How to get rid of camel crickets

About half my traffic right now seems to be going to that old post about camel crickets. These things really freak people out, so that page is filling up with fun comments like this one from bobbie jean:

just reading all of these entries makes my skin crawl. i lived in virginia for 20 years and never got use to them. they are the scariest alien/predator bug i have seen ever. i also noticed the bug disappearance. i started thinking there sinister buddies came and picked up there dead bodies up after i killed them. another thing i noticed or maybe just imagined is that the nasty little sprickets would jump at you or towards you instead of away from you. glad to know im not the only one terrified of them.

According to the Wikipedia article these creatures have been known to eat their own limbs if there’s nothing else available, so the stories about dead crickets disappearing might not just be paranoid fantasy. But my favorite part of the article is its suggestions for getting rid of the bugs. Along with ideas like setting sticky paper, spraying insecticide, and getting rid of hospitable breeding areas, it recommends releasing centipedes into the house to hunt them. That’s fantastic! People who can’t stand having crickets in their homes will just love having these guys crawling around:

House Centipede

Follow them with Bolivian tree lizards, then Chinese snakes, a few gorillas, and winter will take care of the rest. Cricket problem solved.

[Photo from the Flickr stream of David Reeves.]


Camel crickets invade DC

The Washington Post ran an article today on these guys, some particularly “sketchy” insects known as camel crickets:

Sketchy bug

I had the bad luck to be rudely awakened by one of these guys in my bed on my first night sleeping in my previous apartment. The article captures their weirdness well. They don’t just look ugly; their tendency to jump far and erratically adds a whole new level of creepiness to these buggers, especially when they’re invading your bedroom.

Fortunately I only saw one other indoors for the rest of the year I spent in that apartment, but they were numerous outside it. One of them caught me by surprise making its home beneath my bike seat. As if I needed another reason to be glad to have moved, the Post story on how the drought is sending these crickets into houses in search of moisture has neatly provided it.

Even so, I think camel crickets pale in comparison to the weird centipedes I’ve often come across in Virginia. When will the paper cover that menace?

[Photo from the Flickr stream of AlbinoFlea.]


Behold the bowerbird

I’d read about the elaborate nests built by male bowerbirds in a few biology books as an example of runaway sexual selection, but never knew how impressive they really are until coming across this David Attenborough clip.

If the strategy translates to humans, I’ll have more reasons to look forward to moving into my newer, nicer apartment next month than just escaping the ’70s era decor of my current place.

[Via the always interesting Athanasius Kircher Society.]


Monster Pig

If for no other reason except that “biggest hog” is still one of the top search queries bringing visitors to this site, it’s worth linking to the story of Monster Pig, a 1,050 lbs. behemoth killed in Alabama. The beast is magnificent and, sadly, now dead.

When the first Hogzilla was exhumed, I jokingly said, “This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie.” Turns out I was right!

Update 5/29/07: Eh, not so much. Photo manipulation at work.

This could be the start of a bad redneck horror movie
That’s the second biggest hog I’ve ever seen


Dawkins doesn’t get juries

For some reason, this old Richard Dawkins article critiquing the jury system is getting linked a lot today. I wrote about it once before, but since I think it’s both really interesting and very wrong, it’s worth revisiting.

Dawkins begins by discussing how one would test for innate pecking behaviors in chicks. Testing one chick doesn’t establish anything because it could be reacting randomly. You have to test multiple chicks. These chicks have to be tested independently, not in a group, or you run the risk that an initial random behavior could influence the whole group. In principle, testing a group of chicks together is really no better than testing a single chick.

Dawkins then carries this idea over to juries. The supposed advantage of juries is that having 12 people pass judgment instead of one makes the risk of a unanimous wrong verdict very small. But, he says, this doesn’t hold true because the twelve jurors aren’t independently sampled. Strictly speaking, 12 jurors are no better than one, since the group of jurors could be unduly influenced by individuals in the group. The jurors are just like chicks. So far, so good.

But then his argument starts to go off track:

Turning to courts of law, why are twelve jurors preferred to a single judge? Not because they are wiser, more knowledgeable or more practised in the arts of reasoning. Certainly not, and with a vengeance… Twelve jurors are preferred to one judge only because they are more numerous… Twelve heads are better than one, because they represent twelve assessments of the evidence.

