Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer of pests!

I planned this summer’s vegetable garden carefully last spring.  I've mostly grown vegetables in pots before but made a raised bed this year on the side of the house where it gets a lot of summer sun, and even ordered some different seed varieties from a Burpee catalog.  And after reading some books about organic gardening I tried to go easy on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the results were disappointing.  Apparently I'm not the only one who wants to eat what I'm growing!  Here's the run-down of what I grew and the problems I had.

Burpee calls the "Oasis hybrid turnip" a "salad turnip," and they taste like radishes only milder.  Jamie liked them better than I did (I thought they had a bit of an aftertaste) but maybe I'll try them again this fall.

Some carrots and parsnips from spring were very slow growing and still ended up small, but they were delicious oven-roasted with rosemary fresh from the garden and store-bought potatoes and red onions.  This fall I'll try a shorter parsnip (and plant earlier) and see if that works any better.

I was really looking forward to the "Purple Dragon" carrots.  The picture in the catalog shows the purple color almost into the center, but mine only had purple skin and were either orange or yellow inside.  They tasted kind of bitter when eaten raw, but were better steamed.

I forgot to take a picture of the "Sweet Zuke” zucchini.  They tasted good (roasted, above) but weren't as slender as what I've grown before.  I might include one "Sweet Zuke" plant next year, but I'll probably go back to planting a couple of the regular zucchini.

I was also looking forward to the "Fortex" green beans.  They grow about 8" long, are fatter and meatier, and have a really good flavor.  I don't think they bear as heavily as some newer varieties but unfortunately the pests beat me to them most of the time.

The Fortex beans are the bigger ones on the left.  I also planted some tricolor bush beans from a Renee's Garden packet.

Although they didn't eat the actual beans, caterpillars were out of control.  I'm definitely picking up a Bt spray before my fall garden gets growing.

Lot's of these little worms...

... and a few of these monsters.
Maddie and I fed the caterpillars we found to the 'blue-belly' lizards.

This 'alligator' lizard was missing part of his tail.  Some had really pretty red markings.
The worst pest turned out to be rats!  Not only did they eat a LOT of beans but ALL the tomatoes!  They're not the big Norway rats but a smaller (and cuter) variety I've heard called "tree rats."  I killed 7 or 8 but the snap traps only worked for a little while, and the Rat Zapper was a total failure – except as a rat feeder!  I don't want to use poison because of the neighbor's dog (and the owls we sometimes see), so I'm open to suggestions.

I love you Remy, but Emile and the others are NOT welcome!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Why read history?

"I am skeptical about the idea that we can learn much from history, at least in the sense that knowledge of past follies will prevent us from making similar blunders in the future...  And yet it is important to know what happened before, and to try and make sense of it.  For if we don't, we cannot understand our own times."

I was surprised to see such a statement at the beginning of a book about history.  We often think 'those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,' and yet it seems pretty obvious we're not learning the lessons history teaches.  To see it put so profoundly in writing was a pleasant affirmation, for me at least.  And making some sense of what happened seems to be a recurrent theme in Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma (which I received from Amazon Vine).

The world was a very different place after the Second World War.  Not only had the conflict touched so many places around the globe, but news of the atrocities committed deeply shocked and embarrassed people.  Some had cause to celebrate and others to fear and mourn.  Cities lay in ruins and people were starving.  Governments were changed – not just in Germany and Japan – but all of Continental Europe and most of Asia, colonies teetered on the brink of collapse, and the United Nations was created.  Buruma looks around the world and catalogs what happened by topic: hunger, revenge, displaced persons, what became of collaborators, reeducation, and sex (not just rape but also prostitution, which was sometimes engaged in for profit and sometimes to feed starving children at home).  It's not always a celebratory view with the victors, but often a detailing of the suffering and uncertainty of those whose lives had been upended by such a world-wide calamity.

