May 2007 Archives

Enhanced Interrogation


Just a quick question to brighten your Sunday morning: does it invoke Godwin's Law to point out that the Bush administration is actually lifting its doublespeak from the Gestapo?

Urban Savanna

A stand of wildflowers in my front yard; I don't think I actually planted this one -- it came up on its own a couple of years back and I've never gotten around to identifying them. This is what it looked like last August, at any rate.

On a tack related to my last post, I'm in the process of trying to rehabilitate my back yard as a native savanna. "Yard" really is a bit generous; it's a 16-by-22-foot patch of weedy dirt that is bordered on three sides by parking (and is separated from parking on the fourth only by our shed). Pretty well shaded most of the year by trees and buildings, too. In short, your typical urban lot, of the sort that in general is either a neglected weed-choked mosquito breeding ground or else heavily trampled with a broken swingset and an occasional firepit. This one was a bit of both when I moved in.

The trash has been under control for several years now, and we've put up a wooden trellis that separates it from our parking space -- preexisting chain link and a retaining wall form the boundary with the neighboring parking lot and alley, so that's okay. Last year I finally cleared out the remaining dead brush and established our compost pile. Running the lawnmower over said brush made pretty decent mulch to start it with, too. But last year was mostly about the vegetable garden in front.

This year I'm starting to properly tackle the vegetation in back, because I want to show that even a little urban dirt lot can be made into a proper greenspace. The soil is decent, if a bit low in organic content, and there's not as much sunlight as one might want, but it has the makings of a reasonable urban savanna ecosystem. I'm putting in edible plants around the periphery: raspberry vines on the trellis to complement the wild grapes (not that I've ever seen an actual grape on them), and a cultivated patch parallel to one of the retaining walls with winter squash being trained to grow up onto the chain-link and some wild garlic or similar in the gaps. For the rest, these folks sell a number of native seed mixes tailored to small plantings, including a couple of savanna/woodland edge mixtures. Now that strategic mowing has knocked the weeds on their heels for a bit I hope to start seeding in the next couple of weeks. I'm still working out how to deal with the foot traffic back there, however. Once established it shouldn't care too much if you walk on it, of course, but I'll get complaints from the roommates if I declare it off limits for the first year and deprive them of the firepit. Prairie seedlings are relatively sturdy, though, so perhaps a few pavers to catch the bulk of the foot traffic is all that's needed.

For more immediate results, Prarie Moon also sells bare-root plants, and they're having an end of season sale -- I point this out because this would be a good way for any of you reading in the upper Midwest to add some native splash to your own landscaping. Just a thought.


The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD: a shrine to what people would like to think the corn-centric agribusiness industry is all about. Also, it might be suggested, the world's largest birdfeeder. Yes, those walls are mosaics of corn.

I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which while occasionally frustrating makes a serious effort to delve into the processes and systematics of our food system. Or actually, a few parallel food systems: industrial, sustainable, and their hybrid offspring that he terms "big organic," which is generally what is meant by the organic label on the food in your grocery store. (He also spends the last third of the book on this odd hunter-gatherer ego trip of a philosophical aside, so if you're reading for relevance you can probably stop after part II.)

On which note: my first CSA box of the season arrives June 2! Don't know yet what'll be in it -- you never really do -- but judging by last year salads and rhubarb are likely to be the order of the day. I'm not sure what exactly one does with rhubarb other than make pies, of course.

But back to Pollan. There are a few major themes that recur throughout the book. It compares monocultures to ecosystems as methods of production, and investigates the closely related point of petroleum versus sunlight as the underlying energy sources. Tied up in those two contrasts are many of the issues that give rise to organic food, sustainable agriculture, and the "eat local" movement. One one extreme is Iowa, which grows corn almost to the exclusion of any other activity, producing vast quantities of commodity grain using state of the art chemistry and biotechnology, which is then fed into the modern agribusiness industry. On the other end you have sustainable farms that operate as carefully engineered ecosystems, many of which don't even bother getting organic certification because they sell not to grocery stores but directly to consumers through farmers' markets, CSAs, and other local delivery mechanisms.

While I do frequently buy organic food my concern is more with the sustainability of our food system than the particulars of what pesticides or fertilizers can or cannot be used. (However, antibiotics are another story altogether.) So this year my produce will be coming from a CSA farm in southeast Minnesota. I'll be sure to write about that.

