Tuesday, April 29, 2014

While I Was Gone

I haven't posted anything here for a few days, as I was taking a long weekend in Washington, D.C.

I spent most of the time visiting friends and enjoying the fine dining of the city, but I did get out to the Mall and some of the Smithsonian museums.

The Mall is currently home to a group calling themselves The New CIA (Cowboy and Indian Alliance), protesting the
Keystone Oil Pipeline.
Digging up the tar sands

For those who don't already know (why don't you?), in Alberta, Canada, huge areas of natural beauty and wildlife habitat are being destroyed.  The sands up there are saturated with tar.  The tarry sand is excavated, the tar diluted with organic solvents, and then the whole lot is piped south.

For some strange reason, these people don't want a pipeline carrying dilbit
across the country.

One of the Koch Brothers' little operations wants to build a pipeline all the way from Alberta to Texas.  The diluted bitumin (dilbit) will be piped across our country, where it will be processed in Texas and then shipped overseas.

The big selling point for this environmental destruction is that it will provide jobs.  Sadly, those jobs will be for doctors, nurses, and those who clean up oil spills.
Mayflower, Arkansas, just last year.
Oil pipelines are completely safe and never leak

Epidemiologists have already noticed the high levels of cancers and other health issues among the people who live near the tar sand operations.

I still think that we should save those precious tar sands until we run out of wind and solar power.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day: A Reminder

Just a cheerful reminder for all of you on Earth Day:  The Earth has been around for billions of years and will probably be here for billions more.  It doesn't need saving.  We do.

The Earth won't notice if we join the 99.9% of all things that have ever lived and which are now extinct.

Don't save the planet.  Save the humans.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bikes and Flowers

My bike ready for action
My bike folded
in the trunk of 
my car.
It was warm today!  I unfolded my bike for the first time since last fall and my wife and I went for a ride along the rail trail through Avon and Farmington.

 Along the way I found some coltsfoot.  The blooms look similar to dandelions, but coltsfoot is a lot more interesting.

First of all, note the lack of leaves.  For a long time it was thought that the flowers that show up in early spring, and the 
Coltsfoot flower
leaves that don't show up until later, were from separate plants.  That just shows what happens when you don't pay attention.
Lots of coltsfoot flowers

The name of the plant comes from those leaves, which look like a small horse's hoof if you have enough imagination

The plant can be used to make a tea (and candy from the tea that tastes really good) that is very effective for coughs.  The scientific name for coltsfoot is Tussilago, which means a treatment for coughs.  That is the reason why an English plant is so common here.  People brought their medicinal plants with them.
Coltsfoot leaves, with a late
flower - pay attention!

In the days when most people couldn't read, a painting of a coltsfoot leaf over the door showed people where to buy their medicine.

Now it means that spring really is here!

Fad Diseases

I have become disturbed over the ideas of fad diseases - it seems like every kid is now autistic and everyone in the world has suddenly become glucose intolerant (peanut allergies are so last year).  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders provided by the American Psychiatric Association (the people who sell cures to the "diseases" that they list in their book), I personally have enough disorders to file massive lawsuits against previous employers for violations of the ADA.


Here is an essay from The Straight Dope, on "How did autism become the latest fad disorder?".  The creator of this site, Cecil Adams, has done an excellent job of answering the question:

How did autism become the latest fad disorder?
March 21, 2014
Dear Cecil:
Autism has gone from being a mental disorder to an absolute fad. NASCAR has run races named after it. It has its own “spectrum” for differential diagnosis. Movie stars and athletes brag about their children's autism. People with some condition in the “spectrum” write books bragging on themselves. It even has its celebrity cranks and medical quackery. When did autism get promoted from an unhappy malfunction of the brain to something special? Or is it, like the pink stuff for breast cancer, simply a result of aggressive and successful marketing? Does any of that marketing do anything for the people with autism and their families? Or, for that matter, further research into the condition with an eye to curing or at least improving it?
Cecil replies:

Nothing like a good rant, eh, Kathleen? But be careful. If you start going on obsessively about something long after everybody else has lost interest, someone’s going to diagnose you as autistic.

More precisely, they may claim you have Asperger's syndrome, one of the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) you refer to. Those with the syndrome, named after Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who characterized it in 1944, focus obsessively and lack social skills or empathy. At the same time — and here we see why this condition has become fashionable — often they also have above-average intelligence and become wildly successful due to their powers of concentration and willingness to trample everybody else.

