April 24, 2007

Those "Eskimo words for snow" debunked

You have probably always heard that the Inuit have 45 or a 100 words for snow. Not true. This particular urban legend is dealt with at the Savage Minds anthropology blog.

The Savages also recommend an online anthropology tutorial.

The dog's tail is wagging, right? Or left?

A wagging tail means that a dog is emotionally aroused, sometimes by happiness and sometimes by aggression.

Researchers say that you can tell the difference by which side the tail favors.

But there is another, newly discovered, feature of dog body language that may surprise attentive pet owners and experts in canine behavior. When dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.

At a fundamental level, the right brain specializes in behaviors involving withdrawal and energy expenditure. In humans, these behaviors, like fleeing, are associated with feelings like fear and depression. Physiological signals include a rapid heart rate and the shutdown of the digestive system.

Because the left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side of the body, such asymmetries are usually manifest in opposite sides of the body. Thus many birds seek food with their right eye (left brain/nourishment) and watch for predators with their left eye (right brain/danger).

Further research will begin tonight with the two usual suspects.

April 18, 2007

What Makes a Good Cave--or Ranch-Style House?

Cave-dwellers had five criteria for choosing caves. (Discovery Channel via Mirabilis.) They includes entrances facing east or west and a "porch" for outdoor activities.

When it comes to purpose-built houses, Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski has a three-part series. Here are links to the first two parts:

1. "Why Do We Live in Houses Anyway?" (as opposed to multi-family buildings).

It's one thing to say that people prefer to live in a house, but what kind of house? Basically, there are three choices: a free-standing house, a house sharing common walls with its neighbors, and a house that is oriented to an inner court. The last is an ancient model. The Roman dwelling was the classic courtyard house. Generally one story high, it covered the entire lot. Depending on its size, it had one or several open-air courtyards. The courtyard house, small or large, was the dwelling of choice; only the poorest Romans lived in insulae, or multistory tenements.

2. "The Ranch House Anomaly".

Buoyed by the post–World War II boom, optimistic about the future, and gripped by the idea of Progress, Americans embraced innovation as never before, in the way they traveled, the way they brought up their children, in their manners—and in their homes. The hallmark of that period was the ranch house. It is said to have been invented in 1932 by Cliff May, a self-taught San Diego architect, but it also owed a debt to Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses, and to Alfred Levitt's popular "Levittowner." Today the suburban ranch house is considered the epitome of conservative taste, but at the time it represented a radical departure from tradition.

(via Cliopatria.)

Swallows, Aristotle, the Clothesline, and Piñon Canyon

Barn swallows
¶ I said in nature-writing class yesterday that they would return around the 22nd, but today, April 18th, the barn swallows were zipping around the CSU-Library building, their favorite nesting site.

Maybe some of the students who pass through its doors, oppressed by oncoming deadlines, will look up and notice them. Followers of Aristotle may note that there was more than one.

¶ Fighting global warming, one piece of rope at a time. Further comments at Tim Blair's blog where he draws a line.

¶ More on hummingbirds: after the last snow melted and the air temperature went above 60 F., a pair of broad-tailed hummers were at our feeder on the 15th No way of knowing if that was the same male that M. heard on the 5th.

¶ The Colorado legislature is now on the record in opposition to the Army's desired expansion of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS)--if it involves using eminent domain to get the land.

I mentioned some of the ironic aspects before.

Another might be that PCMS' public access--plus the Army's giving the Forest Service management of the "Picketwire Canyonlands" and the famous dinosaur trackway--have helped drive tourism in SE Colorado, where there never was much before.

So now when the Army wants to expand, there are more Coloradans who know the area and its natural attractions and who thus are more likely to opppose the expansion.

By contrast, back in the late 1970s when PCMS was envisioned, most people on the Front Range thought -- wrongly -- that "it's all flat out there." Now at least some know different.

