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Monthly Archives: January 2014
And so tonight ends the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese horoscope, and we move into the Year of the Earth Horse. Whatever your plans are tonight and for the next two weeks, take care of yourselves. If you’re in the Dallas vicinity, now would be a perfect time to see the Chinese Lantern Festival (especially considering the unusually warm conditions tonight). In our case, the Czarina and I are visiting both the Crow Collection of Asian Art’s Chinese New Year Festival in downtown Dallas and the Dem Cho Hoa festivities in Grand Prairie. Should you head out that way, we’ll see you there.
So last week started with a new haircut. For those who don’t understand the significance of this, one needs to consider my tonsorial history. Much like the cleaning of my office, hair in length, color, and style tends to remain in stasis for long periods before a sudden and very drastic explosion of activity. The last run went on for a very long run: nearly 15 years, in fact. I realized the other day that I have old and dear friends who have never seen me with anything other than my exploded white locks, and these are people who’ve known me for nearly a third of my life.
That tonsorial history, well, that’s a story in itself. I can say with authority that I don’t know what my natural hair color is any more, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. I started out light blond, and since my sister and I are the only blondes in a family rotten with gingers, we’ve both gone for red-shifted artificial intelligence at one time or another. Since 1987, it’s gone from red to white, to black, to red again, and then platinum for the last 14 years. Most of the transitions required chopping or shaving to get rid of the previous traces, so the styles went from “Uncle Duke” bald all the way to “long enough to sit on”, with a Mohawk for a very short time in 1994. (I have nothing but admiration for those who can pull off a good ‘hawk, because I don’t have the right skull for it. Well, that and my hair makes very good Velcro when contacting the stubble.) Yes, go ahead, make the obvious fannish joke about these sorts of drastic revampings: when I came home after the latest cut, I had to warn the Czarina “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”
(Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve made a habit of scaring the hell out of many of my childhood role models, all completely by accident, and the hair was usually a factor. With the last big change, I’d threatened for several years that it was going to happen, and nobody believed me, so I waited until I was a guest at Readercon, a big literary science fiction convention held every year in Massachusetts. The guest of honor that year was Harlan Ellison, and the high point of my whole professional writing career was for Ellison to see me with shoulder-length red hair in one panel, see me completely shaven six hours later, and tell me “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!”)
In any case, a week later, the ongoing habits associated with long hair are slowly fading. Swinging your head around when brushing your teeth so as not to get toothpaste in your hair. Shaking like an English sheepdog in the shower, and still needing two towels to sop up the water afterwards. Checking bike helmet buckles to keep from snagging. After a decade and a half, these habits will take a while (they took long enough to get established), but it’s worth it just for the expressions on people’s faces.
A regular discussion I’ve had with friends and co-workers on the future of the American space program involves the disconnect between how so many of us fortysomethings half-remember the enthusiasm for space exploration versus the reality. Yes, the perception is that the US was completely space-crazy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that was true…for kids. Now that those kids are all middle-aged, we can either mumble in our Metamucil about how we’d have those bases on Mars and manned missions to Saturn by now if we just had the will (what is now referred to in political circles as “the Green Lantern theory“)…or we can do something. Planting seeds, say.
As far as planting seeds, there’s a lot we can do, and some of that seed-planting is literal. With talk about various countries returning humans to the moon and staying there, nothing beats agriculture for both atmosphere cleansing and food production. New data confirm that the lunar poles contain large amounts of water ice, and the lunar regolith has most of the trace elements necessary for proper plant growth. The bigger issues lie with lower lunar gravity and a lack of shielding from solar and cosmic radiation on the lunar surface, which require well-designed experiments to ascertain how well food plants can handle the stresses. So why not let the general public get involved with said experiments?
That’s the idea behind NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge, encouraging students to design and test their own growth chambers and relay their results back to NASA. Obviously, no single experiment can take into account all of the variables faced by the first lunar or Martian farmers, but at least the Growth Chamber Challenge might mitigate or eliminate some of the more pressing concerns.