One guy famously said to have a touch of Asperger’s is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose flat affect and general geekiness were caricatured inThe Social Network. Other tech moguls supposedly displaying the signs include Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Bram Cohen of BitTorrent, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

You may say: we should all be such mental cases.

Just my point. If a so-called mental disorder is defined so broadly that any number of self-made billionaires are believed to have it, the diagnosis is useless and needs to be rethought.

Some background. Autism was once believed to be rare, affecting no more than one in 2,000. There was no mistaking those who had it: they were severely withdrawn, incapable of normal conversation or interaction, and often exhibited oddball, sometimes violent behavior or fixations.

Starting in the mid-20th century, though, some psychiatrists began defining autism more broadly to include children with serious psychosocial disorders but more or less normal language skills. This culminated in the inclusion of Asperger’s disorder in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published in 1994.

In a rueful 2011 essay, Allen Frances, the psychiatry professor who chaired the DSM-IV task force, said he and his colleagues knew that once Asperger’s was declared an official mental illness, diagnoses of autistic disorders would rise sharply — to one in 1,000, maybe even one in 500.

Little did they know. ASD assessment is subjective, based on things like lack of eye contact, hand flapping, and poor language skills — there’s no physical test or scan. Clinicians began seeing ASDs everywhere. Today the Centers for Disease Control estimates about one in 88 people has an ASD. A South Korean study claims the rate in that country is one in 38, nearly 3 percent of the population.
Whoa, said alarmed skeptics. The point of declaring something a disorder is to identify those who need help, not sort out future computer science majors. They got the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's syndrome and other ASDs tightened in DSM-5, published last year. It’s thought 10 to 40 percent of those previously assessed with an ASD will no longer qualify.

We'll see how that works out, but a lot of damage has already been done. To cite an obvious case in point: With ASDs seemingly epidemic, people looked for something to blame. In 1998 a team led by British physician Andrew Wakefield published an article in the medical journal Lancet purporting to link ASDs to MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. TV personality Jenny McCarthy made headlines for years claiming not only that her son’s autism was caused by vaccinations, but that she’d successfully treated it with vitamins and diet. Wakefield’s article was ultimately discredited and retracted, but not before the MMR vaccination rate in the UK had dropped to 80 percent.

Autism advocates and parents of kids with honest-to-God cases of the disorder may say: OK, maybe ASDs have been overdiagnosed. So what? There’s strength in numbers, and the publicity has certainly raised autism awareness. The answer to that is: yes, but at the cost of obscuring the actual condition.

On the one hand you’ve got people thinking Asperger's syndrome is the mark of a future tech genius and thus nothing to worry about; on the other hand, if there actually were an environmental cause of autism, with so many false positives being reported we’d never know. The biggest favor activists could do for the objects of their benevolence is to make people understand: here are the signs you’ve got an autism spectrum disorder, and, equally important, here are the signs you don’t.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Two Flowers

This is a photograph of a native wildflower called trout lily.

There are several explanations about how it earned that name.  One is that the speckled leaves look like a speckled trout.  Another is that it blooms around the opening of trout season.

This year trout lily has opened today, the exact first day of trout season.  

Here is another native wildflower.  It is trailing arbutus, otherwise called mayflower.  It is the state flower of Massachusetts.   Its flowers opened yesterday, April 18. The flowers are tiny and hidden under the leaves.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Looking Down On Ruin

Today (April 18, 2014) is the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  

While the quake destroyed many buildings, fires from kitchen stoves and broken gas lines did most of the destruction.

Here is an aerial photograph taken from a kite soon after the quake.  Click on the photo to go to the USGS site and a zoomable copy of the photo.

And remember:  It WILL happen again.  Be prepared.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prove It. Backwards.

If something is hard to understand, try turning it upside down.

In the "argument" about climate change (accepting data vs. denying it), again and again the Americans For Prosperity (the Koch brothers' political front) have demanded proof that humans are responsible.
Kentucky Senator Paul Rand yesterday afternoon, speechifying in 
front of a banner showing who he works for.

The data are there, but that doesn't quiet those who profit from burning fossil fuels - like the Koch brothers.

So, look at things differently.

