A Mostly Dry and Cool Weekend

Published at 09:12 on 30 April 2021

The official forecast for tomorrow, Saturday, is showery, but I just don’t see it; both of the top models are saying it should be dry. I also don’t see it being quite as warm as the official forecasts say. Those claim the high temperatures should flirt with the 60˚F mark, particularly on Sunday, but again, neither of the top models agrees with that; both are saying high temperatures should be solidly in the fifties.

I suppose I could be all wet here, because I don’t have quite the experience sanity-checking springtime modeled temperatures that I do for wintertime ones, and they may well be notorious for underestimating daytime solar warming now that sun angles are higher. But as of right now, the official forecast maxima just do not seem quite right to me.

So far as precipitation goes, I am quite confident that both Saturday and Sunday will be dry. Regarding clouds, it should for the most part be variably cloudy throughout the weekend.

Evergreen Violet (Viola sempervirens)

Published at 22:05 on 28 April 2021

Evergreen Violet (Viola sempervirens)

This is probably the most common violet in our woods. As the first part of its common name implies, its foliage stays green through the winter. The second part of its scientific name implies the same thing; “sempervirens,” literally “ever-living,” is often used to denote a species with evergreen foliage.

The second part of this plant’s common name implies a color other than the yellow of this violet. For some reason, actual violet-flowered violet species are in this region outnumbered by white- and yellow-flowered species.

You might also notice the Stream Violet (Viola glabella). This violet also has yellow flowers, but its leaves are thinner, slightly lighter green, not evergreen, and come to a slight point at the tip. The Stream Violet is more fond of deciduous woods (and, as its name implies, damper locations) than the Evergreen Violet. It also tends to grow taller, although “taller” is in this case relative, since no violet is what one would call a tall plant.

The flowers and young leaves of all violets are edible. In fact, one of the most delightful characteristics of the Evergreen Violet is the slight wintergreen flavor of its blossoms, which in my opinion makes it the tastiest of our native violets.

Naturally, one should not eat the flowers of any plant unless it is numerous to the degree that consuming its reproductive parts is unlikely to endanger its survival. Thankfully, the Evergreen Violet frequently occurs in great numbers and thus a little snacking on it is often within the bounds of ethical use.

Maybe I’m Not So Irrelevant After All?

Published at 12:21 on 26 April 2021

The Washington State Legislature passed an impressive array of bills on a variety of progressive wish-list topics, but one thing they did not pass was any sort of draconian gun control legislation.

Gun legislation was limited to one common-sense measure banning open carry of firearms at or near a political demonstration. Leftists are already thoroughly — and often aggressively — disarmed by the cops at demonstrations, anyhow, so all this amounts to is a legislative order to be more balanced and to target the righties who show up openly packing heat.

As a leftist who supports gun rights, this is encouraging. Our numbers might be small, but this indicates we are a decisive minority, and that our opposition to draconian gun laws probably helped doom them, by tipping the scales just enough to make them political non-starters.

Two Woodland Flowers

Published at 08:39 on 25 April 2021

Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Time for another quiz: What do the above plants, specifically the seeds of these plants, have in common?

The answer is ants. Both bear seeds which have an attached oily appendage that is attractive and nutritious to ants, who tend to carry the seeds for some distance before detaching the appendage and returning to their nest with it. This is actually quite a common characteristic, particularly in forest understory species, and has evolved independently many times in the plant kingdom. It is a particularly common trait in the hardwood forests of Eastern North America, which have many more species of these “ant plants” than we do here.

Trilliums in particular often seem to decline in abundance in woods near urban areas with higher amounts of human impact. Those same woods tend to no longer host populations of our native Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes). These red-and-black ants build large anthills of forest debris, and are themselves significantly larger than most introduced ants. It is my theory that these ants, being larger, do a better job of dispersing ant-dispersed seeds for the simple reason that they are capable of carrying them for longer distances.

Both the Pacific Bleeding Heart and the Western Trillium are presently in bloom in our woods.

Pacific Bleeding Heart

This is a member of a small genus of plants, all of which have oddly-shaped, bilaterally-symmetric flowers. Indigenous peoples made limited herbal use of this plant, and such experimentation is not recommended, as all species in this genus are quite toxic.

