30 November 2010


AFGHANISTAN-VIETNAM. In Worse Than Vietnam, Robert Wright points out that the Afghanistan War has become America's longest military conflict, having now lasted over nine years. Many (including this writer) have pointed out the clear parallels with the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. made the classic blunder of fighting a conventional war against guerrillas defending their homeland from foreign invaders (us). Shades of the American Revolution. In both wars, the puppet regime we supported was corrupt and inept (descriptors which I normally reserve for Republicans and Democrats, respectively). In both wars, enemy combatants had decades of experience, and were led by brilliant strategists. And in both wars, the light at the end of the tunnel kept receding.

Wright perceives several important differences between the two conflicts, differences which in his view make Afghanistan a much more deadly and hopeless quagmire. Among his points:
  • Vietnam, in spite of the waste of lives, money and morale which it imposed on the country, was a relatively small war. More importantly, Vietnam had no potential for generating more and more enemy combatants whose reach could extend to American soil. Afghanistan does. The 9/11 attacks were a demonstration not only of the possible consequences for the American homeland, they were a deliberate ploy by Osama bin Laden to lure the U.S. into a war it could not win. And like one of Pavlov's dogs, we took the bait.

  • Both wars were begun to contain a hostile force -- communism and terrorism, respectively. And in each case, "the mistake was in overestimating the intrinsic power of that force. In the case of communism .... our enemy had wed its fate to an economic system that was bound to drag it further and further behind us. All we really had to do was stay vigilant and wait for it to self-destruct. So too with jihadism. Al Qaeda's ideology offers nothing that many of the world's Muslims actually want -- except, perhaps, when they feel threatened by the West, a feeling that isn't exactly dulled by the presence of American troops in Muslim countries.

  • "Still, the strategy in whose name both wars were launched, containment, makes sense if wisely calibrated. A well-tuned terrorism containment strategy .... would require strong leadership in the White House and in Congress. It would mean convincing Americans that, sometimes at least, we have to absorb terrorist attacks stoically, refraining from retaliation that brings large-scale blowback. That's a tough sell, because few things are more deeply engrained in human nature than the impulse to punish enemies. So maybe the message should be put like this -- Could we please stop doing Al Qaeda's work for it?"
Wright's suggestions are consistent with my own views, expressed with some frequency on this forum. Containing terrorism has already been proven effective when performed by small groups of Special Forces and Delta Force operatives, in alliance with local tribal leaders in Afghanistan. (As an illustration, see the book The Mission, the Men, and Me by Pete Blaber, a former Delta Force commander.) Trying to impose American will on the region with large numbers of conventional forces, in alliance with purported national leaders who don't even enjoy the support of their own fractured federations of tribal, ethnic and religious leaders, is a recipe for prolonged disaster.

NOTE: There is one aspect of U.S. presence in both Vietnam and Afghanistan which Wright fails to take into account -- our acquisitive greed for natural resources. In Vietnam, it was rubber and oil. In Afghanistan, it is oil, natural gas, and the control of opium. Until we hold these ulterior motives up to the light of day, we will never fully understand our own contribution to the problem.

CLIMATE CHANGE. In To Fight Climate Change, Clear the Air, the authors wrestle with the intractable problem of getting nations to agree on long-term solutions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. They suggest that as negotiations proceed, it would make sense to also focus on short-term, attainable solutions, including reducing emissions of three short-lived gases (methane, hydrofluorocarbons and lower atmospheric ozone), as well as reducing dark soot particles, pollution which results from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. These short-term targets are equivalent to about 80 percent of the global warming impact of carbon dioxide alone, so including them in local and international negotiations makes tremendous sense.

29 November 2010


TSA EXCESS. By now anyone who hasn't been living under a rock has heard echoes of the public outcry over the introduction of intrusive search techniques by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), including radiation scanning which visually strips a traveler to virtual nudity, and full-body manual pat-downs normally found only in prisons. In The Real Threat to America, Roger Cohen succinctly places the controversy in perspective by noting that the actual failed attempts which have prompted escalations in TSA procedures are so few in number, and so inept in their execution, that purported "security" scans in airports amount to using a howitzer to kill a mosquito. In Cohen's words --

"Anyone who has watched TSA agents spending 10 minutes patting down 80-year old grandmothers, or seen dismayed youths being ordered back into the scanner booth by agents connected wirelessly to other invisible agents gazing at images of these people in a state of near-nakedness, has to ask: What form of group madness is it that forsakes judgment and discernment for process run amok?

