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Friday, December 6, 2019

Does God love women?

I got into a conversation about this question the other day, and it reminded me what a big problem it was for me years ago. If God loves men and women equally, why did he create a world where we are so unequal?

I started out with church teachings. Why all the obey your husband stuff when it's led to and covered up so much abuse? Why did the church declare it a sin to deny sex to a spouse about a thousand years before it bothered to mention you need consent for sex within marriage? Why did church teaching, when it mentioned women at all, bind up more burdens instead of addressing our particular vulnerabilities and enjoining men to respect us? Was God not aware that men would oppress and abuse us?

I could go for the low-hanging fruit: the permission of sex slavery in the Old Testament, the burdensome menstrual laws, stuff like that. But I don't think I even have to. I can admit there were moments when the Bible goes beyond the culture where women's rights go: forbidding men from divorcing their wives, blaming lust on men's eyes instead of women's clothes, Jesus having female disciples. But is it really enough, given how oppressed women were? For centuries of Christianity, women were not given a choice about who they married or much of anything afterward. They spent most of their time pregnant and very often died before their time in childbirth. Millions of women throughout history have been killed by their husbands, and until the last few decades, they had no legal remedy to escape a violent man. I think if God had a problem with any of this, he should have said something. He could have demanded women be treated as equals, in explicit terms; or put women in some kind of leadership role in the church so they could have said something.

But all of this is almost a side note. This is stuff the Christian God did and failed to do, contributing to the oppression of women. But people might rightly object: Women were oppressed before Christianity, in almost every* culture in the world. So why blame Christianity?

[*There's some evidence Paleolithic women weren't oppressed, but we can't really be sure. If you focus on recorded societies, the majority have been patriarchal.]

This isn't really an excuse for the Christian God, or any god for that matter. After all, God created the world, right? So we have to ask what, in the conditions of the world, makes women oppressed. Is God responsible for any of that?

Well, women are physically weaker on average, that's one thing. We get pregnant, for another: being pregnant or nursing makes us vulnerable. Then there are the psychological differences between men and women. I keep batting back and forth about how real those are, but I think it's fair to say that there's at least some kind of average difference: men tend to be more aggressive, for one thing. They commit by far the majority of violent crimes. Culture surely plays into this, by telling men what is expected of them, but I think testosterone does play a role as well, in increasing anger and aggressive tendencies.

If I were making a planet, I definitely wouldn't give half the people a physical advantage and then give that same half more anger and tendency to dominate. I'd either make everyone as equal as I could, or I'd make the stronger ones the biggest natural altruists.

Even today, violence against women is an ongoing problem. An estimated 35% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence, half of them by someone known to them. 137 women are murdered by a member of their own family around the world every day. 72% of human trafficking victims are women and girls.

Okay, so what if we ruled out all effects of the patriarchy? While I can't hold God blameless for making us vulnerable to it, it is of course mostly the fault of human action. If all men shaped up their behavior overnight, would life be fair for women?

No. No it wouldn't. We have periods, of course, which aren't evolutionarily necessary (most animals don't have them) and which are unpleasant in the most ideal scenario. On top of that, many of us have severe cramping or mood disorders related to our periods. Between 10 and 20 percent of women have endometriosis, where endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus. It causes extreme levels of pain every month. There are some treatments but no cure.

Pregnancy causes further problems: some of us are lucky and suffer only "minor" annoyances like feeling nauseated for three months solid, heartburn, hemorrhoids, dislocated pelvic bones, and so on. Others get nightmarish problems like hyperemesis gravidarum, where one vomits so much it becomes dangerous. A Facebook friend of mine is right now, thanks to medication, able to keep down about 300 calories a day and fluids. That is as good as modern medicine can do for her. Often women with hyperemesis suffer tooth and esophageal damage from all the vomiting.

Then of course there's pain in childbirth, which no treatment can completely take away. My labors have been brief and uncomplicated, but it's still the worst pain I've ever felt, for hours. After birth, pain and disability continues during a recovery period when we're also expected to care for a newborn.

In short: life for women on this planet is worse. The writers of Genesis knew that, hence the story of how it's all a punishment for Eve's sin. Both domination by men and physical suffering are mentioned. It's not unfair, they tell us, because Eve did eat that apple first.

