Cactus Flower

The Saguaro in the Sonoran Desert continue to be a source of fascination. On our walk this morning, we noticed that some of the mature Saguaro had buds at the top of the plant, and some—like the plant to the right in the photo above—had progressed to the point of producing flowers.

It’s hard to believe that a plant as tough and prickly as a Saguaro could produce such delicate blossoms. It’s just one of the many surprises you find in the desert.

Cactus Flower

The Saguaro in the Sonoran Desert continue to be a source of fascination. On our walk this morning, we noticed that some of the mature Saguaro had buds at the top of the plant, and some—like the plant to the right in the photo above—had progressed to the point of producing flowers.

It’s hard to believe that a plant as tough and prickly as a Saguaro could produce such delicate blossoms. It’s just one of the many surprises you find in the desert.

The Buckeye Browns

I didn’t pay much attention to the NFL draft that happened over the last few days. Like so much else in the modern world, the draft has become so overhyped, puffed up, and glitzed up, anticipated for months with mock drafts and pointless predictions, that it is almost painful to watch. But I’m always interested in seeing who the Cleveland Browns have drafted, in hopes that one of these days the Browns will find the right combination of players to turn this storied franchise into a consistent winner, playoff contender, and–we can only hope–Super Bowl participant.

Yesterday the Browns drafted two Ohio State offensive linemen, Dawand Jones, shown above, and Luke Wypler. In addition, the Browns signed Buckeye defensive backs Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister to undrafted free agent contracts. The foursome will join Buckeye alums Denzel Ward and Tommy Togiai on the Browns’ roster–at least until the training camp cuts begin.

The Browns’ moves yesterday are intriguing. Jones, an offensive tackle, is a man-mountain who stands 6′ 8,” weighs about 350 pounds, and has a tremendous wing span. His enormous size will come in handy in opening holes for Nick Chubb and Browns running backs, but the open question is whether he can develop the quickness and technique to deal with the many speedy edge rushers in today’s NFL. He’ll get a chance work on both of those skills in practice, when he lines up against Myles Garrett. Wypler, a 6′ 3″, 300-pound center, was steady as a rock in the middle of the Ohio State offensive line this past season. I can’t remember him making a bad snap or getting beat on a bull rush.

Neither Jones nor Wypler is expected to be a starter, but they will add depth to the Browns’ offensive line and, we hope, become seasoned pros. Hickman and McCalister, both safeties, showed flashes of NFL-level talents during their Ohio State careers, and the question will be whether they can demonstrate sufficient skills to make the Browns roster.

I like having Ohio State players on the Browns, and enjoy watching players who I followed during their college careers as they move to the professional level. It will be fun to follow these new Buckeye Browns and see whether they can help take the Brownies to the Promised Land.

The Cactus Roost

When the sun sets in Tucson, the birds find a place to roost. Because the landscape doesn’t feature many trees, their landing spot often is the top of one of the saguaros. If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see a bird perching on top of one of totem pole cactus plants, taking a rest from the labors of the day and getting ready for the night.

The Fed Looks In The Mirror

Yesterday the Federal Reserve issued an interesting report on the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank. The most interesting part of the report is its conclusion that the Fed, itself, was partly to blame for the bank’s failure.

To be sure, the report concluded that the primary cause of the downfall of SVB was mismanagement by the bank. SVB had an increasing amount of uninsured deposits–which made it especially prone to the panicky, social media-driven bank run that brought the bank down–and inadequate safeguards against a sudden change in interest rates. The report noted that executive compensation at the bank was tied too closely to short-term profits and the SVB stock price, whereas there were no pay incentives tied to sound risk management and the bank had no chief risk officer during a period when the bank was growing quickly.

But the Fed report also determined that it was partly to blame, too. The report noted that regulators were slow to recognize the problems at SVB and, once those problems were identified, did not effectively press SVB management to change its approach to the issues and lower the bank’s risk profile. A separate report by the FDIC similarly noted that its oversight was not as rigorous as it should have been. According to the Fed report, the passive approach was due in part to recent efforts to loosen regulation of banks, like SVB, with assets of less than $250 billion. As the news article linked above demonstrates, the report is sure to touch off a renewed banking regulation/deregulation debate.

