29 October 2010


ARTEMIS. Here is a remarkable story about a pair of NASA spacecraft being reassigned from one decaying mission, to another that is yielding a gold mine of information about the moon. Check out the wild and crazy lunar orbits !!

A BOOT TO THE HEAD. Earlier this week, several Republican thugs beat an Obama supporter to the ground, and proceeded (like the Nazis they are) to kick her into unconsciousness and concussion. Michael Moore relates the incident, with commentary on the state of electoral civility, and the depths to which extremists will go to drown out the voices of opposition in our alleged democracy. What are conservatives really afraid of, that they are willing to descend to such barbarity? They surely will NOT be getting my vote.

28 October 2010


THE SPILL. Amazing to realize that it has been over six months since the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion, and the subsequent oil spill which has been characterized as the single most catastrophic human-caused natural disaster in our nation's history. Its effects will be with us for decades to come. This writer devoted a number of posts to the political and economic causes of the spill, and to the harm done to the natural world.

The most recent episode of the acclaimed PBS series Frontline takes a hard look at the corporate culture of BP. Titled simply The Spill, the show documents BP's long record of accidents, with harm to both the environment and to human life, which presaged the Gulf of Mexico debacle. The Spill is a frightening and infuriating indictment of BP, the oil industry, and (implicitly) the mentality of greed-trumping-responsibility which has characterized such a huge portion of capitalism for the past thirty years -- which is saying something, given our excesses ever since the Industrial Revolution. The BP spill is a symptom of a much larger cancer, one which we allow to flourish every time we spend money and look the other way.

ANNIVERSARIES. Here is a versatile resource provided by Wikipedia -- a list of historical anniversaries. You can click on the name of a month and learn where that name originated, or click on a specific date (your birthday?) and learn the important events that took place on that date, throughout recorded history. Links lead to more links, and soon you will be having as much fun as Alice in Wonderland. Well, almost.

27 October 2010


CARTER. A dear friend and I were discussing politics a few days ago, specifically how election campaigns have become exercises in slander and mean-spiritedness. My view at the time was that there is no single U.S. president who, if all the secrets in his closet were revealed, would be immune from scandal. This includes those regarded as great presidents, e.g. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or John F. Kennedy. Further reflection has led me to amend my cynicism. Our thirty-ninth president has led his life according to high ideals, both in and out of office. Jimmy Carter might not be the first name to pop into the minds of many as one of our great leaders, but this decent and humble man has achieved much.

Consider: "In his one term, his administration oversaw the creation of the Energy and Education Departments, the Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords, the Soviet Union Salt II Treaty and U.S. diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. After leaving office, he founded the Carter Center and has been tirelessly active in Habitat For Humanity and international public policy. He's a Nobel laureate, a "Best Spoken Word" Grammy winner, and best-selling author who has written more books than any other president."

The above quote appears as a brief bio for Carter on Tavis Smiley's website. Smiley interviews public figures for his programs on both PBS and NPR. I chanced to see Smiley's most recent interview with Jimmy Carter earlier this week, and was reminded that Carter never ceases to amaze me. At age 86, he is a deep and profound thinker and an articulate speaker. His self-deprecating sense of humor and his insights into the motivations of human behavior are a model of decorum and wisdom. This elder statesman has been asked to act as a peace broker between warring nations on numerous occasions, with good reason.

Here is a link to Smiley's complete interview with Carter. Click on the third "play" arrow down, labeled "Full Interview." Carter discusses his newest book, a candid memoir based on notes he took while president, and he also offers pointed observations on today's squalid politics. The man is a national treasure.

SUPERSTITION. Virtually all myths and superstitions (including religious beliefs) are based upon limited anecdotal evidence, often taking the word of one or a few individuals on faith. The facts may be further distorted by repeated inaccurate translations from one language to the next, or by the personal agendas of those in power. In reality, events which may seem remarkable or even miraculous lose their power when considered in a wider context. This is where the lens of statistics comes in handy, as colorfully described by Tarik Moosa in his essay Statistics - Destroyer of Superstitious Pretension. Using examples both ancient and modern, Moosa demonstrates how certain popularly-held beliefs do not hold up to the scrutiny of mathematical common sense. For those who dismiss statistics as a tool capable of proving or disproving anything, please note that it is the interpretation which is at fault, not the tool itself. This is why it behooves each of us to learn as much as we can about the world -- science, the arts, math, language, economics, human psychology -- so that we may intelligently grasp when we are witnessing truth, and when we are being led down the garden path. In today's world, there is no excuse for willful, intentional ignorance.

26 October 2010


I highly recommend the story posted by Matt Miller at his blog on the Nature Conservancy website. Matt reflects on a hike he took through Idaho's Hell's Canyon, and on the atavistic fears which surfaced in him when he nearly stepped on a western diamondback rattlesnake. His thoughts about the remainder of the hike, about rattlesnakes and the role they play in nature, and about their position among our myths regarding predators in general and reptiles in particular, are evocative and worth reflecting upon.

