Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hairy Woodpecker

This woodpecker has been visiting our sunflower seed feeder for most of the winter. On this particular morning, he had an unfortunate encounter with a window. He did manage to fly away after a while. I hope woodpeckers are as hard-headed as they seem.

Friday, April 25, 2008

So Far They Haven't Frozen

Peaches are a hit-or-miss proposition on our ridge. Our two small trees are brittle, and the wind prunes them a little smaller each year. Generally, they bloom early and are cut back by the frost. So far, they haven't frozen, and, in the absence of honeybees, flies and solitary bees are visiting the blossoms. Could we have peaches?

Thursday, April 24, 2008


On sunny April mornings, I get excited about dandelions. Look at those curly pistils and fuzzy anthers! Who could resist?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Buckeye Leaves

Maybe it comes of growing up on the prairie, where trees are scarce and short-lived. Maybe it's those big, palmately-compound leaves, like tropical trees, or maybe it's the showy flowers and strange fruits that pop open to reveal big brown seeds like deer eyes. The little buckeye trees that shoot up in every disturbed corner around here are favorites of mine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mountain Top Removal: WV and DC

The Washington Post featured an article on West Virginia's coalfields: Stripping Mountains to Power D.C.--In W.Va., Mining Companies Shear Off Peaks And Transform Landscape in Search for Coal by David A. Fahrenthold, Sunday, April 20, 2008.

...The links that bind the cathedral-ceiling suburbs of Washington to the blasted-out mines of West Virginia can be traced through federal energy records. The Washington Post analyzed almost four years of data, showing where the six coal-fired power plants across the D.C. region bought their supply.

The records make one thing clear: The plants have been buying a lot more coal. Total purchases were more than 40 percent higher in 2006 than in 2004. The increase came as the Washington region's demand for electricity grew 18 percent since 2001, driven by population growth and an increasingly wired culture. D.C. area plants do not send their electricity straight to local homes but feed it into the multi-state regional power grid.

Records also show that about 32 percent of the coal the plants bought came from one kind of mine in this corner of Appalachia -- a "surface" operation, where miners do not have to tunnel.

The region, where southern West Virginia meets western Virginia and eastern Kentucky, is home to the vast majority of mountaintop mines in the United States.....

In all, the federal government has said, these mines have affected, or could affect by 2012, about 816,000 acres. That is an area 20 times the size of the District, scattered in patches across Appalachia.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said they have pushed the coal companies to make mines smaller as well as to rebuild and reseed more mountains. They said, however, that the coal inside the mountains -- known for producing less-harmful emissions -- is too valuable to stop the practices.

"You've got a decision that's got to be made, on a daily basis, about the energy needs of this country," said Greg Peck of the EPA's Office of Water....

The Post also has a graphic comparing high-wall mining and mountaintop removal and a "multimedia presentation."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gauley Mountain, Coal, and Rhetoric

The rising demand for coal is heating up local rhetoric again. While it never stopped in the western part of West Virginia, things had been quieter here. Now people who look for good jobs in the mines are pitted against the tourist "industry" and people concerned about damage to the environment, their health, and their homes. In The Fight for Gauley Mountain Bob Kincaid claims the hot tongue of Mother Jones to chastise coal miners.

I live in Fayette County, West Virginia, the heart and soul of West Virginia's whitewater rafting tourism industry....They roar down gorges as old as the earth itself, past the ghost towns that are all that's left of the mine wars of a century ago; towns where...Mother Jones worked to organize the slaves of the coal industry...These are the Tombstones and Dodge Citys of Appalachia.

If asked, most folks would tell you that the days of the mine wars are a long gone piece of West Virginia's violent past. Most folks would be wrong. I saw with my own eyes last Saturday, April 5, that the past is never so far away that we can't see it come to life before our eyes. There's a war going on in West Virginia again.

I don't like the false dichotomies created by this sort of polarizing rhetoric. There really isn't a choice between jobs and income on the one hand and safe, healthy, environment on the other. If you can't strike a balance, everybody's in trouble. Do you suppose this industry/environment, Democrat/Republican, capitalists/workers split reflects some fundamental feature of the human mind?

