31 January 2010


In the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces launched coordinated, simultaneous attacks against more than 100 towns and villages throughout South Vietnam, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of the 6 autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district towns and the nation's capital, Saigon. US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces were taken completely by surprise by the strikes, known collectively as the Tet Offensive since they occurred on Tet, the first day of the Vietnamese lunar new year.

This writer was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia at the time, completing his Army training in radioteletype (RTT) school before deployment to .... you guessed it, the Vietnam War. Hearing about Tet was one of those events in life which etch themselves in your memory -- you always remember where you were when you first heard the news, much like the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, or the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The news sent paradoxical shivers of uncertainty and anticipation through those of us headed for the war. Little did we know what awaited us.

Tet was a turning point in the war. It demonstrated to the world that US forces fighting a conventional war strategy were no match for local VC iinsurgents fighting guerrilla warfare, nor for NVA forces organized in more traditional units -- simply because our Vietnamese opponents were motivated by their perceived defense of homeland against a foreign intruder, much like American rebels were motivated against the British during the American Revolution. Further, Tet tipped already-wavering American public opinion against the war over the edge. Mass public protests, riots and marches against the war were staged on a scale we haven't seen since. People from all walks of life, all economic and social and racial backgrounds, were united in their opposition.

I turned 21 two weeks after arriving in country. At that age, I was an old man compared to most of those around me -- the average age of the American GI in Vietnam was 18 or 19. Naive when I arrived, I was radicalized against the war within weeks, in spite of the inundation of propaganda received during my training. I take no pride in having served in an unjust war. My pride lies in having done my job well, in connecting with a small number of South Vietnamese civilians, in overcoming my upbringing and making friends with blacks and Latinos, and in surviving. I was rocketed, mortared, and (as one of four types of soldier with a bounty on his head) was sniped at as well. I slept outdoors in monsoon rains and in underground bunkers, narrowly missed being bitten by a cobra, and worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week -- except when I was in the field, when I was on call 24/7. I came home physically intact, but with PTSD which lingers to this day.

And yet, perversely, I would not trade that experience for anything. A year in a jungle war zone changes you forever. You learn that it is not patriotism or country that matters most, but helping the men beside you to survive. You learn that what you once thought to be your limits were illusory. We can adapt to all manner of physical and emotional hardship. We can unlearn the crippling racism with which we grew up. Most critically, we can learn that it is not only permissible but mandatory to question authority. Even in war. Sometimes especially in war.

Forty-two years ago today.

30 January 2010


The first time I laid eyes on Glen Canyon Dam (image below, looking downstream) was in the summer of 1969, during my migration from northern Montana to southern Arizona. It happens that U.S. Route 89 crosses an arch bridge just on the downstream side of the dam. Even to my naive eyes, untutored in the ecology and politics of the Southwest, this 710 foot tall concrete arc looked jarringly out of place in the redrock canyonlands of southern Utah and northern Arizona.
The dam was the object of controversy from its inception. Supporters pointed to the hydroelectric power it would provide, to the impoundment of water for agricultural irrigation, and to flood control, especially during Spring runoff. But environmental groups strongly opposed it, on two fronts -- upstream, it would flood miles of precious and beautiful canyons, ultimately creating a reservoir (Lake Powell, satellite image below) that is 186 miles long, an average 25 miles wide, and 132 feet deep, fed primarily by the Colorado, Escalante and San Juan River watersheds. And downstream, the habitat in the Grand Canyon would be inescapably altered by (a) the introduction of much colder water, since the dam releases water from the lower (and colder) depths of the lake, and (b) the removal of the seasonal floods' scouring and replenishment of sand bars along the river bottom, to be replaced by moderating controlled releases from the dam (which would allow non-native species to invade that delicate ecosystem).

This is a vastly oversimplified summary of the debate, which raged between agricultural interests in four states, whitewater touring companies, naturalists, energy-hungry cities, lake recreation advocates, and of course the designers and contractors who would profit handsomely from the dam's construction. See this link for a more thorough presentation of the issues.

Long story short, the dam was built, floods were controlled, electricity was generated, water was diverted for farming and for urban use via the Central Arizona Project (originating at Lake Mead) -- resulting in the predicted alterations to Grand Canyon ecology, and one further ripple of consequence -- the Colorado River is sucked dry by the time it reaches the U.S.-Mexico border. It no longer flows to its historic mouth at the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California).

Environmental groups ranging from the moderate (the Sierra Club) to the radical (Earth First!) have denounced this desecration of the desert Southwest to no avail. Writer Edward Abbey famously proposed a number of (hypothetical) means for destroying the dam. Even those who were initially persuaded to support it, later came to regret that choice -- including David Brower and Senator Barry Goldwater. Sad, sad, sad.