But for this argument to be valid, the twelve assessments really have to be independent. And of course they are not. Twelve men and women locked in a jury room are like our clutch of twelve gull chicks. Whether they actually imitate each other like chicks, they might. That is enough to invalidate the principle by which a jury might be preferred over a single judge.

Not so fast. If trials were only about judging the facts of a case or matters of law, the case for juries over judges would indeed be weak. But the jury system is valued not for these reasons but because, unlike state-employed judges, juries act as a check on the government’s power to prosecute.

This makes Dawkins’ proposed test for whether judges or juries are more reliable very problematic:

I’ll call it the Two Verdicts Concordance Test. It is based on the principle that, if a decision is valid, two independent shots at making it should yield the same result. Just for purposes of the test, we run to the expense of having two juries, listening to the same case and forbidden to talk to members of the other jury. At the end, we lock the two juries in two separate jury rooms and see if they reach the same verdict. If they don’t, nothing can be proved beyond reasonable doubt, and this would cast reasonable doubt on the jury system itself.

To make the experimental comparison with Trial by Judge, we need two experienced judges to listen to the same case, and require them too to reach their separate verdicts without talking to each other. Whichever system, Trial by Jury or Trial by Judge, yields the higher score of agreements over a number of trials is the better system and might even be accredited for future use with some confidence.

I expect that judges would win this contest. This is partly because they’re more reliable judges of fact. But it’s also because judges are bound by law and precedent, so even if a law is unjust they have no choice but to enforce it. Juries are not bound like this and they are free to acquit rather commit injustice. Some juries will nullify and others won’t, so they clearly won’t win the Two Verdicts Concordance Test. But as computer programmers like to say, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

Dawkins concludes:

…should I be charged with a serious crime here’s how I want to be tried. If I know myself to be guilty, I’ll go with the loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, prejudiced and capricious the better. But if I am innocent, and the ideal of multiple independent decision-takers is unavailable, please give me a judge.

Innocent of what? Of murder? Then ok, he’s probably right. But what if he’s being charged with a victimless drug crime, or better yet, teaching evolution in a public school? If he’s “guilty” of violating these unjust laws, judges would have to convict him. Juries could conscientiously acquit. That’s what’s so great about juries, a virtue Dawkins never bothers to acknowledge.

Dawkins’ analysis only makes sense in a world where all laws are just. The jury system wasn’t designed for such a fantasy world, however. It was designed for the real world in which the government routinely violates the rights of its citizens. In cases regarding freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the Fugitive Slave Act, and Prohibition, American juries played an important role in fighting oppression. It’s true that this power of juries has been largely forgotten or denigrated in the past century, but by ignoring nullification, Dawkins misses the whole point of the system.

Dawkins of all people ought to take note of the notorious Scopes trial about teaching evolution in Tennessee. The defense had to essentially concede its case because the judge forbade nullification arguments, reducing the case to the purely factual question of what Scopes was teaching in the classroom. Scopes was convicted, of course. Judges failed him. A jury free to hear nullification arguments might have reached the just conclusion. (The defense’s appeal lost, too; Scopes got off on a technicality. It was another 40 years before judges ruled that such bans violate the Establishment Clause.)

I hope Dawkins isn’t really crazy enough to want to abolish trial by jury. That said, his point does raise the interesting possibility of splitting up the traditional jury of 12 into 2 or 3 smaller juries The juries would attend the same trial but be forbidden from communicating with each other, satisfying the scientific requirement for independent sampling.

My question is whether or not having multiple smaller juries would increase or decrease the likelihood of nullification. Perhaps, as Dawkins suggests, splitting up the jury would prevent one or two influential jurors from leading the entire group, increasing variance. Or perhaps the knowledge that there are other juries deciding the same case would cause potential nullifiers to abdicate responsibility, letting them take the easy way out in the hopes that a person on one of the other juries would vote to acquit. Either one of these scenarios seems plausible to me.


