John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Springtime in Greenville NC

May 17th, 2012

Between playing Starcraft and working on contract projects, there hasn’t been much to write about lately. However, the weather in Greenville has been so nice this spring that I’ve been trying to make more time to just get outside and enjoy the sights and fresh air.

Purple springtime flowers These purple flowers bloomed in late March, and while they didn’t last very long they did produce an extremely strong and pleasant scent.  So nice, in fact, that the neighbor came over and requested a few clippings on behalf of her daughter.  I’m not exactly sure what kind of flowers these are, but they nice to have around for the brief while they were in bloom.

Mosquito hawk feasting on scallion nectar

We haven’t had much time to start a vegetable garden this year, but I did manage to get a few scallion roots potted in time for a springtime bloom.  I also managed to get one good shot of a mosquito hawk feasting on the nectar of its flowers before my battery started failing and the camera’s auto-focus got confused.  Apparently, despite the carnivorous name, adult mosquito hawks don’t eat other bugs – just nectar.  The larvae will eat other bugs’ young, but the grownups seem to have a sweet tooth.  On rare occassions, adult females will drink blood to aid in egg development, but their poor flight skills and easily-spotted size makes this a pretty risky strategy.

ECU's campus green at dawn

The last shot I have today is from the campus of East Carolina University, located about half a mile from our new house.  The air at dawn is a bit brisk, but the view is gorgeous and it makes for a nice bike ride.  At this hour, the campus is quiet and the green space is empty, so it makes a perfect setup for tranquil shots.

Greenville might be lacking in some of the urban conveniences I’ve become accustomed to, but it is a great place when it comes to clean air, the beauty of nature, and friendly neighbors. For now, it is a nice place to call home while Aisling works on her graduate degree, but I don’t think we’ll be settling down just yet…

Sympathy for the devil.. or at least a wasp

March 6th, 2011

Living in Florida, you get sort of accustomed to all kinds of bugs and creepy crawly things. But I never expected I’d feel sympathy for a wasp.

This injured little would-be killer found his way in to our bathroom last week, and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to grab my camera and get up close.

Fortunately for me, he didn’t have the strength to attack. In fact, he hardly had the strength to untangle himself from a stray hair in the corner behind the trash can. Unfortunately for the wasp, he wasn’t going to get out of there without some kind of help.

A strange thought entered my mind: Wasps always get a bad reputation, but for all the close encounters I’ve had none of them had ever actually tried to hurt me, personally. Instead of feeling like I needed revenge against a violent intruder, I started thinking like I had an injured & lost guest in my house.

What I did next was probably the height of insanity, but I decided to give the guy a lift on to an alumni magazine & cap him off with a big plastic cup. From there, I managed to bring him outside, where he curled up in a paralytic coma for a while before slowly walking away.

Wasp back outside

Fly away now, little dude!

That was the last I saw of him, and it probably wasn’t too long before the ants & other bugs exploited his vulnerability. I was still glad to give him a chance – or at the very least, I was glad to have him out of the house without anyone getting hurt.

Butterfly Fight

October 19th, 2010

Two butterflies flutter about, competing for the attention and affection of a third butterfly. Be sure to check out the full screen for full detail – this one is in high definition.

I shot this one on a recent walk with the dog. I’m still getting the hang of this camera, but so far I’ve been pretty well impressed with the quality of the videos. Hopefully, I can find more content worth shooting!

Mindful Inaction

June 23rd, 2010

What do you need to do to save the environment? What do you need to do to make the world a better place? Probably a lot less than what you’re doing right now.

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

Certainly, if we would all drive less or consume less energy in general, there would be fewer oil well spills and more shrimp. If we wore our clothes until they stopped functioning instead of until they were out of style, there’d be fewer factories relying on labor conditions that border on semi-voluntary slavery.

Ah, but they’re being pushed off the farms, and they need jobs, and…

Yet we’re all actively pushing ourselves off of our own farms, so to speak. Does your leftover food go in to a compost pile and back in to the soil, or does it go to a landfill where it can be contaminated with the other waste products of modern societal whims? Do you let the clovers grow where they decide the soil needs nitrogen, or do you kill them off with herbicides just so you can add nitrogen fertilizer a few weeks later?

Action, action: effort. We didn’t get where we are by not trying enough, we’ve gotten here because we’ve been trying way too hard.

And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have computers, or TVs, or cell phones and even iPads: but why have we only been able to build a model of progress that requires the rapid consumption and disposal of high technology? We know the arguments: a car that runs perfectly for 30 years would put the car-makers out of business; there’s no reason to make electronic parts stable in the long term since they’ll be obsolete anyway; even houses are now built in a way that is more vulnerable to the elements in the long-run – but we’ll all have new houses by then anyway, right?