This story is only one part of a much larger pattern. There are well over 8000 major dams in the United States (see map below). Many of them no longer serve a useful function. Further, many of them actively interfere with the migratory routes of native salmon and other species, threatening their extinction. On a tiny scale, steps have been taken to remove a few of these dams. It is my contention that we should remove most, if not all of them, and allow nature to reclaim her own rhythms. What about floods, you ask? How about this -- have a little common sense and don't build your house or farm in a flood plain. Would you plant a house atop a dormant volcano, hoping that it wouldn't erupt? Would you build on a known tectonic fault line? Many people do -- denial (in the buyer) and greed (in the seller) run deep in the human psyche. Whatever happened to forethought?

I realize that my suggestion may amount to sedition in the minds of some. Oh well. We'll save the discussion for re-introducing wolves to New York City's Central Park for another time.

29 January 2010


Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees is one of my absolute favorite books -- a gentle, allegorical story about a lone shepherd's effort to single-handedly re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps near Provence, thoughout the first half of the 20th century. First published in 1953, the book's dual messages of renewal and the power of a single, determined individual are even more relevant in today's world of environmental degradation.

I first discovered this enchanting tale on television, as James Earl Jones narrated an animated version of the simple, inspiring life of the widowed shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier. I've been unable to locate a video of Jones' resonant narration, but did find a version voiced by Christopher Plummer. The half-hour story is broken up into three parts -- here are links to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Enjoy !!

28 January 2010


To lighten the mood a bit from the past week's posts -- in yesterday's mail I received my 500th rental movie from Netflix. For perspective, I became a subscriber in September 2006. Just about half of that rental total has taken place within the past year, when I was forced into early retirement by work-related injuries.

Film number 500 was a set of three episodes from season 1 of the TV series Fringe. The series takes its title from "fringe science", studies which depart significantly from orthodox academic disciplines or theories. I wonder if a show which combines the unusual (transgenics, psychokinesis, teleportation, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, precognition, dark matter, cybernetics, suspended animation) with FBI investigation of terrorist acts using fringe tactics, qualifies as a guilty pleasure?

With the resounding exception of PBS, I am not normally a fan of most broadcast TV (certainly not a fan of Fox, where extreme right-wing political ideology masquerades as news), nor even a fan of the paranormal (being a scientist by both training and inclination). I do include Fringe among my favorite cutting-edge shows with highly talented ensemble casts -- Hill Street Blues, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire come to mind. The common threads are intelligent, original scripts combined with stellar acting and directing. In short, Quality with a capital Q.

27 January 2010


On this day in 1945, Auschwitz-Berkenau, the largest Nazi death camp (image above), was liberated by Soviet troops. Here is a link to an informative holocaust survivors remembrance website concerning Auschwitz. In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly Designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the first universal commemoration in memory of victims of the Holocaust.

Below is a map (click on images to enlarge) showing the extent of Nazi Germany in 1943, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler (center image). It is important that we always remember the cancerous evil to which humans are capable of descending, in the name of national pride or economic power or religious righteousness. For survivors of such evil, the aphorism "time heals all wounds" does not apply. The wounds may scar over, may become numb, but the memory of such pain will always linger.

26 January 2010


Yesterday I advocated taking a stand with regard to endangered species. By coincidence, yesterday's NYTimes featured an article about Frank Serpico, who famously took a very different kind of stand -- against rampant police corruption in New York City. This, in spite of repeated threats (and one near-fatal attempt) on his own life by his fellow police officers. Serpico's ethical stand against all odds was famously portrayed in the 1973 film Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino. I highly recommend the article.

Frank Serpico ultimately testified before the Knapp Commission against the systemic corruption within the police department, as well as the threats and intimidation directed against him from all levels, which culminated in his being shot in the face during a drug bust. Three accompanying officers intentionally allowed the shooting to happen before coming to his aid. Following his testimony, Serpico retired from the force and moved to Switzerland for ten years to recuperate from his injuries -- though his PTSD persists to this day. He now lives in upstate New York, where he is writing his memoirs, and occasionally consults with police officers who themselves are conflicted by the corruption within their own departments.

Here is a link to the video included in the Times article, "Watching Serpico with Serpico". Watching him speak, and watching him view and comment on the movie for the first time, you realize that here is the real deal, a genuine human being who speaks with candor, intelligence and integrity. Someone I would like to know, someday.

