31 December 2010


"A quiz -- If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all? Answer -- an American."

Sad, but true. For whatever reason (culturocentrism, intellectual laziness), Americans assume that English is the lingua franca in which people from other countries surely must be fluent. Hence the stereotype of the Ugly American -- innate arrogance and a failure (or refusal) to understand local culture. As it happens, one can get by in Europe using only English, because citizens of the EU countries tend to be multilingual, and also because English has become the de facto language of international business, just as it is the default language in aviation.

However, our complaisance is misplaced, and potentially harmful. Savvy people recognize that not only is learning two or more languages an excellent way to improve one's mental acuity, it is also a vital bridge toward making new friends, new business contacts, and learning to understand and enjoy the rich cultural diversity that exists not just globally, but locally as well. Nicholas Kristoff writes in Primero Hay Que Aprender Espanol about "the paramount importance for our children of learning Spanish .... Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it's an everyday presence in the United States. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America's population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. (The map below shows Spanish-speaking households as of the 2000 census.)

"As the United States integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives. More Americans will take vacations in Latin America, do business in Spanish, and eventually move south to retire in countries where the cost of living is far cheaper. We're already seeing growing numbers of Americans retire in Costa Rica (see map below, click on any image to enlarge), drawn by weather and lifestyle as well as low costs and good health care ....

"Another reason to bet on Spanish is that Latin America is, finally, getting its act together. Of all the regions of the world, it is arguably Latin America that rode out the recent economic crisis most comfortably. That means that Spanish .... will be a language of business opportunity in the coming decades. We need to turn our competitive minds not only east, but south.

"Moreover, Spanish is easy enough that kids really can emerge from high school with a very useful command of the language that they will retain for life .... Spanish is a practical add-on to your daily life, meshing with whatever career you choose. If you become a mechanic, you'll be able to communicate better with some customers. If you're the president, you'll campaign more effectively in Texas and Florida."

Kristof is on the mark on all counts. During my twenty years living in southern Arizona, I loved hearing the cadences and melodies of Spanish, and made many Latino friends. After having studied Latin for two years in high school, I made the mistake of taking a year each of Spanish and French in college. I wish I had taken two years of Spanish instead (much though I love hearing French too). Spanish is indeed easy to learn, with far fewer irregularities and exceptions to the rule than one encounters in English, which has many regional dialects, and roots in many ancestral languages. Each vowel has one pronunciation only, and vocabulary has clear links of English (about 60 percent of English, and nearly all of Spanish, derive from Latin).

As for those whose habitual caution or xenophobia leads them into denial about the coming demographic shift in the American landscape, please consider that this is not a threat to American culture (whatever that is), but rather an opportunity to embrace yet another wave of immigrants and new traditions which will only enrich what already exists -- just as past waves of change from Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany, China and Vietnam (to name a few) have done. America is, above all else, an inclusive nation. Recall the words of The New Colossus, appearing on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty -- "Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Even though learning new languages is most readily achieved in the active minds of young chilcren, it is never too late in life to start. My SO and I are about to embark on a home study course in Spanish. Que divertido !!

30 December 2010


PRISON LIBRARIES. When a citizen commits a crime which, upon conviction and sentencing, is serious enough to warrant time spent in prison, that time is seen as punishment for the crime committed -- "the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant in response to behavior deemed wrong .... Four fundamental justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrance, rehabilitation, and incapacitations such as isolation in order to prevent the wrongdoer's having contact with potential victims, though only rehabilitation is central to the concept and none of the other justifications are guaranteed outcomes." (source: Wikipedia)

I would argue that in the U.S., the penal system has never been successful at systematically rehabilitating criminals, nor has it tried to be. If the assumption of rehabilitation is that people are not permanently criminal and that it is possible to restore criminals to a useful life in which they contribute to themselves and to society, then American prisons are a joke. Their only ongoing function is to warehouse criminals, to isolate them from the public and from their families, and to serve as a sanctioned arena for unimaginable brutalization. Prisons are overcrowded, underfunded, staffed by guards who are often hard to tell from the prisoners in their antisocial attitudes, and guided by a philosophy of retribution.

Further, the majority of convictions are for drug offenses, an activity for which counseling, medical assistance and community service are far more appropriate than extended prison time. American prisons amount to little more than an institutionalized crime school, paid for by your tax dollars, in which those convicted of lesser crimes are sent down precisely the wrong path by learning from those convicted of more serious crimes. And don't even get me started on the national disgrace that is the privatization of prisons, farming out their management to corporate interests for their exclusive profit.

In Escape Route, the Surprising Potential of a Prison Library, Avi Steinberg describes a shining exception to this grim picture -- "In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them .... The problem with the public discussion about libraries in prison is that it's the wrong discussion. For over a century now, the debate has centered on reading-- on which books should, or more often should not, be included on the prison library's shelves; which books are 'harmful' or 'helpful'; whether reading is a privilege or a right .... But the issue of reading is only one dimension of the question, and not necessarily the salient one. The crucial point of a prison library may not be its book catalog: the point is that it is a library.

