Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Mating Habits of Sedanus Protonus

(Traffic accidents in Malaysia were so commonplace that it seemed at times there must be some other reason than just bad driving. I began to fantasize that the cars had another reason to hit each other.)

This report covers several weeks of extensive study of the mating habits of Sedanus Protnus, commonly known as “Slow Assed Proton”, Malaysia’s only domestically produced automobile. The author spent many hours encased in a blind built to resemble the object of study and followed their movements during both the morning and evening mating periods. These periods included observation durations of about 1 hour each session and were focused on the primary and secondary mating routes between Johor Bahru and Pasir Gudang in southern Malaysia’s State of Johor. Another popular mating route is the causeway between Malaysia and Singapore, but this route often includes mating rituals of the Nervous Singaporean Weekender and is not included in this report.

Protonus is unique in that it can only mate when it is in motion. But it is ironic that the act of mating causes the mating pair to come to an abrupt and complete stop. During the morning and evening mating periods, the urge to procreate is so strong that they will often form long lines hoping for the opportunity to make contact with another like minded Proton. Mating itself is consummated with a loud “BANG” followed by a sound similar to the tinkling of broken glass. Obviously overcome with the passion of the moment, there is then silence while the two lucky individuals catch their breath. This silence is then quickly followed by a stream of squawks and oath-like sounds from each partner. While not observed, there have been reports (Robinson, et. al., personal communication) that one participant will sometimes jump about in post coital glee brandishing a parang (Malaysian machete) and attempt to cut the exoskeleton of its partner.

More interesting is the foreplay associated with mating. A Proton on the rut is often seen moving quickly and swerving between potential mates. It is believed that this behavior is used to seek out a partner whose scent glands indicate they are in heat and ready to mate. Once a potential mate is located, the male quickly brings his beak as close to the posterior of his intended mate as he can. This action is accompanied by a mating call which is a series of long bleats. An uninterested female will swerve to the side when hearing the mating call. A female who is ready to mate will signal her readiness by slowing down and allowing the male to make contact. While it is rare to actually catch a pair in the act of mating, signs of mating activity are common along the mating routes and you can often see one or more of the mating pairs standing by the road side.

As stated before, the Proton must be moving in order to mate. Sometimes the swarm of mate seeking Protons is so great that there is no possibility of movement. At those times, you can hear the frustration as the long stationary lines of Protons sing their mating call in unison. This practice has given rise to the term, “getting horny”.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why I Owe My Life to Italian Technology

Several years ago while I was clearing out some papers after my father died, I found a paper weight that my father had kept on his desk. I knew it was the fuse from an artillery shell, but I always assumed it was one of those things that dad made to pass the time during his naval service. He was a Chief Machinist Mate and often used the ship’s machine shop for home projects. We have several examples of this free time activity and this seemed to be just one more. I put the paper weight on a book shelf and forgot about it.

Recently, I happened to pick it up and noticed that the bottom of it had been stamped “PALERMO SICILY MARCH 3 1944 DUD”. Now this was a bit of a mystery. My father had been on the USS Ericsson (DD 440) during the war. I knew that his ship had supported the Sicily invasion, but I had never heard any story about this particular artillery fuse. My curiosity lead me to consult with the archivist at the D Day Museum here in New Orleans and I spent an afternoon trying to compare this fuse to their collection of artillery shells without any luck. We noticed that the fuse had what appeared to be a corporate logo engraved in it. It was “GNUTTI” within an oval. After an internet search, I found that there are several companies in Italy with the name Gnutti. Gnutti Sebastiano and Figli is one of them, and in their web site, they admit to producing fuses during WW II. They now produce plumbing fixtures.

So, part of the mystery solved. But how did it come into my father’s possession and why did he keep it for so long? It had to have some meaning for him because he went to the trouble of de-arming it, filling it with lead, stamping the memorial information on it and then keeping it with his papers. Therefore, I assume that this particular shell must have landed within the compartment that he occupied, failed to explode, and that he then decided to keep it as a memorial to the event and his salvation.

I try to imagine what it was like back then. We forget the kind of courage that the WW II veterans displayed as part of their daily lives during the war. Dad was a Chief Machinist Mate. That meant he probably spent his time below decks tending to the engines. They were below decks and below the water line. They were locked in because their compartment had to be pressurized with large blowers to force feed air to the boilers. The only way out was through a small air lock. They were surrounded by pipes carrying high pressure, superheated steam. If one breaks, you will be horribly burned. They had no idea what was going on above them on the surface but knew they had to keep the propellers turning in answer to the commands from the bridge. A shell exploding in their compartment could kill in several different ways: the blast, burns from ruptured steam lines and drowning. This shell had to have caught their attention and they probably spent the next several hours anxiously watching and waiting for it to explode. No place to run, no place to hide. I can imagine the ordinance man finally disarming the thing and then telling dad, “You are one lucky Son of a Bitch, Robbie” and then giving him then fuse as a memento.

It might not have happened that way, but I like to think that it did. Because if it had exploded, I might not have been born some 5 years and 6 months later. If I ever get to Italy, I’m going to look up Gnutti Sebastiano and Figli and thank them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In The Land of the Morning Calm

I had an assignment in Seoul and while I was there, I found out that the South Koreans use the DMZ as a tourist destination. Never mind that the North and South are still technically at war. I decided that this was a unique chance to visit a war zone.

The Barbed Wire Highway

The DMZ is less than a 1 hour drive from Seoul. Highway 23 runs parallel with the Han River until it meets the Imjin River near the border. Since the rivers are an easy infiltration route, and infiltrators have been caught using them several times, the left side of the 6 lane highway is protected with 2 chain link fences that are topped with some serious razor wire. Every 5 feet or so, a smoke grenade can be seen hanging in the razor wire, I suppose to give warning should the wire be disturbed, but it also must get exciting if a car jumps the guardrail. (I am astounded that military pyrotechnics are so easily accessible. If this was the US, they would be stolen and used for all sorts of mischief.) If you look to the right, everything appears normal. But to the left it looks like Folsom Prison. Then you notice that the median has sandbagged fighting positions and coils of razor wire ready to pull across the road. Everything you need to slow down a rampaging NK army.

The Cold War and Tourism

We arrive at the town of Imjin-gak where we board another bus for transport through the civilian control line. At Imjin-gak, you can see Freedom Bridge which is where prisoner exchanges took place. Messages from separated relatives are written on ribbons and tied to the fence. This was also a chance to see propaganda in action. There was a 10k road race about to start - in full view of North Korea! Its a little surrealistic to be this close to North Korea and watch several thousand people gather to run a 10K foot race. As our bus approaches the checkpoint, the driver points out some points of architectural interest. A block of concrete is positioned on an overpass and is rigged with explosives to drop and block the road. From this point, only tourists and farmers are allowed to go any closer. Our passports are checked against a list of names submitted earlier and we are allowed to proceed. The farmers till ancestral land that had the bad luck to be located near the DMZ. They must leave by nightfall. And the rice they produce is sold under the brand of DMZ rice. I guess it's a patriotic thing to eat it.

Now things are getting serious. Signs along the edge of the road advertise the presence of land mines. This is not a place to go "behind a tree" as Dad used to say.

Our first stop is the 3rd infiltration tunnel. It was built by North Korea in the late 70s and was the third of 4 tunnels discovered when a defector spilled the beans. (or maybe kimchee) The idea was provide a route under the mine fields in preparation for an invasion. We sit in a small electric car and travel 230 feet underground. We exit the train and walk in a slightly stooped manner (at least for me) to a point under the DMZ about 500 feet from the North Korean line. A concrete plug and a television surveillance camera now guard against the North. The walls of this tunnel are pink granite that would make a Maine quarry man weep. It had to be hard digging. And it is engineered well, too. It slopes slightly back to the North so that draining water does not give it away on the South side.

After exiting this hole in the ground, we tour the small museum where we learn about the history of the border, but more space is given over to the ecological anomaly that is the DMZ today. Since the area has had no human intervention in 50 years, it has become a de-facto nature preserve. It is now worthy of scientific investigation - if you could get in.

We next go to the Dora Observation Post (I don't know how they name these things) There is an observation point on every hill as well as large lighted signs that are used for propaganda. This particular post has an auditorium with a wall of glass that faces North Korea. Off to the right is Panmunjom. Also over there is Freedom Village, a small community of volunteers that live within sight of the enemy in exchange for a tax free existence. They are in a long standing war of the flagpoles with the North. The North is currently ahead with the tallest flagpole in the world. We hear music and are told it is North Korean propaganda being broadcast to the South.

But the story repeated over and over is the fact that Korea has a 2-1/2 mile wide nature preserve running across their country. They would much prefer people remember that about the DMZ than its other history.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Observations on the Behavior of the Malaysian 2 Wheeled, Sandal Footed Moto Sikal Bird

In 2005, I had an assignment in Malaysia. I was staying on the southern tip of the peninsula in Johor Bahru and commuting about one hour each way to the fab yard. I was struck by the numbers of small motor scooters and how crazily their drivers acted in the heavy traffic which included many 18 wheel palm oil tanker trucks. I decided to write a tongue in cheek scientific paper describing their behavior.

The Malaysian Moto Sikal can be identified by their peculiar feet. The feet have a rubberized sole which attaches between the 1st and 2nd metacarpal. Their feet may have been the model for the slipper known as the "flip flop". The male of the species may appear to be flying backwards because he will often wear his jacket with the back facing forwards. This is an obvious evolutionary adaptation to fool predators into thinking he is heading in a different direction. (More research is needed to determine if this trait is learned from the American White Gangsta Wannabe, who is known to reverse their headdress) The head and beak may be encased in a rigid, bony exoskeleton but this is not common. However, it was observed that those individuals who have made this adaptation tend to survive in the wild longer than those who have not. This is especially true of individuals in flocks that gather near Truckus Maximus or Vehiculata Sedanus.

While the Malaysian Moto Sikal does not fly in formation, they will gather in groups at stop lights and intersections. There does not appear to any hierarchy to their formation as the last to arrive is just as likely to force his way to the front of the pack by careful weaving and jockeying. Groups of them will often surround V. Sedanus who is powerless to attack them unless he is in motion. They will then take flight together but split up when overtaken by V. Sedanus. This behavior confuses the Sedanus. By splitting apart into many separate targets, the slow witted predator cannot pick out any single individual. Sometimes, they will also emit a noxious gas from their anus. This blinds the predator, causing him to slow down and lose sight of his prey

The Malaysian Moto Sikal is not as large or as powerful as its American or European cousins. Their flight mechanism is small, usually no more than 150 cc. This means the Sikal cannot outrun its predators and must rely upon reflexes and wit to survive. The separation behavior mentioned above is one example of this. Many appear to taunt T. Maximus and V. Sedanus by flying close to them and swerving directly in front of them as if to say “You can’t catch me!” This serves to cull out the slower of the species as they end up as greasy spot under T. Maximus. It is a current day example of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

While the Sikals mating rituals were not observed, it was common to see the female of the species flying closely attached to the back of the male. Rarely, one could see a pair carrying their young sandwiched between them. One wonders if this behavior tends to eliminate entire family units from the gene pool, but this was not observed in the wild.

Coloration is not an identifying trait. The Moto Sikal can appear in any coloration at any time of the season. Some are seen in brilliant colors and corporate logos. It was not clear if this was some sort of novel advertising campaign, a form of tagging for tracking purposes, or the individual deciding to wear whatever was handy. However, most tend to wear dark colors making them difficult to see at night. While they have a unique gland that has a light projecting capability, some prefer not to use it opting instead for stealth.