How is it fair to distribute punishments like that? Could God instead have allowed both sexes to experience the same punishment, given they both ate the same apple? Of course he could. He is all powerful, right? We are told this way is more "fitting."

If you're keeping track, that means thousands of years of oppression and suffering for women were considered an acceptable tradeoff for God to have things be poetically appropriate. It wasn't worth raising a finger to prevent.

This is just one of many injustices in the world that make it hard to believe that there is any kind of just God. All we know of God is the visible world he created, which is unjust. I can't expect that the life after this, if there is one, is any more fair in its punishments or any more merciful to the vulnerable than this world is.

And that's part of why I'm still not a believer in any deity. Any one that's responsible for this world probably doesn't have anything good in store for me later.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Science is not the patriarchy

For whatever reason, I've noticed a correlation between women and woo. Astrology. Jade eggs. Homeopathy. Women are also more religious than men. If there's no science behind something, there are usually more women who believe in it.

I can't claim to know the full reason why- my guess is there are a lot of reasons. One I hear spelled out a lot is that science is a male-dominated field. So science and modern medicine are characterized as "male ways of knowing," unfairly pushing out the traditions of our foremothers.

This narrative isn't entirely wrong. Our society has the bad habit of doing a tiny bit of scientific exploration, understanding five percent of a thing, jumping in with both feet, and only later realizing that was dangerously stupid. For instance, do you remember when x-rays were thrown around heedlessly- x-rays of laboring women, x-rays to kill ear infections, x-rays to measure children's feet for shoes? Science had gotten far enough to know what it could do, and not far enough to know what it couldn't. Likewise thalidomide, low-fat diets supplemented by corn syrup and cigarettes, and so on. A little more respect for tradition would have stopped people from diving headlong into new fads they didn't fully understand.

Likewise, for a long time doctors were worse at healing people than your granny. Neither could do much for you, but at least granny hadn't come straight from dissecting a corpse without washing her hands. To this day, obstetrics and gynecology, in practice, clings to disproven tactics like episiotomies, supine positioning, and immediate cord clamping, which any midwife could tell you aren't helping. No wonder women, whose first extended encounter with the medical profession might be when giving birth, don't trust doctors.

I'm definitely the first person to tell you the medical profession isn't perfect, or that there are a lot of things science doesn't know. But the root of science and medicine is not the bad practices of clueless doctors. The root is, or should be, the scientific method- testing claims and finding out whether or not they are true. Applied to medicine, this means randomized, controlled trials wherever possible. You don't just take a medicine and see if you feel better, because that doesn't account for randomness - you might have felt better anyway. Instead you give a hundred people the medicine, give a hundred people a sugar pill, and see what percentage of each group gets better.

This practice is what turned medicine from a haphazard collection of folk remedies and bloodletting into something that saves billions of lives. Infant mortality is a fraction of what it was. Lifespans are decades longer. Modern medicine emphatically does work, and it all came from testing remedies and carefully recording the results.

What is masculine about testing things to see if they work? Nothing at all! Dr. Gerty Cori, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, and Dr. Virginia Apgar would be offended at the notion. Female doctors and medical researchers have been told for generations that they couldn't have access to medical research- the thing that actually works- because it wasn't for women. But instead, excluding them was the real unscientific, purely tradition-based choice.

Is it possible that women think differently from men? Sure! But if we define it purely in the sense of "finding things out more by ways that are unrelated to truth than by ways that can be tested," all that means is dooming women to be wrong a lot. Tradition is at best a middling way of finding out what works. Gut feelings are even worse. "I feel more connected to myself when I shove a jade egg up my vagina" tells us nothing about whether it's safe or effective for any condition.

Maybe women are better at actually waiting and learning more before leaping headlong into a new discovery. For instance, Frances Oldham Kelsey was the FDA director who refused to approve thalidomide without more testing, thus preventing untold numbers of prenatal deaths and disabilities. Was it because she was a woman, or just because she was conscientious and patient? Who knows.

More contributions of women might also lead to advances in obstetric care, more resources being spent on women's conditions like endometriosis, and more credence given to women's expressions of pain. Medicine (and science in general) aren't finished; there's plenty of improvement available.

