31 October 2012


Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy over the past several days.  From the Caribbean, Sandy veered north-northeast, paralleling the U.S. coastline until it encountered a strong high pressure system which, in conjunction with the alignment of the jet stream, forced the hurricane's path to the west.    Sandy ravaged the mid-Atlantic states ~ the DelMarVa Peninsula, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut.  A record storm surge sent floodwaters far inland, flooding NYC traffic tunnels and the subway system, knocking out power, and forcing the cancellation of AMTRAK trains, and many thousands of airline flights from major airports.

Here you will find a collection of 285 images of the storm's effect, courtesy of The Weather Channel.

In spite of the hyperbole being heaped upon Sandy's size and strength, as hurricanes go, the storm wasn't really monumental.  It just happened to make landfall at the most densely populated stretch of coastline on the eastern seaboard.  At least 70 million people live within a 200-mile radius of NYC.  So the effect on human lives was magnified tremendously.

In Charleston, SC, I experienced a much more powerful hurricane in September 1989 ~ Hurricane Hugo.  Hugo's tracked so precisely that the center of the hurricane's eye passed over the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant, where I lived.  My then-wife and I had evacuated inland, and upon our return three days later, the damage we encountered was heart-breaking.  Large beachfront houses were either demolished or carried off their foundations, coming to rest hundred of yards away.  The storm surge demolished a bridge connecting the mainland to the barrier islands, and scattered fishing and pleasure boats far inland.  Thankfully our house was spared all but superficial damage.

But here is the central difference (in my mind) between Sandy and Hugo.  Where Sandy's impact was on humans, Hugo's was on the natural world.  A huge swath of the Francis Marion National Forest was flattened, all the downed trees pointing away from the wind.  I spend the following year working for the US Forest Service, doing habitat restoration for the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.  But that's another story.

If a storm of Hugo's compact ferocity had hit New York City, the damage could have been orders of magnitude more severe.  To give you an idea why I say that, consider the following ~

  • Sandy was a large-diameter storm, 1000 miles wide.  Hugo was perhaps half that size.
  • Sandy's winds barely qualified it as a hurricane ~ 70 mph with gusts to 90 mph.  Hugo's winds were more intense ~ 140 mph with gusts to 160 mph.
  • Sandy's storm surge never exceeded 14 feet.  Hugo's topped 20 feet.
  • The overland speed of Sandy was relatively slow, meaning that the storm had more time to dump rain as it passed, contributing to flooding.  Hugo's overland speed was faster, meaning that while it, too, caused flooding, the wind damage was significantly more severe.
So while residents in the region up- and down-coast from New York City have bragging rights for many billions of dollars of damage from high winds and flooding, and the interruption of millions of human lives, their plight might have been much worse if Sandy had resembled Hugo.  I am in no way being flip when I suggest that New Yorkers got off easier than they might think.  If Sandy had been Hugo, the width of the hurricane's path would have been narrower, but the intensity of the damage done would have been correspondingly greater.

Having survived without electricity for several weeks after Hugo, and having helped with the clean-up, I'm confident that the people of PA, NJ, and NY will rebound, especially with the assistance of repair crews from all across the nation.  Some subway trains are already running, several of the major airports are already back in scaled-down service, and power will be restored quickly, precisely because so many people are affected.  

Taking a longer view, climatologists have long warned us that one effect of global warming is more frequent, more severe tropical storms.  There's one factor which may intensify this trend even further ~ the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global weather is a complex, interwoven web of events ~ some atmospheric, some oceanic, some terrestrial.  Here is one writer for Scientific American who proposes a direct link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy. And here is another writer on video, proposing that we must view Sandy as a wake-up call.  

These views and voices are not new to me.  In the 1980s as I pursued my degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, many scientists and scholars were issuing warnings about incipient global warming due to greenhouse gases, about the degradation of wild habitat and the extinction of many species, and about the deleterious effects of human overpopulation.  Guess what, folks ~ the future is here.

29 October 2012


Small actions can have consequences all out of proportion to their size.  Sometimes this is intentional, more often it is not.  Even the way we use language generates ripples of effect ~ someone hears a meaning that we did not intend.  This is especially true for speakers of English, a jumbled language rooted in German, Latin, and Greek, and borrowing freely from French, Spanish, Old Norse ~ any language spoken by those who have traveled to our shores, or by those natives who were here to greet the newcomers.

Our miscommunication is compounded when we use language in a lazy manner ~ for instance, when we take grammatical shortcuts, or when we compress a sentence into a phrase, a phrase into a word.  This shorthand may be convenient, but it invites misunderstanding.

I was reminded of the gap between intent and effect as I read an article on evolution that sported a title to hook the reader ~ 'Bird Mimic' Dinosaur Hints That Wings Evolved for Show, Not Flight.  Even scientists, who (along with mathematicians) should use language with scrupulous care, lapse into shorthand when speaking with other scientists.  Alas, the shorthand seeps through to a wider audience which may not grasp the fuller meaning, a situation ripe for misinterpretation.