"I don't doubt the patriotism of the Americans involved in keeping the country safe, nor do I discount the threat, but I am sure of this: The unfettered growth of the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA represent a greater long-term threat to the prosperity, character and wellbeing of the United States than a few madmen in the valleys of Waziristan or the voids of Yemen."

I couldn't agree more. DHS and TSA are out of control. Benjamin Franklin is credited with the observation that anyone who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserves neither liberty nor safety. I doubt that Ben would recognize the mutation that today passes for a democratic federation. If you would like to weigh in on this (in addition to posting comments to this blog), here are links to contacting Congress and contacting the White House.

Two by two, hands of blue --

A DIFFERENT APPROACH. In welcome contrast, Bob Herbert notes in A Gift From Long Ago that it has been fully 50 years since John F. Kennedy won the presidency. For three short years our nation was inspired, challenged and uplifted by the rhetoric and the example of a man who believed in public service, as well as the protection of our freedoms. Herbert notes, "We've become so used to aiming low that mediocrity is seen as a step up. We need to be reminded of what is possible .... What Kennedy hoped to foster was a renewed sense of national purpose in which shared values were reinforced in an atmosphere of heightened civic participation and mutual sacrifice. His voice was in sync with the spirit of the times. Americans were fired with the idea that they could improve their circumstances, right wrongs and do good. The Interstate Highway System, an Eisenhower initiative, was under way. The civil rights movement was in flower. And soon Kennedy would literaly be reaching for the moon. Self-interest and the bottom line had not yet become the be-all and end-all. Kennedy the cold warrior was also the President who created the Peace Corps."

In times when moderates are a minority, when extremists threaten to torpedo what few shreds remain of our collective common sense, and when the legislative branch (the best Congress that money can buy -- see Paul Krugman's There Will Be Blood) is in deadlock, we desperately need another inspired leader to challenge our better selves. Ironically, Barack Obama could be that leader, if he weren't so timid about taking bold action, for fear of alienating the conservative establishment. Where is our national vision?

(Here is a map of the countries in which the Peace Corps currently works. Click to enlarge.)

27 November 2010


WILD GEESE, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

MAE WEST, by Edward Field

She comes on drenched in a perfume called Self-Satisfaction
from feather boa to silver pumps.

She does not need to be loved by you
though she'll give you credit for good taste.

Just because you say you love her
she's not throwing herself at your feet in gratitude.

Every other star reveals how worthless she feels
by crying when the hero says he loves her,
or how unhoped-for the approval is
when the audience applauds her big number --
but Mae West takes it as her due:
she knows she's good.

She expects the best for herself
and knows she's worth what she costs
and she costs plenty --
she's not giving anything away.

She enjoys her admirers, fat daddy or muscleman,
and doesn't confuse vanity and sex,
though she never turns down pleasure,
lapping it up.

Above all she enjoys herself,
swinging her body that says, Me, me, me, me,
Why not have a good time?
As long as you amuse me, go on,
I like you slobbering over my hand, big boy --
I have a right to.

Most convincing, we know all this
not by her preaching
but by her presence -- it's no act.
Every word and look and movement
spells Independence:
she likes being herself.
And we who don't
can only look on, astonished.

FLIGHT, by Louis Jenkins

Past mishaps might be attributed to an incomplete understanding of the laws of aerodynamics or perhaps even to a more basic failure of the imagination, but were to be expected. Remember, this is solo flight unencumbered by bicycle parts, aluminum and nylon or even feathers. A tour de force, really. There's a lot of running and flapping involved and as you get older and heavier, a lot more huffing and puffing. But on a bright day like today with a strong headwind blowing up from the sea, when, having slipped the surly bonds of common sense and knowing she is watching, waiting in breathless anticipation, you send yourself hurtling down the long, green slope to the cliffs, who knows? You might just make it.

25 November 2010


It is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., a day devoted to feeling gratitude for the bounty in one's life, to savoring splendid arrays of holiday food, and to gathering with family and friends. Life's gifts take many forms -- civil and religious freedoms, the caring of loved ones, the small moments of beauty and grace which surround us every day.

My wish for today is simple -- that we each pause to notice all the precious things we enjoy, which others in the world may not. Having noticed, I hope that we will find ways to share our good fortune, to lessen inequality and hardship, making life better for all. Imagine.

24 November 2010


THE TURKEY'S REFUSAL. Performed to the tune of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", an insoucient turkey rejects the absurd notion of becoming your Thanksgiving dinner. Pretty hilarious.

CALIFORNIA ALLSTARS. Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski (see yesterday's post) for this link to an amazing display of athleticism, choreography and sheer style. The eye-popping video of cheerleader/gymnists performing their competition routine will rouse your pulse, and leave you worn out by the end.