Lobster link fest

Why lobster blogging? Because it’s been too long a day for me to consider writing something serious, but I don’t want this site to become too idle. And lobsters seem to be turning up everywhere lately. Read on, you might learn something. You’re just wasting time at work anyway.
Pity the lobster

Let’s keep up the pretense of being a political blog and start with a post by Rogier van Bakel, who asks “Lobsters, dogs, what’s the difference?” An Italian restaurant (a real one, like, in Italy and stuff) was fined 688 Euros under an animal cruelty law designed to protect household pets. The crime? Displaying live lobsters on ice to attract customers:

A court in the northeastern city of Vicenza ruled the display was a form of abuse dooming the crustaceans to a slow death by suffocation. “We’re appealing,” said Giuseppe Scalesia, who runs La Conchiglia D’Oro, or “Golden Shell,” restaurant along with his brother Camillo. “They said that the lobsters, laying on the ice, suffer… They compared them in court to other animals, like cats and dogs.”

The case was brought by Gianpaolo Cecchetto, a former environmental activist, who took his two young children to the Vicenza restaurant in May 2002. “They were shocked by the display,” Cecchetto told Reuters, adding he immediately got in touch with the ENPA national animal protection entity.

“It might not hurt to keep in mind that most lobsters are boiled alive before they’re eaten,” Rogier notes. “Should that be declared illegal, too, in favor of — I dunno, what’s sufficiently humane?” I’m sure he meant that as a rhetorical question, but that’s no reason not to answer it. There’re lobsters’ lives at stake, after all.

Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, wrote a rather lengthy, yet fascinating, blog post on this very subject not too long ago. He says that the most humane way to kill a lobster is to chill it in the freezer for fifteen minutes and then split it quickly in half with a large knife. The accompanying photos make this appear not so fun for the lobster, but luckily it is cold blooded. The brief chill slows down its nervous system while the fast work of the knife cuts it in twain. The method is good for the lobster and doesn’t compromise on meat quality for the consumer. And, incidentally, it means that Mr. Scalesia was doing right by putting the lobster on ice — whether he knew it or not, it was a nice anaesthetic touch.

So all you need to kill a lobster a humanely is a freezer, a knife, and a bit of skill. Or maybe you need several thousand dollars, dedicated counter space, and a big jolt of electricity. When the knife method just won’t cut it, the CrustaStun comes to the rescue:

Lobsters could soon be “crusta-stunned” to death, if an invention by a British barrister takes off.

Simon Buckhaven says his electronic stun-gun would be a humane way of killing the creatures…

He said: “In a fraction of a second it knocks them unconscious and then, by the sustaining of the current, it destroys the entire nervous system, which kills them…”

“Until now there has been no electronic method of dealing with crabs, lobsters and crayfish. We have it now. We know it works,” he said at the time.”

CrustaStun is lots oI, for one, have long desired an electronic method method of dealing with crabs, lobsters, and crayfish. They never respond to my old-fashioned letters.

But seriously, this could be a decent idea. The CrustaStun requires less skill than knifing a live animal with claws and the company claims it results in meat that tastes better than other killing methods. All well and good. Unfortunately, the inventor isn’t just marketing his device to seafood processors and restaurants. He’s going straight to Parliament, where it appears he’s using proposed animal cruelty laws to drum up demand:

Last year Mr Buckhaven told a parliamentary select committee that workers in the fishing industry would be able to afford the stun-gun…

“When the question of cost has been raised, the shellfish producers in Cornwall think it is very viable in terms of the equipment they have to use.”

He said that the cost for restaurants would be between £1,000 and £2,000 for one machine.

The CrustaStun website prominently mentions legislative concerns as a reason for purchasing one of the machines. That’s good news for lobsters, but not for restauranteurs who may have to shell out for the device at regulators’ demand.

CrustaStun has the Shellfish Network on board, too. Who is the Shellfish Network, you ask?

The Shellfish Network was formed by Joe Solomon in 1994 to campaign peacefully against cruelty to these animals… While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other Animal Rights groups include shellfish in their campaigns, we believe that we are the only organisation to give a consistently high profile to the suffering of shellfish. But they still remain at or near the bottom of the league-table of public sympathy!

