Toad in the Hole September 2005 Archives

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September 29, 2005

Winter Heat

It's winter, by some reckonings.

We took a quick stroll in Tilden Park, on the lower path from the Nature Center parking lot (isn't that a resonant phrase?) to Jewel Lake this morning. It's stiflingly hot today, but a lot cooler in the woods paths.

It's the local landscape's tired, worn-out time of year, and someone had gone before us in the last day or two with a weedwhacker to keep the path passable, so the place looked like an old man with a bad shave.

Poison oak is showing some color, and willows are half-heartedly yellowing. Live oaks are dropping their three-year-old leaves, too -- at one point, near a bench at the trail's highest point on the hillside, we stopped to listen, and a breeze knocking those stiff little leaves down made it sound like rain. There were translucent red berries in pairs and clusters on the honeysuckle*, harder little red berries on the ground under the madrone, unripe and a very few overripe berries on the blackberry tangles, white berries on the snowberry and redtwig dogwood. Zillions of gnats in clouds along the path, and herds of waterstriders on still spots in the creek.

*Coyote the Typo God invented a sinister new plant just there: the hineysuckle

We heard what was most likely a deer in the willow-dogwood brush by the creek, and it was so klutzy I'd bet it was a buck with his new antlers getting in the way.

Birds: fox sparrows! -- meaning it's winter; hermit thrush and ruby-crowned kinglet, ditto. The Townsend's warblers might have been passing through; the warbling and Hutton's vireos most likely were. The song sparrow, robins, scrub and Steller's jays, downy woodpecker(s), flicker(s), ravens, Anna's hummers, and red-shouldered hawk were almost certainly the same resident individuals we see there 'most every trip, and it's always good to see them again. A great blue heron seems to have decided to spend a season at Jewel lake, among the turtles and dragonflies and assorted fish.

Posted at 08:39 PM | Comments (3)

September 22, 2005

Handsome Phrase

I'll flesh this out with context and source when I check his spelling, but heard at the Cal Academy members' lecture the other night:

"An organism is the hypothesis of its environment."

Posted at 03:51 PM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2005

Everybody! Everybody!

You can't do it until next weekend, but waste no more time than you have to. Do what we did this morning. Go to Memphis Minnie's Barbeque on lower Haight Street in San Francisco and have brunch.

This isn't your standard eggs Benedict. I got smoked-pork hash, made with sweet potatoes and laid on a bed of Minnie's standard wonderful sweet-and-sour greens. It looked burnt. It was not burnt; it was perfect, an incredible combination, intense, filling, addictive, complicated crunchy and tender... OK, I want some more, now that I can think about food again.

Joe had what's listed as Low Country Shrimp and Grits. The shrimp tastes fresh and snappy (no shells) and the grits are cheese grits. Joe used to have family in Savannah that he visited often when he lived in Georgia; he's had good Low Country food to compare this to, and his own cheese grits are the food the gods would deserve if they behaved better. He was very very happy with his shrimp and cheese grits this morning, and when we swapped plates I was too. Also vice versa, with my hash. Oh yeah, nice li'l corn biscuit too, fresh fruit garnish, good coffee.

I've eaten various home-cooked meals with his family over the last 25 years and dragged a copy of Roadfood around the US and parts of Canada by way of dining guide, and I think I can vouch for this stuff myself.

Cheese grits doesn't sound promising if you haven't had them. Or it. Whatever. I'll leave the question "Is 'grits' plural or are 'grits' singular?" for another time. When Joe makes them (and evidently when Minnie's chef makes them) they're a lot like souffle. The recipe involves eggs, lots of butter, and cheese. They're probably very bad for you. You don't care, when you're eating them. ("Two eggs, a stick of butter, a cup of cheese, a cup of grits; cook grits till no longer runny, mix in the rest, put in hot oven" just to summarize. "Should be enough for six" but...)

There's other stuff on the menu, like pain perdu and, oh, I forget. We're talking serious Southern breakfast here, though. I didn't bother memorizing it because we'll be going back for more and I can read it again. Holy jumping Jehosaphat Christofferson that was good. Oh my.

What are you waiting for? Get over there. If you're in Alabama, I bet you could get there by 9AM Saturday when they open if you start driving now.

Posted at 02:33 AM | Comments (2)

September 17, 2005

I Think I've Just Had My Canada Moment

New FDA Appointee
FDA Appoints Official from Office of Veterinary Medicine to Office of Women's Health

September 16, 2005 CONTACT:

Washington, DC — FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford has appointed a man who has spent the majority of his career in the office of veterinary medicine to the position of acting director of the Office of Women's Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Norris Alderson will replace Dr. Susan Wood, a key women's health expert, who resigned on August 31 in protest of the FDA's handling of the application to make Plan B emergency contraception (EC) available over the counter.

