Saturday, March 28, 2009

Washing Up and Turning Off

Another one of those glorious coincidences that ignite one of my various passions and bring on a rant showed up in this morning's Dallas Morning News. This is yet another good reason to keep engaging in the rapidly declining ritual (in most households, although not in ours) of reading the morning paper. I doubt if this would have happened were I reading the News online, with its annoying ads and its frenetically arranged page design. (And when I went to look for a link to the story, I couldn't even find it; this link is to the same article, by AP's Nicholas Geranios, in the Guardian.)

On page 7A (in the main section of the paper in what passes for a sort-of science-related issues area, under "Environment") I ran into a short piece on domestic smuggling. Of dishwasher detergent. Apparently, although phosphates in laundry detergents have been banned nationwide for over a decade, a ban on the use of phosphates in dishwasher detergents is only now being implemented in some states, including Washington, beginning with Spokane County. Cranky users of mechanical dishwashing devices, unhappy with the results of the newly-formulated detergents, have taken to slipping over the Idaho border--where phosphate-laden suds are still legal--and running them back to Spokane.

It's probably a good thing that Canada's been working on a similar ban, or maybe we'd be looking at a new international border incident involving phosphate-smuggling cartels.

The people doing this are absolutely shameless: "Yes, I am a smuggler," one woman asserts. "I'm taking my chances because dirty dishes I cannot live with." The article goes on to point out that possession isn't the crime; selling it would be. So if she plans to hold a car-boot sale after a run to Costco in Coeur d'Alene, she could be lookin' at fifteen to twenty. Or whatever the penalty is.

It's actually not all that funny. There are good reasons why laundry detergent phosphates were banned back in 1993 (Blue Green Algae being the most compelling; it can really muck up lakes and ponds, and unless you're planning on bringing new life forms into existence, we don't really need a lot of it growing in our water sources). What folks don't seem to have noticed is that since then, the home laundry industry has developed spiffy new machines that use much less energy and much less detergent, and the chemical people have answered with high-efficiency detergents that do a great job using a few tablespoonfuls of liquid. They've probably made a gazillion bucks doing it. I'm sure the dishwasher-makers are already hard at it, inventing new models, with dollar signs in their eyes.

At any rate, since the invention of dishwashers that can clean and process all the leftover carnage on your dinner plates if you're too lazy to rinse before you load, people have come to expect squeaky clean tableware even if they've left everything to rot for a couple of days before they turn it on. (And yes, I know about the arguments that dishwashers use less water, and that rinsing negates water savings, but I don't believe either of those claims because nobody's shown me any really good pie charts yet.)

If I seem snitty (even for me), it's because have never liked dishwashers. One came with my first house, and I did live in an apartment with one once, but for a middle-class person who's been around during most of the post-WWII era, that makes me downright odd. We didn't have one in Chicago. The house we lived in for several years in Dallas had a portable one, which we moved into the garage. This house doesn't have one, and unlike many buyers of old houses in this neighborhood, we didn't demand that one be installed before we'd buy (the absence of a dishwasher was actually a selling point in our case; there are two old-fashioned flour bins where most people would put a machine). We do occasionally get oppressed by dirty dishes when we're too tired to take care of the issue after a long hard day at the blackboard, but one of us usually digs in the next morning and gets the job done.

So after reading about people's detergent gripes (to which my initial response was to suggest that they throw the damned thing out and make room for a worm farm), I was pleased to turn a few pages and read Robert Kelly-Goss's nice little Viewpoints piece, "A Simple Ode to the Blessings of Simplicity," which turned out to be a paean to washing one's dishes by hand:

Standing before my old sink, full of hot, soapy water and dirty dishes, I turned to the right and slid in one of my favorite CDs. It's by a blues artist from around Memphis, Richard Johnson.

He goes on to describe the rest of his family's activities as he engages in his chore, and to extol the virtues of enjoying simple things.

I am not so young that I do not remember when things such as technology were simpler. And I am not so old that I have not embraced the rapid changes that portend to make life simpler.

