Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saturday afternoon Nina picture

An old picture. She looks so much younger then, no?

Cleve Backster Coda

"Carrot Juice is Murder," by the Arrogant Worms:

Hat tip to CelticRose, who pointed me to this in comments yesterday.

Stay tuned for the Saturday afternoon Nina picture.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cleve Backster Part III: Implication

So far, I've more or less described what Cleve Backster's claims are, with respect to primary perception, and tried to show why they're less impressive than they first sound. This final section is mostly not about Cleve Backster at all, and is instead about the part of Backsterism that I find most interesting: his audience.

See photo-related disclaimer in Part I, if you have not done so already.

Why does primary perception seem to just automatically make sense to so many people? We all know, after all, that in order to have thoughts and perceive the world around us, we have to have a brain and nervous system,1 and even Backster isn't arguing that plants have nervous systems.2 Nor has Backster, or anybody else, proposed any way around this lack-of-a-brain problem: for all of Backster's theorizing about "primary perception," he has yet to propose any actual physical receptor in the plant that receives the signal and leads to the actual physical response, or come up with an idea about what is being transmitted between organisms, or even come up with an explanation for why the electrical conductivity of a leaf should be changing at all. I mean, not that this should all be entirely his responsibility to explain, but he could at least act like the questions are interesting.

And yet: tell a gardener, especially certain flaky-crunchy environmental types of gardeners,3 that plants have feelings and that wanting a plant to do better will cause it to do better, and a lot of them will agree with you and tell you they've observed that very thing. Indeed, they'll find it so obvious as to not even be worth thinking about, except insofar as it means all life is interconnected and Gaia and Nature and isn't it all just so wonderful and amazing? (Everybody else seems to find the interconnectedness of all life so much more profound than I, who was more or less raised on PBS nature specials,4 do.5 Sometimes this bothers me.)

But so anyway. This gut feeling that plants should be responsive, on some deep level, to human thoughts and feelings, and not just any human's thoughts and feelings but our own personal thoughts and feelings, is very common. And who knows, maybe plants are aware of stuff on some level or another. But I contend that from a purely emotional, in-an-ideal-world way, we shouldn't want Backster to be right, and the sorts of people who tend to believe that there is something to primary perception (who are generally the sorts of people who care about others and want people to get along and are empathetic when others have a problem) should want it to be true considerably less than everybody else does.

Why should this idea, of all ideas, be giving anyone warm Gaia fuzzies?6 If Backster is correct, after all, then plants have feelings, and can feel, at minimum, anxiety and pain. He hasn't really even tried, as far as I know, to demonstrate that plants could feel love, or appreciation, or generalized benevolence: the only feelings he's really demonstrated are anxiety and suffering. (In fairness to Backster, those are much easier things to test for.)

So it's all very nice to think that you and your Hoya have a loving, mutually appreciative relationship which makes it grow well. That's easy: you watch out for it, you don't injure it on purpose, you get rid of bugs when you find them. Why wouldn't it love you? But how about your lawn? Your lawn has received years of abuse and mutilation at your hands, and every single one of those mowings hurt. Your lawn, according to Backster's theory, has every reason to hate your guts and want you to die. How are your warm Gaia fuzzies doing now?

And this is not just your lawn; this is everywhere. Everytime you eat a salad, you're eating plants in such abject terror that they're unable to endure the fear without fainting.7 Trimming your yew, taking a pothos cutting, dividing a Hosta, pinching a coleus: in every case, says Backster, not only are you causing pain to another living, feeling being, which would be bad enough, but it knows you're going to do it in advance and consequently gets to helplessly anticipate the pain for several minutes before the actual cutting starts. If you were doing this to a kitten, they'd lock you up. And rightly so.

And there's really very little that human beings do that doesn't have suffering plants at some point in the process. Most of what we eat, wear, pave over, walk on, write on, build with, decorate for Christmas, give one another on Valentine's Day, all of it: soaked in death and pain and fear, according to Backster.8 Sure, go vegan, support animal rights, be against factory-farmed eggs, milk and meat because of the cruelty.9 But you have to eat something, right? And if being against cruelty is your motivation . . . well, best case scenario, you can eat fruit. Period. Maybe.10

So it's really just as well that there's no compelling evidence that Backster's theory is true. Plants probably really don't know what you're thinking, they probably really don't suffer (at least not in the way you do, or even the way a fish would), your lawn is probably not plotting to kill you. And you're probably really not leaving an ever-widening wake of botanical terror and misery behind you with every step you take and breath you draw. So relax already.

I don't imagine that most people consider the universal-suffering angle of it when they're wondering about the emotional life of their plants. Backster himself dwells more on the amazing interconnectedness of all organisms, life energy, and so forth, even though most of his actual experiments are about executions and threats, which now that I think about it is kind of amazing, rhetorically. But it seems to me that there has to be more to the appeal of primary perception than merely people feeling a connection to nature. There are lots of other, less troubling, ways to feel connected to nature, after all. My suspicion is that Backster has accidentally (on purpose?) come up with a theory that satisfies some psychological needs, and that is what keeps this stuff in the public consciousness. Just a guess of mine; I can't prove it's right. But:

Backster's work partly makes intuitive sense to us because it flatters our egos. In the ordinary world, you have a plant, you give it light, fertilizer, and water at the appropriate times, and it grows lush and strong, because that is what it's genetically programmed to do when given those inputs. The plant may be important to you, but you are not necessarily important to the plant. In the world of primary perception, though, you have a plant, you give it light, fertilizer and water at the appropriate times, and it grows lush and strong -- because it loves you. A lot of people don't even get that kind of direct emotional feedback and appreciation from our families, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, etc. So the theory starts out being kind of seductive and emotionally rewarding.

But it gets better, because it only counts in one direction. If you have a plant, and you give it light, fertilizer and water at the appropriate times, and it goes black and dies anyway, nobody is going to tell you the plant died because it found you so repulsive that it would rather die than continue to live with you. Nobody's going to wonder about the mysterious wrongness of your soul that causes plants to blacken and die. Nobody will ascribe the death to the plant's seething rage over being forced into captivity. No, in that case, suddenly everything becomes about stimulus and response: pH, temperature, humidity, pests, etc., and it's not about you in the slightest. So if the plant does well, it loves you, and if it doesn't, well, maybe the air was too dry. You get all the emotional gratification with none of the risk of rejection, and who's not going to at least want to believe that?11

Even besides the obvious emotional appeal of having another organism that cares so much about you that it can literally feel your pain, Backsterism also lets you think that there's another sentient being in the world to whom you are the most important thing in the universe, and allows you to take special credit for perfectly ordinary plant behaviors, like growing.12, 13 As nice as it might be to think that your plant grows only because you share a close emotional bond, which makes you a worthwhile person, wouldn't it also be pretty nice to think that your plant grows because you have skills, knowledge, and all-around competency in plant growing, that makes you a worthwhile person? And the second one of those can actually be verified!

