Monthly Archives: July 2012

Conversions: the next project

On much cheerier subjects, several big shows are coming up, including the long-standing FenCon IX, so it’s time to consider several new projects. The first one presented itself at an estate sale: old-style CRT televisions are so obsolete that even the Salvation Army won’t take them, so people try to sell Eighties-era console sets on the nostalgia value alone. Some people may do so. Me, I have plans for a Nepenthes pitcher plant Wardian case from the case.

Television: Front

Thanks to the wonders of flat-screen technology, we’ll probably never see a return to big consoles, like the ones inordinately popular in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. Not that I’m complaining, because they took up huge amounts of available floor space, pumped out ridiculous amounts of heat, and encouraged excessive amounts of profanity when the main picture tube would blow and the owner had to haul the irreparable hulk to the curb. By the early Eighties, most televisions had replaced vacuum tubes with solid state circuitry, which meant that automatic picture adjustment was standard. However, it also meant that repairs by the untrained were pretty much impossible. Even better, by the mid-Eighties, the costs of televisions had dropped to the point where buying a new one was much cheaper than repairing an existing one.

Television: Rear

Over the last decade, LED and plasma screen displays have made all of these as obsolete as wire-spool recorders. If you find them, they’re usually in the aftermath of an estate sale, where either the owner died or simply decided to move to smaller lodgings. Most of the time, they were put out into the garage for background noise, at least until the US switched from analog to digital television signals and the cost of a converter kit was more than the value of the set. Considering how many converters were given away for free, that’s saying something. Right now, the remaining ones are of value mostly to hobbyists wanting to work with dead tech, and those wanting to do something new with them. Since I already have enough interests that the Czarina would shoot me in the face if I decided to move into archaic electronics, the new project involves taking advantage of the old set’s best features to make a practical and attractive plant display.

Television: back label

Seeing the old Zenith logo and name brings back fond memories, because the first color television my family ever purchased when I was a kid was a Zenith. It also brings on not-so-fond memories: it survived three moves to four states, and then caught fire one night in my parents’ bedroom as they were watching The Tonight Show. I seem to remember that Carl Sagan was the big guest that night, so it’s understandable that the television couldn’t handle that much awesomeness. This one had no such signs of trauma, but we need to crack it open to make sure.

Television: back plate

For this conversion, we’re leaving the outer facade alone as much as possible. For most of it, the concern is preservation and conservation instead of modification. With future sets, this may change, but right now, the idea is to continue the conceit that you’re getting a view into another world through an old stalwart TV. This means that on the back of the console, the various input panels remain intact, if only for completeness’s sake. Besides, any holes in the rear cover would need to be filled, especially if the finished conversion were to be used with small animals such as poison dart frogs.

Television: interior

Many console televisions have twist tabs to facilitate removal of the back cover, but apparently Zenith thought “Why do we put big warnings about electric shock and ‘no consumer-repairable parts inside’ and make it easy to crack open the back to play with those parts?” That’s a reasonable fear, so the cover is secured with hex screws. Take off the ones along the edge and along the rear connector panel, and here’s the interior. I don’t worry about my nephews’ and nieces’ kids looking at cutting-edge tech from my high school days and being shocked at how primitive it was. I’m too busy looking in shock at how much space had to be used inside to keep the heat under control.

Television: scorch

By way of example, the interior isn’t as horrible as it could be. Computer techs will tell you horror stories about the old Pentiums from the Nineties brought in for repair from households with both smokers and multiple cats. Seriously, if you can pull the resultant mess free, it looks more like the caulking used for the planks in whaling ships than anything found in a high-tech setting. The owner of this set didn’t smoke and apparently didn’t have cats, but enough dust came through since the television’s manufacture in 1991 to cake up on every plastic and metal surface. Just above the main CRT itself, the dust combined with the heat to produce quite the scorch on the interior of the console frame.

Television: innards

See all of this? This handled everything that a 1991 television could do, which wasn’t much. All that room and weight to handle the main picture tube, and everything else was controlled with an assembly smaller than an iPad. Today, of course, that same functionality goes into a processor and motherboard about the size of a Post-It Note pack. God, I love living in the future.

You may also notice the ventilation holes in the bottom of the console. This one not only has these holes, but cheap plastic wheels to allow the console to be moved without too many issues. The conversion is going to deal with both of these, as the air circulation needs better control than this.

Television: tube back

Now here’s where things get dangerous. Those nephews and nieces I mentioned earlier will never have to worry about the dangers of CRT implosion unless they do something as stupid as this, and I’m glad of it. Most of the weight of this television was tied up in the picture tube, which is reinforced glass. The reason it’s reinforced is that the old cathode ray tubes required a good vacuum inside to function, and the stronger the vacuum and the wider the screen, the stronger the tube walls themselves. Much like a SCUBA tank, anyone trying this needs to be extremely careful about damaging the neck or walls of the tube, because a sudden implosion means that the tube turns into a fragmentation bomb in close quarters. Such as when you’re removing it from the console for disposal, for instance.