The common garden Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is a close relative of this plant. If you head east across the Cascades in the spring, you might encounter the related Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora). If you head south to the Columbia Gorge, you might see the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). This latter species has an unusual distribution, being found for the most part in eastern and central North America, but with some disjunct populations in the Columbia Basin.

Western Trillium

This is one of about 50 species of trilliums worldwide; like the Pacific Bleeding Heart it is the only member of its genus found in this area. It is by far the most common trillum in the Western United States.

It is generally a bad idea to pick our native wildflowers, and trilliums in particular are set back more than the average plant by having their flowers picked, for the simple reason that picking a trillium involves destroying the entire above-ground parts of a plant. This is quite the serious setback for an organism that produces but three leaves and one flower per season. It is likely that picking as much as (or more than) the lack of suitable ants for seed dispersal figures in how woods nearer “civilization” tend to have fewer trilliums.

If you explore the woods south of Olympia, and you are lucky, you may spot the Sessile Trillium (Trillium chloropetalum), which has narrower petals and whose flower is not held above the leaves on a stalk. Yet more trillium species are found as one heads further south into Southern Oregon and California.

Back to Rain Soon

Published at 07:27 on 23 April 2021

We sort of won the lottery last weekend: a completely sunny, warm one. In fact, if you are a sun-lover we won the lottery for nearly a fortnight.

Well, that “lucky” streak is about to end quite decisively. It is looking like the temperature on Saturday might struggle to reach the mid-fifties Fahrenheit. Quite a change from the “spring tease” we have recently been experiencing. Or more precisely, the rainy and chilly relapse is itself part of that tease.

Fire managers do not consider this recent warm and dry stretch to be good luck; it has done a frighteningly good job of drying things out. There was in fact a grass fire near Chilliwack last week, and there have already been red flag (i.e. extreme fire danger) warnings issued in Oregon.

While warm and dry spells are not unusual in April, this one has been astoundingly warm, and in particular it has been astoundingly dry. It is the low dew points that have done as much to dry things out as have the warm temperatures.

It is my feeling that the anomalous nature of this warm spell is probably related to global warming; however, that is only a hunch and it will take further data to establish the trend and settle the question.

Enemies of taking action on the climate crisis are fond of pointing such things out; however, it is critical to keep in mind that settling such questions and the issue of whether or not to take action now are two different matters. Although it is not possible to state the exact nature of the disruption that climate change will cause, it is still quite clear that odds are extremely high there will be significant disruption of some sort, thus common prudence dictates taking action so as to minimize those consequences.

It feels tedious to have to point the above out, but having to do so is simply a natural consequence of living in a political system badly divorced from obvious reality.

Anyhow, I hope everyone enjoyed how warm the last weekend was, because the coming one certainly will not be.

Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)

Published at 10:55 on 21 April 2021

Now scenting the air.

Cottonwood leaves are unfolding and scenting the air with the fragrance of their balsam. The ground under our cottonwood trees is also littered with bud scales sticky with that same fragrant balsam. Indigenous peoples used the balsam to prepare salves and ointments; this tree is part of a small group of related poplar species that produce such balsam.

The Black Cottonwood has something in common with the the Bigleaf Maple, Red Alder, Douglas-Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Pacific Madrone. Can you guess what it is?

If you guessed that it is the largest species of its genus, you were correct. Our climate is favorable to the development of large trees, and has selected for them across multiple families and genera.

Like most poplars, this tree has something of a bad reputation for invasive roots that break up pavement and invade pipes. Such traits will likely serve the this region well when our civilization suffers the inevitable demise it is hurtling itself towards; paved surfaces are not very useful to organisms other than civilized humans, and many species will benefit by their return to more productive use.