While rampaging through Galveston Books at the beginning of the month, I dug out some surprises, but none so ultimately fascinating as a book entitled “The Financial Times Book of Garden Design“. If the book were newer, I’d have assumed that it was either a deliberate oxymoron, along the lines of “The Starlog Book of Grooming and Hygiene” or “D Magazine’s 158 Favorite Rehab Clinics”. As it was, I picked it up on a lark, assuming that it was a vanity offshoot of the main magazine. Some of the more hubristic projects coming out of once-successful magazines can be great entertainment in their own right: very few people remember the line of science fiction novels to be released by Wired back in 1996, but you can’t go into a used bookstore without tripping on the piles of CDs, books, and comics pumped out by OMNI staff throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and some of that was actually enjoyable.
To be honest, The Financial Times Book of Garden Design is a bit of a vanity project, in that Financial Times actually sponsored and designed a series of gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in the early 1970s. Even today, Financial Times keeps very close tabs on horticultural news in the United Kingdom, and those roots go deep. This book isn’t just a time capsule of English garden design from four decades ago, although it’s an excellent guide for comparison to today’s styles. More interestingly, it’s a compelling view of a time in publishing where such strange side-projects weren’t done for tax reasons or for what might be construed as money laundering, but because the editors and publishers thought they were doing a very legitimate and honorable public service by sponsoring such a project. Considering how badly magazine publishing is imploding these days (one of my favorite practical jokes to scare writer friends is to drop idly “You know, I’ve been thinking of starting up a magazine for newsstand distribution. You don’t know of anyone who might be interested in financing it, do you?”), this book is a similar time capsule from a time where the costs of editing and publishing a book like this, through a successful magazine company, practically would have come out of petty cash.
With the possible exception of the old-style Swiss Army knife and the Leatherman, most blends of essential tools become less than the sum of their parts. Having been given all sorts of doohickeys and extras by well-meaning cohorts and relations, the one multitool that gets continuous greenhouse use is my Victorinox Climber. That’s especially true for various gardening multitools: with most, the unused tools actually get in the way of the ones used regularly, and when the regularly used tools dull or break, the whole collection is worthless. Most serious gardeners have a bucket or bag full of various tools, and they never bother with most multitools because of both cost and economics of scale.
That’s why, when several friends brought up the Crovel Extreme II, I had to laugh. ThinkGeek has a regular category of dubious tools for those who half-prepare for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, and I generally look at those who stock up on weapons and Spaghetti-Os for the upcoming armageddon with generally the same expression as for the transhumanist crowd wanking about The Singularity.
Namely, if these are the people who are supposed to be the grand survivors of the crash, let’s make absolutely certain that the crash never happens, eh?
Let’s get off discussion of ridiculousness and talk about the practicality of a combination crowbar/shovel. Effectively, the Crovel Extreme II is a fusion of pry bar and standard US Army trenching shovel, with all of the limitations of having one at the end of the other. I could see some of the merits of having a pry bar in tight situations (having to break old cement overspilling in a planter bed, for instance), but the real eye-opener is the price. US$140, plus extra for the cover and the “super steel spike”, when a wrecking bar from the hardware store and trenching tool at a garage sale can cover most jobs so much better?
Besides, anyone in the know laughs at the dolts waiting for an upcoming zombie apocalypse. It’s obvious that the real threat comes from triffids.
We’re now three weeks away from the next North American Reptile Breeders Conference event at the Arlington Convention Center. The Triffid Ranch won’t have a booth there for many reasons, but don’t let that stop you from coming out for the festivities. Between this and the upcoming Dallas Repticon, the herpetologically inclined in the Metroplex have a lot going on this year.
It’s cold and windy out, and we’re looking at the very good likelihood of snow next week. Believe it or not, Dallas has better weather than a lot of places further south and east: after reading about how badly Atlanta was iced over yesterday, I don’t have the heart to check on the current conditions in Tallahassee. All I can offer is sympathy, offers of help, and photos of the sailfin lizard at Moody Gardens in Galveston to remind us all of warmer times. In six months, I’ll probably hate myself for waxing nostalgic for summer, but that’s six months from now.
