Monday, July 31, 2017

Apple #744: Birds of Paradise

Yes, it's been a while. But I am moved to Apple this topic because a friend who has been a Daily Apple fan revealed a question and I would like to find the answer for him.

This friend, let's call him Shalom, moved to Hawaii not long ago and has been planting and growing many fabulous flowers.  One of the flowers that bloomed recently is a bird of paradise.  He posted a photo of it on his facebook page, and many of us marveled at its beauty and strangeness.  I asked, "Do you know what pollinates that thing?  Is it, like, a pelican?" and he said, "I have no idea how this flower works."

Shalom's bird of paradise.
(the photo is Shalom's, which I stole from him)


What is an Apple Lady to do, but seek the answer?

  • The flower of a bird of paradise, sometimes called a crane flower, looks complex, but once you know what all the parts are, you can see it works a lot like most flowers.
  • The green and red and purplish canoe-shaped things at the bottom are actually modified leaves, called bracts. The "petals" of a poinsettia flower are also called bracts, if that helps.
  • The bracts on a bird of paradise can be 4 to 8 inches long, depending on the age of the plant. 
  • Most "normal" flowers have little green bits in between the petals called sepals. Before the flower blooms, when it's still closed up, it's the sepals that are closed up around the flower, protecting it. When the sepals relax and open up, the petals inside are revealed. On the bird of paradise, the sepals are the three gigantic orange things that stick up when the flower blooms.
  • On the bird of paradise, the cluster of three vivid blue parts that jut out sideways from the orange sepals are the petals. There are actually three blue petals, but they join together to make an arrowhead shape and a little cup called the nectary where, as you would guess, the nectar is stored.


A side view of the strange shape formed by the three blue petals. Inside that opening is where the flower's nectar is located.
(Photo by seymourdaily at Digital Botanic Garden



Here's a different angle showing the way the three blue petals converge.
(Photo from Gardening Know How)

  • On "normal" flowers, the female and male parts of the flower are contained within the shelter of the petals. The female parts look like the male parts on people -- they are all contained on one long pointy thing. The male parts of the flower are the several wispy things that surround the long pointy thing.
 
The female parts of a "normal" flower are labeled at the left: the stigma is the sticky thing at the top end of the style, which leads down to the ovary, which contains the ovule. All this together is the pistil. The male parts are labeled at the right: the anther is the knob on the end of each filament, and is where the pollen is produced. Anther plus filament = stamen.


The male and female parts within the blue parts of a bird of paradise: the long sticky-like pointy style, surrounded by filaments from which extend the anther, with the blue petals like a bird's beak around all of these.
(Photo from Texas A&M University's Vascular Plant Image Library)

  • On a bird of paradise, the male and female parts are also housed within the petals. It, too has a very long pointy style that sticks out from among the petals and is surrounded by pollen-coated anthers that extend from filaments.
  • A flower is pollinated when pollen from the anther gets transferred to the sticky stigma at the end of the style and fertilizes the ovule at the bottom of the style.  Same thing holds true for the bird of paradise.
  • The question is, what insect or creature braves the bizarre shape that is the bird of paradise to touch the pollen and get it onto the sticky stigma?
  • Answer: in its homeland of South Africa, it's a sunbird.  


The double-collared sunbird, one of the species of sunbird that pollinates a bird of paradise flower.
(Photo from Animalia Life)

  • The sunbird's curved and slender beak makes it especially good at sucking the nectar out of flowers, which is exactly what it does to the bird of paradise. It also sucks the juice from figs and grapes and even bugs and spiders. 
 

This video demonstrates what happens when a bird lands on the blue petals, how the weight of the bird will cause that arrowhead-like pocket to flatten out and all the pollen on the filaments will then be exposed and can easily brush against the bird.



The bird in this photo is a Brown Honeyeater, and it's not standing on the blue petals but sticking its beak and pretty much its whole face into them. But you can see how it would get pollen all over its face, which would then be easily transferred to the next flower.
(Photo from this Bird of Paradise Pinterest page)

  • The sunbird stands on the blue petals -- maybe like a diving board -- while they insert their beaks into the nectary to suck out the nectar, and the pollen on the filaments is exposed and gets dusted on their feet. When the sunbird flies to the next flower, the pollen on their feet is transferred to the next flower, fertilizing it.
  • Sunbirds don't live in the US so if you have a bird of paradise in your garden, you'll need to pollinate it yourself. Here's how the San Francisco Chronicle says to do it:
Collect pollen by pressing on the arrow-shaped nectary [the boat-shaped thing in the blue petals] to expose the stamens. Rub a clean cotton swab over the stamens. Find a plant that comes from a different rhizome to pollinate. When you find a flower with a shiny, sticky stigma at the nectary tip, rub the pollen-coated swab across it. (from SFGate)

  • Each flower lasts only about a week, so you'll want to get to pollinating pretty soon after it blooms.
  • The fertilized bird of paradise flower will eventually dry up but within it will be seeds. When the seed pods open up, birds come and eat them and disperse them in the usual manner, allowing new plants to grow.


Bird of paradise seed pods filled with black and orange-tufted seeds
(Photo from Phillip's Natural World)


This gives you an idea of the size of the seeds. Here, they look about as big as large blueberries.
(Photo from The Adventures of Rock)

  • If you're planting birds of paradise from seeds, soak them in water for 24 to 48 hours and remove the orange hairs before planting. It can take 8 weeks before germinating and once the plant is grown, it can be 4 to 7 years before it blooms. If you have to re-pot a bird of paradise, it can take a couple more years before it blooms again.
  • So if you're growing your own bird of paradise, be patient, be patient, be patient, and then act fast.


This sunbird looks like it's thinking about whether or not it wants to sample the bird of paradise's nectar. Better make up its mind quick before the bloom is off the bird, so to speak.
(Photo from Outdoor Photo)


Hope this is helpful, Shalom. May your birds of paradise bloom abundantly and often.


Sources
The Flower Expert, Birds Of Paradise
SFGate, What is the Life Cycle of a Bird of Paradise?
Teleflora, Exotic Flower Spotlight: All about Birds of Paradise
Animalia Life, Greater double-collared sunbird
Outsidepride.com, Bird of Paradise Flower Seeds 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Apple #743: How Do Birds Sing?

