Frank Landis' Blog

Astrological Experimentation
January 30, 2011, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Astrology, Experiments, Real Science | Tags: , ,

I posted a response to a Discover online article about how astrology is like racism. Then I realized that I could post it here too.

Years ago, I came up with a way to objectively test astrology and personal horoscopes. It’s simple, and any experimenter can do it if he or she can find a bunch of willing participants and convince them to spend a few hours rating a bunch of horoscopes. I’ve described my results below, and I encourage other people to try it, as a psych experiment or just for fun.

Experimental Design:

Hypothesis: If astrology is useful, then a person’s horoscope should apply to them more than someone else’s horoscope does.
Null hypothesis: subjects will either rate all horoscopes approximately the same, and/or most subjects will find other people’s horoscopes more relevant to their lives than they do their own.

1. Find a website that gives out free, nine planet, twelve house horoscopes.
2. Recruit a bunch of experimental subjects. I’d suggest 10, and fewer than five is problematic. Get their birthplace, birth date and birth time information.
3. Compile everyone’s horoscope from the same website. The experimenter should strip out any identifying information (for example, anything that says Libra, Virgo, etc), and the subjects should not see their horoscopes prior to the experiment. Typically horoscopes are printed as a list of paragraph statements, one for each planet and house.
4. If you want, you can even add in randomly generated horoscopes.
5. If you want to make it simpler, you can do one more step. People who were born in the same year tend to have some of the same planets and houses (particularly for the outer planets, which move very slowly). To make it easier for the subjects, you can compile all the paragraphs into one long paper, and have everyone rate every paragraph once. You will have to create a key for which paragraph goes with which horoscope to compile the stats, but this saves on work for the subjects.
6. Have everyone rate EVERY horoscope, every paragraph, on whether that paragraph applies to them or not (I suggest: 1 pt if the paragraph is relevant to the subject’s life, 0 if it’s neutral, -1 if the paragraph does not apply to the subject’s life).

7. Compile every person’s scoring of all horoscope paragraphs. Add up the scores per horoscope.
8. If astrology is true, the prediction is that each person should have scored their own horoscope higher than they scored those of the other participants. The stats for this are a bit more complicated than ranking individual scores, because just by chance, you would expect some people to pick their own horoscopes as the most applicable. Still, it’s not hard, and if the stats look too ugly, simply post how people rated their own and other horoscopes.
9. Collect post-test impressions from the subjects, distribute the results, and have fun talking about it.

When I ran this with 6 subjects with four additional random horoscopes, I got equivocal results (1 person picked their own horoscope, 5 people chose other people’s horoscopes, but with the small sample size, I couldn’t test the hypothesis). I’d love to see other people replicate the test and post their results.

The nice part about this is that it gets around all the tired ideological debates (“it’s not science” vs. “keep an open mind”) and looks at whether printed horoscopes have any perceived relevance to the people who requested them.

What I learned about horoscopes is that, when you read your own horoscope, you tend to focus on the bits that are relevant and ignore the rest. Horoscopes are written to favor this habit: they have a bunch of generally applicable advice mixed very nicely together, much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. However, when you read other people’s horoscopes, what you find is that their horoscopes are also applicable to you. In fact, you may well like someone else’s horoscope better than you like your own. Five of the six people above found that, and one person even preferred a randomly generated horoscope over his own.

Most divination methods work this way: it’s not what is displayed by the cards, planets, coins, whatever, it’s what the person reads into them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is better to understand how such a method works, rather than uncritically accept it.

Try it out, and tell me what you think.

Wet and Wild 1: Willows and Seep Willows

Wow, 3.5 inches of rain in the last two days! Yes, yes, I know anyone outside southern California wouldn’t even bother with an umbrella for that little, but around here, the news media are howling about THE FLOOD. Worse, according to at least one outlet, we environmentalists have caused the flooding (!), because “we” stopped San Diego from pulling on its 1950 tin hardhat and running bulldozers through all the creeks and storm drains so that they’ll drain straight to the ocean. Of course, “THE FLOOD” has occurred where water backed up into the flood plains of the San Diego and Tijuana Rivers, areas that flood during every major wet event, but that doesn’t get much attention. Worse, if all the crap in the storm channels went into the Pacific Ocean, it would trash San Diego’s famous beaches and drive off the tourist. This is the real reason why the city is having trouble implementing this plan, as it runs contrary to the Clean Water Act. But that doesn’t really bubble up to the media surface either. Flooded roads! Drama! Media exposure!

Where was I? Oh yes, there are in fact plants growing inside the flood channels despite the glowers of the SD Storm Water Department, and they are the topic for this entry. The plants? Willows and seep willows, two plants that grow great together. Both of them like water, whether it’s in seasonally flooded arroyos or on the shores of rivers and lakes. Or in the city’s undeveloped canyon bottoms.

