Wordless Wednesday: November flowers

Photo: Shala Howell

No, seriously. We still have flowers here.

Posting may be erratic for a bit, due to unpacking + NaNoWriMo + Thanksgiving (we’re hosting this year, so unpacking feels both urgent and important).

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 23
  • Upstairs: 47
  • Garage: Done!

(Somebody got some serious help from her family this week.)

NaNoWriMo Update: 

  • Project: Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?
  • Word Count: 12,271
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“Are artichokes and pine cones related?”

Since we’ve moved to California, I’ve been mildly obsessed with pine cones. This is why.

You think that this is a perspective trick, but no. That pine cone really is almost tall enough to reach the bottom of our coffee table. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that pine cones this big are terrifying for cats. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Although I prefer to think of these pine cones as POUSs (Pinecones of Unusual Size), the locals refer to them as widow-makers. When we moved in to our house, the neighbors made a point of warning us that the squirrels who live in the pine tree the POUSs come from love to use human heads for target practice. The POUSs are really heavy, so I hope the squirrels continue to miss.

I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the tree out back is probably a Coulter pine. Although Coulter pines are native to Southern California, they can found as far north as San Francisco.

You know what else I’ve dodged a lot of in California?

Artichokes. Nearly all of the artichokes grown commercially in the US are grown right here in California.

But in dodging both pine cones and artichokes, I can’t help but keep noticing how physically similar they are.

Sure, one is made of wood, and the other of vegetable, but ignoring that little discrepancy, their petal bud forms are pretty similar — especially if you compare an unopened pine cone to an artichoke.

Which got me wondering…

Are pine cones and artichokes related?

Common sense says that the answer to this is no. Still, that sort of thinking has gotten me into trouble in the past, so let’s find out for sure.

Step 1: Learn their scientific names.   

One of the benefits of having a mild obsession with paleontology is that scientific names are useful, rather than scary, things. Scientific names, the pair of Latin (or Greek) words that appear in parenthesis behind the common name of whatever it is you’re talking about, both uniquely identify a living organism and tell us a bit about how it relates to other living organisms. (This method of naming organisms is also called binomial nomenclature.)

Take the scientific name for the Coulter pine, for example: Pinus coulteri. The first word tells us which genus the plant belongs to (Pinus), while the second word identifies this species of tree in particular (coulteri, the pine tree discovered by Dr. Coulter).

The type of artichoke I’m interested in, the globe artichoke, is properly referred to as Cynara scolymus.

Now that we know that the Coulter pine is a member of the genus Pinus and the artichoke of the genus Cynara, we can figure out where they fall on the plant family tree (and by extension what, if any relationship they have to one another).

But first, let’s clarify what I mean by the phrase plant family tree

Scientists classify plants and animals using a multi-level organization scheme that sorts organisms into various categories according to their distinguishing characteristics. The system we use today, taxonomy, was developed by Carolus Linnaeus back in the 1700s, who was not coincidentally known as the Father of Taxonomy.

Linnaeus’s system has been tweaked a bit over time, as scientists have learned more about the world and the organisms that populate it. For example, Linnaeus originally used his system to sort both living and nonliving things, but scientists now only use taxonomy to sort living organisms. Overall though, his system has held up pretty well.

So when I talk about a plant family tree, I mean this process of sorting organisms into a hierarchy (taxonomy).  From most specific to least, the categories used in this system are:

  • Species
  • Genus
  • Family
  • Order
  • Class
  • Phylum (or division)
  • Kingdom
  • Domain

Let’s get started.

Step 2: Classify the Coulter pine.

Species and genus are easy. The scientific name, Pinus coulterii, tells us those.

