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July 7, 2020

Insects of Los Angeles

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From Atlas Obscura:

Lisa Gonzalez is the kind of photographer who knows how to make her subjects look good.

It involves a bit of fussing and preening, maybe some artful arranging of limbs.

When her sitters look a little shriveled, she rehydrates them; when they're unkempt, she grooms them.

Gonzalez's task is complicated by the fact that some of her subjects are smaller than a grain of rice.

Sometimes she has to use a brush with a single bristle.

Gonzalez is an assistant collections manager of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and a member of the team that is inventorying the insect population of the Los Angeles Basin, then viewing and photographing them under high magnification.

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In this era of social distancing, the museum has debuted a digital exhibitionSpiky, Hairy, Shiny: Insects of L.A., which introduces Angelenos to some of their small, winged neighbors in nearly surreal detail.

The museum has been conducting this census for several years as part of its BioSCAN project, which is investigating the biodiversity of the second-largest city in the United States.

Historically, entomologists have flocked to forests or meadows, skipping sidewalks or apartment buildings, but this research team believes it's crucial to compile baseline data about what's living in the city, too.

So far, the project team has identified 800 insect species, 47 of which had never been recorded before.

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The beetles, flies, and other creatures that eventually wound up beneath Gonzalez's microscope had no inkling of what was in store for them when they unwittingly entered what are known as Malaise traps — tent-like structures with a hole at the top.

There's no bait inside. Instead, insects gravitate in and up toward the light, and then tumble into a bottle containing alcohol.

Researchers retrieved the samples, brought them back to the museum, added fresh ethanol, and enlisted volunteers and work-study students to help sort the specimens, using forceps or pipettes to group flies in one jar, for instance, and butterflies in another.

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They caught so many that would it would be impossible to study them all.

The museum's experts (and colleagues at other institutions) swooped in to sort the insects further, hopefully zeroing in to the species level, either by sight or molecular analysis.

It's a tricky task to parse itty bitty morphological markers that differentiate one species from another (say, the shape of male genitalia or tiny bristles on the body).

There may also be considerable variation within a single species, Gonzalez adds.

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That's where genetic analysis can come in handy.

"Sequencing them is basically dead easy," says Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the museum and leader of the project. "It’s just chemistry."

Lastly, Gonzalez and company photographed them with a Keyence microscope.

"This system was originally designed to inspect semiconductors," Brown says. "We decided to start using it for insect photography because it produces such high-resolution images."

Over the several phases of the project, the BioSCAN team has installed 80 of their traps in various backyard settings — from dense to more wide-open — across the Los Angeles Basin.

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The team noticed that patterns emerge in terms of which insects show up where.

Flower-feeders, such as bees and butterflies, tend to wander far and wide in pursuit of an appealing bloom, while some very teeny flies seem to stay much more local, in particular pockets.

Overall, Brown says, the team found that biodiversity is correlated with drier conditions. "We tell people, 'If you want to increase biodiversity in L.A., lighten up on water,'" he says.

5. Eupelmid wasp  genus Metapelma. Photo_ Lisa Gonzalez  2020. © BioSCAN_Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Some of the insects they’ve collected are longtime residents of the city — leafcutter bees, for instance, have prehistoric bonafides; fossilized family members were entombed in the La Brea tar pits tens of thousands of years ago.

Other species' persistence depends on where their fellow residents have or haven't been squeezed out.

The eucharitid wasp, which looks like an onyx-colored reindeer with shiny crocodile skin, can only thrive where native carpenter ants hold on. (In the winter, female wasps drop their eggs on rhododendron and willow buds, and foraging ants later carry the larvae along.) 

"In Los Angeles, most native ants have been outcompeted by Argentine ants, so most of those wasps are relegated to the periphery of the city," Brown says. The mantisfly, which has eyes like creamy pearls (below),

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was also among the least common in their samples.

The team only collected one.

The portraits feel a little glamorous, partly because the details leap out of the images.

Some look furry as a golden retriever puppy, and others seem to be decked out in patent leather or velour.

The images are a reminder to anyone wandering Los Angeles that the sky and ground are teeming with little bits of wonder, and that their backyards may be full of creatures that aren’t yet known to science.

"People potentially have new species living in their neighborhoods," Gonzalez says.

And if these insects are any indication, they might be pretty photogenic.

July 7, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

BehindTheMedspeak: "Sometimes, the Why Really Isn't Crucial" — Sally Satel, M.D.

Dr. Satel is a psychiatrist who writes occasional pieces for the New York Times, among others.

Her Times essay summarized quite nicely why many times the best course is not to reason why but, rather, to do or die.

It follows.

Sometimes, the Why Really Isn’t Crucial

"Why do I use drugs?" I am asked every few weeks by a patient in our methadone clinic.

