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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aunt Tess takes on the NRA ...

Aunt Tess takes on the NRA ...

She's a tough old bird, my Aunt Tess, and calls every now and then to keep me on my toes. At 87 she's convinced that if she lives long enough she might see me make something of myself yet, although time's getting short. She lied about her age to join the Women’s Army Corp in the last year of the War, and had been in her day a cocktail waitress, a food store manager, a bartender, a cop’s wife and then his widow, and the first woman vice president of a Teamster's local. When it comes to language she can hold her own with the old ladies at a tea party or tell a loudmouth drunk where to put it in words he understands. This being a family newspaper I can't quote her saltier comments, but she started off the other day giving me hell.
 “You just going to let them get away with it?” she demanded out of the blue.
“Who? And get away with what?” I asked. Talking with Aunt Tess is like trying to climb aboard a bus that’s already pulling away from the curb.
“The gun lobby! They want to make schoolteachers carry guns!”
“But I thought you were pro-gun,” I protested.
“I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m off my rocker. That nut that killed those kids used an assault rifle. Who’s that NRA guy? Wayne LaPierre? He’s trying to get his bunch fired up about keeping their assault rifles for the day the government comes visiting. Who’s he think he’s fixing to shoot? The mailman? The cops? My Tom was a cop and a good one. Was he the kind of guy they want to shoot?”
I shook my head.
“He’s convinced there’s a plot to take away everybody’s guns so they can cram liberal programs down our throats.”
“Baloney! Any congressman lets them try that’s going to be wiping tables at McDonald’s after the next election. But what’s that got to do with assault rifles?”
“They see it as the first step down the slippery slope,” I said.
“This LaPierre guy needs to get a grip,” she snorted. “Oh, and another thing. I saw something on TV that the gun hustlers blame it on the video games or mental health. But the gun makers run ads on the video games to make the kids pester daddy for their own AK47, like it was a skateboard. And as far as saying we should keep track of guys with mental health problems, they must think we don’t know they block every move to keep the whackos from getting hold of the guns in the first place.”
“But what about the right of self-defense?” I led her on, not that Aunt Tess needs much prodding when she gets rolling.
“Self-defense against what?” she came back. “If they can’t defend themselves with rifles, shotguns and pistols, they must be the lousiest shots in the world. And I can tell you this; if they need assault rifles, they must be expecting to fight the US Army, which in my book is treason. And aside from that it’s a loser, because nobody beats the US Army.” All seven of her brothers were part of the Army that licked the Nazi’s and the Japanese. Two didn’t come back. Her old Women’s Army Corps spirit was still running high.
“So who’s this LaPierre whacko gonna shoot? Now I think about it, isn’t he the nut that called federal officers jack-booted thugs that time when the first Bush quit the NRA in protest?”
“Arm the teachers,” she sniffed. “Why do they let such loonies get on television if they can’t do better than that?”
I started to say something, but she cut me off. “Gotta go,” she said. “I’m going down the church and light a candle for every one of those little kids.”

Joe Wilkins is a semi-retired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville, NJ. He is the author of  "The Speaker Who Locked up the House", an acclaimed historical novel about Congress set in the Washington of 1890, and "The Skin Game and other Atlantic City capers", a richly comic account of the stick-up of an illegal card game as Atlantic City casino age began. To buy Joe’s books, invite him to talk to your group, or send him your comments, you can email him at, visit his website at or catch his author's page on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Plants with Personality


