technology

Government, 1070, Rights, and Public Funds

When is it legitimate to spend public funds? A story in today’s Arizona Daily Star starts out: “The state’s tourism industry has come up with the answer to fighting the boycotts over the new immigration law. Better public relations.” The law in question SB 1070 “Requires a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.”

The image problem is perceived to harm Arizona industries. The Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association is putting up $30,000 for a PR campaign. That’s all well and good. However, the State of Arizona is contributing $250,000 of public funds to the campaign. That is not well and good in my opinion. I do not think public funds should be spent to aid private enterprise (are you reading Mr. President?). That includes building phantom hotels and sports stadiums. The framers of the Arizona Constitution apparently agree. Article IX, Section 7, the so-called gift clause, states plainly: “Neither the state, nor any county, city, town, municipality, or other subdivision of the state shall ever give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation ….” Had Pima County obeyed this law we would not now be stuck with the mortgage and maintenance costs of Tucson Electric Park, now that major league baseball has abandoned Tucson due to municipal largesse of other cities.

Another nit to pick. An Op-Ed in the Star this morning, written by the First Amendment Center, urges us to celebrate the First Amendment on our Nation’s birthday, as well we should. However, a sentence in the article gave me pause: “The five freedoms guaranteed there gave Americans the right to speak out against injustice, to report about inequality, to protest and petition, and to draw strength from freedom of faith.”

What’s wrong with that? Maybe is was just a rhetorical error, or lazy thinking, or, more ominously a reflection of philosophy. The problem I have with that statement is the word “gave.” Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” The First Amendment does not “give” us the “five freedoms,” We had those already. The First Amendment prohibits the government from denying us those freedoms. The distinction is a matter of who is the servant and who is the master.

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Bureaucracy Bungling Gulf Oil Spill Cleanup

As crude oil washes over Gulf beaches, the federal bureaucracy is denying use of effective tools to mitigate damage. Sitting in Norfolk, Virginia, a converted oil tanker is awaiting permission to go to the gulf to help clean up the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon break.

The ship, called the S.S. A-Whale, a giant oil tanker, was built in South Korea, modified in Portugal, is owned by Taiwanese, and flagged in Liberia. Hence its use is stopped by the Jones Act which has yet to be waived to allow foreign ships to help. This ship has the capacity to gather up 500,000 barrels of oil a day from surface waters. To put that in perspective, the current government authorized fleet has taken 70 days to collect 600,000 barrels of oil.

The ship works as a skimmer gathering oil, separating oil from water, storing the oil, and discharging the residue. Trouble is, the residue contains a little more than the 15 parts per million oil that the EPA permits to be discharged. But rules are rules.

See more on the Gulf and the bureaucracy.

More on Mesquite

A reader of my recent article Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy, offered some speculative information about the Hohokam uses of Mesquite trees.

The Hohokam were native people who occupied Arizona from near Flagstaff, south to the Mexican border, during the period approximately 200 B.C. to 1450 A.D. They built an extensive network of canals near what is now Phoenix.

Richard D. Fisher, who apparently is a writer on archaeological subjects, speculates that the Hohokam built their canal network specifically to grow mesquite trees.

“The Hohokam canal system was probably built primarily for the cultivation of a mesquite bosque. It has been long questioned why the Hohokam built such an extensive system on one of the saltiest rivers in North America. Bean and especially corn cultivation is moderately to severely impacted by saline water and salinity. Mesquite is not impacted by levels of salinity found in the Salt River basin. My observation is that the Hohokam’s primary reason was to grow mesquite in the “delta” shaped canal system and mesquite conditioned the soil for corn and beans with nitrogen and shade temperature reduction, and moderated freeze sensitivity in the winter.”

“The Hohokam would have always faced the challenge of soil salinity, yet they farmed the same region for more than a thousand years, indicating that they understood how to deal with soil salinity — through the flushing of soils, leaving certain tracts fallow, alternating crop types planted, and other soil management techniques. Mesquite comprises approximately 50% of the archaeological record as compared to corn and beans.” He also proposes that the so-called “ballcourts” found among Hohokam ruins were in fact fertilizer dehydration basins.

