Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes)

Published at 22:04 on 27 March 2019

I still remember the first time I discovered this ant, decades ago in a subalpine meadow in Colorado. I stepped on what I thought was an odd patch of dried bits of last year’s meadow grass. My foot sank into it and my leg was instantly covered in angry ants! Fortunately, I managed to brush them off before I received many bites.

I was astounded by how large that anthill was. Little did I know at the time that that particular colony was only a small-to-medium-sized one as this ant goes. After I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I started regularly encountering colonies of this ant. One I spied in the Cascades of Oregon was five feet high and a dozen feet in diameter!

The anthill pictured below is a fairly average size for this species’ colonies (note my bicycle helmet for scale). As always for this species, it is constructed of plant debris, not soil or sand. This anthill is near a road and I first noticed it when riding my bicycle past it.

Formica obscuripes colony.

It was teeming with activity; every square inch of it contained at least several ants.

Formica obscuripes.

These ants have an undeserved reputation for being aggressive biters. Bite they do, and after their mandibles break the skin they add insult to injury by spraying formic acid into the wound, causing further irritation and pain. But unless one is one of the few unfortunates who is abnormally sensitive to formic acid, the bite is minor and the pain quickly vanishes.

Moreover, in my experience these ants tend to be reluctant to bite. I spent ten to fifteen minutes acquiring the photographs in this article, and received but a single bite for my efforts, despite being in the immediate proximity of a hill teeming with thousands of ants and even accidentally bumping that hill and doing minor damage to it with a leg of my tripod.

Formica is the Latin word for “ant,” and this genus is the type genus for entire ant family, Formicidae. The plastic used for kitchen countertops that goes by the same name has nothing to do with ants, being so named because it was originally envisioned as being a substitute material for mica. Formica is, however, how formic acid (first discovered in ants) and chemically similar compounds like formaldehyde got their names.

These ants have quite a profound impact on the plants in the areas they inhabit. This is one of the ant species that tends and spreads aphids, feeding off the honeydew that the aphids secrete. They also dislike plants in the immediate neighborhood of their colonies, and will chew through the bark and spray formic acid on the resulting wounds, which eventually kills the attacked plants.

Their impact on the plant world is far from entirely baleful, however: many of our woodland wildflowers, such as trilliums and bleeding hearts, are dispersed by ants. Their seeds bear oily, nutrient-rich bodies called elaiosomes whose purpose is to attract ants, which usually carry the seeds for some distance before removing the elaiosome and discarding the rest of the seed.

These ants are plentiful here on Bainbridge Island, and our woods are full of blooming trilliums in the spring. I have never seen these ants inside the city limits of Seattle, and even in Seattle’s larger wooded parks, trilliums are an unusual sight. I do not believe these facts to be mere coincidence.

So, No Collusion*

Published at 12:44 on 25 March 2019

* No knowing, orchestrated collusion by the Trump campaign, that could plausibly be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt to a judge and a jury, that is.

There is, however, a big puzzle piece that simply doesn’t fit right: why did Mueller catch so many people in and closely connected to the campaign lying about their connections to Russia? It doesn’t make sense: why like to an investigation (exposing yourself to being prosecuted for perjury), if you have committed no crime?

There are a number of plausible explanations, some that are fairly innocent, some otherwise. (In the latter category, what if Mueller almost found enough to prosecute the campaign for illegally colluding, but not quite?) Absent as full as possible a release of the report, we will never have any idea how to explain this discrepancy. It is for this very reason that a full release is desirable.

Beyond that, all of us in the anti-Trump crowd should put a lid on the whining. The whole reason for investigating was that we didn’t know enough and thought that there probably, but not definitely was serious dirt to be found. Mueller didn’t find the expected dirt, most likely because that dirt simply doesn’t exist. Sometimes, gut feelings end up being wrong. Deal with it.

This is, after all, why societies that worry about becoming repressive don’t automatically punish wrong-doers on mere suspicion, but instead require evidence, evidence that must typically be uncovered via investigation. An investigation is not a conviction.

On top of all that, there are many other reasons for which Trump should be opposed, and many of those reasons are more likely to be fruitful and convincing campaign material. Trump’s personal faults, as bad as they are, have never ranked terribly highly. Consider this poll, for example.

One of the reasons the opposition failed to unseat Berlusconi for so long in Italy was that they were too preoccupied with Berlusconi himself, instead of the conditions that had prompted many to vote for him. So can the “Russia, Russia, Russia” crap and move on to more fruitful avenues of criticism.

Coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus subsp. palmatus)

Published at 20:57 on 18 March 2019

Normally these boom in late February, but we did not have a normal February. This one was in a wet ditch by a road, so its young shoots probably spent much of last month smothered in dirty, compacted snow pushed there by the plows. Aside from being delayed in blooming, little harm seems evident to them.

