Thursday, February 25, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Shadows and Reflections

My innate reluctance to accept new technologies is frequently assuaged by the sheer handiness of some devices, even though their character changes almost as soon as I finally give in.

Such is the case with my first-generation iPhone. The new ones have a better camera and can do all manner of nifty things. So could this one, probably, if I ever really learned how to use all its features. But having even a 2 megapixel camera is rather handy, and I no longer have to carry the "big camera" around in order to take advantage of every Nikon moment.

I often find myself on the fourth floor of our building when the sun's in an interesting spot, usually near sunset. The opening shot was taken from my classroom last week, when I noticed that the light was really dramatic, and the reflections and shadows on our new parking garage were especially cool.

The image below was taken a couple of months ago from inside the library, which accounts for the reflection of the fluorescent light banks superimposed on the reflection of the setting sun on the building next door. One of the best things about sky-watching is that it makes one notice it both as background and subject.

That's all, Folks. But have a happy Skywatch Friday, and many thanks again to the Team for all their hard work wrangling us all together.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Birds of Winter

All of these photos were taken a few weeks ago, before the snow. But since then, all but the hawk have been hanging around--along with more robins than I've ever seen. As usual, the sky provides the perfect background for bird pictures.

I didn't take part in last weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count, but if I had the number of robins alone would have signaled some kind of weirdness--perhaps the kind Thomas Friedman was talking about this week in the New York Times, and that I ranted about in The Owl of Athena yesterday. Whatever the cause, the year's bird visitations have been odd.

The bloody cedar waxwings keep coming back and contributing rather un-artful decorations to any horizontal surface they happen to roost over. The color of droppings depends on the berries they ingest, but since they were stripping the privet all weekend, most of the fresh "bird lime" was purple. They've pretty much exhausted the pyracantha and nandina, which left orange highlights. The shot below shows them roosting in a Chinaberry tree next door--these berries are now too dessicated to add any color--but in spring they're purple, too, and they make birds drunk.

My coolest visitor over the last month has been a young sharp-shinned hawk. My vocally talented border collie/basset mix, Arlo (who can imitate a barred owl), has a special bark to announce the hawk's presence, and I've been able to catch him a couple of times waiting patiently for the unwary squirrels that plague my yard, or the occasional cotton rat. Squirrels may be absolutely brilliant at getting into bird feeders, but they're incredibly stupid when they're young, and the hawk got at least one of them while he was hanging around.

The shots below show him front, back, and (not very clearly) in flight.

My feeders and suet cages attract mostly English sparrows and cardinals (I have three cardinal pairs at the moment) and pigeons and mockingbirds and jays. But skittish little Carolina wrens and goldfinches sneak in when the others aren't hogging things--and I've put some treats for them away from the fray. Flickers and downy woodpeckers, and a few nuthatches and titmouses (mice?) show up, too. What I have missed, though, for several years now, are the little slate-colored junkoes and the song sparrows that were backyard regulars when my children were growing up. We'd even get meadowlarks on occasion--but not any more.

When the kids were little, we could get out of Plano in five minutes. Now you practically have to drive up to the Red River to see real open land. McKinney, where we live now, was out in the middle of nowhere. My children attended a Montessori school on a single-lane gravel road amidst open prairie, and we'd see roadrunners and all manner of raptors on the way.

That school is long gone, and the prairie filled in with tract houses and six-lane roads and strip malls. The dwindling forest cover is making every hawk sighting a special event--and makes me truly happy that I let what was once a pesticide-laden garden plot go wild. It's only about the size of an urban yard, but it gives me a small carbon sink and provides some good shelter and forage for 'possums and hawks and other beasties. It also limits the amount of open sky I get to see from here, but the sacrifice is, I think, well worth it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Pradera Nevada

No, I haven't escaped Texas. The title of the post is just my lame attempt to take off on "sierra nevada" or "snowy mountain range" to create "snowy prairie." We haven't seen much of the sky during the last 48 hours, but it's always good for background.

Y'all in the East are probably pretty sick of snow by now, but we here in the southern Midwest generally get a bit giddy about falling flakes--at least until it's time to drive somewhere. The only folks in Texas who know how to negotiate snow in a motor vehicle are those who come from somewhere that sees the white stuff more often than we do.

This is our second measurable snowfall of the year, and it's a beut: records were set all over north Texas, and probably what hit us is already on its way to muck up things even worse on the East coast. We measured between eight and nine inches in our back yard, and I got enough snow pictures over the last two days to last a while.

Six years ago we had our last good snowfall, also on Valentine's weekend. It was the same week we got the puppies, and watching their little bodies flopping around in snow as deep as they were tall produced much hilarity. My daughter and I braved the weather to fly to California to see my father for the last time before he died about a week later. It was a bittersweet weekend altogether, but at least Daddy was alert and able to eat some of the lasagna I made for everyone. I took the puppy-frolicking film with me and had it developed at the local Walmart so he could see how cute they were.