"The library is a shared public space, a hub, where people spend significant portions of their time, often daily. It is a place where inmates work and, in some important ways, live. It is more purposeful and educational than a recreational yard, less formal than a classroom. The prison library gives inmates an organic way to connect with the world, to each other, to themselves as citizens. It's a small democratic institution set deep within a prison, one they can choose to join.

"This is no small matter. The vast majority of prison inmates will eventually be released back into the free world, back into the community. What happens to them once they are out is the critical piece in the corrections puzzle. It doesn't take an expert to know that a person who lands in prison, a person often already on the margins of society, will grow further isolated from the norms and routines of society while in prison. And yet, at the very same time, and in this very same building, many inmates -- often for the first time in their lives -- are also becoming quietly enmeshed in an important social institution."

I hope my readers will read, and reflect upon, Steinberg's article. It resonates with truth. I've worked as a counselor with at-risk youth from the mean streets of Philadelphia, as a security officer and counselor with convicted teen felons in eastern Tennessee, and have assisted with research into the lives of violent offenders in the Arizona prison system. I was also once married to an attorney/psychologist who was a professor of criminal justice, and learned much from her training and experience. One of the things I learned is that the system is broken. The U.S. has a greater portion of its population behind bars than does any other developed nation. Our system of justice is in dire need of revision, including arrest procedures, trial, conviction, sentencing, and punishment. A shift to true rehabilitation, including support for prison libraries, is only the beginning. More fundamentally, we need to reassess our understanding of what offenses are truly serious crimes, and what offenses are not. The "lock'm up and throw away the key" mentality is hopelessly inadequate to the interests of society, and to our own value as full human beings. It is possible to be firm, fair and consistent with offenders, and still encourage them to choose a better path through life.

29 December 2010


BLACKMAIL. Julia Galef poses a fascinating moral question in What's Wrong With Blackmail?. "Imagine someone named Sue finds herself in possession of some information about Bob that he would prefer she not reveal to anyone else. So she offers him a deal -- 'Pay me $10,000 and I'll keep my mouth shut.' .... The paradox of blackmail has bedeviled legal scholars and philosophers of law for years. While it's typically legal to reveal information about someone, as long as that information is accurate and legally-obtained, it's illegal to do so as a way of soliciting money from him. Unlike with extortion, where the perpetrator is threatening to do something illegal if she isn't paid ('Give me $10,000, or I'll burn down your house'), with black mail the perpetrator is threatening to do something legal. If the act itself -- revealing the information -- isn't bad enough to be criminalized, then why is merely threatening to commit the act so terrible? This paradox is often expressed in terms of blackmail being composed entirely of uncriminal parts. Telling someone you'd like $10,000 isn't a crime, revealing someone's secret isn't a crime, and yet telling someone you'd like $10,000 or you will reveal his secret is a crime. How can this be?"

Galef goes on to reveal the layers of reasoning which contribute to the paradox -- different kinds of blackmail, whether the information to be revealed itself has to do with a criminal act, why we restrict certain freedoms (e.g., regardless of our Constitutional right to freedom of speech, it is illegal to yell "FIRE!!" in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire -- the resulting panic would interrupt people's lives and likely cause injury), our visceral reactions to the kind of people who would commit invasive acts, and the benefits/liabilities of gossip to the gossiper, to the gossipee, and to any third parties (including the public at large). It is a fascinating discussion.

CHEATING. As both a student and a teacher, I've always had zero tolerance for cheating. An exam is intended to test one's knowledge of a subject, not to present a playful challenge to receive an unearned grade by outwitting the rules. The cheater ends up victimizing him/herself in the end, since that knowledge has not been learned and put to use. Even so, my policy as a teacher was firm -- if you are caught cheating, you receive a grade of zero for that exam. End of story.

With the advent of personal electronic devices (email, texting, cell phones), cheating has entered new realms of sophistication. And as Trip Gabriel reports, secondary schools and universities in turn are using technology, data forsenics, and statistical anomalies to combat cheating at its source, with demonstrable success. The article is a revelation to someone who studied and taught in a much more low-tech world.

28 December 2010


MONTANA LEGACY PROJECT. For many years, one of the ongoing debates within the conservation movement has been whether it is more effective to set aside fewer, larger tracts of land as nature preserves, or to set aside more numerous, smaller tracts of land.

Larger tracts serve the needs of animals with more expansive ranges (home territories), and also preserve wider swaths of ecosystems and the diversity of species they contain. But larger tracts are also more expensive, and involve more governmental agencies and human residents.

