Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

Robert Wuthnow, author of IN THE BLOOD, on Farmers’ Faith

In the Blood jacketRobert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith. 

Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow

In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday.  Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain.  Theirs was a simple faith:  pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.

Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries.  Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat.  The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God.  Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.

Can we learn something important from farmers?  Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?

I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God.  I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed.  The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic.  Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil.  How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?

Writing In the Blood:  Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion.  The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers.  They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background.  Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.

Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple.  It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people.  But it converges on a basic point.  Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out.  And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants.  Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain.  It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge.  As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem.  God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”

Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times.  A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God.  Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die.  It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.

The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies.  Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.

Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence.  Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.”  The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals.  Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life.  But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.

One more thing:  Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say.  Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities.  A few were Tea Party Republicans.  They hated the federal government telling them how to farm.  But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments.  And they were fed up with politicians who did.

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

Math Drives Careers: Author Louis Gross

Gross jacketLouis Gross, distinguished professor in the departments of ecology, evolutionary biology, and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, is the author, along with Erin Bodine and Suzanne Lenhart, of Mathematics for the Life Sciences. For our third installment in the Math Awareness Month series, Gross writes on the role mathematics and rational consideration have played in his career, and in his relationship with his wife, a poet.

Math as a Career-builder and Relationship-broker

My wife is a poet. We approach most any issue with very different perspectives. In an art gallery, she sees a painting from an emotional level, while I focus on the methods the artist used to create the piece. As with any long-term relationship, after many years together we have learned to appreciate the other’s viewpoint and while I would never claim to be a poet, I have helped her on occasion to try out different phrasings of lines to bring out the music. In the reverse situation, the searching questions she asks me about the natural world (do deer really lose their antlers every year – isn’t this horribly wasteful?) force me to consider ways to explain complex scientific ideas in metaphor. As the way I approach science is heavily quantitative, with much of my formal education being in mathematics, this is particularly difficult without resorting to ways of thought that to me are second nature.

The challenges in explaining how quantitative approaches are critical to science, and that science advances in part through better and better ways to apply mathematics to the responses of systems we observe around us, arise throughout education, but are particularly difficult for those without a strong quantitative bent. An example may be helpful. One of the central approaches in science is building and using models – these can be physical ones such as model airplanes, they can be model systems such as an aquarium or they can be phrased in mathematics or computer code. The process of building models and the theories that ultimately arise from collections of models, is painstaking and iterative. Yet each of us build and apply models all the time. Think of the last time you entered a supermarket or a large store with multiple checkout-lines. How did you decide what line to choose? Was it based on how many customers were in each line, how many items they had to purchase, or whether they were paying with a check or credit card? Did you take account of your previous experience with that check-out clerk if you had it, or your experience with using self-checkout at that store? Was the criterion you used some aspect of ease of use, or how quickly you would get through the line? Or was it something else such as how cute the clerk was?

As the check-out line example illustrates, your decision about what is “best” for you depends on many factors, some of which might be quite personal. Yet somehow, store managers need to decide how many clerks are needed at each time and how to allocate their effort between check-out lines and their other possible responsibilities such as stocking shelves. Managers who are better able to meet the needs of customers, so they don’t get disgusted with long lines and decide not to return to that store, while restraining the costs of operation, will likely be rewarded. There is an entire field, heavily mathematical, that has been developed to better manage this situation. The jargon term is “queuing models” after the more typically British term for a waiting line. There is even a formal mathematical way of thinking about “bad luck” in this situation, e.g. choosing a line that results in a much longer time to be checked out than a different line would have.

While knowing that the math exists to help decide on optimal allocation of employee effort in a store will not help you in your decision, the approach of considering options, deciding upon your criteria and taking data (e.g. observations of the length of each line) to guide your decision is one that might serve you well independent of your career. This is one reason why many “self-help” methods involve making lists. Such lists assist you in deciding what factors (in math we call these variables) matter to you, how to weight the importance of each factor (we call these parameters in modeling) and what your objective might be (costs and benefits in an economic sense). This process of rational consideration of alternative options may assist you in many aspects of everyday life, including not just minor decisions of what check-out line to go into, but major ones such as what kind of car or home to purchase, what field to major in and even who to marry! While I can’t claim to have followed a formal mathematical approach in deciding on the latter, I have found it helpful throughout my marriage to use an informal approach to decision making. I encourage you to do so as well.