The article's title is a variant on one of the most common and egregious examples of misleading shorthand.  If you make a statement such as "wings evolved for show", or "lungs evolved so that animals could live on land", the reader may be forgiven for hearing intent, when in fact all that can be confidently stated is effect.  Science assumes no prime mover, no outside intelligence which is making choices.  Quite the opposite.  Over evolutionary time, it has been demonstrated many times that morphological changes occur by chance.  Millions of chances, in fact.  Genetic mutation, genetic drift, or fortuitous changes in the environment happen in a random fashion.  The organism or species didn't sit up one day and think "Hmm, I think I'll evolve longer fangs to give me an edge in the hunt."  Rather, (usually in small increments, but sometimes in larger ones) subtle mistakes in copying the genetic code result in a change in anatomy or physiology (structure or function).  If the effect enhances the organism's ability to survive and reproduce, the errant gene will be passed on to the next generation.  Far more often, the effect hinders survival, and vanishes from the gene pool.  Those successful "mistakes", if they spread throughout the population, become the new norm.  Thus, gradually, do gill-breathers evolve into lung-breathers, and dinosaurs evolve into birds.  Evolution takes time, but time is present in abundance.  If you look around at all the organisms living on Earth, those are the genetic successes.  They are far, far outnumbered by the genetic failures, which are no longer with us.

Further, it is quite common in evolutionary history for an organism to develop a physical feature or a behavior which serves one purpose (a mating display enhanced by feathers), and over generations to observe that feature prove useful for another purpose (flying).  

In the context of evolution, the linguistic distinction I've been describing is important.  When a professor or science writer says something like "giraffes evolved long necks to be able to reach foliage growing higher from the ground", he/she is using shorthand.  The more accurate description would sound something like "over time, some giraffes evolved longer necks as a result of a cascading series of genetic mutations, which had the fortunate effect of allowing them to reach foliage growing higher from the ground.  The longer-necked giraffes thus had a feeding advantage over their shorter-necked kin, who eventually died out."  Given that even lay people refer to evolutionary change sometimes, and scientists much more often, one can understand how handy it is to resort to shorthand.  Professional journals would be long and cumbersome if we didn't all agree on the assumption that "X evolved to accomplish Y" is really a shortened version of "X survived because it happened to acquire Y trait through mutation".  

The key slippery term is that modest and ambiguous word "to".  If I say, "I'm going out to get groceries", that's a legitimate statement of intent, with a legitimate agent to perform it ~ me.  Unfortunately, intent is what some readers and listeners assume when they come across a statement like "plants evolved flowers to enhance their reproductive success and expand the number of ecological niches they could inhabit".  That is not a statement of intent.  It is a shorthand statement of effect. It is critical to understand the distinction.  

28 October 2012


Among my many online news resources are the NYTimes and the Washington Post, along with a wide assortment of websites devoted to science, and of course a suite of PBS sites.  One of the Post articles left me in mild shock ~ in it, Gene Weingarten mourns the fate of cursive writing.  " .... during the past 20 years or so, schools have been de-emphasizing the skill.  Many school districts are adopting something called the Common Core Curriculum, which eliminates cursive outright.  The theory is that cursive is obsolete.  Apparently most writing ~ including class notes ~ is being done on laptops.

" .... if we lose the ability to write in cursive, we will soon lose the ability to read in cursive, meaning that, say, the original U.S. Constitution will become indecipherable as a palimpsest, understandable only by experts in ancient runes who will be free to put all sorts of unintended 'spin' on it.  (The Second Amendment protects calligraphers?  Well, if you say so.)

"But the strongest argument is the obvious one ~ speed.  Sure, with skilled typists, laptops are fast, but we're not all skilled typists, and there will inevitably be circumstances where we must rely on pen and paper.  Why relinquish speed?"

I'm torn in several directions.  First, and in my mind most compelling, is that as we learn more skills, we increase the number of neural connections, enhancing not only our knowledge but also our ability to learn.  It is a fact that our lives (especially the lives of younger people) center more on computer keyboards than on pieces of paper.  All the more reason to retain and reinforce handwriting skills.  We need mental diversity.

I learned to type in high school, and then honed my skills by several orders of magnitude as a radioteletype operator in the Army.  My fastest recorded typing speed with no errors was 85 words per minute.  Throughout my life I've relied on typing, both at home and at work, so that even today, with age-stiffened fingers, I can manage 60 words per minute, error-free.  Typing has served me well, and continues to do so at this very instant, as I compose these words.

Coincidentally, in a sense I also learned to write in high school.  Like others of my generation, I'd learned both to print and to write in cursive since earliest grade school.  But in high school my cursive writing really took off, by virtue of a 500-mile post office romance with a girl I'd met at summer music camp.  For two years we exchanged long (10-20 pages), fervent, and frequent letters.  Our romance only lasted about two weeks after our arrival at the same university, but by then I was in the habit of writing in torrents.  My parents to this day are grateful for the long, newsy letters I wrote to them at regular intervals.

As I've grown older, my cursive style has become more of a scrawl, and out of pity for the reader I often revert to printing.  But I cannot imagine never having learned cursive at all.

There's also this to consider ~ handwriting analysis may reveal certain elemental traits in our personalities.  That claim is not without controversy, but to some degree I believe it.  This should not be confused with an indicator of intelligence.  One can barely read the chicken scratch of some of the most brilliant people I know (medical doctors are notorious), and some of the dullest people write with a beautiful hand.  Then there's the entertainment value in parsing out the sheer variety of cursive styles.  The pinnacle, the gold standard, the sine qua non of writing, whether printed or in cursive, rests with those who are skilled at calligraphy.  My most recent relationship was with a woman who had created her own calligraphic font, and it was the finest of fine art.

