Nat Geo moment

I miss my Oregon birds, some quite desperately (such as Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, and Swainson’s thrushes), but there are compensations in the fabulous birds of Iberia. One of my favorites is the European bee-eater, which winters in Africa but nests in southern Europe and Asia. When I hear their distinctive purring call in the skies, I know spring has sprung.

All bee-eaters are gorgeous, but European bee-eaters are so beautiful that they seem like an exuberant painter’s idea of what a bird could be. Add to that their confident flight — they are insect eaters, catching prey on the wing, and are thus acrobats of the air — their large size, their mellow calls, and their fascinating life history, and you have the total package.

You can probably guess that bee-eaters love to eat bees. During courtship, a male will offer a female tasty morsels to prove his suitability as a mate. Often, the meals he feeds her are what give her the nutritional edge she needs to produce eggs.

Here is a male sorting out a bee before offering it to the female (left):

Pair of Merops apiaster feeding.jpg
By Pierre DalousOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

As you can imagine, eating bees is not without its dangers. Bee-eaters neutralize the sting by orienting the bee with its stinger facing outward and then whacking it on a tree branch to knock loose the sting and venom sac.

Most bee-eaters are burrow nesters, excavating burrows by breaking up the (usually hard) soil with their beaks and kicking it out behind them with their feet. Ours prefer vertical banks, which are prevalent in road cuts. There are quite a few burrows along my regular 5K hill route, so I see “my” bee-eaters every year when they arrive and happily watch them all summer long.

Which brings me to my National Geographic moment. On a walk last week, I noticed a bee-eater land in a tree about 30 meters away, holding a twig that extended several centimeters on either side of its beak. This didn’t compute, since bee-eaters don’t build nests and don’t bring any nesting material into their burrows. As a second bee-eater settled beside the first, I wondered if the twig was some sort of offering.

I stood and watched while the first bee-eater tossed its head again and again, apparently trying to reorient the twig. Then it bashed the twig on the branch it was perching on. A second later, it bashed the twig on the opposite side of its body. The other bee-eater got bored and flew to a different tree higher up the hill (the better to spot passing insects from), while the first continued to whack its twig.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

And the twig bent. In one of those “oh, of course!” moments, my vision reoriented and I realized what I was seeing. This wasn’t a twig at all, but a large grasshopper with wing covers extended out to the sides. The body was not visible, being held in the bee-eater’s beak.

Over and over, the bee-eater whacked that grasshopper into shape, knocking the wing covers back so that the whole shebang could be swallowed. Keeping in mind the size of the wing covers relative to the bird, it could only have been an Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium). Males of that species grow to 55 mm (2.2 inches) while females hit 70 mm (2.8 inches). It was a huge meal for a bee-eater, but that bird was determined.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

The wing covers were eventually bent back in a delta shape, and the joints were probably nicely softened in the process. The whacking behavior also kills the prey so it won’t struggle while being eaten. With a meal of this size and strength, struggling would have been a real issue, but the bee-eater took care of that quite handily. At last it tilted its head back and swallowed — once, twice, three times, until the locust went all the way down.

I was impressed. That would be like me folding a large pizza several times and then shoving the whole thing down my throat. I probably wouldn’t be able to walk afterward. The bee-eater, however, gracefully took flight and joined its buddy up in the higher tree. They chattered together and I resumed my walk, happy to have lucked into that Nat Geo moment. These are the sorts of things that make my whole week.

Posted in Portugal, wildlife | Leave a comment

Song of Saturday

Before I could relax, I had to hang the laundry

Before I could hang the laundry, I had to water plants

(because the laundry rack blocks access to the plants)

Before I could water plants, I had to wash the dishes

(because I can’t fill the watering can in a sink full of bowls)

Before I could wash the dishes, I had to sweep the floor

And this is why it took an hour to hang the laundry.

But at least I had help.

Micah laundry

Posted in life | 4 Comments

Innovative teachers (subtitle: Ryanair is the Scrooge McDuck of airlines)

Ryanair 1000x600

Three teachers at our son’s school have been arranging a class trip to Scotland. They contacted Ryanair and asked for a group rate for 20 seats. The response was unbelievable: around €300 per seat.

This is for a short, nonstop flight from Faro to Edinburgh. It should cost nowhere near that much, especially for a group rate of so many seats.

