31 December 2012


Today I received an e-mail from a friend from whom I hadn't heard in months.  The text was abrupt ~ no greeting, just relaying an attack originating with the friend's daughter-in-law (a total stranger to me), taking exception to my 20 November post on tax reform.  The reader may wish to refer to that post, then click on 'return' to continue here.

The second-hand response in its entirety reads as follows ~ "Your graph conveniently skips the most prosperous years when the effective tax rate on the top bracket was 28 percent.  Your argument is so full of holes I thought I was looking through my grandmother's lace doily."

Assessing her statements, one quickly realizes that (a) nowhere does she cite any sources or documentation for her opinions, (b) she fails to name the purported "most prosperous years" allegedly omitted, and (c) she combines a lack of substance with an ad hominem insult.  Taken together, her response amounts to trolling, i.e., "posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion."  Here is Andrew Heenan's guide to recognizing trolls.

Gratuitous opinions, devoid of evidence and laced with sarcasm, are a troll's trademark.  This one was devious, to the extent that she avoided simply posting a comment directly beneath the blog post, and instead infiltrated my privacy by communicating through her mother-in-law, a friend since childhood.  And the friend agreed to act as a channel, thus involving herself in the attack.

In my friend's case, the fact of disagreement comes as no shock.  Her views differ from mine in matters of religion, politics, and conservation.  Although my blog is a public forum, and my stand on certain issues is certain to meet with opposition from some readers, my expectation is that responses (whether from friend or stranger) will be registered at the "comments" prompt at the bottom of each post.  All I ask is that the reader respond with civility and (in the case of disagreement) with credible evidence.  Like most bloggers I know, while I'm open to persuasion, I reserve the right not to publish comments that are abusive, gratuitous, or discourteous.

It is an abuse of friendship to use private e-mail for collusion in such behavior.

30 December 2012


Back when I was a teacher of science and math, one of my favorite thought experiments was to devise a scale model of the solar system, one which was not only accurate to the relative size of the planets and sun to each other, but also accurate to the distances between them.  And therein lies the rub ~ objects in the universe are actually quite tiny compared to the yawning stretches of space which separate them.  So one can devise a reasonable scale model that is true to relative size (see image above, click to enlarge), or a scale model that is true to relative distance (see image below).  But it requires resources on, well, an astronomical scale to devise a scale model that is true to both, simultaneously.

Perhaps I would have been well served to zoom in on just a portion of the whole.  Phil Plait does just that in How Far Away Is The Moon?  Plait came across a two-minute video that is making the rounds on the Internet, one which asks "If the Earth were the size of a basketball and the Moon a tennis ball, how far apart would they be?"  He decided to check out the math, and discovered that a basketball and a tennis ball are reasonable approximations of the relative sizes of Earth and its moon (7900 miles and 2150 miles in diameter, respectively).

So what about scaling the distance between the two?  Well, the moon orbits at a distance of roughly 235,000 miles from Earth.  Using the same scale for distance that we used for size, our tennis ball moon would circle our basketball Earth with about 24 feet between them.  Which is more than one might expect from looking up into the night sky on a clear night.

To gain an even broader perspective, we introduce the Sun, whose diameter is something like 11,750 Earth diameters.  In our scale, the Sun's diameter would be about 93 feet (the size of a very large, very fiery house), and the distance separating mansion Sun from basketball Earth would be .... 1.75 miles !

So there you have a scale model which respects both size and distance.  Still a bit ungainly for a school experiment, but not nearly as daunting a challenge as the entire solar system.

29 December 2012


Motorcycle = 2012
Aircraft = 2013

"Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

28 December 2012

1500 POSTS

This is the 1500th entry I've made at Predator Haven.  I'm a bit astonished.

I initiated this forum on 13 February 2008.  It wasn't until I retired several years ago that I began posting daily.  Topics cover a broad spectrum, including the arts, branches of science, aviation, politics, the environment, and whimsy.  Visitors from 211 nations and territories have graced my writing with their interest.

I didn't register with Site Meter until 28 March 2009 ~ three years and nine months ago.  During that interval 280,254 people have visited.  Small potatoes by the standards of other, more well-known blogs, but decidedly pleasing.  An audience of over one quarter million is remarkable.

Trivia ~ on this date in 1612 (400 years ago), Galileo became the first person to observe the planet Neptune.  On this date in 1912 (100 years ago), the San Francisco Municipal Railway, operator of the city's famed cable car system, opened its first line.

With that, I'm taking the day off to celebrate, and to consider the future.  I welcome your comments ~ aspects of the blog that you like, as well as things you wish were different.  Cheers, and thank you.

27 December 2012


Courtesy of the Sierra Club, here is a column which presents in both photographic and video forms, "10 pedestrian bridges from around the world that are known either for their majestically outrageous architecture or their historical significance".  They include ~
Each image or video is accompanied by a caption explaining the bridge's significance, design, or purpose.

26 December 2012


A few nights ago, I caught the last portion of a PBS Independent Lens episode called These Amazing Shadows:  The Movies That Make America.  Alas, the entire episode is not yet available for viewing online, but when it is, I will post the link.  The program "documents the passage of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 and how this law set in motion a system to identify notable films.  The Librarian of Congress, with input from the public and advice from the National Film Preservation Board, selects 25 films each year to add to the Registry.  These Amazing Shadows goes behind the scenes to show the discussions, the debates, and the drama that surround this selection process.

