Western Sky

Ask your astrologer friend what planets currently occupy the western sky after sunset.  Then ask your astronomer friend the same question.

They both should be able to tell you the one lowest to the horizon is Venus, and the one higher up is Jupiter.  Every few years, they get close like this.  And, they will get even closer before the end of March!

I’m not an astrologer or an astronomer, but I still find something peaceful and spiritual about knowing the position of the planets.  For me it’s just about knowing my humble place in the universe, and there is nothing superstitious about that.  Once you get used to what they look like, they are pretty easy to pick out and tell one from another.  That is, if your eyes are good enough.  Yeah, it’s a lousy over exposed photo with a relatively old point and shoot digital camera with a few bad pixels.  Maybe I will get out the sketchbook instead!

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Garden Update – 1/14/2012

My garden changed a bit in the past few weeks.  First, we had a few cold nights, and my cucumbers froze, just as I was starting to see a few small cucumbers on the vine.  But, when I pulled the vines up, I saw damage from the root know nematodes.  They wouldn’t have produced more than 1-2 cucumbers anyway.  I also cut down the asparagus tops in preparation for this spring’s new shoots.  I expect them within a few weeks.  The frost also killed back my peppers a little, and left a few brown edges on my lettuce leaves – but all-in-all, things are growing well, and quite tasty!

I’ve had quite a few fresh salads made nearly entirely with garden vegetables – lettuce, endive, peas, turnip, radish, and carrots.  This is better than “organic” – it’s less than an hour old and 100% pesticide free.  I was also able to provide a homegrown veggie tray for my party last week – and my guests loved it (especially the peas).

Anyway, here’s a photo of the garden taken today, and a closeup of my turnips (guess what’s for dinner tomorrow).  I need to plant my tomato seeds, and start thinking about spring veggies.

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More “practicality” of geology

I recall a particular time during my education where I felt completely burnt out and unfocused.  It was during grad school, and I had returned from my first national conference.  I arrived at the conference with optimism and wide eyes, eager to learn new things.  While I learned many new things and met many new people, I also returned with the feeling of an “insiders” club that was often more about ego and status than discovery, wonder, and creativity.  At times it felt like the competition among scientists was not about discovering the next great thing, but to convince others that they were right and others were wrong,  and this was accomplished by talking or writing more (quantity not quality), or talking louder.

With a few years of maturity, I now recognize this behavior is the human nature component of any industry or discipline.  It’s definitely true in music and film, in politics, fashion, and I am sure it exists in engineering an other sciences.  Industries have certain standards that have evolved over time, often to directions prescribed by the most narcissistic personalities.  That’s just the way it is.  In other words, we do things within an industry just because, and not really for any objective reason.  Often, there is no reason one has to do or think about things in a certain way other than to gain peer acceptance.  For geologists, this means giving 15-minute Power Point speeches that involve reading “inside lingo” from text slides.  It also means a certain manner of dress, that I once humorously made fun of using a ternary diagram.

About the same time as this conference, I was reading “The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries” by John Wesley Powell.  When Powell led his expedition through the Grand Canyon, geology was truly a science for the adventurer, and those “industry standards” did not yet exist.  Back then, the job required open-mindedness, creativity, multiple talents, and exploring different ways of do things.  I was particularly excited by the illustrations included with those old reports.  One could not simply carry a small camera into the field, things were drawn, and needed to be drawn accurately. Here are a few examples from Powell’s book.

I’m not sure who the illustrators of these images were, but the book was published four years after the second expedition.  They certainly weren’t drawn by Powell, and the signatures on the drawings don’t mach the names of the expedition members.  Perhaps these are illustrations drawn from notes and sketches taken by Powell himself.  Nonetheless, the detail in these sketches is remarkable and accurate, and that before easy photography, one needed to be extra particular and accurate with his or her notes and sketches in order to convey information to others.  Thus, to be a good geologist in 1875 also required a fair bit of artistic talent.

