30 June 2010


CHICAGO. I receive daily email summaries from a service called 3QuarksDaily, which posts entries of interest in science, literature, the arts, politics and philosophy. One of today's entries was a video showing lightning striking three of the tallest buildings in Chicago at the same time. The video repeats several times, in real time and in slow motion. Pretty awesome. It reminded me of being in center city Philadelphia once, when a huge thunderstorm erupted overhead. The downpour was so intense that we had to pull over and park. The thunderclaps reverberated off all those skyscrapers, magnifying to earth-shattering decibel levels. I loved it.

Chicago was also host last weekend to Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, an event to benefit a drug treatment center in Antigua. "Crossroads" is a reference to a song by the seminal blues guitarist and singer, Robert Johnson. The festival features dozens of legendary blues and jazz guitarists. Clapton hosted the first Festival in Dallas, Texas in 2004 -- it was recorded for PBS, and is available on DVD. The 2007 and 2010 events were held in Chicago. Here is a review of this year's festival. Whether seen and heard live or on DVD, the Crossroads Festival is a jaw-dropping gathering of instrumental and vocal talent.

LONDON. On this day in 1894, London's Tower Bridge was opened, spanning the River Thames near the Tower of London. The bridge is a combined bascule and suspension design. Its entire center roadway section raises vertically to allow passage of ships beneath. After 116 years, the Tower Bridge still serves both road traffic and river traffic, and is an iconic structure in London. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

29 June 2010


HANDGUNS. In a 5-4 decision the US Supreme Court yesterday held that an individual's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws (thereby nullifying handgun control laws in Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere).

As always in a discussion of gun control, I am torn. On the one hand, I grew up in the hunting culture of the northern prairie. As a teenager I took hunters safety classes, and further learned firearm discipline in the military. I own a .45 caliber semi-auto pistol and a .22 caliber semi-auto rifle. I also possess a Montana concealed-carry permit.

On the other hand, it is an undeniable reality that the gun culture of a rural community is a whole different animal from the gun culture of crime-ridden US cities. There is good reason why state and municipal governments have taken it upon themselves to pass ordinances regulating the sale of assault rifles and handguns. One reason is that over the years, access to these weapons by gang members and organized crime has often left the police outgunned, forcing law enforcement to enter into an ever-escalating and expensive arms race. Another reason is that within the home, domestic violence may take on a fatal dimension -- easy access to a weapon coupled with the heat of anger are a deadly combination. A third reason is that carrying a handgun for self-defense too often places one in greater danger, since many assailants are able to disarm their victims. Now you're faced with a criminal pointing your own gun at you.

Bottom line, firearms cause 60,000 deaths and injuries each year. Evidence indicates that Chicago's ban on handguns has save hundreds of lives since it was enacted in 1983. My own position is that states and cities should be free to pass and enforce their own firearm laws, based on their own unique situations. I have no qualms about gun registration, any more than I do about car registration. The phrase "gun control" does not carry the apocalyptic connotations for me, that it seems to do for many members of the NRA. Flip side? Ive seen so much death and disfigurement from firearms -- in Vietnam and as a civilian ambulance driver -- that I can count on one hand the number of people besides myself whom I trust with a loaded weapon. My personal short list does not even include most police officers.

The Second Amendment states simply that "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." The dissenting Justices, drawing on historical evidence, wrote "The reasons that motivated the framers to protect the ability of militiamen to keep muskets available for military use when our nation was in its infancy ... have only a limited bearing on the question that confronts the homeowner in a crime-infested metropolis today." Further, "firearms have a fundamentally ambivalent relationship to liberty." Which is precisely why convicted felons and people who suffer from mental illness may not own firearms, and also why firearms are not allowed in schools and government buildings.

A case could be made that the 18th century Militia referred to in the Second Amendment has long since been formalized into state National Guard units, and that the Second Amendment has decreasing relevance to individuals. Personally, I'm not prepared to concede that point just yet, since it would cede all control of firearms to government. But it is an interesting argument.

Here is an array of responses to the Supreme Court decision for your consideration.

INVISIBILITY. No, this is not science fiction, or a Harry Potter reference. Here is a provocative discussion of the development of a working invisibility cloak. Of all the powers available to superheroes, invisibility and flying (without an airplane) have always been the most intriguing to me. Just think of the possiblities, and see if you aren't harboring a secret grin.

NATIONAL CHARACTER. Finally, here is Justin E.H. Smith's thoughtful exploration into the nature and origins of how we come to define our identities as members of a nation. Prepare to question your assumptions in a most thought-provoking manner. The story is not as simple as being born in a certain place. As always, click on any image to enlarge for best visibility. Happy reading.

25 June 2010


June 25, 1876 -- General George Armstrong Custer got his at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where several hundred Seventh Cavalry troops met their end at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. It was the last great victory for the northern plains tribes in their resistance to white invasion of their lands.

