A Confusion of Mums


How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.


If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.

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A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.

Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.

The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants.
Chrysanthemum zawadskii1
Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.

For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting.
— Izzy


This Just In


Website headline writers like to insert the word “just” in their copy for the sense of immediacy it conveys. They have room to insert the word because website headlines are usually sentence length descriptions rather than the terse summations newspaper copy editors used. Longer descriptions can be good teasers and also boost the rank of a website post in search engine results because that’s the way Google has decided sites and posts should be ranked, and Google sets the bar for search engines and for the internet generally. Ask them why.


Search engines don’t like the short headlines common in newspapers. The reason many headlines on the internet read the way they do is because writers are responding as much to what search engines like as they are to what they believe their readers like. It’s not easy keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only way websites can do it is to couch everything in terms of immediacy, as if it were all breaking news worthy of readers’ attention. To generate clicks on their posts and get them ranked highly in search engine results, website writers must tease about the content using descriptive headlines, and then make sure to give whatever they’re describing a sense of happening moments ago by tossing in “just” at least once.

War Ends
Residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square on August 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of three main sites of the Manhattan Project, and was responsible (though those working there did not know it) for refining uranium to be shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be fashioned into atomic bombs. Photo by Ed Westcott, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The newspaper headline “War Ends” might not fly with today’s internet and social media news headline writers, who would be tempted to write “War Just Ends”, even though it would be open to multiple interpretations.

The tendency is to hype everything, even inconsequential matters. Add news sharing on social media, and the hype gets amplified to 11, as a member of the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap observed. Trust and references build credibility on social media, even if common sense and a little digging into sources reveals there are no grounds for credibility. Google hones search results based on what they know about users, and Facebook and Twitter follow Google’s lead while juicing results further by adding the finer details they know about their users. Facebook and Twitter set the bar in social media for how posts get pushed to the front for sharing on their platforms, and as long as readers keep clicking the wheels keep rolling, no matter how worthless are the posts everyone shares.

This clip from Sesame Street could serve as a metaphor for what the internet and social media have become.

A word such as “just” is a fine, serviceable word in most cases. Unfortunately, once some influential writers, platform arbiters, and readers on the world wide web and in social media adopt it as a manipulative expression it gets overused, abused, and misused on its way to becoming trite and tiresome. Just sayin’.
— Ed.


A Taste Sensation


Since 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine editors precipitously and unfairly saddled adverse reactions of some people to Monosodium glutamate (MSG) with the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG has been stigmatized as a food additive that is apart from and somehow unhealthier than other food additives. The first person to report symptoms to the Journal was a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who complained of numbness at the back of his neck, general weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. On this slim testimony and that of several others, the Journal coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Dasima 2
A type of kelp known as Dasima in Korea, and Kombu in Japan, is a key ingredient in Dashi, a broth from which Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda identified the quality of umami in 1908 that led him to the discovery and production of MSG. Photo by freddy an.


Use of MSG is not limited to Chinese cookery, however, and it can be found in many processed American foods such as Doritos, which millions of Americans appear to consume regularly without complaint. It would be interesting to see if more people would attest to adverse reactions to eating Doritos if they were made aware the product contained MSG. It is listed among the ingredients on the package, and using its most recognizable name, too, rather than one of the many names that can hide its presence, such as autolyzed yeast.

This is not to say no one can have a real adverse or allergic reaction to MSG. But for just about any ingredient in food there are some people who react badly to ingesting it. The main thing to remember is that in scientific studies of MSG, as opposed to the purely anecdotal stories that appeared to satisfy the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, no one has found that MSG is any more dangerous than any of a multitude of other food additives. If it were as dangerous as some people appear to believe it is, not only would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely take it off its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, but thousands or even millions of Asians and Asian-Americans would be suffering every day from its effects.


Yet Asian chefs and home cooks continue to add MSG to their meals. They are either perverse in their determination to eat the possibly unwholesome ingredient, or they are unconvinced by the nearly hysterical denunciations of it coming from some people in North America and Europe. Given the ubiquity of MSG in highly processed foods that Americans eat and enjoy every day, any real or imagined adverse reaction to it could just as easily be called American Junk Food Syndrome. There is already one name for that, which is Obesity. American food processors discovered around the time of World War II that MSG was a useful flavor booster for otherwise bland or even flavorless foods like canned vegetables and corn snacks. MSG by itself does not encourage obesity, but its overuse in helping to make some rather unpalatable and non nutritious foods delicious does contribute to obesity.

