Monday, July 19, 2021


 A few years ago I read a cookbook called A Painter’s Kitchen, compiled by Margaret Wood, who cooked for the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. I took away a couple of things from it, the first of which is that O’Keeffe was probably a difficult person to work for. This was illustrated by a comment the author made about the hardest part of the cooking job was how particular O’Keeffe about thoroughly drying the herbs from the garden after they had been washed. This was because she insisted that the herbs could hold sauces better that way. The second thing was related to the first, in that when the fresh bounty from her garden was prepared according to her direction, she would say with some satisfaction, “Does anybody eat as well as we do?”

On the basis of this I created what I call my “breakfast box,” a small corrugated metal container in the farmlet, filled with tarragon, chives, and parsley destined for omelettes and scrambled eggs. In this way, I can eat breakfast as well as O’Keeffe, at least during the summer months. 

And, I don’t know if it makes a difference to the taste, but as an homage to O’Keeffe I always dry the herbs thoroughly before throwing them into the eggs. There are worse ways to be remembered.

Walu and I are are chicken-sitting for some neighbors this week, for which we were prepaid with a dozen fresh eggs. This morning I snipped some herbs from the breakfast box and made myself a breakfast of omelette, grilled Sweet 100s, chipotle-cheddar cheese grits, and a couple of rashers of bacon. An unexpected thunderstorm brewed up while I was cooking, and I threw open the kitchen windows so I could listen to it while I worked.

I won’t lie to you, the omelette was slightly rubbery and overcooked—my fault, not the eggs’. I have never been all that great at omelettes. Soft scrambled eggs are more my bailiwick, but I didn’t feel like cleaning up the pan afterward this morning. Even so, it was a wonderful start to a summer day. Life is bountiful, even if sometimes rubbery and overcooked.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Why I am leaving Facebook, and probably Instagram as well

 I’ve been unhappy on Facebook for quite a while. When I started using it so many years ago, it was a lot of fun. I loved finding old friends, and even making new ones through the platform. But in the past few years, it seems more and more depressing to be there. I’ve tried managing my experience to make it more positive—posting upbeat, non-political things, and snoozing any friends who are posting too many rants, diatribes, and scoldings (yes, I do that). What I found when I snoozed people on my newsfeed was that there were fewer actual posts and more ads, so I gradually stopped reading it. But I did skim. Every day. I couldn’t seem to stop checking the newsfeed. Eventually I came to the conclusion (not for the first time) that Facebook was wasting my time, and worse, it made me unhappy. So I decided to deactivate my account, stopping short of deleting it because, well, there is all this archived stuff. But also, at the back of my mind, I wonder: Isn’t how this is with addiction? You always think you are in control, and that you can have just one drink, one cigarette, one hit of heroin, and you can stop any time you want. So, I dunno. Maybe I will delete it eventually.


I made this decision earlier in the week, and have started the process of tying up the loose ends on the platform. In the meantime, the book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination was released and I read it yesterday. It is a comprehensive history of Facebook’s policy and actions regarding its growth as a platform for “connecting,” which they (meaning, Zuckerberg) consider the single most important reason for their existence. It seems an innocuous purpose, but as it turns out, it has had far reaching effects that have been terribly destructive. I urge everyone to read the book. It is horrifying. Here are some takeaways for me:


1) “Connecting” is everything, the most important thing, the thing that drives all policy decisions, the thing that overrides all. “Connecting” people is more important than any other ethical consideration.


2) At one point Facebook conducted an experiment on us. They divided users into two groups, and set the newsfeed algorithms so that one group got positive posts, and one got negative posts, and over a very short period of time, they found that the positive newsfeed readers posted positive things in response, and the negative newsfeed readers posted negative things. Some people found out about the experiment and objected, and Facebook apologized, and said that they meant no harm by it. They promised to fix the problem, but as the book shows, over and over, what they actually did is fix the PR. It turns out that this is their standard response to criticism.


