31 May 2010


In the US, Memorial Day is a national holiday established to commemorate soldiers who died while in military service. It is an especially poignant time for service men and women who survived combat, as well as for the families of those who died. One tradition on this day is to visit a cemetary or war memorial, in order to remember and honor those who sacrificed their lives.

My own tradition is a quieter one. If I lived on the east coast, I would doubtless pay homage at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (images at top and bottom, click to enlarge) and at Arlington National Cemetary (image at center) in Washington, DC. My several past visits there have all been moving and cathartic. As it is, I spend this day in solitude, allowing my thoughts to drift back to memories of those I knew during the Vietnam War, and those from other wars as well. It is a truism that veterans share a common history and a common language which others cannot enter. This is what makes it so very difficult to return to civilian life, suddenly isolated from one's lifelong friends, for whom one would have died without hesitation in order to save. It is a more subtle truism that veterans often have more in common with their counterparts on the "enemy" side, than with friends and family from their own culture. The shared experience of war runs deep. Perhaps this is why John McCutcheon's ballad Christmas In The Trenches never fails to move me to tears. It is based on an actual event in World War I. You can hear his song here.

Tangent 1 -- I regularly watch Netflix movies at home on DVD, rented three at a time. By sheer coincidence, the one remaining film at my disposal today is "The Messenger", a story of two GIs in the Army's Casualty Notification Service. Teams of two bear the news of a soldier's death or injury to his/her family. It may sound morbid at first blush, but I can think of few more important assignments than being the caring person in uniform who must help lessen the storm of emotion such news must arouse.

Tangent 2 -- I find it to be singularly tactless and disrespectful that the forces of commerce and greed relentlessly advertise "sales" for religious, military and other holidays. I boycott any store which bombards the airwaves with advertisements for such sales, and encourage others to do the same. When you think about it, these events happen so often that you have to wonder whether the merchants' prices are intentionally jacked up to begin with. How else could they remain in business? There are sales for New Years, Presidents Day, Spring, Easter, Memorial Day, Summer, Independence Day, the return to school, Autumn, Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas -- every month of the year. Those who espouse capitalism and free enterprise should be ashamed of themselves for cheapening these holidays with shoddy commerce. The ritual of compulsive shopping and conspicuous consumption started just after World War II, during a time of relative peace and prosperity, and has accelerated and morphed into a national pasttime in the years since. Which doesn't say much for the values of our culture.

Finally, on a lighter note, here is an informative and fun article on the biology, physics and chemistry of grilling. There are cooking tips and a recipe or two, for you backyard barbecue freaks. Enjoy your day. And take a moment to remember those who, at the moment you read this, are stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other places we don't even know about. Whether or not you support our current wars (I do not), it is important to honor those who serve.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I did not die.

30 May 2010


OBAMA'S OIL CREDIBILITY. In his news conference on May 27, President Obama at last stepped up to the plate and assumed governmental and Presidential responsibility for a portion of the mismanagement of the Gulf oil spill. He made reference to the too-cozy relationship between oil companies and the regulatory agency which issued blank-check drilling permits and turned conveniently away from egregious safety violations during drilling. The head of that agency resigned on the same day as the news conference.

President Obama made several disquieting statements, the most glaring of which was having been proved wrong in his alleged belief "that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios." As Frank Herbert notes, the President knows, or should know, that "these are greedy merchant armies drilling blindly at depths of a mile and more beneath the seas while at the same time doing all that they can to stifle the government oversight that is necessary to protect human lives and preserve the integrity of the environment." The history of commerce has for centuries been a history of rapacious greed and self-entitlement, under the guise of misleading phrases like "natural resources" and "manifest destiny."

BP has lied from day one, and continues to do so. The original oil escape estimate of 1000 barrels a day, perpetuated for weeks, has been revised by reputable oceanographers to at least 12,000 to 20,000 barrels a day (itself a conservative estimate). With no end in sight. The most likely scenario is that oil will continue to spew into the Gulf until a second relief well is completed, sometime in late August. Four months. 120 days. 20,000 barrels of crude oil a day. You do the math. The Gulf coast and the waters offshore will take decades to recover -- the spillage from Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 is still in evidence on the rocky shores of Prince William Sound. And that spill is dwarfed by the volume of oil in the Gulf.

