26 August 2009


today senator ted kennedy died, after a long battle with brain cancer. his star-crossed family gave us a fallen WWII hero, a charismatic president and an equally charismatic senator who would have become president. both men were assassinated (1963 and 1968 respectively). despite their inherited wealth, or perhaps because of it, the kennedy brothers were firmly committed to issues of social justice. ted was no exception -- he has worked for decades to try to pass health care reform. it is a sad irony that he died just as his dream stands on the threshold of fruition. but he leaves a solid legacy of human rights legislation -- voting rights, womens rights, the fight against racism and apartheid, the list goes on and on. and in the process, as a proudly partisan liberal, kennedy was able to reach across the aisle and work with his conservative colleagues with respect and congeniality.

at least two kennedy offspring, JFK's daughter and RFK's son, carry on their own political activism, at a lower profile but nonetheless vigorously engaged.

a footnote -- i will be on vacation with my family until 5 september, so my entries may be sporadic. please hang in there, i will return.

25 August 2009


on this date in 1989, the voyager 2 spacecraft (shown passing saturn) made its closest approach to neptune, the last planet visited before leaving the solar system. the voyager program is arguably the most successful unmanned mission in NASA history, alongside the pioneer program. both sets of spacecraft continued to return monumental streams of data on our solar system and beyond, well past their intended mssions. long may they sail !!!

24 August 2009


NASA maintains numerous websites -- one that i check daily is their astronomy picture of the day, or APOD. mostly the images are of events in space, but fairly often they include earth-bound geophysical or weather phenomena. case in point -- today's image featured a type of cloud formation which i'd never heard of (and i've a long-standing fascination with the weather, made more emphatic by my interest in getting a private pilot's license). the clouds you see are called morning glory clouds. a tubular or roll cloud which occurs every spring over queensland, australia. check out the "calendar" and "index" tabs at the bottom of the APOD webpage for many, many additional spectacular images of earth and space. (as always, click on the image to enlarge)

23 August 2009


i just finished reading Killing Che, by chuck pfarrer. though a novel, the book has the ring of authenticity to it, presenting a very plausible fictionalized account of the death of communist guerrilla leader che guevara. after helping to establish fidel castro's revolutionary government in cuba, che was forsaken by castro, and sent to lead guerrilla movements in the congo and later in bolivia, where he was hunted down and assassinated with the active participation of the CIA.

the author is a former u.s. navy seal and counter-terrorism consultant. his writing is crisp, informed and genuine in its portrayal of spy craft and warfare, yet this is much more than an action novel. there are no stereotypical good guys or bad guys. rather, the story is populated by complex human beings who must face terrible moral choices, and live (or die) with the consequences. in the book's tone and authenticity, i am reminded of don winslow's The Power of the Dog, set in the international war on drugs. both are powerfully, vividly written and well worth reading, for their command of language and their revelation of dark worlds.

22 August 2009


every saturday on missoula's alternative (read liberal) talk radio station, for three hours the public is brought up to speed on electronics goods and services by "america's digital goddess", kim komando. when i am able, i try not to miss her show -- she is scarily informed, consumer friendly, and rapid-fire entertaining. her radio show is a cornucopia of information and insight into what makes things tick in the digital age. and yes, komando is her actual last name, ukrainian-russian in origin. a true prodigy, she graduated from high school at age 16, and from arizona state university at age 20, having already set up a successful business training people how to use their computers. check out her website for more info on kim, and an avalance of knowledge and tips for technology users of all ages. enjoy !!

21 August 2009


please click on this link for a thorough description (including an animated illustration) of an engineering marvel known as the falkirk wheel, which links two sets of canals separated vertically by 24 meters (79 feet). this rotating boat lift is located near the town of falkirk in central scotland. fans of the movie Braveheart may recall that it was at the first battle of falkirk that scots freedom fighter william wallace was finally captured by forces under the english king, edward I ("edward longshanks") on 22 july 1298.

also, kudos to fellow blogger The Angry Black Woman, for her taking PETA to task for their counterproductive tactics ostensibly on behalf of animal rights and protection. TABW is one of my absolute favorite bloggers -- long may she reign !!