A few weeks after that conference I was filling out some kind of progress report form or grant application.  It asked why I was studying Geology.  I paused a few moments, and was tempted to write, “I study geology so that I can become a better landscape painter.”  I guess I saw myself as daVinci studying anatomy in order to paint better.  I did know a sculptor classmate who took geology classes to learn more about the materials she worked with, so I guess the idea is not that absurd.  In the end I decided the grant money or my continued education was more important than individual expression, so I caved and gave an answer that conformed to the industry standard.

But I do continue painting, and my geologic studies have helped me view and paint landscapes in a different way.  Here’s a recent one of the Colorado River, from Lee’s Ferry.

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Garden Update 11/27

I promise to post more than just garden updates soon – but here’s how it looked on sunday.

My peas are starting to climb the fence.  White blooms should be coming soon, and sweet peas just a few days later.  I can’t wait.

Here is an overall view.  The lettuce is growing fast (and delicious) – and I may be eating some carrots soon.

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Garden update 11/20

Good news – I ate some of my greens last night in a salad!  The lettuce was tender and flavorful, and the endive provided texture and crunch.  By next weekend, I should be eating radishes.  I’m a little disappointed in the peas – perhaps they are being slowed by root knot nematodes again :(.  I noticed nematode damage while thinning the carrots.

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Garden update 11-13-11

The veggies are getting bigger!  We had a little bit more rain over the weekend.  I am disappointed in the slow growth of my peas and cucumbers.  Perhaps it is the root knot parasites messing things up again.  I will be having a salad with fresh endive and lettuce by next weekend, and radishes won’t be far behind.

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Weekly garden update

Just a quick photo update.  We finally got a rain last friday night (about 1/2″), and things are growing well!

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Horoscopes – ruminating about scientific links.

Today is my birthday.  Likely, someone will read me my horoscope before the end of the night.  I hold nothing against horoscopes, the Chinese zodiac, fortune cookies, or small superstitions.  They’re fun so long as they remain small and fun and people understand them for their fun.  But, I also don’t want my scientific mind to be a buzzkill for those who enjoy a daily sojourn into something mysterious.  unfortunately, I have known people that take astrology so seriously they use it to discriminate or to justify bad and hurtful behavior, and there’s no fun in that.

My brother was an astronomy major in college.  If I remember next time I talk to him, I will inquire on how many times someone asked about their astrological sign after learning of his course of study.  I am sure there were a few.  I wonder if he tried of explaining the difference.  For those who don’t know,

Astrology is not science.  It is religion.

That statement comes from an atheist’s point of view that all that is not science is therefore religion, and is certainly debatable.  But, if you believe in horoscopes, you are not atheist.  Atheists believe that all explanations require quantifiable data.  Astrology lacks such data.  That’s just the way it is.  Astronomers understand the distribution of planets and stars in our universe is entirely due to non-mystical laws deciphered by people like Keppler, Einstein and Newton.  It’s all explainable by mathematical equations, all testable, and all predictable with data and numbers to back it up.  Astrologers believe the distribution of planets and starts in our universe has some meaning other than physics, implying a deeper meaning to the universe dictated by some sort of higher power or phenomenon unexplained by scientific laws as we know them.  To them, constellations such as Leo don’t result from an interpretation of a natural distribution of stars, but are arranged that way for some kind of meaning or purpose. 

I have read some quasi-scientific explanations for Astrology, due to things like gravitational forces upon our bodies or radiation emitted from celestial objects.  Sure, those explanations are possible, but they are quasi-science because they haven’t been tested, lack hard data,  and are conclusion-driven.   I classify them as somewhat scientific because they offer some kind of plausible explanation based upon known physical phenomena instead of a “magic wand” explanation that escapes all rationality. 

So what am I?

Astrologers say I am a Scorpio.  That means the sun was traversing the constellation Scorpio on the day I was born.  With Scorpio comes certain personality traits supposedly assigned to me because of the solar position on my birthday.  But, the sun wasn’t in Scorpio on the day I was born.  The Earth’s axis wobbles, and the orbit changes.  As a result, stars are not in the same position they were thousands of years ago.  That means, the sun was actually in Libra on the day I was born:


As I read further, other astrologers say the signs are tied to the seasons and not to the position of the sun.  So, I guess I still am a Scorpio according to them.


