Saturday, May 23, 2009

Battling the Noxious Weed: Me vs. Poison Ivy

I've fortunately never developed an allergy to poison ivy, something rather remarkable when you consider my childhood. Between the literal years I spent exploring the woods around my home and the many games of spotlight tag which found me hunkered down in the underbrush along the edges of the neighborhood yards, I'm sure I came into almost constant contact with the noxious weed.

I grew up never really being able to identify poison ivy; "leaves of three" will take you only so far, given the number of trifoliate plants out there. I just didn't have to know what it looked like, and the only part of the plant I could reliably identify was its tree-bound vine, resplendent in tiny red "hairs" of aerial rootlets. (Before anyone comments: yes, I'm aware you can develop an allergy to poison ivy at any point in your life, and I don't take my immunity for granted--though I did as a kid!) It wasn't until I met my wife Beth that I studied the finer points of poison ivy ID; she's incredibly allergic, and on one occasion, her dachshunds brought some urushiol oil (the toxic substance in poison ivy) in from her yard, leaving her arms terribly broken out right before a friend's wedding (see the picture at the end of this post; there's a reason she's wearing black and opera-length gloves to a wedding!)

A huge poison ivy 'branch' reaching out into the yardLast summer, when we first looked at Chateau Papillon during our house search, I did walk the yard, but I didn't notice the poison ivy at the time. Granted, we'd been several weeks into a minor drought, so it's possible there wasn't that much foliage present. Fast forward to our move to home ownership, and in making detailed plans for the yard in late winter, I discovered several trees hosting poison ivy vines.

I spent a warm late-February weekend sawing through the vines--some 2" or thicker in diameter--at several points from the ground up, hoping to nip the problem in the bud (figuratively and literally) before spring came. For the most part, I was successful; many of the vines never leafed out at all, and those that did largely put out new growth very close to the ground.

After that, it was a game of wait and watch, particularly in the back "wild" corner of our yard. I pulled up several plants as they appeared, making sure to get the entire vines and root systems for each, and also put down "sheet mulching" along a large periphery of the yard (whereby overlapped cardboard sheets beneath several inches of mulch--obtained free from Fairfax County--helps kill off any weeds beneath). Our ridiculously rainy spring (almost 5" above normal already) has complicated the task, keeping me out of the yard for a week at a time and giving plenty of impetus for new weed growth, but I've successfully pulled up three garbage bags full of poison ivy to date.

Now, for the shocker: in watching our bluebird house, I noticed that one of the "branches" of a nearby tree was in fact poison ivy. I'd missed it in the late winter vine cut, thinking it to be a tree limb; the vine was at the back of the tree, and who'd expect a six foot long "branch" to be the spawn of a weedy vine? But spring brought those terrible little flowers and the beginnings of berries--a treat for birds but a pest to us, along with ivy leaves a good 5-6" long and 3" wide. Eeek!

Pictured above is one of the lower-hanging poison ivy "branches," near our bluebird house. I've since trimmed it back significantly, but the branches go up the tree (sprouting from a 2.5" thick vine) 30 feet or more into the air, so I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to control it in the long term. I sure don't want the berries to go the route of bird poop and spread the weed across parts of the yard I've managed to keep clear of poison ivy.

Worst, we have plants and trees growing in close proximity to the poison ivy, meaning I can't just spray weed killer. Nope, it's double-gloved hand-pulling of the vines and foliage, and crossed fingers that I don't accidentally give myself a massive exposure and trigger an allergic response.

Beth and John at Chuck Fuller's Wedding
I certainly don't want to end up like Beth did, taking steroids for a couple of weeks with massive welts from the weed along my arms or legs. And given how much our dogs enjoy the yard, I don't want them bringing poison ivy inside on their fur to cause an allergy attack on Beth, either.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Crows Bully the Jays

Blue Jays have a reputation as bullies in the avian world, much of it quite deserved. They're loud, messy, and crowd out other birds at back yard feeders. Jays have been known to steal eggs and baby birds from the nests of smaller species. Yet as I had posted previously, Blue Jays aren't always bad, such as when they mobbed the prowling Cooper's Hawk in our yard.

We witnessed an event today which makes me feel a little softer yet to the Blue Jays around our yard. Hearing quite a racket of jay alarm calls while out gardening, I looked around to try to find the hawk or owl or other predator that had the jays so upset.

Overhead, a crow flew by with a baby jay in its beak, pursued by a small flock of angry jays. The crow had apparently found the jays' nest in a neighbor's tree and stolen the helpless little baby bird.

Nature is harsh sometimes, unfortunately. And often bullies fall prey to even bigger bullies, it seems.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Day of Writing

Beth and I had talked about having a weekend devoted to writing, where we'd dismiss all other concerns and simply spend the time writing.

I've written since perhaps the fifth grade or so, though my creative energies had sought an outlet well before even that young age. In recent years, though, I've been in something of a writer's funk, enduring what I can only describe as a lengthy case of writer's block, where though words came here and there, the overall story simply wasn't something that flowed from pen to paper (or the electronic equivalent thereof).

