Suburban Garden: Eggplant and Kale

Across several states in the central and southwestern US, this has been one of the hottest, driest years on record, with no sign of improvement any time soon. South Texas is no exception to this trend, and I don’t venture outside, even for a few minutes, without SPF 50+ sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. That includes walking to and from my car in the parking lot at work.

In spite of the heat and drought, I’ve managed to grow a few edibles in my backyard raised bed gardens, but I won’t claim that they constitute more than about 10% of my diet on any given day. However, the vegetables and herbs have a secondary function: posing for still life drawings, or serving as print blocks. Here are a couple of examples:


Eggplant, prior to being peeled, sliced, and stir-fried for pasta topping. Pen and Prismacolor pencil.


The kale became tough and bitter once the weather turned extremely hot, so I inked a few of the leaves, and used them to make prints.

I’ve also been harvesting tomatoes from my friends’ garden on the weekends, and combined with the peppers I’ve grown in my backyard, as well as some spices, garlic, and onion, they make wonderful sauce for pasta, or (with pinto and red beans) a base for chili and tacos. I’ve got several quarts stored in the freezer already.

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A Houstonian’s Reluctant Ode to Atlantis, STS-135

*Soundtrack: Last Rendez-Vous (Ron’s Piece) ~ Jean Michel Jarre

I’m not a technophile, and harbor no Top Gearian tendencies to become emotional over a BMW or an Opel Cadet or a flight in a jet fighter; I’m much more likely to respond in that manner to nature programs featuring elephants, penguins, sea turtles, monarch butterflies, or sequoias, to be honest. I therefore found it surprising to get all teary-eyed while listening to the launch sequence for the final space shuttle mission on the radio today, as I was heading over for a staycation swim at the Natatorium.

For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I lived in the Gulf Coast city of Houston, Texas. I was educated in the Houston public school system, attended a magnet high school for the health professions, worked as a lifeguard at city swimming pools, and worked as a pediatric office assistant and nurse aide in the vast Texas Medical Center. My interests and obsessions were aligned with the latter, influencing my decision to stay in Houston to obtain my undergraduate degrees at Rice University.

Rice has long been known as an engineering university (in fact it was once called Rice Engineering Institute, or Rice Eats It, if you’re disgruntled with your academic performance there). Many of its students were undoubtedly inspired by the Space Program, and by dreams of working for NASA. Not I. I’d be lying if I claimed to be influenced in my career choices and trajectories by proximity to, and immersion in, the culture of NASA and the Space Program.


The Astrodome, Eight Wonder of the World. In 2011, it’s no wonder that it has been largely abandoned

As (almost) everyone knows, the control center for all manned/womynned space flight missions is located in Houston, at the Johnson Space Center. References to, and influences from, the Space Program abound in Houston, and permeate many aspects of everyday life. The city’s nickname is “Space City”, the National League baseball team are the Astros, the NBA basketball team are the Rockets, there’s an Astrodome and an Astroworld, and schools and streets are named for astronauts, NASA engineers, and space shuttles. In the HISD schools, we were repeatedly regaled with inspirational classroom lectures by visiting NASA astronauts and engineers.

Meh, I thought, repeatedly, and part of me still harbors that dismissal. It’s the part that suffers from motion sickness, mainly. There are a few reasons to be negative about NASA’s programs and decisions: physicist Richard Feynmann’s criticism of the O-ring design and “safety culture” that contributed to the Challenger disaster, and Edward Tufte’s analysis of the “PowerPoint culture”, indicative of problems that may have contributed to the 2003 Columbia disaster. The latter shuttle disintegrated over East Texas, and one person of my acquaintance was temporarily employed picking bits of the spaceship and its contents out of the underbrush, in a recovery mission for NASA. I’m likely in the minority here when I express my opinion that we can no longer afford the Shuttle Program, and that there are many more pressing concerns for human and environmental welfare here on Earth. But I still feel a disheartening sense of loss, with this last shuttle mission. Fare you well, fare you well.