He misses some of the same things I do--rotary telephones, electric typewriters (although I miss my old manual Olivetti portable), and, like me, seems to have achieved a balance that enables him to take advantage of e-mail and CD players, but eschew stuff that just doesn't seem all that useful. Unlike him, I don't much care for soundtracks when I'm working; I'd rather look out the window and watch the birds on the feeder, or the dogs frolicking away in the yard. I will however, admit that NASA TV is presently running in the background as I type; I'm keeping track of the re-entry and descent of STS-119 as it comes home to Florida.

Some of my best memories involve washing up after a meal at my grandmother's house, or after a gathering of friends in Chicago, and enjoying the kind of communion among loved ones that can happen only when working together on tasks that might otherwise be disagreeable. That sort of thing can happen, I suppose, with a dishwasher, but I suspect that the dishwashing scene in Rachel Getting Married is probably more common--especially since writer Jenny Lumet based the scene on one she had witnessed as a child between her father, Sidney Lumet, and choreographer Bob Fosse.

In a few minutes, after I've posted this ramble and graded a few more final exams, I'll go wash this morning's few dishes and utensils so that I can start with a clean kitchen when I prepare a welcome-home dinner for Beloved Spouse who's been coaching the Men's team down in San Antonio since yesterday morning. He'll notice that the dishes are done, as we always do when someone else has taken on the job. Somehow I don't think that would happen if a dishwasher were involved. (Oh, gee, Honey. Thanks for pushing the button that turns the machine on!)

And now I'm going to devote the next few minutes to watching Discovery land at the Kennedy Space Center. I think washing dishes by hand helps balance all that technology, too.

Speaking of technology, don't forget to turn off as many lights as possible tonight at 8:30 local time, for Earth Hour. I doubt if anything significant will change in my neck of the woods, but if the giant vapor light in the alley goes off for an hour I will be happier than I've been since it burnt out a couple of years ago and didn't get replaced for several weeks. One of the biggest pollutants human beings have managed to create is the artificial light that makes it virtually impossible for us to see stars and planets in urban and suburban areas. Earth Hour is designed to give us an idea of what we've lost, by giving a little of it back for a few minutes once a year. I just wish the movement would inspire more cities to do what McKinney's neighbor, Fairview, has done, and adopt a Dark Skies initiative "to limit glare, reduce unnecessary light, and control other light pollution."

If somebody would just get rid of all the huge, visually "noisy" street lamps in this town, I might even get to see the Space Shuttle or the ISS fly by once in awhile--like I got to see satellites over my home town when I was kid. Before dishwashers were even invented.

Photo credits: The opening shot is of my kitchen sink; the rich lady up the street lusts after it because it would fit perfectly in the big Queen Anne she's painstakingly restoring--probably as a museum. The Blue Green Algae shot, Efflorescence Vert, is by Lamiot via Wikimedia Commons. The Earth Hour poster is one of the organization's downloads.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Equinox

I simply love the fact that my house is an equinox clock. The sun gets far enough north to rise and shine in that window on the vernal equinox every year. It disappears from the window on the autumnal equinox.

Even though we've lived here for nearly nine years, I've always suspected that it was simply a coincidence. I almost confirmed that this year, because I thought the spring equinox was supposed to occur on Saturday, March 21. But at sunrise on March 20, there was that big old sun peeking through the bushes in front of my dusty window--and when I checked the paper I discovered that the spring had sprung officially, and my house-clock was working perfectly.

This has got to go down in history as one of the crappiest Skywatch Friday entries ever, but it has a certain screeny, caught-almost-accidentally, quality. I had to run for the camera, and this was the best I could do.

Happy Spring, everybody. And happy Skywatch Friday. Have a great weekend.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's About Bloody Time

Here's the deal. According to the Associated Press, Texas leads in CO2 emissions and "cranks out more than the next two biggest producers combined, California and Pennsylvania, which together have twice Texas’ population." This is largely because Texas relies so heavily on coal and coal-related energy sources. Despite this fact, however, if one looks at a map that sorts out who's doing what about emissions, the Lone Star State shines in its lack of any action at all.