So please, Mr. President. You're doing the right thing by holding BP accountable. But don't insult my intelligence by asking me to believe that you actually trusted these slimy bastards. Saying so makes you look either astronomically naive (which you are not), or complicit in not regarding this event as the environmental catastrophe it is. Neither is acceptable behavior in this nation's leader. As David Gurgen eloquently urges, it is time to take command.

Predator drones. It's been a busy week. On May 28, a UN representative called for an end to the use of unmanned aircraft (Predator drones) for targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan by intelligence agencies. The UN report will cite a lack of accountability among agencies like the CIA, and will call for drones to be operated by the military instead.

Apparently the military can't get it right either. The very next day, May 29, a military report condemned military drone operators for their responsibility in the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians (men, women and children) during a drone and helicopter attack in February. Drone operators in the US, and ground commanders and Special Operations personnel in Afghanistan, were too quick to believe that the passengers in a three-vehicle convoy were military-age men, and acted without caution in ordering the strike. Air strikes account for fully a third of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

The value of unmanned surveillance is clear, provided that it is conducted competently. And competent it must be, if we are to avoid creating even more terrorists than our presence on the ground already does. And should there be any lingering doubt, our two wars in the Middle East have never been just about interdicting terrorism. They have been about the control of oil, in Iran and in Afghanistan's neighbor Uzbekistan. US addiction to oil will continue to drive wars, and destroy lives, and foment new terrorism against us, until we get serious about alternative energy sources. The clock is ticking.

29 May 2010


You'll want to click on the above image to enlarge it -- the dark spots at the upper right portion of the solar disk are not sun spots, but rather the International Space Station and the space shuttle Atlantis, transiting the sun. The photo was taken on May 16 during Atlantis' final orbital mission, about 50 minutes prior to the shuttle's docking with the space station. The ISS orbits at an average 185 miles above the earth's surface. The sun is about 93 million miles away, and its diameter is approximately two and a quarter million miles (enough to line up 109 Earths in a row). All of which should give the gentle reader some sense of the vastness of that blazing background, and the relatively puny size of the human objects in sillouette.

Bonus -- here's a link to a time-lapse movie of the night sky over Ecuador's Cotopaxi volcano. Check out the text for a description of the phenomena you'll see as the movie progresses. Enjoy.

28 May 2010


FAT COPS. We're all familiar with the unfortunate stereotype of police officers frequenting donut shops. Alas, it appears that cops are not immune from our culture's descent into overeating. Fully one third of Americans (including children) are clinically obese, and another third are seriously overweight. Cops are getting fatter too. So much so that many cities are setting standards for diet and exercise. Among them is Mexico City, where three-quarters of the 70,000 police officers are overweight. My own observation in my travels in the US is consistent with this trend among police officers. Not only is it harder to run down an escaping suspect when one is fat, it also increases one's risk for early disease or death. To see where you stand, check out the BMI (Body-Mass Index) chart, broken down by gender and by height. As a rule, the closer you are to the lower end of your ideal weight range, the healthier you are.

AMNESTY. As in Amnesty International, the human rights and social justice organization whose genesis was in an article published in 1961. The group is independent of any state funding or control, thus is free to evaluate and publicize human rights violations by any nation -- and does so effectively and impartially. If you would like to learn more, or would like to become involved in their mission. please check out their website.

OIL SECRETS. Well, secret only if you've had your head in the sand. I've posted frequently on the causes (both physical and corporate) and the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster which occurred on April 20. The oil spill has become the largest in US history. Even if BP is successful in capping the damaged wellhead today, there are still five and a half weeks' worth of oil slicks making their way toward the Louisiana coast, with another newly-discovered subsurface oil plume moving toward Florida.
Here, for those who take a serious interest in the environment and in responsible business, is a list of ten things you need (but don't want) to know about the BP oil spill. These facts are an offense to any rational, concerned person, and yet they are not anomalies. They are the norm.
Tangentially, here is a link to a photo essay by Gerald Herbert, documenting the effect of oil on wildlife large and small. His photography is excellent, the images heart-rending. Be sure to click on the "View Essay" cue to see all his images. Their disburbing subject matter is not a reason to avoid seeing these photos. I've long been an adherent to the Quaker belief in bearing witness, i.e. not turning away from an unjust or abusive event that is unfolding before one's eyes, merely because it is distressing Rather, if one cannot intervene directly, then remaining present and mindful is the most effective way to respect and honor the victims -- especially when coupled with sharing the event with others, through telling the story or by sharing images like these. It is the only way to bring home the full reality of tragedies like the Gulf spill.

