30 April 2012


Gather around, children, and learn how things end when your country becomes needlessly involved in a war whose stated goals (preventing the spread of communism) mask the real goals (securing natural resources like oil and rubber) ~ all the while guaranteeing the loss of the war by using conventional tactics against a guerrilla opponent.  We continue to make that same mistake.

37 years ago yesterday and today, more than 7,000 American civilians and 'at risk' Vietnamese were airlifted from various points in South Vietnam's capitol city, Saigon, to a fleet of U.S. naval ships deployed in the South China Sea off Vung Tau.  The evacuation took place as North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars were appearing in Saigon's suburbs.  Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters manned by military and CIA pilots struggled to accommodate as many refugees as possible, but time was running out.  One of the enduring images of the evacuation appears above (click to enlarge) ~ a line of CIA station personnel filing to a waiting helicopter perched precariously atop the roof of their apartment building (often mistakenly identified as the U.S. embassy).

The sad and moving story of this complex operation is summed up nicely here.  Incredibly, amid the confusion and gunfire, only four U.S. Marines lost their lives.  Virtually all U.S. combat forces had been withdrawn from in-country by August 1973.  Those who remained protected the U.S. embassy, and maintained advisory liaison with the South Vietnamese army and air force.

Human societies tend to have short memories, and new leaders take advantage of that fact.  I was opposed to the Gulf War, the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan from their inception.  Clearly we weren't being told the whole story.  Subsequent history has confirmed this. Nearly every war since WWII (with the exception of those few in which we sought to end genocide) have been fought to secure local natural resources or territory, shoring up American hegemony in the world.  And all those wars have backfired.  Our standing among the world community hasn't been been lower since the nineteenth century.  We spent (officially) ten bloody years in Vietnam, to no good end.  Ask me ~ I was there.

29 April 2012


Today's post is pure entertainment ~ President Barack Obama's address to the annual White House Correspondents' dinner.  Traditionally the gathering has featured entertainment, including a comedian whose remarks roast the president.  Obama needed no assistance ~ he poked fun at himself, as well as at his Republican opponents.  He also delivered a few serious moments, remembering journalists who had died in the past year while gathering news around the world.  As Obama correctly pointed out, an essential role of journalism lies in informing the people about how well or poorly their government is doing.  The fourth estate ideally helps to keep government transparent, and in doing so becomes a tacit member of the balance of power in Washington.

While I disagree with some of the decisions Obama has made, particularly with regard to war and to conservation, I admire his intellect, his moral compass, and his articulate style.  He can be as focused as a laser when the situation warrants it, or he can flash that Barack grin and charm even those who disagree with him.  Being willing to laugh at oneself ought to be a prerequisite for holding any high office.

28 April 2012


The word "science" comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.  Broadly, it is "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe."  In classical usage, science referred to the body of reliable knowledge itself.  In modern use, science more often refers to a way of pursuing knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

Why should this be?  After all, isn't knowledge immutable and certain?  As it turns out, often not.  Knowledge evolves over time, as we learn more about the universe, our world, and ourselves.  For instance, we once thought that the Earth was flat, and that it was at the center of the universe, with the other planets, the Sun, and all the stars revolving around it.  We no longer believe those things.  Our knowledge grows with questioning, study, experimentation, drawing conclusions, and further questioning.  The manner in which we pursue and refine knowledge, the scientific method, provides the framework within which we reliably (subject to further testing) trust in our familiarity with facts, information, descriptions, or skills.  Thus the modern emphasis on science as a way of pursuing knowledge.

And yet, being a voyage of discovery involving intuition and curiosity, science is not limited to cold calculations or mathematical precision.  Science and art overlap (see illustration above, click to enlarge) precisely in the realm of wonder.  And it is in this realm where scientists themselves offer the most fulsome descriptions of their life's work.  Here are a few examples ~
  • "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious ~ the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." ~ Albert Einstein
  • "Science teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought, the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true." ~ Richard Feynman
  • "Real science is a revision in progress, always.  It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance." ~ Stuart Firestein
  • "The scientist is not the person who gives the right answers, he's the one who asks the right questions."  ~ Claude Levi-Strausse
  • "Science is an inherent contradiction - systematic wonder - applied to the natural world."  ~ Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon
  • "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." ~ Carl Sagan
  • "All of science is uncertain and subject to revision.  The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove." ~ Freeman Dyson
  • "One thing I have learned in a long life ~ that all of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike ~ and yet it is the most precious thing we have." ~ Albert Einstein
  • "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.  Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." ~ Marie Curie
  • "Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt.  There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome." ~ Stuart Firestein
  • "The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles.  The elegance, we may fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain." ~ E.O. Wilson
  • "Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation." ~ Richard Feynman
The above observations come from Maria Popova's What is Science?  An Omnibus of Definitions.  My thanks to her for publishing the collection.  You can find more by clicking on the link.

So science combines the best of discipline and wonder, rigor and joy, precision and uncertainty.  A core tent in science is that any hypothesis, theory, or law must be falsifiable.  That is, if evidence is discovered which disproves an explanation for an observed phenomenon, then the explanation can no longer be regarded as universally true.  In science, we can disprove statements, but we cannot prove them, because we are operating limited by our best understanding at the present moment.  And as we've established, understanding evolves.  Paradoxically, this is what differentiates science from myths, superstitions, religions, and folk traditions, which rely on a leap of faith unsupported by evidence.  Repeated examination, questioning, testing, and confirmation allow us to believe with confidence that gravity, evolution, and microbes exist.  Until someone disproves their existence.

27 April 2012


As I've grown older, I notice that I sometimes have to struggle to recall a name, or a particular word.  Sometimes at home I'll walk from one room to the next, then forget what I was going to do there.  A decline in the brain's memory function is something that most of us experience.  But it need not be inevitable.  A report in the journal Neuroscience finds that "Education [alone] won't save your brain.  PhDs are as likely as high school dropouts to experience memory loss with old age.  Don't count on your job, either.  Those with a complex or demanding career may enjoy a limited advantage, but those benefits quickly dwindle after retirement.

"Engagement is the secret to success.  Those who are socially, mentally, and physically stimulated reliably show better cognitive performance with a brain that appears younger than its years .... Older people also continue to accumulate knowledge and to use what they know effectively, often to very old ages."

So there is hope for us all.  Engagement, stimulation.  I read voraciously, do crossword puzzles, play chess and Scrabble, and compose daily blog posts.  However, I'm not as socially engaged as many people, nor do I get as much exercise as I would like.  My goals are thus clear.

