26 October 2016


All right folks, it's time to learn about where food comes from!
Specifically today, it's peanuts.
Peanuts come from the ground!  And the sun!  Like all food, when you get down to it, including meat, since animals eat plants.  But really.
As you no doubt vaguely remember from school, a peanut is a legume.  A simpler word would be "bean."  Yes, peanuts are beans.  So are chickpeas and favas and snow peas; hummus is just bean dip with a better agent.  Peanuts are unique in the bean world, though, because they're more or less the only bean that grows underground.  (Okay, so, there are about 70 species in the peanut genus, some of which share the peanut's frankly bizarre growth habits, and one or two from related genera, but that's it.  There are over 19,000 species of beans.)
Say you want some peanuts and there are no stores anywhere around because of a recent zombie apocalypse (which has apparently since subsided, but that's another story).  But luckily you happen to have a raw peanut (why?  I don't know; again, there's clearly more to this story).  (Also, this doesn't work with a roasted peanut.  Cooked seeds mostly don't grow very well...although I once had an ash tree seed germinate after it went through the dryer in the pocket of my shorts so maybe this needs to be investigated more thoroughly.)
So anyway, you stick that raw peanut in the ground.  You should shell it first; wild peanut ancestors have much thinner shells that allow water in and the germinating seedling out, but we've bred peanuts for tougher shells so we can roast them and ship them and eat them at ballgames and litter the floors of "roadhouse" style restaurants with them.
If the ground is warm enough, the peanut will germinate and grow.  It's a pretty little plant.  After a few weeks, it will start flowering.  These pretty yellow flowers are a nice treat.  Notice how many there in just a small area!
They don't have much smell.  Anyway, an individual flower is only open for a day.  After pollination (it's self-fertile, so if the zombie apocalypse in this scenario also affected bees, you're still okay), the flower drops off, and the stem becomes what's called a 'peg,' a stiff downward pointing stem with a slightly hardened tip.  This tip penetrates the soil--hopefully you planted it is some nice sandy loam, and not clay--and once the plant perceives that it is below ground, the end of the peg starts to swell.  (Yes, plants perceive whether they are receiving light or not, but not in a way you'd recognize as 'seeing' and not in a conscious sense.  It's all electrobiochemistry and fairies.)
The peg, you see, had a secret--it was actually the peanut ovary.  You just wouldn't have noticed because it was tiny.
Once below ground, the ovary swells into a little peanut, and eventually into a big peanut.  The plant will continue to flower and produce new pegs and peanuts for quite a while, as long as it stays sunny and warm.  As autumn comes on it will stop flowering as much, and gradually start to die back; peanuts are annuals and don't live through the winter.  But if you wait for the plant to die, you're too late: most of the peanut shells will have succumbed to the constant assault of water and microbes that life in the soil entails, and you'll have mostly a bunch of rotten garbage.  So you want to harvest in mid-Autumn sometime, before any frost but after the bulk of the heat of summer is past.
And this is what you'll get: a bunch of peanuts in various stages of ripeness.
Generally if the peanut looks like a peanut, it's edible.  In this picture there are some little proto-peanuts, but mostly good mature peanuts.  You can see how they are attached to the pegs, and the pegs are attached to the stems of the plant.  So there you have it: peanuts grow below ground, like potatoes and rutabagas.  (Not that they are at all related to either of those things.)
You may wonder, why on Earth does the peanut do this to itself?  I mean, I have some perfectly nice runner beans out there growing on vines, flowering and producing pods right out in the sunshine, and even some nice bush butterpeas doing the same thing.  They seem to be just fine.
The truth is nobody knows why.  It's just what peanuts do.  For whatever reason the progenitor of the Arachis genus found it beneficial to grow this way; perhaps some predatory animal ate all the peanuts that weren't underground, gradually selecting for this growth habit.
What we do know is that the current version of the peanut, Arachis hypogaea, arose from wild progenitors in what is now northwestern Argentina, probably 8000-9000 years ago.  The wild relative can still be found in the Chaco area, but it's a very different plant.  Your domesticated peanut will have had a nice compact form, although low to the ground and gradually spreading--if you only planted the one, and it was a happy plant (like mine), maybe it would cover about a 3 foot diameter area.  In cultivation, they're planted in rows 30" apart, with individual plants about a foot apart in the rows.  This keeps them nice and compact and allows them to completely cover the soil and choke out weeds.  The wild relative is a vine that rambles along the ground and drops a peg into the soil every few inches; the nuts are much smaller, and almost exclusively come one to a pod (which are called unipeas.  Yes, they are; when there's only one seed in the peanut pod it's a unipea and nobody can tell me otherwise).  The shells are also thinner with heavier webbing.  But that's what a few thousand years of domestication will do for you.
Once harvest time comes around you basically have to go in there by hand and carefully, gently pull the plant out of the ground.  Mine came out in two parts.  I left about a dozen peanuts behind, but was able to sift through the soil to find them.  For many many years in the South kids could get a couple weeks work in the fall harvesting peanuts by hand, but the engineers have figured out a way to mechanize the process without leaving too many peanuts behind.  Since you only have the one plant--and in the post-zombie landscape you probably aren't going to find a working peanut harvester, much less someone competent to operate it--you'll dig yours up by hand, turn it upside down, and leave it in the sun for a day or two.  Then you can pop the little peanuts off and toss the plant in the compost heap for next year.
You'll want to roast them, of course, unless you'd rather boil them.
You'd rather boil them.
If you aren't familiar with boiled peanuts, what are you doing with your life?  Get down South and try some!  In any event you'll want to process them somehow before you eat them, although they are edible raw.  Be sure to set a few aside before you boil them, so you can plant them again next year.
(Note: in reality, if you started your peanut farm with a single peanut, you'd create what's called a genetic bottleneck: your entire farm would consist of plants that had only those gene versions--called alleles--that were present in your first nut.  This is a recipe for disaster, since you've only got two possible resistance genes for any given disease (and more likely you have none), and the whole population will be highly susceptible to any disease or insect that comes along.  This is called a 'monoculture', a huge field of genetically identical plants, and it's not a very smart way to ensure your survival as a species.  Of course after the zombie apocalypse humanity itself will have gone through a pretty severe genetic bottleneck.)
Incidentally, peanuts are a super crop to grow once in a while if you have a garden or just some unused land (note: lawns count as unused land.  You do nothing but spend money on it.  At least put some plants out there that will give you something back for your time and expense).  Why?  Well, like all beans (and certain other plants), peanuts are best friends with some little bacteria that normally live quiet, boring lives in the soil.  But when a peanut plant sends down roots, the roots exude a chemical that signals to the bored little microbes that it's time to party.  They associate with the root, and the peanut plant sends some tasty carbohydrates their way.  They feast on these, and in return, they take nitrogen in the soil and atmosphere and turn it from a boring, useless gas (which really doesn't do anything for your tires that regular air won't do, regardless of what the ads say) into ammonia.  Plants can't do that by themselves; neither can animals.  In order to get nitrogen into your body--and without nitrogen, you can't make any proteins, enzymes, even your DNA--it first has to be fixed into ammonia by these little microbes.  Much of the nitrogen they fix gets absorbed by the peanut plant (which is why you compost the plant rather than putting at the the curb in a garbage bag), although plenty of it stays behind in the soil when the microbes die, and is left there for other microbes and plants and soil-dwelling animals, which is how it gets into the food supply.  This picture is of a peanut root--all those little bumps are called nodules.  Each nodule grows from a single root hair, which is colonized by several microbes.  Each nodule is a protective home for a batch of microbes as they churn out ammonia.
So there you have it.  Peanuts!
Next time: pumpkins!