" .... The current list of 550 films includes selections from every genre ~ documentaries, home movies, Hollywood classics, avant-garde, newsreels, and silent films.  American movies tell us so much about ourselves ~ not just what we did, but what we thought, what we felt, what we imagine, what we aspired to ~ and the lies we told ourselves."

Here is a list of all 550 National Film Registry films in alphabetical order, and here is an interactive list which the user can alter by film title, year of release, or year of induction.

Are you a film buff?  Would you like to test your knowledge of cinema?  Here is a 50-question quiz ("extremely hard and incredibly obscure") which will challenge the most devoted movie geek.  Don't be discouraged if your score is surprisingly low.  Half the fun is going through the answers at the end, where all choices are listed, with your choice and the correct choice highlighted.  Hopefully for you, they will coincide.  The other half is making a list of films you want to see again, or for the first time.  Enjoy!

24 December 2012


On Christmas Eve, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission (the first manned voyage to orbit the moon), astronaut William Anders photographed an image which is recognized around the world..  It came to be known as Earthrise ~ the first time in human history that our native planet was seen emerging from the horizon of another celestial body.  The image is one of profound beauty, eliciting awe and a sense of humility.  Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken."

The image appears above (click to enlarge).  The Earth's orientation is south (Antarctica) to the upper left.  You can read more about its history, and view a computer animation depicting what the astronauts witnessed, here.

23 December 2012


This is fascinating, a green creative solution for those plagued by an unnatural abundance of fellow creatures ~ in this case, flocks of birds which consume the fruits of the labors of California vineyards and farms.  Enter an ancient sport.

Traditionally, the eagles, hawks and falcons used in falconry were trained to hunt and kill wild quarry in its natural habitat.  But companies like Airstrike Bird Control are more concerned with abatement, i.e. driving the pest species elsewhere.  Hence their raptors are trained to behave only as a threat.  Here's how it works, as described in the NYTimes article ~

"For each Airstrike Bird Control Assignment, a master falconer is deployed to scare away the problem birds by using either hawks or falcons.  Hawks are better for smaller spaces.  Falcons, which fly at a higher altitude, are more suitable for large areas, like vineyards.

" 'The objective of the program is what we call hazing,' said Brad Felger, co-owner of Airstrike Bird Control.  'You're intimidating them, you're scaring them, so they don't want to be there.' "

"During the early, intensive part of the program, the falconers and the birds are at the job site seven days a week.  Once the problem is under control, they scale back their schedule.  Work can be seasonal or year-round. The practice is catching on, particularly among farmers and wine growers whose livelihoods depend on sustaining their crops.  [Other clients may be urban, such as an office park with an artificial pond which attracts hundreds of sea gulls, pigeons, and crows that would otherwise leave behind bacteria and droppings.]

"The use of falconry is an alternative to products like noise cannons and netting systems, as well as repellents applied to ledges that make it uncomfortable for birds to land .... In recent years, jobs like those at the office park have emerged as interest in sustainable approaches to bird control has increased."

It strikes me that a number of urban settings could benefit from raptor patrols ~ city parks, waterfronts, and airports.  (Bird strikes by aircraft are more probable at low altitudes, during the takeoff and landing phases of flight.  That is when they may be the most hazardous as well, since the aircraft is operating at relatively low airspeed, with lower flight control response in an emergency.)

Here are the raptors most commonly used in modern falconry.  I'm especially partial to the Harris's Hawk (see above, click to enlarge), which is native to the desert southwest.  Their coloration is striking, and unlike most raptors which are solitary hunters in the wild, Harris's Hawks hunt in cooperative groups of two to six.

22 December 2012


In yesterday's NYTimes energy/environment blog "Green", Felicity Berringer described an about-face in the often-critical attitude displayed by the environmental group Save The Colorado toward U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  The Secretary has often voiced support for policies which are at odds with sound wilderness conservation, but in recent months he has partially redeemed himself.  First, a little background ~

"Dams and other controls have changed the Colorado River's ecosystem in the cavernous reaches of the Grand Canyon, and have helped to dry up its delta in Mexico (see image above, click to enlarge).  Misreadings of flow data have routinely ensured that pledges for its contents [to U.S. and Mexican states and cities] have been overstated.  And all the while, more than 33 million people in the two countries have been drawing on its water supplies as states jostle or greater shares of it."

Regular readers at this forum are familiar with my antipathy for the over-abundance of dams in the U.S. ~ especially in the West ~ built for flood control, hydroelectric power, and irrigation for agriculture.  Big money interests are behind this grotesque disruption of nature's cycle, as previously reported here and here and here and here and here.  So you will understand the filter of irony through which I view the following news ~

  • An agreement has been reached with Mexico to share the impacts of both dry and wet years.  The accord includes a pledge to help Mexico with the difficult job of rewatering the river delta.  (Such an agreement could have been achieved decades ago, but the U.S. balked.)
  • For the second time in four years, the Bureau of Reclamation, working with the National Park Service, released a large volume of water from the Glen Canyon Dam in the hope it would stir up the river bottom and replenish the sand bars worn away since the bureau's last such experiment.  (Glen Canyon Dam is situated just upstream from the Grand Canyon, and has had harmful effects on the Canyon's ecology for many years, not least of which was taming and chilling the waters which feed into the Canyon, thus altering the habitat for native species.  Bureau of Reclamation "experiments" can only be described charitably as trying to re-create what natural spring floods were already doing, before the advent of dams.)
  • The bureau released a long-awaited study on the Colorado's future.  More than anything, the report affirmed the science-based prediction that the river's water supplies, never as plentiful as early planners had figured, are likely to diminish as climate change brings more, and more severe, droughts.  (Think of it ~ less water to share, less water to store behind dams ~ ultimately those monuments to human design and interference may stand alone spanning former river channels, with only a trickle of water to regulate.  Shades of Ozymandias.)
Where's the irony, you ask?  Precisely here ~ after so many years of pillaging resources which don't belong to us in the first place (forests, grasslands, fisheries, oil, coal, natural gas, water, air), it seems pitifully little, pitifully late to righteously adopt an air of enlightenment.  Perhaps I'm just hard to please.  Or perhaps this is how we humans operate ~ consuming without foresight, failing to think and plan ahead, and reaching some modest level of wisdom only in response to catastrophe.