27 May 2010


ART LINKLETTER. Yesterday the genial and creative radio and TV host Art Linkletter died, at age 97. I was most familiar with him from his radio days in the 1950s -- back then my family had no TV yet, so radio was our staple form of home entertainment. Those old programs -- dramas, westerns, mysteries, variety shows -- remain vivid in my memory. Linkletter led a varied and colorful life before he settled into broadcast entertainment. The link above provides highlights. He was best known for his humorous impromptu exchanges with those in the studio audience, and for his easy connection with children.

GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE. On this day in 1937 one of the world's most recognizable works of art and architecture was dedicated -- San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. It provides a vital traffic link between the San Francisco peninsula and Marin County to the north, spanning the channel where San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. The signature orange vermillion color was chosen both to complement the natural surroundings, and also to make the bridge more visible to air and sea traffic in frequently foggy conditions.
The bridge is also the most popular spot for suicide attempts, not only in the US but in the world. Anyone who jumps from the deck, 245 feet above the water, takes about four seconds to fall. Speed upon impact is roughly 75 miles per hour, a velocity at which water takes on the properties of concrete. Those who survive the concussion usually drown or die of hypothermia.
Visually the Golden Gate Bridge is never boring to watch -- ships may be passing beneath, or the bridge may serve as a colorful backdrop to displays by the Navy's Blue Angels during San Francisco's Fleet Week. Here are a few sample images.

26 May 2010


TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Race, class, courage, compassion, the loss of innocence. These themes and more appear in Harper Lee's seminal novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published fifty years ago. Considered by many to be the finest American novel to emerge from the twentieth century, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and was made into a movie which ranks 25th on the list of 100 greatest American films of all time. TKAM remains a standard in American Lit classes. It is also the only book which the reclusive Lee ever wrote.
Lee's narrative has touched so many lives that this year the novel is being honored at events around the country. Atticus Finch lives.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS. In The Idiots Responsible for the BP Oil Leak Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, there appears a rogue's gallery containing nine entries, with mug shots and brief bios. The list is well worth memorizing -- it contains well-known names and one or two surprises.

Now also comes the realization that BP was a major player in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. BP had a controlling interest in Alyeska, the oil consortium which owns and operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and was responsible for cleanup. Then, as now, planning was shoddy to non-existent when it came to operational safety and accident cleanup. (At least they're consistent.) The estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude oil which despoiled Alaskan waters and shorelines, has already been dwarfed by the Gulf of Mexico debacle, which is ongoing. Oil continues to gush from the wellhead, offshore waters continue to accumulate oil and toxic dispersants, beaches and coastal wetlands continue to be fouled, and the decimation of marine life, the coastal fishery and wetlands wildlife has only begun. This, not even counting the eighteen human lives lost during the initial well rig explosions.

Civil and criminal charges must be filed and aggressively prosecuted, against both corporate entities and against individuals (both within corporations and within federal regulatory agencies). In addition, monumental fines must be imposed on BP (operator and principal developer of the oil field), Transocean (the drilling contractor and rig owner), and Halliburton (the energy conglomerate which was supposed to cement the drill hole at the Deepwater Horizon rig), and a complete overhaul of oil industry operations and oversight must be initiated -- including an indefinite moratorium on all offshore oil drilling. The environmental, economic and human costs of systemic criminal negligence and malfeasance are too great to ignore. The satellite image below, taken yesterday, shows the current extent of the ever-expanding oil spill. (Click on image to enlarge.)

