Bird Fact Friday – Is the Mute Swan silent?

From page 284 of Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia:

The Mute Swan is not mute at all. Its most frequent call is a wee-rrrr or wiingrr-iew with a high-pitched second syllable. It will also make an in-rrr sound accompanied with strong hissing in aggression. In flight, the wings produce a whistling sound, typical of the species.

Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide 
Sébastien Reeber

ReeberThis is the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to identify the ducks, geese, and swans of North America, Europe, and Asia. With 72 stunning color plates (that include more than 920 drawings), over 650 superb photos, and in-depth descriptions, this book brings together the most current information on 84 species of Eurasian and North American waterfowl, and on more than 100 hybrids. The guide delves into taxonomy, identification features, determination of age and sex, geographic variations, measurements, voice, molt, and hybridization. In addition, the status of each species is treated with up-to-date details on distribution, population size, habitats, and life cycle. Color plates and photos are accompanied by informative captions and 85 distribution maps are also provided. Taken together, this is an unrivaled, must-have reference for any birder with an interest in the world’s waterfowl.

Even celebrities misquote Albert Einstein

Calaprice_QuotableEinstein_pb_cvrAlice Calaprice is the editor of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a tome mentioned time and again in the media because famous folks continue to attribute words to Einstein that, realistically, he never actually said. Presidential candidates, reality stars, and more have used social media make erroneous references to Einstein’s words, perhaps hoping to give their own a bit more credibility. From the Grapevine recently compiled the most recent misquotes of Albert Einstein by public figures and demonstrated how easy it is to use The Ultimate Quotable Einstein to refute those citations:

Albert Einstein was a wise man, even outside the science laboratory. He has inspired painters, young students and comic book creators. Even budding romantics take advice from him.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that so many people today quote Einstein. Or, to be more precise, misquote Einstein.

“I believe they quote Einstein because of his iconic image as a genius,” Alice Calaprice, an Einstein expert, tells From The Grapevine. “Who would know better and be a better authority than the alleged smartest person in the world?”

Read more here.


Nicholas J. Higham: The Top 10 Algorithms in Applied Mathematics


From “Computational Science” by David E. Keyes in Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics

In the January/February 2000 issue of Computing in Science and Engineering, Jack Dongarra and Francis Sullivan chose the “10
algorithms with the greatest influence on the development and practice of science and engineering in the 20th century” and presented a group of articles on them that they had commissioned and edited. (A SIAM News article by Barry Cipra gives a summary for anyone who does not have access to the original articles). This top ten list has attracted a lot of interest.

Sixteen years later, I though it would be interesting to produce such a list in a different way and see how it compares with the original top ten. My unscientific—but well defined— way of doing so is to determine which algorithms have the most page locators in the index of The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics (PCAM). This is a flawed measure for several reasons. First, the book focuses on applied mathematics, so some algorithms included in the original list may be outside its scope, though the book takes a broad view of the subject and includes many articles about applications and about topics on the interface with other areas. Second, the content is selective and the book does not attempt to cover all of applied mathematics. Third, the number of page locators is not necessarily a good measure of importance. However, the index was prepared by a professional indexer, so it should reflect the content of the book fairly objectively.

A problem facing anyone who compiles such a list is to define what is meant by “algorithm”. Where does one draw the line between an algorithm and a technique? For a simple example, is putting a rational function in partial fraction form an algorithm? In compiling the following list I have erred on the side of inclusion. This top ten list is in decreasing order of the number of page locators.

  1. Newton and quasi-Newton methods
  2. Matrix factorizations (LU, Cholesky, QR)
  3. Singular value decomposition, QR and QZ algorithms
  4. Monte-Carlo methods
  5. Fast Fourier transform
  6. Krylov subspace methods (conjugate gradients, Lanczos, GMRES,
  7. JPEG
  8. PageRank
  9. Simplex algorithm
  10. Kalman filter

Note that JPEG (1992) and PageRank (1998) were youngsters in 2000, but all the other algorithms date back at least to the 1960s.

