31 March 2012

HORSES



I love to ride horses, yet I've done very little ~ some bareback riding when I was very young, and a few times with a saddle as an adult.  Even though I grew up in the West, everyone's idea of cowboy country, I never learned how to saddle and bridle a horse ~ though I can figure it out.  


Once when I was visiting cousins in Nebraska, they took me to a farm where we were to go horseback riding.  I was assigned to ride a black gelding named Charlie.  Little did I know that I was being set up ~ Charlie had a habit of bucking off strangers.  But unwittingly I fooled the pranksters.  Before mounting, I stood by Charlie's head and spoke quietly with him, stroking his neck and letting him sniff my hand.  After perhaps a minute of getting acquainted, I swung aboard with no problem at all.  Disappointment and surprise appeared on the faces of my expectant fellow riders who'd been anticipating a show.  I still smile to think about that.


Later, though, Charlie's irrepressible spirits rose during the ride homeward.  He took the bit in his teeth and burst into a flat-out gallop.  My "whoa"s and attempts to turn or slow him were in vain.  As we approached the barn, I realized that rather than passing through the larger vehicle-sized doors, Charlie was aiming straight for a narrow human-sized door that was open ~ he seemed to want to knock me off as effectively as any low-slung tree limb would.  I gripped tightly with my legs and crouched forward to meld into the flesh of his neck, and we swept through that tiny space with millimeters to spare on all sides.  Once inside, he came to a sedate halt, breathing heavily and with some satisfaction.  Charlie had the last laugh.


I've always been in love with horses' eyes.  Large and soulfully brown with oversized black pupils, they express a life and a history humans can never know.  To paraphrase A.V. Flox, riding a horse is becoming one with another creature ~ a massive creature ~ in a language only it can understand, a language of pressure and shift of weight and murmured sounds.  Not everyone shares that high opinion.  The writer Ian Fleming reputedly once said that "horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends."  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  Someone else once said "A horse doesn't care what you know until it knows that you care."  


I love tall and graceful horse breeds ~ Thoroughbreds, Arabians.  I also favor compact and athletic breeds like quarter horses.  Come to think of it, I can't think of many horse breeds I don't like.  The wild horses of the American West have a special place in my heart ~ mustangs (see image above, click to enlarge) descended from Spanish horses which escaped from their conquistador masters in the 1500s.  They turned wild, bred and spread, and were later re-domesticated by Native Americans.  


In the 1970s during a three-day solo hike into the Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson, a landscape populated by more rattlesnakes than I've ever encountered in my life, I was exploring one of the canyons radiating from a central basin.  There came a moment when I felt I was being watched.  Slowly I turned my head, and beheld the resident herd of mustangs, alertly regarding me from a ledge halfway up a cactus-strewn hill.  I made no movement to disturb them ~ just drank in the sight so few had seen, and went on my way.  To this day I feel privileged, all the more so knowing that Tucson's human population has overrun so much former desert that those hardy wild horses probably have been driven to another habitat, or to extinction.


30 March 2012

FLUID IMAGERY



Wikipedia ~ "In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms (flows) under an applied shear stress."  Most people equate fluids with liquids, but fluids also include gases, plasmas, and plastic solids.  Did you know that glass, over time and under the influence of gravity, has fluid properties?


NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has assembled a finely-detailed animation of the sea surface currents which tend to be the main drivers of heat, salinity, and carbon transport within the world ocean.  Although the 3-minute animation only shows surface movement, the computer model includes currents at all ocean depths.  To view the full 20-minute version, check out NASA's website here.  


A similar website called Wind Map shows swirling wind patterns across the U.S. ~ better still, this depiction is in real time, updated every hour.  You can "zoom in on particular regions of the country, use hover-over text to find the wind velocity at precise geographical coordinates, and explore a variety of interesting wind patterns from the past".  For those who study weather, from pilots to farmers to meteorologists, this is a useful tool.  It would be even more useful if it showed winds aloft at various altitudes.  Hopefully that is in the offing.