I'm sure my littlest owlet is thinking pretty much the same thoughts as she looks out over a snowy Dallas skyline this morning.

As in most things, moderation is always preferable to excess. I've lived in Philadelphia and Chicago during winters where two feet of snow would drop predictably a couple of times a winter. The city would relax for a day and then get back to work, which can happen when you don't depend so much on cars for transportation. Here, it only takes a few inches for things to grind to a halt. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as I sit typing without the din of traffic seeping in. The only noise is bird chirping, the background hum of the furnace, the occasional crackle of a log on the fire, and "puppies" snoring away after a morning romp.

By tomorrow, most of it will be gone, and things will be back to more-or-less normal; the Beloved Spouse will be working a tennis tournament, and the high should be in the upper 40s. I imagine things will be a bit different in Philadelphia and DC.

Happy Skywatch Friday, People. And I hope the snowbound Easterners make it through.

Photo notes: The opening shot was taken yesterday, in the blue of late evening. I took the other two this morning. Both were taken with the Nikon D80 on auto.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Space Dreams

As faithful and devoted a space-junkie as I am, and as disappointed as I am that human presence in space will be limited to the ISS in the near future, I have to admit that shelving man-on-the-moon programs and costly (both environmentally and fiscally) shuttle launches may be the best thing that's happened to the space program in years.

Many of us who escape being earth-bound only by means of science-fiction enduced flights of fancy have actually hoped that the focus on near-earth orbit ventures would at some point give way to more adventurous and potentially interesting projects, like Mars visits and bigger, better, badder telescopes and data-gathering technologies. Before I die I would really like to know a lot more about what's outside our solar system. Although I don't expect this to happen, I'd also love to be alive when the first explorers set foot on Mars.

The February 8 editorial in the New York Times (a follow-up to the story on February 1 about proposed budget cuts and changes for NASA) lays out the proposed plans beautifully, many of which may turn out to get us where I'd like to see us go.

Although space travel and moon landings have a way of inspiring people, as they did in the sixties, they also tend to bring out international oneupsmanship, as they did in the fifties. What we need now is co-operation, and there's really no reason at all why Russia can't take over the task of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station once it's complete. The European Space Agency and private firms are also perfectly viable sources of potential space exploratory vehicles and technology. We could certainly focus on thinking and planning before we worry too much more about building--especially since the kinds of technologies we'd need to get beyond low-earth orbit involve (at least in part) the same kind of digital wizardry that's brought us millions of Toyota recalls.

The United States has always fused adventure with pragmatism, cloaking visits to the moon in promises of "useful" products (Tang, Teflon). But interest in gimmicks has died down a bit (Tang tasted awful and was full of crap we shouldn't be ingesting; Teflon infuses our food with more crap we shouldn't be ingesting). The successes don't seem to have provided all that much in the way of revolutions in consumer goods. Freeze-dried strawberries (they did get that right) probably aren't a big enough payback for what we're pouring into NASA's budget. In tough economic times, people's imaginations tend to wither. Rather like freeze-dried strawberries.

For nearly three decades I have watched Shuttle launches, monitored NASA's website during missions, mourned lost astronauts, and envied everyone who's gone up. But I've also hated the idea that they had to leave the planet riding huge fossil-fuel filled towers of incendiary chemicals. It's always seemed to me that if we're so smart, we ought to be able to figure out a way to "slip the surly bonds of earth" without mucking up the atmosphere or risking the lives of everyone on board the vehicles being shot into space like ammunition.

Perhaps a respite and an effort to reinvigorate the very idea of space exploration isn't such a bad idea. And it does give me an incentive to stay well, so I'll be around for whatever discoveries come from it all. What I do fear in the hiatus, however, is a lessening of educational focus on astronomy and space, without the wonder of a shuttle launch to remind our children of how seriously cool space exploration really is.

In Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo award-winning novel, Spin, the earth is enveloped in a sort of time blanket, outside of which the universe ages precipitously, and inside of which an artificial sun is the only feature to be seen in the sky. When the "spin" ends, a generation has already grown up that hasn't ever seen the stars. My only real fear about losing the current focus on moon-landings and "local" exploration is that we may be fostering a generation of children with little interest in "outer space." Still, I was ten years old when Sputnik was launched, and have been a staunch fan of the universe ever since. Perhaps a few years won't make all that much difference. To take a look at what's still going on, it wouldn't hurt to visit the NASA Current Missions page. It's actually pretty reassuring.

Image credit: Launch of STS 130, 8 February 2010. NASA gallery.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Barbarians At The Gates

Every now and then a book comes along that not only reaffirms my faith in humanity, but confirms the conclusions at which I've arrived over my well-over-half-a-century life on this planet.