20 August 2009


for sheer satiric fun, any fan of Riverdance or of Zorba the Greek will love the bravado in this performance on the tv show "Britain's Got Talent". prepare for uncontrolled grins.......irish step dancing meets greek sirtaki, performed by a father and son who clearly love each other.

19 August 2009


on this day during the war of 1812, the american navy frigate USS Constitution (pictured in 1997) defeated the british royal navy frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of nova scotia, canada, earning her the nickname "Old Ironsides".

18 August 2009


this description appears in today's wikipedia online:

Early Autumn (13th century), a well-known example of bird-and-flower painting, a style of chinese painting where the subject is traditionally described to be "flowers, birds, fish and insects", which in reality allows the artist to deal with a wide range of natural topics. in this painting, the depiction of decaying lotus leaves and dragonflies hovering over stagnant water is likely a veiled criticism of mongol rule.

(please click on the image to enlarge for full effect.)

17 August 2009


yesterday i watched the final episode of the final season of the 2004-2009 incarnation of battlestar galactica -- and am very disappointed that the series ended. unlike its rather campy 1978 predecessor, this series was nuanced, solid drama with a talented ensemble cast headed by edward james olmos and mary mcdonnell. the writing was uniformly engaging for intelligent adults, dealing with political and moral issues well beyond what is normally encountered in science fiction. no phony aliens, no shallow characters, no predictable scripts. like the canadian series firefly, BG presents a believable mix of retro and futuristic technologies. but always, always it is the human drama that lies at center stage. i highly recommend renting the entire series from the beginning, through netflix.

16 August 2009


in today's NYTimes online, one of the lead articles examines the increasing presence of women in combat situations in iraq and afghanistan. this is a development long past due. the old gender stereotypes about women as being weak, irrational, only suited to certain jobs, or a distraction to their male counterparts, are false. our military has known this for a long time, yet the old guard in the upper military ranks and in congress have resisted facing the reality on the ground -- that women are as courageous, proficient and effective as men. here is a link to a video which portrays that reality.

in israel, national military service is mandatory for both genders, for any non-arab israeli citizen. this has been the case for many years, and any military professional will tell you that israel fields perhaps the finest, most effective military presence in the world. as usual, the u.s. government lags behind much of the rest of the world in economic, environmental and military policy. similarly, law enforcement agencies resisted training women for active duty for many years. yet today, my own sister is a san francisco police officer. pity the poor perp who tried to outwit or outfight her.

women have served in combat for thousands of years. yet we seem to make it a national habit to resist enlightened or progressive ideas. one hopes that under the new administration we will begin to see signs of positive change. men AND women not only deserve the right to serve their country, but are morally required to do so as a condition of citizenship. i've long maintained that the option of military or nonmilitary service like the peace corps should be present. but non-service should not be an option.

15 August 2009


in response to yesterday's post, my friend lou in tucson sent me several very pertinent links. he served in the u.s. air force, working on B-52 bombers. please note the following: a link to a video of a B-52 crash caused by a hot-dogging pilot with a long record of safety violations, and a link to an article fully describing the crash and the pilot's background. thanks, lou.

14 August 2009


when i first saw this video, posted by a friend on facebook, my initial reaction was a rush of adrenaline........YEAH. but then after-images began to pile up, and my more rational mind said........UH-OH. lots of fun for the pilots, not so much for anyone being buzzed without warning, or for the pilot whose wingtip or landing gear got just a little bit too close to the surface. any FAA inspector, flight instructor, or senior military aviator would have a heart attack if he/she saw these low-and-fast flights in person. and shortly afterward, the pilots would be grounded permanently.

don't get me wrong -- i would love to be at the controls just once. or twice. but only if i had the years of intensive training that these pilots have, plus a monumental life insurance policy. (check out my blog entry for 17 april 2009 for a link to a saner and more legal demonstration of low-and-fast, during san francisco's fleet week.)