To start with, “seep willow” is an alternate name for mulefat, and it isn’t a willow. Instead, Baccharis salicifolia is one of the biggest Asteraceae in California. It’s often mistaken for a true willow (genus Salix), but the white Baccharis composite flowers usually give it away. Mulefat blooms in fall, but the dead flowers and buds are around most of the year. The smell is distinctive too, resinous and easier to remember than describe.

As for telling the true willows apart, that’s a bit harder. My favorite system for southern California is still the one Tom Chester published a few years ago. Go to that site to learn the five willows that are common in San Diego. Actually, there’s only three that are common (four in the desert), so they are not hard to learn.

Why do willows and mulefat look so much alike? The reason is convergent evolution, which is a technical way of saying that living anywhere that can flood is a bit dangerous, and very different species have figured out the same formula for surviving a flash flood. If you’re a plant, you don’t get to run away from danger, and where it floods, you’ve got to deal with surges of water, along with the gravel, rocks, and other debris that come with the water. Both willows and mulefat have worked out a strategy that includes being able to resprout from a stump or branch (useful if a branch gets broken off and carried downstream), having very flexible branches, and long, streamlined leaves. It’s fun to play with the branches of willows and mulefat. They flex all over the place, and both are useful for basketry (think wicker) because of this. These are plants that bend before the water rather than breaking, and if they do break, they can resprout if the flood leaves them in suitable soil. This last property is beloved by restorationists, who propagate these plants from cuttings, because they will grow rapidly and keep banks from eroding.

Sexually, willows and mulefat are also similar. Mulefat blooms in the late fall, willow blooms in winter, and both species have fuzzy seeds that float on the breeze. This is probably convergence again: releasing seeds during flood season is a way to colonize sandbars and other areas scoured bare by floods. I still can’t explain why both mulefat and willows have separate male and female plants, but they do. The easy way to spot the females is to look for unreleased seeds and the resulting fuzz, and it’s easier with mulefat than with willows. The fact that each plant is a single sex can be a problem for restorationists, as they need to plant both male and female plants to insure that they will have breeding partners. It’s a minor but important detail.

Finally, if you look around, you will find mulefat away from the seasonally flooded arroyos it prefers. Often it has been planted, but still, it is common to find mulefat in areas that seldom, if ever, flood. What is it doing there? The simple answer is it’s growing. Happily. The thing to remember is that the mulefat is adapted to surviving floods, but it doesn’t particularly need floods to survive. If there’s a bit of water in the soil, mulefat can happily grow with other dryland Baccharis species (such as coyotebrush or broom baccharis). However, if the site floods, I’d bet that mulefat would be the only survivor. Everyday living isn’t an emergency, despite what the Storm Water Department might want us to believe.

Kissing under the Mistletoe

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe anyway? Following the normal procedure (Googling) I read a bit and found a reference to it being a symbol of peace in Scandinavia, linking it to the legend of Baldur’s death. And then there’s the obligatory reference to druid’s cutting down mistletoe from a mistle-oak on the SUMMER solstice with a golden sickle, and…

Right. Actually, all you have to do is actually look at a fruiting mistletoe to realize the answer is a lot more graphic. But I’ll get to that in a bit. Since mistletoes were one of my late grandmother’s favorite plants and it is the season for harvesting the darlings, I thought I’d add a bit to the mistletoe lore.

To us botanists, mistletoes are a group of hemi-parasitic plants in the order Santalales. Yes, Santa has something to do with mistletoe…not really. To unpack that statement: a parasite is something that gains nutrients from a host, to the host’s detriment. Parasites come in two flavors: holo-parasites that get everything from its host, and hemi-parasites that get some of its nutrients from outside their hosts. Parasites don’t generally read, so reality is a lot more messy than that, as anyone who hosts a financial holoparasite knows. But I digress. The order Santalales has nothing to do with Santa either, sadly. It is named after the sandalwood genus Santalum. American mistletoes used to be in their own family, Viscaceae, but if you follow the current APG system, they are also grouped in the Santalaceae. So if you can think of Santa smelling like sandalwood and holding a mistletoe, then you’ve got something to remember this whole group by.

According to the San Diego Plant Atlas, San Diego County hosts two genera and nine species of mistletoes, none of which are the European mistletoe (Viscum album) of legend, lore, and Victorian-era coverups. The two genera are Arceuthobium and Phoradendron. Despite what I just said, Arceuthobiums, commonly known as dwarf mistletoes, are holoparasites. How do you tell? They’re not green. Hemiparasitic mistletoes are green and photosynthesize. Dwarf mistletoes attack conifers, and you can identify them based on the identity of the host tree. Phoradendron mistletoes are green, and of the seven species, the ones you tend to see in the city’s canyons are P. macrophyllum on sycamores among other non-oak trees, and P. villosum primarily on oaks. Winter is a great time to look for mistletoes, especially in the sycamores, because there aren’t any leaves to block your view of the mistletoes in the crowns.

