Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

Well, you know those grandiose plans you make toward the end of the year, swearing that this time, you’ll get everything done and you’ll be able to celebrate the new year in peace? Yeah. Where to begin?

Firstly, you may note that for all of the promises to keep going with the Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions, the world intruded. Specifically, the latest stomach virus came through. The nicest thing that could be said about this is that at least when Stephen King wrote the novel The Stand, he had the decency to make his killer virus a respiratory flu. If it had been the stomach bug that went around last week, his editor would have read about twenty pages in, attempted to beat him to death with a pool cue, and then gone after his agent with a bowling trophy. The moans of misery, the hallucinations, the house looking as if Hunter S. Thompson had camped out in the living room for a month…when friends asked afterward what happened and I simply said “We call it…’The Aristocrats‘!”, they understood.

(A very disturbing point that came up when discussing this was how many people mistake the documentary The Aristocrats for the Disney animated film The Aristocats when getting a copy for their kids via NetFlix. Truthfully, I’m not surprised: nearly 30 years ago, when Don Johnson’s star was on the rise with Miami Vice, I was told over and over by Johnson groupies about how badly they wanted to see his first starring role in the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog.” To an individual, they were certain that this was a Disney film, too, based on the title.)

Anyway, the flu is banished, the house is relatively clean (the bathroom is literally clean enough to eat in, and that’s after a week of it looking like a location set for Apocalypse Now, and then disaster struck again. Thumb drive insanity with the new Web site update, with no possibility of getting it fixed on a holiday week. At this point, it’s time to call it quits, because it ain’t getting any better between now and midnight.

And so I wish all of you a good year in 2014, because we deserve at least one good one in a string of duds. If you’re in Dallas over this week, use the weekend as an opportunity to view the Chinese Lantern Festival in Fair Park before it goes; if not, have fun wherever you are. Me, I’m planning on hunting down Old Man 2013 and giving him quite the sendoff. If I time it just right, I might need a new left boot to replace the one I left with him, too.

Have a Great New Year’s Eve


Cat Monday


Have a Great Weekend

For those surviving a holiday week with friends and family, just remember that things could be worse. You could be surviving a holiday week at the Triffid Ranch:

Holiday Interlude

Uncle Duke

For all those at home, and especially those who work today, a toast is in order. While the real celebration won’t start until next Tuesday night, on behalf of everyone here at the Triffid Ranch, have a great holiday, no matter the holiday you wish to celebrate*. And for those who work today (and I was 18 before my mother didn’t have to work Christmas Day as a labor & delivery nurse, so I’m especially sympathetic), here’s hoping that today’s workday is low-stress, high-reward, and very, very short.

*With the exception of Cadigan, but that’s because she’s still figuring out how to get at the now-traditional Christmas brisket. If you could smell it, you’d understand her determination. Otherwise, her definition of “peace on Earth, good will toward men” translates to “CONQUER ALL HUMANS,” but that’s not overly surprising.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 9

You’re now in the final stretch. Either all of the family obligations are done, or you’re still taking care of the final bits and drabs. You’re stocking up on sugarplums, or you’re stocking up on Jack Daniel’s. Congratulations: now all you have to do is get past the rest of the winter.

Through the dreary expanses of January, it’s not enough to idly consume. Yes, a good Internet connection and a Netflix account gives you a strategic advantage over those of previous generations. Anyone old enough to remember when Christmas Eve alone meant maybe three television stations, all loaded with inspirational programming, and maybe five all-Christmas music radio stations, was the extent of entertainment options can appreciate this more than most. Now take away those, and just look out onto the cold, and it’s no surprise as to the high levels of alcohol abuse and mental illness in far northern climes. When going outside is a physical threat, staying next to the fire and singing to oneself makes a bit of sense.

Not that we get this in Texas, where the danger is being outdoors in the summer. It’s correspondingly easier to initiate some kind of social interaction, but we’re still all hit with the same basic human response of finding social interaction worth the effort. Contrary to popular opinion, Dallas is a bit more than shopping malls, and if you’re not in the mood for orchid and organic garden societies, there’s plenty to do this time of the year, depending upon your interests.

With such a range, any decent list might go on for pages, so the resultant list is a shoutout for fellow vendors and survivors of many of the preceding year’s Triffid Ranch shows and events. After all, the highest compliment I can pay them all is that they didn’t kill me when they had the chance.

Tiffany at ConDFW

To begin, one of the first fellow vendors I ever met when starting Triffid Ranch shows was Tiffany Franzoni of Roll2Play, back when the company alternated between online sales and booths at science fiction and gaming conventions. Roll2Play now has a full-time permanent locale, featuring both game sales and rentals. Even better, since there’s no point in buying a boardgame if you don’t have someone else with whom to play it, Roll2Play offers free gaming space for live demos, regular tournaments, and playtesting for new games. It also has a well-stocked snack and drink cabinet and a determination to become a local community hub: during Icepocalypse 2013, Tiffany opened the store to neighbors without power so they had power to charge cell phones and heat to thaw out during the extended blackout. Games, activities, carnivorous plant displays, good conversation…it’s worth the trip, even across the whole of Dallas proper from where we are.

Another option is to keep an eye on the Keith’s Comics Web site for new events. I’m proud to have known owner Keith Colvin for twenty years now, and there’s a lot to be said about his chain of comic shops running through the Metroplex. However, Keith also understands the meaning of community, so he regularly sponsors movie screenings and other events throughout the year. Among others, Keith also arranges mass screenings of television show season premieres at the Angelika Film Center Dallas, so if you’re not in the mood to watch something by yourself, it’s worth the time to come out to a free showing with about 300 or so other fans.