13 August 2009


i just watched the movie "shut up and sing", which documents the early career of the country music trio the dixie chicks, as well as the controversy which ensued when singer natalie maines declared during a london concert in march 2003 (just prior the invasion of iraq ordered by president george w. bush) that "just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. we do not want this war, and we're ashamed that the president of the united states is from texas."

the remark sparked a vicious backlash against the group, from conservatives (many of them country music fans) across the country. radio stations refused to play their music, fearing financial loss or violence. the outcry went beyond simple disagreement over politics, becoming very personal, and included death threats. the backlash was so extreme that a fellow country singer and war opponent, merle haggard, noted, "i don't even know the dixie chicks, but i find it an insult for all men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of americans jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. it was like a verbal witch hunt and lynching."

which pretty much sums up my own view. i'm not a country music fan, and i was indifferent to the dixie chicks music before the controversy. but speaking as a military veteran, i have zero patience for flag-waving, self-styled patriots who apparently are so insecure in their beliefs, and so ignorant of the u.s. constitution and the principle of freedom of speech, that they feel they must shamelessly attack anyone whose views differ from their own. last time i checked, we still live in a democratic republic, in which diversity is encouraged and the rights of minorities are protected. i fought in a jungle war to protect those rights and that diversity. any redneck bible-thumping narrow-minded bigot who pretends to speak for me, has another think coming. i was similarly and emphatically against both oil wars in the middle east, and am similarly ashamed that a warped and shriveled mind like that of g.w. bush could ever be elected to the presidency. in our nation, money talks, and expediency and greed prevail too often over principle.

the movie portrayed not just the group's music and the controversy they aroused, but also bits of their personal and family lives, putting a very human face on these brave and outspoken women. i still have other musical preferences, but i applaud their moral stand, and challenge anyone to show me where, in the declaration of independence or the u.s. constitution, we are forbidden from criticizing our president. we have an obligation to speak our minds, as free citizens not only of this country but of the world. the only civil condition is that the discourse and debate must be intelligent and informed, not venal or irrational. if you can't handle that, then perhaps it is you who should find another country in which to live. maybe a nice dictatorship where a messy and glorious thing like democracy isn't tolerated.

12 August 2009


during my most recent marriage, i followed my (ex)wife's career around the country -- from arizona to south carolina, pennsylvania, washington state, and finally tennessee. when we made the move from tucson to charleston, we arrived one month before hurricane hugo, whose northwesterly course precisely centered on our coastal suburb of mt. pleasant. the entire population of charleston was ordered to evacuate inland by the governor, since the hurricane's storm surge would coincide with normal high tide, creating monster flooding.

in the northern hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise. if you imagine yourself following the storm, you can see that the winds to the right of the hurricane's eye are moving away from you, and the winds to the left of the eye are moving toward you. thus the forward motion of the storm adds to the force of winds to the right, and subtracts from the force of winds to the left. hugo's sustained winds peaked at 160 mph, making it a category 5 storm. add the 20-30 mph forward motion of the storm system, and you can see that the potential for devastation was immense, especially to the right (north) of the eye. and indeed, the destruction to human habitat and the francis marion national forest near the coast was catastrophic.