While that never-ending debate rages, the key question to be addressed at this point is: who will be held accountable for the losses sustained by the taxpayer in insuring accounts above the previously identified $250,000 limit and otherwise addressing the rotten fruits of SVB’s mismanagement? The compensation of SVB’s executives soared during the years immediately before the collapse, as the bank followed its risky course, and the bank’s CEO also made millions in SVB stock sales over the past few years. Wil bank officers be required to contribute to cover the losses? And will the regulators who didn’t vigorously push for changes in bank practices after identifying problems keep their jobs?

Mission: Impossible!

A match is struck and flares into flame, lighting a dynamite fuse. Dramatic, high-tension music plays. An unmarked tape is then delivered in a plain brown envelope and placed onto a generic tape recorder and begins to play.

“Good morning, Mr. Phelps.

“A piece of furniture has been delivered to an address. The arrival of new furniture is supposed to be a happy occasion. Regrettably, however, this piece of furniture requires assembly, which inevitably means that the happy occasion will be turned into a time of angst and cursing frustration for the hapless homeowner who must do the assembly.

“The specific assembly involves attaching rocker pieces to the bottom of a rocking chair. The project requires carefully lining up pre-drilled holes in the rocker legs with pre-drilled holes in the bottom of the chair legs, and then attaching the rocker pieces with screws and washers. Given the nature of furniture manufacture, the chances that the pre-drilled holes will readily line up is infinitesimally small. And, because the chair will be upside-down during assembly, the attempted installation of the rocker pieces must occur in a maximally awkward position, further enhancing the irritation level involved in the entire procedure.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: line up the pre-drilled holes and successfully attach the rocker pieces to the bottom of the chair, using only an Allen wrench and the screws and washers provided by the furniture manufacturer and an oversimplified set of instructions.

Mr. Phelps? . . . . Mr. Phelps?”

As the tape bursts into smoke and flame, Mr. Phelps shrugs. Some missions, even Barney isn’t capable of accomplishing.

Graying Out

Scientists believe they have now identified a key cause of gray hair. And, contrary to what your mother told you long ago, the key cause isn’t the misbehavior of children, or worrying about who they might be out with late at night. Instead, it’s primarily caused by cells that have gotten stuck in what used to be their natural cycle.

The scientific study, described in a paper in Nature, focused on melanocytes, a kind of stem cell that produces melanin, which controls hair color as well as eye and skin color. These cells are found in your hair follicles, where they await a protein signal telling them to become mature cells and produce the pigment that is your natural hair color. The melanocytes move around in there, and in different locations they get different protein signals. The study found that over time, however, more and more of the stems cells get stuck in an area called the “hair follicle bulge,” where they aren’t getting the signal to fully mature and produce color. As a result of this and other causes, you get gray hair–that is, hair without color. (Incidentally, other causes of gray hair can include stress, so maybe your mother was right after all.)

The study gives some insight into how science works, because it required the researchers to repeatedly pluck hairs from mice to artificially speed up the “stuck in the hair follicle bulge” status. Presumably, some hapless lab assistant was at work with a magnifying glass and tweezers every day for two years, to perform the minute mouse hair plucking. But their sacrifice in miniature barbering was worth it, because this discovery may allow scientists to figure out how to get the melanocytes out of the bulge and back into their normal rotation, allowing people to recover their natural hair color without resort to Grecian Formula 16.

Based on the condition of my head, I’ve got lots of melanocytes stuck in hair follicle bulges throughout the scalp territory. I hope they are enjoying themselves in there.

Building A Better Mousetrap

It’s a pretty common scenario. You’ve had lunch at a fast food restaurant, eaten your meal, and are getting ready to leave. Because you are a nice, neat person, you go to dump your trash and deposit your tray, only to encounter a disgusting trash bin. Either it’s a bin with a swinging inward door that has been made gross and sticky by people using their full trays to push it open–because no rational person would touch the door with their hand, leaving food waste and leftover soda smeared on the door, or it’s a top-load receptacle that is filled past the rim with wrappers, soda cups, and other untouchables.

The trash deposit issue is one of those things that give fast-food restaurants a bad name.

