Saturday, 31 August 2013

Future and Past Talks

...now updated. Links to follow. Some future talks quite soon are now visible.

Insane Puppets

When you enforce the law, you look like an insane puppet. But in the end, others are relieved that you did so, which required that you are not afraid to be a fool.

Because you have been a vacillating hypocrite in the past, that is no reason to continue to be a vacillating hypocrite in the future. To say "Well, I've let the pain infliction continue for years--why do something to stop it now?" does not follow. "Well, I've caused my own share of pain, so I shan't stop this."

Many alien races may not have contacted us. The airwaves are weirdly silent. Why? Perhaps, quite plausibly, because they got to a certain point of development and blew themselves to kingdom come. How did they do that? Through weapons of mass destruction. How did they get used? By flouting whatever flimsy international laws--laws that begin to acknowledge that the alien race in question consists of members of a species--they had put in place. Such as, for instance, the condition of possibility for international law on Earth, which is the law against the use of chemical weapons.

The law that begins the saying that humans are humans--in however distorted and ineffective a form--says, pretty much in the first few breaths, that chemical weapons not be used on other humans.

This is a terribly interesting law from an ecological point of view, because one ecological task is to realize that I am not strictly myself, but an unconscious actor in a gigantic, emergent being--a hyperobject--called the human "species."

Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney RIP

What a nice chap. He was Oxford Professor of Poetry while I was there for the last couple of years, and hence at Magdalen, where I was. We had this poetry society that I used to run, to which he showed up when he was there. It was heavy duty. Anonymously submitted poems, read by volunteers, mercilessly critiqued. It had the predictable effect of putting a lot of people off writing poems, which was sad!

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Theories of Consumerism

What an interesting experience. I'm revisiting material I taught an awful lot when I started out, about twenty plus years ago. It's on consumption and consumerism, for this class I'm giving to the effervescent Rice undergrads.

But now I have understanding about ecology, and I have greater understanding of philosophy. And some degree of comfort and certainty regarding that understanding.

So I'm in a position to evaluate and explore theories of consumerism a little better than I was a while back. Philosophy helps history!

For a kickoff, let's just say that I'm opposed to the narrative about the origins of consumerism that present it as a fall from a graceful state of nature. This fall is usually associated with the reflexivity of consumerism, because as we know (haha) loops and recursion are evil and bad and the whole purpose of human society is to get rid of these evil hydra-headed loops.

If like me you believe that consumerism's form is loop-like because people are loop-like (because things are loop-like, in general!) then you won't be able to cleave to this origin myth.

Also out of the window goes Veblen's emulative theory of consumption. Emulation may or may not happen but consumption is more deeply performative than emulative, because it is loop-like.

(For now, figure out why. I don't have time to explain!)

It also means that Bourdieu's theory of Kantian versus non-Kantian consumption is incorrect. All consumption is Kantian (reflexive, looped).

It also means that Appadurai's theory of commodity phases is incorrect. Commodities do not pass decisively through phases of use, obsolete use and ironic non-use, or to use the demotic, from schlock to kitsch to camp. All use has an ironic, "camp" flavor to it. This is because of the irreducible yet undecidable gap between being and appearing. Said the OOO philosopher.

Gee I should write a book about consumerism.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Get Your Print Copy of Realist Magic

...here.



Hyperobject: Homeland

Look at these beautiful holograms by Paula Dawson: She named them "Hyperobject: Homeland." They are extraordinary sponges/baskets made of thousands of people's lifelines.



If you are in NYC you should see this (click to download). Paula's Hyperobject will be there!



Interference:Coexistence
Interference:Coexistence will be an installation of holograms by outstanding artists from around the world. The holograms exhibited include classic pieces from the late 70s and early 80s that defined the art form as well as fresh visions by established and emerging artists.

Encountering holographic art makes us question perception. What we see occupies a space in an entirely different way from a physical object – the hologram is a sculpture of light. Using a range of holographic techniques these artists have created scenes of multiple and extended views, scenes we could not see directly but require the intervention of the holography.

