Inside the Black Box (Metamorphosis)

Metamorphosis_by_Almacan You learned in grade school that a caterpillar metamorphoses into a moth or butterfly. But what would you find if you were to cut open a chrysalis during that transformational stage? Would you find a half-caterpillar/half-butterfly hybrid? It’s a black box — you don’t know. Caterpillar goes in, butterfly comes out. We don’t ask what happens in between.

But we should.

What you would actually find would be little more than snot – a milky white mucous, with a few dark specs floating in it. The caterpillar dissolves itself into goo, and the cells of the goo reconstitute themselves into a moth or butterfly.

So what happens to the “personhood” of the being inside? Does one creature die while another is reborn, growing out of the mulch of its former self? Does the butterfly have any “memory” of the caterpillar it was? Here’s the really mind-blowing part: Scientists have figured out how to train a caterpillar (via subtle electric shocks) to turn and walk the opposite direction when a certain smell is introduced into their environment. When they later tested for the same learned ability in metamorphosed butterflies and moths, they found a 70% memory retention rate, which had lasted right through the goo phase. Turns out those little specks in the goo are clusters of brain cells, which save memories and then reproduce in the new being.

Monarch_chrysalis1 The biological weirdness continues: If we peel off the skin of a dead caterpillar, we find proto wings, laying in wait. They never emerge on the caterpillar itself, but when the rest of the insect dissolves to goo, the proto-wings cling to the walls of the chrysalis, and then attach themselves to the newly formed butterfly and continue their evolution. The caterpillar starts them, the butterfly finishes them.

The whole process is as spiritual as it is philosophical as it is scientific. Is there anything stranger or more magical in nature? (rhetorical question). Over dinner, as our family discussed this process, we wondered why it isn’t taught in grade school. Why do we just get the black box (input –> output) version? Always look behind the curtain.

Image above: Metamorphosis by Almacan

Inspired by this week’s “Black Box” episode of the always amazing Radiolab.



No Photoshoppery here – Mammatus clouds are formed when the air is saturated with rain droplets and/or ice crystals, and begins to sink. They don’t precede a tornado or presage a storm; the worst of the storm is usually over when Mammatus are seen. The name “mammatus” is derived from the Latin mamma (breast), for the way they hang down, seeming to offer … something.

Pix all over the web, but these are some of the best I came across.

Music: The Mountain Goats :: Wild Sage

Oak Hymenoptera Redux

Six months ago, a certain unnamed geocache vexed and flummoxed Miles and I, and we ended up marking it DNF (15 minutes later I cut my hand wide open on barbed wire). Felt like we were so close and yet so far on that one (and it was a beautiful area), so returned to Carquinez today for a re-match. This time, we found it within three minutes, and it was a well-done doozy – a micro “Buffalo tube” tucked inside a tumorous growth on the branch of an old oak tree on a solitary hill in the middle of nowhere. Great place for a picnic, too.

Oak Hymenoptera (before) Oak Hymenoptera (after)

Miles was on a mission to photograph his Bionicles in natural settings, so spent half the day shooting macros of various Phantoka (and their off-spring) hanging from trees. If that sentence means anything to you, you have a 5-10 year-old-boy.


Also encountered a 4′ bull snake in the middle of the path, soaking up the sun, completely content to be petted and photographed. After a minute, it slid calmly off into the weeds.

Music: Joe Dassin :: Les Champs-Élysées


Hummingbirds A few weeks ago, a hummingbird built a nest in a bamboo tree in our backyard. Over the next week, we watched it hauling in tiny twigs and wrapping them tightly around the tiniest of branches. When the “big storm” rolled in last week, we were sure the nest – no bigger than a tennis ball – would be toast. Such a small cluster of lightness on such a bendy branch, so exposed. Amazingly, the nest survived.

Today, playing soccer with Miles in the back yard, stepping through bamboo to retrieve the ball, a small motion caught my eye. Got a chair and peeked down in. Two tiny beaks sticking up from pinky-sized babies. When I returned with the camera and hoisted it up, the baby hummers lifted their beaks and opened their gullets wide, expecting me to feed them – they must have perceived the shadow of the camera as their mother. Suddenly, I felt the hum of the mother’s wings just a foot from my head, trying to scare me away. We left them alone.