Yesterday, at a Chick-fil-A in Tucson, we found an ingenious solution to the trash deposit issue. The restaurant had a motion-activated trash can door that swung open as you approached. Even better, the door was tall and wide enough to allow you to put your tray through the door, turn it over to dump the trash, and then remove it–all without having to touch the door or trash can itself. And because Chick-fil-A pays attention to the details and has sufficient staff, even during the height of the lunch hour rush the trash can was empty and not in overflow mode.

It’s nice to know that chains like Chick-fil-A are paying attention to the little details of the fast food experience, and that somewhere out there inventors are continuing to work on building a better mousetrap.

The Professional Hug Quandary

Today I had a professional meeting that involved someone I’ve dealt with for several years now–long enough to raise the awkward “professional hug” question. The Hamlet-like issue is: to hug, or not to hug?

The prevalence of hugging has added a new layer to professional interaction, When do you cross the line between a simple, professional handshake, and one of those one-shoulder, back-patting, professional “hugs”? How long do you need to know someone, and how well, to determine that the “hug” is appropriate? These are questions our parents and grandparents never had to deal with, because in the ’50s, ’60, and ’70s no one hugged someone they were dealing with on a professional level. But those easy-to-understand, clearly delineated standards of conduct days are long gone, and the hug is now firmly established as an appropriate greeting . . . in certain ill-defined circumstances.

The problem is knowing when to dip in for the hug, or to stick the hand out for the shake. And the big challenge is that the decision typically gets made in a split second, without careful advance consideration. You really don’t think about the issue until the greeting is right there before you, and you’ve got to decide. It injects a complication into commercial interaction, and if you are a crappy hugger, as I am, it leaves you wondering when we got to this huggy stage of human interaction.

I, for one, would feel a lot better if hugging was exclusively limited to obviously close friends and family members, and the no one hugged in the commercial context. I doubt that we will ever get back to that point, however. The crappy huggers just have to accept the awkwardness and try to deal with it.

The Birds’ Time

I got up early this morning, just before dawn, to do some work. I sat outside on the porch for our hotel room, cooled by a freshening breeze, and was serenaded by the calls of seemingly dozens of birds making their presence known from the mountainside out into the Oro Valley. The different bird sounds stand out dramatically in the pre-dawn stillness, uninterrupted by the sounds of passing cars or other human-generated noise.

Dawn obviously is the time for desert dwelling birds to exercise their vocal cords. The sounds range from hollow-sounding, owl-like hoots to chittering, piping, warbling, and twittering. The different calls fit well together, producing a combination of sounds that is like a feathered symphony.

Sitting outside on a cool morning and listening to birdsong is a very peaceful way to start the work week.

On The Linda Vista Trail

It was a beautiful day in the Oro Valley yesterday, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the low 80s. After running a number of errands, It was time to get out and get some meaningful exercise. Fortunately, our hotel is close to a very fine trail, reachable after navigating through some parking lots and a Frisbee golf competition and then following a dusty access road to the trail head.

The trail is the Linda Vista trail, which winds through the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area that is part of the Coronado National Forest. The trail runs in a loop that gets you up close to a ridgeline of peaks, shown above, in the Santa Catalina Mountains. All told, the trail is about two-and-a-half miles in length, with lots of switchbacks and elevation changes that take you up and down and around the hills at the base of the ridgeline.

This is a good time of year to be hiking in the desert, if yesterday’s excursion was any indication. Many of the desert plants were in bloom, and there were flowers and splashes of color pretty much everywhere you looked. Even the prickly pear cacti were sprouting delicate flowers, as shown in the photo below–although of course you don’t want to examine them too closely, or you’ll risk ending up with a fistful of needles.

Mother Nature is a bit sparing with her color palette in the desert; she leans heavily on lots of different shades of brown and dusty greens. That just makes the contrast with the, yellows, oranges and reds all the more striking. It helps, too, when the sky is a deep, bright blue, to make the color of the blossoms all the more noticeable. Yesterday’s walk was like an artist’s study of primary colors.

Although it wasn’t brutally hot by Sonoran desert standards, the dusty trail, the dry air, and the elevation changes made the hike some thirsty work. I made sure to bring my trusty bottle of water, and the interesting plants, like the one in the photo below, were a good place to stop and take a much-appreciated swig of liquid while studying Mother Nature’s handiwork.