Please join us for the opening on Friday, September 6th, 6-9pm at our exciting new location: The Clock Tower of Long Island City, 29-27 41st Avenue, Queens NY.

Interference:Coexistence • September 6 – 28, 2013
Open to the public Wednesday thru Saturday, 2-6pm (FREE)
Media Preview – Wednesday September 4, 6pm and by appointment
Opening with roving Jazz Robert Aaron and SPI Music Artists – Friday September 6, 6-9pm
Symposium on art holography – Saturday September 7, 2-6pm
Tour by Flux Factory artists – Thursday September 12, 7pm
HoloKids activities – Saturday September 14, 2-6pm
3-D slide performance with Gerald Marks • Thursday, September 19, 7-9pm
HoloJams: Experimental Music Night with Mouthmatics – Saturday September 21, 6-11pm
Closing with sound composition by Adam Ludwig – Saturday September 28, 6-11pm
and more, including tours, film screenings and workshops

www.holocenter.org/interferencecoexistence




Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Romantic Ecology Revisited (MP3)

...from the Wordsworth Conference. Nick Roe, awesome biography of Keats, MCs.


My Bloody Valentine in Denver

I talk about MBV, my favorite band, in Hyperobjects. Our trip to Denver was a chance to see them, having last seen them in 1992, good heavens. They played at the Ogden Theater.

They were, of course, incredible. Bilinda Butcher stood there, perfectly poised, with a smile, throughout the show, singing extraordinarily and playing guitar, rocking a pair of good high heels. She exuded the somewhat pro-feminist power that I associate, happily, with My Bloody Valentine and with other bands of that era such as Lush and Curve.

In the words of my friend Jeff (Suthers, big figure in the CO shoegazing scene), Kevin Shields gave the appearance of Einstein, surrounded by monitors with huge scraggly hair. In many ways this look was latent in his younger look, which made me smile.

He said all of two words (Belinda said none): "Hi" and, when an audience member yelled "Thank you!", "You too."

Debbie played extraordinary bass, rocking with Colm Ó Cíosóig, whose drum sequencing on the spectacular "Wonder 2" (from the new album, which just appeared one day recently, like a mushroom) was devastatingly good. He played guitar for that one. Pounding intensity, far more so than the album version. Drums should sometimes be a little bit demonic.

Like frogs in boiling water, we were slowly immersed in a bath of increasing volume levels.

And thus, inevitably, there was the rainbow hued void of "You Made Me Realise" with which the band closed out the night. It lasted, I believe, about ten minutes. If you have never heard it I advise you to listen to the EP, then imagine it live. I've seen people, and saw people that night, covering their ears with fright, running out, and in other states of disgust or panic. But like a Siren, the sound is very very beautiful as well as horrifying--an interesting edge for me as those of you who've been following this blog know well. You can't not hear it.

But if you want to retain your hearing, ear plugs are de rigeur. Shannon and Jeff (my friends) had them, we had them, and the band had them! Heaven help you if you had just taken them off and mislaid them before "You Made Me Realise."

And that mid section is by no means a sludgy symbol of hell in the manner of black metal or its Laruellian apologetics, though it is (at least) equally loud and intense as anything you might hear in Sunn O))). Something else is happening there, which I'm now writing about for a volume of essays on beauty. It is called "Beauty Is Death."

I shall inevitably write some more on MBV fairly soon.

Gym Teaching

Just like Plato haha I am about to teach my first class in a gymnasium. It's a good thing I regard poems as physical beings.



Masterclass!

WHAT IS A LITERATURE MASTERCLASS?

-Literature Masterclass is a community where all Literature majors (English and foreign languages) can discuss an issue, a short text, and/or questions with a visiting scholar as well as with one another.

-Masterclass is an opportunity for Literature majors to interact with scholars and critics from around the country.