Mr. Fisher provided reference to two webpages to further his thesis: see here and here.

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

The ethnobotany of Mesquite trees is extensive. The trees provide food, medicine, beverages, glue, hair dye, firewood, and furniture. Mesquites coevolved with large herbivores such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths, which ate the pods and dispersed them widely. When these Pleistocene animals became extinct, mesquites retreated to flood plains and washes where water and weathering scarified the seeds and aided germination. The introduction of cattle helped to expand the range of mesquites once again.

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Use as food

Mesquite beans are usually harvested after they turn hard and golden. Both the pods and the seeds (which are very tough) are ground into meal. The native people sprinkled the ground meal with a little water to form small, round cakes. Later, slices of dried cake were fried like mush, used to thicken stews, or eaten raw. The meal is also used as flour to make flat bread. Mesquite meal is gluten free.

The pods of mesquite beans are very sweet and the sweetness comes from fructose which doesn’t require insulin to be metabolized. The seeds contain about 35% protein, much more than soybeans. Mesquite pods contain about 25% fiber. Some research suggests that mesquite meal, with a low glycemic index of 25, helps regulate blood sugar.

Mesquite flour is used to make a refreshing drink. If allowed to ferment, a mixture of water and mesquite flour produces a fizzy alcoholic drink.

Mesquite flowers are collected and boiled to make tea. The flowers are also roasted and pressed into balls as another food source.

The pharmacy

The black tar or sap of mesquite trees can be boiled and diluted with water to make eye wash and an antiseptic for open wounds. It was also used on sore lips, chapped skin, as a sunburn lotion, and as a treatment for venereal disease.

A liquid made from boiling the inner bark of the tree was used as a laxative and as an emetic.

Tea made from mesquite leaves was used for headaches and stomach trouble. This tea also was used to cure conjunctivitis and to heal painful gums.

Other uses

The Pima Indians used the black tar as a hair dye. This involved boiling the tar and applying the mixture to the hair, covering the hair with mud over night, then thoroughly washing the next morning. Resin from the tree was used as glue to mend pottery, or when boiled and diluted, as paint for pottery. The inner bark of the tree was used for basketry.

General information

There are several species of mesquite trees. Within the desert southwest, the Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), the Honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), and the Screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) are most common. These deciduous plants form shrubs and trees up to 30 feet tall. The branches contain spines. Most of the roots of mesquite trees are within the upper three feet of soil where most of the oxygen and water are. However, mesquite roots can go very deep. The deepest live root, found in a copper mine, extended 160 feet below the surface.

If you collect fallen bean pods, you may notice small holes in the pods. These holes are made by bruchid beetles, which infested the fallen bean as larvae, when it was green and tender. The holes were made by the mature beetle getting out of the bean. Don’t worry, the beetles just add more protein. Another insect found commonly with mesquite trees is the Giant Mesquite Bug.

For a description of the common mesquite species see here.

For more natural history and photos, see here.

For recipes using mesquite, see here.

Anatomy of a Thunderstorm

The summer monsoon is upon us and hopefully it will bring much needed rain. But it will also bring lightning and destructive winds. The term “monsoon” does not mean rain or storms, but a seasonal shift in wind patterns. During the winter, Arizona air flow is usually from the west and we receive the remnants of Pacific storms. During the monsoon, the air flows from a southerly direction bringing us moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the tropical Pacific. The desert heat and orographic uplift from mountain ranges turn that moist air into thunderstorms.

The graphic below from the National Weather Service shows the parts of a monsoon thunderstorm. The storm is moving left to right.