Smaller tracts are more affordable, and involve fewer complications with transfer of ownership. However, they protect smaller portions of habitat, fewer species, and suffer from a phenomenon called edge effect. Simply put, when the area outside the boundary of a protected area is disturbed by human activity, or is otherwise in an unnatural condition, the natural ecosystem within the protected area is inevitably affected for some distance in from the boundary. This effectively shrinks the area of the already-small tract which is available to native plant and animal life.

One compromise is to establish protected corridors linking many smaller tracts, so that free-ranging animals can move from one to another. This has been tried with limited success throughout the American West.

Over the years, The Nature Conservancy, the world's most effective non-profit conservation organization, has developed innovative and highly successful methods for tackling the large tract vs. small tract dilemma. The Conservancy's members and staff have served as mediators between hard-core preservationists, private landowners, and government agencies to forge agreements which benefit all. Not just in the U.S. but around the world, TNC pioneered conservation easements, debt for nature swaps, prescribed burns, the purchase of threatened habitats which are later sold at fair value to state and federal government agencies for prolonged stewardship, public environmental education, and many other effective efforts at not only protection, but also at involving the greatest number of participants from varied backgrounds in order to assure the greatest support for the natural world.

A week ago, TNC announced finalization of "the biggest private conservation land acquisition in the history of the United States -- the Montana Legacy Project which protects 310,000 acres of threatened forests, mountain habitat, lakes and streams. The land lies within a 10-million acre sweep of wild lands that includes one of the largest roadless areas in the country. It is also one of the last places on Earth where not a single plant or animal species has gone extinct in recorded history .... Had we not stepped in, the land would have faced the threat of subdivision and development, forever changing this iconic region of the American West. By working with a diverse group of public and private partners, we were able to acquire the land and transfer it to the State of Montana and the US Forest Service, ensuring it will remain healthy and intact for the benefit of both wildlife and people."

Click on the above link for the Montana Legacy Project, scroll down the righthand column, then click on "Maps - Project Overview" to see in compelling graphic terms the complexity and scope of this achievement. High praise to TNC for a bold initiative which may forever change the face of conservation.

NOAH. Check out the link for NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats), "a tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document local wildlife, and a common technology platform that research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere." NOAH is an exciting project, and I can't wait to watch it grow. The most powerful force for change (or for preservation) is harnessing the energy and dedication of informed non-professionals -- witness the Audubon Society's nationwide Christmas bird counts, or the collected observations of backyard birders studied by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, not to mention the monumental achievements of The Nature Conservancy. Sometimes being a naturalist feels like holding back the tide with a bucket, but such success stories impart the most potent tool of all -- hope.

27 December 2010


In The Big (Military) Taboo, Nicholas Kristof offers a radical suggestion in this time of recession, spending cuts, and debates over taxes -- the bloated, inefficient, and corrupt military portion of the national budget is in dire need of reconstructive surgery. Heretofore sacrosanct, military spendng has grown out of control, whether in times of war or of peace (see graphic above, click to enlarge). Several facts to consider, quoted from Kristof's article:
  • The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined .... we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China (see graphic below).

  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.

  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have Top Secret security clearances than live in Washington, DC.

  • The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusted for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American war, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combined.

Kristof continues, "Let me be clear -- I'm a believer in a robust military, which is essential for backing up diplomacy. But the implication is that we need a balanced tool chest of diplomatic and military tools alike. Instead, we have a billionaire military and pauper diplomacy. The U.S. military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service -- and that's preposterous .... Paradoxically, it's often people in the military who lead the way in warning against overinvestment in arms. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the strongest warning .... It is Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has argued that military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, sharper scrutiny. It is Secretary Gates who has argued most eloquently for more investment in diplomacy and development aid. American troops in Afghanistan are among the strongest advocates of investing in more in schools there because they see firsthand that education fights extremism far more effectively than bombs. And here is the trade-off -- for the cost of one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year, you could build 20 schools.

"In the 21st century, our government can protect its citizens in many ways -- financing research against disease, providing early childhood programs that reduce crime later, boosting support for community colleges, investing in diplomacy that prevents costly wars. As we cut budgets (see graphic below for the relationship between defense spending and the national budget deficit, let's remember that these steps would, on balance, do far more for the security of Americans than a military base in Germany."

26 December 2010


CRI-CRI. The most recent issue of AOPA Pilot, the premiere magazine for general aviation pilots, features an article on the Cri-Cri, the smallest twin-engine aircraft in the world. Designed in France in the 1970s, the tiny Cri-Cri has a wingspan of only 16 feet, is 12.8 feet long, and weighs a mere 180 lb. Yet it is designed and built to aerobatic standards, meaning that it is a stable flight platform which handles well in windy conditions or demanding flight maneuvers, despite its small size and toy-like appearance.