Many people are surprised to learn that the Black Cottonwood is not our only native poplar. The Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is also native to the Bellingham area; the Cordata neighborhood in particular has quite a lot of them. Far from being only a Rocky Mountain tree, aspens are in fact the most widely-distributed tree in North America, found from Mexico to Alaska and the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Compared to the Black Cottonwood, the Quaking Aspen has smaller leaves which emerge later in spring, are a lighter green, and much more prone to fluttering in the slightest breeze. Aspens also have lighter bark and more frequently reproduce asexually by sending up suckers from their roots; the latter trait means they typically occur in groves. As with the balsam poplars, the aspens form yet another small, related group of poplar trees; our aspen is a close relative of the aspens of Europe and Asia.

Now that I have mentioned poplars, someone is sure to chime in about how much their seeds trigger their allergies. Actually, it is unlikely that cottonwood seeds would do such a thing; their “fluff” consists of almost pure cellulose, which is not typically considered to be an allergen. Instead, blame grass pollen, whose concentration typically peaks at the same time that cottonwoods are dispersing their seeds.

Not a Complete Surprise

Published at 10:04 on 21 April 2021

Yesterday’s guilty verdicts were not a complete surprise to me, for two reasons:

  1. Darnella Frazier’s decision to whip out her cell phone and film nearly ten minutes of George Floyd being strangled to death.
  2. The collapse of the so-called Blue Wall. Even the chief of the Minneapolis police testified that what Chauvin did was not justified.

The two are related. Had it been a shorter video (or had there been no video at all), the cops would have been able to argue the standard bullshit of “that clip may look bad, but it takes things out of context and once you know the whole story it’s not really excessive, policing is hard for civilians to understand, blah blah blah.”

Now, while it’s good to see a killer cop finally be held accountable, it is important to understand that at this stage what we have is basically a “dog bites man” story, an exception that proves a general rule. Although I could perceive the above two signs, and the verdict was not a complete surprise, it would also have not been a surprise if the system had failed to hold Chauvin to account, given how poor its overall track record is in this regard.

The guilty verdicts were not a slam-dunk. It would have taken only one different juror, and there would have been an 11–1 hung jury. There is no shortage of right-wing boot-lickers out there bemoaning the verdict, so this is hardly a far-flung scenario.

Where we were was basically an opening, where for once accountability was possible, but it was not highly likely. Where we are is quite similar: this could conceivably form a turning point, but it could just as conceivably prove to be an anomalous blip in a continuing dismal trend.

Where it goes is largely up to us, and by “us” I mean the people in general and not the political class. The latter has always had the power to do something about police brutality, yet until very recently has almost never done much about it. The only reason this was different was that a random teenager, an individual in no particular office of authority, was in the right place at the right time, and made the right decision about filming something despite the personal risks she faced in doing so.

As always, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium)

Published at 10:41 on 20 April 2021

I snapped the above picture just north of Squalicum Marina a few days ago; the tree is growing on a railroad embankment. This tree is native to Europe but is now widespread in the coastal Northwest. It is the parent species of most cultivated cherries, and these are in fact its origin here.

Although it is not surprising to see an introduced species growing in an urban, disturbed environment, there is no shortage of these cherries in our native wooded areas, and its blooms are brightening the woods right now.

As with many species that have escaped from cultivation, it has for the most part reverted to wild form, with a larger overall size and thinner-fleshed fruit. It makes perfectly tasty cherries each summer (unless you are unlucky enough to find the random tree with bitter fruit) but good luck reaching most of them, as they will be for the most part high above you.

Evolution explains the smaller fruit in this and most other wild relatives of cultivated fruits. It is needlessly wasteful for a tree to expend energy creating more than the minimum food reward needed to entice animals to consume its fruit and thereby disperse its seeds; trees that expend more energy on growing taller and better competing for light in forested areas will tend to be naturally selected for. This process can be quite rapid if, as is the case here, the large-fruited characteristic is a recessive trait.

We also have a native cherry, the Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata). As its name implies, its fruit is unpalatable; Seattle author Arthur Lee Jacobson accurately describes it as “bitter enough to make one grimace in agony.” Its flowers are less showy than its introduced relative, and it blooms slightly later in the season.

Evolution also explains the bitterness of our native cherry’s fruit. Birds, being gifted with flight, are more mobile than the typical mammal, and thus more effective at spreading seeds far and wide. Birds also have a far different sense of taste than most mammals, and cannot perceive the presence of many substances that us mammals find unacceptably bitter. The Bitter Cherry’s fruit is thus quite literally for the birds.