Anatomy-of-thunderstorm1

The first stage of thunderstorm development is the updraft where warm, moist air is lifted by columns of hot air rising in desert valleys or by air passing over a mountain range. This uplift causes water to condense to form cumulus clouds. Falling water droplets pull the air down with them to form the downdraft and rainy part of the storm. The strong downdraft causes a dust cloud, the Haboob, in front of the storm. Frequently dust devils dance in front of the Haboob. As the storm progresses, the downdraft can produce destructive microbursts of high wind. “Gustnadoes” are tornado-like vortex, similar to dust devils, but stronger, that appear to develop on the ground and extend several hundred feet upward. These vortices generally develop along the leading edge of an outflow boundary from a thunderstorm cell. Although generally of limited duration, the winds of gustnadoes can be strong enough to cause damage.

Some safety tips about lightning:

Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. As a rule of thumb, if the time between lightning flash and thunder is 30 seconds or less, the lightning is about 6 miles away. Research has shown that the most successive flashes are within 6 miles of the first one, which means that you should have reached a safe place if lightning is less than 6 miles away.

If possible stay indoors or in an automobile. If outside, avoid isolated tall structures such as trees and power poles. Get off and away from open water. Avoid open metal vehicles such as tractors, farm equipment, motorcycles, and golf. Avoid power lines, wire fences, metal pipes and railings. If you are caught in an open area far from shelter, and you feel your hair stand on end, lightning may be about to strike you. Drop to your knees and bend forward putting your hands on your knees. DO NOT lie flat on the ground, that makes you a bigger target and a better conductor of electricity. Stay away from running water inside the house; avoid washing your hands or taking a bath or shower. Electricity from lightning has been known to come inside through plumbing. When inside, stay away from TV sets, electrical appliances, bathtubs and sinks, do not talk on the telephone, or play on the computer, don’t touch an electrical cord or outlet.

Be aware and be safe.

BP, Obama, and the EPA

BP’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill has caused environmental and economic damage and a political circus. Have you ever heard of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Contingency Plan Act? This law was passed in 1994 and it specifically charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with mitigating damage from major oil spills. In response to that act, the EPA, itself, says, “When a major oil spill occurs in the United States, coordinated teams of local, state, and national personnel are called upon to help contain the spill, clean it up, and ensure that damage to human health and the environment is minimized. Without careful planning and clear organization, efforts to deal with large oil spills could be slow, ineffective, and potentially harmful to response personnel and the environment. In the United States, the system for organizing responses to major oil spills is called the National Response System.” The Act makes a prompt and effective response to a major oil spill a national priority. So how are they doing?

Some (mainly conservative) columnists have attributed Obama’s Nero-like lack of concern to ulterior motives. For instance, Obama’s refusal to accept aid from the Dutch government is said to be a sop to the labor unions. And, Obama is using the oil spill disaster to renew his push for Cap & Trade climate legislation.

Maybe there are ulterior motives, but more likely, the less-than-prompt and effective response is probably due to incompetence by Obama and his bureaucracies, just like FEMA’s failure after Katrina. For instance the EPA dithered while considering the possible toxic effects of an oil dispersant that BP wanted to use. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is incensed with the Coast Guard because they stopped cleanup efforts to check whether the crews had proper fire extinguishers and life vests.

Meanwhile, Congress is holding hearings, with all their sound and fury, in a feigned effort to investigate BP (and give “face time” to legislators). Such hearings have no practical value in mitigating the oil spill.

Obama used the oil spill as an excuse to impose a six-month moratorium of deep water drilling, possibly to promote more “alternative energy” schemes. Obama said is was for “safety” concerns by the Department of the Interior, but analysis by the Wall Street Journal shows that this was all about politics. Another possible ulterior motive: the oil spill and Obama’s moratorium will aid Obama contributor George Soros who is heavily involved in Brazilian oil. Brazil stands to benefit from the BP oil spill catastrophe as the US moratorium makes more rigs available for other countries.

Yes, BP should be held responsible for the loss of economic activity caused by the accident. But government action, and inaction, is making things worse. They are not letting a good crisis go to waste.

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

This is the tale of two cacti, the Senita (also known as the Old Man Cactus) and the Totem Pole cactus. You see both around town. They are intimately related and share the same scientific name, but look very different from each other.