A forest doesn’t grow because you construct it – it grows when you let it be. We don’t have to throw away our technology, we should instead strive to evolve with it.

Yet there are certain physical properties we cannot even envision evolving out of in the relevant future. There is a circle of life on the planet that we’ve become individually detached from and collectively destructive to. We still rely on it, but for how long at the current trajectories? In a few short decades, we will have stripped the earth of resources and re-combined them in toxic ways to the point where living in space colonies will start to make economic sense. Not only is there a plentiful access to vast mineral wealth that we’re running out of on earth, its relatively easy to clean up a self-enclosed bubble when compared to our entire planet.

We might very well achieve sensory entertainment technology beyond our wildest dreams, and certainly it will be called progress, but what then if the most popular simulations are of a primeval natural forest that none living has ever seen? We might well invent drugs that soothe all our existential conflicts, but then for what purpose do we continue to conflict with existence?

We can still have this and still have that, but we will not achieve a balance of both by doubling our efforts: we must instead remember the value of occasionally “not doing.”

Another excuse to play in the dirt…

June 2nd, 2010

I’ve always known that digging in the garden for a bit makes me feel good, but there might actually be some science behind that beyond the normal sense of well-being that goes along with any kind of productive work. Yeah, its nice to know that the dirt on my hands will someday lead to some free fresh veggies, but what could be more important to the brain’s chemical response is some of the bacteria living there in the ground.

Apparently, mice who have been exposed to this bacteria can solve mazes faster and show fewer signs of stress when they’re doing it.

I know for certain that when I’ve had a stressful day and I’ve run out of things to write, just a few minutes digging up weeds can help me relax and focus on brainstorming new ideas.

We don’t have any kids yet, but when we do, I imagine that they’ll have a lot more freedom to do things that would have gotten me in to trouble – especially when it comes to digging in the dirt. I’m definitely not looking forward to cleaning up after them, but I’m just as much looking forward to enjoying the games!

The new resident garden snake

May 19th, 2010

Alright, it might not be the best picture but its the best one Aisling got because I kept trying to stop her from standing on top of the dang thing.

This little guy showed up in the late afternoon yesterday and looked like he (or she?) was getting pretty comfortable on top of a pile of leaves and random yard mulch that I was hoping to turn in to a compost mix of some sort.

We’re pretty sure its just a common garter or garden snake, but they can still deliver annoying bites and bad smells so I don’t exactly want to leave the welcome mat out.  For now, that means losing out on a lot of the mulch and dried up plant matter that was going in the compost, but hopefully the loss of the perfect snake hill will scatter him back off to the edges of the yard.

We haven’t seen any owls since the hard freeze when one came knocking at our window at midnight, and maybe that’s why the snakes are surviving in to older age!  It might even be time for an outdoor cat if the owls don’t fly back soon…

Sleeping by the moon

March 11th, 2010

I’ve never really fit on to a 24 hour daily schedule.  During school and through my first jobs it was always a nightmare – I just couldn’t go to bed and wake up at the same time day after day.

First I got around it by taking on jobs with irregular hours, the kind of gig where you might work lunch one day and close up on the next one.  Of course, its hard to get a good job that way so I also tried out the regularly scheduled, five-day plan.  Pulled it off for almost two years, but the stress just kept piling on despite the fact that I actually liked the job’s environment and tasks.

So it was shortly after a very painful dental surgery that I realized I had to go mercenary and learn how to make money on my own – any time of day, any way I could.  No more schedules, no more putting the rotation of the sun over the cycle and rhythm of my body.

And it worked…

Shortly after abandoning the scheduled day that everyone considers normal, I almost immediately noticed that a different pattern was developing.  Every day I would want to go to bed about an hour later than the day before.  Yesterday, I went to bed at 6:40pm, the day before was about 5:45, and the day before that was right around five.

I didn’t think much of it at first because, well, that was the point – to go to bed and wake up when my body says its time.

Then almost as a joke, my friend mentions that I’m not sleeping randomly, I’m sleeping on a lunar schedule.  It sounded like it had some grain of truth in it and I had to go find out more…

Well apparently, the lunar day is about 24 hours and 50 minutes long.  Weird – that’s very close to the interval between my bed times.  So I decide to check it out a bit further:  How does my bed time coincide with the flow of the tides?

Pulling up a local tidal calendar, I can’t say I was too surprised to learn that my daily trip to bed – for the whole last week – had lined up almost perfectly with the high tide of the river at the nearby Mainstreet bridge.

So … now what does my nature tell me?  What is this adaptation good for?  Fishing?  I guess this means I wake up shortly before low-tide – and that’s a good time to start fishing as the tide comes in and rises.