Here's something else to think about.  Brandon Keim in Wired Science writes that "To judge a risk more clearly, it may help to consider it in a foreign language.  A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the U.S. and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived .... Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought, one that's systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that's fast, unconscious and emotionally charged .... it's plausible that communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing th role of potentially unreliable instinct.  Research also shows that immediate emotional reactions to emotively charged words are muted in non-native languages, further hinting at deliberation."

This ties in neatly with the first report, since learning and using a second (or third, or fourth) language stimulates our cognitive abilites.  Those people I know who are bilingual or trilingual tend to be more influenced by reason, and less by instinct.  Intuition is still valuable, I believe, but only if it is informed by fact and by diverse experience ~ the more, the better.

Here is a link to a website called Luminosity, which claims to "improve your brain health and performance" with a training program to enhance memory and attention.  I have not yet tried it, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness.  But it seems to me that we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Adios por ahora, y buena suerte.

26 April 2012


The other day I wrote a post on logical fallacies, noting that if more people applied logical reasoning and mutual respect when entering into debates over political, economic, or religious issues, we would be more likely to arrive at a middle ground where workable solutions can be devised.  In today's polarized, rigid climate, that middle ground can be elusive.

Here is a perfect example of a volatile issue which tends to push people into opposing, black-or-white opinions ~ wilderness.  Half a century ago when I was growing up in northern Montana, the debate over wilderness had not coalesced. My rural boyhood included many Boy Scout camping trips into the nearby Rocky Mountains, and many family visits to Glacier National Park.  For anyone to suggest back then that wilderness has limited value, would have been inconceivable.  I felt completely at home in the natural world, and held the wildlife which lived there in high regard.  There is no more healing, more nurturing place.

It wasn't until I grew up that I became aware of the pressures being exerted upon wilderness from many vested interests ~ the mining, agriculture, grazing and timber industries, along with human expansion into former wilderness areas, along with our contamination of the air, water, and land with pesticides, noxious gases, industrial and human waste.  The picture became more grim with each passing year.

Thankfully I wasn't the only one who loved and wished to protect wilderness.  Conservation and environmental groups formed, with tactics ranging from working within the system to effect protection, to working outside the system to obstruct "development".  (This same duality existed in the civil rights and women's movements, and I'm convinced that both approaches are necessary.)  In recent decades, as human population has continued its inexorable expansion, the battle lines have become distinct and vocal, sometimes violent.  As species have been pushed to extinction and entire ecosystems have disappeared, even non-conservationists have begun to wonder what we've done to our garden planet ~ especially now that predictions of anthropogenic global warming and climate change are clearly coming true.

I recently discovered a video in which each side in the wilderness controversy eloquently presents its case.  In Wilderness:  the Great Debate, those who see wilderness as a treasure to be preserved square off with those who see wilderness as a resource to be exploited.  It is a highly informative journey.  As you might predict, I am foursquare on the side of preservation.  On the other hand, I grew up steeped in the land use ethos of the West, so I can understand the point of view of those who fear outsiders' intervention into their lives.  (What many locals fail to recognize or admit is that wilderness does not belong to whomever lives closest ~ it belongs to everyone, including those who may never in their lives experience it.  More to the point, wilderness and wildlife have a right to exist for their own sake.)

We need more voices of moderation to bridge the gap.  Each camp feels that right (or more precisely, righteousness) is on its side.  But often valuable information is simply missing from the debate ~ information which could lead both points of view to realize that they share more commonality than differences.  For example, the shrinking timber industry longs for the good old days of clearcutting, unfettered access to old-growth forest, and the support of the agencies which are supposed to regulate forest activity.  But half a century ago, the lumber produced was being used for home construction within the U.S.  These days, much of that lumber is being loaded onto ships and sent to other nations.  We are, in effect, giving away our wilderness to people who live halfway around the globe.

Granted, we live in a global economy.  That is simply reality.  But when it comes to wilderness and wildlife (whether in the U.S., or in Botswana, or in Costa Rica), once it's gone, recovery takes many decades ~ assuming that the native flora and fauna survive in sufficient numbers to re-establish themselves.  So wilderness is a special case, and requires careful handling and thoughtful discussion.  The film link is a good start, but only a start.  And time is running out.

25 April 2012


From Wikipedia ~ "Dam removal is the process of removing out-dated, dangerous, or ecologically damaging dams from river systems.  There are thousands of out-dated dams in the United States that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as many more recent ones that have caused such great ecological damage that they are proposed for removal.  Catastrophic dam failures .... remind people of the dangers dams can present.

"Many of the dams in the eastern US were built for water diversion, agriculture, factory watermills, and other purposes that are no longer useful.  Because of the age of these dams, over time the risk for catastrophic failure increases.  In addition, many of these dams block anadromous fish runs, such as Atlantic salmon, and prevent important sediments from reaching estuaries.

"Many dams in the western US were built for agricultural water diversion in the arid country, with hydroelectric power generation being a significant side benefit .... Dams in the Pacific Northwest and California block passage for anadromous fish species such as Pacific Salmon and Steelhead .... In the Desert Southwest, dams can change the nature of the river ecosystem.  In the particular case of the Glen Canyon Dam, the originally warm, sediment-filled, muddy water instead turns cold and clear through the Grand Canyon, which has significant impacts on the downstream ecosystems .... So much water is taken out of the Colorado River for agriculture, urban use, and evaporation behind the dams, that the river no longer flows into the Gulf of California.

"While the need for clean, alternative energy sources is important, with so many considerations involved, sometimes it makes sense to evaluate whether the benefits of dams outweigh the costs of safety concerns, ecosystem functions, and management expenses."

In response to ecological, safety, and economic concerns, a number of dam removal projects have been completed in the United States, among them two dams on the Elwha River (see embedded video) in Washington state.  Additionally, along with many smaller dams, several large dams are under consideration for removal, including (significantly) Glen Canyon Dam.  GCD has been a touchstone in the environmental movement since it was completed in 1966.  Tracts have been written and public protests staged, urging its removal.  The Southwestern writer Edward Abbey was among the most vocal of the dam's opponents.  Over the years he made numerous suggestions, only half tongue-in-cheek, for eco-sabotaging the Dam.  Again according to Wikipedia, "The 710 ft (220 m) Glen Canyon Dam (see image above, click to enlarge) has been proposed for removal because of the negative effects it ha on the water quality and riparian habitat of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National park.  In addition, the reservoir impounded behind it, Lake Powell, has filled all of the canyons for up to 100 miles (160 km) above the dam.  This lake, while providing recreational opportunities, has eliminated .... habitat for endangered Colorado River fish species.  If it were to be removed, it would dwarf any dam removal project in history."