But the answer isn't to abandon the whole idea of the demonstrable and turn to woo. If you go to your doctor with pain and he dismisses you, that means you need a better doctor. If there isn't one, that's a terrible thing and tells you something about the state of medicine today. It doesn't tell you medicine is a tool of the patriarchy and true healing is only to be found by rubbing oil on your belly, shoving a rock up your nethers, and blaming retrograde Mercury. If you're going to turn to alternative medicine (as plenty of women do, including me, because of a lack of workable options within the system), you can still choose things whose safety and effectiveness have been studied. This is true of a select few essential oils, a few nutritional regimes (pro tip: anything that includes eating more vegetables will do you at least some good), many of the things trained midwives do, and so on. Your average thing trumpeted by naturalist celebrities doesn't qualify, and it won't start qualifying just because they sell it in a feminist wrapping.

Don't leave science to men because they think it's theirs. It belongs to everyone. It belongs to us.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Are we getting autism wrong?

Imagine you asked what a heart attack is, and I answered, a disorder characterized by rubbing your arm, moaning, and falling down on the floor.

You'd be a little puzzled, because this definition gets us no closer to what a heart attack is, what is happening in the body.

So you ask, what's the cure?

I answer, well, we've trained all the patients out of rubbing their arms and moaning, but they keep falling over whatever we do. I guess the only solution is tying them upright!

That's kind of where we are on autism. It's described and defined, not by the interior workings of the mind, but by the most noticeable symptoms: social problems, stimming, meltdowns. And the available therapy, which is mainly ABA, focuses entirely on extinguishing behaviors rather than making the person feel any better. They teach social skills and train a child out of stimming, but weirdly the meltdowns only get worse. Or the person starts experiencing anxiety and depression. We know autistic people, especially those considered to be "high functioning," have an elevated suicide risk.

This way of defining autism also keeps girls from being diagnosed. We know that autistic girls are better at mimicking appropriate social skills. So people say, well, that's not autism then. Autism includes poor social skills, so if this girl has figured them out on her own, she can't be autistic.

Women also react to heart attacks differently, but in this case we are told that heart attacks may not involve arm pain and to learn the signs of heart attack in women. What if we considered autism the same way? Rather than saying "the symptoms are different, therefore it can't be autism," maybe we should ask what the symptoms of autism look like in women.

I don't think I can clearly and briefly define autism from the inside. I can say, for sure, that there are sensory processing differences. And that autistic people's brains seem less generalized; they'll often be overpowered in one area and underpowered in another. These two things cause social problems, because social skills require coordination of a lot of different skills at once, and most autistic people will have trouble with at least one of those. But some autistic people will learn to manage the social skills problems early on, and thus be overlooked at truly autistic.

I'm a believer in autism research. Unfortunately, most of the research being done right now is focusing on all the wrong things: either how to extinguish behaviors, or what causes autism in order to prevent it. The first is a problem because changing behaviors doesn't cure autism, and may make a person feel much worse. The second is a problem because autism is almost always genetic, and the only "cure" for genetic ailments at this point is abortion. So while there's nothing wrong in theory with pinpointing specific genes, it becomes a massive problem when people are so scared of having an autistic child they'd demand prenatal testing for it.

Instead, the research I would like to see is more about what is specifically happening in the brain. What does overstimulation look like, and what helps? What interventions actually work in lowering anxiety and stress in the brain? Marko has just turned a corner from a four-month bad spell where he was angry and explosive all the time, and suddenly he's happy and excited again. He's just as autistic as before, but something did change. Could science help us understand what flips this switch in Marko and how to give him more good days?

Unfortunately, society just isn't there. Most people still see an autistic child demanding a green shirt every day or flapping their hands and say, "How do we make them look and act like a neurotypical child?" They're not asking how to help an autistic child live their best life. And until the people giving the money, organizations sponsoring the research, scientists, doctors, and therapists are all centering the well-being of the autistic person, we're not going to make much progress.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

New school year

1

This year Miriam is starting school.  Can you believe it?  She's in kindergarten this year.  She has the same teacher Michael had, which worried me because Michael spent the whole year complaining about how boring it was and how much work there was.

Well, Miriam loves it and comes home every day raving about how wonderful every moment is.  The teachers all say she's a delight.  Which I could have told them.