Of the flowering plants, my favorites were the ones with the bright yellow blossoms, like the one shown below at the foot of a cactus. It would be interesting to learn more about the desert plant life, and particularly how the plants are pollinated. There were no bees along the trail, and no birds, either. The only “wildlife” were a couple of annoying flies who quickly went on their way when I took my ballcap off and waved them away.

To the south, the trail hugs the ridge, and there is nothing but wilderness between the trail and the mountain peaks. To the north is the Oro Valley, which has been the subject of significant development over the past 20 years. The photo below shows the peaks in the distance that constitute the other rim of the Oro Valley. In between the Pusch Ridge area and those peaks there is lots of development. Fortunately, Arizona and the locals have seen fit to preserve some natural areas, like this one, for solitary hikers to enjoy.

Speaking of solitary hikers, I pretty much had the trail to myself in the early afternoon hours. I saw two other people on my hike: an older gentleman who was heading up the trail, in the opposite direction, as I was coming down and a young guy who was actually jogging up and down the trail. I would think jogging on a rock-strewn trail where you had to watch your step would be especially treacherous, but then I’m sure the locals would say I was crazy for hiking during the hottest hours of the day.

The trail continues upward, and brings you close to the spill areas of the ridgeline, where chunks of the peaks have broken off and tumbled down the mountainside. In this area, the saguaro cactus is king and shares its territory with lots of sizeable boulders. In certain areas, the saguaro are so numerous they make up a kind of forest.

At the highest point of the trail you reach the bottom of the slag area and can enjoy up close and personal looks at the mountains. By then, the twisting Linda Vista trail has taken you upward about 300 feet, to a total elevation of about 3,000 feet. When I reached that height, the mountains stood in sharp relief in the bright sunshine, with their ruggedness etched against the blue sky. The pinnacle point of the trail, shown below, also is a good place to enjoy a gulp of water and take in the scenery. Then it is time to turn to the left and follow the trial back down the ridgeline.

The Random Restaurant Tour—LIII

In my 66 years of enjoying life on this planet, I have never been to an In-n-Out Burger—until today.

In-n-Out Burger is one of those regional restaurant chains that achieve almost mythical status in other parts of the country. Residents of the western states who are fans of In-n-Out rave about its burgers, but those of us who lives east of the Mississippi never get to see what the fuss is about. (I imagine people outside of the Cincinnati and Columbus area have this reaction to enthusiastic descriptions of Skyline Chili.). So, when you go to a place where these regional favorites can be found, you’ve to try them.

I liked In-n-Out from the moment I walked in the door. The restaurant was spotless and bustling, and the staff was friendly and actually seemed happy to be on the job. I liked the white uniforms and old-school caps, and after we ordered we sat and watched the employees hustling to fill the orders. The whole ambiance gave off a decided ‘50s vibe, and it seemed legit—not a forced affectation, like you find at some retro burger joints.

Of course, the key to a burger place is not the setting, but the food. I ordered a double-double cheeseburger combo, with fries and a Diet Coke. The burger was very good. It was a tad on the salty side, but full of flavor with high-quality burger meat, thoroughly melted cheese, and lots of onions. The bun was soft and tasty, and the fries came in a reasonable portion size and were crisp and crunchy, All told, the meal was a winner.

I would definitely go back to In-n-Out, but first I’ve got to try Whataburger and Jack In The Box.

The Mountain View

We are out in Tucson for a visit, staying at a hotel in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Yesterday we were out at the pool, with one of the majestic peaks looming directly above and behind the blue water.

Having always lived in flat, landlocked places, I think mountains and oceans are truly wonderful. I seemingly cannot get enough of boats on the water, the tide coming in and going out, or the awesome cragginess of lofty peaks soaring far overhead. And with mountains, there is always a tantalizing question: has anyone ever actually climbed to the top of that thing, and if so how did they do it?

My reaction to mountains and oceans makes me wonder if people are always attracted to the natural features they’ve never experienced growing up in their home territory. Somewhere, are there people who are dazzled by Midwestern farmland and cows enjoying a placid munch of the grass from green fields?