Now’s also the time to mention that the capacitors in old televisions of this sort can store quite the charge, and store it for years. If you have concerns, I highly recommend talking to an electronics authority for proper dissipation of that latent charge, but wearing gloves and using insulated tools is vital.

Television: repair label

Now, here we have the post-mortem. Apparently, the original owner took it in for repairs a week before my 32nd birthday, and took it back when it couldn’t be repaired.

Television: side label

And here’s another bit of history: the guide supplied by Zenith with basic repair schematics and voltages, shellacked to the side of the console. You still see some of these in modern electronics, but they’re rapidly being replaced with URLs and QR codes. Completely understandable, seeing as how the information on a Web site can be updated at a moment’s notice, and the only way to update this material is with a recall. This is staying in, but with the option of covering it if the purchaser should be so inclined.

Television: removed tube

After a bit of wrangling, cutting of wires, and careful removal of the brackets that supported the tube, here’s what state-of-the-art video presentation came down to back in 1991. Putting it into a padded cart, rolling it to the curb, and then popping the vacuum via the circuitboard on the tip made the most sense.

Television: rear speaker

Now, as much as I’d love to hang onto some of the old tech and use it for other things, that’s just not practical or sane. Rigging up the old speaker holes with new ones and connecting them to an iPod jack is reasonable, but these big monstrosities are too old and probably an inch away from blowing out. They both came out for that reason and because they’re going to get in the way of the rest of the conversion.

Television: stripped frame

Here’s where the conversion starts to get interesting. For both security and control of air circulation, the back of the television console is going to be sealed up, and all access to the interior will come through the front. With the main bezel for the CRT unbolted, it’s actually fairly easy to set a fitted piece of glass, on a hinge so it can swing out of the way, into the front of the console. The problem here is that I want to retain the bezel, and it’s shaped specifically for a curved piece of glass. Also, while the controls are never going to have their original functionality, and it’s definitely not going to be usable with a remote with my current knowledge of electronics, the idea is to be able to use at least three of the original switches. Stripping out everything is the start, but this console has a long way to go before it’s ready for plants.

And how will that be done, you wonder? Well, you’ll have to keep coming back to watch the progress, won’t you?

A last farewell

Tramplemaine

The day before he died, we gave Tramplemaine one last view of the garden. He was never much for going outside, but he was always curious as to what I was doing out back. Since we knew it was time, we gave him one last request, and gave him as much time as he wanted.

Tramplemaine

Tramplemaine

Tramplemaine

I’ve had a lot of cats in my life, but nobody as inherently fascinating as Tramplemaine. In pace requiescat.

And summer finally got here

I’m not going to join in on the usual Texas mantra “It’s HOT,” because we’ve been inordinately lucky so far. I will say that I hope that everyone working outside has a way to get out of the heat…

Walking with Texans

As an addendum to the previous post, I’d like to note that the exemplary 1991 Jim Conrad short film Mondo Texas is now online, and it has several examples of particular Texas fascination with megaliths and oddities. Particularly the oddities. I’d like to note that the stone cows at 11:30, located in the Las Colinas area just west of Dallas proper, were so viciously mocked after this short film was released at the Dallas Video Festival that Las Colinas made a big point of dressing them up with trees, sidewalks, and benches. I know this, because when I worked for Sprint at its Las Colinas office in 1999, my office window literally looked over three of them. (Trust me: the trees didn’t make the little park any more hospitable in summer. Nothing short of giant blocks of ice could do that.)

Messing with future generations

A major theme with standard English gardening, without most people realizing it, is the promotion and proliferation of ancient mysteries. I’m not talking about actual mysteries, but the simulation of them. Aged, moss-covered sculptures, partial walls, arranged boulders and standing stones…there’s something deep and very unsettling, yet fascinating, about giving the hint of a deep history to a large garden area. Oh, with traditional English gardening styles, it’s cleaned up and organized, but that’s no different from how Maya noblemen used Olmec jewelry components for their own use. The Maya knew almost nothing about the Olmec other than what they discovered throughout their territories, and we aren’t much different today: even the name “Olmec” is a convenient term used for a lack of their real name, and famed archaeologist Michael D. Coe argues that we may never know this people’s real name.

And so what does this have to do with gardening? That depends utterly upon whether one wants to try something new. Trying to copy ancient artifacts and structures is entertaining enough, especially if you have the time and resources to build your own henges and megaliths. But what about picturing artifacts and structures from the near future, and incorporating that into a garden environment that suggested that these items were already ancient?

This isn’t exactly new. This sort of monument has already been suggested as a sign of hope, as with the Georgia Guidestones. And then there’s the Lovecraftian horror of proposals by Sandia Laboratories to keep humans away from nuclear waste burial sites until the waste therein is relatively safe. And then there’s the point-blank delusional, as with all of the stories of ancient history behind “America’s Stonehenge”. All elicit that overwhelming mystery. Even with the Sandia Labs’ artists’ proposals, anybody with a modicum of imagination can look over the drawings and immediately start answering what-if stories in their heads. “What if this isn’t a burial site for plutonium-contaminated footwear? What if this was the gravesite of something so horrific, something caught in the distant past by powers unknown to us, that merely digging anywhere near it will release that thing? And what if we forget the message and the signs, and do it anyway?”