Manager at Rockwall Half Price Books

Finally, I’ve been lucky enough to be a vendor at several shows alongside crews from Half Price Books, and it’s been interesting watching as Half Price evolves along with the publishing industry. Dallas is now bereft of independent bookstores selling new books, Borders has been gone for two years, and Barnes & Noble isn’t long for this world, so Half Price is moving into new book signings and events. While the Triffid Ranch is taking a hiatus from sales, I’ve been given a standing invitation for a presentation and lecture at the Half Price flagship store, and that’s on top of HPB’s regular events in that space. Details will follow as i get them.

More to follow…

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 8

(Can you believe it? I thought Cephalopodmas was today, not yesterday. Hence, let’s make up for lost time.)

So…has the threat of January blues hit you yet? Has the threat of bad movies, worse television, and unlistenable radio, even in the days of unlimited options via the Interwebs, convinced you to crawl into a burrow and hibernate until February? Are you prepared to sleep through the year until February 2, the 35 anniversary of the day Sid Vicious rose from his grave, looked down at his shadow, and realized that he had to wait six more weeks until spring?

Not that I blame you, and if the plants cooperate, then get to work. If they aren’t, then there’s always the infrastructure that can be dealt with before the weather warms up. A good way to do this is by building community, and carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a lot more options for this than we did, say, 20 years ago. Another reason for the Triffid Ranch hiatus? With the hiatus, I’ll finally have the money to make charitable contributions to folks who really deserve assistance for their work.

Sarracenia under UV with blue spots

The first and most obvious option is to give a shoutout to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, the largest carnivorous plant organization in the world today. We’re miniscule compared to, say, the American Orchid Society, but the increasing variability and variety of new carnivores means that nobody’s getting bored. At the very least, access to the ICPS seed bank makes the annual membership worth the cost, even if it didn’t come with the quarterly newsletter and access to its archives.

If you’re looking for a bit more activism, then take a look at joining the North American Sarracenia Conservancy, a group dedicated to both informing the general public of the threat to Sarracenia pitcher plant habitats and preserving the genetic diversity of the genus in propagation. As someone who just finished cleaning out Sarracenia pools in preparation for the rest of the winter, I can appreciate the hard work the NASC does, and plan to contribute as much as I can next year to assisting its efforts. Besides, several carnivorous plant enthusiast friends are proud members, and any excuse to hang out with them is a good one.

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski

Triggerplants by Douglas Darnowski

Speaking of those friends, I still owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Ryan Kitko for introducing me to triggerplants nearly a decade ago, which is why I keep plugging the joys of the International Triggerplant Society. (Go figure: the heat loss and power outage caused by Icepocalypse 2013 killed off other plants, but they managed to set off germination in both triggerplant and Roridula seeds that I was about ready to write off. Now it’s just a matter of making sure that fungus doesn’t take them out, as Roridula in particular suffers from serious issues with damping off.) One of the biggest reasons for the current hiatus is to focus on cultivation of new species of triggerplant, and if things work out well, this should mean some big, impressive specimens by May of 2015, thanks to the Society.

Finally, as a shoutout for other friends, I’m going to compile a list of reptile shelters next year to assist with finding homes for reptiles and amphibians where the owners simply can’t care for their charges. One I highly recommend is Tucson Reptile Rescue, not just for their work but for the sense of humor they show when bringing up adoptable animals to the public. Give early and often to offset the costs of feeding and heating, and if you’re so inclined to visit, consider adopting a lizard, turtle, or snake that needs a good home. They’re good folks, so please help if you can.

More to follow…


Cat Monday


Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 7

Sooner or later, every hobbyist hits the point where the ideas you have are ones that can be realized by building them yourself. This might be a particular prop, a particular tool, or, in the case of gardening, just the right container. In that case, having the right tools to make the right tool matter just as much as anything else.

Besides bonsai tools, tools and supplies intended for model-building and model train displays work extremely well for miniature garden design and construction, and with the general death of the mom-and-pop hobby shop in the Nineties, online sources stepped in to fill the niche. Between power tools for drilling and tapping, and specialty filing and sanding options, you can’t go wrong with Micro-Mark. I’ve been buying from Micro-Mark for nearly 15 years, because sometimes a job can only be finished with proper application of a Flex-I-File.

About the only issue I’d have with Micro-Mark is with its selection of casting resins and mold-making supplies, but that’s not because the company sells poor products. It’s because sometimes you need more options. That’s why I was extremely glad to discover Reynolds Advanced Materials last week. You’d be amazed at how much epoxy putty gets used on various projects here at the Triffid Ranch, and Reynolds carries several specialist varieties that should be essential items in any miniature garden designer’s toolkit. Even better, for those with access to a brick-and-mortar store, Reynolds offers all-day training seminars/a> to get the best use out of casting and molding materials, and two-hour product demo classes to fill in experienced users on new products. Between resin-casting and making food-grade molds, the Czarina and I already have plans for a late anniversary present, as soon as the Dallas locale offers new classes in the new year.

More to follow…

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 6

In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, January is a good time to focus on all things indoors. (This gives the benefit of the doubt to regular readers from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as occasional readers from Argentina and McMurdo Air Force Base in Antarctica.) If you’re not getting snow, you’re getting rain, and if you aren’t getting rain, you’re getting squirrels in the attic. (Or, in my case, the greenhouse. I spooked a big one this morning that was big enough to fit with a saddle.) Even sunny days don’t do much to warm the bones, and sunny days are at a premium. Therefore, the best option is to stay inside, turn on every full-spectrum light you own, and spend January and February focusing on staying warm and sane.

The spectre of January gives lots of options for winter horticulture, which includes setting up a workstation for terrarium and miniature garden care and maintenance. Setting up a workstation means procuring the right tools, and procuring the right tools means either making your own or using ones originally designed for other purposes. The best tools for actual plant arrangement maintenance are ones already developed for bonsai and penjing, and the only question is finding the right sources.

