Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hey Heisenberg, a snake was here. What kind?

One of my favorite pieces of graffiti I've ever seen was in the ladies room on the 3rd floor of the Physics building at Georgia Tech. "Heisenberg was somewhere near here. What time?"

Unlike subatomic particles, snakes are pretty easy to observe, especially when they shed their skin and leave it behind. The other day I found a snake skin next to the burrow of Stump Gopher in my front yard.

I figured it was some ordinary no-big-deal snake that shed it, but what if it was an indigo snake? That's a big-deal endangered snake that often hangs out in gopher holes. If that was an indigo snake skin that would be cool. I was in the middle of something at the time so I got a plastic storage container out of the house and got the head part of the skin and saved it for later. Eat your heart out, Heisenberg.

When I got around to it I Googled Black Racer Head Scales. The image results gave me a nice line drawing (courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History). I compared that to my shed scales.
Black Racer Head Scales Drawing
That looks like a match. Just to see the difference in an indigo snake I looked that up too.
Indigo Snake Head Scale Drawing
See how that third row of scales is totally different? It's a pretty easy way to tell what you've got. It's a little like picking resistor values in circuits class though, you have to have guess something that actually exists to get started.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Oleology: Personality Profiles Based on Butter

The Ruler
The Ruler: The Ruler mentally draws lines on the butter like on the wrapper. They cut perfect pats  to keep the stick square to facilitate dispensing exactly a tablespoon for recipe purposes. The Ruler is intolerant of breaches in butter etiquette and dispenses jam from the jar into a crystal dish for the table. The Ruler tends to end up old and alone, yet happy because they always get their own way.

The Nibbler
The Nibbler: This corner-cutter keeps taking butter from one corner of the stick until they have sharpened the butter into a senseless wedge. The Nibbler likes to eat with their hands and drink straight out of a can. A free spirit, they love to shock people and rarely wear pants.

The Mountain Topper
The Mountain Topper: This "a little off the top" butter infidel scrapes the whole top of the stick, as though nobody will notice the square stick of butter becoming shorter and shorter with each pop of the toaster. The Mountain Topper is a pathological liar and waters down the bottles of liquor they use for company. 

The Abstract Artist
The Abstract Artist: This butter defiler runs the knife all around the stick of butter, getting the softened butter while leaving the cold core. The Abstract Artist tends to use a high conductivity metal butter dish rather than a sensible glass or ceramic dish. The dejected butter ends up sitting in a pool of its own tears of embarrassment. The Abstract Artist has no direction in life and bad taste in hats.

The Corn Cobber
The Corn Cobber: This "gitter' done" character skips the cutlery entirely and applies their foodstuffs directly to the stick of butter. Only in their case it is not real butter but what Granny calls "oleo," or if she's being brand specific, "Bet It's Not Butter." The Corn Cobber loves big trucks and Jesus and has nicknames for all their children. (Names that will remain a secret when they get to college.)

The Sealing Wax
The Sealing Wax: Folding back the wrapper and applying the exposed end of the stick of butter directly to a hot griddle is the modus operandi for The Sealing Wax. This pancake-fancier thinks nothing of the burnt blueberry blood left behind on the butter butt as they fold the end of the wrapper back over the mutilated stump and toss it back in the icebox after breakfast. The Sealing Wax likes high adrenaline sports and goes to business meetings wearing shirts with writing on them.

The Use It All, Y'all
The Use It All, Y'all: This butter lover has no consistent method for cutting a portion from a stick of butter. Their habit is to grab the side of the wrapper with both hands and whip the whole stick of butter into a skillet, mixing bowl, or sauce pan. The Use It All, Y'all considers themselves a friendly person, open and welcoming, yet their crippling historical ignorance renders them helplessly racist. They don't know when to stop talking, effectively digging a hole then pulling the dirt in on top of themselves.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Three uses for an old toilet besides a planter

Last week at the end of replacing a leaky toilet tank for a friend I found myself with two entire toilets and a tank. The first step in my reuse project was to dismantle them. After I'd taken the tanks off and removed the spud and fill valve and handle I cleaned everything with Bar Keepers Friend. Then I Googled up reuse ideas for unwanted toilets. Does nobody take them apart but me?! All the ideas were for entire, assembled toilets! Freakin' petunias in the bowl and the tank, just sitting there looking like a toilet. I think the worst idea I read was to put the whole thing in the garage and store a bag of fertilizer in the empty bowl.

