Portraits of Wildflowers

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Posts Tagged ‘leaves

First redbuds for 2023

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On February 26th in north-central Austin I photographed my first redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) this year.





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Not till the other day had I heard of an organization called Cochrane. I looked it up and found the following statements in the Wikipedia article about it:

Cochrane (previously known as the Cochrane Collaboration) is a British international charitable organisation formed to organise medical research findings to facilitate evidence-based choices about health interventions involving health professionals, patients and policy makers. It includes 53 review groups that are based at research institutions worldwide. Cochrane has approximately 30,000 volunteer experts from around the world.

The group conducts systematic reviews of health-care interventions and diagnostic tests and publishes them in the Cochrane Library….

A 2004 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that Cochrane reviews appear to be more up to date and of better quality than other reviews, describing them as “the best single resource for methodologic research and for developing the science of meta-epidemiology” and crediting them with leading to methodological improvements in the medical literature.

What led me to check out Cochrane was John Tierney’s February 17th article in City Journal titled “Approximately Zero.” The sub-head reads: “Masks make no difference in reducing the spread of Covid, according to an extensive new review by Cochrane—the gold standard for evaluating health interventions.” Here’s the beginning of the article:

We now have the most authoritative estimate of the value provided by wearing masks during the pandemic: approximately zero. The most rigorous and extensive review of the scientific literature concludes that neither surgical masks nor N95 masks have been shown to make a difference in reducing the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

This verdict ought to be the death knell for mask mandates, but that would require the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the rest of the public-health establishment to forsake “the science”—and unfortunately, these leaders and their acolytes in the media seem as determined as ever to ignore actual science. Before the pandemic, clinical trials repeatedly showed little or no benefit from wearing masks in preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses like flu and colds. That was why, in their pre-2020 plans for dealing with a viral pandemic, the World Health Organization, the CDC, and other national public-health agencies did not recommend masking the public. But once Covid-19 arrived, magical thinking prevailed. Officials ignored the previous findings and plans, instead touting crude and easily debunked studies purporting to show that masks worked.

The gold standard for medical evidence is the randomized clinical trial, and the gold standard for analyzing this evidence is Cochrane (formerly the Cochrane Collaboration), the world’s largest and most respected organization for evaluating health interventions. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and other nations’ health agencies, it’s an international network of reviewers, based in London, that has partnerships with the WHO and Wikipedia. Medical journals have hailed it for being “the best single resource for methodologic research” and for being “recognized worldwide as the highest standard in evidence-based healthcare.”

It has published a new Cochrane review of the literature on masks, including trials during the Covid-19 pandemic in hospitals and in community settings. The 15 trials compared outcomes of wearing of surgical masks versus wearing no masks, and also versus N95 masks. The review, conducted by a dozen researchers from six countries, concludes that wearing any kind of face covering “probably makes little or no difference” in reducing the spread of respiratory illness.

Now, some would focus on the word “little” in that last sentence, and might reason that even a little protection from respiratory illness is better than none. True enough—provided that wearing a mask had no negative consequences that we would need to balance against the possible but statistically unlikely benefit of protection. Yet we know that masks on children—who were at approximately zero risk from serious Covid-19 consequences during the pandemic—did produce negative effects: masks kept some young children from learning to speak properly and from learning how to gauge other people’s emotions.

So let me go out on a limb:

When assessing something, it’s wrong to look only at the benefits and ignore the harms.

You’re welcome to read John Tierney’s full article.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 11, 2023 at 4:31 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

Evergreen sumac isn’t always evergreen

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While most of the leaves on an evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) do remain green in December, it’s not unusual for the leaves on a damaged or dying branch to turn brown or maroon. That was the case with this one in my Great Hills neighborhood on December 21st of the recently expired year. Call it fall foliage by proxy.



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Because native speakers of a language learn it by assimilation, they don’t notice many things that a foreigner does when learning the language. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably never thought about the familiar prefix re-. If a foreigner asked you about it, you might think for a bit and say something like: We put re- in front of a verb to convey the meaning ‘back’ or ‘again.’ For example: “The platoon captured the high ground, later got repulsed, and then recaptured the high ground.” Or: “This story, which originated in China, has been retold in many other countries.”