03 August 2016

Sorghum breeding

Strictly speaking I work in corn breeding.  But that's just what I do at work.  (I also have some at-home corn breeding experiments planned for next year.)  At home, I breed pumpkins and sorghum.

Here is some sorghum.
This is a mix of things.  The paper bags on two of the plants are there mainly to keep the birds from eating all the grain (although they're really pollination bags).  You may notice a single very tall plant in the back (it's hard to see because it's so narrow and the grain head hasn't emerged yet).  That is a breed of popping sorghum called Allu Jola, which I've never grown before.  But in front of that are six plants of the variety I call Smitty's Dwarf.  You may notice that the three on the left are not especially short.  They're a bit shorter than the grain sorghum I started with, but they're nothing special.  The three on the right are a bit shorter.  None of these are great, though.  (Still, I want the grain this year.  Last year the birds ate almost everything.)

Last year I planted about 40 plants of a standard white grain sorghum originally from Kansas.  The average plant was about five feet tall.  I want a dwarf plant.  (Why?  I don't know.  I just wanted a project.  I tell people my goal is to breed up a high-yielding dwarf that I could grow to sell to brewers for a gluten-free malt.  But that would probably require that I actually malt the grain, and I don't have the capacity to do that.  If you'd like to donate to a Kickstarter that would allow me to buy both a set of commercial ovens and 25 acres of farmland....)
After last season I selected the two shortest plants, and retained the grain from them.  I would have preferred four or eight plants, but have I mentioned the birds?  Grosbeaks LOVE sorghum.

 This sorghum is a good bit shorter than that in the first picture.  You can see one of the regular-height plants here on the far right, and the six shorter plants in the plot to the left.  You may also see the popcorn that's growing behind the six shorter plants.  I strongly suspect proximity to the much more vigorous popcorn might have something to do with how short these plants are relative to the ones in the first picture.  It's tough to say, and I'll include these plants among the total when I select the shortest ones for next year, but it's impossible to say whether this is the genetics or the environment at work.  (Notice also the big batch of river oats intruding from the left side of the picture; this sorghum is hemmed in on all sides.  Next year the sorghum is getting a big plot all to itself.)

