A Science for Everyone, Community

On polarized lenses.

I recently got a pair of polarized prescription glasses, and have been amazed by how much better I am able to see the world, particularly when driving in the morning and evening, confronted by people’s bright headlights.

While they do make my world noticeably dimmer, they bring out many small details, and seem to make colors more intense – I find myself able to discern grass stalks and foliage from much further ranges than I used to be able to. I suspect it’ll help with spotting wildlife as well.

It’s important to realize that not all glasses claiming to be polarized are – many cheap lenses claim to be polarized, while merely being tinted. If a lens is truly polarized, it will block out a portion of polarized light, meaning light that vibrates more in a certain direction. What portion of light is blocked out depends on the lenses’ orientation.

The lenses on most glasses are polarized to filter out horizontally reflected light, i.e. from puddles on roads, or from bodies of water, plastic, or a well-maintained car. Meanwhile, light reflected from bare metal generally won’t change its polarization. Here’s a link explaining the physics, and explaining what makes light polarized or unpolarized.

If you’d like to check if sunglasses that claim to be polarized are genuine, you can take two pairs of them, place them so their lenses overlap, and rotate them until they are perpendicular to each other. This should noticeably darken the view through the lenses, as you are filtering out most of the incoming light.

Alternatively most laptop screens are linearly polarized, so rotating a pair of polarized lenses in front of one should have a clearly bright orientation, where nearly all light emitted from the screen passes through the lenses successfully, and a clearly dark orientation (about perpendicular to the bright orientation) which blocks out nearly all the the light emitted from the screen.

The polarized lenses, aligned to allow all light emitted by the polarized computer monitor to pass through.
Nearly aligned to filter out all incoming polarized light,
but not quite, so some light still passes through the lenses.
Perfectly aligned, and now all the polarized light emitted from the screen is blocked by the lenses.

As a side effect of filtering out horizontally reflected light, my new lenses should help block out reflections from bodies of water, meaning I should be able to see fish moving beneath the surface of the water. Here’s a video showing the effect of looking through polarized lenses at water. Looking forward to getting out there, and seeing how efficient that is.


Backwoods Accordion Festival, Round 3

Trego’s third annual Backwoods Accordion Festival was the best-attended yet! We saw quite a few return visitors, as well as new faces, some of whom we fully expect to meet again next year.

The Trego Pub outdid itself with covered seating (a pleasant reprieve from the hot sun), and was buzzing with activity, serving both food and drink throughout the festivities.

Euphonium Spaceship, in mid-song.

Musical acts included Ray and Shirley Jacobs (in the guise of “Earthquake Jake” and “La Vie Est Une Fête”, respectively), Pom and Kathi Collins (of Euphonium Spaceship), Bob Mislivek (as himself), and Andrew Santiago (aka Ol’ Santi).

Bob Mislivek playing the John Deere Model A Polka – a new favorite for me.

There was a wide range of music for dancing, ranging from traditional dancing fare – polkas, waltzes, and schottisches; as well as sung music of a variety of styles. I particularly enjoyed the artists’ reminisces in between their songs – glimpses of how accordions, and music and culture more broadly, have featured in their lives.

This spry young couple coaxed more than a few attendees into joining them.

Much praise to the organizers, and all the folks who helped them! Well done.


David Thompson Black Powder Shoot (2022)

This year’s David Thompson Black Powder Shoot was somewhat better attended than last year’s, perhaps due to a loosening of Covid strictures. 57 shooters competed in some combination of three separate events – rifle (a trail of 21 targets), pistol (a trail of 19 targets), and knife & hawk (both used at each of the ten stations).

For one’s shooting score to count, their muzzleloader must use open ironsights, and patched roundball (no peepsights, nor Minié ball or sabots, in the interest of a more even playing field).

The final station in the rifle trail – the long gong was about 160 yards away.

Saturday Evening’s dynamite shoot was a blast, but I became caught up in conversation, and neglected to get a photo of the event. This year’s final round was very well-shot, and anticipation hung in the air. The winner received a fine rifle wall mount.

The blanket prizes, laid out in front of the registration tent on Sunday morning.

