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26 January, 2012

Brittle-flex


The photo above is of ice on an apple branch. First, the branch caught snow and ice that stacked up on top, and froze there. And here, the next day, some of that ice has slipped and slung itself don below the branch. 


But ice is hard. When I whack it, or some giant branch comes crashing down, ice breaks like the glass it mimics. Crystal brittle fragility. Or, if it gets thick enough, hard and unyielding, unchanging if nobody turns up the heat.


Or speeds up the clock. Unimaginative reckoning of time traps our perception, makes us think things are solid when they are fluid, immutable when they are changing before our eyes. I've always had a weakness for the revelatory power of time-laps photography: a seed spreads her dicot to reveal a luscious tendril that becomes a plant. But with a little patience, the same can be seen without the fancy equipment. Glaciers flow, the hard little ice on an apple twig sags like a rope.


Or, the thousands of frozen shards cracked from a falling branch cascade like water, like in this shot (yeah, I know, it doesn't really show up). Hard pointillist frags conspire to produce a fuzzy flow. Then the virtual shutter of my camera freezes it into a cloud that will never move on. Of course, not even that is true: the file will degrade, pixels will disappear and move every time it is copied or re-saved. And by the way, your screen shifts everything a little to the right.

Stolidity becomes fluidity. Slow is not unchanging. Pieces become wholes and break up again. This post may be edited.





 

23 January, 2012

Weather Feral


Lights out, everybody home.

After months of lulling us into a false sense of security (or, for the neurotic, misplaced worry over lack of precipitation), the weather unloaded on Olympia this past week. It began with rumors of snow, and the masses watched TV or teemed to websites with little snowflake icons. Weather geeks spent more time looking at radar and satellite views, and tuned into Cliff Mass at every opportunity, because his fans like to hear him talk almost as much as he does. Me? I'm one of those outliers who just reads the Forecast Discussion from the Seattle National Weather Service office.

They called for 1-3" on Monday, and again on Tuesday, and Olympia came in at the top of that range, although it was melting from the bottom the whole time, and we didn't end up with a full 6 inches Tuesday night. As the next system came round, the NWS discussion began with a quote from Airplane, "I sure picked the wrong week to quit drinking." Various models kept predicting different amounts of snow, and differed on when it would turn to rain.

In the wee Wednesday hours, more focused on keeping the fire going than sleeping, I peeked outside and began to lose interest in the predictions and models. At first, it was a desire to replace speculation with data. The snowflakes were flat and shiny, frozen hard, and the dripping from the roofline had stopped, so clearly, it was getting colder. As day dawned, snow continued, piling up rapidly.

The last time I paid any attention, meteorologists were saying that the Olympia area might top out at 6 inches…right about the time we hit 6 inches. By mid-day, there was little sign of warming, or even of the predicted cease-snow. I'm not one of those people who scoffs at forecasters for sport (a dull, uninventive sport, indeed), but I do think that sometimes they need to ignore the model and take a walk outside.

Snowflakes got smaller, and eventually turned to pellets of ice. The warming trend never kicked in enough to give us rain, save a brief partial outbreak 24 hours late. Precipitation came in one frozen form or another for a while, and atop the snow grew a crust of ice. I decided not to shovel the driveway, reasoning that it would only result in an icy surface.

Besides, why drive? Olympia is not known for being able to handle major winter storms, and I had firewood and food. My winter fertilization had escalated beyond ignoring the weather pros to withdrawing from car culture.

And the process would continue. I got more attuned to small cues in the weather over the course of the storm. Wind direction and intensity read in the trees and chimney output, the ominous swarming of gulls seeking refuge from the bay, the sound and feel of the snow as I stalked through it.

At the same time, withdrawal from civilization became more pronounced. After an all-too-brief respite, I could hear traffic building on I-5 again, but I had no desire to join in. As consumption junkies and ailment addicts succumbed to "cabin fever" (which does actually exist, but takes weeks to incubate and only ends with a lovely spring or ugly cannibalism), people shoveled drives and ventured out to join the madding crowds buying potato chips and crappy beer as if survival depended on it.

Instead, my time went to winterizing the homestead, by which I mean playing in the snow with the kids, sculpting a giant bust of a baboon, and building a mini-luge track over the driveway. Because I'd become more attuned to the weather as it is--not how a computer say it may become--I knew exactly when to make the ape and sled run so that they'd become coated in ice.

