Thursday, October 31, 2013

Universe Man

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Nico decided to be the Universe for Halloween.

So, the night before, he and his friend Anya are painting comets and galaxies and nebulae all over an old jacket of mine.

Universe man.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Brooklyn Sojourn

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Monica and I have both been under-employed and money, as they say, has been tight.  But life has to be lived and so last Friday we headed into New York on the train.  Nico mostly idled the trip away on a little game player, Monica dozed and thumbed through National Geographic.  I read through Scientific American and stared out the window as autumnal, coastal Connecticut clicked and rattled by.

At 6 on a Friday evening Grand Central Station was an anthill that'd been poked with a stick, and the subway was over-heated and dense with commuters.  Nico wilted and went pale.

But in Brooklyn old friends waited, and our Poet, Denver, was preparing dinner -- soft red beans and noodles upon kale. And the Actress, Rhonda who's been swallowed by the PTA, together with the Girl, who's eight, set the table while we chatted, and made room for fresh bread torn into chunks and a platter of tomatoes, herbs and fresh mozzarella.  When the beans were ready we gathered at the table, made the Girl and Nico put down their books, and we ate.  And when it was down to crumbs and we refilled our wine and ale and water we told jokes and riddles and funny stories - on and on. Nico was on a roll,

from the idiotic . . .
Knock, knock
Who's th-
Mooo!  Interrupting Cow! 
to the cruel . . .
Where do you find a dog with no legs?
Right where you left it.
to the obscure . . . 
What does the 'B' in Benoit B. Mandlebrot stand for?
Benoit B. Mandlebrot.
It's one of the things people did before the entertainment industry colonized the home, and it felt good to laugh and strain our brains.  But eventually we'd exhausted our collective supply of jokes and riddles and so the Girl and Nico returned to their books.   (Occasionally, I would hear them quietly harmonizing some pop song together, each of them with their nose in their book.)  The rest of us talked into the night of family and politics and art and people and ideas.  And I switched from ale to water and eventually to sleep.

I woke early, but Denver had woken even earlier and fetched bread.  There was steel-cut oatmeal on the stove and smooth, black coffee.  After breakfast, he and Monica and I walked the two miles from Carroll Gardens to Prospect Park - along the streets of brownstones, and across the opalescent green scar of the Gowanus Canal by the South Brooklyn Casket factory.  The Park Slope brownstones were decorated for Halloween and little children in helmets rode on zippy three-wheeled scooters.  At the farmer's market he talked with his favorite farmers and bought duck eggs, obscure radishes, greens and apples.  We carried chocolate croissants home.

Later, I was in the park with Nico and the Girl.  A troop of brown-skinned boys ranging from about 8 to 13 were doing parkour on a boulder and the remains of a fallen tree - standing back flips, runs and twisting jumps.  They were free-range (no parents), charismatic and two were richly foul-mouthed.  The Girl and Nico sat rapt, partly in admiration of the skill and partly in fear that they were going to see someone die or break a bone.

More of our visit below the fold . . . .

Monday, October 21, 2013

Obamacare Simply


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I'm always bemused by the polling that purports to gauge how popular these Democratic health reforms are, when pretty much none of the people being polled have the vaguest understanding of what those reforms actually are.

The conservatives have been blasting away with the Right Wing Wurlitzer sowing confusion, fear, and misunderstanding. But the liberal "Nuh Uh!"s haven't exactly clarified things with a clear and straightforward explanation. And I think that is mostly because putting Obama's "signature legislative achievement" in simplified terms doesn't make it sound very grand or heroic:
  1. We're going to require everyone to buy an insurance policy. 
  2. We're going to require the insurance companies to sell everyone an insurance policy.
  3. We're going to chip in some tax dollars for people who can't afford to buy an insurance policy.
It ain't tyranny.  It ain't exactly transformative health care policy either. It is what it is.  And I doubt 5 per cent of the population grasps the basics.
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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Honeyguide Bird

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image by Colin Beale
There is a species of bird in Africa called the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), which likes to eat beeswax, the only vertebrate to do so.  It will also eat bees, bee larvae, and wax moths if it can get access to an open hive.  But it's a small bird and beehives are notoriously well-defended, so the species has a unique adaptation.  It knows every hive in a 200 mile radius.  If it finds humans within a few kilometers of a hive it will fly up to them, calling and flitting back and forth, flashing its tail.  If the humans are willing to grab an ax and follow the bird, it will lead them to the colony.  (Some traditional African honey-hunters blow a loud whistle, called a fuulido before they set out in search of honey in order to solicit a honeyguide.)  Once the humans have broken into the hive (usually a hollow tree) the bird can feast on the wax and the grubs.