And as an extra, current work both with plants and with web site couldn’t be possible without a substantial donation of music from Ego Likeness and Hopeful Machines, and I’m currently awaiting the upcoming Ego Likeness album Stoneburner. Those who recognize the reference might understand why Steven Archer got me cackling with an offhand comment about how “the slow loris penetrates the shield“. Now he’s got me thinking of a story to go with that, the bum.
Every once in a while, people come across this silly little blog or actually come to the house and visit, and they ask about the cats. Well, they don’t ask about the cats per se, but they ask about the names. Everyone knows that cat people have a thing about odd names, but people who know me know that I have a thing for reasonably obscure ones, too. This is a deliberate effort to confuse visitors, so they don’t stick around long enough to discover that I don’t name the plants. Believe it or not, it works remarkably well. The only problem is that they continue to ask about the cats, wondering “Why would you choose those names?” When they realize that I used to be a professional writer before I came to my senses, they simply smile and nod, instead of screaming and running for the door. Not that I mind their screaming and running, but the Czarina has issues with this when her parents come over: they have enough of a problem with the life-sized Nanotyrannus head hanging over the toilet in the spare bathroom.
As it turns out, a run on a used bookstore week before last dredged up some beauties, giving me the opportunity to illustrate the examples. Well, that and torment the increasingly more sporadic visitors when they come by.
In the case of Cadigan, she actually had things pretty easy. Her story actually starts twenty years before she was born, when a then-girlfriend came up and told me “You HAVE to read this book.” At the time, I got a lot of that, and was already starting to blanch over the word “cyberpunk” being thrown around about it. At the time, the word was less a description of a certain subgenre of science fiction involving situations where technology outstrips ethics and becoming more of a marketing catchphrase, like “steampunk” today. Worse, by 1992, the subgenre itself had gone from being more punk to more cyber, attracting both writers and readers with an unhealthy obsession with downloading their personalities into computers and leave the meat behind because, as I wrote later, “they couldn’t get laid in Tijuana with a jockstrap full of $100 bills.” (Yeah, I was a little angry back in the early Nineties.) After trying my best to plow through many of the more recommended books at the time, and realizing that the people who read Bruce Sterling novels do so because they can’t handle the depth of characterization in Microsoft operation manuals, I shuddered and gulped, and took a chance on her recommendation. And that book damaged my fragile little mind.
For those who know Pat Cadigan, you already understand why I named my little orange cat after her. For those who don’t, let’s just say that they both have the same curiosity and general attitude about life. Science fiction enthusiasts talk about how Arthur C. Clarke developed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite but failed to patent it, but if Pat had the time back in the early Nineties to file patents on many of the ideas in her novel Synners alone, she’d own half of the planet right now. Bill Gates would be her personal doormat, and Steve Ballmer would dance every time she shot at his feet. Just tell yourself, tell yourself, that you could look into the eyes of a kitten with exactly the same expression that Pat gets when she’s on a roll and not think of naming that kitten after her?
Sadly, Leiber was a mistake, at least as far as naming him was concerned. He also had the glint in his eye as a kitten, encouraging me to name him after the much-missed author Fritz Leiber. (The Czarina’s nickname itself came from Leiber’s famous chess ghost story “Midnight By the Morphy Watch,” included in the pictured collection, because of her intensity in learning how to play chess.) Both the grey fur and the green eyes were regular themes in his novels, so it seemed like a good idea. Something happened, though, while I was living in Tallahassee at the end of 2002, and I came back to find him a bit broken. He’s a sweet cat, and enjoyable in his own way, but to call him “dopy” is to be nice. I once had a dog that was smarter than Leiber is, and this was a dog who regularly walked into sliding-glass doors. Combine this with his incessant one-note chirping, over and over and OVER all night long, and I’ve threatened on more than one occasion to rename him “Doctorow”. In that situation, the name might fit, because if this cat could speak English, all he could manage would be “Humperdidoo!”
