Escape from Purgatory

Swans on pasture. The blue skies free us from purgatory.

The constant dreary clouds and rain seemed like purgatory. Winter wasn’t gone but neither was spring here. We were stuck in between the two. But the skies parted, the sun proved it still existed, and freed us from purgatory.

Day Lilly shoots

The Day Lillies are stirring, pushing out of the ground and saying winter is over. The forecast is for snow late this afternoon and evening. But it shouldn’t drag us back into purgatory. By morning the forecast is for rain, so I won’t need to shovel snow tomorrow.

Bare cottonwoods against a blue sky

The largest trees on the property are these three cottonwoods. Some of their limbs would make decent size trees if they fell off and stuck into the ground. What is it like to be so tall that you can see over all the other trees?

Do trees feel they are in purgatory, caught in limbo while they wait for the weather to warm them up enough to unfold their leaves and come to life again?

Someone described these cottonwoods as widow makers. Their massive limbs can drop without warning and impale a hapless soul walking underneath them. And from watching the way tree limbs fall to the ground like spears, I have a suspicion that trees have sinister feelings about creatures who can move. And when winter storms thrash their limbs about, trees take aim at creatures below them, and see how many they can take out when their heavy limbs hurl to the ground.

So when you are in the woods, tread carefully, and watch the trees above. Are they taking aim at you?

Houseflies to the Rescue

Snow on palm leaf

A dusting of snow pleasantly surprised me this morning. On closer inspection, it was more a dusting of tiny hail pellets than snow.

Snow on rhododendrons
Brilliant sunny Valentine's Day morning.

But the sun shines so bright today, the dusting of snow won’t last long. It would be a perfect day for celebrating Lupercalia, the ancient Roman festival on February 15. Over time, Lupercalia became Valentine’s Day.

Visiting ancient Rome on Lupercalia would have been exciting. It was a festival of sacrificing animals and performing rituals to ensure health and fertility. I asked ChatGPT what these rituals were. It told me:

The exact details of the festival varied over time. But it typically involved several rituals, including:

  • Animal sacrifice: During Lupercalia Romans sacrificed one or more animals. Usually goats and dogs. They believed these animals represented fertility and purification.
  • Feasting: After the animal sacrifice, Romans held a feast to honor the gods and promote social bonding among the community.
  • Ritual cleansing: Participants in Lupercalia engaged in ritual cleansing. This typically involved the use of water or milk to purify the body and promote fertility.
  • Bloodletting: Some accounts suggest that Lupercalia also involved bloodletting. Men cut their foreheads and offered drops of blood to the gods.
  • Fertility rituals: The most famous fertility ritual associated with Lupercalia involved the running of the Luperci. A group of young men dressed in goat skins ran through the streets of Rome. As they ran, the Luperci struck women with strips of goat hide. They believed this promoted fertility and eased childbirth.

Imagine the crowds of tourists flocking to Rome today if Romans still celebrated Lupercalia.

Morning embers in the wood stove.

On a cold morning, hot embers in the wood stove make it easy to get a fire going.

And Houseflies?

With all that animal sacrifice and bloodletting, houseflies in Rome surely feasted too. But until a few days ago, I had no idea houseflies can miraculously turn pig manure into compost in just seven days.

I saw an article on Japanese news about a researcher in southern Japan, Kushima Mitsutaka. For twenty years he has been working on using houseflies to quickly turn pig manure into compost.

The big obstacle to overcome is that houseflies are very sensitive creatures. Who knew? They can’t stand overcrowding. But to turn tons of pig manure into compost, you need millions of housefly larvae.

So Mr. Kushima kept breeding houseflies over and over, picking less sensitive houseflies with each generation. 1,500 generations later he has houseflies that don’t mind overcrowding. And he is now building a facility to quickly convert pig manure by the ton into compost.

The process involves spreading housefly eggs over a layer of pig manure. The eggs hatch. The larvae munch through the pig manure. Within a week they turn it into soft compost which smells like earth. And the next part is amazing. Fly larvae like to climb to the highest point possible to pupate and turn into houseflies. So the trays used to hold the pig manure are titled. The larvae crawl to the sides of the trays and fall off into containers. The containers fill with millions of larvae. The pig manure turned into compost is free of fly larvae and bagged. The larvae are processed to become fish and chick feed.

What is coincidental, is that the idea of using houseflies to turn pig manure into compost originated back in the early days of the Soviet space program. They worked with houseflies to use their larvae to process human waste in space. Mr. Kushima imported these flies to start his breeding program.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave Mr. Kushima’s business a boost. Because of the invasion, fertilizer prices are sky high. So turning pig manure quickly into compost can provide lots of fertilizer.

A New Dawn, a New Era?

Early spring blue sky with dabbled clouds

A new dawn, a new season, good bye to winter, hello to spring. Or so it seems. With each day winter fades away. Though it is still mid February, and we’ve seen March days in the past with snow piling on top of tulips blossoms.

Deer droppings in the woods

February is a good month to gather fire wood. The trees don’t have their sap yet so they are quite dry already. And being out in the woods I see evidence of deer. Deer droppings here and there. Which makes me wonder if dogs are puzzled that they never see human droppings.

When dogs gather in a dog park do they have heated discussions about do humans poop? Do they ask each other, have you ever seen a human poop? With dogs and other creatures, they can walk along, see a dung pile and know which other dog or creature came by when and left that. Maybe human society would be different if we could walk along, see a pile, and say, “Hmm, Mary was by less than an hour ago. I wonder why she didn’t stop and say hello. Wow! She sure had a feast last night!”

Viburnum flowers

The viburnum is in full bloom. These are great winter and early spring bloomers. I also saw forsythia sending out leaf buds. And on these spring dawns, song birds are starting to sing.

Viburnum flowers
Chickens out pecking through the grass and leaves by the pond.

The chickens enjoy these early spring days. Most of the hawks are still off enjoying their tropical winter vacations. So the chickens can scratch through the leaves and grass without fear. Though the bobcat is around. I saw it along the road on the way home from the post office the other day.

And in this new spring, it seems we may be witnessing the dawn of a new era. I’d been reading articles about ChatGPT and how teachers are up in arms that students use it to write term papers. But then I read an article by a man who used it to write a WordPress plugin for his wife’s website.

WordPress is the software that this website runs on. About 40% of all websites run on WordPress. It is free software, written and maintained by thousands of volunteers around the world. Anyone can install it on their server and run it. It is designed so you can add plugins to add features you want. Thousands of people and companies around the world create these plugins.

And writing plugins that add features to WordPress is something that I dabble in from time to time. So I was curious. I logged into ChatGPT, gave it a paragraph description of the plugin I wanted, and the hundreds of lines of code for the plugin started appearing on the screen. Within a few minutes, it had spit out what would have taken me several hours of work to do. But what is intriguing about ChatGPT is that it is great at explaining things. Much of the code for WordPress is written in a programming language called PHP. And this is what is freaky or pleasing about ChatGPT. I asked it, “What is the origin of PHP?” And this is how it replied:

PHP stands for Hypertext Preprocessor, and it was created in 1995 by Rasmus Lerdorf, a Danish-Canadian programmer. Lerdorf initially created PHP as a set of Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts to track visits to his personal website. Over time, he added more functionality to the language, and it grew into a full-fledged server-side scripting language that could be used to create dynamic web pages.

In 1997, two developers, Andi Gutmans and Zeev Suraski, rewrote the language's core, creating a new version of PHP that became known as PHP 3. This version of the language was more efficient and easier to use, and it paved the way for the widespread adoption of PHP as a popular web development language.

Today, PHP is used by millions of websites and is one of the most widely-used server-side scripting languages in the world.

That was an easy to read and understand answer. But what I quickly learned is that ChatGPT is a great programming teacher. Any line of code I don’t understand, I can ask what that line of code does, and it gives a good explanation. And it keeps in mind the conversation you had with it and references back to things you recently talked about. For example, this question, “What does => do in PHP?” elicited this response:

In PHP, the => symbol is used to define key-value pairs in arrays. It separates the key on the left side from its corresponding value on the right side. For example, in the code snippet you provided:
$statuses = [
	Email::STATUS_DELIVERED => __( 'Delivered', 'wp-mail-smtp-pro' ),
	Email::STATUS_SENT      => __( 'Sent', 'wp-mail-smtp-pro' ),
	Email::STATUS_WAITING   => __( 'Pending', 'wp-mail-smtp-pro' ),
	Email::STATUS_UNSENT    => __( 'Failed', 'wp-mail-smtp-pro' ),
The => symbol is used to define four key-value pairs in the $statuses array. The keys are the constant values from the Email class (e.g. Email::STATUS_DELIVERED) and the values are the translated string representations of the email statuses (e.g. __( 'Delivered', 'wp-mail-smtp-pro' )).

It’s like having a seasoned programmer at your shoulder explaining things as you go along. And if you want more detail, you can ask, “Go on,” and it will add to the explanation.

This does seem very different. It is more Hal like than Google, Duck Duck Duck Go, and other search engines. It’s like having a conversation with a pleasant person who never thinks any question you ask is too stupid, and who has all the patience in the world. Instead of handing back endless lists of websites to look at, I get back easy to understand paragraphs.

And it is the first search engine that ever apologized to me.

At one point it told me that the size of Washington State is 71,342 square miles. I saw other numbers from different websites. So I told ChatGPT, “You say that Washington State area is 71,342 square miles. However the US Census Bureau says it is 71,298 square miles. Which is correct?” And this is how it replied:

My apologies, you are correct. According to the United States Census Bureau, the area of Washington State is 71,298 square miles (184,827 square kilometers). Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Would Google ever apologize?