-Masterclass enables literature majors to use the skills and knowledge they have gained to consider contemporary critical questions about texts from different historical periods, literary traditions, and critical approaches.

-Masterclass also offers insight into the requirements, processes and expectations of graduate and professional studies.

-Masterclass offers the advantage of working one-on-one with graduate student mentors.

-Masterclass meets three times per term for 1 hour of credit. All Literature majors are welcome!!!!


MASTERCLASS SCHEDULE - AUTUMN, 2013

September 6 @ 4: Introduction to Masterclass in the English Dept. Lounge, Herring 255

September 20 @ noon & 4: Julian Yates, University of Delaware, Location TBA

November 1: Percival Everett, Distinguished Professor, University of Southern California, Location TBA

November 14: Karen Jacobs, University of Colorado, Boulder, Location TBA


Open to Everyone*

September 13 @ 3: "How To Apply to Graduate School in English: Overview"

September 27 @ 3: "Preparing CVs, Personal Statements, and Writing Samples"

*This program is open to all literature majors and minors in the School of Humanities, including English, French, Hispanic Studies, Classics, and other languages. Participants must enroll in HURC 401 and will earn 1 credit hour when they complete the course.


For further information email Judith Roof at roof@rice.edu or Tim Morton at tbm2@rice.edu.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Craziest Field Day: Story Time and Reflection

Mechanical failure. Coloring books. Late night adventures. Kind strangers. My most recent collecting trip had all of these things. Settle in, because this is going to be a crazy blog post.

As part of my research on the endemic arthropods of Arkansas, I've been collecting with Malaise traps and leaf litter extraction from four sites in Arkansas's Ouachita Mountains. It's a beautiful area with neat biogeographical implications, and as part of the Interior Highlands of the US, it's pretty much as high as you'll get between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Usually, getting to all of my traps in one day is pretty rushed and doesn't allow me to do any intensive collecting before I need to head to my next site. On this most recent trip, I decided to split it into two days so I could check out some new areas and collect more leaf litter with the extra time I had.

One of the sites I wanted to check out was Roaring Branch Research Natural Area in Polk County. It's an area with a relict, virgin stand of mesophytic forest that looks more at home in the Appalachian Mountains, and my lab has collected some interesting insects there before. So, map in hand, I set out to find it.

I collected my first two sites without any problems. I found a stick insect just after it molted, a hummingbird nest only as large as my fist, and moist leaf litter, which bodes well for getting interesting stuff out of it.

I'm hoping for some good samples from this area.

After collecting a velvet ant near my second site, it was time to head down to Roaring Branch, about an hour south of Mena, Arkansas. The roads taking me there gradually became worse, transitioning from pavement to gravel to potholes. A sign warned: "Crooked and uneven road ahead." I reached an overlook point and stopped to take some photos. A few minutes later, another car stopped there, the only car I had seen in the past 30 minutes. A guy my age and his girlfriend got out and we chatted for a bit, as he welcomed me to Arkansas and told me "You're definitely in the wilderness now."

He was right.

About twenty minutes later, I reached the parking area for Roaring Branch and walked the trail until I cut off the beaten path to follow a spring-fed stream through a ravine into the natural area. The mountains there are shaped like an accordion, as my legs found out during the hike. The comparison to an Appalachian forest proved to be true, and I felt quite at home in the forest.


I stayed for a few hours, but didn't cover as much ground as I had hoped, which is pretty much par for the course whenever I go out collecting. It's easy to get slowed down turning over every rock and log, after all. Not limited to animals, Roaring Branch has interesting plants as well. Chief among them was a Magnolia tree I didn't recognize. I wasn't even sure it was a Magnolia until I finally saw the fruit. The leaves look like a pawpaw-banana hybrid.

Look at how big the leaves are!

I made a note to myself to return when I had more time, and then headed back to my car. I was getting hungry and pretty thirsty, and was looking forward to a relaxing evening of recording the data from the day's collections. I made it back to the car and noticed something: one of my tires looked flat.

This was not a good thing.

