Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Bioluminescent Mushroom

This morning I stopped by the Cornell Mushroom Blog, one of my favorite mycophile sites. The latest post features a short video of a mushroom known as Panellus stypticus as it responds to darkness by displaying an unearthly green glow. I wonder why this fungus has evolved this trait? Perhaps to attract some night-flying disseminator of spores? Here’s a screenshot:

Glowing mushroom

If you would like to see the video just click on the link below. You might have to right-click on the video screen and select “Refresh”, as the video is short and it may have played before you scroll down to it:

Evening Glow At Cornell

While you are at the site check out the archives of past articles. Kathie Hodge and her students have posted many accessible and interesting articles about the world of fungi.

Larry

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Filed under Natural History

John Heywood, Collector of Aphorisms

Have you ever heard of this author? I never had, but somehow I ended up at this page at Bartleby.com:

John Heywood (1497?-1580?)

The page is an excerpt from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations; it’s just a list of common sayings and proverbs collected by Heywood back in his pre-industrial era. I was surprised to see how many of those proverbs are still commonly used, both vocally and in print. A few examples:

Haste maketh waste.

The fat is in the fire.

When the sunne shineth, make hay.

While betweene two stooles my taile goe to the ground.

When the steede is stolne, shut the stable durre.

As you can readily see, Heywood was writing before English spelling had been standardised! To me, the archaic spelling gives his aphorisms a certain antique charm.

William Shakespeare was familiar with Heywood’s collection, which was a best-seller in its time.

John Heywood was also a playwright. I got a kick out of this quatrain from his play Be Merry Friends:

    
   Let the world slide, let the world go;
A fig for care, and a fig for woe!
If I can’t pay, why I can owe,
And death makes equal the high and low.

Larry

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Filed under Books

A Possibly Useful Word

There are plenty of obscure and little-used English words out there, but most aren’t very useful for a writer who would like to be understood by a reasonably well-educated reader.

It isn’t often that I encounter a word which I’ve never seen before but which I’m also tempted to use. The other day I was rereading an unusual book by the Italian chemist and holocaust survivor Primo Levi; the title is The Periodic Table and I highly recommend it.

Here’s the passage which piqued my interest:

[…] , and the premonition of imminent catastrophe condensed like grumous dew in the houses and streets, in wary conversations and dozing consciences.

The word grumous intrigued me. I liked the sound of it and tried to imagine what it might mean.

Just then my attention was distracted by a soft and susurrant sound coming from an adjacent wall. I looked up and was surprised to see the surface of the white-painted gypsum-and-paper wall cladding was rippling in a radial pattern! I couldn’t look away, thinking “What might this curious circumstance portend?”

With a muted popping sound a winged reptilian creature took form before me. It looked disgruntled and balefully regarded me with yellow-tinged eyes.

“I had a devil of a time finding you, Larry! I stopped by your building in Hannibal but you were nowhere to be found. How’d you end up in another state and another town?”

The creature was my old friend the Dictionary Demon, a tireless and skillful seeker of word definitions. I said:

“Oh, it’s a long story, demon. Hey, as long as you’re here, why don’t you soar out across the Sea of Words and find me a definition?”

Due to its long scaly snout, the demon’s smile resembled the smile of a dog.

“Can do! What’s the word this time?”

“The word is grumous.”

Once again the wall rippled and the demon was gone.

I returned to my morning routine, drinking coffee and seeing what was new out on the web.

A few minutes passed by; once again the wall rippled but this time the demon didn’t appear. A neat packet took form and dropped into my lap. It appeared to be wrapped in paw paw leaves stitched together with spider silk. Using a small pair of scissors I snipped the minute stitches and unrolled the vellum scroll I found within. Inscribed upon the scroll were these definitions:

Grumous \Gru”mous\, a. [Cf. F. grumeleux. See {Grume}.]
1. Resembling or containing grume; thick; concreted; clotted;
as, grumous blood.

grumous
adj 1: transformed from a liquid into a soft semisolid or solid
mass; “coagulated blood”; “curdled milk”; “grumous blood”
[syn: {coagulate}, {coagulated}, {curdled}, {grumous},
{grumose}]

grume
n 1: a thick viscous liquid
2: a semisolid mass of coagulated red and white blood cells
[syn: {blood clot}, {grume}]

How interesting! Now I want to use that word…

Larry

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Filed under General and Local

No Eclipse This Year!