So the teachers abandoned that plan and instead hopped on the laptop of one instructor, from which they bought six tickets. Then they opened up another laptop, using a different ISP, and bought a few more. By their third attempt, the prices were already going up.

They waited a few days, giving the Ryanair algorithm time to respond to the lack of purchases and lower the seat pricing again. Then they bought a few more.

In this way, and spaced over the course of several days, these three teachers purchased 20 seats on the same flight.

Their average price per seat? Around €140.

I applaud their savvy and persistence in getting rates that Portuguese parents can afford. After all, we work for some of the lowest wages in the EU while paying some of the highest taxes — a killer combination that doesn’t allow Portuguese to travel much. For most of these students, this will be the first time they’ve ever seen another country besides Spain.

But what the hell is wrong with you, Ryanair? Schoolteachers call you for a group rate of 20 seats and you highball them? Have you never heard of a group discount? How about an educational discount? Or basic decency?

This is how your airline became the punchline for so many jokes. You earned it.

Posted in travel | 10 Comments

Strange weather

It’s been an odd winter in the Algarve this year. Mostly quite warm, and not enough rain, but then there was a week where it was unusually cold. I drove to my Pilates class in the morning and our car made the little “ding” it does when it wants to alert us to something: in this case, the warning that it was now 3º Celsius outside and icy roads were a possibility.

Then I began to see tiny, drifting bits of white.

We live in the flat part of the Algarve — the rolling plain that reaches from the base of the coastal hills to the ocean. It doesn’t snow here.

Since snow was not a possible explanation for the white floaty things, I concluded that perhaps they were bits of almond blossoms, because the trees were in full bloom at the time and the countryside was studded with them. Of course, I had no explanation for what would cause almond blossoms to disintegrate into such tiny pieces.

Another kilometer of driving and there were far more of those white bits, at which point the almond blossom theory went out the window. It was actually snowing. Not much, and certainly not sticking, but that was real, live snow.

A kilometer more and there were so many tiny flakes in the air that they were ticking against my windshield. I arrived at the museum where I teach, got out of the car, and boggled at the sensation of snow on my face. Then I walked into the museum’s courtyard, where I found one of the employees standing in her open office doorway, staring out in absolute amazement. She looked at me and said, “Is this snow?”

She had never seen it before, so she had to ask.

Then in late February, we had the sandstorm from North Africa. Once again I was on my way to Pilates class, and when I pulled out of our garage into the street, the whole world looked wrong. The sky was tan-colored, and the streets looked washed out — it was as if I had just emerged into a monochrome movie.

As I drove through town, every car parked on the sides of the streets was covered with orangish dust. So were the streets and sidewalks.


This was at the same time that the UK got hammered with high winds, so I think the pressure gyres might have pulled this weather up from North Africa. It happens now and again, but almost always in the summer — that’s when we get freakishly hot temperatures and orange skies, but even then we don’t get the dust. This was seriously weird.

My students reported that the phenomenon reached across the Algarve, and everyone who had left cars out or laundry hanging overnight had a lot of work to do.

Upon driving home, the suspended dust particles were even thicker, so I stopped for this photo:


…which is terrible quality but nevertheless shows how dark it was. That is not clouds hiding the sun. It’s dust.

Strange weather.

Posted in Portugal, weather | 2 Comments

No good deed goes unpunished

I am recovering today from a misadventure. Yesterday, while cutting through the nearby park on my regular hill walk, I came across a curious sight: a whole pile of cute, fuzzy caterpillars on the sidewalk. Given their position, I thought they might have fallen from a webby nest overhead, but couldn’t find anything of the sort.

The caterpillars were having a hard time. This is a popular park among joggers and walkers, and very few of them watch where they put their feet. There was a lot of squishage.

Since I cannot walk away from critters in need, I set about rescuing the caterpillars that had survived. One by one, I picked them up and tossed them off the sidewalk, until about thirty of them were safely wandering about in the pine duff.

By Asqueladd, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

About half an hour later, as I rounded the midpoint of my hill climb, I realized I’d been scratching my right hand without being aware of it. It had several raised welts.

I said, “Oh crap. Urticating hairs.”