25 May 2010


MAP. "A visual representation of an area -- a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space, such as objects, regions, or themes." Maps can be static or interactive, flat or three dimensional, and can vary in scale and accuracy. My interest today is in geological maps, as opposed to DNA maps, brain maps, or star maps. Here is a small sampling of map types and their uses:

~ Aeronautical charts - maps designed to assist in the navigation of aircraft.
~ Cartograms - maps in which thematic variables (e.g., population) are compared.
~ Contour maps - maps in which contour lines show the gradients in variables such as barometric pressure, temperatue, wind speed and direction.
~ Fantasy maps - maps showing an imaginary geography, notably in books of fiction.
~ Floor plans - maps showing the dimensions and relationships of rooms in a house.
~ Geologic maps - maps showing the geologic features (rock stata, faults) of an area.
~ Nautical charts - maps designed to assist in the navigation of watercraft.
~ Pictorial maps - maps more artistic than technical, often presenting the buildings, streets and historical attractions of a particular city or region.
~ Plats - maps drawn to scale, showing the property divisions of an area of land.
~ Topographic maps - maps showing large scale terrain features and variations in elevation.
~ World maps - maps depicting the surface of the Earth, using a variety of projections.

The above list only scratches the surface (so to speak). I've loved maps as far back as I can remember. Like books and movies, maps are windows onto other places, other times. Their variety is endless. And now, with tools such as Google Maps or Google Earth, one can explore anywhere, in two or three dimensions, manipulating magnification and feature options for a near-addictive experience.

Here are a few of my favorite online map resources, in no particular order:

~ making your own map - customizing features on a US map.
~ making your own map - customizing features on a global map.
~ making your own map - moving selected areas for size comparisons.

And of course, Google Maps and Google Earth. There are hundreds of thousands of special applications maps, showing everthing from Presidential election results to tourism to hiking trails. Try Googling "street maps", "road maps", "satellite maps", "topographical maps", or simply "maps", and have fun exploring the thousands of website results.

[NOTE: Top map depicts Glacial Lake Missoula and its floodplain. Center map shows highways and topography in the continental US. Bottom map traces the path of Hurrican Hugo in 1989. Click on images to enlarge.]

24 May 2010


DERECHOS HUMANOS. On May 20 the website Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) posted an article from sister website Indian Country Today noting widespread opposition by Native Americans against the new Arizona immigration law which encourages racial profiling and discriminates against people based on the color of their skin. It is encouraging that groups in addition to Latinos are becoming involved. This despicable law (which also happens to abrogate power from the Federal government) should never have seen the light of day. It is a slap in the face of all people, regardless or race or immigration status, with echoes of the racial/ethnic bigotry and xenophobia of Nazi German, Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda, among many other examples. One hopes that a national boycott of vacations and events in Arizona will sway voters there to press for repeal of the law, and the ouster of the law's creators.

BROOKLYN BRIDGE. On this day in 1883 the iconic Brookly Bridge was opened, linking New York City's Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs for the first time by spanning the East River. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge's size and distinctive architecture are instantly recognizable, especially since it has appeared in numberless movies. With lanes for motor vehicles and a center walkway for pedestrians, the bridge continues to provide a vital travel connection for hundreds of thousands of users daily.

23 May 2010


YOUNG JAZZ. There is a program on both NPR and PBS called "From the Top", which spotlights rising young virtuoso musicians. I was fortunate to catch the last third of last week's show -- for I'd never heard 16 year old Nikki Yanofsky sing before. She is a self-taught vocalist who is already a seasoned performer of jazz and pop standards. In the segment I heard, Nikki demonstrated her Ella Fitzgerald-inspired skills at scat singing -- you can hear her perform at this link. It is musicians like those who appear on "From the Top" who give me hope that creativity, discipline and originality are not lost amid the cookie-cutter jungle of pop music.

YOUNG CLASSICAL. One segment on "60 Minutes" last week featured Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor and violinist who is the new conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At 29, Gustavo is the youngest person to ascend to the LAP podium. He has created a sensation among audiences and orchestra members alike, for he brings not only technical and interpretive expertise, but also energy and humor to the concert hall. Musical excellence and laughter are a rich and heady blend at rehearsals, inspiring musicians to grand heights of performance. You can see and hear the entire "60 Minutes" segment here.

Dudamel is a product of Venezuela's El Sistema, a publicly-financed program which involves young people in classical music from an early age -- in the process, not only keeping them off the streets and out of trouble, but providing a rich venue for artistic self-expression and being part of something larger than oneself (one social function of street gangs). Dudamel has started similar programs in U.S. cities, and I wish him resounding success. Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Dudamel has the opportunity to touch many, many young lives with an understanding of, and love for, music.