Further, our hard-won wisdom is far from permanent.  Witness the obliteration of gray wolves from the continental U.S. in the early 20th century, symbolically redeemed by wolf reintroduction starting in the 1990s.  Now Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the three states where wolves have just begun to successfully establish sustainable numbers, have returned to wolf hunts which threaten to reduce their population to endangered status once more.  

So while I applaud any effort to listen to science rather than myth, and any effort to look beyond immediate profit to the greater good, I remain skeptical.  I hope I am proven wrong.  But if anthropogenic climate change does torpedo all that flood control, hydroelectric power, and irrigation for agriculture, we will have failed on so many overlapping levels that we won't deserve a second chance.

21 December 2012


"An Honor Flight is conducted by non-profit organizations dedicated to transporting as many United States military veterans as possible to see the Washington DC memorials of the respective war(s) in which they fought, at no cost to the veterans.  Currently these organizations are focused on bringing veterans of World War II to the National World War II Memorial, and any veteran with a terminal illness to see the memorial of their respective war.  The program will transition to focusing on veterans of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and subsequent wars as the veterans of those wars get older.  The veterans on the honor flights are escorted by volunteer guardians, who help them on the flight and around Washington.

" .... The Honor Flight Network is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which works as an umbrella organization with local chapters and various subgroups

" .... The first honor flight took place in May 2005 .... Honor Flight Network says that as of November 2010 it has transported 63,292 veterans of WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to Washington."  (source ~ Wikipedia)

Thousands of U.S. World War II veterans die each year.  The numbers attending various unit reunions are shrinking at a tragic pace.  My father served in France and Germany, working on Army railroads.  Over the years, I've often dreamed of taking him to Europe to visit the places he'd seen, in particular the American honor cemeteries near the Normandy beaches, site of the D-Day landings.  But as he has aged, that vision has faded.

It might be a stretch for them physically, but I'd still like to take both my dad and my mom (who is a founding member of my home town's VFW Auxiliary) to Washington to see the WWII Memorial.  I know that they would both be deeply moved, as I am each time I visit the Vietnam Memorial.  As their health fails, even that dream becomes more distant.  How very sad.

If you would like to learn more, check out the website for the film "Honor Flight", a documentary about four World War II veterans whose Midwestern community sponsored their trip to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, seventy years after their struggle.

20 December 2012


Don't you just hate it when you're a patient lying on the operating table, and you hear the doctor say "Oops"?  Not to be an alarmist, but even surgeons goof up.  Between 1990 and 2010 in the U.S., surgeons left 4,857 objects inside patients ~ objects ranging from surgical tools to sponges.  Research in the journal Surgery found evidence of 9,744 paid malpractice claims involving "never events", i.e. errors that should never occur.

Never events include objects left inside the patient, as well as the surgeon performing the wrong procedure, operating on the wrong body part, and even operating on the wrong person.  The data reflect only those events for which a malpractice settlement was paid.  They do not reflect unresolved malpractice suits, and they do not include events in which the patient experienced no lasting harm.  (See image above, click to enlarge)

The potential for harm is quite real.  Between 2004 and 2010, among patients experiencing a never event, 59 percent has a temporary injury, 33 percent had a permanent injury, and 6.6 percent died.  (See image below)

For a fuller description of never events, check out the Washington Post article here.

19 December 2012


A video posted to YouTube yesterday, depicting an aerial attempt by an eagle to snatch a human baby in a park, has gone viral, receiving well over 1 million views in just one day.  The video is a hoax.

It was created and uploaded by three students in a 3D Animation and Design class in Montreal, Canada.  To someone not familiar with animal behavior, it could appear quite convincing.

There are, even for non-naturalists, a few signs that something isn't right.  The bird is described as a "monster eagle", and the caption hyperbole alludes to "the impending giant fucking eagle menace".

One observer listed several reasons why the film clip was clearly fake, and a source at Center NAD, the school hosting the class, published a disclaimer acknowledging the hoax, identifying the students, and attempting to reassure the public.

Here is the video (thanks to friend Bill for the link).  Anyone remotely familiar with the natural world will see immediately that (a) the bird is only average in size for its species, and (b) the toddler in question is much bulkier than an eagle's normal prey.  Further, the wing and tail markings don't match either of North America's native large raptors, the golden eagle or the bald eagle.

For non-naturalist parents or casual viewers, the CGI eagle attack may look real, with echoes of attacks on humans by sharks, bears, mountain lions, and Australian dingoes.  And here is the truly unfortunate aspect of the superficially convincing footage ~ there are viewers who won't bother to check for accuracy, and a portion of those viewers own firearms, and a portion of those gun owners will take it upon themselves to shoot any eagle they see.

So while the 1-minute video may have felt like both a lark and a student accomplishment to its creators, uploading it to YouTube was irresponsible.  If a single eagle is killed as a result, therein lies the real tragedy.