There are several species of plants (think stinging nettles), spiders, and caterpillars that utilize urticating hairs as a defense mechanism. These are tiny, detachable hairs that deliver a toxin and cause itching and swelling in the victim, sometimes to the point of respiratory distress if the hairs have gotten into the nose or throat. I’m used to fuzzy woolly bear caterpillars from my home state; the idea of having to be careful of caterpillars here had not crossed my mind.

It occurred to me then that despite the appearance of sixty or so juicy caterpillars in an exposed, easily visible location, there had been no birds dining on this feast. I bet myself that when I walked back through the park, the squished ones would still be there.

They were. Obviously the Algarvean birds are far better informed than I was. (I’ve since learned that the great tit, Parus major, can eat them, but I didn’t hear any of those in the park yesterday.)

Upon returning home, I washed my hands thoroughly under cold water and found that actually made it worse. Then I hit the shower and oh yes, hot water helps. Temporarily.

The problem is that I had sweated on my hill climb, so I pushed up my sweatshirt sleeves and pulled my collar away from my neck. My hands had urticating hairs all over them, and they transfer easily. Result: I had a rash of raised welts all along my forearms and the back of my neck. Our bottle of Calamine lotion got a workout (it’s called Caladryl in Portugal).

A web search for “caterpillars + urticating + Portugal” procured an answer on the very first hit. They are pine processionary moth caterpillars, Thaumetopoea pityocampa, and wow are they nasty. Vets in the area know all about them, because dogs regularly get into these caterpillars with devastating results, including respiratory distress and death. Survivors sometimes have to have their tongues partially amputated.

Nor is the damage limited to dogs. Even without touching them, humans with heightened sensitivity can be affected when the wind blows loose hairs from caterpillar nests. Besides the skin rash and inflammation, respiratory issues can result without the victim having any idea of the cause.

The caterpillars themselves are really quite fascinating. They’re in the silk moth family, and live in silky “tents” they weave for themselves at the tips of pine branches. At night, they exit the nest to feed on pine needles, then return to the safety of their tent during the day.

Nest of Pine Processionary Moth caterpillars (detail).JPG
By Chiswick ChapOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

January through March is when they’re a real problem in Portugal. This is when they leave the nest permanently, march down the tree trunk, and look for soft soil to burrow into for their chrysalis stage. The spring migration is where the “processionary” part of their name comes into play, because they march head to tail, in a long, uninterrupted line.

Public Domain, Link

Woe betide any dog that sticks their nose into those. Or well-meaning humans who pick them up bare-handed.

At the end of the summer, the adult moths hatch out, and the females search for mates and a good-looking pine on which to lay their eggs. They have one day to accomplish their task. This means the range expansion is limited to how far an adult moth can fly in one day, but for all that, the pine processionary moth has a large range that encompasses much of southern Europe.

It appears that the toxins in urticating hairs get worse in a warm, humid environment, and I sleep hot. When I woke up this morning, my reaction had gotten far worse and is now doing a fair imitation of chicken pox. At this rate, I’m going to use up that bottle of Caladryl. I may be hitting the pharmacy tomorrow for a topical antihistamine.

At this point, I’m just grateful that I didn’t wipe the sweat out of my eyes on that walk. But at least I now know all about pine processionary caterpillars.

They’re still cute.

Posted in biology, Portugal | 25 Comments

Raise your hand if you remember the modem dial-up tone

In this video from Wired, two sonic branding experts take us on a tour of the world’s most recognizable tones, chimes, and sound blends, and explain why they impact us the way they do. Sonic branding is designed to grab us in certain ways, and some of these sounds are very much embedded in our psyches.

They also date us. I remember the first time I heard the THX sound in a theater–it blew my eyebrows back and fried my brain. That sound was amazing. And then there’s the scratchy, awful, atonal, teeth-gritting sound of a modem dialup. Do you recall scrambling to turn down the volume so you wouldn’t wake up your parents/roommate/anyone else in the house with that infernal screeching? And yet it was a wonderful sound because it signified the opening of a gateway to a whole new world.

It occurred to me that my 16-year-old son has never heard that sound in real usage and won’t have any of the associations with it that I do. But then, he would probably recognize all of the gaming console sounds while I don’t know a single one of them.