So far, so good. But now suppose the foreigner asks you: “How do I know which verbs I’m allowed to stick re- on and which verbs I’m not allowed to stick re- on?” Your likely answer will be: “What do you mean?” As a native English speaker, you’ve almost certainly never realized that we can’t just put re- on any verb we want to. Take these examples:

  • I was in Barcelona in 1985 and I rewas in Barcelona in 1990.
  • Come visit as soon as you can. Recome as often as you’d like.
  • She wanted to be in movies but after repeatedly failing to get a part she gave up on the idea. A year later she rewanted to be in movies.
  • Look at that beautiful sunset. Relook at it to really appreciate it.
  • There are people who’ve had a fortune, gone bankrupt, and eventually rehad a fortune.
  • Once I knew where I was going in life. Later I lost my way. Now I reknow where I’m going.

A foreigner sees nothing illogical about any of those uses of re-, but a native speaker would never say any of them (except maybe in jest). Someone who knows a little about word origins might be aware that re- got borrowed from Latin, whereas the verbs in those examples—be, come, want, look, have, and know—are all native English words, and so maybe English just doesn’t put Latin-derived re- on native English verbs. There are a couple of problems with that hypothesis. First of all, very few English speakers know which words are native. More importantly, we can stick re- on some native verbs: we can rebuild a church, redo a chemistry experiment, remake a tarnished image, reset a slow clock, and resend an email that wasn’t received.

The situation is even more complicated: sometimes we can use re- with a native English verb but doing so changes the meaning to something other than ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Compare these two:

  • Years after his mother’s death, he still recalled her fondly.
  • He called his mother last night but she had company and couldn’t talk long. He recalled her the next morning.

The recall in the first sentence does not mean ‘call again’; it means ‘remember.’ In the second example, we’d normally say “he called her back”; we wouldn’t say “he recalled her,” or maybe we could marginally get away with that if we paused slightly between the re- and the called; we’d write that with a hyphen: “he re-called her.”

Now you see how complicated the situation is. I haven’t figured out a way of telling which English verbs we can stick re- on, which we can’t, and which we might get away with although it would sound a little strange. Native speakers somehow just know.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 23, 2023 at 4:27 AM

Rain lily on the cusp of winter

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While we normally and understandably focus on the flowers of rain lilies (Zephyranthes sp.), I considered myself lucky on December 21st to at least find the green leaves of one as winter was about to begin. I think you’ll agree the raindrops didn’t hurt.


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Konstantin Kisin, a short clip of whom I linked to yesterday, recently participated in a debate at the Oxford Union in England. A nine-minute video shows him giving reasons why “This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far.” Since the posting of that video nine days ago it has gotten over 700,000 views and over 3000 comments on the Oxford Union’s YouTube channel. The video clip has been reposted on many other websites as well. (Update: here’s a transcription of Kisin’s speech.) You can also read an ABC television station’s article about Kisin’s performance at the debate.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 22, 2023 at 4:31 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

Another look back at fall foliage

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The last months of 2022 in Austin were excellent for fall foliage—so much so that I couldn’t show nearly as many pictures as I’d have liked to when they were still current or even a few weeks old. “Better late than never,” as the adage goes. Today’s pictures are from November 26th along the Capital of Texas Highway near Lakewood Dr., a few miles from home. The first two play up the color contrast between the ephemeral red of a Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) that had climbed high into the canopy of a cedar elm tree (Ulmus crassifolia) and the similarly transient yellow of the elm tree’s leaves.



In the pair above you, you see how different orientations (horizontal versus vertical) and different focal lengths (70mm versus 24mm) can produce different results (not surprisingly) even when two pictures are taken from the same spot. In the top view, blue appears only in subdued little patches visible through holes in the foliage. In the second view, blue, along with white, dominates the photograph.



For a different perspective, to take the last picture I worked my way
through the woods to get under the Virginia creeper so I could aim straight up.


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UPDATE. Two days ago I reported on a high school in Virginia whose administrators apparently on purpose failed to notify students about their Merit Scholarship commendations. A January 16th editorial in The Wall Street Journal revealed that even more Virginia schools have been discriminating against Asian students in that way than was initially known. You’re welcome to read William McGurn’s “The New Structural Racism,” whose sub-head is “In Northern Virginia, affirmative action has hardened into a war on high achievers.”