Rendez-Vous Houston, April 1986. Photo by Patrick Burke, under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License

* I like the idea of having a soundtrack for each of my posts, but I don’t know how to implement this technologically. In any case, Jarre, whose Rendez-Vous Houston concert appears in the photo above, was friends with physicist and astronaut Ron McNair. Dr. McNair was also a saxophonist, and he had worked with Jarre on a saxophone solo that he was to play, record, and link via live feed during the shuttle flight. That flight was STS-51-L, aboard the Challenger, which of course ended in tragedy, on January 28, 1986. If you enjoy electronic music, Jarre’s Rendez-Vous album is well worth a listen.

Posted in American culture | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Mystery Marks

There are mystery birds, and mystery fish, and mystery skulls, and today I present mystery marks for you to identify:


What made the marks on the hindquarters of this horse?

Bonus points if you also identify the breed of horse.

Posted in mysteries | Tagged , | 18 Comments

Yes, We Can Have Bananas!

On the whole, I’m a fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she documents her family’s experiment with a year-long local, seasonal diet. However, I disagree with her about bananas, which she portrays as a Fruit with a Massive Carbon Footprint, never again to be purchased or consumed by anyone who truly cares about climate change. Bananas aren’t perfect – commercial bananas available in North America are not diverse, as they are propagated asexually from just two related cultivars – but nor are they guilty, ripe or unripe, of completely failing the green, low-carbon lifestyle test. Not even close, as it turns out.

As a person who refuses to stop buying (and eating) bananas, I was intrigued by the title of a new book by Mike Berners-Lee: How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Of course there are melting glacierloads of books, websites, and blogs that purport to calculate your carbon footprint, advise you on attaining a greener lifestyle, and/or smack you on the nose with a rolled-up recycled hemp newspaper, for your decadent and wasteful Global North lifestyle. But this book seemed different, so I purchased the KIndle version, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it is indeed different from the usual greener-than-thou reading fare.

Berners-Lee uses carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) to include a variety of greenhouse gases in calculating the carbon footprints of a diverse array of material goods, activities, comestibles, and events. Most of the book provides detailed accounts and comparisons of these calculations, divided into groups starting with “Under 10 g”, and ending with 100 tons to 1 million tons (+).” For example, you can send a text message, or drink a cup of tap water, for under 10 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents. Bananas and apples are worth 80 g each, while an orange is worth 90 g; these fruits are typically transported by ship, which is a fairly low-carbon alternative. Within the 10 kg to 100 kg range are things like a congested commute by car, 5 miles each way (22 kg), and a night in a typical hotel, including dinner and breakfast (24 kg). Shoes also fall within this range, with Crocs weighing in at 1.5 kg, and leather shoes at 15 kg, carbon dioxide equivalents.

The high-carbon items, above 100 kg carbon dioxide equivalents, are especially interesting, and somewhat depressing. A return flight between New York City and Niagara Falls incurs 500 kg, while taking the train for the same trip weighs in at 120 kg. Flying economy (return) between Los Angeles and Barcelona is worth 3.4 tons, while a return flight between New York City and London costs about half as much, in carbon dioxide equivalents. Basically, flying is an extremely carbon-intensive mode of transportation: the fossil fuel requirements are huge, and the altitude at which most emissions occur must be factored into the environmental damage rating. A heart bypass operation costs 1.1 ton, and a two-car accident that blocks a busy highway for several hours costs 50 tons. A community swimming pool, such as the one near my house where I exercise weekly, is worth 400 tons per year, and one space shuttle flight costs 4600 tons. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa weighed in at a massive 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.