Sounds are closely tied to memory and emotion. Sound embeds itself in our lives. The fact that some of these sounds make me smile or feel nostalgic is a testament to their power. It’s no wonder that Apple’s discard of the classic Mac start-up chime in the new MacBook Pros has left so many users feeling bereft. (But take heart: you can get it back with a simple Terminal command.)

And oh, that Law and Order dum dum. Who knew it was supposed to be the sound of a jail door closing?

(Edited to add: I’ve just learned that the embedded video is not viewable in the US. Try this site, which seems to have bypassed the regional restrictions.)

Posted in culture | 2 Comments

Rogue One review

Star wars rogue one

We have finally seen Rogue One. Our conclusions (with mild spoilers):

1. The first half of the movie gets a 4 out of 10. Too many jumps from point A to point B to point C, no character development, cheesy dialogue, and cinematography so dark that I wanted to reach out, pull up the Control Panel, and turn up the screen brightness.

2. However, the landscapes and spacescapes are spectacular. Really gorgeous special effects.

3. The second half of the movie almost redeems the first. It is edge-of-chair exciting, and takes a very daring step that I can’t ever recall seeing in a “heroic battle for good” movie. Also, the way in which a simple, low-tech solution is found to open a high-tech shield was brilliant and extremely fun to watch.

4. In the first half, the writers pull the tired old “character does incredibly stoopid act in order to further the plot.” Scene: good woman with gun confronts bad man with many armed guards. It has already been made clear that she expects to die and is willing to trade her life in order to kill the baddie. So does she pull the trigger? No! Instead she shouts, “You will never win!” and gives the baddie time to order his guards to mow her down, which they do. She never gets off a shot. This is such lazy writing. There are other ways to kill off a character and save the bad guy for later besides using the shortcut of “Oh! I know! Make her stoopid!”

5. There are apparently no women in the Empire. At all.

6. Though the Rebel Alliance has a female senator and one other female character with about six lines of dialogue, it is also extremely low on women. We did spot two female fighter pilots in the final battle. One of them actually had a line of dialogue. All other pilots, all other senators, all other generals/captains/soldiers were male. The hero of our story was female, but the entire remainder of the main cast, including every other member of her (quite large) raiding party, was male.

7. Judging by the swelling music, the cinematography, the copious-tears-mixed-with-torrential-rain, and the dialogue, we were supposed to be emotionally impacted by the death of a particular character. It had zero effect on me or my wife. Hint to writers: in order to engender emotion in the audience, you must first develop characters and their relationships.

8. However, we got a little sniffly over the death of a droid.

9. The best character in the whole movie was a droid.

Posted in entertainment | 7 Comments

How to make an author’s day

This message came in through my website a couple of weeks ago, from a reader in Seattle, Washington:

I stumbled across The Caphenon when putting lesbian science fiction books on hold at The Seattle Public Library. It seems I had read all the lesbian detective, police, mystery books in the system so I decided to strike out on the fantasy/science fiction genre.

I’m really glad I found this book, or I would have missed a very, very well written, ahead of its class, not only for lesbian readers, tome (I’ll have to look that word up). There aren’t that many well written quote lesbian unquote books compared to how many books are out there. Let me change that. Really well written books are not that common.

[…] Then I randomly selected, by their covers, more lesbian science fiction books. I read a bunch more, and luckily (thank Fahla) I was reading the second book in the Alsea series without realizing it until it mentioned Tal in the second chapter. It’s while I read The Producer’s Challenge that I realized what a talented writer you are.

I just finished the second book, and put the third one on hold at the library. I went to Amazon to see if there were more Alsea books and I see there are five. If you could tell me the title of the fourth book I will bother The Seattle Public Library to buy both it and Vellmar the Blade (Chronicles of Alsea Book 5). Are you going to write more Alsea books? 🙂 All good things come to an end, but can’t we put it off a little longer?

The fourth novel is of course Catalyst, which was just released last week (and goes into general release on all bookseller platforms in three more days). The sixth book in the series, Outcaste, is taking excellent shape. And the second book, which this reader loved so much, is available for a free download today.

Without a Front The Producers Challenge by Fletcher DeLancey

It’s week four of Ylva’s exciting Advent Giveaway, where we’re gifting a free e-book every Sunday between now and Christmas, plus one on Christmas Eve.