17 December 2012


Among avid birders, there is always discussion about the best binoculars, spotting scopes, and field guides (click on image to enlarge) as these tools evolve.  The National Audubon Society has taken the field guide debate to the next level with their Online Guide to North American Birds.  The guide covers all of North America's regular breeding birds (about 580 species), as well as approximately 180 non-breeding species that regularly or occasionally visit north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The guide's resources include ~
  • how to bird
  • how to identify birds
  • plumage and molt
  • parts of a bird
  • classification of birds
  • bird families
  • natural history of birds
  • endangered and threatened birds
  • bird conservation
  • a glossary
While it would (to this birder) be awkward to try to access the website from the field, no matter how portable your e-device, this remains a useful reference at home for clarifying what you've seen in situ.  Just as having a local expert along on a birding trip is indispensable, so too is having more than one reference to verify that potentially rare sighting you think you made.

16 December 2012


Amid the shock and grief surrounding the Sandy Hook School shootings ~ amid all the political posturing by both sides in negotiations to avoid the looming fiscal cliff ~ amid the shopping frenzy and preparations for the holidays, an element of relative calm has quietly entered our lives.  Two days ago, on December 13th, the FCC began enforcing legislation which was passed in June 2008.  Known as the CALM Act, the law prevents television broadcasters, as well as satellite and cable providers, from airing commercials at a volume louder than the program content they accompany.

And I'm thinking, what took so long?  (Answer ~ money and lobbying, of course.)  For most of my adult life I've been annoyed when a program I'm watching is interrupted by a commercial blaring its message at me as though I lived a mile away.  My automatic response was to hit the "mute" button on the TV remote.

One can imagine that at some point, some Madison Avenue advertising genius hit upon the idea of boosting the ad volume as a way of drilling home the ad's message, and that the practice quickly took on the characteristics of an arms race among competing networks, until ad loudness approached the volume of a rock concert.  Sitting in the front row.

But for me, and hopefully for many consumers, the intrusion has the opposite effect, alienating us from the product, and from commerce in general.

Starting three days ago, the aural onslaught ceased.  Ads remain an annoying reality, but at least they are less likely to cause hearing loss.  Consumers may (and should) report violators directly to the FCC at www.fcc.gov.

15 December 2012


The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth.  It is the nearest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, but not the closest galaxy overall.  The Andromeda Galaxy (click on above image to enlarge) is the largest galaxy of the Local Group, which also contains the Milky Way and about 30 smaller galaxies.  Although the largest, the Andromeda Galaxy may not be the most massive, as recent findings suggest that the Milky Way contains more dark matter and could be the most massive in the group.

The two galaxies are expected to collide in 3.75 billion years, eventually merging to form a giant elliptical galaxy.

Note ~ a light-year is a unit of length approximately equal to 6 trillion miles.

14 December 2012


The Washington Post ~ "A shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, on Friday morning killed 27 people, including 20 children, law enforcement sources said.  The dead at Sandy Hook Elementary, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, included the suspected gunman.  One other person was injured.  Police said the shootings were carried out in two rooms, located in the same section of the school.  They said 18 of the children died at the scene, and two more died after being taken to hospitals."  The Post article includes video of President Obama's news conference addressing the killings.

This is the second mass shooting to take place in the U.S. this week, and the eighth in 2012.  According to journalist and blogger Aviva Shen, "The rate of people killed by guns in the U.S. is 19.5 times higher than similar high-income countries in the world.  In the 30 years since 1982, America has mourned at least 61 mass murders."

Shen's article is titled A Timeline of Mass Shootings in the U.S. since Columbine, a reference to the 1999 Columbine (Colorado) High School massacre.  Here is a summary of that timeline, working back from the present ~

  • 2012, December 14 ~ Newtown, CT.  27 people dead, 1 wounded
  • 2012, December 11 ~ Clackamas, OR.  3 people dead
  • 2012, September 27 ~ Minneapolis, MN.  6 people dead, 3 wounded
  • 2012, August 5 ~ Oak Creek, WI.  7 people dead, 4 wounded.
  • 2012, July 20 ~ Aurora, CO.  12 people dead, 58 wounded
  • 2012, May 29 ~ Seattle, WA.  6 people dead
  • 2012, April 6 ~ Tulsa, OK.  3 people dead, 2 wounded
  • 2012, April 2 ~ Oakland, CA.  7 people dead
  • 2011, October 14 ~ Seal Beach, CA.  8 people dead
  • 2011, September 6 ~ Carson City, NV.  5 people dead, 7 wounded
  • 2011, January 8 ~ Tucson, AZ.  6 people dead, 13 wounded
  • 2010, August 3 ~ Manchester, CT.  9 people dead, 2 wounded
  • 2009, November 5 ~ Fort Hood, TX.  14 dead, 29 wounded
  • 2009, April 3 ~ Binghamton, NY.  13 people dead, 4 wounded
  • 2009, March 29 ~ Carthage, NC.  8 people dead
  • 2008, February 14 ~ Northern Illinois University, IL.  7 people dead, 21 wounded
  • 2008, February 7 ~ Kirkwood, MO.  6 people dead, 2 wounded.
  • 2007, December 5 ~ Omaha, NE.  10 people dead, 4 wounded
  • 2007, April 16 ~ Virginia Tech, VA.  32 people dead, 24 wounded
  • 2006, October 2 ~ Lancaster, PA.  6 people dead, 6 wounded
  • 2006, March 25 ~ Seattle, WA.  7 people dead, 2 wounded
  • 2005, March 21 ~ Red Lake, MN.  10 people dead, 5 wounded
  • 2005, March 12 ~ Brookfield, WI.  10 people dead, 4 wounded
  • 2003, July 8 ~ Meridian, MI.  7 people dead, 7 wounded
  • 1999, September 15 ~ Fort Worth, TX.  8 people dead, 7 wounded
  • 1999, July 29 ~ Atlanta, GA.  13 people dead, 13 wounded
  • 1999, April 29 ~ Littleton, CO.  13 people dead, 21 wounded
Psychologically, when one reads down a list like this, one's senses dull and it just becomes places and numbers.  But each number represents a life shattered, a family torn by grief, a community in shock .... and a nation which must once again confront its policies toward gun ownership, especially ownership of semi-automatic, military-style weapons.

