Archive for June, 2012

No, not the “flowers as symbols of love” trope.

daylilyFlowers are quite literally the sex organs of plants. A complete flower has male parts (stamens) and female parts (pistils.) In the daylily photo the stamens are the thin stalks (filaments) ending in the fluffy-looking things (anthers), while the part of the pistil visible is the slightly curved stalk below them.

The anthers release pollen (analogous to sperm cells in animals) which, when if falls on the sticky end of the pistil (the stigma) grows a tube to the ovaries, fertilizing the ovules within it, which can then grow into seeds. Those notorious birds and bees often assist in the process by transporting the pollen from one flower to another. In fact the colors and smells of flowers probably evolved to lure these pollinators, as did the nectar our honeybees make into honey.

The ovary, which can be above or below the base of the petals, is what grows into the fruit—the sometimes-edible part surrounding the seeds. As it happens, the ovary in the daylily is above the petal base and hidden by the petals; that on the squash we’ll discuss later is below the petal base.

female zucchini flower

Female zucchini flower, showing small squash as stem. Male flower stem visible in background.

Now plant sex is a good deal more varied than animal sex. Some plants have both stamens and pistil in the same flower, like the daylily. In extreme cases, the flower doesn’t even open, and the plant pollinates itself, but this is rare and seen mostly in some members of the legume and viola families. At the other extreme, the whole plant is male or female, and two plants are needed for pollination. Some plants cannot be fertilized by their own pollen, and two varieties must be planted in order for them to set fruit. And in some there are two distinct kinds of flower, male and female, on the same plant. The male flower has stamens and produces pollen, but never produces seed or fruit. The female flower is the only one that produces the fruit.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been referring to male and female squash flowers. I grow zucchini, and they produce male flowers first, and then female flowers. Only the female flowers actually produce squash, so those are the ones I watch for.

How do I tell? Well, I could look inside the flowers, which are large enough to see the difference. But with zucchini, there’s a simpler way. In squash, the ovary is below the base of the petals, which means that if you look at the “stem” of a female flower, most of what you see is what will grow into a squash. Slender, smooth stems indicate male flowers (lots of those right now) which will never produce squash themselves. Fat stems, or yellow ones in the case of yellow zucchini, indicate female flowers and squash to come.

I don’t think the squash pictured will be ready to eat before next week, though they can grow remarkably fast from this size – the photo was taken June 28. But I fully expect to have my first zucchini by the end of next week. (I’d better remember to add parmesan cheese to the grocery list, as I prefer zucchini braised in olive oil with oregano and sprinkled with cheese and garlic salt.)

My first shelter was the escape capsule, where it half-crashed.

African Sunset, second was nearby, my only thought to find a place high enough that I need not fear the rising water, but within easy teleport range – I’d forgotten how to counterweight, then, so it had to be close. But it was still not a particularly pleasant spot, nor one I would have chosen.

This ….

Here I am near the shore of a lake, with trees and grass nearby. Here I can watch sunrises and sunsets of surpassing beauty, with little fear of fire. Even the predators, I now suspect, are an excuse for not camping at this site, but preserving it as a ceremonial meeting place.

For it is considered sacred and thus, Storm Cloud tells me, a suitable place for me to stay.

Why sacred?

It is volcanic, my perception tells me, and subject to local tidal waves and gas releases. Dangerous for them, yes, but I can foresee such disasters, and prepare against them. For that matter, I can to a certain extent prevent them, by making sure that the energy is released elsewhere. Some of the energy I can even use. There are hot springs here, and one of their yearly rituals involves soaking in a hot pool. It will be more than yearly for me!

It seems that I am to be treated as a god regardless of what I do. Why not live in this place?

Jarn’s Journal is the fictional journal of a human-like alien stranded in Africa 125,000 years ago. His story is the remote back story of the Confederation in which my science fiction novels are set. The entire Journal to date is on my author site.

ChickweedI do a lot of gardening during the three months it usually doesn’t freeze. We have to select varieties that won’t bolt with our long days and will mature with a short season, but those plants that do grow well up here grow with a vengeance.