When I worked with young people, both as a teacher/counselor and later as a security officer, I lacked the funding to get kids involved in music. Instead I introduced my young charges to chess -- teaching them the fundamentals, keeping it fun, and eventually hosting chess tournaments which were wildly popular. A little creativity and encouragement go a long way in nurturing even a troubled youth's intelligence, enthusiasm and self-esteem. Focus, planning, and imagination are all engaged. Where music or any other art form might excel over chess is in self-expression. I was lucky to be both a vocalist and a French horn player in my youth, and later took up classical guitar, dulcimer, djembe and keyboards. Anyone, performer or conductor, who can make music not only their avocation but also their career, is fortunate indeed. Parents, it is never too early to encourage your children to learn to perform music -- it is a gift which they will treasure for all their lives.

22 May 2010


BIODIVERSITY. By United Nations proclamation, May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity, an international holiday to promote biodiversity issues. The term is defined as "the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or on the entire Earth," and is a measure of the health of biologicial systems -- which include human beings. With greater diversity among species comes greater health and enhanced resilience in response to perturbations such as sudden environmental change. With greater diversity within a species comes greater species robustness and resistance to extinction.

Just imagine the risk if all species were in the position of the magnificent cheetah -- individuals within the species are genetically virtually identical to each other, a result of a population bottleneck during the last ice age. So few cheetahs survived that inbreeding was inevitable. Today, cheetahs have low genetic variability, as well as low sperm count and sperm motility.

Similarly, in domestic agriculture, if we homogenize (as we do) our cattle, rice, wheat and other livestock and crops to uniformity, we run the risk of disaster if a virulent disease appears. Far better to maintain nature's variety of species, as life insurance for all concerned. The same principal holds true for humans -- diversity is a virtue, not a threat.

RAND PAUL. "Thanks to Rand Paul 's come from behind during this week's primary, KY will forever be associated with jelly." -- JLS.

Our resident social Luddite and darling of the Tea Party movement (a disorganized mob with no coherent philosophy, no organized structure, no designated leaders, and no apparent goal other than to be against whatever crosses its extremely narrow field of vision), Paul has wasted no time in stirring up controversy. He famously denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making the ludicrous claim that while he opposes racial discrimination, he also opposes government interference with businesses which discriminate. Paul was joined by another monumental airhead, John Stossel, in the call to repeal the public accomodations part of the Act. More recently, Paul called President Obama "un-American" for daring to criticize BP in its handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. All of which elates Democrats and makes Republicans very nervous. A loose cannon like Paul could well cost Republicans not only votes among citizens of all ethnicities, but also could shred what little remains of Republican credibility. If the GOP is hijacked by the Tea Party fringe, the lunatics will be running the asylum.

Paul's rhetoric (if one may charitably call it that) stands in sharp contrast to the eloquent statesmanship and political courage of John F. Kennedy, who would have turned 89 on May 29. It was JFK, not Lyndon Johnson, who was the principle architect of the Civil Rights Act. You can both read and hear JFK's address to the nation on this subject at this link. Whatever his human frailties, Kennedy was our last great president. Had not he, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr. not fallen to assassins' bullets, our nation and the world would be a very different, much better place. We would still face economic, political and moral challenges, but our assumptions regarding what is acceptable behavior in facing those challenges would be more constructive, more visionary.

Incidentally, to those who whine about the role of government, and call for less interference with Big Bidness, I would remind you that the word "capitalism" does not appear in either of our founding documents, the US Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Nowhere will you find listed as inalienable rights "life, liberty and the pursuit of profit." In fact, just as Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell address against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, so too must we be aware of the dangers posed by too little government. It is there for a reason. Left to their own devices, individuals and business seek to maximize their own self-interest at the expense of others -- through economic means, political power, violence. Government exists precisely to protect its citizens from abuse by regulating how business is conducted and by spelling out how how individuals may legally behave. It also exists to serve its citizens by providing infrastructure, military security, human services, and equal educational and workplace opportunities for all. Those services aren't free, which is why we pay taxes.

