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Racing against the sun

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Two months ago today we drove from Lost Maples to Kerrville. The route eventually follows the Guadalupe River, and by the time we reached the town of Ingram the sun didn’t have much longer to stay above the trees. I hurried to take a few pictures by that last and very warm light. One was the abstraction above, showing the upper parts of sunlit sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) reflected in the river. The camera sensor’s weakness—its limited dynamic range compared to the human retina—worked in my favor by rendering details on the river bank very dark in comparison to the water and the reflections; processing pushed the dark to black. The more conventional scene below, no longer lit by direct light, features a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) that had turned russet.

 

  

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“Have you heard? The world’s about to end.” Well, of course it isn’t. In a seven-minute video John Stossel highlights a bunch of cataclysmic predictions that failed to come true. And no, the predictions of doom didn’t come from leaders of religious cults—unless, of course, you recognize climate catastrophism for the secular religious cult that it is.

 

© 2023 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 27, 2023 at 4:34 AM

They’re here again

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On January 11th I spotted my first cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) of the season. It was on the trunk of the Ashe juniper tree right outside my window, adjacent to two fruit-laden yaupon trees (Ilex vomitoria). On January 19th I saw several cedar waxwings nibbling a bit of the fruit on the farther tree. Finally on January 20th at least a dozen cedar waxwings kept swooping in and out for a while as they grabbed fruits on the nearer tree. Whenever one of the birds landed in a place not blocked from view by branches I could finally try for pictures, which I did with my telephoto lens zoomed to its maximum 400mm. The dull light and the not-as-clear-as-I’d-have-liked glass in the window led me to spend more time than usual enhancing the image, first in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, then in Topaz Photo AI.

 

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“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” ― Galileo Galilei, letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. 

 

© 2023 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 26, 2023 at 4:25 AM

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An early-in-the-season and early-in-the-year look at fully fruited possumhaw

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On January 3rd I drove across town to Austin’s main post office to talk with a postal inspector about an unknown packet I received; it turned out to be our federal government spending our tax money to send us yet another round of Covid tests that I hadn’t specifically asked for. Afterwards, a few blocks away from the post office, I noticed a possumhaw tree (Ilex decidua) with a good amount of fruit on it. I also noticed how wispy the clouds were. So began my quest, carried out in at least four places that morning and early afternoon, to match up those two things in photographs.

 

  

I also took dozens of pictures of the clouds in their own right, so right did they look in the sky.

 

 

 

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Check out a four-minute video in which Konstantin Kisin describes a clever psychological experiment that shows how someone’s mindset can distort the person’s perception of reality. In particular, a belief in victimhood can lead a person to perceive victimization where there isn’t any.

 

© 2023 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 21, 2023 at 4:26 AM

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An early-in-the-season yet late-in-the-year drive along the Possumhaw Trail

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The stretch of TX 29 between Liberty Hill in Williamson County and Burnet in Burnet County might well be called the Possumhaw Trail for the dozens and dozens of Ilex decidua trees scattered along the route. They become conspicuous from December through February for their bright red fruits (technically drupes, commonly called berries). This picture is from the last day of 2022. The green and tan leaves weren’t from the possumhaw, all of whose leaves had already fallen, but rather from a greenbrier vine, Smilax bona-nox.

 

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Last year and yesterday I mentioned Marva Collins, who for decades worked wonders of education with black children in a poor Chicago neighborhood. I’ve found some online videos about her and her school that you can watch:

Success! The Marva Collins Approach (1981).

60 Minutes: Marva Collins (1995, following up their first story in 1979): Part 1 and Part 2.

After the original 60 Minutes story aired in 1979, Marva Collins “received over 6000 letters from desperate parents.”

You can also read a thorough review of Marva Collins’ Way, the book I cited yesterday.

 

© 2023 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 20, 2023 at 4:27 AM

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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

An unaccustomed backdrop

with 28 comments

 

You may remember how on December 8th I spotted a bright red balsam gourd fruit hanging on a prickly pear cactus pad. As I walked to the end of that photo session a different red came into sight, namely that of our Subaru Outback. After I got close to the car I noticed that a tiny fly, probably no more than a quarter of an inch long (6mm), had landed on it. I approached using my macro lens with a ring flash around its far end. The flash got within inches of the fly, which despite the closeness obligingly stayed put while I took five pictures from varying angles. Bugguide.net so far has provided no more identification than that this is a member of the family Muscidae, known as house flies—even if this tiny one was outdoors.

 

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If you want recent examples of how close academia in English-speaking countries has been coming to the dystopian society George Orwell described in his novel 1984, you need only read the January 4th article “Reaping Postmodernism’s Violent Whirlwind.” The author, Prof. Frances Widdowson, was fired from her position at a Canadian college for raising questions like “How should researchers deal with the historical circumstance of some indigenous groups pushing earlier inhabitants out of their territories?” In the article she gives details of her own harrowing experience with mob mentality. She also recounts what happened to a physics professor at another institution. In that case, his university paid an outside “expert” psychiatrist to diagnose the professor. Not surprisingly, the paid psychiatrist concluded the professor was “mentally deranged, dangerous, and deserving of forcible removal from the university”—despite the fact that the psychiatrist never even met with the professor. That’s all too reminiscent of the way the communist dictators in the Soviet Union used to have political dissidents locked up in insane asylums.

People, wake up to what’s going on! You can read the full article on the Minding the Campus website.