Time for a Brexit Redo

Published at 18:49 on 13 March 2019

First, the Leave campaign cheated. They lied, and they peddled foreign influence. Cheaters in sports get stripped of any titles their cheating played a role in. Why shouldn’t cheaters in politics suffer a similar fate, particularly given how the consequences of their cheating can be vastly more severe?

Second, decisions shouldn’t always be irrevocable. We’ve all done things we regret, only to back out as best we can and admit we were wrong for making what hindsight showed to be a wrong decision in the first place. Sure, some decisions are intrinsically hard to undo, but why should that be used as an excuse for making all decisions artificially difficult to undo?

Hold another referendum. If it fails, try as hard as possible to shit-can the whole misadventure. In such a case, it’s likely the rest of the EU will go along with Britain’s wishes; the trade disruption caused by a Brexit would hurt the Continent, too.

Hard Winter

Published at 10:18 on 11 March 2019

It’s been a hard winter. You can see it in the patches of the Himalayan Blackberries, which were pressed flat by the heavy snows of early February (and which lost their leaves thanks to overnight lows in the teens):

In wooded areas where native vegetation prevails, the sword ferns were also affected:

“Hard winter” is of course a relative term; anyone from Chicago or Denver would laugh at the notion that a winter where for the vast majority of time it was above freezing with green lawns and a snow-free ground was “hard.” But for us, it’s unusual to have a spring where there are lingering signs of the snow we had even after it’s gone. I’ve only seen it a few times in the quarter-century I’ve lived in this ecoregion.

Ilhan Omar’s Bigoted Remarks

Published at 10:12 on 8 March 2019

Some points:

  1. Yes, she did use the phrase “allegiance to a foreign country.”
  2. Accusations of dual or conflicted loyalty have an ugly history behind them, to the point of being a standard trope in antisemitism.
  3. Yes, the phrase was part of one sentence of a larger speech, the rest of which did not exhibit antisemitic rhetoric.
  4. Point (3) is less relevant than it may seem. There’s a long history of political gaffes being ripped out of larger context and getting repeated over and over. This is hardly the first case. It’s a standard occupational hazard of being a politician.
  5. There’s basically two options at play here, neither of which make Ms. Omar look particularly good:
    1. She said what she said because it reflects her true inner biases; i.e., she’s a bigot.
    2. She said what she said because she didn’t know better; i.e., she’s an ignoramus.
  6. The Republicans have been far worse; just witness how little they did over the years as Steve King evolved into being an outright fascist.
  7. The resolution that passed was a pretty good one. It acknowledged the generally bad record of bigotry in the House in recent years and condemned it in general, instead of simply singling out a possibly bigoted left liberal and being silent on all the other instances.
  8. It proved a political masterstroke as well, because the Republicans, being a party of re-branded fascism, could not stomach the idea of condemning bigotry in general—and are now on record for it.

Might this all end up proving that being a somewhat bickersome “big tent” party is in the Democrats’ best interest? Consider that the resolution that was brought up and passed was nobody’s first choice: The left wing of the Democratic Party didn’t want any criticism of any one of their own, and the right wing wanted something that only went after this particular instance of bigotry. In the process of bickering and squabbling the Democrats came up with… a political masterstroke that neither faction would have come up with on their own.

Left-Wing Authoritarianism: What Can Be Done?

Published at 11:06 on 7 March 2019

First, If your blood pressure rose at the mere mention of the phrase “left-wing authoritarianism” in the title, then I suggest it’s time for you to calm down and give this article a read; it’s likely to be particularly important.

Second, this post references one I made about a month ago. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I suggest you read it first.

That earlier post concluded thus:

So there’s my answer. Like many answers, it begs a question: what can we do about it? I could now go on to answer that, but instead I think I’ll close and let the reader think about it for a while.

Such a conclusion carried an implicit promise of a follow-up at some time in the future. It is now time to get on with that follow-up.

The 20th century’s worst tyrants called themselves socialists. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all chose to label themselves in this way. And now that the 20th century has given way to the 21st, we have a tyranny (sorry, but if you look at the full picture of all the repression there, that’s the only thing it honestly can be called) in Venezuela that has also chosen to apply this label to itself.

Yes, in many cases, particularly that of Hitler, cogent arguments can be made that the self-proclaimed “socialist” tyrants lied when they made this claim: they failed to empower the working class, instead empowering states and parties that oppressed all unfortunate enough to be living under their misrule, workers included. Also, there are plenty of self-proclaimed “socialist” or “social-democratic” parties all over the world that have had collective centuries in power without instituting tyranny.