Theming WordPress

Published at 08:22 on 19 April 2021

Executive summary: It’s not that easy, but it’s not really all that hard, either.

The main complication is, well, complication. WordPress is a mature and very full-featured software system, and web layout itself is intrinsically a not-so-simple thing, because the same layout must work well on both a big desktop screen and a tiny smartphone screen.

If you start by editing the existing WordPress default theme, you will quickly get lost in the complexity. It is far better to start with a simplified, bare-bones theme like Tania Rascia’s untheme and work from there. The rub is, such bare-bones themes tend to be too simplified, so you will then be compelled to add the missing features you desire.

This still is working out quite well for me, because I am getting a theme that has the features I want and none of the features I do not want, resulting in a very clean layout overall.

The design itself is based loosely on mid-twentieth century newspaper typography. The typefaces come pretty close, and I justify my body text margins, but column width and paragraph style follows more typical Web standards.

This is yet another stage in the process of moving this blog off of its current host and onto the virtual host where the rest of my online presence is kept.

Why WordPress Is the Market Leader

Published at 13:51 on 17 April 2021

Wanting to plan for the coming day where this blog moves to a new host, and wanting to try alternatives to PHP-based blogging (like WordPress) I decided to create a test blog using Roller.

The first thing that stuck we was how many configuration steps there were. Then I noticed how needlessly repetitive the configuration was; some things, like the database connection URL, must be specified in multiple places. That’s horrible. It’s literally begging for inconsistencies to crop up later. Configuration parameters should only need to be specified once. Then I run into ambiguities in the documentation; locations for files I am being told to create are not explicitly specified anywhere.

Finally I get things configured, only to receive a curt message from Tomcat that it cannot run my Roller instance because the Java was compiled against a JVM that is newer than the Java 8 JVM that runs my existing Tomcat instance.

I could fix that, of course, but f*ck it. Nowhere in the release notes was this dependency specified, and at this point I’ve already pissed away well over an hour and have yet to see so much as a blank dummy page for my efforts.

I notice that I already have PHP installed anyhow, because I needed it to run another canned solution at one time. I shelve the effort and give WordPress a try. Within fifteen minutes of following the install instructions (which are complete), I am rewarded with my blank dummy page. No multiple configuration files that repeat the same parameters. No ambiguous instructions. No unstated dependencies on PHP versions (there are dependencies, but they are clearly stated). It just works, as advertised.

Take it away, Coding Horror:

I’ve written both VB and PHP code, and in my opinion the comparison is grossly unfair to Visual Basic. Does PHP suck? Of course it sucks. Did you read any of the links in Tim’s blog entry? It’s a galactic supernova of incomprehensibly colossal, mindbendingly awful suck. If you sit down to program in PHP and have even an ounce of programming talent in your entire body, there’s no possible way to draw any other conclusion. It’s inescapable.

But I’m also here to tell you that doesn’t matter.

The TIOBE community index I linked above? It’s written in PHP. Wikipedia, which is likely to be on the first page of anything you search for these days? Written in PHP. Digg, the social bookmarking service so wildly popular that a front page link can crush the beefiest of webservers? Written in PHP. WordPress, arguably the most popular blogging solution available at the moment? Written in PHP. YouTube, the most widely known video sharing site on the internet? Written in PHP. Facebook, the current billion-dollar zombie-poking social networking darling of venture capitalists everywhere? Written in PHP. (Update: While YouTube was originally written in PHP, it migrated to Python fairly early on, per Matt Cutts and Guido van Rossum.)

And the best thing about it? Although WordPress is written in PHP, it’s basically written (past tense) in PHP. I don’t have to do much with PHP’s awfulness myself. Edit some manifest constants in wp-config.php, and (since I am tinkering with templates) edit some .php files that are mostly parameterized HTML with a few PHP function calls. And what there is, is thoroughly documented, because WordPress is used so much.

Sure, it sucks that WordPress is written in PHP. But, it doesn’t matter.