June 25, 1950 -- The Korean War began as North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The action prompted the United Nations to send a joint task force to aid the South, and in response China and Russian sided with the North. The war ended in stalemate, and the DMZ between the two countries remains one of the most dangerous spots on earth.

Did You Know? has been around for a bit, but its demographic and news observations remain a touchstone for perspective on the world we inhabit.

RationalWiki is a website devoted to the analysis and refutation of pseudoscience and the anti-science movement.

Here's a trailer for the independent film Gasland, which documents the destructive impact of land-based oil and gas drilling on the environment and on human residents.

My personal favorite, this article describes a new anti-rape female condom. My only worry is that an enraged assailant(s) might still beat the woman victim, or worse. What do you think?

24 June 2010


Day 66 of the ongoing BP Gulf oil spill -- in spite of the moratorium on deep-sea drilling which BP's disaster precipitated, the company is forging ahead with plans to use untested technology to drill offshore in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's north coast. True to form, oversight agencies allowed BP to write its own environmental assessment of the project. The drilling rig is located on a tiny 31-acre artificial gravel island. The insubstantial causeway to the island is shown above. The project calls for drilling downward for two miles (twice the depth of the Discovery rig in the Gulf), then laterally for five miles to reach an undersea oil reservoir. This is not deep-sea drilling? (Click on map at bottom to enlarge image.)

Given the company's complete and utter incompetence in dealing with predictable glitches, I can only conclude that we truly have been transported through the looking-glass. The array of dangers posed by this project is formidable. Even if, by some miracle, drilling first down and then sideways is executed successfully, what happens if (as happened in the Gulf) management penny-pinching and disregard for safety lead to another disaster? Alaska's North Slope is several orders of magnitude more geographically isolated than the Gulf of Mexico. An explosion or catastrophic oil spill would be impossible to contain. It would take weeks for relief vessels and equipment to even reach the site -- perhaps longer if an event were to happen in winter.

The so-called extended drilling involved in this project carries additional risks. There is an increased likelihood of gas kickbacks which may go undetected until it is too late. Further, the sheer distances involved mean more massive machinery to drive the drilling, placing increased pressure on pipes and well casings.

It would be a dangerous undertaking in any environment. Located as it is, near the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and traversing migration routes for bowhead whales, the risks are extreme and unacceptable. What are they thinking? What are WE thinkng -- the time has come to flood the White House and members of Congress with emails and phone calls protesting this latest blunder before it becomes something far worse. Here is where to contact the White House, and here is where to contact Senators and Representatives. Including this link to the NYTimes article would be helpful.

23 June 2010


Loyola at Los Angeles. New York University. Georgetown. Tulane. These and other law schools in the US have something in common -- they are giving law students' grades an artificial boost across the board in order to make their students appear more competitive. Not only that, these law schools are making the undeserved and unearned jump in grades retroactive by as much as two years. It is only one of a number of measures which law schools use to improve students' chances of employment upon graduation.

The dumbing down of curricula and of requirements to graduate has been going on in primary and secondary schools for a long time. "More graduates with higher grades" means continued federal financial support. Why aren't more school districts (and now law schools) willing to rise to the true challenge -- raising standards for both students and teachers, instilling an expectation of creativity and excellence. Small wonder that students in the US lag further and further behind students from other countries in their understanding of math, science and language. We do our children a shameful disservice, with ripple effects into future generations.

When I look at the credentials of an attorney, or a physician, or any other profession, I have a clear preference for accuracy of information. I would rather hire the best-qualified person, not someone who graduated last in his/her class. Grade inflation only muddies the waters, making it more difficult to separate the true qualifications among individuals. It is a form of fraud.

Here's a link to a funny, and painfully true, video -- The BP Oil Spill Re-enacted by Cats in 1 Minute. It's too bad we can't replace corporate heads with the same alacrity with which we replace military commanders. (McChrystal is out, Petraeus is in as commanding general in Afghanistan. See yesterday's post for more.)

22 June 2010


There's a good reason why the US President is called Commander-in-Chief. Just as the nation's founders were careful to establish a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, thereby creating a system of checks and balances among the branches, so too did the founders recognize the importance of civilian oversight as a check on the military mindset.

Top officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines form the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which in turn advise the President on military matters. But the President, a civilian (though often having served in the military) is the supreme commander. Period. There has always been a love/hate relationship between the two. The military tends to perceive civilians as ignorant of tactical and strategic needs, while civilians tend to regard the military as overly-prone to plunge into armed engagement (akin to the maxim "If your only tool is a hammer, you will tend to see every problem as a nail"). This inherent tension has sometimes boiled over, as it famously did in 1951 when President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command, after MacArthur made scathing public remarks which were critical of Truman.

It is an open question whether history is about to repeat itself. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in the Afghanistan war, has been summoned to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, to explain remarks which McChrystal and his staff made on several occasions to a Rolling Stone reporter -- derisive remarks expressing open contempt toward senior members of the Administration. One observer notes that McChrystal overstepped the bounds of propriety so severely that his behavior amounts to gross insubordination, and that his being fired should be automatic. Anything less would make the President look like a weak leader, at a time when the decisive quality of his leadership is already in question in light of the Administration's slow response to the Gulf oil disaster.