From the book: “Facebook was well aware of the platform’s ability to manipulate people’s emotions, as the rest of the world learned in early June 2014, when news of an experiment the company had secretly conducted was made public. The experiment laid bare both Facebook’s power to reach deep into the psyche of its users and its willingness to test the boundaries of that power without users’ knowledge. “Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness,” Facebook data scientists wrote in a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They described how, over the course of one week in 2012, they had tampered with what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged on to the platform. In the experiment, some Facebook users were shown content that was overwhelmingly “happy,” while others were shown content that was overwhelming “sad.” A happy post could be the birth of a baby panda at the zoo. A sad post could be an angry editorial about immigration. The results were dramatic. Viewing negative posts prompted users to express negative attitudes in their own posts. And the more positive content a user saw, the more likely that user would spread upbeat content.”


3) Facebook’s (Zuckerberg’s) primary drive is “connections,” which they measure by “sessions,” which is how often and how long people check their newsfeeds and engage. And, as it turns out, the more negative the newsfeed is, the more frequent and longer the ”sessions” are. The algorithms are set accordingly.


From the book: “But Facebook’s engineers, who were not aware of the experiment before the paper was published, recognized that it revealed something more nefarious about the News Feed’s ability to influence people. Over the years, the platform’s algorithms had gotten more sophisticated at identifying the material that appealed most to individual users and were prioritizing it at the top of their feeds. The News Feed operated like a finely tuned dial, sensitive to that photograph a user lingered on longest, or the article they spent the most time reading. Once it had established that the user was more likely to view a certain type of content, it fed them as much of it as possible.”


That is, algorithms are designed to give users more of what they engage with the most. So whether you click more on negative news links, weird-ass conspiracy theories involving pizza places, or pictures of cute cats, the algorithms move those types of posts up to the top of your news feed, thus creating an ever expanding vortex of “more of same.” This might not be so bad when it involves cute cats, but when it concerns dangerous conspiracy theories?

And finally, this from the book, after Facebook began to realize how much the negativity had started to become dangerous and out of control, and made a half-hearted attempt to fix the problem: “For the past year, the company’s data scientists had been quietly running experiments that tested how Facebook users responded when shown content that fell into one of two categories: good for the world or bad for the world. The experiments, which were posted on Facebook under the subject line “P (Bad for the world),” had reduced the visibility of posts that people considered “bad for the world.” But while they had successfully demoted them in the News Feed, therefore prompting users to see more posts that were “good for the world” when they logged into Facebook, the data scientists found that users opened Facebook far less after the changes were made. The sessions metric remained the holy grail for Zuckerberg and the engineering teams. The group was asked to go back and tweak the experiment. They were less aggressive about demoting posts that were bad for the world, and slowly, the number of sessions stabilized. The team was told that Zuckerberg would approve a moderate form of the changes, but only after confirming that the new version did not lead to reduced user engagement. “The bottom line was that we couldn’t hurt our bottom line,” observed a Facebook data scientist who worked on the changes. “Mark still wanted people using Facebook as much as possible, as often as possible.”


That is, they discovered that negative news, though it makes people unhappy, engages people more, and so they adjust the algorithms to place negative news (and disinformation) in your newsfeed in order to maximize your “sessions.” More angry rants, fewer baby pandas. So. It turns out that there is a reason I have become increasingly miserable over the years while using Facebook.


It boils down to this: They do this deliberately because it maximizes user engagement.

4) Facebook makes its money off of your data. They make us feel better with our “privacy settings,” but every time you like a post, that is a tiny piece of data about yourself. That photo of your chicken coop? Data. Your picture of the deep dish pizza you ate on vacay. The groups you belong to. The news stories you click on. The printer or pair of shoes you search for on Google—that feeds straight to Facebook, who feeds it to advertisers. Data, and data, and data, and data. Oh, and it is ”connected” (that word again) to Instagram and WhatsApp, so they mine the data from there, too. All of this is handed over to parties (for a fee) who want to sell you something, whether that is a pair of shoes or a political idea. Thus it is that when you post about playing tennis with your friends, in a matter of seconds you begin to see ads for T-shirts cautioning people to fear grandmas who play tennis.

Maybe you thought you were using Facebook and Instagram to let your friends see the real side of you (as a socially awkward introvert, this was a large part of it its appeal to me), but the real entity you were revealing yourself to was Facebook and its algorithms. They have got it down to a very precise science. You only think you are in charge. They tell us they’ll change, then give a us new button or something to mollify us, show some feel good ads on television, and proceed to keep doing what they do.