I have to be honest. It isn't just the insanity that has accompanied the new president that has thrown me off my Appling horse, it is also my job.  I have a (relatively) new boss, and he has changed a ton of things about our department, and my workload has tripled.  Where I used to be able to finish all my work ahead of schedule and under budget with great attention to detail, now I am scrambling just to complete all the tasks I'm responsible for.  Most days I leave work late, exhausted, and dissatisfied because I have to leave things incomplete.  I haven't had much time or energy left over for much else.

This past week was an especially grueling one.  I was working on one project that I knew would be complicated.  Most projects of this kind typically take me about 5 hours.  I expected this one to take me a day, maybe day & a half.  It took a week and a half total, the final 3 days of which I spent solely and completely on it with my entire attention for a solid 8 hours, or 9 hours, or 10 hours.

At the end of one of these days, I was staggering out of my building and the sun was going down, but I was pleased because most of the time when I leave work it is dark.  I had that weird floating feeling you get when you've had insufficient sleep for a long time, and as I walked to my car, I was staring at the clouds edged with the peach of sunset and the vivid green of the grass and the potholes in the asphalt as if I had never seen any of them before.



The clouds on that evening looked something like this, though they were smaller than this. As we learned in my Sunsets entry, no two sunsets are alike, from one location to the next, from one day to the next.
(Photo of sunset over Sydney, Australia, from Wikimedia Commons)


When I got to my parking lot, I heard a bird singing.  There is a strip of grass in between two great expanses of asphalt and along this strip of grass is a row of pine trees trying valiantly to keep growing in spite of being surrounded by almost nothing.  I don't know what kind of trees these are, actually.  They look a lot like conifers, but they lose their needles in the fall and the whole concept of deciduous conifers just confuses me.  Because their needles turn brown and fall off, they look sickly most of the time.  Maybe they really are.

But it seems as though they are trying to make some sort of comeback with the spring. They are sprouting some new needles that are that very bright yellow-green of new leaves and they look soft and not stiff & pointy yet.  They are still sparse, though, so you can see the entire shape of the tree like a skeleton.



Maybe the trees in question are European larches -- one of a very few deciduous conifers.
(Photo from Go Botany)


At the very top of one of these trees sat a bird and it was singing and singing and singing.  I couldn't tell what sort of bird it was because the light was behind it so it looked like a dark shape up there.  But its song was complex, liquid, carrying, and beautiful.  It sang a series of songs, like maybe 4 patterns, then paused.  Then it sang another series of 4, but slightly different than the first 4, variations almost, then paused again.  It did this over and over, but each series I heard was different.  No pattern was exactly the same , though some of the sounds were repeated, like the way the letter "y" sounds one way when attached at the end of a word but another way when you put it at the front of a word.

To my exhausted, drained ear, it sounded beautiful and delicious.  It felt physically good to listen to it.  I wondered if I could make it my job to listen to birds' songs all day, recording their patterns.  Probably this is someone's job already, to listen to birdsongs.

I also wondered, how do birds do that?  They are such little things, how do they make a song so complex, that sounds like water bending around a curve?  Tell me more about how birds sing.

Name That Bird

  • I tried to figure out what kind of bird I heard.  The Smithsonian has a wonderful Guide to North American Bird Songs that helps you narrow down the possibilities by choosing among major identifying factors, such as whether the song has one note or two or more than that.
  • I answered several questions and got to a final list of 15 birds it could have been.  Listening to the sample clips of each one, I suppose it could have been any one of them.  It might have been a robin, or some kind of thrush, but I have never heard any robin sing quite like that before.
  • It also might have been an indigo bunting. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this bird likes to sing in the very tops of trees, and the bird I heard was doing exactly that. It's the males who sing, and they like treetops or shrubs, especially in places where shrubby roadsides meet forests.  They sing to find a mate, defend their territory, or for other reasons unknown.




  • I'm not entirely convinced it was an indigo bunting, though, because the two birds in the video above include some rough almost growly notes, and the bird I heard did not do that.  But maybe the bird I heard was different from its fellows in that way.  Birders say that birds from different parts of the country have slightly different songs, the way people have different accents in different parts of the country.


How Do They Sing Like That?

  • Birds can sing in ways that people can't because their equipment is different.  Where we have a larynx (voice box) at the top of our throats, birds have a syrinx which is situated farther down the windpipe, in their chests.
  • For us, the windpipe below the larynx meets up with the bronchial tubes which branch into two and connect to the lungs.  For birds, the syrinx is closer to the lungs, and where our larynx has one chamber, their syrinx has two.  With two chambers instead of one, naturally birds can make many more sounds than we could and they can do more complex things with the sounds, such as making two happen at once.
  • Here's another way in which the birds have us beat: we use only 2% of the air passing through our larynx to make sound. Birds use 100% of their air going through their syrinx.


A sort of big-picture diagram showing the basics of the two-chambered syrinx and where it is located within a bird
(Diagram from Heather's Site of Birding Basics)



A more zoomed-in view of the syrinx, showing the trachial and bronchial rings which line the trachea and bronchial tubes respectively, and which help create various sounds. The two red blobs on either side of the two tubes, labeled the lateral labia, are bumps of muscle, I think, which constrict the tubes or open them, and that also creates variation in sound. They can regulate volume as well as pitch.
(Diagram from Biology 342 course materials at Reed College, adapted from another source whose page is now defunct)


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this wonderful interactive page showing how the syrinx works and what it is doing during the songs of particular birds.  You must investigate this. Watching the interactive pages will give you a much better idea of how the whole mechanism works than any description of mine could.

But let me quote from this rather poetic passage from the British Library which explains how birds sing, and also, well, see for yourself:

As air passes, so an acoustic disturbance is set up, the tympanum vibrates and sound is created. The pitch (frequency) of that sound and the loudness (amplitude) of it can be modulated. So far as the tympanum is concerned, these two effects are usually coupled. The function of the extendable little "bump" is believed to be to change the loudness without having to change the pitch. Bear in mind that the bird may be playing at the same time a second tune on his other half; also that this description is considerably simplified. It will be clear, however that such complexity is necessary to explain the amazing vocal gymnastics certain "higher" songbirds display. "Lower" birds have a syrinx that is of a rather simpler design. In either case the physiology and acoustics of bird vocalisation are unique in the animal kingdom; further, birds produce more complex sounds than any other animal, certainly including man.