Yes, given the opportunity, I’d design a garden that mashes A Canticle for Leibowitz and Rawhead Rex. Now you understand why I scared the hell out of my teachers in elementary school.

A lot of these thoughts coalesced when Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster posted a photo on Facebook that started a slow roiling boiling in my subconscious. For the Day Job, I already work in an area where my co-workers and I get into lively arguments about imagery and symbolism with non-literary messages and warnings. Talk to five usability experts, and you’ll get five different infodumps of feedback on symbol design. It’s hard even to keep consistency on what sort of symbols are used in which situation, and then there’s the issue with symbols that keep getting used even though the original meaning is obsolete. Look at any video or audio interface today and note how the “rewind” and “fast forward” symbols haven’t changed since the earliest days of wire and tape recorders. In another fifty years, we’ll probably still use them, even though the physical music and video storage technology that used it will be as quaint as black-and-white CRT televisions.

Modern pictograms

Likewise, look at this and try to figure out what it’s from. It’s remarkably easy to make jokes about the meaning, such as “Rocking reading and tunes are not edible” and “don’t shoot the midget”, but it takes a bit of effort to figure out what these pictograms mean. Then consider that these were ones chosen specifically to help people who couldn’t read, or couldn’t read the dominant language in the area. If this was dropped on you right now, would you be able to tell, without assistance, that this intended to say “Warning! Read the instruction manual. Use eye and ear protection. Do not aim toward face. Do not use close to people, especially children.”?

And here’s where the mystery comes in. Finding this on the side of a gas tank for a leaf blower or Weedeater is confusing enough. If you found this column carved in stone or concrete, weathered and moss-encrusted for decades or even centuries, would you get the same message? Why would you get that message, and what if carving it into rock gave a completely different symbolism than intended?

And that’s where the mystery comes in. Picture someone walking through your garden and coming across a cracked and lichen-encrusted slab of granite or concrete with this legend on the top. How badly would it mess with their heads, especially if your only answer to their questions was “What do you think it means? I don’t know about anybody else, but it means to me “It’s time to start practicing my concrete-carving skills, because I can only imagine what this would do to anybody living in this house after I’m gone.”

— The author wishes to thank Amanda Thomsen for sending me down a very dark and fascinating path with this photo, and for giving me permission to reuse it. One of these days, I’ll return the favor.

Have a Great Weekend

My sister and I are the only blondes in a family just roiling with gingers. Yes, we both hear this song a lot about this time of the year.

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead

As a friendly heads-up, the Triffid Ranch 2012 tour continues, with a July 28 show at the Shadow Society at the Crown & Harp in Dallas. Since this Shadow Society gathering features live music, the cover is $5 after 10:00 p.m. Come for the music and the good company, stay for the carnivorous plants, and head home knowing that you’ve seen the garden and fashion show that Dallas desperately needs.

Introducing the Deathmobile

The Deathmobile

For obvious reasons, the mood around the house this last week has been lower than Whitley Strieber’s credibility among the SETI community. Tramplemaine’s death hit us both more than we realized, and I’d like to thank everyone who expressed their regrets. The house is a lot larger and a lot more quiet without him in it, and it’s going to take a while to recover.

Not that we can’t get some humor out of loss. When the Czarina gets particularly shaken, she takes after her mother and hyperfocuses on little things that don’t need to be knocked out right then. Last Monday, for instance, I practically had to sit on her before she realized “You know, scheduling a tooth cleaning with the dentist right after taking your dying cat to the vet isn’t a good idea.” (Not that this is such a good idea all of the time, because sometimes reality impersonates fiction.)

And with this, she’s continuing to obsess over my upcoming birthday. Never you mind that her birthday is a little over a week. Every few hours, she asks “So what do you want for your birthday?” Right now, the only thing I can do is try to make her laugh, and the best way to get her to laugh is to annoy her.

That’s when we came across this, erm, unique vehicle, parked alongside a gas station. It was short the expected Australian motorcycle punks in bondage pants, but otherwise it had its moments.

The front of the Deathmobile

And that’s when I got the Czarina. “You know, I do need a garden cart. This will work, won’t it?”

The back of the Deathmobile

What scares me is that she’s going to take me up on one of my suggestions one of these days. This thing simply won’t work without a trailer hitch.