In the past ten years, I’ve depended upon two different sources for bonsai tools and supplies, and one is practically around the corner from me. That one, Dallas Bonsai Garden, just finished a major redesign of its Web site and inventory, and it’s been a lifesaver at times. If you’re not sure where to start with tools, may I recommend the 5-piece black metal toolset?

Now, if Dallas Bonsai Garden doesn’t quite scratch the itch, then another very highly recommended source for bonsai tools and supplies is Stone Lantern, based out of Georgia. Not only do I recommend Stone Lantern for tools, supplies, and netsuke figures, but also for its bonsai-themed blog Bonsai Bark. Yes, it’s predominately aimed at serious bonsai enthusiasts, but just about everything in Bonsai Bark can act as inspiration for miniature garden and terrarium enthusiasts as well.

More to follow…

Have a Great Weekend

Look at the bright side: the holiday shopping season is nearly over… (Some lyrics rather NSFW, especially when cranked up to “pulverize a planet from orbit” volumes. Of course, after a month of “Santa Baby” over and over at “pulverize a planet from orbit” volumes, most folks working retail this season won’t have any issues at all.)

More Pig Information, Even If You Didn’t Want It

I’m constantly amazed at the number of contemporaries who want to return to some mythical “simpler time”. I’m not even talking about the people who want to go back to a time before their births, on the assumption that somehow they’d fit in better in Athenian Greece or a week before Woodstock. (Sadly, they never want to take a chance and go back far enough to make a difference.) These are people who lived through the 1970s and 1980s, and conveniently forget the horrors therein. They’re welcome to go back, but I have no interest in anything other than the future. Live through Pearl Jam playing incessantly on terrestrial radio, a second time? Not a chance. I regularly joke “I love living in the future,” and I’m only half-joking.

This week confirmed how much I prefer living in the future, and it all had to do with a prior discussion of kune kune pigs in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Twenty years ago, even learning about kune kune pigs would have been nearly impossible in the States without traveling to New Zealand. Today, one quick note, and the horizon keeps expanding. Within a week, I received comments from two very interesting folks with a similar fascination with the little pigs. The first lives in the States but came from New Zealand, and currently waits for access to a soon-to-be-born piglet. The other managed to pass on a lot more information on the pig in the movie.

One of the things that came up while verifying the story was that one shouldn’t always depend upon one reference source. For instance, the information I previously obtained referred to the pig breed as “kune kune”, and apparently there’s some argument as to whether the proper spelling should be “kune kune” or “kunekune”. (Yes, welcome to the joys of trying to transcribe non-English words to the Roman alphabet.) This is in addition to arguments about the kunekune’s origins: some sources attribute the first pigs’ appearance in Aotearoa to Captain James Cook’s first visit in 1769, while others suggest that the first arrival of pigs to the islands is unknown. (All that’s known for certain is that while pigs were probably one of the main food animals brought by the first Polynesian colonists about 1000 years ago, for unknown reasons, they didn’t survive for long.) Twenty years ago, tracking this down from the States would have been impossible.

Even better is comparing notes right away. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a thing on the identity of the pig in The Desolation of Smaug through movie publicity materials or sources, but figured that half of the fun was keeping the in-joke “in”. That’s when someone else wrote to say that the pig in question was named “Hercules”, and Hercules was one of the major draws at the Willowbank Wildlife Refuge in Christchurch. He’s already a celebrity in New Zealand, especially after he and his mate Minnie had their first litter of piglets in 2010, but that movie appearance was his first serious exposure in the rest of the world.

This, of course, needs to be rectified. Online humanity goes absolutely berserk over Grumpy Cat, and yet there’s no love for Hercules? I’ll be back: I have work to do.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions – 5

Over the last year, I’ve become more and more of a miniature garden enthusiast, especially thanks to the influence of Janit Calvo over at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center in Seattle. Part of the reason is that while it’s perfectly reasonable and understandable to buy a miniature garden already constructed and ready, half of the fun is in constructing something completely new. Janit already shares a lot of her best ideas, but you always have those days when you have that itch on the back of your brain where you know exactly what you need to make the perfect miniature garden, but you don’t know where to find it. As with books, sometimes the only option for that perfect part is to make it yourself.

The good news here is that miniature gardening and standard model building have a lot of overlap, both in understanding of scale and in available tools. Some people, such as the Czarina, sigh “that’s the danger,” and they’re RIGHT. Given my druthers, I’d have a workspace comparable to Shawn Thorsson’s, and this comes from someone trying to figure out how to build a custom vacuum plastic former like his. The Czarina and I keep getting into arguments about this: she seems to think that the garage should be used for sheltering the car from our bouts of foul Texas weather, and I counter that the car can stay outside while I’m designing mockup lunar plant growth chambers.

David Gerrold's Vindication (2013)

The next few Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions installments will go into specific tools and supplies, but let’s look at sources for items with easy applications with miniature gardens and arrangements. That starts with going with experts in the subject, and that’s why I recommend spending a few hours poking around Squadron Models. At bare minimum, consider the merits of getting a Squadron Essential Tool Kit if you don’t already have these tools on hand. Either way, the tools listing can be dangerous as well.

This is all good, but then there’s subject matter. As great as Squadron is, it lacks in selection of dinosaur figures what it meets with space subjects, and I’m constantly asked about sources for decent dinosaur figures. That’s why I send everyone over to Dan’s Dinosaurs for moderately-priced prehistoric animals figures best-suited for miniature garden applications. Even with the name, Dan’s Dinosaurs is also an excellent source for models of plants and animals that predate or postdate the dinosaurs, so go crazy with Deinotherium and Scutellosaurus additions to an arrangement.

Now let’s just say that you don’t want to go with dinosaurs, and science fictional material won’t cut it for you. In that case, head toward the Space Store’s selection of space models. Speaking from experience, most succulent miniature garden arrangements just beg for an accurate Viking 1 lander somewhere among the sands, and I’m still waiting for someone else to credit the equally successful Luna missions by setting up an arrangement with a Lunkakhod 1. Likewise, if you really need astronaut figures for your arrangement, the Space Store has those, too.

More to follow…

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions – 4

So you’re already foodied out right now. Between corporate parties and banquets, family and friend gatherings, and random passersby desperately trying to throw their excess chocolate fudge and spiral-cut ham at you, you’re feeling like a Burmese python with a gut full of bowling balls. Here in the States, you’re getting ready to cook up a 20-pound turkey next week while trying to find room in the refrigerator for the leftovers from the Thanksgiving one. (Either that, or you belong to a family like mine, where your grandmother is so determined to use every last scrap of turkey that she’s boiling down the bones to make Jell-O.) By December 26, you’ve not only sworn that you’re never going to eat like that again, but you’re going to spend the entire next year photosynthesizing. And if you haven’t hit that point, you’re having really disturbing dreams involving fantastical desserts that shouldn’t exist, such as when friends asked me to make Cthulhufruit vodka Jell-O shots. (No, I’m not making them out of turkey-rendered gelatin.)

Well, you say that now. Now, that last batch of oatmeal cookies brought in by well-meaning co-workers is sitting so hard on your stomach that you’re afraid to use the restroom without being nicknamed “Cannonball” afterwards. (So said “Fire In The Hole”.) By mid-January, though, you’re not just starving, but you’re starving for something besides the usual winter fare. If you’re eating soup, you want something other than chicken noodle. If nothing else, you want to turn up the heat.

This is where it gets fun. It’s time for recommendations local and otherwise, and then a recommendation for a road trip.

Let’s start with the local. For the last nearly 16 years, I’ve been making a modified tandoori turkey for friends and family, with lots of experimentation with ingredients and cooking techniques. I’ll share the recipe here one of these days, but in the early days, I used to have to depend upon bottled tandoori masala mixes for the spices. That’s before I discovered the wonderful folks at Dallas Spice Market, practically up the street from where I live these days. Four ounces of Dallas Spice Market tandoori masala mix is enough for an entire turkey, and I can state with authority that it works equally well with everything from brisket to portabella mushrooms. Do NOT get me going about their ground pepper mixes.

If you’re wanting something more specialized to hit that spice tooth, let me let you in on a little secret. I’ve been a Defcon Sauces addict for the last five years, ever since I came across their Habby Horse horseradish sauce. Everyone specializing in the extremely spicy keeps up the mantra “it’s all about the flavor, not just the heat,” but Defcon sauces and rubs follow through. If you’re sick to death of ham and turkey for Christmas dinner, try some of the Habby Horse with a fresh-smoked brisket. It’ll peel the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips, but that’s what my little brother Eric and I call “Taco Bell mild”.

Finally, half of the fun of experimenting with spice is coming across new mixes and new concepts that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise. That’s why I, for one, look forward to next year’s Zest Fest at the Irving Convention Center the weekend of January 24. Acre upon acre of vendors, samples, and baskets to carry home all of your loot, and all of it the exact opposite of “bland”. Two recommendations: don’t assume that you won’t find something worth taking home, and don’t forget to bring a bag with a stout, comfortable handle to carry it away. If it has wheels, you’re definitely planning ahead.

More to follow…

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 3

Okay, so far, we’ve been discussing getting through the nightmare that is January and February with physical resources. Books and plants, among other things. Sometimes, though, you need a change of scenery to get by. Sometimes, all you need is the plan of a change of scenery, where you know that you’re going to be someplace wonderful in a few months. It also has to be something different: what’s the point of going to Hawaii in January when every experience you have is one held by every tourist visiting the islands? (That’s why I recommend New Zealand instead. It’s a much further trip, but where else are you going to see keas and tuatara?)

With the promise of getting away from the cold, it may seem odd that I’d recommend a trip to Canada, but that’s what I’m doing. More importantly, I’m recommending a trip to Alberta. Drumheller, specifically, to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. That’s because the Royal Tyrrell just re-opened its world-famous Cretaceous Garden after an extensive renovation. The only thing more jarring than wandering through the Garden’s cool damp and looking through the windows out on the badlands surrounding the museum would be seeing meter-high snowdrifts out on those badlands. Because of that alone, make the trip.

A little closer to home, I actually have a reason to visit Austin. Specifically, my next trip through Austin on my way to San Antonio is a perfect one to visit the Hartman Prehistoric Garden at the Zilker Botanic Garden, just to see a reasonable view of plant life in Texas during the Mesozoic Era. Between this and the Austin Nature & Science Center, and I’m in trouble. (Alternately, for those seeking reasons to ransack the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, combine a trip through the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and a drive due south to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose for much the same effect.)


Going a bit further afield, I’ve needed to make a trip back up to the Pacific Northwest for various reasons, and the biggest one is to visit the only US state refuge specifically set up for a carnivorous plant species. This is the Darlingtonia State Natural Site, southwest of Portland and right along the Pacific coast. Much like the Portland Japanese Garden, I missed out on visiting the Natural Site when I lived in the vicinity, and it’s time to go back and claim to be gathering data on plant growth and soil temperatures.

Finally, speaking of fighting winter blues, might I make a suggestion? What always works for me is a good swim, preferably in an actual lake or river with no chlorine or other additives. It’s even better when said lake is full of wildlife, and the water is clear enough that you can watch them from waaaaay off. Between alligators, anhinga, manatees, and swimming year-round, how could any other place beat going for a swim in the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park?