5) When the Russians started their disinformation campaign in the 2016 election, the Facebook security team watched it happen in real time, reported it to the next higher ups, and the company proceeded to do nothing about it. They knew what was happening—that scores of Americans were falling for misinformation planted by a foreign power (all internet trails led back to Saint Petersburg), using fake accounts and posing as Americans—and they did nothing about it. They also knew that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails and were hawking them to journalists. They literally—literally—sat there and watched it happening in real time. It was only the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out. Read the book for the whole story. Here is my takeaway from this part of the sordid history: Facebook is less interested in fixing very real problems with security and disinformation than they are in covering them up and managing the PR surrounding them. Oh, and the head of the security team that uncovered how the Russians were using Facebook? They forced him out of the company.


So I had at first decided to deactivate because Facebook it was making me unhappy, but now I am deactivating because I have come to realize that I am unhappy by design and manipulation. Facebook is an unprincipled company run by a manchild with a poorly developed ethical center, and I don’t think the company has the will to fix what is broken. Maybe it is impossible to fix at this point. In their (Zuckerberg’s) view, more and more people are connecting every day, so what’s the problem?


My reaction to the book is my own. You can read it yourself and make up your own mind. If you are like me, what you read will sicken you. Written by two New York Times reporters, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, it is heavily researched and sourced.


I’ll deactivate in a few days. In the meantime, I’ll post something in my newsfeed letting people know that I am coming over here, to my blog. Blogs are sort of passé these days, and maybe it is an illusion to think that I can escape data mining, but at least I control my own newsfeed here. I am an algorithm of one. I will try not abuse that.



Sunday, March 7, 2021

Sunday Notes: On the Bright Side, Redux

 Today marks the first full week of the Ride for GRUB challenge. I am starting two months late into the year, so that means I will need to ride an average of 50 miles each week to meet my goal of 2021. But you know how it is—some weeks will be better than others. Some weeks I may be tired, or sick, or out of town, or the weather might be crappy, so I am actually hoping to work up to riding 70 miles most weeks to cover the shortfall. But I am just starting out, and I don’t want to overdo it this first month, so I figure to aim for the 50 each week.

All of which is to explain my mood this morning when I set out on my ride. A cold front had moved in during the night, and there was a sharp wind blowing from the south. I layered up in tights, a winter jersey, and full fingered cycling gloves, and though it cut the chill, it would do nothing to reduce the labor of the ride.

I have lived all of my life in windy places. I have also ridden my bike in that same wind. So I knew it was no good feeling sorry for myself—I needed to make my goal of 50 miles, but the only thing self-pity would change about the situation is make me feel more miserable. Even so, after I changed into my riding kit, I sat in the chair for a good hour, making excuses for why I didn’t need to/shouldn’t go: My knee is bothering me a little, my shoulder, my hip; I could take a rest day; 41 miles in the first week was pretty good—good enough—danged good for the first week. 

All the while I stared out the window at the falling live oak leaves flying around like flocks of small, panicked birds.

Finally, I just went. I was wearing my cycling glasses, which I haven’t done in a while because the prescription insert has not been updated since 2007 (I shit you not). After a few cold, windy, tear-inducing rides this spring while wearing my regular prescription sunglasses, I decided to update the insert so I could have the better wind coverage from the cycling glasses. But the insert had to be sent off to Dallas and has yet to return, and so I was riding tearless, but half-blind. I figured that was some kind of metaphor, and somewhere between 19th Street and Glenna Goodacre Drive, while I was trying to figure out “metaphor for what?”, I accepted my fate, geared down, and settled into the task.

I rode. 

I reminded myself that my friend Jill used to say, “Wind is a training tool.”

I reminded myself that I have always said, “This is why God invented gears.”

I reminded myself that physics says as long as I keep pedaling I won’t fall over.

I thought about how lucky it is that the particular earworm that is stuck in my head right now is a country music song, the refrain of which is “Hold the door/say please/say thank you/something something something/‘cause bitterness will keep you from flying/always stay humble and kind.” There are worse earworms to have.

I rode downtown. Specifically, it was my intent to get up the nerve to ride under the Loop 289 overpass on Broadway. I was looking for a safe way to cross over to the Canyon Lakes area, which is a beautiful place to ride. In years past, I have always ridden from my house down Indiana Street, over to the access road from which you can turn into Buddy Holly Park and Lake 1. But dang it, every single time I ride down Indiana, there is this little, yappy yard dog that chases me. And I am sick and tired of it. Sick. And. Tired. So I was looking for a different route.