I'm inclined to agree with this assessment. What in the world was McChrystal thinking? The Rolling Stone remarks happened not merely in formal briefings, but also in bars and other off-duty settings. Embedded journalism is one thing (and a dubious concept at that). McChrystal's poor judgment and poor impulse control are not qualities I would want in my commanding officer, if I were a soldier in the field.

On a deeper level, my own feeling is that we shouldn't be in either Iraq or Afghanistan to begin with. It has been proven over and over, particularly in the context of counterinsurgency, that the standard military model is a failure. We are far more effective in winning friends and allies when we invest time, effort and financial support toward building infrastructure -- roads, water supply, sewers, power grids, telecommunications, and most critically, education. Greg Mortenson of the non-profit Central Asia Institute has written two books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, which describe his success in building schools in remote villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with special emphasis on educating girls. He has found over and over that "if you teach a boy, you educate an individual, but if you teach a girl, you educate a community." His work has had a measurable impact -- the dozens of villages in which he as worked are much less likely to support the Taliban. This is a sharp contrast to US military presence being seen by locals as an invasion by power-hungry infidels, creating many more terrorists than are rooted out through armed conflict.

21 June 2010


On Saturday night I chanced upon a broadcast of the 1960 American western The Magnificent Seven, which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen as the core of a band of mercenary gunfighters who come to the aid of a Mexican farming village beleaguered by bandits. The dialogue has its share of cliches, but also its share of thoughtful truths (e.g., Charles Bronson's impassioned lecture to three boys about those who truly possess courage -- the boys' fathers). While not a great film, it was fun to watch the ensemble cast of future stars in their youth.

TMS was an homage to Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Japanese film The Seven Samurai. Set in feudal Japan in the late 1500s, the title characters are ronin (masterless warriors) who similarly gather to defend a farming village threatened by bandits. TSS is one of the most influential films ever made. It introduced a number of original plot devices, as well as innovative cinematography (a Kurosawa trademark). There are significant differences between the two movies (see TMS link above), sufficiently that each stands along as its own mythic tale of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, mortality, race or class prejudice, and romance.

Bonus. Here's a link to one of the skits which guest host Betty White performed recently on Saturday Night Live. Fair warning -- the sexual double entendres will sneak up on you. They are hilarious.

20 June 2010


A FaceBook friend recommended an intriguing website in one of her posts. WolframAlpha is an online service that answers factual queries by computing the answer from structured data. This makes it an answer engine, distinguishing it from familiar search engines like Google, which provide a list of documents or web pages which might contain the answer -- you have to do your own digging from that list.

I followed the link to WolframAlpha's demo page, which provides dozens of examples of queries which anyone might want answered -- math computations, demographics, what the weather was like on your birthday, life expectancy, history, minutiae from the natural world -- it is an impressive list, and fun to explore.

However, when I emailed the link to an old friend who has been programming computers for decades, he cautioned me that WolframAlpha is not without its drawbacks. He noted that "This has been out for some time now [since 2009]. The tech community is not all that impressed with it, as it is quite easy to find problems for it that it should be able to solve. There are a number of goofy things with this site. For example, if you get it to solve a problem for you, they copyright the result. This means that you can't use it somewhere else without permission. The really odd thing about this site and other ventures is Wolfram himself. He wrote a book called "A New Kind of Science." The most common word in this tome is "I" .... one of the more, er, poignant reviews of this book can be found here, titled "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity," in which the author pretty much destroys any credibility Wolfram might have had .... "

One quote from this book review (which is well worth reading in its entirety) stands out -- "As the saying goes, there is much here that is new and true, but what is true is not new, and what is new is not true, and some of it is even old and false, or at least utterly unsupported." A briefer customer book review, which draws similar conclusions, may be found here.

Getting back to the website. My takeaway impression is that if you want to play with it for personal use only, it is a very versatile tool. But if you are doing research for a book or journal article, you could be courting (as it were) a lawsuit if you use Wolfram Alpha data without prior permission. My suggestion is that you check out the demo page for yourself, to see what the possibilities are for personal use. Bottom line -- a recommendation from a non-tech friend is no substitute for an evaluation from a tech person who knows more about the field. Which only makes sense. I wouldn't want my mechanic t0 perform heart surgery on me, nor my doctor to rebuild my truck's engine.