a most inauspicious welcome to the coastal lowlands for us, at first glance. but the very damage caused by the storm provided me with a job -- performing habitat restoration within the swampy forest for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, or RCW, working as a wildlife tech for the u.s. forest service. the birds nest in colonies called clans, and they are the only woodpecker species which drills its nesting cavities in live trees. many of the cavity trees had been snapped over like broken matchsticks, and two emergency teams fanned out into the forest to create artificial cavities for the surviving birds in nearby viable trees left standing. the work was arduous. most known colonies were located some distance from forest access roads, meaning the crews had to slog through a landscape that resembled the aftermath of a nuclear bomb blast, with trees lying every which way on ground that was often boggy or thick with surviving undergrowth -- all while carrying 50-100 lb. of tools, safety gear, artificial cavity materials, and (depending if you were on the drill team or the chainsaw team -- i was the latter) gas-powered tools. the cavities had to be installed 20-50 feet off the ground, in a manner imitating an RCWs preferences for light and ease of approach in flight. did i mention the stifling, humid heat in summer, the miserable cold in winter, the mosquitos, the rattlesnakes and water mocassins, the rain, the ticks (lime disease)? oh yeah, and the alarm clock went off at 3:30 a.m., so that i could drive to our headquarters and thence to an assigned clan site in order to be silently in place to count how many birds emerged at the moment of sunrise, thus checking on the survival of the overall population. a similar clan check was done at sundown. very, very long days.

and also one of the most fulfilling and enthralling jobs i've ever had. i added a number of impressive bird species to my life list, including (besides the RCWs) swallow-tailed kites, anhingas, red-shouldered hawks and painted buntings, to name but a few. so many scenes are etched in my memory -- a great blue heron gliding in silouette, soundlessly, through the crepuscular predawn, resembling some prehistoric reptilian flier on its way home. a black bear, scurrying away at our approach. wild boars, hog-nosed snakes, the list goes on. never did see any alligators, though they inhabited the area.
several of my most treasured sightings, however, were not avian or mammal or reptilian. they were plants -- it turns out that all three species of carnivorous plants which are native to north america, occur in the forest where i worked. i was delighted to encounter (in the order you see them below) pitcher plants, sundews, and venus flytraps in their natural environment.
p.s. -- check out this recently-discovered giant pitcher plant, the link courtesy of my pal bill in chicago.

11 August 2009


east of flagstaff, arizona, just off I-40, lies Meteor Crater, an impact crater roughly 4000 ft. in diameter and 570 feet deep. it was formed when a nickel-iron meteorite about 160 ft. in diameter made a direct hit in the region currently designated as the colorado plateau, roughly 50,000 years ago. at the time, local residents included giant ground sloths, north american camels and wooly mammoths.

there are many impact craters detectable on the earth's surface, but the arizona crater is the best-preserved and most accessible. as with all formations of this scale, mere photos don't give the view much of an idea of the sheer size of the crater. try clicking on this panoramic view to enlarge it for full effect.

10 August 2009


as summarized in an article in today's NYTimes, we are entering an era of dam removal on our nation's waterways. construction went wild in the 1950s and 1960s, with a dam being completed every six minutes with the ostensible purpose of providing flood control, hydroelectricity, irrigation water and recreation. in the process riparian valleys were drowned, interrupting native fish migration, wildlife populations, and the periodic scouring of the river bottom by seasonal floods, key to preventing the buildup of silt and the eventual suffocation of entire ecosystems.

now an estimated 75,000 aging smaller dams are being gradually dismantled -- they have become economic liabilities, their repair and upkeep outpacing the benefit of any electricity produced. the changes have been immediate and positive, with the return of wildlife and native fish, and the enhanced recreational opportunities for kayakers, campers, photographers and fishermen. i've long been an advocate of getting rid of anything which interferes with natural processes. we humans are part of nature, not its conquerors. it is up to us to be smart enough to avoid building houses in 500-year flood plains, to develop clean energy from replaceable sources like solar, wind and geothermal power, and ultimately to be responsible stewards for this miraculous garden planet which sustains us all.

09 August 2009


forty years ago today, actor sharon tate was murdered in her home by followers of charles manson, the psychotic criminal cult leader who sought to precipitate a race war. tate was married to film director roman polanski, and at the time of her death was eight and a half months pregnant. her ethereal beauty and growing talent promised to elevate her to stardom as an actor. at the time i had a 22-year old's crush on her, and felt the loss keenly.

by contrast, thirty-five years ago today, president richard nixon tendered his resignation from office, following the public revelation of years of scandal and intrigue, which included his pursuit of the war in vietnam, political enemies lists and illegal wiretaps and secret dossiers on those opposed to his policies, all of which culminated in the publishing of the pentagon papers and the watergate scandal. nixon was an intelligent man, but his narrow, rigid dogma and his willingness to bend (if not break) protections under the u.s. constitution, brought about his impeachment and resignation. his administration was characterized by systematic lies to the public, by both the president and his close advisors. sound familiar? we've had great presidents and mediocre presidents, but only one or two that i would not hesitate to call evil. nixon was one. at the time i was a 27-year old radical liberal, and both i and the country as a whole breathed a collective sigh of relief with nixon's ignominious departure.

08 August 2009


today sonia sotomayor was sworn in as a u.s. supreme court justice, becoming the third woman and the first latin-american to serve in that august body. in the country's history, of the 111 who have been chosen to serve in the nation's highest court, all but half a dozen have been white males. to this white male, that reprehensible ratio is long past due for revision. no gender, no race, no ethnic group has a monopoly on the experience or wisdom needed for service on the bench. rather, a deep understanding of the constitution tempered by the perspectives in a diverse court, remains our best hope for balanced and enlightened jurisprudence.

07 August 2009


the struggle is not new -- it's been going on in social circles since charles darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, and in u.s. courts since the scopes trial in tennessee in 1926 (a trial portrayed in the film "Inherit the Wind"). creationism, and its more recent manifestation intelligent design, have taken their lumps in a series of closely-watched court cases over the years, particularly with regard to whether they should be taught as science in public schools.

the linchpin to the debate is this -- to be considered science, any system of ideas or beliefs must be testable within the scientific method -- which establishes a consistent and rigorous series of steps for positing and testing any explanation of natural phenomena. one of the fundamental premises in this process is that any hypothesis must be falsifiable, that is, stated in such a manner that, now or in the future, it is possible to put forth evidence to refute the hypothesis. anything less, anything that calls for a leap of faith, IS NOT SCIENCE. it might be religion, it might be tradition, it might be superstition, but it is not science. in science, in contrast to religion, ideas may always be proven untrue, but they are never regarded as proven true.

this seems paradoxical at first, but when you give it some thought, it makes perfect sense. think about all the perceptions or beliefs (often perpetuated by religiion) which, over the centuries, have been disproven -- that the earth is flat, that the earth is at the center of the solar system, that the universe is only 6000 years old, et al. science must be falsifiable to leave room for new understanding as it emerges.

this essential condition of scientific inquiry is what makes it impossible for creationism or intelligent design to be legally taught in public schools without violating the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. the law does not make belief in creationsim or intelligent design illegal -- it merely states that their proper place is in a religious setting, not in the public schools.

a NOVA special on PBS, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial", very eloquently and clearly presents the cases made by both sides -- i was deeply impressed by the show's low key, and the respect and fairness with which it treated both sides of the debate during the court case in dover, delaware, after the school board tried to force science teachers to introduce intelligent design into their classes. the special is available on DVD, rentable through Netflix, and i highly recommend it to everyone, young people and adults alike.

a footnote: one of the refrains recited ad nauseam by opponents of evolution is that it is "only a theory". this is deliberate and shameful deception. many words hold multiple meanings in the english language, and theory is one. in common usage, it means a speculation, an idea or explanation that has not been tested or accepted. within the lexicon of science, the word theory holds a more specific and restrictive meaning, i.e., a hypothesis that has been repeatedly tested, validated, and stood the test of time until it is widely accepted as a true explanation for observed events. note that, true to the tenets of science, a theory remains falsifiable. darwin's original idea (evolution through natural selection) has undergone modification in the 150 years since he first proposed it, since he did not have access to an understanding of the mechanism by which species evolve, i.e. genetics. it was only after darwin died that gregor mendel, and later watson and crick, clarified the how of evolution. these modifications notwithstanding, darwin's brilliant grasp of the fundamental process has indeed stood the test of time, and is accepted as true by thoughtful scientists and lay people around the world, people of all religions or none at all.

06 August 2009


from wikipedia -- [on this day in 1991, british computer programmer tim berners-lee first posted files describing his idea for a system of interlinked, hypertext documents accessible via the internet, to be called a "world wide web".]

a mere 18 years later, nearly every aspect of human life on earth has been irrevocably altered, our computers transformed from isolated calculating and word processing machines, to portals leading to the magnificent library that is world culture. we live in an age of wonders. here is an artist's visualization of the various routes through a portion of the internet -- click on the image to enlarge.

04 August 2009


in january of 1923, the black town of rosewood, florida, was attacked and burned to the ground. several of its residents were killed, and the rest fled. you can read the historical account here. the race riot was ignored by white authorities at the time, and never appeared in history books. even the black victims were silent, fearful in a culture which could revisit that horror upon them at any time. it wasn't until 74 years later, in 1997, that director John Singleton created the film Rosewood, depicting the events leading up to, and including, the massacre.

why make note of such a vicious attack now? aren't we past all that? haven't the civil rights movement, the voting rights act of 1965, and subsequent political and economic gains made by individual black citizens put all that to rest? well, no. while it's true that rampant lynchings are no longer the norm, while it's true that blacks vote in record numbers, while it's true that individual blacks have attained positions of influence and stature in business and politics, while it's true (and about damned time) that we have a black president .......... nevertheless it remains grimly true that all racial and ethnic minorities in this country, including blacks, are subjected to systematic, institutionalized prejudice, racial profiling, economic repression, bias at every level in the criminal justice system, violence, the degradation that comes from almost believing the negativity that is heaped upon you from birth, a hard way to go at every step. the list goes on and on.

so yes, it's important to bear witness to events like Rosewood -- because it did happen, and it could happen again. scoff if you must, but i've seen too much racism in my life to think otherwise. it hasn't been that long since Rosewood, just like it hasn't been that long since Hitler. the military likes to say that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance." that applies to race relations too.

03 August 2009


superficially, the premises resemble each other. the differences are night and day.

in Flight of Passage by rinker buck, the author recounts the true story of an epic transcontinental flight made by rinker and his brother kernahan in the summer of 1966, in a rebuilt piper cub. his memoir is fascinating to the general reader as a coming-of-age story, and inspiring to pilots because the teenage brothers flew with only the most rudimentary instruments, and no radio. the style is factual and literal.

in Flying, by eric kraft, the author fashions a novel of delightful wit and depth and humor -- telling the story of a teenage boy who builds his own aerocycle (motorcycle with wings) from plans published in a fictitious magazine called Impractical Craftsman, which suspiciously resembles Popular Mechanics. it is two parallel tales -- (a) the original journey, taking place sometime during the cold war 1950s-60s, spent mostly in high-speed taxi rather than in flight, alternating with (b) a retracing of the trip by the author many years later, accompanied by his wife. the style is gleeful and ingenious. watch for the development of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions.

each narrative is compelling, and each writing style works. five stars.

02 August 2009


in observance of international blog against racism week, here is a link to a blog posting by The Angry Black Woman, on intersectionality as it applies to racism. whether you agree, disagree or are drowing in apathy, please check it out and see if it opens any windows for you. it did for me. regular readers will note that i don't confine myself to a particular week -- i blog against racism throughout the year, as seen through the lens of my own experiences, limitations, and critical thinking. it is an issue that will be around for a loooong time.

01 August 2009


here are a couple of links to spectacular and utterly creative performances. the first is to a demonstration of the pentatonic scale (and the power of expectation) by vocal virtuoso bobby mcferrin at the world science festival 2009 -- here. and the second is a demonstration (for which you will want to close your eyes at times) of the sound of a rainstorm, produced by ..... well, you'll see ..... followed by a rousing "the rain down in africa" sung by perpetuum jazzile -- here. thanks to my buddy bill for turning me on to these.