Introducing Convolvulus arvensis

Bindweed

While researching the spread and dispersion of noxious invasive species of fauna and flora, one of the issues I keep noting isn’t just how many really vile invasives were introduced deliberately, or even inadvertently. What stands out is how many invasives get out of control mostly because they’re just attractive enough to avoid utter extermination. I get a giggle over how heather spread throughout South Island of New Zealand thanks to the accidental importation of heather seeds as an unavoidable contaminant in sacks of oats, and how the early explosion of heather throughout the island was suggested as a deliberate attempt by Scottish immigrants to mark New Zealand as Scottish territory forever by introducing the national flower. (Speaking as someone of Scot ancestry, you should all be so lucky. After hearing tales from relations in Aotearoa about Riddell family history, if we’d wanted to claim South Island, everyone else would have known it when they woke up with their throats cut. Twice. And that’s just for uttering in public the filthiest four-letter words you could ever utter at a Riddell family gathering: “Last Call”.)

Bindweed 2

When looking at bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), it’s not hard to see why the US Department of Agriculture lists it as a noxious plant in Texas. It grows in soils so poor that even bluebonnets have problems. It climbs up and buries just about any other plant in the vicinity. The tendrils are tough enough that I can see where Frank Herbert got the inspiration for shigawire. Trying to run through a field infested with bindweed is a good way to break an ankle, leg, or neck. (I will say that running through a field of bindweed is still better than running through a patch of saw greenbrier: I still have scars on my legs, right above my knees, from where I did that nearly a third of a century ago. I think trying to remove my lower legs with a bandsaw would have caused less damage and hurt considerably less.) I’ve jammed up Weedeaters by getting the head too close to a bindweed clump, having the line snag a tendril, and watching as the whole clump tried to murder the Weedeater in a display of self-sacrifice, and I even did that once with a riding lawnmower when I worked as a groundskeeper for Texas Instruments. Not only does bindweed laugh at most pesticides, but its seeds are so popular with small birds that no matter how many times you think you’ve wiped it out, it comes back the next season unless you fit every last sparrow, wren, and finch in the time zone with diapers.

Bindweed 3

Unfortunately, as with Japanese honeysuckle, you have a determined and virulent invasive with enough charisma that non-gardeners don’t immediately scream “Get me the flamethrower!” when they see it. I have occasional nightmares involving a little old lady somewhere who managed to fill her garden with every last invasive in the US, and everything’s absolutely fine until the day she leaves the gate open and everything escapes. In this nightmare, bindweed is the decorative bedding alongside the Brazilian pepper trees and beneath the Ailanthus.

Bindweed 4

On a purely scientific level, passing clumps of bindweed has its moments. About one flower out of one hundred has a tinge of pink to it, which is particularly noticeable on cloudy days. I also suspect that it has quite the ultraviolet signature, judging by the number of insects racing to the flowers in the early morning. Oh, and small harmless snakes such as garter snakes and ground snakes love to hide within the tangles as they chase prey. It’s not all that bad: I just don’t want it in my front yard.

Everyone’s got a book out but me

I don’t know what’s in the water right now, and I’m personally not complaining, but a whole slew of horticultural friends have books coming out in the next little while. I already mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center has an upcoming book on miniature gardens that’s going right into the library as soon as I get it. Two other friends have upcoming books as well, and now is the time to start the hype machine so nobody forgets to put in an order.

To begin, I’ve become convinced that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is my real sister. Or at least the one that lived. If she isn’t a sister, then she’s a very close cousin, because her sense of humor is almost as black as mine. Or maybe that’s just mushroom compost. Anyway, her first book, imaginatively titled Kiss My Aster, comes out at the end of the year, and I’ve already sworn to her that if she tries to give me a free copy, instead of paying full price for an autographed copy, I’ll walk to her house and talk her to death. If you turn your head toward Illinois and listen, you can just hear her screams of horror and rage. One way or another, I’m getting a copy, and it’ll have that most beloved of book dedications, “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

Now, I could bring up that Billy Goodnick is coming to Dallas next February to speak at the Dallas Arboretum. I could bring up that I plan to crash his lecture and just sit there, watching him, until he screams “LOOK, WILL YOU JUST HECKLE ME OR THROW ASPARAGUS AT ME OR SOMETHING?” This should be within the first fifteen seconds, seeing as how my visage could make a sundial run backwards. The real reason I’d be out there, though, is so I could get his upcoming book, Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, autographed.

With this autographing session, I have to move fast. He’s been lamenting whether or not this book will sell, so I told him the absolute truth. On a trip back from 2046, I saw what happened with it. Yes, it’s a success. Yes, he’s the first garden writer to get both a Pulitzer and a Nobel for a garden book. Unfortunately, between the calls from King Charles to give Billy a full knighthood, and the teenage groupies who keep smashing in the windows in order to get to him at night, he hasn’t had any sleep since next year. I don’t know where he gets the time to run that tachyon emitter to broadcast horticulture tips to his fans on Gliese 581c, but I understand they’ve carved his face into a cliff of pure frozen nitrogen on the outermost world in the system.

“Paul,” he told me, “you weren’t supposed to take the red pill AND the blue pill at the same time.”

“You know me better than that. You know the blue box in the back corner of my garden? It isn’t a Port-O-John, no matter how badly you want to use it as such.”