April 09, 2007

Over-protective parents and urban foraging

I am becoming a fan of Los Angeles writer Linda J. Williamson, whose piece on Internet-hyper over-protective parents was picked up by the Denver Post:

At a PTA meeting, during a discussion of traffic problems around the school campus, I asked what we could do to encourage families to walk or bike to school. Other parents looked at me as if I’d suggested we stuff the children into barrels and roll them into the nearest active volcano. One teacher looked at me in shock. “I wouldn’t let my children walk to school alone … would you?”

“Haven’t you heard about all of the predators in this area?” asked a father.

“No, I haven’t,” I said. “I think this is a pretty safe neighborhood.”

“You’d be surprised,” he replied, lowering his eyebrows. “You should read the Megan’s Law website.” He continued: “You know how to solve the traffic problem around this school? Get rid of all the predators. Then you won’t have any more traffic.”

And here she is on urban foraging.

The harvest [scarfing free samples at Whole Foods] I reaped was bountiful, but it wasn’t the communing-with-nature, off-the-grid eating experience I was looking for. So I made for a more fertile hunting ground: the Internet. There, on the message board of FallenFruit.org—a web site devoted to mapping L.A.’s many neighborhood fruit trees—I found this shocking entry:

“Soon I will have more avocados than I know what to do with… you can use avocado for facials and hair conditioner. Just mash and apply.”

April 07, 2007

Project Budburst Tracks the Spring

American pasqueflower
Just as Project Feederwatch uses "citizen scientists" to produce lots of data on bird movements, so Project Budburst is doing the same thing for flowering plants.

It is in public beta testing this year, so you can log on and offer some observations.

So far, pasqueflower (pictured) is the only one of the listed Colorado species that I have seen blooming, but M. and I did see some sand lilies blooming on a south-facing slope in the freezing drizzle yesterday.

Hat tip: Mary Scriver.

The Buzz about Spring

I came into my office on Thursday the 5th, and the red message light on my telephone was blinking.

It was a message from M.: "They're here. I was walking the dogs, and I heard one."

I knew what she meant: she had heard the aerial buzz of a male broad-tailed hummingbird.

Friday was full of freezing drizzle, and today so far features freezing fog with a threat of snow. I put up a sugar-water feeder on Friday, and by later afternoon it was freezing up, so I took it down.

I know that hummingbirds can slow their metabolism to survive bouts of cold weather. But sometimes I wonder if, even as "the second mouse gets the cheese," the second hummer gets the territory.

March 30, 2007

The one-question Colorado native quiz

Colony Baldy, Sangre de Cristo range, March 26, 2007
Colony Baldy, Sangre de Cristo range, March 26, 2007

The photo shows

a. A beautiful, inspiring snow-covered mountain that lifts my spirit and makes me glad to live in Colorado.

b. A pretty decent snow pack for late March, but a couple more spring blizzards would be good. We could sure use the moisture.

Answer Key: If you answered (b), you are either a native or naturalized. If you answered (a), let's just say that you are not here for the long term.

March 23, 2007

Slime mold runs a robot

This is a little off-topic but still fascinatng: A robot controlled by slime mold.

The Physarum polycephalum slime, which naturally shies away from light, controls the robot's movement so that it too keeps out of light and seeks out dark places in which to hide itself.

Earlier, there was the robot that generated power by catching flies.

I am waiting for the robot that digests tamarisk. I can see it, a twenty-foot high hexapod, slowly grazing along the Arkansas River somewhere downstream from Pueblo, gently raising its mechanical legs over the barbed-wire fences.

March 20, 2007

What's wrong with corn-based ethnanol?

Conservation writer Ted Williams has it here.

First, no crop grown in the United States consumes and pollutes more water than corn. No method of agriculture uses more insecticides, more herbicides, more nitrogen fertilizer. Needed for the production of one gallon of ethanol are 1,700 gallons of water, mostly in the form of irrigation taken from streams either directly or by snatching the water table out from underneath them. And each gallon of ethanol produces 12 gallons of sewage-like effluent.

And then there is the question of whether we get a net gain or net loss in energy from ethanol. I'm still dubious.

Irony and a long-handled round-point shovel

I should not have reminisced about clearing irrigation ditches in spring.

Walking the dogs last night, M. and noticed standing water where there is normally none. With a sinking feeling, I realized that it was near where a valve on the water line from the well to our next-door rental cabin is located.

This morning I dug down a couple of feet (through waterlogged Holderness silt loam, for those of you keeping track of soil series) to determine that, yes, the water was coming up from below. It was not from melting snow.

Then I called the "backhoe guy." Now there is a six-foot-deep muddy hole waiting for the "well guy" to put in a new valve. (I could do it, but it would take me three times as long, and I have to teach classes.)

And at the end of the day, I was trudging in high muddy boots back up my driveway, shovel on my shoulder.

Just like irrigation days.

March 18, 2007

Signs of Spring

Crotch rockets: A warm weekend brings out the crotch-rocket yuppies from Colorado Springs, looping down through the Wet Mountain Valley. (In Florence, by contrast, the Harley owners seem to drive up and down Main Street.) Every year a couple are killed on Hardscrabble Hill or the Bigelow Divide, sacrifices to two-wheel tourism.

¶The first meadowlark singing down on the prairie between here and Florence.

Mourning-cloak butterflies.

Northern flickers yammering and hammering on utility poles--they have been doing it for two weeks now.

Some crocus bulbs that I planted at least two years ago have bloomed, thanks to this winter's snows. And in the woods the spring beauty (Claytonia) are blossoming. (Photo)

¶So let's have a another spring blizzard. We need the moisture.

¶But the one that still affects me is the smell of burning grass. At once I think, "Ohmygod, I've got to clean the ditch."

But it has been fifteen years since I owned ditch shares in Canon City. That wandering lateral ditch along the bluff is no longer my concern. But something in my memory gets me looking around for a shovel and a propane torch come March and ditch-cleaning season.

Is this like post-traumatic stress syndrome for gardeners?

March 08, 2007

The Piñon Canyon quandary

The proposed expansion of Fort Carson's Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) makes a lot of southeastern Colorado residents nervous.

Coming back from last weekend's class trip to Vogel Canyon, we saw several versions of "this land is not for sale to the Army" homemade billboards.

Colorado's Congressional delegation has been hearing from them. Senator Wayne Allard has made some noises. Is he trying to slow the process--or just make it more palatable?

Some Colorado legislators want to limit the Army's ability to condemn land, although they know that the bill might not stand up in court.

A lot of wildlife and botanical research takes place there.

SE Colorado was wracked by this same issue in the late 1970s, when the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site was created. In the 1990s, I went quail hunting there several times. You had to buy a special permit, but it was not much trouble.

Once my friend and I strolled into one of the former ranch houses--we could tell that the owners had just packed and left without tidying up at all. Perhaps they were some of the unwilling sellers whose land was taken by eminent domain. A 1978 Sears catalog still lay open on the kitchen counter. It spoke of pain.

Yet despite the Humvee tracks and the occasional bit of military debris, PCMS had lots of wildlife when I was there--maybe more than when it was grazing land. Windmills were maintained to pump water for wildlife. Certain sensitive areas were cordoned off and treated as "minefields." Like Fort Carson itself, PCMS was turning into something of a wildlife sanctuary. (Some hunting and fishing at Fort Carson is open to the general public.)

As a visitor, I was able to go places and explore things like the ruined stage stop that I probably could never have done before, unless I was the previous landowner's cousin or something.

On the other hand, expansion could restrict public access to areas in the Comanche National Grassland that are now open. And of course the ranchers who lease grazing rights there would lose them, further cutting into their economic base.

March 01, 2007

Colorado kids who stay indoors

If you come from Colorado, people elsewhere assume that you are a skier, at the very least.

But most Colorado children never get into the mountains, says the Denver Post.

In the Denver Public Schools, the figure is 90-95 percent.

Unless parents make the effort--and obviously many cannot or will not--only organized clubs and programs can get kids off the asphalt.