In 1994 Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, largely in response to mass violence involving weapons with a high volume of fire.  The ban expired in 2004, and repeated attempts to renew the ban have failed in a Congress controlled by NRA-funded conservatives.  

The list above does not include any of the thousands of single homicides or suicides carried out with guns each year.  Each life is precious.  I do not advocate criminalizing private ownership of firearms.  I myself have a state-issued concealed-carry permit for my Glock .45, which I rarely use.  I do, however, support renewal of the assault weapons ban, as well as much stricter laws for buying and using firearms.  We require passing a test in order to obtain a license to legally drive a car ~ why not do at least as much with guns?  

I grew up in the gun culture of the rural American West.  Young people (mostly boys) attended hunter safety classes, and understood the risks and responsibilities of handling a firearm.  That understanding was reinforced in the military.  But times have changed.  With the burgeoning influence of gun lobbyists (the NRA and firearms manufacturers) on Capitol Hill, easy access to an ever-more-sophisticated arsenal has meant more and more guns in private hands (in the U.S. there are 89 firearms per 100 residents), usually with only the most cursory of background checks. We need desperately to rethink that.

I learned graphically in Vietnam that in a landscape where everyone has a gun, people get killed by simple accident.  Others lose their lives in the anger of an argument.  And that doesn't even touch the deaths inflicted by military combat.  Do we really want our children to grow up in a war zone ~ or to die in one?

13 December 2012


Starting in January 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek will set out from Africa's Great Rift Valley on a seven-year, 21,000 mile journey, tracing the main path of ancient human migration all the way to Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America (see map above).  He will travel alone, carrying all his supplies and needs on his back.  He anticipates making the entire trip on foot, except for crossing the Bering Strait.

Here is his interview (both video and transcript) with the PBS Newshour's Hari Sreenivasan.  The concept is riveting.  Salopek is no stranger to strenuous travel, having ridden a mule across Mexico, and run the Congo River in a canoe.  He will be providing reports at regular intervals, with an emphasis on the human stories he encounters ~ especially stories which provide local solutions to larger problems.

This trek has a potential for drama and insight comparable to the 1947 trans-Pacific voyage of the Kon-Tiki, with the added benefit of contact with all the cultures along Salopek's route.  I hope I'm still around when the trip is completed, and National Geographic produces a film of his journey.

12 December 2012


The Washington Post has published a slide show of 32 breath-taking images taken by space probes, satellites, telescopes, and the Mars rover Curiosity.  Each image is accompanied by a caption explaining its significance.  It is, of course, impossible to single out any one picture as the best, but I did find image #32 (above, click to enlarge) to be the most compelling. Taken on August 31, 2012, it shows "a filament of solar material that had been hovering in the sun's atmosphere erupting into space.  The coronal mass ejection traveled at more than 900 miles per second."

Note the representation of Earth in the lower left corner, included to give the viewer an idea of the titanic scale of the sun and the ejection.  In reality, of course, the Earth orbits 93 million miles away, and is in no danger until the sun's life cycle enters a red giant phase.  During this time the sun's radius will expand to 250 times its current size, engulfing Earth.  Not to worry, we have roughly 10 billion years to prepare, hopefully by colonizing other worlds.  (Unless we manage to ruin life on our own world first.)

11 December 2012


A non-profit health foundation has released a report which ranks U.S. states according to the health of their residents.  The rankings are based on interviews, and take into account factors including "smoking, binge drinking, obesity, high school graduation rates, sedentary lifestyle, children in poverty, infectious disease cases, air pollution, violent crime, health insurance, immunizations, primary care doctors, hospitalizations, and rate of conditions and deaths [due to determinants like] cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

You can read more in the Washington Post article, which includes a slide show of the states, ranked from first to last.  Certain patterns emerged ~ the healthier states had significantly lower smoking rates, and the less healthy states had significantly more sedentary lifestyles (defined as 30 days of not exercising outside of work).

The top five states are ~

  • Vermont
  • Hawaii
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachussetts
  • Minnesota
The bottom five states are ~
  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
You can draw your own conclusions regarding regional health.  (My home state of Montana ranks 29, and my adopted home state of Arizona ranks 25.)  There were a few surprises, but I won't give them away.  Check out the slide show.

10 December 2012


I've been studying aviation through av-magazines, books, and videos since the late 1990s.  During that time, there have been many changes in aircraft materials (from metal construction to composites), in the instrument panel (from analog mechanical gauges to digital displays, commonly referred to as glass cockpits), and in flight planning and communications devices (from pencils and paper charts to flight computers, and from cockpit radios alone to augmentation by cell phones and GPS).