One last point: birds do not sing only when inhaling. A grasshopper warbler Locustella naevia may "reel" for over two minutes, a nightjar may chur continuously for eight minutes, and a skylark may "pour forth its full heart" in completely unbroken song for 18 minutes. To replenish their oxygen these birds must breathe in; and must do so while singing. In the case of the night jar, the bird discernibly alternates soft short trills with loud long ones and these short trills are believed to be when the bird inhales. Less continuous singers may also use air travelling in either direction. The white-rumped shama, for example, is believed so to do. (British Library)

What about Owls?

A remark in that British Library passage reminds me that I'm also curious about owls.  On other occasions, in a forest where I like to hike, I have heard barred owls hooting.  But that word "hooting" sounds really tame compared to the sounds I've heard.  The barred owl's call is typically rendered as Who cooks for you? But what I have heard was really frickin' carrying and echoing and loud.  Like you could hear this call from two miles away.  And usually it's more like Who cooks for yooooooooooou?

I have tried to duplicate this call, and every now and then other people walking in the woods have tried to call back to an actual owl. But it doesn't even come close to how full-throated the owl's call is.  Ours sounds like a weak imitation while theirs sounds like it comes from inside a barrel and gets broadcast through a megaphone.

In that British Library passage, I wonder if owls are one of the "lower" birds whose syrinx is less complex than the songbirds'.  Because for all the volume and timbre of the owl's call it is not as complex as a songbird's song.  The barn owl cannot even hoot or call as other owls do; it makes more of a rasping noise.

I couldn't find much information about owl syringes (plural of syrinx; gotta love Latin). Apparently they are not as interesting as the voice boxes of other birds.  But I did find some videos of owl calls.

Here's a video with recordings of barred owl calls.  I don't think you get the sense of volume, but imagine that this recording was made about a mile or two away from where the owl is roosting.





Now here are some calls of several different types of owls. What I love about this and about the barred owl calls above is the variety of voices. Not only do the calls sound different from one species to the next, but they sound different from one individual owl to the next.




Parting Thoughts

Just as no two sunsets are alike, possibly no two birds' songs are alike.  Though birds can sing way better than people can, they are like people in that each bird's voice is unique.

So I may never again hear a bird's song like what I heard the other day.  But I may hear another song some other day that is even more wonderful.




Maybe what I heard was actually a robin. Everybody thinks they're so common, and they are, but I do love them. They remind me of long, good summer days when I was young and spent most of the day playing outside and the sun has gone down and I'm lying in bed, tired in a good way, being lulled to sleep by the soft breeze from the fan, while outside, the robins are singing their good-night songs. No better lullaby.


Sources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Indigo Bunting
Audubon, Indigo Bunting
The Guardian, Mystery bird: Indigo bunting, Passerina cyanea
British Library, The language of birds 6. How does a bird sing?
Wingmasters, Who Gives a Hoot -- and Who Doesn't
Frank B. Gill, Ornithology p 223

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Apple #742: Spring Peepers

As faithful Daily Apple readers may have noticed, your Apple Lady has fallen off the ball. This is largely because I have been stumped by the Trump Effect.  All week long, we are beset by news of whatever idiotic thing he's tweeted, whatever racist executive order he's made, whatever selfish and oblivious thing he's done, whatever outlandish lie he has told.  Each weekend, I try to decide what I want to talk about in a Daily Apple, and all I do is flail.

Do I choose some basic fact of science that one of his brainless minions has gotten completely wrong, and explain how and why it's wrong?  Well, it doesn't really matter to this administration whether they are right or wrong, only that they get their way.

Do I choose the latest bit of information about the ever-growing list of connections between Trump and Russian financiers, legitimate and not?  While an illegal financial arrangement is there, I am sure of it, the money dots have not yet been connected, and in the meantime, it's such a swirling pool of individuals, I'm not sure which person or bank is the one to profile at this point, or if I'd only be contributing to the swirl.

And there's the exhaustion of trying to keep up with all the ugliness of this administration.  Do I really want to spend another day of my week talking about that ugliness?  Would it be better to give people a break and talk about some normal thing from everyday life?  But then am I only sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the thing that is in the process of changing all our lives so dramatically.

Without a decision, I post nothing.  And another week passes.

But I think I found an answer it a tiny little thing.

This weekend, I was walking in a park in my city -- a large, many-acre park with lots of trees and some streams and rivers and even a couple ponds.  I took a little-used path deep into the trees, and it comes out to the edge of a pond at the far end of the park, and the air was ringing with the noise of the spring peepers.

video

I hope the little video I took to record the sound will upload here.  At first, you hear mostly the wind, but then the noise of the spring peepers emerges.  It doesn't seem as loud on my video as it did in real life.  There must have been thousands of them chirping away, super-piercing loudly.  It was almost tactile in my ears, the noisy peeping from all directions.

  • Spring peepers are tree frogs.  They live in trees and shrubs and bushes.  They have little sticky pads on their toes that help them climb.
  • They come down to ponds or swamps or other watery areas to mate and lay their eggs.
  • They could be any number of colors typical to frogs & toads -- brown, gray, green, yellow.
  • Their Latin name is Pseudoacris (false locust, for its call that sounds like the insect but isn't) crucifer (cross, for the X-shaped mark on its back).


Spring peepers are small, usually about 3/4" long.  The biggest they get is an inch and a half long.
(Photo from Yoopers Teez)


It occurred to me, these little peepers have no idea who the president is.  They could care less.  Well, they are certainly aware that the climate has changed and they're dealing with that, but they are getting about their business regardless. It is spring, time to mate, and that is for damn sure what they're doing.

  • It's only the males who peep.  They make the peeping sound to attract and entice the females. 
  • Most sites say they start their peeping at dusk, but every year I hear these peepers going at it in broad daylight.
  • A male frog won't peep until he's about three years old.  Since spring peepers only live to be 3 or 4 at most, they've got to get their peeping right.
  • They force a bunch of air into the vocal sac under their chin, and as that air passes over their vocal chords, it makes a squeak or a peep.
  • A male does this over and over, about 90 times per minute, for four hours in one day.  The next day, they do it all again.  This can go on for 4 to 8 weeks until everybody's got a mate.
  • Scientists theorize that they band together for their peeping because, even though it increases their direct competition with each other, they benefit from the combined volume of their calls.
  • The result is a gigantic chorus of peeping made by hundreds or perhaps thousands of tiny frogs.




Year after year these frogs get together and do their thing.  They put up this marvelous chorus which is unbelievably loud for their individual tiny size.  They've done this for centuries, and they'll keep on doing so for centuries more.