Today’s book is Without A Front: The Producer’s Challenge by Fletcher DeLancey. This sci-fi fantasy, which is book two in the Chronicles of Alsea series, shows the aftermath of the Alsean war, and the pressures on its leader, Lancer Tal, to rebuild. There’s plenty of sizzle when she meets an obstinate, intriguing producer, who gives her a cocky challenge to work the fields.

Download a free copy all day today until midnight EST.

If you know someone who might enjoy the Chronicles of Alsea, this is the perfect way to try out one of the books. (Or as those old infomercials used to say: “Try without risk!”)

In the meantime, I’m still basking in the happiness that comes from 1) knowing my books are in the Seattle Public Library, and 2) hearing from a new reader who stumbled across those books and fell in love with them. This is what libraries are all about — not to mention one of the main reasons I write.

Happy holidays, and may good books find you during the gift-giving season.

Posted in good news, writing | 3 Comments

Math + pop music = hidden education

Popular music group OK Go, famous for their unusual and meticulously planned videos (which often put Rube Goldberg to shame) have done it again, this time with a video that explores a world we cannot see.

The video opens with a 4.2-second burst of frenetic action, all flying colored salt and bullets penetrating buckets of paint and exploding water balloons and guitars. It goes by so fast that you’re not even sure what happened.

Then the real magic begins. The video returns to the beginning and shows it all again, this time in super slow motion. And this is when you realize that every event in these 4.2 seconds has been perfectly synchronized to the beat of the music and even to specific syllables in the lyrics. It is a phenomenal, real-world example of mathematics at work. (Teachers will love showing this to teens.) Damian Kulash, Jr., the lead singer, worked on the math for this video for “eight to ten hours a day, for, like, a month.”

So watch this, and then read a bit more about it. Oh, and you really need to see it full screen.

Got all that?

OK Go put up background notes and some interesting Q&A on their website. It will make the geeks happy with answers to things such as:

How many things happen in it?

It sort of depends how you count “things,” but there are 318 events (54 colored salt bursts behind Tim, 23 exploding paint buckets, 128 gold water balloons, etc.) that were synchronized to the music before the breakdown.

Did you really blow up all those guitars?

Yes, but they were already being scrapped by Fender for not meeting their quality control standards, which is to say they were defects. No playable guitars were harmed in the making of this video.

But the best part is the spreadsheet. You have to go check out that spreadsheet.

There’s also a video on the making of the video, which is worth a look. My favorite bit: when the guy in charge of building the hardware and doing the coding to make all of this stuff happen says, “The last time that I’ve seen someone having to build something this accurate to fire pyrotechnics was the Manhattan Project.”

Hat tip to Rebecca.

Posted in music, science, tech | 6 Comments

This year for Christmas: CATALYST

Guess what’s coming to (an online) bookstore near you? Book 4 in the Chronicles of Alsea series: Catalyst.

This is a full-length novel which takes place immediately after Without A Front: The Warrior’s Challenge. In fact, Catalyst picks up the day after the previous book ends. If you’re curious about what happened to Captain Ekatya Serrado and Doctor Lhyn Rivers during the time they were absent from Alsea, this book has all the answers.

Catalyst cover

From the back cover:

After disobeying orders and saving the planet of Alsea from invasion, Captain Ekatya Serrado returns home a hero and renegade, alongside Dr. Lhyn Rivers, now the foremost authority on a culture that fascinates and terrifies. They share a secret: they are tyrees, linked by an Alsean empathic bond that should be biologically impossible for two Gaians. The secret could cost Ekatya her career, but when both women are drawn into a high stakes political game, their tyree bond may be all that stands between them and the dangerous enemies they have made.

In Catalyst, the fourth book of the Chronicles of Alsea, the bonds of love, friendship, and family are redefined. The intersection of the Alsean and Gaian cultures has profoundly changed both—and become a catalyst for miracles.

All of our favorite characters are there, including Andira Tal and Salomen Opah, though the bulk of the story belongs to Ekatya and Lhyn. Their decisions at Alsea have followed them home, and nothing can ever be the same.

The paperback version of Catalyst will be available on Amazon beginning December 7; at that time Amazon will be taking pre-orders for the e-books as well (they’ll be available on the 21st). If an e-book is what you want and you don’t wish to wait, you can go to Ylva Publishing and buy direct from there, starting on the 7th.

Posted in writing | 4 Comments