You know -- that moment when you plot the fastest route to Canada and how much it would take to get that far -- gas, lodging, whatever. What you could manage to take along. And then what.

It didn't happen after the election, or any of the events since; it didn't even happen after the hurricane, because I wanted to help instead. This is my country. But I think I've just been shown my place in the Sacred Order of Things, and while it's not a surprise, or even news, it's being made amazingly clear.

Here's the thing: You can afford to look stupid and contemptuous, if you're so powerful that it doesn't matter. Somebody up there in the structure thinks that's the case now.

For some of us, the scariest part of Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale is the first part.

(Later: Evidently They changed Their minds, and fast. If it weren't for Google caches, one might think it had never happened. You'd think Pat Robertson's recent faux pas would teach a lesson, but some people think the National Memory Hole is still functional.)

((Still later: Interestingly, of the Google cache links provided one didn't work for me, and the other sent me to some memo about Canadian drugs.. If this in fact was a hoax, Salon fall for it and so did a few other moderately reliable sources. The only slender evidence I've found on the path is this sentence at the head of the memo about Teresa Toigo:

This is a revision of this statement posted earlier on September 16.

I'd sure like to see more, myself. Meanwhile, Ms Toigo's qualifications are listed in the same memo thus:

Ms. Toigo has held various FDA positions in CDER, CBER and the Office of the Commissioner since joining FDA in 1984. Ms. Toigo has collaborated with the Office of Women’s Health on a variety of FDA initiatives related to the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical trials. Ms. Toigo received her pharmacy (BS) and business (MBA) degrees from Rutgers University.

Seems a tad vague. Would you hire someone based on this resume? If you live in the USA, you just did.))

The thing is not that this was a major blow, the original announcement as I got it. As the nuns would say: In the face of eternity, what does it matter? It was just the last straw, the wafer-thin mint, the penny tip, the fart in the elevator. Or maybe it just hit me on the wrong day.

Posted at 06:47 AM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2005

The People, Yes

PZ Myers and company do a minifisk on someone named Timothy Birdnow on a site that calls itself The American Thinker."

(The comments section has wandered all the hell over the landscape, but I can't really grouch about a string that includes a Terry Bisson cite and a fast and elegant horror fiction story -- well, its prologue, which is quite sufficient unto itself.)

When I see stuff like the post referenced, I get more amused than angry. OK, there is that sense of sinking depression and loathing I get whenever I'm confronting a pathological liar, a closed-loop religious fanatic, or any other such spittle-generator. But this stuff reminds me most of a paperback we got from the Museum of Jurassic Technology -- it's a compendium of crank letters purportedly received by the Mount Wilson Observatory from members of the interested public.

It looks to me like the intellectual equivalent of "Outsider Art." Folk art like Grandma Prisbie's Bottle Village, or the Hubcap Ranch, or those cobbled-together inspirational signs and wonders you see in isolated places (many of them in the Southeast) with somebody's manic visions of the Second Coming or the Old Testament done up in massed oyster shells or ten thousand pounds of soap.

Of course it's hard to keep one's humor when people who actually swallow nonsense like this get political influence, or even come close to dictating what must be taught in public schools. And you really want to slap them when they take themselves seriously, or get all god-bothery on you. But the artifact, the mental constructions themselves, can be elegantly hilarious, and vice-versa.

Posted at 03:56 AM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2005

Tale from the Lost Planet

The Berkeley Daily Planet, whose Tuesday back pages alternate between Berkeley critter columns by Joe and tree columns ( mostly Berkeley's street tree species) by me, sent half of my piece on fall colors into the ether yesterday. Oops. It's a short intro to the physiology and chemistry of fall leaf color. I'm reproducing it here:

The informal consensus among the plant folks I know is that we’re having an unusually "early" autumn. That might be true; That poor plum tree that hangs over our fence is bald already, and started dropping leaves in early August. It’s been badly stressed though, since it was butchered so ineptly last year, so I’d thought it was an exception.

But the native-plant cabal’s email correspondents in the Sierra and the foothills said the aspens and maples were turning early, and some local street trees seem to be jumping the gun a bit too. People are tossing assorted theories around – warm wet spring, hot fog-poor summer, bug populations, water table… I’ll stay agnostic for a while, myself. I’m pretty sure that there are lots of reasons.

The poor street sycamores, the London planes and their kin, are losing leaves fast and unglamorously and I suppose that’s because it’s been such a prosperous year for anthracnose, a leaf fungus they’re susceptible to. They’ve looked gray in the leaf all summer, poor things.

