Fedco Tree Catalog Arrives

I will take a break from my string of otherwise pithy posts to say that the 2013 Fedco Trees catalog arrived two days ago.

Melissa, my wife, made fun of the catalog, “the layout and the pictures are weird.”

I like it.  The black print on unbleached paper.  The quirky single color clip art, I just like it.

The physical catalog brings back memories of a bygone era for me.  When I was about fourteen, the idea of trapping piqued my interest.  I had grown up with firearms and with a culture of hunting, but trapping was somewhat foreign.  My grandfather had told me tales of running snare lines and hunting predators.  It fascinated me and stuck with me.

When I was fifteen, I received an issue of Fur-Fish-Game, a magazine for outdoorsmen/women; as the title suggests, it covers topics of trapping, fishing and hunting.  It was (and I imagine, still is) a very down to earth, matter-of-fact companion for those who partake in pursuing things-wild.

Among the articles and stories there were simple advertisements; advertisements for trapping supply companies, shooting supply companies, and bowhunting supply companies and things in between.  These were (and having recently checked, still are) relatively small outfits.  You would not find Cabela’s, Gander Mountain, or Bass Pro Shop in the advertising section.

I picked a little company from Martinsville, Virginia – for reasons that I cannot recall.  The company, which is still in business, was Southeastern Outdoor Supplies.  They specialized in trapping, muzzleloading and raccoon hunting supplies.  I dropped a postcard in the mail requesting their catalog.

A couple of weeks later, a light blue covered, unbleached paper catalog arrived.  The pages were filled with headlamps and dog collars for raccoon hunting, turkey calls for turkey hunting, and dozens and dozens of trapping related items.

Eventually, I ran a very small trap line; mostly trapping beaver in and around the area in which father had hunted whitetail deer.  And, eventually, my penchant for trapping (and hunting) faded.

The things that bring me back to an era before I was of the age to drive a vehicle (legally) always amuses me.  In this case, it is an unbleached paper catalog of trees, herbs and perennials; nothing to do with the pursuit of fur-fish-or-game.


I loathe the word, Serendipity.  It has that air of whimsy and a slight bit of sophistication to it, and it is not used, generally, in a colloquial fashion, such as its shorter-synonym-cousin, luck, but I still dislike the word.  You would never hear people buying lottery tickets say, “Oh boy, the gods are with me on this one; I feel a fortunate streak of serendipity is upon me.”  It is entirely possible that the lottery ticket crowd and the crowd who use serendipity, when placed in a venn diagram, would not overlap.  Needless to say, I stuck with Serendipity as the title because it fits best with what I hope to layout.

Most weeks, the Computer Science & Engineering department present colloquia on various computer science topics.  Topics are generally heavily weighted toward stroking your inner comp sci nerd: Systems-level insights from large-scale combinatorial perturbation experiments in yeast, or Mining Billion-Node Graphs – Patterns and Algorithms.  Several weeks ago (October 8, 2012), my manager asked if I wanted to attend a colloquium in Comp Sci.  The topic: Interactive Information Visualizations for Everyday Practices.  It was presented by Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale from the University of Calgary.

In a too warm and likely over capacity room in Keller Hall, Dr. Carpendale presented a very non-bits-and-bytes colloquium.  The thesis was simple: A good visualization provokes interpretation, exploration and appreciation, inviting direct interaction that reveals the data contents. How can we produce interactive visualizations of digital data in a manner that enhances people’s cognitive abilities?

The visualization techniques and technologies were quite interesting and offered excellent design-eye-candy. However, the one take away that really stuck with me was that of observing the world around you and how, simply being aware of your surroundings, it would increase your serendipity.

“Increasing your observation of the world around you, increases your own serendipity.”

In Japan, you will find these cats with a raised paw all over the country. They are called maneki-nekos.  They are a symbol of good luck or good fortune.  The raised paw is often thought to beckon you come in or to proceed.  The maneki-neko is supposed to bring people good fortune; increasing your serendipity, if you may.

Several stories try to layout the lore behind the maneki-neko.  One is that of tragedy, misjudgment, and eventual atonement for a wrong.  A woman’s swordsman-friend is visiting her. At some point the man, thinking the woman’s cat is trying to attack her, kills the cat by decapitating it.  The severed head flies through the air, and with its fangs sticking out, it kills a poisonous snake that was unseen by neither the swordsman nor the woman.  The swordsman, feeling terrible, travels to the best woodsmith in the land and has a cat with paw raise carved.

A second version of the story is that of a poor woman having to sell her cat.  The cat appears to her in a dream and tells her to make its image in clay.  She does so, and people take notice.  They want their own clay cat.  She makes and sells more, and she eventually becomes very wealthy.

The maneki-neko is symbolic of good fortune, but it is rooted in myth and folklore.  I could go on with that theme of certain ideas being rooted in myth and folklore, but I am almost certain I would piss off some people.  I much prefer Dr. Carpendale’s idea of being aware of your surroundings and the act of being aware will be far more beneficial than just blindly relying on luck, whatever that may be.