And yet, in spite of the often dismal history it recounts, Buruma does a fascinating job of telling the story and showing all sides such that you gain a better understanding of the time and place.  His judgments are always tempered by an explanation of the conditions and why things happened the way they did – right or wrong – and is a more balanced and global view than The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (which I should review soon).  And while this is ostensibly “a history of 1945,” Buruma expands his scope where appropriate and necessary.  The narrative is replete with individual stories of those who lived it, as well as that of his Dutch father who was forced into labor by the Germans, and serves to personalize the tragedy in small ways.  I found it to be a sobering yet worthwhile account, and yet it not only helps to make sense of the world that was built on the ruins, but sometimes I think I see even more modern parallels.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Your worst nightmare?

Do you like scary movies?  I do, but I don't care for the 'slasher' movies that are so common and rely mostly on gore.  I much prefer a clever movie that creeps you out with something that's vague and unknown, kind of like "The Village" or "The Grudge;" or a good ghost story like "Poltergeist."  "Jaws" is another great scary movie, because – although highly unlikely – it is possible, and you don't always see the shark coming.  But watching a movie is safe.  You watch from the couch or a seat in the theater, and the fright will all be over in a couple of hours.  It's the real world that is a scary place.  And I'm not talking about sharks or ghosts or even crazy people.

One of the smallest things in the world is a virus.  Some scientists don't even consider viruses to be truly alive, because they need the right host to do anything.  But when a virus gets inside it can cause big problems.  We're most familiar with viruses like influenza, which can kill but seldom does, and usually just makes you feel lousy for a week.  But others, like filoviruses (thread viruses), are truly scary and there's no vaccine or cure, and many researchers are afraid to even work with them.  They go by names like Marburg and Ebola, and they'll do to your body in a week or two what it takes the AIDS virus 10 years – and you never saw it coming.

Richard Preston explains what it's like to get Marburg in his book The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, through the story of "Charles Monet" (a pseudonym) who likely got the virus while visiting the amazing Kitum Cave on Mount Elgon in Kenya.  It starts with a severe headache and backache, and progresses to vomiting, diarrhea, and red eye.  It ends particularly horribly in what is called "crash and bleed out" about ten days later, and I'll spare you the details of that.  In addition to Marburg, Preston describes the closely-related viruses Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan, and death rates for these tiny monsters range from 50% to 90% and have wiped out entire villages in central Africa even though it doesn't appear they can spread through the air.  But Africa is a long ways away.  Could a filovirus end up here?  In October 1989 one was found only 15 miles outside Washington DC.  The Reston virus, as it is known, appeared to be 100% fatal in monkeys that were imported from the Philippines and were destined for laboratories around the country.  Most frightening, it appears that the virus easily became airborne and even spread to people.

Preston has a novelist's flair in his writing, and some critics accuse him of sensationalizing and exaggerating the history, but it's considered non-fiction.  And just like his book The Demon in the Freezer (about the smallpox virus), I could hardly put it down and finished in just a couple of days.  And it's scary enough that even horror-writer Stephen King said "The first chapter... is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life... and then it gets worse.  That's what I keep marveling over: it keeps getting worse."  So, if you like a good scare once in a while this book will provide it for you.  And hopefully you'll recover after a few weeks.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hero worship, sports, and Mormons

Sports is often a big part of youth and sometimes adulthood – at least for boys and men.  Growing up in Salt Lake we didn't have any professional teams, so for various reasons I became a fan of the Cowboys (football) and the Astros (baseball) and I practically worshipped guys like Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Harvey Martin, Nolan Ryan, and of course – my hero – J. R. Richard.  It wasn't until the Jazz moved to Utah that we had a pro basketball team, and it wasn't until the mid 90s that they became a great team with guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, and Mark Eaton.  And it was a lot of fun following them – very stressful, at times, too! – but I remember one place I worked, every morning after a game, we'd all stand up and discuss the game over the cubicle walls.  We felt like the team put Utah on the map and it gave us a lot of pride.