I especially like his suggestion that "scary creatures offer another benefit we don't usually consider -- humility ... that prickly fear we feel in the presence of a large spider, or a poisonous snake, transports us to a time when nature was not something 'out there,' but rather a series of real, complicated relationships with living creatures. The rattle jolts us back to a reality where nature was not just an idyllic walk in the park. It reminds us that humans are a species profoundly shaped, not by cities and technology, but by other animals and our relationships with them. Lose the rattlesnake, and we lose a part of what makes us human."

I grew up in the farming country of northern Montana, and my youth included many Boy Scout camping trips into the nearby Rocky Mountains. Living among wildlife was as natural to me as breathing. In my mid-twenties, during a solo three-day hike into the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, I had a moment of epiphany similar to Matt's. I carried a six-foot long walking staff intended to give rattlers something to strike at besides my leg. As a backup measure, my holstered .22 magnum revolver was belted handily to the side of my backpack.

After being dropped off at the trailhead shortly after sunrise, I entered Wild Burro Canyon, thoroughly enjoying the morning light and the symphony of desert bird calls. My oblivious delight was shocked back to reality when I realized that the stick lying across the trail a few feet ahead was actually a motionless rattler sunning itself. Instant pulse elevation and adrenaline flow. I decided to simply leave the trail and circle around the snake, being careful where I placed my boots among the creosote, bursage and brittlebush which could easily hide other rattlers.

But it soon became apparent that the Tortolitas were literally crawling with rattlesnakes that day. Only a few minutes later I heard that unmistakeable dry buzzing. I froze, and looked down to see a rattlesnake two feet away from my foot, in the shade of a low bush which brushed my leg. I slowly reached up to grasp my .22, took careful aim .... and did not fire. I knew I had the power to take this life, but I also realized that I was the intruder in his world. After a long pause, I slowly placed my staff between my leg and the snake, and even more slowly stepped away. The standoff ended peaceably.

For the rest of that day I was jumpy. By the time I found a suitable campsite (a tiny platform of rock formed where a stream forked, then reconverged), I'd seen or heard a score of rattlers. My thought was that being surrounded by flowing water would hopefully discourage any reptilian visitors from seeking my body warmth during the night. None did (although on subsequent camping trips in Arizona and New Mexico, I did awaken to feel a reptilian body stirring against mine. Another story for another time.).

I learned to relax, and for the next two days throughly enjoyed scouting the canyons and central basin of the Tortolitas. As described in a previous post, I was privileged to sight the resident herd of wild horses. In a moment of high (or low) comedy, at one point I was sunbathing nude at my campsite when I suddenly heard nearby voices. In a flash I covered my nether parts with a shirt, just before a hat, then a face bobbed above the edge of the ledge nearby. Embarrassed, I pretended to nap as thirty members of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club walked past in single file, and they pretended I wasn't there. Later in the day I encountered the group resting in the meager shade of a palo verde tree, and we chatted as though nothing unusual had transpired.

That hike marked a turning point in my attitude toward reptiles in particular, and predators in general. By the time I became caretaker of Canelo Hills Cienega, one of the Nature Conservancy's southern Arizona preserves (which was home to four species of rattlesnakes), I was also the proud father of a preschool son. During our walks we talked about snakes and bats and deer and birds and coyotes and trees and frogs and people. When out driving, if we happened upon a snake sunning itself on a road, we would stop and shepherd it into the weeds and out of danger from passing cars and trucks. To this day, we both have fond memories of those years, even dreaming about them. Our time in Eden.

So thank you, Matt, for both your own reflections and for the trip down memory lane. As you proposed regarding rattlesnakes, "Long may they slither through our reality, reminding us of the connections to nature that still remain deeply embedded in our genes, in our being."

25 October 2010


I have a long list of fantasy destinations around the world -- places where I would like to live for times ranging from two weeks to a year. Very near the top of that list is Ireland, both the 26 counties of the independent Republic of Ireland and the 6 counties of Northern Ireland (a member of the United Kingdom). It is a land brimming with history, myth, music and verdure. Excellent introductions to Irish culture may be found in Frank Delaney's novel "Ireland," and in Morgan Llewellyn's historical novels.

Today's NYTimes travel feature, Lost in Ireland, recounts Matt Gross' solo adventures among the residents of the Emerald Isle, driving a rented car and realizing that his preconceptions of the Irish (like most preconceptions) were midguided at best. It is a wonderful tale for any wannabe traveler, no matter what country you hope to visit.

