point to small business innovation being the key to job creation. But they don't mention that engineers are the innovators. In the past these displaced engineers might have started their own company based on some brilliant idea. But in addition to the monopolies in the industry related to their invention they are hindered by the monopoly of the insurance industry.

In the 1990s I had my own company. I invented, sold, and produced (in that order) a dozen new products to solve short term problems for Scientific-Atlanta. I bought my health insurance through a group policy with the IEEE. By the end of the decade the cost of my insurance was more than all my other overhead expenses combined. I had to just let it lapse. Then Scientific-Atlanta moved their factories to Mexico, got bought up by Cisco, and generally followed the trends discussed in this article and ceased to be a customer of mine. I have to say my personal experience backs up the authors' assumptions here, with the additional emphasis on the health insurance problem. They mention it as a monopoly, but they don't emphasize enough the detriment to innovation caused by health insurance that costs more than your car payment and mortgage combined (both of which require insurance, but it's still far less than my health insurance? Yet my body has free built in antibodies and healing properties that neither my house or car even have.) The other ridiculous monopoly problem is the telecommunications companies. Right now my telecommunications cost more than any other budget item. Yet I pay far less than my friends in cities because the one rural provider's broadband price is regulated. Because my city friends have choices in what provider to use, competition is supposed to lower the price. Quite the opposite is true.

So I'm already behind this article pointing to monopolization as a barrier to innovation. Then I get a link in my Fine Homebuilding email - Man Wins Big Money in Tablesaw Lawsuit. The comments after the article are strongly against this lawsuit. The majority of tool users accept that they are responsible for their own fingers. They recognize that lawsuits like this will make their tools more expensive. Well, maybe, but maybe not? All cars have air bags and anti-lock brakes now. When I bought my car they were new features and not all cars had them. I chose to spend the extra money on them. New Honda Accords cost less than mine did in 1996. It just seems that given time the price for safety will go down.

But back to what this has to do with monopolies. The argument that got this man $1.5 million dollars was that Ryobi knew about a technology that would stop the saw from cutting his fingers but they didn't include it in the saw -- negligence. This technology was invented and patented by Stephen Gass and unveiled in 2000 at a woodworking fair in Atlanta. He and his two patent attorney friends got such a great reaction at the show they quit their jobs and set about licensing the technology to all the big saw companies. None of them bought it. Ryobi started to enter into an agreement with him but in 2002 backed out -- "Safety doesn't sell." Well based on the comments in Fine Homebuilding they're right. Low price sells. The inventors finally raised enough money to make their own line of table saws that includes the device for humble people with money.

Personally I'm terrified of table saws. When I heard about SawStop in 2000 I swore I wouldn't buy a table saw that didn't have it. I actually had a really good 220V Jet table saw that was pretty safe by virtue of sheer power and the quality of the fence. But I sold that saw to my brother because I wanted a saw with SawStop or nothing. My brother hurt himself really bad with that saw last year too, but it was from kickback. The wood cut his fingers, not the blade. A riving knife would have saved him, but not the SawStop. Now I am not interested in any table saw that doesn't have both. I have been waiting this whole time and I still don't think the saw I want is on the market yet. I wonder if this lawsuit will shake things up. I suppose if you allow the monopolization of the market then the only way to get them to innovate is to regulate it. Either way, it doesn't seem like the free market system works that great when it's really free. Right now it is all extremely broken.

I think an important thing to take away from this monopoly story is that they blame Ronald Reagan. It's about the big picture, the long term. What if Ronald Reagan had left the solar panels on the White House and not changed the rules for monopolies? We might have less carbon emissions right now and more sustainable energy and scientists wouldn't be out of work. I am very uncomfortable with the tendency of people to only recognize instant cause and effect. Economics, climate change -- the long term effects are not properly understood or considered. Policies Ronald Reagan pushed through in the '80s can ruin my career 20 years later. If powerful entities get the big head and go ahead with geo engineering trials all kinds of stuff can cascade down from that -- like the iron fertilization in the ocean to sequester carbon turns out to encourage this one specific domoic acid producing algae that could kill off who knows what. Fortunately scientists kept studying this. I know that big systems can change unexpectedly with drastic changes. In nature there are checks and balances that will return things to a relatively stable point. Kind of like how I have the ability to get sick and better all on my own with no health insurance. But the economy, I'm sure it's not going to heal itself.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Introducing the Campfire Flower Arrangement

It’s a campfire, it’s a flower arrangement! Campfires just aren’t decorative enough before you light them, and flower arrangements always leave you with the dilemma of cleaning up after them when the flowers die. Well that is no problem anymore with the campfire flower arrangement! It’s pretty enough to burn.