By comparison, the 2000 list is, in chronological order (no other ordering was given)

  • Metropolis algorithm for Monte Carlo
  • Simplex method for linear programming
  • Krylov subspace iteration methods
  • The decompositional approach to matrix computations
  • The Fortran optimizing compiler
  • QR algorithm for computing eigenvalues
  • Quicksort algorithm for sorting
  • Fast Fourier transform
  • Integer relation detection
  • Fast multipole method

The two lists agree in 7 of their entries. The differences are:

PCAM list 2000 list
Newton and quasi-Newton methods The Fortran Optimizing Compiler
Jpeg Quicksort algorithm for sorting
PageRank Integer relation detection
Kalman filter Fast multipole method

Of those in the right-hand column, Fortran is in the index of PCAM and would have made the list, but so would C, MATLAB, etc., and I draw the line at including languages and compilers; the fast multipole method nearly made the PCAM table; and quicksort and integer relation detection both have one page locator in the PCAM index.

There is a remarkable agreement between the two lists! Dongarra and Sullivan say they knew that “whatever we came up with in the end, it would be controversial”. Their top ten has certainly stimulated some debate, but I don’t think it has been too controversial. This comparison suggests that Dongarra and Sullivan did a pretty good job, and one that has stood the test of time well.

Finally, I point readers to a talk Who invented the great numerical algorithms? by Nick Trefethen for a historical perspective on algorithms, including most of those mentioned above.

This post originally appeared on Higham’s popular website.

Higham jacketNicholas J. Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Manchester. He most recently edited The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics.

Attract some more Silent Sparks in your life

With firefly season drawing ever closer, we thought it would be a good time to share some tips for making your yard friendlier to these bright bugs. In addition to a wealth of information on fireflies, Silent Sparks by Sara Lewis includes a handy field guide for the firefly-enthusiast. Use these to fill your yard with twinkling lights during the summer evenings ahead.

Fireflies love a yard with spots of longer grass because when grass is longer, the soil holds more moisture. Fireflies need moist places to lay their eggs. If you leave some leaf litter and other natural debris in your yard, baby fireflies will have a place to grow.

When thinking about outdoor light, err on the side of less. Light pollution confuses fireflies during their courtship rituals. Use Dark-Sky compliant, shielded fixtures. Use bulbs with the lowest wattage that will meet your needs. Turn off outdoor lights when you’re not using them, or put them on timers or motion sensors.

Finally, limit your use of pesticides to horticultural oils or insecticidal bacteria that will target specific pests. Consider using organic products, and only apply them to target specific problems as opposed to routinely.

If you follow this expert advice, you’ll be on your way to a sparkling summer! While you’re at it, enter to win your own copy of Silent Sparks.


Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

5 Myths About Sustainability

On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:

1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
In meeting the challenges posed by implementing sustainable practices, production and consumption should be viewed as parts of an integrated system. Demand may drive production, but production can influence consumption by creating a demand where there was none previously. (Pg. 16).

2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
To meet the goals of sustainable development, there needs to be an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems that we are operating in or any solutions will be unbalanced and fall apart over the long-term (Pg. 53).

3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
The complexity of social-environmental systems means that we cannot always predict the consequences of new technologies or policies. The pursuit of sustainability has to be an adaptive process in which we try the best possible solutions, moniter the results, and make adjustments as needed (Pg. 64).

4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
Both of these measures do not take important elements into account. First, they measure flows (what is happening now) rather than stocks or assets (what’s left to draw on in the future). They also fail to recognize and integrate the social and environmental as well as the economic determinants of well-being. To achieve an accurate sense of how we are doing in regard to sustainability, other measures and indicators that are more inclusive and broad-ranging are needed (Pg. 76).

5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
Not necessarily. When taking into account social-environmental systems, sustainable solutions can actually save money. For examples of sustainability success stories that aided in, rather than hindering, economic goals, see Chapter 6 of Pursuing Sustainability.

As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.

Bird Fact Friday – How do hawks fly such great distances?

From page 7 of Hawks from Every Angle:

Several factors influence the migratory pathways of raptors, including geography. Mountainous sites are famous for attracting concentrations of migrating hawks, in part because as wind strikes a ridge it is deflected upward, providing birds with a current of air—or updraft—along the ridge for more energy-efficient means of travel. Raptors can travel along these updrafts for miles, covering great distances with little to no effort.
Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight
Jerry Liguori
Foreword by David A. Sibley

hawksIdentifying hawks in flight is a tricky business. Across North America, tens of thousands of people gather every spring and fall at more than one thousand known hawk migration sites—from New Jersey’s Cape May to California’s Golden Gate. Yet, as many discover, a standard field guide, with its emphasis on plumage, is often of little help in identifying those raptors soaring, gliding, or flapping far, far away.

