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Two degrees of passing away

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In February of 2021 a days-long freeze killed off all the huisache trees (Vachellia farnesiana) in Austin. I saw no new growth for the rest of that year but am happy to report seeing some green springing up from the wreckage in the past few months, even with our current drought. The broken remains of the huisache tree shown here along John Henry Faulk Dr. on August 1st caught my attention because of the Clematis drummondii vine that had climbed on it and had entered its fluffy stage, with the seed-bearing fibers gradually turning dingy and accounting for the vernacular name old man’s beard. Seen from this angle, the fluffy mound calls to mind—at least to my fluffy mind—the way the main part of Spain looks on a map.


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Last month I quoted from a talk about free speech that Carl Sagan gave in around 1987. The other day I came across another prescient passage, this time from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 13, 2022 at 4:27 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

Posted on a post in a post

with 15 comments


As you see in today’s photograph from August 1st on the Blackland Prairie in far northeast Austin, little land snails are common in the Austin area. Multiple posts over the years (for example this February and May 2020) have shown how those snails like to climb both plants and inanimate objects. The snail shell on/in today’s post was such a bright white that in comparison to it the sky and clouds look unnaturally dark, but I like the effect and also welcome the contrasty chiaroscuro drama of the shell and its shadow. The rusted metal adds interesting textures and earthy colors.



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From time to time in the past year I’ve given examples of ideologues insisting that a word no longer means what it has long meant. Examples have included man, woman, mother, and recession [of a financial sort].

This week I became aware of two more. New York State is now banning the short word inmate, which it will replace with the cumbersome, five-syllables-longer phrase incarcerated person. What’s supposed to be gained isn’t clear, especially since inmate was already gender neutral. Possibly it’s to force more and more things to fit the mold X person, where X is a present or past participle. For example, enslaved person replaces slave and birthing person replaces mother.

The second recent attempt at definition denial stems from an incident on the morning of August 8th, when several dozen armed FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] agents, including a safecracker, showed up at the Florida home of former president Trump with a search warrant. The FBI team then spent a reported nine hours searching the premises and taking away some 15 boxes of materials.

I take no position on whether the FBI raid was justified. There’s no way for me to know. What I do take a position on is the unjustified denial by many in the media that the raid was a raid. It was funny to watch a montage of eight clips showing television commenters insisting that the raid wasn’t a raid.

Fortunately we have the Internet at our disposal, so I looked up raid in a bunch of online dictionaries. Because each dictionary gives several definitions of the word, I’ll quote just the relevant one:


Wordsmyth: ‘A surprise entry by police into private property, usu[ally] to make arrests or seize something.’

Merriam-Webster: ‘A sudden invasion by officers of the law.’

Lexico (Oxford): ‘A surprise visit by police to arrest suspected people or seize illicit goods.’

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s: ‘An occasion when the police enter a place suddenly in order to find someone or something.’

Longman: ‘A surprise visit made to a place by the police to search for something illegal.’

American Heritage: ‘A sudden forcible entry into a place by police.’

Vocabulary.com: ‘Search’ or ‘enter unexpectedly.’

Macmillan: ‘To use force to enter a place suddenly in order to arrest people or search for something such as illegal drugs.’

Infoplease: ‘a sudden assault or attack, as upon something to be seized or suppressed.’

Free Dictionary: ‘Search without warning.’

Webster’s (1913): ‘An attack or invasion for the purpose of making arrests, seizing property, or plundering.’


So yes, the raid that took place on August 8th was indeed a raid.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 12, 2022 at 4:28 AM

Mesquite pods with added interest

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While out on the Blackland Prairie in far northeast Austin on the first day of August I came upon a mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) with plenty of long, well-developed pods on it. Whether the species name glandulosa accounts for the two resinous drops on one of these pods, I don’t know. I do know that the drops attracted me as a photographer. Not till after I got home and looked at the pictures on my computer screen did I notice the tiny spider close to the larger of the two drops. From a different frame taken at a different angle, here’s a closer look at the tiny spider and the larger resin drop:



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On Monday I saw a photograph showing a 2018 demonstration outside Minnesota’s Capitol. Prominent in the photograph was a handwritten placard that began: “Hammer[s,] screwdrivers and knives kill more people than rifles.” You know me: I immediately wondered if the claim is true. To try to find facts to confirm or refute it, I did an Internet search and turned up an article from the Joslyn Law Firm. Here’s how it starts:

With the renewed push by the federal government for an assault weapons ban, we couldn’t help but wonder, just how often are assault rifles really to blame for crimes? More specifically, how often are they used as murder weapons when compared to all of the other types of weapons available?