Working up:

  • The 120 different varieties of pine trees that form the genus Pinus join with about 100 additional species such as firs, hemlocks, and spruce trees to form the family Pinaceae
  • The various evergreen trees in Pinaceae join with cypresses to form the order Pinales
  • The trees in Pinales combine with yew trees in the order Taxales to form the class Pinopsida
  • Pinopsida belongs to the phylum Coniferophyta, a group of woody, mostly evergreen, non-flowering (gymnosperm) plants, which produce cones in which the seeds are exposed in the cone scales rather than tucked away in some sort of ovary
  • Coniferophyta, of course, is part of the Plantae kingdom, which includes all living or extinct plants
  • And Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material (this category was obviously added after Linnaeus’ time)


Here’s what that looks like in a chart.

This doesn’t feel helpful yet. Let’s do the same thing for artichokes and see if that makes a difference.

Step 3: Classify the artichoke.

Working up from the genus and species for Cynara scolymus we learn that:

  • Artichokes are actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family, which means that they, along with asters, daisies, and sunflowers, belong to the family Asteraceae
  • The flowering plants in Asteraceae combine with the bellflowers in the Campanulacease family to form the order Asterales
  • Plants in Asterales join with roses, magnolias, and other flowering plants to form the class Magnoliopsida
  • Plants in Magnoliopsida are part of the phylum Magnoliophyta
  • Magnoliophyta are part of the Plantae kingdom
  • And as we learned before, Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material

Whew. I hope I got all that right. Here’s what that looks like on a chart.

Step 4: Compare the charts to see what they tell us about how artichokes and pine trees are related.

The lowest level the artichoke plant and the Coulter pine have in common is the Plantae kingdom, so from this I learned that artichokes and pine cones both come from plants. Other than that, they’re really not related at all.

Honestly, that was more work than I was hoping for.

Still, now that I’m certain pine tree and artichoke plants aren’t closely related, I want to know why pine cones and artichokes look so similar. What is it about that cupped petal form that is so beneficial that pine trees would use it for their seed cases and artichoke plants for their buds?

Anyone know?

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 70
  • Garage: Still to be discovered

(Somebody went on strike this week.)

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“We just got here, Mommyo. Why are you packing all those bags?”

Last week, as I was sitting down for a bit of pre-dinner reading, I had what I thought was a bout of dizziness. Then one of my books toppled over, and I figured out that what was actually rocking me in my chair was my first large-enough-to-be-felt California earthquake. (Little quakes happen all the time — QuakeFeed tells me that there have been four earthquakes magnitude 1.7 or smaller within five miles of my house in the past four days. But most people only feel the magnitude 2.5 and bigger ones.)

That, combined with the wildfires raging in Northern California and the news out of Puerto Rico, has me thinking about disaster preparedness.

Moving is the perfect time to revisit your disaster planning

When we moved to Chicago in 2013, my husband set up a set of emergency backpacks and supplies based on the most common types of natural disasters in the Midwest (tornadoes, maybe snow, sometimes floods). Here in California, the disasters feel more apocalyptic (fast-moving wildfires and potentially massive earthquakes), so we wanted to rethink our emergency supplies accordingly.

Settling into a new home is a wonderful time to update your emergency bags. After all, when you’re unpacking boxes by the hundreds already, what’s the harm in sorting through a few more?

Four years ago, my husband worked mostly on hunches when setting up our bug-out bags, but this time we’ve been using the Department of Homeland Security’s emergency preparedness website.  I don’t know if you’ve been to Ready.gov lately, but it’s been really helpful for us.

Ready.gov keeps you focused on the essentials

Ready.gov covers the basics of surviving various natural disasters, such as tornadoeswildfires, and earthquakes, as well as man-made catastrophes such as active shooter situations, bioterrorism, and cybersecurity attacks.

Different types of emergencies require different survival strategies, so Ready.gov provides a handy worksheet to help parents think through the various possibilities and identify options that will work given their individual circumstances.

Elsewhere on the site, you’ll find instructions for building an emergency kit for your home, workplace, and car; making a plan to find shelter in an emergency; identifying an evacuation route; and figuring out how your family will communicate if they become separated.