One look at the company's informative website, or a viewing of this performance video, will convince you that this home-built airplane is too small for cargo, too small for passengers, too small for anything but transporting a single (ideally not-too-tall) aviator in a cockpit that one wears, rather than sits in. Yet the view is spectacular -- the dome which covers the pilot's head and torso affords an unparalleled 360 degree scan of the flying environment. Whether for the sheer enjoyment of solo flight, or for the rapid transport of one person to destinations as far as 280 miles away, the high-performance Cri-Cri would make a great second (or first) personal aircraft.

KWANZAA. Today marks the first day of the weeklong celebration known as Kwanzaa, dedicated to honoring universal African American heritage and culture. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as the first specifically African American holiday. Karenga's goal was "to give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." Kwanzaa celebrations and ceremonies, along with the traditions of American Indians, Latinos, and all other ethnic groups, occupy a vital role in our culture, honoring and enjoying the diversity which enrich all our lives. Humanity is a rich and glorious tapestry. Happy Kwanzaa !!

25 December 2010


Ninety-six year ago today, something remarkable happened. It was the year 1914, and Europe was gripped by the horrors of World War I. On the frozen fields of France, ground troops from both sides were lifted from their misery by an event which has since become famous, the Christmas truce -- "a seried of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front .... During the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches. On occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides -- as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units -- independently ventured into no man's land, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing, or games of soccer. The truce is seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history."

Nearly a century later, the events of that time linger with me. I first learned of them in the form of a song -- I invite you to listen Christmas In The Trenches. John McCutcheon's 1984 ballad tells the story of the truce from the perspective of a fictional British soldier. It is a lovely and poignant song, in both music and lyrics .... I cannot listen to it without tears coming to my eyes.

The truce was portrayed in a 2005 film, Joyeux Noel, moving in its own way. As often happens, the screenplay takes a few liberties with characters for dramatic effect, but the underlying message remains.

Clearly, a holiday truce between enemies who happen to share a common religion is more likely than a truce between foes who do not. Nevertheless, this writer chooses to find hope for humankind, when, as the result of realizing that the "enemy" is a person with dreams, fears and needs like everyone else, an individual soldier realizes with searing illumination,

"The question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night,
'Whose family have I fixed within my sights?'"

24 December 2010


A short post today, but not without redeeming qualities.

AIR-POWERED CAR. Be sure to click on the video. I have concerns over crash safety and the high center of gravity in turns, but it still looks like fun.

CIA's WTF. Just when you thought The Company might be starting to get its act together.

2 CHICKENS BREAK UP RABBIT FIGHT! I swear I'm not making this up.

SCIENCE OF TRON. Okay, it's a serious discussion, but an entertaining one as well.

23 December 2010


In the fall of 1977, while attending the University of Arizona, I was privileged to be included in the Environmental Education class led by Dr. Paul S. Martin. A geoscientist by training, Paul's work also spanned the fields of ecology, anthropology, and paleontology. He was the author of the controversial theory that an early wave of humans migrated to North America 10,000-13,000 years ago, and were responsible for the mass extinction through over-hunting of native megafauna, including giant ground sloths, mammoths, camels and mastadons. Paul possessed a keen intellect, a grand sense of humor, and genuinely cared not only about his studies, but about his students. He was, in the best sense of the phrase, a Renaissance man.

The class was held in the evening at the UA's Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill, on the west edge of Tucson. Paul's teaching methods were innovative, inviting critical and lateral thinking in considering environmental issues. The class included numerous field trips throughout southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico -- the most sought-after trip being a trek along sandy single-track roads to the beaches near Puerto Libertad, Sonora, a fishing village located where the desert meets the sea, north of Tiburon Island on the Sea of Cortez (see image above, click to enlarge), in a surreal landscape populated by cardon cactus and boojum trees. The coast features both sandy and rocky beaches, an ideal outdoor laboratory for learning about this unique habitat interface.

One evening, Paul posed a question to the class -- what is the minimum amount of money you need in your life? My answer was an infinite amount, to be used to buy up every available square mile of the American West (and other wilderness areas around the world), in order to preserve the landscape and its natural inhabitants from human depredations. Paul, ever the informed networker, suggested that I look into The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is precisely "to preserve the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Little did I know that night, how profoundly my life would be changed by Paul's suggestion. A subsequent field trip included a visit to a Nature Conservancy preserve, Canelo Hills Cienega, an upland marsh (elevation 5000 feet) considered relict, i.e. an ecosystem which originally ranged over a large expanse, but is now narrowly confined. In talking to the caretakers, I learned that they were planning on leaving soon, and my eyes lit up. I applied to TNC for the position, was interviewed, and selected. Thus began four of the most vivid years imaginable, living in the on-grounds two-story adobe ranch house, greeting visitors, working with visiting researchers, patrolling against poachers, keeping up the buildings and fences, doing outreach to neighboring ranchers, monitoring natural events, and generally having the time of my life. Ultimately I left Canelo to return to the UA to complete my degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. But I still dream at night of those amazing years spent living on a nature preserve.