That said, buy his book as soon as it comes out, and I promise to introduce him to some particularly Dallasite examples of Crimes Against Horticulture. In certain parts of Dallas, he’ll probably fill up four or five microSD cards with photos, each one more Lovecraftian than the one before.

Oh, and for apartment dwellers, a treat. Fern Richardson, a very polite and kind individual whom I traumatized the last time the Garden Writers Association had its annual conference in Dallas, had her own book, Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage, and Herbs, released earlier this year. Considering that the front porch of my house is particularly onerous during summer, I’m snagging my copy as quickly as I can. I’m trusting that Fern will have plenty of ideas for sun-scorched spaces that won’t involve cactus.

As for me? After a few discussions at the Day Job with co-workers about peppers, and plenty of discussions at shows about carnivores, I’ve changed my mind about writing my own book. They didn’t understand why when I told them that I’d need an advance of at least $50,000, because that’s what the writing time spent away from plants, the Czarina, and Leiber would be worth. They didn’t understand when I said I was much more likely to play Russian roulette with an automatic. They didn’t understand when I told them I’d sooner watch a SyFy movie marathon, eyes propped open like Malcolm McDowall’s in A Clockwork Orange the whole time. Now I just tell them “I’ll be glad to write a new book, immediately after the Dallas Cowboys win their first shut-out World Series pennant.” That they understand.

Convergence XIX: the quandary

It’s been nearly four years since the Triffid Ranch officially launched, and the Czarina still goes into a slow burn over the celebration at Convergence 14, the big goth culture convention in Ybor City, Florida. It wasn’t because of the show itself, or the people, or even the drive from Dallas to Tampa. No, the grinding of her molars, like tectonic plates, was when we tried to make a nonstop straight burn from Dallas to Tallahassee, based on my memories of moving back to Dallas from Tally six years earlier. What I remembered, in my vague sleep-deprivation hallucinations, was a 12-hour drive, which was extreme but still doable. Apparently, I actually did closer to 17 hours of straight driving, and we learned that the hard way on the rush down the Florida Panhandle. Oh, and did I mention that we arrived in Tally about five hours late on her birthday?

Not that the trip itself wasn’t worth the effort. Convergence and its attendees were still recovering from the disastrous show in 2007 in Portland (often referred to by Convergence survivors as “Gothapalooza”), and we started our trip right at the beginning of the big economic meltdown of 2008. Naturally, gasoline prices peaked the very weekend we made the trip, so when we were done tallying costs versus returns, we chalked it up as a working vacation and left it at that. Not that we wouldn’t do it again: we met a considerable number of people who are still good friends today, we had a chance to see Ybor City at its peak (as well as understanding why everyone talks about the food there), and we both learned exactly how far we could drive at one time before the Czarina threatens to go Big Barda on my skull.

In subsequent years, we’ve considered bringing jewelry and plants to another Convergence, but the logistics kept getting in the way. Moving large numbers of carnivorous plants across the US is problematic at the best of times, and the trip has to be balanced between the cost of fuel and vehicle maintenance versus the actual return. In the meantime, we both figured that if a future Convergence was held in Texas, we’d both consider the possibilities.

Welp, it’s good news and bad news on that front. Alt.Gothic just released the bids for next year’s Convergence, and the devil vomits in our faces again. The first bid is for Seattle, which is a great city for spooky things, but it’s scheduled the weekend after next year’s World Horror Convention in New Orleans. That’s in addition to crossing a fair amount of the North American landmass and at least three mountain ranges to get there. Sorry, but with that kind of distance, this is the sort of road trip where Oscar Zeta Acosta himself would stay home and say “Let’s just watch television instead, okay?”

And then there’s the second bid, in Austin. Unlike other events in Austin that seem to go out of their way to run during the hottest part of the year, the Austin bid organizers understand that visitors to the city might actually enjoy it at times when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky isn’t trying to destroy all life on the Texas prairie. Besides, the date for the Austin bid coincides with the return of Mexican freetailed bats to the Congress Avenue bridge.

The only problem? If Austin gets the bid, then Convergence is two weeks before Texas Frightmare Weekend, and previous attempts to do shows with such short time between them hasn’t worked out well. We may have to reconsider that thinking for next year, because this looks too good for us to miss out.

EDIT: naturally, after all of that agonizing, I got word from this last weekend that Austin has the bid. Time to make plans for a road trip next year, eh?

And the pain ends

And in extremely mournful news, the premature wake for ranch cat Tramplemaine came true this evening. If things go quiet for a while, that’s why. Nearly fifteen years is a good run for a cat, but it was far too short a time for us.

Things to do in Dallas when you’re dead

A quick note for upcoming events, seeing as how the autumn show season started nearly two months early. The Calendar page on the main Triffid Ranch site was just updated, complete with further information on the Shadow Society show this weekend and the latest Discovery Days event at the Museum of Nature & Science on August 11 and 12. I should also have news about several other shows in the next year, particularly involving crashing the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in New Orleans next June, in a few days.