So.  Sorghum is self-fertile, like most plants.  This means that I could plant a single sorghum plant and, assuming there was a bit of wind while it was shedding pollen, the pollen from that one plant would pollinate the ovaries on that plant and I'd get fertile seed.  The fertilization rate wouldn't be great, although I could slip a bag over it and capture the pollen and hope to get better fertilization.
When multiple plants are around, though, sorghum plants can cross-pollinate.  Pollen from one plant may get blown around and fertilize ovaries on another plant.  There's no way for the plant breeder to know when that happens (hence the paper bags).  Plants in the field like mine, left uncovered, are referred to as "open-pollinated."  I'm not deliberately trying to self- or cross-pollinate them.  In an open situation, the percentage of seeds that arise from pollen from a different plant is referred to as the "outcrossing rate."  In a large field of grain sorghum outcrossing rates may range from about 7% to 35%, although research has reported outcrossing in certain varieties and environments all the way from 0% to 100%.  The 100% rate seems impossible and I'm suspicious of the methods of the researchers who reported it.
Anyway, in my yard, since the sorghum isn't terribly close together, I expect a fairly low outcrossing rate.  And since I'm putting bags up before the last 1/3 of the seeds are pollinated, that's reducing my total outcrossing rate.  (If I'm being diligent, and I don't want to ensure selfed plants, I'll select seeds for next year exclusively from the top 2/3 of the seedheads, which pollinated before the bags went on.  Or, if I do want selfed plants, I'll select from the bottom 1/3.  I haven't decided which I'm going for yet.)
So, I'll select the shortest 10 or 20% of plants, and take 20 or so seeds from each one (this is easy, because sorghum makes hundred or thousands of seeds per plant).  I'll put the seeds in labelled packets and sow them in blocks next year.  Then I can both compare how the blocks perform against each other, and how the individual plants within each block perform.  I'll self-pollinate the ones I like best and continue.  Because of the way plant genomes work, it takes several generations of self-pollination to get a batch of plants that are truly genetically identical If I had acre upon acre (and days upon days, and funding from an interested party) I'd self ALL of them and plant a whole huge field with 150 or 200 plots and try to get several different lines out of it.  But this is a side project.

Now here's an interesting candidate plant.  You can't quite tell in this picture, but this plant is only a foot tall.  It's extraordinarily short, shorter than even dwarf rice and wheat are.  Possibly this is a mutant, or it has a disease (it is yellowing early), or a virus, or some other condition that's causing this.  If it's a mutant, hooray!  By self-pollinating it, and then selecting the dwarfiest of its progeny and selfing them, and so on for four or five generations, I should be able to isolate a population of foot-high sorghum.  Provided it also actually produces a decent yield (this plant has a surprisingly large grain head considering how small and yellow it is) and is reasonably disease tolerant, this would constitute the end goal of the Smitty's Dwarf project.  I might even apply for a patent on it.  But that would be several years down the road.

That stunted dwarf is only one of the interesting plants I got in this year's batch.
This picture has several interesting things going on.  (Okay, I know that when I say "interesting," what I mean is, "interesting to me."  But you're reading this.  Whoever you are.)

If you click on the picture to blow it up, you'll see a few markings.  The two plants with the brown bags are about 3 feet high or so, which is pretty dwarven as sorghums go.  And marked with a red A is the white tassel bag from the micro plant pictured above.  It is REALLY short.
Above you see C and D.  These refer to two of the key elements of sorghum plant height: C is the height between the "flag leaf" (the very top leaf, just below the grain head), and the second leaf.  In all these short plants, the main leaves are quite close together, and then there's some greater distance between the second leaf and the flag leaf.  In regular plants, those distances are all about the same.  This suggests that the distance between leaves (called the "internode length" because each leaf is a node) is not controlled by the same gene as the distance between the flag leaf and the second leaf.  Additionally, at D, you can see that in these two plants, there's a significant difference in length between the flag leaf and the start of the grain head (which is right at the bottom of the bags).  In a large-scale planting, you want the distance between flag leaf and grain to be as great as possible, and uniform across all the plants in the field.  Otherwise you're likely to end up with a lot of leaf and stem trash in your harvest.  So, as a breeder, I will be selecting for long D lengths and shorter C lengths.  Assuming I can find such a thing.
Then, over on the right, there's plant B.  Sorghum can look a lot like corn when it's allowed to grow tall, but it really acts more like wheat or barley.  These are traditional small grasses.  The seed germinates and produces leaves and a stem.  Then, once there are three or four leaves, the plant stops making new leaves and instead creates a new little stem off to one side, which will produce its own leaves and eventually its own grain head.  These little side stems are called "tillers" and almost all grasses make them, including corn and sorghum.  In corn, the tillers are a nuisance, often sterile or with one of those combined tassel/ear things I've posted pictures of.  Tillers tend to be a nuisance in sorghum, too, not because they don't produce viable seed--they do--but because they are generally shorter and much later maturing than the main stem, so the seeds aren't ready when harvest time comes along and even if they were, the combine won't cut them because they'll be so much shorter than the main grain head.
In wheat, barley, and rice, however, the plants add new tillers throughout the growing season, then, responding to a change in day length or temperature (or both), all the tillers will produce a grain spike at the same time.  So when you see a field of wheat, say, and you go out and look and count 30 or 40 separate spikes, those could be from as few as one or two plants.  This means you can get a field full of grain with fewer seeds.
Now, a single grain spike of wheat or two-row barley might have 24 or 30 seeds max.  A single spike of sorghum can have over 3,000 (although in a typical field it's likely to be substantially less).  But you need one seed for each spike.  What if we could get sorghum to grow like wheat--make a bunch of tillers at the beginning of the season, and send up all the grain heads at the same time?  Potentially, this could mean more grain comes out of the field with less seed being planted.  Since seed is a substantial cost to farmers, this would make sorghum much more economical to grow.
Well, that's what plant B in the picture above looks like.  It produced five tillers (for six total stems) before it started flowering, and it looks like all six grain heads will be flowering within about a week of each other.   (In the picture, I have spikes 1-5 labelled.  The sixth one is actually hiding directly behind number 1.)  I didn't expect to see anything like this and actually almost tore the plant out last month because it looked so...broken.  I'm glad I didn't.  Each of the six grain heads is smaller than the one head on most of the other plants, but taken as a group I suspect they might be much bigger.  Given that this plant is growing in the same soil and within two feet of several other plants that look normal, I really don't (want to) think this is an environmental effect (although, again, viruses can do very strange and unexpected things to plants).  So this is now sorghum project number two: a tillering sorghum (Smitty's Tillering Sorghum sounds pretty bad, so for now I'm calling it Hydra).  If this turns out to be a trait that can be passed down, and again the plant isn't for some other reason horrible, this could be a very interesting side project.  