Yes, their habitats are threatened by over-fertilization and climate change and water shortages and everything else we hear about.  But these frogs, like so many other animals and plants around the globe, are keeping on, regardless of who is president, regardless of what idiotic things get said or done in Washington.  I have been coming to this park for I don't know how many years now, and every year, there are these peepers, peeping away like mad.  Come spring, no matter what, as long as they've got life and breath in them, these frogs are going to show up and get to peeping.

  • When one female is especially interested in one mate, she walks up to him ("enters his calling area," as the scientific site puts it) and nudges him.   Sort of like that old Monty Python sketch--nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean--except better.
  • The male climbs on the back of the female nudger and hangs on.  She swims back into the pond and starts laying her eggs, with the male hanging onto her back the whole time.
  • She can lay anywhere from 700 to as many as 1,200 eggs at one go, with Mr. Frog on her back the entire time.  
  • The male fertilizes the eggs after they emerge from the female are laid.
  • Within 6 to 12 days, the eggs hatch and you get tadpoles.
  • That's what it's all about. 


Male spring peeper atop a female. After she lays her eggs, she goes back into the woods. He stays in the water and keeps on singing.
(Photo from Naturally Curious with Mary Holland)


Life goes on, see?  These tiny little frogs, they make sure of it.  So I decided that's what I have to do.  Not, you know, breed like a spring peeper, but keep on.  I can't let some nincompoop with an overlong tie and the stupidest haircut and the most wrongest ideas ever--I can't let a jackass like that stop me.  I have to be like the peepers.  I have to get on with my business.  Help out where I can, do for others when I can, but I have to keep on with my own life too.  Show up and do my Apple thing.  So here I am, Appling.

I hope you're able to find a way to keep on keepin' on too.

Peep.

Sources
Penn State University New Kensington, Virtual Nature Trail, Spring Peeper
National Wildlife Federation, Spring Peeper
Farmers' Almanac, Fun Facts about Spring Peepers
National Geographic, Spring Peeper

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Apple #741: This Is Not News

Last night was DT's first address to Congress.  I didn't watch. I had to take a nap.  I had bills to pay.

After I woke up and paid my bills, I got on facebook.  I came across this interview -- I shouldn't even call it that. Verbal mangling -- between Tucker Carlson and Bill Nye.



If you want a left-wing spin on this interview, here's Raw Story's presentation of it. If you prefer a right-wing spin, here's the National Review's presentation. Whichever one tickles your fancy. 

I have seen "interviews" like this for years, decades. We all have.  Every commentator on Fox has a show like this in which they "interview" people in just this way.  This doesn't deviate from any norm that Fox established long ago.  The difference is, I watched this with that brain-freshness you have when you just wake up.  I took every bit of it in like every moment was essential to my survival.  And what did I see?

Nothing we don't already know, nothing we haven't already learned.  I saw that Carlson is not really interested in anything Nye has to say.  He pretends to; that is the pretense of his show and having the interview in the first place. But his pretense isn't even very well held.  His only purpose is to have Nye on his show and somehow discredit him, humiliate him, show him up so Carlson's listeners can get past whatever Nye has to say and go back to thinking exactly what they were thinking before Nye began to speak.

A true interview should engage, listen, learn from what people have to say.  Then build on that person's expertise to help us advance, however slightly, in our knowledge of the world around us.  Carlson's tactics are to interrupt, obfuscate, poke fun of, ignore, shut down.  When Nye's statements threaten to break through Carlson's veneer, instead of responding, he returns to his initial question as if Nye has not answered it.

This interview asks nothing of its viewers except to put up with the near-constant interruption (which is so rude and awful, a lot of people in fact can't put up with that and do not watch these shows). The pay-off is, you don't have to change anything about what you thought before. You can relax back into your comfortable wish that what Nye has to say, that human beings have accelerated climate change to catastrophic levels and unless we change our course of action double-quick, thousands of people are going to suffer.  Nah, you don't have to hear that. All you have to pay attention to is how clever Carlson was to shut him down. Yeah, Nye can't answer a simple question.  He was asked a simple question and he couldn't answer it. Yeah. Carlson says it 15 times so it must be true. Nye has nothing to say. He's ridiculous.

Even when Nye does Carlson a favor and explains to him what is going on with the leaks in the White House and in the Republican party, Carlson is so baffled by this straight-up unfiltered information he dismisses it out of hand as ranting. He finishes with outright laughing at his guest.

The lesson of this "interview" is don't listen.  Don't engage.  Stick to what you thought before you asked the question and persist in your unbelief.

As I've said, this is nothing new. Fox News commentators have been doing this sort of thing since Rupert Murdoch started the network. And countless people have decried these tactics since they first appeared on the media scene. Rush Limbaugh has been doing this unimpeded for decades on the radio, and his imitators have been slavishly doing the same too. (By the way, Rush and his ilk could never have had a show had it not been for the removal of the "fairness doctrine" which required broadcasters to give equal time to differing opinions -- a doctrine removed during Ronald Reagan's push for deregulation. This article by former staffer Bruce Bartlett discusses this change in journalism and other developments in a pretty fascinating overview.)

But in spite of calls to boycott Rush, in spite of experts pointing out why Fox News' tactics are so egregious, no one has effectively challenged this approach.  If they had, these shows would not still be on the air.  They would not have the viewership that they do.  We would not have Donald Trump as our President.

Because this mindset, of holding fast to your mindset, is comfortable.  It allows us to be comfortable and to stay that way.  It is so enticing, it has permeated everything about our culture.  It's in our colleges.  College, a place you go to have your brain challenged more than it's ever been challenged before and maybe ever will be again.  A place where you are asked to do nothing but learn all day, every day.  A place where you are to be molded by knowledge into a new being: an adult, ready to engage with the world and advance us a little further as human beings.

Instead, students come to college not as students but as consumers. They sit in their chairs, and they expect to be entertained for six weeks and get an A at the end. They don't really want to learn. They've got their devices. They're plugged into their headphones. They're wearing their pajamas to class. They want to be comfortable. They're not doing anything our culture hasn't taught them all their lives.

It's in our movies. La La Land, a movie so beloved it was nominated for I don't know how many Oscars (14) and came within a hair's breadth of winning best picture, asks nothing of its viewers. It presents one cliche after another, it presents only one relationship (what friends? they were only different-colored women in different-colored dresses. Ooh, diversity!), and a white man explains jazz. Jazz, a medium that requires and thrives on listening, is based on the very act of listening to what someone else has to say (musically), to take it in and respond, build on what you've heard, and create something new. I don't think the movie ever even plays actual jazz. Instead, it returns to a theme we heard at the beginning and replays it. The guy who's supposed to be a musician is played by a guy who can't sing very well, nor is he a very good dancer. Doesn't matter. We're not listening that closely anyway.