Plants with Personality

If you had to be an endangered animal, you’d be better off as a tiger than a toad. If you were a tiger, filmmakers might cast you in wildlife documentaries and journalists might write heart-rending stories about the disappearance of your kind. Your furry mug might appear on magazine covers and postage stamps. And conservation organizations just might make you their flagship species, a stand-in for all the critters whose survival is threatened. In other words, if you were a tiger, you might have a fighting chance of at least making humans care about your predicament.
That’s a taller order if you’re a toad, an animal that wins over few human hearts. Instead, we prefer the so-called “charismatic megafauna,” funneling our emotional and conservational energies into species like tigers, lions, elephants, dolphins, pandas, and the like.
A number of psychologists and biologists have begun to uncover why some species appeal to us more than others, identifying a number of factors that make certain kinds of critters especially attractive. For instance, we have a soft spot for our fellow mammals, and we  prefer big beasts to smaller ones. We’re also strongly attracted to “neotenic,” or juvenile-looking, features. The youngsters of many species have large heads, large eyes, big foreheads, and snub noses. Human infants have these characteristics, as do puppies, kittens, and all sorts of other critters that we find cute. In some species, adult animals retain features associated with youth–such as oversized eyes–and we’re naturally drawn to these neotenic faces.
The slow loris has strongly neotenic features.
An animal’s coloring may also, well, color, our perceptions. In 2006, David L. Stokes, a researcher at the University of Washington, Bothell, published a paperon penguins, which look more alike than different, all dressed in their matching black-and-white tuxedos. Stokes found that even a dash of color could win us over; according to his research, we seem to prefer penguin species that have a dash of warm color–red or yellow–on their bodies to those that are entirely black and white.
Our preferences for certain species over others have serious implications for conservation.  Studies have shown that charismatic megafauna attract more than their fair share of conservation attention and funding. As Stokes put it in his 2006 paper: “Much of the world’s biodiversity will survive only if humans choose to protect it. Given that people are likely to protect what is important to them, human preferences will be important determinants of many species’ prospects for survival…”
It never occurred to me that this idea might apply not only to animals but also to plants until I came across the work of Emily Hounslow, currently a PhD student at the UK’s University of Sheffield. For her master’s degree in biology, Hounslow explored the notion of charismatic plants. It’s an interesting notion–and one that hasn’t been explored much. After all, plants in general are much less charismatic than animals, less likely to earn our affection or conservation attention. (In one study, researchers found that elementary and middle school students were twice as interested as learning about animals as they were about plants.)
But within the plant world, some species are surely more attractive to us than others, and Hounslow argues that it’s high time to figure out what makes one woody green thing more appealing than another. In her paper, “What is a charismatic plant?,” Hounslow writes:
The idea of defining and explaining charisma has been investigated a lot in animals. Together with the recognition that charisma affects the flow of funds towards endangered species, this shows that it is important for our understanding of how conservation efforts work in practice. Yet, charisma, and the subsequent biases it creates, has not been explored at all in plants before.
In the paper, Hounslow explores the characteristics that might make certain plants especially appealing and attractive to humans. (The paper appears to be unpublished, but you can download a copy of it here.)
Rafflesia arnoldii flowers are the largest in the world, capable of growing to be one meter wide.
Not surprisingly, she suggests that size might play a role, prompting our interest in towering giants like redwoods. Flower size and brightness may also influence our preferences. Uniqueness may also be important, she suggests; a pine with needles that stand out from those of the other local conifers or a tree with a distinct, easily identifiable shape is likely to catch our eye. Plants that are iconic and characteristic of certain landscapes–consider, for instance, the saguaro cactus–may also be especially appealing to us and garner more than their fair share of attention.
Hounslow draws no definitive conclusions in her paper and acknowledges that rigorous, quantitative analysis is needed to determine what makes plants charismatic. But she suggests several sources of untapped data that researchers could use for such studies. They could compare plants selected to represent conservation projects to those that are not, she says. They could also assess plants featured on magazine covers or on botanical tours. Finally, researchers could study the amount of money raised for the conservation of different types of plants, she suggests.
These types of analyses could be useful in two ways. By revealing what kinds of plants we’re most attracted to, such research could help conservation organizations pick flagship plant species that draw public attention to the plight of threatened plants. At the same time, knowing more about our biases toward certain types of plants could help ensure that, as Hounslow puts it, “these biases can be corrected in order to ensure conservation effort is based on need, not human whims.”
Images: 1. Wikimedia/Jorn Napp  2. Wikimedia/Silke Hahn 3. Wikimedia/Henrik Hansson

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and the author ofFrankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts. Her work has appeared in WiredScientific American,Psychology TodaySeed,SlateNew YorkGoodThe Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
Twitter: @EmilyAnthes 

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