Check out Chapter 1 of Mathematics for the Life Sciences here.

Michael Chwe explains common knowledge, and why it matters to Mark Zuckerberg

Michael Chwe for UCOMM - 130321Michael Chwe, whose book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge has, in his words, “made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi” to catch the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, had a terrific piece on the Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post explaining exactly what common knowledge is, and why it’s so important. According to Chwe, common knowledge is generated by large scale social media platforms like Facebook, and this matters because of the many ways it can be leveraged, among them, stopping violence against women, and helping to foster collective political action.

From his piece on the Washington Post:

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose my book “Rational Ritual” last week for his “A Year of Books” book club, I was surprised. “Rational Ritual” came out in 2001, and has somehow slowly made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi into the elevated spheres of technology companies. This is gratifying to me, because even though it is a scholarly book published by a university press, “Rational Ritual” is essentially a popularization.

“Rational Ritual” tries to popularize the concept of “common knowledge” as defined by the philosopher David Lewis and the sociologist Morris Friedell in 1969. A fact or event is common knowledge among a group of people if everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.

When I was a graduate student in economics in the late 1980s, most people considered common knowledge as an idea of only theoretical interest. People who thought about collective action (and its flip side, political repression) were mostly interested in the problem of free riding, rather than how people communicate. But social change isn’t just about tackling incentives to free ride – it’s also a problem of coordination.

Read the rest here.

Recently, Michael Chwe, a master of interdisciplinary applications for otherwise “rarified mathematical theories” has been particularly active in exploring how game theory can help curb sexual violence. Check out his piece on the topic on the PBS Newshour blog here. His recent Q&A with Facebook Books is up here.

6 Free to Low-Cost Resources to Teach You Calculus in a Fun and Interactive Way

In his new book, Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us, Oscar E. Fernandez shows that calculus can actually be fun and applicable to our daily lives. Whether you’re trying to regulate your sleep schedule or find the best seat in the movie theater, calculus can help, and Fernandez’s accessible prose conveys complex mathematical concepts in terms understandable even to readers with no prior knowledge of calculus. Fernandez has also provided a list below of his favorite affordable resources for teaching yourself calculus, both on- and offline.

Princeton University Press offers several other books to help you master this most notorious of the mathematics. If you’re already good at calculus, but want to be great at it, check out Adrian Banner’s The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel at Calculus, an informal but comprehensive companion to any single-variable calculus textbook. For high school mathletes and aspiring zombie hunters of all ages, there’s also Colin Adams’s Zombies and Calculus, an interactive reading experience set at a small liberal arts college during a zombie apocalypse. Readers learn as they go, using calculus to defeat the walking dead.

Calculus. There, I said it. If your heart skipped a beat, you might be one of the roughly 1 million students–or the parent of one of these brave souls–that will take the class this coming school year. Math is already tough, you might have been told, and calculus is supposed to be the “make or break” math class that may determine whether you have a future in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics); no pressure huh?

But you’ve got a little under two months to go. That’s plenty of time to brush up on your precalculus, learn a bit of calculus, and walk in on day one well prepared–assuming you know where to start.

That’s where this article comes in. As a math professor myself I use several free to low-cost resources that help my students prepare for calculus. I’ve grouped these resources below into two categories: Learning Calculus and Interacting with Calculus.

Learning Calculus.

1. Paul’s online math notes–an interactive website (free).

This online site from Paul Dawkins, math professor at Lamar University, is arguably the best (free) online site for learning calculus. In a nutshell, it’s an interactive textbook. There are tons of examples, each followed by a complete solution, and various links that take you to different parts of the course as needed (i.e., instead of saying, for example, “recall in Section 2.1…” the links take you right back to the relevant section). I consider Prof. Dawkins’ site to be just as good, if not better, at teaching calculus than many actual calculus textbooks (and it’s free!). I should also mention that Prof. Dawkins’ site also includes fairly comprehensive precalculus and algebra sections.

2. Khan Academy–short video lectures (free).

A non-profit run by educator Salman Khan, the Khan academy is a popular online site featuring over 6,000 (according to Wikipedia) video mini-lectures–typically lasting about 15 minutes–on everything from art history to mathematics. The link I’ve included here is to the differential calculus set of videos. You can change subjects to integral calculus, or to trigonometry or algebra once you jump onto the site.