The Senita looks very similar to the Organ Pipe cactus, but the senita has a dense cluster of spines near the top of mature branches. See photos below for comparison, Senita on left.

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The spines on the senita look like whiskers, hence the name “Old Man.” Only the mature branches have the spine cluster. The senita is far more frost tolerant than the organ pipe, allowing it to survive farther north and to higher elevations. Senitas can grow to 13 feet tall. Pink, nocturnal flowers about an inch in diameter emerge through the bristles from April through August. The flowers have an unpleasant odor. They are followed by marble-sized red fruits with juicy red pulp. Native people ground the seeds of the fruit into a nutritious mush, and the pulp was boiled down to syrup.

Senitaflower-dimmitt

senita-fruit-dimmittSenitas are pollinated by a moth that lives among the spines. The moth larvae survive by eating the developing fruit. This example of mutualism is similar to that of certain yuccas and their pollinating moths.

Senitas are long-lived cacti. According to an ASDM report: “When sites in Baja California photographed in 1905 were revisited in the 1990s, nearly every senita was still present.” The natural range is from extreme southern Arizona, to Sonora, and Baja California.

totempole-2The totem pole is a spineless, bumpy cactus that developed as a natural mutation from the senita cactus. It grows naturally only in a small area of Baja California. All the totem pole cacti in a population are a single clone; it rarely flowers and cannot produce fertile seeds. It can reproduce by “pupping” from roots, and you can grow new plants simply by placing a cut branch in soil. They are often used as landscaping plants. Some horticulturists warn not to touch the cactus with bare hands because skin oils will damage the cactus.

Both senitas and totem pole cactus share the genus and species name Lophocoreus schottii (aka Pachycereus schottii). A subspecies name of monstrosus is added to the totem pole cactus in some classifications.

Three Desert Squirrels

There are three common squirrels in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert: the rock squirrel, the round-tailed ground squirrel, and Harris’ antelope ground squirrel. I happen to have all three in my yard, although Harris’ is just a visitor.

rock-squirrel

The rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) is the largest of the three, up to 1.5 pounds. It resembles eastern tree squirrels. This squirrel is grey with reddish to brownish tinge, usually on its back. It has a large bushy tail. Rock squirrels are found in many habitats, except for the driest part of the desert. They are true omnivores, feeding on seeds, mesquite beans, insects, eggs, birds, carrion, as well as cactus fruit.

I have seen them kill and eat snakes. Upon encountering a snake, a rock squirrel will stamp its feet and wave its tail from side to side while facing the snake. It also tries to flick sand or dirt in the snake’s face with its front paws. This behavior is called mobbing. Researchers in California note that rock squirrels can distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes, and change their mobbing behavior accordingly. Yes, they will attack rattlesnakes. Apparently, adult rock squirrels can at least partially neutralize rattlesnake venom. Rattlesnakes have heat-sensing organs which can detect a difference in temperature as little as 0.01 F at one foot. There is some research that suggests that rock squirrels take advantage of this. The squirrel can pump extra blood into its tail to make the tail warmer than its body, thereby fooling the snake into striking at the tail rather than the body.

Rock squirrels dig burrows and may be colonial or solitary. They can be very territorial. They mate in early spring and produce a liter in March. Sometimes a second litter appears in August or September. The rock squirrel may become dormant, holed up in its burrow during cold times, but it is not known to hibernate.

round-tailed

The round-tailed ground squirrel (Spermophilus tereticaudus) resembles a miniature prairie dog, and like them, is a very social animal that lives in small colonies. It is usually grey to beige with a long, black-tipped tail. Adults weigh 6- to 7 ounces. They inhabit valleys and alluvial fans. The round-tails are primarily herbivores, feeding on grass seed, cactus, and other nearby vegetation such as spring flowers, but they will eat carrion. They may sleep for a few weeks in summer until the monsoon arrives. The round-tailed ground squirrel hibernates in the winter. The round-tails are champion small miners. They may have an extensive tunnel network with multiple entrances. They too breed in early spring with pups born in March or April. The pups usually emerge with their mother by May.