And the third book? Well, we’ve run out of cats, but this one had particular significance back around 1997 when it came out. Not only did I have a ginger cat named “Jones” at the time, but I also had a savannah monitor at the time named “Steadman”. When friends would ask for that story, and they learned very rapidly not to ask again, for anything, I just told them the tale of the baby lizard I brought home for my birthday in 1997. The hatchling lizard that went into a large cage, loosened his bowels for maximum effect, and very promptly managed to make the inside resemble a Ralph Steadman painting. That was the day, after removing him from said cage and having to climb inside to clean the filth he’d managed to spatter on the ceiling, that I first coined the phrase “a stench that could burn the nose hairs out of a dead nun,” and he rarely disappointed me in new opportunities to use it. Most savannah monitors tend toward personalities that blend David Bowie and Sid Vicious, but Steadman was pure G.G. Allin. In that case, he was the perfect personification of my writing career at that time.
That about sums it up at the time, although the Czarina makes vague noises about another cat, and I’ve made my choice of next pet very plain. With the next cat, the deal is that s/he who pays the adoption fee gets to name the beast, so I suspect she’s saving her pennies in anticipation.
If any real good came out of last month’s Icepocalypse and January’s rollercoaster weather, it came in the demonstration of seed germination difficulties. Several years back, I attempted to get results with seeds from the famed semi-carnivorous plant genus Roridula, both species dentata and gorgonias, and ran full-tilt into the challenges of Texas weather. Specifically, I finally got one batch to start sprouting around the end of summer, right when I was about ready to give up and toss the pots. They were doing beautifully until we had a panic about impending cold weather, and I brought them inside. That’s when I learned one of the big secrets to Roridula husbandry: they have no tolerance of stagnant air conditions as seedlings, and they all perished of fungus infections within two days.
This time, the issues were even worse. I replicated the conditions for the previous success, but the seeds simply refused to come up all year long. I figured “Well, it can’t hurt to leave them in their pot and see if they emerge in spring.” Do they? Nope: the little monsters are precocious. Instead, right after getting a second Arctic blast right after New Year’s Day, I came out to the greenhouse to assess any potential damage and discovered these little guys popping up all over the place. I can’t make any promises as to having Roridula available to the general public by summer, but it’s more encouraging than before.
Roridula isn’t the only semi-carnivorous plant that seems to need fluctuating warmth and cold for best germination results. Having lost my last Stylidium graminofolium plants in the Heatwave of 2011, I missed that distinctive grasslike triggerplant, and started fresh with new seeds. Guess what decided to greet me last weekend? When lecturing on carnivorous plants, I regularly point out that many carnivores thrive on benign neglect. One of these days, I need to pay attention to my own advice.
I was taught at an early age that vacation trips should always be to see things that you couldn’t experience at home. Fair and good, but wholly inadequate in some circumstances. In this case, trying to get decent photos of Moody Gardens’s resident vampire bats, I learned a lot more than just the problems of photographing darkness-loving animals in low-light conditions. This little guy spent his entire time under the tinted lights in his enclosure giving me the most horrible look of disdain and contempt, occasionally popping up to snort at me before returning to grooming himself
And then there were these two, alternating between nuzzling each other and excitedly chittering at each other in what I would have sworn was laughter. A five-hour drive to Galveston, and I could have had the same experience at home.
After a very long absence, it’s time for a return of an old feature: “Thursday is Resource Day”. Each week, expect a selection information and commentary on upcoming events and developments, most of which might not justify a full posting. As always, suggestions are welcome, and feel free to add to the discussion in the comments.
Firstly, the biggest concern in North Texas right now is the nightmare known as “cedar fever”. Every January, the indigenous Ashe cedars (actually junipers, but let’s just run with it) start disseminating pollen on the winds, and I use the verb very deliberately. This year, the cedar pollen rates are at the highest ever recorded, both due to the ongoing drought and to the wild fluctuations in temperatures this winter. Nearly four years of an extensive regimen of allergy shots keeps my reactions to the pollen to a dull roar, but friends and cohorts have it bad this season. I know this because after they finish clawing out their eyeballs, spit-polishing them, popping them back into their sockets, and then wiping waterfalls of snot off over my day job desk, they all ask “What can we do to kill those damn things?”