Another factor might be that plants, when compared head-to-apical-meristem14 against people, for my money mostly come out looking better: they're easier to understand, they don't take your stuff without asking and then put it down somewhere else, they don't stop talking to you in order to take a cell phone call from another person, they don't commit genocide or start religious wars, etc. I mean, people are frequently very disappointing, and I have zero blame for anybody who wants to look for alternatives. (I'm not kidding.15)

But anyway.

Because of all this, I feel a little . . . strange, for trying to debunk Backster. I mean, surely this isn't really hurting anybody, right? If it helps some little old lady in Utah feel less alone, is it really so bad for her to think somebody's listening to her when she talks to the plants, or feel loved when her Phalaenopsis flowers? I mean, this is all basically harmless, right?

Well yeah, kind of. Certainly the world has bigger problems to deal with. At the same time, dealing with these bigger problems is going to involve making decisions, and making good decisions does require, minimally, having some kind of grasp on what is actually going on. For example, my opinion on biofuels kind of does depend on whether Backster is right.16 I'm not likely to be the one making that decision for the world, but I would like the people who are to be using the best information available, not just whatever people want to believe or whatever flatters egos. Even at the individual level, these things matter somewhat. It's harmless if our hypothetical lady in Utah believes her plants have feelings, but it's less harmless if some scammer starts selling special water for $25 a gallon that, I don't know, eases plants' suffering, enhances communication between plant and human, or something.17

So here we are at the end. I've more or less convinced myself that if there were something to Backster's work, after 43 years there would be more and better evidence than what he's come up with, which is more or less what I thought when I started out, though at least I have better reasons for thinking this now. You probably didn't change your mind during the course of the posts, either: this is fine with me. What I'd like to do at this point is try to engage people in a conversation about this. If you think I'm being condescending by saying, basically, that I think hard-core Backsterites are all just sad, lonely people trying to validate themselves through their houseplants (not exactly what I was saying, I think, but maybe that's how it sounded), say so. If you have changed your mind, if I brought up a perspective you hadn't considered, if you see a glaring flaw in my logic, you just named your band Warm Gaia Fuzzies, whatever. I thought fairly long and hard about all this, but I know there are perspectives I missed. So please. I invite conversation.


1 Some people, I suppose, would argue that neither of these are strictly necessary, and a soul is sufficient. Ghosts and whatnot. Okay, fine, whatever. Unless you're prepared to argue that plants have souls, though, my point still stands.
2 (or souls, for that matter, unless I misread him)
3 I have nothing against gardeners or environmentalists, though there is a particular section of the gardener / environmentalist / critical thinker Venn diagram that I find sort of especially hard to relate to (here labeled "flakes & suckers").
I mostly reside in the "dumb people who think they're practical" region, though I move around. Occasionally I even totally kick ass. I most emphatically do not mean by this that people in this category, or any of the others for that matter, are necessarily stupid or unpleasant or whatever. People in every spot on this diagram can be totally sweet, viciously nasty, drooling idiots, or brilliant original thinkers, all of which is an entirely different and unrelated Venn diagram.
4 Aside from the occasional brief mention of evolution, or "millions of years," nature specials were one of very, very few categories of TV program that my parents found acceptable. Which I was interested in anyway, probably (in true circular fashion) because I watched nature specials all the time. I eventually got over having a problem with evolution (it helps considerably if you learn what evolution actually is, as opposed to the monstrous strawmana creationists claim it is), but growing up thinking of "Growing Pains" and "Doogie Howser, MD" as forbidden fruit has probably warped me in ways I'm not even aware of.
     a (Monstrous Strawman = Band Name Alert!)
5 Well of course life is all interconnected. We all share common ancestors, so we have certain biological similarities in common, and we all live on the same planet, in a complex ecological web, so we are critically interdependent on some/most/all of these other species as well. That anybody could find this mind-blowing, rather than just obvious, sort of baffles me, but then, I was watching National Geographic specials about the Serengeti while you were watching "Miami Vice," so my perspective on these things is odd.
6 (Warm Gaia Fuzzies = Band name alert!)
7 Well, "fainting" is Backster's word for it. I would suggest "coma," or maybe "the sort of pain that knocks you unconscious" as more accurate, considering the scale of the trauma we're talking about.
8 Backster never comes right out and says this, of course. In fact, it's hard to find acknowledgment, in his book, that he's deliberately inflicting pain, suffering or death on one organism in order to measure the responses of another, even though his theory is pretty clear that this is what has to be happening. I don't have a problem with somebody making a career out of torturing plants and yogurt, because I don't believe that plants and yogurt can suffer, but Backster does, or at least claims to, and manages to justify it to himself somehow. This is not right, y'all. I mean, better this than kittens (there's much less doubt that kittens are capable of suffering), and it should be noted that I don't get the impression that Backster is a mean or cruel person in general: quite the opposite, if anything. But there's still something really off about a man who can make a career out of what he believes to be torture and execution and not see any problem with that.
9 Not that you asked, but: I am not a vegan, nor have I ever been, though the husband has (not at the moment, but I think he'd still count as ovo-lacto, or maybe just lacto, presently), and as a result I eat a lot less meat and fish than I used to. All of the good arguments are on the side of the vegetarians (environmental, animal cruelty, nutritional, etc.), and I don't really dispute any of this. But I also still drink a lot of milk, and it's not even the good kind of milk from free-range hippie cows who stand around and sing all day in idyllic meadows until it's time to be milked by gentle hippie milkmaids of all ethnicities and genders who play the autoharp and paint one another with henna tattoos all day while the cows are singing, but eeeeevil factory milk that's probably full of bovine growth hormone and tobacco by-products and asbestos and is extracted by machines operated by slack-jawed men who burn tires for entertainment and can't spell and wear clip-on striped ties with plaid shirts.
Because, apparently, I am a bad person.
Or maybe I just really like milk and really dislike spending money.
But that probably also makes me a bad person.
10 I'm assuming that fruit would be okay because the whole point of fruit is to "pay" animals for dispersing and fertilizing seeds; therefore it wouldn't make much sense for the plant to consider it painful. Though with seedless varieties of grapes, watermelon, bananas, oranges, etc., there's a different problem: eating seedless fruits would be exploitation, because you're receiving the payment for a service you're not providing, and that's damaging to the plant's dignity. So seeded varieties only, and then only if you plant the seeds afterwards. Preferably while surrounded by hennaed milkmaidsa, with autoharp accompaniment.
     a (The Hennaed Milkmaids = Band Name Alert!)
11 Even I would like to believe my plants love me, and that I'm important and appreciated. It sounds nice. It's less appealing to think that the lawn wants me dead, that each plant that's died in my care meant it as a gigantic "fuck you," and that the plants I've thrown out due to mealybugs have been cursing my name all the way to the landfill, but sure, it would be nice to be able to think that the plants spend as much time thinking about how to make me happy as I do thinking about how to make them happy.
12 Hey, your Streptocarpus bloomed. That's pretty awesome, it must think you're a wonderful person. Of course, millions of Streptocarpuses that never met you and have no idea who you are have also bloomed. And the flowers might mean that the plant is making a last-ditch effort to reproduce and pass on its genes before it is consigned to oblivion (some plants really do do this; I'm not making it up) due to your shitty care, and you're actually a horrible caretaker of plants. It's risky, trying to get your personal affirmations from plants. Of course, people aren't so great for that kind of thing either.
13 Curiously, both of these things (being at the center of someone else's universe and taking exceptional credit for nonexceptional growth and development) are also generally involved in having a baby. As far as I can remember from the book, Backster never mentions having kids, and I don't think I even remember him saying anything about getting married, either, though I'm less sure about that. Google searches reveal no wife or children either. Coincidence? Sure, very possibly. But maybe not: he would hardly be the first person to invent a child substitute, if indeed that is what's going on. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily, so long as you remain aware that your substitute is not an actual child. Some people do have trouble remembering this. Watch "Dog Whisperer.")
14 (apical meristem = growing tip)
15 (I realize it can sometimes be difficult to tell.)
16 Perhaps not the best example, since biofuels are sort of problematic anyway: they don't increase atmospheric CO2, but they don't do anything to decrease it either: ideally, whatever energy source we come up with should reduce CO2 levels. They're also not great from an air pollution standpoint, from what I hear. So I'm probably against them to some degree either way. But you know what I mean.
17 (Maybe some kind of anesthetic for taking cuttings? The skeevy, predatory part of my mind that comes up with scams is unable to come up with any very good ideas, which is unusual, since I'm usually frighteningly good at coming up with that kind of thing. But whatever. It doesn't matter: I know there's money in primary perception somewhere, for anyone who's sufficiently unethical.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pretty picture: Lilium x 'Tiny Ghost'