Using FBI homicide statistics from the 2019 Crime in the United States report, the insights team at the Joslyn Law Firm charted out how often different types of weapons were used in homicides in the U.S. Of the 16,425 homicides that occurred in 2019, the FBI was able to collect supplemental data for 13,922 of them, which is what our data is based on. The weapon types are broken down into the different types of firearms: handguns, rifles, shotguns, and a category for homicides in which the type of firearm was unknown. It also compares the number of homicides that were committed by non-firearm weapons such as knives or cutting instruments as well as bodily weapons, which include people’s hands, fists, and feet. Non-firearm weapons were used for one-quarter of all homicides in the United States.

You can look through the resulting chart (click on it to enlarge it). Of the 13,922 homicides in 2019, rifles accounted for a mere 364 (2.6%). If you want to interpret “rifle” loosely as “long gun” and therefore include shotguns, you can add another 200 (1.4%). In contrast, there were 1476 (10.6%) homicides using knives or other cutting instruments, so already the claim on the demonstrator’s placard seems correct. Because the placard also included hammers and screwdrivers, the outweighing of rifles is even greater.

One possible objection is that 3326 (23.9%) of the homicides involved firearms of an undetermined type. Might enough of those have been rifles to increase the rifle total of 364 to more than the 1476 incidents involving knives and other cutting instruments? While that’s theoretically possible, it’s extremely unlikely, given that among the firearms that have been identified in homicides, rifles account for only 5.25%. We have no reason to suppose the distribution of undetermined gun types is overwhelmingly different from the distribution of determined gun types.

The current push among certain activists is to ban so-called assault rifles, which are a subset of rifles in general, and therefore account for even less than the 2.6% of all the rifles known to have been used in homicides.

To fill out the broader picture, notice that there were 600 (4.3%) murders involving “hands, fists, feet, etc.” (I wonder about that “etc.”: is there homicide by knee or elbow?) That number is also greater in its own right than the known number of homicides committed with rifles. Blunt objects, poison, explosives, fire, narcotics, and other agents accounted for 1591 (11.4%) of murders—again a lot more than the number using rifles. People committed by far the greatest number of homicides with handguns: 6365, or 45.7%. For that reason activists who want to ban “assault” rifles work to make it hard for people to legally get handguns, too. (Of course criminals, by the very fact of being criminals, abide by no prohibitions on guns.) In any case, short of repealing or tortuously reinterpreting the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the complete prohibition of guns in the United States can’t happen.

In summary, based on the FBI’s 2019 statistics, the claim that hammers, screwdrivers, and knives kill more people in the United States than rifles turns out to be true, and by a convincingly large margin. If that doesn’t seem right, it’s probably because whenever a mass shooting involving a rifle like an AK-47 or an AR-15 occurs, it immediately makes the news and stays there for days. Meanwhile, we hardly ever hear about most of the much greater number of people who are killed individually by other means every single day of the year. Psychologists refer to that as the availability bias or availability heuristic: what you’re frequently exposed to looms much larger in your view of the world than what you’re seldom exposed to.

It’s important to have all the relevant facts and statistics when evaluating something.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 11, 2022 at 4:41 AM

Red-eared slider in Mills Pond

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Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans.

Mills Pond; August 3rd.



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The National Association of Scholars publishes the quarterly journal Academic Questions, whose Summer 2022 issue has just appeared. A section called Academic Levity includes an article that it describes this way: “Math teacher Steven Schwartzman explains that the equity activists have set their sights on mathematics, condemning the marginalization of whole numbers labelled ‘odd.’” I invite you to read “Equity in Mathematics,” which is a slightly altered version of a parody that I tried out here a year ago.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman







Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 10, 2022 at 4:31 AM

Pale pentagon

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After not having taken any nature pictures for a week and a half, I inaugurated August by going out onto the Blackland Prairie in northeast Austin. The first thing I found on that first day of the month—and for only the second time ever—was a plant that does things in fives: Mirabilis albida, known as pale umbrellawort, white four o’clock, and hairy four o’clock. Local botanist Bill Carr notes that it is “an extremely variable species found in a broad range of woodland to disturbed open habitats.” The USDA map shows this wildflower growing in places as far apart as Quebec and southern California.


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A University of Texas at Austin study found that subsidies per megawatt-hour of electricity amount to roughly 50 cents for coal, $1 to $2 for oil and natural gas, $15 to $57 for wind and $43 to $320 for solar.

That’s from an August 7th editorial in The Wall Street Journal. It explains the boasting claim that electricity from solar and wind in the United States is now cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels. Remove those enormous subsidies and the claim collapses. Also conveniently seldom mentioned in conjunction with the claim is that most solar panels are made in China, which overwhelmingly uses fossil fuels to manufacture them and then to ship them to the United States—just as fossil fuels are predominantly used to mine and process the rare earth elements necessary to make solar devices function, and to ship those elements to China from the places in other parts of the world where they’re mined.

