Monday, April 16, 2012

Spider Sunday 4-15-12

I'm a little late getting this week's Spider Sunday up, but I did have a very spidery Sunday! Black widows in my backyard and garage (pics later, though hopefully no shirtless episodes), jumping spiders on our nature walk, and a spider lowering itself onto my head as I drove (I hope you parachuted to safety, car spider). To top it all off, on the way to the jumping spider hike, my son reached the point in his current book where the main character gets attacked by thousands of robot ... spider ... things. He wishes fervently they were real, and ours.

As always, check out the gorgeous images at Spider Sunday on G+, and here are some more spidery goings-on!

Spiders in Borneo
If you're into spiders, or biology, or evolution, or super-cool stories, you need to read this blog series at Scientific American. Wayne Maddison is a spider guy. Scratch that. He's kind of like the Indiana Jones of jumping spider scientists. He treks about in off-the-map jungles, finding jumping spiders no one knows about yet. In other words, he does my absolute dream job, only fittingly, and unlike me, he's supremely qualified for the task. Start at the introduction and read through to his latest post, cataloging the specimens after some of the coolest field work ever.

I'm sure how you use it matters too

It's a crucial organ. Hardness, stiffness, shape, and ability to penetrate are all of utmost importance.

I'm talking about spider fangs, of course. What did it sound like I was talking about?

If you're a spider, fangs are pretty important, for defense as well as hunting. Many spiders subsist mainly on insects, whose exoskeletons are made of chitin, roughly the same material that makes up spider fangs. So how do the spiders penetrate the chemically similar exoskeletons of their prey? By injecting venom with fangs made of composite material, basically chitin layered with a fancy protein matrix, and tipped not with chitin, but with high amounts of zinc and chlorine. Explained with a higher knowledge of biomaterials and also a higher level of eloquence here. (Notice use of the word "venom" rather than "poison." Please, please notice this, any newspeople who fire off an article on the study.)

Spider venom for the cure?

I've been withholding judgment on the handful of articles I've seen recently about using spider venom to fight breast cancer, mainly because I didn't have time to really read up on it and both spiders and cancer are rife with silly claims. However, this study at James Cook University seems to be legitimate, and we'll see where it goes. Heck, certain fish have been studied for kidney disease and skin cancer research and Gila monsters have given saliva for diabetes research, so why not? (However, word to the wise: Don't search online too long about animal-derived cures unless you have an abnormally high tolerance for bullshit, fake medicine, and animal cruelty.)

Can I just use them for fun?

One possible use for Google Glasses? Spiders everywhere!

This augmented reality application is supposed to be a next-gen treatment for arachnophobes. Check out the video at the bottom. My favorite part: The spiders' personalities are programmable. So we really are one step closer to artificial arachnid intelligence. My son will be thrilled.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spider Sunday 4-8-12

I have a hard time curating the Spider Sunday theme each week on Google+.

It's not that I don't love it -- quite the opposite. The problem is that first, I have to resist the urge to find every last person (though they are extremely few and far between) who makes a point to find spider shots and then type something like "Ewwwww! I hate spiders," or "These insects [yes, a few people really say that] are so gross," or "Kill it with fire!" so I can insult and/or correct them. And second, and even more of a difficulty, is the fact that I tend to just ogle the shots instead of sharing, plussing, or commenting at first. It's like when I'm asked to edit something really good. I forget the task and just bask in it. Eventually I get around to responding coherently, but first, I just stare. I mean, how can I help but stare at shots like this, this, this, or this, or a ton of others? Follow these people on Sunday, everyone. I guarantee you'll love spiders in a few weeks.

Also, check out some other bloggers' stuff on spiders -- my friend Chris of The Dragonfly Woman shared some saltie fabulousness on her Friday 5: Why Jumping Spiders Will Always Be My Favorite Spiders, and you should totally check it out (though I might have to write a competing Friday 5 about black widows).

Oh, and happy Easter, everyone! I made an Easter card for you:

The rest of today's images are from a few long-jawed orb weavers I spent time with, who preferred to leave off the bunny ears.