Footnote: It seems that BP's embattled CEO Tony Hayward is either astronomically clueless, or he simply does not care. After weeks of making insensitive, insulting and uninformed comments about the Gulf oil spill, even in moments when he is trying to act as a reassuring company figurehead, Hayward has done it again. Yesterday while the US Coast Guard, the Federal government, BP employees and Gulf Coast residents entered their 60th day of battling environmental degradation and economic ruin, Hayward spent the day attending a yacht race off the coast of England. This man, who sounds cultured and minimally intelligent, nevertheless can do nothing right. Whether he's stonewalling before a Congressiional investigation, appearing in insincere TV ads, or whining about wanting his life back, he might as well be trying to walk across an oily floor covered with banana peels. He's gonna fall on his face, he just can't help himself. I'm tired of his incompetence, which mirrors that of BP's corporate culture. I hope never to see even one more time that furrowed, vacuous face which gives the impression of total focus on his own intellectual constipation. As was true for GWB, Hayward (like his oil wells) is so far out of his depth that surely someone else is writing his lines for him -- perhaps a schoolchild from his home town in Kent.

For those who are so inclined, at this website there is a real-time counter which updates the number of gallons of oil which have hemorrhaged into the Gulf .... so far. It's important to keep track of units of measure. Some news sources use barrels, others use gallons. For the record, a barrel of crude oil contains 42 US gallons. The current flow is approximately 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons. If that figure were the total extent of the spill, it would be shocking. But that's the amount spilled each day for 61 days .... with no end in sight. There are no words.

19 June 2010


Over the years, cats have been my companions in a wide range of dwellings and surroundings, including a century-old adobe ranchhouse in southern Arizona, a four-story home in suburban Philadelphia, and my current studio apartment near a busy street in Missoula. Always there has been a fundamental dilemma -- allow the cats outside, or keep them indoors?

Outside, cats are free to explore, roll in the grass, soak up the sun, climb trees, and just be cats. But they might also be at high risk for (depending on location) predation by coyotes or owls, infestation by ticks or fleas, or being hit by a passing car. Plus, I'm partial to birds, and dont want my cats to kill them.

Inside, cats are safe from accidental death, pests or disease. But they are constricted to a confined space, enjoy less freedom, and sit in the window looking out on the world with longing.

In all urban settings, I've kept my cats indoors for their safety. I try to enhance their livng space with cat trees, tunnels, and allowing them on any surface where food is not prepared or served. I also play with them daily, encouraging games which hone their stalking and hunting skills. Still, being indoors remains an unsatisfying tradeoff.

If I lived in my own home (I do not), the answer would be simple -- a catio (cat patio), a space which allows free access to outdoor air and sun, yet is enclosed by wire mesh so that they can't stray into the street, or prey on those tempting birds. A catio can be as simple as a small window box, or an enclosed balcony, or it can be an elaborate room-sized enclosure with built-in walkways, hiding places and nests for snoozing. Jennifer Kingson describes the proliferation of ingenious catios in New York City. And here's a website with photos of an astonishing array of catio designs, many quite elaborate. (A fountain? Great idea! Click on images to enlarge.)

My intent is to find a different place to live within the next year -- probably a different city or state. Wherever, one essential guideline in my search for a place to live will be how adaptable it will be to my cats' needs. When they're happy, I'm happy too.

18 June 2010


HOW IT WORKS. Is Kate racist, or isn't she? Check out this video and see what you think -- it is a scenario which plays itself out wherever friends of different races interact.

LA MISMA LUNA. Rarely does a film come along which reveals the true, human dimension of the immigration debate as does the film Under The Same Moon. The tale, like most stories in the real world of undocumented immigrants, is about family, sacrifice and our need to connect, set in a world of human predators and government paranoia. Gentle, yearning, struggling to be free.

NEOCONS. Contrary to what pundits and Republicans would have you believe, most Americans (especially swing voters) were favorably impressed by President Obama's televised speech from the Oval Office this week -- a speech in which he clarified his Administration's stance on the Gulf oil disaster and on BP's culpability through willful negligence and greed. "Voters believe that any Republican opposition to clean energy legislation would be motivated by partisanship, and not by principle. Further, they overwhelmingly agreed that if Republicans oppose Obama's plan without offering a proposal tht would be good for the American people, and not just good for business, they would be more likely to vote Democratic."

The Republicans are hoist with their own petard, especially the radical Tea Party branch of the party. How can "Drill Baby Drill" possibly stand up to the heart-wrenching images we see daily from the Gulf? How sad that it has taken such a monumental disaster to reveal that the NeoCon emporer has no clothes. Their motto: "Boldness unburdened by excessive scruples."

I was tickled and gratified by Vice-President Joe Biden's reply to Republican Representative Joe Barton's groveling apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward at yesterday's Congressional hearings into the oil spill. Barton took it upon himself to characterizing BP's agreeing to maintain a $20 billion escrow fund for victims of the oil spill as a "shakedown" by the Obama administration. Barton was apparently the only person who felt that way, at least in front of the cameras -- he later retracted his apology, under pressure from his own party. His expressed solidarity with BP wasn't helped by Hayward, who consistently and arrogantly stonewalled when asked specific questions about BP's conduct during the hearings.

It's really quite heart-warming to see rich white guys standing up for other rich white guys, in the face of the environmental degradation and ruined human lives which their actions have caused. If nothing else, Republicans are predictable in this regard, knowing that if they don't hang together, they shall surely hang separately.