3. MIT online lectures–actual course lectures in video format (free).

One of the earliest institutions to do so, MIT records actual courses and puts up the lecture videos and, in some cases, homeworks, class notes, and exams on its Open Courseware site. The link above is to the math section. There you’ll find several calculus courses, in addition to more advanced math courses. Clicking on the videos may take you to iTunes U, Apple’s online library of video lectures. Once there you can also search for “calculus” and you’ll find other universities that have followed in MIT’s footsteps and put their recorded lectures online.

4. How to Ace Calculus: The Streetwise Guide, by Colin Adams, Abigail Thompson, and Joel Hass

If you’re looking for something in print, this book is a great resource. The book will teach you calculus, probably have you laughing throughout due to the authors’ good sense of humor, and also includes content not found in other calculus books, like tips for taking calculus exams and interacting with your instructor. You can read the first few pages on the book’s site.

Interacting with Calculus.

1. Calculus java applets–online interactive demonstrations of calculus topics(free).

There are many sites that include java-based demonstrations that will help you visualize math. Two good ones I’ve come across are David Little’s site and theUniversity of Notre Dame’s site. By dragging a point or function, or changing specific parameters, these applets make important concepts in calculus come alive; they also make it far easier to understand certain things. For example, take this statement: “as the number of sides of a regular polygon inscribed in a circle increases, the area of that polygon better approximates the area of the circle.” Even if you followed that, text is no comparison to this interactive animation.

One technological note: Because these are java applets, some of you will likely run into technology issues (especially if you’re on a Mac). For example, your computer may block these applets because it thinks that they are malicious. Here is a workaround from Java themselves that may help you in these cases.

2. Everyday Calculus, by Oscar E. Fernandez.

Self-promotion aside, calculus teachers often sell students (and parents) on the need to study calculus by telling them about how applicable the subject is. The problem is that the vast majority of the applications usually discussed are to things that many of us will likely never experience, like space shuttle launches and the optimization of company profits. The result: math becomes seen as an abstract subject that, although has applications, only become “real” if you become a scientist or engineer.

In  Everyday Calculus I flip this script and start with ordinary experiences, like taking a shower and driving to work, and showcase the hidden calculus behind these everyday events and things. For example, there’s some neat trigonometry that helps explain why we sometimes wake up feeling groggy, and thinking more carefully about how coffee cools reveals derivatives at work. This sort of approach makes it possible to use the book as an experiential learning tool to discover the calculus hidden all around you.

With so many good resources it’s hard to know where to start and how to use them all effectively. Let me suggest one approach that uses the resources above synergistically.

For starters, the link to Paul’s site takes you to the table of contents of his site. The topic ordering there is roughly the same as what you’d find in a calculus textbook. So, you’d probably want to start with his review of functions. From there, the next steps depend on the sort of learning experience you want.

1. If you’re comfortable learning from Paul’s site you can just stay there, using the other resources to complement your learning along the way.

2. If you learn better from lectures, then use Paul’s topics list and jump on the Khan Academy site and/or the MIT and iTunes U sites to find video lectures on the corresponding topics.

3. If you’re more of a print person, then How to Ace Calculus would be a great way to start. That book’s topics ordering is pretty much the same as Paul’s, so there’d be no need to go back and forth.

Whatever method you decided on, I still recommend that you use Paul’s site, the interactive java applets, and Everyday Calculus. These three resources, used together, will allow you to completely interact with the calculus you’ll be learning. From working through examples and checking your answer (on Paul’s site), to interacting directly with functions, derivatives, and integrals (on the java applet sites), to exploring and experiencing the calculus all around you (Everyday Calculus), you’ll gain an appreciation and understanding of calculus that will no doubt put you miles ahead of your classmates come September.

This article is cross-posted with The Huffington Post with permission of the author.