We rarely think of stars as being fluid, but they assuredly are ~ on a monumental scale.  Each star is an incredibly complex and evolving pattern of gas and plasma flows, and stars in groups (galaxies) exhibit a stately, slow-motion fluidity as they perform their whirling dance through space.  A new composite photo of our Milky Way galaxy shows more than a billion stars.  The image is static, but one can easily imagine their swirling motion over cosmic time.  (Note ~ click on the horizontal image halfway down the page here to view the full galactic image.


Finally, courtesy of my friend Bill, you can view the path a solid object which travels a serpentine, almost-fluid path at Take a Train Through Switzerland, a project which uses Google Maps street view.  Safe travels!

29 March 2012

SWEETS FOR YOUR HEALTH



It has been known for some time that chocolate (particularly antioxidant-rich dark chocolate) can help reduce blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol.  A recent study suggests that while chocolate may be high in calories, it also contains ingredients which promote weight loss, if consumed in moderation.  "The findings come from a study of nearly 1,000 US people that looked at diet, calorie intake, and body mass index (BMI) ~ a measure of obesity.  It found that those who ate chocolate a few times a week were, on average, slimmer than those who ate it [only] occasionally."  The findings held true even when other factors like exercise were taken into account.


Naturally, a healthy diet and regular exercise remain critical in achieving fitness.  But it's nice to know that, like red wine, dark chocolate may actually be good for us.


More good news ~ it seems that before penicillin, the application of honey was a conventional therapy for infection.  Due to its antimicrobial healing powers, both internally and externally, honey is slowly regaining favor in mainstream medicine.  The article lists several medicinal uses for pure, raw honey, including ~

  • promoting the growth of friendly bacteria in your intestinal tract
  • promoting the healing of wounds
  • promoting heart health
  • taming allergies
  • helping fight viruses and alien bacteria
Not just any honey will do, however.  Heavily processed and refined honey, such as that sold in grocery stores, will likely increase infection, whether applied topically or ingested.  Raw honey is better.  Best of all is Manuka honey from New Zealand.  While raw, natural honey releases hydrogen peroxide, explaining its general antiseptic qualities, Manuka honey contains an added compound, methylglyocal, which appears to elevate its antibacterial qualities.

Rest assured that you can continue to drip, pour, or rub regular honey on your body, with the right partner(s) to lick it off, for a wondrous sense of well-being.

Which leads us to another link between sensuality and health ~ A.V. Flox's report on research linking exercise and orgasm among women.  The results "are based on a survey of 24 women who reported reaching orgasm by exercising, and 246 women who reported experiencing sexual pleasure during exercising.  The women surveyed were between 18 and 63 years old.  Most were married or in a relationship, and 69 percent described themselves as heterosexual. 

"Of the women who orgasmed while working out, 45 percent did so while working out their abdominal muscles, or 'core' (hence the term 'coregasm').  19 percent climaxed while biking or spinning.  9.3 did so while climbing rope or a pole, 7 did so while lifting weights, another 7 percent did so while running, and the rest broke down among doing yoga, swimming, working on elliptical machines, doing aerobics, and a few others.  A whopping 45 percent of the women surveyed reported having their first exercise-induced orgasm while working out their abdominal muscles.

"Some 40 percent of the women surveyed had experienced either orgasm or sexual pleasure while working out on more than ten occasions.  Most of the women who reached orgasm were not fantasizing about sexual situations at any time before climaxing.  20 percent indicated to researchers that they could not control their climaxes .... Open-ended questions in the survey seemed to suggest that orgasm was more likely to occur after several sets of abdominal exercises, rather than within a couple of repetitions."

A woman I met in a dance class (and later became intimate with) told me that she reached spontaneous orgasms during the class.  One can only wonder how many other settings there may be for unexpected (and unsuspected by others) sexual release.  Surely more than are available to men, which hardly seems fair.  Ah well, we men still have dark chocolate and honey.