A few spider tidbits for this week:

National "Be Kind to Spiders" Week
April 1 to 7 was National "Be Kind to Spiders" Week! I observed it, but then, I observe spider kindness every week.

Forget snakes on a plane; we've got spiders on a space station!
In the very first YouTube SpaceLab contest, students ages 14 to 18 from around the world were invited to pitch science experiments to be conducted in space. One of the winners -- 18-year-old Amr Mohamed of Egypt, who proposed sending jumping spiders into space to see if they could adapt the way they jump and hunt. Since they can adjust their trajectories on Earth, he reasoned, it's worth checking what they'll do in zero gravity. It'll be, like Mohamed said, "the first time in history for an animal to change its way of hunting to zero-gravity environments." Like any good scientist he has a hypothesis -- he thinks they won't be able to catch their prey -- but who knows? I love that I never would have even though to do something like this. His experiment is being prepared, and will ride to the International Space Station on a cargo ship. Check out his video here, and watch all the videos if you get a chance. One of the greatest things about both young people and scientists is the spirit of drive, optimism, cooperation and just sheer geeky, curious camaraderie. Good stuff. And spiders in space! How cool is that?

Amateurs discover new (super pretty) jumping spider
A naturalist, but not a spider expert or even professional photographer, takes a photo of a spider and shares it. A possible new species is discovered. The Flickr community. Citizen science. An outrageously gorgeous spider. Is there anything not to like about this story?

Someone make me one of these
I've had scissors confiscated at the airport. If I had known this was where they were going, I'd have brought a bunch to donate. I love this sculpture.

That's it for now! I hope everyone had a great Easter. Our chocolate bunnies are already earless and one of our empty candy containers holds a jumping spider. So, you know, business as usual.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why my son isn't special, and yours isn't either

Someone sent me a link to the (no longer airing) television show Psychic Kids the other day.

My son, the person contends, might be like these kids. Not socially maladjusted, probably, and not with these abilities, but he's got a special something. He's not like most kids. Check this show out.

I'd never watched it. I had a feeling it would just rile me up, and I was right. I felt dirty watching it. It really seems to border on child abuse. These smart, sensitive, fascinating kids were getting all the wrong messages; their parents were getting all the wrong messages; and no one was being helped. The kids want validation, guidance, understanding; and they can't get it except through exploitation and fakery.

But here's the thing: I kind of, sort of, understand where the parents are coming from.

No, not like that. I'm still me, after all. Rational, skeptical, wholly anti-woo. What I understand is the parents' urge to have their kids be special. Unique. Like really, really unique. Their talents are different from everyone else's talents, so of course their problems are different from everyone else's problems.

And they're right. The kids' talents and problems are unique, and difficult, and nuanced. Just like everyone's problems. Their kids are hard to reach, and their problems are hard to address. Just like all kids.

I see it in Arizona all the time, these two extremes. At one end, you have the hard, grizzled "I ain't buyin' this 'Everyone's a special snowflake' bullshit; now pull yourself up by your bootstraps!" guys. Think ranchers, cowboys, farmers. Everything is black and white. Every problem is easily addressed, and there's one -- and usually only one -- common-sense solution. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a namby-pamby idiot. At the other end, you have the froofy, kooky "We're just the universe getting to mystically know itself" crowd. Think UFOlogists, Sedona vortex seekers, and the folks who love to talk about the Phoenix Lights while showing you their crystal collection. (I actually had someone do this.) Now I truly love the grizzled Arizona frontiersman, and I love me some dreamy Sedona artists, but this is silly. Truth and validation are not magical, but neither are they simple. It's not always either "Here's your problem. I fixed it!" or "There is no answer on this physical realm." That's what I'm talking about with Psychic Kids.