Mission Statement that would make Jerry McGuire weep

Found a Craigslist ad for an unpaid internship at an advertising agency with this Mission Statement:

To provide exposure to the core functions of a full service communication agency to include theory and practical application of attained knowledge.

Every time I read that my brain reels from being deprived of a real verb. They actually have the word communication in there but I am positive that no communication occurred. If that mission statement was put together in a dilithium crystal vessel with a sentence like, "Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." (Mark Twain) you could power a space ship with the energy released in the idea/anti-idea reaction.

iPad TV ad

First the parents, then the kids.

iPad for children - gonna need damage countermeasures

A blogger at Computerworld thinks the iPad is the ideal delivery system for my idea for children's e-books that I had a few years ago. He calls it the "children's toy of the year." I think he's right and I bet the people at the book companies are already working on content. I wish I could get in on that. The demo video in the article is aimed at very small children. My idea was more of a juvenile fiction concept for tweens where the book would be kind of like the newspaper in Harry Potter movies - the photos would actually be embedded videos.

The other pivotal part of my idea was that an audio book and written text would be integrated so you could switch back and forth from reading to listening on your headphones or do both, which would be an excellent way for people to learn proper pronunciation and spelling. (I saw a tweet the other day that said "we lisented to music." Does this person SAY it like that? Or have they just seen it written and knew it had a t in it somewhere?)

How about a dictionary linked in too, so users can select a word and look it up in the dictionary?

Since I don't really know that much about kids and parents I appreciated this insight in the PCWorld story: "Naysayers in my Buzz group say parents won't shell out $500 for a children's toy. Here's my response: Wanna bet?" I'm always amazed with the things parents buy their kids, club dues they pay for them, activities they subsidize, so I expect he's right. I'm not betting against the iPad, no way. But I would be interested in being on the design team for a kid-resistant case for it. Maybe even a service where you send your iPad to be dipped in that stuff they use for spray-in truck bed liners. Why the iPad isn't waterproof already is beyond me. My product designer friends with iPhones say they are about as waterproof as a kitchen sponge. Apple seems happy to leave this to aftermarket accessory designers.

Maybe the key is a piece of that cohesive and adhesive stickum we used in my electronics design days to waterproof connectors. It was made by the heat shrink company that specializes in radiation crosslinked plastics, Raychem. We used to call it antelope snot. They even had a heat shrink connector jacket that had that sealant built into it. If somebody designed a heat shrink cover for the iPad with that sealant in it and a precise device for shrinking it properly that would be a great mall-kiosk opportunity right there. The thing about the antelope snot was that you could easily get it off. It was like a soft version of that hot glue they use to stick the label on the lunch meat that comes in a reusable container. When you pull it off the cohesiveness is stronger than the adhesiveness so it comes off in one piece. So you have the cover put on your iPad and if you need to repair it you just cut it off and it's perfect underneath. The seal at the edge would stop any grit from getting between the cover and the metal back of the iPad. So once you have the waterproof cover on the iPad, then you can add a shock resistant silicone cover over that and stick it to the heat shrink cover with whatever kind of aggressive double sided tape you want and not worry that it will damage the actual device.

I hope the case companies have a good time with this. Would be a fun project. I'd rather work on the cover than the content.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland IMAX 3D

My car was in the shop getting a new air conditioner condenser and dryer so I had time to kill in town. Mama wanted to go see a movie, but I don't like the theater near her house. She says if you want to see the good movies you have to go to the sticky-foot theater. It's true they are showing An Education, which we wanted to see, but I just can't do the sticky-foot theater. It's not the stickiness so much as the weak projector, stained screens and improperly equalized audio that bothers me. So I made her go with me to see Alice in Wonderland at the AMC IMAX 3D theater. The reviews online gave it a C, so I had low expectations.

But it was good! Never did I squirm because of some logical or continuity problem like I did in Avatar. I suppose since it was SUPPOSED to be make-believe it's easier for me to suspend disbelief.

At the very beginning Mama had an issue with something though. Alice asked if anybody else saw a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat, and she pronounced it WAIST-coat. Mama exclaimed, "How do they NOT know it's WESS-ket!?" Also, a waistcoat is a vest. What the rabbit is actually wearing is a frock coat with a waistcoat underneath perhaps, but it's mighty hard to see that as he's jumping through the rose bushes.

The thing that annoyed me more than saying WAIST-coat was the dog with his eyes on the wrong plane of his head. Dog's eyes are sort of on the sides of their head. This dog's eyes faced forward. Why change that? Mama says it was to make him look stupider. Makes sense. Humans eyes face straight ahead.