So the world is changing, and for the most part, we change with it.  No more buggy whips, military cavalry, and very few vinyl LP records.  We no longer speak in Chaucerian Middle English, thank the gods. I nevertheless feel that we are doing our children a disservice by depriving them of a communication option as simple and useful as cursive writing.  After all, when I'm gone, who will be able to read all those old love letters?

26 October 2012


Twenty years ago, I worked as a teacher and counselor at a private residential school in suburban Philadelphia.  The students ~ 40 girls and 20 boys ~ had all been removed from their homes by the judicial system because they were being emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused.  The age range was roughly 13-18.  All the kids had been diagnosed as SED, or severely emotionally disturbed.  I thought that attaching a clinical label was unfortunate, adding a certain stigma to their already difficult lives.  But all systems appear to need a set of shorthand terms, even if doing so makes diagnosis too easy at times.

I loved my kids.  It didn't matter that each had his/her own struggles, or that most were on daily psychotropic medications and seeing a professional therapist regularly.  In my classroom they were just Kevin or Wanda or Sean or Markisha.  Each student had good days and bad days, and some classroom days were more eventful than others, as one or more students acted out their distress.  Lesson plans were always tentative at best.  But the atmosphere was fertile with a blend of curiosity, boredom, friction, and creative thinking.

I discovered quickly that even though I was an authority figure, rapport was quicker and deeper if I openly expressed the affection and respect I felt, even as I was maintaining some semblance of order.  In fact, my core guideline for my students was that they themselves show affection and respect ~ and if affection wasn't always possible, respect was still required.  Very seldom did they let me, or each other, or themselves, down.

I taught math, algebra, biology, and environmental studies.  It was useful to incorporate other disciplines into our classwork, using and reinforcing what they were learning in history, English, government.  (Our school was small and non-profit, so we had no classes in the arts or music, something I deeply regret.)  It was equally useful to make learning fun.  We regularly learned or reviewed material using competitions and games.  My best friend and fellow teacher Tony was also a huge fan of gaming as a learning tool.  Ours were often the loudest classrooms, but it was a good kind of loud ~ young minds discovering, building, questioning.

Here's an example ~ each Friday featured recreation activities in the afternoon for those who had earned them during the week with good behavior and grades.  It would have been fruitless to try to teach a serious class in the morning, so I always substituted a game that reinforced our learning.  One of our favorites was an adaptation of Jeopardy! ~ I'd created my own game board using half-envelopes containing 3x5 card clues for each category level.  I crafted the topics and individual questions to reflect what the students had been exposed to in their classes, as well as topics and questions from contemporary life, and some that were just plain silly.  Each class had 12-15 students, ideal for two or three teams.  As MC, I got to ask each question, allowing 5 seconds for conferring within each team.  Then on my "Go!", a member from each team would race to the blackboard to write their answer.  The first correct (and accurately spelled) scrawled answer earned a point for that team, with prizes in the form of snacks awarded at the end of the period.

The mix of cooperation and competition fired intense concentration, and enhanced memory retention.  I probably had more fun than the students did.  We had lots of other game variations ~ not limited to Fridays.

Now, twenty years later, the notion of making learning fun, specifically including gaming, has gained wider acceptance.  It makes sense.  "You can't understand something unless you've gone through the process of building it", whether it is a grammatically correct sentence, the solution to a math equation, the structure of the human skeletal system, or the re-enactment (using models) of a decisive military battle in history.  That is why labs and field trips are so important in physics, chemistry, biology, and the other sciences.  (I was notorious for the number of field trips I proposed, as was Tony.)

Just today, a Scientific American article recounted how children in an isolated Ethiopian village were given "boxes containing more than a dozen tablet computers loaded with books, games and other apps ~ in English .... No instructions were given to the village children regarding what was in the boxes or what to do with them.  The villagers have no reading or writing skills, nor have many of them ever seen so much as a written word .... within four minutes the village children had opened the boxes and learned how to turn on the tablets.  Within a few months they had learned the A-B-Cs and were singing the alphabet song in English.

" .... The key to learning, the [project panelists] agreed, is to engage children rather than simply talk at them.  And one of the most effective ways of doing this is through play .... learning [is] a process of hands-on construction and reconstruction rather than simply information transfer .... Games create a need to know.  You find things out as you progress toward your goal."

If Ethiopian children using apps in English could make such progress, think of the learning revolution waiting to happen if every child on Earth had his/her own notebook computer.  Given the sophistication of learning programs, not to mention being connected to the world's library, each child would be introduced to horizons without limit.

It's also a shame that gaming isn't practiced more in the adult world ~ say, while training new employees or as an incentive to workplace performance.  In this respect we have much to learn from our own children.  Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the SA article link.

25 October 2012


I was reminded of  Riverdance by a Facebook friend, and could not resist once more immersing myself in the driving rhythms and pulsing harmonies of traditional Irish stepdancing.  No commentary or questioning the universe today.  Instead, here is the entire hour and 35 minute performance by the original dance company, headed by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler.  The venue is Radio City Music Hall in New York City, during their 1966 tour.  For a shorter exposure which will still send chills down your spine, here is the four minute finale.  Saints perserve us!