When it comes to small general aviation (GA) aircraft, FAA regulations are generally slow to catch up with technology.  The lag time means that pilots must remain proficient in the use of older devices, even as they learn how to program and use newer tools.  A perfect example is the portable computer.  We've rapidly progressed from clumsy at-home desktops, through laptops and on to handheld tablets like the iPad (image above).

As of this writing, the FAA allows tablets and smart phones (for all their versatility) to be used only as an adjunct or backup, not as a primary tool for flight planning, in-flight monitoring, or communication.  The hardware and software are evolving so quickly that already it is possible to establish a wifi network between built-in cockpit instruments and portable devices, allowing the pilot to update information on position, speed, fuel consumption, engine status, and weather on one device, and have that update automatically transferred to all devices at his/her disposal.

I don't currently own a tablet computer, but I expect to replace my aging laptop with an iPad sometime soon.  The iPad comes highly recommended by my computer friend over other tablets for its superior security, and for the quality of available apps (applications).  For pilots, who use any electronic device under much more rigorous and grueling conditions than the average person on the ground, there are additional qualities which make the iPad the tablet of choice ~ physical durability (one can purchase protective jackets which act as padded armor), and battery life.

One of the nation's premier pilot supply sources, Sporty's Pilot Shop, recently published an article on the characteristics of iPad batteries, and recommendations for caring for them.  They include ~

  • Avoid using, charging, or leaving an iPad in temperatures higher than 95 degrees.  Most small aircraft have no air conditioning, so until you reach altitude, cockpit conditions can be uncomfortably warm.  The same advice holds true on the ground ~ do not leave your iPad unattended in your car on a hot day.
  • At the other end of the thermometer, avoid storing your iPad in cold conditions.
  • Use your iPad regularly.  Its lithium-ion batteries are meant to be used hard.  Frequent use and recharging are expected.
  • Keep your iPad updated to the latest version of iOS ~ each time Apple updates the tablet's operating system, they also include fixes and performance enhancements for the battery.
  • Adjust screen brightness and wireless radio (Bluetooth) settings for maximum radio life.  Turning down the screen from maximum brightness, and turning off unneeded services, reduce battery drain.
These tips apply to everyone, not just to pilots.  One more thing ~ here is a set of guidelines for charging your iPad battery, at home, in your car, or in a plane.  Have fun!

09 December 2012


From the NYTimes article ~ "Yellowstone National Park's best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park's boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported.

"The wolf, known as 832F to researchers, was the alpha female of the park's highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and had become so well known that some wildlife watchers referred to her as a 'rock star'.  The animal had been a tourist favorite for most of the past six years.

"This year's hunting season in the northern Rockies has been especially controversial because of the high numbers of popular wolves, and wolves fitted with research collars that have been killed just outside Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  Wolf hunts, sanctioned by recent federal and state rules applying to the northern Rockies, have been fiercely debated in the region.  The wolf population has rebounded since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to counter their extirpation [during the early 20th century].

"Many ranchers and hunters say the wolf hunts are a reasonable way to reduce attacks on lifestock and protect big game populations.

"This fall, the first wolf hunts in decades were authorized in Wyoming.  The wolf killed last week was the eighth collared by researchers that was shot this year after leaving the park's boundary.  The deaths have dismayed scientists who track wolves to study their habits, population spread, and threats to their survival. Still, some found 832F's death to be particularly disheartening.

"She is the most famous wolf in the world", said Jimmy Jones, a wildlife photographer who lives in Los Angeles and whose portrait of 832F appears in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist (see image above, click to enlarge).

Wildlife advocates say that the wolf populations are not large enough to withstand state-sanctioned harvests and that the animals attract tourist money.  Yellowstone's scenic Lamar Valley has been one of the most reliable places to view wolves in the northern Rockies, and it attracts scores of visitors every year."

I've been listening to the debate and studying the issue of wolf reintroduction for over 20 years.  In fact, while a teacher in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1990s, I specifically talked about the Lamar Valley wolves, and the ecological niche which top predators occupy in any habitat.  The protests by ranchers (many of whom run cattle on land leased for pennies on the dollar from the federal government ~ our land, taxpayers' land) and by hunters (whose over-hunting of wolves in the first place led to overpopulation of prey species, especially elk, which led to overgrazing of riparian habitat, loss of young trees, and soil erosion) ~ those protests don't hold much water, in my view.

To ranchers ~ there are a range of ways for coexisting with wolves, as documented in the PBS special Wolves in Paradise.

To hunters ~ if you really want to prove your prowess in field craft and knowledge of your intended prey, leave your rifle and scope at home, and hunt with a camera.  The photographic trophies will be truly earned, and you will have disengaged yourself from the destructive cycle caused by over-hunting.  As George Wuerthner points out in Are Hunters Stupid?  The Unintended Consequences of Wolf Hunting, "We do know that wolves select different animals in the herd from hunters.  Wolves, while opportunistic, still tend to kill the young, old, and injured.  They can keep herds free from disease and can sometimes have significant influence upon other animals and plants.  For example, [wolves] alter habitat use by ungulates by moving elk out of riparian areas.  Even when wolves severely reduce prey numbers, they are performing an important ecological function by providing plant communities respite from heavy browsing pressure.

"Hunters, by contrast, tend to kill the productive age healthy animals [among elk], and have less ecological influence upon prey species and habitat use than natural predators."