THE RESULTS ARE IN. Birder's World magazine has announced its readers' favorite places to watch birds in a listing complete with interactive map. You'll find many, many ideas for future birding excursions. (Below -- Red-tailed Hawk in flight. Click to enlarge.)

23 November 2010


SEXY SCIENCE. I love Andrea Kuszewski. She is brilliant, witty, and takes no crap off anyone. She is also a behavioral therapist, a prolific blogger and Facebook presence, and an enthusiastic proponent of science literacy and science communication. Oh yeah, she's also a former cheerleader. Her blog post The Sexing Up Of Science (I'm Coming Out! And So Can You!) makes the indisputable point that science would benefit from the enthusiasm of sexy and smart cheerleaders in attracting public understanding and support. Who says we have to be black or white, sensual or intelligent, PhDs or ignorant drones?

The post is fairly long, but brimming with Andrea's signature style -- informative, engaging, funny, and guaranteed to induce you to think. The video on the Science Cheerleaders (all of whom are themselves active and accomplished scientists) is not to be missed. Who says science can't be fun?

VEGAN. Thanks to my Chicago friend Bill for sending me the link to this post from the blog Voracious, titled A Vegan No More. You know how you sometimes see certain people who adhere to strict, limiting diets which are purported to be super healthy, and these same people look emaciated and sickly, like refugees from a gulag? Some (not all) vegetarians carry their beliefs to extremes -- among them vegans. It turns out that people on such radical diets are actually sabotaging their own health by depriving themselves of essential vitamins and minerals. The resulting feelings of weakness and malaise which they experience can be traced directly to their self-neglect.

As described in the post, a physician who is highly knowledgeable about human nutrition asserts that "humans are healthiest when eating a large amount of varied plant foods, but we would be wrong to ignore the small amounts of animal products that many of us so essentially need -- eggs and bits of meat every so often are small but very important parts of a healthy diet."

I'm always cautious about the claims of fringe elements in any human behavior, whether it is politics, religion, science/ecology, or human health. Not that all those farout ideas are wrong. They merely need to be tested repeatedly over time, to prove their worth. That is precisely how all good science works, and human nutrition is a science, not a faith cult.

WATERSHED STATES. Not in the sense of political influence, but more literally the mapping of political boundaries based on geographic features like watersheds, and the mountain ranges which define them. In How the West Wasn't Won: Powell's Water-Based States, Frank Jacobs makes a compelling case against our predilection for choosing arbitrary straight lines to form state and national borders, and a correspondingly compelling case for the suggestions of geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell. In 1890, Powell produced his "Map of the Arid Region of the Unites States, Showing Drainage Districts" (see map below, click to enlarge). He argued that the borders of states-yet-to-be in this region should be decided based on the boundaries of natural watersheds, not on lines of longitude or latitude. "Powell was convinced that only a small fraction of the American West was suitable for agriculture. His report proposed irrigation systems fed by a multitude of small dams (instead of the few huge dams in operation today), and state borders based on watershed areas. The bulk of the arid regions should be reserved for conservation and low-intensity grazing."

Talk about a man ahead of his time. Although powerful railroad interests were able to subvert his ideas, Powell presciently warned that "you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." His words have become reality, especially in the desert Southwest. States, metropolitan areas and agriculture compete for increasingly scarce water resources, so much so that the mighty Colorado River no longer completes its journey to the Gulf of California. In fact, the river essentially has been sucked dry before it even reaches the U.S.-Mexico border. Water table levels all over the region are falling yearly, with deeper and deeper wells needed to reach increasingly mineralized water. Our demands outstrip the ability of nature to resupply water through annual rainfall and snowmelt. One more example of the wages of human excess, and our myopic inability to think ahead.

22 November 2010


TIGER EXTINCTION. It should come as no surprise to readers of this forum that the natural world is in trouble at the hands of humans. Our pollution of air and water, our degradation of natural habitat through the metastasizing needs of our own overpopulation, and our systematic slaughter of both food species and predator species, have combined to destroy entire ecosystems daily, and to drive entire species to extinction hourly.

Among these species, few are as compelling to this writer as are the larger predators -- sharks, wolves, the world's big cats. All are on the brink of extinction, with only token programs for protection in a few countries. Thus my attention was brought to a razor edge by the news that tigers have become a global focus for protection and recovery. Of nine former subspecies of tigers, three are already extinct. Of those still surviving, population sizes are fast approaching the threshold beyond which recovery will be impossible. Outside of zoos, here is an estimate of the population breakdown among subspecies --

~ Bengal tiger (India and Bangladesh) -- 1400.
~ Indonesian tiger (Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam) -- 1500.
~ Malayan tiger (Malay peninsula) -- 700.
~ Sumatran tiger (Sumatra) -- 450.
~ Siberian tiger (Siberia) -- 450.
~ South China tiger (China) -- none?