But the underpass on Broadway has always made me nervous—it slopes down into darkness, and I worry that a car coming over the top might not see me. It was Sunday, though, and traffic should be light, so I thought it would be a good day to check it out.

Downtown itself was deserted and lonely. On the edge of it, where it turns industrial, I passed an abandoned building with a metal sign torn in half and clanging in the wind. All the streets in that part were bricked and bumpy, and my sore shoulder got more so. And when I reached the part of Broadway that drops down under the Loop, I felt as if I was plunging into the empty, gaping maw of a great whale and feared I might never return to the light of day...

Haha! But of course I did! The light of day was just on the other side! And there too was a particular mural I have always wanted to photograph, so that got me pretty excited, maw of the whale notwithstanding:

I propped up the Ruby and took the requisite photo, and decided that I’d had enough excitement for the day, and thus it was time to turn back toward home.

On the return, I decided to ride by the new Buddy Holly Center for the Arts:

And the Civic Center across the street, where so much good is being done these days to fight the Coronavirus. Over two thousand people a day, and ten thousand a week are being vaccinated in this humble city. The parking lot was empty today, but most days of the week, it is packed with cars and hope. It makes me proud of my community that our health department is doing so much to fight this disease. From sign up to jab, they’ve made the process of getting a shot easy, seamless, and efficient. We are going to defeat this virus, and one day, this parking lot will be filled for other reasons. But I hope we never forget what was done here:

And with that, I finally turned home, straight into the wind. My average speed dropped to 7.5 mph.

I thought about a Facebook conversation I saw this morning, in which people were saying they would rather live someplace else. And I get that. I would like to live someplace that had prettier places to ride, and maybe a little less wind, and a little more water. But that reminds me of a sermon I heard many, many years ago, in which a visiting pastor was saying that we were suffering from lack of rainfall because we had sinned. I remember thinking, “Well, actually, we suffer from a lack of rainfall because we are at 33° north latitude, and are situated in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. I’m not sure sin has anything to do with it.”

But there are people who think that way about landscape. They think that if a landscape does not suit them, it is a kind of punishment. They talk about the wind here that way, and if you ask them, they will tell you that Lubbock is ALWAYS windy. But of course, neither of those things is true. It is windy here, true, but intermittently, and mostly just in the Spring—or as I like to call it, “The Time of Differential Heating and Cooling of the Earth’s Surface which Leads to Air Movement.” But we get it in our minds that the landscape is here to serve us, and when it doesn’t, we get angry at it, or feel put upon. But the truth is, the landscape is just here. And it might be nice to live someplace prettier, sure. But if I am dissatisfied, it is not the landscape’s fault, it is my own for not accepting it on its own terms.

And it is important to do this. It is important to learn to love the ugly places, because once we decide that a landscape is ugly, we stop protecting it. The unappreciated landscape is like the kid sitting alone in the lunchroom. We should all go sit with that person. We might be surprised at what she has to offer, and even if that is not the case, it is still the right thing to do.

These were my thoughts as I rode.

On the way home, I heard sandhill cranes calling high above me on the wind, like a spotty radio transmission from a ship at sea. 

Total number of miles for the week: 50.3.

Peace be with you.

Sunday Notes: On the Bright Side

 Yesterday was a busy day, with a lot of chores. It was also a pretty day—clear skies, not much wind, and temperatures in the 60s. So when I noticed the fan had kicked on in the greenhouse, I stopped on my way to taking out the kitchen trash and opened the door to it. I figured the plants would appreciate some fresh air.

And then I forgot about it. 

This morning I rose around 4:30, as is my habit, and let the dogs out into the backyard (there is a dog door that they can use, but Archie Dos, who has more than his share of anxieties, is afraid to go out into the dark by himself). I noticed then how bright and clear the skies were, with a fingernail moon, and there was a slight, but sharp breeze. I mused on whether it would warm up enough by afternoon to ride without arm warmers.

Later in the morning, after it was light, Archie Dos started nagging me again to go outside. It is our ritual to “check the crops.” And so I went with him to the greenhouse to see how the cotton plants fared the night...and I found the greenhouse door still open. 