Shavings of Katsuobushi, a preserved and fermented skipjack tuna used in Dashi, the umami broth from which Professor Ikeda first isolated MSG. Photo by Sakurai Midori.

At the same time as food scientists and agribusinesses were discovering how to make cheaply made, highly profitable junk food flavorful, they were also inadvertently taking the flavor out of healthful foods by manipulating them to improve qualities like pest resistance, standing up to shipping, or tolerating being confined on factory farms, all at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Those practices yielded bland, watery supermarket produce, and meats needing seasoning and breading and all sorts of treatments in order to taste like much of anything. It’s not all that mysterious why shoppers, particularly poor ones who can’t afford to seek out higher quality ingredients, turn to highly processed, highly flavorful foods, even at the cost of poor nutrition and cumulative destructive effects on their health.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society talks about the MSG controversy.

In this country, people like to blame the victim. After all, free enterprise and free choice means people don’t have to eat junk, doesn’t it? It’s also useful to have an Other to blame, as in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The sensible thing would be to teach children in schools about moderation in all things, including sprinkling additives on their food. A little bit of MSG on already healthful food gives an umami flavor boost and has not been shown to do harm to the great majority of people who eat it that way. MSG put on every unwholesome, processed food cannot be healthy since the bad effects of poor quality food combine with excessive amounts of this otherwise relatively harmless additive. Enormous amounts of any additive are probably not healthy, not just MSG. School administrators could stress in the curriculum healthful eating instead of allowing vending machines full of snacks, sodas, and sugary fruit drinks in the hallways. In the case of young people at least, free enterprise and free choice should take a back seat to learning healthy habits.
— Izzy


They Went Thataway


Some people have an inordinately difficult time shutting off their smartphones and putting them away. Several entertainers have tried over the past few years to ban the use of phones for recording their concerts, to the point of enlisting the help of a company that makes locking pouches for smartphones. People check their phones into the locking pouches at the door and continue inside with their phones still with them, but unusable. To use their phones during the concert, they must return to the lobby to have the pouch unlocked, and then when they’re done using their phone they repeat the procedure of locking it in the pouch before going back into the theater.


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Ignoring each other, two women check their smartphones. Photo by Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia.

It’s a shame adults have to be treated that way, like children who can’t be relied upon to control selfish behavior even for the few hours of attending a concert where they should recognize the rights of the entertainer giving a performance, as well as their fellow audience members. Experience has shown, however, that simple requests to put away phones are not effective, at least not for an oblivious, thoughtless few. Once those few flout the rules, others are emboldened to do the same. The result is a diminished experience of the concert for some attendees because they are forced to view it through a forest of smartphones held over the heads of others in front of them.

Besides public venues where obsessive use of smartphones can get in the way, there are semi-public areas like classrooms, and private areas such as home dining tables, where phone use diminishes experience. Since some people simply won’t heed the call to shut their phone off, perhaps the locking pouch will be the best answer in those private and semi-public settings as well. Imagine attending a family gathering this holiday season where the various family members actually get together with each other and catch up on news and views. For some families, staring into their respective phones is preferable to talking to each other, but in their cases the phones are not the problem, but a way of ignoring the problem.

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A woman in Japan checks her smartphone. Photo by francisco.castro.

People can use television in a similar way, though it’s more difficult because everyone can view what’s on television, thereby making cause for discussion. Some television viewers try to forestall discussion by turning the volume up to ear-splitting level, making conversation practically impossible. Even at that level of discouragement, television viewing at a family gathering doesn’t entirely isolate individuals to the extent of generalized smartphone use. Add an earpiece attached by a wire or wirelessly, and that person or persons might as well have not attended the gathering at all. Or the family dining table. Or the classroom.

Like the western TV shows and movies where a town institutes a rule that everyone coming into town must leave their guns at the sheriff’s office, conduct their business, and then retrieve their guns upon leaving town, perhaps in the near future it will become standard practice to insist smartphone users check their devices into locking pouches before interacting with others in planned settings like concerts, classrooms, and even family gatherings. When the itch strikes the afflicted smartphone user and he or she simply can’t resist any longer the urge to scratch, that person will have to exit to the lobby or to the outside of the building and, after unlocking their device from its pouch at the door, enjoy a few minutes of sweet relief away from others, like a smoker huddled in a designated area. Those locking pouches could offer the boost that’s needed to bump pervasive, impolite smartphone use into the same territory of social disapproval as smoking in a theater, a classroom, or at the dinner table.
― Techly


Old Before Their Time


The newest model of Apple’s iPhone is due out this month, and for people with deep pockets, or for those who absolutely have to have the latest and greatest from Apple, that’s good news. No doubt it will be an excellent product. But will it be worth the high price tag of $1,000 for a device that will be useful only two or three years before the user discards it? Apple’s smartphones have always been high priced, and they haven’t had any trouble selling them. Apparently enough people think iPhones are worth the high price to keep Apple churning out new models.