Have A Great Weekend

I think I’ve found my newest selection of greenhouse work music.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Am I a bad person for suggesting that if London were this interesting this next week, I might actually watch the Olympics?

For the record, this is actually a promo for London in 2014, the bid for the 2014 WorldCon. This is as opposed to the live feed from the 2013 WorldCon in Austin.

Sic transit Tramplemaine mundi

Tramplemaine in happier times

For various obscure reasons, the Czarina named the little tuxedo cat that showed up at her front door “Tramplemaine,” after the character in the stage play Noises Off. He insinuated himself into her life the way he did with everyone else: he just popped in as if he held the deed to the place, and looked at everyone else as the hired help. He knew his place, and his place was to make sure that everyone and everything ran smoothly. If it didn’t, everyone involved had to answer to him.

The first time I met him was at the end of 1998, when the Czarina and her ex-husband needed a catsitter while they were at an out-of-town show. The two of us had been good friends long before we ever got involved, and I figured that this wouldn’t be a problem. Come in, scratch ears for a few minutes, put down fresh food, and leave. Little did I know that he’d want conversation, too. Everyone, and I mean everyone, talks about how their cats are unique, and that they all understand what their humans are saying. I know perfectly well that most of that understanding is really picking up verbal, pitch, and positional cues, so I was surprised to discover that he really did want to talk. He wasn’t very good at responses, but that was more an issue of anatomy than education. Even then, he gave a good shot: once, when he was caught sharpening his claws on the couch, the Czarina yelled at him “What the hell are you doing?”, and he clearly enunciated “Idunno.” In that regard, he was already more eloquent than most teenagers I know.

When the two of us started seeing each other, Tramplemaine set the ground rules for my dating her. There was the time he got on the top shelf of a very tall bookcase and knocked books on my head, just to watch how I reacted. Most nights, he slept on the Czarina’s head to watch over her, and would try to wash her hair in her sleep if she was having nightmares. More often, he was the one having nightmares, and I learned this by awakening to being kicked in the face by an unconscious cat.

It didn’t stop there. Tramplemaine understood early that I was a sucker for cats, and he learned rapidly that he could flop on my side of the bed and pretend complete obliviousness that I might want to sleep there as well. This usually continued with my looking him dead in the eye and telling him “You know, animals sleep on the floor.” He’d just look back and mang a bit, to tell me “I know. Better get a blanket and pillow, because it’s cold down there.” He’d ultimately move to the Czarina’s pillow, but would retaliate by walking on my head when he’d get up in the middle of the night. Between that and Leiber, our other cat, sleeping on my ankles all night, I knew my place in the household, and that was “official cat feet warmer.”

Just about everyone who met Tramplemaine had a story to relate about him, but one of the best ones was when we threw a New Year’s Eve party shortly after our first anniversary. De and Tom, two old friends, had come out for their first real gathering since becoming new parents, and De tried to pick up Tramplemaine to move him from a chair. She nearly threw her back out picking him up and exclaimed “Who knew such a small cat would be so heavy?” Tom immediately responded “That’s because black is very slimming.” Tramplemaine understood the compliment, and was his best friend for the entire night.

Tramplemaine and Leiber in happier times

In truth, Tramplemaine played everyone as the help, with the exception of Leiber. Leiber is a sweet cat, but he’s so dumb that he trips on the carpet pattern when he gets up in the morning. Tramplemaine had great fun with a stepbrother who could and would walk into windowpanes without realizing what was wrong. Worse, Leiber continued to sound like a kitten well into adulthood, so his idea of a mighty battle cry was a squeaky “MEEEEEEEEEP!” The first few times the two of them would play together, I heard the squeaks and thought he’d been locked in a closet somewhere. Then I’d hear Tramplemaine’s lusty yowls and realize the truth. After a while, we started referring to it as “The Ming and Mang Show”. Neither of them had any interest in going outside, under any circumstances, but they had no problems with fighting for a prime window spot to watch birds and squirrels, so we were often awakened by Ming and Mang practice bouts at dawn on a Sunday morning.

That was another thing about Tramplemaine. Most cats don’t mind nicknames, and many really don’t notice the difference between nicknames and given names so long as they’re stated in the same tone. With Tramplemaine, a nickname was horribly undignified, and we both realized it. Leiber, on the other hand, gleefully answered to “Shit For Brains”, and Tramplemaine got quite a bit of humor out of whatever new jape we could use to get Leiber to come for dinner. (As mentioned a while back, Leiber was named after the author Fritz Leiber. If I’d known he was going to be that dumb when he was a kitten, I would have named him “Niven”.)

Not that things were always perfect. When the Czarina first let him in, she assumed he was an older cat because of his attitude, and was surprised to discover at his first vet visit that he was probably no more than six months old. Considering the dangers of her old neighborhood, she’s convinced that she saved his life, and I don’t doubt it. Shortly before we got married, she got word from the vet that Tramplemaine was also testing positive for an incurable form of Bartonella, which meant regular antibiotics and steroids for the rest of his life. The vet noted that most cats with this form of bartonellosis usually live a year or so, and the Czarina was understandably busted up about this. This cat was the only good that came from her previous marriage, and to have him taken away that soon was just an added cruelty. Who could have foretold that he’d beat everyone’s estimates for nearly a decade?