It’s important to have all the relevant facts and statistics when evaluating something.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 9, 2022 at 4:30 AM

Dragonfly on a stick with cumulus cloud

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Behold a red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), apparently a female, on the Blackland Prairie in far north Austin on August 1st. I hurriedly found a vantage point that aligned the dragonfly with the cloud. I originally processed the image to be darker, then changed my mind and did this brighter version.



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A currently pending bill in the United States Congress has proved controversial. Supporters signaled their belief by naming the bill the Inflation Reduction Act. Opponents derided the name as Orwellian, claiming that spending $700 billion the country doesn’t have at a time of 9.1% inflation, the highest in 40 years, is hardly likely to reduce inflation. Who’s right? Well, only time will tell (assuming the bill passes, which now seems likely).

And that leads me to a proposal. Last year I described a few amendments I’d like to see added to the American Constitution. (You can see examples here, and here, and here.) The current controversial bill gives me an opening to bring up another of my fantasy amendments. This one would require every person who votes on a bill in Congress to put in writing a statement of the things (including specific numbers) the bill will—or for opponents, will not—accomplish. If, after a specified amount of time, any of the predictions prove false, all members who were wrong would be removed from Congress. It’s a version of “Put your money where your mouth is.” It would also be a de facto form of term limits, given the large number of false promises politicians make. What do you think?


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman







Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 8, 2022 at 4:28 AM

Mustang grape gall

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When it comes to native grapevines, central Texas claims the mustang grape (Vitis mustangensis) as its most common. To the best of my recollection, not till July 12th of this year, while walking along Bull Creek, did I ever find a gall on a mustang grape. Below is a view from the side.

UPDATE: Thanks to a link from Steve Gingold, I can add that the gall midge Ampelomyia vitispomum seems to have instigated this growth on the mustang grape vine.



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While still teaching in the Austin public schools back in the late 1970s I became aware of Marva Collins, a black schoolteacher in Chicago who likewise became disenchanted with public education. She founded her own school and succeeded in educating poor black kids by holding them to high expectations and standards, not putting up with excuses, and loving her students.

I hadn’t thought about Marva Collins for a long time but for some reason she came to mind the other day and I looked to see if she’s still alive. She’s not, having died in 2015.

An article by Carrie-Ann Biondi in the Spring 2019 issue of The Objective Standard includes the following:

After graduating in 1957 from Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia with a degree in secretarial science, Collins sought a job as a secretary. She explained, though, that “none of the private companies wanted to hire a black secretary.” So she took one of the few jobs open to an educated black woman in the 1950s American South: She became a teacher. Collins found that she enjoyed teaching secretarial skills at Monroe County Training School. There, she learned how to teach through trial and error, recalling what best helped her to learn, avoiding the mistakes some of her own teachers made, and taking seriously the feedback she got from the school’s principal. Even so, after two years at that job, she moved to Chicago, holding that it would help her develop independence from her father.

In Chicago, Collins first worked as a medical secretary. She soon fell in love, got married, and, in time, had three children. Finding that she “missed the classroom . . . the excitement of helping students discover the solution to a problem,” Collins applied for a teaching position in the Chicago public school system. Although she had no teaching certificate, because of a teacher shortage she was hired to teach second grade.

Collins’s lack of a teaching degree worked to her advantage—and to that of her students. She trusted her own experience and disregarded the Board of Education’s teaching guide, which prescribed the “look-say” method to teach reading, simplistic Dick-and-Jane books with lots of pictures, and dull workbooks that drilled “skills” without teaching students how to think for themselves. Ignoring all of this, Collins developed teaching methods that truly worked. She used phonics to teach reading, incorporated literary classics and poetry into the curriculum, facilitated in-depth discussions of the readings, had students memorize poetry and write papers for oral delivery, and used positive (rather than punitive) discipline to address misbehavior.

After 14 years in the Chicago public schools, Marva Collins felt so at-odds with what the district as a whole was doing that she resigned and eventually started her own school.

Observers in Collins’s classroom repeatedly were astonished by the high-level curriculum she developed for students ages three to thirteen. She began each year with essays such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and fables such as “The Little Red Hen.” Students soon moved on to poetry, including works by Rudyard Kipling and [Henry] Wadsworth Longfellow. In time, they progressed to Plato’s dialogues. By second and third grade, they were reading William Shakespeare’s plays (Macbeth and Hamlet were student favorites) and reciting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. With these under their belts, it was not uncommon for students to dive headlong into a seemingly unquenchable reading frenzy. And Collins kept hundreds of books on hand, suggesting just the right one for each student to read next. Each student wrote a report every two weeks about his latest book, presented it to the class, and answered questions raised by the other students. This sparked so much interest in reading that book that students vied to be next on the waiting list.