The closest town was 30 miles away, but there was a gas station a little closer than that. Perhaps I could make it. In reality, I didn't have any other options, so there wasn't much else I could do. The tire wasn't dangerously flat, nor had it shown any signs of damage at my previous stops for the day, so I set off--driving even more carefully than usual. Now keep in mind here that this was a university vehicle. I didn't know the history of the car, how old the tires were, anything.

I made it about five minutes, then the tire blew out. Oh balls.

I surveyed the damage: lots of holes. Very not good. "But hey, it's not the end of the world, I'll just put on the spare." I removed all my collecting gear from the trunk and opened up the compartment housing the spare tire. I looked down, and saw a distinctly tire-shaped area, but no tire. No jack either. Just jack squat.

At this point, I had many words and emotions running through my head, but very quickly I came to the conclusion that this was no time to be annoyed/frustrated/whatever: I needed to find some help. This car was not going anywhere. I grabbed my bag with the water I had left (somewhere along the  line, I lost my second water bottle that day), a few snacks, my knife, and my adventuring hat. If I had ever needed that hat, it was now. I set off down the road, hoping I wasn't too far from a campground I had passed earlier in the day. The time was 6:56 PM.

Luckily, I was only a half mile from the campground. I was also fortunate that it was a Thursday, and there were a few people at the campground. I found a couple who were nice enough to take me to Mena to find a tow truck. We first stopped at an area with cell phone service that was 20 minutes away by vehicle, where I called my advisor and let him know what had happened. We continued on to Mena and stopped at a gas station to borrow a phone book. I called four or five numbers before reaching a guy that was available to tow the car out, while my advisor phoned everyone he could think of to try to help me. He wasn't able to reach anyone, but he paid for the tow truck since I would be incurring other expenses before the trip was over. Mad props to him for being awesome in a time of duress, I owe him.

At this point, it was 10:00 PM and I was hungry, not having eaten much since noon. The couple that drove me to the gas station were nice enough to get me some food from a nearby Wendy's, but wouldn't take my money when I tried to repay them. I then tried to give them gas money for their trouble, but again they wouldn't take it. These were some seriously helpful people, I really lucked out. The husband had recently lost his job, but still he refused my money. Instead, he told me to help out another person in need when the situation arises, and I plan to. 

I still felt bad about intruding on their weekend, so I gave them my card and told them to email me if they ever need a bug identified. Never miss a good chance for outreach! 

Around 10:30 PM the tow truck arrived at the gas station, so I thanked the couple for the last time and hopped into the truck as we all set off. The tow truck driver's name was Horace, and since we had an hour of driving ahead of us, we started chatting. I explained the circumstances that led to me sitting beside him, and then we talked about bugs for a while. We had a pretty good chat, and he was an interesting guy: definitely a great driving partner after a long and stressful day.

We reached my car, lonely and sad after sitting there for hours. It didn't take very long to load the car onto Horace's truck, and then we set off for the slow drive back to Mena.

I'll get you fixed up soon, buddy.

Another hour and we were back in Mena. Horace said he would take the car to Walmart in the morning and I could get the tire replaced, which worked out well: my hotel was right next to Walmart. He dropped me off at my hotel, and I gave him my card in case he needed to call me (and to send me any bugs he wants identified, which he assured me he would).

At last, at 1 AM, I was in my hotel room and could finally relax after a very taxing day. But the adventure was not over.

I woke up the next morning and headed to Walmart. I went to the tire center and explained my ordeal to the sales associate: she was expecting me. I picked out a tire, but then it started to rain. The car couldn't be driven, so they'd have to work on it outside, but didn't want to risk the jack slipping on the wet pavement. They were going to wait until the rain subsided, which was fine with me. At this point, I was just glad to have things working out: no need to sweat the small stuff.

