Wednesday, March 19, 2014

You've Never Seen Insects This Way Before

As female worker ants age, they're reassigned from caring for larvae and the queen to foraging for food outside the colony, which may explain why this stooped old girl looks so defeated. © David M. Phillips
by Tom Haushalter

And you'll never un-see insects this way again. (Disclaimer: UPNE assumes no responsibility for the content of your nightmares.)

But if you're not the sort of person for whom turning a mason jar to look at a praying mantis is plenty—not like some of us who, when we were little and believed that all like creatures simply got along, thought nothing of putting a male and female in the same jar, only to find it a few hours later containing just the female and a pair of disembodied, discarded wings...

If some of the hard truths of the natural world haven't scarred you for life—breathe—keep reading.

Because, seriously, bugs are cool. What we cannot know about Phylum Arthropoda from the naked eye is the extraordinary complexity and intricate construction of these tiny animals. And when you inspect them using an electron microscope, you see indeed how highly evolved insects are.

Most of us don't have an electron microscope. Fortunately, David M. Phillips does, and his microscopy photographs of insects—some 150 of them—have been collected into a single, beautiful volume, releasing in April from ForeEdge, titled Art and Architecture of Insects.

Phillips homes in on a fascinating array of insects, and his images, in crisp detail, reveal their minute anatomy to be even stranger and more awesome than you ever imagined. The photos may not change the way you feel about little creepy-crawly things, but even the most severe entomophobe has to admit: They're kind of beautiful.

Here's a sampling of some of the beauties you'll see up close in Phillips' book:

The veins in this book louse's wings resemble leaf veins, but should not be mistaken for the things you willingly place between two pages to preserve. © David M. Phillips

This beetle grub larva's legs aren't all there yet, so it moves telescopically, sliding its segments inward and outward. It doesn't get far. © David M. Phillips

A thrip, commonly known as a thunderfly, likes to come by the thousands during foul weather and feed on crops, so it's okay to hate this one if you're in commercial agriculture. © David M. Phillips

In this stare-down with a housefly, you can't be sure which of the hundreds of ways it is presently sizing you up. © David M. Phillips

A head louse clinging to strands of human hair, presented here with apologies. © David M. Phillips
Don't let the whiskered antennae and tentacley mouthparts of this male mosquito frighten you. Males don't bite. © David M. Phillips

Why, yes, you can pre-order Art and Architecture of Insects! Look for it on shelves April 8th.

Monday, March 17, 2014

If the Rest of the World Were Like Ireland

The Chicago River runs green once a year. (Image source: Bert Kaufmann, via Wikicommons)
by Tom Haushalter

Every year, right about this time, in America and at least the rest of the English-speaking world, everything begins to turn green.

(By that I wish I mean the grass and the trees in New England. But that's impossible.)

Today is, of course, St. Patrick's Day, the placeholder celebration of all things Irish. In cities like Boston or New York or Chicago, the parade is a one-day-only acceptable excuse to skip work, head to the streets, and join the throngs in bibulous dance and song. The rest of us come to the office in something green, lest we be pinched. And it could be anything from a pinned-on shamrock to a glittering emerald waistcoat. Wherever we find ourselves on St. Patrick's Day, no matter how gaudy or giddy we may be, on this one day we are all Irish.

Which is an idea that, more than a century ago, might have ignited a bar fight.

Even at the turn of the twentieth century, Irish-Catholic immigrants were still a marginalized ethnic group in the United States. Prejudice was born in part from America's trenchant Protestantism in the mid-1800s, which is when Irish families, fleeing the potato famine that was decimating their homeland, began an unprecedented migration to this country—nearly 2 million between 1840 and 1860. Many in that wave were forced to take low-wage factory jobs and to live in poor conditions, which added another dimension to their stigmatization.

Despite anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiments still simmering in 1900, Irish-American culture had firmly established itself, especially in the eastern U.S. And in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, as the era of dance halls and ballrooms heated up, the traditional stylings of Irish music and dance became all the rage.

