Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Thanksgiving Message: Adventures with Persimmons

Here is something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day: agriculture. Maybe we shouldn’t be thankful for every aspect of agriculture; industrial agriculture is ruining the Earth. But I, at least, am thankful for thousands of years of ancestors who domesticated the crops and livestock that we enjoy today.

The origin of agriculture was a gradual process. Take, for example, wild grains. Wild grains have small seeds, which fall off of the stem, and which will not grow when you plant them (physiological dormancy). Had any gatherers tried to “invent” agriculture using wild grasses, the experiment would have failed. But after thousands of years of gathering, our ancestors unconsciously selected the grains that were biggest, that held onto the stems (since they were not interested in scrounging on the ground for grains), and which grew most readily. Then, when someone tried the agricultural experiment, it worked. Since that time, artificial selection for useful crop plants has continued unabated. A similar process happened with wild animals becoming livestock. Horses, it turns out, were first domesticated for their milk somewhere in what is now Kazakhstan. And the North American natives domesticated turkeys.

The difference between wild and domesticated foods became clear to me when I decided to eat some wild persimmons. I found a female tree (Diospyros virginiana has separate male and female trees) near Lake Texoma and gathered about 50 fruits last weekend. (Message to Karl: Don’t worry, I left some for you.) The fruits were so smooshy that I often left the calyx cap behind on the stem. Most of the fruits had ripened simultaneously. But a couple were still just a little hard. Including not-quite-ripe fruits in your foraging pile is a bad idea: even slightly unripe persimmons are legendary for their astringency. Wild fruits often do not ripen simultaneously, while domesticated fruits have been bred to do so. That’s the first thing to be thankful about.

Then I had to remove the seeds from the pulp. Were I just eating the fruits, I might have skipped this step. It is possible to pop a persimmon in your mouth, mash it around gently, and suck away the pulp from the seeds, then spit out the seeds. The wild animals that eat persimmons usually just swallow the whole fruit. This is because they are at the edge of starvation and don’t have time to pick out the fruits, especially if (like coyotes) they could not, or even if (like raccoon) they could. By swallowing the seeds, the animals disperse them to new and perhaps distant locations, and drop them out with little starter cultures of fertilizer.

But I decided to isolate the pulp from the seeds. This was a long process. Each fruit has about ten seeds, constituting about half of the fruit volume. A tenacious layer of pulp clings to these seeds, even when you squeeze as much pulp as possible from them. This usually meant squeezing each seed individually (do the math: 500 seeds). The pulp, meanwhile, clings to your hands like paste. It is orange-brown and scratchy (from sclerids). So you end up with the fruits separated into two fractions: the pulpy seeds, and the pulp on your hands. You have to scrape the pulp off of your hands into a container on a regular basis. For about fifty fruits, this took me about the length of one performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plus a couple of baroque shorts. But I got a little over two cups of pulp. I then sucked the remaining pulp from the seeds before depositing them in my back yard where they might, someday, grow, after several years when the seed coat softens to the same extent that it would from spending just a few hours in a raccoon gut. With domesticated fruits, you can more easily separate pulp from seeds (including domesticated Japanese persimmons, Diospyros kaki). The pulp can be squeezed through a colander, for example. This will not work for many wild fruits, especially persimmons. Was it worth an hour and a half of dedicated work to get a couple of cups of wild persimmon pulp? Yes, if that was all that was available. But I found myself questioning the wisdom of my use of this time. That’s a lot of work and a lot of Mahler. Be thankful for domesticated fruits in which you can easily remove the seeds. That’s the second thing to be thankful about.