At some point, the power went out. So I went out, and listened as firs cracked and alders popped. Ever 10 minutes or so, there was a big branch falling, the initial break followed by the glassy cascade of ice freed from twigs and falling to earth; this symphony may elude my aging ears next time around, so I gloried in its irregular crescendoes. I helped the apples shed some ice, and learned that blueberry twigs just break if you try to help them do the same.

Eventually, I headed in, shed a few wet layers, and tended fire. I barely run our electric heat if I can help it, but at this point the fire became more than a hobby. It kept the house warm, and for a couple of days it is how we cooked. I McGyvered a little grill, making some pie-like things and sausages, warmed a pot of soup and foil packet of potatoes, stewed a mess o beans, and even made espresso (NOTE: the plastic handle of those little Italian espresso makers will look OK, but then melt to your hand, the sneaky bastards.)

The house shrank into the den, four hominids by the window or the fire, depending on whether they valued light or heat more at the moment. Furniture and the TV disappeared under wet vestments, and the floor became a layer of bark fallen from firewood. Daylight ruled, stretched only a bit by candleflame. Trips beyond the dripline to get more wood, to forage for fun, but otherwise, a family sticking close to the hearth, not so different than the thousands of generations before our kind got electrified and uppity.

Feral is not all fun. Splitting and hauling wood, knocking ice off the food trees. I guess making a baboon sculpture and sled run is not exactly necessary, but it takes effort. My kids said, "Dad, you're steaming," and it is true that I did create my own tiny weather system. The day after the ice-fall, the Olympia climate replicated this on a larger scale, fog and wood-smoke enveloped everything.

Yet, the I-5 noise grew. People drove by. Eventually, a snowplow made it even to our side street. Civilization once again reared its ugly head (for those who could afford it), and there were rumors of free frozen food from the grocery store stricken with powerlessness, inciting a rush. Also, those stricken with cabin faux-fever rushing onto the roads.

Eventually, this included members of my own family, and somehow I ended up pressed to shovel the driveway (taking out the luge run, which was disintegrating but still heavy as hell), working up enough heat to reduce small thunderheads of steam over my balding pate. Then, because of the  car-driving acumen supposedly bestowed on me by my manly parts, I drove the family out into the slushy grid of asphalt that separates us from snow-baboons and other allegedly inferior apes.

And it was not pretty. Guys with overly active dangly bits driving like madmen. Everyone converging on the stores with electricity to buy…whatever. Cabin feverishness gone amok. I found myself in a grocery store (turns out that my foil stash was unequal to the task of fireplace cookery--so I guess there was some purpose), and was infuriated to learn that with a quarter million people lacking power, Safeway chose to use its precious current to play Phil Collins "music." Inforgivable.

I was glad to get back home, and play feral again. More fire. More observing the weather (quickening wind from the south with some thin spots in the cloud cover, a good sign for thawing, and mercifully short of the damaging high winds that the weather geek rumor web was predicting), which somehow stuck within a degree or three of freezing for days and nights on end, yet provided an interesting array of precipitations, fogs, and overcasts.

The adventure is over now, except for the telling. Work was abuzz this morning. While the novelty will fade, the legion is yet to be born. A few years of typically minor snowfall, and January 2012 will loom larger. That gnarly tree? 2012. The abundance of firewood? 2012. The half-assedness of future winter weather? Bow down before 2012, when the wild demigods of winter skewered the weak with mighty icicles, when the trees cracked under the unflinching ruthlessness of La Nina. Yes, in time this half-hairy ape will spin these few days into mythology, and the un-sullied minds of children and superstitious souls of the old will nod in agreement and supplication before the spirits of weather unfettered.

Happily feral

18 January, 2012

A Foot o Frozen Stuff


After a couple of days of a couple or three inches, it cut loose today. I was tending fire to keep us warm, sleeping on the couch and rousing every once in a while to mate new wood with old glowth embers. On the 2 o'clock round, I saw snow falling. At four and a third hours, the back porch light revealed big sparkling flakes mounting quickly. Dawn seemed to come late, so dense was the snow, inching up past boot height. 


By then, the school district had admitted the inevitable. My job had pre-empted the snowfall, telling us to work from home, but I'd already decided to take the day off. Write technical reports or play? No choice at all.


And play I did, but not nearly so much as a certain first grade girl who: ate her weight in snow, buttressed a snow-fort, staked claims to untrodden quarters of the yard, explored the pick-up bed full of flakes, and made snow angels (though not in the same quantity as face-prints, mind you, and not quite to the same effect as the motion-deprived snow-crucifixes she also embedded in the deepening white stuff). Among other things. At one point, she menacingly wielded a plastic lettuce knife at her sister; I'd foolishly given it to them to sculpt snow with, feebly unable to predict her using a giant green plastic knife as a, uh, giant knife. 