 

© 2023 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 15, 2023 at 4:26 AM

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Hot off the press: first pictures from 2023!

with 44 comments

 

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

Red and green

with 12 comments

 

In a nature area along Yaupon Drive on December 8th something small and bright red in the distance caught my eye. Once I walked over to it I saw that it was the ripe fruit of a balsam gourd vine, Ibervillea lindheimeri, that had draped itself over the pad of a prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii. On another pad I noticed that one of the vine’s slender tendrils had coiled tightly around one of the prickly pear’s spines.

  

  

Back on October 21st I’d taken a picture in which cactus provided both red and green. That time the cactus wasn’t a prickly pear but Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, known as pencil cactus because of its slender joints (leptocaulis means ‘thin stalk’) and Christmas cactus because of its many small fruits that ripen to bright red. You can see that below from our stop at the I-20 Wildlife Preserve in Midland on our zig-zag way back to Austin, where this species also happens to grow.

 

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 25, 2022 at 4:29 AM

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More fall color from individual leaves and leaflets

with 32 comments

 

Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans; December 1st in Great Hills Park.

 

 

 

Cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides; December 12th near the Riata Trace Pond.

  

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A main theme of my commentaries for the past two years has been the distortion of language for ideological purposes. The other day a great trove of data came my way from the EHLI, or the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative at Stanford University, which “identifies as” “a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT [Information Technology] at Stanford.”

In particular I’m referring to the document the group released on December 19th, which is a compendium of “harmful” words and phrases, along with suggested and therefore presumably non-harmful alternatives to them, plus notes putting the items in “context.” Preceding the list of frowned-on items are bold-faced words of caution:

Content Warning: This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.

You wouldn’t want to encounter too many horrific words too quickly or you might get a heart attack or stroke. You know, terrible words like “American.” That’s right, you’re not supposed to say “American” any more because there are lots of countries in North American and South America, not just the United States.* The recommended replacement is “U.S. citizen.” I don’t see how that can last, given that the kind of ideologues who would think of putting together a list of forbidden terms also want people in the country illegally to have all the same benefits as citizens.

The document is divided into sections according to the kinds of people the forbidden terms are supposedly offensive to. The first section is Ableist. In case you’re not familiar with that word, the document explains it: “Ableist language is language that is offensive to people who live with disabilities and/or devalues people who live with disabilities. The unintentional use of such terms furthers the belief that people who live with disabilities are abnormal.”

Notice the phrase “people who live with disabilities.” That itself is the suggested replacement for “the disabled.” It’s one of many instances of “person-first” language, in which a word or short phrase gets turned into something more cumbersome. “Handicapped,” for instance, is now “person with a disability.” As if the “dis-” in “disability” doesn’t still indicate that the person has a handicap compared to people without that disability. Similarly, the four-syllable “mentally ill” becomes the thirteen-syllable “person living with a mental health condition” and the two-syllable “senile” becomes the ten-syllable “person suffering from senility.” For the sake of inclusion, shouldn’t we extend this pattern to categories other than persons? In meal-first language, rather than say “I ate breakfast” we’ll have to say “I ate the meal that persons call breakfast” or “I ate the meal usually but not always consumed in the early part of the day.”

Some of the replacements are baffling. Rather than “committed suicide” we’re supposed to say “died by suicide.” Could the point be to shift agency and therefore remove blame from the person to the mental health condition? Or maybe “committed” has overtones of “committed to a mental institution.” Or maybe there’s no reason for the change except to make us jump through more language hoops and increase the chances for woke ideologues to call us out when we mess up on one of their shibboleths.

In the “Violent” section we’re admonished to replace “rule of thumb” with “standard rule” or “general rule.” The “context” for this is: “Although no written record exists today, this phrase is attributed to an old British law that allowed men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb.” The writers admit that there’s no evidence for the claim that “rule of thumb” originated in men beating their wives with sticks no wider than their thumbs,” but we’re supposed to ignore the lack of evidence and pretend that that cockeyed claim is true. If the writers had bothered to look up the etymology for “rule of thumb” they’d find it’s straightforward. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the phrase comes from “the use of the thumb as a makeshift ruler or measuring device, as in carpentry.” Similarly, the English system uses “foot” as a familiar measurement, and the height of horses is traditionally measured in “hands.”

Another instance of fake history occurs in the “Additional Considerations” section. We’re advised to avoid “hip hip hooray” because “this term was used by German citizens during the Holocaust as a rallying cry when they would hunt down Jewish citizens living in segregated neighborhoods.” You should immediately be suspicious: why would German-speaking Nazis use an English interjection when hunting down Jews in countries where English wasn’t the native language? The obvious answer is that they wouldn’t. Once again the writers of the document could have looked up the actual origin of “hip hip hooray,” but apparently going to a dictionary was a step too far. English speakers were already using “hip hip hooray [or hurrah]” in the early 1800s.

 You’re welcome to work your way at your own pace through as much of the EHLI document as you want to or can stand.

 

* When I arrived in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer 55 years ago this month I quickly learned that people there refer to Americans as norteamericanos, i.e. North Americans. The compilers of the Stanford document will have to chide Hondurans and other Spanish speakers for their lack of inclusivity: aren’t Canadians and Mexicans also North Americans? In fact Wikipedia tells us there are a whopping 24 countries in North America.

 

UPDATE: On January 11th Inside Higher Ed published an article by Susan D’Agostino titled “Amid Backlash, Stanford Pulls ‘Harmful Language’ List.” Let’s welcome any move toward sanity in academia.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 22, 2022 at 4:27 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

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