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From Elizabeth Weiss’s January 11th article in Quillette, “A Report From the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference,” I learned about the comments of Jerry Coyne:

Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Chicago and author of the popular blog Why Evolution is True, speaks with some authority on the left-right cancel-culture divide, as he has spent much of his career battling right-wing social conservatives who promote creationism (or “intelligent design”) as an alternative to evolution. But in recent years, he noted, four popular false ideas (what he calls “ideological pollution”) now originate with the progressive side of the political spectrum: (1) that sex is not binary, but rather a spectrum; (2) that males and females are “biologically identical on average in behavior, mentality and choices”; (3) that “the fundamental premises of evolutionary psychology are false”; and (4) that “race is a purely social construct with no biological value.” In every case, he noted, there was a parallel with Marxism, which imagines people as being “infinitely malleable” according to their social environment.

Coyne, who is now retired from day-to-day academic life, expressed less concern than other speakers in regard to the formal repercussions inflicted on academics who violate these taboos (though he did describe the case of a professor in Maine who faced severe backlash after stating that there are only two sexes). Rather, he emphasized the manner by which this ideological system encouraged self-censorship:

What I’m worried about is being demonized, ostracized, simply for saying that there’s something like biological meaningfulness in ethnic groups. It is enough to get you called a racist, which I have been. If you say that the sexes are bimodal or even just binary, you get called a transphobe … And, to any good liberal, and I’m a good liberal … the moniker of racist or transphobe is horrifying and makes you just shut up and so this kind of demonization occurs fairly regularly.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 18, 2023 at 4:26 AM

Light and shadow play on palmetto leaves

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On December 15th of the recently ended year we went to Palmetto State Park about an hour south of Austin so I could record the ways light and shadows played on the leaves of palmettos (Sabal minor), whether green and alive as above, or brown and dead as you see below.




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Outrage! Outrage! Read all about it!


You’ve probably heard the proverb “Not all that glitters is gold.” It means that different things can look alike and that appearances can be deceptive. Iron pyrite glitters but it isn’t gold. Water can glitter, and yet it’s certainly not gold. Illusions exist among words, too. Take outrage. It’s easy to assume the word came about from conduct so far outside the bounds of decency that it sends people into a rage. Nice story. All it lacks to make it true is the truth. The word actually arose from Old French outre, from Latin ultra, meaning ‘beyond.’ The rest of the word is a common suffix, the same -age we find in blockage, orphanage, postage, percentage, voltage, and outage. So even though outrage looks like it’s out + rage, it isn’t. Not all that glitters is gold.

Ideologues would do well to check the origins of words before assuming things about them that aren’t true. One such was a member of the House of Representatives named Emanuel Cleaver, who gave a prayer during the opening of the 117th Congress in January 2021. At the end of his prayer he said “Amen and awoman.” He apparently believed that amen contains the English word men, which is why he felt the need to balance amen with awoman—though the plural awomen would have been the logical parallel. The truth is that amen is an ancient Hebrew word that meant ‘certainly, truly.’ That origin led one wit to quip about the closing of Representative Cleaver’s prayer: “If Amen is Hebrew, Awomen must be Shebrew.” Touché.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 13, 2023 at 4:29 AM

Hot off the press: first pictures from 2023!

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Two hours ago we went walking in our neighborhood to get some exercise. When several of the things that we came upon saw that I carried my iPhone 14 with me they insisted on having their picture taken. Out of politeness I yielded to their demands. First came a possumhaw tree, Ilex decidua, with plenty of fruit. The portrait above strikes me as having a Chinese or Japanese sensibility.



Next came a Texas red oak tree, Quercus buckleyi, which told me to get under it and take advantage of backlighting to bring out the saturated red of its leaves. Once again I followed instructions. I’m so deferential.



Finally, back in front of our house, I gave in to the call of the wispy clouds overhead. Using raw mode and the camera’s primary lens (1x) meant that the original of this picture contained a whopping 48.8 megapixels before I cropped it for a better composition.