Baboon, or Australopithecene? I care not, so long as he guards my abode with ferocity belying his lazy grin.
Me? I'm more of a hands-on worker of snow. It took me about an hour of surprisingly aerobic work to make this. Nestled in the winter-shadow of the south hedge, it's some sort of great ape. Cracker has this song, "Guarded by Monkeys," which rocks lyrical and guitarical mad genuisness, but monkeys are only good in troupes, being fairly insubstantial, even frail, one-on-one. So I opted with a single big-ass ape (ass not pictured). For scale, the pupils of it's eyes are bottle caps. Rumors have already made it back to me that a case of Winterhook is buried in this creature's medulla oblongata, but it ain't so. This will have to do for home defense as well as a stand-in until I can realize my life-ling dream of hanging out in snowy hot springs with Japanese monkeys.

Eventually, the snow petered out, leaving a foot or son on the ground. Miserly little ice pellets finished off the day, but too few to bring down the power grid (I hope). Just in case, the fire is still burning. 

Yes, I'm gonna say it: Grillin and Chillin.

16 January, 2012

Attack of the Suit Zombies

The Northwest is not immune to the Zombie fascination sweeping the nation. Seattle, especially, had had it's share of zombie events, and the fact that hipsters there proclaim that the craze is Over can be taken as evidence that they were at the leading edge of the phenomenon to begin with.

But to my eye, it ain't over. Like most things that replicate, it has evolved. Zombi americanus, your run-of-the-mill species, is widespread to the point that supernaturalists have all checked it off on their lists and are bored with them. Fortunately, diversification has reared its many heads, and new species are emerging. 


One of these has popped up in Olympia recently. As soon as the legislative session began, swarms of Z. politicensis were observed on the capitol campus, and milling about at coffee shops and bars. They are easily distinguished from local warm-bloods and zombies by the fact that they all wear suits, which is extremely rare here. Only the Alpha males appear very comfortable in these garments--the young staffers and interns look outright comical, dressed up in big-boy clothes--and are the only ones to fear.


The rest of the pack mostly occupy themselves clumsily rushing to hearings they cannot comprehend or, as I said, milling about, trying to look important but with such vacant eyes it is impossible to take them seriously. Loitering behavior is interpreted by some ethologists as evidence of decreased brain function, and I am not going to argue that, but there is more to it. Look at them; they are almost all male. Nobody has yet explained the gender imbalance, but we've all noticed it. Some say it is because politics, like its sporting analogs mixed martial arts and golf, is interesting only to those afflicted with testosterone poisoning.  

My theory is that all this milling about is the suit zombies' way of attempting to find a mate. Hang out long enough at the drinking establishment, and maybe a female will become enamored enough with that Armani suit to let it be removed. She is likely to be disappointed, the dangly bits being among the first to drop off after zombification. The slow brain that is a hallmark of the genus takes a while to come to terms with this, and attempted mating behavior drags on for years in some cases.

Some observers suggest that Z. politicensis has already separated into two species, but I'm reserving judgment until I see a real difference, especially since most of the splitters rely on mental inclination, which is so very limited in the genus. The Equus variety is allegedly distinct based on having a highly developed social conscience compared to Elephas, but this quality remains latent, rarely expressed in a way that would lead to conflict, much less actual domination. This may be a result of the testicular absence, but I make it a habit not to check. If anything, the Elephas tendency to want to chop off pieces of the body politic ("Teachers....unnnhhhh....Unions!" they moan, waving cleavers) seems like better evidence of differentiation.


Meanwhile, the living among us tolerate this seasonal visitation. Local businesses sell them coffee and alcohol to fuel their milling about. Soon enough, they will leave, long enough before summer that the rains will wash away their residue so we can feel clean again. It is frustrating to have the rest of the state, whenever they complain about some policy, refer to it is "Olympia's," rather than pointing at the suit zombies who live elsewhere and congregate here for a brief while, but we have thick skin and all our parts. We carry on after the carrion moves on. 