02 January 2016

Cotton Blossoms

Cotton is nifty.  You may not know very much about it; I didn't, when I started working in crop science.  We have a lot of cotton plants growing in the Phytotron at NC State, and today at work I took some pictures of various stages of cotton flowers.
Cotton is a tropical perennial, and can live for several years and grow quite large.  Unusually for perennials it blooms in the first year on new growth, so we culture it as an annual.  Typically for a perennial, it is slow to germinate and seedlings are not vigorous.  It develops branches at each leaf node on the main stem, and a boll develops at the leaf nodes along the branches.  You get more cotton with more branches, but the more branched the plant is the harder it is to grow as a row crop, the more likely the leaves on the lower branches won't get much sunlight, and thus the less likely that the lowest branches won't ultimately develop bolls.  Most of cotton breeding has consisted of managing these variables: stronger seedlings, taller, straighter plants with upright branches that can capture enough sun to produce multiple bolls in a single growing season.  A researcher here at NC State is even trying to manipulate the shape of leaves at different levels of the plant to allow more light through the top of the canopy while capturing as much as possible at the bottom.
Here we see some little wee leaves and blossoms just getting their start in life on a new stem.  Your T-shirt and jeans start here.

Another day or two goes by and the flower bud becomes clearly visible.

On the left is another flower bud.  I could not find anything between the stage there on the left, and the fully open flower on the right.  Note the fully open flower is white with widely separated petals.  This will last for just a few hours.

This is just a few hours later.  Still white, but the petals are beginning to fold up.

A few hours later still.  The petals have all folded.  Note that the flower is open for just a few hours of a single day.  Still white, though.

Here just the barest hint of pink is beginning to show up at the edges of the petals.

Just a bit more pink.

Now we have quite a nice slightly pink flower.  This flower is done; it's been pollinated by now, if it's going to be, although pollination isn't necessary to get a boll.  

A bit more time passes, a bit more pink.

As you can see the petals are starting to wilt and sag.

Even as it wilts this a really pretty flower.  They have a nice aroma, too.

The last stage.

Suitable for dried arrangements.

The dried flower separates from the boll.

And the green boll begins to emerge.  The boll at this stage is referred to as a square.

Okay, this is pretty much the same stage as before, but it's a nice picture.

The square expands.

At this point I think the square looks like a lime.

The square opens...

And the boll emerges!

And, voila!  Cotton, ready to be picked.  Bolls in the field are likely to be much bigger and fluffier, but in the tightly controlled, windless atmosphere of a greenhouse chamber, this is what you get.

Here you can see flowers in many stages at once on a stand of plants in the greenhouse.

I took all these pictures today.  One plant will have flowers in all stages at once.  
Now of course the plant is producing flowers, squares, and open bolls all at the same time, being a perennial, and so if you simply ran a cultivator through the field you'd end up with a bale of cotton consisting mostly of leaves and dried flowers.  So once you have a good number of open bolls--and decades of breeding have produced , you have to spray a defoliant on the field to kill the plants and get the leaves to drop off.  It may be some weeks before you're ready to pull the cotton out of the field; those of you who've driven through the South around Thanksgiving time have seen the fields of cotton ready for harvest.  
I think the most interesting thing is the greenhouse chamber with all the flowering cotton plants has the most wonderful flowery scent.  Roses, which have no purpose other than to be pretty and smell nice, have been bred down to the point that none of the smell nice at all any more.  But here we have cotton, which nobody gives a rip about whether or not it smells pleasant and which has been bred for every reason but flower aroma, and they just smell fantastic.  We are a strange species, we humans.
Anyway, hope you've enjoyed this little photographic guide to the cotton lifecycle.  Now you how your T-shirt came to be.