So today has been devoted to writing, simply sitting down without other concerns and interferences of daily life, and writing. I've managed to get caught back up to where I'd left off with my primary project and have completed a good set of edits as well. Overall, a productive day, and hopefully a stepping stone toward returning to the days when I could churn out 3,000 words in a single sitting. Baby steps!

A Nitpicker's Guide to the New Star Trek

I won't tell you the movie isn't enjoyable, isn't exciting, or isn't a slick, well-produced film.

I will, however, say the screenwriters should have their credentials revoked--then be hamstrung, drawn, and quartered. And the same repeated for the entire production chain who vetted and signed off on the screenplay.

For credulity's sake, how exactly did Kirk get promoted as a third-year cadet all the way to Captain? He skipped his fourth year (vaguely possible, I suppose, and something he did vow to Captain Pike he'd accomplish), skipped Ensign, Lieutenant (junior grade), Lieutenant, Lt. Commander, Commander ... all the way to Captain. None of the rest of the crew received a single grade promotion, mind you, yet Kirk got bumped up seven grades counting his final cadet year.

Besides the incredibility of that mega-promotion, Kirk is now deprived some of his most formative experiences. Recall that his backstory previously included a tour of duty on the U.S.S. Farragut, where as the weapons officer he felt he failed to prevent the death of his captain when the ship was attacked by a cosmic vampire cloud. Recall the death of his brother (who apparently doesn't exist in this alternate reality) at the hand of the plastic-dog-vomit parasites. Recall his many old flames (which is not to say his sexual escapades as Captain won't still happen, of course), including the one leading to the birth of his son. No friendship with Gary Mitchell and witnessing Mitchell's dehumanizing encounter with god-like powers. None of these things will have had happened. Instead, we get brash, even-younger-than-ever Kirk in charge from the get-go, without the tempering influence of the those experiences.

For the uber-nitpickers out there, I've also added a list of my first impressions of continuity violations which, though not critical to the story or characters so much, do deserve mention:
  1. The planet Delta Vega (where Kirk conveniently encounters elder Spock) was previously featured in the retooled original Star Trek pilot episode, with a small, automated dilithium (er, lithium--the writers hadn't invented "dilithium" yet!) cracking station. A desolate world, yes, but not the Hoth we're given in the new film... and a planet near the edge of the galaxy, not so close to Vulcan that it must be a planet in the same star system!
  2. Checkov had previously been significantly younger than Kirk and had idolized his captain; now, he's of a similar age and graduated from the academy ahead of Kirk.
  3. "Transwarp" previously referred to the next generation of warp drive systems (recall the Excelsior in The Search for Spock); now, it refers to the ability to transport people through vast distances of space and onto ships in warp drive.
  4. Spock had served with Captain Pike on the Enterprise for several years before Kirk became captain. Though they're introducing some aspects of the early Spock-Kirk friction in the new film, Kirk having "inherited" the aloof alien first officer he doesn't know how to deal with was something of a key point of the prior series.
I'll be back to this post in the future to put in a few more serious nitpicks.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Time Travel, Again?!: Or, Letting Blockbusterphilia Ruin Another Hollywood Retread

I watched the new, J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboot recently, and let me just say: wow. Now, that's not a good "wow," mind you, but rather a jaw-dropping, "What the heck were they thinking?!" sort of "wow." Though I mostly enjoyed the movie for its well-cast actors and slick production values, the story has to be one of the worst I've seen--and that's saying something for a franchise which had a long-lost brother of Spock searching for God in the center of the galaxy (thanks, Bill Shatner; we won't be needing your services as screenwriter again...)

In the interest of full disclosure, although I came to the theater with as open a mind as I could manage, I must admit to approaching it with misgivings.

Here's the thing: a lot of fans of the film are dismissing the Hostel-treatment of Star Trek continuity with the excuse that the film represents a "reboot," a leaping off point into a parallel universe where the franchise can go in new directions using the same beloved characters of the past (this is, mind you, a favorite tactic both of comic books and Hollywood retreads). That's all fine and dandy, in my book... but why resort to the cliche-even-for-Star-Trek plot device of time travel to do so? Of the eleven Star Trek feature films, this is the fourth time they've resorted to time travel in some form as a central plot device. Honestly, are they making Star Trek or Dr. Who here?

You didn't see mega-blockbuster film franchises like X-Men or Spiderman resorting to time travel or alternate universes to explain their departure from prior incarnations of their millieu; no, they simply presented the stories and said: "Here are the characters you (mostly) know, with a story you (mostly) know, done a new way." The James Bond franchise reboot has a few nitpicks, but they didn't try to claim 007 somehow caught the time tunnel to the future (wouldn't that be Austin Powers, perhaps?)