Sadly, Paul Martin passed away in September of this year. He was only 82 years old -- old enough to be my father, young enough to be my friend, involved enough to be my mentor. Along with hundreds of former students, colleagues and friends, I miss him deeply, truly, permanently.

22 December 2010


2010 CENSUS. Earlier this year, U.S. citizens were enumerated by mail or in person for the 2010 census. The results are now available to the public, and according to a NYTimes article, the deep South and the West saw the largest increases in population, while the Midwest and Northeast saw more modest increases in population. Most media commentary has been directed at the political ramifications -- as key voting districts gain eligible voters, certain states may see a shift from Republican predominance to Democratic, or vice versa. Already there is much speculation, but it is all premature. With the census figures in, states will now be free to redraw their voting district boundaries, in order to reflect the demographic makeup of the respective residents. It is this demographic change which will drive any political shifts, reflecting not only increases in numbers or migration of population, but also reflecting immigration and the ethnic makeup of the population -- e.g., Latinos now make up a higher percentage of total voters than ever before, and like many minorities, Latinos tend to vote Democratic, even in a Republican "red" state.

Here is a link to an interactive graphic showing which states will gain or lose Congressional seats, regardless of party affiliation.

For perspective, here is a table showing U.S. population growth from 1900 to 1998. Our nation's population has more than doubled just in my lifetime. Here is the breakdown, starting with the year of my birth -- bearing in mind that just after our nation's birth, the 1780 census counted just 4 million people (see the graph at top, click to enlarge):
  • 1947 - 144 million people

  • 1968 - we pass 200 million people

  • 1991 - we pass 250 million people

  • 2010 - we pass 300 million people
Taking a step back, however, I'm troubled by a larger picture. On a fragile planet which already is home to at least ten times more humans than it can reasonably support (without sacrificing air and water quality, or threatening wilderness and wildlife) -- here we are, ostensibly one of the most developed and educated nations on Earth, and yet we continue to increase in numbers. Where is the disconnect? Why are we not exercising responsible birth control in order to decrease our numbers, not just in the U.S. but worldwide?

The answers are not simple. Ethnic and religious traditions, economic pressures and social inertia all play a role in failing to put the brakes on our runaway numbers. Name any environmental or social issue, and ultimately its root cause can be traced in large measure to human overpopulation. The notion of Zero Population Growth has been with us for many decades, yet our numbers increase. Left unchecked, our numbers will exceed the carrying capacity of our habitat -- in some regions, this has already happened. Internecine war, famine, poverty, and ultimately death by starvation or disease are already the norm, with much more to come.

China has famously taken the draconian step of making it illegal for a couple to produce more than one child. While logical on the surface, the prohibition approach to population control has produced terrible ripple effects, as all prohibitions are doomed to do -- unwanted second babies, especially girl babies, are simply murdered. There exists a black market for adopting Chinese babies among the wealthier nations of the world, the U.S. chief among them. And on and on.

The only answers I can see (and I welcome your comments) are twofold -- education, to enlighten all the world's citizens about the risk we run of bringing about our own extinction, coupled with economic assistance to all nations and regions which are in need. This should be not just a local or a national priority, but a world priority. There is no excuse for complacency among the haves, when the have-nots are increasing geometrically in numbers and desperation.

Below are two charts. The first depicts nations according to their population density. The second depicts nations according to their fertility rate. Again, click on each to enlarge, and see what patterns you detect.

DISTURBING ADS. What follows is not for the prudish or faint of heart. Here is a collection of 12 Unintentionally Disturbing Christmas Ads, all of them real, most of them fortunately from the past rather than the present. Or are they?

21 December 2010


Akim Reinhardt makes no bones about it -- Christmas has become a cancer. In Standing Erect in the Face of Christmas, he provides perspective on Christmas past, a gentler, more subdued season which did not begin until (gasp) December. The steady encroachment of Christmas (the commercial event, not the religious or family celebration) into November, then October, and now even September, is a sad commentary on our ability to turn something beautiful into something shallow and cheap. Le sigh.

The bulk of Reinhardt's commentary focuses on the cheesy music to which we are relentlessly subjected. He provides a list of songs he would like to see banned forever, and a list of songs he wishes were heard more often. His tastes don't match my own, but he does have a point. The music is employed shamelessly as an aural backdrop, designed to encourage people to spend, spend, spend. When you, gentle reader, spend some time with the phrase "the spirit of the season", what images come to mind? Do those images center on family, on quiet time reflecting on life's blessings, on winter's beauty? Or do they center on rabid shopping? Just curious.

For a lighter look at the phenomenon of the Christmas "season", you'll enjoy The True Meaning of Christmas, a wry give-and-take between NYTimes columnists Gail Collins (Catholic) and David Brooks (Jewish). It's good to be reminded that the timing of the holiday, along with the decorated tree and other traditions, were originally stolen from pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Their wry teasing about tree corpses and moral relativisim is both fun, and food for thought.

