Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

What a bright blue sky is good for

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On the gorgeously clear and mild (70°F, 21°C) afternoon of November 28th I lay on the ground at Meadow Lake Park in Round Rock and aimed up at this bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) whose foliage had turned the reddish brown we expect at this time of year. Getting low and aiming upward served several photographic purposes: 1) to include as much as possible of the bluest part of the sky and play it off against the warm-colored foliage 2) to exclude nearby houses, poles, wires, and other human elements 3) to create a portrait that was simple in its composition and its colors. I also used the bright sky as a backdrop for the aster (Symphyotrichum sp.) shown below.


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A human interest story:

Mom Forced to Give Up Newborn Son 66 Years Ago Tracks Him and Her Granddaughter With DNA Test

Isn’t it strange that “She even has a cat named Bonnie, as I do”?

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 3, 2021 at 4:35 AM

Palmetto State Park revisited

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After this January’s little freeze but before February’s horrendous freeze and snow and ice, we drove 65 miles south to Palmetto State Park, as you saw in posts from early this year. On a sunny and mild November 23rd we revisited the park for the first time since then. The palmettos (Sabal minor) looked pretty good, don’t you think? Where the top picture sets the scene and provides context, the closer view below leans into abstraction and follows a more-is-more aesthetic.

Back to nature: apparently the great February freeze hadn’t seriously hurt the palmettos. It’s normal for there to be some tan and brown fronds as old leaves die and new ones emerge. Such is the great chain of being.

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What follows is a bit long. I hope you’ll read at least the second part.

Last week we heard that a new Covid-19 variant is spreading. All the variants of the virus so far have been named with consecutive letters of the Greek alphabet. The most serious and now dominant variant is Delta, which is the 4th letter in the Greek alphabet. The latest variant is Omicron, the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet. English speakers are not nearly as familiar with the letter omicron as with the letter delta, which our language has borrowed as the name for the area where a river widens out and deposits sediment as it flows into the sea. Americans also recognize Delta Airlines, named for the delta of the Mississippi River.

Because people are less familiar with omicron, they aren’t always sure how to pronounce it. If you’ve listened to the news for any length of time over the past week, you’ve probably heard some people pronounce the first syllable ah, while others say oh. English dictionaries accept both (but certainly not the omnicron that some people have mangled the word to). I’ve always pronounced the first syllable oh because omicron is the Greek letter that Latin and then English borrowed as our letter o.

Omicron is more than the name of a Greek letter, it’s a description of the sound the letter originally represented. Omicron is o micron, literally ‘little o’ (think about microscope and microprocessor). Greek has another letter that’s also pronounced o; it’s omega, meaning ‘big o’ (think of megaphone and megachurch). Those descriptions correspond to the fact that Greeks in ancient times held the o sound of omicron for a shorter time than the o sound of omega, which was what linguists call a long vowel. From what I’ve read, Greek lost the pronunciation distinction between little o and big o a long time ago.

Omega (written 𝛀 as a capital and 𝛚 in lower case) is the 24th and last letter of the Greek alphabet (hence the alpha and omega, the first and last, of Christianity). How Covid-19 variants will get named after the 24th one, I don’t know. I’ve joked that maybe we’ll switch to Chinese ideograms, of which there are thousands.

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Yesterday American authorities announced the first detected case of the Omicron Covid-19 variant in the United States. That caused something of a panic in certain quarters and has added one more consideration to ongoing discussions of pandemic travel restrictions. At a news conference yesterday, reporter Peter Doocy posed a couple of questions to White House Coronavirus Response Team member Dr. Anthony Fauci: “You advised the president about the possibility of new testing requirements for people coming into this country. Does that include everybody?” Dr. Fauci replied: “The answer is yes.” Peter Doocy followed up by asking: “What about people who don’t take a plane, and just these border crossers coming in in huge numbers?” Dr. Fauci’s response was “That’s a different issue.”