Bottom line, as the Gulf oil disaster so tragically demonstrates, we require not less regulation and oversight, but more. Paul Krugman explains why. Government oversight does not impinge on our essential freedoms -- it guarantees them.

21 May 2010


Most of my television viewing is limited to shows on PBS. This week a Frontline episode, "The Wounded Platoon," examined the incidence of PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it manifests in military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The picture isn't pretty. Even with psychological counseling and decompression which weren't offered to Vietnam vets, there remains a stigma of perceived weakness attached to those who seek help in dealing with the trauma, anxiety, paranoia, depression and flashbacks associated with PTSD. The result is an incidence of suicide, murder, substance abuse, isolation, hypervigilance, inabiity to maintain stable loving relationships, inability to hold down a job, and resorting to crime among returning war veterans, substantially above either military or civilian norms.

Combat stress reaction is nothing new. One of the first descriptions was made by the Greek historian Herodotus in 490 BC. In the 1800s it was called "exhaustion". During World War I, "shell shock". During World War II, "battle fatigue". It was only during and following the Vietnam War that comprehensive psychological research identifed the symptoms and causes of what we now call PTSD.

I am a member of the generation of Vietnam veterans. As one of 830,000 vets who have experienced PTSD symptoms, my heart goes out to the young men and women (impossibly young, barely older than children, but then so was I) returning from today's wars. The entire Frontline episode may be viewed here. And here is a list of support and services for vets.

My own symptoms have abated somewhat. I still go through panic attacks on the 4th of July, and startle at sudden loud noises. Each of my visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, has been a harrowing and cathartic experience. Relationships continue to be a wicked stretch of whitewater to navigate, though I've gotten better with practice. I wish there were some way to make it easier for Iraq and Afghanistan vets to transition to life outside the war zone. Perhaps one answer is public awareness, which can be achieved in part by programs such as Frontline.

20 May 2010


COOKING WITH POT. This is hilarious, and makes perfect sense. The phrase haute cuisine ("high cooking") has taken on a whole new meaning with the revelation that some chefs smoke marijuana after hours. There is no indication that pot appears as an ingredient for diners' consumption, or that chefs are stoned while at work. They could hardly afford to be, given the intense need to focus on the tasks as hand. Rather, the herb is relaxing after a hard shift, and also may influence which creative dishes are chosen to prepare. I'd like to visit one of the restaurants in question .... for scientific purposes only, of course.

OUT OF THE LOOP. From today's NYTimes: "Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill's true scope." While I would not go so far as to compare the administration's apparent disengagement to that shown by the Bush administration following Hurricane Katrina, nevertheless I am perplexed over the very issues which the scientific community is raising. It has been one month since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, and then sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The ragtag response has been surreal, something akin to watching an old Keystone Cops movie. President Obama has been content to let BP remedy the situation, sending in Coast Guard and NOAA vessels to assist, but never (yet) launching a full-scale scientific investigation into the cause of the disaster, nor into the effects of the oil slicks on the surface and at multiple depths on marine and shore life.

Now comes the stomach-clenching (and predictable) news that a portion of the surface oil slick has entered the Gulf's Loop Current (see image above), a clockwise-flowing gyre whose eventual path travels eastward between Florida and Cuba, thence northward up the east Florida coast. At the same time, another region of the oil slick has entered vital coastal wetlands, a sanctuary for wildlife and for part of Louisiana's fisheries industry. Here is a link to an interactive map showing the position and extent of the oil slick, updated daily.

The entire debacle is ongoing, and we won't understand its full proportions for weeks to come. What saddens and infuriates me is that it was entirely preventable. Taking safety and procedural shortcuts by all three corporate entities involved (BP, Transocean and Halliburton) was not only financially and ethically reckless, it was illegal. Heads must roll !!

19 May 2010


GALAXIES. From the ever-awesome APOD, above is an unusual view of our own Milky Way galaxy -- with 7000 year old pictographs from Utah's Canyonlands National Park illuminated in the foreground (click on images to enlarge). The artists were likely hunter-gatherers who included Mammoths in their diet.

Below is a stunning panorama of the Whale Galaxy, another spiral galaxy 30 million light years from our Milky Way. (Definitely click on this one) This galaxy spans 140,000 light years, a distance which boggles the mind.