The next step in my toilet reuse project was to put the two stools in the car and take them to the dumpster. The trap set up makes them pretty terrible for anything. They're going to hold water and breed mosquitoes right side up. Upside down is not that useful either. They could hold up the ends of a board to make a bench, but I don't need a bench. I thought of stacking them somehow as the start of a porcelain totem pole. But that wouldn't go with the light'rd stobs that decorate my yard. I thought I might be able to bury them in such a way that just the front of the bowl sticks out of the ground like two eyelids. I could plant shrubbery for eyebrows, nose, mouth, mustache. Hilarious. But I don't even like pictures of faces. Anthropomorphic yard art is the last thing I want. So to the dump they went. (Read my last blog post if you want further insight into my limits for doing things strictly for sustainability. We can always mine the landfills later for toilets to crush up for concrete aggregate.)

The tanks on the other hand, those don't immediately trigger thoughts of private moments best forgotten. They're perfectly nice little glazed porcelain containers in an efficient shape. So here's what I did with them.

The first one now catches the condensate drip from my air conditioner.
If it weren't on the North side of the house this actually might be a good
opportunity for a planter. Instead I'm just using gravel
 to cover the holes in the bottom so it will drain out gradually
into the soil and not make a mess from splashing.
Can you guess what's in there?
The extension cord for my leaf blower!
I plugged up the holes in the bottom with metal plates and
steel wool in the one the cord goes through so mice won't go
in there. I put a piece of tape over the handle hole too,
after I took the pictures.
The last one is the huge tank from the 1950s toilet I was working on.
This one has a crack in one corner that makes it leak. I replaced it with a new1.6 gallon one by the same manufacturer
that miraculously fits. And it flushes fine. This tank from the '50s is different from the ones from the '90s in two ways. First of all it's a lot bigger. But more interestingly, is is glazed all over -- front, sides, back, inside. Everywhere but the bottom and the top lip. The other ones don't look that nice from behind. But since this one does I took advantage of that and used it as a table base for a scrap piece of granite somebody gave me. I think it's a sink cut-out. Double reuse points!

Cold brewed tea and your carbon footprint

Yesterday one of my friends recommended cold brewing green tea. There was a study that it's better for you. Today I emptied my pitcher of iced tea and thought I might try cold brewing, so I Googled it. I found this article entitled "Cold Brewing Tea: Why You Should And How To Do It!" (sic) (That's not how you do headline casing. My first complaint about this blog and the last pedantic one I will mention, as the philosophical ones are what prompted me to write this.)

Here's the basic premise of the unspecified Arbor Tea blogger who I will call Aubrey (based on comment responses):
Tea is a relatively energy-efficient beverage. A cup of tea, made by boiling only the amount of water you need, produces only about a tenth of the carbon footprint generated by a large cup of cappuccino (Source: “The World’s Water, 2008-2009″ by Peter Gleick, et al, To put this into perspective, if you drink four cups of black tea every day for a year, you would have only used up as much energy as a single 40-mile car ride. On the other hand, the energy involved in a three-a-day latte habit is equivalent to flying halfway to Europe!
This took me a while to understand. The coffee I drink only requires boiling the amount of water I need, too. I think they are talking about the water to make the steam used to foam milk for cappuccino? That seems excessive to me, certainly. Do people really drink that much high-maintenance coffee? Anyway, I don't really dispute their comparison. It's not cogent to the philosophical question ahead.
By cold-brewing your tea, you not only get easy, delicious iced tea, you also get peace of mind knowing that you took a small step in the right direction toward lowering your carbon emissions!
That's the Why You Should part of this article on the Arbor Tea SustainabilitTEA blog. Instead of boiling three cups of water in 5 minutes in the microwave, dunking two family size tea bags for 3 to 5 minutes, pouring it into a pitcher and filling it up the rest of the way with water and sticking it in the ice box, you should put the tea leaves in tap water and put it in the refrigerator for 6 hours. And you should do that because it lowers your carbon emissions.

