|Volume 19, Issue 11||November 21, 2017|
In this Issue:
ET, Where Are You?
I was born in the greatest war our world has known. There were 50 to 80 million people killed in that conflict. Most of the images I saw or heard through newsreels and broadcasts in my first years were of horrendous destruction. Not long afterward, hydrogen bombs were developed and vast quantities stockpiled. History tells us virtually all efficient weapon advancements are eventually used. My dad encouraged thoughts along these lines, telling of the ways we could utterly destroy our country's enemies, in fact had already done so in the recently concluded battles. So even before I became aware of television, I had been thinking in terms of sci-fi, for there were a variety of stories heard on the radio with an out of this world flavor, and I was a great fan of such audio programs as "Green Hornet" years before my family acquired
Picard as Locutus (Wikipedia)
Thus when major motion picture or other media companies have turned to such ideas, inevitably I was a ready devotee, be it for "Star Trek" and its sequel series or movies, "Star Wars," "Bladerunner," "Close Encouters of the Third Kind," etc. My favorite sci-fi author has been Kurt Vonnegut, though by now I have devoured the works of at least scores if not hundreds of authors in this sort of literature. My wife, Valerie, not only shares my interest in sci-fi but has gone well beyond me in pursuit of the hobby and has a large collection of such paperbacks.
What is the appeal? Partly, I think, at least for me, it is about hoping for a "Deus ex machina," a device or means by which our currently insoluble dilemmas can be more or less miraculously solved at a story or play's finale via a god-like intervention, one that brings about a form of happy ending.
As we are now in the midst of life on Earth's sixth great extinction, one that perhaps threatens even to extinguish ourselves, human beings understandably seek a new source of rescue. There are no real supermen from Krypton, and Stephen Hawking suggests that if aliens did arrive the event would likely not be to our benefit.
Still, we are often wistful, it seems, for flying saucer people or other extraterrestrials to come and deliver us from all the difficulties in which we find ourselves. Carl Jung is said to have commented that if there were not any true unidentified flying objects from beyond our planet, we would still have invented them, for their ilk play such a key part in our psyche, the idea of a realm vastly better than our own from which beings might offer us a secular form of Heaven on Earth or even transport us to their much more advanced home worlds. The odds against it are overwhelming. Chances are, if there are to be solutions, we must come up with them. May this occur quickly, then, for at the moment it looks like we shall only survive our looming crises by "The Skin of Our Teeth."
One of the more fascinating aspects of entomology is the amazing transformation that happens when an insect emerges from its pupa as an adult. This process is known as eclosion. When the insect has finished its time as a larva, during which it shed its outer covering several times to allow for growth, that last molt produces the pupa. This is the stage at which a maggot turns into a fly, a grub into a beetle, a hellgrammite into a dobsonfly, or a caterpillar into a butterfly. Although the process is well understood from a physiological standpoint, the result still seems almost magical.
Animal husbandry is not my strong suit, but sometimes the allure of watching complete metamorphosis unfold overshadows the effort necessary to successfully raise an immature insect to adulthood. The best subjects for this are, of course, the lepidoptera. The caterpillars are vegetarian so all that is needed is a supply of their host plant, which can easily be kept in the salad bin of a refrigerator. Cleaning up droppings is not too difficult - just dump them in the compost. Once the larvae pupate, they no longer require much care. The rewards at the end are seeing the fresh moth or butterfly test out its new wings, snapping a few photos of the gorgeous insect, and watching it fly away.
During a recent trip to central Florida, I encountered one of my favorite photography subjects: the Zebra Swallowtail. The range of this butterfly only extends as far west as east Texas, so finding the rare stray here in Austin is so unlikely that it hasn't happened for me yet. But during my trips to the Sunshine State, I do sometimes see and photograph this lovely species. This time, not only did I see several adults, but, for the first time, found caterpillars as well.
In spite of my reluctance to raise baby bugs, some of those caterpillars that I saw in Florida were just about ready to pupate, which meant they would need little care. The adult is so pretty that I thought it would be fun to photograph a very fresh one, and there is always the slight chance of obtaining one of my more elusive goals: to watch a butterfly eclose. Notwithstanding all my observations and the time I spend watching and photographing insects, I've never had the privilege of witnessing any lepidopteran emerge from its pupa.
After finding a dozen or more, I chose a plump, large caterpillar and put it, along with a small branch of its host plant, in the usual sort of container I requisition for such things: one of those plastic food protectors for bakery items, like muffins or croissants. Within a few hours, the cooperative larva made the sort of fecal mess that signals it is about to pupate. Because pupation requires that the insect shed its entire skin, along with the alimentary canal, it must evacuate its gut before the process begins. After that, it will no longer eat and is simply waiting for metamorphosis to continue. My caterpillar spent this time huddled under a leaf.
Less than two days later, during my routine inspection of the larva, I found a chrysalis instead. I'd never seen the pupa of this species, so it was curious to note the elegant lines and finely mottled pattern that looked unlike that of any other swallowtail I'd seen. Keeping the clear plastic container in a conspicuous place, I then started checking it at least twice a day for any activity.
The wait wasn't long. Just three days later, my morning inspection revealed an odd sight. Coming out of the middle of the chrysalis was a plump white larva. It obviously wasn't a butterfly. It was a maggot. I thought I'd checked the caterpillar I had collected pretty carefully, but I'd obviously missed any sign that it was parasitized. As was now evident, earlier in its short life, a tachinid fly had laid an egg on its back. Once the egg hatched, the lepidopteran was doomed; the tiny parasitoid burrowed into the caterpillar's body and lived inside it, allowing its host to continue development only to the point of pupation. Then, after consuming all remaining tissue, the fly larva was ready to move on to its own pupa stage. As I watched the chubby maggot wiggle back and forth, working to squeeze out of the hole in the chrysalis that seemed barely big enough, I was only a little disappointed at the lack of a different outcome. I had, after all, seen other adult Zebra Swallowtails, but now I could observe an additional species.
A few hours later, the fly had formed its puparium: an oval, reddish brown case with a hard covering devoid of any detail. The little puparium rattled and rolled around every time I lifted the container to look at it. It seemed normal, so it was just a matter of time before the adult would emerge. Once again, I had the slight chance of seeing a metamorphosis event occur if I happened to look when the fly was eclosing. Tachinid flies break out of their puparium by everting a special sac at the front of their face called a ptilinum. This structure works pretty much like an airbag on a car, but it doesn't offer protection, it pushes its way through the hard outer covering, cracking it open so the fly can emerge. Once the fly is out, the ptilinum is withdrawn back into the head and is not seen again.
Well, I missed this eclosion episode too: less than two weeks later, I found an adult fly buzzing around in the container. Since the fly was so active, I chilled it in the refrigerator for awhile to make sure it would not escape before I took some photos. It cooperated nicely and I was able to take close up pictures while it remained stationary. Unfortunately, there are a huge number of different tachinid flies, and many of them look quite similar, so I haven't figured out the identity of this one. That is yet another future project on my long list of mysteries to be solved.
If the characters in this little tale had been animals more closely related to humans, the outcome might have seemed at least negative, if not downright gruesome. But the matter of fact way that nature proceeds, with billions of tiny creatures living their little dramas, inextricably entwined and mostly unseen by us, is more often cause for curiosity, reflection and wonder.
Epitomizing the optimism of the United States post-WW II economic expansion and rise of the middle class in the 1950s, this scene from 1956 features John (Val's father) with two of his prize possessions: a champion German Shepherd named Rocky and his brand new Ford Fairlane. This vehicle, bought on Aug. 28, replaced a failing used car, and John took great care in its upkeep, including frequent cleaning and polishing.
John had married Evelyn two years earlier. She took this photo in the driveway of their recently purchased house in Ingall's Park, a neighborhood in Joliet, IL. With a combined income of almost $9000 a year, the couple cautiously accrued various financial obligations associated with living the American Dream. The house cost $8500 and, with the second mortgage they took out to build a garage, their monthly mortgage payments in 1955 were around $75, about the same as they had previously been paying to rent an apartment. The payments on the automobile (which cost over $4000, although the trade-in covered a portion of that) were $55.80 and continued for several years. Interestingly, their first major purchase as a couple occurred two years before they married; they bought a wood and canvas Old Town canoe for $213 in the summer of 1952.
The 1956 Ford was not only the first new vehicle they owned; it was also the first to have an automatic transmission, which certainly expedited Evelyn's learning to drive in the hilly terrain of their home town.
|(The Terra Tabloid is a venue for the discussion of issues pertaining to the past, present, and future of our planet and human interaction with it.)|
Larry Brilliant, author and physician (image from paloaltojcc.org)
The weirdly shaped "hammerhead worm" is a type of predatory land planarian (Bipalium kewense). It is thought to be native to Asia, but the species was first described in Kew Gardens, and it now has a cosmopolitan distribution, most likely due to the potted plant trade. In the U.S., it is often associated with greenhouse and nursery plants. Here in Texas, it lives under rocks and near homes and gardens where the dirt is sufficiently moist. During dry periods, it curls up in a little retreat of slime, but ventures forth whenever conditions are wet. This large flatworm (so described as it can easily be several inches in length) preys mostly upon earthworms and is considered a pest where worms are raised commercially.
While the planarian is hermaphroditic, it can also reproduce by segmentation: when it is severed, each piece will grow back the missing parts. This isn't as difficult as it seems; the creatures lack both respiratory and circulatory systems. They have no known predators, probably due to their sticky slime and the neurotoxins they produce, the latter of which might also help them subdue their own prey.
My mom has been good at this. She would invest tens of thousands of dollars at a time in a few carefully selected stocks, then follow them closely. An example is Ford Motor Company (F), beaten down in the 2008 financial debacle. Reasoning that, though it was then going through difficulties, there was no way Ford would completely go out of business, she acquired abundant shares when the price was only about 20% of its recent quote. In January, 2009, when they were selling for $1.94, one foolish investment service declared its shares the worst investment for the year. Mom did not manage to acquire Ford when quite that low, but still, including dividends, she had a very profitable run for quite awhile, concentrating her portfolio in a few such beaten down marvels. She sold most of her Ford shares closer to a subsequent price high of about $15. Even if only $14 a share when sold about early 2015, with Ford's roughly 4% dividend that probably worked out to a roughly 40% avg. annual total return. Had she not sold the shares but kept them for their yield plus avoidance of taxes on the later substantial price rise, her average annual total return to date would have been about 26%. (Though Ford's dividend was suspended at the time of her purchase and until 2011, in that year it was resumed with annual payments at 8% of her purchase price. By 2014, the dividend yield had risen to 20% of her cost basis. Even taking into account the earlier dividend omission, an estimate of 4% for her average Ford shares' yield is thus conservative.)
Small equity accounts are frequently better invested in one or two good mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). Yet even for stock portfolios of $200,000 or less, it is recommended that a person is better served having only a small basket of stocks, perhaps four or five, putting sufficient dollars in each to allow for excellent returns if they advance soundly, yet also monitoring them well, so if something goes wrong with one's original outlook that equity can be quickly replaced with a better one before losses get expensive. A billionaire's portfolio also works more efficiently with a smaller number of assets. Major investments in only 5-15 well chosen and supervised stocks may have more risk in the short-term, yet will also likely achieve better long-term returns than a significantly more diversified assortment. Warren Buffett offers the advice that we consider ourselves to have a limit of just 10 good investment ideas in our lifetimes, choose the better ones, and then be loyal to them, if we wish to improve on the record of the market in general. Were we content to not significantly beat the market, we might as well invest in good low-cost managed mutual funds, like the Vanguard Windsor Fund Investor Shares (VWNDX), or in ETFs that mirror an aspect of the market with which we are comfortable, for instance the Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund (VFINX or VFIAX) or the Vanguard S&P Smaller Cap 600 ETF (VIOO).
For individual investors who like to dabble in stocks, what typically happens is that we have any number of supposedly good ideas but - since actually uncertain of our stock picking expertise - want to invest only a small percentage of liquid reserves in each. We can easily get portfolios of 30, 50, or even 100 assets. Our attention is then too scattered for following the holdings well. Even if some of them are lucrative, the effect of the winners on an overall portfolio will be minimal. A 50% gain on a 1% investment has, of course, only a 0.5% effect on the portfolio. Too commonly that is offset by losses in holdings we did not screen optimally at the outset.
|Alliance Bernstein Holding L.P.||AB||$25.18||8.14%|
|American National Insurance Co.||ANAT||$121.23||2.73%|
|CVS Health Corp.||CVS||$69.95||2.90%|
|Gladstone Capital Corp.||GLAD||$9.74||8.62%|
|The Buckle, Inc.||BKE||$19.08||5.26%|
|United Therapeutics Corp.||UTHR||$120.26||0.00%|
What if an investor has already bought dozens of assets and is dissatisfied with the consequent mediocre returns? Here are a few steps that might lead to better outcomes:
I have been just as prone as the next person to adding too many assets to our portfolio, so this is a good occasion for me to whittle them down to a feasible few. At the table are these plus a handful more in which I currently have an interest for a well focused assemblage of stocks, once each is available at a compelling share price. As Warren Buffett found with Coca Cola (KO) in the 1970s and my mom did with Ford (F) in 2009, the next market plummet will no doubt create new opportunities. Several might turn out to be better than those cited in the table. Till then, this winnowed field appears to one amateur to have nice potential.
As we bask in the mild autumn temperatures that are such a relief after our hot Texas summers, we are also happily anticipating the Thanksgiving holiday. May you all find much for which to be thankful, be it family, health, success, or anything else that brings joy and satisfaction to yourself and others.
|For others who may have chanced upon this site, larvalbug bytes is a monthly family-and-investment newsletter, put out by an old codger and sweet thing, with sometimes a little help as well from our engaging pooch, Peri. We invite readers' comments by and would also be happy to readers when new issues are published. Articles and stories from back issues are available in our archives.|
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"Bug Survival" and larvalbug web design by Valerie.
"Bug Survival" and larvalbug web design by Valerie.