The next day, I felt a little nauseated. It was probably just end-of-semester stress. But perhaps, I thought, after all that work, the raw persimmon pulp was contaminated? Just a little. So here’s the third thing to be thankful about: we modern humans can cook our food. This is just one of the many benefits of cooking cited by Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I hope 350 degrees will inactivate any bacteria that may be present. I decided to bake the persimmon pulp into bars. They are in the oven right now as I write. Get ready to copy and paste for a Thanksgiving dessert recipe:

Take about a half cup of smooshed persimmon pulp and mix it with 5 tablespoons of soft or melted butter, an egg, and a third of a cup of plain yogurt. Then blend in about a cup of flour, a half cup of sugar, and some baking powder, a little salt, and your choice of spices (something like cinnamon or nutmeg). Some pecans would have been nice, only I forgot them. Grease a small baking tin, put in the mixture, and bake it at 350 F until you think it’s done (the usual test is to insert a toothpick and see if it comes out clean). Notice, for the benefit of my lactose-intolerant wife and daughter: this recipe contains no untreated milk.

It’s almost done. Boy, this had better be good, after all that messy squishing.

The moment of truth! I will tell you how it tastes. If it makes me sick, watch for a dispatch tomorrow from St. Francis Hospital.

Verdict: Not bad. It does not have a strong persimmon flavor, which can at any rate be a little annoying. It is a little mooshy inside, but once again, not bad. It is definitely gritty with sclerids as only a wild fruit (or a pear) can be. I kept eating it.

I think I will use the rest of the batch of pulp in this manner for the Saturday family meal for the remaining descendants of Edd and Stella Hicks, sharecroppers in early twentieth century northeastern Oklahoma. I wonder if Stella gathered persimmons and cooked with them. There is no remaining family history to this effect, but it seems reasonable to suppose that she did. Persimmons, an aggressive early-successional clonally-spreading tree, would have been re-invading my grandfather Edd’s cleared farmland. This means that, after seventy years, persimmons have returned to our family.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Bible and Medicine

I have noted before that fundamentalists get all worked up about evolution and how it contradicts their inerrant interpretation of the Bible, while they do not seem at all upset by medical science and psychology, which contradict their fundamentalist assumptions even more. I wish now to present some actual data to back up this claim.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain numerous accounts of Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons, sometimes simultaneously. In several places (Matthew 10:1; 10:8; 23:24; Mark 1:32; Luke 6:17; 8:2) the writers describe Jesus as healing diseases, pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics—demons are thrown right into the list of diseases. In many cases, but not all, demon possession is indicated as the cause of disease. This being the case, creationists should reject medical science which attributes contagious all diseases to germs and other diseases to things that have gone wrong inside the body, and none of them to demons. They have not, however, done so.

What I wish to do now is to provide a complete list of Jesus’ healings, and indicate which ones were and were not attributed to demon possession. In order to do so, I have tried to determine which of the parallel Gospel accounts refer to the same event, so as not to double-count them. And here they are (demonic events in bold).

Healing a leper

Centurion’s servant


Peter’s mother-in-law

Same day as 3: demoniacs

Gadarene swine

Forgave the paralytic

Resurrected ruler’s daughter

Woman with hemorrhage

Two blind men

Dumb demoniac


Man with withered hand

Blind dumb demoniac

Canaanite woman with demon daughter

Epileptic boy falling into fire

Blind men near Jericho

Demoniac near Capernaum


Deaf dumb man, Decapolis


Blind man at Bethsaida


Young man in his funeral


Another woman with flux


Man with dropsy


Ten lepers


Official’s son

Lame man at Bethsaida


I cannot be sure of some of the classifications; item 23 might be the same as item 2, but I have erred on the side of caution in favor of fundamentalists; item 2 refers to a servant, item 23 to a son, which most of us believe could just be a garbled transmission of the account, but fundamentalists do not believe such a thing is possible in the Bible. I have omitted the famous account of Lazarus, since it was considered an example of a resurrection, not a healing.

The point here is that seven of the 24 healings were specifically described—in all the parallel accounts available—as the casting out of demons. This is 29 percent. If you count the stories separately, 14 out of 46 involve demons, which is 30 percent. That is, in roughly one-third of the healings, exorcism was involved. In one of them (14), clear symptoms of epilepsy are described.