Hawks from Every Angle takes hawk identification to new heights. It offers a fresh approach that literally looks at the birds from every angle, compares and contrasts deceptively similar species, and provides the pictures (and words) needed for identification in the field. Jerry Liguori pinpoints innovative, field-tested identification traits for each species from the various angles that they are seen.

Featuring 339 striking color photos on 68 color plates and 32 black & white photos, Hawks from Every Angle is unique in presenting a host of meticulously crafted pictures for each of the 19 species it covers in detail—the species most common to migration sites throughout the United States and Canada. All aspects of raptor identification are discussed, including plumage, shape, and flight style traits.

For all birders who follow hawk migration and have found themselves wondering if the raptor in the sky matches the one in the guide, Hawks from Every Angle—distilling an expert’s years of experience for the first time into a comprehensive array of truly useful photos and other pointers for each species—is quite simply a must.

Who Am I?

LevineIn Stranger in the Mirror, Robert Levine argues that the self is unfixed, constantly changing, and, ultimately, a fiction. The way we see ourselves and the version of ourselves we present to others can vary widely from moment to moment.

To see his theory in action, there is an easy psychological test you can try, described in Chapter 14 of the book. On a blank sheet of paper, write “Who am I?” at the top and then answer that question 20 times. Next, have two others answer “Who is (your name)?” 20 times. Where do the answers align? Where are they different? What accounts for those differences? The results will be an interesting insight into what makes you, you.

According to Levine, Americans tend to come up with 20 answers about themselves fairly quickly, usually in the form of sweeping psychological traits (kind, outgoing). Stephen Cousins, a social psychologist who worked for a time in Japan, found that people there had a harder time with the test. They did not come up with answers as quickly, and the answers they did come up with were general and not very informative. They listed physical traits, their professions etc. They rarely listed psychological traits. However, when Cousins changed the test and asked “Who am I at home” or “Who am I at school,” the Japanese test subjects responded with more detail than the Americans did. In Japan, the self is all about context. Robert Levine goes into much more detail on the different ideas of “self” across cultures in Chapter 15 of Stranger in the Mirror.

For another snippet from the book, check out our poll on the PUP Facebook.

If you’ve ever wondered about the possibilities and limits of the self, then Robert Levine’s intriguing book is for you.

Bird Fact Friday – Southern Africa: A Birder’s Paradise

From page 10 of Birds of Southern Africa:

Southern Africa encompasses Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and southern and central Mozambique, as well as oceanic waters within 200 nautical miles of the coast. In total it covers a land area of approximately 3.5 million square kilometers and has incredible diversity in its bird life. More birds breed in Southern Africa than in the United States and Canada combined. Currently, there are 951 known species, 144 of which are endemic or near-endemic. One of the reasons for this high bird diversity is the region’s climatic and topographical diversity. The climate ranges from cool-temperate in the southwest to hot and tropical in the north.

Birds of Southern Africa Fourth Edition 
Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton & Peter Ryan


Birds of Southern Africa continues to be the best and most authoritative guide to the bird species of this remarkable region. This fully revised edition covers all birds found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique. The 213 dazzling color plates depict more than 950 species and are accompanied by more than 950 color maps and detailed facing text.

This edition includes new identification information on behavior and habitat, updated taxonomy, additional artwork, improved raptor and wader plates with flight images for each species, up-to-date distribution maps reflecting resident and migrant species, and calendar bars indicating occurrence throughout the year and breeding months.

Robert Levine: The self is an act of creation

levine jacket stranger in the mirrorAre we all multiple personalities? In Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self, award-winning professor of psychology Robert Levine explores the malleability of the self, showing how transformation is the human condition at virtually every level. Recently he took the time to answer a few questions about Stranger in the Mirror.

You’ve been teaching and writing about social psychology for close to forty years. Your books have targeted one interesting topic after another, ranging from how different cultures keep time and which countries are most helpful toward strangers to the psychology of persuasion, cults and mind control. Yet you say this was the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on. Why?