I’ve tried to explain that the current suggestions are futile. Juniperus ashei is a tenacious opponent, and nearly any potential treatment makes things worse. The trees are resistant to many herbicides, and everything other than the fleshy cones, commonly assumed to be berries, is intensely toxic in turn to almost everything that tries to eat it. The foliage exudes natural herbicides that both kill other plants and inhibit the germination of seeds stuck underneath, so burning it or cutting it down just encourages the ready growth of dozens of new trees. Their roots run both wide and deep, allowing them to compete with mesquite, and a mutant variety previously only found in valleys along the Brazos River is even more drought-tolerant than its parent. This gives it an extra advantage on both overgrazed ranchland and areas where everything else was stripped for development. Oh, and I mentioned the voluminous gouts of pollen so thick that they can be mistaken for smoke, right? Combine all of these factors, and even taking off and nuking the entire state from orbit does nothing other than remove the potential competition. Thankfully, the Ashe cedar isn’t as flammable as eucalyptus, thus sparing us the additional brushfire hazards currently facing California.
The only good news to this is that the situation may be controllable before too long. We don’t want to wipe out the Ashe cedar (among other things, the cones growing right now are a major food source for wildlife through the winter, and the trees themselves are essential habitat for songbirds and other denizens), but getting it under control would spare a lot of asthmatics that much more pain. Thankfully, a new paper in Nature suggests that soil fungi and other parasites help keep any one species in species-diverse areas under control, which also suggests a course of action. Let the Ashe cedar get too far out of control, and the appropriately applied fungus might help it die back to tolerable levels. Now to find a readily accessible and fatal species of fungus to spread around.
Speaking of gymnosperms fending off fungus attacks, several months back, I was lucky enough to meet Peter Crane, former director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, as he was conducting a publicity tour of his new book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot. The book goes into considerable detail on the history of this singular genus, including its uses by humans over the centuries, the reasons why it does so well as a city tree, and its very peculiar form of reproduction. Among many interesting observations is that the ready ability of the leaves to fossilize (and Dr. Crane includes photos from his extensive collection of fossil ginkgo leaves dating back to the Permian Period, with one specimen confirming the presences of ginkgoes in Antarctica before it froze over) is tied to the aggravation of raking up and bagging ginkgo leaves in autumn. Both fossil and extant ginkgoes had so much resin in their leaves that a pile of gathered ginkgo leaves would weigh almost twice as much as those from most commonly encountered trees. Buy this book now, or miss out on some fascinating history of this tree both in and out of Asia.
And here’s one to drop on friends: Ginkgo biloba, referring to the two-lobed split leaves found under certain growing circumstances, is one of four species of animal or plant referred to by its full genus and species Latin names as a common, instead of one or the other. This puts the ginkgo in the company of Aloe vera, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Boa constrictor. Even Escherchia coli gets an abbreviation.
Having searched for a full decade, I have yet to find a resource comparable to the loons at American Science & Surplus that ships outside the United States and its territories. For friends and readers outside the US, this just means that you need to find a USAnian friend and ask, very nicely, to receive and then reship AS&S packages to them. As a quick perusal through the print and online catalog will tell you, AS&S collects and sells a ridiculous number of items to those with unorthodox expectations of what to do with them. Myself, considering the number of experiments I plan to run with sterile tissue propagation while the Triffid Ranch is on hiatus later in the year, I already have a list of glassware for flasking and isolating meristem tissue samples.
Finally, if you’d told me thirty years ago that Dallas would get a reputation for something other than obsessive shopping and Presidential assassinations, I’d have laughed in your face. Hell, if you’d asked me that fifteen years ago, even a few well-placed kicks to the ribs couldn’t stopped my giggling. We Dallasites tended to get incredibly insecure about this, too: legitimate criticism about the city, such as when Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La” while visiting us during the 1984 Republican National Convention, tended to get an oversized response that could only be described with the invention of the word “butthurt”. Mike’s been dead for nearly 17 years, and I suspect that he still has a note in a file somewhere that if he ever returned to Dallas, he wasn’t to be taken alive.