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

As many people wiser than I am have noted, life is just high school with more money. Well, more respect as well, especially for unorthodox attitudes about social proprieties. Take my word for it: a 17-year-old attempting a few practical jokes during a major holiday usually gets slapped down, expelled, or even deported. Add 30 years to the date and give that kid access to better resources, and all anyone wants to do is tell family and friends “Can you believe what the old guy in Engineering did last night?” The spirit of Tezcatlipoca runs strong this time of the year, especially when among people with the same priorities.

A case in point: at my day job, my department has had a longrunning tradition concerning holiday presents. Namely, we’re serious about the present itself, because we all honestly respect each other and enjoy each others’ conversations. It’s just the presentation that makes everyone outside our circle worry for the future. Since 2007, our prerogative is to find an appropriate gift and then wrap it with the tackiest, most disturbing wrapping paper we can find. That definition of “most disturbing” gives me a lot more headway, as my co-workers have teenage daughters, and I’m constantly being told, over and over, abut the latest TV show or musical artist to capture their fancy. Most of the time, I shudder with them: the only thing worse than being a preteen in the days of Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett was hitting my teen years just in time for Phil Collins. With Christmas approaching, though, the gloves are off, and the local Target store keeps giving me rolls and rolls of brass knuckles.

As I’ve related before, everyone has to understand that it’s entirely possible to go overboard with a quick comment or action in the workplace. This is how I ended up with an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. This is why, when getting my boss a model of the Apollo 11 command module and Lunar Excursion Module, I practically oozed subtlety and restraint:

Disney Princesses

Not that I could say the same thing for my other co-worker. You see, his birthday is in December, so it just made sense that I focus on giving him a birthday present that he’d remember forever. Oh, he’ll remember it, the way he’ll remember the chipped teeth he got when his jaw hit the floor:

Justin Bieber

As I told him, “Just be glad Target was out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic bows.” That probably would have left him catatonic with horror. It’s Christmas: there’s no reason to be mean.

It’s also time to keep up longrunning traditions. For years, I’ve kept a big candy box at my desk, with the contents being open season to everyone on my floor. With a new candy dispenser, it just needed a touch of festiveness to really make you feel like the season is here. Sing it with me: “It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…”

Mister Hanky

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 2

Mischa with "The Mullet of Metal"

(Most sites and blogs put together lists of interesting sites for tips on gifts this holiday season. Let’s assume that family members and friends are already taken care of, and you yourself might need something to do through the long winter. Keep checking back every day between now and New Year’s Day, and with luck, you might find something of interest.)

I’m regularly asked if and when the Texas Triffid Ranch will start online sales of plants and arrangements, and I have to be honest. Part of the reason why the Triffid Ranch doesn’t ship plants is because most of the plants and arrangements are too large and too heavy to ship on an economic basis. It’s not fair to charge, say, $10 for a plant and then another $60 on shipping for the rest of the assemblage. The other reason, though, is that I have plenty of mentors and friends who do offer online sales, and I can’t recommend giving them your business highly enough. If asked whom I prefer, I’m going to tell the absolute truth and say “all of the above,” because each one has something to offer.

To start, just about everyone in the carnivorous plant trade owes a debt of gratitude to Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores, if only because of the seminal reference guide The Savage Garden. If you end up in the North California area next year, consider a trip to the nursery location, but also don’t be afraid to order plants all year round.

On a more personal level, I sincerely regret that I didn’t get hooked on carnivorous plants about six years earlier. This way, instead of wasting time with a writing career when living in Portland, Oregon, I’d have spent almost all of that time ransacking the inventory over at Sarracenia Northwest. While making plans for your own arrangements and displays, you might want to check out SN’s series of instructional DVDs, just to get everything ready for when you’re ready to start your plant collection.

And on the other side of the continent from these two, we have Black Jungle Terrarium Supply, in central Massachusetts. Black Jungle carries a lot of carnivores, but it also specializes in dart frogs and dart frog supplies, and a lot of fascinating non-carnivorous plants. By way of example, check out Black Jungle’s collection of ant plants (plants with specializations that encourage ants to nest inside), and if you really want something different, consider a bioluminescent mushroom kit.

With all three venues, I’ve purchased plants, including some that hold places of honor in my personal collection, and never had an issue, and I recommend all three without reservation. One day, I hope to return a tiny sliver of the goodwill and knowledge they’ve offered me, but I’m going to have to work at it.

More to follow…

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 1

Cover: Miniature Gardens by Janit Calvo

Okay, so you’ve taken care of holiday obligations. Whether you’re buying presents for Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, or Yak-Shaving Day, if said holiday happens before the end of the year, you probably already have all of your shopping done, the packages wrapped, and the gift exchanges planned. You’ve done all you can for everyone else, but what about yourself?

Seriously. Once the holiday obligations are done, the next few months in the Northern Hemisphere are going to be miserable. Short days and long, dark, cold nights, and nobody wants to get out into it. New movie releases are so bad that the term “Sargasso of January” applies to the much-hyped and equally unwatchable films, and even Netflix can’t help if you’ve already watched every episode of Farscape. It’s time for outside stimulation, and at affordable prices.

With this in mind, it’s time to put together a list of resources and venues intended to keep you safe and sane in this post-holiday season. Hang on and check back every day between now and New Year’s Day, because it’s going to get FUN.

Firstly, for the last five years, St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, Oregon has been an official partner with the Triffid Ranch for books and other print materials of all sorts. Owner Nena Rawdah has been a friend and cohort for a full third of my life now, and I don’t just recommend the store because I owe her for not killing me when she had the chance. I’m also recommending the store, should you live in the vicinity, because of its newly revamped and updated interior, perfect for author readings and other opportunities to get out of the January Oregon damp. And if you don’t have the opportunity to get to the Portland area, well, call or E-mail about your book requests. I can state with authority that it has quite a palaeontology selection in its science section, because that used to be part of my library.