One idea that Berners-Lee suggests is attempting to attain a 10-ton per year lifestyle. One return flight, even within the US, would make this goal very challenging. I have just one flight such planned this year, for a grant review session in Washington DC; for the same trip, I’ll also incur 3 nights in a hotel, with meals. I’ve consoled myself somewhat for the lack of time to travel for fun this year by joining knitting clubs, in which participants receive kits with hand-dyed yarn, patterns, beads, and accessories by mail. However, most of the yarn is wool-based, made from sheep which, like their ruminant relatives cows and goats, emit significant amounts of methane. Still, not as bad as flying around the country to attend workshops and meetings.

There are a lot of simple and relatively painless changes that can be made to reduce one’s carbon footprint, however, and those suggestions are one of the things I liked about Berners-Lee’s book. I also liked his descriptions of his calculations, and the inclusion of a section on “where the numbers come from.” I found the additional section on the carbon footprint of food especially instructive, with “low-carbon food tips”, and appreciated the analysis of the cost efficiencies of things such as attic insulation and offshore wind farms. I skipped over the section “for climate change skeptics” because, well, I accept the assumptions that climate change is a big deal, and that humans are causing it. I suspect that if you’re a climate change skeptic, you won’t like the book much – ditto if you’re locked into denial about the size of your own carbon footprint.

Posted in climate change | Tagged , , , , , | 19 Comments

Suburban Garden: Inflatable Rattlesnake

It’s as hot as a defective MacBook battery here, and about as pleasant as residing in a camel’s rectum. Not that I have ever lived in a camel’s rectum, but I imagine that it’s pretty fetid and sweltering. And windy … let’s not forget windy. Nevertheless, I persist – stubbornly, and in the tradition of my Wolgadeutsche ancestors – with my suburban vegetable gardening. After losing three beautiful tomatoes to bird beaks, I sought advice at the local garden center, where I was instructed to decorate the raised beds with fake snakes.


Fake diamondback rattler, amongst the cantaloupes and tomatoes

I don’t know whether the snake has frightened any birds away, but it has already scared the puppies, Hoshi and Sumi. They ran to the furthest corner of the yard, bwuffing and byurking in an alarmed manner.


Puppies, far removed from the inflatable rattlesnake

Below is a diagram of my backyard (not drawn to scale). The snake is currently located in raised bed A, and the puppies usually run between the beds at B, and then wrestle on a grassy patch at E. Now they retreat to P (and to pee). I’ve been instructed to move the snake every day or two, else the birds get used to it and are no longer deterred in their quest to ruin my tomatoes. The ovals at bottom left represent the dry streambed (rocks and plants), which also serves as a puppy Grand National jump.


Fortunately for the puppies, they can still find bits of dried horse manure at the bases of the fruit trees (I and J). Isn’t it great when some of your pets provide food for the others?



Posted in animal control | Tagged , , | 5 Comments


Apologies for the paucity of posts and comments lately, but I’ve been embroiled in course director duties for a major medical school course for the past nine weeks, compounded with a temporally overlapping graduate course. We administered the final two exams in the medical school course Thursday and Friday, and next week I’ll be entering and calculating grades for 220 students. This year we gave a sort of practice test for the national board exam, and I have to say that, after looking through the test booklet, I feel validated for many of my lecture topic choices. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s evil to “teach to the test”, but in medical education it’s a necessary evil. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about such things at all for my graduate course in evolutionary developmental biology.

So this week I can focus on a series of experiments with a collaborator, and reviewing several grant proposals. I also have a manuscript accepted with minor revisions, and I need to spend some time making those minor revisions. These tasks will be a welcome break from juggling lectures and lab presentations and #%@&*^$ guest lecturers who show up late, or not at all. I also hope to return to regular blogging very soon – I have some partial posts to finish and some drawings/art journal entries to share.

And it finally rained here. Rather dramatically, accompanied by high winds and funnel clouds.

Posted in academia | 1 Comment

The Shape of Springs to Come

Dominating the news, at least at the state level, are the multiple large wildfires burning across much of Texas. We’ve had a few small grass fires within the city limits, but the majority of the wildfires are located on remote ranchland or grassland, or in heavy brush and conifer forest near small towns and vacation home developments. According to the Texas Forest Service, two new large fires developed in West Texas on Saturday, and the Possum Kingdom Complex fire west of Fort Worth, which has destroyed over 150 homes, is 50% contained.