There are those voices who will ask "What about all that hydroelectricity?  What about irrigation water for agriculture?"  To which I would suggest that it is precisely our assumption that we can interfere with natural conditions which has created so many disasters in the first place.  And not just disasters which impact nature.  Think about the Mississippi River levee system constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The intent was flood control, but intent has not equated with effect.  Flooding, like wildfires, is a natural process in which river channels are scoured of sediment, which is carried laterally to enrich soil in the watershed, and also downstream to form fertile estuaries and natural barrier islands.  When they stand, levees channel an unnatural volume of water into a restricted space during flood season (runoff from spring snow melt upstream), increasing the risk of levee failure downstream.  Communities which have grown behind the ephemeral protection of the levees are suddenly at great risk of being flooded out when the levees fail.  And the sediment which would normally have been deposited annually at the Mississippi estuary on the Gulf of Mexico, is carried out to sea by the force of the restricted water.  As a result the estuary's wildlife habitat (and the storm erosion protection it afforded to inland areas) is shrinking year by year, reclaimed by the sea.

Nor is flood risk limited to spring runoff.  The failure of Mississippi River levees during Hurricane Katrina was a core cause of the catastrophic flooding which wiped out entire neighborhoods in New Orleans in 2005.

The point is, when we consider placement of a home, a farm, or a city, it only makes sense to take into account local conditions.  Building homes on a floodplain, even in areas which may flood once every 500 years, is foolish.  Equally foolish is trying to farm or ranch in arid regions, unless the water table is close enough to the surface to provide sufficient well water for survival.  It's called thinking ahead, something we humans do far too little.  I'm encouraged that on at least a few fronts like dam removal, more rational minds are making an effort to repair the inestimable damage we've caused to the natural world, and to ourselves.

24 April 2012


At work about six years ago, I incurred a herniated disc (see cross-section image above, click to enlarge ~ a normal disc, shaded in blue, is at left, a herniated disk at right).  I was a professional driver at the time (one of a long and colorful string of jobs I've held over the years).  One of the company's vehicles had a defective driver's seat, with a poorly-padded transverse metal bar meeting the lumber region of my spine.  Over time, two repetitive motions (spinal compaction from road bumps, and concussion from the metal bar) resulted in a tear in the outer, fibrous ring of the intravertebral disc at L3-L4, allowing the soft, central portion of the disc to protrude past the ring's protection and press against the nerves in the spinal cord.  The result is debilitating pain.

My pain doc tried a number of therapies ~ epidural injection, TENS therapy, facet injections, along with assorted low-grade prescription pain medications.  None was effective in eliminating the pain, or even reducing it for more than an hour or two.  A psychological evaluation concluded that I was a stable candidate for opioid meds, but ultimately I decided I didn't want any treatment which carried the risk of addiction.

Ironically, the injury isn't physically severe enough to warrant surgery to fuse the two vertebrae adjacent to the herniation ~ an operation with only a 50/50 success rate anyway.  Long story short, the injury (in conjunction with a couple of other work-related injuries) forced me to take early retirement on disability.  This has meant learning to live on minimal income, but more importantly it has meant learning to live with 24/7 pain.  I do daily physical therapy (PT) to strengthen the muscles adjacent to each injury plus my core muscles .... as well as to keep my body as supple as possible.  The only pain meds I take are an elevated dose of ibuprofen as needed, plus, as a result of qualifying for a medical marijuana card, a measured dose of marijuana tincture at night to help me sleep (there's no high or other side effect with tincture, just pain relief).

I face chronic pain for the rest of my life.  PT is a life saver.  But the bottom line is that I cannot remain in one position ~ standing, sitting, or lying down ~ for very long without the pain forcing me to shift positions.  Nor can I engage in an activity which approximates the posture or the movements in which I was first injured.  Long drives leave me in agony.  Kayaking, bicycling, motorcycling, long hikes, all the recreation on which I once thrived, are no longer possible.  Doing simple housework can be a strain.  Even sitting at the computer for long periods becomes untenable, and I'm forced to take frequent breaks.

Today's post is necessarily brief, because my back is in unusual pain.  Tomorrow should be better.  I definitely don't like dwelling on my infirmities, but I thought the absence of my usual substantive post deserved an explanation.  Tune in again.

23 April 2012


To paraphrase a passage from Firesign Theater, in these days of troubled times, when you can't tell the ACs from the DCs .... wouldn't it be great if everyone had a linguistic tool to see through phony positions, ephemeral evidence, and self-serving snow jobs?  Well, we do ~ it's called logic, by which I mean more than common sense.  Formally, logic is the philosophical study of valid reasoning .... it examines the general forms which arguments may take, which forms are valid, and which are fallacies.

I once took a logic course in college, and it was a challenge.  In some instances it was useful to construct a flow of symbols resembling a mathematical equation, in order to decide whether one or more fallacies were present.  The material learned is extremely helpful when trying to decipher and counter statements made by opportunistic politicians, religious fundamentalists, or anyone else trying to recruit you to their point of view.  If they can do so by appealing to logic, great.  If they must resort to fallacy, not so much.

Thankfully, most of us don't have to spend an entire semester in a logic class to learn a few fundamentals.  The Wikipedia entry here provides a few basics.  Even more intuitive is a website  called Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies.  On the home page, simply roll your cursor over any of 24 icons, and beneath a definition of that logical fallacy will appear.  For a more thorough explanation with examples, click on the icon.

Here are a few fallacy example teasers ~

  • Appeal to emotion ~ manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument
  • Ad hominem ~ attacking your opponent's character or personal traits instead of engaging with their argument
  • Personal incredulity ~ saying that because one finds something difficult to understand, it's therefore not true
  • Loaded question ~ asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that it can't be answered without appearing guilty
  •  Ambiguity ~ using double meanings or ambiguity of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth
  • Appeal to authority ~ using the opinion or position of an authority figure in place of an actual argument
  • Black-or-white ~ two alternative states are presented as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist
  • Begging the question ~ a circular argument in which the conclusion is included in the premise
  • Anecdotal ~ using personal experience or an isolated example instead of a valid argument, especially to dismiss statistics
That's just a sampling.  Learning to recognize logical fallacies is one of the fundamental skills in any complex society, yet few of us do so.  We may sense that something is flawed in a statement, but can't quite put our finger on what the flaw is.  We may even mistakenly believe that certain fallacies are valid, when they are not. Understanding fallacies and being able to point them out are necessary skills in any discussion over a misunderstood or controversial topic.  Naturally, any correction should be done firmly but politely.  Civil discourse has become increasingly rare in the public arena, especially in politics, where parties and positions have become polarized and unyielding.  This divisiveness is a topic for another time, soon.

