Friday, August 26, 2016

Giant Silkworms

As best I can tell, this is a giant silkworm that will morph into one of several types of moths, here in Virginia. I found it this morning, as if sleeping off an earlier big meal. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Wood Thrush Summer

We recently passed our 32nd anniversary of living out here in this blessed wilderness. By now we've pretty well come to understand what this place has to offer, and look forward each year to what stand-out experiences nature will be providing. Each season brings its exceptional offerings and phenomena, and it's fun to pause from our daily tasks and devote some time and attention to those exceptions. Questions we pose ourselves: What has made this summer special and different? What has been particularly bountiful in the vegetable garden? What events will we experience and remember for years to come? Is this a one-time event, or is it similar to an exceptional experience that occurred a decade ago? How do we assimilate all this?
These are simple pleasures—but they are pleasures, because we have the time and inclination to pay attention to them and enjoy them. On the evenings when I soak in the outdoor tub, I often let my mind wander over and savor this year's recent special events. Not all are joyous, of course. The gnats may have been especially pesky, or several weeks may have passed now without a decent rain, but that's all part of the flow; and we have learned a key lesson in life: the unpleasant experiences soon fade from memory, as the fine ones persist.
As I was soaking in the tub recently, in this mental mode of appreciating what Mother Nature offers, I was being regaled by wood thrush songs. I've written in this blog a few times about the fact that no avian singer around here tops the wood thrush, as to its spectacular singing voice. They have a song that constantly changes, is incredibly melodic, and literally stops you in your tracks (or hot tub reveries)—forcing you to pay homage to its call.
I've also written about how the wood thrush population is in decline in the Americas, and that we've noted fewer and fewer of them out in the woods each summer. Habitat destruction in both the United States (its summer home) and Latin America (its winter abode) threatens their existence.
After the last few years of many fewer wood thrush songs, this summer has been very special. It's literally a wood thrush summer! Not only do we hear several of them calling out, but they are much closer to the clearing this year. (The wood thrush prefers dense forest, so it's a treat when they approach the clearing.) When they are near, we can clearly discern each part of their intricate call—especially that third part: a high-pitched melodic trill that is amazing.
With so many thrushes calling at once—sometimes we've heard three or four in competition—they really provide a show! And it is a form of rivalry. I'm sure they do hear each other and try to best their rival. We can hear them pause, listen to their challenger, and respond. So what's the cause of these calls? Are they still vying for mates this late in the season? Is it just a song competition? We don't know. Sometimes it's as if they are egotistical opera stars—competing for the lead role at La Scala.
Is each wood thrush aware of how well he's doing, relative to his competition? Is each of them aware of how superior is his song, compared to the squawks and simple whistles of the titmouse? Is his aesthetic judgment anything like ours? Does he compare the complexity and beauty of his call to that of his rivals? Does he realize that he is the premier songster of this forest? I would guess that most of the beauty we perceive and the pleasure we derive are not necessarily shared by him.

He's probably just trying to become alpha bird—the most intimidating and admired thrush of the forest. I doubt that he has any comprehension of the joy he brings to our ears. I wish we could make him aware of our appreciation, but I doubt that he'd understand. Let's just call it grace.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cricket Swim

I caught a cricket trying to take a bath in my outdoor tub. I rescued him before he drowned. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Horsefly Harassment

I have written before about horseflies and how I hate them. They are large—about an inch (2-3 cm) long. They fly extremely fast—suddenly appearing out of nowhere, to buzz around your head—making it essentially impossible to defend yourself. Their insidious tactic is to confuse you, so they may land on the back of your neck and bite. It hurts!
These nasty critters are aptly named. Not even a horse is safe from them. And I'm sure that I'm a far tastier prey than a horse—I have little hair on me (especially on my head) to poke its piercing probe through. And my skin must be a soft delicacy, compared to a tough old horse.
Horseflies bother me most when I'm trying to relax in the outdoor tub. As my mind calms, my body oozes out its tension, and I'm entering a meditative state, I'm suddenly yanked to a heightened condition of alertness by a dive-bombing horsefly. My calmed state of mind is immediately shattered. The bugger menacingly circles me a couple of times and then abruptly disappears. I sink back down into the soothing waters. A few minutes later he zooms back into my world, once again destroying my tranquility.
I may try to swat or fend him off, but to him it's like I'm responding in slow motion. From his perspective, it probably feels like he is toying with me; teasing this lumbering piece of human prey, before descending and biting. A few weeks ago a damnable horsefly drove me from my tub, far sooner than I wanted. I gave up that bath.
At those times when I'm being hunted and tormented by an aggressive horsefly, I swear I'd make a pact with the devil: if Satan could offer me a lethal horsefly shield—such that when one of them comes within ten feet of me, it'd instantly be zapped and perish—I might bargain away my soul. Well, OK, that is a little extreme, but how much would I pay for such a shield, if I could find one on Amazon? Would I trade my trusty old car for one? If I did, I could then get me a horse for my transportation needs, and we'd both be content in our little horsefly-free world.
Back to reality: Is there a better way to deal with nasty horseflies, besides selling my soul or fleeing in anger from my tub? Is there a better way than to get all riled up and flailing feebly and futilely from the tub? What if I were to calm down, submerge my body deep into the water, until only my nose poked above the surface? At least then I'd be more like a predator lying in wait for prey to come along—sort of like the spider patiently anticipating the arrival of a bug in its web. Let that damned horsefly land on my nose! I'd have it where I wanted it then! Swat! I'd probably just give myself a bloody nose and the fly would live to bug me another day.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Trolley Quandary—Part 2