Though these numbers total 4500 individuals, more recent studies indicate that only a few more than 3000 tigers remain in the wild.

Given the tiger's iconic cultural status, it has become the focus of recovery efforts by the World Bank and by ministers from several nations, who are now meeting in St. Petersberg, Russia. Their host is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an ardent tiger admirer. It remains to be seen whether even this high-profile support will be too little, too late. I grieve at the numbers of species which have been driven to extinction just during my lifetime.

JFK. The details of certain world events are indelibly etched into the memories of individuals and entire cultures. For those who lived through them, nearly all can tell you where they were when they heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. Add to this list the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place on this date in 1963. All three instances shocked us out of our collective torpor. The world is not a safe place.

On 22 November 1963, I was a junior in high school. I lived only a block away from school, so generally walked home for the lunch hour. As I approached my home, my mother was standing at the back steps, her face a mask of sorrow and loss. "They've shot the President."

For the remainder of that day, and for many days to come, our world was turned upside-down. The memory of the American flag flying at half-staff, just outside my chemistry classroom, and of classmates crying openly, haunts me still. How could this happen? To this day, controversy lingers over who shot Kennedy -- was it Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, as the Warren Commission eventually concluded? Or was it a conspiracy involving various combinations of the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, Cuba, the KGB, and/or hired assassins from France? I'm normally skeptical of conspiracy theories, but I've seen credible evidence that in the instance of Kennedy's death, a conspiracy was responsible. One lone gunman using a bolt-action rifle from an awkward angle could not possible have fired three well-aimed shots at a moving target several hundred yards away, in a span of two to three seconds.

We will likely never know the entire story. Kennedy was not a perfect man, but had he survived, there would have been no Vietnam war, the civil rights movement would have flourished, the Supreme Court would not subsequently have become packed with reactionary conservative Justices, and the world would be a far different (and I submit a far better) place than the world that exists today. We would still face turmoil and challenges, as ever we shall. But what does it say about a nation whose politics are so violently polarized that assassination is an acceptable means of suppressing the opposition?

19 November 2010


PRISON FOR PROFIT. Among the many evils inherent in outsourcing is the lack of quality control. While we usually associate outsourcing with the production of goods, increasingly state and federal governments outsource for services as well -- witness the presence of hundreds of military contractors who provide everything from food to paramilitary troops in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan (see my post from 01 January 2010 on the brutal excesses committed by Blackwater and other mercenary suppliers). Click on the map below to enlarge.

Not all outsourcing happens on foreign soil. In this country, for instance, those convicted of criminal activity may well find themselves serving time in a private, for-profit prison rather than in a state-run prison. In my book, anytime you avoid responsibility for what should be a government-run operation (with standards and oversight provided by our tax dollars), and instead allow a private company operating at a profit to take over, you're asking for trouble. It is the equivalent, as one astronaut famously observed, of risking the space program and the lives of astronauts by sending them up on equipment which was designed and built by the lowest-bidding contractor. In the U.S., private companies (including the GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and Community Education Centers) operate 264 correctional facilities. The cost, measured both in tax dollars and in human lives, is far greater than if the facilites were operated, staffed and inspected by government agencies.

So it comes as no surprise, though it remains egregiously shocking, to learn from the Southern Poverty Law Center that a Federal Lawsuit Reveals Inhumane Conditions at a For-Profit Youth Prison. Juvenile inmates at Mississippi's Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, operated by the GEO Group, the second largest private prison company in the nation, have systematically been "forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff." Those abusive conditions include being raped by staff, incurring serious and permanent injuries from staff beatings, being sold drugs by staff, and being blinded with chemical restraints.

I spent four years in eastern Tennessee working with youthful offenders, boys convicted of everything from burglary to drugs to stealing cars to murder. All of their crimes were felonies. They had served their time in juvenile detention, and in the group home where I worked, were acquiring skills and mindsets to allow them to reassimilate into society. My official title was security officer, but I was also a de facto counselor, spending hours talking with individuals and groups (including gang members), helping them to find a different path in life.

Only a tiny minority of these wannabe thugs were irredeemably hardcore. Most were kids who had hung out with the wrong crowd (or were brought up in the wrong family), and most were willing to turn their lives around. I'm here to testify that the barbaric excesses of Neanderthal staff have no possible justification. It is those staff who should be in prison -- as well as their corporate employers.