22 April 2012


Happy Earth Day 2012 !   Go plant a tree, take a walk, notice the plants, birds, and animals wherever you live, breathe deeply .... and remember how ephemeral life is.  Cheers.  Click on the above image for a better view of Home.

21 April 2012


In 2011, Mark Bowden published a book called Worm, in which he described the discovery of the Conficker computer worm, which at its peak infected seven million government, business, and home computers in 200 countries.  Through the dedication of a number of university and government computer programmers, Conficker was eventually neutralized, and its creator was identified and held to account.  The book is an excellent read, not only because it defines the computer terminology it uses, but also because the narrative flows like a detective story.  Which it is.  (The image above illustrates the spread of the Conficker worm, showing which computers are most vulnerable ~ click to enlarge.)

Earlier this week, my friend Bill, himself a lifelong programmer, alerted me to the existence of a new threat.  According to an ABC News report, the malware was created by "international hackers [who] ran an online advertising scam to take control of infected computers around the world.  In a highly unusual response, the FBI set up a safety net months ago using government computers to prevent Internet disruptions for those infected users.  But that system is to be shut down.

"The FBI is encouraging users to visit a website run by its security partner, dcwg.org, that will inform them whether they're infected and explain how to fix the problem.  After July 9, infected users won't be able to connect to the Internet.  Most victims don't even know their computers have been infected, although the malicious software probably has slowed their web surfing and disabled their antivirus software, making their machines more vulnerable to other problems."

As happened with the Conficker worm, the DNS Changer's creators have been identified and apprehended.  But their malware is still out there.  I visited the security website here, and their diagnostic tool quickly informed me that my computer is infestation-free.  The visit is quick and free, and I highly recommend that all readers check it out, and pass the resource on to everyone you know.  Clearly, not everyone is among the 350,000 whose computer has been infected, but better safe than sorry.

20 April 2012


Earlier this week, the space shuttle Discovery arrived in Washington, DC, where it will be placed on permanent static display at the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.  Discovery had completed 39 missions into Earth orbit, and was greeted with cheers and tears as it circled the Capitol complex, not under its own power but mounted upon a transport 747 (see image above, click to enlarge).  It was the end of the 30-year space shuttle era.

Not all regard that end with nostalgia, however.  Following the dramatic successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space missions, the Space Shuttle program was regarded by many (including this observer) as marking time, abdicating exploration in favor of maintenance of the International Space Station, performing science experiments in zero-gravity, and the launch and servicing of satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope.  One columnist characterizes the program as "willed American decline".  

Don't get me wrong ~ the shuttle missions performed necessary mundane tasks.  But where is the vision?  It took us less than ten years to land astronauts on the moon.  During the intervening forty years, could we not have established one or more permanent moon bases, or even have mounted a manned mission to Mars?  The Shuttle program can be likened to the design of the vehicle itself ~ an unlikely assembly of parts trying to fulfill too many tasks, and doing none of them exceptionally.  The Shuttle wasn't a true space ship ~ it had to be lifted aloft with auxiliary rockets, and during the landing phase it had the flight characteristics of a falling brick.  

Worse still, the Shuttle program came nowhere close to its stated goals.  The Shuttle fleet was small, poorly-designed, expensive to build and operate, and dangerous.  As Carol Pinchefsky describes in 5 Horrifying Facts You Didn't Know About the Space Shuttle,

  • The Shuttle killed more people than any other space vehicle in history.  The explosion of the Challenger killed seven people during its 10th mission in 1968.  The explosion of the Columbia killed seven more during re-entry of its 28th mission in 2003.  Out of five Shuttles ~ Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor ~ two met a disastrous and fiery fate.  That's a 40% vehicular failure rate.  To compare, the Apollo I mission resulted in the death of three astronauts during a launch pad test.  The Mercury and Gemini missions had no fatalities.  
  • It was extremely expensive.  Although NASA says that it cost a trifling $450 million to launch each Shuttle mission, other sources find that price tag vastly underestimated.  All five Shuttles flew a total of 135 missions .... [At the Space Shuttle program termination in 2010, it had a total lifetime cost of about $173 billion.  Given that flight rate, this results in a total program cost per flight of $1.3 billion .... One of the many reasons the Shuttles were so expensive was because some of the equipment used to launch, such as the external tank, were non-reusable and had to be replaced with each launch.  Yet another reason is that the equipment was so very old.  Designed in the 1970s and completed in the 1980s, the Shuttle had some modifications over the years, but for the most part, it remained frozen in time .... Over thirty years, some companies go out of business .... Famously, at one point, NASA had to find parts for the Shuttle ~ parts that no one else made anymore ~ on eBay.
  • It never went very high.  The public has this mental image of the Shuttle going somewhere between the Earth and the Moon, and the fact is, it's not true.  The Shuttle had an operational altitude of only 120 to 600 miles.  However, the Shuttle's trip to the International Space Station (ISS) was only a 200-250 mile journey ~ approximately the distance between NYC and Boston.  The Shuttle also flew the Hubble Telescope, which is maintained at an altitude of 350 miles, a little less than the distance from NYC to Norfolk, VA.  In case you don't remember it from science class, the distance between the Earth and the Moon is 238,000 miles.
  • It never worked according to parameters.  Plans for the Space Shuttle were created in 1972 as a way to keep the cost of spaceflight down.  Each Shuttle was supposed to fly fifty missions per year ~ yet it averaged approximately four flights a year.  Each Shuttle was designed for only ten years of life.  Keeping the Shuttle flying for twenty years past expiration date stifled creativity and innovation [and drove up expense and cost lives].
  • It's going to be replaced by something much better.  SpaceX was just given the go-ahead to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS on April 30th after a recent successful test flight.  SpaceX looks to be the first of many businesses vying for the 'space' that NASA left when it stopped ferrying astronauts.  The result of that [in theory] will be getting more people to orbit, more often, and for a far reduced price .... Instead of building its own spacecraft, NASA will off-load the business of transit to and from space to the private sector .... while the space agency can get back to doing what it does best ~ pushing the frontiers of science and the exploration of space.
It's hard to argue with Pinchefsky's summary of the Space Shuttle program's failures.  It remains to be seen whether privatizing space travel will be desirable or viable.  My lingering doubt is this ~ whenever the profit motive spurs an enterprise, the temptation becomes strong to cut corners and to outsource labor and construction (resulting in cheaply-built components).  That's why the earlier exploration programs (both manned and unmanned) were so successful ~ NASA had direct oversight over quality control.  Stay tuned.