It shouldn’t be a different issue—at least not if you believe in science. In case you didn’t catch what an evasion Dr. Fauci’s answer was, and how illogical and hypocritical, I’ll be happy to explain. The Centers for Disease Control hosts a What You Need to Know page for international airplane travel:

  • If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get a COVID-19 viral test (regardless of vaccination status) before you travel by air into the United States. You must show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight.
    • Fully vaccinated: The viral test must be conducted on a sample taken no more than 3 days before the flight’s departure from a foreign country if you show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
    • Not fully vaccinated: The viral test must be conducted on a sample taken no more than 1 day before the flight’s departure from a foreign country if you do not show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • If you recently recovered from COVID-19, you may instead travel with documentation of recovery from COVID-19 (i.e., your positive COVID-19 viral test result on a sample taken no more than 90 days before the flight’s departure from a foreign country and a letter from a licensed healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you were cleared to travel).

At the same time, people illegally coming across the American border from Mexico do not have to show proof of full or even partial Covid-19 vaccination. Unless they’re exhibiting obvious respiratory distress, they don’t even need to be tested for the virus. The current administration has let hundreds of thousands of illegal border-crossers with unknown vaccine status and unknown infection status continue on into our country since January, and in many cases the administration has even paid for their bus and plane tickets into the interior of our country. In sum, unvaccinated and untested non-citizens coming into our country illegally during a pandemic don’t have to follow the health and safety requirements that the American government imposes on its own citizens. That’s lawless. That’s hypocritical. And of course with regard to controlling a pandemic, it’s anti-science.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 2, 2021 at 4:29 AM

More dew, dew, dew

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Native grasses are a small-scale source of fall color in central Texas. Above, you’re looking at a sideways-leaning stalk of bushy bluestem (Andropogon tenuispatheus*) that had gathered lots of dewdrops at the Riata Trace Pond on the morning of November 9th. Fewer and smaller dewdrops coalesced on a nearby bushy bluestem seed head that had kept its normal upright stance; the pond provided the grey background.

* Just yesterday morning I (but not James Taylor) had to glom on to the reality that the members of the bushy bluestem complex have been reclassified, and that most of the plants in Texas have become Andropogon tenuispatheus and are no longer A. glomeratus. From now on, wordsmiths will have to play up the tenuous connections this grass has to other things.


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I think you’ll probably be appalled to learn the extent to which ideologues in some American schools are intruding into the private lives of even their elementary school students. Contrast that with a sentence I remember from the one year of German I took in college in 1966: Die Universität Deutschlands kümmert sich nicht um das Privatleben der Studenten. Universities in Germany don’t care about students’ private lives.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 1, 2021 at 4:28 AM

Spider enclosure

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On November 1st I came across this small spider enclosure on a
purpose-bent stalk of little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium).
Three weeks later the enclosure looked about the same.


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Why don’t problems that are easily fixed get fixed?

So I was checking out at Whole Foods a couple of months ago. Because of the pandemic, many credit/debit card terminals have been upgraded so that now you can tap a card on the device instead of having to swipe the card or insert it. The problem is that a customer doesn’t know exactly where on the terminal to tap the electronic chip in the card. My first taps didn’t work, so I asked the checker-outer specifically where I needed to hold my card. She indicated a place a bit further back from where I’d tried. That worked.

I pointed out to her that the store could head off this problem by putting a little sticker with the words TAP HERE in the exact place under which the hidden sensor sits inside the terminal. She and the bagger seemed not to understand what I was saying, or else didn’t think it was important. I went on to explain that different stores use different kinds of terminals, and some of them are finicky about exactly where a card needs to be tapped. Employees who work the registers learn where that spot is, but customers can’t be expected to know, so a little sticker or some other symbol would show us the right place to tap. Eventually, one right after the other, the two clerks suddenly changed demeanor and said my suggestion was a good one and they’d pass it along to the management, but I got the distinct impression they were just saying that to get rid of me. If I go back to that Whole Foods a few months from now, I seriously doubt I’ll see a little sticker on each terminal showing where to tap a card.

