Friday, November 16, 2012

Post Sexing Aphids and Fuzz Pluckers

I mentioned in a previous post that my middle son, D, is a mutant. It was a reference to his pancreas and, unfortunately for continuity, I'm not going to explain that here. I may mention that the reason that the comment stuck is because D is an extrovert in a family of introverts. We sort of drove him nuts and he definitely returned the favor. Once he grew up enough to be able to be around normal people as much as he needed things settled down a lot.

But this isn't about that either. This is about a couple of temp jobs that he worked. I find odd jobs interesting, so they're something I remember (see steel sieve).

For instance, I once met a grad student who had spent one summer sexing aphids. Someone else had collected them, he only had to sex them. Don't ask me how to tell a girl aphid from a boy one. He didn't explain that.

The reason for sexing aphids is that when food is plentiful and times are good, aphids reproduce by parthenogenesis, creating daughter clones who have daughter clones who have daughter clones. It's only when things are tight and competition is painful that aphids start mating with and producing males. Or is it the other way around?

Whichever way round that is, the ratio of female to male aphids is one measure of how stressful the environment is to aphids. I suspect that if you're doing research at an ag college, you'd prefer that the thing you're studying leaves the aphids stressed.

I met another grad student who was paid for a few months to simulate sheep grazing with a weed whacker. What does that have to do with coyotes, you ask? Nothing directly. The coyotes are an illustration of the secondary environmental effects of islanding. Let me tell you about the coyotes.

The coyotes lived where the greater sprawl of Los Angeles is now. Other things lived there, too, in an interconnected web. Larger things were driven off long ago. At least long ago in the memory of current LA residents. The coyotes slink around in the cracks of LA and have also been pushed out to the surrounding deserts.

Once LA was pretty much built out, development started pushing out into the nearby deserts. The developments would take over the central, flat areas, leaving steeper valleys undeveloped. People would point at the untouched (relatively) valleys and say "see - we've preserved the ecosystem." Unfortunately, those valleys, which used to be connected to a central ecosystem that critters could enter and leave and travel along, were now cut off into small disconnected islands.

Those who had been tasked with preserving ecosystems now had to make decisions knowing that islanding affected ecosystems, but not knowing exactly how. Therefore research started on the effects of islanding. One effect discovered early on was that desert valleys that were too small couldn't support coyotes. And when the coyotes were gone, suddenly most of the native birds were gone as well.

Why would a lack of coyotes kill off birds? They certainly aren't doing anything that helps birds directly. The theory is that coyotes keep down the population of smaller predators. When the coyotes aren't there to keep them in check, these small predators thrive and their growing numbers wipe out the birds. If you want your desert ecosystem islands to include native birds, you have to make them big enough to support coyotes.

UC Davis is located in the north of California's central valley. Different location, different ecosystem, same problem. Davis was originally a ag college. It's expanded its curriculum over the decades, but it's still skewed toward applied biology type subject areas. The student with the weed whacker was working for an ecology prof who was studying the effect of islanding on small scale riparian and near riparian ecologies.

The Eco prof was piggybacking the regular ag research by fencing in small areas in the sheep pastures. The enclosed areas reverted to natural habitat while the sheep kept the unenclosed area grazed flat, turning the enclosures into islands. How small could the islands get, and how far apart could they get before there was no interaction between them? Was there a way to manage separated ecosystems so that they were still a part of a larger ecosystem and at what point would they become completely islanded?

The experiment required continuous sheep grazing and agriculture studies involving sheep tend to be discontinuous. So when one herd had gone to the Cole Facility for grading and the next herd hadn't been installed in the pasture yet, a grad student would be paid to whack down the vegetation growing around the islands. (I assume that it would have been cheaper to have someone from facilities mow the large open areas.) The grad student I met had done a stint one summer. She found it a relaxing break from studying.

But enough about me and my very small collection of odd jobs. This is about D and his temp jobs. He was a teenager when he introduced himself to Kelly Temporaries. For some reason they didn't seem to think that he'd be a good fit for typical office type jobs. It wasn't that he couldn't type. He'd been keyboarding since elementary school. Maybe he'd requested less sedentary work if possible.

However it happened, he seemed to get jobs that were outliers. His first odd one was wearing a Tony the Tiger costume to UCD freshman orientation. He and a clutch of hot girls smiled and waved. The girls handed out Red Bull samples. That was back when it was a new product. It's possible that they gave out coupons for Kellogg cereal, too. The view out of the costume was kind of restricted. He could see the cans. And the girls. The tiger costume covered his hands so that he couldn't hold anything, so he wasn't expected to hand anything out.

If you've wondered what it's like wearing one of those costumes, D reported that 1) it was very hot and sweaty inside, 2) it was very stinky inside (the result of it being hot and sweaty for previous wearers, and 3) girls don't mind skooching up close if it's part of the character goofing around. But even though he was a teenage boy, 3 didn't outweigh 1 & 2. When they offered him another day as a different character in another location he declined it. He didn't want them to think of him as their costume guy.

(I considered asking how it felt to be GRRRRREAT for a day, but the reply he'd have made was too obvious.)

His other odd job was doubly odd for the name that they gave to it. He spent a day as a fuzz plucker. As an official Yolo County fuzz plucker. It was an election day job. Confused? Let me explain.

Back in the days when Departments of Elections were trying to mechanize vote counting, the first change was to make ballots that were punched. The punched ballots would be tallied by machine. So far, so good?

People were used to getting a tear-off from the old manually counted ballots, so each punch card had a tear-off top. Unfortunately, the perforated tops didn't always tear off cleanly. Sometimes there was fuzz along the perforation after the top was torn away. If the fuzz got into the counting machine it could jam it up, slowing the vote count and causing them to pay a repairman to clean out the machine and get it going again.

It was cheaper to hire someone to riffle through the ballots as they came in and hand pluck any fuzz off of the tops before they were batched and fed into the counter. It was a half day job because it's not possible to pluck fuzz from ballots that haven't been collected and sent to the central counting area, yet. Then it turned out to be less than a half day job because it was an off year and the turnout was low. After an hour they decided that they didn't need a dedicated fuzz plucker. The normal crew could perform any plucking that would be called for in between waiting to do their other duties.

So he got to go home early and still got the guaranteed minimum half day. And his brothers and I got to call him a fuzz plucker off and on for the next week. He took it in good humor. If he hadn't thought it was funny, he wouldn't have told us the name. Heh. You're a fuzz plucker, D.

No comments:

Post a Comment