20 December 2010


Many years ago, my first wife and I used to join her parents on Christmas day, to exchange gifts and enjoy a holiday feast. Her father's gleeful enjoyment of the tradition was like that of a child, in a good way. Alas for him, this was a time in my life (my mid-20s) when I was questioning assumptions and traditions. Those that weren't humanitarian or earth-supporting, I set out to change. For instance, I decided one year that rather than join the frenzy of capitalistic gift buying, I would either give handmade gifts, or give cards stating that a donation had been sent to a worthy cause in the recipient's name.

You could have heard a pin drop that morning, after the rather monumental pile of gifts from under the Christmas tree had been given out, and my in-laws looked confused, realizing that they had not received anything from me. They'd overlooked the two envelopes placed among the tree boughs, each containing a donation card. Upon opening them, my father-in-law in particular was crestfallen, then offended. He wanted his material gifts. He never quite got over that, which I regret.

However, many people would welcome such a gesture. If any of your friends or loved ones are among them, consider making a donation to a charitable organization, or a conservation group which seeks to perserve and restore the creatures and habitat on our planet. The list of well-known groups is long, and probably already familiar to you. In The Gifts of Hope, Nicholas D. Kristof offers a listing of lesser-known, but equally deserving humanitarian groups. I hope you find the idea of alternative gift-giving useful, no matter what form it takes in your own creative mind, or what holiday your own tradition celebrates.

19 December 2010


Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor? Wit and satire are alive and well in the world of Bunsen burners and beakers, microscopes, graphs and lab coats. Cases in point --

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is "an international non-profit organization with the stated goals of promoting cooperation between scientists, defending scientific freedom, encouraging scientific responsibility, and supporting scientific education and science outreach for the betterment of all humanity. It is the world's largest scientific society .... and the publisher of the well-known academic journal Science." The journal is also available online at Sciencemag.org.

In the website's year-end issue, the headline feature is the Top 10 ScienceNOWs of 2010, a list of their favorite and most popular stories. Click on the above link, then click on the numbered tabs beneath the summary (each tab is both an article title, and a link to that article), then see how much of this information you had ever heard of, and compare to see which is your favorite. They include --
  1. The Secret of Turtle Island.
  2. Superaccurate Clocks Confirm Your Hair Is Aging Faster Than Your Toenails.
  3. The Shocking Truth About Running Shoes.
  4. How to Train Your Robot (to Lie).
  5. The Spiky Penis Gets the Girl.
  6. Tiny 'Flying Saucers' Could Save Earth from Global Warming.
  7. Is Your Dog Pessimistic?
  8. Oil Drop Navigates Comples Maze.
  9. These Dance Moves Are Irresistable.
  10. Does Our Universe Live Inside a Wormhole?

Elsewhere, at the blogsite Science 2.0, behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski takes on Mattel, the manufacturers of the iconic fashion (some would say nightmare) half-century-old doll Barbie, in Hey Barbie, Show Me the Science! Mattel has allegedly seen the light and broadened the infinite variations on the doll to include a number of real-world careers (and add to their profit margin in the process). During a recent shopping trip with her niece, Kuszewski discovered that the company's level of enlightenment is decidedly limited. Her comments are wickedly insightful. A sampling --

"I am not going to complain about Barbie's waist-to-hip ratio, or her idealistic/unrealistic beauty, or her breasts. I have no issue with Barbie's physical appearance or wardrobe -- I have a problem with Barbie's career choices .... Apparently, News Anchor Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie were added after a public vote for new professions to augment Barbie's CV. These are fantastic additions to the initially chosen group of professions. As I looked through the remaining choices, each subsequent one made me wince even more, with a few exceptions .... Get a load of all the exciting things Barbie is telling girls she can be when she grows up:

  • A Pizza Chef (random, anyone?)
  • A Pet Vet
  • A Babysitter (a babysitter? really?)
  • A Dentist
  • A Ballroom Dancer
  • A Computer Engineer
  • A News Anchor
  • A Race Car Driver (cool!)
  • A Kid Doctor (le sigh)
  • A Ballerina
  • A Bride

"Oh, where to start with this. Let's start with the positive and work our way to WTF, shall we?"

And so she does, and so can you, if you're up for a little astonishment, laughter, and head shaking. Cheers.

18 December 2010


The world lost an ambassador's ambassador this week. In the public service tradition of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Maxwell Taylor, Cyrus Vance, and Averell Harrimann, in 1962 Richard Holbrooke heeded the call to service by President John F. Kennedy, and entered the Foreign Service. What followed was a lifetime of outspoken dedication to humanity and peace. Among his significant accomplishments --

Richard Holbrooke is sorely missed by members of the diplomatic corps, by members of the media, and by political leaders around the world. His was a powerful yet genial personality, a force of nature. In The Unquiet American, Roger Cohen reflects that Holbrooke succeeded where none had before him, due in part to three personal qualities -- his passion for peace and justice, his understanding of the place of force in diplomacy, and his determination.