However, tyrants have still chosen the “socialist” label, and have done so over and over again. When something happens that repeatedly, it’s hard to shrug it all off as mere unlucky coincidence.

The answer, I think, is that “socialism” is a uniquely useful fig-leaf by which to attempt to disguise and legitimate tyranny. Socialism has generally been seen in a positive light by most people. Many Americans will doubt this, but most Americans have a highly-unrepresentative exposure to what socialism means; in most other nations, the history of the label has been nowhere near as consistently pejorative.

But it goes beyond that. Socialism not only has a generally positive connotation, it denotes an ideology which often claims:

  1. Economic inequality is the main problem in capitalist society, and
  2. The state can and should be used to dismantle capitalism.

Point No. 2 makes socialism an exceptionally useful mantle for dictators to claim, as they can then claim to be wanting increased state power not for the sake of themselves and their cronies, but to liberate society from capitalist oppression. Point No. 1 then comes in to distract the public from valuing liberty, since so much ideological attention is being paid to battling economic inequality.

And that, in a nutshell, is why left-wing authoritarianism has been such a recurring problem. The solution, then, is to reject the premises that have been proven to be such pitfalls, and to replace them with better premises.

Premise I: The Classic Liberals Have a Point on the State Being Dangerous

The State is dangerous. All of the worst genocides of the 20th century were performed by State actors. All of them. The oft-repeated quote incorrectly attributed to George Washington has proven itself true time and time again:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

Classic liberals, particularly the followers and fellow travelers of organizations like today’s Libertarian Party, are of course being two-faced here: they are typically blind to the interplay of state and corporate power, and almost always blind to the oppressiveness of corporate power. That their present-day prescriptions for society would almost certainly prove oppressive is not, however, a refutation of the claim that State power is a dangerous thing. Both State and corporate power are dangerous. Which brings us to….

Premise II: The State vs. Capitalism Is a False Dichotomy

The State in fact helped to create capitalism, in the U.K. by passing Inclosure Acts that destroyed communal property, using State force to drive rural peoples off their land and into the new industrial slums the capitalist class was building. In the New World, States used imperialism and genocide (conducted by armies in their employ) to drive indigenous peoples from their lands and create “new” spaces for capitalist class society to expand into.

More importantly for opposing capitalism in the here-and-now, it is a false dichotomy to assert that government and capitalism are the only possible options. Capitalism has only been around for 350–400 years; the State for 5,000. Even 5,000 years is a distinct minority of the time of human existence, and living beings in general have been organizing themselves into ecosystems (on decentralized, hierarchy-free bases, with no leaders or ruling classes) for literally billions of years.

In fact, these leaderless structures have proven themselves to be vastly more long-lasting and stable than human-created hierarchical ones, which all tend to self-destruct due to ecological collapse within a few centuries or millennia.

There are better ways, ways that are neither capitalist nor state. Just pick health care: why should capitalists or government be the only answers? They don’t have to be!

Premise III: Lack of Liberty, Not Lack of Equality, Is the Real Problem

In fact, economic inequality is best understood as a special case of a deficiency in individual liberty. Those born into poverty (through no choice of their own!) have less choice and opportunity in their lives than those born into affluence. Poverty violates the individual liberty of those born into it.

Capitalism is oppressive, not because under capitalism some workers’ state doesn’t own the means of production, but because the average capitalist firm is approximately as open a society as the average fascist state. In fact, the capitalist firm served as Mussolini’s model for his fascist state, which he called the corporate state. Don’t ensure that the state owns the means of production. Instead, ensure that the workers who work in them do.

Will recognizing the dangers of the state and promoting greater liberty as a core goal be a magic bullet that prevents a self-proclaimed “socialist” government from going rotten? Probably not: there are no such magic bullets. But it offers a hell of a better chance than the more typical recipe of attempting to promote economic equality via greater state power.

Pay Attention to India and Pakistan

Published at 07:35 on 1 March 2019

Relations have never been good between the two, but they’ve recently degraded significantly. It started when India bombed Pakistan in retaliation for a terrorist attack that India claimed Pakistan was involved in.

At that point, any sane US administration would have scolded India in a way that made the Indian government worry about the future of its trade and other relations with the USA if they didn’t cool it. But of course, we don’t have a sane chief executive, we have an incompetent fascist who sees right-wing nationalists like India’s ruling BJP to be natural allies. So of course the fascist idiots came down squarely on India’s side.

Given how both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and given how this is the most serious conflict between the two since they nuclearized, this is positively frightening. Thankfully, Pakistan seems to be acting conciliatory in recent hours (they’ve unilaterally announced they will release the pilot of an Indian military plane they shot down), but this whole thing could still easily escalate out of control and precipitate a most horrifying outcome.