Another short post to give everybody time to catch up.

Advanced students may wish to check out this .pdf file, which location was mailed to me last night by David, a PATSP reader and contributor at Kitchen and Residential Design, and which is a copy of Backster's original publication in the Winter 1968 International Journal of Parapsychology. Overall, I feel like I understand the experiment better, and I'm not inclined to retract anything from the posts so far. For example, I was kind of startled to realize that the original paper is based on only seven runs of the Brine Shrimp Boilatron (my name for it). He did use three sets of electrodes on each plant, for the seven runs, resulting in 21 graphs. He does report better results than chance, but of course he also threw out eight of those graphs for one reason or another, which seems like a lot to be disregarding, and for stupid reasons.

Anyway. Read it yourself if you like. Or don't. Either way, I don't find myself wanting to take back anything I said in the earlier posts. On the one hand, his results are better than random chance (once he throws a large chunk of them out), but on the other, there's not a lot of data being considered, either. Considering the magnitude of what he claims is happening, I was kind of expecting better. Or at least more. I still wouldn't mind trying it for myself, though.

Meanwhile, I have an extra day to try to figure out Cleve Backster Part III. I have a complete post written, so it's not that the post is unfinished. It's just the kind of finished where I might decide at 9 PM tonight that two-thirds of it needs to be thrown out and re-written. Part III has been kind of problematic throughout the whole writing process; anything could still happen.

I will be glad when Cleve Backster and I are allowed to see other people.

Anyway. Onward, to the lily. Saw this in Cedar Rapids a couple weeks ago, at Frontier Garden Center. There were several other varieties there, but this was my favorite. The picture, sadly, doesn't really do it justice.

The timing seemed weird, though: it looked like they'd just gotten a bunch of these in. (Lowe's, too, a few days ago when the husband and I were there.) They were all really pristine and brand new. But isn't it too late for Asiatic lilies? Or is this when you're supposed to plant them?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cleve Backster Part II: Deconstruction

So in Monday's post about Cleve Backster, I tried to lay out more or less the claims Backster makes about what he observed. I was a little snarky in the process, but I don't think I fundamentally misrepresented anything he said: I basically gave a super-condensed version of what he claims between pages 21 and 50, with bits and pieces from other parts of the book and a little bit of snark for seasoning.

This is the part where I really have it in for Backster.

See photo-related disclaimer in Part I, if you have not done so already.

I want to be really clear before I start that I am not arguing that plants aren't incredible organisms, or that we already know everything important about them, or that incredible claims about them are necessarily always false. This, after all, is why many of us like plants: they are complex, mysterious, and surprising. And we're still discovering new and cool things about them all the time. For example, the parasitic plant dodder has recently been shown to be able to "smell" victims nearby and preferentially grow in their direction. This, like primary perception, is a type of perception by plants that we weren't aware of until recently. The reason why dodder being able to smell is science and primary perception is not is that the dodder stuff is supported by experimental evidence, and there are obvious ways in which it can work.1 Backster doesn't have particularly good evidence, and has basically no theory at all.2

I don't really have a problem with Backster's story about the original experiment with the Dracaena in his office. I suppose his account may have been somewhat polished from the original event, which is what happens when you tell the same story over and over, but I am, overall, perfectly happy to assume that he really did hook the plant up, and it really did react in the ways he says it did, and at the times it did. It helps that he includes images in his book of the original polygraph graphs: yes, I have to take his word for it that these are, in fact, the original graphs, because I wouldn't know the difference and have no way to prove otherwise, but even so, I'm okay with accepting his word for it.

The point where I begin to have an issue is the part where Backster starts interpreting his results. In a human, remember, polygraphs work because sweaty hands conduct electricity better than dry hands, and people who are anxious or scared tend to get sweaty hands, so there's a fairly straightforward connection between anxiety and changes in conductance.