Unfortunately, not everyone shared my mindset. About twenty minutes later, a guy and his family walks in. He wants some tires replaced, and is super rude about it. He's cursing at the sales associate and complaining about poor service, despite the fact that he was not giving them all the information they needed about tire size and other things. This is very much asshole behavior. Think of the worst customer you can imagine: that was this guy. It takes them about 40 minutes to finish his work, complete with him complaining and cursing, and generally being an awful person. His kids seemed okay with the wait though, they were coloring in the waiting area the whole time. After they're done, he leaves and enriches everyone's lives through his absence.

I'm still waiting (and reading some remarkably good writing from the car magazines in the waiting area) when an elderly woman walks in, needing some work done on her car. She sits down in the waiting area, looks at the table with the kids' coloring books, and looks at me. She then proceeds to ask me "Oh, have you been coloring?"

I already like this woman.

I smirk and tell her "Well, I dabble" and we both chuckle. The sales associate walks in a few moments later, exasperated, and asks me "Would you like to get out of here?" and I fervently say yes. I get up to leave, but the old woman stops me to ask "Aren't you going to take your coloring books?" I almost wish I could have stayed longer to talk with her, because she was awesome.

I get my receipt and go out to my car: the new tire looks great. But I still needed the keys. The employee who was supposed to have them was not outside, so I walk back in to ask the other one where he was. Puzzled, she checks around and finds him a few minutes later and asks about the keys. The guy stares at her blankly.

Oh no.

Thankfully, he just left them in the car another employee was working on. He walks over to fetch them, but not without some harassment from his coworker, who calls him a "key-stealing turd."

And then, I could drive the car again. I didn't encounter any other car troubles for the rest of the trip,  a great relief. Before I left Mena, however, I needed some breakfast. I gathered up my things from the hotel room and ordered breakfast in the hotel restaurant. (It was delicious. If you're ever in Mena, eat at the Lime Tree Inn restaurant.) I dig in, and then notice a group of guys enter the restaurant. I look up, and who do I see, but Horace.

I give him an emphatic hello, and he laughs as he turns to his friends. "This is the dude I was telling you guys about." "Oh, the bug man?" "Yeah!"

You can't make this stuff up.

Epilogue

So, everything worked out fine. I found some helpful people and was able to fix my problem and finish the rest of my trip without incident. I definitely would have had a much harder time without those people, however. I truly couldn't thank them enough, and I owe them a lot. I was close to being out of water and would have had a long hike ahead of me without them, and I'll take the lessons I learned with me on my future collecting trips.

I'm not sure how or where I lost my extra water bottle, but I'm going to make sure I have an extra one the next time I go out into the field. I was almost out of water when my tire blew out, and that could have turned into a dangerous situation.

I'm also going to make sure I have everything I need in the vehicle before using a borrowed one. Sometimes, maintenance issues can fall through the cracks. I assume that's what happened with the spare tire: it was used at some point, and no one remembered to replace it. It's a risk to not ensure supplies like that are in a borrowed vehicle, since you don't necessarily know the history of that vehicle and what may or may not be missing.

My thoughts and emotions during the trip probably mattered the most. When my tire blew out, I was angry that a university vehicle didn't have a spare tire in it, since it's used by many people, but holding onto that anger wasn't useful. Things like that happen, and focusing on who's to blame isn't helpful, so I let it go and thought about my options at that moment. There was nothing I myself could do, so I accepted that and went to find help. My attitude influenced my mood and it influenced how much other people were willing to help me. Despite my stress levels, I was polite and did my best to remain upbeat. Laughing about the situation helped, and being positive helped me seem less like a random psycho in the woods trying to lure helpful people into a trap.

It was certainly a serious situation (moreso if I hadn't been able to find anyone to help me), but accepting what you can't change is paramount, and it helped me a lot that day. It also helped me the following day when I was getting my new tire. It was raining and that delayed when they could work on the car. So what? It wouldn't help anything to yell at the employees, and my poor attitude wouldn't have been an excuse to be a jerk to the employees trying to help me with my problem.