Unfortunately, so do the weeds. And the mosquitoes.

I don’t use herbicides, at least not unless I can control exactly where they go. Painting the cut surface of an aspen with brush killer is one thing, but I will not apply herbicides to soil growing plants I intend to eat. I use physical and light barriers, like the IRT plastic I mentioned earlier or a thick mulch of grass clippings, but unprotected ground is rapidly covered with chickweed.

weedy garden

Would you believe this was tilled in early June?

There are certainly other weeds in Alaska. Lamb’s quarters are common, and so is tall buttercup and strawberry spinach. Birch seedlings proliferate like weeds, and poplar (especially balsam poplar) has a bad habit of sending up shoots many yards from the parent tree. Most of these, however can be pulled and stay pulled. I swear chickweed likes being pulled and tilled under.

It’s a deceptively mild looking weed, with stems that are hair-thin just above the root—the better to break when you’re trying to pull it. It happily entangles itself with the thyme, and forms a thick mat in the rows of beans and peas. Given support, like the sides of my raised beds, it reaches a foot or more in height. It grows like mad under clear plastic.

Chickens (and poultry in general) love it. The one time I did not have a problem with chickweed was the few years I had ducks – but the ducks, unfortunately, liked other things in the garden. Like strawberries.

“But it’s edible,” some people say. “It’s a wonderful source of nutrients and even tastes good.” Fine. They are welcome to pick all they like in my garden, but there is certainly more than enough being grown (mostly not intentionally) to provide plenty for anyone who wants to eat it. Certainly I’ve never seen any being offered for sale at the Farmers Market.

One of the problems with trying to pull it is the mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are notorious in Alaska. The big ones, often referred to as the Alaska state bird, are not really a problem. They overwinter as adults, come out well before the temperature is above freezing at night, and are slow and relatively easy to swat. The annoying ones overwinter as eggs, hatch a little later than the big, slow ones, and come in clouds. They are fast and almost impossible to swat.

Insect repellant? Fine if you can tolerate it. I have at times gotten a worse rash from mosquito repellent than I have from mosquito bites. Interestingly, I had almost no mosquitoes when I had the ducks. I’m sure there were larval mosquitoes in the duck pond, but the ducks apparently found them as tasty as the chickweed.

Too bad the place I have now is not appropriate for keeping ducks.

Quotation Contexts

Owlsight coverThese are the quotations tweeted from @sueannbowling over the past week.

“Politicians! Always butting in where leaders are needed!” Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlsight. Kerowyn, disgusted by what Keisha has to tell her about the town mayor.

“Revenge doesn’t get you anything productive. And it tends to breed more of the same.” Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlsight. Keisha to Darian, as they prepare to kidnap one of the barbarians to get information.

“I want answers, but sometimes there aren’t any.” Merces Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlknight. Darian, hoping that with Wintersky’s help he can find some clue to what happened to his parents.

Owlknight cover“You are known by who you know.” Merces Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlknight.  Saying about the Northerners, thought of by Keisha as Hywel is strutting a bit.

“It’s one short step from being sure that something good can’t last to sabotaging it.” Mercdes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlknight. Shandi to Keisha, when she thinks her sister should push things a bit with Darian.

“Luck only favored those who didn’t need it.” Merces Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlknight. A saying recalled by Darian when he wants to go after his parents: “Lucky” people are those who are prepared.

“Her mind opened a memory to him, of snow and speed and the awesome power of the avalanche beneath her.” Sue Ann Bowling, Homecoming. Marna is remembering avalanche surfing, merely an extreme sport from her point of view. Lai sees it as sheer madness.

DVD CoverBack when I was a graduate student in physics, studying for my PhD, the last thing I wanted was entertainment I had to think about. That was in the 60’s, and the movie production companies were running scared of television. Wide-screen extravaganzas with huge casts of well-known actors were all the rage, and quite a number were comedies. At some point during this period I saw “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” and fell in love with it.