31 May 2015

This is just to say

Life is confusing.  Things are going well for me right now.  One of my closest friends, though, is going through the worst string of difficulties us first-world types are likely to have to suffer through, while trying to manage an already-stressful career change and grad school and...  I don't know how she does it.  There is so much that I want to do for her (everything) and so little that I actually can.  I want to fix everything for her.  I can't.  I can't do anything.  I can keep saying, call me, ask me, I'll help you no question.  She knows that.
Sometimes I almost feel guilty talking about things in my own life with her.  I have complaints, but they are few and generally, even the a/c being out for a week and the high cost of the replacement unit, pale in comparison to any one of the issues she's dealing with.  I'm mostly satisfied.  But I'm a naturally melancholy person; I want to just take her pain for her and hold onto it and let her get on with life.  I can't do that.  She wouldn't let me if I could.  She would be horrified at the thought that I might ever feel guilty because I'm not dealing with the stress she is.
I'm supposed to be an adult.  I am an adult.  I'm plenty old enough to have already figured out how to handle situations like this, except, I'm starting to think we never really figure out exactly how to handle anything.  We just fake it.  We just try to make something up on the fly and hope it works.  We can't make up generic patterns for every situation we're likely to find ourselves in; every situation is different.  All we can do is try to look at the past and apply the lessons to the present.  And even that's not as easy to do as it is to write.
Life is confusing.  Bad stretches come and go; good times, too.  I guess we just keep making it up as we go along.

01 January 2015

Another year come and gone.  For some time I've traditionally made a New Years post here, even when I haven't been blogging actively, which I certainly have not been doing this past year.  And while writing more is on my list of things to do for this year, making a big introspective post on this the most inward-focused of days is not actually that exciting a prospect.  But I can't resist the opportunity to point out something that I noticed over the last three or four days of 2014.
Many people--perhaps a majority--on my Facebook feed seem not have had a particularly good 2014. I had my ups and downs; it wasn't a year where I accomplished as much as I wanted, but it was a year when I started some really big projects.  It's easy for me to complain that I didn't do this or I didn't do that, that I suffered this or that setback (certainly true), that I once again put off this or that big life goal (also true).  But these things are always true.  And I suspect, on reading through the things people were saying about 2014, that this was true for most.  No, it wasn't a great year.  It also wasn't terrible.  Some folks I know did have a rotten 2014, but for most people, what it really was, the strongest nail in 2014's unlamented coffin, is that it was just more of the same.  The same tendencies and habits ruled our lives.  The same worries kept us up nights, and the same complaints drove our friends and family crazy.  Deep-rooted patterns that can't be undone in a week or a month with a fervent resolution remained in our lives and we did not change them.  In 2014, what most of us did--and what was so dissatisfying--is the same thing we were doing in 2013, and 2012, and every other year.  2014 is not a year when we grew or a changed much.  But that is true every year.  It will be true in 2015, too.  That's the nature of life.
That's not meant to be depressing.  That we can look at ourselves and see where we need to change and improve and grow is great benefit.  We first world types give ourselves grief for complaining about little things when billions of people don't have clean water...but that's the great good fortune of our lives.  We can complain that we don't care for our jobs, avoid the gym too often, need to eat better, and spend too much time on Facebook, because we don't have to worry about other things.  Is it depressing that in our lives of plenty we still find things we would like to change?  No!  Gracious, what would we become if we decided we were all satisfied with what we have simply because we know, deep down, that we have enough, indeed more than enough, to survive and be happy?  We should consider our tendency to be negative about ourselves as a great driving force that can better the world, if only we learn how to harness it.
Maybe what 2014 was, then--and I'll say this, outside in the world at large, it was dreadful, almost all the news was terrible and our leaders made everything worse--was a year when we all collectively realized we--we as individuals, we as a community, and we as a collective humanity--can do better, and there's no reason why we shouldn't.  What a fantastic thing that would be for us as people and our world at large.
Yesterday and today, then, my friends who'd been negative the previous few days suddenly switched tunes.  It's traditional to bring in a new year with a sense of hope and optimism.  I wondered based on the negativity I was seeing whether that would be true this year.  It was.  Most of us are glad to see the back of 2014, but I note that many more of us are glad to see the start of something new.  That after a dissatisfying year our sense of optimism still abounds is the best news I've seen in a long time.

So, then, what about Smitty?  What are Smitty's goals in 2015?  Why, they're the same as all of yours.  I want to be a bit more the person I can be and a bit less the person I too often am.  I want to travel more, sit home less, write more, click less, experience more, buy less.  I want to interact more in the real world and less in the digital one; and, late in the summer when all is dreary and I feel like the year hasn't gone the way I'd hoped, I want to remember that 2015 started on a happy note, and that my ability to be critical and dissatisfied is not greater than my ability to change.

Now I'm off to start the new year right, surrounded by friends and good times.  Happy 2015, everybody.