25 January 2010


In today's NYTimes, zoologist and writer Alan Rabinowitz offers an alternative perspective on the issue of jaguars in the U.S. Rabinowitz is president and CEO of Pantera, a wild cat conservation group. The core of his position is that while the American West was historically a part of the jaguar's range, at present only nomadic individual cats stray across the border from Mexico. Human presence on the American side is, according to Rabinowitz, simply to pervasive to allow jaguars to attain a population foothold. He maintains that our resources would be put to better use by focusing on those areas of Mexico, Central America and South America where jaguars have a realistic chance for survival. [See the core species range map borrowed from the Pantera website -- green represents the current range of jaguars, yellow for lions, orange for tigers, and purple for snow leopards. Click on map to enlarge.]

While I am in agreement with Rabinowitz about the need to focus attention and resources where they will do the most good, I am in respectful disagreement with him concerning his criticism of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to designate critical habitat for the endangered jaguar. I take what I consider to be a longer view -- yes, we must use our conservation resources wisely. Let's call this the moderate stance. As in any controversial effort to effect change in our world (the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the antiwar movement, to name a few), in order to achieve deep and lasting change, both moderate and radical voices are needed, working within the system and outside it. Thus in the environmental movement, there is a need for moderate organizations like The Nature Conservancy and The National Audubon Society, as well as a need for more activist groups like Greenpeace and Earth First! .

This writer holds that we absolutely must, as Rabinowitz asserts, support conservation efforts in all nations in which big cats, in this case jaguars, live in the wild. This includes not merely setting aside minimal islands of habitat as refuges, but large tracts of continuous and contiguous habitat in which human presence is limited to research, conservation and minimal ecotourism.

At the same time, it is vital that we push the envelope, as we did successfully in re-introducing gray wolves to portions of their former range in the northern Rockies. The gray wolves' return was (and remains) controversial, but controversy is no reason to shy away from doing what is right. The wolves and jaguars and bison and mountain lions and bald eagles were here long before European settlers arrived. It is my contention that all native flora and fauna should have legal standing, with legal representation on behalf of their interests in all decisions which affect them. If that means putting a crimp in human presence or activity, so be it. Human overpopulation lies at the heart of just about any instance of environmental degradation you can name. We must take responsibility for limiting our own numbers to a level which the planet can sustain.

It is long past time to take a stand, for the sake of our own future, and for the sake of the furred, feathered, scaled and leafed creatures which inhabit the planet with us. They do not belong to us. We belong to them.

24 January 2010


For those who, like me, use the social networking website Facebook, a heads-up. The NYTimes reports that FB has insidiously reset the privacy settings of many users to allow access to personal information by anyone -- repeat, anyone. Apparently there was a cleverly-worded announcement made prior to the reset, employing the term "default settings", which sounds harmless enough, but which should in fact have been labeled "revised open access settings."

Thankfully, there are two recent Times articles which spell out clear and easy steps which one can take to increase the security of one's FB settings. Here is a link to the first article, and here is a link to the second article. Five minutes of your time will save you much grief down the road.

It is sad that one must be constantly alert to corporate shenanigans. A friend mentioned to me that she has had intrusive messages from Google, indicating that Google has been mining her computer for usage data. I've not yet had that issue with Google. In fact, I'm a huge fan of their many free services, like the 2D Google Maps, and the virtual 3D Google Earth, not to mention the incredible search engine itself. But perhaps my virus and security software has prevented such intrusions. If you don't currently use Trend Micro PC-Cillin, I recommend it highly, as do a number of electronics consumer ratings sites.

23 January 2010


The news of the demise of the last jaguar in the U.S. at the hands of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, reported in yesterday's post here, has reached the NYTimes. Their article summarizes most of the issues surrounding the jaguar's death, omitting only the follow-up news that a wildlife tech for the Arizona agency had planted female jaguar scat near the illegal snare, acting upon orders from her superiors.

I truly hope that this turns into a major scandal. We tend to either take for granted or exploit the planet and its inhabitants. Our hubris ignores the fact that all plant and animal species have an inherent right to live, just as we do. We belong to the planet, the planet does not belong to us. As the most intelligent species on earth, our responsibility is to assume the role of caretakers and stewards, leaving the natural world a richer, better place than the one we inherited. It is a monumental task. Are we up to the challenge? Our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren will judge us by our choices. Will they live in a garden, or a cesspool?

The poaching issue serves to highlight the larger issue of hunting, fishing, viewing the world as a resource for the taking. I advocate allowing nature to return to a state of dynamic balance, with prey and predator populations effectively controlling each other, as they did for millenia before humans began playing god. In a world with one-tenth the present human population, and an enlightened attitude toward our place in the web of life, subsistence hunting and fishing would not threaten entire prey populations. Trapping would be outlawed as the cruel and barbaric practice that it is. Most hunting would be done with cameras, and the rest with bow and arrow and expert fieldcraft, not high-powered rifles.

Yes, I am a hopeless idealist, an unreconstructed preservationist first, a conservationist second, and a militant defender of nature always. And no, I shall never remain silent.

