Last Day of August (Photos)

This morning I brought my mystery aroid plant inside where there is no breeze and took some tripod shots. I think it’s a calla or a close relative. The blossom is ever-so-gradually unfurling; I assume the floral structures are the pistils, but where are the stamens?

A closer crop, a bit grainy but it shows the otherworldly sexuality of the flower:

My kitchen windows face north and west, so the morning light is soft and diffuse. I happened to notice a pair of tomatillos on top of my refrigerator proudly displaying their split papery husks in the morning light:

I mentally kick myself because I forgot to plant any tomatillos this year. They are so easy to grow and they are an essential ingredient in Mexican green sauces. You don’t even need a recipe; a simple salsa is just a pair of tomatillos roasted in the oven along with some chile peppers; the last time I made green sauce I used an Anaheim and a pair of Serrano peppers. Roast at 375 degrees until the tomatillos are soft and the peppers are charred. Rub the charred skins from the peppers and the husk and stem-end from the mushy tomatillos. Put these vegetables in a food processor along with some garlic, maybe some onion, chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley to taste, and a bit of salt, black pepper, and cumin. Chill and serve with bread, tortillas, or chips.

I like the Latin/Mayan taxonomic name of the tomatillo: Physalis ixocarpa.


That Rising Tide

Libertarians of the sort who like the works of Ayn Rand perennially use this hoary analogy: “The rising tide which lifts all boats.” It’s a catchy metaphor, vivid and easily visualized, but like many such convenient sayings it oversimplifies complex economic situations and can be used to justify malignant policies. The quote is from a 1963 speech by John F. Kennedy, but its current usage has morphed into a justification for conservative economic policies such as, “Don’t you dare tax the rich!”

Here are some variants from anonymous commenters at the Pharyngula blog:

A rising tide DOES raise all boats.

If you have a boat.

A rising tide may indeed lift all boats. But when roughly half the boats are permanently anchored on a short chain, that rising tide does nothing but submerge them.

Ooh! Let me play!

My variation is: A rising tide does nothing for a boat with a hole in it.

One need only envision a situation where it is only the rich who actually have boats – the rising tide analogy then works pretty well.


Autumn Joy

The flora of South Africa is so different than the flora of North America. In our arid regions we have cacti, plants in the Cactaceae family characterized by stems swollen into water reservoirs and leaves reduced to sharp spines. In the arid regions of Southern Africa the members of the Crassulaceae or Stonecrop Family rule; in an excellent example of convergent evolution, the Old World Stonecrops have evolved fleshy moisture-holding leaves rather than the swollen stems of the cacti.

You don’t have to walk far to encounter examples of South African succulents. There are many cultivated varieties, many of them species in the genus Sedum. Some are creeping ground covers while others, like the Autumn Joy sedum, are upright flowering plants (although the species from which Autumn Joy was derived has recently been given a new genus: Hylotelephium. Those taxonomists — always tinkering!)

In general I’m fond of Latin binomial plant names (look at the URL of this blog). Sedum, though has never sounded good to me; I prefer to think of such plants as Stonecrops, which has a pithy and earthy Anglo-Saxon sound to it.

It’s all too easy to pay scant attention to very common and easily-grown cultivated plants. People tend to like the rare and novel. It can be an interesting aesthetic exercise to force yourself to pay close attention to a scorned commonplace plant. Take a close look at the finely-wrought blooms of the ground ivy sometime, as an example. The plant might be invasive as hell but it has its humble virtues. Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is in the Mint Family and betrays that relationship with a musky-minty odor; the plant was an ingredient of early English beers during the centuries before hops became popular.

I tend to overlook the commonly-encountered clumps of Autumn Joy sedum. This morning I was at the garden plot watering young plants, as it hasn’t rained here for the past month. I was shutting off the faucet when I happened to notice that the neglected foundation plantings of Autumn Joy were beginning to bloom. I took a closer look:

Such a delicate flower structure! These small flowers will be attracting a multitude of butterflies and moths this fall. I got even closer, camera braced upon my knee:

Look at the brilliant scarlet stamens in the partially-opened blossom towards the right-center of the cropped photo. Once the flower has completely opened the stamens’ color darkens to a ruddy brown. It’s as if the stamens are igniting fireworks. I’ve looked at Autumn Joy flowers many times over the years but I have never before noticed this!