An analysis of temperature data since 1500 all but rules out the possibility that global warming in the industrial era is just a natural fluctuation in the earth's climate, according to a new study by McGill University physics professor Shaun Lovejoy.

In other words, there is no way that climate change as dramatic as has been seen in the last few centuries could be caused by natural fluctuations in nature.  

Lovejoy's study applies statistics to determine the probability that global warming since 1880 is due to natural variability. His conclusion: the natural-warming hypothesis may be ruled out "with confidence levels greater than 99%, and most likely greater than 99.9%."

See more information on the study by clicking here.

And, on another cheerful note, add a new member to the list of tropical diseases that followed warmer temperatures up north:  to Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and the insects that carry them, add chikungunya virus, which causes crippling pain and sometimes death.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Facts About Animals That Will Crack You Up

OK - I was going to post about the latest research on an asteroid 5 times larger than the one that killed the dinosaurs, that boiled the oceans and did other nasty things to anything alive on this planet at the time.

But I found something better.   You can read about killer asteroids striking the Earth here.

Now:  George Takei has posted a link on FaceBook to a YouTube series on animals.  They are absolutely .... hilarious... truthful.... horrid... funny funny funny.

Say What?
Check out the first one here: 


Monday, April 7, 2014

Join the Bad Neighbor Club!

It must be spring in Connecticut.  My mail and the airwaves are full of offers from people who want me to start my spring yard work, with their help of course.

Walking on this grass will kill you

Apparently, the most expensive and therefore most desirable lawn grass won't grow by itself in our climate, so it needs some help:  

The ground must be spread with lime to change the acidity.  
It must be spread with fertilizer to feed the grass.  
It must be spread with herbicides to kill anything that isn't grass.  
What an exciting bunch of boring!
It must be spread with insecticides to kill any insects that might be lurking underground.

If I do this, and water my lawn daily, and feed it and lime it and spread more poisons at frequent intervals, I will be rewarded with an uninteresting carpet of green that needs to be mowed constantly.
I'm a BAD neighbor!

And, if I let a dandelion bloom, marring the perfect green blandness of my lawn, then I am a BAD neighbor!

What I wouldn't have:
Carpet of white and blue WEEDS!

Carpets of blue and white and yellow flowers from April until June.  
Butterflies (which don't live on grass).
Birds (no insects for them to eat).
Bunnies (no weeds for them to eat).
Foxes, bobcats, and hawks that come to feed on the birds and bunnies that I wouldn't have.
Time to sit on my porch, drinking lemonade and watching the birds and flowers and butterflies and bunnies and occasional fox.
Many dollars that I would have wasted on all this.
Bunnies eat weeds

My wife and I just finished our yard work for the spring:  we raked the winter's accumulation of leaves out of the gardens and moved it to the mulch pile.  That's it.  It took about 2 hours.  Now there is nothing to do until the end of May when the lawn is ready for its first occasional mowing of the summer.  Except, of course, sit on the porch and drink lemonade and listen to the birds.

How did I do it?  It wasn't hard, although it did take an initial investment of time and a little money.
Violets brought home from
an abandoned field
Turkeys like the wooded borders

First, I allow most of my property to remain shrubs and trees.  I have privacy, shade, and a host of wild animals to amuse me.

Next, I thought of plants that that would suit my wants for a small amount of open space.  My requirements were simple.  They must grow all by themselves in my climate, without human help. They must be low-growing so I won't have to mow often.  Self-sowing plants are good because I don't have to plant many of them.  They must have attractive flowers.  Lawn care people call these plants weeds.  
Slender speedwell in with the violets

The basic background of my lawn is whatever grass came with the house and was tough enough to survive neglect.  To that I added wild violets from waste areas, slender speedwell likewise, clover (I bought a few pounds of white clover seed, food for honeybees and a plant with root bacteria that pull nitrogen from the air and fertilize the lawn for me), and wild thyme (I bought a few plants at a farmers market and turned them loose).  Broad-leaved plantain came in by itself, and is food for rabbits and several species of butterfly.  
Speedwell flowers
And yes, dandelions, with bright yellow flowers from earliest spring to warm days in winter.

Years ago a friend pointed out that if a lawn is planted with crocuses and other bulbs, then it is not possible to mow said lawn until the bulbs have died back.  I found a provider of bulk flowering bulbs (I use Van Engelen Bulbs, who provide discount prices for quality bulbs.  I choose varieties that naturalize easily, spreading out over
A lawn full of bulbs
the years.)  Now my lawn is my garden, and mowing is impossible until the middle of May (it used to be the end of May, but climate change and so forth...)