So I can relate completely to John Moody when he writes about the team of his youth in Kiss It Good-Bye: The Mystery, The Mormon, and the Moral of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates hadn't been a winning team until they won the World Series in 1960, beating the Yankees, and a big part of their success that season was due to a pitcher named Vernon Law.  Law was a Mormon from Idaho whose fastball and clean living set a great example – especially for a boy like Moody – and the hard-working "iron man" once pitched 18 innings in a single game.  But in the revelry following winning the National League pennant, some drunken and rough-housing teammates injured Law's ankle.  In spite of the painful injury he won Games 1 and 4 of the Series, but by Game 7 it became apparent that it was affecting his pitching.  Because he had to adjust his delivery, it also caused him a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, and his career never really recovered.

First let me clarify that Moody is not a Mormon; he is simply a great admirer of Vernon Law.  He explains a lot about the Mormon Church, and not only does he get it right, he is also very admiring of Law's religious beliefs.  But in spite of his hero-worship, the book is about more than just Law; it's about a team that pulled together and did something unexpected, as well as a story about the smoky town of Pittsburgh which didn't get a lot of respect back then.  It's also his own story of growing up in "Steel-town," and it all comes together in a book that anyone who's ever had a sports hero can relate to.  At first, his condescending comparisons of players and kids then and now was annoying, but he had some valid points.  And the chapter where he chronicles the Series was told with such excitement that I could barely put the book down.  I'm not sure how important or well-known of a "mystery" it was over who caused the injury to Law, but I found the book to be a fun, easy, and nostalgic read.  Even though 1960 was way before my time, I could easily relate to the worship of a sports hero, and the way a favorite team gave a small city something to cheer for.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Three words you never want to hear

As a teenager I never would have guessed history could be so interesting. I've enjoyed a lot of books about events like the American Revolution and World War II, but was surprised at how interesting the history of a disease could be. Wars might affect a large group of people, but sickness and disease can affect almost anyone at any time. I've previously reviewed some histories about smallpox, tuberculosis, and the discovery of insulin as well as a couple that dealt with cancer, but the most recent was The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Science-writer George Johnson and his wife heard three words that changed their lives – "you have cancer" – when she was diagnosed with a metastatic uterine form of the disease. As a result, Johnson embarked on a quest to learn everything he could about cancer and has written an interesting overview of what is known, which turns out to be less than you might hope. Cancer has been around a very long time, and evidence of it has even been found in dinosaur fossils. In fact, it has been with mankind as long as we've been here, but if it seems to be increasing more recently it's only because we're living longer. With some cruel exceptions, cancer is mostly a disease of older people but, beyond age, the only other reliable factors that can be said to cause cancer are smoking and obesity.

If you're looking for a positive, upbeat, "let's beat cancer!" kind of book, this probably isn't it. Johnson says that while we've made significant strides, our understanding of why it happens and how to treat it still has a long way to go. The never-ending parade of stories we see in the news reporting the latest "cancer-busting superfood" are usually taking results from research out of context. Often studies are flawed and inconclusive, and even conclusions that eating more fruits and vegetables will prevent cancer do not hold up under more rigorous testing. There is some positive correlation that exercise and maintaining a healthy body and diet helps, but the benefits are often small. And as he discusses the effects of drinking water tainted with chemical pollutants he illustrates very well why it is so difficult to prove causation. Even if a specific chemical or activity can be linked to a 30% increase in cancer (which sounds very dramatic), if your odds were only 1.2% in the beginning it only translates to new odds of 1.56%, which is still within normal and random variations. (See the Toms River book for an excellent account of why it is so difficult to conclusively link environmental concerns with cancer.) Even exposure to radiation isn't as cut and dried as you might think and he says that predictions of mass cancer following Chernobyl didn't happen.

This is an informative book but often the information is thrown at the reader in a rapid-fire listing of facts and figures that make it hard to absorb much, and I frequently felt like I was in a whirlwind of data trying to make sense of too much random information. Still, it's a sobering overview of the current status of cancer research and isn't a bad introduction, and the story of his wife's cancer added a human element to the narrative. I still have Siddhartha Mukherjee's book on my reading list, and I'll let you know how that one is once I get around to it, but for now this one was pretty good.