Irene Departing

I followed the progress of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast by means of the mainstream media to a certain extent. I was more affected by on-the-spot accounts and photos by people I know only through the ‘net. Here’s a great cell phone photo taken by Pascal Wallisch, a neuroscientist who lives in NYC. He titled it “Irene departing”.

Such a photo! Pascal said on Google+: “Right spot meets right time.”

John Beetham, an avid birder who writes for The DC Birding Blog, took some good photos during the passage of Irene. Here are a couple:

The photo was accompanied by this note: Dead baby squirrel, probably knocked from its nest.

John’s comment: Normally there is a walkway down there.

I liked the handrails disappearing into the water.

John lives in Highland Park, New Jersey these days, which is where these photos were taken.

This is citizen photo-journalism, which possesses an immediacy unavailable to the big-time commercial media, especially when you are familiar with the people involved.


Late Hosta Photos

I was walking down Hampshire St. here in Quincy late yesterday afternoon. Most of the numerous hosta cultivars have finished blooming, but I happened across a late-blooming variety which was particularly striking.

Most people have never heard of him, but we should be grateful to an early-19th-century doctor and botanist; Philipp Franz von Siebold was responsible for introducing many hosta species to Europe — it didn’t take long before the genetically plastic plants spread to eager plant breeders in North America. (Note: I’m using the word “plastic” in the botanical and genetic sense of the word, meaning roughly “easily tweaked and varied”.)

The late-blooming hosta I encountered was one of the larger varieties. The inflorescence of the variety is snowy-white and quite fetching. Some photos:

Bud-cluster radiating nicely:

A frontal view of an unopened bud, rather parasol-ish:

A bane of gardeners who maintain perennial beds is the sneaky way tree seedlings have of lurking in the shade and building up root systems, until one year they rise above the cultivated competition and make their bid for the lion’s share of precious sunlight. Here’s a tiny pin oak planning its strategy for next year:

This seedling oak most likely originated from an acorn buried by a squirrel. It’s probably two or three years old and its root system has most likely penetrated to a depth of eighteen inches by now. Cut it back to the ground and the tree will interpret this as a challenge and sprout vigorously again. Roundup herbicide carefully applied to the leaves when they emerge next spring(perhaps with a paint brush) is about all that can be done without tearing up the bed. This tree could be used as an excuse to divide the bed!

I’ve known gardeners who, starting with a single plant, have repeatedly divided a patch over a period of several years and ended up with dozens of patches, in some cases providing a perennial border for a driveway or sidewalk.

One of my favorite hosta varieties (actually a family of varieties now) is sometimes called Hosta sieboldii. You’ve seen ’em; they are the large-leaved hostas with glaucous blue-green leaves. The variety is named after the doctor and botanist referenced above.


My Good Deed

A couple of days ago I was reclining in bed reading a Stieg Larsson novel, the third and last story by the Swedish advocate and novelist who died after completing the series of… what are they, thrillers, police procedurals, courtroom/legal dramas? I don’t know, but the third is the weakest of the series. Too much detail, slow-moving sections, a contrived dramatic ending — perhaps Larssen was oppressed by a feeling of impending doom. The series is redeemed by the vividly-depicted character Lisbeth Salander, an autistic savant woman who is prone to violence when crossed. But I digress…

Wednesday afternoon was warm and humid. I had a box fan directed towards the bed which ensured a certain degree of comfort. There are a couple of window AC units out on the porch but the effort to install one is not really worth the effort. This hot spell will pass, and I really don’t need or want extra-large electrical bills.

My apartment spans the house, with the rooms arranged shot-gun style; the screen door to the front porch (which faces east) is directly opposite the back door in the kitchen. Two fans provide a pleasant cross-draft.

Looking towards the west kitchen door:

I was aroused from my concentration on the convoluted novel by a weak rapping at my back door. “Who could that be?”, I thought. I peered across the apartment and saw a hunched-over and white-haired figure at the screened kitchen door saying, “Larry! Larry!”

With a subdued grunt I put the book down and got up in order to investigate this development.

My visitor was my downstairs neighbor Beulah. She’s 85 years old and still manages to drive and live on her own. I stepped out onto the back porch to talk with her.

“Larry, something happened in my back this morning! Something moved back in there… I’ve been in bed all day and I’m wondering if you could drive me to the clinic.”

Who could resist such an entreaty? Certainly not me.