In the absence of natural predators like wolves, prey species like elk and deer overpopulate, placing stress on the entire ecosystem.  In the Yellowstone region, elk numbers soared over the years, to the point where, in a surreal twist of events, in wintertime when elk migrated to lower elevations and overate their food resources, wildlife managers actually hauled loads of hay on horse-drawn sleighs to feed the elk .... all so there would be more targets for hunters the following year.  With wolves in the picture, elk numbers began to fall toward their historic levels. But hunters became alarmed at the prospect, and raised their voices for a wolf hunt.

Trouble is, neither ranchers nor hunters are content with a selective hunt ~ in their eyes, the more wolves killed, the better.  They conveniently forget that (a) wolves were here first, and (b) the shifting balance of nature was getting along just fine, thank you very much, before the arrival of European settlers who saw fit to "manage" wilderness and wildlife.  Whenever I see the words "manage" or "develop", I substitute "rape" and "pillage".

It is clear that the state-sanctioned wolf hunts in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are thinly-veiled permission to once again drive wolves as close to extinction (again) as possible.  The West is a hunting culture, and old habits die hard.  Perhaps, with a return of federal endangered species protection and a healthy dialog, there is hope.

A few hunters have seen the light.  I've read reports ~ a hunter who had a wolf in his sights, but could not bring himself to kill such a beautiful animal.  A hunter who heard the unearthly chorus of wolves howling, and felt he was witness to something sacred.

For now, alpha female 832F, I weep for you.

08 December 2012


After digging my vehicle out from the snowy deposit of last night's storm, I'm ready for a break.  So here, for your entertainment and elucidation, are several visual treat.

  • Swarming Lights and Tadpole Trains Bring Public Transit to Life ~  time-lapse images of public transit in New York City, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Aukland, Perth, Manchester, Columbus, and more.
  • The Earth Spins in the Black of Space ~ animation from the Earth-observing satellite Suomi NPP.  It is impressive to see how much of our land surface is illuminated by cities and highways, indicating population concentrations ~ not to mention how clearly those lights delineate wealthier nations (by their density) and less wealthy nations (by their absence).  Click on the sample image above to enlarge.
  • The History of English in Ten Minutes ~ a romp through the origins of our language.
  • Math Factorization Animated ~ this video morphs rapidly.  You can just sit back and enjoy the show, or you can use the 'pause', 'play', and 'reverse' icons at the lower right corner of the screen to parse out what is being demonstrated mathematically.  Thanks to friend Bill for the link.
  • Discovering the Secrets of Lions ~ Lara Logan of CBS 60 Minutes interviews Dereck and Beverly Joubert, filmmakers who've spent 30 years documenting Africa's big cats.  They are based at a tent in western Botswana, but spend most of their time in vehicles, tracking and filming the region's lion population.  No firearms, no bodyguards.  Their award-winning work has been featured on National Geographic. (Click on 'Watch the Segment' to, well, watch the segment.  It's frankly awesome.)
  • Farewell, Little Space Spider ~ Nefertiti, a Johnson jumping spider, became the first spidernaut as part of an experiment aboard the orbiting International Space Station.  She flew more than 42 million miles during her lifetime.
  • FlightRadar24 ~ a real-time tracker of commercial airline flights.  
  • Hawaii Pubic Radio ~ live streaming classical music.
Now, dare I venture out onto icy streets and sidewalks for some Mexican food?

07 December 2012


Part 1

Entry June 24

Last night we entered our bed through opposite doors.
Hours we lay awake, entrenched .... before the trapdoor gave
and we were hurtling down in jerky sleep.
When we suddenly awoke, our bodies were together in the warm bed lap ~

and I was taking deep swollen kisses out of your brimming mouth.
Your lips cushioned the inherent murder of your teeth.
My body grew to fit your body ~
and the opened blossoms of you were flaming, full .... and making honey.

There in the jungle twilight, stark naked god slipped in between us
and the lightning struck ~
and in the light I saw you, you were lovelier by many years than yesterday.

Today .... your mind moved back into your face, willing away
your last night's beauty.
And the hard mask of resolution lies dull upon you like bad makeup.

~ from This Is My Beloved, by Walter Benton

Part 2

06 December 2012


Much of U.S. society's (and feminist) objection to pornography focuses upon the dehumanizing effect being a video sex worker allegedly has on those who do it for pay.  Unlike prostitution, in which there is a greater risk of violence, contracting STDs, or being abused by pimps or police, porn stars work in a more controlled environment.  But even if physical risks are less, what about psychological risks?  Do porn stars feel humiliated, degraded, less than human?  Are they the products of sexual abuse as children?  Are they more frequent users of drugs?  Is their self-esteem irreparably damaged?

A new study claims to put the lie to such stereotypes, suggesting in fact that "there's a good chance many [porn stars] have better self esteem ~ not to mention more enjoyable sex lives, better body images, and more positive outlooks on life".

177 porn actresses ranging in age from 18-50 years old were surveyed on "a variety of behavioral, social, and psychological dimensions", including demographic information, sexual behaviors and attitudes, self-esteem, quality of life, and drug use.  Their self-reports were compared to those of a control group of women matched for age, ethnicity, and marital status.

The results?  "Porn actresses were more likely to identify as bisexual, first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners, were more concerned about contracting an STD, and enjoyed sex more than the matched sample .... there were no differences in the incidence of childhood sexual abuse .... Porn actresses had higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality compared to the matched group."

You can click here to view samples of the questions asked, as well as a chart showing the numerical results.  If the test results surprise you, consider that in countries where sex workers operate legally and safely, self-esteem ranks as high or higher.  Criminalizing a natural behavior is itself problematical.  But then, we've always been a nation of internal contradictions.