A good start to the new year, I’d say.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 1, 2023 at 2:24 PM

Five will get you seven

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Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, seems ubiquitous in the woods of northwest Austin, including in our yard. Much less common is its two-more-leaflets-per-leaf genus-mate Parthenocissus heptaphylla, a little group of which I came across in Great Hills Park on December 1st (quinque is Latin for ‘five’ and hepta is Greek for ‘seven’). Both species happily turn colors in the fall. Update: I hadn’t realized this is the debut of seven-leaf creeper here, nor did I know that the species is endemic to central Texas.

Also welcome that morning was a bit of cedar sage, Salvia roemeriana,
flowering well past or before its habitual time in the spring. 




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Last week the Congress of the United States passed a so-called omnibus spending bill. The Latin word omnibus means ‘for all’—appropriate, given that the legislation provided mountains of “pork” for all the members of Congress, regardless of their political party. Passage meant that we the taxpayers will be on the hook for borrowing another $1.7 trillion that the government doesn’t have, and doing so at a time when interest rates on debts have returned to their normal range after 13 years of practically interest-free loans brought on by the financial crash of 2008.

The printed version of last week’s bill ran to 4,155 pages. Probably no member of Congress read it all; probably most members read only the bits that benefited them; probably some members voted without having read any part of the bill at all.

The whole thing is a scandal.

Last year I brought forth what I called fantasy amendments to the United States Constitution. They’re things that I believe most citizens would agree with but that political and monetary interests will likely keep from ever being adopted. Congress’s shameful behavior last week impels me to reprint the two fantasy amendments that are relevant to last week’s disgrace.


Prerequisites for a member of Congress to be allowed to vote on a bill.

  • A.  The member shall read the final version of the bill in its entirety.
  • B.  The member shall create an uncut video showing the member reading the entire bill, and shall post, at least 48 hours before voting on the bill, the complete video online in an easily accessible place where the public can view it.
  • C.  The member shall pass a test about the contents of the bill, such test to be created and administered by a non-partisan commission established for that purpose. The test shall contain at least 10 questions and the passing grade shall be set no lower than 80%. A member of Congress who fails may take one retest consisting of a randomly different set of questions about the bill. A second failure shall bar the member from voting on the bill.
  • D. Each revision of a bill that comes up for a vote shall trigger these requirements anew.


Requirements for a legislative bill.

  • 1. A legislative bill shall deal with only one subject.
  • 2. The first line of the bill must state what that subject is, and it must conform to the general understanding among the public of what that subject includes.
  • 3. For each pending Congressional bill, every sentence shall be identified by the name and position of the person or persons who wrote the sentence. If the writer(s) acted on behalf of or at the behest of some other person(s) or organization(s), those identifications must also be included.
  • 4. Unless Congress by a three-quarter majority in each house separately declares a national emergency, the complete text of a bill must be released to the public and made readily available online at least 14 days before a bill is brought to a vote.
  • 5. A non-partisan commission created by Congress shall thoroughly examine every final bill and remove all parts of it that don’t conform to points 1–3 above. The commission is also empowered to prevent, and must prevent, voting on any bill whose final form the public has not had easy access to for 14 days.

Point 1 is intended to eliminate the monstrous bills we now get that run to hundreds or even thousands of pages and that include a slew of unrelated things. Politicians too easily hide pet projects and controversial proposals in the welter of such “omnibus” bills. My idea is to have the legislature vote separately on each proposal or small group of related proposals. That would let the public know which legislators support which things.

Point 2 is intended to head off concept creep and gross semantic inflation. The current administration has been referring to anything under the sun as “infrastructure,” e.g. “human infrastructure” and “family infrastructure,” whereas the normal use of the term “infrastructure” includes only physical structures like roads, bridges, airports, dams, power lines, railroads, ports, canals, and the like.

Point 3 is intended to reveal who is actually inserting provisions into a bill. As things stand now, the real promoters are often hidden from the public.

Point 4 is intended to give the public and the press a reasonable amount of time to find out what’s in a bill before it gets voted on.