March is normally a (relatively) rainy month for South Texas, however this year we’ve had only a trace of rain over the last 90 days. It’s already quite warm, with daytime temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s. Watering restrictions are in place within the city, to conserve the supply in the Edwards Aquifer. Turns out that this is typical for a La Niña event, characterized by cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific: in the Pacific Northwest, conditions will be wetter, and in the Southwest, drier and warmer conditions will be experienced. In my suburban garden, some of the lettuce has begun to bolt, and the sugar snap peas were doomed before the vines got started. But as long as I can keep the raised beds hand-watered, the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, and zucchini should kick in within a month or two, the green bean vines are flowering at the moment, and the kale and rainbow chard continue to hang in there. Is this year’s La Niña a harbinger of climate change effects for the long term? Possibly, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News; climate change models indicate that summers will start earlier and last longer, and that rainfall may be limited to isolated, sporadic storms.

Know any place in northern Europe where an adaptable developmental neurobiologist, who can teach gross anatomy, embryology, and medical neuroscience, might find a job??

Posted in climate change | Tagged | 7 Comments


Animal control is a problem for most US cities, and seems to be an especially major issue in my city. The problem has been compounded by the current economic recession, with people abandoning or giving up pets that they can no longer afford. At the San Antonio Horse Show, the main concern was once that people with horse trailers would leave with horses that don’t belong to them; lately, there is also the concern that people will leave behind horses that they can no longer afford to feed. So I’m pleased to be in a position to take in dogs abandoned near my friends’ ranch (which was the case with my Labrador retriever), and now to adopt two puppies from the Human Society, a no-kill shelter. A co-worker and her husband foster dogs for the Humane Society, and their latest projects are two Pomeranian mix puppies that had sarcoptic mange. I picked them up today, and they’re sleeping at the moment, somewhat drowsy after receiving a parvo booster.


That’s Hoshi (star), the male, on the left, and Sumi (ink), the female, on the right. They’ve already started crate-training in their foster home, and after barking at my Labbie for awhile, promptly crawled into their new crate and fell asleep. They also went for a very long walk this morning (though they were carried for 15 minutes of it). Here’s Hoshi, before falling asleep:


I’ll wake them up in a bit and feed them, and then maybe more photos in the backyard.

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Traffic: On the Road, and in the Lungs

I’d ban all automobiles from the central part of the city. You see, the automobile was just a passing fad. It’s got to go. It’s got to go a long way from here.
~Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Both at work and on teh interwebz, people are full of tales and advice about how to be green and reduce one’s carbon footprint. Although I cannot recall asking for advice on becoming less of an environmental insult, I receive it fairly frequently, usually in the form of “you oughtta.” “You oughtta become a vegan”, or “You oughtta stop using air conditioning, even when it’s eleventy hundred degrees in the shade”, or “You oughtta hand-wash and air-dry your gross anatomy scrubs”, or “You oughtta grow everything you eat.” The only suggestion that does not make me roll my eyes and think get realz, is “You oughtta ride your bike to work.” This last dictate is within the realm of possibility, at least when there’s not major construction along the shortest route to work, and in fact the construction, when completed, might make cycling along the route safer. At the moment, there are 8-inch dropoffs into trenches filled with rebar, metal mesh, and broken concrete.

I live just over six miles from the medical center where I work, and typically leave home early enough that I don’t have to spend much time stuck in traffic. With the current construction, though, I often have to take a slightly longer (eight miles) route to and/or from work, and as most of it is along a very busy state highway, it’s not suitable for cycling. But I do feel vaguely guilty about my commute, even though I drive a fuel-efficient Honda, and try to complete shopping errands on the route home. The internal combustion engine is undeniably bad for air quality, something I know anecdotally from dissecting the lungs of former urban dwellers, in gross anatomy lab. Many of the students, expecting perfect pink lungs in the thorax of a non-smoker, are surprised by the dark inclusions scattered across most cadaveric lungs. “I think this person was a smoker!” … no, smokers’ lungs look like something you’d empty out of the charcoal pan of your backyard grill (unless you’re a raw foods vegan and never grill anything, of course).