“Why, of course I will, Beulah!”

I met her out front. It took several minutes for the woman to make her way down the porch stairs, walk through her apartment, and appear at the front door. We got in her car. I had to move an improvised booster cushion from the front seat.

“Larry, let’s go through the alley! That way you don’t have to get out on Maine St. and deal with the traffic and all. It’s a straight shot through the alley to the clinic.”

She was right. I let her out at the entrance and went inside to fetch a wheel-chair. The receptionist knew Beulah, and before long I’d positioned the wheel-chair in the waiting room. I left Beulah there and went back outside to park her car.

Back inside I explained to Beulah that I had a meeting to attend at the Unitarian Church.

“Speak up, Larry! I don’t have my hearing aid with me; to tell you the truth, I can’t find the durned thing.”

I raised my voice and said, “My meeting will be over in an hour, and it’ll take at least that long by the time the doctor examines you and they take the X-ray. I’ll just walk over to the church — it’s just five blocks from here.”

“Well, okay. I’ll be here!”

After the meeting I walked back to the clinic. By this time it was after seven in the evening and dusk was approaching. I only had to wait for a few minutes; I spent the time visiting the past with the aid of a year-old issue of Time magazine. Beulah was escorted into the waiting room by a nurse.

“I don’t need the wheel-chair to get back to the car, Larry. Just let me have your arm in case I lose my balance.”

Back in her driveway I tried to figure out how to re-attach the “club” steering wheel locking device. Such accessories are rare in Quincy.

Beulah said, “No, it’s not that key, it’s the next one. I have to use that club because somebody has a key to my car!”

She gave me a cunning and conspiratorial look.

“Whoever it is gets in my car at night and moves things around — but they can’t drive the car away!”

I long ago learned to be polite and noncommittal when I hear such delusional statements. There’s no point in disputing or arguing; rationality is ineffective when dealing with any of the numerous True Believers in our midst.

“Larry, are you nervous?”

“No, I’m not nervous.”

“It’s just that you move so quickly…”

This was likely a result of drinking coffee at the meeting.

As we slowly made our way to Beulah’s front door she stopped to examine the potted calla (or some arum or other) on my step wall. She said, “What is this plant? I used to know all about plants, but my memory has been failing me lately!”

I helped the woman up the three steps to her front door.

“Larry, could you check on me from time to time?”

“Sure, I’ll do that. Remember that you have my phone number to call if you need help. You don’t need to be climbing my rickety back steps.”

Beulah doesn’t have any friends or relatives nearby, I have to come to realize. There is a nephew but she is suspicious of him and his family. She once told me, “They come over every now and then, but I think they are stealing things from me!” More delusions? Who knows…


Redbud Lurking In The Shadows

Yesterday morning I rode my bicycle about a mile to buy some food at a supermarket.

This time of year racks of potted ‘mums are on display, a sure sign of impending autumn. I was putting down my bike’s kick-stand when I saw a glimmer of green from the corner of my eye. Supermarket entrances aren’t usually notable for native plants, but lurking in a niche between a brick pillar and the wall of the store was a yearling redbud tree. It was thriving, partially due to the intermittent drip of water from a white plastic heating vent pipe.

Indulge me, kind readers, while I exercise my imagination in a decidedly anthropomorphic manner:

The summer before last there was a windy night which whirled all sorts of vegetative debris into new pockets and corners. A papery, flat redbud seed-pod tumbled across the asphalt and ended up in a pocket of rotted leaves which had accumulated over the years in a pavement crack right next to a grocery store facade.

The pod opened as fall rains soaked the pocket of new soil. The small, hard oval seeds experienced their first soaking. Their dim vegetative awareness took note, then fell back asleep for the winter. Every redbud seed knows that a winter season with freezing and thawing is necessary to break dormancy! Thus has it been for many millennia, a hoary leguminous tradition.

Spring arrives and the pavement and soil-pocket become warm. A few of the redbud seeds tentatively germinate. These are the advance guard, fearlessly braving random late frosts. They are willing to be sacrificed to the exigencies of weather. This just might be one of those rare years with an early frostless spring, but if not, the other seeds are waiting their turn.

A freakish late and hard frost cuts down that first echelon of redbud seeds. The month of May arrives with a higher and warmer sun. Most of the remaining seeds germinate, all but a few stubborn seeds which decide to wait for another year, another spring.