There are so many things wrong with this promo image, I don't even know where to begin. Obviously superimposed on a fake background, with a fake enormously outsized streetlight, and what are those wooden pier things doing there? There are so many versions of this image, some without a streetlight, some without their feet visible, some with the pair of them reversed, it's impossible to know which one is the "real" one. 
None of the images like this are even real, anyway. Below, is (I think) a screenshot from the actual movie. Messy hair and all.
(Daily Mail above, Independent below)




And when the movie is about to approach a sad ending -- which ISN'T EVEN VERY SAD. She marries a man whom she apparently loves and who apparently loves her, she has a daughter who is sweet, she is fabulously successful so she can go off and leave her child with someone else without fear or worry or any trouble about the expense or the social politics of it. The only thing that is sad is that she marries a different guy -- and just as it's about to face that slight bit of discomfort, it backs away, revisits the entire movie in faced-paced miniature, showing us exactly what we've just seen, and gives us the happy ending. So we get to escape from our escapism and have things just the way we want them. We get to have the happy ending, and we also get an easy-to-swallow dose of the bittersweet along with it. Nothing hard to accept or difficult or thought-provoking about any of it.

People loved it.

It's pap.

It's in our radio stations, our TV stations. Hear something you don't like? Change the station. You don't have to listen to any music that's not to your taste, don't have to watch any movies not to your liking (yes, La La Land turned out not to be my taste, but I sure did learn a lot from watching it, if only how much our culture is drained of real engagement with any subject), don't have to watch any TV shows you don't like. You don't even have to scroll through channels. You can custom-stream whatever show you want direct to your tiny little device and watch that show over and over and over and over and over and over. Talk about tunnel vision.

Hear some bit of science you don't like? Shut it off.  Disable the organizations that put out the scientific data in the first place. We don't want to hear about climate change and the damage fracking is doing, so we'll shut it all off. People have no clue how much science went into that egg on their breakfast table, that steak on their dinner plate. But why should they care? That egg is going to show up whether they know how it was made or not. Someone else will put it there. Someone else will take care of it. Someone else will think about it. I'm just going to eat it.

And what about people you don't like? You can shut them off too. Don't like their religion? Don't let 'em in. Don't like the color of their skin? Kick 'em out. Put 'em in jail. Put them on the other side of the wall and us on this side. We want only people like us here. People who look like us, talk like us, refuse to think like us. Because that's what makes us comfortable.

Daily Show-lovers are just as guilty of this. When Jon Stewart shows up, don't you feel that undeniable sense of "Ahh," of sinking into that mental Naugahyde lounger while you wait to be told just how wrong they are and just how right we are?  Isn't it lovely?  Isn't it rich?

It's the height of privilege, this ability to choose what to hear.  We can afford to buy the devices that enable that choice. We can afford to move out of neighborhoods we don't like, to drive away from a situation that frightens us, to fly to a country where we can drink fruity drinks by the pool and eat spicy foods and fly away again.

No wonder our President is so privileged he has no idea how privileged he is. No wonder he rejects anything he disagrees with. No wonder he tells lies outrageous and small all the time, and gets away with it. The difference between truth and lies has not mattered for a very long time. No wonder he has kicked out news media he doesn't like; we do that all the time. No wonder he is kicking out ideas, people, religions, anything he doesn't like. We have done this for decades.

Take a good long look at the man we have spent decades building. In front of our noses, behind our backs, in spite of us, because of us. We all had a hand in this creation.



If we want to dismantle him, we need to rebuild ourselves.

We can't bring back the fairness doctrine and require media to give equal coverage to opposing viewpoints. Our media is too diffuse to enforce that regulation, if anybody would even support it. But we can do more to encourage critical thinking, demand critical thinking. Seek out opinions that differ from your own. Challenge yourself and see what you discover. Ask questions. Write to your TV station, your newspaper. Subscribe to a newspaper. Subscribe two: a local paper and one that does in-depth investigative reporting. Tell people about what you've learned. Talk to people who have different opinions than you do, and don't just talk.  Ask why, and listen.

Don't disengage. Engage.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Apple #739: Anti-Corruption Laws and Blind Trust

Maybe you've seen some of the news articles recently saying that our President-elect has some serious conflicts of interest that he needs to resolve prior to taking office.  Maybe you even saw this statement from the Office of Government Ethics, which handles ethics issues in the Executive Branch.



Office of Government Ethics director Walter Schaub making a statement that Trump's plan for dealing with conflicts of interest is inadequate, and why. This may seem at first to be boring and procedural, but in your Apple Lady's opinion, this is what speaking truth to power looks like: should be -- calm, thought-out, supported by evidence, and determined to do what is right no matter what the circumstances may be.


For the sake of clarity and focus, I'm going to discuss only those conflicts that are related to our President-Elect's business holdings.  I'm not going to get into all the stuff with Russia, even though talking about his business holdings can very quickly lead to the Russia morass.

But that is in fact the very reason the conflicts of interest are a problem: when you have business deals with international governments and then you become a head of state, you may very quickly be faced with a situation where you have to decide which are you going to put first, the financial success of your company, or the political health of your country?  The conflicts of interest clauses in the Constitution were created so foreign leaders wouldn't be allowed to bribe our officials, nor would our officials be put in a situation where they would even be tempted.

Is the President Exempt from Conflicts of Interest? Of Course Not

The President-elect has said, "The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest."  Many of our laws dealing with conflict of interest fall into one group (Title 18, Section 208 of the US Code), and they include an exception for the president (18 USC 202(c) ) who touches so many parts of the government and the country's operations that it would be nearly impossible for the president not to have any conflicts of interest.  To ban all conflicts would restrict so many people from the presidency that it wouldn't be feasible or desirable.  Further, expecting the president to recuse himself or herself from any situation where there's a conflict of interest isn't workable either because there's no other person who holds that position who could act in the president's stead..  So, looking only at that part of the law, he is correct.

However, there are many other parts of federal law and the Constitution which restrict the president from receiving payments from other entities.  I'll discuss the three main places where corruption is specifically not allowed (though there are more anti-corruption laws than only these three).