(In case you're wondering about the Pocahontas County connection here, Louise McNeill named her book Gauley Mountain, although the inspiration for the poems, her family farm and family history, are located here.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008


This year, our daffodils have not frozen, been blown away, or covered with snow. The blooms have lasted all week. It is not a host, but it will do for me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Root Cellars And Other Changes

This photograph was taken from our kitchen doorway about 1950. You see one of the kids raised in this house in front of the family's "root cellar." The root cellar was made of chestnut boards, and has long since been torn down, made into furniture, and sold. You can see the old cellar was covered in the same brick-textured tar paper seen on our house under the vinyl siding. Notice the pasture across the driveway behind the root cellar. It's grown up now to sugar maples, descendants of the family's sugar bush.

The bare ground next to the road here shows the location of the old root cellar. Until recently we considered building a new cellar on the same location, but last year, we finally hauled away the concrete slab pieces.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Flash Plug-In Trouble--My Computer Is Too New

Imagine my surprise to discover that there is no flash plug-in available for my new Linux box. The 64-bit architecture has been around for years, and the amd64 port of Debian Linux installation was easy and amazingly fast. Everything worked without a hitch until I tried to view a favorite blog's video embedded from YouTube.

There is a solution--with Linux, there's always a solution. Sometimes it involves a painful learning experience:

  • Debian Administration's article on "Debian amd64: iceweasel with i386 plugins, outside a chroot"

    If you weren't already convinced that closed source sucked before, then surely the experience of trying to browse the net with an amd64 machine will have won you over; I could ponder on how much Microsoft is paying Adobe not to release a 64-bit version of their flash plugin--but why Sun is categorically refusing to address our cry for a 64-bit java plugin for mozilla based browsers for this many years is beyond me....

    The approach that I chose in the end is as follows: I installed everything that has to be of i386 architecture in a 32-bit chroot (as in option 1), using apt-get (or aptitude or whatever you like) and used a small wrapper and environment variables to run the browser in the 64-bit environment with a linux32 personality (as in option 3).

    This turns out to a simple and painless procedure.

  • The Gentoo Linux Wiki has HOWTO AMD64, which includes some information on Firefox plugins....

I confess that I have not yet attempted the 32-bit chroot solution. You see, I have the Mac Mini, and all that nasty proprietary software runs there without me learning anything. Perhaps when I'm not spending my days with cranky middle school children I'll feel more intellectually adventurous.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Upgrading In Linux Land

I mentioned a while ago that my eMac power supply burned out, and I ended up replacing that machine with a Mac Mini. While I am satisfied, even pleased with that little desktop box, there has been some disappointment, too.

I had been planning on upgrading my network of ancient Linux boxen this spring. I have a Pentium II that I bought new in 1998, and an Intel 1 GHz Celeron box I'd salvaged from Spare Parts Hell. The newest parts of that machine are probably from 2000. While these machines let me connect to the Internet and run Emacs happily enough, the processors are just too slow for photo management programs like F-Spot or for the bloatware that OpenOffice has become. My spreadsheets crashed all the time, and the Gimp was slow as molasses.

For months I had been keeping a wish list of what I wanted in a Linux box, and I was following the prices on several cheap PC's, waiting for a sale. I was very disappointed to spend the money earmarked for that project on a new Mac product when the old eMac had been doing exactly what I wanted. Of course, once the money was spent, the desired cheap PC went on sale for a deeper than expected discount.

I eventually went ahead, blew the budget, and bought a cheap PC with Windows Vista Home Edition, and a new monitor too. I thought I'd play with Vista a little bit before installing Linux, but that lasted less than 15 minutes. I'm not exaggerating. The first thing Vista did when I fired it up was freeze and crash. I tried it again, and it crashed faster. Was the machine underpowered for Vista, or is the Home Edition too crippled to use? I didn't have the desire to find out.

I installed the AMD64 port of Debian Etch (stable) right away. (It works for Intel dual core 64-bit processors too.) I was really pleased at how fast installation went, and all my hardware was accurately detected without intervention from me. (Much easier and faster than a Windows Installation!)

It didn't take much time to transfer my data and get the new machine running all the software I'm accustomed to using. According to the system monitor, the programs that used to peg my old processor hardly exercise these new processors at all. I feel guilty, as if I must edit movies to justify all this processing power. I haven't changed my computer activities yet, but the Gimp works much better, and I'm busy assessing the relative merits of photo management programs DigiKam and F-Spot.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Coalfield Health Hazards

Lincoln Walks At Midnight: A just-the-facts approach to politics and government in the Mountain State recently reported this interesting public health article: Coalfield Living: a Health Hazard? The blog points to several newspaper articles, as well as the original scholarly publication.

[Michael] Hendryx, associate director of the WVU Institute for Health Policy Research in the university's community medicine department, is co-author of four new articles examining coal's possible impacts on public health in Appalachia.

The studies found more lung cancer deaths, overall hospitalizations and overall deaths in coal-producing counties compared to other parts of the region and to the nation as a whole....

That study, being published in next month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health, used data from a 2001 phone survey of nearly 16,500 West Virginians. Hendryx and Washington State University researcher Melissa Ahern compared the results to coal production figures, U.S. Census data and Department of Health and Human Resources information.

As coal production in counties increases, they found, so does the incidence of chronic illness.

Residents in major coal counties had a 70 percent increased risk of kidney disease and a 64 percent increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as emphysema, the study found. Coal county residents were also 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.

Hendryx and Ahern tried to isolate coal's potential impacts by factoring out the influence of other possible causes, such as smoking, obesity and age.

"We've adjusted our data to include those factors, and still found disease rates higher in coal-mining communities," Hendryx said.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fun With the Command Line

I just rediscovered some old Unix tools I remember from writing my master's thesis. They've been updated and made available in Linux: Improve your writing with the GNU style checkers By Michael Stutz on September 07, 2006.

The diction and style tools put a GNU face on an old Unix feature. These tools read text input, either from a file or the standard input. diction checks the input at the sentence level, and marks wordy and trite phrases, cliches, and the like, while style works on the overall document, giving a summary of the writing style with a number of readability tests.

So cool--command line diction and style checkers!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tomato Review and Prospectus

My tomato seeds have sprouted, and have joined the broccoli and red cabbage seedlings on the windowsill. This year, I tried two varieties that have done well for me in the past, and two new ones.

Of all the tomatoes I grew last year, the only ones that did well for me were the Amish Paste from Seed Savers' Exchange. Here's their photograph and description:

Amish Paste Tomato
Amish Paste Tomato. Heirloom discovered in Wisconsin. Produces 6-8 oz. red fruits that are oxheart to almost teardrop-shaped. Meaty fruits are juicy and have really outstanding flavor. Good for sauce or fresh eating. Indeterminate, 85 days from transplant.

Here's what happened in our garden:

Amish paste tomato with extraneous appendage

The disquieting distortions of these tomatoes, combined with the poor growing season, discouraged me from saving the seeds. (I did, however, can 40 quarts of salsas and sauces. They tasted fine.) I ordered a new packet of these tomatoes this year. The other heirloom varieties I tried, Hillbilly and Spitze, didn't seem worth another try. The Hillbilly is a "potato-leaf variety." The tater bugs confirmed for me that the leaves resemble potato plants chemically as well as visually, and there was significant leaf damage on some plants. The Hillbillies were fairly productive, but the flavor wasn't great. This was probably due to the weather, but I decided to try something different this year. The Spitzes grew lush, beautiful vines, but they didn't produce many tomatoes, and they were the only variety to blight last year. This is just not the right tomato for Droop Mountain.

I started a packet of Brandywine Tomatoes. I've had reasonably good luck with these in the past, but I didn't have any seed left after last year.

(Sudduth's Strain) Brandywine first appeared in the 1889 catalog of Johnson & Stokes of Philadelphia and by 1902 was also offered by four additional seed companies, but soon disappeared from all commercial catalogs. Our best selling tomato and one of the best tasting tomatoes available to gardeners today. The seed of this strain was obtained by tomato collector Ben Quisenberry of Big Tomato Gardens in 1980 from Dorris Sudduth Hill whose family grew them for 80 years. Large pink beefsteak fruits to 2 pounds. Incredibly rich, delightfully intense tomato flavor. Indeterminate, 90 days from transplant.