Also in Portland is one of my favorite publishers, and I’ve related for years that the little pine tree logo on the spine of a Timber Press book is an automatic endorsement of the contents inside. Without fail, Timber Press books get me through long and tough Januarys, and now might be the time to purchase your copy of Janit Calvo’s Gardening in Miniature in preparation for March and April. And if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll give you plenty of preparation for things to do during the long, dark June.

More to follow…


Cat Monday


“And so I face the final curtain…”

Serious news, starting with a joke. Depending upon the artistic venue, the word “hiatus” has different meanings, most of which are unofficial and many are insulting. For instance, officially, “hiatus” refers to a period of diminished or stopped activity, as in “the business is going on hiatus until economic conditions improve.” In the comics business, as my friend Mischa Jones likes to put it, “hiatus” means “I’m tired of doing this, but I don’t want to quit just yet.” In publishing, particularly with small-press magazine and book publishing, “hiatus” means “we’re overextended and in debt up to our eyeballs, and we’re taking a break in the hopes that our creditors will forget about us.” Depending upon the business, “hiatus” is a remarkably versatile word.

Anyway, as of next year, the Texas Triffid Ranch goes on hiatus. In the first definition, with caveats and a cherry on top.


The finale, of course, was last week’s Icepocalypse 2013, which was a lot stronger than anybody expected. Even with a new greenhouse, with about two tons of water as thermal mass, and with lots of contingencies to fend off the cold, everything went to hell all at once. The five-hour power outage on the first day wouldn’t have been so much of an issue, if one of the panels on the main greenhouse hadn’t blown out from the wind and the ice through that whole period. Sub-freezing temperatures for hours, combined with greenhouse repair tape that absolutely refused to adhere in the cold, and the damage was fairly intense. The worst part is that the real extent of the damage can’t be ascertained until spring, because a whole line of Capsicum pepper bonsai prepared for next year’s shows won’t show the worst of the frost damage until and unless they bud. Until then, it’s a long wait.


Problem is, this was just the finale to a kidney stone of a year. With two exceptions, most of the Triffid Ranch shows in 2013 didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as necessary to turn a profit. At this point, with most companies announcing a hiatus, right here’s the point where the owner writes a self-serving, passive-aggressive tirade about how “if customers really supported us, we could stay in business.” If I wrote that, it would be an absolute lie. I watched regular customers and new ones come by, look over plants and arrangements, and sadly walk away, because they simply couldn’t afford to buy anything. I couldn’t blame them in the slightest, because we’re all being hit by the ongoing Great Recession. Increasing the number of shows on the schedule doesn’t increase the income from the shows, because the costs of getting to the shows, setting up, spending two to four days on point, and then breaking down and going home haven’t changed. While teaching new carnivorous plant enthusiasts was an absolute joy, the teaching wasn’t paying the rest of the cost, and the only option was to shut down for a while

To their eternal credit. several friends offered to start up a Kickstarter campaign to replace the plants lost in the freeze, but this would only prolong the issue. For individual events and one-shot projects, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and other crowdsource funding systems are great, but a successful Kickstarter campaign doesn’t fix current economic trends, and it definitely doesn’t fix a lack of customers with disposable income. Tempting as it may be to take these friends up on their incredible generosity, I was just reminded of the number of independent bookstores all running Kickstarter projects, with no thought as to what happens when the current money runs out and the underlying reasons for the downturn continue.

Another factor to consider with a one-person operation such as the Triffid Ranch is further learning and expansion. A lot of outstanding projects intended to be completed over the last five years have had to sit on the sidelines, between commitments for shows and commitments to the day job that pays for everything. This includes further experimentation with triggerplant cultivation, more elaborate plant enclosures, and testing new fabrication techniques. This is in addition to working with new species of carnivorous plant, getting further expertise with plants generally considered too difficult for beginners or the moderately knowledgeable. All of this requires time, and much of that time was spent both doing shows and preparing for shows.


So here’s the plan. The blog stays up, with lots of new updates. The Web site stays up, and undergoes a long-delayed update. I’ll still be open for lectures and events, especially kids’ events, and consultations on school science projects. Two previously scheduled shows, All-Con in March and Texas Frightmare Weekend in May, are still on, but then nothing for a year. May 2015, if everything works well, everything starts back up, with a new focus and a new initiative. At that time, with luck, the economy will have recovered to the point where the business side of the Triffid Ranch can be self-sustaining. That’s the plan, anyway.

As always, I can’t thank prior customers and supporters highly enough, and I’m looking forward to taking care of all of you before the shutdown next May. In the meantime, take care of yourselves.

Knowledge, Even If You Don’t Want It: The Kune Kune Pig Edition

There’s geekery, and then there’s geekery. Right now, all of my friends disposed toward a fondness for fantasy is lining up to see, if they haven’t already, the latest The Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. The Czarina and I got our obligation done early, thanks to a preview screening hosted by Keith’s Comics, and she had a blast. Me, I spent most of my time looking for New Zealand references and in-jokes, and found a beaut. Almost every person in the theater caught the cameo of director Peter Jackson at the beginning, but I was probably one of the only people in North America that evening who caught the other big cameo.

I meant that literally. Toward the end of the film, to give out spoilers, you have the dwarf Killi dying of poisoning from a goblin arrow, and his associate Bofur goes looking for the herb kingsfoil, and was told by Bard of Laketown “We feed it to pigs.” Bofur finally finds it in front of a pig and snatches it away, and the story, such as it is, continues. At that point, I had to stop and squeak at the Czarina, “Look! It’s a kune kune pig!”