That was then, and Dallas and Fort Worth are drastically different cities today as compared to 1984. As the Intertubes facilitated the killing stroke on the concept of the shopping mall, we had no choice but to reinvent the city. It’s not perfect (among other things, we still have an understandable instinct to hide interesting places and events from excessive public view so the SMU crowd doesn’t overrun and ruin them), but now the Metroplex has a lot of reasons for outsiders to come in, instead of locals having lots of reasons to live elsewhere.
One of those reasons starts this weekend. Okay, so Irving isn’t technically part of Dallas, but this year’s ZestFest still qualifies as one of the best reasons to come to North Texas in January. Hundreds of vendors, thousands of products, and one huge celebration of all things spicy. Speaking from long experience, I can make two recommendations: firstly, get out early, preferably on Friday afternoon or evening if you can, because the Irving Convention Center packs solid by about 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Secondly, get a stout basket or cart, because no matter how badly you tell yourself “Oh, I won’t find anything worth buying out here,” you WILL wear yourself out unless you have something with which to haul around your purchases. You WILL find something to your tastes, and you WILL regret not bringing it home if you don’t buy it right then. You have been warned.
And now for a guest appearance. This is Gus, the customer relations specialist at Galveston Bookshop, located, obviously enough, in downtown Galveston. While trying to get out of the Czarina’s way while she was with a client (and if you’re in the city, feel free to stop in at Catz Jewelry to view some of her latest pieces), I wandered over to the Bookshop and was promptly greeted by Gus upon walking in. By “greeted,” I really mean “tolerated so long as I kept the front door closed and kept out the blasting cold wind from outside”, but does anyone expect anything else from a cat this obviously in charge?
As mentioned before, as compared to the 2012 event, this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival takes much better advantage of the locale around Fair Park’s Leonhardt Lagoon. Several returning displays, such as the dinosaurs, are much more accessible, and the crowds don’t bottleneck anywhere near as badly as they did in the Festival’s first year. I haven’t heard anything about this becoming a tradition, but based on both the liveliness of the lantern arrangements and the joyous crowds, I can certainly put in an additional voice recommending that this become as much a Dallas tradition as Celebration in the Oaks is for New Orleans.
Along that line, I need to get my friend Debbie out here one of these days. In the eternal garden war between gnome and flamingo, Debbie is a shameless gnome lover. She already knows my side, and nothing would make me feel better than shoving her nose in the impeccably arranged display at the south end of the lagoon:
Just a bit more to follow…
The Chinese Lantern Festival in Dallas’s Fair Park has a lot of wonders on display, but arguably the most impressive of all of the displays is the dragon boat in the middle of Leonhardt Lagoon. The lagoon already has a nocturnal mystery, and the contrast between the dark waters of the lagoon and this gigantic neon dragon boat just adds to it in a strange way. Visitors can enjoy it from the shore or, for an additional US$2 fee, they can climb aboard to see the park from a whole new locale.
As a longtime visitor to Fair Park, I can’t help but wonder how the fish and reptiles om the lagoon look upon this gigantic interloper. The various bluegills and other fish seem to appreciate the spectacle, considering how they were jumping in the lagoon as I crossed the bridge to the boat. Most of the water turtles probably ignore it, but the snapping turtles…I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to hear about the occasional big snapper crawling up onto the boat for a quick sunbath on warm days, figuring that they had a cousin watching out for them.
More to follow…
Finally, the idea to keep the Chinese Lantern Festival open until the beginning of Chinese New Year wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but considering the zodiac display behind the old Science Place building, it makes sense. With preparations for the upcoming Year of the Horse already beginning worldwide, Dallas definitely isn’t skipping out.
Goodbye, snake. Time for the horse to move in.
Meanwhile, out in front of the Year of the Rooster lantern, nobody should be surprised to see the hottie I met earlier that night out in front. I should just marry her or something.
And that about does it for this quickie tour of the Lantern Festival. For North Texas residents, and those considering a trip out this way, the Festival continues until February 17, every night from 5:30 to 9:30. Get out there now before it’s gone, because you’ll need some context for what will undoubtedly be an even larger and more impressive event at the end of 2014.