24 October 2012


One day in 1980, when my son was 3 years old and I was 33, he and I were wrestling and tickling on the bed.  At one point amid our laughter, his arm arced up and across, just as my face came down toward him.  By the sheerest chance, one of his fingernails grazed my left eye while it was wide open ~ the eye in which my vision is best.

Instant, blinding pain seared into my brain, and I fell back in agony.  I've worked in hospitals and on ambulances, but this was a new experience.  The injury was invisible to my then-wife, and I could not judge how serious it was.  We lived in the country, a 30 minute drive over rough gravel roads to the nearest ophthamologist, and being poor besides, I was reluctant to make the trip.  But as time passed, the pain worsened.  It felt like sandpaper rubbing against my eyeball.

Finally I knew something had to be done.  Even as a passenger, that rough drive was endless.  Every rock, bump, or dip brought me near to screaming.  The eye doctor examined me and reported that my left cornea had been lacerated.  He gave me an antibiotic ointment to apply daily, and instructed me to keep both eyes covered for the next 30 days.  (If I had only covered one eye, the remaining eye would automatically track movement or objects, and the injured eye would mimic the motion, delaying healing.)

So for that month I was effectively blind.  I've always been visually aware of my surroundings, so navigating around the house was feasible, slowly and with the aid of a cane.  But imagine for a moment all the things you do in a day's time, for which vision is taken for granted ~ walking about, reading, eating a meal, feeding pets, using one's hands, interacting with others.  Removing eyesight creates an entirely new and strange world.

Thankfully our work as caretakers of a nature preserve meant that we didn't have to leave home to earn a living, at least for that period of healing.  I soon discovered the truth in what many of us have heard ~ when one sense is disabled, our brains compensate by becoming more sharply attuned to the remaining senses.  My hearing and sense of touch were acutely enhanced ~ smell and taste noticeably so as well.  I knew where in the house my wife, son, two dogs and two cats were at any given moment, and what they were doing.

Being a lifelong avid reader, I deeply missed being able to see the written word.  I missed colors, visual textures, and of course watching the wildlife where we lived.  And I gained a new perspective on the lives of those who have no sight, an understanding which would have been otherwise impossible except on an intellectual level.

The most challenging moments were when we made trips to town for supplies or errands.  Then I was totally dependent on the guidance of my partner, and at the same time my other senses were assailed by disorienting sounds, bumping into things.  The familiarity and predictability of home were a welcome respite.

At last the day came when I removed my bandages for the last time.  The world was glaringly bright for a time, but I adjusted.  Ever since, I'm paranoid about objects coming close to my eyes.  And art, the colors of nature, architecture, reading, all things visual are even more precious.  I can see!

23 October 2012


It almost seems anticlimactic to summarize last night's encounter, but for the sake of consistency, I'll forge ahead.  The tone was by far the most civil of the three debates, aided perhaps by the fact that Obama, Romney, and moderator Bob Scheiffer were seated at a round table.  Since the discussion was on foreign policy, both contenders wanted to appear composed and presidential, an effort at which the incumbent always has the advantage.  Scheiffer was mostly successful in keeping the candidates on track and within their time limits, though he himself committed the worst slip of the night when he referred to the former al-Qaeda leader as "Obama bin Laden".

Though both men were assertive, most pundits thought Obama carried the night (see image above, click to enlarge).  His presentation of facts was straightforward and logical, whereas Romney appeared at times to be reciting irrelevant minutia from the encyclopedia to cover for his lack of foreign policy experience and his lack of a coherent, detailed plan for dealing with the troubled Middle East, our relations with the European Union, or our future relationship with China.  It's unfortunate that no time was spent talking about the nations of Central and South America, Africa, and other developing countries.

As usual, both men took liberties with facts in order to bolster their stance. Here is Fact Check's summary for the evening.

Looking back on the series of debates, it is clear that if Obama had been more forcefully engaged during the first debate, Romney would never have experienced his surge in the polls.  Even though Obama went on to win the subsequent two debates, the damage was done.  If the president were selected by popular vote, the election would be too close to call.  But because selection is by the electoral college, Obama still has the lead, but by a much smaller margin than three or six weeks ago.  Here are today's electoral college standings as reported by the Huffington Post.

Personally, I think a gaping hole was left unaddressed, one which ultimately will be of more dire consequence than the violence in Syria or unemployment in the U.S. ~ there was no focused discussion on the environment or climate change.  Indirect reference was made when green energy alternatives were mentioned, but all Americans (indeed all people globally) deserve to know specifically the degree to which each candidate is informed on environmental issues, the scientific sources of their opinions, and their detailed plans for addressing runaway carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the destruction of wilderness and wildlife, and (the root of it all) human overpopulation.  One cannot isolate the economy, strife in the Middle East, jobs, education, or the environment ~ they are all linked, and all must be understood and dealt with.

A handful of battleground states aside, there are several key groups of voters who will likely decide the election.  One is the ever-shifting mass of undecided voters (a group I don't understand at all ~ the choice seems so clear to me).  Women and Latino voters will also be crucial in choosing our next president.  Obama seems to have an advantage among the latter two groups, but he also needs to rouse enthusiasm among the large base that propelled him to victory in 2008, if he wants to assure a win.  Apathy among Democrats is something that Republican candidates are counting on.