The situation may be changing, according to a front-page story in today's Dallas Morning News, "Texas is taking a greater interest in global warming." At last. But don't hold your breath, because the legislature of the Don't Tell Me How to Sit in My Car State will take its sweet time in getting around to doing anything, and it'll only do it at all because it faces federal sanctions if it doesn't clear up some of the most polluted skies in the nation.

Population-wise, Texas is heavy in libertarian values, and this fosters a notion that we can take care of ourselves and the gummint has no bidness tellin' us how to do our bidness. And if any program is going to cost taxpayer money, well, y'all can just count us out. Hack, hack, cough, cough.

Back when I was teaching logic at UT Dallas (in the '90s), one of my best students was a tattooed fella who wore leathers and a bandanna to class every week. He was a pre-law student whose sole purpose in life was to become a lawyer in order to help repeal the Texas law that required motorcyclists to wear helmets. By the middle of the semester, however, the helmet law was already off the books, and I never saw the guy again.

Folks around here just don't like being told what's good for them, even if the consequences of their actions cost the rest of us money and lives. But now, since it looks like Texas will be able to make some cash on pollution trading rights, something--probably not the best thing--is bound to happen.

So don't go looking for radical change, despite Boone Pickins's efforts to convert us all to wind power over coal and nukes. But if you want to try to do something, in addition to conservation voting, sign up for Green Mountain Energy (the only 100% wind choice we have in the state; this isn't a shill, either; they're who we use)--even though it costs a little more--and keep up the conservation measures: lower electricity use, and adopt full-time gas-saving measures year-round.

I'm still putting along at 60 mph in the center lane of the expressway (even though gasoline is down to about $1.85 a gallon this week), and combining trips as much as possible, and the old Civic's up to a consistent 37 mpg since its 90,000 mile checkup. Since I'm seeing fewer Hummers on the road these days, the economy may be behind the fact that folks aren't trying to honk me off the road, and there are quite a number of drivers using the same measures. I'm thinking silver lining here . . . .

In some ways, the state's independent (or, as we Firefly fans say it, "innapennant") spirit can be helpful. We don't really have to wait for the legislature to get on the ball. We can do our own part, and (in addition) alert our congressfolk that we really want to see Texas join the group of states who recognize the problem and who are willing to do something about the part we're responsible for.

To really help the situation, of course, home-use solar and wind technologies have to become affordable for those of us middle-income types who can't invest thousands in solar panels and wind generators. Even though many of these technologies pay for themselves within a reasonable number of years, the up-front costs are simply too high to make them economically viable options for most of us.

If you're interested in where your state and/or county stands in the statistics of climate change, check out the calculators on the Pollution Locator, where you can find out how particular communities measure up. You can punch in a zip code and see how your county stacks up--and then locate the official state, local, and federal contacts to make your concerns known. They might even be in a more receptive mood at the moment.

Image credits: The opening shot is from the Environmental Defense Fund's 2006 article on TXU's plan to build 11 coal-fired plants; the Greenhouse Gas by Sector chart is by Robert A. Rohde and is part of the Global Warming Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Seeing Trees

During this week's lecture in History of Art & Design, I emphasized the use of chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow, in Baroque painting--especially in the works of Caravaggio, Artemesia, and other Italian masters of the moment.

While reviewing my slides for the lecture, even though most of the discussion would focus on figures, I started thinking about John Ruskin, and, in particular, the chapter in Modern Painters, "Of Truth of Chiaroscuro," and his description of how to see the configuration of branches on trees:

Go out some bright sunny day in winter, and look for a tree with a broad trunk, having rather delicate boughs hanging down on the sunny side, near the trunk. Stand four or five yards from it, with your back to the sun. You will find that the boughs between you and the trunk of the tree are very indistinct, that you confound them in places with the trunk itself, and cannot possibly trace one of them from its insertion to its extremity. But the shadows which they cast upon the trunk, you will find clear, dar, and distinct, perfectly traceable through their whole course, except when they are interrupted by the crossing boughs. And if you retire backwards, you will come to a point where you cannot see the intervening boughs at all, or only a fragment of them here and there, but can still see their shadows perfectly plain. Now, this may serve to show you the immense prominence and importance of shadows where there is anything like bright light. They are, in fact, commonly far more conspicuous than the thing which casts them . . .(Volume I Part II Section II, Chapter III--the guy was very organized in his thinking).