RL: Not only the most interesting but, quite unexpectedly, the longest. I began this book a good ten years ago and I’d been studying many of the issues for a three decades before that. I initially expected it to be a one or two year project. I was going to write a book about the malleability of the self from the perspective of my home discipline of social psychology. It would be a treatise in the spirit of our guiding mantra: the power of the situation to transform people in ways that often take them by surprise, sometimes for the better but all too often for the catastrophically worse. For background, however, I thought I’d dabble into a few key discoveries through the lenses of the hard sciences—anatomy, genetics, medicine, neuroscience and the like. Once I opened these doors, however, the notion of dabbling went out the window. I was absolutely blown away by what I discovered. Every step led to a new story or a research program or piece of writing or artwork that topped the one before. It’s been a remarkable journey–as you say, the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on.

Can you give me an example?

RL: Here’s one from early on. I was working on a chapter about identical twins. I was interested in what the presence of a genetic duplicate does to one’s sense of individuality and selfhood. What does it say about the boundary between self and other? This led me to a small group of identical twins who’d been raised apart but, for one reason or another, had met up in adulthood. I was fascinated by the stories they told about what it was like to set eyes on a person who was not only their physical mirror-image but oftentimes their behavioral clone.

This led me to dig deeper into the genetics of twin-hood, at which point I was introduced to a condition whereby an individual consists of a mosaic of two distinct genomes. One woman I write about, for example, endured accusations of fraud when a test (in preparation for a kidney donation) revealed that her DNA didn’t match that of her son. Fortunately, a curious physician decided to conduct more detailed tests where it was discovered that the woman was composed of a mosaic of distinctly different DNA. Some of her organs showed the originally-found DNA pattern but others revealed a second pattern and this second pattern matched that of her son. The woman was a human chimera. She was, literally, biological twins. Now what does that mean for one’s notion of a self?

That led to an even more astonishing finding. A geneticist I was interviewing steered me toward ongoing work on a condition known as microchimerism. It turns out that, as a result of blood exchange in utero, many of us—some researchers now believe almost all of us—contain a cadre of our mother’s genetically distinct cells and she contains a cadre of ours. Psychologists argue about conditions like so-called multiple personality disorder. But could it be that we are all, literally, multiple people?

Does this mean you became less interested in the psychology?

RL: Not at all. These perspectives reframed, redirected and pushed me beyond what I thought I knew about the self from the perspective of psychology. I was surprised, in fact, at how seamlessly the questions raised at the level of microbiology sparked new questions at the level of human experience. This led to other multidisciplinary journeys that carried me not only to academic social and behavioral science research but to the insights of writers and philosophers and, from there, to the revolutions created by current technology. To continue with the genetics example: The notion of biologically multiple people led me to the world of doppelgangers and, in particular, to the razor sharp insights of writers like Dostoevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson (as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

But wait, I thought. Who needs fictional doppelgangers when almost anyone can now create their very own avatar? And once you begin looking into avatars it becomes clear that, before long, technology will allow our virtual creations to manifest as three dimensional holograms who walk among us. They won’t only appear to be real, they’ll be able to move and sound exactly like a real person—including like yourself if you so choose. As many of you as you want. How will this alter our sense of self and individuality? I then conducted my own research to answer questions like these.

A lot of your earlier writing, notably your book “A Geography of Time,” compares the mindsets of different countries and cultures. Does culture bear on the notion of a self?

RL: Absolutely and in the most fundamental ways. People raised in the United States, for example, tend to think of themselves as unique and independent. “A man’s got to be what a man’s got to be,” as the old John Wayne cowboy used to say. But in many parts of the world—most parts, in fact—there is a much fuzzier boundary between one’s self and other people. It’s what we refer to in social psychology as an interdependent view of the self. In one of our own studies, for example, we asked people from different countries to draw a circle representing themselves and a series of additional circles representing other people in their lives, and to then arrange the circles in a drawing that expressed how all of them fit together. Americans usually drew the biggest circle for themselves and placed it in the center of the picture, so that the other circles flared out like little satellites in their social universe. And, most telling, they almost always left spaces between the circles.

But when I showed the American drawings to my colleague Hong Ni, who grew up in China, she found it hard to believe Americans really think this way. “The self is too big,” she said. And, “Why are there spaces between the circles?,” she asked. Hong’s comments pretty well described the drawings we got from people in countries like Japan and China, where the self was rarely the biggest circle and it almost always overlapped with one or more of the others.

Other studies have found, in fact, that people in cultures like these find it hard to answer sweeping questions like “Who are you?” They need to be offered a specific context. They have little trouble, for example, answering questions like “Who are you when you’re with your mother?” or “Who are you when you’re with your best friend?” Americans, on the other hand, can rattle off answers to the question “Who are you?” with little trouble.