Blanket prizes took place on the final day. To participate, a person brings some relevant item to exchange. The person with the highest overall score from the three main events selects a prize first, the second-highest score next, and on down the line.

The rendezvous concluded, targets dismantled and loaded up, camp was swiftly struck.

Hoping to see you all next year.
-Mr. Smiley


Snow fleas have been out and about.

Snow fleas have been out and about this past week.

Despite their name, snow fleas bear no relation to the parasitic insects. Truth be told, snow fleas aren’t even insects! They have six legs, but aren’t divided into three body regions like insects, so instead belong to a larger grouping, the hexapods. Snow fleas are more properly called “springtails”, after the furcula, meaning “little fork” in Latin, a forked structure they use to fling themselves into the air.

Just below Lincoln’s shoulder, there is a snow flea – a Hypogastrura springtail.

Here’s a close-up video of a distantly-related springtail leaping, with a bit of an explanation of how the furcula works.

A few more snow fleas and a fir needle.

Unlike many arthropods, springtails grow to maturity faster in cool and moist conditions. Many are winter-active as well.

Similar to some of the insects I discussed in our piece on cold adaptations, many springtails have glycerol compounds in their blood, which lets them stay active in cold temperatures. Some food scientists are currently studying this blood antifreeze to make ice-cream less-susceptible to freezer damage.

Here’s a broader-field video than I was able to take of the snow fleas.

Despite being very common, and covering a vast range, very little is known about springtails. Most tend to live in the soil itself, either in woodlands or grasslands, but I’ve found them in caves and on the surface of streams before as well. Wherever there is moisture to keep springtails from drying out, as well as bacteria or mold for them to eat, there you can find springtails.


Be wary of scams when deal-hunting.

As holiday shopping rears its ugly head, we can anticipate more scams.

Let’s say John Smith did some Black Friday/Cyber Monday internet bargain-finding.
He found a deal he’d been dreaming of. A price too good to be true, and, to his sorrow, several weeks later it turns out that it wasn’t true at all.

Here are several common scam types:

  1. You purchase from an online retailer, but never receive information or a package.
    The seller fails to reply when you try to contact their helpline.
    You contact your bank, card company, or PayPal, and have them cancel that transaction.
    Suddenly, the seller is responsive! They supply a tracking number that was delivered to your approximate area. Onward to scam type two.
  2. You receive a real tracking number, but never get the package.
    On further investigation, the tracking number was for something sent to the same area (town, zip code, etc.), making it easy to shift blame onto the package delivery service.
    However the tracking number isn’t for your package – it doesn’t have your address, and often has a very different weight. Even if you’ve been given a valid tracking number, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your package is real!
    And now you, the scam victim, are stuck with the burden of proof.
  3. You receive a tracking number, and the package associated with it is sent to you, but isn’t what you ordered.
    Perhaps you open it up, think “what the H-E-double-hockysticks is this?” and promptly forget about it…
    A month or so later, when you realize that you never got those fancy pajamas, you realize that the time window to contest the charge is now closed.
    (This is a common scheme for international scam packages – even if you want to return it for your money back, the postage to ship it back may be more than what the item or refund is worth). For example, mailing a package from China to the USA is far less expensive than vice versa.

eBay and PayPal will almost always side with the scammer if they can produce a tracking number that got delivered in your town. And, regardless of how they’re doing this, scammers seem to be pretty good at finding tracking numbers.
You can appeal this, by showing evidence that the item you ordered was not the item that they sent. The US Post Office, FedEx, and UPS all have the ability to check the addresses associated with their tracking numbers, and sometimes may have GPS coordinates for delivery as well. If you have a FedEx or UPS tracking number, chances are you can get the package weight and dimensions from their tracking websites, too.

Here’s a story from a relatively local eastern Idahoan who experienced a valid tracking number scheme earlier this year. The comments below the story are good and discuss a number of scam websites and apps to avoid buying from.

Safeguard your purchases ahead of time by checking the sale websites – google it, and see if folks think it’s a good place to shop, or if the website sells lower-quality items than it claims. Do a search on the Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Tracker” to see if the site you’re contemplating buying your firepit or that steal of a computer from is legitimate.
Consider trying to call the helpline phone number provided on an online retailer’s website. Be wary if an online retailer redirects you to a new website to pay via PayPal.

If you receive a package you’re not expecting, take pictures of it while you open it.
Photograph the label and tracking number, and record the weight and parcel dimensions – it might pay off just a little ways down the road.

Community, Weird Words

Two bits on inflation.

Recently a friend explained the meaning of the phrase “two bits” to me.
It means “25 cents”. He recalls hearing a song on the radio when he was young that went “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”. While I was unable to find this song (the closest I came was a Florida state sports cheer), I did stumble on some more of the history behind the expression.

Back when the Age of Discovery was still underway, many countries were basing their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. Spanish silver dollars were often cut into eight pieces (like the slices of a pie). These smaller pieces were used as coins worth fractions of a dollar. Thus the Spanish silver dollar coin was also sometimes called “a piece of eight”, as it could be cut into eight “reales” or “bits”.

See the source image
A silver dollar, as well as 4-bit, 2-bit, and 1-bit pieces.

Many fledgling governments based their currency on the Spanish silver dollar. In 1792 the US government created a standardized currency for itself. The newly-founded U.S. Mint fixed the value of the American dollar to that of the Spanish silver dollar. When the first American quarter-dollars were minted, each was worth two 1/8 bits of a Spanish silver dollar.

Of course, inflation happened, as it usually does, and the Spanish pieces of eight (or “pesos”) were made with less silver than older ones, and their size kept dropping. The same could be said of Mexican Pesos, which started out based on the Spanish silver dollar as well. Eventually America went off the gold standard as well.

This brought the tune of “shave and a haircut (two bits)” to mind… Those words accompanying the tune date back to the 1930s… and provide us with an inkling of prices then.

It’s hard for the younger of us to imagine that a quarter used to be worth that much.
Nowadays I understand that a haircut tends to cost about $25.00 – one hundred times as much, in less than a hundred years.

It’ll be interesting to see how much one costs five years from now.


Mushrooms abound!

It’s been a good couple weeks for mushrooms here – puffballs, many ready to be made into mushroom steaks, some already releasing spores, seeding future years’ mushrooms.

A “Giant Puffball” that was a wee bit small to turn into steaks –
left another week, it has ruptured, releasing tiny gray-brown spores.
Tap a mature puffball, and it’ll send up a cloud of spores. Hence the name.

And shaggy manes, good for eating fresh, or letting sit and turn into “mushroom ink”. The first time this happened to some shaggy manes we’d collected, I was devastated. Turns out that shaggy manes left sit for a half-week turn into a black inky sludge. It’s still good to cook with, and can make a pleasant sauce. While I might prefer fresh firm shaggies chopped up and sauteed in bacon grease… I do intend to improve my grasp of shaggy ink. After all – it’s a great way to store them, and doesn’t mind the freezer.

A rather small Shaggy Mane.
Note the dark spores on my palm – see how the gills take on a darker color at the fringes?
Mature shaggy mane spores turn black.

If you haven’t done so recently, go take a hike through some Forest Service land – it’s a good time to be sampling the local fungi. I’ve spotted oysters and chanterelles as well as puffballs. Just take care that those you bring home are safe as food. There’s a number I’ve not yet managed to identify.

As the saying goes, all mushrooms are edible… some only once.
Be responsible in your mushroom ID, and see to it that you can have leftovers tomorrow.

Ask The Entomologist

Our inchworms and their violent kin

Mike found this inchworm in the woods recently.

Inchworms are moth caterpillars, specifically members of family Geometridae. Their family name means something like “the earth measurers”, after how they fold up and then stretch themselves out, like a surveyor’s measuring rope.

As you can see, this little fellow nearly lives up to the name.
About 6 millimeters too short, though.
And its classic gait. – note that it has all three pairs of real legs right by its head, at the left. The footlike things on the right are just extensions of the abdomen.

Ours around here aren’t all that interesting. They’re pretty standard caterpillars – standard herbivores, or opportunistic omnivores. And, like most larvae, they are very hard to identify beyond family until they molt to adulthood.

Hawaii, however, has an interesting lineage of carnivorous inchworm caterpillars. The prevailing thought is that when the Hawaiian islands were first colonized by insects, few of those pioneering species were predatory. After all, carnivores require a healthy prey population to do well. As time went on, a certain group of inchworm caterpillars adopted a predatory role – after all, there wasn’t much competition.

A good videoclip of an ambush hunter inchworm.

As time went on, the caterpillars radiated into different species with different preferred prey and hunting tactics. Some mimic twigs, others mimic leaves. Some rely on ambushes alone, while others bind up their prey with silk before consuming them. The ones I first read about prefer hunting flies, while others eat things as strange as snails.

Looking at a caterpillar move, it’s initially hard to fathom it ever moving with sufficient speed and dexterity to grab a fly, but amazing things can happen with time and the right selective pressures.

And another brief video of one of the fly-hunting species.

While we in the lower 48 do have a few omnivorous caterpillars, I’m not aware of any strict carnivores. Omnivory is easy to understand – say you have a passel of siblings all competing for the same leaves… sooner or later that sibling rivalry will result in somebody taking a bite out of a brother, and realizing that he’s pretty decent food.

Many insect mothers lay extra unfertilized eggs, just in case some of the early hatchers are in the mood to eat potential siblings. Gives the slow larvae a bit longer to escape their hungry siblings.


Bears know that the apples are ready…

It’s time to pick apples – at least according to the local wildlife. This weekend, we happened upon an adult black bear and her cubs munching on the apples down by the Trego railroad crossing in the wee morning hours.

Bears aren’t too picky about ripeness. Like many mammals, they’re attracted to the smell of fermentation – (the smell indicates a fruit has the highest calorie content it’s going to get). As apples get ripe (and then overripe) they become even better bear attractants.

Can bears become inebriated? Certainly! Glacier Park had a number of incidents back in the 80’s. Several railroad spills released thousands of tons of barley and corn. Buried by cleanup efforts, much of the grain fermented anaerobically, producing high volumes of alcohol. Upon emerging in the spring, bears promptly dug up the fermented mash, wish predictable consequences.

While unattended grain can ferment well, fruit left to its own devices rarely produces enough alcohol to have an effect on large mammals. Bears may be in your apple trees in the near future, but at least you won’t have to worry about them being drunk and disorderly. Not from that, anyway.


On the sex lives of bandwing grasshoppers

I know that our grasshopper levels are higher than desirable at present, but today I caught one of my favorite types. A bandwing grasshopper, as opposed to their slantface and spurthroat kin (our most economically damaging grasshoppers here tend to be spurthroats).

While beetles aren’t always the most discriminate of lovers… grasshoppers tend to be rather selective in their choice of partners.

Bandwing grasshoppers have showy courtship displays – males fly, preferably into a breeze, staying fairly stationary but bobbing up and down. As they do this, they make clacking noises with their wings (entomologists call them “crepitations“), and show off their bright wing colors. Here’s a great example video of this behavior.

Females come to admire the display and assess the performing male’s suitability as a sperm donor. Males, also attracted by the display, come and join in. After all, if other males are performing here, there must be some females nearby who might be interested in me!

If the performing male(s) are sufficiently impressive, and have the right wing color, and the right clacking sound, an interested female will respond in kind. She’ll fly up, clacking her wings, before landing near a suitable spot for romance.

On the ground she’ll make further investigation of her suitors – someone who looked appealing in the air might not on the ground. If not interested, she’ll hop away, and may raise her hind feet and brandish them threateningly at the suitor.

If, however, her meets her standards, there are a variety of come-hither beckons, which vary from species to species. Common variants include moving the hind legs up or down, to provide better access to the abdomen. There may also be chirping noises, leg-stamping dances, and stroking with antennae.

Mating time varies from less than half an hour to upwards of half a day, depending on the species.

While I know that my fondness for grasshoppers is thought a bit odd, the Judeo-Christian god had a soft spot for them as well. When I see grasshoppers arcing over the fields like breaking waves, I hear the words of Joel in my head, and think of how terrifying the lord’s army of grasshoppers can be. “Σαλπισατε σάλπιγγι ἐν Σιών!”