"Living in three time zones -- past, present, and future -- he liked to invoke history, for it was prologue. Living in three identities -- doer, observer and chronicler -- his persuasuve arsenal was intricate, part dagger, part whimsy. He knew how to close and how closing depended on a balance of forces .... This untimely death is a clarion call to America to set aside smallness in the name of values that can still inspire. Holbrooke was a fierce believer in the American capacity to do good. Here stood the nexus of his multiple beings. It is what made him so consequential in so many places and saved so many lives."

17 December 2010


DC-3. Seventy-five years ago today, an icon of aircraft design took its maiden flight. The venerable Douglas DC-3 was a fixed-wing, two-engine, propellor-driven transport with revolutionary speed, range and durability of design. The DC-3 transported cargo and airline passengers in the 1930s, for airlines around the world. It carried cargo and troops in its military livery as a C-47 in all theaters during World War II. It ferried humanitarian supplies to beseiged residents of the West German capital during the Berlin Airlift. Of over 16,000 aircraft manufactured, more than 400 remain in commercial service as passenger and cargo carriers.

From Wikipedia -- "The common saying among aviation buffs and pilots is that 'the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.' The aircrafts legendary ruggedness is enshrined in the lighthearted description of the DC-3 as 'a collection of parts flying in loose formation.' Its ability to take off and land on grass or dirt runways makes it popular in developing countries, where runways are not always paved.

"Some of the uses of the DC-3 have included aerial spraying, freight transport, passenger service, military transport, sport skydiving shuttling and sightseeing. Perhaps unique among prewar and wartime aircraft, the DC-3 is in daily use. The very large number of civil and military operators of the DC-3, C-47 and related types means that a listing of all the airlines, air forces and other current operators is impractical."

Once in a while, we get it right.

GLOBAL WARMING WINTERS. In a recent email, a friend mused that if global warming is a reality (it is), why are we suffering through such strange and frigid weather in some parts of the U.S. and Europe? Coincidentally, I came across a link which provides a partial answer. "The explanation that is gaining currency among climate scientists is that low levels of Arctic sea ice during the summer are causing more [solar] heat to be absorbed in the Arctic during the fall, and changing atmospheric circulation patterns [see the standard circulation model below, click to enlarge], driving cold Arctic air into Europe and the Eastern United States and funneling warm air up into the Arctic regions .... It also has the unfortunate byproduct of generating a feedback loop that will tend to speed up [global] warming, as it reinforces an atmospheric circulation that drives more warm air into the Arctic, melts more ice, allows darker land and water to absorb more sunlight, further warms the atmosphere in the Arctic, and thereby reinforces the new atmospheric circulation pattern .... As the globe continues to warm, we in DC and our counterparts in London might just need to get used to frigid winters."

Strange and unpredictable effects are not limited to the U.S. east coast or western Europe. The desert southwest is experiencing much warmer than usual temperatures this winter, with highs in the 60s and 70s dF common. Curiouser and curiouser.

BOEHNER REDUX. In yesterday's post, I referred to Gail Collins noting with wry humor the tendency of Republican Representative John Boehner to get all weepy for the cameras. Today, Timothy Egan wields a sharper pen in The Tears of John Boehner, shining an incandescent light on the gaping paradox between Boehner's alleged cherishing of the mythic American Dream on the one hand, and his long record of voting AGAINST the interests of those who would join, or remain in, the American middle class. In an era when the chasm between the many who are poor and the few who are wealthy grows ever wider and deeper, Boehner consistently sides with the rich, of whom he is one.

I can respect someone whose views differ from my own, if that person's views are genuine and informed by careful thinking and evidence. I have no tolerance for a hypocrite or a liar. John Boehner, along with most of the power elite in the Republican party (and their supporters in the neocon media), should cringe with shame. His histrionics only make him look like a fool. Alas, a fool with real political power, as the soon-to-be Speaker of the House.

16 December 2010


BEETHOVEN. Today marks the 240th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the German composer and pianist whose gifts were so prodigious that he became the pivotal giant who spanned the transition from the Classical and Romantic eras in western classical music. Perhaps best known for his nine orchestral symphonies, Beethoven also wrote concerti (solo instrument plus orchestra), sonatas (solo instrument, alone or with keyboard accompaniment) for piano, French horn, violin and cello, chamber music (small group of instruments, usually strings), one opera, two masses, and numerous lieder (art songs).

Beethoven's influence on subsequent generations of composers and listeners was profound. No one has successfully surpassed or even imitated his intricate harmonies, sometimes brooding musical themes, and the power of his orchestration -- the way chosen musical instruments are used to convey melody, harmony, and emotion.