05 December 2012


During my childhood, it was a big deal when December arrived, for (among other things) that meant putting up and decorating a Christmas tree in our living room.  The decorations were fun, and included a miniature Dickensian village made up of cast-metal figurines of people walking, skating (on the oval mirror which served as a frozen pond), riding in sleighs, and Victorian houses.  Lots of colored lights, lots of tinsel.  

During my adulthood, I started my own treasured collection of lights and ornaments.  But I also began to question the practice of killing millions of trees for the holiday, only to discard them several weeks later.  I question the practice even more today, as forests shrink and greenhouse gases proliferate.  We should be planting diverse species of native tree and shrubs, and allowing them to mature into wilderness.  Wildlife would thank us, and those trees would absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, a small step toward slowing climate change.

Many trees which are sold commercially are grown in massive numbers on tree farms, expressly for the purpose of cutting at a certain age/height.  Many other trees are cut by individuals who venture into national forests or onto private land to choose just the right tree for their home.  Regardless, every cut tree is discarded.  Most disappear into landfills.  A few are placed along hedgerows or in ditches in rural areas to create habitat for small wildlife.  

After my son was born, we began to experiment with alternatives, most notably living trees which remained in their root containers during the holidays, then were planted outdoors.  In my mind it remains the most eco-friendly approach.  We also tried substituting other living plants (e.g., bamboo), as well as weaving evergreen garlands around and through the cat tree.  Adequate, but not nearly as festive as a fully-decorated tree.  (I never could see the point of a metal, plastic, or foil artificial tree.)

These days whenever I pass a commercial lot where cut trees are sold, or see a vehicle with a freshly-cut tree tied to the top, I can only think of tree corpses.  It saddens me.  (I have the same reaction when I see a logging truck hauling 40-foot lengths of tree trunks.  Yes, we need the lumber for construction, but most of those trees will be sold overseas.  But that's another story.)  Why don't more people buy, decorate, and then plant living trees?  Is tradition so ingrained that we just don't think about how the world has changed, and consider that maybe our assumptions should change too?  I don't now.

Don't get me wrong ~ the childhood memories of the magic created when all the lights are turned out except for the Christmas tree lights, the fresh pungent smell of pine or fir or cedar, and the association of all these things with the unbearable anticipation of Santa's arrival ~ all these things are precious to me.  I just think we could create other, equally precious memories for ourselves and our children without murdering entire forests.

04 December 2012


In recent decades, students in American public schools and universities have fallen further and further behind students from other developed (and even developing) nations in their grasp of math and science.  There is an effort afoot to remedy the situation, to fully prepare students to engage in the global community.  It is called the Common Core Standards Initiative, and has been adopted by all but five of the fifty states (see map above).

The mission statement reads as follows ~ "The Common Core Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.  The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.  With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy."

It is important to note that the initiative sets educational standards for skills and knowledge by providing clear goals for "a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state".  It remains up to teachers and school districts to build the best lessons and learning environments to attain the recommended knowledge and skills.

In a segment on last night's PBS Newshour. Jeffrey Brown interviewed administrators and teachers in Chicago's public schools, where measurable improvement has already been attained.  On balance, the news is positive, and encouraging to this former teacher.  Every child on Earth deserves a high quality education.  Only by adopting rigorous standards for both students and teachers can we achieve that goal.  Nations like Denmark and Finland produce students who excel in school ~ partly because they do maintain high standards, and partly because in those countries, teachers are accorded the prestige and salary reserved for doctors in this country.  It only makes sense ~ offer generous pay, and competition will be fierce for those positions.  Schools can hire the best of the best teachers.

It may take a small revolution in restructuring our nation's spending priorities away from military adventures and runaway consumerism, starting with voters and spreading to our political leaders.  The CCSI is a step in the right direction ~ "robust and relevant".  I like that.

03 December 2012


The best-laid plans notwithstanding, today I was perforce
looking for holiday presents.
The experience was not unlike this (click to enlarge) ~

02 December 2012


When you first open the search engine Google, above the search space you will see one of two things ~ either Google's multicolored logo, or (if the day marks a special occasion) a Google doodle, which is static or animated artwork celebrating the event.  For instance, on September 8 of this year, the featured doodle marked the 46th anniversary of the first broadcast of the iconic TV series Star Trek.  A static image of the doodle appears above (click to enlarge).  The doodle visible on that day, however, was animated and interactive, as seen here.  Moving your cursor over the scene highlights certain objects or characters.  Clicking on those items produces a visual or sound effect, or launches you into another scene.  Doodles for other dates may produce elaborate videos.

At this website is a catalog of all the doodles Google has published since the first one in 1998.  You can search all doodles, or break them down by year or by the nation in which they appeared.  I like the comprehensive "all" search, since it allows me to see doodles from other countries, like the October 9th doodle (below), marking Uganda's Independence Day.  Enjoy.

01 December 2012


.... are elegant in their simplicity.

Do you think this design qualifies?

In structural efficiency ~ yes.
In practical usage ~ perhaps not.

Consider a time of heavy pedestrian traffic.
Say, class change on a university campus,
or the end of the work day.
Lots of people walking up and down
those stairs.

Enter a person on crutches
or in a wheelchair.

His/her progress would be
across the flow of pedestrian traffic
all the way.
Relying upon the milk of human kindness
can be a chancy proposition
for those with disabilities.

Or what if heavy snowfall or freezing rain
made the steps treacherous,
and the ramp even more so?

Heat from below would help.

What do you think?