Small wonder that I regard outsourcing with a jaundiced eye.

CHEATING. Crime comes in all forms, some of them nearly invisible. One pernicious form of wrongdoing has been spreading among our nation's schools and universities in recent years -- cheating on classwork and exams. A video making the rounds on YouTube, and an accompanying article titled 200 Students Admit Cheating After Professor's Online Rant, provide the details at one school, describing the behavior of the students of one professor. "In the lecture, Professor Richard Quinn told the class he had enough evidence from statistical analysis and other investigatory techniques to identify most cheats, but instead of handing the list over to university authorities for disciplining, he proposed a deal .... 'you can either wait it out and hope that we don't identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor, complete the course, and receive the grade you earned in the course." Those who chose to come forward were also required to take a four-hour course in ethics. By doing so, there would be no permanent record of their cheating.

200 students in one professor's classes. Extrapolate to the entire university, and to all middle schools, high schools and universities, and doesn't that begin to sound like an epidemic?

I truly do not grasp the temptation. Not once during my academic career did I ever cheat. The intent of school is to impart knowledge, and to test the retention of that knowledge through exams. To cheat in class or on exams is defeating the purpose entirely. It is small wonder that our youth perform abyssmally on standardized tests in the most basic skills (language, math and science) -- not only compared to students from other nations, but also compared to U.S. students from ten, twenty or forty years ago. Our youth are functionally illiterate. The system is broken.

We need higher, not lower, standards. We need teachers who are retained based on performance, not on tenure. We need parents who involve themselves in their childrens' education, every step of the way. We need administrators who back their instructors in enforcing a code of ethics. We need more, not less, financial support for schools from our tax dollars. And we need a society which itself models not only ethical behavior, but also a hunger for knowledge and discovery. Without these things, our culture will dissipate. It has already begun to do so.

18 November 2010


Just to leaven our usual musical score of political rants and scientific wonders, here is a medley of web satire and "no s---" moments.

I Wanna Go To Grad School -- an animated piece which presents the tug of war between starry-eyed idealism and harsh pragmatism in considering graduate school, delivered with dead-pan accuracy. "A little learning is a dangerous thing. Go to school. Learn a little. Live dangerously."

Uncompromise -- another brief animation, this one skewering both President Obama's appeasement of conservatives, and Rethuglicans' obstructionism. While I don't accept the exaggeration at face value, the seed of truth is present.

Anatomical tattoos -- beauty can be more than skin deep -- or not. Scroll down this impressive collection of photos and see what you think.

They Said They Would Push Me Off a Cliff -- a post by filmmaker and social gadfly Michael Moore, on the perils of speaking your mind. I can identify.

Calvin and Hobbes -- today marks the 25th anniversary of the first publication of Bill Watterson's iconic comic strip, in which a stuffed tiger becomes all too real in the fecund imagination of a small boy. Though C&A only ran for ten years, its biting wit, brilliant artwork and resonant insights into childhood/adulthood still raise a tickle of amusement and recognition.

17 November 2010


WANDERING MINDS. The bumper sticker reads, "Don't let your mind wander. It's too little to be left alone." As it turns out, that advice isn't so far off the mark -- especially when coupled with a measurement of one's happiness while we are daydreaming. In his article When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays, John Tierney reports on psychological research which indicates that there is a direct causal link between letting one's thoughts stray from the task at hand, and the level of happiness felt. There is evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness (though this is not the only possible cause), and no evidence that unhappiness causes mind-wandering.

Of those activities which people rated as leading to happiness, having sex (not surprisingly) led the list -- followed by exercising, conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying or meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one's children, and reading. Rounding out the list were personal grooming, commuting and working. It seems reasonable to intuit that one is more focused, not to mention happier, while having sex than while commuting or working. The research results, published in the journal Science, support this assumption.

Perhaps more surprising is the discovery that among the quarter million responders in the study, minds were wandering fully 47 percent of the time. That's an awful lot of unfocused behavior, and an awful lot of unhappiness. One of the researchers notes, "I find it kind of wierd now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren't really there."

So if you would like to enhance your sense of well-being, not to mention improve your performance of any task at hand, go with the flow -- "flow" in the psychological sense of being "fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the product of the activity." Oh yeah, and have a nice day.