Store bathrooms often present the same kind of problem in automated sinks, hand dryers, and paper towel dispensers: where exactly to put your hand(s) to make the device come on. I often have to move my hands around to various positions until the device finally activates—and sometimes no hand position ever manages to make the device come on. The easy fix would be to use a sensor that responds to a broader range of hand positions. If the concern is that a more-sensitive sensor might cause unintentional activation by people relatively far way, then a device could have two or three less-sensitive sensors spaced out to cover different hand positions. That would raise the machine’s cost a little, but I think reducing customers’ frustration and wasted time would be worth it.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 30, 2021 at 4:28 AM

Sunlight from behind versus flash from in front

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Behold two takes on flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, from November 1st along Spicewood Springs Rd. In the top view I took advantage of the sun in front of me for backlighting; in the other picture I used flash. You might say the second view isn’t “natural,” but then neither is photography.

Only when processing the pictures a couple of weeks after I took them did I notice some sort of translucent insect. You can make it out near the center of the lower photograph. Higher up you can also make out a tiny lacewing egg attached by a filament to one of the leaflets. Now that you’re aware of those two things, you can also see them in the top picture.

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The other day I learned about an important court case from 2008 involving free speech. It’s described in an Inside Higher Ed article and you can watch a half-hour video about it produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 29, 2021 at 4:31 AM

Insects on goldenrod

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From the morning of November 9th on the shore of the Riata Trace Pond, here are two views of flowering goldenrod plants, probably Solidago altissima. In the top photograph you may strain your eyes to make out the Ailanthus webworm moth (which I didn’t even notice when I took the picture), but you sure can’t miss the umbrella paper wasp (Polistes carolina) shown below.


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UPDATE. Last month I reported on the way the public schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, were purposely segregating students by race. Now I’ve learned about intentional racial segregation in a New York City junior high school. Needless to say—except that I find myself having to say it—racial segregation has been illegal in American schools ever since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 28, 2021 at 4:24 AM

Gulf muhly on a breezy day

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On October 29th, when I drove up to the adjacent Austin suburb of Cedar Park looking for poverty weed at its fluffy best, I also came across some gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) that looked good enough for me to get on the ground and aim up toward the clear blue sky. The top left portion of the photograph confirms the breeze I had to contend with that morning. Note the moon.


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The technical definition of a word sometimes differs from the common one. For example, most English speakers use the word bug to refer to insects in general or even other little critters like spiders. In contrast, etymologists use the term bug only for members of a certain order of insects, the Hemiptera; some sources say true bug to indicate the restricted scope.

That kind of difference between a technical definition and a common one came up recently in reference to some incidents this past week that you may have heard about in which organized “smash and grab” groups in the San Francisco Bay area stole lots of merchandise from high-end stores. In connection with that, I came across a report from station KABC with the headline “Experts caution use of ‘looting’ in describing rash of Bay Area smash and grabs.” The report notes that “The [California] penal code defines looting as ‘theft or burglary…during a ‘state of emergency’, ‘local emergency’, or ‘evacuation order’ resulting from an earthquake, fire, flood, riot or other natural or manmade disaster.” Because authorities hadn’t declared any state of emergency or issued any evacuation orders before the thefts, the argument goes, the stealing at the high-end stores shouldn’t be called looting.

Some would say that that’s just quibbling. It got me wondering how the average person uses the verb loot, so I checked a few online dictionaries:

Merriam-Webster:

1a: to plunder or sack in war
b: to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2: to seize and carry away by force especially in war

Oxford Dictionaries:

Steal goods from (a place), typically during a war or riot. ‘desperate residents looted shops for food and water’
1.1 Steal (goods) in a war, riot, etc.

American Heritage Dictionary:

1. To take goods from (a place) by force or without right, especially in time of war or lawlessness; plunder: The rebels looted the city. Rioters looted the downtown stores.
2. To take by force or without right; steal: broke into the tomb and looted the grave goods.
v.intr. To take goods by force or through lawless behavior.

So yes, the verb has a historical connection to war and rioting and natural disasters. At the same time, definition 1b in Merriam-Webster and definition 2 in the American Heritage Dictionary show that people have also been using loot more loosely. It’s a truism of linguistics that words often change, both in how they’re pronounced and what they mean.