As always, this sort of obscure knowledge comes with a long story. Nearly twenty years ago, my love of New Zealand, already fairly intense, was accelerated by the chance discovery of a copy of the book Exotic Intruders: The Introduction of Plants and Animals Into New Zealand by Joan Druett at a book fair. The book went into details on the Acclimatisation Societies charged with importing plants and animals to Aotearoa, including deliberate and accidental importations that ended disastrously.

For instance, the kakapo, the endangered giant flightless parrot second only to the kiwi as a symbol of the country, used to range in huge numbers across both main islands, at least before some well-meaning idiot introduced rabbits. The rabbits weren’t a direct threat to the kakapo, but then the rabbits came very close to taking over the way they did in Australia. Another well-meaning idiot imported stoats to hunt the rabbits, and the stoats had no interest in chasing rabbits when easier prey was available. Kakapo dug burrows as a defense against New Zealand’s original, now-extinct top predators, including the famed Haast’s eagle, so they had no defense against predators specifically adapted to hunting burrowing prey. Today, kakapo only live on islands completely free of predators, and the odds of their surviving the next century are very poor.

One of the other values of Exotic Intruders lies with it listing some particular success stories on the islands, and that’s where I first encountered the kune kune pig. A variation of the Poland China breed, the kune kune was bred by the Maori of New Zealand as both a food animal and as a pet. The name “kune kune” means “fat round belly,” which pretty much describes the pig: even full-grown kune kunes look more like piglets than anything else. They’re often mistaken for Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, but they’re easily recognized by one distinguishing characteristic: kune kunes have a tassel at the corner of each side of the lower jaw. The main reason for their popularity, though, comes from a particularly friendly and affable personality to go with their natural intelligence. Why they haven’t become at least as popular a pet as the Vietnamese potbellied pig is a mystery.

Well, that might be rectified in the near future, including here in the States, thanks to the American KuneKune Pig Society. At the very least, considering the various ordinances preventing ownership of farm animals within residential areas, it’s not going to be an option around the house, but one day…one day…

Icepocalypse 2013 – Ice Plates

Ice Plates

Now here’s a bit of holiday fun, brought to us by last week’s Icepocalypse. It’s a remarkably simple recipe: first, coat the whole area with a thick layer of ice, to the point where the normally sproingy trees in North Texas touch the ground. Spread more ice along the sidewalk underneath the trees, and freeze solid. In the morning, let natural ground heat melt the sidewalk ice, and sunlight and wind ablation remove the ice from the trees. After a few hours, the branches rise, taking the ice with it and making ice plates. Light at night with standard Christmas lights and serve before normal Texas temperatures return.

Ice Plates

Ice Plates

Ice Plates

Ice Plates

Ice Plates

Have a Great Weekend

Iced Sarracenia – 4

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 3

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 2

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia – 1

Iced Sarracenia

Nearly a week after Icepocalypse 2013 started up, the snow and ice are finally leaving, and with them, touches of beauty. The cold guaranteed that the Triffid Ranch’s collection of Sarracenia pitcher plants went into a full winter dormancy this season, as opposed to Dallas’s “Winter Without A Winter” 12 months ago. In addition, the ice came down hard and just liquid enough that it froze on available surfaces as clear as epoxy, leading to beautiful views in the early morning night. I don’t want to go through this again any time soon, but at least some good came out of the extended freeze.

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia

Iced Sarracenia


Shrub Icepocalypse

For most intents and purposes, the ongoing horror of Texas Icepocalypse 2013 ended this afternoon. Temperatures are well above freezing, meaning that only those spots shaded from the sun still have any appreciable accumulations of sleet and snow, and all of it should be gone by the end of the day Thursday. One more day of subfreezing temperatures at night, and then we go back to the usual Texas December ritual of donning jackets in the morning and stripping them off by midday. At least, that’s what the National Weather Service keeps telling everyone, so I’m waiting for the rains of blood, fire, and maggots on Saturday. What else could keep me from spending a productive day cleaning up the ice storm’s messes?

Rose Icepocalypse

Oh, and it’s a mess. As explained before, most native trees, and most of the introduced varieties recommended and sold by garden centers and nurseries, aren’t much for sustained heavy frozen precipitation. The general good news is that most of these are selected for their ability to withstand our ceaseless summer winds, so many just dip and point like ballerinas when rimed over. Small bushes take a lot more of a beating if they can’t shed their leaves fast enough. Most people in the area, myself included, don’t necessarily go nuts over pruning back their roses, as they usually don’t have to deal with sustained weight on their stems. That hubris flattened this tea rose, and the only reason my other prominent rose survived is because the crape myrtle growing over it sheltered it from the absolute worst of the storm. Both will come back, but it taught me a valuable lesson in why tying up one’s roses actually makes sense. And here I thought everything I heard about growing roses in Dallas from long-timers was unnecessary work.

Crape Myrtle Icepocalypse

Most of the softer-wood hardwoods came out well, although it was scary for a while. Crape myrtles, for instance, flex quite a bit under rain and wind, but they literally rebound right away from those. In fact, they tend to be so flexible that pruning them back can be a chore. (Several years back, I met a gentleman who makes walking sticks made from large crape myrtle branches, and he said his only issue was with how the branches tended to split while drying. He told me “put fresh Elmer’s glue on the cut end, as soon as you cut it, and let it dry. It’ll prevent the wood from splitting as it dries, and it’ll also retain its flexibility.”) Four days of heavy ice holding the branch tips to the ground didn’t seem to affect this one at all, and it bounced back as soon as things started to thaw.