The other day I stopped by the "new in paperpback" table at Barnes and Noble, where I spotted Ellen Sandbeck's new book, Green Barbarians. It only took a single glance at the cover for me to realize that I'd happened on a kindred spirit--and one I can't believe I hadn't heard of before, since the list of her previously published books should have come to my attention by now: Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles: Amusing and Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Housekeeping and Gardening; Eat More Dirt: Diverting and Instructive Tips for Growing and Tending an Organic Garden; Organic Housekeeping; and Green Housekeeping.

She also runs a vermiculture business at LaVerme's Worms. I felt automatic kinship, being myself the daughter of a vermiculturist. Well, sort of. According to my grandmother, my father once sold worms to fishermen in Big Pine, under the sign, "Worms, Tom." A worm composter is in my future, I can already tell.

At any rate, this newest book gives me permission, backed by scads of research and evidence, to do what I've been doing for most of my life. It also supports my contention that the environment in which I grew up has helped me to remain relatively healthy in spite of my crappy cardiac genes and all the toxic gunk the modern world seems bent on tossing my way.

Sandbeck urges us to throw away our hand sanitizer, eschew fears of rampant germs, trash our deodorants and air fresheners, and "live bravely" on our home planet: music to my ears, and fresh air to my phthalate-clogged nasal passages.

I can now go forth to the Facilities guy at school and present him with documentation that the "perfume launchers" positioned outside the elevators will, in fact, interfere with the sexual development of any children that come in contact with them, and cause all manner of breathing problems to those forced to breath in artificial cinnamon particulates, or what I've dubbed "Eau de Los Angeles Bus Terminal Bathroom." I spent several weeks during my first Texas exile riding Greyhound buses to California and back, and grew quite used to (albeit not fond of) the aroma of the ubiquitous toilet-freshener cakes. Anyway, I needed some ammunition to support my claim that these instruments not only don't smell all that great, but are actually bad for us, and now Sandbeck has successfully armed me.

There is also support for my frequent contentions that living near an open sewer in Taipei probably inoculated me against just about every bug Asia has to offer--including seasonal varieties of influenza (and probably even H1N1). We lived around chickens and pigs in various places in and around Taipei, and undoubtedly inhaled every virus then in circulation--most of which make the rounds every few years. Most Americans never come in contact with honey buckets or pigs or even chickens, and this may explain the high rates of H1N1 deaths in the United States, compared with Asia. I checked and found out that the U.S. has suffered a higher rate of mortality (35.28 percent of cases) than a whole slew of Asian countries combined (I counted totals from Mongolia, China, North and South Korea, and Malaysia, whose total mortality rate is around 27 percent).

Despite warnings against doing so, I also frequently went barefoot in Taiwan. I did, as warned, catch round worms at one point, and then overcame them, as did most natives. But my gut has behaved as if shielded with cast iron since, and I've rarely been visited with intestinal critters of any sort. My general good health (as compared with someone undernourished) allowed my body to overcome the critters that sought to use it as an incubator.

Green Barbarians covers a considerable amount of ground, including our cultural timidity about dirt and odor, our current preoccupation with antimicrobial hand cleaners, and even our absurd, almost religious obsession with youthful looks. Sandbeck quite successfully rubs our noses in it all, convincingly enough that I will be a great deal more careful about what I put on my lips (to avoid my tendency to look like a corpse) than about how much dirt I get on my hands.

There are many reasons why we shouldn't be so concerned about cleanliness, not the least of which is that we use enormous amounts of water to flush away body waste, clean our dishes, brush our teeth, bathe our bodies, and prettify our landscapes. A healthy respect for dirt and what it can do for us (instead of to us), would make us all better dwellers on this planet. It might also help keep us from poisoning ourselves and our surroundings in our efforts to make things all clean and shiny.

So any of my students who want to complain about my edict against fragrance in the classroom, beware: I now have even better reasons for threatening dire consequences if you marinate yourself in cologne. Also, you'll have much more money to buy books if you stop buying expensive cosmetics, body sprays, air fresheners, and toilet bowl cleaners. Invest in a good bar of Castile soap and a jug of white vinegar, get more exercise to brighten your cheeks, and we'll all be happier and healthier.

Neither Sandbeck nor I are saying that you shouldn't wash your hands to prevent the spread of disease, or that you shouldn't bathe once in a while. But too little dirt is probably even worse than too much. And we only have to look at the lovey microbes that open this post to remember that there are positive and negative results to be realized from the organisms that populate this earth. We wouldn't be green (or even here at all) were it not for cyanobacteria--but too much of it leads to algal blooms and pond death. What we really need is to keep things in balance.

Read this book; it will change your life.

Image credit: this light micrograph of Cyanobacteria from Guerrero Negro, Baja California, Mexico, was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Vojtěch Dostál. More lovely views of tiny organisms are available on NASA's light micrograph page.