In a plant, though, it's not clear why conductance of a leaf would be related to the plant's emotional state (and bear in mind that Backster did not, on February 2, 1966, have any reason to believe that plants even had emotional states) in the same way. I mean, perhaps plants do respond to stress by pumping additional water to their extremities, anticipating that extra water will be needed to keep the plant cool when someone is waving a match underneath it, for example, in which case it would make sense for plants to have polygraph conductance traces similar to those of humans. But it makes just as much sense, or more, to think that a plant that thought it was going to be burnt might pull water away from its extremities, to conserve water and lose as little as possible to the fire, in which case the plant's graph would be exactly the opposite of that of a human's.

But Backster jumps to the conclusion that plant graphs can be interpreted in exactly the same way, that plants and humans are emotionally similar in all important aspects. It was his job, and maybe it's natural to make that assumption, but it's been 43 years now, and I have yet to run across anything indicating that Backster even knows there would be a question. So his results are not as impressive as they might be. I mean, how surprised am I supposed to be that you find evidence of humanlike emotions in plants using a polygraph, when you assume that every trace a plant makes on a polygraph is evidence of its humanlike emotions?

And there's a broader problem, too. When it comes right down to it, I'm not sure people can ever really grasp what being a plant is like well enough to understand their emotions, should they have any. Our experiences are too different. We have to eat; they photosynthesize.3 We move around; they stay in one place. We think butterflies are pretty but basically inconsequential; to a plant, a butterfly represents potential caterpillars, which will dismember and eat it. Bees can hurt and occasionally kill us, but to plants, they're reproductive contractors. So it's at the very least lazy to just assume that they have the same feelings and perspective as we do. The fact that Backster can come up with a story that explains plants in human terms does not mean that his story is right.4 It could easily be possible that if plants are picking up on the death of human cells during a person's urination, they could be happy about it, not upset about the death, as Backster would have it. (Why would they have any reason to care one way or the other? We don't even care if our cells are being lost in our urine stream, and they're our cells.)

It's also sort of interesting to me that Backster had just watered the plant, and was, when he set the electrodes on the leaf, expecting to see a dramatic change in conductivity when the water reached the leaf tip, and yet when such a dramatic increase actually occurred, he assumed that he had done it to the plant by thinking about burning it. It's unclear why he forgot about his original plan between the watering and the burning, but it is, perhaps, telling that his first impulse was to make it all about himself:5 ohmygod I'm controlling the plant with my brain!

After that, it all kind of devolves into self-contradiction. He says on page 29 that plants can tell the difference between actual intent to harm them and feigned intent to harm, but on page 26, he tells us that his Dracaena reacted to his colleague's threats repeatedly and consistently even though Backster prevented the colleague from acting on any of them. Unless we're to understand that Backster physically threw himself between the colleague and the plant (repeatedly and consistently!), I have to assume that we're talking about the colleague being instructed to think threatening things at the plant that he had no intention of acting upon, i.e., pretending.

Backster also talks about plant territoriality on page 30, and how the plant won't necessarily react to something happening near itself if it doesn't consider the something part of its territory. On page 48, he's criticizing the real scientists who failed to duplicate his experiments for thinking "you could go to the other side of the wall and watch the experiment unfold through closed-circuit television." Their results failed, he says, because the wall "meant nothing as far as the plant-to-human attunement was concerned." But walls are understood to delineate territories, eighteen pages earlier in the book. So which is it? Will plants react to stuff outside of their territory or won't they?

On page 50, Backster is cautioning experimenters who would duplicate his results from attempting to do so when "noise, visitors, or even a phone conversation" are going on in the area. On 49, he tells the same experimenters it matters a great deal if the plant intended for use has "already been in the lab for more than an hour or two prior to being used in the experiment," because of attunement issues for the people around it. By page 52, he's ripping ivy off the outside wall of a Yale University dormitory, ivy which surely had been there longer than the students living in it had, and examining its conductive responses while some unspecified number of grad students chase a spider around the room. Perhaps the word has changed meanings, but last I knew, dormitories were where students lived, and there was always something going on in them. I mean, if a phone call counts, then it seems like a dormitory would be one of the very last places one would want to set up such an experiment, and certainly it would be a bad idea to use ivy that had been there for considerably more than an hour or two.6

He's also inconsistent about whether or not having a plant attuned to you is a bad thing. If you're trying to get reproducible results, he says, you have to have someone else buy the plant, and put it in a totally separate part of the building, only bringing it into the experimental area immediately before the experiment is to begin, or else it will be attuned more closely to the people nearby and you'll get readings of the people's feelings, not whatever it is you're trying to measure, boiling brine shrimp or whatever. But this is very silly. I mean, seriously, if we could get a plant to consistently respond to strong emotion and unexpressed threats from a human being, in a measurable way, we already have big news. Fuck the brine shrimp. Who even cares whether the plant is interested in the brine shrimp or not: we have OMFG plants that can read minds here. This whole attunement-to-human-caretakers thing appears to be something that Backster just pulls out of his ass to explain why sometimes he doesn't get the results he wants.

And aaallllllso, I take a little bit of offense to the notion that a plant that's just been purchased is a blank slate, as far as attunement to people. When I was working at the greenhouse, I pulled Bryophyllum daigremontianum and Oxalis sprouts out of pots of cactus with tweezers. I hand-washed both sides of every leaf of every Aglaonema in the store (more than once!) to remove black mold from the leaves. I cut dead tips off of seven-foot palms, every tip of every frond. I went over cacti with Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol to remove scale. I wiped the scary gray water/fertilizer/pesticide/dust residue off a four-foot Fortunella once, every tiny little crusty leaf of it, and I started gods know how many seedlings and cuttings and whatever that owed their very existence as an independent plant to me. If plants and people can bond, then those plants and I were bonded, motherfucker, and if experimenters washing leaves with distilled water before an experiment is enough of a bond to invalidate the results, then I bet you a million dollars that none of Backster's experiments ever had a valid result, whether they were stored in a broom closet elsewhere in the building before the experiment or not, because whatever he thought he was seeing was just the plants reacting to the emotions of the florist or garden store employee or whoever in the place they bought the plants from.7

So many of the things Backster's theory "predicts" cut both ways. You have a room full of people eating salad, and you hook electrodes up to a piece of lettuce sitting on your plate. If it registers low conductivity, that's just what the theory predicts: it's gone into shock from all the carnage going on around it. If it registers high conductivity, that's also what the theory predicts: it's agitated by all the carnage going on around it. If you have a brine shrimp experiment set up somewhere and the plant reacts when the brine shrimp get dumped into the water, that's just what the theory predicts: the plant is feeling bad for the brine shrimp. But if the same experiment is giving you results you don't like, well, that's also just what the theory predicts: the plant is responding to one of the many people it's been in contact with before or during the experiment. This is a sign of a bad theory, and even worse science.