And yet biology curricula at taxpayer-supported colleges and universities never include demonology. Never. Certainly not one-third of the courses, or one-third of any course, or even a single mention. Nor do medical schools. How can creationists put up with this? Why doesn’t the Oklahoma legislature pass bills that require OU Health Sciences Center to at least include demonology as one possibility to be mentioned in their courses about infectious disease and endocrinology and neurology? And psychology! Let’s not even get into psychology! All the things the Bible attributes to the spirit, psychologists attribute to the brain!

Lest you think that I looked through the Gospels just to find ammunition against creationists, let me assure you that I looked through them (I have read them several times) with great enjoyment. When I read about the life and sayings of Jesus, I am really uplifted. His words, even though processed by oral transmission for over two centuries before being written down, are astonishing and refreshing—in marked contrast to the grim negativity of the gun-toting modern fundamentalists, whom I believe would drive Jesus out of their churches. Maybe the fundamentalists should actually read Jesus’ words, which flatly contradict most of their political opinions.

You might want to read the Gospels. At least, how can you resist reading about the woman with the demon daughter?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Natural Selection at Work—Or Not

The free enterprise system is often considered to be a practical application of natural selection. Natural selection requires variation within a population, and that some of those variants are more successful than others, based not upon chance but upon their traits. Natural selection works on genetic variants in a biological population, and on different ideas within a culture. Good ideas (some of them called memes) catch on. It is supposed to work in the marketplace also: a company that treats their customers badly will, in theory, lose market share.

But this is not always true. On the day that I originally wrote this essay (August 21, 2014), Bank of America settled with the Department of Justice with a $16.65billion settlement, the largest settlement in history between a single corporation and the federal government. They used the financial crisis of the last decade as an opportunity to trick customers into buying investments that were falsely represented. You would think that the market would respond in Darwinian fashion and declare B of A to be a bad corporation, unworthy of investment. But you would be wrong. That same day, B of A stock prices were up 3 percent. Apparently corporations can do whatever they want and get away with it in the long run; if they get caught, the penalty is miniscule compared to the money they make by continuing to abuse their customers. Thank whatever God there may be that I got rid of both of my B of A mortgages. I still have some credit accounts, but the balances are shrinking and someday I will be certifiably B of A free.

Another example is a group called Wyndham Rewards. They book motel rooms online and give you bonus points for doing so. Sounds like a good deal, and for me, for a decade, it was. But just this summer motel managers started giving me horror stories about how customers who had booked online through Wyndham Rewards have gotten screwed over. In my case, a Super 8 motel put me into a smoking room when I had reserved a non-smoking room. This is a potential health hazard. The Super 8 refused to change my reservation until finally I threw so much of a tantrum that they were ready to call the police. It was a calculated tantrum, designed to apply psychological pressure on the manager. The manager at that motel, and managers at others, told me this was not an uncommon occurrence. The manager told me that I could pay for a non-smoking room if I wanted—that is, I could have paid for two rooms if I wanted the right one. Gee thanks.

I have spent hours trying to get this mistake resolved. The Super 8 manager blamed Wyndham, and Wyndham blamed the Super 8 manager, over and over. In the end, they got together and blamed me. The Wyndham customer service manager told me that the problem was my fault for having trusted the online Wyndham Rewards booking; and, once I arrived at the motel, I had done the right thing by reacting angrily in order to get a problem resolved.

I have concluded, based on my experience (and what motel managers have told me of other experiences) that Wyndham Rewards is a company that will take your business and offer you defective service in return. Will the market respond to these abuses? Or will Wyndham Rewards continue to be profitable despite the way they abuse customers?

I will attempt, now, to participate in the natural selection process. I have posted this blog entry. I will not use this company’s services again, nor will I stay (unless there is literally no other choice) at any of the associated hotel and motel chains. Here is the list:

·        Days Inn
·        Hawthorn
·        Howard Johnson
·        Knight’s Inn
·        Microtel
·        Ramada
·        Super 8
·        Travelodge
·        Wingate
·        Wyndham

Please join me in helping to reduce the profits of these companies and of Wyndham Rewards. It is possible that you may get satisfactory service from these hotels and motels by booking directly with them, but I, for one, will try to use the market against them because of their participation in Wyndham Rewards.