28 March 2012

MILESTONES



I began this blog on 13 February 2008.  A year later, on this day in 2009, I began tracking visitors using an extremely versatile service called sitemeter, whose logo appears at the very bottom of this webpage.  The website provides a variety of statistical analyses, including (but not limited to) ~

  • number of visits during the ;last hour, the current day, the past week, the past month, and the past 12 months
  • which pages (blog posts) were visited during those time frames
  • a ranking of the most frequently-visited pages
  • visitor information by domain name, referring URL, and location
  • a world map showing the visual location of the current or most recent 10, 20, 50, or 100 visitors
  • a tool which predicts traffic over the next hour, day, week, or month, based on site traffic during the previous respective time periods.
On 15 July 2009 I added another wonderful tool which you can view in the right-side column, showing visitors by country.  Each country is represented by its flag, a two-letter designator, and the number of cumulative visitors.

At this moment I can state that since PREDATORHAVEN's inception, I've published 1,236 posts.  Since adding sitemeter, I've received 182,516 visitors.  Since adding visitors by country, I've recorded 200 source nations.  And counting.

Naturally, these figures are modest compared to those of blogs with many thousands of followers.  Still, I'm proud of my forum.  I like its visual simplicity, the abundance of arresting images, and the variety of content.  I hope that it has provided as much pleasure and thought to readers as it has to me.  Comments are always welcome, and always published ~ the only exception being those rare comments which are verbally abusive or profane.  The premises are patrolled, and trolls will be eaten.

Here's something fun ~ I just did a Google image search using 'predatorhaven', and was rewarded with many pages of images I've included in my daily posts, along with a few I lay no claim to.  For a sense of the topical and visual variety which appeals to me, take a peek here.  Final note ~ the image above (click to enlarge) is an actual milestone near Bangor, Wales.

27 March 2012

DIAGRAMMING A SENTENCE


When I was a lad growing up on the prairies of northern Montana, I had the good fortune to attend a small high school (the student body was approximately 350) where something approximating a classical education was taught.  The rural school district couldn't afford to hire faculty to teach astronomy, rhetoric, philosophy, or Greek ~ but we students did have access to physics, chemistry, biology, American and world history, English literature, Latin, sociology, music, drama, and every math from algebra through geometry to trigonometry.  


We also had dedicated teachers who introduced us to the tools we would need to branch out into the world.  This morning I was reminded of those resources when I came across a NYTimes article, A Picture of Language.  The writer introduces us to parsing, the first system for analyzing syntax, developed in 1847 by W.S. Clark.  She then proceeds to a much simpler and more useful system, sentence diagramming, developed by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in 1877.  It is the latter system which I learned under the able tutelage of Mr. Morgan Sherlock.  (Click on the above diagram example to enlarge)


Diagramming a sentence is easy and fun, rather like solving a puzzle.  For those of us who are visual learners, It is an ideal approach to understanding the relationships between words within a sentence, and translates to understanding other, more complex relationships between ideas within almost any academic discipline.  You'll find a simple introduction here, and a collection of instructional videos here.


Alas, sentence diagramming has fallen from favor in many schools.  What a pity.  As Reed and Kellogg put it in the introduction to their grammar text, sentence diagramming "teaches the pupil to look through the literary order and discover the logical order.  He thus learns what the literary order really is, and sees that this may be varied indefinitely, so long as the logical relations are kept clear .... The diagram drives the pupil to a most searching examination of the sentence, brings him face to face with every difficulty, and compels a decision on every point.


In short, it is one route for learning to think, critically and systematically.  When our children are supplied with calculators, smart phones, computers, and the Internet, perhaps thinking has become passe.  Verbal and written expression has become dumbed down.  Math skills are waning.  Small wonder that many students from the U.S. are falling farther and farther behind students from other countries in the sciences, the arts, and yes, writing a coherent sentence.

26 March 2012

CURIOSITIES


In the sciences, one frequently comes across oddities which grab our attention visually, and are explained in the language of mathematics.  Just so with the tautochrome curve ~ a geometric curve for which, in uniform gravity and zero friction, objects placed at any point along the curve will take the same amount of time to reach the bottom (see image above).  It is a delicious paradox, and you don't have to understand calculus to enjoy watching the animation at the link above.