19 April 2012


It's time to clear the decks of some accumulated links ~ but these are not bilgewater.  Arrr, treasures they be, mate.  See if you don't agree.

25 Incredibly Lucky Photographs of Animals.  Being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and skills are all important.  But there are times when you just could not have predicted the microsecond when that perfect image might occur.  My favorites (subject to change) are numbers 1, 4, 8, 14, 20, 22.  Yours?

What's the Most Epic Photograph Ever Taken?  Any such collection is subjective, but I think you'll agree that these images are all evocative, powerful, and in a few cases either heart-breaking or inspiring.  See how many you can identify without reading the caption.

Multiple Marble Machine Mayhem.  Actually a quiet, unhurried presentation of engineering and construction genius, on a miniature scale.  Rube Goldberg had nothing on this guy.  Watch closely to see whether you can spot the physics behind each marble machine's parts.

World's Longest Rivers.  The ten longest rivers in the world, measured according to the length of the longest continuous river channel in a given river system.  (It's in the form of a slide show, so simply click "next".)  They range in length from 2,734 miles to 4,135 miles.  Do you think you can predict which world rivers appear on the list?  Of the ones that do, which have you seen, and which would you most like to see next?  For me, the Amazon!

Ever Wonder What the Stars Look Like .... from Space?  Video from the International Space Station provides the stunning answers.

The Scale of the Universe 2.  Ending on a grand and intricate note, click on "start" and then use the scroll bar (or your mouse's scroll wheel) to zoom in and out ~ not too quickly or you'll miss something!  Click on any object for more information.  It's always good to put things into perspective, especially with a dash of fun and "I didn't know that".

18 April 2012


I've subscribed to Netflix DVD rentals via mail since 05 September 2006 ~ 2,052 days ago.  Last night I watched movie rental number 1000.  Here's the breakdown ~

  • 2006 ~ 28 films
  • 2007 ~ 95 films
  • 2008 ~ 139 films
  • 2009 ~ 224 films
  • 2010 ~ 215 films
  • 2011 ~ 216 films
  • 2012 ~ 83 films (so far)
Seems like a lot.  I should have trained as a film critic.  Numbers took a leap upward in 2009, after I was forced by work injuries to retire.  My choices are diverse ~ drama, foreign films, art films, documentaries, action, and not a few chick flicks.  Slasher movies, period costume melodramas, and most comedies don't make the cut.  If there is a unifying thread among my choices, it is Quality.  I appreciate a movie that provides me a window into another place or time, with outstanding directing, acting, script, cinematography.  The story concept or its execution should be original, compelling, non-predictable.  To illustrate, here are random selections from my Netflix rentals, starting with the first and including intervals of 100 thereafter ~
The list of riveting, illuminating, and deeply enjoyable films goes on and on.  There are always a few disappointments, which is where Netflix's rating system (1-5 stars) comes in handy.  Based on your ratings, their algorithm eliminates certain films to recommend, and includes others.  But I generally don't choose blindly, anyway ~ I rely on trusted film critics, as well as my own informed instincts.

For most of my adult life, whether I was in a relationship or living alone, my weekend ritual included a movie and dinner out.  It's a nice way to pass the time, and a wonderful chance to sample the imaginations and worldviews of creative writers and directors.  I definitely pay attention to film credits, and have my favorite directors, actors, and screenplay writers.  Alas, during the past decade or so, theater movies have catered more and more to the lowest common denominator among audiences.  Fewer movie makers are willing to take risks, falling back on formulaic plots and self-referential franchise films.  By and large, there is more daring and originality among cable TV film makers, who have stepped into the creativity void.  Witness series like The Wire, The L Word, Firefly, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Weeds, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, Band of Brothers, Generation Kill, Justified, Burn Notice, In Treatment, The United States of Tara, and even the slightly goofy True Blood.

Still, certain films demand viewing on a big theater screen ~ films with sweep and epic drama, films with visual detail, films which invite the viewer into an alternate reality.  There will always be a fond place for theater movies, even as I progress toward Netflix rental number 2000.

17 April 2012


Wikipedia ~ "In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for time) is the speed or pace of a given piece.  Tempo is a crucial element of any musical composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece .... In classical music, it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words.  Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively.

"Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition.  Yet after the metronome's invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece"

Tempo markings (expressed in beats per minute, or bpm) provide a useful guide to the composer's intent, for the orchestra and its conductor.  For example, here is a sample of tempo terminology, and the corresponding speed at which that piece should be conducted ~

  • Lento ~ slowly (40-60 bpm)
  • Adagio ~ slow and stately (66-76 bpm)
  • Andante ~ at a walking pace (76-108 bpm)
  • Moderato ~ moderately (108-120 bpm)
  • Allegro ~ fast, quickly and bright (120-168 bpm)
  • Presto ~ very fast (168-200 bpm)
I first fell in love with classical music early in my teens (back during the Punic Wars).  In those pre-XM satellite radio, pre-Internet, pre-CD, pre-cassette tape days, we listened to music on vinyl records.  Because I grew up on the northern prairie, far from urban classical music radio stations, I had three resources to guide me in my exploration ~ the music we played in the school band, the modest collection of classical records at my public library, and recommendations from a girl I knew who was a classical pianist.  On such fragile foundations are lifelong passions built.

So where is all this leading, you may well ask.  Just this ~ as our lives have become more complex and faster-paced over the past five decades, so has the tempo of recorded classical music.  I don't mean that people are listening to more allegro pieces.  I mean that conductors and recording studios are taking liberties with the tempo indicator of a given piece.  Something written as adagio may come out sounding andante or even moderato.  And where's the harm in that, you may wonder?  Just this ~ a piece is written to be performed at a slower tempo for very specific reasons of mood, tonal nuance, lush harmonies.  If you race through it, you are missing the mood, the nuance, the harmonies.  It becomes musical mush.  You have been deprived of the leisure to savor the intricacy of rhythm, the subtle relationships between instruments.  In short, you might as well be listening to a kazoo band rather than a symphony orchestra.

This evolution in the manipulation of tempo wouldn't be noticeable to someone new to classical music.  It is gratingly obvious to me.  To illustrate, below you will find links to three different performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Second Movement (Allegretto).  The first example is typical of modern renditions, and takes only 7:15 minutes to complete.  The second example might have been performed fifteen or twenty years ago ~ it takes 8:19 minutes.  The third example is typical of what you might have heard forty or fifty years ago, and I believe is the truest to Beethoven's intent and the pacing of music of his time ~ it takes 9:01 minutes.