17 June 2010


I'm taking a break today from news, opinion, remniscence and education. Here instead are a few of my favorite recent YouTube short videos, varied and brief.

Economic Hitmen -- a razor-sharp animated summary of US economic and military hegemony.

Picnic Table Bike -- I hope this isn't all there is to do in Boulder, CO.

The Devil Went Down to Jamaica -- a witty Muppets musical sendup of the Charlie Daniels Band's hit The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse -- hyperventilating newsreel reporter just needs to research resonance frequencies (wind and bridge oscillation) to explain how it happened.

Police Officer Hits on a Woman Driver -- dry satire on smooth operators.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird -- the highest, fastest, most successful spy plane ever flown.

16 June 2010


DIALECTS. Things just keep getting more and more overtly racist in Arizona. Now there's a move afoot to ban teachers who have a detectable accent from teaching. WTF? This is so egregiously discriminatory against those whose native language happens to be Spanish (and who is likely to have a marginally darker skin than the white bigots who are pushing for this change) that lawsuits are (I dearly hope) inevitable.

We ALL speak with an accent. (See the map above, click to enlarge. It is highly simplified and does not even begin to portray all the hundreds of English dialects in the US.) America is so linguistically varied that sometimes a resident from one part of the country has trouble understanding a resident from another part, even though they are both speaking Americanized English. Our regional dialects are so diverse that a native Southerner can tell you from which Southern state you originate, just from listening to your accent.

So who gets to play god and decree what accent is "real" American, and what accent is not? In my book, NO ONE. All it takes is an open mind and a little re-tooling of our listening expectations, and anyone can understand English spoken by a person from Ireland, France, Italy, Japan, India, Russia, or even freaking Arizona.

WILDEBEESTS. Olivia Judson reports that there is an environmental catastrophe brewing in Tanzania. The country wishes to build a road which would bisect a designated wilderness area which contains the route of the last large land migration on earth, that of the wildebeest (see map above). The annual migration includes the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and the contiguous Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Human encroachment on natural habitat is endemic throughout the world. Roads are especially harmful -- they fragment habitat, disrupt animal movements, create the probability of lethal collisions between vehicles and wildlife, allow the spread of invasive plant species and animal diseases, and encourage animal poaching and human building in pristine natural surroundings.

Judson is puzzled by the plan, since Tanzania has heretofore has had an exemplary record for protecting wildlife. Further, building the road around the south end of the park would allow for five times the volume of traffic. The wildebeest migration (which includes zebras and gazelles) defines the Serengeti ecosystem. The loss of one would lead to the loss of the other. Please read her article -- she is a gifted and articulate naturalist.

BABY BOOMERS. I was born in 1947, the peak year of the post-World War II baby boom generation (see graph below, click to enlarge). We boomers have take a lot of undeserved heat over the years for our purported self-indulgences and sense of entitlement. In actuality, we've been a remarkably creative and politically astute bunch, the wellspring of the counterculture of the 1960s, and a driving force behind the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, women's rights, the list goes on. Never count us out. Of the current US population of 307 million, boomers now account for over 78 million, or 25 per cent. That's a pretty major demographic.

Now, vindication is at hand. An article in the NYTimes describes how those very traits and others are actually much more pronounced in the generations which followed the baby boom -- so much so that for all appearances, children are taking an extra decade just to functionally grow up. Through recorded history, each generation has been increasingly dismayed by the choices if its offspring. And the beat goes on ............

15 June 2010


WARS FOR RESOURCES. I was once among those innocent souls who believe that the US commits its troops to war for sainted reasons like protecting the innocent and facilitating the spread of democracy. My innocence has long since been replaced by the cynical view that like all nations, we enter into wars to promote our own welfare and our own power base. Vietnam was fought for oil and rubber, Iraq was (and continues to be) fought over oil. Now comes a NYTimes report exposing our ulterior motive in the war in Afghanistan -- the presence of vast reserves of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium -- at least $1 trillion worth. US military presence in Afghanistan started in 2001, shortly after the 9-11 attacks, and was ostensibly an assault on terrorism. But our government already knew of the mineral wealth in that country, as evidenced by a report by the USGS, which was available to those in power prior to its publication in 2002. To control a resource, we must control the territory in which it resides, or at least control the political and military leaders of that territory. To make a war palatable to the public, whose sons and daughters will be the ones at risk, military deployment must be cloaked in a grand rationale which appeals to our (misguided) patriotism or to our (equally misguided) sense of fair play. Any time there is a disconnect, whether it be a war or an oil spill or a political scandal, the bottom line always has a dollar sign attached. Afghanistan's mineral riches and its opium poppies, together with neighboring Uzbekistan's oil reserves, are more than sufficient justification for going to war in the eyes of some. Our ostensible reason, ousting the terrorist Taliban, carries two ironies. One, we ourselves armed, funded and advised the Taliban's progenitors, the Mujahideen, during their armed struggle against invading USSR forces in the 1980s. And two, US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is seen for what it is -- an invasion to seize control of resources and power. The longer we stay, the more terrorists we create. If another nation invaded the US, we would just as readily rise up in revolt.