Music: Culture :: Hand and Bowl

Land That Time Forgot

Redwoods-2 One of the J-School’s multimedia student teams is putting together a package on geocaching, and Miles and I got to take them out to Redwood Regional Park last weekend. Didn’t go as well as planned – the dense redwoods made getting a signal lock almost impossible for much of the day. But we did manage to find two caches.

At the bottom of the valley, the ferns and moss and fungus grow thick, and the ancient trees rise up impossibly to the sky, gorgeous.

The highlight of the trip, as usual, totally unanticipated: Came across a patch of low weeds about 30 feet long absolutely dripping with ladybugs — tens of thousands of them, clinging from every tiny branch, several bugs thick in places. You could hear them dropping to the forest floor as they lost their grip on each other; they sounded like quiet popcorn. We scooped them up in our hands and let them crawl over our skin. Many inevitably found their way into our shirtsleeves and pant legs, into our hair and ears. It was magical, and we lingered with them for a long time. So this is where bugs are born.

Didn’t take my camera, but the journalists did share a handful of shots with me and said I could post them on Flickr.

Music: Loop Guru :: Stone River Reckoning

Gull Lake, 2007

Gull Lake If it’s been quiet around here lately, it’s because I just returned from a much-needed two-week vacation in Minnesota, relaxing with extended family. Five days of the trip spent on the shores of Gull Lake – canoeing, fishing, reading, golfing (yes, I said golfing!), playing tennis, geocaching, fishing, feasting, relaxing our hearts out. Nice little water skiing injury to show for my efforts – a ski whacked the top of my foot at speed and created a 3/4″ pillow bruise on top of the foot… which forced me to sit on the beach and devour a book and a half* (ah, shucks). Still recovering from that. Did I mention Wi-Fi in the trees, so you can use a laptop from anywhere? Life’s rough.

Back at work now, trying desperately to hang onto the vacation glow, but it’s fading fast. Big semester coming, with me in a new role at the J-School (more on that another day).

Just uploaded a pile of vacation images. Again trying something new – Image Rodeo has been great over the past few years, but never liked the fact that it forces you to output a separate database from iPhoto and then generate an album from that. Decided to give the free Galerie (which generates galleries with custom templates directly out of iPhoto) a shot and loving it so far, though it did take a while to port my template to its syntax.

Rained a bunch in the last few days (and I had my first encounter with a storm of nickel-sized hail – scary stuff!), but didn’t let that stop me – had an amazing experience on the last day doing a 15-geocache run in the rain, on bicycle. I’m almost always caching with Miles – was great to get out on my own. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is just packed with gorgeous meadows and wild lands. Trails run everywhere, ponds around every corner. The vegetation is incredibly lush — I could die of greenery.

* Read Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” and half of Sam Leavitt’s “Freakonomics” – both incredible. Hope to post more on those some day soon.

Music: Porter Wagoner :: Albert Ervin

Keep Your Chin Up

Tree Had an amazing day at Angel Island with the family last weekend. Made our way to the 800-foot peak over miles of switch-backs in absolutely perfect weather. Views of the Bay Area from the top like I’ve never seen before, picnic lunch with the birds, lovely ferry rides there and back. Did some good geocaching along the way, including my first 4.5-star terrain rating grab. Amy spotted it first — a camouflaged Nalgene bottle hanging from a limb 30 ft. up the backside of a tree. Pretty much in plain view, but the climb was hairy. Unscrewed the lid one-handed to find a dry pen and a damp log book, which meant another trip down and back up again to get the log signed (it don’t count if you don’t sign). Just scary enough to get the adrenaline going… but resulted in a crowd of muggles gathered around. Not much I could do about that once up there (“Chill out – don’t draw attention!”), but the climb was a nice little nitro boost to an already perfect day.

Music: Black Heat :: Wanaoh