Recommended Reading:

 Fernandez_Everyday cover Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
The Calculus Lifesaver The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel in Calculus by Adrian Banner
 7-18 Zombies  Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams

PUP Celebrates Mothers — Mom is Queen Bee

This Mother’s Day, Princeton University Press is trading in the perfumed soap and jewelry for a different type of celebration for moms. We’ve gathered a group of experts on a range of interesting subjects and compiled a group of mom-related shorts. Zumba class instructor or Pinterest lover – we have a special story for your mom. We hope that this series will provide you with some interesting conversation topics to get family members thinking (and chuckling) during that Mother’s Day brunch.

moms

This one is for the garden glove wearers and the hot glue gun wielders. Whether she is decorating for your family’s holidays or keeping up with the “clean sheet day” schedule (while balancing her work schedule), a mom knows just how to make a house a home. We love to show mom that she is the queen bee, so this Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at how our fuzzy friends set up shop.

TWO
The Life of a Queen Bee

Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson & Sheila R. Colla
Co-authors of BUMBLE BEES OF NORTH AMERICA: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE

Mother’s Day is now an international holiday (though it falls on different days depending on where you live) that honors motherhood and recognizes the contributions mothers make to their children and their families. It is celebrated with gifts of cards, flowers, and tokens of affection; mothers are often treated to brunch, pampered in various ways, and generally treated like “queen bees.” So, how will the real queen bees spend mother’s day? We asked the authors of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide for some insight on how these hard-working bumbles might spend their Mother’s Day.

Bumble bee queens have it rough. After spending the winter alone and underground, they emerge with one goal in mind–creating the perfect nest.  In order to achieve this goal, they must find some spring flowers from which they can gather nectar and pollen to replenish their energy and then they must locate the perfect spot to start a nest.  The nest site has to be protected from the elements like rain and direct sun and camouflaged from predators.  It must be the right size, unoccupied, and have good access to nearby wildflowers (although they won’t bloom for a few more weeks). If you ever see a large bumble bee flying in a zig zag pattern near the base of a building or inspecting under leaf litter, this is likely a queen searching for that perfect home.

Once she finds a good spot, the queen collects enough pollen to form a little ball to lay her eggs in and fashions a cup to store some nectar.  She then starts the busy work of laying eggs, which she will continue to do until the end of summer or early fall.  In a queen’s lifetime she can lay hundreds of eggs. Much like human babies, her offspring require a lot of care and attention. She keeps the eggs warm by shivering her body to generate heat and when the larvae emerge, she flies back and forth from flowers to nest, carrying pollen and nectar to feed a growing army of children.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The earlier eggs hatch into female workers who take over the hard work of foraging and feeding their siblings, protecting and caring for the nest. The queen bee, relieved of these responsibilities, is free to lay more eggs and generally rule the nest.

Toward the end of the summer the queen will switch and start producing male and new queen eggs.  These offspring will mature and leave the nest to mate.  The mated queens then locate a suitable overwintering spot alone while the rest of their siblings perish with the oncoming winter. They will hibernate underground and wait for the spring to start the important work of producing the next generation of buzzing pollinators.

A queen bee guarding her eggs

A queen bee guarding her eggs

 

 

Photo by Frank Mayne from London, UK (Clara’s Card) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

PUP Celebrates Mothers — Amazon Style

This Mother’s Day, Princeton University Press is trading in the perfumed soap and jewelry for a different type of celebration for moms. We’ve gathered a group of experts on a range of interesting subjects and compiled a group of mom-related shorts. Zumba class instructor or Pinterest lover – we have a special story for your mom. We hope that this series will provide you with some interesting conversation topics to get family members thinking (and chuckling) during that Mother’s Day brunch.

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ONE
Mover–Groover Mothers

This bit is for the aerobics class attendees and soccer game cheerers. Is your mom just a bit competitive when it comes to Words with Friends? Or maybe she has found college dorm room packing to be a new form of strength training (did she have this many shoes when she was your age)? Whatever it is that keeps your mom active, we tip our hats to her. For those on-the-go and up-for-anything moms, we bring you a look back at some ancient, active mothers.

How Would the Ancient Amazons Celebrate Mother’s Day?

Adrienne Mayor
Author of THE AMAZONS (Sept. 2014) and National Book Award finalist, THE POISON KING

The goddess Cybele

The goddess Cybele

According to ancient myths, the fierce horsewomen-archers called “Amazons” were the antithesis of ideal womanhood, the opposites of the docile stay-at-home moms of classical Greece. Some even claimed that the name amazon meant “without a breast” in Greek and insisted that the women mutilated themselves in order to shoot a bow more easily. Greek poets described Amazons beating drums and performing bellicose war dances for the stern virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis–definitely not a mother figure.