And again, not to wail on this wet, vaguely horse-shaped spot on the pavement or anything, but it would actually be a total game-changer in the scientific world if Backster could satisfactorily demonstrate that plants react to people. The brine shrimp thing is his attempt to design an experiment that is entirely external, where he has something more concrete to go on than just his own report that he thought something, which is hard to prove, obviously, and wouldn't be considered very good evidence. But I can think of experiments involving people that would prove human-plant interactions that wouldn't require this kind of self-reporting, and I've only been thinking about this for a couple months.8 Backster's had what, forty years?

And in fact a lot of Backster's stuff works that way. There are too many possible excuses for not seeing the results his theory says you should see, and if all else fails, he can always fall back on the old Mother Nature won't jump through hoops for you because Nature is mysterious and bigger than our comprehension excuse.

Which is, by the way, total bullshit. Every time you drop the ball, it's going to fall toward the ground. Ten times in a row, a hundred times in a row, a thousand times -- always. Every time you combine sodium and chlorine at room temperature, you're going to get an explosive reaction and wind up with salt all over the place. Every time you heat ice up to 32F/0C, it's going to start turning to water. Nature jumps through hoops just fine: that's what science is, is determining which hoops Nature is going to jump through, and in what order, well enough to be able to make predictions about it.

Now, biology is sometimes less straightforward than those examples,9 but it works pretty much the same way. When you dissect a frog, you're going to find the same organs, in the same places, performing the same jobs, as when you dissect any other frog. If you split up a stretch of double-stranded DNA into its component bases, you're going to find that you wind up with the same number of adenine molecules as you do thymine molecules, and the same number of cytosine and guanine. There are principles of biology that work consistently between organisms and between individuals of the same species; that's what makes it a science.

I was initially kind of discouraged when I looked at Backster's book, because some of the stuff that I'd called him out on in earlier drafts seemed to sort of be addressed in the book, but as I looked at it longer, it turns out that it's really not. He still doesn't seem to understand constructing experiments in such a way that they could disprove your theories. (It's not entirely clear that he has a good enough handle on his theory to know what it predicts in the first place, and a theory with no predictive power is a theory that can't be invalidated. So.) He asserts things a lot (that he's constructing experiments with proper scientific controls in place, that lab visitors are routinely just blown away by how awesome the experiment they saw is) without ever providing much in the way of details. (Who visited the lab? On what day? How are they qualified to assess what they saw? What, specifically, did they have to say about what they saw? What would I need in order to duplicate this experiment elsewhere? What kind of scientific controls? Etc.) It's true, yes, that if you take Backster's word for what he's done and seen, then he's achieved something monumentally impressive.

But this is science: we don't have to take him at his word, because we can do the same thing ourselves. The ball always falls to the ground no matter who drops it. That other people appear to have difficulty in getting the same results Backster has, and that Backster doesn't give you the raw data for any of the experiments,10 suggests to me, at least, that this is probably not to be taken seriously.

Really, what I would like would be to have my own equipment, to be able to conduct my own experiments. I don't feel urgently compelled to try to duplicate Backster's experiments anyway, of course. But I sort of feel like I can't be sure it's crap until I've tried it for myself. I want to see the set-up and the results and draw my own conclusions. This is unlikely: polygraphs are expensive, and possibly even slightly rare, now, plus you have to have reams of paper to feed into them, which is not cheap. (I assume by now that someone has found a way to digitize the results, but reproducing Backster's experiments would also, in an ideal world, involve reproducing Backster's equipment.)

At this point, given the evidence as he presents it in the book, the best I could say for primary perception is that Backster has a long ways to go before he has a coherent and testable theory. If he's going to use them as excuses why people aren't getting the results he thinks they should, then he needs to define things like "territoriality" and "attunement." He also needs to refine his theory to the point where it doesn't predict every possible outcome at once, and he needs to stop whining about his persecution at the hands of the scientific establishment and learn what it means to have proper scientific controls on an experiment. (Hint: it is not enough to assert in your book that you were using proper scientific controls. You must actually design experiments which include them.) Until these things happen, only two groups of people have any reason to think that Backster's got something here: one, Backster and the other people whose livelihood depends on promoting his idea of primary perception, and two, people who for whatever reason have decided that they really want to believe him and don't care whether the science backs him up or not.

It's to this second group of people, the ones who want to believe, that we turn for part three of the Cleve Backster series, which is coming up on Friday.