The behavior is innate rather than learned - an evolved behavior.  By analyzing the difference between subspecies scientists calculate that the behavior is at least 3 million years old.

There are two theories about how it came about.  The first is that it co-evolved with the honey badger, who will use their claws to tear open a hive if they can find one.  But in 30 years of trying scientists have never been able to observe the birds interacting with a badger, so they remain skeptical.  A honeyguide was once observed to solicit baboons, but the baboons weren't interested.

The other theory is put forth by the anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham.  He believes that the behavior evolved with human ancestors.  Wrangham's primary interest is in human evolution, and in particular he believes that the most important innovation which enabled the development of Homo sapiens was the mastery of fire.  He studied chimpanzees and noted that they spend fully half of their waking hours chewing.  He himself tried and failed to subsist on their raw diet.   The ability to cook food frees up nutrients that are otherwise inaccessible and this increase in the amount and quality of nutrients allowed human evolution to take it's unique path -- a shrinking digestive tract and a shrinking jaw, but most importantly that large, extremely energy-intensive brain.  

Cooking food is what enabled our human ancestors to support and feed those ever larger brains, and gave them the time and energy to be human.

But hominid brains have been growing for over two million years and there is no archeological evidence of fire use back that far - so Wrangham isn't able prove that cooking had anything to do with kicking off brain growth.  

This is where the greater honeyguide comes in.  Wrangham observed that chimpanzees love honey, but can't get it.  Humans love honey, and they can get it.  The difference?  Fire.  The use of fire and smoke is universal among honey hunters to confuse the bees and derail their defensive behaviors.  If honeyguide birds have been bringing humans to beehives for three million years, then it stands to reason that humans and their ancestors have probably had fire for the past three million years to help them despoil the hives.

It's not an air-tight case by any means, but I love this story of a magical partnership between a meddlesome wax-eating bird and these honey-loving, torch-wielding hominids - a partnership that has stood the test of a whirlwind millions-years ride from ape to human.
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Monday, October 14, 2013

More Hen of the Woods

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I had to walk farther back into the forest this time, 
but I found another nice Hen-of-the-woods.

When I brought it in to show to Monica,
a little red-backed salamander jumped out.

I put the salamander back outside.

So what should we do with the mushroom?
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bald-faced Hornets and other Yellowjackets

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wikipedia
This summer, I've noticed the occasional bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) at the compost heap or checking the beehives for weaknesses, but so far the hives all seem robust enough to dissuade any wasps from making real forays.  When I first noticed them, I checked back behind the quince bushes and there was the nest - smaller than a basketball, but bigger than a volleyball.  Every second or third year a colony builds there.  Maybe a young queen is attracted to some invisible sign that a nest has prospered there in the past.

We call them hornets, but they are actually a species of yellowjacket, but twice the size of other yellowjackets and sporting white rather than yellow.  Like their cousins, a single queen hibernates through the winter underground or in a crevice somewhere.  The young hornet queen emerges in the spring and starts making the paper nest and rearing a first generation of sterile workers.  These take over building the nest, foraging, feeding the next generations of larvae, protecting the colony, and so on.

Hornets Nest
At the end of the summer, the queen rears a generation of drones and virgin queens, who will fly forth and mate.  Only these newly mated queens will overwinter.  The rest die off and the nest is abandoned, never to be re-used.

The big, papery globes are a dramatic structure to find in the woods - especially compared to other yellowjacket hives, which never appear as anything but a hole in the ground.  I had assumed the smaller cousins just dug burrows like ants, until a few years ago I had a colony that chose to live under a log right by the front door.  One night I took a can of bug spray, (left by the house's previous owners) intending to tip over the log and spray insecticide down the hole.  But when I turned the log, it came up with a torn, volleyball-sized paper nest.  I was glad I'd approached it at night when the wasps weren't prepared, or the ensuing massacre could have gone the other way.

But generally, unless they build somewhere especially inconvenient I leave the wasps alone.   It's true that they make off with the compost meant for the garden (together with the jays, raccoons and deer), but they otherwise don't bother us.  If they take the occasional caterpillar from the garden, so much the better.  And besides, I think our unpainted outdoor furniture has never become splintery because we have the hornets and other paper wasps who come and strip off the outer layers of wood all summer long.