Disruptive Forces

We are back in Minnesota after spending a week or so in the Boston, Massachusetts.  Our mode of transportation was an automobile.  I am not fond of commercial radio and I have been trending toward financial/monetary podcasts as well as political podcasts.  Of the podcasts we listened to, I kept noticing a common idea that threaded its way through them.  The idea or tacit notice would popup here or it would popup there.  The idea is not new, it is not even that exciting.  Nassim Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, wrote a book on the subject called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  I lean more toward a less eloquent sounding name: disruptive forces.

Outside, it is in the low 40s F (~5.5 C), but I am sitting in our living room; we have a nice fire going in the fireplace.  With a dip into the mid-30s (~1.6 C) on the docket for this evening, a nice fire feels, well, quite nice. We are burning wood from our property – walnut, apple, and cedar, but mostly, we are using buckthorn (pdf).

In Minnesota, at the Federal government level and in forty-five other states, buckthorn is considered a “noxious weed.”  The designation of “noxious weed” is a way in which governments can apply a whole host of existing laws and regulations without explicitly codifying Rhamnus cathartica L. in legislation.  Noxious weeds are generally considered detrimental to economical or societal wellbeing (Cannabis sativa, for example, is classified as a “noxious weed” in many states; whether Cannabis is detrimental economically or societally, is, in an of itself, a completely other topic). This means that there are regulations in place to disincentivize the further dissemination of buckthorn and the others on the list of noxious weeds.  Even the penalties associated with the laws and regulations that are supposed to govern willfully and knowingly the spread of noxious weeds and invasive species (both flora and fauna) can be viewed as an attempt at a disruptive force.

With this idea of disruptive forces bobbling around in my head for most of our time in Boston and on the road to and from Boston, we were driving through Chicago, Illinois, last week, I was listening to a podcast of Science Friday.  The segment that struck me as being particularly fascinating was the discussion and pitching of Steven Strogatz‘s new book, The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics from Zero to Infinity.  Steven is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  The book itself sounds quite interesting – as the playful title might suggest, it is a book where you get a smattering of mathematics without having to hold a bachelors degree in mathematics; you will not be held to know a Bernoulli differential equation from a Bernoulli trial.

\Huge{\lim_{x \to \infty} \dfrac{1}{x} = 0}  The segment that I piqued my curiosity was that of the discussion of zero and infinity. It is common place, nowadays, to simply disregard zero as that number that is after negative one but before positive one.  It is a special number – multiply any number by zero, and you get zero.  Add zero to a number and you get that same number back.  And, of course, there is infinity.  It is universally accepted by all but a fringe; infinity, however, can still be a difficult concept to get one’s noodle around.  Infinity, like zero, has special properties.  Divide any regular number by infinity, and you get zero back (the calculus limit, above, is a way of expressing this).  Infinity minus one is still infinity.  There are other properties, as well.

What does zero or infinity have to do with disruptive forces?  You need only to look at the late-medieval into the early Renaissance-era Europe and the Catholicism that ruled academia and most aspects of knowledge, life and thought of that time.  Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and for his time, a free thinking radical.  Bruno was born in 1548 A.D. and became an ordained priest by the age of 24.

Among Bruno’s “crazy” ideas that caused the Church to get all-up-in-his-business was how he considered infinity to exist outside the context of God.   The Church felt this notion, this belief was disruptive enough to warrant an inquisition.  Remember what Monty Python character, Ximénez shouts, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  And of course, the end result of his trial by this Roman Inquisition was rather disruptive for Bruno’s continuation as a living person: he was burned at the stake for being a heretic.

Let us jump back to invasive species.  When you think of invasive species, if you are in eastern Minnesota, you might think of lamprey or zebra mussels.  If you are in a cohort of beekeepers in Ontario, in and around Thunder Bay, you will likely think of another pest: Varroa destructor, also known as, varroa mites. With an importation ban on honeybees from the United States to the south, and geographic isolation – 700 km to the east and west from most populations, Thunder Bay was on the short list of outposts of varroa-free honeybee colonies.  Varroa first made it into Canada in 1989, but because of Thunder Bay’s isolation  and because of the watchful eyes and ears of one zealous beekeeper named Jeanette Momot, the area stayed mite free…until the late summer of 2012.

Searching through my emails and group message posting to construct a timeline, I first noticed something was a miss with my friends in Thunder Bay when, by chance, I noticed a terse posting from Dean Harron (I last wrote about Dean in my North to Ontario post) referencing a conversation he and I had started on April 8, 2012.  More digging into posts; I found the conversation Dean was referring to:

However if we import bees from the south we all will not have any bees or beekeepers in the North at all. Alot of time and patience has been devoted by our senior beekeepers to have it remain this way, however there are some beekeepers that do not agree…what a shame!  We hope their egos will be satisfied when this destruction happens in the Northwest [of Ontario].  It will not be beneficial to anyone to say the least.