Here are three samples of Beehoven's genius. The first selection is the second movement, allegretto, from his Symphony No. 7, complete with a visual, color-coded score. The second selection is the first movement (adagio sostenuto) from his Moonlight Sonata, performed by virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. And the third selection is the first movement, allegro con brio, from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini.

BOEHNER. Soon-to-be Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. At least for the cameras. In her article The Crying Game, Gail Collins notes that Boehner's predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, isn't given to spontaneous showers of tears. Hillary Clinton, on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, shed nary a drop. Indeed, as Collins points out, any woman in public life who wept as often as Boehner does, would be seen as just another weak female and lose her credibility. Yet Boehner is driven to "great, noisy sobs" at the drop of a hat. What gives?

Collins goes one step further. "Besides the crying gap between men and women, there's also one between Republicans and Democrats. On the one hand, you have the folks who can't afford tears because it makes them look weak, and on the other, the people who are presumed to be tough and hard-nosed, for whom crying is an attractive sign of complexity.

"Boehner is opposed to extending unemployment benefits for the jobless, and he wants to kill off the law that guarantees health coverage for all Americans .... In 2007, he cried while delivering a speech on the floor of the House, in support of funding for the war in Iraq. 'After 3000 of our citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to stand up and take them on?" he sobbed.

Then this year, he voted against providing money to take care of our fellow citizens who became ill while doing rescue and reclamation work at ground zero after the terrorist attack. Twice."

Methinks the gentleman doth shed crocodile tears too much.

BULGE. On this day in 1944, just over six months after D-Day, the German Army launched a desperate offensive in the Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium, in an attempt to regain the initiative in the war against the Allies. The offensive lasted for weeks, and has come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

Initially the offensive was successful, catching Allied forces by surprise and driving deeply into their flank. However, German armored and infantry forces overextended their reach, outpacing their supply lines. The Allies counterattacked, and ultimately the German forces were defeated and had to withdraw to the Siegfried Line, and continued retreating into the German homeland and eventual surrender.

During one phase of the battle, starting on 21 December, German units had surrounded the American 101st Airborne Division in the city of Bastogne. Despite severe cold and shortages of food and medical supplies, the Americans held their ground. When the German commander requested Bastogne's surrender, American General Anthony McAuliffe's famous morale-boosting response was one word -- "Nuts!" My kinda commander. The Battle of the Bulge, along with D-Day itself, was arguably the defining moment in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II. Here is a short summary of the battle from the History Channel, with high-definition color footage. The reminiscences of those who were there cannot fail to move the viewer.

15 December 2010


CELL IMAGE LIBRARY. From the cosmic (yesterday's post) to the microscopic (today's entry) -- MSNBC's John roach announces the presence of an online image library of cells, available to academic and scientific researchers, to medical practitioners, and to the inquisitive public. The database "will make it possible for scientists to compare different cell types online and understand the nature of specific cells and cell processes, both normal and abnormal." It will also "serve as a tool to teach the basics of disease," and also "serve as a publicly accessible educational resource for anyone interested in the wonders of cell biology .... a science class without the stress of a pending exam." Here is the link to the cell image library.

As an undergraduate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, one of my core curriculum classes was indeed Cell Biology, lecture and lab. I thought I was reasonably well informed at the outset, but soon realized that there are entire microworlds of which I'd been unaware. It is a fascinating area of biology, and one which any lay person can grasp. (NOTE -- the image above shows mitochondria, the source of chemical energy within a cell. The image below shows the fine structure of a neuron, or nerve cell. Click on any image to enlarge.)

DEVALUING HIGHER EDUCATION. Stanley Fish writes on education, law and society in the NYTimes. In The Value of Higher Education Made Literal, he brilliantly brings to our attention a developing trend in Britain and the U.S. -- choosing or eliminating course of study based not on their cultural worth to our society, but rather on their financial worth for the individual student. The inevitable result will be the dumbing-down of a broad, liberal education, and I stand foursquare against it. To water down or eliminate the humanities (ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, religion, visual arts, performing arts, anthropology, cultural studies) is to water down or eliminate both our past and our future. As Fish describes it, "The logic is the logic of privatization. Higher education is no longer seen as a public good -- as a good the effects of which permeate society -- but is rather a private benefit .... There is no recognition of the value of learning; quality is a measure nowhere referenced; civilization, as far as one can see, will have to take care of itself."

Such a view of a university education, in which future income is seen as the prime measure of a course's value, replacing the broadening and deepening of the individual mind, strikes me as being not merely shallow and crass, but verging on post-apolcalyptic. Have we truly devalued the liberalism of The Age of Enlightenment (described as "a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and social engagement .... characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study") -- only to replace such Rennaisance thinking with the almighty profit motive?

If we have, it is a sad day for the human race.