My experiments this year will be a short season variety, Bloody Butcher, and Cherokee Purple, a variety that just sounded interesting.

Bloody Butcher Very early and high yielding variety. Great full tomato flavor and exceptional dark red color. Fruits are borne in clusters and average 4 oz. Indeterminate, 65-70 days from transplant.

Cherokee Purple Introduced to other SSE members by North Carolina member Craig LeHoullier in 1991, seed obtained from J. D. Green. Unique dusty rose color. Flavor rivals Brandywine, extremely sweet. Productive plants produce large crops of 12 oz. fruits. Indeterminate, 80 days from transplant.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cranky Environmentalists

I have mixed feelings when I read snide articles like Greed In the Name Of Green--To Worshipers of Consumption: Spending Won't Save the Earth by Monica Hesse, Washington Post, March 5, 2008. On the one hand, she is pointing out a real contradiction in pro-environmental advertising. It would be less wasteful of resources if we all bought less stuff, but the whole point of advertising, and of offering things for sale in general, is to sell more stuff. Hesse, like most critics of the "environmentally correct" movement, seems to say there's little point in becoming more mindful of waste, excess, and poor practices.

But, but, but--buying green feels so guilt-less, akin to the mentality that results in eating 14 of Whole Foods' two-bite cupcakes. Their first ingredient is cane sugar, but in a land of high-fructose panic, that's practically a health food, right? Have another.

"There's a certain thrill, that you get to go out and replace everything," says Leslie Garrett, author of "The Virtuous Consumer," a green shopping guide. "New bamboo T-shirts, new hemp curtains."

....Chip Giller, editor of enviro-blog, has a less fatalistic view. He loves that Wal-Mart has developed an organic line. He applauds the efforts of the green consumer. "Two years ago, who would have thought we'd be in a place where terms like locavore and carbon footprint were household terms?" he says, viewing green consumption as a "gateway" to get more people involved in environmental issues. The important thing is for people to keep walking through the gate, toward the land of reduced air travel, energy-efficient homes and much less stuff: "We're not going to buy our way out of this."

This article was accompanied by an on-line discussion with one of the quoted authors:

Leslie Garrett...was online Wednesday, March 5, at 1 p..m. ET....Hello! Leslie Garrett here, author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!). World's longest title, I know...Happy to answer questions!

Much of that discussion involves weighing which practices are more "virtuous," and how other people perceive one's behavior. This always makes me uncomfortable. "Paper or plastic?" is more effectively decided as a practical rather than a moral choice. (Around here, it's not a choice. Just try and find a brown paper bag to make school book covers in Pocahontas County!) Developing a new reason to look down on other people and feel self-satisfied seems counterproductive, too, but judging your neighbor based on carbon footprints and recycling efforts seems inevitable in these discussions.

This is the tone that deters me from following blogs and news websites about "green living," voluntary simplicity, and frugal practices. I'm interested in these topics, and would no doubt benefit from other people's insights, but the carping and cavilling eventually leads me to hit the "unsubscribe" button. Perhaps it's inevitable that giving up consumerist practices and possessions just makes us a bit cranky.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Instant Gardening Gratification

The broccoli seeds I planted Tuesday had already sprouted yesterday morning. I used to get very frustrated by the process of starting seeds indoors. Most of the houses I've lived in have been cold and drafty in winter, and I've been more likely to see mold growing on top of the soil than the desired seedlings.

All that changed when we got a big dehydrator for our shitake mushrooms. I set the dehydrator for 85 degrees (F) and within 48 hours the cabbage and broccoli germinate. The tomatoes generally take a day or two longer.

This morning I found a few tiny sprouts there too. I've moved the cole crops to a window sill. The tomatoes will probably benefit from another warm day in the dehydrator, but they'll have to come out of the dark by tomorrow, too. In previous years, I've kept the seedlings in the dehydrator with a grow-light, but the extra heat doesn't seem to speed their growth, just their germination.