One June morning last year a rabbit, its fur bejeweled by early-morning dew, ventures across the vast grocery store parking lot. Nose twitching, alert for any predator movement, the small mammal makes the rounds, looking for morning food. It comes across the cluster of redbud seedlings and makes short work of them, green and succulent sustenance for a rabbit’s early summer day.

The rabbit missed one seedling. It was concealed beneath a large pin oak leaf. The seedling became aware of its surroundings as it grew last summer and through this past summer of 2011.

“Hmm… partially shaded and with a steady supply of moisture! I must be part of a forest’s understory. There must be a spring seeping nearby; perhaps I’m growing up against a mossy limestone cliff!”

Redbuds can’t see, of course, and the young tree’s guesses are reasonable but false assumptions. We all need our illusions, don’t we?

The little tree is most likely doomed. Some supermarket employee will eventually be ordered to “patrol the lot”. Armed with a broom and a sprayer loaded with herbicide, the employee will notice the hopeful redbud and spray it into oblivion.

“Damn weeds!”, he mutters as he walks away.


Detroit Science Center Lip Dub

This is a touching celebratory video. Take any team of people working on a project together and it is likely a few will be able to do the dance moves, etc., and lip-sync pop music effectively. Could this be due to hours of practice at karoake bars, or just singing in the shower and vacuum-cleaner-dancing with only a non-judgmental cat as audience?

The Lip Dub Member Event at the Detroit Science Center! The staff did 2 weeks of pre-production to plan things out. Then the production department and the singers rehearsed for 2 more weeks to get it right. Then the members came out for one amazing night and made it awesome! One walk through and five takes later we wrapped it up, all in time to get the kids to bed on time. Thank you so much to everyone who worked on this and who came out to join us. It was because of all of you the this night was a huge success.
What’s next? Who knows, but you can bet it will a ton of fun.

[vimeo w=400&h=225]

Detroit Science Center Lip Dub (Don’t Stop Me Now) from Detroit Science Center on Vimeo.

The song is by the British band Queen. Wasn’t Freddy Mercury quite a singer? He died of bronchopneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1991. One of the few Parsi rock singers, he has been missed.

Thanks go to Jennifer Ouellette, whose blog Cocktail Party Physics is one of my favorites. Jennifer posted the video on Facebook, I went to Vimeo and snagged the embedding code, and here we are!


Google Plus Miscellanea

I remember when I first encountered Facebook a few years ago. Though I had friends who just loved it, and I joined up and created a profile, the social-networking site has always rubbed me the wrong way. These days it is something of a necessary evil. I keep track of relatives and friends at the site, and I have Google+ set up to link to my blog posts on my “Wall”. I rarely comment or originate content on Facebook.

One problem with Facebook is that it is all too easy to accumulate too many “friends” there. I imagine everyone has had the experience of being fooled by Facebook. Facebook’s software robots assume that anyone who is a “friend” of one of your friends ought to be your “friend too. A bad assumption indeed. I had to ruthlessly prune my “friends” list in order to avoid being inundated by posts from people I don’t know.

Then there are the fire-hose Facebook posters. These are people who spend hours letting their friends know the most trivial and mundane details of their lives. Too Much Information! Stuff like, “I just ate some chocolate! Mmm mm!” or “I finally got to Level 9 on [some on-line computer game]!”

Then along came Google+, which remedies some of the annoying failings of Facebook. Google+ allows the user to create “Circles”, groups of other users the posts of which can be viewed separately. Have a friend who posts many times a day? Create a circle for such posters called, say, “Verbose”. I have one circle for members of my family, another for people I don’t know but whose posts I like to read, and another for people I like to check on just occasionally.

Another advantage of Google+ is that there is no size limit on the posts.

I’ve enjoyed my experiences with Google+, but there has been some controversy lately due to Google’s hit-and-miss application of an ill-conceived policy. They don’t like people to use aliases or pseudonyms. I’m sure there are good commercial reasons for this but Google really needs to reconsider. Personally I have no use for an alias, but people who work for government agencies or paranoid corporations would like the freedom to post anonymously, with good reason. Women also have some reason for concern, as they tend to be subject to stalking and harassment by nameless idiots. Here’s one ZDNet columnist’s take on the issue:

Violet Blue’s ZDNet piece

An aside: I just loved this metaphoric tripartite figure of speech in the above article:

Getting verified on Twitter wasn’t easy, but it was kittens, pop-tarts and rainbows compared to this.

The inclusion of a lower-cased product brand-name as the middle metaphor gives a certain “zing” to the sentence, I thought.

Here are several interesting things I’ve found recently in my Google+ feed:

This was posted by one of the folks I follow and I recommend that you take a look; it’s a very well-done video story:


My comment on the piece at Google+:

Wonderful film w/o dialog! This is true visual story-telling. It’s interesting that it takes about two dozen people collaborating to produce such a film, as compared to the one writer it takes to generate a prose tale which can conjure up similar mental images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s a “flash mob” rendition of Ravel’s Bolero, a video of the Copenhagen Philharmonic gradually coming together at a train station:


An object lesson in how cell phones have changed our culture.

I’m an amateur photographer, and I’m well aware of my limitations. I’m thoroughly humbled by the images produced by French photographer Philippe Sainte-Laudy. He has the master’s touch. I became aware of him on Google+ and immediately put him in my “Follow” circle. You can see Philippe’s images at his homepage, and
he has made available a PDF e-book there:

Philippe Sainte-Laudy’s Page

The page is in French; just scroll down until you see a box with “Telechargement | 48 mb.” written in it. Push that and a download of an “E-book” will be initiated, a PDF file containing examples of Philippe’s wonderful photography. I know — when you see the word “Telechargement” it will make you wonder if there might be a charge for the e-book. Don’t worry, it’s free, and well worth having. Here are three examples of photos from that book:

I welcome any comments readers might have on the two competing social networking platforms.


At The Laundromat

Yesterday was a cool and cloudy morning, ideal walking weather. I had a load of laundry which needed to be dealt with. The laundromat is seven blocks from my place; I could have taken the truck, but the thrifty side of me balked at the prospect of burning gas in order to haul ten pounds of dirty clothes such a short distance.

Instead I loaded the laundry basket onto one of those pull-behind two-wheeled carts and secured it with bungee cords. Fifteen minutes later I wheeled my cart into the laundromat and loaded a washer. A pleasant and invigorating walk!

I looked around the laundromat. Few people were there and I didn’t see anyone who seemed like they were looking for someone to talk with. I have some good talks with laundromat users from time to time, but evidently this was not a morning for such discourse.

I had twenty minutes to kill. I’d brought a book along, but the weather was so nice — I wandered out the door and looked around the barren parking lot.

Right next to the laundromat is a decrepit old brick house. The roof is in bad shape and some of the windows are boarded up. I doubt anyone lives there, but you never know. The yard is kept mowed, probably by the property owner, who most likely would have the structure razed if it didn’t cost so much money to do so.

Whoever mows the yard has been mowing around an overgrown patch of irises, spring-flowering plants which have set seed already and whose leaves are fast fading. I squatted down and got my camera out. Such competitive botanical drama was revealed to me!

Spearmint, a Eurasian species which spreads clonally and can become invasive, had sprung up and was in full bloom. Bindweed, a white-flowered native morning glory, was struggling and twining up the mint stems and the stems of what looked like a weedy wild aster, which won’t bloom until fall. The bindweed was infested with bright orange aphids, parasitic insects which were busy sucking and paid me no heed.

A closer view of the aphids:

A frost will put an end to this slow-motion struggle.

Notice how the bindweed is blindly groping for something vertical to cling to; if I had unlimited patience I could extend a hand and in time the vine would engulf me in leafy tendrils, causing double-takes from laundromat customers — but life’s too short for such fanciful experiments!

A variety of insects had been attracted to the spearmint flowers. I tried to get a photo of a beautifully iridiscent sweat bee which was making the rounds of the pale-lilac flower-spikes, but the nimble insect wouldn’t pause for long. My attention was attracted by a small bumble-bee busily working over the flowers. A bumble-bee on such a mission tends to be totally oblivious to observers and photographers. They allow you to get up close and personal with a camera:

Notice how the mint flowers bloom upwards from the base of the spike; the unopened buds at the top promise a few more weeks of flowering — unless the mower cleans up this untidy “mess” of vegetation run rampant.

Another plant in bloom was the ubiquitous Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis), an invasive alien plant which loves to grow along house foundations and in vacant lots. It’s in the Spiderwort Family:

My laundry was probably done; I straightened up and put the camera back in its belt-pouch. Back to the mundane world!