Who knows how cold it got in there last night? If the earlier greenhouse freeze disaster was any indication, it will be several days before I find out whether they took a hit. 

Despondent is not the right word—it is too strong for this. They are only plants, after all, and I have the back-up specimens at the TTU greenhouse. Disappointed is not quite right, either. Nor is angry. I am not quite sure what what the word would be, but it would some mixture of resigned, tired, numb, sad, and resolute.

I added resolute because almost immediately my thoughts turned to starting some new seeds in the event that my mistake leads to losing the plants. I was already in the process of soaking some peat pots to replant the G. thurberi seeds (one of yesterday’s chores), so it was not a stretch to pivot quickly to doing the same for the others.

Yesterday on Facebook a friend accused me of always seeing the bright side of things. But that isn’t what I am doing. There is no bright side to being careless and losing all these plants after months of labor. 

Instead, I think my reaction is more along these lines: 

“Ok, this happened. What is the plan?”

To use another well-worn, entirely useful cliche’, clean up the milk and move on. I’m not happy about losing the plants, but there is work to be done.

You become resilient by practicing resilience.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Watch this space

 Some years ago—ten, to be exact—I did a personal bike challenge in which I decided I would ride 2011 miles in 2011, and I asked people to pledge to donate a penny a mile to the South Plains Food Bank’s GRUB Farm. It was a great success, on a lot of levels, firstly because I raised a lot of money for the food bank, but secondly because it got me out on the bike. It was also a success on a more intangible way; 2011 was also a hard year personally, and riding around on my bike, toting up miles, gave me a focus on something that was positive. I’ve wanted to do something similar since then, but it just hasn’t ever worked out—the timing was wrong, or I was injured or ill, or something something something.

I wanted to try it again this year to support the food bank during the covid lockdown, but once again, injury in the form of elbow tendinitis and illness in the form of a mysterious chronic fatigue kept me off the bike for many months. But the elbow is better (though the other one is sort of bothering me now) and the chronic fatigue seems to have finally resolve itself (blood tests revealed mononucleosis antibodies, so maybe that was it. Who knows?). Anyway, I am back on the bike again, and starting to think of doing another bike challenge. A lot has changed in ten years, though—namely that I am ten years older and no longer the athlete I once was, and things seem to break down a lot more easily now. So I don’t know exactly what the challenge should look like yet. It has to be doable and accommodating to an aging body, but, well, still a bit of a challenge. In any case, if I do decide to embark on another hard journey during what has been another hard year, this is the place I will record that journey.

So watch this space.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Back on the bike, and some thoughts about it

 I got interested in cycling nearly twenty years ago, at the urging of my good friend, Jill, who is a phenomenal athlete. We had some great rides together for quite a few years before she moved on to new adventures in Kansas. That same year, 2011, I started a personal bike challenge to raise some donations for the South Plains Food Bank’s GRUB farm—and I did it to raise money, of course, but also to give me an incentive to stay on the bike after losing a riding partner. It was also the year that my mother died, and because I processed a lot of my grief trying to finish the challenge at the end of the year, I am reminded of her almost every time I ride, even today. 

Neighbor Tim, who knows a lot about bike fitting, gave me free bike fit during my challenge ride after I had complained in a post on another blog (now defunct) about a knee problem, and I often remember this when I ride, too. Ten years later, that fit is still so good that when I clip in, it feels as natural as having a pair of wings must feel to a bird.

I am not sure why I sometimes quit riding. Injuries, lack of time, bad weather all play into it, though, and sometimes I can go for very long periods without getting on the bike. But when I do, I always wonder why I ever stopped. 

I started again briefly during recovery from my hip surgery, I was restricted to doing it on a trainer, however, since I wasn’t allowed to do anything that might cause a fall. But I hate the trainer, and so I quit that as soon as I was able to do other things instead. I would have ridden the bike out on the road then, but I did not yet have the mobility to swing my leg over the top (I used a step ladder to climb on it when it was on the trainer). 

I’ve climbed back on the bike—and the road—during the pandemic (like a lot of people), as a safe way to get some exercise, and part of the joy of it has been all these wonderful memories that have been waiting there for me all along.