04 January, 2012

More from the Abyss: Wave Them Big Hairy Arms

Kiwa puravida male holotype: (A) Dorsal view. (B) Ventral view (A and B Scale bar = 10 mm; Credit: Shane Ahyong, NIWA Wellington). (C) in situ next to Bathymodiolin mussels (D) Scanning Electron Micrograph of a detail of K. puravida's 3rd maxilliped and the comb-row setae which it uses to harvest its bacteria (scale bar = 150 ┬Ám credit; Shana Goffredi, Occidental College]. (E) Setae covered by bacteria from 3rd pereopod (see Figure 4E for scale). (F) Dense aggregation in situ. (G) Shipboard photo of K. puravida using its 3rd maxilliped to harvest its epibiotic bacteria. (H) Comb-row setae with bacteria filaments stuck among combs (indicated by arrow).
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026243.g001
Oh yeah, that's a Yeti Crab. My new favorite species. This one is from the waters off Costa Rica, where you least expect a Yeti, which only makes it better.

You won't run into one, lazing on the beach or even scuba diving. Unless you know where the deep-sea methane vents are, and have the right submersible, you'll never see a Yeti Crab except on screen. It is another one of those creatures who live where the sun don't shine, a denizen of the abyssal deep, a realm I've waxed un-poetic about before.

A couple of cool things about Yeti Crabs: they occupy hydrothermal vents as part of a fauna that differ from those worms we've come to expect, and they are farmers. The Yeti's genus was only discovered in 2005, and in the past year scientists found an incredibly dense population of them near Antarctica (check out this article), at vents where the usual swarms of shrimp and vestimentiferan worms were absent, but new species of barnacles and snails were discovered. 

Reading this, my initial thought was that hydrothermal vents, being rare and widely dispersed, might each be a world unto itself, populated with a unique fauna found nowhere else, isolated. But in this article reviewing the past decade of research, that turns out to be only partly true. Yes, scientists now believe that there are entirely new biogeographic regions centered on vents, but they also have begun to collect evidence for dispersal between vents, deep fracture zones and currents that allow larvae from one vent to find and colonize another. So there are species of Yeti Crabs in the Antarctic and Indian Oceans, as well as those off of Costa Rica. Between these far-flung worlds, benthonauts go where no man has gone before.

In the Antarctic, where they were so thick that scientists said they looked like piles of skulls on the ocean floor, and elsewhere, the Yeti Crabs prove to be not abominable, but peaceful. Most crabs would eat you as soon as look at you (assuming you're already dead and ripe enough to scavenge), and have no hesitation to use their chelipeds to capture and dismember prey. But not the Yeti. No, this genus grows hair on its pincers, forming a field in which bacteria  thrive. It feeds the bacteria by waving its hairy arms (the first species documented was dubbed Kiwa hirsutus) in the flow of hydrothermal vents. Then it uses a specially adapted appendage to scrape off the bacteria, its only known food. 

The earth farts, the crab waves its claws in the methane, and everyone is happy. Sounds gross, but how different is it than humans using cowshit and urea to grow food? It's certainly more efficient, dining way down on the food chain, and it has the benefit of digesting methane and hydrogen sulfide before they can contribute to our greenhouse gas problem. My main hope is that it makes the crab taste like farts, so we don't start harvesting them for our own food.


The information above came from this article:

"Dancing for Food in the Deep Sea: Bacterial Farming by a New Species of Yeti Crab"

The article was written by:
Andrew R. Thurber1*, William J. Jones2, Kareen Schnabel3

You can fund the article at:

01 January, 2012

Someone else's cleaning project

I woke up his morning not hung over, but just sick of it.

Sick of what?

It,...whatever it is. Fatigue, tired of something I cannot quite name and getting even more exhausted trying to pin it down. A feeling of malaise worse than President Jimmy had. Verging on La Nausee, which makes me think of French intellectualism, which just makes me feel sicker. I wanted to say no to something, but I was not sure what.

The usual cure, for me anyway, is to get busy with my hands or my mind, creating something. But nah, too run down.

A few more hours of moping, and it made me so itchy I finally resorted to Strategy #2: jettison junk.

So now I entered the garage, tossed a bunch of trash, and organized what seemed worth saving. Piles of woodchips from carving--into the fire. Paper and bottles--into the recycling bin. Outright junk--into the trash. Various organic crap--out to the yard to become...more yard.

Then it hit me that I had something to banish from my life that might actually rise above the usual clearing-out that accomplishes all of the above, and do something worthy of an major purge. I quit facebook. First, I posted that this was my new years resolution. Then, I navigated the labyrinth separating facebookers from escape. After a brief moment of regret for all the hilarious things posted by a friend of mine that I will now miss, I had my wife check, and yeah, I'm gone.
My resolution was gone before anyone could "like" it and reel me back in by my ego. I am now a virtual nobody.

Which feels good. Now, on with life.