Today also happens to be the 88th anniversary of the Constitution of the Irish Free State, the founding document for the Republic of Ireland. It established the first independent Irish state to be recognized both internationally and by the British government. Among its provisions:
  • prohibition of nobility
  • establishment of individual liberty and right to habeus corpus
  • inviolability of the home
  • freedom on conscience and worship
  • freedom of speech, assembly and association
  • the right to education for all citizens
  • the right to trial by jury
In 1937 the document was permanently replaced by the modern Constitution of Ireland. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

22 October 2010


AGGRESSIVE PREY. A recent study conducted in the waters off Australia suggests that in the absence of natural predators, prey species not only populated beyond sustainable levels, they also behave in a manner inconsistent with nature's balance. The study found that "Little fish are cautious and timid around big, hungry fish, and rightly so. But when populations of predators like tuna and shark shrink because of human fishing, small prey become more adventurous", overgrazing seaweed and venturing farther and for longer periods of time in search of mates.

These observations are consistent with our experience with many land species. Name any habitat, and you'll find that where human interference has removed predators (wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, rattlesnakes, raptors), their prey species (deer, elk, rabbits, rodents) have increased in numbers to the point of becoming a peril on highways, but a pestilence in urban and suburban parks and neighborhoods.

The take-home lesson? Allow nature to reach her own dynamic balance. Do not interfere.

LONG HAIR. 55-year old Dominique Browning takes up the cause of growing one's hair as one pleases, independent of fashion or societal expectations, in Why Can't Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? Her responses to various huffy objections are lucid and resonant. Among the objections --
  • You're acting out.
  • You're still living in the '70s.
  • Long hair is high maintenance.
  • Men like long hair.

Hedonists and nonconformists of the world, take note.

21 October 2010


TEXTBOOKS. Like a refreshing breeze comes the news that many college students still prefer paper textbooks over their electronic media equivalents. Their reasons parallel my own clear preference for books, especially hardcover editions. "The screen won't go blank ... There can't be a virus. It wouldn't be the same without books. They've defined 'academia' for a thousand years.'"

I've loved books since preschool days, and knew how to read before entering first grade (having had no access to kindergarten or academic preschools). There is something very satisfying about the weight of a book, lending substance to its contents. The smell of paper, the texture of each page and of the cover, the immediacy of being able to pick up a book and read for pleasure or enlightenment (or both) -- these sensations do not exist on a computer or electronic reader screen. Not to mention that any medium which radiates light eventually causes eyestrain, whereas the pages of a book reflect light, inviting the reader in.

Don't get me wrong. I love my computer, with its easy access to what I call the library of the world. And who knows, someday I may cave in and buy a Kindle reader. But my personal library will always consist of ... books.

DR. GREG. NYTimes columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has discovered something which I first brought to readers' attention on July 1 of this year -- the writings and philosophy of Greg Mortenson, whose life is dedicated to founding schools (especially schools for girls) in the most remote and often most dangerous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Kristof notes in Dr. Greg and Afghanistan Mortenson's view is that schools are the first priority in helping locals to help themselves, and those schools can only succeed if they are staffed by native teachers and supported by native village leaders. If those criteria are met, resident villagers consistently defend their schools against the efforts of the Taliban to remove them. What better way to build lasting friendships with the peoples of the world?

Kristof expands this approach to include U.S. military strategy. Currently the war in Afghanistan is a colossal failure. I've commented frequently that we cannot expect to invade other nations with large conventional forces, and expect to subsume them to our values. Escalating guerrilla war is the inevitable result, whatever our intentions. If we are serious about countering terrorist groups, we must identify the true threat (Al-Quaea), and then couple surgical strikes using small teams of special operatives like Delta Force, along with training the Afghan National Army to bear the major burden of defending the country.

Here is a link to my original essay on Stones Into Schools. It is well worth reading more than once, as American casualties in Afghanistan mount daily, with no end in sight.

20 October 2010


CREATIVITY IN SCIENCE. Behavior therapist Andrea Kuszewski, one of my favorite thinkers and bloggers, has a bone to pick with science. To wit: "Creativity is no longer encouraged in science. Sure, incremental science such as replication or moving a field forward in a direction it's already going, is encouraged and expected. But I'm talking about paradigm-shifting and redirective types of creative output, the kinds of ideas that completely change the trajectory of a field, knocking the science world on its rear end, as Einstein, Feynman, and other pioneers in scientific research did. You just don't see that kind of risk-taking in scientific ideas anymore, and if you do, it's headline worthy and very infrequent.

"So when and why did this big shift in scientific mindset occur?"

Andrea's question, and her proposed explanations, mirror similar stagnations in politics, finance, and the arts that started with the Reagan administration, and have achieved momentum verging on escape velocity -- in short, we may have already crossed the threshold at which we lose control over the institutions which exist to serve us. Or perhaps not. Witness the following --

VAPIDITY IN POLITICS. In the race for the U.S. Senate seat from Delaware, Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell once again demonstrated the ample vacuum which exists between her ears when she "challenged her Democratic rival to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state, drawing swift criticism from her opponent, laughter from her law school audience and a quick defense from prominent conservatives." Um, Christine? It is called the First Amendment to the Constitution. An integral part of the Bill of Rights, the amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the prohibition of a governmental redress of grievances.