Not all selections for Texas landscaping have quite that versatility. I’m already extremely glad that the two silverleaf maples in my back yard came down last year, because if they survived the summer, they definitely wouldn’t have survived this. Others in the area weren’t as lucky, and I suspect that a lot of silverleafs planted in the area back in the 1970s are now only good as firewood. I also saw a lot of damage to the current flora du jour, the ornamental Bradford pear tree. I don’t understand the appeal of the ornamental pears, although I understand why so many homeowners want a tree that doesn’t drop tremendous amounts of pulpy fruit all over the place. They require regular spraying to fight fire blight, they do nothing for bird habitat or general shade, and the brittle wood already shakes itself to pieces in a good storm. With this mess, well, I saw a couple that looked as if someone put a bomb in the center and set it off.

Oak Icepocalypse

That problem also applied to many of our indigenous oaks and other trees. North Texas trees both tend to hang onto their leaves all winter and produce a thick cuticle on the leaves to protect against dessication. That’s great for trees able to take advantage of winter sun, and they’re usually shed in early spring as new growth starts up. That protective cuticle makes a great adhesion surface for ice, though, and it builds up fast. This tree literally tore itself apart from the stresses: rain and wind it was prepared for, but this much ice? Nope: it’s coming down, one way or another.

Icepocalypse now, walls of flame, billowing smoke, who’s to blame?

Icepocalypse Now

The hype started up early last Tuesday. We were in for snow, ice, asteroid strikes, blazing angels, Wal-Mart gift cards…the local meteorologists were whooping it up about this was going to be a storm for the records. By Wednesday, we all knew that something was up when we hit near-record high temperatures that afternoon and everyone started pulling out swimsuits. That didn’t keep everyone from laughing at the National Weather Service. “Oh, they say that all the time. They always predict a worse storm than what we actually get. Just watch: we’ll get a little bit of rain, and that’s it.”

Oh, we of little faith. The snowmageddon started sliding in from the northwest on Thursday afternoon, and it just kept getting worse. And worse. I have an incredible ability to wake up about thirty seconds before a power outage, and so I woke up about five minutes before the alarm clock went off, wondering “Why am I conscious right now?” when everything went dead for the next five hours. When the exemplary crews at Garland Power & Light weren’t able to get power reestablished right away, that’s when we knew this was going to be bad.

And to stop the immediate comparisons to your local weather and how “this isn’t so bad,” that’s true. Kinda. This was definitely the worst ice storm I’ve seen in Texas in the 34 years since I first moved here, exceeding the big storms of 1983, 1996, and 2011. We almost never get ice storms, much less ones of this intensity, and this one compared favorably to ones I experienced in Michigan when I was a kid. In Michigan, everyone has snow tires, heavy-duty ice scrapers and snow brushes, and other regular accessories for a typical winter up there. We don’t have snowplows, salt trucks, and tire chains because they might be used once every ten years or so. Hence, we’re caught flatfooted nearly every time. And this one? Nobody was prepared for this mess, because we simply don’t see storms like this.

Fields of ice

On a personal level, the storm and the power outage tag-teamed me. First, specialized greenhouse tape specifically purchased so it wouldn’t go brittle in the cold went brittle in the cold, and the north wind blew out a panel on the main greenhouse. Combine that with the outage cutting heat at a critical time, and all of the thermal mass I put in last October didn’t make up for the sub-freezing drafts. I’ll have to wait until things warm up, but it looks like at least a two-thirds loss of everything inside, including a new line of bonsai Capsicum peppers intended to be premiered at the next show. It may be possible to salvage, but that has to wait until temperatures rise again and I can perform a decent evaluation.

On the bright side, at least the Czarina and I weren’t insane enough to be vendors at the scheduled Fair Park Holiday show in downtown Dallas. That one was shut down early, but probably more a matter of a lack of vendors than the worries about weather. But about that later.

I’m also not complaining more, because the damage here was a lot less than that right around the area. Most of North Texas’s trees are various oaks, which generally don’t shed their leaves until spring, which meant they made wonderful nucleation sites for the incoming ice. They’re also not adapted to dealing with large amounts of ice, either, so local trees’ branches aren’t adapted to shedding or carrying huge amounts of snow or ice weight. With more flexible trees, such as crape myrtles and mesquite, they obligingly flattened to the ground and waited it out. The same thing with small oaks, such as the three-meter-tall oak that obligingly impersonated Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree when saturated with ice. Larger trees, though, and saplings from more brittle species just snapped. Expect photos shortly of the mess preventing my neighbor from being able to open his garage door for the two tons of shattered oak blocking his driveway.

Triffid Ranch Charlie Brown Christmas tree

And the temperate carnivorous plants put out for winter dormancy? That’s going to have to wait until spring. The layers of ice definitely killed off any still-living traps and phyllodia that the plants could use for photosynthesis, but most are used to worse conditions than this. The Sarracenia purpurea, for instance, should be right at home. In the meantime, while the ice lasts, I get views like this:

Iced-up Sarracenia

And one little bit of good? I’ve spent the last four years attempting to get results with growing the South African proto-carnivorous plant Roridula in Texas. One of the hardest problems is getting the seeds to germinate, and I tried everything. Scarifying the seed coat to encourage germination. Putting the potting mix in a smoker and smoking it heavily before adding seeds. Chilling the seeds before planting them. No results, and looking over the wreckage in the greenhouse made me think about just pitching them and giving up. Wouldn’t you just know that this sort of chill was exactly what Roridula dentata needed to get up and going? Now just to keep the seedlings going, as apparently decent air circulation is essential, and I don’t dare risk bringing them inside if they’re this happy just to lose them to fungus infections. And so it goes.

Memories of foggier times

Stapelia flower

Cloudy and foggy days, just before the Icepocalypse of 2013, don’t make for good photos. However, when you catch a fly feeding on a stapeliad flower, helping to demonstrate why they’re called “corpse flowers”, you just have to run with it.


Cat Monday


Have a Great Weekend

And now a classic Christmas song from the worst heavy metal band in the world. Hmmm…it’s been thirty years since this came out: think it’s time for a Bad News reunion tour?


Cat Monday