21 December 2014

SNAFU Actually Does Mean Something, You Know

It should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all me, that the day after I wrote the last post, my laptop gave up the ship.  I'm not sure exactly what happened.  It had been running clunkily for some time, but there was no problem I was able to identify and virus scans detected no problems.  Several blue screens of death later I decided it was time to replace the machine.  The old one had its own special problems anyway; the cooling fan had burned out within a year of purchase, and I'd recently spilled some tea on the keyboard and fritzed out the touchpad, so I was using a USB mouse.  (I'd like to point out that the tea-spilling was cat assisted, but it's totally the type of thing I'd do.)
And then of course it was several days before I could replace it.  Naturally the next day was the day I had to turn in a big project in an effort to save my grade in my English course, so I spent much of that day in a dingy computer lab trying to make myself care about my grade enough to turn in work slightly better than awful.
I did not, in the absence of my computer, spend time each day writing in a journal or anything.  Why would I do that?  That would require work.
The new computer seems to be okay mostly, but the wireless adapter is clearly garbage, can't find a strong signal if I'm sitting next to the antenna and drops out all the time.  On the one hand, yaay, force me to be productive instead of surfing the internet!  On the other hand, what the fuck, you know?  Anybody know anything about replacing/upgrading wireless receivers in laptops?
Now I'm struggling to figure out what exactly went wrong with the previous computer.  I plugged the hard drive in to this new machine to extract the valuable data from it and unfortunately, a significant portion of the data appears to be corrupted.  I don't understand how this came to be, since the data didn't seem to be corrupted before the blue screens of death.  In Windows Explorer now, I can see the folder the file I want is in, and I can see the file.  But when I try to copy it from the hard drive to the new computer, it tells me that the file is no longer in that location and can't be copied.  Weird.
Some of the files that won't copy--no doubt a lot of them, in fact--are of no importance, but there are a handful of things there that would be nice to have back, including among them a bunch of edited files for a game that would take probably twenty to thirty hours to recreate.  It's not that I can't do that...but gosh, that's a lot of time to spend for something that ultimately is not worthwhile.  Plus there are some pictures and stuff that I would like to have back.  Not sure what to do about those, but I'll try to find someone who can help.
Is it worthwhile to recreate all those game files?  I don't know.  On the one hand I enjoy playing the game more with those edits.  On the other hand the time invested is pretty high; redoing it all seems like a waste.  How do you value time spent on something that is ultimately unproductive?  I enjoy the game, certainly, it's good recreation, but at the same time so are lots of other things.  Maybe I should just download a copy of SimCity 4 again and roll with that.

08 December 2014

Is longform blogging dead?

A friend recently asked this question on Facebook.  I noted that at the very least my own longform blogging seemed to be dead.  But the question did get me thinking. 
Meanwhile another thought occurred: when I’m writing, I generally feel better.  I’ve noticed this before but I’ve never meditated on the problem.  Do I feel better because I’m writing?  Do I write because I’m feeling better?  What the hell do I mean by better, anyway?  Isn’t this more clear in my own head than it is when I put it down on “paper” anyway?
The answer to the last question is “Yes.”  Not a surprise.  I always write for an audience, not for myself, even if, on balance, the audience I have in mind is a whole bunch of identical copies of me. 
Lately I’ve become obsessed with chicken and egg questions—what is the cause of this or that tendency or behavior pattern that I want to correct.  It’s a very handy obsession, because it’s so easy to convince myself that I can’t take any action toward changing said pattern I want to correct until I understand precisely where it comes from. 
This is a load of bull.  I’ve been seeing a therapist, just for a couple of visits to sort through some questions for myself.  My anxiety is getting worse as I get older and it’s holding me back more than it’s protecting me; I’d like to know what I can do about it.  But I feel compelled to start by asking where it comes from.  On this question my therapist’s views are clear: what’s the fucking difference?
It’s one thing if you have some hidden desperate family secret you’ve been repressing for ages, but for me, I had a typical, unexceptional childhood, marked out by certain patterns that probably affect my behavior but which don’t rise to the level of tragedy, or even to the level of mattering to anyone other than me.  So why does it matter to me? 
The bottom line is, it shouldn’t.  I don’t need to know exactly whether the egg preceded the chicken or vice versa, all I need to know is that I can fry the eggs up for breakfast and roast the chicken for dinner.  What matters is not where a behavior comes from but whether it’s worthwhile now, and if not, how to change it.  Change can come without an explicit understanding of history. 
So, do I write when I’m happy and feel like my life is going well?  Or does writing make me happy and help my life go well?  Well, who cares?  Can  I write?  Yes.  Do I want to write?  Yes.  Why don’t I?  Um…. . .  .  .   .   .    .    .     .      .       .       .

So, yeah, anyway, here’s a low-threat way to face down an anxiety and set the pattern to face down more in the future: write!  Something, at least, every day if possible.  Why shouldn’t I?  I don’t need to come up with a theme, I never had one in the past.  I just need to write.  And so write I shall.  

30 October 2014

An Old Story

I'm applying to study in Costa Rica during Spring Break next year.  The application asks a number of questions, among them the following:

The nature of study abroad programs often entails unexpected changes in schedules and activities as well as changes due to unfamiliar cultural norms. As such, an individual studying abroad should possess patience, the ability to be flexible, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Thinking about patience, flexibility, and adaptability, describe an example in your life where you demonstrated these qualities and discuss how it might relate to your experience abroad.

I'm sure they were looking for something short and sweet.  I wrote this.  Then, of course, I forgot to finish the application and the deadline closed and I was all upset, and then, glory of glories, yesterday I got an email that they'd extended the application.  Yaay!  So now I can apply and maybe have an awesome time in Costa Rica next March.  Anyway.  I reread this little ditty and it reminded me of a very wonderful trip I took long ago.  I thought it was a charming enough story, so here it is:

I was visiting Carnac, France, and had spent an afternoon walking amongst the stones, and was due to catch a bus back to the train station in Auray, about 20 km up the road.  I stood at the stop where I had gotten off the bus that morning...but of course the bus was northbound, now, and thus on the other side of the road, and though there was no bus stop sign over there the bus did not stop for me.  It didn't stop at all, in fact, just drove on by, since no one was waiting by the road.  This could be a serious problem; I had very limited French language skills, no personal contacts at all, and no idea how I was supposed to get where I was going--I was expecting to spend the night in the Quimper, a two-hour train ride away.  What to do?