And Democrats are counting on voters remembering three Romney gaffes, one from each debate ~ Big Bird, binders, and bayonets.

22 October 2012


Russell Means, the charismatic and controversial Lakota Sioux activist for the rights of Native American people, died earlier today at his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  During his lifetime, Means was a central figure in ~

  • the 1964 occupation of Alcatraz Island
  • the leadership of the American Indian Movement (AIM)
  • the Thanksgiving day 1970 seizure of a replica of the Mayflower 
  • the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC
  • the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, SD, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  AIM members and supporters were under armed seige by the FBI, federal marshals, and the military for 71 days, as they protested conditions on the reservation and the violent tactics of tribal president Dick Wilson.
  • support for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world
Means was the target of assassination attempts on several occasions.  His autobiography, Where White Men Fear To Tread, describes events in his formative years which led him to become an activist.  He also appeared in a number of movies, including the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans.  

The NYTimes retrospective on Means noted that he "helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian".  It should be noted that the warrior image included caring for his people, advocating for tribal tradition, and taking on his people's oppressor (the US government) without hesitation.  Means was more flamboyant than his fellow AIM leader, the more introspective Dennis Banks.  The two men provided a necessary balance during a time of adversity ~ a time which continues to this day for Native peoples.

21 October 2012


Malala Yousafzai (see image above, right) is a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who is an activist for education and for women's rights.  She lives in the Swat Valley, "where the Taliban has at times banned girls from attending school.  In early 2009, Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take over the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls.

" ....On 9 October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen, as she returned home on a school bus.  In the days immediately following the attack, she remained unconscious and in critical condition .... her condition improved enough for her to be sent to a hospital in the United Kingdom for intensive rehabilitation.  On 12 October a group of 50 Islamic clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwa against those who tried to kill her, and the Taliban reiterated its intent to kill Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin."  (quote courtesy of Wikipedia)

Outrage over the assassination attempt has spread across the globe.  A United Nations petition, using the slogan "I am Malala", has been launched, demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015.  Public demonstrations supporting Malala and condemning the Taliban have sprung up in Pakistan (see images below) ~ an act of great courage and solidarity in a country where the government has done little to discourage Taliban retribution.

Last week Angelina Jolie (see image above, left), who is a United Nations special envoy and goodwill ambassador for refugees, published a column describing how she and her own children had talked about the attempt on Malala's life, and why it occurred.  It is important that children understand the issues not only in their own lives, but in the lives of children around the world, many of whom face war, famine, and oppression in many forms.  Few remedies for all these ills is as effective as education, and girls/women are the most empowered by education to seek positive change in their cultures and their nations.  Here is a Tumblr collage of images and thoughts on Malala's life and her fate.

I offer this thought ~ that so long as one person is enslaved, no one is free.  So long as one person is abused, no one is safe.  So long as one child is willing to risk her life for education for all children, no one is exempt from supporting her.  We are all Malala.

20 October 2012


This residence in the temperate rain forest near Portland, OR, "is in perfect harmony with its surroundings.  Built on a steep sloping lot, the living space resides within the forest canopy .... a lover of music, the client wanted a house that not only became part of the natural landscape, but also addressed the flow of music.  This house evades the mechanics of the camera.  It is difficult to capture the way the interior space flows seamlessly through to the exterior.  One must actually stroll through the house to grasp its complexities and its connection to the [outdoors].  One example is a natural wood ceiling floating on curved laminated wood beams, passing through a glass wall which wraps around the main living room."

Above and below are selected images.  And here is a slide show of this impressive home, since no single image can do it justice.

18 October 2012


In both art and architecture, I find instinctive pleasure in curved lines and rounded spaces, far more than the rectilinear, boxy designs which predominate in western culture.  This accounts for my preference for curvilinear art nouveau paintings, buildings, sculpture, and calligraphy.

Today, in browsing my Google+ news feed, I came across a series of photographs of an amazing design for a house inspired by the geometry of a chambered nautilus (see the exterior night view above, click to enlarge).  Unconventional designs abound, but the interior of this one is especially compelling.  In any room, one's eye automatically follows the curves and folds, the textures, and the stained glass.  Here is a photo gallery.  Enjoy.

17 October 2012


Last night CNN's Candy Crowley moderated the second 2012 presidential election debate, and she acquitted herself well.  It is no easy task to direct two feisty alpha males, keeping them on the issue at hand and limiting their attempts to claim more than their share of allotted time.  The town hall format was a useful change, allowing citizens to ask questions themselves.  Alas, it did not allow those citizens to provide feedback on whether they thought the candidates had answered satisfactorily.

True to form, Mitt Romney tried more than once to abide by his own time rules, and Barack Obama had to choose between sitting quietly by, or asserting himself.  Last night Obama was much more aggressive than in the first presidential debate, and both candidates were well-organized.  Unfortunately, they both also employed deceptive tactics in characterizing the other man's position on various issues.  Here is Fact Check's analysis of their distortions, along with the correct information.  And here is the PBS Newshour's post-debate discussion (video and transcript), along with a video of the debate itself.