 
This is the first place that says -- twice -- that the president must not even have the opportunity to be corrupt.
(Photo of the Constitution from the National Archives)

No Payments from Foreign Entities


The founders were very concerned about keeping the office of the president free from corruption, or even having the appearance of corruption.  So there is a clause in the Constitution -- this is present since the very founding of this country -- that says

[N]o Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

This is usually referred to as the Emoluments clause, or the foreign emoluments clause.  An emolument is any kind of payment, compensation, profit, or literally "bettering."



This is one kind of emolument.
(Photo from Vice Lounge


Interpreted strictly, any money of any kind that comes from a foreign head of state and is paid to the president could be a violation, if Congress decides that it is.  So let's say after Jan 20, the leader of Dubai stays at the hotel Trump owns in Dubai and pays his hotel bill.  This is a payment from a foreign head of state to a business that is owned by the president. Violates the foreign emoluments clause, doesn't it?

(In fact, following the election, many foreign diplomats flocked to Trump's hotel in D.C., believing it would be beneficial to them to be able to say, "I stayed at your hotel."  That hotel was even "pitching" itself to foreign officials.  Sure sounds more than iffy to me.  But let's go back to the Dubai guy in the Dubai hotel.)

Most people say yes that's a violation, but some people say no.  They argue that the payment for the room wouldn't be a payment to the Office of the President; or they say, how could a busy president keep track of all his hotel tenants and be influenced by that; or, as one CEO who stayed in his hotel is quoted as saying, “Do you think the president-elect knows who rents rooms for two hours?”

Then Trump's tax attorney said, well, he'll just donate all hotel profits from foreign governments to the US Treasury.  So, on the one hand, he can't keep track of who's staying in his hotel, but on the other hand, he'll donate all foreign payments to the Treasury.  Uh-huh.

You see how murky this can get.

No Payments from U.S. States


There is also a domestic emoluments clause in the Constitution (Article II Section 1) -- again, the founders really did not want a corrupt president -- which prohibits the president from receiving any payment from within the United States:

The President shall, at stated times, receive for his services, a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.

So none of the states in the union can slip the president a Benjamin or two and get some kind of favorable treatment, like let's say more federal funds for that state's schools, or relaxed regulation on hospitality laws only in that state, or an executive pardon for every guy in the state of New York who's ever committed sexual assault.
  
Another difference between this clause and the foreign emoluments clause is that receiving payment isn't allowed under any circumstance. In the case of foreign payments, if Congress says it's OK, it's OK.  With domestic payments, never OK.

So, in our running example, what if it's not the leader of Dubai but the governor of Texas who stays in his hotel, and it's for some sort of state meeting or conference.  So the taxpayers of Texas would cover the cost of the governor's stay.  So in paying that hotel bill, is the state of Texas making a payment to the president?

Here's another example that is less directly covered by that clause, but is more realistic and no less problematic: Let's say a bill lands on President Trump's desk that, I don't know, bans some kind of building material that is found to be so hazardous it's been killing people, but his contractors used it in all of his hotels because it was cheap.  Is President Trump going to sign that law and put his company on the hook for replacing all of that building material, or opening up his properties to huge liability lawsuits?  That's a huge conflict of interest, where he would be asked to choose between the good of the public or the financial benefit of his companies.  I think I know which action he would take, but I also think most of us don't even want a president to be in that situation in the first place.

No Bribery

The emoluments clauses try to keep the president from being in a position to be corrupted.  As legal scholars have pointed out, they say the president can't accept payments, period.  With bribery laws, you have to prove that not only did someone receive money, they did something in return for that money.  The emoluments clauses say you don't have to prove the action in return; they can't accept the money period, regardless of what happens afterwards.

But there are bribery laws, and they do cover the office of the president.  So even if he could skate past the emoluments clauses, if he were shown to take some sort of action in return for a payment, he could be found guilty of bribery.

The Bribery of public officials part of the US Code (18 USC 201) is written in a very inclusive complex way, so I'll break it down for you into its digestible parts: 
  • Any public official -- high or low, doesn't matter in what office
  • who directly or indirectly 
  • receives or accepts, or seeks without ever receiving, or so much as promises
  • for themselves or for anybody else (like, family) or any other entity (like, their business)
  • anything of value 
  • in return for
  • influence in how the public official performs his or her job, or
  • being any part of any kind of fraud against the United States, or
  • influence not to do something that is part of his or her job, or
  • influencing the testimony of a witness at any kind of trial or hearing
  • shall be punished as follows:
  • fined up to 3x the monetary value of the bribe in question, or
  • put in prison for up to 15 years
  • or both
  • and "may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States."
So, to return to our first example, if it could be proven that the leader of Dubai's payment for staying in the Trump hotel in Dubai was directly connected to some kind of action Trump made or did not make that benefited Dubai or harmed the United States, then he would have violated the bribery laws.

Or let's say a president accepted investments made to his business from foreign investors and then in return for those investments, he lifted sanctions on that country, or if he failed to take action against that country when it had been shown to have acted in a way detrimental to our democracy, or if he said he has no problem with their actions that violate international agreements of which our country is a part, or if he in any way performed his job in any way that was colored by those "investments," then he could be found guilty of having accepted a bribe, and he would be punished accordingly.

Emoluments Clauses Precede the Bribery Laws


The anti-bribery laws are in some ways more strict, but they are more difficult to prove because you have to demonstrate quid pro quo (you give me this, so in exchange I give you that).  The emoluments clauses are like the watchdogs that try to keep the bribery from happening in the first place. They try to keep the office-holder from being in a situation where bribery could occur.

So even though the anti-bribery law would absolutely apply to Trump should he violate it, the Emoluments clauses raise their heads first. That is why people are talking about these more than they are the bribery statutes.

What complicates all this is that there is zero precedent for litigation of the Emoluments clauses.  No past president has violated them to the extent that anyone wanted to take him to court over it.  Some experts aren't even sure if a lawsuit would be appropriate because they say you wouldn't be suing the person, you would be suing the president, and that becomes a political situation and something that should be handled not in a court of law but by Congress.

How Should the Conflict of Interest Laws Be Enforced?

I think we can all agree that we do not want our president accepting bribes.  We don't even want to have reason to think that could happen.  But unfortunately, Trump and his lawyers disagree with what several people are saying is necessary action for him to take to make sure he can't be found guilty of bribery, or even have the appearance of being in a bribe-able position.

All past presidents have chosen to take steps to avoid raising any kind of doubt about their susceptibility to corruption.  They sold their assets before taking office, or they turned over detailed financial records and sat through hearings while members of Congress painstakingly combed through them, or they put their assets into a blind trust.  The blind trust is the route that most people are saying Trump should take.  Trump, through his lawyer, said he's not going to do that.

Blind Trusts


This is what setting up a blind trust looks like on paper, har har.  Really, it's the rules and the circumstances behind it that are crucial.
(Photo from eHow)


A trust is a legal name for an agreement you make with someone else when you ask them to hang onto your money for you and manage it on your behalf.  Like, your grandmother might put her bank accounts and all the stuff she owns (her estate) into a trust that is managed by a lawyer and then when she dies, the lawyer contacts you and says, Hey, your grandma left you all this money, and I've been managing it for her, but now that she's died, it's yours, what do you want me to do with it?  That's the kind of trust most people are familiar with.  But a trust can be much more general than that.

Most trusts are set up so the person managing it talks to the owner and says things like, Hey, this stock price is tanking, do you want me to sell it? or Hey, this building you owned just got bombed, what do you want me to do with it?  There is open communication between the trust manager and the owner (beneficiary) about what property is in the trust, how it's performing, and what the trust manager should do with that property.

A blind trust is set up so the owner of the property (beneficiary) does not know what's going on with it.  The trust manager has total decision-making control, and the beneficiary literally and totally trusts the manager to do a good job with the property until the beneficiary can take control of it again.  Lots of public officials have used blind trusts because they allow the person to retain ownership of the stuff, but they can't see whether the stock in such & such a company just went up because they tweeted some ridiculous remark, or whether the stock in such & such took a nosedive because they said they think that company shouldn't get any more government contracts. There is no danger of being accused of a conflict of interest because they don't even know exactly what is in the trust, let alone how it might be affected by their work as a public official.

Another element to the blind trust is the beneficiary should not even know what's in it, let alone how it is managed.  If you know you've got stock in BP, your response to the Deepwater Horizon fiasco might be different than if you didn't know you had that stock.  So what a lot of public officials have done is not only create a blind trust, but also sell or convert what they have to cash prior to putting it into the trust, and then the trust manager takes that cash and re-invests it in a way that the beneficiary knows nothing about.  That way, all the public official knows is that their money is being managed.  They don't know what form that money has taken, if it's stocks or bonds or mutual funds, or bars of gold sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

This is the course of action that some people, including Mr. Walter Schaub up there at the top, are saying Trump should take before assuming the Office of the President.

Mr. Trump's lawyers are saying no, we're not going to do that.


Trump's Proposed Trust


Trump's attorney Sheri Dillon delivering the news that -- surprise! -- they're going to do things their own way. 
(Photo from LawNewz)


What Trump's lawyers say they are going to do is as follows:
  • Convert the hundreds of entities into a single trust
  • To be managed by Trump's two sons plus a long-time Trump executive (these three are "the management team")
  • An ethics adviser, as yet unknown, will be assigned to the management team, and the ethics adviser will have to approve everything the team does
  • Trump has already sold his stock in publicly traded companies, so the cash from those sales will go into the trust.  
  • All the properties he owns -- golf courses, hotels, resorts, etc., -- he's going to keep, and those will go in the trust.  
  • All currently pending deals will be terminated, and no foreign deals will be undertaken while he's president.
  • Domestic deals will be allowed, but "will go through a vigorous vetting process" done by the ethics adviser.  
  • Trump will continue to see profit & loss statements, but at a top-level only.

His lawyer says it's ridiculous to expect him to sell everything because whatever price he got for his properties people would say was unduly influenced by his impending office.

His lawyer says that he couldn't sell his businesses to his children because they couldn't afford it, so they'd have to get third-party investors, and that would raise concerns.  Selling it to anybody else, well, apparently that is unthinkable because "President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built."  In other words, It's my business and I'm not going to get rid of it.

He also says his brand is part of the business, and if he were to sell it, it would lose its value because it's not associated with him anymore.  Conversely, he's also said that he couldn't really sell it because he would retain royalty rights for the use of his name, and he wouldn't be able to accept royalty payments. So gosh, gee whiz, and golly, I just have to keep my doggoned business.

But there are enormous problems with all of this.  Legal experts and ethics advisers across the country agree this plan is insufficient. 
  • His sons controlling the business along with a long-time executive -- that's not much of a blind wall there, is it?  Especially since he asked for security clearance for all of his children.
  • Continuing to see profit & loss statements is not absenting himself from running the business at all, but maintaining an awareness of its performance.  Not much trust placed in someone else, is there?
  • This ethics adviser to be named later, there's nothing to prevent this person from being a toady yes-man and approving everything the the management team does, regardless of ethics concerns.
  • The properties he does keep open up enormous conflicts of interest because any legislation he considers having to do with labor laws, environmental regulations, infrastructure, land use, banking regulations -- more -- would impact his properties, which he has a vested interest in wanting to protect.
  • Further, his properties with his name on them are a gigantic target to foreign terrorists.  Some wackadoo in InsanityLand sees TRUMP on a building in their city, suddenly that's not only a sign of capitalism run amok, that's a direct connection to the President of the United States.  Wackadoo terrorist bombs that Trump building, and he's carrying out a direct threat against the President.  This puts the lives of all the people who work in those buildings are in danger.  That's a nightmare that no one wants to see happen -- right?
(To see one suggestion about how Trump could resolve some of these conflicts of interest without divesting entirely from all his businesses, see what The Economist recommends.  Recommendations include combining all businesses into one entity, making its operations transparent to the public, and having it run by an independent management group, not his children.)

There are even more potential conflicts of interest than what I've listed here (The Atlantic has described in detail some of the more troubling international ones).  The number and scope of issues is, to quote several experts on the subject, "staggering."  And this is true only of the issues that we're aware of.
We don't even know the full scope of the conflicts because we haven't seen his tax returns.  We don't know to what entities he owes money.  Whoever he owes money to, he has every opportunity now to see that he gets his debts forgiven.  That would absolutely violate the bribery laws, but if we don't know what's in his tax returns, we won't know if he's broken the law, or at the very least, if he has motive.  

Even a blind trust can be manipulated, as Mitt Romney expressed.  But Trump won't even do this much.

What You Can Do

Trump maintains that the public doesn't care about this stuff.  He says people don't want to see his tax returns, that only the media wants to see those, and the public isn't concerned about minor details like these.

I, for one, and extremely concerned.  I am very worried that the only ones who have created a blind trust is us.  By electing him president without seeing his tax returns, we have put our blind trust in him.  We have blindly trusted this salesman and we are about to hand him the keys to the highest office in the land.  If he turns the office into a pit of corruption -- or if he even appears to turn it into a swamp of shady dealings -- that is going to damage our country enormously, down to our very belief in our own democracy.
This is what the world looked like in terms of levels of corruption in 2013.  Our country looks very unusual on the world's scale in these terms.  If we don't do something about this conflict of interest issue, I guarantee our country's level of corruption will increase.
(Image from IndustryWeek)

Ethics experts say that since there is no history of litigation surrounding the emoluments clauses -- because no president has ever been sued for violating them -- and since it's not even certain in what capacity the president COULD be sued, the only real recourse we have to keep the president -- any president -- in line is Congress.

So if you are concerned about these conflicts of interest, if you would like to ask that more be done to protect the highest office in the land from even the suspicion of corruption as our founding fathers intended, start contacting your Congress people ASAP and let them know of your concerns.  
Find your Representative in the House: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ 
Find your Senator: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/
An app called Call to Action supposedly helps make contacting representatives in Washington even easier. 


Sources
See also embedded links in the entry
 Marketwatch Jan 13, 2017
Complete transcript of Trump's press conference, Jan 11, 2017
Washington Post, Foreign leaders flock to Trump's DC hotel, Dec 7, 2016
LA Times, Trump plans to donate hotel profits, Jan 11, 2017
Chief Counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center, On other emoluments clauses, Dec 19, 2016
Fortune magazine, Guide to the emoluments clause, Jan 11, 2017
Fortune magazine, What's a blind trust anyway? Jan 12, 2017
Forbes, Why Trump won't use a blind trust and what his predecessors did, Nov 15, 2016
Office of Government Ethics, Report on Conflict of Interest Laws Relating to the Executive Branch, Jan 2006
CRS Report for Congress, The Use of Blind Trusts by Federal Officials
The Atlantic, Trump announces plan that does little to resolve conflicts of interest, Jan 11, 2017
The Guardian, Blind trusts, Jan 13, 2017

Monday, January 2, 2017

Apple #738: Knocking on Wood

I have had a request! My friends & I were talking about 2017, and how we hoped it would be better than 2016 in many ways. One of our number, Kalonice, knocked on the table for good luck. Then she said, "Where does that come from, knocking on wood?" Naturally, I had to find the answer.



(Image from Woman's Day)


Before I do any research, I'm going to put forth a guess. I'm going to say it has something to do with touching the wood of the crucifix.

  • I am wrong! The custom goes back way before Christianity.  
  • As with many of our traditions that have been around for a very long time, no one can say with certainty what is the exact timing or origin of the practice. But it goes all the way back to pagan times when Europeans -- perhaps the Druids or the Greeks -- believed that spirits lived in trees. 

 
One rendering of what a tree spirit might look like.
(Image from Tana Hoy)

  • So when you spoke of your hopes for good luck, you'd touch or bang on the trees or the wood of your house or whatever wood was near to hand from which the spirits might spring. Researchers think original idea was possibly that you were asking the spirits to make this good luck wish come true. Or maybe you were acknowledging that they are in charge, and knocking on their wood is like saying, "Hello, I know this is up to you, so I hope you'll allow this wish to come true."
  • Over time, the tradition got co-opted by the non-pagans.  Christians began saying that knocking on wood was a way of saying, This is up to Jesus, so I'm going to knock wood which reminds me of the crucifix.  So I was kind of right, but there was a more-right answer that came first.
  • At some point, the idea must have changed from propitiating the tree gods or essentially praying to Jesus to give you good stuff and became a superstition that tried to keep evil-minded spirits from bringing you bad luck.  Around the 17th century, when people said "knock wood" (or in Britain, "touch wood"), they would add the Latin phrase "absit omen," which means "may the omen be absent from me."
  • Keeping away the bad luck seems to be the prevailing attitude today, so much so that I'm tempted to disagree with the researchers and bet that this might have been the idea from the beginning.  Lots of societies hold the idea that if the spirits find out that you have too much good luck, they'll  foul things up for you. You know how this goes. As soon as you think everything's cake, something drops out of the sky -- or maybe from the treetops -- and wrecks your cake.


Someone left the cake out in the rain -- not just bad but also bad luck.
(Photo by Doris Rapp on Flickr

  • Here are similar expressions in other languages. In some countries, the expression is meant to ward off evil spirits, and in others, it is meant to seek the protection of the good spirits.
    • Arabic: امسك الخشب (imsek el-khashab), means knock wood, but gets translated as "God is the Protector"
    • Brazilian Portuguese: bater na madeira
    • Czech: klepat na dřevo
    • Finnish: koputtaa puuta
    • Greek: chtipa xilo
    • Swedish: ta i trä   
  • German lore has it that the devil can't touch oak, so if you knock oak, you're proving that you aren't the devil. 


Either Jack proves the German lore wrong, or that door is not made of oak. This seems especially creepy, though, knowing that knocking wood is supposed to keep the badness away, and here the bad guy is doing it, wanting to be let in so he can bring about more badness.
(The Shining gif from Metro News)

  • There's also a story from Jewish history. When they were being persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1490s, the Jews were hiding in synagogues and temples, which were made of wood.  They devised coded knocks to indicate they weren't the bad guys so their fellow Jews would let them in. Knocking on wood was a thing that helped them, resulting in good luck.   
  • I don't know if I buy this story because the only places where I've seen it recounted are on sites that don't have a Jewish focus. Sites maintained by people with a Jewish background say it's a Christian practice that they've adopted.
  • So while it's hard to say exactly when the practice started, and while some cultures mean it to keep the bad stuff away and others mean it to bring the good stuff, what does seem to be true is that cultures & languages throughout time and around the globe knock wood.


Really going for the good luck, or touching wood all the way around the tree, hoping that 2017 will be better than the auguries currently show.
(Photo posted by Shouvik Chatterjee at Quora)

Sources
Mental Floss, Why Do We Knock on Wood?
Today I Found Out, Why Do We Knock on Wood?
The Phrase Finder, Knock on wood
Metro News, Why do we touch wood to avoid bad luck?
Touch Wood for Luck, The History & Superstition of "Touch Wood"
Islam in Everyday Arabic Speech, page 115