Extension Pete in: The Case of the Missing Menace

This was certainly a new one for Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective. He had solved mysteries where there was a bug and it was causing damage—cabbage loopers (on cabbage!); mysteries where there was a bug but it wasn’t causing damage—bark lice weaving a thin film of silk on a maple trunk; even mysteries where was wasn’t a bug and it was causing damage—dark lint left behind from an old rag, resulting in a new crop of “bugs” immediately after the last batch was wiped away. But this mystery was the first of its kind:

There was no bug.

There was no damage.

So, wherefore Extension Pete? Mrs. Pauline Miller, glacially old, wearing brand new clothes purchased 40 years ago, her whole bearing like crisp, dry parchment—stiff, prideful, and intact, with the same content of its former self, but fragile beyond words and unaware of it—explained at the door, voice with a thin vibration of age, “My roses you see. Ever since, well back when we first moved here it was just after the war, and Charlie, he was my husband, well he had a friend, Stan, at the grocery store. Well Henry thought it would be a fine thing to surprise me with rose bushes on our first anniversary, so while I was at the hairdressers he and Stan planted all these roses.” She gestured to the line of roses along the front of the house. A house and a yard that were painted-perfect. Straight out of watercolored schematics you might find in an article on “New Landscaping Fashions and Layouts for 1958” in the second October issue of American Nurseryman, 1957. “Now that was the year when we got a late frost in early May and it killed the bougainvillea, and then, well it didn’t rain for almost three weeks in July. It was terribly hot, we slept with the windows open at night, but the dust was horrible. I couldn’t have anyone over before noon. Well, our Anniversary was July 31st, we were going to have a June wedding, but the dress maker, that was Gladys Eidelman, she taught at the school, she cut her hand and so we had to postpone the wedding. Now Charlie and Stan hadn’t figured on the ground being so hard, and when I got back from the hairdresser, they only had two rose bushes planted, and Charlie was using a pick ax to dig new holes while Stan was soaking the ground with a hose. They were both covered in dirt from head to toe! Horrible waste of water, but I didn’t saying anything. Charlie said he never thought he would have to become a miner for our anniversary!”

And thus was the narrative of the story of the origin of the rose bushes, Pete nodding and oohing and awing throughout in a respectful manner. Let us summarize the rest or we’ll be here as long as Pete, on the front porch, melting in the sun. Pauline utterly unaware of the blaze.

Originally the roses were regularly fumigated whether they needed it or not, “Joe Parker had a weekly service, and that was what you did back in those days, nobody thought about the chemicals, everything was a chemical.” But times have changed, and the Garden Club has gone organic. And you can’t enter the Contest if you’re not Organic. “Bless their heart” but those “organics” just didn’t work as well as the “chemicals” in the “old days” and ever since she had gone organic the Japanese Beetles (“I never had them until I switched to organics.”) were always around, just a few, and caused damage, just a little.   Except this year.

There were no beetles.

There was no damage.

Thus, the mystery. Thus, Extension Pete.

The high-pitched whine of a toy drone interrupted the tail end of the tale and caused its merciful demise. The narrative shifted to Pete explaining what a drone was and how it worked—interesting that the SciFi stories written about the same time the house was built had anticipated the flying weaponized drones of today, but not the toy drone across the street. Then it shifted back to the roses. It was suspected, by those in the know, that Gladys Caldwell, down the street, in a bid to win the Contest, was secretly spraying her roses with “chemicals”. It was known that she sometimes used box mixes to make cakes and shamelessly passed them off as her own. She was generally thought of as a dishonest and disreputable person because of this.

Pauline’s current working hypothesis consisted of the following: “Could it be that when she sprays, her chemicals get blow over onto my roses?”

The hypothesis was unlikely, the houses were half a block apart, and Pete stalled for time with the careful waffling the youth use to placate the elderly. After much conversation and speculation Pete finally broke from Pauline’s conversational grip to “have a look around”, but not before they had talked about the weather, todays haircuts, “Why don’t young ladies wear hose any more?”, loud rock music, and many, many other such subjects.