Removing the time travel plot device from Star Trek would have made for a far better film--not in the least through the ability to create a better, more convincing villain, rather than a retread of Malcolm McDowell's disappointing Star Trek: Generations baddie. A baddie, mind you, who when finding himself back in time prior to the destruction of his homeworld and the loss of his family, the very events that lead to his rampage for vengeance, and in possession of the very material (red matter) needed to prevent said destruction, wastes his time getting killed on stupid vengeance for which there's no need? Come ON, J. J.; give us a break. Surely one of the guy's subordinates might have said, "Hey, Nero, uh, maybe we ought to go prevent Romulus from being destroyed, eh?"

And what the heck is "red matter?" Please, I know Star Trek has always been more about the "social" sciences than about hard physics, but "red matter?" Get rid of the time travel aspect, and you can dispense with the ridiculous McGuffin of "red matter," too.

So yes, Trek fans: bash me all you like. But take a moment to ask yourself: had Abrams the intellectual honesty and regard for the fans enough to simply state, "Hey, guys, you'll recognize these characters, but keep in mind, we're starting over here," instead of dragging in a hackneyed time travel galactic Swiss cheese of a plot element, wouldn't it have been a better film? Wouldn't it have been far better to simply say, "Hey, here's Kirk's first mission, and how he meets the rest of his crew in our new take on the franchise?" Seems they could have come up with a far better story to tell, kept the blockbuster special effects and production values, and have come up with something other than refried summer movie mush.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hacking MediaWiki to Hide Prior Deletion Warning & Logs

Recently, I've been living in "demo world" (some might say "demo hell," mind you), rehearsing, rehashing, and delivering software demonstrations to interested parties.  This project has been all about quickly integrating different applications via standardized mechanisms like Web Services and the careful use of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), and a big part of it has been to deliver meaningful content from the individual applications into a Wiki (we're using MediaWiki, like Wikipedia and the US intelligence community's "Intellipedia").

Living in demo world, though, usually means resetting after each rehearsal, dry run, and actual demo to get ready for the next one, and with MediaWiki, that meant deleting articles so that they could later be recreated (for various reasons, we didn't want to just do new edits to the same articles; we needed to recreate them each time).  There's a problem, though: MediaWiki maintains a "deletion log," showing each time the page was deleted (and allowing for undeletion), and by default that log appears--with an additional warning--when a user tries to recreate the article.  Amplify this log's size by several dozen deletion & recreation cycles, and it's suddenly a big problem; we don't want our demo to look like a demo, mind you.

I dug around in the MediaWiki documentation and on Google a fair amount looking for a solution, and though there are several MediaWiki extensions which allow for deleting the actual prior instances (to remove illegal content, for example) and processes, none really fit the bill.  First, they'd have to be repeated between demos, adding an additional piece of "staging," and any additional complexity in the demo script is bad, bad, bad.  Second, several either didn't work (erasing the revisions but not the actual log entry showing they'd existed at some point, for example), or even came with the caveat that they could potentially corrupt the MediaWiki database--argh!

So I next looked for the warning message shown by MediaWiki when recreating a deleted article; it's a system message, and thus appears in the "Special:Allmessages" page (the particular entry is titled "recreate-deleted-warn" it turns out).  Changing or blanking that message isn't going to work; the deletion log will still show, and it's more objectionable in demo world than the actual warning.  But, with the name of the message in hand, I could then search the MediaWiki source code to see where it was displayed...

... which turns out to be a function in (as expected) EditPage.php, one of the core includes which contains the code used to edit a page.  The function in question is showDeletionLog(), and as its comments explain, it displays any deletion log entries along with "a nice little note for the user" if editing a previously-deleted page.

The fix?

A simple "return" at the top of the function, preventing it from doing anything.  I could have added logic to show it on some occasions and not on others, but in the end, simply returning without doing anything for all calls to that function did the trick.  And the deletion log is still available via its own special page, along with the ability to restore deleted edits, etc.; it simply is no longer shown to the user when editing the deleted page.

One future enhancement: the HTML "DIV" tag containing the deletion log & warning message could easily be set to be hidden by default, but be shown via a click on a message (for example, a cliched "click here to view this page's previous deletions" link with a JavaScript to toggle the div's visibility would work fine).  In fact, one could avoid hacking the core MediaWiki code entirely by simply putting in a plug-in extension which hides that div (handily bearing the ID of "mw-recreate-deleted-warn") during page load.  But that's beyond the scope of my demo world needs.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Chateau Papillon Bird #47: Great-crested Flycatcher

Add another to the Chateau Papillon list (#47), as well as to both my and Beth's life lists: the Great-crested Flycatcher.  I had my office window open this morning to take some photos of a pair of Northern Flickers who'd been hanging out, foraging for ants, when I spied a fairly large bird land in one of the trees around the yard.

Although I had problems focusing on him, I did get a couple of (low quality) photos, and heard him calling... and a quick consultation of Sibley's showed the bird to be unmistakably the flycatcher, a summer bird for our region.