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Birds by the number

June 1, 2021

Were I to guess how many individual birds live on earth, my first estimate would be 100 times the number of people, or a bit over a half trillion. That is above the mean of the probability distribution estimated by Australian scientists working from a variety of samples. (See diagram.) I am not surprised that the three most abundant species are the house sparrow, the European starling, and the ring-billed gull.

British scientists doing fecal bar-coding find that bird feeders in England have a surprisingly large effect on the species of birds that eat from them. (Cite.) That spurs the abundance of those species, such as the blue tit, relative to others:

We show that woodland bird species using supplementary food have increasing UK population trends, while species that do not, and/or are outcompeted by blue tits, are likely to be declining.

BirdPopulationsI suspect there may be other unintended environmental effects from growing that 150,000 tons of annual feed.

Philadelphia has decided to dim some of its skyscrapers during migration, after a few thousand birds flew into them last October. I don’t have much confidence that will significantly change bird numbers. But it might assuage the pedestrians who otherwise would walk by the carcasses.

The cult continues to fight

May 31, 2021

Stephen Richer explains why the current Maricopa audit is nothing more than madness at the helm. Read it first before thinking to comment on what is happening there. Second, read what Jennifer Morrell saw on the ground.

It will be interesting to see how the Arizona Senate wraps that up. If the auditors conjure the desired result — that Trump won! — the Senate knows that running with that simply discredits them. If the auditors fail to conjure that, those who pushed for this exercise will have failed their supporters. Under ordinary times, that bind would have prevented the Senate from sponsoring such a partisan and deranged exercise. We do not live in ordinary times. Given the current cult-like nature of the GOP, running without credibility is no hindrance. It even helps. No one should fool themself, that the 2020 election cured what ails this nation. It only provides a short period of respite.

Richer’s article adds to the interesting material that is being penned the last few years by  conservatives with enough integrity to look at the cultish nature of their movement and reject that. It is strange to me that someone who wrote it could vote for Trump. But, politics forces odd compromises. I made sure to allow for that category when describing Trump as a test case.

Necessary cautions

May 27, 2021

Philip Lacovara provides the necessary word of caution regarding the criminal investigations into Trump:

A criminal conviction requires a unanimous guilty verdict. For practical reasons as well as the interests of justice, prosecutors ordinarily will not seek an indictment unless they are satisfied both that they have evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that there is a substantial probability that all 12 jurors will agree to convict. All of this may give Vance pause. Even in New York City there are plenty of Trump fans .. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly inclined to accept his version of events, even when they fly in the face of documented, objective reality.

Though I understand the jury problem, I hope justice officials don’t too easily give up on prosecution. It’s unfortunate that Trump escaped criminal charges throughout his life. Now, as a political cult leader, he has considerable shield against them. Something he boasted about when first campaigning. In a just world … well, in a just world, pathological liars like Trump would not exist. We live in a messy world, and prosecutors should bring righteous charges even when social factors make the outcome uncertain, hoping that their efforts sometimes nudge the world in a better direction. 

To Biden’s call for redoubled intelligence investigation into the origin of Covid-19, I will make my own word of caution: It is unlikely to provide much answer in the ninety day time frame he sets. Those investigators by background and training focus on the social world, essentially starting with equal Bayesian priors for the relevant range of possibilities in the worlds of physics and biology. Those possibilities aren’t equal. It is far more likely that Covid-19 had zoonotic origin than that it was created intentionally. The intelligence community will not forward the investigation of that side one bit. If the Wuhan lab played a role, something for which we so far have little evidence, it is far more likely as a site of cross-species transmission — workers acquiring the virus from contact with bats or other animals — than as a source of synthesized virus. Alas, investigating a zoonotic origin requires resources, time, and luck. Hunting for viruses in the wild still requires sampling animals. Many of them. I would support dedicating a few billion dollars in the federal budget to improving the process for that, and building more data on what viruses are out there. 

The good route around Houston

May 26, 2021

LouisianaGatorA small alligator in Louisiana decided to move to the coastal bend, after some ne’er-do-well Cajuns caught it and tagged it and didn’t even offer it whiskey. While the gulf route around Houston is preferable in some ways, that landed the poor thing on the side of Padre Island not much suited to alligators. Now, its fortune shines brighter. The kindly rangers on the national sea shore will put it up for a while. Away from the turtle eggs! I suspect it then will be given gator-comfortable abode in the Laguna Madre.

Some glances east

May 25, 2021

India’s democracy has been sliding into a kind of religious populism. Now, crushed by a Covid-19 wave, it seems likely those pathologies will amplify one another. Pranav Dixit provides a view of how technology plays into that.

The Kazakhs and Uyghurs are the “ethnic peoples” that China’s government targets in quite vicious fashion. That makes some of the politics in Pakistan even uglier. Still, David Frum may be right that many in the US overestimate China.