22 January 2010


By coincidence, parallel articles on illegal poaching came out yesterday, at opposite borders of the continental U.S. In the alternative weekly the Missoula Independent, there was an extensive story called "The Price of Poaching", which was presented from the perspective of Montana's understaffed, underpaid and overextended game wardens. The state's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) employs only 72 game wardens statewide -- covering an area that measures 500 miles east to west, and 300 miles north to south, that means each warden on average is responsible for an area the size of the state of Delaware. In Montana there are 550,000 licensed hunters, and an unknown number of non-licensed hunters.

Over the years, wardens and many longtime residents report an erosion of the traditional, responsible conservation ethic. In its place has arisen an ego-driven and cash-driven poaching mentality which rationalizes murdering game out of season, on posted No Hunting land, and far in excess of the legal bag limit imposed by licensing. The result, when coupled with human residential encroachment into natural habitat, has been a steady, and recently alarming, decline in the numbers of game animals, both ungulates and predators.

Game wardens must operate within the same strictures as other law enforcement agents -- relying on their knowledge of the residents in their assigned districts, on police training, on fieldcraft, and on information gathered from past poaching events and from the state's poaching hotline (406-TIP-MONT). Even so, they cannot keep up with the sheer volume of illegal killing. The article states: "The evidence is hard to look at -- scores of antlers, piles of hides, photo after photo of big game shot in the name of bragging rights and discarded in the field without remorse .... Social poaching groups have gotten so big and people's egos have gotten so big about illegally taking animals, they allow themselves to do serious damage to the resource. They're taking trophy game out of the gene pool."

This is such a paradigm shift from the conservation ethic I grew up with. Montana is a hunting culture and a gun culture. As a young teen, I took a hunter's safety course, even though I never hunted anything but pheasant (and regret doing even that). The emphasis was on firearm safety and responsibility toward landowners, other hunters, and the game species being pursued. In the years since then, as more hunters come from out of state in search of ever-diminishing numbers of trophy animals, ego gratification and the temptation to make a quick buck on the black market have become so prevalent that they take up most of the time and resources of state game wardens.

The second story appeared in the Tucson, Arizona Daily Star. Thanks to my friend Lou for the heads-up. "The capture of Macho B the last known wild jaguar in the United States (bold italics added), was intentional, according to a new investigative report by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. The report says Arizona Game and Fish Department employees meant to capture the jaguar Macho B on Feb. 18 last year, citing evidence gathered as part of an ongoing federal criminal investigation. The IG investigators reviewed the material gathered by criminal investigators of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and concluded there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing by an Arizona Game and Fish Employee and an Arizona Game and Fish subcontractor. The document doesn't name them. That conclusion is important because the game and fish department originally called the capture unintentional (see footnote) and because such "taking" of an endangered species may be a crime under the Endangered Species Act." Article goes on to cite several other examples of misfeasance and malfeasance.

Oh, but the conclusion is a killer -- "Ten days after the jaguar's initial capture, officials recaptured Macho B on March 2, 2009, because he was showing signs of decline. Government officials and veterinarians at the Phoenix Zoo concluded the jaguar should be euthenized."

Am I the only one who smells a rat here???

Alright, let's call a spade a spade. I've had direct encounters with poachers, both as caretaker of a nature preserve and as a private landowner. I am persuaded that poachers should be shot on sight. I am persuaded that the supposed protectors of wildlife who turn rogue and start killing endangered species, should also be shot on sight. As one who supports the constitution's guarantee of a fair and speedy trial, I know this represents a paradox. I also know that falling back on the statement "extreme times call for extreme measures" means that any lunatic can proclaim himself/herself to be judge, jury and executioner. To paraphrase my old political antithesis, Barry Goldwater, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of the natural world is no vice. I would also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Alright, for those of you with tender sensibilities, failing direct vigilante action, I propose that all state and federal wildlife officers be properly trained (including stringent classes on ethics) and properly paid. I propose further that requirements for hunting licenses be made much more restrictive, including mandatory classes in safety and ethics, and that the penalties for violation of state and federal game laws be increased tenfold, to include mandatory jailtime and severe fines. No exceptions, no time off for good behavior.

Further, regarding predators, any removal or shooting of habitually problem individual animals (e.g. wolves, bears, mountain lions) should be done only by a trained and certified state or federal wildlife officer, NEVER by an individual farmer, rancher or hunter. Killing an attacking animal in self-defense is the only exception.

Footnote: An update in today's Daily Star notes that far from the initial jaguar capture being "unintentional", a state wildlife tech stated that she had been directed to put female jaguar scat at the site of the trap two weeks before the capture. If Departmental lies were told to cover up departmental defiance of federal law .... heads had better roll.

