Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Annual Training - Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania

I just spent about two weeks with my Army National Guard unit at Fort Indiantown Gap, PA. This large PA National Guard training area has lots of interesting wildlife, including the only eastern population of the Regal Fritillary, a large orange butterfly. There were a few public butterfly walks, but I was training at the time. The base has a very active conservation management program and The Nature Conservancy sponsored by the National Guard has been conducting studies on the butterfly and its management since 1992.

I've been to the Gap about 5 times in the last 10 years and have had some good wildlife sightings here. This is the only place I have ever seen two particular species of salamanders, the Northern Red Salamander and the Long-tailed salamander. Both are pretty striking species.

My unit's field exercise was next to a large area that is maintained as a grassland. There were quite a few Grasshopper Sparrows, Field Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks singing in the area as well as a pair of resident American Kestrels that hunted the fields. The field we were in had butterfly weed and lots of Dogbane with lots of Dogbane Leaf Beetles eating them. Some butterflies I saw were Common Buckeye, Monarch, Red Admiral, Pipevine Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, Yellow Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail and Pearl Crescent.

I believe FTIG has the largest intact grasslands remaining in the northeast. Disturbance from track vehicles as well as small fires started by training exercises contribute to the maintenance of the grasslands. Annual mowing also keeps the woody plants at bay. In historic times the disturbance from large herds of bison and natural and man-made fires are thought to have maintained the grasslands. The biggest drops in grassland species have been in the last 40 years as suburban sprawl is thought to have fragmented remnant grasslands.

This past week I also saw quite a few large Green Scarab Beetles (Cotinus nitida) buzzing around. I saw a posting from Ohio that proclaimed the annual terrorizing of gardeners and unsuspecting people outdoors had begun. Because they are large and loud and like to cruise 2 or 3 feet off the ground when flying, they frequently induce panic in those that are unfamiliar with them. I can attest to witnessing several people in my unit beating hasty retreats when the beetles appeared. Because the beetles emerge around the same time there were often 3 or 4 in the air around us at the same time. I excused myself from several conversations to chase them down and catch them.

Walking on a bridge over a small stream I saw a large wood turtle sunning itself on a rock. When it gets hot, wood turtles move to the water to cool off. The only snakes I saw were Eastern Garter Snakes, which I declined to catch because of their habit of crapping on me.
When I was at FTIG back in September of 2007 for a medical course I spent a few hours at the Second Mountain Hawkwatch, that is conducted on one of the ridges on the base. I saw a few Osprey, many turkey vultures and lots of migrating Monarch butterflies. I think they had 5 or 6 Bald Eagles that day, but it was before I arrived. I also took a walk down one of the trails and found quite a few large dusky salamanders and red efts (immature red spotted newts) as well as a spectacular large orange and black millipede (Apheloria virginiensis) shown in the picture above.

On my way home in September I passed through Swatara Gap State Park where I saw some cool black anthills near the river. The surface sand was white but there must have been a coal seam just underground since all the anthills were black. Near the same location I found a few marine fossils from the Ordovician period, mostly horn corals and brachiopods.


Lepidoptera of Fort Indiantown Gap - Paper describing the unique habitats and conservation importance of FTIG.

Turkey Vulture Migration Project - radio tracking TVs in Pennsylvania

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Public Data - Mining for Gold

I saw an interesting story about how the Houston Chronicle has put the entire database of the names and salaries of 81,000 city of Houston employees online. Though all this is public data, they have put it all in one place for everyone to play with. I particularly love this estimate from Houston Community College of how much labor it would take to compile the data. 70 hours of programming and validation seem a little steep to join a table or two. Perhaps there we vacuum tubes and punch cards involved. I imagine it created quite a bit of angst for some on the payroll. Among the fascinating tidbits, someone made almost $100,000 in overtime in 1 year and the superintendent of schools made twice what the mayor did . Where do I apply? This is some serious territory for the data visualization folks. So many things can be done with this. Salary mapping by agency and district just scratches the surface. Of course the Chronicle is hoping to get some more story tips from the public miners of public data.

Journalists are becoming much more sophisticated in analyzing this type of data. The Institute for Analytical Journalism appears to be an organization that promotes this. Using network analysis, spatial statistics, GIS and various data mining algorithms all have huge potential to unlock patterns and actionable knowledge, not only in journalism but in many domains.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Newspaper stand to the world - Kidon-Media

You're not going to see this on TV or in your local US paper. Rats are eating the mail in Francistown, Botswana.
"Instead of finding their mail neatly packed in the boxes, customers are met with chicken bones, used plastic forks and messed us papers" - Botswana Gazette
This is stuff I want to know! I don't care about the minutiae of some second rate starlet's life. This is what makes life interesting. This is the meat and potatoes of an true global infovore, not a rehash of the same old thing, with a thousand minor permutations. Creativity is often seen as the intersection of two previously unlinked ideas. Rats....mail.....chicken bones......plastic forks.....EUREKA!!!!!. Reading this type of thing is bound to spark a veritable lightning storm of creativity.
For years I've been going to the Dutch website Kidon-media link whenever I want a more in depth and local idea about things that are going on in the world. Unfortunately much of the world news in the US is really what are Americans doing in other countries. With the advent of passable machine translation it is possible to expand your reading far beyond your local language. I first used Altavista (now yahoo) Babelfish then switched to google's translation applications a few years ago. Teaming up Kidon and Google allows access to media in many major languages. Also many countries have at least one English language paper which can often be accessed online. Globally accessible media allows people to stay connected to their communities no matter where they live. I'm not sure if this is true but it seems that some languages like Chinese are much more amenable to machine translation. Perhaps there is less left to guessing or force fitting for the machine or there are less ambiguous idiomatic expressions. For a language like Arabic, MT is still useful, but the translations are often less satisfying.

Of course, learning the language makes for the best experience. I've liked using the Rosetta Stone products. Since I am a member of the military I have access to all the Rosetta Stone products through the Army web portal called AKO. The method of instruction and feedback is so intuitive that my children can easily master a module on counting in Hindi or learning the colors or Animals in Mandarin Chinese. The modules get progressively harder and sometimes it takes me a while to figure out what is trying to be communicated. I've focused primarily on Arabic and Spanish. I think its a great way to learn a lot of vocabulary, but I'm thinking that more advanced conversation requires a bit more.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Eye in the Sky

I always like looking at the satellite tracking maps attached to all manner of beasts. From tracking geese from Siberia to Iraq with attached satellite transmitters or looking in on the secret life of the Ocean Sunfish via popoff sensors with GPS, these devices are giving us huge amounts of valuable information on migration routes, stop overs and home ranges. There is also potential for its use (and misuse) with people. I particularly like this application to make an emotional map of a city using GPS and glavanic skin response. With more and more people with GPS enabled devices from cameras to cell phones to cars a huge amount of temporospatial data is being generated. You have to know that data aggregators like Acxiom and big brother would love to put that data in your file and correlate it with where and how you spend your money or even better how you might feel about it.