The “senior beekeepers” Dean speaks of include Jeanette Momot, previous written about in the same North to Ontario post, and himself.  Saying that the senior beekeepers were devoted is putting it lightly.  In June of 2011, I had an email conversation with Jeanette; I asked her about the history of the Thunder Bay bees.  She replied with a lengthy and interesting history of the bees, her background and a self-deprecating shot at her bee-addiction:

I started grad school in the Entomology Department at Iowa State University with Walter C. Rothenbuhler in March of 1962, where he was working on hygienic behavior of honeybees.  It had been found that this behavior made them resistant to the devastating disease American foulbrood, which had destroyed countless colonies in the states previously.  I spent the summer of ’62 working with his group on this problem at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.  Then he was offered a position at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, and several of his graduate students were invited to transfer as well.  So I was involved with these studies until 1964, when I received my M.S. from Ohio State.  I worked for the USDA in Fargo, N Dakota on insect control problems for a couple of years, then married and wound up back in Columbus among the bees.  We moved to Thunder Bay in 1975, but didn’t have bees until we purchased our country property in l977.  We have been keeping bees, producing honey and raising queens ever since.  Of course, I always looked for hygienic behavior in the queen mother used for the bulk of queens produced, as well as wintering success, gentleness, and honey production in the progeny, but also tried to raise a queen from each colony as well, to keep the genetic diversity.  That works because queens mate with 15 to 20 drones each.Inbreeding would lead to poor brood viability.  If the colony wasn’t hygienic, I would replace her, of course.  We had a wide assortment of bees here in the Thunder Bay District.  I was partial to the Buckfast line developed by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in England.  I was able to acquire Buckfast bees from Weaver’s Apiaries in Navasota Texas, and I would usually buy some queens from them each spring, until the border to Canada from the U. S. was closed in 1987.  We also had Mraz bees, Carniolans from Hawaii and elsewhere, Caucasians, Italians — we tried everything.   I always raised some queens, but since 1987 have produced all of my own queens, as well as many for the local Thunder Bay District beekeepers.  We worked hard to keep our area free of mites, and have succeeded so far.  I  also sold some bees to Mn beekeepers along the north shore of Lake Superior for many years, and they must like them, as they keep coming back for more.  We are one of the few mite free areas left in the world, and are having a hard time convincing our government to protect our status.  It is also too bad that we cannot send nucs across the border, as it is very difficult to shake packages of bees in 50F weather, and we have that and colder even at the end of May.  Our biggest problem is the weather, the long cold winters and our short growing season.  Of course farming methods, cut before bloom to keep the protein content of the forage high doesn’t help either.  July used to be the best month for honey production; now it is often our worst.  But beekeeping is still very addictive;  I have been trying to quit for about 10 years now.  Maybe it is an obsession!

Jeanette Momot – June 20, 2011

Jeanette has been the driving force behind keeping mites out of the Thunder Bay region.  She has gone to great lengths to preserve her work; she mentioned once to several of us that she had a mole at the post office in Thunder Bay, and if someone had honeybees mailed in to the region, she would get a call from this mole.  She would then contact the person who purchased the bees and explain the potential harm these non-Thunder Bay bees could pose to everyone’s apiaries in the district.  She would then go one step further; if the person would agree to destroy the package of bees, she would replace it for them with a package of local bees plus a queen at no charge.

Thus, twenty-five years of work is now threatened.  Late this summer word started to trickle down from the Thunder Bay region; varroa mites had arrived.  This unfortunate happening will go unnoticed by the scores of Canadian tourists that pass through Thunder Bay on their way to points south – like for the shopping excursions into Duluth, MN.  A small handful of dedicated hobbyist beekeepers in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, have taken notice and are now trying to measure the situation, gauging what to do next year for they made annual treks north of the border to obtain fresh packages of mite-free bees and queens.  It is a disruptive force select handful of fellow beekeepers.

Amused & Bemused

Hounds on the BeachI have been tossing ideas around for the new property in St. Paul; gardens – where?, honeybees – yes or no?, fencing off part of the yard? – we cleared a line of buckthorn along the south side for a fence and we await our permit to begin construction, but at the moment, we are on the east coast of the US.  Mansfield, Massachusetts, to be more specific, we are staying at a Holiday Inn that is playing host to the Basset Hound Club of America’s annual National Show.

I have not been participating in the showings – that is Melissa’s arena.  But, my tacit involvement with the dogs and their associated people has striking similarities to other communities that I have participated in at one time or another.  Participation, collaboration or simply being interested in an aspect of a niche community – beekeeping, operating systems & software, non-agri-business farming, or, this latest foray into the world of show dogs – there are always the individuals that champion the cause.  There is also tends to be drama.  In the realm of the programming language ruby, there is an entire website devoted to the internal dramas of this subculture.

Perhaps it is simply my style or modus operandi, but I have a very hard time getting worked up, as it were, or even “hot under the collar”.  Maybe it is my general lack of empathy for my fellow humans.  Maybe it is my dislike for conflict.  I just cannot get into the drama.  There are also those individuals who are unable to get out of the drama.

I digress.  This trip to New England was not all drama.  We were able to check off the last state in New England that we had not visited: Rhode island.  Checking off the states one has visited seems like a petty child’s activity, but I still do it.

Beekeeping update, before closing out this post: we have yet to harvest honey this season.  Between no longer living into Duluth, to having to travel to the east coast, the harvest has just not materialized.  We are hoping to get back to Duluth this following weekend of Oct 13, 2012.