Another one of the issues he had came up when the two of us started doing shows together. The first time we came home from a bad show, we walked in to find Tramplemaine hiding under the couch. Apparently, her ex would demonstrate his displeasure at a bad show by throwing whatever he could get his hands on, and Tramplemaine simply learned to duck and cover. It took five years, but he finally accepted that no matter how bad the show, I wasn’t going to act the same way, and he’d greet us at the door like a sympathetic neighborhood bartender instead of finding a good fallout shelter.

For most of his life, Tramplemaine continued to run the house as he saw fit, but the years started to take notches out of him. The bartonellosis gave him ulcerated gums that would clear up temporarily with a new regimen of antibiotics, but about a month ago, he started attempting to eat dry food and then spitting it on the floor. It wasn’t out of disgust, but out of pain. We took a look at him, and found a new lump on the side of his right jaw. An emergency vet’s visit told us the worst: Tramplemaine had a tumor on his jaw, and based on prior experience with the vet, these tumors in cats were incurable. Their spread and growth could sometimes be stopped with chemotherapy, but how do you explain to a nearly 15-yer-old cat as to why he’s this miserable? Even if the chemo didn’t kill him, this wasn’t a guarantee that other tumors wouldn’t pop up right after the treatment, so the vet was quietly relieved when we decided that extreme measures wouldn’t make a difference and all we could do was make him comfortable.

That was about three weeks ago. Last week, he had us particularly spooked by his refusal to eat wet food, and the Czarina just cuddled him for a bit and asked “Are you ready to go, little man?” For about three days, he sauntered around as of telling us “Boy, did I play YOU!”, but he started sliding again. Barring an absolute miracle, which seems to be awfully lacking in this house, Tramplemaine might live through the weekend. In the meantime, so long as he isn’t in pain, we’re going to make him as comfortable as we can, and then we’re probably going to take him for his last vet trip on Monday. At this point, it’s the only thing we can do for him, and since I wasn’t able to be there for my previous cats when they died a decade ago, I’m making a point to be there for him at the end.

In a roundabout way, this is all to explain that if nobody hears from either of us for the next few days, that’s why. Some people may say “it’s just a cat,” but Tramplemaine is a cat that’s been an essential part of my life for one-third of it. He deserves as respectful a sendoff as I can give him.

Uncle Sam’s On Mars

Back at the end of the Nineties, my obsession with the European colonization of New Zealand, particularly with the Acclimatisation Societies, led to my putting together a discussion on the subject of importing fauna and flora to Mars for the late, lamented online magazine Event Horizon. In the intervening 13 years, I’ve continued to research the whys and wherefores of growing food items in space habitats, as well as the potential controls for previously innocuous organisms becoming major pests in lunar or Martian greenhouses. Naturally, you can understand why I’m thrilled to discover that NASA is also looking at the issue of feeding a 30-month Mars mission. Admittedly, I’m also fully expecting that the first serious exports from a permanent Mars installation probably won’t be hot peppers. And so it goes.

With that said, I’m actually more intrigued by the idea of some enterprising soul producing the solar system’s hottest peppers on Mars, either via hydroponics or with the use of suitably augmented Martian soil. Testing the effects of Martian gravity on pepper plants may be problematic, but it’s definitely possible to test the soil viability with Martian and lunar soil simulants in a greenhouse environment. This may be a very public experiment for this winter, when I’ll be starting up pepper and tomato seedlings anyway. Best of all, I could see the interest in Martian explorers taking such a Capsicum plant and shaping it into the first-ever Martian bonsai.

Triffid Ranch interview, part II

The second part of Emily Goldsher’s Triffid Ranch interview is now live, including an explanation behind the concept of “Kareds”. In related news, keep an eye open for the next few Triffid Ranch shows, because I plan to have a lot of them. (I regularly see my future as an old man in a motorized wheelchair, holding one withered claw aloft while screaming “My Kareds are the supreme beings in the universe!” This future only happens, of course, if I don’t aggravate the Czarina to the point where she feeds me to the cats.)

The Richardson Pylon

Pylon 5

Just north of Dallas, on the mutual border between the suburbs of Richardson and Plano, lies an anomaly. It lies on the north side of a city park, along a recently refinished and refurbished bike and walking trail, surrounded by trees, shrubs, and a tremendous amount of poison ivy. It’s easily accessible, and can even be seen from the air. Take the DART Red Line train north toward Plano, and look west in between the Galatyn Park and George Bush Tollway train stations. Even in the height of summer, it’s hard to miss, but it’s particularly visible after Halloween, once the leaves start dropping from the trees.