May 24, 2021

One of the most frightening things in today’s political landscape is how the Republican Party attacks its own politicians who merely do their jobs in an honest fashion. The Republican Maricopa County recorder, Stephen Richer, speaks out against that. The radicals are winning. How does that not lead to a party where loyalty to it trumps integrity and any commitments larger than the party?

Another conservative takes on Candace Owens over her crazed war on masks. If she wakes up each morning with her bed smelling rank, I suspect it is the ghost of Edmund Burke pissing on her each night, that she dare claim political descent from him. Of course, that shade needs to make time also to haunt Marjorie Tayler Greene.

Kinzinger continues his quixotic quest. I applaud his attack on conspiracy theories. The truth he doesn’t want to face is the degree to which today’s GOP is built on them. That didn’t start with Trump.

Creative lawyering

May 20, 2021

Things are bleak for a criminal defendant when his own attorney leads with this:

A lot of these defendants — and I’m going to use this colloquial term, perhaps disrespectfully — but they’re all fucking short-bus people. These are people with brain damage, they’re fucking retarded, they’re on the goddamn spectrum. But they’re our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our coworkers — they’re part of our country. These aren’t bad people, they don’t have prior criminal history. Fuck, they were subjected to four-plus years of goddamn propaganda the likes of which the world has not seen since fucking Hitler.

Another one of the insurrectionists is blaming Fox News. With any cult-like group, it can be difficult to separate those who purely are dupes from those who think to use the cult to their own advantage. Proud Boy Ethan Nordean realized too late he is in the first group, and that his leader regards those who followed his call to rally on January 6th much as he does party ornaments — nice to throw an affair, then rubbish to discard. 

Those are desperate defenses: “I’m dumb, I was misled by right-wing media, I was used.” They all have a bit of truth; none excuse. Those who have no more substantive defense deserve their prison time. Those facing justice can comfort themselves that they didn’t die for a lie. Their family and friends should ponder their own responsibility, if they supported those lies. 

Congressman Andrew Clyde was exercising prudence when he helped bar the door to the House chamber. And if he looks a bit panicked in this photo (Twitter), I can only imagine that the storming of the Capitol was a bit frightening to the congressmen inside it. Now he wants to move on. Because that coup attempt came from his own party and makes it look bad. There is small justice in charging just the pawns. We need to investigate the leaders also.


The ransom pipeline

May 19, 2021

Jalopnik is peeved that Colonial Pipeline shut down gasoline to the east coast merely because its billing system was compromised: “the fuel-carrying pipeline was shut down last week in order to prevent a company that is entrusted with what should be a public utility from enduring an accounting headache.”

Wired has the more substantive complaint: that Colonial paid a ransom. Perhaps we should create a ransom surtax, requiring three times the amount of any payments to ransomware gangs as a penalty to the IRS.

Mythology is ours

May 18, 2021

Other animals have culture. We alone have mythology, the stories we create to explain how things are and how they came to be, our culture included. And that is where we run into so much trouble, since most of those stories are invented to unite and motivate those who share them. The Atlantic has a new article about the Lost Cause mythology, and how it sadly still lives. It meshes with a host of myths about America’s founding, especially those that turn the founders into a kind of political pantheon, whose foresight extends to our own time, rather than a group whose structural compromises in framing our government led to a Civil War.

One of the grand-daddy myths in our world is that ancient Israelites have a history going back five millennia, including a sojourn in Egypt. In reality, the ancient Israelites were cousin to the other Palestinians, those related cultures developing side by side little more than three millennia past. The myth giving them a longer and more distant origin was not penned until later.

Alien culture

May 17, 2021

OysterCatcherPairInstinct has some advantages. It can direct behavior from an animal’s earliest stages. It doesn’t require much in the way of neural complexity. It can be fast. Its large drawback is fragility. Instinct adapts or not to a changing environment only slowly, requiring evolutionary change over generations. It is not surprising, then, that as animals became more intelligent, they came to rely more and more on learned behavior. Which gives rise to culture, as Andrew Whiten explains:

If you define culture as a set of behaviors shared by a group and transmitted through the group by social learning, then you find that it’s widespread in the animal kingdom. You see it from primates and cetaceans, to birds and fish, and now we even find it in insects.

I particularly like this example of sperm whale adaptation to hunting:

“The whales were very quickly learning from each other ways to avoid being harpooned,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 1: Humans are not like your traditional enemy, the killer whale, so forget the old defense strategy of forming a tightknit circle with your babies protected in the middle. “That just gives the whalers something to aim their harpoon at,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 2: Swim upwind fast — humans hate rowing upwind in the ocean, and they’ll soon give up the chase. Tip No. 3: Find your inner Moby; dive deep, rise up and smash that whaling vessel to pieces.

Those rowers earned their shares. Cites: Whiten’s paper and Whitehead’s paper.

Photo shows a pair of oystercatchers meandering down North Beach.