Sampling the initial passages of each performance will clearly reveal the tempo differences, and the alterations to their emotional impact.  I encourage you to listen to the entire performance of either the second or third example.  The second example is fun because the video presents both the music and a visual bar-graph score (see image above), color-coded to each orchestral instrument.  After watching and listening for a few minutes, you'll discover you can predict what sounds are coming up just by looking at the score.  And of course, the third example is truest to the music ~ close your eyes and immerse yourself in Beethoven's genius.

16 April 2012


Last night on the PBS series The American Experience I spent a hypnotic hour watching the episode The Civilian Conservation Corps.  I've long thought that the CCC was the finest, most significant domestic government program of the twentieth century.  Operating from 1933 to 1942, during the worst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's brainchild provided employment and training to 2.5 to 3 million young, unemployed men. ages 18-28. And not just any work ~ the genius of the CCC was that workers were housed in nearly 1,500 camps distributed among the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet attained statehood), and those workers provided the skill and muscle to build 300 types of public works projects which fell into ten classifications ~

  1. Structural improvements ~ bridges, fire lookout towers, service buildings
  2. Transportation ~ truck trails, minor roads, foot trails, airport landing fields
  3. Erosion control ~ check dams, terracing, vegetative covering
  4. Flood control ~ irrigation, drainage, dams, ditching, channel work
  5. Forest culture ~ planting trees and shrubs, timber stand improvement
  6. Forest protection ~ fire prevention, fire fighting, insect and disease control
  7. Landscape and recreation ~ public camps and picnic grounds, lake and pond clearing
  8. Range ~ stock driveways, control of predators
  9. Wildlife ~ stream improvement, fish stocking, cover planting
  10. Misc. ~ emergency work, mosquito control, surveys
Many projects focused on identifying and conserving natural resources.  The work was outdoors and arduous, the food was healthy and plentiful, and workers' achievements were a visible source of pride.  CCC volunteers received $50 a month, of which $40 was sent home to their families.  A generation of young men learned the value of banding together to reach a common goal, following instructions, getting along with men from other backgrounds, and serving their country.  Thus the CCC was the foundation, usually unrecognized, for the abilities and positive attitudes of the "greatest generation" of men who went on to fight in World War II.

During the worst economic passage this nation has had to navigate, the CCC planted nearly 3 billion trees to reforest America, constructed or refurbished more than 800 parks nationwide, built a network of public roadways in remote areas, and updated forest fire fighting methods.  Roughly 55% of enrollees were from rural communities, and 45% came from urban backgrounds.  Most had not completed high school.  At the time of entry, 70% of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed.  Few had meaningful work experience.  All that changed during their 6-24 months in the CCC.  They left with robust health, confidence, and pride in a job well done.  The income they sent home helped to stimulate the depression economy.  

And their work endures.  When you visit nearly any national park or national monument, chances are that you are walking on trails or driving on roads built by CCC workers.  Why aren't we embarking on a similar program today?  During the sluggish recovery from the Bush recession, at a time when the nation's bridges, dams, highways, port facilities, and other infrastructure are in need of repair, and with unemployment at unacceptable high levels (especially for young people), a renewed CCC seems like a near-perfect solution.  

I invite you to watch the American Experience episode here.  You will also find tabs taking you to a CCC timeline, interactive maps showing CCC projects and camps across the country, and a photo gallery.  Interviews with CCC veterans bring the reality of their experience home.  During those dark depression days, we managed to build our own redemption. All it took was a vision.

15 April 2012


Nicholas D. Kristof's NYTimes article A Veteran's Death, the Nation's Shame resonated deeply within me.  Kristof writes, "Here's a window into a tragedy within the American military.  For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.  An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes.  More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year ~ more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

"One reason for veteran suicides (and crimes, which get far more attention) may be post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], along with a related condition, traumatic brain injury .... Estimates of PTSD and traumatic brain injury vary widely, but a ballpark figure is that the problems afflict at least one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.  One study found that by their third or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than one-quarter of soldiers had such mental health problems.

"Preliminary figures suggest that being a veteran now roughly doubles one's risk of suicide.  For young men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadrupled the risk of suicide, according to a study in The American Journal of Public Health."

Many veterans who struggle with PTSD and related issues seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  Although the organization has done much to improve service to veterans over the past few years, it is still swamped beyond capacity, with no end in sight.  According to Kristof, veterans routinely slip through the cracks, and the treatment system is still struggling.  One source pointed out that there are going to be one million new veterans over the next five years.  How are those veterans going to cope, when told that they face a waiting list of from six months to five years?

Kristof devotes space to several individual cases, in particular to Ryan Yurchison, who returned from Iraq with PTSD and died after failing to find treatment.  There is a video tribute to Ryan embedded in the article.

In my experience, official estimates of the incidence of PTSD wildly underestimate real numbers.  Known vaguely as 'shell shock' in World War I, and 'battle fatigue' in World War II, PTSD did not acquire official psychological diagnostic recognition and its current title until the years during and following the Vietnam War ~ my war.  My own PTSD wasn't as severe as it was for some vets, but it was real enough.  Over the years I've learned to control my environment in order to avoid restimulating sights and sounds, and the panic attacks that follow.  This includes isolating myself from all Fourth of July celebrations, with their attendant explosions, flares, and gunfire-like cracks.  But sometimes control is not an option.  I described my most recent panic attack in a post written last summer ~ an attack which may have contributed to the loss of the relationship I was in at the time.  Being denied a normal life is the cost many veterans pay for their sacrifice and service.  Taking one's own life is the ultimate cost.  

Being called back to serve multiple tours exacerbates the stress for this generation's vets.  In Vietnam, after your first tour you only went back voluntarily.  Today it is mandatory.  In a sense, technology has introduced a different difficulty for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan ~ reliable access to Internet connections and telephone communication means that a soldier today can see and speak with his/her loved ones in real time, which can only heighten the contrast between the 'normalcy' of life at home, and the 'normalcy' of life in a war zone.  Those of us in Vietnam had to settle for letters which often reached us weeks after they were sent.  We felt terribly isolated, which was its own curse, but it also buffered us from the emotional roller coaster of having a live conversation on Skype with your family, then disconnecting to face The Suck around you.  

My heart goes out to veterans of all wars, regardless of which side you fought on.  We vets are a special brother/sisterhood, with our own language, our own shared history, our own frame of reference.  What a shame that one of the things we share is being ignored by our own country, once we've returned home.