Air pollution, Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong
Photo by Yym1997, under GNU Free Documentation License

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates particulate matter (PM) defined as “inhalable”, i.e. coarse particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, and fine PM, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, both of which can penetrate into the lungs. Most fine particle pollution in the US consists of secondary particles, which form through atmospheric reactions of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and other compounds emitted by industries, power plants, and motor vehicles. Particulate matter is one of six pollutants for which there are National Ambient Air Quality Standards, under the Clean Air Act in the US. The EPA lists a number of health effects from exposure to inhalable particle pollution, including airway irritation, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and nonfatal heart attacks. Chronic exposure to particulate matter can be assessed by measuring the carbon load of airway macrophages, collected in sputum samples; this carbon load is correlated with the proximity of a person’s residence to busy, major roads. Using this approach, Jacobs and colleagues (2011) showed that in nonsmokers with diabetes, higher levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a biomarker for atherosclerosis and arterial plaque formation, were associated with increased carbon load in airway macrophages. Particulate matter from traffic affects the health not only of the lungs, but the of cardiovascular system as well.


Air pollution, Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Photo by ILJR, under GNU Free Documentation License

If one is concerned about exposure to inhalable particle pollution, what is the best way to commute to work (given that telecommuting, e.g in a wearable office such as cromercrox’s, is ideal, but not possible for everyone)? Two recent studies in the Netherlands address this modern eco-quandary. In Arnhem, a medium sized Dutch city, Zuurbier and colleagues (2010) measured exposures to inhalable coarse and fine particles and to soot in diesel- and gasoline-fueled cars, in diesel and electric trolley buses, and along two bicycle routes with low and high traffic intensities. Inhaled doses of air pollutants were estimated, based on the heart rates and ventilations per minute of healthy volunteers in each of the transport modes. Not surprisingly, inhaled pollution doses were highest for cyclists along high-intensity traffic routes, but these researchers argue that the positive health effects of cycling outweigh the negative effects of inhaled pollution.

A different approach, using life table calculations to determine mortality impacts in life-years gained or lost, when transitioning from car to bicycle for daily trips, yielded the same basic conclusion. In a 2010 paper, de Hartog and colleagues focused their quantitative comparisons of driving vs. cycling on air pollution exposures, road traffic injuries, and physical activity. Of course, estimated inhaled air pollution doses and risks of a fatal traffic accident are higher for cyclists than for drivers. On the other hand, the health benefits of physical activity, including decreased cardiovascular disease and mortality, are substantial for cyclists. The researchers calculated a gain of 3 to 14 months from the increased physical activity, which outweighs the potential mortality effects from inhaled pollution (0.8 to 40 days) and increased traffic accidents (5-9 days). Switching from driving to cycling has societal benefits too, with decreased air pollution in urban areas, and might lead to changes in urban planning, such as inclusion of more bicycle routes and lanes. Athene recently described her ability to commute by bicycle in Cambridge; with developments of greenway trails and bicycle lanes in my own city, I hope to be able to commute to work safely by bicycle in the near future.


de Hartog JJ, Boogaard H, Nijland H, Hoek G (2010) Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks? Environ Health Perspect 118, 1109-1116. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901747

Jacobs L, Emmerechts J, Hoylaerts MF, Mathieu C, Hoet PH, Nemery B, Nawrot TS (2011) Traffic air pollution and oxidized LDL. PLoS One 6(1):e16200. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.011.6200

Zuurbier M, Hoek G, Oldenwening M, Lenters V, Meliefste K, van den Hazel P, Brunekreef B (2010) Commuters’ exposure to particulate matter air pollution is affected by mode of transport, fuel type, and route. Environ Health Perspect 118, 783-789. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901622

Posted in urban public health | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Not Conforming: The Home and Garden Edition

Ever have one of those days in which you feel that you don’t fit in with your current local culture? I have those days a lot lately, and I need to download a small rant. Feel free to join in, or commiserate, or tell me to suck it up and deal, in the comments. This is a somewhat US-centric rant, however, so perhaps a little background is necessary.