O'Donnell has been slipping badly in the polls, as her antediluvian views on evolution, education and now the Constitution itself have caused even the Republican establishment to distance itself from her Sarah Palin-wannabe persona, in spite of fervent Tea Party backing. One university professor noted after the debate that "You actually heard the audience gasp. She seemed genuinely surprised that the principle of separation of church and state derives from the First Amendment." I truly hope that this becomes a case of giving a radical movement enough rope to hang itself. We are barely beginning the long recovery from the carcinogenic Reagan-Bush-Bush years. A relapse now would cause me to seriously consider (A) moving to another country, or (B) fomenting rebellion to save my own country.

A PUBLIC SERVICE. For those of you who maintain a presence at the social networking website Facebook, here is a useful resource for protecting your privacy and making the most of FB resources. How to Get Control on Facebook and How the Algorithms Work is a clear and user-friendly explanation of the software algorithms which govern what appears on your home page, and how you can affect that content. Check it out.

19 October 2010


LOVE AND PAIN. We've all been there -- the heartache which is a product of lost love, or abusive love, or neglectful love. Thousands of popular songs either praise love's delirium, or lament love's trauma. But what about love itself as a pain reliever? A recent study has found that "the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain ... When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation of the reward center of the brain -- the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money ... These are very deep, old centers of our brain that involve dopamine, a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation."

The study's authors caution, "We intentionally focused on the early phase of passionate love. We specifically were not looking for longer-lasting, more mature phases of the relationship. We wanted subjects who were feeling euphoric, energetic, obsessively thinking about their beloved, craving their presence."

So for sufferers of chronic pain, perhaps there is a bit of hope, so long as you are responsibly single. No extramarital affairs need apply -- ultimately you'll just be creating more pain for everyone involved.

VIDEOS. Changing Education Paradigms is a brilliantly executed and entertaining animation which challenges our assumptions about how education works in the U.S., and how it ought to work. When did You Choose to Be Straight? also challenges assumptions, this time about our attitudes toward gay men and women. The question hits the target dead-center.

14 October 2010


While it is not exactly news that those who enter retirement from their careers often find themselves bored and even depressed, it is only in recent years that research has focused on the apparent association of memory loss with leaving work. It is premature to suggest that one causes the other, yet the confluence seems real. Gina Kolata reports in Taking Early Retirement May Retire Memory, Too that cognitive skills do decline unless (like any skill) we keep them sharp through practice. " ... research has failed to support the premise that mastering things like memory exercises, crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku carry over into real life, improving overall functioning ... You get better at one narrow task, but you don't get better at cognitive behavior in life."

Comparing memory function in countries with varying retirement ages, one study found that people who retire later retain more cognitive funtion (see graph below, click to enlarge). In this regard, Americans score well. Whether this is because they retire later in life, or whether the coincidence of memory retention and retirement are linked to a third, as yet unidentified factor, has yet to be explored.

When viewed as a function of information processing, the solution for those who do retire early would seem to be simply -- remain socially active, keep your personality skills sharp, and enter into complex activities which not only strengthen existing neural pathways, but establish new ones. Learn a new language, read books which challenge your thinking or assumptions (a great path is to join a book club in which the members read and discuss a given book each month -- the discussions serve as both social function and intellectual challenge), meet new people, or travel to places you've never been, preferably outside your own culture.

Our golden years should not be spent passively vegetating in a rocking chair. These can be the best times of our lives.


(Click on images to enlarge.) Yesterday on NPR, Brazilian physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser presented a concise and informative piece entitled Why Science Matters: A Scientist's Apology. At first I wondered about the term "apology", since commonly we associate it with guilt or remorse. But then I remembered Plato's Apology, in which Socrates defended his behavior before charges leveled by the ancient city of Athens. I realized that Gleiser is using the term in a similar classical manner -- the systematic defense of a practice or point of view which is under public scrutiny, and may in fact be a minority view.

It is undeniably true that people of all ages in our culture are woefully ignorant of the principles and aims of science. There is much misinformation, and many outright lies told to perpetuate public ignorance in order to bolster certain (usually conservative) political agendas. Gleiser refutes this misinformation by clarifying the fundamentals of good science. To summarize:

Point one. "First and foremost, science does not promise redemption. Science is a human invention preoccupied with understanding the workings of Nature. It is a body of knowledge about the Universe and its many inhabitants, living and nonliving, accumulated through a process of constant testing and refinement known as the scientific method .... Science may not offer eternal salvation, but it offers the possibility of a life free from the spiritual slavery caused by an irrational fear of the unknown. It offers people the choice of self-empowerment, which may contribute to their spiritual freedom. In transforming mystery into challenge, science adds a new dimension to life. And a new dimension opens more paths toward self-fulfillment."