In the past, when I was much more serious about it, I avidly followed bike racing. That soured a little with all the doping scandals, though, and I drifted away from it. But I love to watch sports that I play, and I missed it. So I started watching that again, too, for inspiration during the rides on the trainer, and I have continued it. Which brings me to this: Sometime during my long hiatus from watching bike racing, women cyclists finally started to get some parity. Actually, from what I can see, that “sometime” seems to have occurred mostly in the last couple of years. When I stopped watching bike racing, it seemed like you couldn’t find a women’s race _anywhere_ that you could watch. Women’s teams and races existed, but they were always in the shadows, with lousy pay, lousy support, and poor coverage. Now, much to my delight, it seems like that is changing. This Saturday, the first of the spring classics, Omloop het Nieuwasblad, is broadcasting not just the men’s race, but the women’s as well! You can bet I will be watching. And! There is news that Trek Segafredo—a top World Tour team—has decided to give their women’s team the same base pay as the men’s team. And! Another top world tour team, the Dutch team Jumbo Visma, has created a women’s team along with its men’s—at the request of the sponsors! And! For the first time in its 125 year history, the men have decided that women will not permanently damage their childbearing lady parts by riding on cobbles and have allowed them to race the classic Paris-Roubaix (the aptly named “The Hell of the North”).

It’s like I went to sleep for a while and woke up to a new world. 

I don’t know if there is a paywall on this video (I subscribe to Flobikes where you can see the race in its entirety) but if you _can_ watch it, I suggest you give a few minutes of your time to the recent UCI Women’s World Championships of cyclocross (link below). It is impressive stuff. This is just a highlight reel—but they raced at this intensity for over an hour. And if you have ever been someone who has thought women’s sports are not as exciting as men’s, then this is something you need to see. And imagine, it has been in the shadows all this time.

Women’s cyclocross world championships highlights

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

O frabjous day! In which the cotton project has a surprisingly good day

 It started with my usual 5 AM trip out to the little greenhouse, where I was met with a sad sight. All of the cotton plants are in the process of losing their leaves. However, I could also see new growth on each, and as cotton is a perennial, this gives me hope that even if they do lose their leaves, they may find a way to re-bound.

Leslie at Agrilife agrees. Furthermore, he had this advice for me: cut back on the watering to avoid root rot if they end up dropping all their leaves.

I was out at Agrilife to pick up some bolls that Leslie had cut for me to finish my painting of G.:  

While I was there, I took along the painting series as it is today to showed my progress on the project. It looks pretty good when they are side by side:

After I got back, I threw on some cycling togs and went for a quick spin before lunch, since it was a pretty day. I rode through the drive through at Blue Sky and picked up a cheeseburger on the way home. After that, I changed again and rode the Rivendell to Zhixin Xie’s greenhouse at TTU and checked on the specimens I had taken there two or three weeks as a back up plan. Turns out they not only rode out the storm, they are half again as big as the specimens in my greenhouse (dropping leave notwithstanding). the only difference in the culture for the two groups is the level of heat—the TTU greenhouse is much hotter, and the heat is more consistent—which tells me a lot about what this genus likes:

Monday, February 22, 2021

Winter wheat is doing just fine, thank you, and did not need to fly to Cancun because it was freezing

 After last week’s extreme weather, I wasn’t sure in what condition I would find the winter wheat when the snow and ice finally melted away. Apparently, it is called “winter” wheat for a reason: 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Aftereffects of the winter storm (on the cotton plants)

Where to begin? I really need to start a regular posting cycle to keep up with this adventure. So many things have happened, and I haven’t been good at all at documenting them the way I should. So today I will just dive in with the latest. And going forward, I’ll try to set up a routine—maybe posting each Sunday, and see if not only keeps me caught up, but will also help fill in the many things that have already happened. I am so terrible at discipline and routine, though, that I can’t make any guarantees.

This past week was a doozy in Texas, with record freezing temperatures and snow all over the state, all the way down to Houston. And Texas went dark.

The entire state power grid failed, and much has already been written about the epic (and tragic) disaster that followed, so I won’t go into it. However, Lubbock, in a bit of luck, is not currently on the state grid (though we are scheduled to be starting some time next year), so we never lost power. We are also used to freezing temperatures and the havoc they can wreak, so our city managers were proactive and headed off any disasters. 