At this point, the edges of my property are wooded, then there are wild flowering shrubs, and then a small amount of green, self-sustaining lawn that needs no help at all from me except for a half-hour of mowing once or twice a month.
Species tulips

Working with nature, instead of against her, means flowers, the nice smell of wild thyme, bunnies, butterflies, birds, $avings, and lots of free time!
From my porch, I can see my neighbor working on his lawn.  He fertilizes, limes, poisons, and mows and mows and mows.  And his lawn looks like hell.  There is nothing but grass

- and bare patches.  My lawn is thick and green all summer, with little help from me.

Here is the nice, soft, thick lawn that requires nothing more than an occasional mowing.  It attracts birds, bunnies, and butterflies.

Here is a lawn that receives hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours of sweat.  Who needs it?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sunshine and Rain

After being held back for weeks by freezing cold and packed snow, nature has

literally burst forth in my yard.  5 days ago there was nothing but white.  Now there are a half-dozen species of bulbs sending up leaves and half of them are already blooming:  crocuses and scylla and snowdrops.

On this afternoon's walk I soaked up the sunshine and felt great, although I did not put out flowers.

And, just this morning I read about some research into health and body weight.  A new study shows that if you want to lose weight, just get a good dose of strong sunshine in the morning.  That resets your body's clock and keeps you healthy.

People who had most of their daily exposure to bright light in the morning had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than those who had most of their light exposure later in the day.  The influence of morning light on weight was independent of physical activity, caloric intake, sleep timing, age or season.

Morning sunshine

Unfortunately for those of you who are still in school or working, you are missing out on that sunshine.  Those indoor lights provide barely 20% of the light you would get outside even on a cloudy day.

At least now the sun is up early in the day, so if you can, walk or ride a bike to school or work.

And, while we are at it, watch out Yelp users.   After looking at 1.1 million online reviews for 840,000 restaurants in more than 32,000 cities across the country, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have found that the weather outside can be just as significant a factor for reviews as what happens inside a restaurant. The study shows evaluations written on rainy or snowy days, or very cold or hot days, are more negative than those written on nice days.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What I Didn't Teach

Katrina's eye, right over Mississippi
For years Hurricane Katrina was part of my science lessons.

How hurricanes form, how difficult it is to track them, what the heat of the Gulf of Mexico does to them, how Katrina wasn't even a hurricane by the time she hit New Orleans, what a storm surge is and how Katrina's filled up New Orleans like a bowl;  all of these things I covered.

What I never covered, and what the news media never covered, was what happened to the rest of the Gulf Coast, which was hit directly by a massive hurricane and a 30 foot storm surge (taller than Hall High School).
What used to be a residential community in Waveland, Mississippi.  No more.  Trees, houses, all wiped away.

Last month I visited a college friend that I had not seen in 40 years.  Tom lives in Biloxi.  He was the perfect host, driving me all over Biloxi, Christian Pass, and Waveland, showing me the sights.  Mostly what he showed me was huge expanses of empty coast - empty coast that had been covered with homes before August of 2005.

My friend's house had been severely damaged in the storm.  He told me about how he and his wife lived in a FEMA camp trailer for a year.  They pointed out building after building that was newly built after the storm.  They showed me pilings where homes had been blown away.

And then they sent me this link to photos of the area after the storm:


While the media showed video clip after video clip of New Orleans, the people of Mississippi were quietly rebuilding from total disaster.

Signs of Spring

Until last Sunday, 95% of my yard was covered by snow.  Then it rained for 3 days.  Now there are only a few drifts of snow left.

Honeybees are awake and searching for food.
Remember that pesticides kill honeybees, and
without honeybees we will have no fruit.
Yesterday afternoon I sat out on my porch for the first time in 2014.  I love that porch - it extends my home out into the neighborhood.  It lets me sit comfortably while I greet the neighbors, listen to the bird song, enjoy my gardens.

Where the snow is gone, there are crocuses blooming - small, half-wild crocuses that were just waiting for the snow to melt before they opened up.  Each crocus was attended by several honeybees.  The bees had also been waiting for the warmth to emerge from their hives.