Monday, July 1, 2013

Eavesdropping on a Silent Symphony

This morning I heard things that no one else on earth has ever heard. Would you like a listen?

Micah Fletcher at Hinkson Creek in Columbia, Missouri
Credit: Rex Cocroft
I woke up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning, grabbed a bite to eat and headed over to the greenhouse to get my equipment. I was on a mission to record some music. But this is no ordinary music.

As the morning rolled on, the wind was picking up. Time was of the essence; I needed to get to that grass before the late morning breeze ruined all hopes of success.
Vibration recording setup 
with phono cartridge on a tripod (left),
 DI box and headphones (center),
 and recorder (right) 
Credit: Micah Fletcher

Finally, I waded through some brush, scrambled down the creek bank and came upon a lush patch of tall green grass on the edge of Hinkson Creek. I opened my pack and started to assemble my mobile studio. It’s a modest, homemade setup: a phono cartridge like what you’d find on a vinyl record player, a DI box that you might use to help record an electric guitar, and a simple recording device similar to the classic tape recorder except with a memory card instead of a cassette.

Careful not to disturb the rest of the vegetation or step too heavily on the surrounding rocky soil, I put my headphones on, gently (oh, so gently) placed the needle of the phono cartridge against a blade of grass, turned up the volume and listened.

You see, I was listening in on a silent symphony. Hundreds of insects call this patch of grass home, and most of them have something to say. Yet unlike songbirds, they don't produce signals that the human ear can detect. 

Instead, they rely on vibrational communication. They tap, drum, and shake the stems or leaves they are on to signal to other insects. As I showcased in a previous post, “We’re Jammin,’” this often-overlooked and little-overheard method of communication can be even more complex than the more well known auditory calls of other insects.

Like any good science, my eavesdropping had a purpose, a goal. I was searching for a specific insect species. 
Leafhoppers on maize.
Perhaps  my evasive signaler
looks something like these guys.

Months earlier, my lab had recorded this individual without identifying the species, but we ended up using the recording in a research paper so we want to back track and find the bug again so we can be as specific as possible.

No, this is not some alien transmission spelling the dimise of the human race. Nor are you having a flashback to the days of dialup internet.  This is an insect singing "We've come too far to give up who we are, so let's raise the bar and our cups to the stars," on a blade of grass.

Yet like any good science, things didn't go exactly as I'd planned; I opened doors to more questions than I answered. I never found the mystery insect, but between the cacophonous rubbing and bumping of grass blades in the breeze, I heard an ant scuttling within millimeters of my phono cartridge needle, I heard this signal from some unknown bug, and this mysterious droning signal. You and I are some of the first people to hear these particular insects.
Phono cartidge attached to
a blade of grass
Credit: Micah Fletcher

Aside from the ant (who in technical terminology was just making "noise"and not "signaling"), I did not see any of the creatures that were producing these diverse vibrations. They are so small and the grass is so intertwined that it is extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell who is talking unless somebody moves. 

Keep in mind that I can't reach into the grass and clear away blades to get a closer look; that would only cause a deafening crash of leaves that would silence my frightened anonymous signalers.

Part of what makes us human is our unending curiosity about the unknown. Throughout our history we've been fascinated by the stars, other humans and big charismatic animals around us. But take that curiosity one step further, look down at where you're stepping and you'll witness plants talking to other plantsplants recruiting help from insectsinsects manipulating plants into building homes, and insects using plants to transmit vibrations to other insects. THAT'S what's really mind blowing.

So if you have some headphones, or some decent speakers and quiet room, take a moment to close your eyes. Imagine you're just a few millimeters tall, clinging to a blade of grass along the edge of Hinkson Creek. If your sense of touch was finely tuned, you'd hear this: a secret silent symphony in the alien world that lies right under our noses.

A spectrogram of the final linked recording. Can you pick out the different signals as you listen?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Missouri Historian?

I am not a historian. I don't aspire to be one. I never really wanted to be a historian.

But I am Missouri Historian, Micah Fletcher.

As a freshman in college, I took History of Missouri. I didn't really like the class very much. The professor was... interesting. A comic book and Star Trek loving two-eyed, muggle mad eye moody, he was really enthusiastic but a little dry. At the same time, I respect him a lot. He wanted to encourage us to understand that history isn't confined to textbooks and household names.

History is always there whether you care or not. It's like silk; if you have only a few threads the construction is as weak and ephemeral as human memory. But if you reinforce it with more threads, thoughts, papers, blog posts, history becomes an incredibly resilient, beautiful web. You can survive ignoring that web, disregard the past and forget the spider that lies on it, but you'll undoubtedly get a mouthful of silk (and perhaps a homeless spider) if you don't watch where you're walking.

Anyway, one of our assignments was to write a "Hometown Dossier," a historical summary of our hometown. Since I've lived in Columbia MO, the home of the University of Missouri and many of his  students were born and raised in Columbia, I wanted to give him something a little different.

There's always a place in our hometown that is distinctly yours. It's not your house or your street, your subdivision or your township. It's where daily life takes you; down that road, up this one, to this school, through that park. It's the names that you hear most, the streets and people and buildings. That is where you live. That is your corner of the universe.

I wanted to showcase my corner, as an example of the magic that you can discover when you take a moment sit down a while and really study a single spider web. Only after you understand (or understand that you won't understand) that one web, will you understand the scope and beauty of all the webs, all the stories, beginnings, ends as a whole.

Ok, before I slip even deeper into a philosophical rant, I'll finish my story.

I took my time, really delved into the history of southern Columbia. I spent hours searching the web looking for clues, tidbits, threads that I could hang on to. When I was done I felt a dorky sort of pride and decided to post my work as a note on Facebook.

It got a few likes, it got even fewer (full) reads I'm sure, and it got a different sort of attention as well.  One day I was visiting home and my mother told me that a professor she new at a nearby liberal arts college had recognized my name in some assignments in her class. Apparently, two of her students had cited my paper, calling me Missouri Historian, Micah Fletcher. I do not know these people, I do not know how they know me. How that managed to find my Facebook note escapes me. Even after announcing my new official title and explaining the situation in a Facebook status, no one came forward to claim responsibility.

But that title, Missouri Historian, was awesome. It has nothing to do with who I am, what I've done or want to do with my life. It's just something, some undergrad tacked on to my name to make me seem more legit.

Here's the paper that started it all. If you want to learn more about spider webs, here is an educational video that you might find enlightening.

The History of My Corner of the Universe

This is a paper I wrote for a history class at Mizzou. For a more complete explanation, check out "Missouri Historian?"
Across the Mizzou student body, there is a general misperception about Columbia and its history.  Non-native students often have tunnel vision when it comes to their community, believing it all starts and ends with the University of Missouri.  In reality, any historical survey of the Columbia area would be amiss without emphasizing the role of the neighboring, supporting communities and more distant Boone County towns in the development of Columbia and even the University. Here I seek to showcase the history of the southern Columbia area in order to demonstrate the importance of such rural and suburban communities on the growth of Columbia in its first century and to illustrate that every neighborhood has a rich history, every street sign a story under the fa├žade of modern suburbia.

At the beginning of the 19th century the new territory of Missouri saw an influx of immigration and by 1816, new white settlements dotted much of the Missouri River lowlands running through the middle of the state. It was noted by the early 19th century traveler, Edwin James, that “Almost every settler, who has established himself on the Missouri, is confidently expecting that his farm is, in a few years, to become the seat of wealth and business, and the mart for an extensive district [1].” In the incredibly large Howard County, population growth and the inevitability of the formation of smaller, more manageable counties led the communities in present day Boone County to compete for the title of the new county seat. Thus in 1819, a group of “observant and enterprising citizens” from Kentucky created a new town in the center of what is now Boone County [2]. They called themselves “The Smithton Company” in honor of Col. Thomas A. Smith from whom they had received a land grant at Franklin, Missouri and named their new community Smithton. Only a few months after the town was established, lack of water forced residents to move across Flat Branch Creek and they redubbed their community Columbia after the county seat of Adair County, Kentucky, where many of them originated.

In 1820, Boone County was created with the new town of Columbia as its county seat.  Columbia grew quickly, with several grocery stores, dry goods stores, taverns and a jail by 1822. In that same year, the Boone’s Lick road was rerouted through town, which connected stagecoach traffic to Rocheport, Franklin, and the Santa Fe Trail. This traffic allowed Columbia to become a bustling headquarters for business and legal affairs conducted in Boone County [3].

Yet in these early days, the area to the south was the source of nearly all of Columbia’s riches.  Ira Nash, while surveying for the Spanish government in 1804, procured a spot on the Missouri river (the present site of Cooper’s Landing), where he created a river port he called Nashville in 1820. A flood destroyed this prosperous young town in 1844 along with its founder, yet many of its inhabitants persisted. They moved upriver to higher ground and founded Providence, the namesake of Columbia’s main north-south road, in thanks for God’s salvation from the flood.  By 1849, goods were being exchanged between Columbia and St. Louis or Kansas via steamboat on a daily basis and Providence was booming, boasting a 16-room hotel and the largest slaughterhouse in the state outside St. Louis and Cape Girardeau [4].

A rather unfortunate and short-lived American fad of the mid 19th century was the construction of plank roads.  Probably the first and certainly the longest of these transient wonders in Missouri was the Boone County Plank Road, which in 1856 ran from South Fifth Street in Columbia, across Hinkson Creek and some 10 miles south into Providence.  Made of supposedly durable, easily repairable white oak planks, the road was meant to cover the old boggy path, making the long journey from Providence to Columbia more manageable [5].  Many of the leading businessmen in Columbia bought stock in the road’s construction and maintenance company and the project got significant funding from the Boone County Court.

With the new road allowing even more efficient commerce and travel, Providence was at its peak with 3,000 residents, nearly 20% of Boone County’s entire population[6].  But from the very start the plank road was plagued with troubles.  A toll helped fund the upkeep required to replace deteriorating boards, but a 1855 law exempted military troops and travelers going to religious services, hurting the road’s revenue severely.  Maintenance became too costly and the road became warped and treacherous.  The final blow to both the road and the river town came when Columbia decided to invest in the North Missouri Railroad which would run through Centralia and feed the county seat’s commercial interests from the north.  By 1880 the old plank road was gone and Providence’s prominence was fading to nothing.

In 1833, about six miles south of Columbia, David S. Lamme, John W. Keiser & Co. established a steam-flouring mill that came to be known as “Rockbridge Mills [2].” Before long, the streams in the area attracted more industry, including the construction of a whiskey distillery and the first paper mill west of the Mississippi.  In 1850, the distillery was the second largest in the state, producing 5,000 barrels of whiskey that year, about 17% of Missouri’s whiskey output at the time [8]. Over the course of the next few decades this area, known as Pierpont, became an increasingly important commercial center for Boone County, supporting several homesteads and attracting visits from Columbians who sought the naturally air-conditioned caves that littered the region. Picnics, Fourth of July celebrations, political speeches at Pierpont were not uncommon pastimes for locals from all over the county.

Although the original Pierpont community is long gone, in 1967, 1300 acres of land encompassing the historical site were incorporated into the Missouri State Park system [7]. The remnants of homesteads and other buildings are strewn across the network of trails that see about 250,000 visits from local residents and international sightseers per year [8].

As one of the first Virginians to take up residence in what was to be Boone County, John Hickam settled to the southwest of Columbia in 1817.  His family built several homes in the Rock Bridge area and to the north and west.  In 1848, one of John’s grandsons constructed a seven-room, two-story house, where the plank road would be built a few years later. For years, the Hickams were a moderately wealthy, prominent (and large; boasting more than 40 grave stones in a local cemetery at present [9]) family that has remained in the area to this day.  Just across the plank road from the Hickam house, Bethel Church, to whom John’s grandson’s family (and many Hickams after) were members, was erected in 1857[2].

Eighty-nine years later, the picturesque “rolling hills and meadows[10]” of the area attracted a man named Philip Norvell.  A graduate of Harvard divinity school from Kansas City, he bought seventy acres of land from Luke Hickam, intending to take up a quite life as a farmer and stock raiser. Originally bunking in a 10’ x 10’ structure he’d built for a chicken coop, he built a house, acquired a milk cow,  and several sheep, hogs, and angus cattle.  Later he rented 120 acres to the south and raised wheat and corn with horse drawn equipment. Bethel Church was closed and without a pastor at the time, so Phil, who lived a short walk from the church, served as interim minister for a while. Within a few years, he realized a passion for building houses. He spent the rest of his life building and maintaining a small community on the land he purchased from Hickam [11].

In 1985, Norvell helped my parents buy one of the houses in his neighborhood and our family has remained there ever since. Across the street (West Hickam Drive) from my house is Norvell Park, where I spent a great deal of my childhood summer, swimming, playing soccer and throwing a Frisbee. The only way to get out of my neighborhood is to travel on Old Plank Road, which runs past Bethel Church and the old Hickam House on its way across Providence road to Rock Bridge Elementary School and down into the valley of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

The great depth and breadth of history behind the place names and landmarks of just this small area of Columbia is amazing. Even more astounding still, is the great multitude of stories and meanings behind so many of Columbia’s and Boone County’s communities and for that matter the rest of the overlooked townships and villages throughout the United States.
Yet recently, the unyielding growth of the University and Columbia in general has driven the construction of student housing at alarming rates.  Within 5 years of each other, three such dense housing projects were crammed in along Old Plank Road, one of which comes within a few yards of the Hickam House and all of which are built on what was once the Hickam homestead. A new road now crosses much of Norvell’s old land and remainder of his property was sold after his death to developers.

As the city limits expand and the economy of Columbia grows ever larger, surrounding communities, like Providence and Pierpont falter.  Closer villages and townships are swallowed up. The south part of town surrounding the Norvell Park neighborhood has no more “rolling hills and meadows.”  Almost all that remains of the local history are street names.

Yes, the University of Missouri is one of the most important economic, cultural and historical aspects of Columbia.  But before there was a university, there were supporting communities with economies and stories of their own.  In fact, George Hickam, along with hundreds of others in the communities surrounding Columbia, a descendent of John Hickam, donated money to Boone County when mid-Missouri counties were competing for a grant to host the first university west of the Mississippi [2].  So no, the story of Columbia neither starts with an M-I-Z nor ends with a Z-O-U.  It starts and ends with real people trying to build families, communities, lives worth living.

[1]: Twaites, Reuben Gold. Early Western Travels. Cleveland: 1904.
[2]: Switlzler, William F. History of Boone County, Missouri. St. Louis, 1882.
[3]: McLachlan, Sean. Missouri: An Illustrated History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2008.
[4]: Barker, Jacob. “Providence the Town: History, now for sale.” Columbia Missourian 8 August 2009
[5]: “River Freight Hauled Over Old Plank Road.” The Columbia Evening Missourian
2 September 1920
[6]: “American Civil War in Missouri.” The State Historical Society. n.p., n.d., Web. 20 April 2013
[7]:  Underhill, Katie. “In search of the past.” Columbia Missourian
[8]: “About Friends of Rockbridge Memorial State Park.” Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. n.p., n.d., Web. 20 April 2013
[9]: Find A Grave. Web. 20 April 2013
[10]: Norvell, Phillip. Harbors of Peace. 2005

[11]: Personal correspondence with Norvell

Saturday, June 15, 2013

We're Jammin'

Aircraft and treehoppers communicate and surprisingly similar ways.
As I write this, I am several thousand feet above the Great Plains on my way to Seattle. In Kansas City, before we took off we were reminded that voice phone calls, AM/FM radio, Bluetooth, and all other methods remote communication are prohibited during flight. If I were to try to make a phone call, it could interrupt or ‘jam’ communications in the cockpit and put the flight in danger.

Imagine you are the pilot of a plane. Ordinarily, you’d be given coordinates, a route to follow and a schedule to guide your flight. Easy.

But this is no ordinary flight. This is a race, a mission that could mean death for all your passengers if you fail to land before you run out of fuel.

The only problem is, every airport has just one runway and only one plane can land at each one. If all the planes in the air make it to the airports before you do your passengers are toast. No problem though, if you know where you’re going you’re good to go, right?

Oh wait, did I say there was only one problem? I forgot a bit of important information.

You don’t have a schedule. You don’t have any coordinates. You don’t have a flight plan. You don’t even know where you’re going; you just know you need to get to an airport before your competitors. All you have is an FM radio and a password that will give you access to hints about the locations of nearby airports.
All other planes have the same passcode, a sort of key, and if any one of you gets near enough to an airport to transmit the full code, the air controllers at vacant airports will relay a bit of information about their location.

As I cross over the Rockies and we hit a bit of turbulence, lets shift gears for a second.

You’re not a frantic pilot navigating high above the clouds anymore; you are a little black insect (barely an 8th of an inch long) called a treehopper, on a plant somewhere in the underbrush of mid-Missouri. Relieving, eh? Don’t get too comfortable.

Turns out you’re competing in a desperate race too. You need to find a female before other males mate with them all. But you don’t know where all these girls are. Luckily you’re equipped with an advertisement signal that lets females know you’re nearby and looking for some fun.

Ok, let’s zoom out and pan up about 10,000 feet to our frightened pilot again. Everything hinges on his ability to transmit his passcode effectively and use the info the airports send you from the ground.

Like any other password, this code is pretty specific. If you don’t transmit it  correctly, or if there’s any interference, airports won’t recognize it and you’re still flying blind. Being the clever pilot you are, you’ve found a way to use this to your advantage. You see, in this race all planes use the same radio frequency, so you can listen in other planes activities and disrupt or ‘jam’ their signals when they try to communicate with air controllers on the ground.

But you’ve got even more tricks up your sleeves. Jamming others isn’t always the best choice. Remember that you can listen in on what other pilots are saying to the ground and vice versa. Eavesdropping on these exchanges allows you to get the same directional information as you would if you were the one signaling to the females—I mean airport. 

Alright awesome, looks like you’ve outwitted all the other pilots in the air, you clever dog you. Yeah, I’m not fooling you anymore, you know what’s coming; there’s another catch.

You’re not the only crafty pilot out there, others have figured out the same trick and they’re jamming your transmission too!

Up in the big sky, my flight has almost made it across the Big Sky State, the turbulence seems to have cleared up, the incredibly persistent man in front of me has FINALLY given up on that damn crossword puzzle and my mind turns back to treehoppers.

Treehoppers communicate neither with radio waves as our airplane pilot does, nor with sound waves as their obnoxious relatives cicadas do. Instead, they use special drum-like organs to vibrate the stem they are on. This means they can all be thought of as communicating on the same ‘channel.’ So just like our pilot, our male treehopper can eavesdrop on his rivals and their airport—I mean females.

Since treehoppers must be still and silent to sense of male and female signals, both jamming and eavesdropping cost them some time, the most precious commodity in this race to mate. So as a male treehopper, you’ve got some decisions to make. Should you commit yourself to disrupting other males’ signals? Or perhaps just signal to females, ignoring other males? Or should you sneak around, never signaling but using the information from females’ responses to other males? Should you stop to jam or just keep moving, getting ahead in the race while your enemy gets free hints?

Those are the questions that my lab is trying to answer. What influences these complex choices in these tiny insects with pin-sized brains?

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. Males find females. Some are better than others. The strategies that work get passed on to future generations of treehoppers and the bad tactics disappear. In age when information makes the money flow, science move, military regimes rise and fall, makes the world go round, understanding data and communication is not just important; it’s inseparable from every aspect of modern human society. Understanding how nature solves such seemingly artificial situations is truly enlightening.

Alright, enough musing. We’re flying past Mt. Rainier, a solid mountain erupting out of a sea of vaporous cloud mountains, and the pilot says I need to turn off my laptop and the music I’ve been jammin’ to.
Hey, I’m not mad though, I’m just thankful we found our airport ok.