If you're ever in a similar situation, try to keep those things in mind. Your attitude influences how well you'll get through it, so don't dwell on the things you can't change. Focus on what you can do, and most importantly: always make sure you have a spare tire.

CEHNS@Rice

The center for energy and environmental research in the human sciences is now operational!


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Britain, Britain, Britain

We've had hot running water for over ten years, a tunnel that connects us to Peru--and we invented the cat.



Sunday, 18 August 2013

Like An Illusion

No Terry, my old tutor, we Buddhists don't think that reality is an illusion. We think it is *like an illusion. Can you spot the difference?

Elsewhere your new book is an awesome piece of diplomacy.



Wordsworthian Matters

Cumbria is as extraordinary as when I leapt up and down the hills as a child for the first fifteen years of my life. My grandparents lived there, in remoter, wilder northern Cumbria off of Bassenthwaite Lake, dark and immense.

Immediately I saw the warmth and small r republican vibe that the Romantics extolled. Haven't been there for a conference since 1990 when Jonathan Bate gave his famous "Romantic Ecology" talk. Mine was called "Romantic Ecology Revisited."

Next year I'll be back to talk to non-scholars about all this for a special event at the Dove Cottage museum, which is brilliantly organized and heartbreakingly beautiful.



Interview

I was just interviewed for the excellent Rice Magazine by the excellent Lynn Gosnell. As I'm the first in this endowed chair--thank you Mr. Guffey and sorry I didn't see you in Kensington!--they wanted to talk to me of my doings, including this mega arts and ecology grant I'm managing here with the also excellent Joseph Campana.



Elemental My Dear Watson

My trip to Scotland just now has inspired my essay for Jeffrey Cohen's new book, another in his growing stable of thoroughbred eco books. And I just wrote 2000 words of it on this plane from Edinburgh.

In other news--look I am back in a world with Internet.



Sunday, 11 August 2013

Castlerigg

It has been the most extraordinary Wordsworth Conference. Still here. Ten days. Cottage by a waterfall. Many many things to relate. Family staying within twenty feet of the conference barn, sixteenth century buildings...

This couldn't wait. It's a stone circle and I love them. Nicholas Roe (the organizer) and I thought that the stones were placed like metaphors near the mountains that ring them 360 degrees: it is a living poem of mountain talking to stone, the shapes clearly analogous. Maybe there is nothing under this appearance. Maybe the truth is at the level of appearance: this is contemplative space, for practice.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Apheloria west of the Mississippi River

If you haven't yet noticed, I'm fond of writing about millipedes. Since I moved to Arkansas, I've seen a few species that don't live in Ohio, which is exciting--it's nice to see more millipede diversity.

A wide-ranging genus in the eastern United States is Apheloria (Family Xystodesmidae). It contains species that utilize cyanide as a chemical defense and exhibit aposematism to warn predators to leave them alone (this is common in the family).

Apheloria virginiensis is the most widespread species in the genus, and has five subspecies. Two of them occur west of the Mississippi River: Apheloria v. iowa and Apheloria v. reducta. A. v. reducta is a bit more widespread, being found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. I recently came across this millipede in a leaf litter sample in Arkansas.

Apheloria virginiensis reducta

Instead of the bold black usually seen in A. virginiensis, this one sports a chestnut brown color. I wasn't quite sure of the exact species (Pleuroloma flavipes looks similar) until I looked at its gonopods, which confirmed its identity.

Gonopods of A. v. reducta

They're marvelous, aren't they? The gonopods are modified legs, these being the 7th pair. The blue-ish hue is a byproduct of the killing process--it would appear yellow-white normally, but it makes for a great photo. The gonopods transfer sperm to the female during sex.

For sexual structures, they're quite pretty.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Choosing my favorite millipede

I was asked recently what my favorite millipede is. That's not an easy question, but I was forced to pick one, so I thought about it for a bit and then figured, why not share it with everyone? I find myself doing more tweeting than blogging lately, but Twitter is terrible for long form responses.