This makes me uncomfortable. This reasoning is... something isn't right about it. Lowers it from the annual equivalent of one 40 mile car ride to what? The annual equivalent of a 20 mile car ride? Who cares?! If you're worried about it, skip one car ride in a year and make your tea however you damn well like it!

It reminds me of when I asked my oceanography professor if anybody had run the numbers on the contribution to global temperature due to the heat generated by the actual hot engines of cars, not just from their exhaust contributing to the greenhouse effect. I don't think he actually said the words "witheringly small" but the withering look he gave me said it for him. He implied it wasn't worth wasting the back of an envelope to do that math.

Individual people expending a minuscule quantity less energy today than they did yesterday is a witheringly small effect. So witheringly small it's like the idea that chewing celery expends more calories than you get from the celery. The energy consumed by having a prolonged discussion about cold brewed tea eliminates the advantage from not boiling the water to make iced tea. But my point is that it's a tiny number. It doesn't matter. I'm going to keep thinking about it, keep typing on this oversized monitor in this air conditioned building. Because that contribution to my carbon footprint doesn't matter.

In 2006 I knew I didn't really grasp the big picture of global climate change. So I went to graduate school and studied it. Most people don't have the inclination or means to do that, even if they really are well intentioned and worried. Does worrying about their own relatively insignificant carbon footprint make them feel better? I'm worried about them worrying. It seems their support system is just more people telling them, "Good for you! Keep up the good work! Deny yourself the simplest comforts!"

Here are some comments on that blog about the tea. Somebody asked if it used a lot of energy to cool down the water to make the cold brewed tea.
As far as the energy consumed by the refrigerator, well obviously, it’s running anyway and as long as the water you use isn’t actually hot when you put it in, the energy it takes to get it very cold is going to be negligible. Plus, once it’s cold, the cold water stores the cold. An extra gallon of cold liquid in your refrigerator should actually use less energy because you’re replacing empty space with something that can store the cold.
That's rational. Good for you. Then there's this.
Love it! But, I wonder about the energy used draw the water from my well. Is there a way reduce my footprint there as well? Thankfully, I was able to find the answer on my Internet connected computer.
I'm not sure if this is sarcastic or not. If I read it as sarcasm I am not worried. But if they are serious, goddam. That poor person. I worry about the electricity used to run my well pump for stuff like watering trees because it costs money that I don't have. THAT is a perfectly rational reason to worry about the energy used to draw the water from my well. But if you start worrying about the carbon footprint to pump the water to make a cup of tea how can you in good conscience pee into toilet after that tea goes through your system? One flush is about a week's worth of cups of tea! It escalates quickly. If you worry about this stuff next thing you know you've dug an outhouse and only bathe when you collect enough rainwater in a tarp to splash on your privates.