Think of it. The last surviving jaguar in the U.S. is dead. My heart is broken.

21 January 2010


On this day in 1919, the first Dail Eireann (shown above), a unicameral revolutionary parliament, convened to formally establish the Irish Republic, proclaimed during the Easter Rising of 1916. The Dail's meeting coincided with the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. The intent of both events was to formally secede from the rule of Great Britain, forming an independent nation consisting of all 32 counties in Ireland. However, the Anglo-Irish Treaty which ended British rule in most of Ireland and recognized the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland), allowed six northern counties to remain under British rule -- those counties are now known as Northern Ireland.

Ireland's Declaration of Independence is as fervent, clear and stirring as those of Scotland and the United States. An English translation from the original Irish language document may be found here.
The history of Ireland spans many centuries, forming a complex interwoven tale of Viking, Norman and British invasion and Gaelic resistence. The overlays of internecine local and regional kingship rivalries, Catholic vs. Protestant conflict, and the persistence of Celtic language and traditions, create a rich poetic tapestry, riven with all the passion, sorrow and pride that embodies human life.

20 January 2010


The subject of this post grieves and disturbs me -- which makes it that much more important to talk about. Although I am not a Quaker, I hold by their belief in bearing witness, i.e., being mindfully present to remember any illegal or inhumane act, however difficult it may be to watch. This, so that our capacity for evil is always remembered, and may always be resisted.

On this day in 1942, the Wannsee Conference was convened in a Berlin suburb, with the purpose of formalizing and setting in motion the "final solution to the Jewish question," a euphemism for the systematic genocide of European Jews and other non-German, non-Nazi ethnicities and nationalities, including Poles, Czechs, Soviet citizens, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents. The plan included the gathering of target populations into ghettos, conscription into forced labor, and ultimately annihilation at extermination camps scattered throughout northern Europe. The plans's administrator was Reinhard Heydrich (shown below). In poetic irony, Heydrich himself died from injuries suffered during an attack by Czeck agents in May of that year.

The Holocaust remains one of the most horrifying events in human history. Those who would deny its existence, as well as those who are unaware of it, are shamelessly ignorant. We each bear a responsibility for challenging and resisting by any means necessary all forms of inhumanity, especially those practiced against an entire group of people. The formulation of the Final Solution, genocide by committee, happened only 68 years ago. There have been many instances of attempted genocide since. We have not evolved as a species to the threhold where we can relax our vigilance against our own tendency toward violent domination. No nation, no individual, is exempt from this responsibility.

19 January 2010


James Cameron's current epic film Avatar continues to receive critical acclaim. Though it cost well over $500 million to film, produce and distribute, it is well on its way to being the most popular theater release of all time as well. Entirely new technology and special effects were created specifically for this project, supporting a well-crafted story with jaw-dropping visuals. How well-crafted? This writer would love to experience living as a Na'vi (image above) on Pandora.

Carol Kaesuk Yoon's article in today's NYTimes reveals another break-through aspect of the movie: Cameron has managed to convey the awe of discovery which every scientist (in this case, every biologist) feels as he/she explores new realms. Side-stepping conventional cliches depicting scientists as mad or naive, the biologists in Avatar are both informed and appropriately thrilled by their discoveries in this strange, richly-endowed new world. Yoon's article is highly recommended reading.

During my university studies, I was privileged to do rudimentary field work in paleontology, oceanography, mammalogy, herpitology and ornithology, as well as lab work in genetics, cell biology, and comparative anatomy and physiology. That thrill of newness, being on the verge of discovering something wondrous and meaningful, cannot be described adequately with the written word. It can only be experienced. Beyond its monumental entertainment value, Cameron's film allows the viewer to experience, however vicariously, that fragile and beautiful wonder.

18 January 2010


A new biography was just published -- Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith. Ivins is one of my favorite people on the planet (a journalist poured from the same mold as another Texas woman, former governor Ann Richards) -- strong, outspokenly true to her liberal beliefs in a conservative state, funny, articulate, and fearless in aiming a relentless spotlight on hypocrisy, greed or stupidity. Though Molly has passed from our midst, long may she shine. Check out the Wikipedia entry for more on her life and times.

17 January 2010


I first saw one of these tiny, tiny marvels a few years ago, and did a double take. My first thought was, "that's so ugly, it's cute." Followed by, "it's so small, an occupant must be at high risk in a collision."

Turns out that the Smart Car is, according to the website, eminently safe. "Built by Mercedes-Benz. Roomier than it looks. Estimated 41 mpg highway. Four airbags and a tridion safety cell with tubular reinforcements. 95% recyclable." If you browse through the available models, you'll find hardtops, convertibles, and even an electric drive version. The suggested retail price is surprisingly low. Check out this Wikipedia article for more details on performance and safety.