ANIMATION. Few titles would be as guaranteed to capture my attention as that of the NYTimes article Where Cinema and Biology Meet. Movies and biology are two of my passions. Where they meet in this instance is in the realm of animation -- illustrating principles or processes in biology. We've come a long, long way from the days of transparencies shown on overhead projectors in science classes. Whenever I see a ground-breaking animated or special effects film like Avatar, I think, "Damn, wouldn't that visual technique have been amazing to access in learning about cell biology or genetics or island biogeography?" Increasingly, my wish is coming true. The article describes a dynamic new generation of scientist-animators who would do any Hollywood film proud.

Among the various models for learning styles, I find particularly relevant the model which specifies the mode of learning -- visual, auditory, reading/writing, or tactile. I happen to be a highly visual learner, with tactile not far behind. Reading and hearing about something are tied for third place in terms of how effectively I am engaged, and how well I retain new information. So yeah, show me a well-executed visual and I'm hooked. Check out the article and see if you agree.

Finally, just for kicks, here is your chance to apply your social priorities to balance the Federal budget. It is an interactive puzzle in which you get to decide which programs are enhanced, which are reduced, and whether your biases can lead to a balanced budget. Have fun.

16 November 2010


LONELINESS. Poetry receives short shrift in our culture -- sadly so. Here's a new twist. Andrya Dorfman has created a video in which she narrates, performs and illustrates her poem How To Be Alone. Her words and images are evocative and quite moving, and deeply wise. One need not feel lonely, just because one is alone.

ASTRONOMY. In recent days I've come across two separate articles that piqued my interest. In the first, NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope has detected two previously unseen structures at the center of our Milky Way galaxy -- "a finding likened in terms of scale to the discovery of a new continent on Earth." Twin gamma ray-emitting bubbles extend 25,000 light years north and south of the galactic center (see illustration below, click on any image to enlarge). The bubbles may be evidence of a once-existing particle jet which eminated from the massive black hole around which our galaxy rotates, or they may represent gas outflows from a burst of star formation. The article explains the knowns and the unknowns of this discovery. There is always something grand and new going on in the universe.

In the second, a NASA article explains the discovery by the Spitzer Space Telescope of a dust tail trailing the Earth in its orbit, and further explains how that tail may help us to discover Earthlike planets in other solar systems (since the tails are more easily detectable than the planets themselves). Who knew?

CURTAILING CHRISTMAS. It's like the weather -- everyone talks about it, but no one seems to know what to do about it. I'm referring to the cancerous spread of consumerism associated with all holidays, but in particular those which are ostensibly reverential -- Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and .... Christmas. A hundred years ago, people traditionally did their gift shopping on Christmas Eve, participating in a festive social event. When I was young, commercial advertisements and sales began a few weeks before Christmas, and that was considered crass at the time. Over the years, the Christmas selling frenzy has started earlier each year, spreading to overtake Thanksgiving and now even Halloween.

A post at 3 Quarks Daily faces this capitalistic cancer headon. Waging War on Christmas, to Save Thanksgiving is spot-on in its depiction of our spending madness, and of the myths surrounding our holidays. The authors suggest two solutions which I have supported for years. First, "stay home on Thanksgiving weekend. Do not shop on Black Friday." Absolutely!! Following crowds of shoppers like sheep with credit cards detracts from the humanistic qualities of both Thanksgiving and Christmas. And second, "rethink gift giving." If it is the thought that counts, then by all means put some thought into any gift. It needn't be purchased with cash at all. You can give the gift of time -- babysitting so parents can spend an adult evening out, or getting together with friends or family for quality time together over lunch or dinner. You can even, if you must spend money, make a donation in the person's name to a worthy charity, or a cause that supports the planet. Food for thought.

15 November 2010


GLACIERS. Whatever your views on the existence and extent of global warming, it is undeniably true that the world's glaciers, and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antartica, are melting at an alarming rate. In a thoroughly researched article, Justin Gillis writes that "many scientists now say that sea level is likely to rise perhaps three feet by 2100 -- an increase that, should it come to pass, would pose a threat to coastal areas the world over. And the calculations suggest that the rise could conceivably exceed six feet, which would put thousands of square miles of the American coastline underwater .... Climate scientists readily admit that the three-foot estimate could be wrong. Their understanding of the changes going on in the world's land ice is still primitive. But, they say, it could just as easily be an underestimate as an overestimate .... One published estimate suggested the threat was so dire that that sea level could rise as much as 15 feet in this century .... A large majority of climate scientists argue that heat-trapping gases are almost certainly playing a role in what is happening to the world's land ice. They add that the lack of policy to limit (greenhouse gas) emissions is raising the risk that the ice will go into an irreversible decline before this century is out, a development that would eventually make a three-foot rise in the sea look trivial.