While Obama's policies more closely match my own values and opinions, I do differ with him with regard to his record on the environment and climate change.  I dearly wish that these debates included several features to keep the candidates honest ~ (a) a strict time policy, with the candidate's microphone automatically disabled at the end of his allotted time;  (b) attention to a broader range of issues;  and (c) instant fact-checking in which a candidate would be interrupted with corrections to any misleading or mistaken statements he made.  Crowley had one such moment last night, when she fact-checked a false accusation by Romney, putting him on the defensive at a critical juncture.  It was a wonderful moment, not for Obama, but for the debate process and for the electorate who must choose one of these men in November.

It is sad (but perhaps inevitable) that one's former youthful idealism is replaced over time by cynicism over the political process.  But then, the original Greek usage referred not to our modern usage of jaded distrust, but rather to the virtue of realistic criticism.  I am a cynic in the latter sense ~ hoping for the best, prepared for the worst.

One debate to go.  One hopes for candor and civility, but one prepares for antagonism and half-truths.  I wonder what the tenor of debate would be like between two women candidates?

15 October 2012


Those who enjoy conversing about art, books, sculpture, architecture, movies, poetry, or other representational media, will relate to this xkcd installment.  Dedicated to Michael Jordan.  (Click to enlarge)

14 October 2012


When I was in college in the early 1980s, my Ecology and Evolutionary Biology curriculum was saturated by science and math courses (on which I thrived).  For escapist reading, I avidly devoured science fiction ~ especially those authors whose writing had some actual foundation in physics, biology, and cosmology.  I vividly recall one breathtaking scene (in a book whose title escapes me) ~ the hero had to escape his spacecraft by donning a skintight pressure suit and helmet, and then simply stepping outside.  His mass was captured by Earth's gravity, and he fell many miles before deploying his parachute to land safely on the surface.

Yesterday's science fiction, as often happens, has become today's reality.  Earlier today, Austrian sky diver Felix Baumgartner entered a one-man capsule and was lifted by a helium-filled balloon to an altitude exceeding 127,000 feet (over 24 miles) above the Earth's surface, placing him well into the stratosphere (see image below, click to enlarge).  Wearing a pressurized suit, he then launched himself from the capsule into freefall.

During his 4 minute 19 second descent, Baumgartner achieved a record maximum speed of 833.9 mph, becoming the first human to break the sound barrier without an aircraft.  He also broke the record for the highest freefall jump.  Yet, David Brin noted on Facebook, "Did anyone notice?  While breaking Joe Kittinger's altitude record, Baumgartner kindly opened his chute seconds before breaking Kittinger's freefall record [4 minutes 36 seconds], leaving it standing.  Now that's class."  (Kittinger was Baumgartner's mentor and friend throughout the five-year project, and coached him through every stage of the ascent and preparation, right up until Baumgartner leaped out into space ~ see image above, click to enlarge.)

Here is a video showing the in-capsule preparation, the jump, and the successful landing via parasail in the Nevada desert.  And here is an article describing the technology behind the dive ~ the balloon, the capsule, the diving/space suit, and the system of cameras used to document the event.

There may be those who decry spending so much money, time, and effort on setting just another record.  Yet I find it wonderful and inspiring.  In times of economic and emotional duress, it is heartening to know that human imagination, skill and daring are capable of such feats.  Besides, you never know what future applications which will benefit us all may arise from enterprises which focus so closely on science and human ability.

13 October 2012


I've been fascinated by maps since childhood.  It is easy to become lost of flights of the imagination as one discovers borders, terrain features, cities, rivers, and oceans.  How did this name originate?  Who once lived or traveled along this ancient road?  How long does it take to travel from Bohemia to Bulgaria?  What was this place like 100, 500, or 10,000 years ago?

The study and practice of making maps is called cartography.  Maps come in all sorts of types and designs, with specific symbologies, naming conventions, and projections, depending on their intended use.  They may depict a confined, flat surface, or, as in the case of projections, they may attempt to depict the surface of a sphere or other three-dimensional object onto the plane of the two-dimensional map.

Unfortunately, all map projections distort the surface in some fashion.  Distortions may appear in area, shape, direction, bearing, distance, or scale.  A rendition of the original shape (a globe, for instance) is the only accurate way of portraying the surface.  Regardless, projections are valuable for showing the relationships between map areas or features.

Many school and online maps use the Mercator projection, and this tends to dictate how we perceive the size of countries and continents.  If you look at the world map on Google, for instance, Africa doesn't look that much bigger than China or the United States.  In reality, it's a lot bigger.  In the image above (click to enlarge), Kai Krause scales countries by their area in square kilometers, and then fits them into Africa's borders for proper perspective.

12 October 2012


Last week after the first of three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, moderated by Jim Lehrer, I took issue with exaggerations and outright lies told by both sides, and chastised Lehrer for allowing Romney to treat the time format as his private toy.  I documented false information with a link to FactCheck.org.

Last night was the sole debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.  The contrast with the first presidential debate was night and day.  Moderator Martha Raddatz was very effective, asking specific, relevant questions, and holding both sides to their time limits.  Once again, both sides at times issued false or misleading statements ~ it seems to be the lingua franca of politics to selectively choose facts or opinions which bolster your side.  Nevertheless, Paul Ryan wasn't as successful as Mitt Romney had been in putting up a smoke screen of untruths.  Like Romney, Ryan was long on claims and short on specifics when asked how their ticket would solve specific problems, foreign or domestic.  "I have a plan" just doesn't cut it.  Moderator Raddatz, herself a veteran journalist with emphasis on foreign affairs and much experience in war zones, did not allow either opponent to steal the show, or to avoid answering tough questions.

