Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mullets for Morality: Some Thoughts on the De-Funding of Title X

             I read somewhere that anthropologists have never discovered a human culture that has NOT made the connection between having sex, and getting pregnant.   Obviously, these anthropologists need to fly back from the Amazon, or New Guinea, and start studying our members of Congress.   If the recent de-funding of Title X is any indication, many of our elected representatives haven’t yet figured this out.  

            If the budget containing this provision actually passes, American women need to start considering how we are going to deal with a country that thinks the facts of life is still some sort of unconfirmed theory.   To that end, may I suggest a few modest proposals?

            Solution 1: Rampant Lesbianism. No need for patches or pills if there’s no risk of getting pregnant.    But if you do want to have kids at some point down the line, just make sure that your lady of choice has a reasonably good-looking brother or cousin around to act as a donor, if necessary.  

            Solution 2: the Comb-over.    Let’s encourage the attractive men in our lives to make themselves a little less attractive.   If there are fewer hot men around, there will be fewer women wanting to sleep with them.   I’m not suggesting anything too drastic, but a bad haircut could be a good start.   We could call it Mullets for Morality.  

            Solution 3: the Jar.   Yes, the one that married couples are supposed to keep on their bedside table to fund their 50th anniversary cruise to Tahiti.   Instead, how about donating all of those dollars to help less financially-solvent couples enjoy intimate relations in a responsible manner?   It’s all about sharing the love...

            Solution 4: Sex Ed for Congress.   The incoming members of Congress want to hold constitution classes, but why stop there?   Let’s make sure that the people who are legislating what women can and cannot do with their bodies are actually informed about women’s health issues.   We would, of course, encourage all members of Congress to practice abstinence as the only 100% foolproof method of birth control.

            Again, these are merely a few suggestions.   Going forward, I hope that you will consider what other changes will need to be made in this country if millions of low-income women lose access to affordable birth control, HIV testing, cancer screening, and prenatal care.   If you have other solutions on what we as a country need to do about family planning, health care access, or women's reproductive issues, then I encourage you to call your local senator or representative.   

            Because if you don't talk to your senator about sex, who will?

             With love,

             Mareth - one of the estimated one in five women who have used Title X funds to acquire birth control at some point in her life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Windy Wonderland

            The wind has been ridiculously strong for the past week.   It’s also tried to snow a couple of times, but the wind won’t let any of it accumulate, unless you have a doorway that happens to face north.   The snow seems to accumulate right there just fine.   A friend informed me that she had to shovel out her door four times in one day because the drifts kept piling up on her porch.   After spending a day at the aquarium watching the snow blow past the building, I was sure I was going to have to break out the snowblower.  

           Just to clarify, when someone says snowblower, I think of  a handheld, extension-cord-powered, outdoor gizmo – something a bit like a large hair dryer for the driveway.    Here in Alaska, snowblower is the name for the 2-stoke engine, caterpillar-treaded, snow-destroying tank that lives in the woodshed.    But when I actually fired up the snow-destroying tank, not enough of the snow had actually stuck to the ground for the snowblower to do any good.   (No idea where all the snow ended up – probably it’s all piling into drifts on Julie’s porch.)

            We don't have any new snow, but the wind is more than making up for it.   Standing in the aquarium, in some places you can literally feel the building vibrating with some of the gusts.   And when it did snow, it felt like the outdoor exhibits had turned into seal-themed snow globes.   We had to keep the doors to the outside areas locked, because otherwise the wind kept blowing them open.   Not surprisingly, very few of the visitors were interested in going outside anyway, since the wind chill was flirting with 20 below.   So I kept myself busy manning the touch tank, and watching Tongass the seal chasing the surface waves in his tank.   (I didn’t know you could get surface chop in a thirty-foot pool.   The seals apparently think it’s pretty cool.)

            A few nights ago, I got to go on my first Alaskan epic adventure of this winter season.   (Not counting the trip to pick up my car, which the auto transport elves finally delivered to Anchorage last week.   Although if you want to talk about levels of frustration, incompetence, and misinformation, epic would be a very appropriate word.   I’m just glad the car’s here, and the battery still starts.   Now I just need to get the wiper fluid to stop freezing to my windshield, and I will be all set.)