Of course in those days you saw a movie once or maybe twice during the few days it was in town, but I remembered it well enough that it was one of the first I bought on VHS. I think I wore that tape out, and I’ve had it on DVD for some time now.

It’s one I watch when I’m in the mood for laughter, and it’s one of the few I cannot watch without cracking up. Especially the scene with the fire engine and the airplane chasing each other. Or the dastardly deeds of Sir Percival Ware-Armitage (played by Terry-Thomas.)

The plot centers on an international air race across the English Channel from London to Paris. The race is fiction, but he planes were replicas of those actually being flown (or that people were trying to fly) in the first decade if the 20th century. Some of the flying got a little help from special effects, which is pointed out in the accompanying commentary, but most actually used the planes rebuilt from the early plans, but with slightly more powerful engines. I found it amusing that they couldn’t get the French Demoiselle off the ground until they checked on the weight of the original pilot. Turns out he was a lightweight, so the flight scenes with that plane were done with a female pilot.

Some of the national stereotypes would be considered in questionable taste today, but I find the movie is more making fun of the stereotypes than promoting them.

The opening and closing make use of a good deal of real newsreel footage, a delightful performance by Red Skelton, and a series of wonderful animated cartoons of the flyers and their misadventures. This is a movie that keeps me grinning from ear to ear, and if you like broad, almost slapstick comedy you’ll enjoy it.

Flower BoxesSquash bedI don’t know whether to be happy or sad that solstice has passed. It’s nice that it’s officially summer, but we’re already losing daylight. On the solstice we had 21 hours and 50 minutes; we’re already down to 21 hours 44 minutes, and the loss will accelerate from here on. I shouldn’t complain; we still have light all night.

The sun rose this morning at 3:01 and will set tomorrow morning at 12:45. It’s been

bean bed

One of the bean rows, 6/24/12

hot lately, at least by Fairbanks standards, and the showers aren’t really bringing much rain. I was chased in yesterday by the heat and the mosquitoes without getting much done but the watering.

The garden loves it – at least when I remember to water! Once of the squash plants actually has its first female flower, and at the rate they’re growing, the beans may be ready for the first picking by the end of June. If so, it will be the earliest ever. The lettuce seed is germinating – just in time, as it won’t be more than a few more weeks until the squash has shaded out the lettuce I transplanted into the holes in the cement blocks that make up the raised beds.

Day Lily

The day lilies are starting to bloom.

Daylilies are starting to bloom, as are the domesticated roses, though the wild roses are almost through for the season. Quite a few of the transplanted annuals are blooming, though it will be a while before the Asiatic lilies and the Maltese cross show their flowers. The begonias are going strong, as usual. At least it’s supposed to cool off some today, though not rain.

Too bad that the peak of the garden produce overlaps the Fairbanks Summer Arts  Festival.

Cassiopeia A Supernova Remnant (Hubble)Welcome to Six Sentence Sunday! Once again I am presenting a snippet from the last volume of my trilogy, working title War’s End. Coralie has suddenly found herself and her baby in a place completely strange to her, and has been trying to make sense of the sounds she hears. This follows on directly from last week’s snippet.

There!  That was a dog barking! “Bounce, come,” she cried out.

There was a series of rustles and squelches from her left, and she managed to sit up and look in that direction.  The ground beneath her, she now saw, was not so much ground as waterlogged and rotting vegetation, and when Bounce finally stuck her head through the leaves she was mired to the belly with greenish mud.  “Bounce,” Coralie gasped in relief.

If you want to know more about Six Sentence Sunday, or visit the other great authors posting today, click on the logo below. Six Sentence Sunday logo

Postscript at 10 am: Maryellen Brady won the drawing on my site for the SFR writers blog hop, and chose Tourist Trap. Congratulations!

I went to an Alaska Writers Guild meeting Tuesday night, and mentioned Friday’s post on the effect of orbital tilt. This led to a discussion of day length, and I realized that while I knew some planets had really weird day lengths, I wasn’t sure which ones. (I thought it was the inner planets, which turned out to be right.) So as long as I was looking the information up, I thought I’d share it.


Mercury (Wikimedia)
Mercury turns out to be the planet whose days are longer than its years. For many years the planet was thought to keep the same side facing the sun all the time: one rotation about its axis relative to the stars for each revolution around the sun. We now know it rotates three times for each two revolutions around the sun, making its days a year and a half long. Luckily it’s a short year (88 Earth days.) Its tilt, by the way, is so near zero it is hard to measure. (Its closeness to the sun doesn’t help.)


Venus, Hubble photo
Venus is the really weird one. Its rotation is in the opposite direction from its revolution around the sun, so from the surface of Venus, the sun would appear to rise in the west! At perihelion the sun may actually appear to stand still or go backward in the sky. That is, it would if you could see the sun through the sulfuric acid clouds. A Venusian day is long, however: 116.75 Earth days. A Venusian year is 1.92 Venusian days or 224.65 Earth days long. The tilt of its axis is only about 3.4°.


Mars (Hubble)Mars is easily the least different from Earth when it comes to day length: 24 hours 39 minutes and slightly more than 35 seconds. This is more precise than is generally stated for the other planets, quite simply because Mars is the planet with human-piloted rovers on its surface, and to have daylight, these pilots must work on Martian days (or sols) even though they are located on Earth. (Pilot may not be quite the right word, given that radio communications take 4 to 20 minutes to get to Mars.) Its axial tilt is also similar to Earth’s: 25.2°. A Mars year is 1.8809 Earth years.


Jupiter (Hubble)Jupiter has the fastest rotation rate, and thus the shortest day, of any of the planets: slightly less than 10 hours. Why the vagueness? All we can see of Jupiter is the cloud tops, and those rotate at slightly different speeds at different latitudes. It is clear, however that Jupiter’s days are very short, especially compared with its year length of 11.86 Earth years. Its axial tilt is small, only 3.13°.


Saturn (Hubble)Saturn, like Jupiter, rotates fast and the rotation seems to vary with latitude but is slightly more than 10 hours. The year, however, is over twice the length of Jupiter’s – 29.46 years. The axial tilt is relatively large: 26.73°, which is why the visibility of Saturn’s rings from Earth varies so much. Seasonality is probably weakened by internal heating and the large distance from the sun.


Uranus (Hubble)Uranus rotates slower than the gas giants but still faster than earth, with a day length of 17 hours, 14 minutes. Its year is 84 Earth years long. It is a few years past an equinox (2007) and won’t reach another solstice until 2028. There is some question as to which is the north pole, since its axis is either tilted at 97.77° with normal rotation or 82.14° with retrograde rotation.


Neptune (Hubble)Neptune has a day length of roughly 16.11 hours. Very roughly – Neptune has even more variation in rotation rate of the cloud tops with latitude than does Jupiter, with apparent rotation periods varying from 12 hours at the poles to 18 hours at the equator. Its tilt is a little larger than earth’s, about 28.32°, which should give it pronounced seasons, though not as pronounced as those of Uranus! It year is roughly 164.8 years.

All of this variation is just in our own solar system. What else may be out there?

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What point at the top of the atmosphere gets the most solar radiation on the day of the summer solstice?  Would you believe the North Pole?

Yes, that’s right. If the Earth’s pole of axial rotation were perpendicular to its orbital plane, the North Pole wouldn’t get any incoming radiation, and summer solstice would not even be defined. But with an axial tilt of only 23.5°, the pole still gets more radiation over 24 hours on the date of the summer solstice than any other point of the northern hemisphere on any date. Only the South Pole gets more, on the day of the winter solstice.

It doesn’t show up in temperature, first because much of the incoming solar radiation is scattered away during its long path through the atmosphere, and second because the ice and snow at the North Pole reflect much of the radiation back to space. (The second factor may be changing, and this is one of the reasons the Arctic is such a sensitive region.)

But suppose the axial tilt were 90°?

Uranus (Hubboe)

Uranus, as viewed by Hubble.

We do have one planet in our Solar System that approaches this: Uranus, with a tilt of 82.14°. But let’s stick with the Earth and assume it has a tilt of 90°. What would the seasons be like?