The Greeks came up with a bunch of contradictory notions about Amazons. But no one imagined a sentimental picture of maternal, nurturing mothers like those celebrated in Mother’s Day cards. Amazons were either man-hating killer-virgins who refused marriage, rejected motherhood, and gloried in making war–or else they were lusty, domineering women who used random men for sex, stealing their sperm in order to perpetuate their women-only society. Lurid stories claimed that Amazons only raised their baby girls and abandoned or mistreated infant boys, breaking their legs or even killing them. None of this is the stuff of Hallmark cards.

Yet archaeological discoveries tell a different story. The historical models for mythic Amazons were warlike women of nomadic Eurasian tribes, and their graves contain battle-scarred female skeletons buried with arrows and spears. But many of these women were mothers too; next to their quivers are sometimes the remains of children who died prematurely.

Archaeological evidence also reveals that real-life Amazons worshiped Cybele, the great mother goddess of Anatolia (her rites required that men castrate themselves). Amazon family trees were matrilineal–the famous Amazon queens of myth could trace the names of their illustrious warrior mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. So, although there would not be flowers or breakfast in bed, the Amazons would definitely understand the concept of daughters honoring their mothers on Mother’s Day. Amazon sons, maybe not so much–and don’t even ask about Father’s Day!

“Tea, Earl Gray, Hot” or the most energy ineffecient cuppa ever

This is crossposted from Chuck Adler’s new blog called Wizards, Aliens, and Starships where he will be posting about physics and math found in our favorite science fiction and fantasy tv shows, films, and books. Here, he reveals the most inefficient way to make a cup of tea.

Cup of tea (High Speed Photography)-MJSometimes the best things in life are the simplest ones. Perhaps my favorite holiday gift ever was an electric kettle, a device whose only purpose in life is to boil water — but boil it efficiently, in a fraction of the time it would take for a kettle on the stove, and for a fraction of the energy, too. It’s simplicity itself — it has a coil which a current runs through. The coil gets hot, heats water in a chamber sitting above it, and voila! Boiling water. By my estimates, the electricity costs are about a tenth to a fifth of a cent for every cup of tea I brew.

The 23rd-century designers of the USS Enterprise seem to have lost this technology. To get a cup of tea, Captain Jean-Luc Picard stands next to a little box in his room, says “Tea, Earl Gray, hot”, and a cup of tea is beamed in. It seems to be an offshoot of transporter technology: you’re either beaming a cup made before from somewhere else, or assembling it whole from “pure energy” (whatever that means.) Either way, it seems to be a damn-fool way to make a cuppa.

E=mc squared, right? Each kilogram of matter takes 90,000 trillion joules of energy to create. The water in a cup of tea has a mass of about one-third of a kilo, so this is 30,000 trillion joules. But no technology is perfect: if the replicator is only 99.99% efficient, we are wasting 30 trillion joules into heat – enough to heat 100 million kilograms of water for tea… Just why are we doing it this way, again?

 
For more math and physics from Star Trek, Harry Potter, Dresden Files, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more, check out Chuck’s new book: Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction

Sabattus Pond Season

How To Be A Better BirderDerek Lovitch, author of How to Be a Better Birder and blogger for Maine Birding Field Notes, has been spending all Migration Season birding and keeping track of his results. While he’s always avidly posting on his Facebook page, he also recently posted to his blog to report some of his more recent findings at the Sabattus Pond.


Sabattus Pond Season-in-Review

Sabattus Pond was frozen on Monday morning, as I expected, thanks to this recent bout of unseasonably cold weather.  While 35 Mallards, 3 Hooded Mergansers, 2 American Black Ducks, and 1 Mallard x black duck hybrid were present in the outlet stream, this likely brings my Sabattus birding season to a close.

