Friday, April 17, 2009

More Random Thoughts... did you know?

Busy busy busy today: went to dentist (let Boy drive!), have load and loads of laundry, need to get some writing done. But in the meantime, some random thoughts, culled from various research assignments:

Did you know...

... hummingbirds are only native to the Western Hemisphere? That's right, they're only found in the Americas.

... a grass whistle isn't really a whistle. It's a reed instrument. I suppose if you're a band geek you probably knew that. But you probably didn't know that reed instruments date back to Egyptian times, 4000 years ago.

... the average human female is born with over 1 million oocytes, or egg cells? Of those, only around 400 develop into eggs that are available to be fertilized.

...that oocyte is not pronounced OO-uh-site, but OH-uh-site? I didn't. I still can't read it in my head correctly.

... dandelions (the leaves) are actually edible, with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. I won't be collecting them for a salad any time soon, though.

Now you know why I seem flighty sometimes: I've got weird random facts running through my head.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Janespotting: Now, with ultra-violent zombie mayhem!

As soon as this project was announced this winter, I knew I had to get my hands on it. It was advertised as 85% of Austen's text, with the remaining text relating more details about how Elizabeth Bennet, a zombie-fighter along with her four Shaolin-trained sisters, meets and falls in love with Mr. Darcy, who is equally skilled in dispatching undead "unmentionables."

Now, that may sound like a completely insane mashup, but I'm a big fan of Max Brooks' World War Z, a wonderful "oral history" of a zombie plague. (I love books about plagues, although they don't have to create zombies to be interesting.) Lately I can't recommend any books to Boy without him turning up his nose, but this one he absolutely loved. He rereads it every other month or so, and ate up Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide as well. So I was totally up for adding some zombie scenes to Austen's classic.

After chasing around the Ann Arbor area to get my copy (it sold out at my local bookstore in less than a day), I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours. As advertised, it was mostly Austen's story and words. But then you'd come across a line about the Bennet girls' martial arts training, or a section where zombies invade the Netherfield kitchens, or a very gigglesome remark about balls. I laughed out loud several times while devouring this book as fast as a zombie slurps down brains.

Here's a sample passage, to give you a little flavor; Lizzy is visiting Charlotte Collins, as in the original, but unfortunately poor Charlotte has been infected by an unmentionable and will soon need to be beheaded and burned before burial:
Why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without moving his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would have liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain.
What's even more fun? Boy is reading it, too!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bird Nerd Alert!

I think I've admitted before that I'm a total nerd in many ways. I get lost in the dictionary; I'm making sure Boy sees every episode of Monty Python and Star Trek (original and Next Gen); and I spend way too much time looking up into trees and saying, "Hey, what kind of bird is that?"

Now, I'm not a true bird nerd. I don't buy books listing birds of every area I visit and check them off when I see them, like the gentleman I met during our Antarctica trip. (Although to be fair, I think he was a retired professor of natural resources, if not an actual ornithologist.) But I can tell a house finch from a house sparrow, a grackle from a cowbird, and a mourning dove from a rock dove (aka skyrat er, pigeon). I have a well-thumbed copy of Birds of Michigan Field Guide, which is helpfully organized by color and size for ease of looking things up. I think I've mentioned before that although we live in the middle of suburbia, we see all sorts of wildlife around us. Egrets and blue herons make use of local retaining ponds and wetland projects, and I often see raptors on the road between here and Ann Arbor. (And occasionally in my yard, thanks to my birdfeeders.)

So when I hear a strange tapping sound nearby, my ears prick up. This weekend was not the first time we've had a visitor to our corkscrew willow tree; besides strewing branches over our lawn at the slightest wind, it has a really nice hollow branch that woodpeckers really love. I've learned to look there when I hear drumming, so it doesn't take me five minutes to catch a glimpse any more. This time I found the little guy within a few seconds, and with my binoculars and field guide handy, I tried to figure out what kind of bird he was.

White front, black-and-white back, red tonsure: it had to be a male woodpecker of the Picoides genus. But a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubecens) or a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus)? Luckily, my field guide has a "compare" section that suggests how to tell them apart. The downy woodpecker is 3 inches smaller than his hairy counterpart, and has a shorter bill and black spots on his tail. I took a picture so I could zoom in and look more closely. Unfortunately, I can't see this guy's bill or tail very well, but from a distance I thought he was more likely the larger size woodpecker.

I tried checking pictures online, but except for the tail and beak, the two species are almost identical. I tried listening to bird calls for the two, but all I discovered was that playing bird calls on your computer is an awesome way to confuse and torture a cat that's walking across your desk. So I'm going to trust in my ability to judge size from a distance and tentatively say this picture is of a hairy woodpecker. But I could be wrong.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Photo of the Week--4/6/09

If there's anything more picturesque than a ruined castle, it's a ruined castle situated among a beautiful landscape. This one, Urquhart Castle, gets bonus points because the landscape is actually Loch Ness in Scotland. No, we didn't see any monsters. Just cloud and wind and sun and grass and rocks. And a trebuchet! (Unfortunately, not working.) It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, wandering among all the ruins and imagining yourself in medieval Scotland.