Point two. "Second, science does not determine what is to be done with its accumulated knowledge. We do. And this decision often falls into the hands of politicians who, at least in a democracy, are chosen by society. The blame for the darker uses of science must be shared by all of us .... We, the scientists, have the duty to make clear to the public what we do in our labs, and what consequences, good or bad, our inventions may have for society at large. But there is no such thing as "the scientists" as a group that shares a set of morals or views, or the blame for the uses and abuses of science. There is, I would like to believe, a common set of goals, to better understand the world and our place in it, and yes, to improve our living conditions and health."

Point three. "Finally, science has not betrayed our expectations. Think of a world without antibiotics, computers, televisions, airplanes, and cars -- a world in which we are all back in the forests and fields where we came from, living with no technological comfort .... There is much hypocrisy in the criticism of science and of what it has done to us and to the planet. We did it all ourselves, through our choices and greed. It is not by slowing down scientific research or its teaching through legislation or censorship that we will change the inequalities of a technological society; that is surely a one-way ticket back to the Middle Ages. What is needed is universal access to new technologies, aggressive funding for basic and applied research coupled with a widespread effort to popularize science. Only a society well versed in scientific issues will be able to dictate its own destiny, from the preservation of the natural environment to the moral choices of genetic research and nuclear power."

Well and truly spoken. The text is drawn from Gleiser's book The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time. I heartily encourage the reader to click on the Why Science Matters link above, and to consider his thoughts in depth. As noted in yesterday's post, we are quite adept at pointing fingers at others. It is invaluable to take a look in the mirror from time to time.

13 October 2010


DISAPPOINTMENT. Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe -- "America is disappointed. The economic recovery, such as it is, has produced few jobs and little growth, the war in Afghanistan is going poorly, and Washington's culture, which President Obama took office promising to reform, is as vitriolic and paralyzed as ever .... There's no question that the president has failed to live up to the expectations of many of his supporters -- expectations he created with his empyrian campaign rhetoric. But it turns out that human beings are very easy to disappoint. Research suggests that even when people know that someone has nothing but bad options to choose from, they still blame the decider for a bad outcome. And while disappointment and regret and even anger are often spoken about in similar terms, psychologists see them as distinct emotions, triggered by different events and motivating us to act in different ways .... And in general, the disappointed seem to prefer to blame people over circumstances."

I've been saying ever since the 2008 election campaign that if Obama were to win, he would face YEARS of struggle to overcome the lies, greed, ignorance and overweening culturocentrism inherent in Republican politics. Twenty years of Reagan, Bush and Bush have trashed America's economy, not to mention the already-shaky esteem with which we are regarded by the rest of the world. For a brief period in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was able to perform some damage control (for the country, if not for his personal life), but it took no time at all for GW Bush to squander the $3 trillion budget surplus which Clinton's policies created, and run the country to the edge of bankruptcy. And we all know the tried-and-true solution to taking the minds of the voters off their economic woes -- start a war or two.

So as we approach the end of the second year of Obama's first term in office, let's cut the man some slack. A full eight years as president would hardly be sufficient to show us the light at the end of the tunnel. All you Tea Party airheads and conservative obstructionists out there, please stop shooting the messenger. Rather, look inside yourselves, and see whether maybe, just maybe, your own expectations require adjustment.

THE HUMANITIES' DECLINE. In The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives, NYTimes columnist Stanley Fish shines a much-needed spotlight on the decline of public investment in the humanities, disciplines such as ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, and visual and performing arts. In a sterile world whose power brokers seem to be mostly business moguls, attorneys and politicians, if it doesn't produce a buck, it isn't worth support. University administrators, Fish argues, need to take the bull by the horns and aggressively explain to policy makers the true and abiding value of the humanities, to help all people to "understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds or even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene."

I couldn't agree more. There is an analogy in government. The concept of every department producing a balanced budget is a fundamental fallacy. When it comes to functions ranging from roads to health care to public education to emergency services, there IS NO BALANCE SHEET. We pay taxes, and we receive human services in return. Those taxes enable our nation to function in the present, and they also are an investment in our future viability. That is how citizenship works. Period.

Similarly, in academia there is more to life than profit. Our understanding of how the world functions has been obscenely twisted by the machinations of economists of every stripe, most especially by the bottom-line mentality of capitalism. How one dimensional, gray and predictable our lives would be without the dynamic perspectives of art, fine music, theater, literature, history, languages. Our world is intensely rich in its diversity. We don't learn, we don't broaden our horizons, we don't dare to dream, if we restrict ourselves to only making a profit. Just as with governmental services, the humanities in education are an investment in ourselves and in our children. Where is the profit in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony? What is the value of an art museum, or learning to speak Spanish, or coming to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our own culture? The answer is clear -- we enrich our own spirits, our own intellects, our own hearts. Priceless.