But it is just after Sabattus’s freeze-up that LakeAuburn is its most productive.  Today, 117 Canada Geese, 58 Greater Scaup, 46 Lesser Scaup, 41 Ruddy Ducks, 22 Common Goldeneyes, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 1 Bufflehead, and 1 continuing hen Black Scoter were tallied in a less-than-exhaustive search of the large lake.  The Black Scoter is a great bird inland, and she’s been present for at least five weeks now.  Meanwhile, among the Canada Geese, there was this funky mutt – apparently a hybrid with some sort of domestic thing.
CANGhybrid1,LakeAuburn,12-2-13

CANGhybrid2,LakeAuburn,12-2-13

Between visiting the two lakes, I scoured Upper Street in Turner for Snowy Owls (none) or other raptors (just one Red-tailed Hawk), but I did happen upon a small flock of 35 Horned Larks that contained two Lapland Longspurs.  They were feeding at the edge of Pearl Road, taking advantage of where the plow had scraped the sides of ice and snow.  I got this lucky shot of one of the Lapland Longspurs in flight with the Horned Larks.  Unfortunately, the light mist and heavy cloud cover prevented a really great shot.
DSC_0154_LALOwithHOLA,Turner,12-2-13

But back to waterfowl…

Sabattus Pond is one of my favorite birding locations from mid-October through freeze-up.  The diversity of ducks is rarely matched in this part of Maine, and the proximity and ability to study birds (such as Lesser vs. Greater Scaup) is unsurpassed.  Each fall I tell myself I needed to visit Sabattus more often, so this fall I committed to visiting once a week, beginning on 10/30 – I would have started a little earlier in the month, but the weather at the time had been so warm that waterfowl were not yet arriving en masse prior to the end of the month.

I tallied all waterbirds (except for Herring and Ring-billed gulls) on each visit.

On each visit, I also visited LakeAuburn, which is a much different body of water (deeper, sandier, and apparently without the invasive Chinese Mystery Snail that provides the sustenance for most of the birds on Sabattus).  Note, however, that as the numbers of ducks decrease on Sabattus, they begin to increase on LakeAuburn – the last lake to freeze in the region.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the birds on the lake on Monday would return to Sabattus if a warm spell opens the pond back up, and if it does, I am sure birds from points north might drop in as well as they are frozen out of lakes and rivers.  In other words, the duck-watching season on Sabattus may not be over yet, but I think I will be turning my attention elsewhere unless it warms up dramatically.

Meanwhile, on all of my visits to the two lakes, I added at least a few other stops in between in the hopes of finally finding a really “good” bird in Androscoggin County (away from Sabattus, that is).  Uh…nope.  My only real highlights away from the two lakes were the two Lapland Longspurs on Monday.  My rarity drought in AndroscogginCounty might continue, but the waterbird watching is certainly exceptional.

By the way, in a series of spring visits, I have found very, very few ducks on Sabattus Pond, for reasons unknown.  Therefore, other than my annual check on Maine Maple Sunday, I’ll have to anxiously await next October!

click here to see the rest of this post, including Lovitch’s birding tallies for his trips


And to check out the free downloads we’re currently offering, check out the links below:
Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format including photos and real text from the guide
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos


Derek Lovitch’s Mystery Gull

How To Be A Better BirderDerek Lovitch, author of How to Be a Better Birder and blogger for Maine Birding Field Notes, spent another chilly week out and about birding before Migration Season comes to an end. While he’s always avidly posting on his Facebook page, he also recently posted to his blog to report some of his more recent findings, including a mystery bird!


A Day Along the New Hampshire Seacoast

It was like birding in another world yesterday as Kristen Lindquist and I headed south of the border…to the New Hampshire Seacoast.  For one, we saw birders everywhere!  Well, everywhere where there wasn’t wall-to-wall development.  And goodness, even in winter, there are a lot of people around here (relatively speaking of course). Yup, we weren’t in Maine anymore!

But I have a lifetime listing goal of seeing 200 species in every state, and my goal was to hit that mark in New Hampshire by the end of this year.  This goal is not for any “total ticks” target, or submission to any listing competitions, or anything else other than an excuse and occasional extra motivation to see more parts of the country.  The 200 number seems a reasonable goal to me for most states (I won’t reach it in Hawai’i!) that involves seeing a fair sample of what a state has to offer, and usually in multiple seasons – whether its scenery, food, or other interests (i.e. Rutgers football bowl games!), there’s always a good reason to travel near and far and lots of fun to be had in the process.  And of course I will be birding in between anyway, so long ago I began keeping track of it.

So the 200 goal was born, and it was time to get to know my neighboring state a little better.  Outside of the White Mountains (where I love to bird, hike, and of course, guide), I really didn’t know New Hampshire birding and birding sites very well, and I am happy to say that has changed this year.  While I joked with friends about “never having to bird in NH again!” after the goal was met, I did learn quite a bit about birding the state in the process.  But yeah, I am partial to birding in Maine.