There are about 12,000 described species of millipedes, and I've seen maybe 70 of them in life or in photos, so I'm drawing from a limited pool of millipede diversity. Even so, I know of many amazing species. Is my favorite something like the shocking pink dragon millipede, Desmotyxes purpurosea?

Desmotyxes purpurosea from Enghoff et al 2007. Read the paper, it's really neat!

Or maybe my favorite is another tropical millipede. After all, Psammodesmus bryophorus, a millipede I've blogged about before, has mosses that grow on its back!

Photo from Martínez-Torres SD et al 2011.

You won't be disappointed if you browse photos of millipedes from the tropics. There are many forms that are beautiful and seem almost alien, but I'm still biased towards the temperate forms I'm used to. Even among these North American millipedes, I'm not left with boring species. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

California has some of the world's most amazing millipedes. There's this millipede genus, Motyxia, that occurs in only a few counties there. Apparently all the species in the genus weren't content with the fireflies in the western US, which usually don't bioluminesce as adults like they do in the eastern US (there are different species out west). So, they took it upon themselves to pick up the slack, with marvelous results.

The eight species of Motyxia all bioluminesce.

Motyxia sequoiae (a) under normal light (b) bioluminescing, from Marek et al 2011. Read more about this genus here.

Out of all 12,000 known species of millipede, only these ones bioluminesce. Isn't that amazing? Certainly bioluminescence makes for a strong contender for "favorite millipede." But still, it's not quite my favorite. To be fair, my own bias is sneaking in now. I've never had any interactions with Motyxia, so they're still esoteric to me. To find my favorite millipede, I need to go closer to home.

It just so happens that home for me is Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia. The Appalachian Mountains host an amazing array of diverse millipedes, including many in the family Xystodesmidae. This family features some of the continent's most colorful millipedes, which have a habitat of exhibiting aposematism: their bright and bold colors act as a warning to predators that they have chemical defenses.

Brachoria dentata, a Xystodesmid millipede that displays aposematism. Photo taken by Paul Marek.

Xystodesmid millipedes have mastered Müllerian mimicry. Their color patterns successfully deter predators and confuse taxonomists. Browse around Paul Marek's Tree of Life page on the genus Brachoria and BugGuide's photos of the family and you'll quickly see why: there's a lot of variation in color forms within genera and even within species. They all build on the theme of  black with bright, bold spots of color, resulting in some of our prettiest millipedes. I'm partial to the black and blue species, personally.

After writing around which species is my favorite, I should finally nail it down. As I said, it's not easy. There are so many neat species, and my favorite comes down to one that I found soon after I began studying millipedes. Influenced by my personal history, here is my favorite millipede:

Semionellus placidus, a millipede without a common name. Yeah, that's poop on its back.

Semionellus placidus is a millipede in the family Xystodesmidae. It's classified in the tribe Chonaphini, which has most of its species in the Pacific Northwest of North America, but this one makes it out east. It's sporadic in its occurrence, and I've only found it at one site near my hometown in Ohio, though it's been reported from a few other Ohio counties.

Curled up in defensive position

What's so special about this millipede? It's not nearly as bright and colorful as other Xystodesmids; instead it sports a comparably drab brown and peach-banded color scheme. But it's the memories I have surrounding this millipede that makes it so special.

The first time I came upon this species was during a night hike. I wanted to see what bugs I could find at night, and I had a couple of good friends volunteer to come along with me as I searched. We found some neat insects--including moths and a dragonfly hanging from a tree--but the best find of the night came when I turned on the UV flashlight I had brought along. I shined the light over the leaf litter, and to my surprise, I found many small millipedes moving amongst the leaves like tiny trains, shining an ethereal blue-green under the UV light.

Semionellus placidus under UV light

I had heard about millipedes that fluoresce under UV light before, but this was the first time I had seen one for myself. (Note that UV fluorescence is different from bioluminescence. Fluorescent millipedes don't produce their own light, they just fluoresce under the UV light source, but stop when that source is taken away. The bioluminescent Motyxia millipedes, on the other hand, produce their own light.)