Aren't the root hairs wonderful?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Remembering Cabbages Past

The warm weather and the school vacation have given me the chance I needed to start seeds for our garden. Last year, I ordered heirloom garden varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. I like to save my own garden seeds from year to year, and I looked forward to sampling some of the interesting vegetables I saw on their beautifully-illustrated Web site.

Unfortunately, a cold wet spring gave way to a hot, dry summer last year. It's a good thing we don't depend on what we grow as our sole food supply, or we would have starved out. I grew enough beans to save as seed, but the broccoli bolted, the cabbage was puny and so bitter we couldn't eat it, and the tomatoes did truly bizarre things.

Hope once again triumphs over experience, and this year, I ordered more Seed Savers' seeds. I started these handsome cole crops:

Calabrese Broccoli. Brought to America by Italian immigrants in the 1880s. Popular market variety. Tight heads can grow up to 8" in diameter. After the central head is harvested, side shoots follow. 58-90 days from transplant.

I grew this broccoli last year, and it was quite good, although most of the plants dried up and didn't make heads. Between the Tarnished Plant Bugs, cabbage butterflies, and Harlequin Bugs, there wasn't all that much left for us.

Harlequin bug, adult

Year after year, I've bought cabbage plants at the local stores. Sometimes the cabbage turns out to be brussel sprouts, sometimes it's just some odd-ball variety I wasn't looking for. The last few years, I haven't even been able to find cabbage seed for the varieties that do well for us. That's why I have high hopes for these lovely plants:

Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage. Introduced in 1889. Solid round heads are 8" in diameter and weigh 7 pounds. Red throughout, vigorous and uniform, small to medium core, sure cropper, fine flavor. Excellent for cooking, salads and pickling. 98 days from transplant.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

PowerPoint Tutorial/Exemplar

Dave of Via Negativa called my attention to a collection of blogging articles and presentations at One Mans Blog: Specialization Is For Insects. (Although Heinlein quotes are for blogger John Pozadzides, apostrophes are not.) I particularly enjoyed this Tutorial: Tips For PowerPoint Presentations, but there is plenty to read and/or watch on writing for the Web, usability, and other topics of interest.

Losing Local History

Last week, two century-old landmarks burned in Pocahontas County. The much-photographed Historic Marlinton depot burns shared front-page billing with Sunday fire chars Bethel United Methodist Church.

The Marlinton Depot housed the Pocahontas County Visitors' Bureau (not my favorite organization), but it was nicely-restored, and The Pocahontas Times sold depot photographs through its website. The church was still in year-round use.

Winter fires seem to be a common hazard in Pocahontas County. There's been at least one fatal house fire in Marlinton this year, and I know several people who have lost their homes to fire. We had a bit of wood-stove excitement earlier this week in our little house, built around the same time as the lamented depot and the Bethel Church.

The chimney hadn't been drawing well for several days, so when it finally stopped raining, we tried cleaning the flue and restoking the fire to see how it worked. Soon there was enough smoke leaking out of the flue to suggest a fire in the wall, which is how we came to take the chainsaw to the outside of the house, and also to carry the wood stove out to the porch. It sounds drastic, but this is a much smaller hole than the fire department would have made, and the cat did enjoy sitting next to the nice warm stove while reclining on the porch.

Here's a look at the original tarpaper exterior of the house. These tarpaper "bricks" were eventually covered over with vinyl siding. Tastes in faux surfaces change, I guess.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Modeling Carbon Dioxide Emission in North America

I found this amazing set of data anamations via Dvorak Uncensored. I wasn't profoundly surprised by the carbon dioxide production patterns, but the data presentation is fascinating. You can find a text presentation at 'Revolutionary' CO2 maps zoom in on greenhouse gas sources.

Researchers now have a better view of where carbon dioxide is being emitted thanks to Vulcan, a research project led by Kevin Gurney, an assistant professor at Purdue. This map shows where CO2 is being emitted in the continental United States in 10-kilometer grids and combines data from sources including factories, automobiles on highways and power plants. The map offers more than 100 times the detail of previous inventories of carbon dioxide. The image displays metric tons of carbon per year per grid in a logarithmic base-10 scale. (Purdue University image/Kevin Gurney)