But the SustainabiliTEA blog has a response.
Hmmm, Fredric. I’m sure you will find many answers during your online search. But, the ways we can think of to reduce the energy used to draw water from your well (this article was written assuming municipally supplied water) is to create a manual, solar or wind-powered well head….! Aubrey Arbor Teas
What the hell?! I'm a fan of all those ways of pumping water, but not just because you want a glass of cold tea. Good reasons for not using grid power to pump water is because you aren't close to the grid. Or you happen to have a spare windmill already. Setting aside the hand pump as impractical, because my well is 350 feet deep, to actually go out and buy one of those systems instead of using grid power and a submerged electric pump and a pressure tank is crazy talk. Divide that expense by the number of cups of tea you drink in some reasonable number of years and you realize that the return on investment is not indicative of a smaller carbon footprint. Money is carbon. Economic growth is necessarily bad for the environment. If you have to go to work more to earn enough money to buy a solar array to power your well pump your cold brewed cup of tea is really not going to reduce your carbon footprint. No scientist needs to waste the back of an envelope to tell you that.
Wouldn't it be better if your rural power company implemented efficiencies in power generation and distribution instead? Aren't there improvements to the infrastructure that could slow the rise of global temperatures more effectively than some tea drinkers switching to cold brewing?

That same oceanography professor that told me the heat from cars is not worth scientific scrutiny also asked me if I was going to use solar power at my little house (a 12'x18' structure I built myself with my biweekly paycheck). I was surprised he would ask me that. "It would cost more than the whole HOUSE! I could buy power from my electric membership company for over 40 years before it would equal the amount I'd have to spend to get an equivalent production of solar power." I hope in 40 years those efficiencies at the infrastructure level will have happened. I'm not sure what I can do to encourage it but keep paying my little bitty bill every month.

My own mother wants to help the planet enough to switch all her lightbulbs to fluorescent. She would deny herself a flattering light bulb over the bathroom mirror, yet run a space heater full time in that same bathroom. I asked her, "If you want heat anyway, why not use a regular lightbulb and save the CFL for when you finish chemotherapy next summer?" I put a pink 60W bulb in that fixture for her and it cheered her up all winter. Now that it's summer I should go change it back.

But I digress. I think it's the suffering that bothers me. The people who care are causing themselves discomfort and worry while the people that are orders of magnitude worse for the planet could give a shit. That's just not right.

Maybe I'm worried that this self-sacrificing behavior is a sign of weakness. We're never going to convince the people that could actually do something significant about the anthropogenic carbon footprint if they see the people who are worried about it as a bunch of cold-bath-in-a-bucket people who would have everybody using outhouses and washing their cloth ass wipes with water pumped by hand. (I read a long thing about using cloth instead of toilet paper last week. Do not google "family cloth" if you don't want to know.)

Anyway, I'm going to make some cold brewed tea. But only because I want to. Not because it's better for me, or because its better for my carbon footprint. It will use only one container and eliminate the teapot I heat the water in, so less for me to wash up. If I need a reason. But I don't need a reason. And neither should you.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pink Katydid and Coral Cicada - Erythrism

National Geographic posted a story this week by Victoria Hillman, an explorer who found a pink grasshopper nymph in Transylvania. She asks, "How many of you have seen a pink grasshopper in the wild? I certainly hadn’t and didn’t even know you could have a pink grasshopper, let alone actually see one for real in the wild!"

I know how she feels. I encountered my first pink insect in 2007, a few feet from my front door. I saw something pink on the brown pine straw from my window. I went to see what it was. You don't see a lot of pink here that's not attached to something green. Apparently I'm not the only one that distrusts random pinkness because nothing would eat it! Every day for a week I would look for it and find it. It showed up on May 27, 2007. I took its picture (This was with my trusty Olympus C3030Z. No super macro like my Casio has, but it was a really good camera until it started blowing out pixels in the CCD.) On June 2, 2007 I found another one and put them together and took their picture. Then I put them back in the sparkleberry bush where I found them. I've forgotten how long it was before I stopped seeing them. I'm sure I looked online for an explanation of some indication of rarity at the time but I don't remember what I found. I bet I put something on my old Tumblr at the time, but that archive is impossibly difficult to search. (That's one reason I abandoned it for Blogger.)