Early Tuesday morning I was standing out in the street here in Quincy, craning my neck and regarding with some annoyance a featureless overcast sky. I had hoped to see and photograph the total lunar eclipse, the first one in a long time to occur on the Winter Solstice.

Oh, well, at least I had a good view of the last such celestial event back in 2008!

I consoled myself by looking (with a bit of envy) at photos taken from more favored locations. You can see a nice selection here:

Spaceweather.com

Larry

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Filed under General and Local, Natural History

A Quote From Scott Adams

Scott Adams is the creator of the surreal syndicated comic strip Dilbert, the strip which pokes fun at the stresses and indignities of modern corporate cubicle life. His subject matter is so far removed from my life that it might as well be science fiction, but I do enjoy Adams’ humor.

Adams writes for a blog which is available from his web-site. The posts are well-written and self-deprecating essays — somehow I get the feeling that he spends more time writing blog posts than he does working on the strip. Here’s a quote from a post which appeared on November 8th:

If you live in the United States, you probably have an opinion on the best way to reduce the deficit. And you probably know almost nothing about the topic. I certainly fall into that category.

If you listen to pundits and politicians, you’re getting your information from professional liars. If you’re reading books, you’re getting your information from professional liars who also write well. If you read newspapers and magazines, you’re getting only the information that someone has decided will be good for sales. If you say you “do your own research,” you’re probably a liar, possibly an idiot, and maybe some sort of analytical genius. And frankly, I can’t tell you guys apart.

Prior to the last presidential election, as a public service, I commissioned my own survey of economists to see what they thought of the big issues. I learned that the experts are all over the map on most questions. Can you feel comfortable holding an opinion in which 40% of the experts disagree?

The blog is where Adams can say things which would not be acceptable in a newspaper, for various reasons. The archives of the blog can be read here:

Scott Adams’ Blog

Take a look!

Larry

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Filed under Essays and Articles

Lookin’ For Geminids

Early this morning was supposed to be the peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower, but unfortunately it’s two degrees F. outside. The up side is that cold nights often have rock-steady and clear skies, if you can bear being out under them in such malign conditions.

I went to sleep at about midnight last night hoping that I’d have to get up to pee sometime during the wee hours of Tuesday morning. My wish came true, and after voiding my bladder I put on a jacket and stepped outside to see what was up, so to speak. It was 4:30 AM. The twin stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini were near the zenith. This pair of stars is striking; they are bright and they’re about two inches apart at arm’s length; i.e., if I hold my thumb and forefinger two inches apart and extend my arm, Castor would be by my forefinger and Pollux near my thumb.

I saw one bright meteor flash by, but when it’s that cold ten minutes is about my limit if I’m not walking.

I slept for a while, then got up again at about 5:30, just before dawn. This time I saw two nice meteor trails, but clouds were beginning to move in so I called it a morning.

Here’s what I could have seen had I been very lucky and had happened to be in a desert region with perfect night-time skies. This photo was taken by Wally Pacholka during another Geminid shower:

Pacholka Image

There’s always next year!

Larry

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Filed under Natural History, Quincy

Meb and Jay

The other day I happened to think about a couple of craftsmen who had an influence upon me many years ago. Both of them were retired men who spent their days in their shops, doing some paying work and a certain amount of just plain tinkering. These guys just didn’t want to sit at home during their declining years — perhaps their wives preferred it that way. In a small town a shop is also a social gathering place, almost exclusively for men. A comparison could be made with the role of the barbershop as a male social venue in small-town America during the past couple of centuries.