Semionellus placidus (left) under natural light (right) under UV light. Photo by Dave McShaffrey and featured in UV fluorescing millipedes from southeastern Ohio

It was exciting to witness, almost like I was watching something secret. The millipedes don't stand out in the dark at all; I didn't see them until I turned on the UV light. I was intrigued, so of course I collected some to take back to the lab. That was the first time I was really exposed to identifying millipedes on my own. This was during fall of 2011, and a few months before I had attended a millipede identification workshop taught by Bill Shear, where I learned the basics of millipede identification and obtained some print references I needed to identify millipedes. 

I did the best I could and narrowed it down to the order Polydesmida and family Xystodesmidae, a big accomplishment for me at the time. I didn't have a key to Xystodesmid genera, so I turned to BugGuide, where I uploaded a few photos. Rowland Shelley pointed me to Semionellus placidus, and I was able to confirm the ID by looking at a male's gonopods and comparing it to old literature records that had pictures of the gonopods. 


It was beyond fulfilling to identify this millipede at last. I learned a lot about millipede identification from the experience: the importance of collecting a few individuals (and hoping to catch a male), which features are useful for identification, the necessity of going to the experts, and the legwork it takes to track down scientific literature on millipedes, much of which is old and the only source to find information on some species. It took many hours, but was well worth it. Being able to identify your local species, whether they're flowers, birds, insects, or millipedes, is a powerful feeling.

I realized pretty quickly that there isn't much information on millipedes that is accessible to the general public. Millipedes are difficult to identify, they're not immediately showy and beautiful like butterflies, and there aren't many scientists researching them, which puts up more barriers for someone with an interest in millipedes. Essentially, unless you're someone who already studies Entomology, you're not going to have an easy time learning about millipedes, and that's a shame.

Due to this, I've taken it upon myself to do what I can to make millipedes more accessible to the general public and altogether more compelling for people to pay attention to. Most of my millipede projects have grown out of finding Semionellus placidus and working with the species.

"What's your favorite millipede?" As I thought about the question, it became clear that bioluminescence and bright colors are cool, but there's no way they can surpass the learning experiences I gained from finding an inch-long millipede in the woods.

References:
Enghoff, H., Sutcharit, C. & Panha, S. 2007. The shocking pink dragon millipede, Desmoxytes purpurosea, a colourful new species from Thailand (Diplopoda: Polydesmida: Paradoxosomatidae). Zootaxa 1563: 31-36.
Marek P.E., Papaj D.R., Yeager J., Molina S. & Moore W. 2011. Bioluminescent aposematism in millipedes. Current Biology 21: R680–R681.
Martínez-Torres SD, Flórez Daza ÁE, Linares-Castillo EL. 2011. Meeting between kingdoms: discovery of a close association between Diplopoda and Bryophyta in a transitional Andean-Pacifc forest in Colombia. In: Mesibov R, Short M (Eds) Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Myriapodology, 18–22 July 2011, Brisbane, Australia. International Journal of Myriapodology 6: 29–36. doi: 10.3897/ijm.6.2187

Do Be Polite

@Twitter needs to shape up. Wherever you go, there you are. Netiquette was in the past. Speech as the Buddhist call it, or style as the phenomenologists call it, just manifests, no matter whether you're using your lips or a keyboard.

"Moron" and "sycophantic turd" aren't quite the same as rape threats, he understated. But they did hurt  and I'm sure they wouldn't have been said behind the road rage glass envelope that encourages the latent psychopathy or narcissistic aggression, or switches off the mirror neurons, or whatever. So hopefully thanks to the UK Twitter gets a more direct "report abuse" button.

An Essay on Energy

I just finished an essay for Imre Szeman and Patricia Yaeger for a book of keywords on ecology and energy. My essay is called “Ecology.” It's about 1500 words long.

It's amazing what you can pack into that space if you just get the timing right.