Biden was Biden ~ relaxed, in command of his facts, and quite successful at calling out Ryan on his more egregious claims.  Biden was the Happy Warrior, in contrast to Ryan's nervous policy wonk (does anyone besides those crossing the Sahara Desert drink that much water?)  Biden set the gold standard for assertiveness, and I suspect that in the remaining two presidential debates, Obama will unleash his own inner warrior.

Here is Fact Check's analysis of the debate, correcting misinformation spoken by both Biden and Ryan.  It is important reading.  The contenders in this election could hardly be more divergent in their proposed paths for the country.  But it's only the VP, you say?  Yes the VP, the person who is literally a heartbeat away from the presidency.  The election winners will wield heavy influence on economic policy, employment, healthcare, foreign policy, tax reform, military spending, and (importantly) the likely selection of at least two replacements for retiring Supreme Court justices.

And here is one liberal partisan's take on Biden's winning debate tactics when confronted with an opponent making specious or baldly false claims.  Though each side claims the debate win, clearly Biden was more effective at stating his own case and debunking Ryan's.  His strategy could be employed with equal effect by either side, which is what makes this relevant reading.

My own philosophy aligns more closely with liberal than conservative values, though labels are confining.  I believe that government is the core of civilized democratic society.  We citizens expect from our elected leaders a range of services and protections, and we pay taxes to finance those services.  Those who suggest that we allow any economic system (capitalism, socialism, communism, barter, whatever) to rule decision-making are misguided at best.  Each economic system has its strengths and weaknesses.  Capitalism in particular appeals to individual greed, and thus must be regulated for the good of society, as provided for in the U.S. Constitution.

Two debates down, two to go.

11 October 2012


Clinton, that is.  Say what you like about his private indiscretions, he left us with low unemployment, a budget surplus, and a healthy stock market.  That's like juggling chainsaws.  His charisma and sense of humor are sorely missed in today's political atmosphere.

Here he is in vintage style, simultaneously poking fun and raising serious questions about the last presidential debate ~ specifically, the sudden appearance of the old "Moderate Mitt" Romney, who has undergone more position and policy changes than a chameleon, as many presidential contenders do in order to appeal to the broadest portion of the electorate.

And here is a PBS Frontline special broadcast, "The Choice 2012".  The two-hour documentary traces the lives of contenders Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, interspersing their respective childhoods, education, life experiences, marriages, and growth in the world of politics.  It is an excellent production.  I learned things about both men which made them more fully dimensional, and explained the philosophical and moral influences which have guided them to the present day.  It is riveting material, and must-viewing for voters ~ especially those whose minds are already made up.

10 October 2012


A segment on last night's PBS Newshour piqued my interest.  Part of the news program's "Coping with Climate Change" series, the segment spotlighted the city of Chicago, which has experienced an overall 2.5 degrees Farenheit (dF) increase in annual average temperature since 1945.  Summers within the past decade have been especially hot ~ part of a national and global trend.

Chicago is in the vanguard of cities which are researching and implementing innovative ways of cooling the local microclimate, the urban heat island which all cities create because concrete and pavement absorb heat from the sun during the day, and release it at night ~ making cities much warmer than surrounding rural areas.  Logically, heat-absorbent architecture must be modified to reverse this effect, and that is exactly what Chicago is experimenting with.

One example may be seen above (click to enlarge) ~ half of the rooftop of Chicago's City Hall has been turned into a thriving green zone of plant life which absorbs solar energy and cools the building interior.  That's 23,000 square feet populated by over 100 plant species.  "Some areas of the roof have rolling terrain with an added 18-inch layer of soil to support trees and shrubs.  A rainwater collection system irrigates the roof and several bee hives pollinate the many flower varieties."  The temperature difference between the green and paved portions of the roof can reach 80 dF in summer.  Energy savings with just half a green roof are around $3600 yearround.  The experiment is so successful that the city encourages rooftop greenery on all buildings, a move enthusiastically supported by residents of the 359 buildings with green roofs in the city.  That's a combined area of 5.5 million square feet, more than any other city in North America.

Chicago's efforts to cool the city don't stop there. The city's streets, which occupy 23 percent of available land area, are in for a makeover.  City planners are "designing new streetscapes that integrate technology and design elements, from widened sidewalks for increased pedestrian traffic to tree and plant landscaping that provide shade.  The (new) pavements are made of a light reflective material mix that .... keeps the street from absorbing so much heat.  Chicago's 1,900 miles of alleyways traditionally absorb heat and cast away potentially cooling rainwater.  But new 'green alleys' use permeable pavement that absorbs rainwater.  As that underground water evaporates, that also keeps the alley and air around it cool."  (See image below.)

The report doesn't even mention the substantial benefit of increased oxygen production, and increased carbon dioxide absorption by all that plant life.  You can see the complete video segment, along with a written transcript, here.  There is also an embedded photo gallery of a variety of green rooftops, including 24.5 acre Millenium Park, the largest green roof in the world, covering two parking garages, a railway, and an opera hall.