C'est la guerre.

TAKING CHANCE. Focusing down to the very human, very personal dimension of our current wars, the film Taking Chance portrays a real life journey -- that of a Marine officer who escorted the body of a Marine (killed in Iraq) to his hometown. The movie was understated and crafted with attention to detail, and I was moved to tears. In contrast to my war (Vietnam), the American public now respects and honors those in the military, living and fallen. The Marine officer encountered numerous small gestures of caring and support. Here is a video preview of the movie. And here is a summary written by the Marine officer himself. Spoiler alert -- if you plan on seeing the movie, you might want to do that first before reading the summary. The film stars Kevin Bacon, in one of his most riveting performances.

WESTERN TANAGERS. Missoula's cool, wet Spring has been welcome by all of us who dread the summer forest wildfire season. A week ago a bonus appeared -- sightings of migrating Western Tanagers have been numerous, especially along the Clark Fork River which runs through town. A Missoulian article does a good job of summarizing the event and the bird. On one of my daily walks, I was delighted to spot a pair as they fed among nearby trees. Even without my binoculars at hand, the splash of avian color was a wonderful surprise.

JUST BECAUSE. The APOD image from June 11, enhanced to show the distribution of hydrogen, a marker for star-forming regions. Click on the image to enlarge. Cheers.

14 June 2010


The expected repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward sexual orientation is having strange repercussions. The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe reports that gays in the military are experiencing a strange state of limbo. While many officers, NCOs and enlisted personnel are already adjusting their behavior in a more tolerant direction, others are struggling with their homophobia. Even the military chaplain corps, whose ostensible mission is to tend to the spiritual needs of all under their care, regardless of race, gender or rank, is having a hard time making the adjustment. It seems that since the law was passed seventeen years ago, chaplains have become more conservative and evangelical.

All of which would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic. Gay men and women make up roughly ten percent of any portion of the population, including the military. Being gay is not a contageous disease, nor does it hinder anyone from performing their assigned mission well. A good soldier is a good soldier, and ought to be respected as such. All the paranoid excuses for barring gays from the military are blatant discrimination. One could even make a case for the treatment of gays, by individuals and by the legal system, as being a hate crime.

Think about it. Among straight men and women in today's increasingly gender-blind military, randy behavior and sexual harrassment are the exception, not the rule. Yet straight people, particularly straight men, seem terrified of interacting with gays, as though gays think of nothing but sex. This stereotype dehumanizes gays, robbing them of all the dimensions of their humanity. To carry institutional paranoia to the point of actually considering separate quarters for gays and straights is just plain absurd. Bottom line, sexual preference is NOBODY'S BUSINESS. A soldier is a soldier.

I've known many gays and lesbians over the years. Just as with straight people, some are solid friends whom I treasure, others are knuckleheads whom I have no use for. That is independent of their being gay. The same holds true in families, in the workplace, and yes, in the military. All you homophobes out there, get over yourselves. Your fear and hatred are your issues, no one else's. Get some therapy, get a grip, and learn a little humility. Gay service men and women are risking their lives for you. Show some respect.

13 June 2010


Last night I was enthralled by watching the tw0-hour PBS adaptation of Michael Pollan's eponymous book, The Botany of Desire. Pollan illuminates the symbiotic relationship between humans and four domesticated plants which mirror four types of human desires -- our desire for sweetness (the apple), for beauty (the tulip), for intoxication (marijuana), and for control (the potato). Click on the above image to enlarge. During our history with each plant, we have controlled plants through selective breeding and genetic engineering, and we have ourselves been manipulated by the plants' needs, serving their propogation and their spread as if we were human honeybees. The PBS program observes our symbiosis from the view points of both humans and plants, illustrating what we too often forget: that we are but a part of the intricate web of life.

Humans first discovered apples and tulips in central Asia, marijuana in India and China, and potatoes in the Peruvian Andes. Native cultures understood the benefit of allowing hundreds, even thousands of strains of each plant to flourish -- diversity provides resilience in the struggle for survival against herbivore insects, disease and adverse genetic mutations. Alas, European-derived societies have suppressed this diversity, preferring to breed just a few strains for specific traits, in mass quantities. This shift toward botanical monocultures has dire consequences when an insect or disease comes along which thrives on the single strain being grown. Witness the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Today's farmers rely heavily on pesticides and other chemicals to protect their monoculture crops, when the re-introduction of multiple strains, along with natural pest controls, would serve the same purpose. Man plans, nature laughs.

Here is a link to the PBS program's website, featuring bonus videos, interactive maps and timelines, and educational supplements. The program is available on DVD.