I’ll write first about Meb, a rather surly and crotchety old guy who once had a shop in Bethel, MO. I first met him during the late 1970s when I was a young and inexperienced carpenter and woodworker. At the time I was working with Kent, a neighbor who had moved to rural Missouri, as I had, during one of the periodic revivals of primitivist “back to the land” thinking.

One day Kent said to me as we drove into Bethel, “Larry, you gotta meet Meb. His shop is really cool and he can make about anything out of wood or metal.”

We parked in front of a shabby-looking old building which had wooden garage doors. There was no sign to indicate what went on within.

Kent warned me as we approached the door: “Now, Meb doesn’t act very friendly and he can be insulting, but he don’t mean anything by it. Don’t take it personally, okay?”

The shop was dimly lit and the corners and shelves were piled with all sorts of intriguing things, such as half-built pieces of furniture, old tools, and parts of machinery. A thickly-built man in overalls glanced at us as we gingerly stepped around odd artifacts and assemblages.

So this was Meb. He snarled “So what are you two young idjits doin’ here?”

Meb never smiled; he aways seemed to have a frown on his face. Kent said “Oh, we just wanted to see what you’ve been up to. This is Larry; we work together off and on.”

Meb dismissively said “Hmph.”

In an undertone Kent said to me, “He really doesn’t want us to leave — I know he likes to have company.” I was dubious.

It was fascinating looking around that shop. The centerpiece was an ancient metal lathe which must have dated from the teens or twenties, or even earlier. It had originally been a treadle lathe, powered by the operator’s feet, but it had been outfitted with a greasy old electric motor, probably when electric power first came to Bethel back in the forties. The lathe’s legs were cast iron from an age when machine castings were given ornamental swoops and curlicues. Some nameless patternmaker had evidently indulged his fancy when designing those legs.

Meb was using that lathe when we walked in. It was the first time I had ever seen a metal lathe in action. Meb was turning down a steel rod which looked like a shaft for some machine. The curls of iron cascaded greasily from the small cutting tool, which was rigidly held in a holder which traveled back and forth along a threaded rod. Heaps of shining shavings were piled in drifts beneath the machine.

Kent and I visited Meb’s shops several times during the next couple of years, though I never really got to know the man. He wasn’t a talkative or confiding sort of man, but occasionally I would think I saw the faintest glimmer of a smile, just a slight lifting of the corners of his mouth.

Meb died a few years after I met him. Then I met a retired Navy machinist named Jay, an altogether more friendly character. He had a shop in Shelbyville, the next town south of Bethel. Somehow Jay had ended up with Meb’s old metal lathe; perhaps he bought it at Meb’s estate auction.

Jay was a rather short, wiry, and energetic man, and when a project interested him he’d go after it like a beagle at a rabbit-hole. The converse of this was that if he couldn’t get interested in, say, a mundane repair job, he’d put it off. He really didn’t need the money, so local farmers and hot-rodders would be extra-friendly and hang around the shop, hoping their project would rise to the top of the list. If Jay needed a piece of steel or a tool from Quincy there was no shortage of volunteers:

“Yeah, Jay, I’m goin’ to town the day after tomorrow — I’ll pick it up for you!”

Unlike Meb, Jay was exclusively a metal-worker. Aside from the lathe, he had an assortment of old milling machines, surface grinders, and other metal-shaping tools, most of which had lived out their early years in factories. Jay was a wizard with a stick-welder and acetylene torch. I appreciated that he didn’t mind loitering and curious visitors looking over his shoulder.

Much of his work involved farm machinery, and local farmers often stopped by his shop:

“Howdy, Jay, didja get my baler bearing pressed in?”

“Aw, gol-durnit, that one slipped my mind! Where’d I put that thing? Here, come help me look for it under this bench…”

I’d always learn something during casual visits to either Meb or Jay’s shop. Jay has also passed away, and we’ll never see their like again.

Larry

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Filed under Recollections