I understand I am linking a Time magazine source, but I am not sure where one goes to find the truly most accurate horoscope information.  Because I think of it as all fun and games, I think Time will suffice as a source for now.  Considering the change in the timing and positioning of the constellations, the explanation that some believe horoscopes are tied to seasons, and the fact that so many people take astrology very seriously, I decided to consider whether there is some scientific merit to all this.

I’ve had people tell me before that I am “such a typical Scorpio”.  Yet, I have known people born just a few days before or after me who have completely different personalities.  Does my birthday have any effect on my adult personality?  I understand personality is part nature and part nurture.  In other words, my personality is partly my genetic code, and partly based upon the way I was raised and the things I have experienced.  If I was to believe that the alignment of stars somehow altered my genetic makeup, I’d have to throw out everything I know about DNA, chromosomes, mitosis, and sexual reproduction.  I suppose some astronomical force could be responsible for what genes I inherited from my mother and which I inherited from my father, but that again flies in the face of reproductive science and would still mean that my personality is controlled mostly by my parents’ genetic building blocks.  In other words, if both of my parents were Leo, how could their genes possibly combine to create a baby with Scorpio genes?  For these reasons, I really can’t consider that my astrological sign could have any plausible relation to my genetic makeup.

But what about nurture?  If I accept that my personality is in part due to my life experiences. then it’s plausible that personality could be affected by seasons.  Because I was born in the fall, my earliest experiences were all indoors.  As an adult, I recognize that being shut-in definitely affects my mood.  Because food is seasonal, that would affect what my mother ate and therefore affect what I ate.   It’s much harder to get fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter than in the summer.  Perhaps nutrition availability during my formative first few months affected my personality.  Many humans also have stress and depression cycles that match the seasons.  I’m one of those people.  If my parents and those who cared for me as a child also went through those cycles and those up and down cycles coincided with an impressionable period of my early childhood, that could affect my psychological development.  Of course, all this is dependent upon time and location, as someone born in the southern hemisphere on the same date would experience different seasons than me, and someone born in Hamburg in 1943 would have experienced a different childhood atmosphere than one born in Hamburg in 1993.

And one more thing…

If you have ever visited a psychologist, or are at least familiar with the work they do, you know how they link adult problems to childhood conflicts.  If you compare my opening statement with the date of this posting, you would figure out that my birthday is on Halloween.  Over my life I have had numerous people say “what a cool birthday” or “you must be a scary guy!”  In response, I explain that hasn’t been a “cool” birthday because over the course of my life my friends and family celebrate Halloween first, and my birthday second.  It’s like having a Christmas birthday.  I’ve never had a birthday party, only Halloween parties that include my birthday as a secondary celebration.  While it doesn’t really matter to me that much as an adult, the fact that I include such a statement in my reply indicates that being born on a Halloween has affected my personality enough to express frustrations to others. 


After thinking about it, ones birthday probably does influence his/her adult personality.  But any scientific explanation of this idea falls closer to Freud than it dies to Galileo.

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Five reasons to have a vegetable garden

Rather than simply post a weekly update photo of my garden, I thought it would be useful to persuade others why growing your own vegetables is the way to go.  Here is why I garden:

1)  Almost everything tastes better from a home garden than it does from a market, even a high-end one.  Store-bought tomatoes don’t compare – not even close.  Supermarket tomatoes and garden tomatoes are almost different vegetables.  Even the “on the vine organic” tomatoes from the market can’t compare.  Fresh lettuce is so much crisper that all store-bought lettuce is wilty by comparison.  Supermarket carrots lack flavor.

I can't find chiles this good in my local market.