This must have been in the back of my mind all winter, because for otherwise inexplicable reasons, I've been taking a large number of pictures of bare tree branches against the sky.

I may also have been inspired by a dim recollection of one of Ruskin's drawing exercises, included in his The Elements of Drawing, a Dover paperback copy of which I picked up at Half Price Books a few years ago and once planned to go through systematically to test out Ruskin's teaching expertise (I've been a cocky broad all my life; why stop now?). In Exercise VI from the first chapter ("On First Practice") he suggests the following:

Choose any tree that you think pretty, which is nearly bare of leaves, and which you can see against the sky, or against a pale wall, or other light ground: it must not be against strong light, or you will find the looking at it hurt your eyes; nor must it be in sunshine, or you wll be puzzled by the lights on the boughs. But the tree must be in shade; and the sky blue, or grey, or dull white. A wholly grey or rainy day is the best for this practice (pp. 39-40).

He then suggests following the lines of the branches and their interstices "as if they were little estates which you had to survey, and draw maps of" (p. 40). Now this appeals to two of my interests: maps and trees, so it may well be behind this weird winter avocation.

Nevertheless, the results appear here, as this week's Skywatch Friday offerings.

A pecan tree in the foreground, with a vapor trail interfering.

A sycamore tree next door, with its little seed balls hanging down like ornaments, against a gloomy sky.

Pecan trees after an ice storm. The little bit of orange in the top center is fungus:

And finally, a sunset shot toward the west, with an admixture of our trees and neighbors':

There are many more; but I'm inspired now to go do some mapping. Ruskin's well worth a read, even if you're not much for Victorian prose. He's affected us more than we usually realize, and I'm happy to have a chance to bring him up.

Have a great Skywatch Friday.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Smaller, Better, Wiser

I watched a News Hour broadcast the other night about some of the things American troops are doing in Afghanistan to help win the war for hearts and minds. And although I do think there is a military role beyond blowing things up (accidentally or not), I was a bit disturbed by the description of some of the aid work U. S. Forces are engaged in.

PBS's Margaret Warner has been reporting from Afghanistan all week, and I appreciate the perspective she's providing. But in her Reporter's Notebook piece for the segment on the Nebraska National Guard "Sodbusters" Agri-business Development initiative, she describes their work as follows:

This is the soft side, the warm face, of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, an exercise in nation-building (not reconstruction but building anew) designed to help this agrarian society -- among the five poorest on the planet -- leapfrog into the 21st century. It's a tall order, in a country where the literacy rate hovers at about 25 percent. The gameplan is to help the Afghans develop the economic and social wherewithal to withstand the blandishments, ideology and threats of the Taliban and its array of insurgent allies.

For that, the Army and National Guard units have deployed ADTs and PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams), augmented by experts from the State Department and other agencies, to build bridges and roads and help the Afghans develop their skills at earning a living, governing and managing their own affairs.

This sounds well-intentioned and certainly indicates a more productive use of our soldiers. But it's also just too big.

Why are we talking about "leapfrogging" into the twenty-first century when these people have been denied, through both our efforts and those of the Russians, the gradual development of their own ways of life, and a more natural progress toward integration of tradition with new technologies? Why are we even talking "agri-business" here instead of sustainability?

In our own country the family farms that formed the backbone of the Republic are being driven out of existence by the Big Bidness Giant Farm Conglomerate types who worship at the altar of Monsanto and other chemical companies bent on genetic modification and patenting of seeds stolen from traditional farmers in other parts of the world. Why on earth would we want to subject Afghanistan to even more manipulation of their traditional ways of maintaining their land and their livestock than they've put up with since before the Soviet invasion?

For multiple generations, Afghan farming communities withstood drought and meteorological misadventure by using methods that worked for them. Part of what has made the Taliban successful in this region is that they don't threaten these ties to the past. (For a brief history of the bad policies--ours and those of the former Soviet Union--that led to this mess in the first place, see my post about Saving Ariana from a few weeks ago.) I had hoped that we had learned something from our mistakes, but it looks now as if good intentions are getting in the way of good sense. There are programs that show promise, but I can't see that trying to turn a neolithic economy into a post-nuclear agricultural machine overnight is going to win us any long-term allies.