1 You can smell a tomato plant by taking molecules it produces into your nose and interpreting this as "tomato." Dodder, presumably, does the same thing, except that we're talking about molecules entering its stem through pores instead of molecules entering your nose through nostrils. We may be eventually find ourselves surprised again, once this phenomenon has been studied some more, but at the very least, for right now, we've got a fairly reasonable-sounding theory that doesn't hinge on the breakage of existing physical laws in order to work.
2 Naming something is not the same as explaining it. Though "primary perception" sounds like it could be a theory, Backster may as well use the word "magic," for all the fleshing-out of the theory he does. And, n.b., "magic" is never an acceptable scientific explanation for anything. (If it were, science would be much easier.) The more time I've spent thinking about Cleve Backster and his experiments, the more disturbing I find it that he's not working harder at finding an explanation for what he's claiming to see.
He does, at one point, try running some experiments with plants in copper cages, and in special rooms built to eliminate electromagnetic interference of all kinds. All he demonstrates by doing so is that whatever is going on, it is not blocked by copper cages and special rooms. This still qualifies as science, kinda, because proving that something is not happening is still a way of closing in on whatever actually is happening. But it comes off as kind of half-assed: he's proposing a method of communication between species not previously known to communicate, one of which doesn't really even have any sense organs that could receive such a signal (as far as we know) and the other of which doesn't have any ways of communicating that don't involve sound or electromagnetism (neither of which are observed coming from the humans in the tests), that works just as well across long distances (oh yeah -- one of the claims is that cells taken from a person still react to that person's feelings when they've flown 300 miles away.), and would basically rewrite physics as we know it . . . and he's over here dinking around with chicken eggs and brine shrimp? Obviously I can't prove what Backster knows or doesn't know, but this behavior is so unusual for a scientist that I can't help but wonder whether Backster isn't dimly, subconsciously aware that there's something wrong with his theory and/or experiments.
3 Fertilizer is not enough like food for the two things to be parallel. For one thing, the bulk of a plant's weight comes from water and carbon dioxide, not nitrogen or the other components of fertilizer. Fertilizer is necessary, sure, but it's not what the plant is really made of, not in the same sense that human beings are made of food. You'd have a better argument for saying that water and carbon dioxide are the plant equivalent of food.
4 (And I remind the reader that I know a little something about explaining plants in human terms, okay)
5 One does get the impression, from reading through his introduction, that he thinks that the world revolves around himself to a substantial extent, to the point where that's not especially out of character. We all do this to some degree, and I'm not saying that it makes him a bad person, but he comes across as being sort of singularly unable to see beyond his particular perspective on things. This tendency is bad enough that I question whether he understands why scientists have problems with his work: when he talks about it, he postures as someone who is being unjustly persecuted for no good reason by the botanical establishment. I.e., it's not that his results are unconvincing, it's that they're so amazing that he's going to overturn the entire field of botany, and everybody else is threatened by him, Cleve Backster, the guy who discovered primary perception. (Which is obviously ridiculous, since as we all know deep down in our hearts, even if we won't admit it openly, the world actually revolves around me, Mr. Subjunctive, the guy who singlehandedly overthrew Backsterism and saved all of the life sciences from utter destruction.) We'll revisit human egocentrism again in Part III, in a different context.
6 One could argue, and no doubt Backster would, that this is totally different because the ivy wasn't being cared for by any of the students, it just happened to live near them, and was no doubt territorial about the outside of the building, rather than the inside, which would have been a whole new world for the plant, but even so, it's probably best not to argue this on page 49 when you just said on page 48 that you couldn't just go to the other side of a wall to watch an experiment unfold. I mean, either walls matter all the time, walls matter none of the time, or walls matter or don't matter according to certain predictable rules and principles, and Backster never lays out any such rules, so. . . .
7 And fuck you anyway, Cleve Backster, for implying that the growers and florists and greenhouse workers don't matter to the plants, don't bond with the plants, don't care about the plants. I've got a Big Damn Screw Pine who says differently, and he will fuck you up, motherfucker.
8 Experimental set-up #1: Three plants in a room with one cigarette lighter. Each plant is hooked, by two different leaves, to two sets of electrodes. Each electrode's readings are being recorded continuously, giving you six continuous graphs. Twenty undergrad volunteers in a building across campus, who have never been anywhere near these plants, are instructed to go, one at a time, to the room with the plants, pick up the lighter, and use it to lightly burn a non-electroded leaf of one and only one of the three plants (the students will decide spontaneously which plant to burn when they get inside the room) and then leave. For Backster to be correct, 1) the duplicate electrodes on each plant should give readings which are very correlated with one another; the graph from Plant #1, Electrode #1, should agree with the graph from Plant #1, Electrode #2. 2a) Either one plant at a time should give strong reactions, and the reactions should start before the student picks up the lighter, or 2b) all three of the plants should give strong reactions at the same times due to mutual sympathies among the group. If the duplicate electrodes are not giving similar responses at all times, this sort of undercuts Backster's claim that he's measuring anything meaningful (because you could make the claim that for any of his "successful" experiments, he'd have gotten completely different results if he had had the electrodes on a different leaf), and if the plants do not react solely according to which one is threatened or entirely in unison with one another, then it undercuts the claim that they know when they're being threatened and/or know when harm is coming to another organism in the same room.
Experimental set-up #2: A single plant, highly attuned to Backster, is connected to two sets of electrodes as in the first experiment above, and is monitored for a 16-hour period, from 6 AM to 10 PM, during which time Backster is not permitted to go anywhere near either the plants or the recording equipment. Backster, meanwhile, records his own day during the same 16-hour period, noting when he feels strong feelings or whatever. At the end of that day, a four-hour excerpt of both electrodes' graphs, beginning at a randomly-selected time between 6 AM and 6 PM, is presented to Backster without any time cues, and he is given the job of determining what part of the day this four-hour section came from to an accuracy of within fifteen minutes. As before, it's relevant whether the electrode pairs get similar graphs, but it's more important whether Backster's interpretations of the graphs only work when he already knows the answers he's trying to get, or whether he can actually deduce anything about what's going on from them.
If both of these experiments were performed as described, and the results conformed to Backster's predictions, then I might be more willing to accept that there's something going on. As it is, I think he's coming up with the predictions after he sees the experiment, which is a lot less impressive. I can make predictions of all kinds of crazy shit after it happens.
9 And as far as it goes, those examples aren't as straightforward as they look, either: Newton's understanding of gravity works consistently under normal earth-bound conditions, but there are situations where general relativity is required to explain what's going on, too. Chemical reactions generally produce the same products, but sometimes you get products you weren't expecting or don't want (though I don't think that's possible for sodium + chlorine). Ice melts into water, though by changing the pressure it's under you can make it stay solid at higher temperatures, or turn it directly to steam. All of this is totally reproducible, and illustrates additional laws and additional principles which can be applied to other situations and make predictions about what's going to happen when completely new things are attempted; i.e., they're not random wild deviations from Mother Nature refusing to jump through hoops, they're big flashing signs telling you there are more hoops than you were initially aware of.
10 (In some cases, he does provide the paper polygraph traces, though you have to take his word for it that things happened at the points he has marked on the paper, that the timing of everything is what he's claiming it to be. He never tells you how many times he runs the same experiment, how many times things fail to happen as predicted, what happens when the experimental conditions are changed slightly, etc.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pretty picture: Tillandsia NOID flowers

Just a quick pretty picture post so that anybody who hasn't finished Cleve Backster Part I has a little more time to do so.

I realize that this presupposes that everyone will want to read part I. I don't want to suggest that you should have to if you don't want to.

I mean, you should, but I don't want to suggest that: I'd rather state it outright.

Anyway. I originally typed "Cleve Backster Party," above, which is a concept I would like to explore further. What would a Cleve Backster Party be like? What would you wear? What food would be served? What music would be played? Etc.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cleve Backster Part I: Introduction

I have been trying, for something like the last eight or nine weeks, to write one or more blog posts about Cleve Backster, the man who, in 1966, hooked up a Dracaena fragrans to a polygraph machine and concluded that not only do plants all have feelings, they're also all mildly psychic. Backster was later featured in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, which a lot of us will have heard of or possibly even read, because that's the sort of thing you do when you're a plant obsessive, and I know a good chunk of my readership is composed of plant obsessives.