If not for Susan Gedutis' book, See You at the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance, published by Northeastern University Press in 2004, the stories and characters of this vibrant period would be harder to find—and certainly harder to commemorate. Gedutis spoke to dozens of the musicians of that era, which had its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, accounting for a social scene that crossed ethnic and religious boundaries, where what really mattered was the music and dance...and the infectious spirit of life that attends it. Gedutis writes:
Arm in arm, the dancers would toe-step their way across the hall to a highland fling tune, one of the more popular of which was "Johnny, Will You Marry Me." Unself-conscious fun was the order of the day, and no one thought anything of the silly antics associated with [dancing] to the songs.
For all our love of Van Morrison, the Pogues, and the Dropkick Murphys, our modern-day embrace of Irish heritage owes a great deal to the music-makers of the dance hall era. Names like Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band, O'Leary's Irish Minstrels, the Emerald Isle Orchestra, and Johnny Powell and His Band were household then. And their songs always as festive as they were, often, wistful of their ancestral home, like Johnny Powell's "If the Rest of the World Were Like Ireland," the chorus of which Gedutis reprints in her book—and shall be internet-unsearchable no longer:
If the rest of the world were like Ireland,
What a wonderful world it would be.
For a friend is a friend in my Ireland,
Surely that's how God meant it to be.
You've a song in your heart if you're Irish,
And a smile ev'ry one likes to see.
If the rest of the world were like Ireland,
What a wonderful world 'twould be.
Copyright 1951 by William Carlton Bates for O'Byrne DeWitt's Sons

Also fortunately for us in the cyber age, the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) has done us the huge service of digitizing several live recordings from the 1920s-40s, available to stream in this excellent playlist. Go cue that up.

And this St. Patrick's Day, though sounds of fiddle and flute over loudspeaker compete with singsong-y limericks in whatever pub you find yourself, toast the dance halls that have all gone, then drink to the thriving, indomitable spirit of the Irish.


Black Powder, White Lace: The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century America
by Margaret M. Mulrooney

Irish Titan, Irish Toilers: Joseph Banigan and Nineteenth-Century New England Labor
by Scott Molloy

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What 'Captain Phillips' tells us about pirates—then and now

The following has been re-posted from

by Greg Flemming
As the Somali pirates drew close to the Maersk Alabama in the film Captain Phillips—nominated for Oscars in six categories last Sunday night—the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), radios the UK Maritime Operations Center for help. On the other end of the line, the dispatcher tells Phillips to ready his fire hoses as a defensive measure, but not to be overly alarmed since the approaching boats are most likely fishermen. Even then, Captain Phillips knew that was wrong. “They’re not here to fish,” he replies.

The capture of the Maersk Alabama is hauntingly similar to another pirate capture nearly 300 years ago, but the events depicted in the Captain Phillips movie (and book) also reveal stark differences between piracy then and now. Back in the summer of 1722, a small crew of six young New England fishermen anchored for the evening in a remote Nova Scotia harbor. Just before sunset, four men from another vessel anchored nearby rowed over in a boat and climbed aboard. At first, the fishermen thought the four men had come over to trade stories -- but in an instant they saw how wrong they were. The four men were pirates, members of one of the worst crews to sail the Atlantic, and they immediately attacked with pistols and guns. These men, too, were not here to fish.

These two pirate attacks—both true stories—also reveal the way piracy has changed over time. The Somali pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama were primarily looking for money—lots of it. Some pirates in the region who successfully took a ship hostage won millions of dollars in ransom money. In contrast, money was not the only motivation for pirate crews that attacked ships during the age of sail centuries ago. To be sure, a haul of gold or silver aboard was always cause for celebration. But pirates during this era were motivated as much by the lifestyle that piracy offered, a welcome change from the harsh conditions and cruel discipline they faced working on trading vessels or naval warships. Most of the ships pirates captured were not packed with gold, but were loaded with routine trading goods -- lumber, grain, sugar, and molasses. The pirates typically stripped these vessels of food, drinking water, sails, weapons, and equipment, which helped sustain their extended voyages across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

How did victims of pirate attacks defend themselves? In Captain Phillips, the crew—remarkably—was unarmed. There were no guns aboard, and the Maersk Alabama could only try to avoid the attack by spraying its powerful fire hoses and zigzagging through the water. During the golden age of piracy 300 years ago, most vessels did have weapons aboard to defend themselvesbut many crews chose not to fight because pirates so brutally tortured those who resisted their attacks. As I note in my new book, At the Point of a Cutlass, some pirate crews flew not only a black pirate flag, but a sequence of black and red flags. The black flag was flown during an approach as a warning to surrender, but when the black flag was pulled down and the “bloody” red flag was raised in its place, it meant the chance to surrender and for captured sailor to be given safe quarter had passed—all would be killed.

When the infamous pirate Blackbeard approached a merchant vessel in 1718, the sea captain from Boston asked his crew if they would defend their ship. The men said that if the attackers were Spanish they would fight back—but if they were pirates they would not. A few men rowed over to the approaching ships and came back with word that they were pirates—all under the command of Blackbeard. The crew quickly abandoned ship—“all declared they would not fight and quitted the ship, believing they would be murdered by the sloop’s company, and so all went on shore.” Surrender seemed to be the safest option.

Flemming's book, At the Point of Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, the true story of America's real-life Robinson Crusoe, releases from ForeEdge in June 2014.