Instead of building infrastructure these folks might not be able to maintain, encouraging wanton growth, and addicting farmers to chemical fertilizers and modern mega-farming techniques, we need to be starting small, and working within traditional parameters. "Infrastructure" should mean wells, low-tech sanitary systems, simple solar technologies (like solar ovens), reliable, renewable energy sources, and food-storage facilities--not fancy paved highways and bridges in seismically unstable areas.

Help these people do what they already know how to do, and protect the aid workers who are trying to build sustainable communities--rather than making them dependent on high-dollar foreign technologies grounded in foreign values. The wise path is not paved with concrete; it's worn by goats and sheep and herdsmen, and maintained by men, women, and children who have worked the land since long before our ancestors left the coasts of Europe have their way with this continent.

The last time I looked, we weren't doing such a great job in our own twenty-first century economy. Maybe we could learn something from the Afghanis.

Image credit: Northwestern Afghanistan, by Koldo Hormaza, via Wikimedia Commmons.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Skywatch Friday: The Full Worm Moon

I think I'm finally getting the hang of this Skywatch Friday thing. I'm not really one for joining in many of the games bloggers play, but I love the idea of this one; last week over 300 people posted pictures of the sky on their blogs, and some were quite lovely. One does get an idea of what skies are like all over the world once a week--and it's rather reassuring, for reasons I don't quite understand.

When I first found out about this through Arija's blog (from South Australia), Garden Delights, I posted clumsily, and thought I'd put an image and icon on the sidebar every week--over there by the astronomy and geology stuff. But the pictures there are tiny and can't be enlarged unless you link them to a larger image online, so I decided to go ahead and make this a once-a-week ritual, trying to be sure the photos (I take a lot of sky pictures) are reasonably topical, but when they're not, I'll post my favorites.

This week's is part of an ongoing project, and it's something of a miracle (in my sense of the word: a happy chance and confluence of possibilities). Since October of last year I've been trying to photograph each named full moon for a year. I was pretty sure it was going to end on Tuesday night, because skies in Dallas were completely clouded over and it had rained while I was teaching. I called Beloved Spouse from school and asked him if he could see the moon (we live about 30 miles north of Dallas). He said it was iffy, that the moon was peeking in and out of the clouds, but he would try. When I arrived home at around 10 pm, it was to some disappointment, because he hadn't been able to get the shot.

Just before I went to bed, however, I decided to take one last look. The clouds were moving pretty quickly, and some clear spots were on their way. I could tell where the moon was, so I grabbed the camera and stood out in the cold, waiting. As the moon appeared, I took a series of quick snaps (no tripod to keep things steady), and got a couple of decent ones--although this one seems best at the moment. A couple of the others have possibilities, but will need a little doctoring in PhotoShop, and I don't have time now--but this is the real deal, anyway. Unedited, pure, and spontaneous.

So happy Skywatch Friday, folks. There's a linked icon over on the side bar, and a copy of my previous week's offering. The Full Worm Moon*, by the way, is so-named, according to Spaceweather, because "It signals the coming of northern spring, a thawing of the soil, and the first stirrings of earthworms in long-dormant gardens. Step outside tonight and behold the wakening landscape. 'Worm moonlight' is prettier than it sounds." And indeed it is. Taking the photo gave me an opportunity to enjoy the drama associated with clouds and light in the night sky.

Just for the pure wonderfulness of it, here's a NASA photo of Discovery, waiting on the launchpad in the light of this same moon. The launch has been delayed until Sunday, but the picture was too good to resist.

*Some almanacs say the Worm moon comes in February, but Spaceweather's my bible in this regard, so I go by what they say.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring Is Icumen In

The weather gadget on my desktop tells me it's 67 degrees and cloudy. It's already the second day of that abomination we call "daylight savings time," but I'm still discombobulated. So, to cheer myself up I went out looking for signs of spring--especially since it's going to get chilly during the week and may ever freeze again by Friday. I still haven't read the paper this morning, because I was sidetracked by the new Smith and Hawken catalogue: garden porn. Anyway, spring seems to be springing. And how.