She's not so much of a delight at home lately, though.  There's been a lot of whining and melting down--really for the past six months, so I'm not going to blame school particularly.  But I wouldn't be surprised if she was very tired after all that good behavior at school.

2

Marko continues to love school.  Michael continues to whine, but I think he's having a better year than last year.  Like, if I ask, he says school is boring, but he doesn't volunteer many complaints.

I walked everyone to their classroom the first day, but by day two Miriam was ready to walk into the building herself, if Michael would walk her to her classroom.  After a week or two of this, Michael complained.  Why does he have to walk her to her classroom?  Why can't I do it?

I said, dude, I walked you to your room EVERY day of kindergarten.  It was well out of my way (because to get to the door parents can sign in at means going the whole way around the building) but I did it because you seemed to need it, and because I love you.  So you owe me one year of walking your sister to hers.  It's not even far from yours.  You can do it.

He hasn't complained anymore so I think he's learned to live with it.


3

Big news for me this year: I got a job teaching Latin two days a week.  I have a beginning Latin class of 10-12 year olds, a fun introduction to Latin for 6-8 year olds, and fifteen minutes to somehow entertain preschoolers with Latin.  Only the serious Latin class is easy for me.  Trying to figure out how to keep the attention of the younger kids while teaching them a whole foreign language is a lot harder.

The school is exactly the kind of low-budget startup Catholic school I always teach at.  It's a little uncomfortable knowing that they're all Catholic and I'm not (though they know I'm not).  Just being back in that environment is strange.  But at the same time, it's familiar and I know how to deal with it.

I was hoping it would be a fun break from being with Jackie all day.  So far I find myself sighing with relief when I wake up and it's not a teaching day.  It adds stress rather than removes it.  But on the other hand, it's early days yet and I know I'll hit my stride better later.  And it is nice knowing I'm doing something I'm good at, and that people are willing to pay me for.

4

While I'm doing that, Jackie is having her first experience with daycare.  I dreamed of sending her to one of the fancy school-like ones, but they all want fulltime kids.  So I found a little home daycare and it's actually much better for her.  She hates large numbers of kids, and this is only three other kids.

Her social anxiety at this age reminds me a lot of Marko's.  She hates when we have friends over and is always trying to drag me out of the room.  With Marko, I let him avoid social experiences for the most part.  My thought with Jackie is that carefully introducing her to social interaction in small doses might help her ease into it a little better.  That's part of why I'm going to all this trouble instead of just staying home with her all day.

The first day, she cried the entire time.  The second day, she cried most of the time and then fell asleep on the floor.  My heart broke but it was a bit late to back out, so we kept trying.  I told the daycare lady it was fine for her to watch as much TV as she wanted, and not to try to talk to her or engage just yet.  And slowly she's been getting more and more comfortable.  Yesterday she didn't cry at all!  She watched an episode of My Little Pony and then sorted pom-poms next to another kid.  Not interacting or anything, but she was two feet away and not screaming and that's PROGRESS.

5

I worry about Jackie.  She's so sensitive to so many things.  Honestly, I've worried about her since she was born, and I don't know how much of that is just the anxiety I was dealing with at the time.  But she was slow to make eye contact (I think five weeks) and smile (like eight weeks).  She gave me her first hug at about 13 months.  She had no words at 18 months.  And, I mean, there's all the screaming.


But on the other hand, she is extremely articulate now.  She can say basically whatever she wants, and it's not just parroting like Marko did at first.  She tells me she loves me many times a day and hugs me and kisses my leg.  (She doesn't like kissing faces.)  She mostly hates strangers but on rare days, when she's very comfortable, she'll go right up to someone and start talking a blue streak (which the person can't understand).  She spends a lot less time screaming since I downloaded some games on my tablet and let her play it.  Whenever she's upset, she wants the tablet and at this point I just let her have it, because it beats nursing.  A little bit of that calms her down and she's ready to get back to life.  No more hours-long meltdowns -- or almost none.  She still will if she's tired.

