The Good Old Days

Reading about regulations intended to prevent children from being exposed to agricultural toxins (HERE) brings back memories of my childhood, when that either wasn’t an issue or if it was the concern hadn’t reached this deeply into the country.

I was probably about seven years old when I first began “dusting” the garden. Our mother would send us out with a five gallon bucket, with Sevin dust in it, and an applicator she made out of old panty hose. The hose were tied at the bottom and we’d scoop out the dust (with our hands, as I recall) and put in in from the top. Walking down the row of vegetables we’d hold the hose/dust over a plant then “pop” it, lifting then jerking down suddenly, sending a coat of dust through the hose and onto the plants. Protective gear? I would be barefoot and wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off shorts.

Even worse, I imagine, was what we did in the tobacco fields, from when I was old enough to reach the top of a plant. When the plants began to bloom it was time to top them. So we’d walk down the rows, breaking out the tops. To prevent suckers we squirted some kind of poison out of oil cans or poured it out of plastic jugs, which we filled from a barrel at the end of the row. We’d squirt or pour the stuff onto the top of the stalk so it would run down the sides. Us kids would do this job barefoot, but because the black gum on the surface of tobacco leaves would stick to your hair and body (and was very difficult to remove) we had to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Topping happens on hot humid summer days and the smell of the chemicals was powerful and unsettling. I can only imagine how much of that stuff I must have breathed in.

Nowadays when I see the Mexican work crews wearing face masks in tobacco fields I have to smile. Times have changed.

Bird Brains

#1

Cherie heard something bang against the window. Probably an errant bird, she thought. That happens. But then she heard it again. And then it became a regular steady thumping. What she discovered when she went to check on it, was a male cardinal, throwing himself repeatedly against the window. Presumably he was fighting his reflection.

He’ll either wear himself out or figure this out, Cherie thought as she returned to her desk. But no. This bird wouldn’t accept defeat, instead continuing to fly into the window in a hopeless effort to chase off his reflection.

So Cherie taped a large sheet of construction paper over the window, figuring the bird would relent if he couldn’t see himself. Not willing to be so easily deterred, however,  he just tore down the paper and resumed his battle.

When Cherie told me what was going on, I had an idea. I took a stuffed rooster and sat it by the window.

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And it worked. As anxious as the cardinal was to fight his own reflection, he wanted nothing to do with the rooster. The banging stopped. Problem solved.

Temporarily. Soon the bird discovered his reflection in the other windows on our front porch and he resumed his attacks.

We preferred not to allow the foolish animal to beat himself to death, and we preferred not listening to his slow suicide, so Cherie placed stuffed animals from our daughter’s childhood in front of the other windows.

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Success. The bird relented, no doubt reluctantly and crestfallen.

After a few days Cherie brought in the rooster and his comrades. And soon thereafter she heard the familiar thump. With the guards gone, the cardinal returned and resumed his attacks.

So the stuffed animals returned to sentry duty and the kamikaze cardinal has moved on.

We don’t get many visitors, so we haven’t had to explain the rooster and his friends.

#2

Last year a pair of barn swallows decided that our garage light would be an ideal spot for a nest. From there they could not only build a muddy nest in which to raise their young, but it was also the perfect location from which to drop copious amounts of swallow poo directly onto my truck.

Because we are soft-hearted bird lovers (in other words, dummies), we let them stay there. Well, let me be more specific. After I destroyed their nest in progress and they laughed it off and continued building, I decided to surrender the point. They built their nest and hatched their young.

Enter Mr. Fabulous, our bad-boy cat. Unable to reach the nest in any conventional way, he cleverly calculated that if he climbed onto the roof of my truck and leaped toward the garage light, he could swat the nest as he flew by, tumbling the unfortunate hatchlings to the garage floor, where they could then be tortured and consumed at his leisure. His plan worked, no doubt delighting him while distressing all others (both birds and humans) who discovered the aftermath of his attack.

Now, a year later, the barn swallows have returned and built a new nest, right on the ruins of the old one. Once again they are steadily painting my truck. Once again we can’t close the garage doors (because, of course, that would inconvenience the swallows). Once again they are in jeopardy of a feline commando raid. I suggested to Cherie that this particular pair should probably be edited out of the gene pool.

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Bird logic: “This looks like a good spot to build.”

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Bird logic: “This looks like a good place to sit.”

