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My life with archerfish Chapter I

Posted on December 10th, 2012 in General by Robert Miller

Archerfish spitting at an insect

During my early childhood, before the age of six, my family and I spent most of the war (WW II) living with my grandparents in a house on 12th East, not far from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.  When the war was over, the postwar boom began, housing costs and mortgage rates were low and my parents built a new home in a suburb of Salt lake City, not far from the mouth of Parley’s Canyon, one of the major entrances into the Salt Lake Valley (though not the one that Brigham Young took, when he led the Mormons into Utah–that’s one canyon over–called Emigration Canyon).

The new suburb we moved into seemed thrillingly wild to me. There were many vacant lots, with lots of  lizards, horned toads, mounds of red ants and large herds of deer and elk  running through the nearby Salt Lake Country Club in the winter and hawks were almost always flying overhead. In the distant background one could see the slopes of the Wasatch Mountains to the east with Mount Olympus rising majestically as the most imposing, rock-faced mountain one could imagine; as I kid I thought that Mt Olympus had probably never been climbed before–sort of like Mount Everest in the pre-Hillary/Norgay era. Later I learned that climbing Mount Olympus was a comfortable day hike for most climbers and did not require the use of pitons. But I wasn’t interested in climbing as I was captivated by exploring this new untamed land, armed with an excessively wild imagination.

In retrospect, I had an idyllic childhood, something I imagine most children of my generation would identify as an element in their own history.  I was free to pursue just about anything that popped into my head–like the idea de jour. Of course, this was before the days of pedophiles, serial killers, drug addiction, psychotic neighbors,  domestic violence, homelessness, naked streakers, burglars, sinister gays and lesbians,  so my parents let me roam freely, as long as I came home for lunch and showed up at dinner. Lunch as I recall was something of an option or at least could be negotiated; if I wasn’t coming home for lunch my mother would pack a bologna or tuna fish sandwich, that I took along with me.  Our new home was not far away from a wild undeveloped canyon we called “the gully” which had a creek running through it and, at the time, I thought if there was any chance that dinosaurs were still living, they would undoubtedly be hanging out in the gully; not all of my friends were convinced of this theory, but I had one friend, Jim Pierce, who was equally willing to share in this fantasy and act on it with the committed sense of a serious explorer. Jim and I would search periodically into the deep recesses of the gully underbrush looking for things that had not been discovered. He would always bring along a butterfly net and a cyanide jar, so if we came across a butterfly, he would net it and put it in the cyanide jar and add it to his huge collection—boxes and boxes of glass covered insect cases with an insect pin holding each specimen. Jim was interested in collecting dead things, while my interests were in collecting live animals and keeping them that way, watching their behavior and suitably modifying the cage environment to provide my interpretation of a bio-compatible home for each animal. Mostly however, my efforts at keeping animals proved just as lethal as Jim’s, but it at least started out with a different objective.  In the several years of looking in the gully  we discovered nothing original or new in nature, but always stopped somewhere along the way to hang from an old car tire on a rope over the creek. There were limits about how far you could go up the gully towards Parley’s canyon: everyone knew that Crazy Mary lived alone in a house somewhere near the beginning of the gully and we all believed that not everyone who trespassed on Crazy Mary’s property could be accounted for. We didn’t ever go far enough up the gully to see Crazy Mary’s house, but the very thought of having our childhood spoiled by an encounter with her put a natural limit to our range of gully exploration. Once I got a cut which then got infected, presumably by exposure to the creek in the gully and my parents thought that the source of my infection could be traced to raw sewage from one or more of the  houses upstream. I was more cautious after that, at least more cautious about going in the creek. Had I realized that someone putting raw sewage into the creek included human shit, that might have done it for the gully, but I don’t believe I made the connection between raw sewage and human feces, so staying in the gully but avoiding the creek was OK at the time. That topic about what’s in raw sewage must have surely been one covered by Seinfeld: if not the series should be resurrected.

Free from the boundaries of an urban life, I was able to hit the restart button and start over with a less restricted childhood. As if my energy had been penned up and stifled by the presence of too many houses, to close together,  in a relatively short period of time in our postwar home, I acquired an array of pets that included frogs, toads, lizards, chickens, homing pigeons, rabbits, tropical fish, an ant farm, a horse named Dolly and a dog named King; there was no particular sequence to the pet acquisition mode and some of them happened by accident (it used to be that at Easter, my parents would give us colored live baby chicks, so that’s how I acquired that particular animal). I was not a serial pet-lover, but had many of these pets in parallel and my parents must have frequently wondered where it would all end, but they did nothing to discourage my behavior, so there was never any stop sign in the road. But the experience that carried with me beyond my childhood was my fascination with archerfish, whose rather amazing skills at having their own personal water cannon, which they use to knock insects into the water, is something you can witness on You Tube.

My introduction to archerfish has a background story to it and began as I was walking in downtown Salt Lake City and came across something I hadn’t seen before: a sign pointed to a narrow downstairs corridor and said  “Tropical Fish.” As if magnetically attracted by the sign, I went downstairs to check it out: it turned out to be a basement bar, a section of which had been cordoned off into a small place where an interesting man with smooth dark oily hair had established a tropical fish store. He was of Italian descent and his name was Amondo; his store was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Amondo’s interest in tropical fish had germinated when he was in the war (WW-II) stationed in the Pacific, where he saw directly a variety of tropical fish species in different regions. In time, Amondo and I became good friends and I worked a bit in his store, in exchange for reveling in his deep knowledge of tropical fish and the freedom to read some of the many books he had on the subject, which fascinated me as I learned about things I had never known before. All of the fish I saw in the many aquariums in the bar were all new to me and I gradually learned that most of them did not come from the United States, but were native to many different regions of the world. Small bright shiny neon tetras were next to black tetras, zebra fish and many different gouramis, including kissing gouramis. There were no goldfish, which to Amondo were pets for children and not for the serious hobbyist. So, I bypassed goldfish and went straight to tropical fish. My parents were generous enough to buy me an aquarium that Christmas and my first fish was a black tetra.

I was thumbing through one of Amondo’s books and came upon the most unbelievable fish behavior that I could imagine. The page had a picture of an archerfish spitting water an an insect, something like the image above [the story behind the discovery of the Archer fish, surely a tall tale designed for British consumption, is that a British officer, stationed in India, discovered that his lighted cigarette was being put out by little drops of water that were eventually traced to an archerfish taking aim from the water below; however, it is known that the archerfish was introduced to the West in 1767]. The image of the archerfish, in possession of  his personal water cannon, left my mouth gaping; that single image stretched and instantly redefined my comprehension of what was out there in nature: how could I have so seriously underestimated the power and diversity of nature? What else was out there that I had missed? I had to quickly recalibrate for I could never imagine a behavior so unique and clever and so unanticipated. As I read on I learned that these fish were very accurate with their spitting behavior and typically let go a volley of drops that could fell any insect within about 3 meters from the surface. I was instantly mesmerized from reading that page and I was pretty sure I had to have an archerfish. I conveyed my enthusiasm to Amondo about the archerfish and was told that they were hard to get, because they were not indigenous to the United States and although he had shipping sources, he had never before purchased or shipped one to the United States. Archerfish are indigenous to India, the Philippines, Australia and throughout Polynesia. They exist in estuaries and swamps and thrive in both fresh and brackish water and have been found in oceans—a highly adaptable fish. The problem I faced was that Amondo didn’t want to purchase just one and have it shipped, but needed to order several and didn’t feel there would be much of a local market for the archerfish (he didn’t see them as a compellingly attractive fish like a neon tetra). If I wanted to own one, I was on my own. No matter.

I consulted with my father. He came up with the ingenious idea that I needed to form my own company and we formulated the name B0b’s Tropaquarium (I’m pretty sure this was my father’s phraseology). He had a friend in the publishing business who ran a newspaper in Murray, Utah. He printed out letterhead with the name of my new company and my home address: I was suddenly a businessman and adopted a swagger appropriate for my new status. Of course there were zoning laws that made it illegal to run a business out of your home and I never imagined that I would try to put a fish store in my parents basement. The letterhead served one purpose only—to allow me to purchase an archerfish, but armed with the letterhead, I could appear to be a tropical fish retailer: otherwise, I probably wouldn’t get  to first base.  I got the name of several tropical fish supply houses from Amondo, after promising that I was not going to go into competition with him for fish sales. Using my letterhead I wrote to several dealers and after some delay, I was able to find one that had access to archerfish; it was a supply house that was willing to sell me just one, though the cost would be high ($20.00; a lot of money in those days—early 1950s) and I would have to pay for airfreight shipping, adding another $20.00 to the total. I was able to scrape together $40.00 by mowing lawns and baby sitting and sent a money order for the fish. I was given the air freight information and advised to meet the plane at the airport and transfer the fish from the shipping container as soon as possible. My father drove me to the airport. As I recall it was an evening flight. The plane was on time and the archerfish was shipped in a large five gallon container. We put the container in the car and drove home immediately. I had already prepared a freshwater tank (I think it was a ten gallon tank, not really big enough) and gradually mixed the shipping tank water with water from the aquarium, until I thought the fish had properly acclimated. I netted the fish from the shipping container and released it into the aquarium, covering the top of the aquarium carefully, as I read that archerfish are excellent jumpers and can readily jump out of the water to grasp a low-hanging insect instead of spitting at them. With the archer safely in my aquarium, I began a new chapter in my life.

While the archerfish was acclimating to his new home, I began to think about the kind of structure I would need above the aquarium to suitably encourage the fish to spit water and then too, I puzzled about the kind of insects that would prove most suitable. My grandfather was an excellent carpenter and had a way with wood. When I pointed out what was required, he made some measurements and quickly assembled an excellent  wooden frame structure that fit above the aquarium and was covered with screen, with a trap door on top, to introduce insects into the space above the aquarium. At first, I struggled to find the right kind of insect. Ants worked, but they crawled around the screen and the archerfish was just as likely to jump as opposed to spit at the object. Grasshoppers were plentiful but a bit too large and often intimidating. I eventually stumbled on the ideal insect—the common house fly. Initially however, it was not self-evident where to get houseflies in an suburban setting. But I eventually learned that a nearby ice cream and hamburger shop (Leonard’s Ice Cream) had large windows where flies would accumulate and the owner let me come into his store with a mason jar, where I learned to catch flies by placing the mouth of the mason jar against the window over the fly, waiting for the fly to come off the window, at which time I closed the lid. This was a laborious process, but in this new chapter of my life, I didn’t have many other projects on my radar screen.  I don’t know if the owner (Leonard) thought I was providing entertainment for his customers, but it must have looked odd to see a kid putting a mason jar over flies lodged on the window. But in return for an access to flies, I significantly depleted the fly population in Leonard’s Ice Cream store. This method allowed me to capture a large number of flies without investing too much time or effort. Once I learned this procedure, flies were sufficiently plentiful that they proved to be the best possible insect among the options for evoking the remarkable behavior of archerfish, invoking their water cannon to spit at the fly, knock it off the screen and devouring it almost instantaneously. With the right kind of target insect, the archerfish began to put on a show that was inspiring. As soon as the flies were released into the screen cage above the aquarium, the fish began to  spit a stream of water droplets that collided with the screen and provided little droplets that one could feel if you were standing nearby; the fly stood no  chance of avoiding the certainty of becoming fish food. Flies did not last long when introduced into the cage. The archerfish, while a bit shy at first, became progressively more emboldened and would recognize me as soon as I came into the room with the mason jar, as he would position himself to fire his first volley. Sometimes he would release his water volley into the mason jar as I was transferring the fly to the cage.  It was an amazing display of species adaptation that I did not appreciate at the time for its novelty and the adaptive skill for survival that was probably important when waterborne food was scarce. The archerfish had evolved into more than one option as a food source.

Soon the neighborhood began to hear about the archerfish; I got phone calls and requests at school from friends and others in the neighborhood, some of whom would come with their parents to watch the show. The archerfish never disappointed, and as soon as the fly was released  into the cage, he promptly positioned his body and squirted a quick succession of droplets that would always knock the fly off the screen into the water, at which point he made an aggressive swallowing act by half jumping out of the water as he devoured his prey and then rapidly retreated behind a rock in the aquarium seemingly to avoid eating in public. The resulting noise of his devouring act was surprisingly loud given the relatively small size of the fish (about three to four inches). I could tell by watching the faces of the other kids and their parents, that they were truly amazed at seeing a version of fish behavior that, like me,  none of them could ever imagine. The fish would also squirt water droplets when the fly was in the air, as if practicing on target aim and performance. He seemed to improve with time and wowed all who came to see him work his trade and show off the power of his personal water cannon. For any day, the archerfish performance was largely limited by the number of flies that I had caught and in the winter things slowed down because flies were more scarce. There were many times when I had to feed him regular tropical fish food, which he seemed to tolerate (it wasn’t until the second iteration of the Archer fish story that I started to raise flies rather than recruit them from neighboring stores). Soon, the entire neighborhood knew about the archerfish in the Miller household. In school I was recognized as something of an expert on tropical fish and often described the archerfish, which many students refused to believe until they saw it for themselves. In the meantime, Jim Pierce and I convinced ourselves that there were no surviving dinosaurs in the gully, but through the archerfish I was able to directly confront a fascinating example of adaptive behavior which ignited a passion for biology that perhaps eventually led me into medicine as a career, followed by a transition into neuroscience. Through my experience with archerfish, I acquired a fascination about nature—a kind of—my God, what else is out there—attitude that is still with me today. It is hard to imagine that many of the creatures, no matter what the species, big or small, may be gone—long before we understand them, as we are in the sixth mass species extinction,  this one attributed to solely to man.

All good things come to an end and one day I found the archerfish dead after keeping him alive for about 2 years. The cause of death was unknown, but in that era of keeping tropical fish, knowledge of ammonia intoxication, advantages of changing water regularly and the quality of water and its pH, particularly important for keeping marine fish (the archerfish is a brackish water fish), were largely unknown and certainly not emphasized to the beginning hobbyist. I was very sad about the loss of the archerfish, but I didn’t want to get another one until many years later. It was time to move on. The next thing I did was buy a horse, but that’s another story. And, there is still another chapter about my life with archerfish, after I evolved into adulthood.


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Read Historian Steve Fraser

Posted on December 10th, 2012 in Culture,Politics by Robert Miller

Machine hall of Bethlehem Shipbuilding. c 1920

Historian Steve Fraser, writing in TomDispatch.com, has an article The Archeology of Decline,” which potently summarizes the dystopian cities we are creating as we continue to allow our financial entrepreneurs, people like Mitt Romeny, to claim acts of “creative destruction” which is a cover for creating new wealth for the few by destroying the foundations of the manufacturing economy we built up during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “fiscal cliff” has been manufactured by those who want to see acceleration of the American manufacturing fire sale and the eventual elimination of the social safety net. Where will it end and if it does who will end it?


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Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” finally discovered

Posted on December 4th, 2012 in Culture,Economy,Health by Robert Miller

Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen”

In his 1976 run for the Presidency, Ronald Reagan warned us about a “Welfare Queen” that had “eighty names and thirty addresses” and “drives a Cadillac.” “She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names,” and “her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” But since he pronounced this “Welfare Queen” no reporter has been has been able to locate her. Now, reporters Thom Hartmann and Sam Sacks writing in Truthout have discovered her whereabouts. She lives in Bentonville, Arkansas and goes by the name of Walmart. She is the single largest employer and reported higher income in 2011 than any other company in America. But because she pays such low wages to her employees, they require state and federal subsistence payments to make a go of it in America. A typical Walmart worker earns 31% less than someone working for another large retail company and requires 39% more in public assistance. Because of these low wages and lack of benefits,  Walmart employees require Federal assistance that amounts to $2.6 billion each year, including $ 1 billion in healthcare costs. Walmart employees get government help in the form of food stamps, housing assistance, healthcare and school-lunch programs for children. What Walmart doesn’t cover for the needs of her employees goes directly into their profit margin as the American taxpayer contributes directly to Walmart’s bottom line.

The Walmart employee costs to the Federal government are about to go up: according to an article in the Huffington Post Walmart is about to get even more Federal help, by further restricting  healthcare coverage for employees. Beginning in January, 2013 Walmart will begin denying healthcare coverage to employees working less than 30 hours per week. The scheduling will be determined by managers at each store, though the company has refused to reveal how many workers will lose coverage under the new policy.

Thirty-five years of searching for Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” couldn’t produce a tangible example, but all the time reporters were looking for a person, not a company. When reporters finally figured out that Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” is in fact a large corporation, it makes perfect sense that all the while people had been turning over the wrong rocks! We need to help Walmart employees for a labor union and organize workers to demand wages that don’t force their employees to seek public assistance. Every employee in America needs the right to live a life with dignity.


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