Pylon 5

Contrary to its appearance, this isn’t some lost tomb from an otherwise unknown Mayan city. It isn’t an Olmec temple or sacrificial site. It wasn’t left behind by some unknown extraterrestrial race, just waiting for us to learn its secrets and activate it. A few astute individuals may recognize it as a train trestle: the current DART line runs along the land previously used for a freight line heading north to McKinney, and this was almost all that remained after the bridge over a rather wide local creek was demolished.

All on its own, this trestle is just crawling with what my friend Dave Hutchinson likes to call “a sensawunda”. Anybody with even a slight bit of imagination can come up with all sorts of stories to explain its presence, and it inspires enough to brave ticks, chiggers, and poison ivy to stomp through the vegetation and leave a trail. That’s not the main focus of this discussion. Believe it or not, this little artifact can pass on a lot of information to anyone working either on miniature gardens or dioramas.

If you go back to the photo at the beginning of this post, don’t look at the pylon. Look at the trees around it. Note in particular how the trees are rotten with vines of all sorts, including one huge vine that’s actually bending down the top of the oak tree on which it resides. You don’t see any vines on the pylon, do you? In fact, the whole thing is surprisingly vegetation-free, save for a small sapling at the top. No lichen, no moss, no ferns…it’s botanically bereft, all things considered.

Pylon top

When it comes to our understandable human fascination with ruins and monoliths, half of the appeal seems to come from these ruins covered with various flora. (As to why ancient ruins and dinosaurs seem to go together for ten-year-olds like French fries and catsup, well, that’s something best discussed by psychologists, not botanists.) The ruins of Angkor or Tikal not only awe today, but they inspire repeated fictional variations. It’s to the point where imagery of stone ruins seemingly require them to be covered with vines and creepers, obscuring all but the basic building shape.

The problem here, and an issue that needs to be considered with any miniature recreation of, say, Temple II, is that you need to consider the general conditions of the miniature area you’re trying to create. By way of example, the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire, USA is full of gigantic granite boulders, many the size of small houses, broken free from the surrounding rock and rounded by rolling down the mountainside. Some are so large, the tops have collected enough humus from fallen leaves that small maples and oaks grow atop them. Some of those trees have managed, over the years, to reach their roots down to the ground, producing beautiful natural nebari.

What makes this work, though, is a relative impermeability of the rock, and that’s something that’s very hard to duplicate in miniature. With a house-sized boulder, the granite has enough pits to hold more water than it would if the surface were polished, and the decayed leaves on top act as a sponge. In miniature, there’s no way to create that effectively, short of setting a water drip atop a comparable rock to replace what is lost from evaporation.

Pylon top detail

With concrete, the situation is aggravated because concrete is very good at wicking away moisture. I’ve warned people for years, after my own horrible experiences, that the standard concrete planters used by cities to grow trees and shrubs don’t work well in Dallas, because any excess water in the container gets drawn into the concrete before it evaporates away. In the short term, this works well for keeping tree roots cool in Dallas temperatures, but without a regular and steady water source? It’s great for cactus, but death for most other plants in a typical Dallas summer.

In the photo above, that’s precisely what’s happening with that little tree. The pylon apparently has a space up top that collects dead leaves and the occasional rain, but it’s also baked in the summer sun. In a few years, it might make a decent yamadori, but it’s never going to grow into a full-sized tree. When the loam up top dries out, it gets blown around by the prevailing winds. When the rains return, any trace minerals wash out. Were we to get a lot more rainfall than we do, that top might make a decent location for small carnivorous plants such as sundews or butterworts. As it is, if I wanted to plant something, prickly pear cactus would be one of the few sane options.

Pylon wasp nest

Not that I plan to do this with the Richardson Pylon. Although the surface temperatures deter vine growth just due to new growth wilting or even cooking off in summer, the east side makes good shelter for other inhabitants. For instance, the surrounding woods are full of caterpillars, which make good food for the young of this nest of paper wasps.

Paper wasp nest on pylon

Now back to the wonders of concrete. As mentioned before, abandoned concrete around here tends to remain vine-free, except occasionally on the east side of installations. This is because of both concrete’s exceptional ability to retain heat and its ability to draw off moisture. Vines with aerial roots or suckers, such as poison ivy or English ivy, can’t get enough of a grip during summer to make much of a difference. North Texas is rotten with raspberry brambles, but the singular ability of raspberry runners to climb by hooking obstacles doesn’t work when the surface is relatively smooth. About the only place where vines can get established is when the slab itself cracks enough to allow a serious purchase.

Opposite trestle

For example, this is the trestle on the other side of the creek valley. The whole cliff is covered with vines and trees, but the only place where the vines are making inroads in the concrete? It’s only in the spaces where the slab has buckled to the point where the roots can sink in. In another twenty years or so, those vines may crack things enough to allow hanging trees, but nothing is getting through the main slab for a while.

And with that, here’s hoping that this wayward pylon gives some gardening design inspiration. Elvis help me if I ever had the opportunity to design a garden that had a feature like this, because I have Ideas.

The Richardson Pylon: a case study for miniature gardens

Pylon 1

Pylon 2

Pylon 3

Pylon 4