Marva Collins went to the greatest works that English-language literature had to offer. What a contrast from today’s racial essentialist imperative to jettison anything by “dead white guys.”

In 1981 Cicely Tyson played the title character in the made-for-television movie “The Marva Collins Story,” with Morgan Freeman playing her supportive husband. I was surprised to find the full 112-minute film available to watch for free on YouTube. Check it out the next time you have two hours for an inspiring movie.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 7, 2022 at 4:33 AM

Here’s looking at you, kid

with 33 comments

Cicada, Tibicen superba; August 3 in Wells Branch.


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In a commentary yesterday I said I believe people should report things accurately, without exaggeration. Not long after writing that, I came to the section in Alex Epstein’s book Fossil Future called “The ‘Deliberate Overstatement’ Distortion.” He identifies “four forms of deliberate overstatement that dramatically and negatively distort our knowledge system’s assessment of the climate impacts of rising CO2 levels.”

  • Punishment of climate catastrophe skepticism.
  • Equation of consensus on some climate impact with consensus on massively negative climate impact (the 97 percent fallacy).
  • Deliberately overstated report summaries.
  • Deliberate overstatement by designated experts for effect.

Those things are similar to what ideologues do in fields other than climate science. For example, some doctors have urged caution about putting children on puberty blockers and opposite-sex hormones because those drugs produce serious effects that soon become irreversible. Nevertheless, activists attack those cautious doctors, label them “trans-phobes,” and work to get their articles suppressed and get them fired from their jobs.

Similarly, researchers who recognize that the climate is warming yet urge caution in concluding that a warming climate will necessarily be catastrophic or apocalyptic get labeled “climate deniers.” Activists work to cut off funding to those researchers, to get publications to refuse articles by thm, and to get those researchers fired from their positions.

So I say, as always: let everyone bring forth the facts they’ve found, and let’s do our best to draw conclusions by assessing the unadulterated, unexaggerated evidence. I don’t want to live in a world where we only get to hear one side of an argument, and yet that’s the kind of world I increasingly find myself in. I never thought I’d live to see that in the United States.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 6, 2022 at 4:33 AM

Dobsonfly eggs

with 18 comments

After seeing little structures of this sort in 2017, I asked local little critter expert Val Bugh about them. She explained that “the white stuff is a secretion that a female dobsonfly uses to cover her egg masses. Makes them look like bird droppings. The leaf should be over water so the hatchling hellgrammites will drop in.” These two July 12th photographs came from a bank of Bull Creek, as did those from five years ago.



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By temperament and from decades of teaching math I value saying things that are true, and saying them accurately. When my father, who had accumulated a great store of knowledge and wisdom, sometimes exaggerated for rhetorical purposes, I used to think that an accurate statement would better make his point. For example, he was fond of saying “The majority is always wrong,” where I favor “The majority is often wrong” or “The majority isn’t always right.”

And speaking of a majority not being right, I’m most of the way through Alex Epstein’s latest book, Fossil Future. This book is in accord with three others about climate change that I’ve cited approvingly:

Epstein, Lomborg, Koonin, and Shellenberger are among a small group of investigators who stand against the majoritarian claim that we’re headed for a climate apocalypse. And yet all four of the writers I’ve mentioned marshal huge amounts of evidence to make their case. Follow up on any of the links above and you’ll learn about that evidence.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 5, 2022 at 4:27 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

Carolina comes to Texas

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A common vine in central Texas is Cocculus carolinus, known as Carolina snailseed, Carolina moonseed, and Carolina coralbead. Here from July 12th along Bull Creek you get a close look at the vine’s flowers and a somewhat farther-back view of unripe fruit. One website calls the tiny blossoms “insignificant,” but they’re obviously not that to the humble snailseed, which manages to keep propagating itself just fine, thank you. The little fruits turn red as they mature.


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According to one online estimate, Austin in 2022 has 1,028,225 people living inside its city limits, making it the 11th most populous city in the United States. Austin has more people than each of the five least populous states had in the 2020 census:

  1. Wyoming (581,075)
  2. Vermont (623,251)
  3. Alaska (724,357)
  4. North Dakota (770,026)
  5. South Dakota (896,581)

Austin approximately ties with the sixth state in the list, Delaware, whose 2022 estimated population is 1.03 million. Whether Austin will pull ahead isn’t clear. Because Austin is continuing to grow, it may well soon surpass Rhode Island, which went from 1,061,509 in the 2020 census to a just slightly higher estimated 1.09 million in 2022.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman






Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 4, 2022 at 4:27 AM

Posted in nature photography

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