"Melting ice is by no means the only sign that the earth is warming. Thermometers on land, in the sea, and on satellites show warming. Heat waves, flash floods and other extreme weather events are increasing. Plants are blooming earlier, coral reefs are dying and many other changes are afoot that most climate scientists attribute to global warming."

I grew up within a few hours' drive of Glacier National Park, and during many hiking and camping treks, had more than one opportunity to traverse its eponymous glaciers. Just within the past half century, the majority have shrunk or disappeared entirely. Why is it that humans only think and act reactively, in response to a crisis, rather than proactively, using our intellects and imaginations to plan ahead? We have passed so many environmental thresholds just during my lifetime, that it is impossible to comprehend the inexorable changes we've set in motion, in our climate and in the natural world.

CATS. When it comes to drinking water, dogs are, well, dogs. Cats, on the other hand are engineers. While dogs form a crude cup with their tongues, cats "curve the upper sides of their tongues downwards so that the tips lightly touch the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it. Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column down -- snap! The cat's jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it" .... at a rate of four laps per second. It took four engineers using integral equations to verify the cat's instinctive ability to calculate the point at which gravitational force would overcome inertia and cause the water to fall. I've said it before -- cats rule, dogs drool. Check out the videos at the link, and see for yourself.

TSA PEEPSHOW SCANNER. The Transportation Security Administration has become a royal pain. Alleged security checks at airports force ridiculous delays in boarding flights, and the tools and practices used by TSA agents have become increasingly invasive of privacy. In a recent blog post, Amy Alkon describes one passenger who had enough, and refused to submit to the voyeuristic passenger xray scanner, or to agents' groping his private parts. When threatened with a lawsuit to recover $10,000 in fines, he said, "Bring it on."

There is no empirical evidence that the draconian inspection measures at airports have substantially increased our safety. Until such evidence is forthcoming, TSA needs to back off. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

12 November 2010


National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual writing event created by established writers, to encourage aspiring new writers. The premise is simple -- you have the entire month of November in which to write a 50,000 word novel, at any pace you please. You submit your creation to the website to verify word count, after which they delete all entries. All rights and ownership remain with the author. After that, the month of December is devoted to revisions and polishing.

I took part in NaNoWriMo last year -- you can find my assessment (enthusiastic) at my post for 29 November 2009, which includes a description of not only the writing process that worked for me, but also a summary of the rough draft I completed.

I learned yesterday on writer John Scalzi's blog Whatever that some published novelists have been dumping on NaNoWriMo, calling it a waste of time. I couldn't disagree more, and neither can Scalzi -- his post NaNoWriMo and Kvetching perfectly sums up the value of the event, and the pitiful midset of its detractors. Scalzi minces no words, a trait we share gleefully. His post is well worth checking out for any writer, aspiring or established.

On an entirely different note, from an equally non-word-mincing source, try Memoirs of an Anonymous Phone Sex Worker. It takes all kinds, not only to make a world, but to survive in that world. Here's to us all !

Phone Sex.

11 November 2010


This day is celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in some countries -- marking the formal end of major hostilities of World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. In the U.S. we call it Veterans Day, honoring all military veterans. Throughout my life, my personal tradition has been to take Veterans Day off from work, and spend the time in remembrance and reflection as my thoughts turn to my time in Vietnam -- the friends made, the carnage witnessed, the tropical beauty of a war-torn nation and its people.

My generation of veterans returned home not to welcome, but to rejection and abuse. The U.S. was struggling with its collective conscience over the morality of an unjust war, and in spite of our service, we became the embodiment of our government's duplicity -- so much so that the stereotype of the mentally unstable Vietnam veteran (later understood to be suffering from PTSD) became a caricature in movies and books. It was only after we vets began to stand up for ourselves, and band together in groups like Vietnam Veterans of America to protest both the war and the nation's treatment of us, that we began to earn (grudgingly) a place of honor. Too little, too late for many damaged souls. For others, recognition is never too late. Here is an account of the heroes' welcome given to Vietnam vets recently at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Forty years late, but still appreciated.

In the interim, like survivors of other sources of PTSD (e.g., being a victim of rape, domestic violence, or surviving the death of a loved one), Vietnam vets found that their best source of solace and understanding was each other. In their wonderful novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (set in the German-occupied Channel Islands during World War II), Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows describe the connection with insight and compassion, with reference to survivors of the Holocaust. Remy, one such survivor, writes in a letter -- "No one in France -- not friends, not family -- wants to know anything about your life in the camps, and they think that the sooner you put it out of your mind -- and out of their hearing -- the happier you'll be .... In the face of this institutional amnesia, the only help is talking with fellow survivors. They know what life in the camps was. You speak, and they can speak back. They talk, they rail, they cry, they tell one story after another -- some tragic, some absurd. Sometimes they can even laugh together. The relief is enormous."