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“No Walking Smartphone” sign in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by Connie Ma.

And churn is what it’s all about for the phone manufacturers, who want consumers buying the newest model to replace models that are only one, two, or three years old. It’s not all planned obsolescence, a sneaky plot by the manufacturers, because some of the churn is driven by the pace of changing technology and by consumer’s desire to have the latest and greatest. There are things phone makers have done, however, to make an older model phone prematurely less useful, such as creating barriers to repair by independently operating technicians. So much of the hardware is proprietary and locked down in one way or another by the manufacturer, with parts and service available only from their own very expensive shops, that consumers usually come to the conclusion they might as well buy a new model.

The situation in the electronics industry regarding independent versus factory authorized repair shops is comparable to an automotive repair scene where nearly the only option available to the consumer is the auto dealership because independents have been nearly frozen out by the manufacturer’s practices. The difference is that, unlike with cars, which cost $10,000 or more, many consumers seem to feel that electronics, the prices for which are generally below $1,000, are items better replaced than repaired, considering how the manufacturers have rigged the economics. Smartphone manufacturers in particular have widened and exploited this chink in the market.

Laptop and desktop computers are also sophisticated electronic devices, yet consumers don’t generally feel the need to replace them every two years. They are also more easily repaired or modified by independent agents or by the consumer, by adding higher capacity Random Access Memory (RAM) modules, for instance. The software lasts longer, too, with some users still relying on ten or fifteen year old operating systems, though that can be a dubious proposition for some less technologically savvy users who don’t know how to keep their software’s security up to date. None of these attributes appear to apply to smartphones, even though the frugal consumer will note that higher end smartphones fall in the same price range as the average laptop or desktop computer.

Smartphones by their nature have a small form factor, and that can make it difficult for manufacturers to pack every consumer’s every desire into each new model, at least until technology progresses further. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that between a smartphone’s internal data storage and a fingernail sized card that a user can load into the device, the data storage capacity of smartphones is now in the hundreds of gigabytes, up from several dozen just a few years ago. The computing capacity of these handheld devices now surpasses that of the average laptop or desktop computers available to home users at the beginning of this century. There’s little question then that, dollar for dollar, smartphones are a good value when comparing their computing power and usefulness with laptops and desktops.

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Mobile Relationship, a 2012 cartoon by Manu Cornet.

What is in question is why a smartphone should give a consumer only two or three years of use before needing replacement. That’s an expensive proposition for people who are struggling to meet the mortgage payments on a modest house. Do those people need iPhones instead of other phones that cost two or three hundred dollars? Of course not, especially since some of the high price of Apple products is driven by fashion, not usefulness. Now that many of the telecommunication carriers have adopted up front or installment payments for their phones instead of rolling the price into a monthly plan on a two year contract, effectively hiding the price as far as the consumer was concerned, maybe the question of why that consumer can expect less than half the useful life from a smartphone than from their home computer will come up more often, and if the question is asked by enough buyers, especially if they withhold some of their dollars by skipping this year’s model, then maybe the phone manufacturers will amend some of their questionable practices.
― Techly


I’ll Have the General Tso’s Chicken

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Dove Tree flowers and foliage; photo by Myrabella.
January 28 is the Chinese New Year, which this time is the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese celebrations include an acknowledgement of America’s current influence on their culture, and in reply the Supreme Leader no doubt will wish “Good Luck” to all our Chinese friends, perhaps with a tweet or a cluck. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we look back on Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876-1930) and his accomplishments in bringing hundreds of Chinese plant varieties to Westerners in the early years of the Twentieth Century.


“Chinese” Wilson was English by birth, and he started out on his plant collecting in China on behalf of the English firm of James Veitch & Sons, who primarily sent him to retrieve the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata. Wilson made numerous trips to China, Japan, and other Eastern, African, and Latin American locales over the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century, eventually collecting plants on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. In 1930, he and his wife died in an automobile accident in Worcester, outside of Boston.
E H Wilson
Ernest Henry Wilson
Weiße Königs-Lilie (Lilium regale)
Regal Lily; photo by Pimpinellus.