While on the subject on online resources, here are a few more, just for fun:

~~ Journey to the Stars DVD, a joint production of NASA and the American Museum of Natural History. If you are a teacher, or know a teacher, or have children in school, this is a wonderful introduction to the night sky and space exploration.

~~ The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a website where you can search for Vietnam War casualties by name, by city and state, or by military unit. Letters, poems and photos are posted for many of the service members listed.

~~ The Investigative Project on Terrorism, with news posts and analysis in an accessible format.

~~ 10 Essential Cheat Sheets to Download, to enhance the performance of an array of commonly-used computer programs (Google, Windows, Gmail, Firefox, Linux, etc.). A friend points out that access requires entering your email address, if that is a concern for you.

~~ Ink Pixie personalized tshirts and hats, fun themes you can add your name to.

12 June 2010


CHILDREN. Our miscreant racist friends in Arizona are at it again. Spearheaded by Mesa Republican Senator Russell Pearce, and fueled by passage of the 2010 anti-immigration law, the state is poised to formulate legislation which would again defy the U.S. Constitution. The new legislation would prevent children born in this country from being issued birth certificates, thus denying those children US citizenship, if their parents are undocumented immigrants.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that "all persons born or naturalized in the Unites States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." What part of "No state shale make or enforce any law .... " do Arizona Republicans not understand? Their racial paranoia flies in the face of federal law and common sense. Immigrants from Latin America, like most other immigrants, have historically brought with them a strong work ethic, strong family values, and loyalty to their adopted country. Studies have shown that immigrants in general "increase productivity and average income." Sounds like a win-win situation, no?

Further, by international law and custom, anyone born within a country automatically becomes a citizen of that country. If that child's parents happen to be citizens of a second country, then the child is automatically conferred dual citizenship in both countries. Arizona conservatives seek to turn back not merely the hands of the clock of time, but the pages of the calendar of history. News flash -- the good old days were never really all that good. Hence the positive associations we attach to the word "progress." And hence the justified application of the word "regressive" to neocon efforts to subvert our nation's founding principles.

ANIMALS. An article in today's NYTimes explores the decrease in social and legal tolerance toward animal cruelty. I cannot stand being around the mistreatment of animals, whether in the form of public rituals (dog fights, cock fights, bull fights, rodeos), or in the form of private individuals being cruel to their pets. Further, the article makes clear the connection between animal abuse and other criminal behavior -- "The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many US communities now cross-train social service and animal control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behavior." It should be noted that, as with raising children, neglect can be as damaging as outright abuse, perhaps even more damaging.

The crossover in abusive behavior is consistent with my own indirect experience. My most recent marriage was to a brilliant woman who was both an attorney and a psychologist. Her JD/PhD prepared her for a career as a criminology professor and researcher. One of her early original research insights was that (contrary to the common myth held among law enforcement), most criminals do not specialize. It is misguided to imagine that there is a distinct profile for, say, serial killers or terrorists or thieves. Those who do not feel bound by society's laws will violate those laws in ways large and small, more often than not. The lack of impulse control is one of a suite of characteristics of the criminal mind which law enforcement at all levels fails to take into account when considering likely suspects for a given crime.

11 June 2010


COUSTEAU. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the French explorer, ecologist, and videographer who invented the progenitor of SCUBA gear, and who did more than anyone else to popularize interest in the beauty, diversity and health of life in the world ocean. Cousteau's passion for the sea is carried on not only by his children, but also by entire generations of oceanographers and marine biologists who were inspired by his work. Here's a verbal tribute to JYC, and a musical tribute to his research ship Calypso.

SHAKESPEARE. Yesterday I watched the first installment of a British series from the early 1980s called "Playing Shakespeare." The series is a master class for both actors and audiences, conducted by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The discussion centered on how to interpret Shakespeare for contemporary audiences, while remaining true to the text and intent of the playwright. RSC actors (much younger in the series) who remain familiar names include Patrick Steward, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, and Peggy Ashcroft. The program is nuanced and delightful, rewarding undivided attention with insight into the plays and the man.

An example of illuminating information from the program -- in the decades before and after 1600 AD, most of Europe did not know how to read or write. Hence Shakespeare had to discover ways to convey to his actors and his audience not only the verbal content of his plays, but also the emotional thrust of every line of speech. He succeeded in doing so by brilliantly constructing dialogue with accents highlighting key words. While iambic pentameter was used extensively toward this end, it was only one of an array of creative tools at his disposal. It could fairly be said that Elizabethan audiences were much more finely attuned to verbal nuance than audiences of today, for the simple reason that they had no reading skills upon which to rely. Further, Shakespeare during the course of his career made up out of thin air over 2000 words which are still in common English usage.

ABW. As in, the Angry Black Woman, one of my absolute favorite blogs. The mayor of London recently made the news by whining to the American public in general, and President Obama in particular, over our outrage toward BP for its criminal negligence and malfeasance in causing the ongoing Gulf oil disaster. The mayor took exception to what he saw as Americans adopting an anti-British stance, while he minimized BP's responsibility. It did my heart good to read ABW's pull-no-punches response. You can check out her post here.