Veterans of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan have been the beneficiaries of the consciousness-raising which we Vietnam vets forced the nation to go through. Now every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman is treated with respect, and the word "hero" has been applied so thoroughly as to become a cliche. Nevertheless, I extend to all veterans, young and old, my respect and gratitude.

Gratitude. Does everyone understand how important it is, when you see a man or woman in military uniform, to approach them to say "Thank you for your service"? Many more people do so now, than during my war. I can count on three fingers the number of times someone has thanked me without prompting -- and one of those was an anonymous note place under the windshield wiper of my SUV (which sported a Vietnam Veteran sticker on the back window). Please, for all the large and small freedoms which we enjoy, go out of your way to thank a vet. He or she will always remember it.

Gratitude extends to taking responsibility for thinking about the deadly places to which we send our young men and women, and why we send them. The nine year war in Afghanistan is a case in point. The parallels to Vietnam are too numerous to ignore. It needs to end. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Here is a brief, heartfelt message from other veterans, created for today's remembrance -- Honor the Consciences of Our Veterans. While we as citizens rely on our political and military leaders to conduct diplomatic and military affairs honorably, we cannot take it for granted. Ultimately WE are responsible for the lives lost, the families destroyed, the futures obliterated -- on both sides of the conflict.

10 November 2010


For the better part of this year, Idaho and Montana residents and environmentalists have locked horns with the governors of Idaho and Montana over their approval of a plan by Canadian oil giant Imperial Oil (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Canada) to transport more than two hundred loads of massive oil processing machinery -- first by ship from Korea to the port of Vancouver, Washington; then by barge (see photo above, click on any image to enlarge) up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the port of Lewiston, Idaho; then by truck (see photo below) across Idaho, Montana, and Alberta to the Kearle Tar Sands. There the machinery would be used to extract oil by squeezing and boiling and steaming tar out of porous sands. The oil would be shipped to (where else?) the U.S. See the maps at bottom for the entire route of the project, and the overland portions in Idaho, Montana and Alberta.

There are nearly 2 trillion barrels of tar-sands oil lying beneath Alberta -- which is being bladed away, mile by mile, in preparation for extraction. Due to the steam and water and fuel involved, tar sands oil results in 45 percent more carbon emissions than oil from traditional drilling. As with coal, the true cost of the resource is not being measured or accounted for. ExxonMobil benefits, but everyone else (including displaced First Nations peoples) carries the oil companies' externalized costs. The tar sands' footprint is so huge that some have called the project the biggest environmental crime in history -- though that estimate was issued before the Gulf oil spill. Ecological damages will include gigantic mining pits, ponds of toxic mine waste, destruction of the world's largest intact forest, and threats to populations of native birds and animals.

Along the proposed truck route, the Idaho portion traverses some of the most pristine wilderness in the continental United States, crossing several Wild and Scenic Rivers (see the Lochsa River, above) as it follows US route 12 along the Lewis and Clark Trail to Lolo Pass. The Montana portion of the route would disrupt already-congested Reserve Street in Missoula before proceeding over Rogers Pass on state route 200, then turning northward on US 93 along the incomparably beautiful Rocky Mountain Front (see photo below).

The truck loads would be gargantuan -- as large as 24 feet wide by 30 feet tall and up to 160 feet in length, weighing as much as 167 tons. Their passage would disrupt local traffic (including emergency vehicles), destroy already-threatened native species habitat, disrupt wilderness recreation, and negatively impact local lives and economies. Due to complicity by the Departments of Transportation under Idaho governor Butch Otter and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, no environmental impact statements were required for the project. State officials were eager to believe the oil company's assurances that the current project is a one-time proposal. One observer wryly noted that you don't build a railroad and then use it only once.
To date, political protests and civil lawsuits have held this obscene project at bay. My fingers are crossed that it will be abandoned, though my hopes are not high. Why should Big Oil be allowed to despoil U.S. or Canadian wilderness, or disrupt U.S. or Canadian lives? This is a project conceived in greed, written in blood, and carried out without the consent of those whose lives will be disrupted or destroyed. Numerous local, regional and national reports have condemned the project as being wasteful and dangerous -- see here and here and here and here and here and here and here -- and especially fightinggoliath.org/, an impressive clearinghouse of information assembled by the citizens of northern Idaho.