I take the query as a good sign; curiosity about oneself is usually healthy. But the premise behind the question — that a person can reliably identify the psychic roots of an addiction, or any other act of self-sabotage — is highly overrated.

Research psychologists have known for decades that it is very difficult to determine causation in mental life and thus, of behavior. For one thing, we can never perform an experiment. Take my patient Karen, 50, who spent most of the 1990s smoking crack. She is certain that the decade-long binge would never have happened had her mother not died when she was 12. We will never know if she is right because we cannot rewind Karen's life, play it again, and see what would have happened if her mother had lived.

Reconstructing the story of one's life is a complicated business for other reasons. What scientists call hindsight bias kicks in when we try to figure out the causal chain of events leading to the current situation. We may well come up with a tidy story but, inevitably, it will contain large swaths of revisionist history. It's not that we bias ourselves deliberately; it happens because the mind tends to make events in the past appear comprehensible and orderly. We forget the uncertainties that might have beset us as we struggled in real time.

Narratives are shaped also by a natural tendency to focus on information that confirms theories we already hold. These theories — for example, that molested children are likely to grow up to have sexual compulsions of their own — may be imbibed from the media, self-help books, or therapists.

If our own accounts of our actions are often so slanted and embellished, is composing them simply a misbegotten quest? Surely not. To a therapist, the attempt signals that patients are aware that they have a problem worthy of attention. And the narratives themselves can help them make sense out of confusion. This, in turn, can diminish anxiety and exaggerated guilt. Such relief might be sufficient in and of itself for some, or, depending on the goals of therapy, it could embolden a patient to make further healthy adjustments.

But the grail-like search for insight can also backfire when it becomes a way for patients to avoid the hard work of change. This was my experience with Joe, a 24-year-old heroin addict. At every session, Joe would talk about his childhood relationship with his father, seeking new clues for how it damaged him and drove him to heroin.

When I tried to change the topic to on-the-job stresses, which he linked to heroin craving, he said he’d rather "do psychotherapy." Joe was forestalling the need to make practical changes. The many-layered drama with his dad doubled as an excuse for using heroin, absolving him of the responsibility to quit. When I proposed that possibility to him, he said, "Maybe you’re right." But nothing really changed. He died of an accidental overdose a few months later.

Finally, insight has no guaranteed relationship to change. A colleague of mine treated a 45-year-old woman, Joan, who came for therapy because she hated her chunky body. Joan firmly believed that once she discovered The Reason for her overeating she would stop.

After a few months, Joan told my colleague that her father had developed cancer the year she went off to college.

"You know, I never made the connection until now," she announced triumphantly, "but I started overeating when he began to waste away. It's like I was trying to nourish him through myself."

A poignant metaphor, yes, but months later she hasn't lost a pound.

It is time to retire the myth that insight is a prerequisite for change. For the patients in our clinic, change without hard-won insight is the rule. And who has time to wait? Not Natalie. This past month she and I worked on getting an abusive, shiftless boyfriend out of her apartment; finding tutoring for her son; and building a new social network to replace the drug users that she used to hang out with.

At this stage in her treatment, awareness of what she needs to do will get Natalie further than insight. Less chaos in her life means less anxiety and that means less risk of relapse.

Down the road she may ask, "Why did I use drugs?" But in the meantime, what's important for Natalie and her son is that she is determined to stop.

Frederic C. Bartlett, a British psychologist, coined the term "effort at meaning" to describe the human impulse to make sense of feelings and circumstances. Self-explorers be warned: it is an effort often fraught with distortion and even hazard, when it prevents one from making the changes that need to be made in the present.

Don't think that the search for reasons is limited to behavior: in the O.R. sudden disasters and happenings oftimes lend themselves — especially among those with little experience — to exhaustive searches for logical causation.

I am reminded of an epigram attributed to Suzuki Roshi: "In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities. In the mind of the expert, there are few."

Many times it's best not to even bother trying to find a reason.

Forrest Gump had it right: "Compost happens."

July 7, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunrise at the oasis

July 7, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Spiral"

A French production, consisting of seven seasons and seventy-six (yes, 76) episodes.

It first appeared in 2005 and obviously was very popular — Season 7 aired in France in 2019.

Now it's on Amazon Prime video.

I've watched the first two seasons (eight episodes each): the second season was even better than the excellent first, which makes me anticipate three through seven.

As is usually the case with foreign productions, all of the excellent cast were previously unknown to me.

To be sure, I'll space out the remaining seasons so I know there's always something good on my Watch List.

July 7, 2020 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Personalized Cookie Stamp

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Finally.

From the website:

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Surprise your friends with personalized treats.

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Set includes interchangeable letters, numbers, and symbols.

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Sturdy wooden handle and non-stick silicone stamper.

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$12.99 (cookie dough not included).

July 7, 2020 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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