VIDEO BONUS. Fruit and vegetable decomposition, time lapse. A bowl of fruits and veggies, recorded over 74 days, with one frame shot every 40 minutes, played back at 30 frames per second. It is amazing to contemplate the millions of microbes at work, and to notice toward the end of this 1:37 film the sudden regeneration of new life. Enjoy.

12 October 2010


MUSIC. In his article What Type of Music Makes People Happiest?, psychologist Warren Davies posits that part of the answer appears to be hard-wired into human brain physiology. "When you listen to music, it is processed in brain areas associated with, among other things, language, memory (short- and long-term), and emotion. But when that music is something you really like, something that gives you chills, the brain areas involved with pleasure and reward light up too.

"These reward circuits turn on when you eat, have sex, or do pretty much anything that's naturally rewarding. They are also activated directly by many drugs, which is partly why these drugs are so addictive ... The areas which music activate(s) are crammed with opioid receptors (e.g., endorphins)."

There are also personal and cultural components to our musical tastes. On a personal level, when we experience intense happiness or arousal, our senses record the sight, sound, smell, taste and touch stimuli happening in that moment. Because music and memory are so closely linked, later exposure to that particular smell or sound (music) will restimulate the feeling of pleasure, reinforcing both the memory and the sensory association. Similarly, on a cultural level, those raised in the western tradition of music experience more pleasure when listening to consonance (as opposed to dissonance).

Finally, it is clear that the music most present in our environment during our culturally formative years (say, five years old to 25 years old) will heavily influence our preferences. So it is probably not possible to categorically state (though in my mind it's true) that Classical music rules and punk rock drools. As with so much else in our lives, both nature and nurture exert powerful influences.

BULLIES. Pamela Paul, in The Playground Gets Even Tougher, illuminates a definition of bullying which is much broader and more pervasive than was true in my youth. Half a century ago (in my then-limited awareness), bullies were usually boys who picked on other boys. I was the target during several passages in my early teens -- at the hands of individuals and also of a pair of boys. Strength in numbers. My initial fear eventually turned to scorn for anyone whose personal insecurity would lead them to inflict emotional or physical trauma on another. (Woe betide the bully who attempts to intimidate me today -- my training in boxing, Army hand-to-hand combat, and karate allows me to walk through life with quiet assurance, which in turn makes me a less likely target for those who prey on someone perceived as being weak.)

Now, as Ms. Paul explains, bullying has become much more pronounced among girls, and also is surfacing in both genders at much younger ages -- as young as kindergarten. What could possibly account for such sociopathic behavior? The answers are important, not only for our children, but also because child bullies grow up to become adult bullies -- socially, at work, in relationships. I invite you to read her article (linked above), and draw your own conclusions.

11 October 2010


CSEM. A recent article in the UK's Daily Mail describes and illustrates the astonishing possibilities for exploring the world of the very, very small using a scanning electronic microscope to produce images called color scanning electron micrographs (CSEM). These ultra-magnified images have been around for years in monochrome -- color images are a new development. Above is a photo of human eyelash hairs (magnified 50 times). Below is a photo of a fold of fringe tissue, part of a human Fallopian tube. Gorgeous.

FASTEST BIRDS. From the BBC, a very cool video showing Peregrin Falcons and Gyrfalcons in dizzying flight, using both ground cameras and tiny cameras mounted on the birds' backs. Peregrins are the world's fastest creatures in flight, able to attain diving speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. Check here for more images.

08 October 2010


PUBLIC SEX. PDA alert !! Dateline Puttenham, England -- this small village in county Surrey has become famous for its inclusion in lists of good places to go "dogging", i.e., "to have sex in public, sometimes with partners you have just met online, so that others can watch. So popular is the woodsy field below the ridge as a spot for gay sex (during the day) and heterosexual sex (during the night) that the police have designated it a 'public sex environment.' Public sex is a popular and quasi-legal activity in Britain, according to the authorities and to the large number of Web sites that promote it."

Here is the entire article for your enjoyment, outrage, or boredom. Residents of Puttenham have become concerned over the sheer numbers of enthused hedonists, and have made suggestions including police patrols on horseback, rousting doggers with actual dogs, and deploying bad-tempered bulls in the field in question. I was tickled by one County Council Cabinet member's response -- "If you close this site, there would be an increase in suicides because these people would have nowhere else to go." You gotta love British civility. Among the tales of woe, "The occasion when an unsuspecting motorist went for a bathroom break in the bushes, only to be surrounded by a crowd of eager men. 'It was the quickest pee he'd ever done in his life.'"

HAPPY BIRTHDAY. John Lennon would have turned 70 years old today. The world misses you, John. Imagine.