            I went out with a local snowshoeing group on Saturday night, to snowshoe under the full moon at the Mile 12 ski area.   There wasn’t actually a full moon (or there was, but it didn’t show up until after we got home) but the starlight more than made up for it.   Alaska is one of those places where, as long as the sky is clear, something up there will be glowing, regardless of what time of day it is.   On this particular evening, the stars were out in force.   And fortunately, where we were there was at least a little protection from the wind.

            Our intrepid leader, Sam, took us up a woody hillside trail that came out at a series of lakes and meadows all strung out on a bluff somewhere west of the highway.    The view of the stars on the lake was immense, and the snow was reflecting the light back, so you could see really, really well with just the snow and the starlight.   A few more prepared individuals had brought headlamps, but once we got out of the trees, we mostly turned them off.   Plus there were three dogs with us, all equipped with blinking LED collars, running around the meadow like a bunch of hyperactive UFOs.   At the top of the bluff, we intersected a power line cut, which we followed back down the hill to the ski area.   It felt really nice to go downhill through a big, wide corridor like that, especially since from the foliage sticking up through the snow, the corridor is probably chock full of devil’s club during the summer.   And it was too dark to really see the power lines very much, which helped maintain the illusion that we were in the middle of the woods.

            The hike was definitely more of a workout than I had planned on, and in that sense it was good that I didn’t seriously layer up, because I was working up a sweat the whole time we were out.   I was using borrowed snowshoes, and while I tried them out in the yard before jumping in the car, the bindings, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence to begin with, ended up in a fubar-esque condition after maybe a quarter mile.   Fortunately, Sam pulled out some of the MacGyver-like Alaskan ingenuity that all long-time residents seem to have, and improvised a binding by taking the straps from the nonfunctional binding and tying them in fancy knots around my ankle.   I’m not sure what exactly he did, but all I can say is that it worked really, really well, and was undoubtedly what allowed me to finish the hike.   

            Now my question is, where do they keep this Alaskan ingenuity, and how do I sign up to get some?   It didn’t show up in my PO Box, or with my state ID.   Maybe I’ll get it with the Alaska permanent fund check.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Joys of Embracing Incorrect Terminology

            All appearances to the contrary, Squirt the octopus doesn’t have any legs. She also has no tentacles. She doesn’t have any lungs, and the things that look like gills aren’t actually called gills. Ditto with the starfish. Starfish also don’t have legs; though despite that, they manage to have several hundred tube feet. Starfish have bony bits, which aren’t actually bones, and eyespots that don’t look anything like eyes. While we’re on the subject, they’re not actually called starfish, either.   

            So what are an octopus’ gills actually called? Ctenidium. My spell checker doesn’t even recognize that word. Neither would 99% of the aquarium guests I talk to, and the one guy who does know that the gills are actually called ctenidium probably has some sort of biology degree, and knows far more about octopus than I do, anyway. So, now you know what to properly call an octopus gill.   But does that tell you anything more about the octopus itself?  

            I am of the opinion that some scientific terminology, a naturalist is better off ignoring. It is not worth correcting (or confusing) a visitor unless there is going to be some payoff in a visitor's improved understanding of the animal in question. Does knowing that an octopus gill is actually a ctendium improve anyone's understanding of an octopus?   Does a gill by any other name still remove oxygen from the water column?    

Certain inaccuracies I will correct, such as a completely wrong identification of an animal’s species. (Woody isn’t a mother walrus, for example; the common murres aren’t actually penguins, and the plumose anemones aren’t plants.) I’ll also (mostly) correct misinterpretation of an animal's behavior. A puffin who’s shaking his feathers is preening; not shivering with cold.   A sea urchin in the touch tank moving his spines isn’t trying to eat you, he’s trying to discourage you from eating him. And that blue duck trying to mount the brown duck isn’t playing with her, though how I actually explain that behavior varies depending on how many children are within earshot.  ('It's that time of the year.')