09 October 2012


I grew up land-locked, with nary an ocean for hundreds of miles.  But as with aircraft, I've been fascinated with sea-going craft since childhood ~ especially sailboats and sailing ships.  There's something mysterious and beautiful about the notion of hoisting sail, like spreading wings, and using the power of the wind to lift oneself along to places unknown.

My sister, who lives in San Francisco, learned to sail in the treacherous currents and shifting winds of San Francisco Bay.  Once she took me, my then-partner, and our three kids out on a sailboat for several hours.  I tried to understand by osmosis the interplay of sail, rudder, wind, and current, but I learned little ~ I was having too much fun!

I do have a better understanding now (though not nearly enough), after learning whitewater kayaking, and after studying aviation for years.  A sail and a wing are both airfoils, after all.  Perhaps someday I'll move to the left coast and take a sailing class.  In the meantime, there's great pleasure to be found by drifting aboard in one's imagination in any of these fine craft.  Click on any image to enlarge ~

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the seagulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife.
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

~ Sea Fever

08 October 2012


Whoa, there's a bold statement in a nation founded upon, among other principles, free speech. Allow me to clarify.  Whether in public debate or private discussion over a topic of controversy, there are (a) opinions based on evidence, and there are (b) opinions based on feelings or beliefs.  The former have a legitimate place in our discourse, since they are substantiated.  The latter can lay no claim to legitimacy, since they reflect personal bias unrelated to fact.

The next time you hear someone (including yourself) say, "I'm entitled to my opinion", ask which kind of opinion is being defended ~ one based on evidence, or one based on belief.  Even more fundamentally, ask what the assertion truly means.  If it means no one can stop you from thinking or concluding what you wish, that's superficially true, but also of little value.  If it means your views should be treated as valid, regardless of a lack of evidence to support them, that is clearly not true.  For many centuries, common opinion held that the earth was flat.  That didn't make it so.

Opinions come in several flavors ~ public opinion, scientific opinion, judicial opinion, and editorial opinion.  In each flavor, it is paramount that any conclusion be based on sound, persuasive evidence.  Opinions may change over time, as our understanding of issues or events clarifies.  But the requirement for evidence holds.

So if your opinion regards a question of personal taste or prejudice, you can certainly entertain it within your own mind.  What you cannot do (within the bounds of discourse with others) is advance that opinion as if it carried any persuasive weight.  It does not.

If, on the other hand, your opinion regards a political, scientific, or legal issue, then it carries persuasive weight only if it is supported by legitimate evidence founded in expert application of relevant facts.  If your opinion is unsupported, then no, you do not have the right to claim it as a substitute for truth.

I offer for your consideration a brief article by philosopher Patrick Stokes, on this very subject.  The writer has a wry sense of humor, and several penetrating insights into the nature of opinions and their expression.  The art of rhetoric is founded on the philosophical principles of logical reasoning, and the detection of fallacies.  If more people, most especially more politicians, adhered to these principles, ours would be a saner and safer world.

As Harlan Ellison observed, "You are not entitled to your opinion.  You are entitled to your informed opinion.  No one is entitled to be ignorant."

07 October 2012


I've been an ardent birder for over four decades.  It is no accident that this passion was awakened during my years in southern Arizona, which is not only situated within one of the major North American migratory flyways, but also by virtue of its latitude, is a target destination for more northerly (as far as the Arctic) birds in winter, and a target destination for more southerly (as far as the tropics) birds in summer.  This serendipitous overlap is especially apparent wherever there is available water and a reliable food supply.

Most serious birders keep a life list of the species seen, possibly including the location, the weather, the time of day, and what the bird was doing when spotted.  As such things go, my life list is modest ~ 350 species positively identified in habitats including desert, swamp, seashore, open ocean, prairie, mountains, rain forest, and urban habitats.  The threshold which seems to mark a serious (i.e. obsessive) pro is 700 species, and there are those with the means to travel the world in order to "collect" several thousand species.

Each time I've moved to a new part of the country, I've taken a class led by a local birding expert, including guided field trips.  It's a great way to meet like-minded people, and to see habitat and birds you might otherwise have missed.  I also had the good fortune to serve as caretaker for a Nature Conservancy preserve in southern Arizona for four years ~ a relict upland marsh whose spring-fed, year-round stream is a magnet for migratory birds.  And you can be certain that my studies in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona included a class in ornithology, which included the most excellent field trips of all.

One of the best ways to get started is to join a local chapter of the National Audubon Society.  There willing enthusiasts will share their knowledge not only of birds and local habitat, but also the optics they find most useful ~ binoculars and spotting scopes ~ as well as tips on what to wear, and what other wildlife might be seen.

Sadly, as is true with other wildlife, our native birds are under siege by loss of habitat, loss of food supply, changing climate, poisoning from toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals, and sometimes over-hunting.  The higher you are on the food chain, the more vulnerable you are to these pressures ~ and as you might expect if you're a regular reader, avian predators are most at risk.  All nature's creatures need our protection ~ for their sake and for our own.

Here is a small sampling of some of my favorite images of birds.  Click on any image to enlarge.  Enjoy.

Bald Eagle courtship flight

unidentified Kingfisher diving

Tree Swallows in snow

albino Hummingbird

Sandhill Cranes on take-off