PICTURE BOOKS. According to a report by Julie Bosman in today's NYTimes online, sales of children's picture books have been declining markedly in recent years, as parents and schools have shifted their childrens reading to chapter books (books without illustrations). I find this a sad commentary on the pace at which we are pushing our young out of childhood. It is fine to introduce kids to academic subjects like math, spelling, reading and foreign languages at an early age -- in moderation. But it is also important to let them be kids, to explore the world on their own in an unstructured environment, and most importantly to allow them to develop their imaginations. Non-electronic game playing and picture books do just that. When my son was young, one of our greatest shared joys was the bedtime ritual of sitting together reading the stories in picture books. Repitition did not dim his delight, since each reading revealed fresh nuances in both the story and the illustrations, and how they fit together.

One of my favorites was a story with line drawing illustrations, called David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd. The eponymous hero is (who else?) a young boy who enters into a world of breathtaking adventure and mythical, guided by the sacred firebird which appears in appears in the myths of ancient Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, China and Phoenicia. Alas, the story's antagonist is the stereotypical evil scientist, and it is important to talk with young listeners about how scientists by and large are the good guys. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book to the parents or grandparents of any young child.

07 October 2010


BEE MYSTERY. "Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States have suffered 'colony collapse.' Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food. Now a unique partnership of military scientists and entomologists appears to have achieved a major breakthrough ... a fungus tag-teaming with a virus has apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana."

Who cares, right? Well, you do. Bees are the prime pollenators for nearly all fruits and vegetables grown commercially -- not to mention the pollenators of wild and ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees. Take away the bees, and ... well, you get the idea.

Here is the entire NYTimes article describing how the fungus-virus symbiosis works, and the disastrous effects on entire bee colonies.

EMPTY SEAT. Regular readers know how little tolerance I have for racism or other forms of prejudice. Zero. The more you learn about socialized hatred, the more you realize how much there is yet to learn. John Edgar Wideman describes his experience riding Amtrak's high-speed Acela train beween New York City and Providence, RI -- a black man being shunned by white passengers to the point of having two seats to himself. Sounds like an unexpected benefit at first blush, until you place yourself in his shoes and experience how that must feel. The article is written with no rancor or finger-pointing. He calmly states the facts, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions about those 90 percent of people who would rather stand, than sit next to a person of color. How pathetic is that?

I just noticed an interesting confluence -- the word "racism" appears within the word "ostracism."

SPIRIT DAY. This announcement on the blog homorethanmusic -- "It's been decided. On October 20, 2010, we will wear purple in honor of the seven gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/months mostly due to homophobic abuse in their homes and at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LBGTQ flag and that's exactly what we'd like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality. Please wear purple on October 20. Please tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and schools. RIP Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Billy Lucas and Cody J. Barker (picture not shown). You are loved."

I remember thinking with horror upon hearing of the murder of students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, "Oh my god, we're killing our children." Antiwar demonstrations and police riots have faded in memory, yet we are still killing our children. When will we stop the madness? Regardless of your sexual preference, please join in making a statement for tolerance -- please wear purple on the 20th.

06 October 2010


McNUGGET PASTE. From The Huffington Post: "Someone figured out in the 1960s that meat processors can eke out a few more percent of profit from chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows by scraping the bones 100 percent clean of meat. This is done by machines, not humans, by passing bones leftover from the initial cutting through a high pressure sieve. The paste you see in the picture above is the result (click to enlarge) .... There's more. Because it's crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color (see image below) .... The resulting paste goes on to become the main ingredient in many of America's favorite mass-produced and processed meat-like foods and snacks -- bologna, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, Slim Jim-like jerkeys, and of course the ever-polarizing chicken nugget, where the paste from the photo above is likely destined."

Here is the complete Huffington Post entry, including reader comments. It has been many years since I've been a fan of fast food restaurants, for reasons rooted in lack of flavor and nutrients, as well as abhoring the inhumane conditions at poultry farms and other non-free-range operations. This article is icing on the grotesque cake of the American diet. Meat by-products paste, deep fat fried. Small wonder that a third of Americans are clinically obese, and another third are seriously overweight.

If you would like to know where you stand, healthwise, check out your body mass index. The chart is broken down by gender, and shows the acceptable range of weights for a given height. Guideline -- within your target weight range, less is better. No matter how far you are from this goal, a healthy diet and a comprehensive exercise program will transform your life.

BOY OR GIRL. Here's an entertaining poser. "Assume you know that a woman has two children, the older of whom is a boy. Given this knowledge, what is the probability that she has two boys? 50/50, right? Not so fast. John Allen Paulos explains the range of conditions which can affect our prediction. Probability theory is the branch of mathematics which deals with analysis of random (or seemingly random) phenomena. It impacts every aspect of our lives, from the DNA-governed characteristics of a fetus, to the chances of being involved in a traffic accident, to drawing that desperately-needed card in a game of Texas Hold 'Em, to weather forecasting, to being struck by a comet.