So let’s get folkloric. You can read all about the druids and the Norse elsewhere (see link above). All of these people seem to repeat the same stuff from the old stories, so I’ll add a couple more tidbits. For instance, the symbolism of cutting mistletoe from an oak with a golden sickle at mid-summer. As explained by a modern druid, the sickle is a moon symbol, gold is for the sun, the mistletoe is a weird plant that grows in the air (spirit) not the ground (reality), the summer solstice is the time of maximum daylight, after which the daylight decreases, and English mistletoe rarely grows on oaks, so finding one on an oak is a rare event. All nice and symbolic, except that the druids probably used a falx, which is more like a bill-hook. Another modern druid actually made a couple of golden sickles out of 9 carat gold and found that yes, you can cut mistletoe with it. You get about two sprigs before the golden blade breaks. Feel free to replicate the experiment. I can tell you from experience that local mistletoe wood is quite brittle.

But kissing under the mistletoe… Yes, yes. It’s a pretty poisonous plant, but we’ll ignore that. That’s not why you stick it up. Look instead at mistletoe biology. Mistletoe berries are spread by birds that eat the berries. To help the seeds get crapped out on branches rather than the ground, mistletoe berries are very sticky. Birds wipe their butts on branches to get them out, and voila! the seed has a new host to grow into. So we’re talking about a seed that’s off-white, like a little pearl of something sticky, and it rather resembles some other droplet that’s off-white and rather sticky. You can start thinking about sexual symbolism here. In the old days, boys used to pull a berry off the mistletoe each time they kissed a girl under it, too. They may have been counting uses, or they may have been hoping for something else after the kiss. Hard to tell.

And if you look at the fruiting branch of a mistletoe, you’ll see that it’s a rather stiff, upright little branch that’s quite thick in proportion to its height. The berries are paired on either side of it, and typically, the last two berries are the one at the base of the nice straight bare stem. Yes, it’s about the most blatantly phallic symbol you can find in the local flora, and we’re really talking about a little fertility ritual here. So ignore the hemi-parasitism, ignore the Santa order stuff, and ignore the whole story of Baldur. Just have fun smooching under the mistletoe!

Scion of the Zodiac becoming available
December 15, 2010, 10:38 am
Filed under: NANOWRIMO, Science Fiction, writing

Hi All,

Currently Scion of the Zodiac is available at Smashwords (paperback or pdf) and Lulu (many electronic formats). Spreading it more widely is proving interesting. In the coming days, it should make it to Kindle, Apple, and the other big stores. Or you can get those files at Smashwords and save the wait.

If you happen to like science fiction, gardening, friendly dragons, and/or native plants on alien worlds, you might like this book. Check it out.

Note: there are three ways to get it, if you’re interested. One is to buy it, which is always much appreciated. Another is to read and review it for me, which means you get it free if I get your honest feedback afterwards (this is the sweat-equity model). The third way is to be closely related to me, in which case it may just appear on your table some day soon. This is the fun part of being related to an aspiring author.

Writing update
December 7, 2010, 2:58 pm
Filed under: California Native Plants, NANOWRIMO, Nature Writing, Science Fiction, writing

Hi All,

Ah, the silence of November. It was productive. Here’s what was up:

–I did my third National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) contest, and for the second year in a row, I finished the necessary 50,000 words. Since I started late and had a lot of other things going on, when I was writing, I wrote a lot. This is the start of another science fiction novel, one about time travel and conservation.

–The result of my NANOWRIMO 2009, Scion of the Zodiac is going up for publication. While I’m still shopping it around to see if any publishers want it, I decided to publish it myself and see if anyone liked it. It’s currently available at Smashwords and Lulu. Hopefully before Christmas it will be available at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore as well. The basic idea is that, if a publisher wants to option it, I’ll simply take down the current self-published versions and let them publish it.

Bottom line is: if you want to read science fiction with a large dose of ecology in it, check it out. I’ll post links as I get them.

–The next writing item on my list are those promised blog entries about native plants, to help Mike and anyone else for leading public hikes in the spring. If you have any preferences for topics, let me know.

Seed Balling and Guerrilla gardeners
October 19, 2010, 2:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

At the CNPS-SD plant sale last weekend, I helped Amy Huie sell seeds (Hi Amy!). We had this little legalistic statement on the seed packets, about how they were for landscaping use only, not for restoration. Now as far as I know, that little phrase on the seed packet is a reminder that the seeds came from a commercial vendor, and we have no idea where they were harvested. The idea is that people can do whatever they want on their private property, but we’re not going to recommend that they scatter them in the wild.