"He was, of course, a monster"

And in other news, Jerry Falwell has shuffled off the mortal coil. Richard Perlstein got right to the point: "He was, of course, a monster."

Benen has some vague qualms about condemning the recently dead, and so is content to let Falwell's career speak for itself.

And while Falwell's in for a real shock if the afterlife is anything like the Christian heaven he claimed to believe in, Tristero has the right idea:

The amount of misery he and his colleagues caused is uncalculable: rolling back the rights of women; blaming perfectly innocent Americans for 9/11 simply because he didn't personally approve of who they happened to fuck; fleecing the lower middle class to subsidize his lust for power and his propagation of ignorance; and so much more.

But I can't celebrate his death either because I know there are other christianists out there, just as bad as Falwell if not worse. His death is not that important in a world where the president of the United States himself is so extreme that he actually curries favor with lunatics like James Dobson.

In other words. the hard struggles needed to reverse the gains christianists have made against the better parts of the United States' government and culture lies ahead of us. There is far too much to do to waste time on Falwell one way or the other.


So, I'm back from Scavhunt '07. Busy and exhausted, so stories later. Much awesome was made, and my Vagrant Sun Gods took third place (four years running).

I didn't take any pictures, I think. But that's okay, because these things are extensively documented in the digital era. YouTube and Flickr and the like will be full of Scav by week's end.

Finally, a passage from the book I was reading on the bus to Minnesota last night:

Everybody was making desultory conversation as they went about their jobs, and the morning had something of the flavor that I imagine a barn raising or a November session of corn shucking once had: People who ordinarily work alone having a chance to visit with one another while getting something useful done. Much of the work was messy and unpleasant, but it did allow for conversation, and you weren't going to be at it long enough to get bored or sore. And by the end of the morning you had something to show for it -- and a great deal more than you would have had had you been working alone.

This is actually Michael Pollan, from The Omnivore's Dilemma, writing about slaughtering chickens, but could just as well be about my Scavhunt team. We first and foremost have fun, after all.


Blogging from the lab on a Sunday afternoon because my house has no electricity. Today's freak windstorm has knocked out power lines all over the region. One assumes this is mostly because branches came down on them. That is a bit surprising if you think about it, since we're not far out of winter just now, which means that the trees haven't grown appreciably since last fall when the city crews went around trimming things back. However, the leaves have just come in, which dramatically increases the cross section of a branch to wind and the like.

However, I'm not sure that my house is impacted by a downed line. When the power failed I distinctly heard a transformer faulting out from down the block (sharp bang, followed a few seconds later by a couple of buzzes probably from something arcing as the system tries to recover), and a quick ride through the alleyways near my house didn't reveal any fallen lines. More likely, a branch snagged a couple of lines and shorted them out.

Here's further evidence of an interesting trend. A hospital CEO is writing a blog about running a hospital. Two years ago, would the corporate lawyers have done anything but laugh in his face at the idea?

Learning to Read

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I was probably six or eight when I picked up Azimov's Foundation trilogy. I spent a few days struggling through the first chapter or two, before putting it down and announcing that it was too hard for me. A year or three passed, and I came back around to it and devoured the whole trilogy in several days. What exactly did I learn in the intervening period that enabled me to read Foundation?

For some reason this is brought to mind by the fact that tomorrow morning is a milestone of sorts -- it's the last day of the (hopefully) last (graded) class of my education. Considering I'm in something like the 22nd grade, it's about time, too.

I've kinda had my fill of classroom desks. Although it's always struck me that if you properly padded one of those suckers with the flip-aside writing table, you'd have an extremely functional piece of TV-room furniture.

In other news:

THE O'BAMA THING. Barack Obama has joked for years that people in Chicago voted for him because they thought his name was "O'Bama." Now comes word in The New York Sun that he does, in fact, have Irish ancestry:
So it turns out, the Daily Telegraph reports from Dublin, that Barack Obama's great-great-great-great grandfather was " Joseph Kearney, a well-to-do shoemaker from Moneygall, County Offaly, Ireland, who lived from 1794 to 1861."

Let's finally get away from letting these elite impeccibly-bred patrician dynasties *cough*House of Bush*cough* run things. They're clearly as inbred as any European royal house by now, as any IQ test would show.

Ice dam! A few days after a March blizzard, my sidewalk offers a short course on the hydrology of glacier collapse.

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