Oh well, the river here is pretty gross (thank you, local industry!) and there’s no way I’m going to give up the comfort of my website revenue to go chasing after a rising tide at 5 am.  Maybe I’ll check it out next time I feel like I’ve got spare time and need a hobby…

So what is up?!  Do you know anyone with an odd sleeping schedule that doesn’t ever quite sync up to the “normal world?”  Is there some lunar influence on our circadian rhythm when we’re able to shut out the outside light and use electrical illumination instead?

A good time to pull the weeds

January 28th, 2010

Potato vines! Have you seen these guys?  They call ’em potato vines, but I call them the biggest pest since mosquitoes.  Not only do these vines manage to grow eight inches a day when they’ve got full sunlight, but they also make sure to wrap around and strangle all kinds of natural fauna, food crops, and trees. They tie themselves tightly to the branches and trunks of existing plants, and they’ll even shoot runners straight through the established plants leaves in order to shred them up.

Yeah, left alone, they can take down a tree.

Anyway, Florida has the pleasure of being filled with these things, and as a gift they drop a bunch of poisonous potato looking things that will turn into new root structures and vine sprouts as soon as the weather turns warm again.

Well, we’re not going to just sit around and watch that happen!

We’re just coming out of a bad cold snap here, so most of the more tropical and invasive plants have browned up and wilted down.  Its a great time to yank them out by the roots because they don’t have any kind of strength to fight back.  Of course, this means picking up all the potatoes from the fist-sized ones to the ones that look more like marbles and BBs.  It will obviously be impossible to get all of them, but at least this spring we know that they’ll have no root system to work with and a lot fewer new recruits.

So the sun is out, the weeds are already half-dead of their own accord, and 50 degrees feels warm enough to do some yardwork when its compared to the unusually deep freeze that just settled on us for a week or two.
Have you encountered the dreaded potato vine – or perhaps more importantly, do you have any ideas of how to keep them off my trees, away from the fences, and out of my garden?

Fall comes to Jacksonville

September 30th, 2009

It was a good summer, but its officially done. The cool wind outside cannot be mistaken for the climate of a Florida summer. We’ve survived most of the hurricane season, and we haven’t lost any trees for it this year. We do still have some logs in the yard from the last one, does anyone need some firewood?

Despite a trip to Ireland, a nice vacation with the folks, and a lot of time in the sun and working in the yard, I can’t help but feel like I missed out on something. That I should have accomplished something else.

Perhaps its an instinctual warning, a reminder of the coming winter. The cold breeze makes me want to work harder, it inspires as much as it threatens.

There are no leaves changing color – everything is green and will likely stay that way. Cold won’t stop business and snow won’t make it this far south, but something about the prospect of winter’s approach still makes me want to prepare for hibernation.

Large Orb Weaver Spider in the Back Yard

September 9th, 2009

While we were out back checking out the air conditioner, we came across a really cool looking critter who had built up a web near our back yard fence.  Now normally, I’m not a big fan of spiders.  Jacksonville Florida is home to at least a few potentially lethal arachnids – and the black widows and brown recluse spiders are small, quick things that like to live indoors.

But that’s probably also why I like the golden orb weavers – they’re big and slow enough that you can keep an eye on them.  They also like to live outside, another big bonus for our ability to coexist peacefully.  Anyway, this thing is fascinating.


The body is like three or four inches long and the legs obviously extend a lot further than that.


Here the critter is stretching out, and presumably enjoying the late-summer weather.  The yellow mess on the web above the spider is actually some leftover mess from her dinner.  At any given time, there are a half dozen cocoons of poisoned and melting bugs.


This shot gives some perspective on the weight and substance of this spider.  The bright orange/yellow abdomen gives a strong hint as to how much food this thing can consume.

And speaking of food:

orbweaver4This one is a little blurry, but when this spider springs in to action, it is a twitching and web weaving machine.  At this moment, she’s sunk her teeth in to and wrapping up some sort of beetle.

More About the Orb Weaver Spider:

First, you may have noticed I keep calling the spider “she” and “her.”  This is definitely the female of species – and the other spiders in the web are so tiny and insignificant that they didn’t seem interesting enough to take a picture of.  There are also a few small spiders known to freeload off the orb-weaver’s web, so I’m not even sure which one of the miniatures (if any) is another orb weaver.

And while the orb weaver spider is also poisonous, it is rarely if ever fatal.  In fact, the spider’s bite only hurts a human for a day or two.  I’m not saying thats a fun thing, but its pretty gentle compared to the more lethal critters around here.

And if you think the spiders in Florida are bad…

This orb weaver was discovered on a golf course in North Carolina and posted to Reddit:

And one Australian relative of the orb weaver spider is even making a name for itself because its been seen EATING BIRDS.  Yes, a spider eating a freaking bird.  Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me!  I kind of still don’t believe it either, but I’m starting to realize how big these things can get.