One of the customers said, “what does this notice mean? What if we ARE planning on using them for restoration?” I questioned her, and it turned out she wanted to scatter the seeds (including California poppies) in a nearby park. According to her, it was all empty, with Eucalyptus and stuff, and (as I found out through more questions), lots of mustard. She wanted to make it more natural, and she didn’t like that we were being all legalistic. I guess she felt we were criticizing her environmental inclinations, her desire to be a Ninja Do-Gooder in its latest, most fashionable phase: the guerrilla gardener.

We’re seeing more of that guerrilla gardening thing around this year. For example: seed balls, mistakenly called seed bombs. At the last CNPS meeting, a guy handed out seed balls, after he inadvertently sparked an online discussion because someone implied that his balls contained invasives. For the record, those balls don’t contain invasives, just 8-10 species of California native plants, and at least a hundred seeds per ball.

I took one of those balls home and pitched it in the pot I grow native annuals in. The ball was an inch round of solid red clay and it didn’t shatter as it was supposed to. It bounced (surprise surprise) . The thunderstorms a few weeks ago triggered something to germinate, and at least 10 seedlings sprouted right next to each other. A week later, they were all dead. The clay had dried out, and they could not reach the soil. With the current rains, something else is sprouting on top of that ball, but I’m not holding out much more hope for it either.

Even if something does survive, there’s only space for one plant to grow in that ball’s footprint, so 99% of his seeds are wasted at the outset, never mind the ones that will strangle each other through competition. This ball was badly designed, but I’m having fun watching it, just to understand how it’s failing, in detail. I recommend this exercise to anyone who (like me) thinks seed balls are cool. Reality is cool too, and she’s a better teacher.

And so it goes with guerrilla gardening. Seed balls are fun, making them keeps little fingers busy, and since everyone’s talking about them, they must work, right? Moreover, you get to Stick it To Da Man and Help Mother Nature by throwing something over a fence, and that just feels right. Especially if, unlike me, you’re optimistic.

Does it work? Well, that’s the awkward part: I’ve heard one story of seed balls used to sow evening primrose into a canyon restoration. So far that’s it. If you’ve got more stories, please share them.

As for designing seed balls, I’ve started telling people to a) read The One Straw Revolution so that you can see how seed balls were originally made and used (hint, it’s not quite what we’re doing now), b) to use fewer seeds and 1-2 species per ball, so that something has a chance of making it (unless you like wasting seed, which I don’t), and c) if you want that ball to shatter, don’t make it out of solid clay. Otherwise, you’re going to make a seed bomb, which, as you might guess, is going to bomb. Badly.

And while it’s nice to keep little fingers busy making seed balls, maybe we should be teaching little fingers how to grow plants successfully? That’s a little harder, but I think the lesson (“Wow! Mommy taught me how to grow plants. She’s really smart.”) might be more useful than what they’re learning from seed ball making (“ooh, I can make a mess, and it’s fun, but the plants didn’t grow.”) Just saying.

As for the would-be guerrilla gardener from last Saturday, I learned from her that her partner was helping collect seeds for CNPS. So I gently suggested that, while CNPS could never condone trespassing or doing things without permission, if they were insistent on doing something about that park, they should collect seeds from the nearby canyons and plant them. If they followed those very nice collecting guidelines that CNPS has. And after they got the mustard under control.

She didn’t purchase many seeds, and I feel a little bad about depriving CNPS of her money. Then again, do we really need more California poppies in our local parks? It’s not like they’re locally native.

What do you think?

October 12, 2010, 9:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Time’s fun when you’re having flies. Right now, we’re getting new tiles to replace the linoleum in our house, and I’m looking at the things I need to do for the next few months.

–Oh yes, EIR review. Fun. There’s a lot of CNPS activities on right now. For example, on October 16, there will be a plant sale at the Prado in Balboa Park. I’ll be there, and we need to sell a lot of plants.

–Rare plants. Starting in November (November 9 to be precise), I’ll be kicking off the 2011 rare plant survey season. The magic question: what to survey next year? Ideas are welcome.

–I’m trying to figure out better ways to monitor developments. It seems that one way for developers to economize is to paper over issues in developments (rare plants, etc) and hope no one notices. If you’ve got ideas about how to get around this, or if you want to join in one experimental effort, contact me here or via email.

–In the past, I’ve done some educational walks for CNPS. Since I’ll have to have a real job next spring, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to lead walks for a while. I’m thinking about putting down some of my ideas, for other hike leaders. Tentative titles include: yes, you can talk for an hour about poison oak (especially if other Anacardiaceae are around), fun with Baccharis (or how to make Rick Halsey break a broom baccharis branch), fun with Artemisia, etc. Question is, will anyone read it? Let me know.

Probably there are a lot of other things, but I’ll save them for a later post. I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while.