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All Eyes on Obama

Insights + Opinion
All Eyes on Obama

Bill McKibben

As you might know, the Keystone tar sands pipeline is back in play.

This morning, the Senate passed a bill that requires a 60-day, expedited approval process for the pipeline in return for a payroll tax cut, and President Barack Obama has said he will sign it.

The news has been swirling around Washington the last few days, with one report after another of deals and deadlines. (It’s a little weird to think that six months ago, when we started the campaign to stop this pipeline, almost no one had even heard of this thing and now it’s the center of frantic bargaining—that’s a real tribute to your efforts).

Here’s what we do know:

1. The dirty energy industry wants the pipeline fast-tracked, and is demanding that the President grant or deny a permit within two months. They're going to do all they can to make that happen.

2. The administration knows that Americans don’t want that permit granted. They know because many of you encircled the White House in November, and submitted more public comments than on any energy project in history, and because yesterday the climate movement flooded the White House switchboard with so many phone calls that the busy signal was the sound of the day. For all that work, thank you.

Here’s what we don’t know: what happens next.

Our hope—and what you should ask the President for when you write him—is that when he signs the bill he will say the obvious thing:

“Two months is not long enough to review the pipeline. The Canadians themselves have just delayed review of their tar sands pipelines over safety concerns, and we’ve just come through a year that set a record for billion-dollar climate-related disasters; I’m not going to do a rush job just to please the oil industry lobbyists. So this pipeline is dead.”

Since the State Department has already, in essence, said two months is not enough time, this should be straightforward.

We should know how it’s going to play out within 48 hours or so. We’re of course ready to fight like heck.

But for this weekend? If you haven’t gotten through to the White House, or you think you can round up some friends, you can send them a message by clicking here and click here to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.

Once you’ve done that, I recommend eggnog, football, caroling, Hannukah-shopping and checking the email every once in a while? We’re hanging fire on this, and we’ll let you know when we find out what’s going down and if rapid reaction of some kind is required.

So so many thanks for your continued good-hearted work,

P.S. We know one other thing too. On Thursday night the Republican debating society came out in favor the pipeline, which is easy for them to do since they’ve all now denied climate science. Newt Gingrich in particular blamed “San Francisco environmental extremists” with holding things up. I’m sure our California crew is happy for the shout-out, but it seemed a little unfair to Nebraska farmers, Texas ranchers, Florida College students, New York trade unionists, Wall Street occupiers and even us Vermont granola eaters. We’re a big broad bunch and we’re going to stay that way!

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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