All three of the Cleve Backster posts will include pictures of Portulaca flowers, because Portulaca flowers are pretty and I have a lot of pictures of them. I do not, in so doing, mean to suggest that Portulaca is somehow more relevant to Backster or his claims than any other plant. The majority of these flowers will be from 'Tequila Mix,' though there are a couple 'Sundial Mix' and at least one NOID mixed in.

I wanted to write about Backster and his claims because I strongly suspected, just from the sound of them, that they were bullshit, plus they were plant-related, and about anthropomorphizing plants, which if anybody is qualified to talk about plant anthropomorphization, I think it's me. I originally wasted thousands of perfectly good pixels writing a rebuttal to an interview with Backster from 1997 (the interview is on-line and you can find it if you look; I'm not going to link to it), only to find, through the magic of Interlibrary Loan, that most of my criticisms had been addressed by Backster in a book he published in 2003 (Primary Perception, White Rose Millennium Press, Anza, CA, 2003) and I had to write the whole thing over again.

My criticisms weren't addressed in the sense that Backster provides a lot of meaningful information about his claims and the evidence for them, but they were addressed in the sense that he acknowledges in the book that a lot of what he's described turns out not to work so well in other people's labs, and he goes into more detail about what he's done and what he thinks it means. Backster also has explanations for why other people can't duplicate his results, which explanations sound a hell of a lot like stuff that you just make up off the top of your head when somebody catches you spreading bullshit, but of course I can't prove that that's what he's doing.

It also turns out that in order to present a fair account of what Backster's claims are and why I think they're bunk, a lot of time has to be spent nailing down exactly what the claims are, and I wasn't sure that I had it in me to do that, or that my readers would have enough patience to read it all. So I considered throwing the whole idea out and moving on.

The problem is, though, that Backster's claims, and the willingness of people to believe them, really bother me. Like, above and beyond my normal irritation with bad science, to the point where I started to suspect that the irritation meant something about me, people in general, or both. So I've decided to put my head down and try to charge through all this one last time, and if this doesn't work out, I give up. The stuff that bothers me, we'll try to work out in Part III.


[deep breath]

The story of the "discovery" of primary perception1 has Backster working in his office early one morning. He was, at the time, running a school for the training of polygraph ("lie detector") operators, something he'd done for the CIA for some period previously.2 He watered a Dracaena fragrans3 and was seized by the question of whether or not he could determine when the water reached the leaves using the electrical-conductance part of the polygraph, which is ordinarily used to measure the sweatiness of a subject's palms.

This is not, on the face of it, a particularly silly thing to wonder, nor a particularly silly way to find out. I have no idea whether or not one can find this out using electrodes like Backster had, because he (understandably) seems to forget the question once the plant starts reading his mind, but it stands to reason that the conductance would change when the leaf's hydration level changed, so, you know, whatever. And obviously he had a polygraph right there to test with, because he was running a polygraph training school. So this much of the story all checks out.

What he found when he hooked up the leaf to the polygraph was that the graph sort of slowly trended downward, which I infer means slowly increasing electrical resistance (the same as decreasing electrical conductance). And here's where he starts to go off the rails a little: he notes that in a human subject, this sort of graph would indicate boredom.

So he decides to try to make the plant interested in what's going on. First, he dunks a leaf in some hot coffee. No response from the plant. And Backster is pondering, and thinking, and suddenly gets the idea to burn one of the leaves with a match, at which point the polygraph needle starts to go wild.

Backster is careful to note at this point in the text that he was nowhere near the plant at that moment (fifteen feet away, he says) and there were no other people in the building at that time (it being between 7 and 8 AM), and the only thing that changed was that he had the idea to burn the plant.

Despite the plant being, apparently, in the plant-equivalent of abject terror and panic, Backster goes ahead and fetches a match from another room. While he's doing so, the plant calms down to about halfway between it's earlier, "bored" conductance and it's more recent "freaking the hell out" conductance,4 but then he comes back in and lights the match and burnt the tip of a different leaf (i.e., not the one with the electrodes on it), which elicits the desired "oh god oh god I am being burned alive" response from the plant.

He later showed a colleague (who would eventually become his business partner) the trick, but wouldn't let the colleague hurt the plant, he says. The plant also reacted to the mental threats from the colleague.

Subsequent experimentation refines and elaborates this effect. Backster learns that the plants can tell the difference between a human intending to do something and merely pretending to intend, thereby making houseplants smarter than virtually all dogs, and an awful lot of children.5 He finds that plants are "territorial," in the sense that they don't notice or feel everything that happens everywhere, but only stuff in the space they have decided belongs to them, and only among the humans and animals they have decided are relevant to their interests. So for example, a plant at one end of a thirty-foot hallway might respond to a person at the opposite end, thirty feet away, but wouldn't necessarily respond to a person on the other side of the wall, only two feet away, if the plant only considers the hallway to be its territory.

Plants, Backster finds, also attune themselves to the emotions of the people around them, particularly the individual who cares for them. If you water a plant every day,6 says Backster, however routine it may be to you, the plant knows that you're you and will preferentially feel emotions relating to you. So, for example, if you go a couple blocks away and get hammered in a bar and get yourself into a bar fight, the plant, two blocks away, will also register strong emotions relating to you being thrown across a pool table or what have you. Readers who are thinking, at this point, hey, wait a minute! You just said they don't notice anything outside of their particular territory! are correct: Backster says both things, in rapid succession, on pages 30-33 of his book. I have no idea whether he realizes that the two claims are in conflict, but he doesn't appear to notice it within the book. Now please, don't get ahead of me again.

Backster further claims that plants are also sensitive to non-human and partly-human life forms, including but not limited to bacteria in sink drain sludge, human cells being shed during urination, eggs, brine shrimp,7 human sperm cells, etc., and that these same kinds of conductance responses can be measured from eggs,8 yogurt, human cells in petri dishes, and so forth. That is, primary perception is not only something observed in plants: basically anything you hook up to an electrode which is alive, and some things that aren't alive or never were alive, will show some kind of a response like this (Though in the book, as I recall, Backster doesn't try to make claims for inanimate objects so much. He does mention it in the 1997 interview I talked about earlier). Further testing reveals that in extremely traumatic situations (a lettuce leaf in a plane where everyone is eating salad, for example), plants/eggs/yogurt/etc. will do the equivalent of "fainting," and their graph will go completely flat. Etc.

Backster comes up with an experiment he is obviously very proud of,9 wherein a plant is put in a small room with a beaker of continuously boiling water, and another beaker containing brine shrimp, and a randomizing device (try as I might, I couldn't figure out how this was supposed to work, but I'm not terribly interested either, and it doesn't matter: I'm happy to accept that it works the way Backster tells me it works), such that the plant is being read by the electrodes, and at some random moment, the beaker containing the brine shrimp is tipped into the beaker of boiling water and they (the brine shrimp) all die. On what we are told is a statistically significant number of occasions, the plants reacted when and only when the shrimp died, and this experiment was the basis of Backster's only published paper to date, in the Winter 1968 International Journal of Parapsychology, called "Evidence of a Primary Perception in Plant Life." I would really like to have read this paper, because I'm curious about how he set up the experiment and the specific results he reports, but I couldn't locate it.10

What happens subsequently, alas, is that as news of Backster's experiments spread, and scientists attempt to duplicate his results, they find that they cannot. Backster comes up with a flurry of explanations for this:

One, the researchers who were attempting to repeat his results were doing things like washing the plant's leaves with distilled water before the experiment, thereby getting the plant attuned to them personally, which is of course a big no-no, because . . . apparently plants like people better than brine shrimp. Or something. Maybe they'd like the shrimp better if the shrimp were washing their leaves. I don't know. In any case, the plants react to what the people are thinking and feeling during the experiment, instead of to the shrimp, even though the shrimp are right there next to them and plants are supposed to be territorial and all. Backster claims he had to have someone else buy the plants and store them elsewhere in the building until immediately before the experiments, so as not to get the plants attuned to anybody. You also can't watch the experiment while it's in progress, because your conscious awareness of what's happening with the experiment interferes with the experiment in some vaguely-defined but apparently important way.

Two, the same plant can't be used in identical experiments over and over. They get used to having brine shrimp executed nearby,11 and so are only good for maybe three experiments apiece. Which apparently he didn't tell the scientists12 about until after they did the experiments and failed to duplicate his results.

Three, life is just fundamentally non-reproduceable, and "Mother Nature . . . doesn't jump through a hoop ten times in a row merely because someone wants her to." Backster claims that the best way to get results is to not try, to just go on about your business doing whatever you do, noting when you're reacting strongly to things or when interesting things are happening, and then you can check these against the log from the plant later and see what things the plant considered important. You also can't conduct these experiments when animal experiments are going on elsewhere in the building, or there's noise, or people visiting the lab, or someone talking on the phone, because then you don't know whether the plant is responding to the thing you're trying to make it respond to, or if it's reacting to your secretary having a fight with her husband by telephone in the next room.

So these are, more or less, the claims being made. On Wednesday, I will try to take them apart, in Part II.


1 This is Backster's term for it. He's basically acknowledging the obvious, that plants don't have noses, tongues, eyes or ears with which to sense their environments, and proposing that they know the things that he thinks they know through some other, more fundamental means. It's information being processed by the plant, so perception, and it's being processed at a fundamental, base level, without the use of sense organs like our own, ergo primary. This also has the added benefit of making it sound more important, which I bet is not accidental.
2 Pages 11-20 of his book are spent establishing his credentials, which are neither negligible nor particularly impressive: he went to prep school, he went to college, he volunteered for the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and sort of wandered into polygraph operation as an offshoot of his interest in hypnosis. He wound up in the CIA, trying to figure out ways of making interrogation subjects talk, or at least figure out when they're lying, via hypnosis, "truth serum," and eventually polygraphs, which were just beginning to be investigated as an interrogation tool. Backster's introduction is amusing to me, in a way I can't quite pin down: it's like he paints himself as this total badass who is incredibly smart and does everything incredibly well, and yet his self-presentation is clumsy enough that I came away with the impression that he thinks he's Batman or James Bond or somebody. I kept thinking, dude, you study plant feelings: I mean, at best, you're a minor supervillain.
3 Also a Ficus elastica, which I feel bad for, both because it's often left out of the story and because it is probably dead now. I figure someone should give it the dignity of a mention. The original Dracaena was still alive as of 2002-03, but nobody ever says what became of the Ficus. Backster never claims to have hooked up the Ficus to the electrodes, which I think is kind of weird, since it was right there in the same office and everything, and why wouldn't you.
4 The reader should note that I'm paraphrasing like mad, here, and Backster, being both a gentleman and of a different generation (born 1924, and still alive as of this writing, as far as I can tell), doesn't actually use words like "freaking the hell out," probably because such words are associated with those damned hippies or something. He's very square, for someone who's into all this weird parapsychological shit.
5 My own observation, not Backster's.
6 Don't do this. Why would you do this?
7 (= "Sea Monkeys")
8 Curiously, it doesn't even appear to matter whether the eggs are fertilized or not: a cell is a cell is a cell, apparently.
9 Not unfairly: it's a fairly clever idea for an experiment, though it may or may not measure what he thinks it's measuring.
10 It's difficult to locate forty-one-year-old parapsychology journals, just in general, and then a staggering amount of scientific publication is not on-line, or is on-line but in a form inaccessible to anybody who doesn't have thousands of dollars to throw at subscriptions to The Journal of Amphibian Digestive Systems or whatever. I understand -- journal editors have to eat too -- but it also puts up obstacles to research. If you want to know what's going on in science these days, you have to have a lot of money for subscriptions, access to a university library, or the ability to settle for secondhand journalist interpretations of the research, which are frequently oversimplified or misunderstood to the point of being wrong. Very frustrating.
11 (Who wouldn't? Most of us would barely notice living brine shrimp, much less dead ones.)
12 I refuse to say "other scientists," since that would imply that Backster was an actual scientist. We'll get to why I don't consider him an actual scientist eventually.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pretty picture: Aechmea fasciata flower

Not only a pretty extreme close-up, but it's also a pretty big picture when opened full-size in a separate window. So have all the detail you want.

My ex-work has several Aechmea fasciata blooming right now, plus some brand-new Aechmea 'Del Mar,' barely old Neoregelia 'Ardie,' and a handful of other Neoregelias of varying ages ('Yang,' some NOIDs). Some are pricier than others, but they're all pretty. If you're in the area and want to be impressed, or you're looking for some cool bromeliads, and you haven't yet figured out where I used to work, e-mail and I will happily let you know where to find them.

No, I'm not getting paid to advertise for them. But I ought to be, shouldn't I?