By the way, on the web I've come across certain misleading statements to the effect that BP is an American company. Not true. BP is based in London, and trades on the London and New York stock exchanges. It is the United Kingdom's largest corporation. It has a US subsidiary, BP America, with offices in Houston, TX. (Most Americans know BP as "British Petroleum," because that was the company's name for most of its existence. However, as part of its rebranding-greenwashing campaign, BP officially changed its name to "BP plc." plc stands for public limited company. The name's tagline is "Beyond Petrolem.")

10 June 2010


Matt Richtel reports that our brains may be coevolving with our computers. Studies show that many of those who use computers for hours at a time, for work or pleasure, experience a lowered ability to focus on a single task as they become accustomed to manipulating multiple sources of incoming information. Paradoxically, the much-vaunted skill of multitasking results in a decreasing ability to complete a given task, and a decreasing ability to perform tasks well, given our split attention. Heavy multitaskers "have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, and experience more stress .... fractured thinking and lack of focus persist even after the multitasking ends."

In short, the nonstop interactivity imposed by computers and cell phones comes at a price, both behaviorally (fractured marriages from diminished quality time together, car wrecks from driving while phoning), and in the biological functioning of the brain itself. One wonders whether altered brain functioning may lead to altered brain structure, as overused neural connections swell and underused connections atrophy. Might those of us who use computers heavily, be evolving into a separate subspecies? Might humans gradually diverge into entirely separate species, say, Home sapiens and Homo android? It's not a new notion -- science fiction writers have taken up the theme many times. And we all know how frequently yesterday's science fiction has become today's science fact. I wonder if a baby android would look as cute as a baby sapiens? Perhaps only to its mother (aka parental genesis unit?).

Here's a wee bit of J.S. Bach to ease you through your electron-sorting day.

09 June 2010


PAST. Stanley Fish has written a compelling article on the need for a return in public schools to a classical education -- one which engages students in the study of math, science, language, history, economics, literature and the arts. In recent decades US schools have become more and more focused on test-based schooling, with the unintended result that schools have lowered their standards for passing (and seemingly their standards for excellence) in order to pass standardized tests and shuffle their students along to the next educational level, lacking in the skills and knowledge they were to have acquired in the first place. The upshot -- US students consistently place well behind students from other developed nations in their understanding of every one of those classical components.

I attended a small rural high school which, for its size (350 students at the time) offered a quality curriculum, and I ate it up -- biology, chemistry, physics, US and world history, English literature, Latin, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, drama, speech, government. Being a small school, we had no classes in debate or calculus, philosophy or astronomy. What we did have was a group of dedicated teachers who encouraged and challenged us to learn, and who instilled an expectation of excellence.

Small wonder that our students were high achievers out of proportion to our school's size. To this day I retain so much of what I learned that I cringe when I witness what high school students are learning (or failing to learn) today. The world's knowledge doubles every 5-10 years, so what's available is rich and varied. Yet I can outperform most high school graduates in any field, and I'm hardly a candidate for Mensa. I can do math in my head faster than kids can do with calculators. I can challenge a student to randomly choose a word from the dictionary, and chances are I'll know what it means (thanks to Latin and my love of reading). History? The sciences? Literature? Forget about it.

This isn't the students' fault. Our system has failed them. I support the idea of a return to a classical education, updated as research and technology reveal new truths and new possibilities, and incorporating what we know about the psychology of diverse learning styles. We must raise the bar again, setting students' goals high and providing them with the tools and encouragement to reach those goals. We must also throw away the notion of tenured faculty. Teachers should be retained based on knowledge and performance, not on longevity on the job.

FUTURE. You would think that we would have learned a few hard lessons from the practice of outsourcing by now. Taking advantage of cheap foreign labor not only takes away quality control, it also creates horrendous and sometimes deadly working conditions, all for the sake of more corporate profit. Now President Obama proposes to sidestep our country's traditional reliance on NASA, and turn space exploration over to private enterprise. As the space shuttle program winds down to a halt later this year, already private rockets are being tested. One company, Bigalowe Aerospace, is already developing alternative space station components (see image above). So why is this troubling? For starters, the company's founder, Robert T. Bigalowe, isn't a scientist. He's not only a bottom-line venture capitalist, his science credentials include a belief in UFOs, a belief in the power of prayer, and a lack of belief in the Big Bang theory. I don't know about you, but if I were perched in a transport capsule atop a rocket, about to be launched to enter a space habitat constructed by the lowest bidder, I'd want to know that something more astrophysically substantial than prayer and little green men was guaranteeing my safety. Bigalowe's corporate philosophy is summed up as "keep your work and the work of your co-workers very private from people outside the company." Quality control? Accountability? Experts in their fields of science planning for every contingency? Naw. After all, what's the worst that could happen? Can you spell "Gulf oil disaster in space"?

I hope I'm proven wrong in my skepticism, I truly do. But I'm not holding my breath.