I hadn't been by the center of town, but I assumed there might be a tourist information center, so I started walking.  I walked back through the standing stones and around the north side of town, because I had no idea which direction to go.  Finally I saw a street sign indicating the center of town, and I headed that way.  On my way I passed by a sign in someone's front yard: taxi.  I didn't stop.  I went into town and saw the museum dedicated to the stones (closed, as it was an off-season weekday), and the tourist bureau, which was also closed.  The sign said it would re-open in a couple of hours, but by that time my train was going to have left.  I was starting to think I needed to find a place to stay the night, and then I remembered the taxi sign.

I walked back up the road.  I didn't speak French and didn't know this person and couldn't have been farther outside my comfort zone, but I knocked on the front door.  In halting French I explained that I missed my bus and needed a ride to the train in Auray.  I'm sure it came out like "no bus I was missing Auray train station.  Please."  The gentleman looked at me, then put up a finger, telling me to wait.  He reappeared after a moment with a young girl, maybe 12 years old.  "English?" she said.  I explained what had happened. Then I stopped myself and explained it again more slowly.  She smiled and translated for us.  Her father would take me, it would be 40 francs (this was in the pre-Euro days, when a franc was worth about 1/7 of a dollar), but he would need two minutes.  Then he disappeared.  His daughter stood in the doorway and looked at me.  "Did you lose your way?" she asked.  I smiled nervously. "I just didn't make it to the bus on time."  "I won't be able to ride to Auray with you," she said, and then disappeared, leaving me standing at an open front door.  Was I supposed to go in?  Stay out?  Close the door either way?

Soon enough her father reappeared and with a great deal of gesturing and smiling pointed me toward the car, which said TAXI on it in foot-high letters; evidently, assuming that anyone who doesn't speak your language is a bit slow is a trait that crosses cultural barriers.  We got in; he said grandly "Le gare d'Auray!" with a fluttering hand motion like a plane taking off, and we departed.  He talked much of the way, and eventually I started trying to respond, with gestures and flourishes mostly.  He would repeat things if I didn't seem to understand, and I would respond in English, and he would look at me instead of the road and really examine me like he would find the meaning of the words written on my face.  Then he'd look back at the road, swerve suddenly to avoid whatever was in the way (something always was), and laugh uproariously.  It was without question the best cab ride I've ever had.  I still don't know what we talked about, but we made great sport of the traffic and agreed that McDonald's (McDo) is not so good.  We made it to Auray with about 10 minutes to spare; I gave the man 100 francs and we were each on our separate ways.

So, what is the point of this whole story?  Only this: keep an open mind and be willing to do uncomfortable things.  Travel requires as much.

31 May 2014

Just a morning rant

This working poor stuff has long since worn thin; earning enough to cover bills and naught else is really not enjoyable, and this morning I just need to vent.

Earlier this year after I'd bought the house and settled in things were looking good: my job paid well enough for me to actually eat out from time to time, go have beers with friends like once a week, that sort of thing, and I had put together a savings plan and some financial goals for the year, and it really looked like it was going to work.  I wanted three months' expenses set aside in one account, and in two other savings accounts I was putting money so I could travel (two exotic trips, to Virginia and Ohio), buy a sound bar (I'm tired of listening to music through my television speakers, so I don't listen to music any more; my ex-wife sold my old speaker set at a garage sale and I can't for the life of me imagine why I let her), pay for a personal trainer certification course, and other small things.

And the thing is I just about got all three accounts filled up.  The two-months-expenses one is good.  The savings for travel and other things are basically where I want them; I overestimated travel expenses and other costs so that, even though I'm about 10% shy in both accounts, I think I'll be good.  And I've got some cash stashed away for the travel expenses that probably more than makes up the shortfall.

Of course, I could just turn all the money out of all three accounts and finally pay off the goddamn credit card (I finally made the last payment on the second one earlier this year, hooray), but what is the point of this life if I can't get out of town once in a while?  Well, that's the nature of low income.  You don't get to do the stuff you want.  Piss.

And of course, I went and bought a new mattress a couple months ago.  Wasn't planning to do that, either, but it became obvious that my old mattress was the cause (or at least a cause) of my back and neck pain.  And it was expensive, and I'm still paying for it, and it was sooooo worth it.  The new mattress is fantastic.  I love it.  It hasn't helped with the anxiety and stress that keep me from sleeping well most nights, but I don't wake up in pain any more, and it's hard to put a price on that.  But there was a price on it, and I'm still paying it.

Nonetheless, with a new roommate helping me pay for the mortgage and bills, my savings accounts look good enough that I've been seriously shopping for a new bike.  My current bike is a ten-year-old mountain bike, but I don't trail ride any more and don't care to.  I'm going to use the bike as a daily commuter to campus, and have been thinking it would be nice to have a more efficient one, something designed for roads where the high gears are actually, you know, high gears, and where the top speed is better than 20 mph at full tilt.

Road bikes are expensive.  You can find some really cheap ones on line for as little as $300 from Bikes Direct.  And they are worth $300.  According to most of the reviews they'll get you about 1000 miles.  They are intended as "intro" bikes for new riders who will either ride for a while and decide they don't like it, or will quickly want to upgrade to a better machine.  I'm not the target consumer there; 1000 miles is somewhat less than one year's commuting (assuming I bike in 4 days a week), which means sometime next spring I must either buy another $300 bike or replace all the components on the old one.  That just doesn't make sense.