True, not much storage room. But for a commuter vehicle in town, or a road trip for two, what a lark. Besides, it just looks like major fun to drive, especially if you enjoy being the center of attention.

16 January 2010


Yesterday an annular solar eclipse was visible in parts of Africa, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Solar eclipses come in several geometries (see illustration above) and resulting visual effects, as described here.

In February 1979 I journeyed from my home in southern Arizona to visit my parents in northern Montana, timing the trip for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a total solar eclipse, whose path of totality arced across the U.S. Pacific Northwest and into Canada, passing within a few hours' drive of my home town. Beforehand I researched the sequence of visual effects to expect, and scripted how best to photograph them with my trusty old workhorse Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera, telephoto lens and tripod.

Knowing that I had just shy of three minutes in which to shoot, I ran rehearsals of shutter speeds and lens openings before ever leaving home. On the day of the eclipse, 26 February, my dad and I drove to a point which lay in the exact center of the path of totality. The Montana prairie in winter is cold by any standard, so having found an ideal viewing position on a ridge, we stayed in the vehicle to keep the camera warm until it was time to set up. I was ready within moments, and as the moment drew near, an eerie quiet settled onto the landscape. I noticed a herd of whitetail deer dashing about in panic, and would later hear that dogs had started howling in nearby Lewistown.

Then it came. A small, dark bite in the sun's side became larger as the moon began to occlude the sun's disk. Light appeared to shimmer on the ground, and then the lunar shadow appeared in the west, sweeping like a silent curtain toward us at the speed of the earth's rotation (at our latitude, probably around 700-800 mph). Almost before I could breathe, we were in a landscape of darkness, surrounded on all horizons by an unearthly salmon-colored light. I was able to take pictures on automatic pilot, while simultaneously looking up (safely) at the sun for the spectacular visual effects of a total eclipse -- Bailey's beads, the diamond ring effect, the sun's corona (see photo below, click to enlarge). Like most people, including those who become global eclipse chasers, I experienced a natural high, a heightened flow of adrenaline and endorphins and who knows what else. Normally taciturn, after the event I was babbling like a happy idiot.

At midpoint of totality, the sequence of visual events started to reverse themselves, until sure enough, from the west that dark curtain receded toward us as the moon's shadow passed on, revealing a day that was far from normal. I was giddy for hours, and (in those pre-digital photography days) came away from it with some pretty impressive photos, and indelible memories.

15 January 2010


Today's APOD (Astronomy Picture Of the Day, a NASA posting) is quite striking -- the same section of sky, including the constellation Orion, taken from sites in the northern and southern hemispheres -- specifically Tasmania and Iran. Lovely. [Click on image to enlarge for best effect. Note that Orion appears upside-down between photos, visual proof that they are taken from different hemispheres, not unlike a plane appearing to reverse orientation as it passes overhead.]

14 January 2010


During the current debate on health care reform in the U.S., whenever the comprehensive government health care coverage offered in European nations (and Canada) is referred to, it is usually by conservatives, and usually with an anachronistic sneering reference to "socialized medicine" -- as if that were a bad thing. News flash -- the Cold War is over, we won, and we STILL have one of the most expensive and least effective health care systems among the developed nations of the world. I suggest that it is time to take a fresh look at the successful plans of other nations. We are not so elevated in our perfection that we cannot learn from the example of others.

Toward this end, I refer the gentle reader to Paul Krugman's recent column in the NYTimes.

13 January 2010

THE WINTER OF 2009-2010

It's not exactly news to those living in the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, that this winter has been unusually cold, stormy and laden with snow and icy conditions. Winter conditions in Europe have been especially disruptive, catching many off guard. I was struck by this satellite image showing the entire island of Great Britain covered with snow -- almost as it might have appeared during the most recent ice age, except that the adjacent sea would have been frozen as well. Note the contrast between the winter image above, and the fair weather image below.

12 January 2010


What do chemistry, music, astronomy, biology, physics, and engineering have in common? The answer is that adaptable, versatile tool -- math. Math is both a language and a process, with a clear and essential vocabulary, syntax and grammar. All of the above disciplines employ math to express complex concepts in universal terms.

If you think about learning to count on your fingers as a child, it becomes intuitively obvious why so much of the world uses math with the value ten as its basic unit of measure or counting. We call this "math to the base ten." (Had we been born with eight digits instead, we would probably use math the the base eight.)

In science, it is customary to employ the decimal system for expressing both values smaller than one, and also values of great size. This usage is referred to as scientific notation, and is a kind of shorthand for manipulating numbers more easily and quickly -- one can simply shift the decimal point, rather than working out complex fractions. This handy system is also called working in powers of ten (i.e., ten multiplied times itself a given number of times).