But just the same, the filmmaker had good taste. No papyrus font. I think my favorite part might have been the end titles. I was surprised people got up and left so fast. Maybe they didn't notice that internally lit mushrooms and primroses were growing on the metal grate in the foreground. Or maybe they didn't appreciate the sunset sky in the background. I suppose they already knew the names of all the actors that were being displayed in a lovely gold font in the middle ground. I think the end titles sum up the whole movie. It was just well balanced like that. The story was simple, but the characters were multidimensional. The costumes, makeup and scenery were extravagant, yet there was enough empty space to not jangle the eye.

The acting was excellent. I never quite got a bead on what the changes in accent meant as Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter went from a Scottish brogue to putting on airs. But the White Queen had affectations that came and went as well, so I presume it was on purpose. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen was no Johnny Depp, though. And no Helena Bonham Carter. Man, the Red Queen MADE that movie. She was horrible, but at the same time she got such pleasure from her horribleness you had to kind of envy her. She wasn't your usual insipid queen, spoiled yet unappreciative. She DEMANDED that treatment and savored the  entertainment value of her slaves. Being queen was no mere privilege, she had to work to keep her slaves obedient.

Whoever played Alice did her job perfectly as well-- nondescript. She was really only an observer right until the very end when she decided that she would participate in her life and not just go along with other people's plans for her. Of course she displayed this decision by going along with the White Queen's plans for her, but that was the last time!

The voice actors were very good too. I couldn't help thinking of Love Actually whenever the caterpillar spoke. Alan Rickman may remind you of Snapes in Harry Potter, but for some reason in this role he reminds me of his character Harry in Love Actually. A similar character really, in that you're never sure if he's on the right side or not. And Stephen Fry voicing the Cheshire Cat, well, I just love Stephen Fry. Play PG Wodehouse's Jeeves once and have my heart forever. Crispin Glover actually appeared as a whole person yet I still couldn't help seeing him as George McFly from Back to the Future. His character wasn't that crucial though -- it wasn't important for him to transcend my mental typecasting.

So overall I give Alice in Wonderland an A. A for absence of sentimentality. There was no Celine Dionesque soundtrack like Avatar, no dancing love scenes like Up (which honestly I only saw in Steve Job's iPad presentation but it was so horrible I dare not see the movie). Even the violence was balanced by the reaction of the characters who were obviously grossed out by the blatant gruesomeness of it. Right up until it meshed with their own quirky personality layers.

It's better than the trailer. The trailer made me worry that the extreme makeup would distract from what was actually going on. But it was really just interesting to look at. And the fact that Alice had no makeup at all was part of the symbolism. (She wasn't very interesting.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lightning from Redoubt Volcano

After spending a few weeks pondering the physics of clouds and sound waves I'm just in the right frame of mind for this article, Volcano Sparks New Type of Lightning. It basically says scientists got some detectors out onto Alaska's Redoubt Volcano when it first started erupting last year. They have detected tiny sparks of lightning lasting just a millisecond or two inside the ash plume at the beginning of the eruption. The equipment also mapped large bolts of lightning similar to a thunderstorm and medium sized two mile bolts from volcanic vents. The article conservatively avoids explaining where the electrical potential comes from to make this lightning. It's one of those "we're looking into it" stories.

But the comments after are full of interesting ideas to ponder. Metals in the ash, lack of lightning in some volcanoes because of higher concentration of water vapor, piezoelectric effects that generate voltage (this only works for crystals, so they have to try hard to sell me on this).

The whole time I was reading this story I had this REM song stuck in my head. This volcano needs a theme song. I recommend Windout. Find out. No doubt. You're young and red.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Underwater methane thawing

I talked about methane releasing from thawing before. According to Discovery News there's a new study in Science that quantifies how much methane is being released from sea floor permafrost underneath the until-now ice sheet. Looks like it's going to be enough to be a real kick to the greenhouse gas situation.

*update: There's another article on the Discover Magazine Blog that explains this even better. The 800,000 square mile shelf was above sea level in the last ice age. (Just to be clear, the main mechanism for getting water out of the ocean is to pile it up on the continents in the form of snow and ice in glaciers. Ice age = low sea level.) Anyway, the East Siberian Arctic shelf was out of the water and vegetation grew there, absorbing carbon dioxide. (You may ask, if the earth was so cold and covered in glaciers, how did plants grow in Siberia? Well they did it very quickly in the long days of summer. This is the low lands. The glaciers would be in the higher elevations.) When the ice age reversed and the sea level came up, the shelf became submerged before the organic matter was completely decomposed. It was prevented for breaking down entirely by a layer of ice in the form of permafrost. Now that barrier is breaking down and the decomposition is picking up again, releasing methane into the water.