BONUS. From the website of The Nature Conservancy, one of the world's most effective conservation organizations, here is a slide show called Natural Light (the best of over 11,000 images). My four years working as a preserve caretaker for TNC in southern Arizona were among the most fulfilling in my long and varied career. I encourage all to support the Conservancy, through donations, through volunteering, through protecting your land by creating a conservation easement, or any of a score of similar innovative agreements which benefit both you and the planet we call home.

05 October 2010


CLASSICAL MUSIC. Colin Eatock notes that increasingly, classical music may be heard in the background at Canadian venues ranging from convenience stores to subway stations. While one might hope that the resulting drop in crime could be attributed to the transformation of troubled or violent souls by classical music's depth and sophistication, Eatock suggests another possible explanation -- that in a world where pop music is hectic, simplistic, brief and often devoid of substance, "classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain types of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as 'musical bug spray,' and as the 'weaponization' of classical music ... 'Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space."

This is just the first salvo in Eatock's examination of the current state of classical music. He outlines the history behind people's dislike for the genre, and suggests possible remedies. The essay is somewhat long, but provocative and worth the read. Speaking as one whose music of choice is classical, I hope that you will consider his thoughts, and maybe even dip your toes into the sublime waters of classical music yourself. You may find it to be a revelation.

POLITICAL IDIOCY. Three of my favorite NYTimes columnists take on the myths and the realities of the current political campaign season. Frank Rich in The Very Useful Idiocy of Christine O'Donnell suggests several reasons why this vapid Palin-wannabe (with a propensity for blatant lies and personal incompetence) has become a sensation among the far right. Paul Krugman in Fear and Favor examines the far right itself, and its incestuous, hypocritical relationship with the media and with deep-pocket donors. And Bob Herbert brings into focus the bizarre and checkered career of John Boehner ("always willing to stick his neck out for the elite"), potential Speaker of the House after the November elections, in That's Where the Money Is.

Should the elections bring Republicans into power in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, the only losers will be the public, and the only winners will be late night comedians. Have we learned nothing from the George W. Bush era? The short attention span of the American voter is positively dazzling. (Click on images to enlarge.)

01 October 2010


SINGAPORE MATH. Theories on learning have shifted over the years, particularly in the realm of mathematics. I'm a graduate of the older style of teaching which held sway in the 1950s and '60s -- rote learning and practice drills. The math skills I mastered remain sharp to this day. Standing in line at a checkout stand, I can mentally compute the change due faster than the math-challenged clerk can punch in the numbers on his/her computerized cash register. I still love algebra and geometry.

But there was something missing from my learning set -- learning to understand and to manipulate abstract concepts. So trigonometry was a little tougher for me, biostatistics was tougher still, and calculus .... oh my.

Over the years several iterations of learning theory have held sway in the nation's classrooms, none of them totally satisfactory. "New math" focused on absract theories. "Back to Basics math" espoused a return to rote learning and practice drills. "Reform math" emphasized problem solving and conceptual understanding.

Currently the teaching methods practiced in Singapore are receiving much attention, since students there consistently score among the top math students in the world on standardized math tests. Singapore math is unique in several aspects. Firstly, it insists on slowing down the learning process, allowing students plenty of time to solidly grasp a new skill, thus establishing a firm foundation of understanding upon which to build more complex skills. Secondly, it appears to combine the best aspects of both old and new math -- concrete, pictorial, and abstract thinking. This accomodates students with different learning styles, leveling the playing field. (The middle step is typically skipped in American schools, to the detriment of students.) Thirdly, gifted students can accelerate through the learning process, starting by fourth and fifth grades, thus allowing all students to learn to their individual potential.

Significantly, the most vocal opponents to Singapore math have been American teachers, who themselves "lacked a strong math background and adequate training in the program." Other opponents include parents and school boards who are skeptical about importing a "foreign" math program. To the first objection (the appeal to mediocrity) my response is -- why are unqualified teachers instructing our children in the first place??? This is one of the most glaring deficiencies in American education. To the second objection (the appeal to xenophobia) my response is -- there is nothing "foreign" about math. Like music, it is a universal language. Whether a successful teaching method originates in Singapore, Sarasota or Siam is totally irrelevant. You simply cannot argue with success.

The Singapore system is explained in greater detail in Winnie Hu's NYTimes article. As both a former student and former teacher, I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But I must say, this approach looks very promising.

IKE. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his parting address to the nation, famously intoned the warning "Beware the military-industrial complex." Truer and more oracular words have rarely been spoken. According to Michael Moore (who, though controversial, has yet to be proven wrong), throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Presidents and the public have been manipulated by the Pentagon, and by the corporations which will employ Pentagon generals and admirals when they retire. One need look no further than the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to find abundant evidence. Every president since Eisenhower (and many preceding him) has been a titular figurehead -- "commander in chief" in name only. Military chiefs of staff and other advisors play a decisive role in determining where, when, why, and how the guerre de jour will be fought.

Moore cites Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars in support of his assertion. I invite you to read Moore's entire article here, and draw your own conclusions.