Don’t wait for the tornado warning. Get the basics in place now. 

There’s a lot to sort through when it comes to disaster planning, which is why it’s important to begin working on it before disaster strikes.

And, as I’ve learned this week, once you think the planning is done, it’s pretty important to review your plans and supplies every so often to make sure the plans are still relevant and the batteries, food, and first aid supplies are still fresh. Oh, and that the kids’ clothes still fit the kid in question. Ahem.

I’m about halfway through the process. The bug-out bags are mostly built, but I’ve got some of the document preservation and evacuation planning work still to go. Even though I’m not done, it’s been oddly liberating to work on disaster planning this week.

I had thought that disaster planning would cause a string of sleepless, anxiety-laden nights in which I dwelled on all the things over which I have no control. But it’s turned out to be quite liberating. I am much more comfortable going about my day-to-day life, knowing that if disaster strikes, my family will have a plan and (hopefully) a set of well-staged supplies to see us through.

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 70
  • Garage: Still to be discovered
Posted in Out and About, Parenting Dilemmas | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Wordless Wednesday: The Glass Pumpkin Patch at Stanford Shopping Center

Glass pumpkins by Walker & Bowes. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Glass pumpkins by Walker & Bowes. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Evening light really is hard for the iPhone camera, isn’t it?

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Posted in Out and About, public art, Wordless Wednesday | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke
The wonderful thing about moving is that unpacking the books slowly gives books that were overlooked at the previous home a second chance at capturing The Ten-Year-Old’s imagination.

I had first purchased Dragon Rider for The Ten-Year-Old when she was a mere Eight-Year-Old, because a) Cornelia Funke and b) dragons.

I assumed she’d adore it. A young silver dragon befriends a lonely boy, and together the two set off to find the mythical world where dragons and boys can live in peace. Along the way they encounter all sorts of curious creatures, and go up against a dastardly villain determined to thwart their peace-having plans. There’s even an orange cat on Firedrake’s back. What could be more perfect?

The Eight-Year-Old started it, but it didn’t capture her fancy, so she shelved it again. Periodically over the past couple of years, I’ve proposed to her that she give it another try, because a) Cornelia Funke and b) dragons. But she’s always had something more interesting (or so she thought) to read.

But thanks to the contrivance of happenstance, Dragon Rider was one of the last ones to get packed before we left Chicago and one of the first to reappear after we arrived in California. So The Ten-Year-Old picked it up again, because a) bored and b) dragons.

Spoiler alert: She can’t get enough of it now. She’s reread it several times over the past three weeks. “I just can’t believe it, Mommyo,” she told me this morning. “But I notice something new about this book every time I read it.”

I can not wait for her to discover Inkheart.

Related Links:

Remaining Box Count: 

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 90
  • Garage: Tons
Posted in Reading, Reviews: Books, What the 10yo is reading | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Wordless Wednesday

Photo: Shala Howell

One of my neighbors has the most marvelous rose garden. It reminds me of the rose bushes my mother used to grow behind our house in Dallas.

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 41
  • Upstairs: 102
  • Garage: Too many to count


Posted in Nature, Out and About, Wordless Wednesday | Tagged | 2 Comments

“Is there an official landing pad for UFOs?”

Stopping at the Bonneville salt flats on our road trip to California naturally got The Ten-Year-Old thinking about alien planets and the beings that travel away from them.

“Mommyo,” she asked when we were back on the road. “Is there an official landing pad for UFOs?”

I have often boasted that I’m comfortable googling anything. But I’ll admit I was little worried about asking this. Somehow, inquiring about UFOs on the Intertubes just doesn’t feel as safe as asking Dr. Google whether the iron in squirrel’s teeth makes them rust.