Two pink katydids,  June 2, 2007
Thanks to Victoria Hillman I now have an explanation for their pinkness:
It is called erythrism an unusual and little-understood genetic mutation caused by a recessive gene similar to that which affects albino animals. This mutation results in one of two things happening or even a combination of the two; a reduce or even absence of the normal pigment and/or the excessive production of other pigments, in this case red which results in pink morphs. Although it was first discovered in 1887 in a katydid species, it is extremely rare to see these pink morphs so you can imagine our delight at finding so many in one area and they probably all have the same parents both carrying the recessive gene.
So I guess I found one of the original kind. Wonder where they were discovered?

Here's more pictures.

May 27, 2007

May 27, 2007. I got that green thing and put it there just to make the picture more interesting.
May 27, 2007: This katydid was easy to photograph. Just hanging out. Not going anywhere.
May 27, 2007

June 2, 2007: Found a different pink katydid in the sparkleberry bush right outside my front door

June 2, 2007 Hunted down the first one and it was there too. Is one male and one female?
A few weeks later I saw another insect that was kind of a weird color. Not baby pink like this, but more of a coral. This one might always be this color at this stage. I don't know. It was getting dark when I found it but I took its picture anyway. Is it a cicada? What else comes out of a shell like that? It was a lot smaller than the normal cicadas.

June 22, 2007: What I first saw
June 22, 2007: More photogenic angle

This was right behind my house on the trail to my pond. I mow it with my Snapper lawn tractor, thus the awful looking chewed up grass blades. I think it's interesting that the eye color on this is similar to the katydids, kind of seafoam green with a black dot. I wish I had a picture of a regular one to compare.
All I can find readily is this grasshopper, which is comparable to the nymphs in the National Geographic article maybe.

Normal green insect, also taken June 22, 2007
*Update 6/29/2013: I saw a green katydid and a brown something similar. Here's pictures for comparison to the pink ones.

I don't know what this is actually. Looks related to a katydid, but kind of different.
I gather that grasshoppers and katydids come in color morphs, usually green and brown.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

My aunt was driving in the truck down the hill from my house and spied this beautiful snake crossing the road. She stopped to watch it and called me to come see it. If she had taken her eyes off it we'd never have found it again. I couldn't see it when she pointed to it. It had to start moving before I could pick it out.

There's a snake in the weeds. Can you see it? Camouflage works, doesn't it?
It's easier to see him when he moves, but the low light of dusk made
him blurry to my camera. 
This is on 20x zoom, by the way. I was far back from this snake.

There's the rattle. That represents 9 times shedding his skin.  
They shed several times a year, so that snake is just a youngster.

Here's an x-ray view of a rattle. Image from Dr. Bruce Means. 
I'm working on his book on the Natural History of the Eastern 
Diamondback Rattlesnake.

This is how the rattle develops. The first one is how they're born. 
They are born BIG, almost a meter long. 
The eggs hatch inside the female and she delivers live young. 
The second image is after the first shed, 
the next is second shedding. 
They shed very several times in the first year of life.

This is a comparison of a complete intact rattle with the natal button, top, 
and one that's been broken, bottom. 
When they get real long they catch on things and get snatched apart. 
The snake I saw today has his natal button. 
That's how I feel confident counting 9 sheds.
I haven't seen one of these in a really long time. We used to see them a lot when I was a little girl, but we had big rambunctious dogs that found them for us. No other kind of snake in the USA gets as big as an Eastern Diamondback, by weight I mean. This one is not big by rattlesnake standards. I was glad to see it. This one was particularly bright and pretty. I think he must have just shed his skin. 

Carolina Saddlebags Dragonfly

Found a big dragonfly on my windowsill this morning. It just sat there while I went to the office to get my Casio EX-FH20 camera with super macro. It let me take all these photos from about 1 cm away. I think it's a vulnerable juvenile just a few hours out of the water. I like to think it grew up in my birdbathtub seen in the background. I had never observed one with the solid part of the wings like this. It took me a while to find an identification online. Thanks, Bug Guide! Species: Tramea carolina. Ref: Citizen Scientists League Dragonfly life cycle, Bug Guide Carolina Saddlebags