To illustrate: we know that there is only one ten contained in the number 10, so in scientific notation the value is written as 10 (the coefficient) with a superscript 1 (the exponent). It looks like this: 101. By the same token, we know that there are ten tens (ten times ten, or ten squared) contained in the number 100. So the coefficent remains 10, but the superscript now is written as 2. It looks like this: 102. Similarly, a thousand is written as 103, or ten cubed (ten times ten times ten). And so on.

So what's the big deal? Well, if we're talking, say about the distance from the earth to the sun, it's both easier to write and easier to do math with, if we write it as 9.3 x 107, than it is to write it as 93,000,000 miles. And that is a truly puny distance in astronomical terms. By the same token, a monumentally tiny quantity, so small that many zeros appear between the decimal point and any integers, can be conveniently written in scientific notation. The mass of a proton is easily written as 1.67 x 10-27, as opposed to longhand, 0.00000000000000000000000000167 kg.

Those of us who grew up using the metric system find scientific notation intuitive, even second nature. Those of us who (unfortunately) grew up with the more cumbersome English system of measurement may have to do a bit of unlearning and relearning, but the effort is worth it, especially when dealing with size relations between extremely small and extremely large objects or distances. Imagine having to convert between inches, feet, yards, miles and light years using cumbersome fractions and conversion tables, and then compare that to the ease of simply shifting a decimal point. In such shifts between orders of magnitude, the metric system and scientific notation come into their own. Just for fun, try to wrap your imagination around this illustration of orders of magnitude -- click on the image to enlarge.

11 January 2010


When I was pursuing my bachelor's degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in the early-to-mid-1980s, a professor noted that (at that time) "due to human activity, a species is going extinct every hour, and an entire ecosystem is lost every day." It seems fairly certain that, given the escalation of human predation on other creatures, and of human encroachment on natural habitat, the pace of extinctions has similarly increased at a geometric rate.
This breaks my heart. My childhood in the 1950s was spent marveling at the exotic diversity of animals and plants around the world. Everything I learned in grade school, high school and college reinforced my excitement and wonder. Perhaps this, as much as anything, led me to a major in biology -- literally the study of life. What could be more fascinating?

Today, so many creatures which were numerous a mere half century ago are extinct or endangered. My blog focuses attention on predators, precisely because they are at the top of the food chain (or the center of the food web, choose your metaphor) -- their health reflects the health of the environment in which they live. Disturb one element of that interconnected community, and you disturb all elements connected to it, thence all elements connected to those, until the ripple effect is felt by all. Ultimately, human survival itself is placed at risk.

But one needn't focus just upon predators to get a sense of an ecosystem's health, and the part we play in its degradation. Witness the demise of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (photo shown below). As described in Wikipedia, this subspecies was "found in southern Florida in the natural salt marshes of Merritt Island and along the St. John's River ... The dusky's demise began in 1940 when DDT was sprayed on the marshes for the control of mosquitoes. This pesticide entered the bird's food chain which caused the population to go from 2000 to 600 breeding pairs. When Merritt Island was flooded with the goal of reducing the mosquito population around Kennedy Space Center, the sparrows' nesting grounds were devastated, and their numbers plummeted. Later, the marshed surrounding the river were drained to facilitate highway construction, a further blow. Eventually, pollution and pesticides took such a high toll that by 1979, only six Dusky Seaside Sparrows were known to exist -- all of whom were males .... The last one died on June 17, 1987, and the species was officially declared extinct in December 1980."

So who cares, right? What's one obscure little bird, few in numbers, in the grand scheme of things? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Every species has co-evolved with its predator and prey species, and with its environment, filling a specific ecological niche. What happens to the top-dog predators may be more dramatic and easily observed, but the health of the other web members is just as important. The integrity of the whole is compromised when one member is wiped out.

Please understand -- over geologic time, species have come and gone in vast numbers. In fact, of all species that have existed, 97% are extinct. There have even been catastrophic mass extinctions caused by asteroid strikes, ice ages, sea floor changes, flood basalt events, and associated climate perturbations.

But it is precisely the current geometric increase in the rate of extinctions, at human hands, (in contrast to the flatter, natural background rate of extinction and speciation) which is alarming. We are, so far as we know, the only self-aware species on the planet, capable of changing the entire landscape, affecting climate, and .... here is the crux of it .... possessing both high intelligence and a conscience. It is incumbent upon us to regard all other creatures as having equal rights to survival, and to do whatever is needed to ensure that we have the least possible impact on our own nest. Should we fail, cockroaches shall inherit the earth.