Wilson sent back to the West a staggering number of plant species, many of which, like Camellia, Magnolia, Azalea, and Crepe Myrtle, while not entirely unknown here before his collection efforts, have become so common since he gathered their multiple varieties that Westerners could be forgiven for thinking they have always been here. Wilson himself was most proud of his discovery in 1907 of the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, on an expedition to the Min River valley in western Sichuan Province, where he paid the high cost of having his right leg broken in two places in a rock slide. He made it out of the wilds safely in three days and recovered, but ever after he walked with a limp.


This New Year of the Rooster it does us good to remember a good man, “Chinese” Wilson, and his positive contributions to the Western world borne of his expeditions to China and the Far East. It’s better still to think of how the Chinese reservoir of plant diversity has enriched our own gardens. And it’s best of all to realize in these difficult times that the influence of Wilson’s good work will over the long run outweigh the tribulations visited upon us by one petulant, puffed-up rooster of a man. The General Tso’s Chicken is good; let’s enjoy that and leave aside for now it’s American variant, Orange Chicken.
― Izzy


Happy New Year!

The award for Malaprop of the Year goes to Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, who criticized a video by the rapper Jay Z which, according to her, depicted members of a crowd “throwing mazel tov cocktails at the police.” Presumably the police needed congratulating for a job well done. A suggestion for ingredients in the new cocktail would be two parts Manischewitz and one part gin over ice, a splash of seltzer, and a slice of lime for garnish.


Some time back another Scott was similarly confused over this Hebrew phrase meaning congratulations, or blessings. Wisconsin Governor Scott “What, me worry?” Walker signed off a letter to a Jewish constituent by writing “Thank you again and Molotov.”


The fireworks in this video are from the “Phoenix” section of the Nagaoka Festival in Japan in early August, commemorating those lost to war and natural disasters. The festival is held every year over three days, with fireworks on the second and third nights. The display is world-renowned, and every year in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation the city of Nagaoka puts on a similar fireworks display in Honolulu at Pearl Harbor. The music in the video is by Ayaka Hirahara, singing her 2003 hit “Jupiter.” The melody is from Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” movement of The Planets suite.


– Ed. 


The Skimmer Scam


Thieves have been using the latest technology to quickly install ever more undetectable credit and debit card skimmers at gas pumps, and even at the card reader inside the gas station. Parts are available cheaply on eBay, and the risks are low while payoffs are high. Installing skimmers on isolated Automated Teller Machines has always been popular with thieves, but now with newer technology that takes mere seconds to install, the greater exposure to detection from passersby at gas pumps over ATMs is not as much of a factor as before. A skimmer placed on a gas pump can offer a larger payoff than an ATM because of the generally higher amount of customer visits.

Diners Club Regular Japan 2016
Diners Club Regular Card with Integrated Circuit, issued in Japan, 2016;
own work by Hitomi

The new smart credit cards, which are the ones embedded with EMV (Europay MasterCard Visa) integrated circuit chips, are far less susceptible to skimming than cards with magnetic stripes only, but while the new cards are rolling out, businesses need to maintain backwards compatibility with magnetic stripe cards, and that makes the United States fertile territory for card skimmers. The United States has also been slower to implement EMV technology than other countries because of the huge cost of replacing all the card readers. It wasn’t until the impetus provided by the high profile Target stores identity theft case in 2013 that US businesses and card providers started moving earnestly toward the new standard. Liability shifts by providers, meaning whether they will reimburse losses by card holders to fraud and identity theft or shift the liability to businesses, are slated to begin for the old magnetic stripe cards in October 2017 generally, although some providers have implemented shifts for some types of card readers as early as October 2015, and other card readers won’t incur a liability shift until October 2020.


One to four years until full implementation of the new EMV-only card readers is an enormous window of opportunity for thieves armed with the latest skimmer technology. Gas station owners are trying the low cost stopgap of applying stickers to the pumps for evidence of tampering, but those can only help detect the installation of internal skimmers. Users of the gas pumps will have to be aware of anomalies at the scanner, the keypad, and the pump generally. They should also be aware that using a debit card is riskier than using a credit card, and to keep a close eye on their card statements for suspicious activity. The surest safeguard, of course, is to pay cash. It might be worthwhile for customers as well as business owners to remember the old saying immortalized by the humorist Jean Shepherd in the title of his 1966 novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
– Techly