If we share our experiences online with others, it might actually make a difference. I certainly published my experiences on TripAdvisor. They sent me an email saying that 5,435 people have read my reviews (and that was a few months ago). And we should publish not just our negative experiences, but our positive ones. My most popular review was a very positive one about Buffalo River National River, which 1,350 people had read, mostly in the US but some from Europe as well. Numbers like this, while small in comparison to the total number of travelers, show that there is some hope for using the power of marketplace selection to make a difference in how customers are treated.

Let’s see if natural selection works in the marketplace.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Carbon Ghost Follows Me Around

I keep trying to think of ways of conveying to my students the magnitude of our human impact on the Earth in some form that they can understand. I have my botany students calculate their annual carbon footprints, and the amount of carbon dioxide a tree might absorb during a year (based on their actual estimates of the leaf area of a tree). They are briefly astonished at the number of trees that it would take to offset their carbon production. I think this works, but I get the feeling that they just go through the calculations (which even science majors do incorrectly) and then forget all about it.

Let me try something new. I don’t know if it will help, but I can give it a try.

First, I calculated my carbon footprint, using The Nature Conservancy calculator. Their estimate of my carbon production (31 tons a year) exceeds that of the average American (27 tons) I suspect mainly because I do a lot of driving, even though it is with a small car. The world average is 5.5 tons. This is in CO2 equivalents; that is, the CO2 used to manufacture items, grow and process food, and run power plants.

Second, I calculated the amount of carbon dioxide I breathe out. According to one online estimate, a person breathes out 350 kilograms of carbon dioxide a year. This would be about 0.3 metric tons, which is pretty close to English tons.

That is, I produce a hundred times as much CO2 by my activities as I do by breathing. I can therefore try to imagine that, wherever I go, a ghost a hundred times my size is following me around emitting carbon. That is, a hundred times my volume; it would be about 4.6 times as tall, as wide, and as thick. My pet carbon-ghost, chained to me day and night. Maybe a creepy image, buy possibly one that I can use for myself and for my students. I can have them calculate their carbon footprints in tons per year, divide by 0.3, and this is their carbon-ghoul.

I tried this as an extra credit assignment for my students. Many of them did it, since it was quick and easy. I do not know how many of them really thought about the image that they produce a hundred times as much carbon emissions by what they do as by breathing out.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Botany is Alive and Well in Rural Oklahoma

On Saturday, October 25, I took our three botany majors and one prospective botany major to a nearby Nature Conservancy preserve, the Pontotoc Ridge preserve, for its annual fall tour. First, notice that we have at least three botany majors, in a university of about 4000 students. And they seemed to really enjoy visiting this natural area.

Part of the forest area is near a creek. The major tree species appeared to be red oak (Quercus rubra; Fagaceae). But the largest trees, though fewer in number, were bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa; Fagaceae), some of which were enormous, and into which one of our brave botany majors climbed.

The bois-d’arc trees (Maclura pomifera; Moraceae) were all dead, at least the ones we saw. This could be due to the normal successional process, which began when the bur oaks were the only trees in the field, and in whose partial shade the red oaks grew up and shaded out the bois-d’arcs.

We also visited a limestone cave, in the runoff of which can be found unique taxa of invertebrates. This year, however, due to the ongoing drought, there was no water. There has been plenty of rain this year in Oklahoma, but in scattered rainfall events. The topsoil was moist; grass in yards and hay in fields grew luxuriously. But the groundwater was not recharged. While the summer was not very hot, the autumn has been unusually warm: it was 90 degrees on October 25.

October 25, 2014, also happened to be the twentieth year of the Pontotoc Ridge preserve, and the dedication of the new building with facilities, small but good, for visiting researchers to live. A large part of the success of this Nature Conservancy effort has been due to Jona Tucker, the director, who graduated from our university with a botany degree in 2001.

I wanted my students to see that botany majors can go into numerous lines of work, from lab research to conservation, and to see that botany is alive and well.