Anyway, I have been watching the NH listserve and plotting my visit.  I needed 5 more species, and I kept an eye on when a handful of uncommon to rare birds joined the more expected species that I “needed.”  Seeing recent reports from the Seacoast – and seeing that my days off will be limited (aka: likely non-existent) from now to Christmas, I decided yesterday would be the day, despite early morning ice that slowed our drive (lots of cars off the Turnpike yet again) and persistent drizzle and occasional light rain.

We began in the Hampton Marsh, where the high tide was pushing Horned Larks to the edges. Check. We then ran into Ben Griffith and Lauren Kras, and then joined them in a Snowy Owl search.  Unfortunately, this was to no avail.

Pulling into Hampton Beach State   Park, the two hen King Eiders (197) performed nicely.  I teased out a few Purple Sandpipers (199) from the flock of 100 or so Dunlin (198), and ran into more friends.
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DSC_0054_henKIEIwithCOEI1,HamptonHarbor,12-1-13_edited-1
Compare the “Queen” Eider with the hen Common Eider on the right. Note especially the concavity of the bill, the face pattern, and the cooler, grayer tone to the plumage.

After chatting and enjoying the eiders for a bit, Kristen and I grabbed some lunch and then returned to the coast.  Snowy Owl would make a nice milestone bird.

Shortly thereafter, I received a text from Ben “Nelson’s-type Gull on Eel Pond,” followed by “Correction – possible Thayer’s Gull.”  And off we went.

Arriving at Eel Pond, the bird in question immediately stuck out, and I set about studying and photographing it.  While it seemed that people were at least leaning heavily towards a Thayer’s Gull by this point, I had my doubts.  But, I also have limited experience with 2nd Cycle Thayer’s Gulls.  I also did not have a better explanation for this odd bird at the time.  But Thayer’s Gulls are tough, 2nd Cycle gulls are a pain in the ass, and a rarity like this (potential 6th NH record) of course warranted extra scrutiny.

I began to take notes, and even a little feather-sketching.  I took lots of photos.  Birders came and went.  Ben, Lauren, Jason Lambert, and I continued to work on the bird.  Kristen headed to the car to check on the Patriots and to warm up.  She was clearly the smart one.

There were a series of things that bothered me about this bird being a Thayer’s Gull, and I scribbled those down in my notes:
–          The primaries were multiple shades darker than any other part of the bird.
–          The tertials were extensively marbled.
–          The bill was so extensively pale with such a finely demarcated black tip for a bird that was otherwise not very advanced in plumage.
–          The bill looked rather large and heavy, especially at the tip.
–          The eye color was orange-yellow, not light, but definitely not dark.
– The legs were dingy pinkish-flesh.

IMG_1979_gull1

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IMG_1961_gull_facingaway

While none of these features really eliminate Thayer’s Gull, they are consistent with “Nelson’s Gull,” the name given to Herring x Glaucous Gull hybrids as well.  But try as we might, we could not get the bird to fly closer.  I never saw it with the wing fully outstretched, but the bird was photographed well in flight earlier.

It was not a big bird, and looked smaller than most – but definitely not all – of the nearby Herring Gulls.  Most Nelson’s I’ve seen are noticeably larger, but large gulls are notoriously variable.  But look at this shot – it sure doesn’t look small compared to the 1st cycle Herring Gull on the left!  And see that deep build?  It doesn’t look at slim and dainty as many Thayer’s look (speaking of variable – and subjective – gull criteria).  The head looks rather blocky, and the bill was rather hefty.
DSC_0086_NEGUwithsmallHERG,EelPond,12-1-13

Meanwhile, shortly after my arrival and the beginnings of ponder the mystery gull, a Carolina Wren sang…number 200!  Yeah, it was pretty obvious to all that my NH birding has mostly been in the mountains, but this was a silly hole that somehow was not filled on previous coastal trips.  Mission accomplished.  So I went back to pondering the gull.  And, with daylight fading and the long drive (especially for Kristen) still ahead of us, we hurried over to RyeState   Park to catch up with a Snowy Owl (201), which was one of our real targets of the day.  With at least 12 birds seen along the coast on Saturday, we were surprised that – despite the amount of birders combing the coast – it took us all day to see a Snowy (it sounds like a total of 2 or 3 were seen along the coast by day’s end).
SNOW1,RyeStatePark,12-1-13_edited-1

Driving home, we listened to the Pats once again stage a come-from-behind victory, and as Kristen departed, I hit our library and the internet for some gull study time.  After reviewing my photos of the standing gull, and comparing that to the photos in references – especially Howell & Dunn – and online, I was definitely leaning more towards Thayer’s Gull, as most of my concerns seemed to be accounted for.  But I needed to see the spread wing.