This year they have added two new items to their annoying repertoire. First, they enjoy perching on the stoop above the door that enters our house from the garage (our most used door), with the predicable consequence that we must either step over or step onto a pile of bird crap every time we come in or out of the house. Secondly, they dive bomb us when we come in and out of the garage, despite my insistence that we were here first, an argument they find either unconvincing or irrelevant.

#3

Once the chicks were old enough, I opened the door to the brooder coop and their adoptive mother took them out every day, teaching them to forage. Each night she returned to the brooder coop with them.

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This was a little annoying. In the past mamas in this situation have led the chicks to the main coop to roost. We’d never had one decide to just stay put in the brooder coop.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t the hen who was making that decision. She kept trying to lead the chicks to their permanent home, but they weren’t having it. Every night they climbed back in the brooder and she reluctantly followed.

Finally, she refused, returning to the main coop whether the chicks liked it or not. So they parted ways. The chicks, now motherless again, foraged widely during the day, but night after night returned to the brooder coop to roost. This was a new one for us.

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Bird logic: “Mom’s gone, but we ain’t leaving.”

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Getting evicted

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One of the new residents. Future bird brain.

A neighbor gave us some cream legbar chicks, who aren’t old enough for the main coop yet. So the stubborn sex-link chicks were evicted last night. We put them in a cage and carried them to the main coop where, like it or not, they’re going to stay. But I have a feeling it’s not going to be as easy as that makes it sound.

Reflecting on a “career”

Thirty-two years ago this month I arrived in Tampa, fresh out of law school, to begin my new job as an associate attorney in a law firm. It would be fair to say that I began with nothing. In fact, less than nothing would be fair. I owed $24,000 in student loans, had borrowed the money to buy my 1982 Chevrolet Citation and I had to borrow the money from my parents to pay the security deposit and first months’ rent on my apartment. The first night I was there someone smashed the window out of the car and stole my only possessions of any monetary value–my stereo and a backpack containing my favorite books. An inauspicious beginning.

I’ve complained often on this blog about how miserable I was during my law career and how unfulfilling I found it. Certainly that’s true, but it’s only part of the story.

It was a grueling stressful job that kept me away from home and family too much. But the truth is that it is because of my time as a lawyer that I’m now able to live this life. It took determination and patience, but there was a finish line and I did finally reach it.

I was privileged to spend most of my career with what I regard to be the finest law firm in the state. I was fortunate to develop an excellent client base and a good reputation with the judiciary. I worked on lots of interesting, often complex and high-profile matters. I learned a lot. My practice took me all over the world and I met lots of fascinating people. The vast majority of the time, I was on the side of the good guys.

I became a partner in my firm. Eventually I was named to the Florida Legal Elite, Florida Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America in both the Commercial Litigation and Intellectual Property Litigation categories. I may not have enjoyed my job, but the cosmic joke was that I became pretty good at it.

I’m reflecting on this stuff because since May 1, for the first time since that May in 1985, I have no professional affiliation with a law firm. Even though I haven’t practiced since August, 2010, my old firm had given me an honorary title, kept my bar dues paid and kept my bio on their website. But now they’ve eliminated that professional designation (for liability reasons because, you know, lawyers). Now I reckon I am fully retired from the practice of law.

This morning as I type this, anticipating a day spent picking and processing vegetables for tomorrow’s farmer’s market, I have blisters on my palms from driving t-posts yesterday and from loading and unloading 400 bales of hay. I worked until after nine last night and I’ve been up since five this morning, and have already tended the goats and chickens and raised the curtains on the hoop house. It’s a strangely different life from the one I led for over a quarter century, and I love it. And for all my complaining, I’m grateful for my time as a lawyer, without which I probably wouldn’t be able to do this.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth…

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This morning at dawn

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter. 

Rachel Carson

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Blooms on the zucchini 

h/t Movin’ On

The Great Filter

Here’s some brain exercise this morning, for any interested.

One of the most fascinating scientific puzzles is the Fermi Paradox. Given that there are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy, then why haven’t we seen evidence of any advanced alien civilizations? Even if complex life evolved on only a very small percentage of those planets, the odds are that there should be a great number of civilizations capable by now of interstellar communication/travel. So, where are they?

There are lots of suggested answers to this paradox, ranging from the simple (the Rare Earth hypothesis says that the evolution of complex life is so exceedingly unlikely that it may have occurred nowhere else) to the fantastic (the zoo hypothesis, for example, says that advanced alien civilizations shield themselves from us as they observe us, zoo-like).