Harris

The Harris’ antelope ground squirrel (Ammospermophilus harrisii) resembles a chipmunk, but it has a white stripe on its side that chipmunks lack (but chipmunks have white stripes on their faces). Also, chipmunks live at higher elevation, not on the desert floor. This squirrel seems to prefer rocky areas. The Harris’ antelope squirrel usually feeds on cactus fruit, seeds, and mesquite beans, but it will take insects and mice. They will climb a barrel cactus to get the fruit in spite of the spines. The Harris’ antelope squirrel is active all year. During hot days, it uses its busy tail to provide some shade. They did burrows about three feet deep where conditions allow.

All three squirrels have sharp, strong claws used for digging. All three are diurnal, that is, they are most active during the daytime. They all have cheek pouches to store food as they gather it. These squirrels have a variety of vocalizations, some quite loud. You might mistake the sound for a bird call.

Hurricanes and Oil Slicks

In true Mencken style (“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” ) an AP story on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star speculates on dire consequences that may occur if a hurricane meets the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here is what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says about such a possibility:

Most hurricanes span an enormous area of the ocean (200-300 miles) — far wider than the current size of the spill. If the slick remains small in comparison to a typical hurricane’s general environment and size, the anticipated impact on the hurricane would be minimal. The oil is not expected to appreciably affect either the intensity or the track of a fully developed tropical storm or hurricane. The oil slick would have little effect on the storm surge or near-shore wave heights.

The high winds and seas will mix and “weather” the oil which can help accelerate the biodegradation process. The high winds may distribute oil over a wider area, but it is difficult to model exactly where the oil may be transported. Movement of oil would depend greatly on the track of the hurricane. Storms’ surges may carry oil into the coastline and inland as far as the surge reaches. Debris resulting from the hurricane may be contaminated by oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident, but also from other oil releases that may occur during the storm. A hurricane’s winds rotate counter-clockwise. Thus, in very general terms: A hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could drive oil to the coast. A hurricane passing to the east of the slick could drive the oil away from the coast. However, the details of the evolution of the storm, the track, the wind speed, the size, the forward motion and the intensity are all unknowns at this point and may alter this general statement.

Evaporation from the sea surface fuels tropical storms and hurricanes. Over relatively calm water (such as for a developing tropical depression or disturbance), in theory, an oil slick could suppress evaporation if the layer is thick enough, by not allowing contact of the water to the air. With less evaporation one might assume there would be less moisture available to fuel the hurricane and thus reduce its strength. However, except for immediately near the source, the slick is very patchy. At moderate wind speeds, such as those found in approaching tropical storms and hurricanes, a thin layer of oil such as is the case with the current slick (except in very limited areas near the well) would likely break into pools on the surface or mix as drops in the upper layers of the ocean. (The heaviest surface slicks, however, could re-coalesce at the surface after the storm passes.) This would allow much of the water to remain in touch with the overlying air and greatly reduce any effect the oil may have on evaporation. Therefore, the oil slick is not likely to have a significant impact on the hurricane.

All of the sampling to date shows that except near the leaking well, the subsurface dispersed oil is in parts per million levels or less. The hurricane will mix the waters of the Gulf and disperse the oil even further.

The experience from hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) was that oil released during the storms became very widely dispersed.

Besides NOAA, other sources say that storms disperse and/or bury oil already on the beach. Tar balls are common on Galveston Island beaches but less so after a storm. The Marshes should fare the same way. If anything, hurricanes have a tendency to leave beaches cleaner than they found them.

Iceland Volcano Blows a Smoke Ring

A very rare event was captured on film when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland blew a smoke ring. According to a story in a London newspaper, the Mail Online, this was witnessed by Joseph Licciardi, an earth sciences professor from Oregon State University.   This event occurred on May 1. The video below is a ring from Mt. Etna in June, 2000.

See the ring develop: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbV98Z0QP-k

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