2)  You will learn something.  All vegetable gardeners know failure.  From failure comes knowledge and appreciation.  We learn what it takes to make a plant grow, what kills it, and develop an appreciation for those who farm for a living.  We learn how much water a plant needs, and how to be more efficient with our watering.  We learn about soil, nutrients, insects, and the items used to control all three.  This knowledge often creeps into our social and political views.  It also makes us skeptical of claims – from all sides.

The first year I grew cucumbers, I had more than I could eat. Since then, I have had low yields due to soil parasites.

3)  It’s the only way you truly have control over what you eat.  In a general sense, if I was to rank order vegetables from least nutritious or healthy to most nutritious and healthy, it would be like this (my personal opinion here):

Canned-non-organic <<< canned-organic <<fresh-non-organic<fresh-organic<<<<home-garden

I tried to show how much better I think the next category is by the number of < I used.  As you can see, I don’t think very highly of canned food.  It has its place, but for most vegetables the canned variety seems to lack flavor, so I assume it also lacks nutrients.  I also feel the container itself is wasteful.  The canned-non-organic could slide further or closer to the canned organic based upon what other ingredients are added. Many canned items contain a list of ingredients that you don’t need or aren’t good for you to compensate for the lack of flavor that results from the canning process.

In all cases I feel fresh vegetables are better, mainly because one has much more control over their selection and preparation, and the nutrients have had less time to break down.  I feel that organic fresh produce is better, sometimes it is much better, in other times it probably makes little difference (at least from a personal health/nutrition standpoint).  But organic is almost always better quality.  This probably has less to do with the organic growing methods and more to do with the care expressed by the grower, the shipper, and the retailer.  If organic products are premium, people want them to look or taste premium.  From an environmental stewardship angle, though, I feel organic produce is a huge improvement over more conventional methods, and I am encouraged to see the organic/natural trend growing (pun intended).

But, store-bought organic produce still falls short of your home garden because you still have no control over what is in it or was placed on it.  Organic produce is regulated, but that means an agency is responsible for regulation and enforcement, and there is always potential that some people are willing to cheat and bribe in order to maximize their return.  Unless you know the grower personally, you simply have to trust the regulatory agency, as you do for any food or drug product.  All my garden vegetables show some degree of insect damage.  I don’t see that in the organic produce at the market.  While trying to learn of natural ways to reduce insect damage, I learned that organic or natural does not always mean pesticide free:


or, an NPR source:


I guess Rotenone is considered natural enough to use for organic farming.  Shockingly, that is also the substance our Game and Fish Department puts in streams to kill non-native fishes!  Just because it is natural does not mean it is good for you.

If you truly care about what you are ingesting – the only way to know for sure is to grow your own.


4)  For physical and mental health.  Gardening is an outdoor activity that gets one off the sofa and moving a few muscles.  It requires gardeners to think about what they are doing, and to think about things other than what they are doing.  And that’s much different than sitting and listening to the words and opinions of someone else, whether those be your boss, your spouse, the television, or a customer.  Perhaps it is the pride of delivering a bag of fresh vegetables to your office break room, or to your friends and family at the next get-together.  Creating and accomplishing something is the best way to fight depression and doldrums. My neighbor says gardening keeps her sane.  And I suspect gardening kept the Alzheimer’s at bay in my grandmother for a few more years.

Gardening makes me happy. Look, it's almost November, and I can garden barefoot and in shorts!

5)  Some things are hard to find at the store.  How often do you find okra, fresh beets, or kohlrabi at the store?  What about pickling cucumbers at a price cheaper than a jar of pickles?

Sometimes, you have to look hard to find endive at your market.

So find a corner of your yard, or place a few large pots on your apartment balcony or patio, and get growing!

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Winter garden

Two-season gardening is one of the unique aspects of Phoenix living that makes the sprawling city enjoyable.  We can plant vegetables in October, and again in February.  I’ve already posted extensively about my vegetable garden, such as HERE.

I’ve also described a soil parasite that wreaked havoc on my crop yields the past few years:


This winter, I am attempting to control the root knot nematodes with a layer of steer manure.  The seeds are sprouting, and here is an early photo:

I think it will be fun to post garden photos every week, just to show how things are progressing.

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