She doesn't really play independently.  I blame being the youngest.  She's just never had to entertain herself before.  So while the big kids are at school, she wants my attention all the time.  And suddenly, when they're not there, she has to dictate very complicated processes to do anything.  I want to leave the house?  Oh, well that's gonna take an hour while she picks out the right shoes, the right clothes, whoops different clothes, stuff for a bag she's going to bring, and a stuffy.  Then she's going to want to get in the car BY HERSELF, by the opposite door to her seat, and buckle in the stuffy WITHOUT HELP, and swing on the pilot seats for awhile, and play with the vent.  And if I deviate from her demands (which vary every time) she'll pitch a fit.  She's getting a little better about this; I wonder if it was just the novelty of being without the big kids and getting to decide more things.

She never wants to go anywhere.  The first couple of weeks of school, she kept asking to go places, but suddenly (after teaching and daycare started) she just wants to be at home.  I feel that: we're busy and being at home is restful.  But we do sometimes have to go shopping, and the library is supposed to be fun.  But she'd rather watch the same episode of Chip and Potato seventy billion times.

She still nurses many times a day and goes bananas if I don't let her.  While she nurses, she picks intently at my belly button.  She honestly seems more interested in the belly button than the milk.  When she's mad, she bends over backward like she's doing yoga, or she rips out handfuls of her own hair.  She refuses to play in the back yard if the neighbor's A/C unit is making noise.  She finally eats food with some regularity, but if she's in a mood she won't touch anything.

Anyway, what all this is coming down to is me wondering whether I should try to get her assessed for autism.  She is a lot like Marko was in some ways.  But according to the screening charts she's pretty much fine.  She engages; she makes eye contact; she points; she follows directions (when she wants to).  And I do remember worrying to a mental health professional that I had failed Marko by not getting him assessed sooner, and she said not to feel bad, because Marko's struggles wouldn't have been apparent any younger.  He doesn't have the kind of challenges (with speech, for instance) that present at two.

So I'm holding off for now, waiting to see how she does with daycare and how many of her issues are just two-year-old things.  But I think after three, the school district will assess her for free, and she can get into the head start preschool if they think she qualifies.  So that might be a good time to at least look into it.

6

As part of this new "me doing adult things without Jackie" phase, I finally went to the doctor about my frequent fatigue and dizziness.  And this time she actually took me seriously!  She told me we'll keep doing tests till we find out what it is.

Well, three tests later, I'm exhausted of this nonsense and would like to just give up and deal with it.  It's not anemia.  It's not thyroid.  It's not POTS.  It's not anything with my heart or lungs.

Tests cost a lot of money and can be a big hassle.  For the tilt-table test, I had to skip breakfast and drive all the way to [large town] by seven in the morning, while John missed an entire day of work in order to get the kids off to school without me.  (Once he misses his bus it becomes impractical for him to go in at all.)  Then I have this stupid heart monitor I have to wear for two weeks.  I hate having things on me.  And Jackie pulls on the wires and unsticks the stickers.

Next time I see the doctor, I'm going to say: is there anything we haven't ruled out that is actually dangerous?  Am I gonna die?  No?  Well then GOODBYE I'm going to just BE DIZZY because it's less trouble than testing all the dadgum things that could possibly go wrong in the human body.

7

I'm almost done querying my science fiction novel from last year.  It really hurts.  I don't know if the novel's not good enough, or if my real problem is I started too soon.  Because several months in, I came up with some great edits, adding a whole other point of view, and I really wish I could give that version to the agents who requested the full manuscript earlier in the year.  Alas.  You get only so many chances.  And it seems that the best ideas for editing only come after you've read half a dozen rejections.

I'm a little stuck right now on what to do next.  I wrote myself into a corner on my space colony story, and taking the entire summer off didn't help.  But I really want to finish it, because it started so strong and the characters are so good.  I feel like I owe it to them to pay off all the stuff I set up.

On the other hand, I have a cool new idea that I really want to run with.  It could be my National Novel Writing Month project . . . if I finish the other one first.  And with all the stress in my life I just don't know if I can do that.  So then what do I do?  Finish the one, or start the other?  TOO MANY IDEAS!


How are you this fall?




Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Summer takes

1

About a month ago, I realized I hadn't blogged much all summer.  But it was summer, and I was busy, so I didn't think I could write a post.  I decided to just post pictures.

Problem: picking out pictures ALSO takes time.  So summer is over and I'm only just now writing the post.

Summer was rough.  My kids do not get along with each other very well.  The only cure is to constantly take them places so that they have stuff to do, but that's exhausting and often expensive.  But I did do better at taking them places than I did last year, thanks to a baby that (theoretically at least) doesn't nap.

2

Our first adventure was flying out to see my family in the Seattle area.  We haven't been since Miriam was born!  And boy, is it ever expensive to fly a family of six across the country.  To say nothing of keeping them from wandering off in the airport.
But they did surprisingly well at the whole thing.  They mostly enjoyed the airplane and handled the airport and the million little shuttle buses just fine.  


Pro tip: some of United's flights have the inflight entertainment provided by an app.  But they only tell you this after they've made you turn your phone to airplane mode, so if you haven't downloaded the app, you're SOL.

On the other hand, the PBS kids app was already on our tablet, and they liked that.  We basically swapped around books, phones, and the tablet for five hours.  Jackie napped.  Miriam was scared of the bathroom and thus peed her pants twice.  OH WELL.


Of course there was much fighting over the window seat, with sights like this!


Their grandma was delighted to see them!  And they warmed up much better than past visits.  Except Jackie.  Jackie gave everyone the stinkeye.

3

My family likes to keep on the move.  One of the days we went hiking at Rattlesnake Ledge.  It sounded manageable--only two miles to the top, and a nice view!

We got to the park, took one look at the summit, and said, "Yeah, we're not getting to the top of that."




My brothers, who are Boy Scouts, said, "Yeah we are."  So we did.

It was kind of a horrible hike.  I had a lovely time at first, even though the way was steep, but Jackie refused to walk at all.  She weighs twenty-six pounds and had to be carried every single step of the two miles up, two miles down, and over a thousand feet of elevation gain.

The kids got all spread out, so that the boys went up with my brothers and sister, Miriam followed about half an hour later with my mom, and John and I dragged in fifteen minutes after that.  Finally got to the top and had a panic attack at the thought that MY KIDS WERE NEAR THAT DIZZYING DROP.  FOR FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.  SUPERVISED ONLY BY TEENAGERS.








By the time we got to the bottom, I was a limp noodle of nerves and exhaustion.

But!  We sure did get amazing pictures, didn't we?  I highly recommend this hike if you are an adult.  The kids did manage it with much whining by the end, but there's that dizzying cliffside where a person died last year.  I can't recommend allowing kids within a hundred yards of it.  However, nobody died and all's well that ends well.  So long as I don't think about it.

4

Then my dad took us sailing.  Last summer they all went sailing together and I complained that when I was a kid, I never got to go.  My dad reminded me that my younger siblings get a lot I didn't get, because they were so poor when I was a kid.  Well yeah, that's what I'm jealous about, Dad!  So he said, okay, come and visit and I'll take you sailing.  That's what we did, and it was AMAZING.  I loved it.  I want to go live on a boat.


My brothers operated the sails and took turns at the tiller.  I now know what "helm's alee" means!


My dad has been sailing since he was a kid.  Basically in his element here.

Puget Sound is really the ideal place to go sailing.  There's plenty of wind and places to go.  We saw seals, otters, birds, many fancy beach houses, container ships, cranes.
Jackie didn't especially love it, but she eventually stopped fussing about it.



5

We also visited my grandma in Wenatchee, my other favorite place after the Seattle area.  Because of the Cascade Mountains' rainshadow, it's very dry there.  As you drive it turns from this


to this:



My grandma was very happy to see us.  Jackie refused to get into the picture.  Sigh.




6

Then we got home and had a visit from John's mom. 




The kids loved getting more attention.  I loved them getting attention from not-me.

There were moments, though, when my incredibly tough mother-in-law, she who raised ten kids single-handed, gave me this look like "you live like this?"  Especially when Jackie was screaming for hours.  Or Marko was screaming for hours.  That's just ... part of our lives?  But having somebody else around made me notice it more.

7

The rest of the summer was all on me.  We went to parks, and creeks, and lakes, and pools.  It's so hot in Virginia in the summer, and none of the swimming places are free.  You're not supposed to swim in the Shenandoah (I got told off for it by a cop once) and the creek, while free, is only about waist-deep.  So sometimes I paid to immerse my kids in water, and it was always worth it.  Jackie, who was suspicious of water in June, was lunging for it by August.  None of them can really swim, but they love to splash.









And that was our summer!  We had lots of fun but I am exhausted and very happy school has started.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Biggest garden givers

There are a lot of great vegetables to grow in a beginning garden.  But my favorites are the ones that yield ridiculous amounts.  You know, where you end up with bagfuls of produce and have to go around begging your neighbors to take some.  Most of my life I've been at least a little anxious about whether I'll have enough to go around, and there's nothing to give you that feel like a mountain of cukes.

Here are my faves:

1.  Green beans

They start yielding early -- like under two months after you plant them -- and will keep yielding till first frost.  And every plant will give you a handful of beans in a remarkably short time.  I have a plot about eight feet by four feet and I end up with more than enough to feed our family . . . every other day.  This is too often to eat green beans, but I'm not complaining: after all, you can freeze them, can them, or pickle them.

2.  Zucchini

Nothing says "embarrassment of produce" like zucchini.  All the squash are pretty productive, but the advantage of zukes is that they're picked green, so you get a constant, rolling harvest.  Just pick them when they're small!  The big baseball bats are not very tasty.  (Though I always try to nab a few every summer, for zucchini bread!)

3.  Cucumbers

These are great for all the reasons zucchini are . . . plus they actually taste good.  (Sorry, zucchini.)  And you can eat them raw in the garden.  I like to rub the spines off on my jeans, snap them in half, and give them to the kids.  Which means I don't have as many to bring inside, but as long as vegetables get inside the children one way or the other, I don't care at all.

4.  Tomatoes

Another rolling-harvest crop, though these ones are a lot slower because they have to get ripe.  Still, one plant can give you quite a few tomatoes.  And tomatoes are just the best.  Cherry tomato plants are perfect IF you have children who want to help harvest.  If you don't, you'll never stay caught up on picking them and next year you'll have lots of little volunteers.

5. Chard

Chard is the only green I plant, because lettuce and spinach both bolt way too fast in this heat.  It does have to be cooked, and isn't any good for salad, but it sure does produce.  I have a little patch and can still harvest a double handful at least twice a week.  I like ripping it up small and putting it in spaghetti.

Honorable mention: herbs

Okay, herbs don't produce that well (except that one time I got a laundry basket full of basil) but because you don't need a lot, they're always plenty of bang for your buck.  That is, if they're something you use a lot.  I currently have more cilantro than I can shake a stick at and am kind of at a loss, especially with no tomatoes to make pico de gallo with.  But if you harvest them often (herbs need to be harvested often to keep them from bolting anyway) you will have what you need all summer.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Terraforming: why? why not? how?

My latest obsession is with terraforming. It started out as novel research: wouldn't it be cool to have a series set in just this solar system, but Mars and Venus were habitable and full of strange plants and animals?

But when I mentioned this idea to people at first, they mostly responded: but why? Why would anyone actually do that? Earth is already habitable, and it has plenty of room. Especially if you don't mind those capsule hotels that are basically drawers. And if you really want to live on Mars, why not hunker down in a lava tube and grow everything you need there? You don't actually need to go outside, much less have plants there.

To which my main answer is, I just want to, okay?

But to spin this out a bit, what I mean is, humans aren't always just focused on survival. We like to have space around us. We don't want to sleep in a drawer and we don't especially want to live in a hole. Some very rational or indoorsy people might like it, but the rest of us are known to tinker with any habitat we have. If the second a human gets a tiny studio apartment, we immediately want a coffee table, it seems to follow that if we had a house on Mars, we'd shortly thereafter start wanting a yard.

And of course there's the disaster preparedness angle. Mars bases tend to assume a helpful Earth that can ship anything needed. The entire biodiversity we rely on probably isn't packable into a lava tube. Did you know, for instance, that heart medications are made from foxglove and tires are made from rubber trees. If you've got a Mars colony, you probably wouldn't have room to grow all that, but you could order a box from Earth.

If Earth became uninhabitable, you would probably be very happy to have a duplicate ecosystem on Mars. And while it's not inevitable that we'll screw up the Earth we have--and it would be a heck of a lot easier to terraform a warmed Earth back into habitability than to start with a completely barren Mars--there are other dangers. I'm currently reading The Calculating Stars, where an asteroid the equal of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is set to make Earth so hot the oceans boil away. That's the kind of situation that would basically require us to have a backup crash pad - one big enough for seven billion people.

Terraformed Mars

Of course there are also reasons why not to do that. It's hella expensive, for one. Some people think NASA's budget is already too big. If we can't accept small expenditures now, it's a bit of a long shot to think we'd be willing to pay for the centuries-long money pit that a full Martian reno would be.

And then of course there's the ethical question. Who said Mars was ours to change? If there are microbes on Mars we haven't found, terraforming would drive them to extinction. And if anything we might learn from the Martian environment would be lost once we change it. One of the biggest uses of Mars right now is what we can learn from it because it's not like Earth.

Still, I tend to lean toward terraforming if I were queen of the solar system. Humans have always wanted to journey, to explore, to develop new places, and this one, at least, doesn't appear to belong to anyone.

So how would we do it?

The first step would be the hardest, whether we're talking about Mars, Venus, or the Moon: shielding the planet from cosmic rays and solar wind. Earth is lucky that it has a magnetic field already- most planets in the solar system do not. The only other to have one is Ganymede, and that's a bit far from the sun to be any good for us.

Wikipedia suggests the best ways to do that would be either a planet-wide electric coil or a shield between the planet and the sun. Either would be massive and expensive. But it's necessary: the solar wind would strip away any atmosphere, and cosmic radiation would mutate and kill any life, including us. (Something not mentioned in either The Expanse or The Martian is that a trip outside Earth orbit would require better shielding than we know how to make, or else all the astronauts will get cancer.)

Once that was done, we'd have to work on several different goals.  First we'd need to raise or lower the pressure of the atmosphere to match that of Earth. That could involve anything from boring into the planet to release trapped gases to catching comets and slinging them at the surface. Mars has some frozen carbon dioxide that could be released, as well as iron oxide which could be made to release oxygen. (Plus, iron is nice to have.) Venus, on the other hand, has an atmosphere about 80 times as thick as ours, with pressure hard enough to crush any habitat we might try to build. The idea that captures my imagination the most is floating cities up in the atmosphere, held up by balloons of lighter gases (on Venus, even oxygen qualifies). From there you could work on sequestering carbon, adding hydrogen to make water out of the resulting oxygen, and just straight up exporting as much of the atmosphere as you could.

Next we'd want to make the atmosphere something we could breathe. Our bodies are pretty picky about what we can handle- about 21% oxygen is ideal. There must be a very little carbon dioxide, but too much will kill us. The rest can be basically anything nonreactive- helium even, if that's what you had. But nitrogen is ideal, being what we have on Earth and useful in plant metabolism.

The temperature would be tough, because each planet gets a certain amount of solar radiation based on where it is. On Mars, an orbital mirror could increase temperature (and increase the light available to plants). On Venus, you'd want a solar shade. But the temperature would start decreasing on its own, once the carbon dioxide wasn't so thick. A lot of why it's such a hellscape there is just the greenhouse effect.




Venus, before, during, and after terraforming


You'd need to make sure there was adequate water. Mars already has quite a lot, frozen in its ice caps and soaking the soil. Otherwise, you might trap some from comets or the rings of Saturn.

The Moon, with water and atmosphere


Once you had all that, it would be time to plant some trees! You might need to engineer the plants available, so that they could survive in a different mineral balance from that of Earth. You'd also need animals, because plants alone would produce too much oxygen.

Fun fact: even if we found a planet that already sustained life, it wouldn't necessarily be habitable to us. We'd need to get the atmosphere within our own unique tolerances. And then we likely couldn't eat anything there. We coevolved with the plants on Earth. Our bodies produce the enzymes needed to break down those exact types of starches, proteins, and fats, and there's no guarantee another planet's life would store energy the same way.

That would leave us with several options: completely destroy the new planet's biosphere and replace it with our own; create separate enclaves for Earth-origin agriculture; or even modify our own bodies to be able to digest the new foods.

What do you think? Would you like to live on a terraformed Mars?

Art is all from the mobile game TerraGenesis. I'm kind of obsessed with it right now, even if it's not completely accurate and can be frustratingly slow-paced. But the satisfaction of growing plants on Venus really can't be beat.
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