A fringe group, to be sure, but that didn’t stop them from submitting a 2004 memo to the Parliament’s Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

We believe that traditional methods of cooking are cruel and that the methods outlined in our Guidelines should be mandatory, at the very least for lobsters, crabs, crayfish and langoustines. These include the freezing method; placing the crab or lobster in a plastic bag and placed in a deep-freeze cabinet set at -20°C and left for two hours, or alternatively cutting through the nerve centres, which must only be carried out by experienced staff. The anatomy of the crayfish is like that of the lobster on a small scale, and it therefore may well have a similarly complex nervous system, although piercing nerve centres would not be practicable as it is so small an animal. The freezing method would be necessary in this case. We have heard from a scientist that langoustines can take up to 30 seconds to die when boiled. Subjecting live, conscious animals to cutting up, boiling, steaming or other cooking processes should be banned and the killing only carried out by competent experts. The Crustastun, mentioned in our Guidelines, is an electrical stunning tank which has recently been developed in prototype by scientists at Bristol University and the Silsoe Research Institute near Bedford. This stuns crabs and lobsters in a fraction of a second, and ensures that they remain insensible to pain long enough to be cooked by boiling immediately. Once the device is available it ought to replace all other methods.

My favorite line is, “We have heard from a scientist…” No research citation, no name of the scientist. Just this guy they know who wears a white lab coat. And his business card says he’s a scientist, so he must know what he’s talking about.

The Shellfish Society doesn’t want people being cruel to lobsters in their own kitchens either:

Since the majority of the general public will have no idea on the most humane ways of killing shellfish, we suggest that such sales should no longer be legal. Only licensed experts should be allowed to kill the animals, using our Guidelines.

Not even in self-defense? CrustaStun, by the way, links to the memo.

We haven’t even gotten to the worst and most humorous aspects of lobster exploitation yet. If you think being boiled alive, stabbed in the chest, CrustaStunned, or displayed on ice to hungry Italians are unpleasant things to endure, I’ve got news for you: the worst is yet to come for our lobster friends. These, at least, are deaths with dignity. Not so our next atrocity.

Bobbing for lobstersThe Business Opportunities Weblog reports that a company in Maine is marketing the Maine Lobster Claw Game. It’s like the old arcade game where a player maneuvers a claw that unexpectedly drops down into the tank and grabs whatever prize waits below. Except in this game, the prizes are live lobsters. For $2 the player gets a shot at taking one home. What they do with the lobster when they win it isn’t explained. Do they carry it around in a plastic bag like a goldfish? I have no idea.

In any case, animal rights activists aren’t too happy about this innovation:

The Maine Animal Coalition (MAC) says the state’s lobster industry is only now beginning to follow the standards for humane treatment of lobsters set by European countries, New Zealand and Australia…

“This game is adding insult to injury,” says MAC President Christina Connors. “They can’t go anywhere or get away. Not only will they be boiled alive, but they are being taunted in the meanwhile.”

Budding entrepreneurs can buy the lobster games for just $14, 950. If they can sleep at night knowing the humiliation they will impose on the lobsters, they’re sure to make millions. The only question is what to use as the grand prize. Sure, a Maine lobster is nice, but there’s got to be one prize that’s so enticing that the rubes will keep on dropping cash to pursue it. Something like, say, an incredibly rare blue lobster from Canada.

Really, a blue freaking lobster!
Blue freaking lobster!

And on that note, our foray into lobster blogging comes to an end.


Stupid politician tricks

Fellow dog lover Radley Balko points to a sad abuse of government power in Denver, CO. City officials are rounding up pit bulls for extermination and searching the houses of known and suspected owners. The ban was passed in 1989 after a pit bull killed a young boy but was temporarily unenforced after the state legislature passed a law forbidding bans against specific breeds. The state law was recently overturned and now local pit bull owners are struggling to keep their beloved pets from being seized and euthanized.

If history is any indication, this is going to mean a lot of dogs will get a lethal injection. In 2003 Denver put down 410 pit bulls and returned 240 to owners with the promise that they would be relocated immediately. Yet despite the bloodbath, city officials estimate that there were still 4,500 pit bulls illegally owned at the peak of enforcement. The prohibition didn’t work, but a lot of innocent dogs were killed and many privacies were violated.

The law is obviously an emotional response to a tragic situation, fed by a media portrayal of the breed as a vicious attack dog. Is there any justification for this? A thorough study [.pdf, Google’s html] by Jeffrey Sacks, et al, in the Journal of the American Vetinary Medical Association tracks dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) from 1979-1998. At first glance, their conclusions seem to grant justification to the ban:

… the data indicate that Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs accounted for 67% of human DBRF in the United States between 1997 and 1998. It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.