And I thought to myself, you know, I just spent $350 I didn't have on a brake job on my car.  My whole goal here is to put more miles on the bike around town in the next year than on the car.  Shouldn't I at least consider spending more than $300 on my daily commuter?  That doesn't seem unreasonable, right?  I plan to ride this thing almost every day and use it as my primary transportation.  My car cost me 16 times as much and I have to put $40 worth of dead dinosaurs in it every week (which is over $2,000 a year) and pay hundreds more in additional maintenance a few times a year, just to keep it running.  Cars are terrible investments.  By comparison it would be crazy not to buy a good bike.

I can get a very good road bike that will last me for many years and be an efficient and useful daily commuter from the bike shop on my delivery route, for about a grand (or half the cost of gas for a year). If I hadn't had to replace the car's brakes I'd have a third of that price in savings right now.  But I don't.  And if I hadn't replaced the mattress I'd have the rest of that money in savings right now, too.  But I don't.  And again, while I don't regret either of those purchases (it's hard to regret replacing your car's brakes, you know?) it does make it tough to justify spending any money at all on a new bicycle when I have an old bicycle.  It doesn't really meet my needs, but it exists.  If I'd paid off my divorce debt entirely already and not gone to Mexico in the spring on last fall's savings, I wouldn't be worrying about this, I suppose.  It's not that I've spent money on things I wish I hadn't; it's that I wish I hadn't NEEDED to spend money on some of those things.

It's been seven years now since I earned enough money that I wasn't constantly doing this simple calculus.  This is why I'm going back to school.  My job prospects seem limited to the exact sort of dead-endery I've been doing the last several years.  Oh sure, I could have stayed at the factory and after five years been earning more than enough, but the intervening time would still be fraught with this constant cost-benefit analysis and the necessary choices to give up things I want to do for things I have to do.  And I don't want to work in a factory on the night shift for the rest of my life.  Or drive a FedEx truck.

And I'm rich by the standards of my neighborhood!  Hell, many of my neighbors make 2/3 of what I make, or less.  I know how they manage it; I know I could manage it.  I've done it.  I don't want to anymore.

But what really got me pissed this morning... I mean, these things are all true, and that's what life is, and I live with that every day because honestly it's way better than the alternative, so it's really not something I normally feel the need to rant about.  It's frustrating, finances are frustrating when you don't make much, but it's hardly impossible.  There's lots of stuff I'd like to do and lots of it simply will not get done, probably ever.  Living with that reality is shite, but it's shite I'm used to and it's what most people deal with on one level or another.  What's interesting after a few years of this is how different the things I want to do but can't are than they used to be; when I was comfortable (back in my USAF days) I wanted to rip out my kitchen and take a rally-driving school in New Hampshire, things with five and two thousand dollar price tags, respectively.  Now I want to finish putting ornamental grasses in the front yard and take a trip to Cedar Point, things with $100 and $450 price tags.

No, what pissed me off this morning is piss.  Specifically cat piss.  On my nice couch.

It's not enough that he pissed on the guest mattress some months ago.  He got himself locked in the guest room while I was on an overnight trip, and obviously at some point he had to pee.  Okay.  He peed directly on the large pile of clothes (including a suit and several old flight suits) and also peed in nine other discreet locations around the bed.  The entire mattress is trashed.  I haven't replaced it yet because I can't justify spending hundreds of dollars on a mattress that's going to get slept on at most ten nights out of the year.  I need to find a $100 mattress somewhere, maybe Sears Outlet or Big Lots, but with those places I also have to get the damn thing home.

But the couch?  Why my fucking couch?  What is the bastard's problem?  He's done this once before, after we moved into the apartment in Greenville.  I chalked it up to his being scared in a new home and went out and bought this current couch, which is frankly better in every way anyway (but wasn't too expensive).

It's not a medical issue.  He goes outside most of the time, and is perfectly capable of using his litter box; he also doesn't habitually pee on furniture.  But all three couch cushions right now smell like cat piss.  I don't know when he did it or why, but suffice to say he had no reason to.  He gets fed more than enough and any time he wants it; has a clean litter box; gets to spend most of his day outside if he wants or stay in if he'd prefer; he even has a new human around to give him extra scritches and cuddles.  The thanks I get is a comfortable and essentially brand new couch that now smell like fucking cat piss.

I can't afford a new couch.  But I can't even sit on my nice comfy couch any more because of the smell.  Where the fuck is that money supposed to come from?  Seriously.  If I was really poor I'd just have to live with it, but thankfully I can at least fathom the idea of taking all the money out of savings to replace something that was brand new two years ago and should have been able to last twenty more.  And of course that's put the kibosh on the new bike idea, if not on Cedar Point as well.  So it goes.

Money is always spent before it's earned.  Maybe earning more isn't the answer.  Maybe I shouldn't go back to school at all, but just sell everything I own and backpack around the world on tramp steamers and stay in hostels until all the money runs out and I mooch off of relatives and friends for the rest of my life.  That sounds pretty nice, actually.

So who has a couch I can crash on?