            Other inaccuracies I will happily let stand, providing that they do not get in the way of the visitor understanding the basic gist (for lack of a better word) of the animal. This is especially true concerning animal features. For example, fins and flippers are both very good words to describe the appendages seals use to swim with, despite the fact that fins are only found on fish, whales, and scuba divers. Saying that Squirt the octopus has eight legs, while technically inaccurate (they’re called arms), doesn’t radically detract from understanding what Squirt’s arms do. She uses them to move around; she can crawl; her arms (or legs) are very dexterous, and strong enough to pry open clam shells.

            One reason why octopus are such interesting critters is that they are very mammal-like animals, who happen to have a completely non-mammal-like biology. It’s sort of like someone gave God an oyster, and asked Him to turn it into a bunny. You might get long ears and a fluffy tail, but the ears and the tail are going to be coming from some very different places.   So you end up with gills that are actually ctenidium, and tongues that are called radula, and weird mouth drilling equipment called salivary papilla, that don’t have any sort of biological counterpart, outside of maybe a DeWalt cordless drill. Partly for this reason, octopus seem to be particularly prone to confused nomenclature, such as having a non-gill-like structure that does very gill-like things, or a head that's actually called a mantle. Confusion is even implicit in the name. Quick – what’s the plural of octopus? Octopi? Octopuses? Octopus?

            Technically, since octopus is originally a Greek word (not Latin), the plural, in Greek would be octopodes. Which sounds ridiculous in English, and thankfully no one, not even the biology textbooks, actually follows this usage.

            Before we go any further, let me clarify that octopus do have eight arms, hundreds of sucker discs, and two mollusk lung-like organs called ctenidium, which is, basically, a marine-biology-degree word for a mollusk gill. Squirt the octopus also has an overabundance of a lot of other familiar organs – such as three hearts, and nine brains (or technically, one brain and eight nerve clusters, one in each arm). Seems a little excessive when you consider that animals like the plumose anemones can grow, move, reproduce, kill prey, and defend themselves without any sort of brain at all.   

            When dealing with invertebrates, a lot of the normal features of a mammal, the standard operating procedures, if you will, simply don’t apply. Invertebrates do the same sorts of things that mammals do – eat, reproduce, grow and defend themselves, but they tend to accomplish these things by very different methods. Which, for those with marine biology degrees, means a whole boatload of new terminology – such as a fancy new word for an organ that would be called a gill, if the owner of this organ happened to be a fish.

            The fact that invertebrates have such different biology from us makes it even more startling when an animal happens to develop an organ that very closely parallels something owned by a vertebrate. Octopus have very well developed eyes, containing all sorts of mammal-like features, such as an iris, retina, pupil, and lens. Other features of its organization aren’t nearly so mammal-like, such as its approach to brain organization. The nerve clusters in octopus arms appear to be capable of responding to stimuli and carrying out commands (‘thinking’, in other words) independently from the rest of the octopus. How much oversight the main octopus brain has over the nerve clusters (or how much feedback the brain gets about what its arms are actually doing) is still being researched, and debated. For example, it may be possible for one individual arm to learn a behavior (opening a certain type of jar, for instance) that the other seven arms don’t know.

            I’ve always thought that Squirt had a lot of personality. Some of this research is hinting that she might actually have nine of them…

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Touch Tank Salad Bar

            I love chatting with the Native Alaskans that visit the aquarium, because I nearly always learn something new about the animals we exhibit. Very often, the new information comes in the form of recipes. For many Native Alaskans, they seem to regard the aquarium exhibits the same way a native of the Lower 48 would regard a museum exhibit of their favorite childhood foods. 

            A visitor recently was waxing nostalgic about eating the short-spined sea urchins, describing in detail how they are harvested and prepared. (‘Once you’ve cut off the bottom of the test, then you crack it apart like a taco…’) My guest also told me that the crimson anemones in the touch tank are edible; which is news to me – anemones are so gelatinous that even other marine critters don’t think they’re worth the effort of digesting. The preparation instructions seem to involve removing the digestive track, and then boiling what’s left, as if you were poaching an egg.   He said it has a texture similar to squid. The conversation might have seemed less odd if he hadn’t been playing with the crimson anemone the whole time he was talking about ripping out its innards and eating it. Given any encouragement whatsoever, I think the visitor would have pulled a multi-tool out of his back pocket and done a demonstration right there.