14 April 2012


I've written in several posts about long-term relationships, what helps or hinders their survival, and how they are evolving.  Is monogamy genetically hard-wired in humans, or is it a relic of church and/or state proscriptions?  Why is there such variety across cultures when it comes to sanctioned marriages ~ variety in their duration and number during a lifetime, tolerance for infidelity, or even their presence (as opposed to simply living with someone as long as the arrangement suits everyone?).

Today I came across an interesting summary of our expectations toward relationships, in the past and projecting into the future.  In Future of Relationships ~ Changing Views of Monogamy and Infidelity, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that "marriage has changed more in the last 100 years than in the previous 10,000, and it could change more in the next 20 years than the past 100.  W'ere shedding traditions that survived since our culture began .... and it appears we're returning to the ancient sex and romance practices of our hunter-gatherer days."  The article goes on to flesh out our ten-millennia history of partnerships, with special attention to how all that has changed over the last century.

Looking forward, futurist Sandy Burchsted proposes that "in the future, most people will marry at least four times and experience extramarital affairs with little public censure.  Marriage will be considered an evolutionary process, not a one-time-only event.  The first marriage will be seen as the icebreaker, lasting about five years, where couples learn to live together and become sexually experienced.  But once disillusionment sets in, it will be perfectly acceptable for the couple to separate, as divorce will carry little stigma in the future.  Next, people will marry for a 15-to-20 year parenting experience.  Raising children will be the primary purpose for this arrangement.

"The third union, called self-discovery, will be about partners getting to know each other at deeper levels and better understanding what they hope to gain out of life.  The fourth and final marriage will be a late-in-life 'soul mate' connection, filled with marital bliss, shared spirituality, physical monogamy, and equality.  With medical science extending lifespans, this marriage could last indefinitely.  The perfect, deeply rewarding relationship that humans have always been pursuing, seemingly forever, might finally become reality."

It's an interesting prediction, but all predictions are fraught with uncertainty.  Humans being the diverse and evolving lot that we are, I doubt that everyone would agree to Burchsted's scripted four-marriage schema.  In fact, many young adults are postponing or discarding marriage entirely, opting to simply live together, have children together when the time is right, and live their lives outside the framework of formal marriage.  If it works for them, great.  I agree that having relationships outside the primary relationship may become more common, though I can tell you from experience that unless everyone involved is fully informed and fully comfortable, and unless all agree that the primary relationship comes before all others, the arrangement becomes unwieldy at best, destructive at worst.

I doubt that any approach is right for everyone, whether within a culture or between cultures.  What's called for is a high degree of tolerance, a willingness to consider the merits of new ideas, and unwavering respect and caring for one's partners needs ~ and one's own needs as well.  It is appropriate to question assumptions.  It is also appropriate to do so mindfully.

13 April 2012


It seems the times are finally catching up with me.  Forty years ago, while in my mid-twenties, I came to the conclusion that I wanted nothing to do with what had become "traditional" burial.  I viewed the funeral industry as a shameful, monumental scam, preying upon grief-stricken families by selling ornate metal caskets, memorial and burial services, all costing thousands of dollars.  Imagine dying, having your blood drained (and possibly internal organs removed if an autopsy were performed), then being filled with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, being dressed semi-formally, having grotesque makeup applied in order to "look natural", and having that image be the last visual memory your family and friends form of you at the funeral.  Then the ultimate insult ~ being buried in the ground in that sealed casket, full of vile chemicals, where your body will decompose to form a mini-toxic waste dump, isolated from the earth which gave you life.

My alternative vision was (and remains) simple and organic.  No embalming fluids, no metal casket, no commercial funeral.  Rather, wrap me in my Mexican wool blanket and place me in the earth, with or without a plain, biodegradable pine coffin.  Thus I can decompose naturally, and the elements and compounds of my body can rejoin life's cycle, feeding microbes, insects, plants and animals in the food web.

If some law barred me from my wish, I would simply put my affairs in order, disperse my assets and possessions as gifts, say good-bye to my loved ones, and disappear into the wilderness, to die in peace and become food for others.  I don't regard the growing popularity of cremation to be environmentally sound, because (a) it deprives the food web of your body's nourishment, and (b) it is a waste of heat energy, a small but symbolic contribution to global warming.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure when, on last night's PBS Newshour, there was a bonus segment describing how South Carolina physician Billy Campbell established a land preserve "founded on a unique model ~ enlisting death in the fight for ecological conservation.  Calling it the Ramsey Creek Preserve, Campbell's idea was twofold.  First, he would provide a place for those who wanted a green burial.  Known also as natural burial, this practice eschews modern techniques for delaying decomposition.  This means no embalming fluids or chemical preservatives such as formaldehyde ~ a probably human carcinogen ~ are used, and the body is placed in a simple shroud, a biodegradable casket or urn, instead of one made of treated hardwood and metal.  Plus, no pesticides are used to maintain the grounds and grave markers are natural ~ composed of rocks or trees native to the environment.

"But the second part of Campbell's plan was key.  By having people choose green burial on land set aside as a cemetery, Campbell could protect that land from development and contamination over generations.

" .... Campbell presents these ideas in a new short film now touring the documentary circuit called 'Dying Green', directed by Ellen Tripler.  Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with Tripler and Campbell to discuss the film.  [You can view the interview here, and see a trailer for 'Dying Green' here.]

"Today the number of green cemeteries across the country has grown to 36, with some 300 providers of green burial options.  That's according to Joe Seshee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, which provides standards and certification for funeral services.  Seshee predicts the trend will only grow with the Baby Boom generation."

Well, what do you know.  I'm feeling warmly vindicated, and highly pleased that Dr. Campbell took his/my ideas a step further to include cemeteries as sanctuaries in which nature can thrive. I can think of no lovelier memorial than a living tree or shrub, part of a burial forest which wild creatures call home, or in which children can play, enjoy fresh air, and perhaps take a moment to read the names and dates on grave markers, and wonder about the lives led by those who went before.  I invite any who read this to consider green burial for yourselves and your loved ones, and to make certain that it happens by including those wishes in your wills and powers of attorney.  The earth will thank you.

12 April 2012


Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for this breathtaking video showing not one, but two Great Blue Herons flying up to a branch near their nest ~ with the camera mounted at the spot where they land for an up-close-and-personal view unlikely with any spotting scope or pair of binoculars.  Also, click on the above image for a rare image of the GBH's full plumage. Enjoy.