But it was still a strain on the system, and so we were asked to conserve energy where we could. Walt and I already keep our thermostats at 68, but we turned them even lower—64° in the back of the house, where my studio and the bedroom are, and 67 in the front of the house (there are two different furnaces, not that it is interesting). 

And in the greenhouse, I turned the thermostat down to 55°. I was hoping this would be enough to keep the plants alive, even though I knew it would put some stress on them. And it did...but I think that some of those single digits days and nights were just too much of a strain. I went out to the greenhouse this morning to check on them, and at least three of the five plants are clearly distressed, so much so that I am pretty sure I am going to lose them. Here is one looking pretty sad:

Fortunately, I had transferred three specimens—a representative of each of the species—to the Dr. Xie’s TTU greenhouse. During the worst of the storm, I was getting notices from the university asking researchers to shut down any parts of their labs that were not required to stay open (to save on energy), and other notices about rolling blackouts. So I texted Xie to asked him if the greenhouses were staying open. He said they were, and sent me a photo the next day of the plants and said they were fine (compare and contrast to the one above). So that is a bit of relief. I will try to go in sometime this week to check on them.

Also, I hope to make a trip out to the Agrilife greenhouse this week, where, I am told, kirkii’s bolls are opening. I have finished the part of that painting of the closed boll (these bolls are pretty small, so I have enlarged the photo). I did two views of it—one with the boll as it normally looks, all wrapped up in its bracts, and one with the bracts pulled away so you can see how unusual the boll is. This will make it slightly different from the other plates, which feature only the open and closed boll. In retrospect, it might have been better to do it the same as the others, and then do a a plate or two comparing the different bolls, without their bracts. Live and learn.

P.S., I have ordered a dual fuel generator so that next time I can keep the greenhouse heated. And there will be a next time. It would be foolish to think otherwise.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Meanwhile, far from the madding crowd: The Cotton Project, Part One

 The past few days in this country have left me dispirited and unable to sleep. So I decided to come here to the blog and post about something good, decent, and non-political in hopes of quieting my soul. 

It’s my habit every morning, shortly after I get up, to go out to the greenhouse to check on the cotton project plants. I haven’t written much about this project on the blog, but in short, it is a series of paintings about different species of cotton that I am working on. Did you know that there are over fifty species in this genus? We tend to use only one for 96% of all commercial production for textiles (Gossypium hirsutum). The other, roughly 4% is Gossypium barbadense, more commonly known as “Pima” cotton. Here are a couple of works in progress—the top one is a commercial variety of hirsutum, and the bottom is barbadense:

I may write more about these two species in the future. Today’s is another story.

Over on the north side of town, Texas A&M has a large research facility, called “Agrilife.” It happens that among other things they do, they have a large seed bank of most of the different species, from all over the world. When we think of a cotton plant, we imagine it looking only one way. But it turns out, the genus is highly varied in its morphology. As a part of the cotton project, I searched around for specimens, and readily found five or six being grown for research. Since we live in cotton country (something like 15% of the world’s commercial cotton is grown here), there is naturally a lot of important cotton research being done in town. But the more esoteric species (read: “not economically useful”) just aren’t available or easily accessible “in the flesh” (that is, I can find photos, but it is hard to do a good botanical painting this way—the live specimen is ideal). Eventually I came to the conclusion that if I wanted specimens to paint, I was going to have to grow them myself.

Now, I am a middling gardener, at best. My garden philosophy goes something like this: “I’ll put you in the ground, get you started, and then you are on your own for the remainder of your natural life.” As you might imagine, this approach has its limits, especially in a land of little rain.

But I do have a greenhouse, albeit one mainly used for overwintering some less hardy cactus. (Cactus are great for gardeners like me, in that they like to be left alone. See also: “Thorns.”) In addition to the greenhouse, I have some garden space with plenty of full sun and drip irrigation, normally devoted to growing tomatoes and peppers. Both of these spaces lend themselves to the possibility of creating my own bijou cotton farmlet. So I decided to order some heirloom seeds—G. hirsutum with colored lint.

