Monday, March 29, 2010

In Which I Appear on the Bamberger Ranch Blog

I've just learned that I'm putting in an appearance on the Bamberger Ranch Journal this week. Thanks, David, for the kind words, and for plugging the owl cam’. (BTW, that blog post was delayed not by David, but by me, because I haven't been checking my email often enough while I've been out of the office letting my knee heal.)

Anyone viewing that blog entry should be warned that there’s no such thing as a good picture of me. I can’t produce a smile on command that doesn’t scare children. (Well, probably. I haven’t actually tested; there are, after all, ethical issues relating to human testing, especially on children.) I don’t even seem to be able to reliably arrange my features in a neutral, but moderately photogenic pattern. This has produced more than a few problems over the years, including the occasion when I had to supply a head shot to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center when a show of my panoramas was taking place there a few years back. I took about eighty shots of my head, until the futility of the exercise wore me out, and I settled for something neutral and, at least, not obviously frightening. (That's the photo on my home page at the moment; one of my favorite panoramas—taken on the Bamberger Ranch, BTW—is hanging in the background.)

By the way, folks in the Austin-area can still see that and four other of my panoramas on display over at the New World Deli, where they seem to be on semi-permanent display (17 months and counting), and the owner is threatening to buy the lot, if I’ll set him up with a payment plan.

Folks out in Johnson City can still see (and buy) one of my other panoramas that is on display in the Johnson City Public library. I believe it’s in the new Natural History section endowed by David & Margaret Bamberger. Appropriately, that pano was shot on the Bamberger Ranch one day when Margaret and I were making the photographic rounds of the place. I’d been trying to shoot a good pano in that meadow for three years, and that day everything finally came together.

Another Showing

I’ve been offered the chance to show my work as part of a monthly, one-night show here in Austin late next month. If I can get my act together in time, I’ll print replacements for the items that’ve sold during the extended Deli show, and will also show two panoramas that haven’t been printed before. I’ll post more details when I’m more certain that I’ll be up to participating.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Three Eggs Confirmed

My guess yesterday was that the third egg had been laid, and that that was what had shifted Mme. Owl into serious brooding mode. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture an overhead view yesterday to confirm that guess. This evening, however, I was able to capture such a view, and, as you’ve undoubtedly already noticed, there is a third egg. Whether it was laid yesterday or today will likely remain a matter of guesswork, but there it is.

As always, if this sort of thing interests you, you can watch the nesting proceed in real-time from my nest box cam’ site.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two Eggs and Counting

Here’s this evening’s shot from the nest box attic cam’. (You can see this morning’s image, too.) As expected, egg no. 2 was laid today.

Gehlbach’s research says an eastern screech owl, Megascops asio, clutch will average 3.75 eggs, if memory serves, so I’m expecting two more eggs, although clutches of up to six eggs are possible.

Note that the eggs are almost spherical, unlike the eggs of (almost?) all other birds. A sphere is a more efficient shape than that of a conventional egg in terms of providing the greatest interior volume for the least surface area. It has been suggested that other birds produce “egg shaped” eggs because, if such eggs start rolling, their shapes will tend to cause them to roll back to their starting-points, all things being equal. Thus in a nest where an egg could do some rolling, the conventional egg shape is the safest. The fact that (most/all?) owl eggs are almost spherical suggests that owls have been cavity nesters longer than any extant bird species, and that evolution has been optimizing the shape of their eggs for efficiency, rather than safety, because rolling out of any proper nest cavity is a non-issue, and therefore there is no survival advantage associated with retaining the conventional “egg shape.”

The RF Scale

I’ve automated another one of the surveys from Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians. (My first effort, the “RWA Scale” is discussed in a previous entry on this blog.) This time, it's the “RF Scale.” What it’s measuring will be pretty obvious, pretty quickly. Just in case there’s any doubt, I’ve included Altemeyer’s description of the purpose of the survey at the end of the page.

Because this survey works in the same way as the previous one, I’ll quote myself to save time:

Note that your score is computed entirely on your own computer – none of the data is transmitted or recorded anywhere, so nobody will ever see it but you. On the one hand, this seems like a bit of a shortcoming, because it’d be interesting to know how other people score, but, on the other hand, surveys whose participants are self-selecting are meaningless. Add to that the fact that an anonymous Internet survey has no reliable way of excluding trolls, or preventing people from submitting their preferred answers repeatedly to try to shift the results in whatever direction they like, and Internet surveys go past “meaningless” to end-up somewhere around “outright misleading.” So, let’s not even play that damn fool game.

If you’re curious, I score a 12 on this survey.

Once again, it’s food for thought. Happy thinking.

This survey, like the last one I created, is fully standards-compliant and therefore works correctly in modern web browsers like Safari, Firefox and Chrome. It might work with the latest versions of Internet Explorer (if not version 8, then 9), but as to other versions, previous experience says: probably not. The old joke about the phone company applies to Microsoft’s stance on standards compliance: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.” Microsoft’s stance has improved very recently, but having ignored web standards for around ten years, they have a lot of catching-up to do.

One Egg and Counting

Pat asked if I’d ever share the overhead views from the attic camera that I use for egg counting. Here’s just such a view that was captured early this morning. It shows the egg that was laid on the 22nd. (I expect to see that another egg was laid today, but won’t be able to confirm that expectation until Mme. Owl exits the nest box this evening.)

In previous years, I’d’ve included images like this one in the daily updates on the owl cam’ site, but I haven’t had the energy to put together daily image collections so far this year. Also, in my archive of images from the box (each season produces about 346,000 images, and I keep them all), there should be a slightly higher quality (less compressed) version of this image, and, all things being equal, that’s the version I’d want to share on the owl cam’ site.

Soon. I’ll get around to it soon.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Screech Owl Cam' Operational

Some video capture hardware turned-out to have stopped working in the two years since the last nesting, but after some pulling of hair, swapping of hardware, and editing of web pages, Chris’ Eastern Screech Owl Nest Box Cam’ is live again.

What with surgery and an unknown recovery period starting tomorrow, I can’t say there’ll be regular status reports, or daily image round-ups, but the video will be live. (If one frame per minute counts as “live”.)


Mme. Owl is Spending the Day in the Nest Box

Mme. Owl is currently sitting on the floor of the nest box in a brooding posture. If nesting hasn't strictly begun yet, it looks as though it will do so in next the day or two at the most.

I'm not sure when I'll have the Owl Cam' up and running again. If I can get it running tonight, I will. But, if that doesn't work out, things immediately become very unpredictable, as I'll be undergoing surgery on Friday, and nobody can tell me what the recovery period will be, or just how limited I'll be during that time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mme. Owl Prepares the Nest Box

A female eastern screech owl visited my nest box this morning. I noticed the visit entirely by chance around 3:15 AM, and she stayed another 20 minutes, while I watched her performing actions characteristic of a female preparing to nest – namely pushing around the bedding material on the floor of the box to create a depression in which eggs could be laid.

My screech owls may be running later than usual, but it appears there's still a very solid chance they'll be nesting in the box.

And if that happens, the screech owl cam' will return.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eleven Hours in Owl Box Hell

I brought the owl box down around 6 PM on Sunday to remove a fox squirrel. This squirrel seemed familiar with the routine; with box open on the ground, I just stepped to one side, explained the situation, and the squirrel obligingly bolted out the other side. Simple enough.

It was a short time later that I made the terrible mistake. As followers of my screech owl cam' may remember, the illuminators in the current side camera compartment have been a bit flaky since I built it. That's because I selected the wrong way to mount and wire the infrared LEDs – using some screw terminals intended for mounting on printed circuit boards. I stuck the lead of an LED and a wire that led to a lead of the next LED in series into each hole in those two-hole terminal modules, tightened the screws good and tight a counted on that to keep every LED lead and wire properly connected. It worked just well enough to fool me into deploying the design, but not well enough to keep those LEDs shining all the time. They would dim, or stop working entirely, at random, and then start working again.

When I first observed the problem years ago, there were owls nesting the in the box, so there was nothing I could do about it. Since then, I've variously ignored the problem, convinced myself that it had gone as mysteriously as it had manifested, and occasionally even considered finding some way to fix the problem. Until this afternoon, I always snapped out of the "I must fix that" mindset before I could do anything foolish, like, say, tearing apart the most complex component of the nest box and rebuilding it in some better, but uncertain, new configuration. But this afternoon, with the box out of the tree, and having recently observed the complete failure of the side compartment's illuminators (they spontaneously fixed themselves a day or two later), my better judgement deserted me and I decided to take apart the side camera compartment, remove the front bezel/illuminator assembly and put an end to the bad connections once and for all.


It started simply enough, with the notion of stripping the insulation off of some wire-wrapping wire, wrapping the end of each LED lead, and dabbing a bit of solder on that in order to increase the diameter of the lead's end, and make it impossible (or, at least, a lot less likely) for it to fail to make good contact with the wire (whose ends were already tinned with solder) with which it shared its screw terminal. What I got was a lead that was large enough that it couldn't be crammed back into the terminal along with its wire – not with any assurance that they were both properly seated, anyway. And thus a simple, but tedious, plan exploded in my face and became eleven (going on twelve) hours of uninterrupted hell.

After finding that every store that might sell the components I needed to rewire the bezel from scratch had already closed for the day, a long and desperate search of my collection of electronic components, both new and salvageable, commenced. Eventually, I satisfied myself that I had just enough parts to do what needed to be done, and the tear-down of the bezel and its illuminator array began. It almost goes without saying that I was wrong about having all the parts I needed.

However, with all of the improvisation required to create a new way to mount the LEDs, having to improvise around the absence of a suitably large connector barrier strip fit right in with the rest of the problems. Like the mounts for the LEDs, the solution to the barrier strip problem was a strip of plywood. OK, the plywood strip provided no barriers, but spacing the screw terminals such that the wires that attached to them couldn't possibly come in contact with their neighbors was good enough.

The end result was every LED soldered to its own pair of wires, with each pair leading back to a central (improvised) barrier strip, that linked them in series, and then joined the ends of the series to the camera compartment's power supply. It meant a lot of extra wiring to replace what had been a nice, simple series wiring job, but all that wire also created a configuration that could be taken apart and laid out flat on a work bench for servicing, which wasn't quite the case with the original (unreliable) wiring scheme.

And the LED mounts? More strips of plywood. Specifically, a two inch strip screwed to the plywood back of the bezel in order to clamp the leads of each LED firmly in place. Fortunately, I'd recently re-stocked my supply of no. 6, ½" metal screws, which, oddly, I've always found ideal for this sort of woodworking, since their heads don't try to sink into the wood, unlike the heads of wood screws. That means that they project into the wood just as far as they say they will (½"), and no more. Their flat heads, drawn down tight onto the surface of the wood, also make them ideal stand-ins for screw terminals.

One Especially Nasty Lesson

I learned (or perhaps re-learned) something while performing continuity tests on the infrared LEDs as I soldered wires to their leads, and crimped screw connectors onto the ends of those wires. Inexplicably, those assemblies, all of which had passed their continuity checks when I built them, started failing later when I re-tested them both in series, and individually. This was a major contributor to the "hell" aspect of this night's experience. What I eventually discovered (or re-discovered – I now very vaguely recall maybe noticing this in the past) is that the infrared LEDs would pass their continuity tests if exposed to light, but fail those tests when they were in any shadow at all, or were, for instance, sitting mounted in their final assemblies, inverted on my workbench. Much serious unpleasantness was experienced before I figured that out.

The rewired bezel, disassembled (inverted) on my improvised workbench.

The rewired bezel, seen from the back, after reassembly.

The rewired and reassembled bezel, seen from the front.
The owls will never know the difference.

Now, I just need some owls. I heard one calling from my backyard early in the evening while I was beginning all of this work. Fortunately, I'd already returned the box (with a spare side wall module replacing the side camera compartment) to the tree, so if that calling was about enticing a mate to my nest box, there was, fortunately, a nest box present for the enticing.

Unfortunately, it's a bit late for my local screech owls to begin their nesting, if past years are anything to go by. So, it's entirely possible that they already have a nest somewhere nearby, and the calling was just routine communication between the pair.

If not, though, my newly improved nest box stands ready for them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The RWA Scale – Investigating “public opinion concerning a variety of social issues”

A friend (thanks D.C.) brought an interesting book to my attention the other day, the cornerstone of which is a survey known as the “RWA Scale” developed by Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba. The survey describes itself as “an investigation of general public opinion concerning a variety of social issues,” and saying anything more would probably be a mistake. Anyway, because the book and survey looked interesting, computing one’s survey score struck me as a bit tedious, and it gave me an opportunity to use Javascript (ugh) in a way that I hadn't used it before, I decided to automate the survey. Some quick googling turned-up one pre-existing online version of the survey, but only available to Facebook users, among whom I am not counted. However, given that the book from which the survey was taken was published in 2006, and the survey was in use for quite some time before then, there must be other online versions (perhaps you've already encountered lots of them), but I wanted to try my hand at automating it, and so I have.

I’d go into more detail about the book and the survey here, but it’s probably best to take the survey knowing as little as possible about it. So, if you’re still curious, take the survey.

Note that your score is computed entirely on your own computer – none of the data is transmitted or recorded anywhere, so nobody will ever see it but you. On the one hand, this seems like a bit of a shortcoming, because it’d be interesting to know how other people score, but, on the other hand, surveys whose participants are self-selecting are meaningless. Add to that the fact that an anonymous Internet survey has no reliable way of excluding trolls, or preventing people from submitting their preferred answers repeatedly to try to shift the results in whatever direction they like, and Internet surveys go past “meaningless” to end-up somewhere around “outright misleading.” So, let’s not even play that damn fool game.

I’ll just tell you that my score ranges from 27 to 33 depending on how I interpret some of the questions, while the author’s introductory psychology students average around 75, and their parents around 90. A 2005 survey of 1,000 Americans reportedly also showed an average score of 90. That’s all discussed after the survey, where you will also find a link to the entire book (available free online) from which the survey and associated text were taken. Admittedly, including that information on the same page as the survey might introduce some bias into the results, but I thought that anyone who’d just gone to the trouble to take the survey deserved some explanation and context.

It’s all just food for thought. Happy thinking.