10 January 2010


Over the course of our evolution as a species, our social group identities have increased in size and complexity. Early on we were first and moremost members of our immediate, nuclear family. As we progressed from nomadic hunger-gatherers to settled agriculture, and thence to communities which enabled wider commerce, we also progressed to organization in clans, tribes, villages, towns, city-states, and nations -- all the while retaining our connections with the smaller groups which went before.

On this day in 1946 a global governing body, the United Nations (UN), held its first general assembly. Membership has increased from the founding 51 nations to 192 currently, with developing countries making up two-thirds of UN membership. It is the only successful assembly of nations yet devised (unlike the antecedent League of Nations), a vital forum for discussion, debate and resolution of conflicts between nations. Those who criticize the UN as purportedly being an ineffective body should recall that the UN charter does not provide for enforcement powers, a tragic omission. Imagine a city with no police force, a nation with no army. When the UN does decide to intervene militarily to settle a dispute (as in the Korean War), the contribution of forces by member nations is voluntary, not compulsory. This has the effect of crippling the UN in both military and humanitarian endeavors.

Nevertheless, the UN is presently our best (and only) hope for positive change as we deal with human overpopulation, famine relief, genocide, war, and other issues of national and international importance. It is critical that all nations, rich and poor, be afforded the opportunity to voice their concerns in a civilized forum, and have those concerns addressed. Just as our national government does nothing to detract from our identities as residents of a state or community or family, so does the UN not threaten our identities as citizens of our nation. The opposite is true. A world that is secure and at peace, in which all peoples are free from hunger and war, and free to celebrate their cultural heritage, is a better world for its diversity.

09 January 2010


I know, it's that tedious time of year when news media shower us with lists of past-year events, and we ourselves create mostly-useless lists of things to change or accomplish in our lives. here, however, is one such that's actually interesting -- 50 things we know now that we didn't know this time last year. Among many, I find #26 of more than passing interest.

And as a bonus today, I finally found an exotic video featuring Bobby McFerrin singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" -- something I've not found on YouTube. Love this song.

Peace out.

08 January 2010


Check out this Wikipedia listing of the wonders of the world -- divided into ancient, medieval, and modern, with entries for everything from architecture, the natural world, and much more. Have fun browsing !!! [Above -- the Great Wall of China. Below -- the ancient Inca city Machu Picchu, in the Peruvian Andes. Click on image to enlarge.]

07 January 2010


A French company called Parrot has created a scale-model quadricopter, a helicopter with four rotors which you can control via your iPhone. The chopper comes with two cameras, so that the user navigates using the iPhone screen -- and can be operated indoors or out, by remote control. The possibilities for play, work applications, or surveillance are limitless. Unlike other remote control aircraft, this vehicle can hover in place, and lift off and land without the need for a smooth runway. Check out the video here, as well as at Parrot's website, and let your imagination run wild.

06 January 2010


As reported in the NYTimes by Andrew C. Revkin --

This video shows the collision between a Japanese security vessel and the $1.5 speedboat (shown above at dockside) deployed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society this year to dog the Japanese whaling fleet. The video was provided by the Japanese Institute for Whaling Research.

Sea Shepherd's leader, Paul Watson, has labeled the incident a deliberate attack by Japan, but Japan's whaling institute, which claims the whale hunt is scientific research, blamed the conservation group for what it called "illegal harassment and terrorism."

Some activists say that such an incident was inevitable, given Sea Shepherd's confrontational tactics. At the same time, the media cannot afford to deploy boats to chronicle whale hunts (photo below shows a whale being drawn up the stern ramp of a factory ship), and governments opposed to whale kills in the commons of the Southern Ocean aren't doing much to track or resist such activities.

If a whale is hit by an exploding harpoon near Antartica and the world doesn't have a way to witness that, does it make a sound?

(Please note -- when I view the video, it appears that it is the Japanese "security vessel" which is maneuvering aggressively, aiming water cannon and changing its course to ram the Sea Shepherd vessel. See what you think.)

05 January 2010


Beginning on this day in 1968, reformist Slovak Alexander Dubcek came to power, and introduced sweeping political liberalization in the Soviet republic of Czechoslovakia, including loosening restrictions on the media, speech and travel, and partial decentralization of the economy. Dubcek's reforms, popularly called the Prague Spring, met with national and worldwide approval, and were seen as a new hope for the emergence of a more humane variant of Communism.

Alas, reactions within the Communist bloc (the USSR and its satellites) was less welcoming. After initial political pressure failed to halt reform, Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in August of that year, crushing all resistance and removing Dubcek from office. It wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, that the emergent Czech Republic and its sister nation Slovakia were able to freely pursue democratic governments.

This anniversary has special meaning for me. My mother's family immigrated to this country from Prague, in the Bohemian region of what was once Czechoslovakia. I also have a good friend who lives in Slovakia. One day I dearly hope to visit Europe, with this region as a special destination.