The data aren’t quite that clear, however. Ascertaining the dangerousness of specific breed requires finding out the number of fatalities it causes and dividing that by the size of the breed population. There’s a great deal of uncertainly about both of these variables. Rottweilers accounted for a large fraction of DBRF in recent years, but earlier in the study they are much less represented. The appearance of dangerousness is likely in large part a reflection of their rise in popularity and not solely the result of a genetic propensity toward violence:

Considering American Kennel Club registration data for Rottweilers in parallel with fatality data for that breed indicates that as the breed has soared in popularity, so have Rottweiler-related deaths (24,195 registrations from 1979 through 1982 and 0 deaths; 272,273 registrations from 1983 through 1990 and 6 deaths; and 692,799 registrations from 1991 through 1998 and 33 deaths).

Those registration numbers are also uncertain, but it is clear from the study that the apparently most dangerous breed changes over time:

To decrease the risk of dog bites, several communities have enacted breed-specific restrictions or bans. In general, these have focused on pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers. However, breeds responsible for human DBRF have varied over time. Pinckney and Kennedy studied human DBRF from May 1975 through April 1980 and listed the following breeds as responsible for the indicated number of deaths: German Shepherd Dog (n = 16); Husky-type dog (9); Saint Bernard (8); Bull Terrier (6); Great Dane (6); Malamute (5); Golden Retriever (3); Boxer (2); Dachshund (2); Doberman Pinscher (2); Collie (2); Rottweiler (1); Basenji (1); Chow Chow (1); Labrador Retriever (1); Yorkshire Terrier (1); and mixed and unknown breed (15). As ascertained from our data, between 1979 and 1980, Great Danes caused the most reported human DBRF; between 1997 and 1998, Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs were responsible for about 60% of human DBRF. Indeed, since 1975, dogs belonging to more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks on people, including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire Terrier, and a Labrador Retriever.

Breed-specific bans like the one in Denver misleadingly emphasize the scary breed of the moment and do nothing to address the choices and behaviors of owners. From the same study:

Another concern is that a ban on a specific breed might cause people who want a dangerous dog to simply turn to another breed for the same qualities they sought in the original dog (eg, large size, aggression easily fostered). Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive. From a scientific point of view, we are unaware of any formal evaluation of the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in preventing fatal or nonfatal dog bites.


An alternative to breed-specific legislation is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior. Although, it is not systematically reported, our reading of the fatal bite reports indicates that problem behaviors (of dogs and owners) have preceded attacks in a great many cases and should be sufficient evidence for preemptive action. Approaches to decreasing dangerous dog and owner behaviors are numerous. The potential importance of strong animal control programs is illustrated by our data; from 1979 through 1998, 24% of human DBRF were caused by owned dogs (typically more than 1) that were roaming off the owners’ property. Some deaths might have been averted through more stringent animal control laws and enforcement (eg, leash laws, fencing requirements)… Generic non-breed-specific, dangerous dog laws can be enacted that place primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on the owner, regardless of the dog’s breed. In particular, targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners may be effective.

Interestingly, in Animals in Translation, which I reviewed briefly here, Temple Grandin suggests that leash laws in particular may be partially to blame for the rise in dog bites (the Sacks study shows non-fatal dog bites requiring medical attention rising 36% from 1986-1994). From page 159:

I think dogs may be starting to have aggression problems due to overly isolated rearing, too. All of the leash laws towns have passed may be having some adverse effects on dog socialization, because unless the owner makes an effort, many dogs do not get properly socialized to other dogs, or to other people. We need this laws, because stray dogs running loose can be dangerous, especially if a group of stray dogs starts thinking of itself as a pack… But leash laws have probably had a cost.

Putting some perspective on the situation, though, it’s clear that dog bites are not the huge problem as some media hype makes them out to be. From page 150:

…it’s really not necessary to be hyper-vigilant about the genetics of dog bites when you’re choosing a pet. Serious dog bites are so rare that from 1979-1994 only .3 percent of the U.S. population got bitten badly enough to seek medical care. When you consider the fact that just about everyone in America who isn’t living in a prison or a nursing home has fairly regular exposure to dogs, that’s a very small number.

The bottom line: there’s no justification for Denver’s intrusive and inhumane killing of hundreds of innocent dogs. It’s just a disgusting measure used for the self-aggrandizement of meddling city council members.