11 April 2012


In August 1989, my then-partner and I moved to Charleston, SC, where she was to serve her internship for her PhD in psychology.  A month later, Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast, its eye precisely centered on Mount Pleasant, our Charleston suburb.  The entire city was ordered to evacuate inland, and the all-clear to return wasn't issued for three days.

During the drive from Columbia to Charleston, the closer we got to the coast, the more devastation we saw.  The region is home to the Francis Marion National Forest, most of whose trees had been snapped off just above the ground, the fallen trunks all pointed in the same wind-dictated direction.  As we neared Charleston, we had no idea what to expect.  Were the Cooper River bridges intact?  If not, we would have to backtrack and circle around for several hundred miles.  Had homes (including ours) been destroyed by flying debris, falling trees, or the 20-foot storm surge?  Would blocked streets prevent us from reaching our house?  

Those wonderful, high-arching bridges were intact.  Crews has cleared much of the debris from most streets.  And though many homes were damaged or destroyed, especially those nearest to the beach, ours was a mile inland, and had been largely spared (though most of those tall pines and even some oak trees along our street and in our yard were reduced to ruin).  Even our windows had been spared.  We spent the next two weeks camping out in our own home, with no electricity, but we did have clean running water.  All told, we were extremely lucky.

Hurricane Hugo, paradoxically, provided another boon ~ a job.  Among those forest creatures displaced by Hugo were the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW).  U.S. Forest Service (USFS) biologists and other researchers had studied the RCW for years, recording its feeding and mating habits, and (importantly) mapping the locations of RCW colonies within the forest.  With so many colonies destroyed and so many birds unaccounted for, the Forest Service put out an emergency nationwide call for young, fit wildlife biologists, preferably ornithologists, to come to South Carolina and help with habitat recovery.  Because I lived only 30 miles from the biologist's work station in the forest, I was one of eight fortunate applicants to be hired.

Our efforts were multiple.  At dawn and dusk (when RCWs exit and enter their nesting cavities), we each drove and hiked through downed timber and swamp to selected clan sites to perform a census of the surviving birds.  During daylight hours we installed artificial nesting cavities in suitable surviving trees, at or near known colony sites.  Some crews used chainsaws to create a space for a pre-fabricated nesting box, while the remaining crews used drills to approximate the birds' own excavating method.  To reach a site, we often had to leave vehicles behind and carry 50-60 lb. of gear across terrain that looked post-apolcalyptic, then use Swedish ladders (stackable, with a safety chain securing each section to the trunk) and safety gear to climb 20, 30, even 50 feet to the best height for a new cavity.  All of this was done (during the warmer months) in humid, searing heat, with clouds of mosquitoes greeting our passage and arrival.  Even the cooler months were grueling labor.

But it was one of the two most fulfilling jobs I've ever had.  Return visits to artificial cavities proved that the formerly-homeless RCWs were taking full advantage of this mysterious bounty.  The most rewarding evidence came the following spring, when numerous pairs produced young, both in surviving natural cavities and in artificial cavities.  The work introduced me to a part of the natural world which entranced me ~ a part populated by copperheads and water moccasins, black bear and wild boar, alligators and snapping turtles, all three species of carnivorous plants native to North American .... and birds.  Southern birds.  Anhingas, painted buntings, northern bobwhites, ground doves, bald eagles, great egrets, acadian and great crested flycatchers, red-shouldered hawks, yellow-crowned night herons, eastern kingbirds, black vultures, ruby-throated hummingbirds, orchard orioles, eastern wood pewees, fox sparrows, brown thrashers, yellow-throated vireos, pine warblers, woodcocks, red-headed woodpeckers.  My birder's life list grew and grew.  Probably the most thrilling sighting was a scissor-tailed kite, silently diving and swooping among the trees.  

My year with the Forest Service came to an end the following summer, when we moved to Philadelphia.  But it had not been my first encounter with the agency.  In southern Arizona, from 1978-1982, I was caretaker for a Nature Conservancy preserve.  My supervisor, H.L. Bill, had worked for the USFS in the 1930s and 40s in Louisiana.  It was he who introduced me to the concept of using controlled burns to lessen the impact of dry-year wildfires.  The preserve where I worked was part pine/oak woodland, part grassland, and part upland marsh, fed by a year-round stream ~ an extreme rarity in the Southwest, but once more common before Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo ranchers overgrazed the land, allowing rainfall to erode the topsoil, lowering the water table.  The central feature was the riparian habitat and the marsh.  One year I asked a Forest Service fire crew to come in and do a controlled burn to remove dead accumulations of marsh grasses, allowing new growth to take hold.  

Controlled burns were just beginning to gain acceptance within USFS philosophy.  Before that, and even for years after, the guiding policy was to prevent wildfires at any cost.  This had the unfortunate effect of allowing massive amounts of dry timber to build up in the nation's forests, accumulating fuel just waiting to explode into firestorms like the Yellowstone fires of 1988.  Only after such disasters did policy shift toward a more enlightened approach.  Since fire has always been a cleansing and revitalizing force in forests and on prairies, it was decided that unless a given fire directly threatened humans or their structures, it would be allowed to burn unimpeded.  

I was reminded of this evolution the other night when I watched a riveting PBS documentary called The Greatest Good.  It traces the 100-year history of the Forest Service, and describes the evolution of policy from preservation to conservation, under the influences of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and others.  Forest rangers were a rough bunch in the early days.  They wore sidearms, rode horses, enforced the law with their fists if need be, and were called upon to survey the boundaries of new national forests, establish fire lookouts, rig and lead pack trains of horses and mules into roadless back country, and a myriad of other tasks.  Today's rangers are trained to use words over brute force, but they are still responsible for law enforcement and the application of modern methods of forestry ~ which sometimes has meant watching as our forests were clearcut by the timber industry.  Politicians finance the agency and influence policy, and politicians are legendary for being for sale to the highest bidder.  It takes a man or woman of sterling integrity to balance the needs of wildlife, recreation, conservation, and special interests like the mining, timber, and livestock industries.  My own bias is toward preservation over conservation.  Preservation focuses on maintaining the natural world uninfluenced by humans as nearly as possible ~ wilderness for its won sake.  Conservation focuses on managing the environment as a resource, generally with the result that human needs come first, and the needs of wildlife and habitat second.

I looked but could not find a website where one can simply watch the program.  One can purchase the DVD here at the Forest History Society (scroll down to find it), or here at Channel9Store.com.  If I do locate a site where you can view the program via live streaming, I'll amend this post with the information.  In the meantime, please watch for it on your local PBS station's schedule.  It is a great history not only of the USFS, but of society's evolving attitudes toward wilderness.  I'm proud to have spent a year in the Forest Service.