Interestingly, a modern (as well as more realistic) version of the trolley quandary has recently come up. It features the issue of how to program the software of autonomous cars. The quandary: you are riding in such a car and an unavoidable accident is about to occur. Should the car's software be written in a utilitarian manner—that is, to choose a course of action that harms or kills the fewest people? What if those harmed might include you, the owner of the vehicle? Would you buy the car with that program, or would you want the car's autonomous program altered to protect you at all costs, regardless of who else might be harmed or killed?
This is a problem that is currently causing a real ethical dilemma in the autonomous car world. Recently, in late June, a Tesla Model S car, on autopilot, failed to see a truck enter an intersection in Florida. The car kept going and killed the rider/driver of the car. Now this is a real trolley problem. What should be done about the car's software program, to avoid future such accidents? [Update: another Tesla car crashed, in somewhat similar circumstances.]
The issue for Tesla seems to be that they are releasing the car's software for beta-testing by the public. Beta-testing is a common practice used by high tech companies, which has customers flush out software bugs—such as in smart phones. It's a way of allowing those companies to rush new technology into people's hands, and then improve and debug the product, using customer feedback. These companies admit that failure of their product is part of the game; you don't progress at a fast pace without failure, they say. There is a good argument that, while this practice may be acceptable for smartphones, it can be dangerous for cars—where safety is a prime issue. Major car companies traditionally thoroughly test safety items before releasing them. Is Tesla playing with customers' lives?
Once again, I find the autonomous car software problem not to be all that likely. Sure, a death happened, but was it a different problem than the trolley car, that could be solved a different way? You may posit a simple scenario for the autonomous car (such as which way to direct the car in an impending crash), as in the case of the trolley car problem, but in the end it's just a thought experiment. It's an abstract situation that may never really occur. Furthermore, the unfolding of the actual accident may not present just those two contrasting alternatives. In a real accident, there may well be many other options that cannot be foreseen, or tiny events that could completely alter the situation. I find it impossible to imagine that anyone could program the car's software to adequately cover all possibilities.
However realistic or unrealistic the trolley car quandary or the autonomous car situations are, I see a more general issue that needs to be addressed. We have had countless technical innovations introduced into society—most of them sold to us through the advantages they offer us. They save time or money; they solve society's problems or offer wondrous advantages. We have often rushed to make these technical “solutions” reality; sometimes to later experience a greater harm.
For example, DDT was once offered as a miracle solution to mosquito diseases. It then nearly wiped out several bird species. Oil and coal offered humanity wondrous kinds of energy sources; now they threaten to warm the climate to dangerous levels. The atom bomb was developed to end World War Two; now we have nuclear proliferation that threatens to make many species extinct—maybe including us. And how about the innocent intent of Dr. Frankenstein? He created a creature who subsequently wreaked havoc.

In our rush to introduce new technology, we usually don't pause to ponder the potential downsides. We throw caution to the winds, in the name of the advancement of science and an easier lifestyle. Science and technology are often billed as amoral disciplines—unconcerned either with ethics or the questions of right and wrong, and thus we can go forward with no concern to the downside of their applications. Their use, however, often leads to moral quandaries. We could benefit from more caution, from pausing and considering the potential moral ramifications of unbridled technology.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Cicada Coming Out Party

The other night we came home to spot this cicada on the handrail. It had recently emerged from its exoskeleton, and was still clinging to it, waiting in the dark to fully dry out. Note the wings have dried and how gorgeous they are! Click to enlarge.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trolley Quandary—Part 1

There is a classical thought experiment that has been wrestled with by practitioners in the fields of ethics, psychology, and cognitive science; often termed the “trolley problem.” It was conceived of the the mid 20th century as a way to explore how people would respond to a hypothetical ethical situation, in which they were faced with the imminent death of either one person or five people—positing that the observer had the ability to choose between one or five deaths, but must choose one or the other. In the hypothetical scenario you can't choose neither... it's either one death or five.
The scenario is often described thusly: a trolley car is barreling down train tracks. You are standing next to a lever that can divert the trolley off to a sidetrack. If the trolley keeps on its present course, you can see that five people (who are either disabled or tied to the tracks) will be run over. If you flip the lever, however, the trolley will be diverted to the sidetrack, where only one person is tied down and will be killed. What do you do? Do you passively watch five people get run over, or take action to save them (flipping the switch), which kills only one person?
The trolley quandary has been described in several alternative scenarios—maybe some of them more likely than others. It has been a common thought experiment that illustrates the essence of the concept of utilitarianism—an ethical philosophy that seeks to maximize the well-being (or minimize the harm) of all creatures involved in a situation. It is sort of a numerical approach that tallies up suffering and happiness and chooses the path of least suffering... or maximum happiness. In the trolley car dilemma it is clear that a utilitarian wouldn't hesitate to pull the lever—thus sacrificing one person to save five. The mathematics is simple and straightforward—the choice is clear. One or five.
I find myself objecting to this thought experiment, however, because it seems to me to be a rather far-fetched scenario. It's unlikely I'd ever find myself in such a situation, and if I were, I doubt that the details of the dilemma would be as clean as described. I rebel at the narrow and even unrealistic choices presented. So much for my hangup with the scenario.
Psychologists and philosophers have a ready answer to my objection, by positing any number of more likely scenarios—each of which just presents the same dilemma: I must choose to sacrifice either one or five lives. Which would it be? What would I do? Quit prevaricating and choose!
For argument's sake, here's another scenario that may be a little more realistic: I'm a transplant surgeon who has five patients who will soon die, if they don't get an organ transplant. Along comes a bum, an itinerant hobo who happens to be a perfect match for all five patients. Would it be ethical for me to sacrifice that neer-do-well guy, in order to save the five patients?

More trolley quandary next time...