ATHEISTS. One of my favorite blogs, The Angry Black Woman, recently posted a piece titled "The myth of atheists being 'less' than religious people." To which I can only say, right on. Those who choose to place their faith in organized religion often treat atheists with annoying condescension, if not outright hostility. If their faith is so secure, one would think that serene acceptance of other viewpoints would prevail. It's worth noting that in the land of the free, freedom of religion includes freedom FROM religion. Get it? Got it? Good.

MISS USA. On May 16, 2010, Rima Fakih became the first Lebanese-American, the first Muslim, and the first immigrant to win the Miss USA beauty pageant. Predictably, the right wing blogosphere went nuts, attempting to link Ms. Fakih with Hezbollah and other extremist groups. In fact, she comes from a family which celebrates both Christianity ans Islam, and has no political ties with such groups. (Besides, as one friend noted, where could she possible hide a bomb?)

My thought is .... wow. In a militantly anti-Muslim atmosphere, somehow we dredge up sufficient respect for diversity to select this intelligent and beautiful future attorney to represent the US. Pretty damn cool. Beauty pageants have always been little more than gratuitous eye candy, with little redeeming social value. Until now.

18 May 2010


MOUNT ST. HELENS. Thirty years ago today, stratovolcano Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state. Here is Wiki's summary of the event -- "The eruption was preceded by a two-month series of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes, caused by an injection of magma at shallow depth below the volcano that created a huge bulge and a fracture system on Mount St. Helens' north slope .... An earthquake at 8:32 AM on Sunday, May 18, 1980, caused the entire weakened north face to slide away (see video here), suddenly exposing the partly molten, gas- and steam-rich rock in the volcano to lower pressure. The rock responded by exploding a hot mix of lava and pulverized older rock toward Spirit Lake so fast that it overtook the avalanching north face (see diagram above). An eruption column rose 80,000 feet (24,400 m) into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 U.S. states (see map below, click to enlarge). At the same time snow, ice and several entire glaciers on the volcano melted, forming a series of large lahars (volcanic mudslides) that reached as far as the Columbia River, nearly fifty miles (eighty km) to the south."

At the time of the eruption, I was working as co-caretaker at a nature preserve in southern Arizona. Fifteen years later, my nomadic life led to Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. From the right vantage point, on a clear day one could see three volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire -- Mount Hood in Oregon, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington.
Wherever I've lived, I've felt the forces of the planet differently -- drought in the desert southwest, Hurricane Hugo in the coastal southeast, chains of blizzards in the urban northeast, a 500-year flood (and the potential for volcanoes) in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Amid the smaller events of our daily lives, it is useful to pause and notice the grander landscape and climate surrouding us.

POSEUR BLUMENTHAL. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is running for the U.S. Senate. Yesterday the NYTimes reported that on a number of occasions (notably when addressing military veterans), Blumenthal has referred to his own service in the Vietnam War. There's only one problem -- the man never set foot in Vietnam. Like so many children of privilege at the time (Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush), Blumenthal found ways to avoid the war -- in his case, a series of draft deferments and a spot in the Marine reserves.

Here's the thing: I don't have a problem with anyone who takes a moral stance against war, and acts on it. During Vietnam there were many who obtained student deferments from the draft, many others who fled to Canada, even a few who deliberately flunked military testing in order to be deemed unfit to serve. There were also those who chose to enter the military, and chose to be a part of the war. I am among the latter. In retrospect, it wasn't a choice I would make today, given the moral bankruptcy of that war, but I'm proud of having served, and honor those who served with me.

To this extent I find Blumenthal's Vietnam pretense appalling. It is the vilest possible insult to the men and women who actually risked (and often lost) their lives. Phony glory seekers are nothing new. But for a public figure who is seeking a national office to betray the trust of his constituents (and the trust of all citizens) by posing as a Vietnam Vet to shore up his image, is simply despicable. Let me be Blumenthal's DI for a month. Please.
NOTE: For more on Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush falsifying their military service, check out this reference. And don't even get me started on conservative America's sweetheart, John Wayne, who avoided military service during WWII in order to make movies, while fellow actors like Jimmy Stewart served in the military with honor.