Pete started down the street toward Gladys’ house watching yards for Japanese Beetles and potential hosts. There were few of the latter, it was a boring neighborhood. The monoculture of short cut Kentucky Bluegrass, overbred varieties of non-natives, and Bradford Pears (a tree that was slightly worse than an open sewer) might as well have been AstroTurf and plastic to an insect. No doubt the birds were hurting too, what do you eat when there are no bugs? And where do you get fine sticks to make a nest when either the trees don’t make them, or any that do fall are immediately removed, disappearing like cats on an alligator farm.

One house offered a respite from the over manicured nature of the neighborhood. A “For Sale” sign offered an explanation for why the yard had not been mowed into the dirt and some taller grass was allowed to grow along the edges. There were three rose bushes clustered around the front door, and several more at the edge of the house opposite the garage. Pete went up the walk to the front door, no beetles. He followed a path flattened in the high grass to the other bushes, no beetles there either. What’s happening? Big juicy delicious leaves! There should be Japanese Beetles here. He looked again, closer. Beetles? Damage? Frass? Anything? Noting.

The other houses along the block, at least those that had plants susceptible to Japanese Beetles, all came up negative as well, including Gladys’. The drone was back and Pete caught a glimpse of the girl at the controls. About 12–14 years old and concentrating on the flight of the drone, trying to keep it going at a steady speed as it rose straight up following the trunk of a pine tree. A big camera hung underneath. Lucky kids. Around the corner Pete found some blackberry bushes growing in the corner of a fenced-in yard (“Beware of Dog”). Still no beetles. He started to move on, but a glint of light?, an odd movement?, a strange color pattern?, something, caught his eye and he suddenly noticed that one of the blackberry leaves about 3 feet back from the fence was skeletonized. He shifted his focus from the leaves against the fence (undamaged) to the leaves further back and saw that they were riddled. Suddenly a beetle took off, swirled around, and crashed back into the foliage.

And Pete had his answer. The path in the tall grass of the house that was for sale hadn’t extended past the roses at the end of the house. If it had been made by a cat, dog, rabbit, wood chuck, etc. it should have continued on. Pete had looked to see where it led, but it didn’t, and there wasn’t a hole under the house, he had glanced. So the path was only from bushes to bushes. And the reason the girl wasn’t “right” is because she wasn’t playing with a toy she’d been given, she was practicing with a piece of equipment she had worked hard to get. There is a definite difference between the two.

“I get a nickel a beetle!,” Sofia said. “My gran doesn’t want to hurt the butterflies and bees with spray, so I pick the beetles off by hand. I tried just doing her yard, but they would fly in from the neighbors’, so I started collecting their beetles, also. There’s a fortune in Mr. Davis’ yard but I can only get what I can reach from the fence. He has a dog.”

“How many beetles did your drone cost?” asked Pete.

“Ten thousand!” She said, smiling. “I walk the same route every morning and evening and collect every one I can. They’re getting rarer now. Maybe it’s the end of the season. I’m going to make nature documentaries with my drone!”

Another mystery solved by Extension Pete, Entomologist Detective!

Sometimes if you tell people the truth it’ll only cause trouble. A loose neighborhood kid coming into you yard and picking beetles off your rose bushes every evening, it’ll never fly. “Well Mrs. Miller, I have made a thorough search of the neighborhood and I’m happy to report that there is no evidence of anyone using chemicals.” Pete launched into some babble about how the leaves change very slightly if pesticides are used and he found no evidence of it, everyone came up clean. They worked on that for a while until Pauline was OK with the idea that no one was cheating. Step one done.

Now time for step two, why no beetles? Pete decided to tell the truth, in a way. “Japanese Beetles are exotic and when they first showed up none of the birds or animals knew what to do with them. But over time wasps might parasite them, birds might eat them. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but something in this neighborhood has a use for those Japanese Beetles, and it must find them quite profitable.”

The End

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Extension Pete in: The Case of the Hothouse Hot Seat

Open on a packed courthouse, lots of stained wood, hanging lights, public in seats, judge in the middle, bailiff standing, stenographer sitting, defendant on the stand—nervous. Defendant is an older, inoffensive gentleman, slightly greyed, putterer at heart, gardener type. The charge: Murder Most Foul.

Prosecution: You claim to have never seen Miss Susan Fade before the week of March 27th. How did you meet?

Defendant: (stammering along the way) She noticed my Welwitschia through the greenhouse glass and came over and started talking to me. I have quite a few unusual plants and she recognized several of them Entada gigas, Amorphophallus, Lithops. She said she was “informally traveling,” hitchhiking I think, across the country. She said she was headed west to see a wild Boojum.

Prosecution: Boojum, you say? [Chuckles.] So how did the young lady suddenly become your house guest for nearly a month Mr. Bloom?

Defendant: Well, first she said she wanted a place to stay for the night, and she helped out with some repotting in the greenhouse, but she turned out to be a wonderful cook, and [pause, wistful look], I have this pool you see, and, well, she didn’t have a bathing suit. So, a few nights turned into about a month. She had a magnificent imprint of a parsnip leaf on her backside, a furanocoumarin burn from having sat on one during an earlier outing.

****

            Prosecution: State your name for the record.

Witness: Mrs. Evelin Dropper. [Older lady, 60s, hair neatly placed, proper.]

Prosecution: Mrs. Dropper, can you tell the jury about your experience of May 16th.

Witness: I was checking my yard for pet waste—the neighbors across the street just let their cat go anywhere it wants, like an animal—and suddenly I smelled this horrible stench. Like death! And it was coming from Mr. Bloom’s greenhouse! [Points accusatory finger at Defendant.] I went by the next day and the smell was still there, but by the third day it was gone. That’s when he must have moved the body! [General kerfuffle in the courtroom, defense springs to feet objecting, judge banging gavel calling for an end to speculation and audience participation.]

****

Prosecution: Mr. Bloom had yellow sticky traps hanging in his greenhouse, one had fallen to the ground, and these traps collected insects. As a forensic entomologist, what did you learn from these traps Dr. Wilson?

Dr. Wilson: [Long blonde hair, very professional, but with a sense that she could drink you under the table.] The traps contained a number of common greenhouse insects: whitefly, aphids, thrips—millipedes in the case of the fallen trap. But they also contained quite a few blowflies, that’s the family Calliphoridae, the metallic green flies, and flesh flies, Sarcophagidae, these guys are grey with black stripes on their back. [Indicates each on an enlarged photograph of a sticky trap].

Prosecution: [Complete with courtroom dramatic pauses and emphasis.] Dr. Wilson, the prosecution argues that Mr. Bloom killed Miss Fade, placed her body in the greenhouse where it was left for several days, then removed the body and disposed of it. Does the evidence from the sticky traps contradict this hypothesis?

Dr. Wilson: It is unlikely there would have been that many calliphorids and sarcophagids in the greenhouse unless they were specifically attracted to rotting flesh of some kind. Absence of fly larvae on the sticky trap on the ground indicates the dead item was moved before fly larvae matured. Additionally absence of carrion beetles, family Silphidae, which show up later in the decay sequence, indicates that whatever was rotting was removed before later stages of decay set in. So, yes, the entomological evidence does not contradict the scenario put forth by the prosecution.

****

Defense: Peter —, Mr. Bloom maintains that Miss Fade went on her way, alive and well, on May 5th to continue her westward quest. A few days later he left to hike the Ozark Trail and see the spring wildflowers, and did not return until May 24th.

You’ve heard the prosecution’s argument: that Mr. Bloom befriended Miss Fade in late March, they cohabitated, she spurned his advances and sometime in mid-May he killed her, her body was left in the greenhouse for several days, then he disposed of the body on or about May 18th. The prosecution presents damning evidence: Mrs. Dropper smelled a distinct stench of rotting flesh, flies well known to be associated with murder victims were collected by the defendant’s own sticky traps, and insects associated with later stages of decay were not collected. No carcass or bones of a dead animal were found in or near the greenhouse. And yet you maintain that Mr. Bloom is innocent. How can you explain away this hard evidence?

Extension Pete: [Suppressing a huge grin.] Mr. Bloom has several automatic systems in his greenhouse, watering, temperature control, etc. Those were there to keep bad things from happening to his plants while he was gone, but Mr. Bloom hadn’t anticipated a very good thing happening. [Everyone on the edge of their seats, including Mr. Bloom.] His Amorphophallus flowered. [Mr. Bloom gasps, doubles over as if hit in the gut. General courtroom mumbling.] Amorphophallus is also known as an Arum, it’s a plant that very rarely flowers, once every five or ten years. Mr. Bloom would never have guessed it might flower while he was away. The inflorescence is huge, several feet high and smells like rotting flesh, in fact it’s commonly called a corpse flower! [Collective “Ah!”] The plants are pollinated by flesh flies and other insects associated with decay that are attracted by the smell, but the flower only lasts a day or two before wilting and withering away, so the smell doesn’t last long and it’s not suitable for fly development. A flowering corpse flower explains the evidence nicely. [Nod of agreement from Dr. Wilson.]

I also emailed a park ranger at El Vizcaino a park in Baja California, the best place to see wild Boojum trees. He emailed me this a few hours ago. [Holds up tablet computer displaying image of bikini clad backside sporting a parsnip leaf imprint.]

[Prosecution drops charges, judge dismisses case, Extension Pete saves the day, accepts no reward except that justice has been done, jubilation all around, except for poor Mr. Bloom. Sad and dejected he’s taken from the court room vowing never to leave home again for fear of missing his Arum, “I waited 20 years!”.]

The End.

The Book Exception

The second most notorious bug in Universe 42 was known as the Book Exception. The Book Exception was a joke entered by an anonymous programmer (probably Kevin) that altered space-time (gravity) on the exposed side of a book creating what is most easily described as a “gravitational vacuum”. The book, or really any printed material, experienced an otherwise imperceptible increase in gravity on the exposed side and would be sucked in that direction*. The result was not just an increased tendency to fall over when standing straight, but in special circumstances, the book, if it were say leaning to the left, could actually rotate up to the vertical and then fall to the right. If books or papers were stacked lying on their sides the Book Effect caused the top book to very slightly raise, reducing friction. Then the second book or paper would begin to experience a reduced, but present, Book Exception field, and so on. The result was that stacked books or papers had a tendency to autonomously slump to one side or slide wildly when being moved.

The most fiendish aspect of the Book Exception is that it applied to books and papers. Unlike other artifacts, paper products are:  1) inherently bendy; 2) generally have an asymmetrical architecture (spine and tail); 3) are often placed on shelves where half the book was protected from observation; and 4) are found in the company of either people who want nothing to do with them (office workers) or people who are more fascinated by the information they contain than how they behave. Thus, despite millions of people witnessing effects of the Book Exception daily, there were a myriad of reasonable excuses to ignore it.

The first person to discover the Book Effect was Hito Higawa, a Japanese architect who was convinced the universe was out to get him. Interestingly it was that paranoia that simultaneously drove him to study why his books kept falling over, and once he had discovered the Book Exception, the reason why no one believed him. Higawa’s work was only accidentally discovered after his death when a Twitter meme #BBFOMHY (“Books be falling on my head, yo.”), went viral.

It was, of course, the Book Exception that allowed inhabitants of Universe 42 to definitively show that they existed in an entirely simulated Universe, and, if appropriately applied, made a barn raising that much easier.

 

*Note: the gravity fluctuation was created by weakening the separation of the membranes of the multiverse, therefore the orientation of the increased gravity was independent of the region’s dominate gravity body, for example the Earth.

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Frenzied Fleas

A knock at the door, an approaching smile, the door opens.

Says the man on the stoop: “Hello, I’m Extension Pete,” dramatic pause, “Entomologist Detective!”

“I know, I called you,” says an engaging young mother holding a wide-eyed baby on her hip.

“Good.” Not at all deflated that she wasn’t overwhelmed by his appellation, he continues, “What seems to be the problem?”

She invites him in with the wave of her hand into an empty house full of boxes. “We just closed on the house last week and started moving in. A couple days ago the baby and I moved some boxes in, and when we got back to the old house she had some fleas on her. It was weird, I caught them with tape, and then, I don’t know, there’s just so much going on, I forget about it. But then it happened again yesterday!”

The excited young man is snooping about the house, peering in corners and closets, gently probes a box marked FRAGILE! with his boot, hears some tinkling, and retreats quickly.

Eye contact: “Any pets at your other home? They might have picked something up from the neighbors.”

“No pets. No cats or dogs,” shake of the head, “We’re planning on getting some though; children that grow up with two or more pets tend to have fewer allergies,” coos at baby.

Authoritatively, “You should get a llama. They’re the Gentle Camel.” Resuming inquisition, “Are there any pets here, in the house or maybe strays that live under the house, in the neighborhood?”

“No, no pets in the house. The last owners had a cat, but they’ve been gone for months. I haven’t seen any strays in the neighborhood. But the baby hasn’t been outside. I carry her from the car to here and then put her in her chair or let her crawl around.”

Lifts gaze from a box with the overly Dickensian label “Christmas Past” and shifts attention back to mother and child. “Whereabouts has the bundle of joy been crawling?”

Mother leads the way, pointing from spot to spot in various rooms, comments on cute things child did while in each spot: had fun in Kitchen slapping linoleum and listening to resulting sound; frightened and intrigued by border between linoleum and tile of utility room; overcame previously mentioned fear of tile and entered utility room to gain safety of mother’s ankle; use of traction provided by carpet in back bedroom to produce sudden bouts of speed crawling.

The tour ends. A grandiose statement from the young man: “I believe I have solved the mystery. But first we should celebrate with some homemade root beer. I shall return.” Exit Extension Pete.

Return, doorbell, greetings, bags on counter in kitchen, root beer extract, sugar, dry ice, mother sets about finding/cleaning a pitcher. Root beer is made, chitchat, baby is entranced by vapor. After the glasses are drained, “Well, that should be enough time, let’s go check,” and our sleuth leads the way to the back bedroom, opens door, peers in.

Scattered over the floor, a few remaining chunks of dry ice sublimate away quietly. Several glue traps rest sticky side up on the floor, each bespeckled with fleas. The good mother’s expression is translated as, “What sorcery is this?!”.

The reveal: “Fleas has a life cycle similar to the butterfly. There’s an egg, then a larva—a squirmy, wormy thing like a caterpillar or grub.” Eye contact to make sure she was following, hand gestures for emphasis. “Once the larva gets big enough it spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa, just like a butterfly or moth. Eventually the pupa becomes an adult flea. But fleas are professional parasites; they aren’t at all interested in being adults unless there is something to eat. If there is no physical movement, heat, or carbon dioxide an adult flea can hang out in the cocoon for more than three months. These fleas are leftovers from the previous owner’s cat. Once everyone moved out, they just sat tight waiting for someone else to come along.

“Fleas are in carpets, rugs, or cracks against the wall, not on tile or linoleum. The baby provided all the stimuli needed to wake the fleas up, and this is the only place the baby has been where some could be hiding out. Voilà: fleas on a baby. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice woke the rest up. Mystery solved and confirmed.” Big grin.

“That’s amazing!” Retreating from room entrance, “How do we get rid of them?”.

“Well there are any number of chemicals, you could steam clean the carpet, you could pull it up and put down hardwood. Probably you don’t have to worry about immature fleas, those have either died or become adults. That should make control easier.”

“You’re amazing Extension Pete.”

“I know I am.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

“I need no payment. Just know that wherever there’s an entomological mystery I’ll be there, for I am…” dramatic pause, “Extension Pete: Entomologist Detective!”

Curtain.

New Creations

Tales of creation abound. The Christians took care of the entire universe and all the messy bits in it in a couple of neat pages, no need fooling about with fancy explanations, they had a schedule to keep. While the Greeks and Romans took a long lazy walk and told tales of big picture events, like the origin of the world, and other things, like the tale of some god cavorting with three mortal sisters while the god’s wife was home doing the laundry, and when the wife found out about the cavorting she cursed the sisters who then prayed to another god for deliverance and were saved from certain death when the second god turned them into that bunch of flowers over there on the left of the path just behind the rock with a dent in it. Oh, there are four flowers? Well, I stand corrected; there must have been four sisters.

Well, why not some new tales of creation? And why not about the little things?

Carl the Brewer

Carl was a brewer and he was the best. In those days of course, no one much traveled more than three to five miles from where they were born, and in the relatively low population density area, market forces being what they were, supply and demand, etc., Carl only had about two competitors, and one of those was a milk maid (not for a long while, but she liked to keep up the pretense, being unmarried and all) who occasionally forgot and left the milk out in the sun, and then tried to pass it off as “udder wine”. So, being largely ignorant of any competition beyond the distance that, say, an overeager locust might travel in a good swarm, Carl was free and easy with his boasts. “I’m a brewer,” Carl would say, “and I’m the best.”

One day there came to Carl’s brewery a traveler who was a god in disguise. At this point we know something bad is about to happen to Carl, but just for a second, let’s break from that and ask some simple questions: why travel; and why the disguise? You’re a god, surely you have some better way to get from point A to point B than taking the non-hopping kangaroo express. Fly. Not a flying god? Hitch a ride with a flyer. Conjure up a horse, or elephant, or camel on which to ride. Wink out of one space-time locality and pop into another. Bicycle.

But more importantly, why the disguise? Here we have a god, gussied up like not-a-god, and when he’s not treated like a god, but is in fact treated like not-a-god, he’s gets all upset about it. Well what did you expect? It’s as if you’re deliberately setting people up. There’s a sign, a waiter with thin mustache, table cloths, salt and pepper shakers, napkins, menus—How dare think this is a restaurant!—shouts the not-a-waiter in a French accent when you ask about the specials. So these gods are just pretty much narcissistic bullies. And not very inventive ones at that, cursed to be forever thirsty and can’t take a drink, that’s nice, but it’s got nothing on potato chips.

The digression was pretty lengthy, so let’s try to catch up quickly: “I’m a weary traveler, I’ll have a beer.” “Here you go. I brew the best beer around.” “Wanna bet?” “Sure!” Competition.

Now at this point we don’t know if Carl wins or loses. Occasionally the mortal outdoes the god and of course gets cursed anyway. The general rule of thumb when competing with gods is: don’t. Unless you’re in a boy band or on a morning variety show.

It turns out Carl’s water, bark, and malt wasn’t quite as good as water, hops, and malt (and where do “hops” even come from? A village 15 miles away?! That’s a week’s journey and you’ll likely be killed by bandits!). So carl was cursed by the bully god who declared that he and his descendants should never brew good beer, try as they might. The brewer became short and squat and black. He grew a tail and lives in a cave in the ground and when he’s disturbed he emerges and serves his foe, not beer, but vinegar. And that is the story of where vinegaroons came from.

The Badlands of Hark by R. L. Stine

Badlands of Hark

I really liked The Badlands of Hark when I was a kid. I never beat it, but twice I worked backwards to find the path. I got an old used copy for my nephew yesterday and decided to revisit the Badlands.

Here is every possible path you can take through the book. Apparently there is no way to beat the maze AND win, but maybe you can find a way…

Enjoy.

Stine, R. L. 1985. The Badlands of Hark. Scholastic Inc. New York, NY. (ISBN 0-590-33772-6)