(Ironically, I was able to find an answer to the UFO landing pad question on the first try. Multiple searches later, I still can’t figure out whether squirrel dental hygiene issues include rusty teeth. I assume the answer is no, due to the rust-proof properties of enamel, but I can’t even find confirmation that squirrel teeth are orange because they contain iron. And that seems like a basic fact I need if I’m  going to answer the question “does all that iron make squirrel teeth rust?” I may have to deploy a librarian to figure this one out.)

Anyway, you’ll be happy to know that there are lots of official UFO landing pads lurking about.

The World’s First Official UFO Landing Pad and Center (St. Paul, Alberta, Canada)

The UFO landing pad in St. Paul, Alberta. Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, via Atlas Obscura.

According to Atlas Obscura, the world’s first UFO landing pad was built in St. Paul, Alberta in 1967. It features a stone map of Canada in case the visitors need directions to Ottawa, and boasts a time capsule designed to be opened on the landing pad’s 100th anniversary in 2067.

The center also maintains a toll-free hotline in case a UFO gets lost on the way to Alberta. People who spot UFOs wandering off somewhere else are invited to call 1-888-See-UFOs (1-888-733-8367) to report them.

The Palacios Municipal Airport (Palacios, Texas) 

Not to be outdone, the city council of Palacios, Texas issued a proclamation on October 19, 1973 formally granting UFOs landing privileges at the existing Palacios Municipal Airport.

In announcing the proclamation, Mayor Jackson of Palacios, which is located on the Texas Gulf Coast between Houston and Corpus Christi, somewhat inaccurately said, “It just occurred to me that no one has ever made those little fellas welcome. So we – the Town Council – issued a proclamation to make it official.”

Article announcing the UFO fly-in day at Palacios Municipal Airport in the Denton Record-Chronicle, October 19, 1973 (p. 3)

Urantia (Del Rio, Texas)

Del Rio businesswoman Barbara Petsch, who ran Dilly-Dilly Art & Gifts on Highway 90 West, thought welcoming UFOs to Texas sounded like an excellent idea. She and two of her closest friends started Skylight 606 to construct a UFO-theme park named Urantia outside of Del Rio, Texas. The theme park was never finished, but the group did complete a 60-foot circular concrete UFO landing pad in 1977. The area is closed to the public now, but you can still see Skylight 606’s landing pad on Google Maps.

The UFO landing pad built by Skylight 606 in Del Rio, Texas. (Image: Google Maps.)

The Nunes Sand & Gravel Pit (Hutchins, Texas)

After considerable thought, 73-year-old Wesley Nunes decided that it would be a fine thing to build an octagonal UFO landing pad of his own just outside of Dallas, Texas. In 1992, he converted a patch of his 120-acre sand and gravel pit in Hutchins, Texas to a concrete landing pad. Mr. Nunes died in 2006, but his landing pad endures. Again, since it’s on private property, your best bet for viewing it is a trip to Google Maps.

Wesley Nunes’s landing pad just southeast of Dallas, Texas. (Image via Google Maps.)

The UFO Landing Pad and Star Visitor Sanctuary on Hawaii’s Big Island

According to the Wall Street Journal, The Lawful Hawaiian Government, an independence group working to restore the old Hawaiian Kingdom, has an official UFO landing pad all its own. The UFO Landing Pad and Star Visitor Sanctuary is located on a field of lava on Hawaii’s Big Island.

No doubt there are more UFO landing pads lurking about, but since I’m not actually in charge of writing The Star Visitor’s Travel Guide to Planet Earth, I’m going to stop there.

Just out of curiosity, where’s your favorite UFO landing pad?

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Test post: Google+ & WordPress in a spat

Once upon a time, when I posted something on Caterpickles, it appeared automatically on my Google+ page as well, properly marked for public consumption.

This morning, I noticed that my Caterpickles posts were all still showing up on Google+, but instead of being publicly viewable, they were all viewable only by me.

Well, that’s not very helpful. After all, I already know that my book’s out, that the Utah salt flats are a weird alien landscape in the middle of the western half of the U.S., and that it’s hard to find good science fiction featuring not-terribly-scary aliens for ten-year-olds.