I don't really have anything to add. I worked in the yard today, digging up more conduit. I pulled the wire completely out of the foundation of the old house. It was easier than I thought it would be. It was about like pulling a garden hose through wet grass. I'm pondering what to do with it now.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Science on the Daily Show

I get The Daily Show on a one day delay since I catch it on I am really glad I got the link to that Hawaiian TV station on Saturday from Phil Plait's Twitter feed. This CNN nonsense would have made me INSANE! The Hawaiians were perfect though. They know about waves and the ocean and don't sound like complete imbeciles. 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Uninformant
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform

After this bit about the tsunami Neil dGrasse Tyson came on to plug his Nova episode about Pluto which I mentioned before. It's coming on in about an hour and a half. I might see if I can get the rabbit ears to pick up a public TV station.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform

It's interesting what he says about the importance of finding water on the moon. I'm still a little chapped about the cancellation of the Ares program to go to the moon. I mean 238,857 miles is nothing. I've driven my Honda farther than that. Now I know it's a lot harder to go straight up that just moseying around on highways, but I'm just saying. There are a lot of individuals like me driving Hondas that far. Seems like if we pooled our resources it would be reasonable to get just one vehicle that can go that far on another axis.

Atrazine Creates Male Baby Mamas

"Weed Killer Makes Male Frogs Lay Eggs" is the understated headline for  this National Geographic article about a study of atrazine. I'll start with the data.

1. They raised 40 genetically male frogs in water that was 0.003% atrazine
2. Four frogs matured into normal looking females (females have cloacal extensions on the end of their abdomen)
3. They dissected two and found they had ovaries, but still male DNA
4. The other two female look-alikes mated with male frogs and laid eggs, and most importantly THE EGGS HATCHED AND A WHOLE CREW OF MALE FROGS GREW TO ADULTHOOD!

I get that because both the mother and the father were genetically male it's impossible to have a genetic female. This is kind of an important point though. Because while the idea that an animal can change sex isn't really that big a deal on its own, it is a big deal that you can MAKE them do it in just one generation and then skew the whole ratio of males to females.

There are 23 families of fish that change sex naturally. Most common is for the dominant female to turn into a male, called protogyny. Usually it's triggered by their social structure. For example harems of Indo-Pacific cleaner wrasses with one large male and up to 10 females. If you take away the male the largest female starts courting the next largest female within two hours. She develops functional male parts in two weeks. Females that turn into males are called supermales. This type of life cycle is common in fish that compete for mates. Physical size is an advantage for males.
Clownfish do the opposite. There are protandrous, meaning they are all males except for the biggest one. (That's why Nemo wasn't Nema.) This works for them because clownfish live in close knit groups on just one sea anemone for their whole life. The biggest fish make the most eggs. It takes a lot of metabolic energy to make eggs, more than to make sperm. Usually every egg gets fertilized but there is lots of sperm that never amounts to anything. It makes sense for the female to be the biggest of the group in terms of reproductive success.

So it's possible for a species to survive just fine only producing male babies as long as some of them make the switch to being females. But if they didn't evolve that way gradually but instead were pushed into that state in a single generation by anthropomorphic doping what happens? Hard to say. If you got them all "hooked" on atrazine then took it out of the system would all the African clawed frogs die off? Could be. Considering they are a terrible invasive species outside their native habitat that might not be a big deal. But in general I am uncomfortable with messing with balances we don't understand. Invasions of African clawed frogs with immunity to a certain fungus are already blamed for spreading that fungus to native frogs in North America. Those African clawed frogs have no tongues and just eat any old rotting garbage they can cram down their throat, but native frogs are linked closely with insects, and insects with spreading disease. Messing with anything in this cycle is a bad idea. Please keep these African clawed frogs in the lab and the weed killer out of the water is what I say.

Unrelated really, but I got distracted by my fish book and had to include this because it amuses me. I can't help think of bad horror movie plots where they make the shift from fish to humans. Corydora catfish, like in aquariums, breed like this -- the female places her mouth over the genital opening of the male and drinks his sperm. She then passes the sperm rapidly through her digestive system, extrudes eggs that are held between her pelvic fins and releases the male's sperm to fertilize the eggs. They call it sperm drinking and it's in bold in my book. Farther down the column they talk about spawning stupor. Species that are normally difficult to approach or are very active instead move like they're in a trance. Spawning stupor has been observed in suckers.

Side of the Road

Yesterday I didn't post anything on the blog because I was having too much fun making this video documenting my Sunday outing to a nearby bicycle race. My friend Ronnie came over from Jacksonville with his roommate the racer and their crew. The credits say February 29, 2010 because I filmed it on February 28 and edited it on March 1, so I made up a fake day in between to split the difference. (I don't make typos, I make excuses.)

Side of the Road from barbara tomlinson on Vimeo.