The last of the daffodils is hiding behind the remains of last year's sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, not the true variety, Uniola paniculata), which I need to pull out before they turn the entire property into amber waves of grain. The rest of the daffy-down-dillies are spent, as are the paperwhites that made it so pleasant to sit in the sunny garden a couple of weeks ago.

But the wisteria catkins are already beginning to bloom, so by the weekend the back fence should be awash with purple. I've let the stuff grow wild, primarily because our back fence looks like crap. A few years ago it was wonderful, because we had bought rolls of willow screen to hide the alley. But since then it's deteriorated and when people walk their dogs in said alley, our dogs go nuts and attack the fence, so it's shredded and rather ugly, and needs to be taken out. Spring break is coming up for Beloved Spouse, so that'll be his chore.

As if all the buds and blooms weren't enough, I'm being entertained by an adamant sparrow, determined to use a twig of dry sea oats for his nest. The twig probably weighs as much as he does, and messes with his aerodynamics, so he's not being very successful. A pair of starlings (one of whom appears in the picture at left) is also building a nest in one two emptied knots in the pecan tree outside my window. The squirrels are giving them fits about it; but every year the birds are at it again, despite the hole's accessibility to marauders and proximity to human activity.

The fig trees are beginning to produce leaves around their buds, promising a decent crop. Another chore for Beloved Spouse is to clear out the dead branches before the new growth is completely leafed out, so it will be easier to harvest the fruit before the mockingbirds snitch it all. I'd like to have enough figs for a confit this year, as well as for enjoying directly from the tree.

Pears and peaches are in bloom, and have been for nearly a week. Pear blossom petals are already starting to blow across the driveway, drifting in front of the window like snowflakes. Our Redbud (the image that opens the post was taken from below, looking into the cloudy sky), which is in decline, is nonetheless blooming and littering the front driveway with little pink splotches. Last year when this happened, the late, much lamented Biscuit rolled in the petals and covered himself with confetti. I wish I'd gotten a shot of that.

The muscarii, a small number of which I enherited from the old gal who used to own the house, have naturalized to such an extent that they nearly cover the front yard. But they're most plentiful on the north side of the house where they and the ajuga (one small bud is already out; see below) have taken over, and there's very little grass left.

That's fine with me, and when I'm able I'm going to liberate the irises next to fence in front of the kitchen window, and replant them in less structured places. Flagstones will be added for a path, and it should be rather pretty. Some unidentified bushes we transplanted there last year from outside the study's west window didn't make it, so they'll have to be composted. The scion of the original peach tree is finally blooming; it's a different variety from the one pictured above, and buds later. It bore a few peaches last year, so I'll take better care of it this year and maybe get some jam out of it.

The ilex variety (not sure which one, but could be Ilex vomitoria--lovely name--Yaupon holly, which seems to be The Holly of Choice in these parts) that grows tall and fat along the north and west walls of the house (and hides our bad paint from casual observers) is covered with new berry-growth. They'll eventually be big and bright red, and the birds feast on them all winter. I will have to cut some of it back again, but the great thing about this holly is that it provides privacy but lets light in because it stands away from the house, leaning outward a bit. I can walk behind it, and it doesn't block the morning sun, even though one can barely see the front windows hidden behind it.

In the front border, only a bit of salvia is blooming. A little clump of pinks (red ones) I stuffed under a huge coleus plant (long gone) in my big red ceramic pot on the front stoop last summer has come out of winter intact. Since I only have a month before I start the whole valve-replacement process, little will get done to spruce things up, so I'm enjoying what's here, now.

Which probably isn't a bad plan, really. All things considered.

Update, 10 March 2009: I should have added "Lhude sing Who Cooks For You?" to the title of the post, in keeping with the old English rhyme. The barred owls were out in force this morning, beginning a long competition for mates. Their calls are distinctive enough that I know there are at least two males, one who seems to have a frog in his throat. They were somewhere else in the neighborhood, but it's only a matter of time before their less melodic vocalizations start occurring right outside my window. Also, I added a picture of the starling outside his nest.