What normally goes on in a leaf in autumn is a complicated chemical dance, and it’s ruled mostly by day length. Its intensity, in some places and species, is influenced by sunny or cloudy days, cool nights, the arrival of frost and freezing weather. But the great change itself is kicked off by shorter days, longer nights, a critical point in the amount of light a tree gets.

We have only a few native deciduous trees here, species like California buckeye (Aesculus californicus, which normally starts undressing in late summer) and bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and the alders and willows that grow along wild creeks. But some of our street trees, the various ashes, mulberries, and especially the sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) have been flashing gorgeous colors at us for the past few weeks. These species are giving us an exotic treat, a précis of what goes on in the deciduous forests back east. When I visited Pennsylvania last in autumn, I realized I’d forgotten how saturated those colors are, how intensely sweet to the eye.

What’s going on inside those leaves is as amazing as the beauty on the surface. Some of the new colors have been present in the leaves all along: yellow xanthophylls and orange carotenoids. They’ve been overshadowed by the chlorophyll that the tree uses to make food in a chemical process fueled by sunlight’s energy. Chlorophyll is delicate; it breaks down fast in sunlight, and the leaf is replacing it constantly.

The waning days signal less usable light, and in many deciduous trees’ homelands, the coming of freezing weather. Among other effects, freezing makes groundwater unavailable to be absorbed by the trees’ roots – an effective seasonal drought. Deciduous leaves typically transport a lot of water out of the tree through their stomata, and get expensive to keep in a drought.

The tree starts making its abscission layer, a corky band of cells between the leaf’s petiole and the twig. It slows and stops traffic between the leaf and the rest of the tree: as less food (carbohydrates) flows out of the leaf, less mineral and water support flows in. Chlorophyll stops being made, and the sturdier xanthophylls and carotenoids are unmasked.

Another pigment set, the red and purple anthocyanins, forms in autumn in some trees, made of the sugars left over in the leaf. These show as reds where the leaf’s cell sap is very acidic, purples where it’s closer to neutral. (Anthocyanins are responsible for apples’ red skin, the purple of grapes, and some flower colors too. The result from a reaction between plant sugars and light, which is why an apple is redder on the sunny side.)

Anthocyanins are a bit more responsive to the tree’s prosperity than other pigments: if it’s been a good summer, with enough water and sun to make lots of sugars, there will be more leftovers to make more red or purple colors.

Domestic sweetgums are good showcases for all these pigments right now. Their varieties and cultivars show assorted color habits: ‘Burgundy’ is almost purple; ‘Festival’ is gaily multicolored. Some hold their bright leaves all winter in our climate. You can pick up a brilliant boutonniere from the sidewalks anytime from now to March, free and freely given.

Posted at 10:46 PM | Comments (0)

Prostituting the Penguins

So an article in the New York Times acknowledges that wingnuts of a certain stripe are hailing March of the Penguins as an endorsement of creationism, "traditional" marriage, blahdeblah alleged value of the moment. Some of them are predictably stultifiyng it as a religious text, like one Ben Hunt, a Midwest minister:

"Some of the circumstances they experienced seemed to parallel those of Christians," he said of the penguins. "The penguin is falling behind, is like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they find their way, is like the Holy Spirit."

Mr. Hunt has provided a form on the Web site that can be downloaded and taken to the film. "Please use the notebook, flashlight and pen provided," it says, "to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks it to you."

But there is one rightie dissenter from at least the ID part:

"If an Intelligent Designer designed nature," the columnist George F. Will asked recently, "why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?"

Well, Mr. Will, I myself have had an inkling all along. It's not Intelligent Design at all; it's Malevolent Design.

How else can you explain the human spine and backbones, aphids that eat their way out of their living mothers, the hunting technique of the Komodo dragon? (Komodo dragons have huge infestations -- benign to them, presumably -- of awful infectious microorganisms in their mouths. They rush a prey animal, bite it, and follow it in a leisurely fashion, waiting for it to die of infection. This works best on a small island, of course. Sorry, Mr. Bronstein.)

Assorted hideous parasites, like the one that eats and then, physically if not usefully (we don't know) replaces with its own body a fish's tongue, putting itself in a position thereafter to skim bits of that fish's food from its mouth as it gets eaten?

Scleroderma? Verticillium? Alzheimer's? Babies born with cancer? Sometimes, our own species and its works?

Darwin, ever the careful observer, famously wrote, "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!" Well yeah. It is a comeback to those who talk about God's Wonderful Plan, which is a contradiction itself.

Malevolent Design. It makes sense. Teach the controversy!

Posted at 05:05 AM | Comments (2)

September 10, 2005

The Cat Speaks Maori

So far, Matt the Cat has reacted to only two things on the TV. One was in a nature docco, a female snow leopard's love call.

The other happened as we watched The Whale Rider on PBS the other night. A woman began singing a Maori song, and Matt swiveled his head around like an owl and stared intently at the TV for the length of the song. When it was over, he looked around the room and then curled back up on Joe's lap and went back to sleep, purring.

Posted at 07:10 AM | Comments (0)


Odd as it may seem, some people comenting on the situation in New Orleans, as well as some people actually fostering the situation in New Orleans, seem to have forgotten that one of the things a citizen (and I don't mean "official" or even "legal" -- I mean "taxpayer" and that includes sales tax, and I have no problem extending the concept further) might reasonably expect from a polity is protection from violent criminals who happen to be of the same ethnicity.

Thus, we read sentences about how rescue helicopters were fired on "by the very people they came to save" and hear about scenes like the armed roadblock on the highway leading out of the city. And "It's their own people," and proposals that, if there is to be credit or cash given to evacuees, they should undergo drug testing first because "Did you see what they did in the Superdome?"

Stephen Jay Gould said something about how human classification got more finely diced as the beings classified came more closely to resemble the classifier. Thus, we're humans (name race, ethnic group, religion, sex, and costume, ad lib.), and other primates are apes and monkeys; they and other mammals are "animals" -- or if you're lucky you get someone who knows to classify the "kingdoms" decently; birds are all "birds" ("the language of the birds" -- though some species are demonstrably bilingual at least with regard to other species while we're lucky to be bilingual within ours); arachnids are subsumed under "bugs" with lots of other things, and plants are wallpaper.

And other people are undifferentiated Them.

So if, say, Hell's Angels came to the nearest suburb to have a serious party, would the other white folks there countenance being abandoned to them because "You all look alike to us"? "But they're not like us!!! They're... (insert epithet here)!" Yeah.

Yeah I know the cops were overwhelmed. I sure as hell don't envy them. But, again, which way were the guns pointing?

Posted at 06:47 AM | Comments (0)

September 05, 2005

What Have We Come To

...that my reaction to the news of Rehnquist's death was, "Oh, shit!" (And I know I'm not alone.)

Twenty years ago, could anyone have convinced you that we'd feel that way?

Thirty years ago, did you think anything could possibly make Nixon look good by comparison?

Forty years ago, did you think we'd miss Goldwater?

Fifty years ago, did you think Eisenhower would sound like a prophet, if a master of understatement, when he tossed out that warning about "the military-industrial complex"?

Posted at 03:47 AM | Comments (0)

September 03, 2005

NOLA: Those Telling Details

As with the famously subversive photographs that Ansel Adams took of the Manzanar internment camp, there are details of the situation in New Orleans -- the Superdome, the Convention Center, and evidently some freeway-ramp islands -- that make it clear how the people in charge are thinking. And they're the same details: Which way the guards' guns are pointing.

I'm quoting a SF Chron piece by Anna Badkhen, with photo linked:

Around the perimeter of Miller's temporary new home stood several dozen police officers, mostly white, holding their rifles at the ready.

"We just don't want anybody to get out of hand in this heat," said Louisiana state trooper Chance Thomas, who stood on the bridge pointing the muzzle of his M-16 at the crowd below. "I'm just doing crowd control."

But Steven Mullcur, 36, a construction worker, said that when he and his wife wanted to visit his father, who lives not far from the camp, to use his shower, "two cops pulled up and said that if we didn't go back they'd put a bullet in me or worse."

"The statement that ticked me off the most was, 'You should've left before -- now stay here,' " Mullcur said.

One police officer, who declined to be identified, confirmed that the residents were not allowed to leave their garbage-strewn wasteland except on helicopters, which took only the severely ill, or on buses, which were not there.

Posted at 04:44 PM | Comments (0)

More New Orleans

What finally made me break down in tears like a damnfool in front of the TV was the hospitals. People dying there. Bodies stacked in the stairwells. People dying there for lack of electricity, of water. Food, even. No Xrays, no tests, no damn lights!

Never mind the seige of looters at the doors. (For another look at "looters," see Gutterboy's blog.)

Imagine being in a hospital in the United States and dying for lack of drinkable water. Imagine being in a hospital with only flashlights and it's 90+ degrees and you havent eaten in days and are afraid to sleep because you're hearing gunshots and there aren't enough people to take care of everybody and you're losing patients for lack of water. Not blood, not beds, not even lab equipment: water.

Posted at 03:53 AM | Comments (0)

September 01, 2005

New Orleans

I'm spending my energy reshuffling the house, which we do now and then; being thankful we have a house to reshuffle; and being in shock over Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Here, go read this for a few days.

Found a cookbook a few years ago from the Spanish-speaking area south of New Orleans; the people there are mostly from the Canary Islands. You might have seen a few of them where I most recently did: that PBS music series that followed the Mississippi River.

Posted at 05:13 AM | Comments (0)