It's entirely possible that these kids have more -- maybe much more -- talent and difficulty in some areas. The kids have mental issues and aptitudes that their peers won't understand. It's necessary to grant them this validation. However, it's just as likely, and just as necessary to express to the kids, that other children have issues and aptitudes that they don't have and won't understand. You don't get to be the star of the world. You don't even get to be the star of your own world. You're a spectator and participant, and it's infinitely better and more interesting that way.

Maybe these kids' talents and problems lie along more difficult-to-discern, difficult-to-deal-with lines. Maybe the parents decided they don't understand what their kids are going through -- which is fine; but then decided that it must be incomprehensible to anyone, paranormal -- which is not fine. You don't need to resort to magic for your kid to be special. Magic isn't real. Your kid's specialness is. Your kids problems are.

Am I one of those hippie parents who thinks everyone's a winner? Yeah. I guess I am.

But here's the difference: I'm not saying your (or your kid's) special beauty lies in some unable-to-be-grasped magical aura. I'm specifically saying it does not. It's real. You might not be able to grasp it, but it's graspable. It's concrete. You're special, and there are ways to find out how. You have problems, and there are ways to pin them down and address them. Same for your kid. Everyone is special. Everyone's a winner. This doesn't diminish the words "special" and "winner," because we all win at different categories. And we all suck royal donkey balls at several categories as well. Same for your kid.

Apparently (according to the original link sender), this makes me a closed-minded wet blanket. I don't see why. The choices aren't "My kid has black and white talents and foibles that I can readily describe" or "My kid is a magical starchild." Do you really think every kid but a select few is less complex, less nuanced, less worthy of wonder and consideration; than psychic kids, savants, "Indigo" children, "Crystal" children, kids with an affinity for animals, or whatever specialty your kid has? How is that better than "My football player can kick your honor student's ass?"

Of course I think my kid is the most special kid in the world. And it doesn't feel like an opinion. But it is an opinion, and none less valid for being one. He's the most special because of his unmatched (in my limited experience) imagination and way with animals, because of his intelligence and insight, because of his kindness, and yes, because of his flaws. (His ability to focus, for example, is so miniscule that while we were ice skating the other day he stopped, simply because he forgot to keep moving his legs. I'm relieved that breathing is involuntary.) His specialness is born from his specific set of characteristics as well as those of everyone he encounters. His shared experiences and private thoughts write a specific story that's his, and to a much lesser extent, mine and my husband's. His story is staggeringly beautiful. It is mind-searingly tiresome. It is heart-breakingly, uniquely painful. It is heart-meltingly amazing. I'm proud, touched, annoyed, exasperated, and amazed every moment that I'm with him. I try, from time to time, to share some of that with you. But here's the thing -- I share the qualities of it. I share the universal -- or near universal -- parts, including the universal happiness we all feel from witnessing someone's distinct footprint on the world. I share the details to show the beauty. I don't expect the details themselves to impress anyone, because I know they're not objectively special, at least not in the sense that they're unique to us. And they don't need to be. The whole package is special. Isn't that enough?

Which brings me back to what I suspect some of the Psychic Kids parents are doing. Their kids have talents, sensitivities, and problems that happen to be hard to put a finger on. Fine. So spend time with your kids. Validate them, even if your answer is "I believe you, but I don't know what is happening. There is a real answer out there. Let's find it together." Even if it takes a lifetime to find, even if you never find the answer. Because you'll make your own answer along the way, and it will be built of a million real things. Early morning cuddling and dinnertime fights. Walks through meadows in the golden hour and homework nagging. Sleepovers and playground fights. Snapshots by road signs and sinks full of dishes. Board games and cats and dogs and backyards and cookies and toys and baseball games and school dances and a million other things that won't be special to anyone on the planet but you and your kid. And that's fine. Think of the world you'll discover together. Think of the people he'll meet, who'll get to know him in return. He will grow up with volumes of special experiences. What's more, the understanding that it's the big picture that makes who we are, that no one's concerned about his mundane trivialities -- but only because each one of them is carrying a whole universe of their own, waiting to be explored -- I think he'll be infinitely better for it than if you told him he has magical powers and sent him to a spooky house with some wacko.