Yellowjacket Colony




Saturday, October 12, 2013

House Painting

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7 years ago we hired a pair of women to paint our house.  By the time they reached the last of the four sides, not only had they underestimated how long the job was going to take, but they couldn't stand working with each other anymore.  So, on the east face, on the last too-hot day, they spread the paint on wood they hadn't prepped properly.  After a year the surface was starting to crack and chip, and after 7 years it was a wreck of peeling paint.

Monica, who hates painting much, much less than I do, took advantage of a bout of underemployment and fine fall weather to scrape and repaint.

Of course, there's nothing like a fresh coat of paint on the walls to show how badly the windows need attention as well . . . 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hen of the Woods

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Mushroom hunting is a practice best approached with caution, so I've only just added a second species to my foraging.  Number one was the morels that come up among the asparagus.  They are as unmistakable as they are delicious.

(click to embiggen)
The second is hen-of-the-woods, Grifola frondosa, called also the sheep's head or ram's head, known to Italian-Americans as the signorina mushroom, called maitake by the Asians.

I know the frilled clusters can be found in the woods beyond the stone wall.  In fact the only time we see anyone in this part of the woods is during mushroom season.   Since I'd just had a chance to handle examples at the recent mushroom festival, it was time to take a knife and a bag and go out foraging.  Not 50 feet from the property line I found the remains of one, nine-tenths cut away by another hunter.  I left it there to spread its spores.  It didn't take long before I found one of my own, right were it was supposed to be, at the base of a mature oak.  I followed the example of the other gatherer and left a tenth or so there.  On the way back, in the hollow of a dead oak, nearly back to our wall I found another one, smallish and dark, and with a rich, earthy smell.

I washed and tore up the larger one and sautéed it in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper.  It came out wonderfully, with a delicate flavor, and firm, varied texture.  I served it up with roasted garden potatoes and a beet, apple and onion dish that Monica taught me (which I fondly recalled from Almaty).  With a pint of Murphy's Irish Stout to wash it down.

hen of the woods fer eatin'


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Monbiot's Climate Breakdown



When it comes to climate change, I’m not a huge fan of George Monbiot.  He’s too fond of playing the calm, reassuring voice of reason, and tut-tutting at those who are more aggressively sounding the alarms.  But like many scientists before him he has that sinking feeling that no one is responding to the voices of reason, and we’re really just going to stumble our way to catastrophe.

In this essay he bluntly gets to the crux of the matter.  The science of climate change is settled in all but the details.  Also, there’s one crucial and unavoidable path to a solution, and the nations of the world are taking exactly zero steps down that path:
The only effective means of preventing climate breakdown is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Press any [UK] minister on this matter in private and, in one way or another, they will concede the point. Yet no government will act on it.
 . . . all governments collaborate in the disaster they publicly bemoan. They claim to accept the science and to support the [UN] intergovernmental panel. They sagely agree with the need to do something to avert the catastrophe it foresees, while promoting the industries that cause it.
 It doesn’t matter how many windmills or solar panels or nuclear plants you build if you are not simultaneously retiring fossil fuel production. We need a global programme whose purpose is to leave most coal and oil and gas reserves in the ground, while developing new sources of power and reducing the amazing amount of energy we waste.
Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan is the current U.S. version of this suicidal orientation.  He at least has the excuse that US legislatures at every level brim with people more ignorant and misinformed than any in Europe, but still the unanimity of cowardice is damning. 

I've harped on this before, (here, and more indirectly, here) so I'm glad that even an analyst as cautious as Monbiot is finally making it explicit.  If the plan doesn't insist that fossil fuels remain in the ground, then it is not a plan to stop climate breakdown.  Renewable energy, nuclear power,  conservation and efficiency do absolutely nothing in and of themselves to counteract climate change.  They are not the solution -- they are only meant to make the solution possible.
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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Scorched Earth Retreat

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Years ago, when I was traveling in Norwegian Lapland wearing a backpack and my first beard, an old man showed me a souvenir that he preserved from World War II.  It was tin cup that had been punctured by a knife.  When the German occupiers left his village, they had taken what they could and destroyed everything else - including this man's metal cup. 

When I look at the political circus being played out in Washington, D.C. today and for the past two decades, I see older privileged white men in a scorched earth retreat away from a government that had served them well - but which they fear they can no longer own and control.  When I see these Congressmen yammering about defunding health insurance reform, I see a retreating army trying to make sure there's no tin cup left behind that can still hold water.
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