Point 5 creates a neutral external body to enforce the provisions that members of Congress may be too pusillanimous to adhere to.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 29, 2022 at 4:29 AM

More colorful fall foliage from Blanco

with 11 comments


In Blanco State Park on November 27th the sycamore trees, Platanus occidentalis, contended with the bald cypresses to put on a display of fall foliage. While it’s common for sycamore leaves to turn yellow and brown at the end of the year, as shown below, some of the ones in the park had veered toward red, especially when seen with backlighting. There’s no doubting the redness of the leaves on the sapling shown above, which had grabbed a roothold in the face of a low dam across the Blanco River. 




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Since last year I’ve reported several times on the huge numbers of people the current American administration is letting illegally cross our southern border, some two-thirds of whom it is allowing to stay here despite their having entered illegally. One reason I’ve commented on the situation is because “mainstream” or “legacy” American “news” outlets purposely don’t cover it much or at all. The December 14-15 Harvard CAPS Harris poll of 1,851 registered voters is consistent with that lack of coverage:



As I reported on December 18th: “The number of undocumented immigrant crossings at the southwest border for fiscal year 2022 topped 2.76 million, breaking the previous annual record by more than 1 million, according to Customs and Border Protection data.” If you add to that the hundreds of thousands of known and unknown “gotaways” not included in the 2.76 million encounters, then the correct answer to the question the poll asked is “Over 3 million,” which only 7% of respondents picked. You can see that the responses leaned heavily toward much lower numbers than the actual one.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 23, 2022 at 4:26 AM

Red and russet

with 16 comments


Two sources of year-end color from trees in Austin are the fruit of the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, and the leaves of the bald cypress, Taxodium distichum. Here you see one in front of the other at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on December 9th. (A recent post featured colorful bald cypress in its own right.)


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Two days ago I reported how more than three million people have entered the United States in the past year by illegally coming across our southern border. The American government’s own statistics show that approximately two-thirds of those border crossers are currently being allowed to stay in the country despite having entered illegally. Not only that, the current administration is using our tax money to bus and fly lots of those illegal entrants anywhere they choose to go inside the country, even though there’s no way to verify who many of them are.

Unless you happen to be Abdul Wasi Safi. He’s an Afghan who worked with Americans in Afghanistan but couldn’t manage to get on any of the last American planes leaving his country during the chaotic and disgraceful pull-out of American forces and some Afghan allies in 2021. Abdul Wasi Safi spent months enduring hardships and dangers as he gradually made it half-way around the world and walked across the Rio Grande River into Texas near Eagle Pass. He was soon arrested and put in prison. No free bus or plane ticket into the interior of the country for him. The current American administration is working to deport him back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban, who know who he is, will kill him.

You can read much more about Abdul Wasi Safi’s ordeal in an excellent article by Allison P. Erickson in the Texas Tribune.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 20, 2022 at 4:31 AM

Virginia creeper

with 19 comments


One of the most reliable sources of late-year color in Austin is Parthenocissus quinquefolia, a vine known as Virginia creeper. Some people call it five-leaf creeper, though actually what there are five of are leaflets in each palmately compound leaf. The top picture is from December 1st in Great Hills Park. I photographed the leaf below, which was down to three leaflets, in our side yard a week later.




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The number of undocumented immigrant crossings at the southwest border for fiscal year 2022 topped 2.76 million, breaking the previous annual record by more than 1 million, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

That was from NBC News on October 22, 2022. The fiscal year ended on September 30. Here are figures from the government’s report about October 2022:

The number of unique individuals encountered nationwide in October 2022 was 196,479, a 2.9% increase in the number of unique enforcement encounters than the prior month…. 78,477 encounters, 34% of the total, were processed for expulsion under Title 42. 152,201 encounters were processed under Title 8….

In other words, two-thirds of the people the border patrol encountered who entered illegally were allowed to remain in the country anyhow. In addition, every month there are tens of thousands of so-called known gotaways, illegal border crossers that authorities observed but didn’t have the resources to catch. And in addition to that there are the unknown gotaways, people who crossed the border surreptitiously enough that authorities never even became aware of them.

In spite of this mountain of evidence, the current American administration keeps insisting that the border is secure. When facts belie people’s claims, I go with the facts. What do you do?

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 18, 2022 at 4:30 AM

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