Summer solstice at the pole would be unbearable. Imagine the sun directly overhead at noon. Now stretch that noon out in time, so that the sun stays overhead for 24 hours. Hot? No place on Earth has that much incoming solar radiation today. Granted there would probably be clouds. In fact, there would probably be hurricane-like monsoonal storms unknown on our planet today. But it would still be hot.

By contrast, the South Pole would be in the middle of a six-month long night. It would have some stored heat left from the intense summer, probably enough to keep maritime climates above freezing. But it would still be dark except for the stars, the moon, and the southern lights.

The equator? At summer solstice, the equator would be pretty chilly. The sun would never rise or set, but just appear to sit at the northern horizon. As time moves toward the autumnal equinox, the sun gradually begins to rise in the north-northeast at 6 am, ride to its maximum height in the northern sky, and then set in the north-northwest at 6 pm. By the equinox, the sun would rise in the east, rise to directly overhead and then set in the west. But at the north pole, the sun has been spiraling gradually down the sky from overhead, until it finally just glides along the horizon at both poles on the day of the equinox, which begins a 6-month night for the North Pole and a 6-month day at the South Pole.

What happens if you add up all of the incoming solar energy over the course of a year? Not too surprisingly, the poles are the winners, with the equatorial regions being relatively cool. Given that water is much better at storing heat than land, the oceans would be warmer at the poles than the equator. Land areas are far more likely to follow a strong annual cycle. High-latitude continental climates would have tremendous seasonal variation, while maritime climates would be much more uniform. Monsoons, which are driven by these land-sea differences, would be extreme. And equatorial climates, which on our earth are primarily wet or dry, would be intensely cold near the solstices and as warm as they get on the equinoxes.

I haven’t actually tried this as a science fiction world—I want my planets to be habitable! But I do have a planet with zero axial tilt—Eversummer—in Tourist Trap. To quote Marna, the planet’s name must have been picked out by a publicity agent!

Note that today is the midsummer blog hop, and you can enter the draw for prizes by commenting. The prize on this blog is a PDF of one of my books, Homecoming or Tourist Trap (your choice.) In addition, anyone who comments on this blog is eligible for the grand prize drawing: 1st Prize – winner’s choice of a Kindle Touch or a Nook Touch
2nd Prize – a library of science fiction romance titles donated by various authors and an Anabanana Gift Card. Most of the books will be in digital format, with one print anthology.

No more than one comment on a single blog will count, but you can comment on multiple blogs to improve your chances.

Year 3 Day 50

African lake at sunrist, seems I am faced with a choice.

I can be treated as a god.

Or I can find some place where the People never come, and live utterly alone, perhaps for centuries.

I cannot face the second option.

I do not want to be a god. But already I have influenced these people, simply by knowing that certain things – like the fish traps or weaving clothes as they weave baskets – are possible. Can I live among them without changing them?

Some of the shamans still fear that I will diminish their authority, but most want me to stay near their gathering place. It is certainly a better place than that where my shelter is now. There is a lake, and trees, and a great abundance of wild animals. When I expressed surprise that they did not stay there, they told me that once they had done that, and the predators became too much of a problem in the lean seasons. So they wander after the herds, now, and staying in one place for more than a season is forbidden by the shamans. I am not sure they understand why.

They have made it very clear that such a prohibition would not apply to me. Am I not a god? And on a more practical point of view, I have the warnoffs, and could influence the minds of the local predators.

I could move the shelter here. After all, I rebuilt it from the escape capsule once. It would mean shutting down the computer for a while, making a new well, rebuilding the shelter—perhaps even better than what I have now.

The People would help me.

But do I really want to be a god in a temple?

Need it be that different from the summer when Songbird’s people lived nearby?

Yes, it’s a day early for the back story for my novels, but tomorrow is the summer solstice blog hop. Click the picture at the top right of the page for details, and remember I’ll be giving away a PDF copy of Homecoming or Tourist Trap, and the top allover prize is an e-reader.