Assuming the more likely scenario–the reason we haven’t heard from advanced alien civilizations is that they don’t exist–scientists posit that there must be some “Great Filter,” that is, that somewhere on the road from simple to exceedingly complex life, there is a wall which cannot be crossed, or which extinguishes life before it reaches the most advanced technological stage.

This Great Filter may be either behind us, or ahead of us. If it is behind us, then we’ve presumably cleared the great improbable hurdle and are the first (or only) complex life in the galaxy (there are some other possibilities that I’m discarding for simplicity sake). But maybe the Great Filter lies ahead of us. That argument supposes that while there may be many alien civilizations that reach our level of advancement, some catastrophe or obstacle prevents them from ever reaching the most advanced stage. Thus Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that if we should find evidence of extinct complex life on Mars (for example) that would be “by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean the Great Filter lies ahead of us.

The most interesting proposed answers to the Paradox reject the notion that the seeming absence of contact with advanced alien civilizations means they don’t exist. Proponents of these hypotheses (including, for example, those who favor the zoo hypothesis), have come up with a fascinating list of possible explanations for why we aren’t in contact with advanced alien civilizations. While the hypotheses are bizarre, they eliminate the question of any “Great Filter.”

Here are 10 of them, taken from this  highly recommended article:

Group 2 explanations get rid of any notion that we’re rare or special or the first at anything—on the contrary, they believe in the Mediocrity Principle, whose starting point is that there is nothing unusual or rare about our galaxy, solar system, planet, or level of intelligence, until evidence proves otherwise. They’re also much less quick to assume that the lack of evidence of higher intelligence beings is evidence of their nonexistence—emphasizing the fact that our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy) and suggesting a number of possible explanations. Here are 10:

Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years, a little blip of time. If contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.

Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe.

An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.

Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—that is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. The more I learn about the topic, the more this seems like an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”). As far as we know, super-intelligent civilizations exist in a tightly-regulated galaxy, and our Earth is treated like part of a vast and protected national park, with a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule for planets like ours. We wouldn’t notice them, because if a far smarter species wanted to observe us, it would know how to easily do so without us realizing it. Maybe there’s a rule similar to the Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” which prohibits super-intelligent beings from making any open contact with lesser species like us or revealing themselves in any way, until the lesser species has reached a certain level of intelligence.

Possibility 9) Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them. Michio Kakusums it up like this:

Let’s say we have an anthill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the anthill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”

So it’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

Along those lines, this may also be an answer to “Well if there are so many fancy Type III Civilizations, why haven’t they contacted us yet?” To answer that, let’s ask ourselves—when Pizarro made his way into Peru, did he stop for a while at an anthill to try to communicate? Was he magnanimous, trying to help the ants in the anthill? Did he become hostile and slow his original mission down in order to smash the anthill apart? Or was the anthill of complete and utter and eternal irrelevance to Pizarro? That might be our situation here.

Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. There are a lot of ways we could just be totally off with everything we think. The universe might appear one way and be something else entirely, like a hologram. Or maybe we’re the aliens and we were planted here as an experiment or as a form of fertilizer. There’s even a chance that we’re all part of a computer simulation by some researcher from another world, and other forms of life simply weren’t programmed into the simulation.

For any fellow nerds who made it this far, may you have a pleasant day, free of Great Filters.

Deer

When I went out to open the chicken coop this morning I saw two deer standing neck-deep in the clover crop of one of our resting gardens. And that’s OK by me. As long as they’re eating clover they’re not eating broccoli.

My decision to reduce the size of our gardens was in part to enable us to better protect against deer.  After putting up our usual electrified net fencing around the spring garden, I added another fence about 2-3 feet around the perimeter of the interior fence. I’m told that deer have poor depth perception and aren’t as likely to jump a double fence. And every few days I’ve been spraying deer repellent (a concoction whose principal ingredient is rotten eggs) around the edge of the fence. So far so good.

While I’m going to return most of the retired garden space to grass, I intend to keep a couple of the plots sowed in deer-food cover crops, in the hope that they’ll focus on those rather than our people-food gardens.

As much as I complain about deer and the damage they do around here, I should add that they are an important part of our food self-reliance. I haven’t eaten any red meat in well over ten years now, other than venison. In fact I got out some ground venison to thaw overnight in anticipation of tacos for lunch.

So while I grumble and fret about feeding the deer, the truth is that they feed me too.