Think about this. If you were raised in the United States, you will probably spend your life feeling that you are an independent, ultimately separate human being at the center of your personal universe. If you’d happen to have been raised in Japan or China, however, you’d have little sense of personal identity except in your relationships to other people. Uniqueness and individuality wouldn’t matter much to you. It would be a fundamentally different sense of what it means to be you.

Your book obviously takes a wide-ranging view of the self. You tackle the issues from an extraordinarily broad range of disciplines at multiple levels. You also shift from academic research to case studies, anecdotes and personal experience. This can make for interesting reading but did you feel like any of it fit together?

RL: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery I made along this ten-plus-year journey was how effortlessly the findings from so many disparate disciplines led to the same overarching conclusions or, at least, the same questions. Let me list four: First, the boundaries that separate self from non-self are vague, quirky, and fickle. This seems to be true no matter where we look–from the microscopic biological level, where we are literally part us, part other, all the way up to the level of personal experience, where the boundaries of the self may be perceived as anywhere from the confines of one’s body to an entire village depending on who you are and how you were educated. Second, we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many and diverse. We see this in everything from our genetic underpinnings, to the voices in our heads, to the persona we present to the world. And these various selves often seem to have minds of their own. They can be self-centered, pigheaded, and unconcerned with what happens to other facets of ourselves. Sometimes, in fact, the subselves go into battle with each other, our own personal civil wars. Third, we are malleable to the core. Everything about us, from our bodies to our neural circuitry to our personalities, from situation to situation and one time frame to another, is ever-changing.

Just who are we, then?

RL: You mean, is there such a thing as a real self? Not really, at least not as we imagine it to be. The self is story we tell ourselves, a narrative that gives our life meaning. It creates an identity that allows us to maneuver the world. But good storytelling shouldn’t be confused with factual reporting. The realities are vague, arbitrary, and utterly intangible.

This is starting to sound depressing. Is that what you’re suggesting?

RL: Am I saying we should all just pack up and go to the beach? Not in the least. Our changeability, in fact, is where the possibilities begin. This brings me to my fourth theme. Fluidity creates malleability and this malleability unleashes a wealth of potential. The very features of our self that can be so problematic—its arbitrary boundaries, multiplicity, and malleability—create possibilities for change. And this, too, emerges at multiple levels, from the micro to the macro. We discover new visions of our possible selves in epigenetics, bacterial implants, organ transplants, virtual reality and other artificial technology and, I’m proud to say, through new breakthroughs in my own discipline of psychology. The self is what we make of it. It is an act of creation. As we teach in one program I work with: Everyone is, literally, a hero-in-waiting.

Robert V. Levine is an award-winning professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno. He is former president of the Western Psychological Association and the author of A Geography of Time (Basic) and The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (Wiley). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Scientist, Discover, and other publications. He divides his time between Gualala and Fresno, California. His most recent book is Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self.

Bird Fact Friday – Penguins of the tropics

From page 22 of Wildlife of the Galápagos:

The Galápagos Penguin is unique in a couple of different ways. At 50 centimeters in length, it is one of the smallest penguins in the world. It is the only penguin to breed entirely within the tropics, and the only one to be found in the northern hemisphere.

Wildlife of the Galápagos 
Second Edition
Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter & David Hosking

FitterSince its first publication more than a decade ago, Wildlife of the Galápagos has become the definitive, classic field guide to the natural splendors of this amazing part of the world. Now fully updated, this essential and comprehensive guide has been expanded to include the more than 400 commonly seen birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life of this wondrous archipelago. Over 650 stunning color photographs, maps, and drawings are accompanied by accessible, descriptive text. This new edition includes information about all the common fish of the region and Spanish names are featured for the first time. There is also a revised section that discusses the islands’ history, climate, geology, and conservation, with the most current details on visitor sites.

50 lucky birders will win a North American Warbler Fold-Out Guide


In honor of the start of warbler migration season, we’re giving away the laminated, portable North American Warbler Fold-Out Guide to the first 50 entrants to our giveaway hosted by Rafflecopter. The foldout includes identification data for warblers in North America with accompanying QR codes that provide 3D models and songs.

To enter, please follow the instructions in the box below. Good luck!




As of 3:21PM EST, we have reached 50 entrants. Thank you to everyone who participated! If you missed your chance, check back next week for another giveaway.