And then Ben forwarded me Jason’s photos.  My response was simple, “Ewww.”  The extensively dark primaries were as extensive and dark as they appeared in the field.  While darker Thayer’s can show dark shading bleeding onto the inner webs of the outermost primaries, the outer three primaries on the Eel Pond bird were clearly wholly dark, and the dark was extensive on the next two as well.  I just don’t think a Thayer’s can show that.  While no single field mark alone can define any gull, this very well could be enough on its own to eliminate a Thayer’s (or, dare I say it, a pure – whatever the hell that means – one), a bird known for its “picket fence” primaries of dark outer webs contrasting with pale inner webs.  Adding that with the other features – including the structure of the head, bill, and body – I’m unable to call this a Thayer’s Gull.  Short of a DNA sample, it’s a “Nelson’s Gull” to me, although I think there is some argument to be made for this to not be a first-generation hybrid.  I sent the link to Jason’s photos (which are far superior to my own) to a handful of friends, and they have so far concurred that this is a Nelson’s-type gull.  But, gulls are one of those birds that everyone can have a different opinion on, so I await responses from others.  I just hated to rain on the parade, especially since Lauren and Ben were so helpful in my little listing quest that initiated the day.

Ahh, large gulls. The Snowy Owl was easier to identify. I like Snowy Owls.


And to check out the free downloads we’re currently offering, check out the links below:
Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format including photos and real text from the guide
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos


Maine Birding Field Notes-Update!

How To Be A Better BirderDerek Lovitch, author of How to Be a Better Birder and blogger for Maine Birding Field Notes, knows that as migration season continues, his feathered friends will be continuing south for the winter as the cold creeps up on all of us. While he’s always avidly posting on his Facebook page, he also recently posted to his blog to report some of his more recent findings, including a snowy owl!


Cape Neddick through Wells – Snowy Owl!

Jeannette and I birded from Cape Neddick through Wells on Tuesday, seeing a really pleasant variety of birds in the process in the calm before the storm. Delayed by a snowy start and somewhat slick roads (OK, not slick if didn’t drive like it was a dry race car track – 7 cars were off the road between Freeport and York, however) that backed up traffic (“Hey, there’s a car in the ditch, let me look!”), we didn’t reach the Nubble neighborhood until almost 9:00, but by then the snow had ended, the ceiling lifted a bit, and a very light wind made for decent  – albeit a bit raw – birding conditions.  Although we didn’t have anything earth-shattering, we did have a fair number of “good birds.”

Without a day off together in December (the store is open seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas), our annual late November run through our usual route is the last time we focus on thickets and migrant traps in the hopes for lingering migrants and rare passerines.  Next time, waterbirds will be more of a focus.  And the limited number of non-resident passerines that we detected today (other than Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and a scattered few Yellow-rumped Warblers) confirms that – as did the impressive, and growing, quantity of waterbirds.

Three Carolina Wrens was the highlight of a thorough check of the Nubble neighborhood thickets, although we did have a group of about 40 Snow Buntings fly over.  45 Black Scoters, 13 Purple Sandpipers, 8 Great Cormorants, 6 Harlequin Ducks, etc at The Nubble were a sign of things to come along the shoreline.

Passerines were few and far between along Marginal Way and the adjacent neighborhood, but great numbers of waterfowl along the shoreline more than made up for it.  As with everywhere we looked at the ocean today, all three scoters were present in numbers, including a close and talkative group of about 100 Black Scoters.  Lots of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Eiders, and a total of 20 or 21 Harlequin Ducks were also present, along with a half-dozen Purple Sandpipers.

To read the rest of this post, click here!


And to check out the free downloads we’re currently offering, check out the links below:
Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format including photos and real text from the guide
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos