Category Archives: Fun Stuff

Several common mussel species doing what they do.

Freshwater Mussels

Several common mussel species doing what they do.

Several common mussel species doing what they do.

Most people don’t realize it, but New Jersey is the home of roughly two dozen freshwater mussel species. These aren’t the blue or green marine muscles you’re probably most familiar with over pasta with garlic and butter. These are their  freshwater cousins, the bivalves that live in brooks and streams throughout the State.

What makes them so special? Well first, they are the filters of our rivers and streams. They eat small particulates, plankton, and algae from the waterways and are amazingly efficient at it. A few of these mussels can clear out a 5 gallon tank of water in a matter of hours that would otherwise be too murky to see through. They are also important food for birds and mammals. As a result, healthy populations of freshwater mussels indicate a healthy waterway.

Secondly, their lifecycle is fascinating. Some species can live for decades, where others for up to a century – which is a lot longer than their marine cousins. Unlike other bivalves like clams, they have distinct sexes, and when they release their larvae (called “glochidia”) in order to survive they need to attach themselves to the gills or body of a host fish for several weeks and feed off of them. Some species’ females actually deploy lures – which are parts of their bodies which they puppeteer – that look like the natural prey of their hosts. When the fish dive in to attack, they’re sprayed all over with larvae, which heightens the chance that some will latch on.

Third, they are capable of making things of beauty: Freshwater pearls. In fact, the largest American freshwater pearl on record was found right here in New Jersey. As the story goes, in the 1850s, a man by the name of Daniel Howell apparently sat down to a meal of freshwater mussels that his wife had prepared for him, and bit down on a 400 grain (~130 carat) freshwater pearl – something about the size of a golfball.

Where the details of the story get a bit squiffy, there does appear to be a core of truth to it. My wife (whose hobby is genealogy) on a lark, managed to track down Daniel Howell’s household, to find that in 1860, he and his wife had a boarder by the name of John McCaucklin who was a bridge tender for the Raritan Canal. The likely scenario is that McCaucklin brought some mussels he cleaned out of a canal lock home for dinner, and that’s when the discovery was made.

The gem believed to be the Patterson Pearl.

Sadly, after being cooked the pearl’s luster would certainly have been destroyed. However, a few years after the Howell Pearl was found (circa 1857), a man by the name of Jacob Quackenbush over near Patterson discovered a “perfectly round, pink pearl” that was 93 grains (~30 carats) in size. Nicknamed the “Patterson Pearl” or the “Queen Pearl” it was sold to Tiffany Co. for $1,500 (roughly $50,000 modern money) who then flipped it to a French jeweler for $2,500 (roughly $80,000 today) who then sold it to Empress Eugenie de Montijo, the Queen consort of Emperor Napoleon III.

Once gain, where the core story is true, the details proved a little squiffy. It is believed that this pearl now resides in the Royal Ontario Museum as part of a snake-headed brooch; however, that pearl is not round, nor pink – it is a silvery baroque-style (“crinkly”) pearl – but its weight matches precisely.

These pearl finds caused a “pearl rush” or “pearl mania” in the later half of the 1800s which began to deplete mussel populations. It got worse between 1890 and 1930, because freshwater mussel shells – specifically the mother-of-pearl interiors – became the most popular and common source of buttons in North America, prized for their carve-ability and opalescent sheen.

The opal-like (and paper thin) inner surface of a Paper Pondshell (U. imbecillis).

The opal-like (and paper thin) inner surface of a Paper Pondshell (U. imbecillis).

It was only until the advent of commercial plastics that the button industry collapsed, and a hundred years later, mussel populations have built back up once more. Freshwater mussels once again represent the largest portion of biomass in many waterways throughout the State, and are pretty much off the radar of the average New Jerseyian.

So, should you drop whatever you’re doing and run out to the nearest stream or river to look for pearls because now it’s “safe”?

Well, no. There are still serious caveats and considerations.

Like I mentioned at the beginning – where are some dozen+ species native to New Jersey, all but three of them are severely endangered, and are protected at either the State or Federal level. The three least concern species are the:

  • Eastern Elliptio (Elliptio complanata), the
  • Alewife Floater (Utterbackiana implicata, formerly Anodonta implicata), and the
  • Eastern Floater (Pyganodon cataracta).

There are also several introduced or invasive species that are “safe” (or “compulsory” to remove in the latter case) which include the

  • Paper Pondshell (Utterbackia imbecillis – what a binomial name – it almost looks like it means “say again, idiot?” – however “utterbackia” means “outer-round” or “outer-pearl” and “imbecillis” means “fragile” – an apt description of this species’ ultra-thin shell), the
  • Lilliput (Toxolasma parvum – introduced in a few places in South Jersey), the
  • Chinese Pond Mussel (Sianodonta woodiana – highly invasive, apparently piggybacking in on tilapia gills), and the
  • Giant Floater (Anodonta grandis – a close relation of the Eastern Floater) apparently introduced in the State, whose status has not been assessed.

Everything else is on the “do not touch” list (or rather, catch and release immediately).

Only a small portion of these protections are a holdover from “pearl/button mania” as some species in some places simply evaporated and could not be replaced. The biggest contributing factor, however, is habitat depletion: Dams, serious pollution, and the death or depletion of host fish (some mussel species are very specific about their hosts, and if those disappear, so do the mussels). Invasive species like Asian clams (Corbicula fulminea) are also competing for food and space, too. So, if you’re caught keeping even the shell of one of the protected species (and you can’t prove you’ve collected them from a jurisdiction that they are not protected) you’ll be hit with a serious fine, and have all of your fishing equipment confiscated.

Possibly an Eastern Floater. Possibly an Alewife Floater. Possibly not.

Possibly an Eastern Floater. Possibly an Alewife Floater. Possibly not.

What makes it harder is that some of the endangered species can be confused with the common species, so you’ll need to be familiar enough with these critters in order to tell them apart safely.

What makes it even harder (and ironic) is that most of the State-sponsored identification keys require you to observe internal features of the shell… in other words a dead specimen (so, yes, it’s pretty much, “these are protected so don’t kill them or else, but you can’t tell if it’s protected for certain until after you kill it…” – although if you’ve found an empty shell, these features are convenient to use).

Even if you’re good with your identification, there are limits on harvesting. Since all freshwater mussels are classified as Non-Game Species, you must get a special scientific collection permit which is a separate thing from the normal freshwater fishing license, or the saltwater registry. If you don’t have it, you’re in serious hot water and additional trouble.

So what can one do to appreciate these fascinating critters without trouble? There are two things you can do. First, you can take part in a local Mussel Survey. There is an ongoing effort in the Delaware Estuary. But one can always survey an area unofficially using the Delaware Estuary’s protocol and submit their findings of any endangered mussels (or other endangered animals) directly to the State.

Second, thanks to local muskrat and raccoon populations, collecting the shells is incredibly easy – they tend to leave little piles of them occasionally on the shores. Some of them are rather large and can contain beautiful blister pearls that can be made into jewelry.

Over the course of the next month, I’m going to try and share pictures of my own shell specimens, as well as my progress in several freshwater mussel projects and research I’m fiddling around with, so stick around. It’s bound to be interesting. 🙂


Harriet Tubman On the $20 Bill

/home/content/04/10839404/html/steve/wp content/uploads/2016/04/160428 Harriet Tubman

This is the first $20 bill. It was issued in the 1860’s. Lady Liberty was on it.

We’re just bringing her back as Harriet Tubman.

Another important note: Andrew Jackson didn’t appear on the $20 bill until 1928.

Before that it was:

  • Grover Cleveland (1914).
  • George Washington (1905)
  • Hugh McCulloch (1902) (Not a President!)
  • John Marshall (1890) (Not a President!)
  • Daniel Manning (1886) (Not a President!)
  • James Garfield (1882)
  • Stephen Decatur (1878) (Not a President!)
  • Alexander Hamilton (1869) (Not a President!)
  • Pocahontas (1865) (Not a President!) and
  • An Eagle (1863) (Not a President…)

Lots of not-Presidents. 🙂


2d6-2d6 as a Base Roll For Roleplaying Games

So I am one to sometimes meddle with making roleplaying systems (in fact I’ve been playing games in that system for years now)  but in the afterglow of storytelling at PrinceCon for the first time in a long time, I more seriously started to ponder about dice. The PrinceCon system — now with more than 40 years of history behind it — presently runs off of a d20 OGL-based system which (like all d20-based games) resolves randomness with a roll of a 20-sided die, plus modifiers, to meet or exceed a difficulty.

d20 probabilities to roll "at least" the number shown. From

d20 probabilities to roll “at least” the number shown. From

A single die roll, of course, is a completely flat distribution. You have a 5% chance to land on any one number and a 50% chance to roll an 11 or higher.


The 3d6 bell curve. From

I’m not one who likes flat distributions (they’re all over the place) so when I play d20 I tend to play with the 3d6 variant, which makes a nice bell curve (seen above) whose peak falls betwixt 10 and 11, and whose extremes (3 and 18) have a mere ~0.5% chance of happening.

Probabilities for landing at least on the number listed for 3d6. From

Probabilities for landing at least on the number listed for 3d6. From

This works well for many things, but it’s not as elegant as a d20 in some respects. First, a d20 has a range of 20 values. In a system where a value of 10 is average (like d20 OGL) that works out well. 3d6 only has a range of 16 values (3-18), so it is much shorter and by default, difficulties below 3 are impossible (which effectively takes out a chunk of range). Furthermore, none of the values on the curve are nice “round numbers.” Getting a 10 (base) is a 62.5% chance, getting a 15 (+5 base) is ~5%, and getting an 18 (+8 base) is about 1 in 200.

Playing around with probabilities on (awesome site) I fiddled around with different possible dice combinations and unexpectedly found that 2d6-2d6 might present a more elegant solution.

2d6-2d6 bell curve. From

2d6-2d6 bell curve. From

Where it seems like a lot of dice (and a bit more math) 2d6-2d6 creates a beautiful graph with some elegant properties.

  • First of all, it’s a nice bell curve.
  • Second, the peak of the bell curve is on 0, so all results will fall around the base modifier. In a system where the base statistic is 10 that means that a roll will range between 0 and 20 (just like d20, albeit 0 is possible).
  • Third the major increments fall upon rather round probabilities:
"At least" rolls on 2d6-2d6. From

“At least” rolls on 2d6-2d6. From

  • About 90% of the time you’ll at least hit -4 or more.
  • About 75% of the time you’ll hit -2 or more.
  • About 2/3rds of the time you’ll hit -1 or more.
  • Base probability (0) is 55% (as close to half as one can get)
  • +2 is almost exactly 1 in 3
  • +3 is roughly 25%
  • +5 is roughly 10%
  • +6 is roughly 5%
  • +7 is roughly half that (~2.5%)
  • +8 is roughly 1%
  • +9 is roughly 1 in 250; and for something truly epic
  • +10 is roughly 1 in 1000

This progression makes incremental changes to the difficulty of a task ease into a curve with some nice round numbers. 🙂

And given that the extremes happen so rarely, it gives a good excuse for an epic resolution as they really are a one-in-a-thousand shot.


A comparison of all three curves. From with modifications.


Now, this has direct application to d20-like games. The only thing that would have to change is the calculation of base skill levels and roll modifiers as now everything would need to start out at a base of 10. In the end you would get the same range as a d20, but with a nice bell curve.

Mean Deviation: Range:
d20 10.5 5.7 20 [1-20]
3d6 10.5 2.96 16 [3-18]
2d6-2d6 0 3.42 21 [-10-10]

As such I believe that there is some good potential for using 2d6-2d6 as a base roll for table-top RPGs.


Introducing the MultiPad Cipher

multipad cipher

I’ve always had a fascination with cryptography and the idea of an uncrackable cipher, so a few weeks ago I had a crazy idea for a variation of the One-Time Pad or Vernam Cipher (which you can read about here)  with a fun mobile-phone enabled twist.

Thus the MultiPad Cipher was born, which is a quick and easy way to encode a secret message in an arbitrary number of noise layers or “pads.” Each pad is represented by a QR Code which, when scanned by a mobile device, adds them together to eventually reveal the secret message.

The current proof-of-concept web app I’ve put together can generate pads for distribution to your friends, encode/decode messages with those pads, and can also “fragment” a pre-determined message into a number of parts (in case you need to keep a secret among more than one person where each party doesn’t know it on their own, or need a way to track a scavenger hunt, etc.).

Give it a shot. Tell me if you like it. Send me bug reports. 🙂