The point of sharing with Google+ is tell other people all that. Apparently, the key to fixing it is to disconnect Google+ from WordPress on your WordPress site, and WordPress from Google+ on your Google+ profile, then reconnect the two again from the WordPress side.

I can’t tell if this worked. So I’m writing up a quick post to test it.

Fingers crossed.


Well, that seems to have worked. Now to reshare all those old posts which were marked private so that they can actually be public. Sadly I’m afraid I’m going to have to type up a new version of them manually, as simply resharing them as a public post doesn’t seem to be working. Anyone have a better way?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

Our books are mostly still packed up in boxes. Fortunately, The Ten-Year-Old’s new fifth grade teacher keeps an ample supply in her classroom, most of which are new to The Ten-Year-Old. Even better, when the kids at lunch aren’t gossiping about the weird things their parents do, they’re talking about the books they’re reading.  Both of this week’s books were recommended to The Ten-Year-Old by kids in her class.

Only You Can Save Mankind (The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, Book 1) by Terry Pratchett

What the book’s about: Twelve-year-old Johnny Maxwell is about to conquer the final level in the computer game Only You Can Save Mankind, when the aliens abruptly surrender. Instead of disintegrating the last alien ship, Johnny accepts their surrender, and ends up offering sanctuary to the remnants of the Galactic Horde. That’s when the dreams begin. In his dreams, Johnny finds himself on the alien ScreeWee ships, protecting the ScreeWee from the human gamers trying to hunt them down. Could the aliens be real? Is this really just a game?

Why The Ten-Year-Old likes it: “Awesome story line, and I love how he ended it. The ScreeWee felt really human. They felt like they have real emotions. I can’t get them out of my head. In fact, I fell asleep thinking about the ScreeWee captain last night.”

Who would enjoy reading this book: Anybody who enjoyed Star Wars, Terry Pratchett, or a good storyline.

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

What the book’s about: April Hall doesn’t seem like the sort of person Melanie Ross would want as a friend. But when she discovers they both love ancient Egypt, she decides to give April a chance. The two girls commandeer a deserted storage yard for the Egypt Game. They meet in the yard to wear Egyptian costumes, hold ceremonies, and develop a secret code. Over time, their little squad of Egyptians swells to six. It’s just a game, a bit of harmless fun. But when strange things start to happen, Melanie wonders if she and April have taken the Egypt Game too far.

Why The Ten-Year-Old likes it: “I like how it’s these kids setting up this game. I was thinking about doing it at home with some of our big boxes. They pretend they are ancient Egyptians, they tell stories, they have the goddess Isis and the goddess Set. It’s insanely funny and ingenious, but probably best if you just read it.”

Who would enjoy reading this book: Anybody who likes Ancient Egypt or just likes a good storyline.

Related Links:

Posted in Reading, Reviews: Books, What the 10yo is reading | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

We have landed!

The Ten-Year-Old explores the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. (Photo: Shala Howell)

After a week of driving and a couple of weeks of furious unpacking, Caterpickles Central (California edition) is finally in a state to allow for regular blog updates.

We saw many amazing things on our road trip, but my personal favorite were the Bonneville Salt Flats just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. I was completely unprepared for the sight of them. (If Mark Kurlansky talked about the salt flats in Salt, I certainly don’t remember it.)

The ground looked like it was covered in snow, it crunched like it was covered in snow, but somehow we were warm enough in short sleeves. I’m still having trouble processing it. So. Much. Salt.

Naturally, we passed a Morton’s salt processing plant on our way out of town.

Lots of other things to tell you about our road trip, but I’ll have to spool it out over a few posts. Writing words in sentences is hard. Especially when there’s a towering stack of cardboard just outside my door waiting to be dealt with.

So long for now.

Related Links:

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 50
  • Upstairs: 116
  • Garage: Too many to count
Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, Nature, Out and About | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment