My opinions and insights about the products and services I've used may save you time and trouble before you make your next purchase or help you find that book, hotel or gadget that you've been hoping to find.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: Venomous Snakes of the World by Mark O'Shea

Many people of almost any culture in the world seem to have an almost innate ear of snakes. As with most fears, knowledge is the most effective cure. Mark O'Shea's Venomous Snakes of the World seeks to arm the reader with exactly that sort of knowledge required to overcome instintual fears and replace it with a respect for venomous snakes founded in realities instead of ancestral myths.

O'Shea begins by explaining the anatomy of venomous snakes, detailing how they find prey and how they deliver their venom to enemies as well as the pery they intend to eat. Here we learn interesting facts about the way snakes are put together. They don't dislocate their jaws as we may have previously "learned", for example, but rather articulate them about a ball and socket joint.

From there, Venomous Snakes of the World briefly discusses the taxonomy or scientific classification of snakes and their evolution before jumping right into a detailed discussion of venoms. There are eight distinct class of toxins found in the venoms of various snake species, and O'Shea details the specific effects of each in great detail, including in somes case photographs of people affected by the specific snake venoms.

Because of our unreasoning fears of snakes, they are often the subject of lethal persecution around the world. Throughout history, mankind has literally tried to stamp them out of existence with varying levels of success. O'Shea next discusses snake conservation and points at some of the outlets for commercial poaching of endangered snake species.

With those preliminaries out of the way, Venous Snakes of the World gets right to the reason for which the reader likely picked up the book in the first palce, the snakes themselves. O'Shea takes us on a continent by continent tour of the world's venomous snakes with plentiful color photographs and detailed desciptions. Many of the snakes he discusses are further brough to life by stories of his personal experiences with the snake. One such amusing anecdote detials his reaction ot a diamondback rattlesnake bite: "I secured the snakes and locked the cage, collected the antivenom from the fridge, and just managed to raise the alarm before the venom rendered me unconscious... I discovered I had lost my vision and virtually the ability to speak.  I...knew if I allowed myself to become unconscious again I might nevere wake up."

O'Shea estimates that more than 40,000 people die of snake bites each year. make no mistake; venomous snakes are dangerous, but with enough knowledge we can both keep ourselves out of harm's way, and preserve these important species to play their role in the overall eco-system. Venomous Snakes of the World provides us with that.

Disclosure: Mark O'Shea's Venomous Snakes of the World was provided to me for review by the Princeton University Press, free of charge.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott

Norman Arlott's "Bird of the West Indies" is a serviceable pocket guide that covers all of the birds one might expect to encounter on a tour of the West Indies. It does not provide in-depth coverage of each species or provide more than one illustration of each bird, but as a small, easy-to-carry guide for the casual birder who just wants a book to help them figure out which birds they're seeing on their vacation, it fits the bill.

Read my complete review here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great Falls Balloon Festival

Every August for the past 18 years, the twin towns of Auburn and Lewiston, Maine host the Great Falls Balloon Festival. In 2010, I attended with my wife and enjoyed not only watching the many colorful balloons rising out fo the crowd, but also the day long concerts and the festival atmosphere.

Photo copyright: Brad Sylvester

The above photo shows just one of the colorful and creative hot air balloons that was filled almost in the midst of the concert crowd. The balloons rose aloft and filled the skies, at times passing right overhead so that the crown below could see up inside the balloon as it floated past.

This is a terrific family event. One can easily spend a whole day enjoying the craft booths, the festival food, the music from the many excellent bands that performed, and of course, the balloons themselves. For those with the adventuring spirit, balloon rides can be booked that launch from the festival grounds.

Read my full review of the 18th Annual Great Falls Balloon Festival (inlcuding a video of one balloon's narrow escape with neighboring buildings and powerlines) and the bands that performed at this link and see a slideshow of the many hot air balloons that were featured here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dasani's PlantBottle technology

I had the opportunity to discuss the new PlantBottle technology with the general manager of Northeast Coca-Cola and his resident expert on recycling and the PlantBottle technology. Basically, Coca-Cola is using a moelcule derived from ethanol as 30 percent of the plastic content in the Dasani PET bottle. The ethanol is derived from Brazilian sugarcane, which is demonstrably "greener" than corn-based ethanol and has the further advantage of not displacing food crops for fuel crops, at least at present. Sugarcane production rules in Brazil support keeping the industry green and preventing it from encroaching into rain forests, the Amazon basin, or other critical wildlife habitats. Given, the nature of the bottled water industry in terms of environmental unfriendliness, however, is the PlantBottle technology just an attempt to greenwash a product with a bad reputation?
Read my complete report on the PlantBottle technology at this link.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Zoysia Grass review

You may have seen the ads in gardening magazines for the amazing Zoysia Grass. The ads claim that it is drought resistant, is thick and full, crowds out crab grass and weeds, spreads to cover a large area, can be spread even further through pulling and replanting plugs, and requires far less frequent mowing than other lawn grasses.

After wondering about this miracle grass and struggling with some areas of the yard that seem immune to grass seed, I finally bit the bullet and bought the Zoysia.

It arrives as plugs, but the plugs are not cut well so you need to separate each one manually before it can be inserted into the ground. Leaving some connection probably helps protect the roots from drying out in transit, so no big deal.

Zoysia was easy to plant with the plugging tool that came with the plugs. You need to buy a certain quantity before they throw in the tool, but you're probably going to need hundreds of plugs anyway if you have an avergae sized yard.

The directions say to plant one Zoysia plug for every square foot in a staggered grid pattern. You can figure out how many you'll need by calculating the area you need to cover. For every ten foot by ten foot area to be covered, you'll need one hundred plugs.

That's all fine, but what you want to know is how does the Zoysia live up to its promises. Here's my experience. The Zoysia is tough and hardy. It survives drought, heat, and cold New England winters with no problem. It does grow more slowly than regular grass so it needs less mowing. Two for two so far.

The Zoysia does spread to fill in between plugs, but it spreads more slowly than I anticipated. If you are starting with an area that has no grass yet, you may want to throw down some conventional seed to try to keep the weeds at bay until the Zoysia gets full enough to make a lawn.

The claim that Zysia does not live up to is that it grows so thickly that it chokes out weeds and crabgrass. That simply isn't true. Well, actually, their claim is a little more subtle. They say an established Zoysia lawn grows so thickly that the seeds of weeds and crabgrass cannot germinate. Either way, I have paintbrushes, dandelions and a few other weeds growing up through the Zoysia. Some of them are not perennials so the germination prevention claim seems pretty thin. I will grant that there are quite a bit fewer weeds in the established Zoysia than there are in other parts of my lawn where regular grass grows, but they are still there. I don't use lawn chemicals at all, so getting rids of weeds is a manual effort and a recurring battle.

What the ads don't say, is that Zoysia grass turns brown, and the part above ground effectively dies off in the winter cold. This leaves the lawn looking brown and dead in those winter months when it is cold but there is no snow. Furthermore, in my yard, all the other grass is green and thriving weeks, more than a month actually, before the new Zoysia shoots come up and begin to fill in each spring.

Overall, I like the Zoysia. This summer, I'll be digging some plugs from the area where the Zoysia grass has filled in and transplanting them to other problem areas of my yard.

Update: Zoysia is now available in seed form. Amazon sells it both with mulch and without. Although the five and ten pound bags with mulch are far cheaper per pound, most of the weight you are paying for is mulch and not grass seed. The two pound bag of 100% pure Zoysia Grass Seed is the better deal. Click the image above for more details and more independent reviews of the seed itself from Amazon users.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crossley ID Guide review

I like to go bird watching whether it is in my own backyard, at one of the many birding destinations in New England or even further afield. Consequently, a great many of my reviews will be related to this hobby that i enjoy with my family. We have a great many filed guides and birding ID books to help us make positive identifications of birds with which we are not particulalry familiar. Most of them include one or two up close photos of each bird showing the details of the plumage and body shape.

That's great if you happen to get a good look at the bird and it turns to present a profile similar to those shown in the book, usually that doesn't happen. The Crossley ID Guide takes a different and better approach. It uses composite photo plates that include dozens of photos of each bird at various ages and seasons digitally placed in a landscape in which they would typically be found. The photos show the bird at various distances, at many angles, in flight, on the ground, and in almost every posture in which you might see the bird in the wild.

This makes it much easier to positively identify birds seen in the wild.

Read my complete review of the book here, including some sample photo plates that really show the difference between the Crossley ID Guide and ordinary bird watching field guides.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Krups F203 Spice and Coffee Grinder Review

This device makes it easy to grind spices and herbs grown in one's own garden. It also does a great job grinding small batches of coffee. I use it quite often all summer as I harvest and dry herbs from the garden.

Read my full review of the Krups F203 Grinder at this link.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book Review: David Archer's 'The Global Carbon Cycle'

David Archer's new book, "The Global Carbon Cycle," one of the Princeton Primers in Climate, is a detailed, but readable look at the science behind the way the Earth reacts to carbon and other factors that relate to global climate. He discusses changes in the Earth's temperature throughout history and the reasons behind. Such factors as the gradual warming of the sun and changes in the Earth's orbit are examined.

Without some understanding of the science that goes beyond parroting what we hear in the form of sound bites on the evening news, we cannot have an informed discussion regardless of which side of the issue we choose to debate. For those with an interest in the facts and real science behind global warming, The Global Carbon Cycle wil arm you with facts, observable and measurable.

The Global Carbon Cycle is also available for the Kindle.

Click to read my full review of the book...

Material connection disclosure:
"The Global Carbon Cycle" was provided to me free of charge for review by The Princeton University Press.

Cape Ann Winter Birding Weekend: Event Review

The annual Cape Ann Birding Weekend is a fantastic family event for those interested in birdwatching or just spending a day together in the great outdoors learning about nature from friendly and knowledgeable experts. The event takes place in early February along the coast of Massachusetts, so definitely bundle up and be prepared for the New England winter, but Cape Ann is one of the premiere birding locations in the northeast.

"Cape Ann is very well-known for its winter birding," says Chris Leahy, one of the event's founders. "Many very rare species are easy to see here in winter." The purple sandpiper is a good example. In summer it resides in Greenland and the extreme north of Canada; during the winter, however, coastal birders are almost guaranteed to spot them on the rocky coasts of Cape Ann.

In addition to the bus tours, the event featured a number of bird-related vendor displays, and slideshow presentations of the birds and wildlife of the Svarlbad, Belize and Cape Ann. The Sunday morning bird watching ocean cruise that had been planned for the Cape Ann Birding Weekend had to be cancelled this year because of poor weather conditions forecast for the day.

Click to read my full event recap and review at Yahoo! News...

Easy Reach Plant Pulley Review, As Seen on TV

Very few things make me happier than to see a clever solution to a common problem. That is the very nature of invention and technological progress. The Easy Reach Plant Pulley distributed by Allstar Products Group fits
that category.

I first saw the Easy Reach Plant Pulley as I was walking past an "As Seen on TV" display at a local discount store. My first thought was "Why didn't I think of that?" My second thought was "I'm buying this," if for no other reason than to reward whoever thought of it and brought it to market.

Click to read my complete review...

Book Review: 'Antarctic Wildlife, A Visitor's Guide' by James Lowen

Taking a cruise to Antarctica is definitely something that's on my very lengthy list of things that I'd like to do someday. If and when that happens, I am certainly bringing along James Lowen's "Antarctic Wildlife, A Visitors' Guide. This combination travel guide and wildlife field guide not only gives the options for different types of cruises and departure ports, but also details just about every animal you're likely to see along the trip.

The wildlife species accounts are separated by region, so that you can narrow the search by just those that are found in particular parts of your Antarctic voyage. Photo plates are large and clear, offering several views of each animal as it is likely to be seen in the wild. The book also includes a brief, but interesting "talking point" about most of the animals and plants listed. These talking points can help make you look an expert filled with information or simply add some richness to your understanding of what you're seeing on the cruise.

If you're not travelling to the Antarctic, the book offers a detailed view of the plants and animals that live there along with some of the ecological pressure the region faces today. IA must have for the Antarctic traveller, and recommended for anyone curious about what the loneliest continent on Earth.

Read my full review by clicking here...
Material Connection Disclosure:
The book "Antarctic Wildlife, A Visitor's Guide" by James Lowen was provided to me free of charge by Princeton University Press for review.