In looking up loot, I found that the word came into English from Hindi, presumably as a result of British colonialism in India. For a list of other English words borrowed from languages spoken in India, you can check out a Wikipedia article. You may be surprised that some very common English words make the list.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 27, 2021 at 4:28 AM

Posted in nature photography

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Dew, dew, dew what you did, did, did before

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From November 9th at the Riata Trace Pond, look what the dew did to this gulf vervain (Verbena xutha) inflorescence. For a closer look at the effects of the roration, click the excerpt below.


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As a Thanksgiving follow-up, you can check out an appreciation of America by Jewish Iranian refugee Roya Hakakian, A Modern-Day Pilgrim From the ‘Land of No,‘ that appeared in Common Sense by Bari Weiss.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 26, 2021 at 4:32 AM

Catching up with cowpen daisies

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I saw some pleasant cowpen daisies (Verbesina encelioides) this fall but didn’t manage to squeeze any pictures of them into my recent parade of posts till now. The view above of a fresh flower head comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on September 11th, while the portrait of flower-backed seed head remains is from October 6th along Rain Creek Parkway in my neighborhood. Even now I’m still seeing some cowpen daisies.

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Happy Thanksgiving today to those of you in the United States—and for that matter to those of you in other countries. Here’s an article appropriate to the occasion: “Grandma accidentally invited a stranger to Thanksgiving. Now, they are ‘all set for year 6.'”

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 25, 2021 at 4:32 AM

After Lost Maples

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You’ve heard that on November 10th we spent a couple of hours at Lost Maples, disappointed that the fall foliage this year fell far short of what we’d seen there in 2014. Our route home took us along TX 39 by the Guadalupe River, which also proved not as fall-ful as in 2014. Finally, coming northeast from Kerrville along TX 16, Eve spotted something off to the side that I as the driver with my eyes glued to the road in front of me had missed: three strands of brightly reddened Virginia creeper vines (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) climbing diagonal branches of a live oak tree. I made a U-turn and went back to do my photographic thing. Later I thought about wordplayfully labeling the view “Red-olent of fall.”


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UPDATE. After yesterday’s commentary appeared, I was made aware of a Newsweek opinion piece entitled “I’m a Black Ex-Felon. I’m Glad Kyle Rittenhouse Is Free.”


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It’s not unusual on intelligence tests to see a question like this: What’s the next number in the sequence 2, 4, 6, …? All such questions are inherently invalid because they incorrectly assume there’s only one right next number or even one “most likely” next number. A better question would be: Give a possible next number in the sequence and a reason to justify it. For instance, if you say the next number is 8, a reason would be that you’re continuing with the consecutive even integers. If you say the next number is 9, you could be following the rule that each new number has to be larger than the one before it. If you say the next number is 6, you could be following the rule that each new number has to be at least as large as the one before it. If you say the next number is 1, a reason could be that every number in the sequence has to be a positive integer. If you say the next number is 50, a reason could be that the English-language word for every number in the sequence has to begin with a consonant. If you say the next number is 7, you could be alternating between numerals that have a curve in them and numerals that are written entirely with straight strokes.

One* lesson to take from this is that many possible explanations exist for an occurrence. If it’s important to know how or why something happened—as for example in a legal trial—then we have to investigate and try to find the actual explanation for the occurrence. Jumping to a conclusion without enough evidence can and does lead to mistakes and to injustices.

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* I started to write “The lesson to take from this” but I realized I’d be making the very mistake I’m cautioning against because more than one lesson could be drawn from this discussion. One obvious point is the one I suggested at the outset: people who design tests should stop asking what the next number in a sequence is. Another lesson I could go on to elaborate—and used to when I taught high school math but will spare you the details of here—is that if you tell me what you want the fourth number to be, within a few minutes I can come up with an algebraic formula such that when you put 1 into the formula it produces the value 2; when you put 2 into the formula it produces the value 4; when you put 3 into the formula it produces the value 6; and when you put 4 into the formula it produces the value you wanted for the fourth number. In fact I can come up with as many formulas as I like that will produce the same four values—a reality that reconfirms the important idea that there can be more than one explanation for something.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 24, 2021 at 4:22 AM

Posted in nature photography

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