I’ve been a renter most of my adult life, and finally decided to buy a house about five years ago. My house is 1500 sq ft (including the garage), and sits on about a tenth of an acre – plenty of house for me and the dog(s), plenty of yard for trees and a rock garden and raised beds for vegetables and herbs. It was important to me that the house was close to work, that I could maintain the house and yard myself, and that the mortgage was affordable, even with a cut in pay (which is likely to happen, with the proposed furloughs). Having lived in London for three years, and having a number of friends in Europe and Japan, I am well aware that a 1500 sq ft house, plus the yard, is a relatively vast amount of territory for one human being to possess and occupy. My rant is not about being unhappy with this situation, not at all: I’m very happy with the house and neighborhood, and my friends and family who visit occasionally are also happy with the living sitch.


New fruit trees: a Fuyu Persimmon, and a Brown Turkey Fig. Yes, I realize that the lawn looks like crap, but the grass will start growing very soon. Too soon.

No, my rant stems from how I fail to conform with the culture defined by my faculty colleagues, and what I think this might reveal about US culture. First, the majority of my colleagues, whether single or married, childless or with young/grown children, live in houses that are 2.5 to 5 times the size of mine. Scale the yard acreage accordingly, perhaps even by a factor of 10 to 20. I’m not exaggerating. Second, many of my colleagues live much further from the medical center workplace than I do, in rural enclaves, exurbs, or in towns in surrounding counties. Third, most of my colleagues pay other people to clean their houses and maintain their yards. Stands to reason, if you have a huge house, a long commute, and a busy work schedule. I don’t begrudge people these things – I just don’t conform to those standards. I do resent the periodic and unsubtle attempts to convince me to change my ways in a suitably professorial manner. I could, financially speaking, but I don’t want to change my lifestyle.


Lettuce in a raised bed garden. I’ve had enough for several green salads each week throughout the winter.

This chronic, low-level nonconformity has surfaced today, because I began planning for a dinner party. A few of us at work, some faculty and some not, have started a dinner club, very informal, and hosted by a different person each month. In two weeks’ time I’ll be hosting the festivities, and I’ve chosen an African theme, for which I’ll make a lovely spiced chicken dish with fruited bulghur. I might even bake some kale chips with Moroccan spices. I have a nice collection of African music CDs to play as background – Salif Keita, Cesária Évora, Youssou N’dour, and more. Other dinner club members will bring the dessert, appetizers, and side dishes. So what’s the problem?


Kale in a raised bed garden. I’ve grown enough for soups, stir fries, and baked kale chips each week, throughout the fall and winter months.

I’m kind of worried that my amateur “interior decorating”, mismatched hand-me-down and Ikea furniture, and non-palatial unprofessorish home will not be good enough, and that there won’t be enough chairs, and that people will feel cramped and oppressed. I know, it’s silly … especially since I have no intention of changing. If I had a big house and yard, and had to pay people to clean and maintain the property, I would feel guilty and over-privileged. It’s especially silly, since I know I’m a good cook, and that people can have a great time eating and conversing and enjoying good company, even when seated in small, crowded spaces. I’m happy in a house filled with books, art supplies, yarn, and cooking utensils, so why am I obsessing about such ridiculous things? I dunno, maybe I just had to have a little rant, to realize that it’s completely stupid and ridiculous to fret.

To paraphrase a saying from my undergrad days (which, in its original form, is too rude to repeat here), perhaps the best rant is a self-rant.

Posted in American culture | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments