Botanical Wednesday: Plants for dinner

I’m hearing occasional gasps of disbelief at the notion of a vegan Thanksgiving, so clearly I need to show you something to make you salivate.

That’s just an example — we’re having something different — but honestly, you can have a tremendous variety of textures and flavors, all delicious, without killing an animal.

Also not shown: Lefse is vegetarian, don’t you know.

Well, it isn’t any worse than that Time-Life image of human evolution

At last, I understand human evolution. It’s all here in this painting.


Working from bottom to top, we witness the ascent of man. First, Homo erectus discovers fire, and stares at a burning twig. This was easier than it sounds, since all he had to do was light it from the volcano erupting over his left shoulder (there’s always a volcano, and it’s always erupting, in these things). If anyone has ever gone on a camping trip with those atavistic boy scouts, you will recognize his expression.

Next, Neandertals invent rocks. Two rocks at once…it’s a triumph!

The next big leap: men invent shaving and art. The subtle revelation in this image is that Cro-Magnon men were also all bronies — notice that he’s drawing a pony.

Civilization arises! Our representative man has invented writing and hats. He has not yet invented shirts, however, and I suspect that what he’s writing is My Little Pony slash fiction. It takes time to progress.

Then, Aristotle. Man has forgotten how to shave. He has, at least, evolved to the point of having half a shirt — clearly, a transitional form. Of course, the most important thing is that he has invented Thinking, or at least, staring vacantly while scratching his neck. He could be thinking about My Little Pony, but at least he’s not being obvious about it anymore.

Darkness follows. The next two and a half thousand years are unimportant and nothing of consequence happens until, at last, with a coruscation of light beams, Ayn Rand invents planets and stars while scribbling Libertarian rape fantasies with Objectivist rationalizations.

In the next phase (not shown), humans worship the god-like Rand to the point of paying $14,000 for cheesy paintings that portray her as the pinnacle of evolution, and thus begins the Fall of Man.

I have to weep at this Art. It tells a grand tragic story.

How not to do research

Oh, man. What did I just read? It’s on, and it perfectly reflects the twistedly wonky and uneven character of that site — it’s a piece by techbros for techbros titled How San Francisco’s gender disparity affects the attractiveness pairings of couples.

It is truly, deeply, monumentally awful. It’s the work of a dude who knows how to use R, is happy to invent lots of numbers to feed into R, and is himself full up to the brim with unjustified assumptions that he never bothers to question. And apparently he got enough people remarking on how stupid his article was that he had to add a disclaimer:

There seems to have been quite a bit of misunderstanding stirred up by this article, so please read this disclaimer: this analysis makes absolutely no value judgements about how attractive men & women in SF are, or how attractive they should feel. I lay out all the simplifying assumptions and I’ve tried to explain that this is not how the real world works. Nor do I believe this is how the real world works. No sane human should heed any advice from this article. None of this has any basis in reality. It’s not supposed to. This is just a thought experiment about how one might build an economic model for dating with gender ratio imbalances. I’ve preserved the entirety of the original text below. There’s plenty of room for miscommunication because the assumptions are buried inside the text. That’s my fault. But I urge everyone to read the piece in its entirety before jumping to conclusions.

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The magical world of epigenetics


Let me tell you the hard part about writing about epigenetics: most of your audience has no idea what you’re talking about, but is pretty sure that they can use it, whatever it is, to justify every bit of folk wisdom/nonsensical assumption that they have. So while you’re explaining how it’s a very real and important biological process that is essential for development and learning and behavior, half your readers are using the biology to confirm their biases about evolution and inheritance, and the other half already know all the basic stuff and want to get to the Evisceration of the Wrong, which is always the fun part anyway.

So I’ve split this post in two: there’s a section on the basics of what epigenetics is, and there’s a section on what epigenetics is not, and why. Read whatever part floats your boat.

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Suddenly, I have a favorite fungus

It’s beautiful: the devil’s fingers, AKA the octopus fungus. Even just the name is like a barbed hook calculated to draw me in.


It has other interesting features, besides the awesome appearance.

While unappealing to us humans,

Stop right there. Am I not human? Did I not coo in delight when I first saw this lovely organism? Do I not want to see my grassy yard replaced with thousands of erupting fungal eggs?

But do continue.

what you’re seeing is actually a rather ingenious method of reproduction. The tentacles are laced with a foul smelling tissue, specially formulated to attract flies and other insects. When bugs come-a-knockin’, they get to feed on the slimy substance, but not before their feet are coated with fungus’ spores.

See? What’s unappealing about all that?

Constructive pessimism

I approve of Kim Stanley Robinson’s message: interstellar travel, and interstellar colonization, are almost certainly impossible. He breaks the obstacles down into 5 categories, physical, biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological (wait, since when is ecology not biological?) and explains how unlikely we are to overcome them. We’re part of Planet Earth, and nowhere else.

This may sound like terrible news to people weaned on Star Trek and Star Wars, but I prefer to think that closing off the fantasy alternatives helps us focus on the realistic ones.

Oh no! For some people this is a disturbing and deeply pessimistic conclusion to come to. Then when you combine that new judgment with the recently discovered problems concerning the plan to terraform and inhabit Mars (presence of perchlorates and absence of nitrogen), and we come to an entirely new realization about our species: there is no Planet B.

Earth is our only home.

Oh no again!

This conclusion, startling to some, obvious to others, has ramifications that are worth pondering. If it comes to be a generally agreed on view, it might change how we act as individuals and a civilization. These changes in behavior might turn out to be crucial for our descendants. So although this entire discussion consists of speculations about hypothetical futures, which is to say, science fictions, still they are worth thinking about, as useful orientations in our sense of our own history as a species.

I like that. It’s not a bad thing to take a sober look at what we’ve got (which is a pretty danged sweet planet) and maintain and enrich it, rather than neglecting it for a dream of building a hermetically sealed dome on a hostile planet far, far away.

Something else I like: Robinson has just written a novel about…humans colonizing a planet around Tau Ceti, titled Aurora. He doesn’t condemn the genre, which is good, since I like reading space opera of various sorts, but is asking us to recognize that it’s no more realistic than fairy stories. Which are also fun.