But it turns out that you need a permit to grow cotton in Texas, and purveyors outside of the state will not sell you seed without one. I thought at first, incorrectly, that this was driven by the Big Cotton industry, and was all about patents, and GMO, and other scary protectionist things. But as it turns out, it concerns boll weevil eradication. More on this later—my main point is that I needed a permit, and didn’t know where to turn to get one. I had already made some contacts with the researchers at Agrilife, though, and so I reached out and queried them. They immediately pointed me in the right direction, and then said since I wanted to grow some unusual cotton, how would I like to come down there and pick out some candidates from their seed bank? I was told that they needed to be grown in a greenhouse, though, since the plants required controlled light. 

Well, as it happens...

But first (actually, second, since “first” was getting the cotton permit), I needed to get a little more serious about my agricultural set up. This meant plumbing the greenhouse so that I could set up an automatic watering system. Avid readers of this blog (all one of you) know that I am usually a fervent DIYer, but age and some chronic injuries have made me hesitant to tackle some projects on my own. (Also, plumbing almost always turns into a disaster when I try it.) So my neighbor Tim did the plumbing, and Kamron, who occasionally helps me in the garden, dug the trenches. I just signed the checks. It all turned out neat as a pin, with a direct line to both the greenhouse and the hoop house that I also plan to use:

I love this system so much, I should have done it years ago.

Next came the grow lights. Plants, I learned, primarily use the red end of the light spectrum, and modern LED grow lights tend to skew this direction. This turns the little greenhouse into something of an otherworldly sight--a pinkhouse, if you will. The cotton wants more light than that provided by a winter day, so the lights go on at 5 AM, and off again at 8 PM. This is what I see every morning when I go out before dawn to check on my cotton plants:


I already had a heater for the greenhouse, though not a very robust one (a new one is on order), and it is controlled by a thermostat. In short, everything is now designed so that I can monitor conditions from my kitchen while wearing my pajamas:

Automated is good when you are an absent-minded, laissez faire gardener such as I (although it turns out that I fret so much about this project, I go out to the greenhouse two or three times a day checking on things; so I probably could have skipped having so much automation). And thus with everything set up, if not to be actually fool-proof, then at least to give me the illusion of such, I went to Agrilife and picked out some seeds.

And that will be my next post.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Shakeout for the Maggie Mee

 Well, what with one thing and another, it was several months after I finished working on the Maggie before I got to take her out on a shakeout cruise. For her first trip, I wanted to go to nearby Caprock Canyon State Park, just a couple of hours up the road. If anything major were to go wrong, I would be close enough to make it back home without too much trouble. However, getting a reservation for a camping spot (at any state park right now) meant booking two months in advance. I dilly-dallied all summer, nervous about traveling during a pandemic. By the time I decided to give it a go, the soonest available time period was the first part of November, which can be dicey, weather-wise. What the heck, I thought, and clicked “send” to book my spot.

As it turned out, the weather was nearly perfect. Moreover, the forecast for night temperatures promised to be cold, but not quite freezing, so I figured that would give me a good opportunity to see how well she performed with a small space heater. I have a good winter sleeping bag, but mummy bags make me claustrophobic, and since the whole reason I decided to embark on the teardrop project was to eliminate as many discomforts associated with camping as possible, I was hoping that a space heater would provide enough heat that I could sleep in my PJs with regular bedding during cold weather.

And the answer to that particular question is that I can.

Other things also worked as well as I had hoped. The stove and galley counter top made cooking and clean up a breeze, even in the dark. Here we are on Taco Night:

The radio did not pick up any nearby stations, but since it is bluetooth capable, I just hooked up my phone and listened to my favorite classical station, KTTZ. I also used the phone as a mobile hotspot and used my iPad for internet access. I’d downloaded some movies onto the iPad as well before leaving and was able to watch them at night (since it was late fall, it got dark at 6:30 in the evening, so I really appreciated having something to do in the confines of the teardrop). My little reading lamp was perfect for reading myself to sleep, too. All the storage space meant everything stayed organized and out of my way. And the first night out there was a fierce windstorm. In a tent, this would have been a problem, but in The Maggie, it was actually soothing to lie there and listen to it. In short, the little camper is nearly perfect for my needs. 

What would make it perfect? Well, an indoor toilet, but that is not going to happen. The park rest rooms were clean and largely unoccupied, though, so it was not too much bother.

The other thing I can’t really fix is having to lie down to get dressed, but I guess I can live with that.

I was feeling a little under the weather for the couple of days I was there, so I didn’t do much more than some light hiking and bird watching. But it was a pleasant, successful trip. 

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