Consider a more complex system ~ the wind blowing across the surface of water, or fluids (air or water) of different densities/speeds at their interface.  A Kelvin-Helmholt instability results, forming hypnotic, almost fractal-like swirling turbulence.  You can see K-I instabilities in the cloud patterns where air masses of differing density or speed meet, e.g. the atmospheres of Earth or Saturn.  You can also see them where dissimilar liquids meet.  Click on the animation here for an example.

Lastly, and most grandly, check out 3D Galaxy Map, "a representation of our galaxy, the Milky Way.  It contains an overview map of the Milky Way Galaxy as seen from above, and a map of the Orion Arm (where our Sun is located), showing its major structures. The Orion Arm map is divided into navigable 10 parsec sectors, where you can explore stars.  It contains a total of 142,278 known stars, 478 planets, 1855 pulsars, 31 disks and 14 black holes.  Planet, pulsar, and multiple stars' orbits can be observed by increasing and decreasing the speed.  You can rotate/zoom/pan within each of the scenes for a better view.  More information can be found by clicking on Features."

25 March 2012

MAKING OUR OWN BED



From Wikipedia ~ "Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans, which began to increase in the late 19th century and is projected to continue rising.  Since the early 20th century, Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 dC (1.4 dF), with about two thirds of the increase occurring since 1980.  Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and scientists are more than 90% certain that most of it is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.  These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations.


" .... The global warming controversy refers to a variety of disputes, significantly more pronounced in the popular media than in the scientific literature, regarding the nature, causes, and consequences of global warming.  The disputed issues include the causes of increased global average air temperature, especially since the mid-20th century, whether this warming trend is unprecedented or within normal climatic variations, whether humankind has contributed significantly to it, and whether the increase is wholly or partially an artifact of poor measurements.  Additional disputes concern estimates of climate sensitivity, predictions of additional warming, and what the consequences of global warming will be.


"In the scientific literature, there is a strong consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.  No scientific body of national or international standing disagrees with this view .... From 1990-1997 in the United States, conservative think tanks mobilized to undermine the legitimacy of global warming as a social problem.  They challenged the scientific evidence, argued that global warming will have benefits, and asserted that proposed solutions would do more harm than good."


There have always been those who resist any challenge to their world view.  For centuries, people persisted in believing that (a) the earth was flat, (b) the earth was at the center of the solar system, or (c) bloodletting could cure illness.  Over time we've disenthralled ourselves of these errors.  The problem in the case of global warming is that we don't have time.  We've long since passed the threshold for reversing greenhouse gas emissions, halting deforestation, and finding alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels.  Natural processes are already in motion, and their momentum is such that even if we took corrective measures overnight, the processes would continue to accelerate in a feedback loop.


Polar icecaps are melting.  The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are shrinking at an ever-accelerating pace, contributing to sea level rise which threatens coastal cities and natural habitat.  As the seas warm, they expand in volume, further raising sea levels.  As the land and air warm, weather patterns shift in unpredictable ways -- hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more powerful, drought is becoming more devastating and persistent, rainfall may be torrential or non-existent.  


Care for specifics?  I refer you to several resources ~


Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong


90 Degrees in Winter:  This Is What Climate Change Looks Like


Both Coasts Watch Closely As San Francisco Faces Erosion


Our Enduring Desert May Be Coming Apart at the Seams


The data are clear, the stakes are dire, and we are caught between rising seas and a hard place.  30 years ago when I was an undergraduate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, these issues were already well-known and much-discussed among scientists.  Those who tried to raise public awareness were branded as alarmist, and the profits kept rolling in to the oil, timber, energy, and banking industries.  Even now, those same vested interests would have you believe that they have everything under control.  Trust us.  Drill, baby, drill.  


Meanwhile species go extinct daily, entire ecosystems disappear weekly, the water keeps rising, and the root cause of it all, human overpopulation, accelerates unabated.  There's a Native American sentiment which says "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."  Pity our children.  I think even that semi-enlightened view is off the mark, for it assumes human ascendancy over the world.  Rather, we are only a part, however influential, of the web of life.  What a shame that, having achieved self-awareness, our species turned from being mindful planet stewards to being a mindless cancer.  


It is already too late to prevent what we've started.  For the sake of our future integrity (assuming we're still alive), we have no choice but to start setting things right.  Not for our sake.  For the sake of all living things.

24 March 2012

HANNIBAL LECTOR IS SUCH A BACHIAN



My thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for turning me on to an NPR Music essay titled Hannibal Lecter's Guide to the 'Goldberg Variations'.  Hannibal Lecter, you will recall, is the fictional serial killer who avidly dines on his victims (memorably portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in the film 'The Silence of the Lambs').  The Goldberg Variations is a pivotal work by the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations.


So how could the creepy Lecter possibly enlighten us on Bach?  Jeremy Denk picks up the story ~ "Perhaps the most famous cinematic Goldberg moment is in Silence of the Lambs:  Hannibal Lecter, chewing the face off one of his prison guards to the strains of the Aria.  This use of Bach is ~ depending on your point of view ~ either a stroke of genius or an act of cultural cannibalism. Admittedly, it's vivid, certainly one of the best face-chewing scenes I can think of.


"But it's exploitation, too.  Classical music is rarely used in cinema to express the 'actual emotion' implied by the work in question.  (The Aria is meditative, elegant, plaintive, tender, and not particularly bloodthirsty.)  Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation.  This perpetuates a stereotype.  Classical music is unnatural.  It is not the music of normal events.  It's for massacres and deceptions of the soul (Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, the end of There Will Be Blood).


"Luckily, there is another moment in Silence of the Lambs that seems to call up the Goldbergs more subtly.  When Clarice is seeking advice on catching the killer, Hannibal says:


" 'First principles, Clarice.  Simplicity.  Read Marcus Aurelius.  Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself?  What is its nature?  What does he do, this man you seek? .... He covets.  That is his nature.'


"This laser focus on first principles, the nature of things, makes us understand why Hannibal is such a Bachian.  Much of the Goldbergs has that virtue of getting back to basics ~ uncovering the potential of intervals, elucidating possibilities of composition.  Bach is teaching the world, in a way.  The piece's lessons are still being learned.  Since the harmonies are always the same, suddenly texture and rhythm pop with new clarity.  And the simplicity of first principles lurks around many of his very complicated canons, as if to say: See, that's all there is to it.


"But here's the excellent thing about Lecter as a teacher ~ he is desperate for Clarice to get the verb right.  The key, evocative verb is 'covet'.  The killer covets.  From that the whole chain of events follows.  Mostly I don't try to teach the piano like a serial killer, but often I have found myself imitating Lecter, and asking students ~ What is this passage of music doing, what does it seek?  And they reply 'mysterious' or possibly 'this is the second theme' ~ either an epithet or a piece of learned jargon.  No verbs anywhere.  It makes me want to eat their livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.  Instead, I just reiterate 'but what does the phrase DO?"


"Is it weird to say that a set of musical notes covets something?  And yet it seems to me central, this ache of notes for other notes."

23 March 2012

SWORDPLAY


During the first of my university experiences, as an under-under-underclassman I was required to take four semesters of physical education (PE).  Along with the standard fitness/volleyball course (I still have a mean overhand bullet-serve that skims the net and is impossible to return), I enrolled in boxing, swimming, and fencing.  I think that of the latter three, only fencing could be considered both a sport and an art form.  I still have my French grip foil.

During the second of my university experiences, I voluntarily took classes in karate and weight training.  One conceivably might add karate to fencing for artistic expression, yet fencing remains the quintessential confluence of grace, speed, technique, and spontaneous creativity.  Small wonder, then, that sword fights are a central feature of literary and cinematic adventures.  In Annalee Newitz's words, "Let's face facts.  No weapon is more badass than a sword.  Fight scenes are often great in science fiction and fantasy movies, but fight scenes with swords?  They're the stuff of legend."

Her comments preface a mini-video collection called 10 of the Most Awesome Sword Fight Scenes Ever.   Each description is accompanied by a link to its respective movie duel.  In order from number 10 to number one, they are ~
  • The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker
  • (Tie) Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Arthur vs. the Black Knight .... and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy vs. the Scimitar Guy.
  • Equilibrium, John Preston vs. everybody.
  • (Tie) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Neville vs. Nagini .... and LOTR Return of the King, Eowyn vs. the Nazgul.
  • Versus, Prisoner vs. The Man.
  • Matrix Reloaded, Neo vs. The Chateau.
  • Afro Samurai, Afro vs. Jinno
  • Highlander, Highlander vs. Kurgan
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu
  • The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya vs. the Dread Pirate Roberts
When you click on the link to the collection, it may take a few moments to load, but it's well worth the momentary delay.  Now about those choices.  Clearly Annalee has overlooked a number of other, equally dramatic sword fights.  The classical Japanese fencing in Akira Kurasawa's Seven Samurai, for instance, or the duels between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone (both classically trained swordsmen) in Robin Hood and Captain Blood, or the brawling battles in Gladiator.  Nevertheless, I agree with her top two choices, especially The Princess Bride.  The swordplay is inspired (the actors trained for months before filming), and the dialogue is tense and witty.  If you have additional ideas, feel free to leave them at the 'comments' prompt below.  En guarde!

22 March 2012

TRAYVON MARTIN



From Wikipedia ~ "Trayvon Martin (February 5, 1995 - February 26, 2012, shown above left) was an African American teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman (shown above right), a multiracial Hispanic man in Sanford, Florida.  Martin, who was unarmed, had been walking to his father's girlfriend's house when Zimmerman, acting as an unaffiliated neighborhood watch member, followed him based on alleged suspicious activity, then fatally shot him during an altercation between the two.  Zimmerman described the shooting as self-defense.  The circumstances around [Martin's] death received international attention, particularly regarding Florida's self-defense laws and allegations of racial motivations and police misconduct, triggering multiple investigations."


Ya think?  Zimmerman was a self-appointed vigilante with a long record of placing 911 calls with complaints about black children in his neighborhood (46 calls over 10 years).  He pursued Martin despite the 911 operator's instruction not to.  A tape from another 911 call reveals a young voice calling for help, then crying out "No!  No!", then a gunshot.  And then silence.  


Zimmerman's claim of self-defense is called into doubt by his own record of racist paranoia, by the fact that he doggedly chased Martin after being told not to, and by the fact that he outweighed Martin by 100 lb.  Trayvon Martin died at age 17, with no criminal record.  You can find more details on the tragedy here.  


However much progess we have made since the civil rights movement, we remain a deeply racist society.  Want proof?  Refer to The 10 Most Disturbing Facts About Racial Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.  The essay fills out the details.  Here is the list ~

  1. While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States' population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.
  2. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes.
  3. Students of color face harsher punishment in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.
  4. African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates.
  5. African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison, in spite of their young age.
  6. As the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades, women of color have been disproportionately represented.
  7. The war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses.
  8. Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders.
  9. Voter laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting, disproportionately impact men of color.
  10. People of color face disparities in wage trajectory following release from prison, compared to their white counterparts.
At every stage in the criminal justice system, from questioning to arrest to criminal charges to trial to conviction to sentencing, if your skin isn't white, you're screwed.  This, in the land where "all men are created equal".  Where is the shame?  Where is the outrage?  Trayvon Martin didn't even live long enough to be questioned.  He was executed based on the color of his skin.

21 March 2012

MOLLER M400 SKYCAR



In past posts, I've described small aircraft designs that combine flight with travel on land.  These flying cars, or roadable airplanes, have engaged the imaginations of engineers and dreamers for many years.  Currently the most prominent example, with folding wings to transfrom from a propeller-driven plane to a street-legal car, is the Terrafugia Transition.   Alas, the Terrafugia's crossover design appearance is rather bulky and plain.


Recently I came across an extremely striking design -- the Moller M400 Skycar.  Unlike propeller-driven craft which need a runway to take off, the M400 is a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft (see image above). The 4-passenger M400's onboard computer allows the pilot to simply point the controls in the direction of desired travel.  It has a cruising speed of 275 mph, and a top speed of 375 mph, generated by 1200 horsepower from the eight ethanol-fueled Wankel rotary engines, which produced sufficiently low noise levels that the aircraft is operable in urban areas.  


Safety features include ~

  • multiple engines, with the ability to operate with one or more out of action
  • backup computer stabilization systems
  • aerodynamically stable glide ability
  • dual parachutes -- deployed in the event of total loss of power to bring the aircraft safely to the ground
With a respectable maximum range of 750 miles, and an operational ceiling of 36,000 feet, the M400 is no toy.  A fully-functioning prototype is scheduled for 2012, with an FAA-approved version within a few years.  I've come across one significant difference between the Moller design and the Terrafugia -- the M400 is capable of travel at only 25 mph on the ground, just adequate for taxi speed.  So it isn't a vehicle which one could take out on the freeway, or even on most city streets.  But given that it can land and take off vertically, just about anywhere, it's a very capable and sexy-looking machine.


20 March 2012

SPRING 2012



Today at 05:14 Universal Time, the vernal equinox arrived, one of two points in the earth's orbit at which the earth's axis is pointed neither toward, nor away from the sun (see illustration above, click to enlarge).  Thus has begun Spring, my favorite season of the year ~ the time of newborn life, flowers and returning greenery, and warmer days.


In celebration, I offer two poems whose central icon is .... the bear


POINT


Spring
by Mary Oliver

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and hairy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her ~
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.



COUNTERPOINT

Survivor
by Robert Mitchum

He's an old blind bar,
alone in the woods,
with only the smell of his breath for comfort.

Too mean to die.
Too lost to care.
But show some caution!
He's still the bear!

19 March 2012

AIRLINES ~ TRUTH IN ADVERTISING


I have several pet peeves with the U.S. airline industry.  One is the hub-and-spoke system, in which passengers from most cities are routed through a regional hub airport before continuing to their destination.  It may be superficially more efficient for the airlines, but it adds millions of hours of travel time annually for passengers, compared to having more direct flights between cities (which would generate more jobs and a demand for more aircraft, as well as relieve aircraft congestion at current hub airports).


Another peeve is the decline in passenger comfort (and, I would argue, safety) created by jamming more and more seats into the same internal space within an aircraft.  I first flew on a commercial jetliner in 1968, and since that time, leg room has shrunk to near zero, and seats have become narrower.  If the passenger ahead of me reclines his seat, he's right in my lap.  And at 5'9", I'm not a tall man.  Imagine the discomfort for someone like my son, who tops out at around 6'3".  The airlines may eke out more income by overbooking flights and treating people like sardines, but ultimately they're doing their public image no good.  Nickel-and-diming people to death by charging for services which once were free (meals, baggage, movie headsets) is being penny-wise and pound-foolish.


Yet another peeve is (you guessed it) airport security.  Does anyone really feel any safer, and is the tradeoff in time and inconvenience worth it?  TSA came into existence as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks, and the evolution of security measures has consistently been haphazard and reactive.  Remember the goofball who tried to set of a bomb in his shoe?  That's when we had to start taking our shoes off for inspection.  There is little if any proactive thinking going on.  


Now, another peeve to add to the list.  If you travel by air, you know that in recent years regional carriers have proliferated.  They transport passengers between smaller cities and regional hub airports, and they often sport the livery of one of the few remaining major airlines.  However, a PBS Frontline investigation revealed a reality that is far removed from appearances.  Don't assume that the pilots of a regional airline are trained to the stringent standards of the majors.  Similarly, don't assume that the aircraft are maintained to the major airlines' requirements.  It's a shell game, and the traveling public are the losers.


Sometimes fatal losers.  Remember the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in February 2009?   Fifty people died.  The captain of that flight had previously failed three check rides (proficiency tests), and both he and his copilot were suffering from fatigue induced by their airline's grueling policy regarding minimal rest time between duty flights.  You can read a summary of the flight, and watch a video recreation of the minutes leading up to the accident, here.  And you can watch the Frontline expose here, including the program, a map showing regional airlines and their safety records, and interviews with regional pilots, industry reps, government regulators, and aviation watchdogs.  Fair warning ~ you may have second thoughts about flying on a regional carrier afterward.  


You can learn more about U.S. regional airlines, and the major air carriers with which they affiliate, here.  Having done that, you'll have some idea why my ambition is to train for my private pilot's license.

18 March 2012

PERSONAL MAP OF TRAVELS



Aaron Parecki, a resident of Portland, OR, is a man with a mission.  Since 2008 he has been using GPS technology to record his position every 2-6 seconds when moving, resulting in a map (see image above, click to enlarge) with about 2.5 million data points reflecting his travels about the city.  The years 2008-2010 are coded in blue, 2011 in red, and 2012 (thus far) in yellow.  The more intense the color, the more frequently he was at that location.


I created something similar, though much cruder, using Google Maps.  I simply posted a marker at each of the nearly forty places I've lived, then connected them chronologically with blue lines.  The resulting web covers the U.S., with outlying forays to Canada, Mexico, Alaska, and Vietnam.  The greatest concentration of travel is in southern Arizona, where I lived for 20 years.


What I wouldn't give for a personal map like Parecki's, spanning the travels of my entire life. Thanks by my friend Bill for turning me on to his project.

17 March 2012

WEIGHT AND HEALTH



Ten years ago, my gradually-increasing weight reached a lifetime high ~ 199 lb.  Though not clinically obese, that's still pretty chunky for a male 5'9" frame.  At the time my circadian rhythms were out of sync, since I was working a graveyard shift and sleeping during late afternoon and evening, and not getting nearly the cardio or weight training exercise I needed.  So I decided to take matters into my own hands by adhering to a simple yet strict diet ~ taking in no more than 1200 calories per day.  My goal was to lose 1-2 lb. per month.  I knew that people who try to lose weight too rapidly generally end up gaining it back.

That daily goal meant I had to think about everything I ate.  The nutrition panels on food packages were very helpful, but mostly I used common sense and restraint.  And even though I hit a temporary plateau at 165 lb., ultimately my plan worked.  Within three years I was down to my slender high school weight of 155 lb., and today I hover around 142 lb.  

My weight goal was by no means arbitrary.  I used two guidelines ~ how I felt physically, and frequent reference to a height-weight chart, broken down by gender.  Clicking on that link will also give you access to a body-mass index (BMI) calculator (see image below).  Note that the height-weight chart provides a range of acceptable weights for a given height for men and women.  As a rule of thumb, the lower you are within your range, the better your health.  If you exercise rigorously and pack around a lot of muscle mass (which is heavier than most other tissues), you'll probably fall higher within your range, and still be perfectly healthy.

Based on my experience, I can't recommend this approach highly enough.  Most of us are aware of the obesity epidemic in the U.S.  One-third of adults and children are seriously overweight, and another one-third are obese.  Even if we didn't live in a world where entire populations are starving, those figures would be shameful.  Americans eat crap food and lots of it, and we don't exercise.  And we're paying the price in higher rates of heart and liver disease, kidney failure, stroke, diabetes, a gamut of bodily malfunction which strains the health care system, diverts funding from an array of worthy endeavors (a safe and clean environment, public works programs to provide improved employment, et al.), and ultimately sends us to an early grave.

A few days ago, Smithsonian published an article titled Is There More To Obesity Than Too Much Food?  It summarizes recent research on overeating, being careful to note that none of the results are conclusive.  For instance ~
  • One study suggests that chemicals used to treat crops, and to package and process foods, may disrupt hormonal systems and cause stem cells to turn into fat cells.  Numerous and larger fat cells.  Critics take issue.
  • Another study found that pyschologically, many people eat more because it takes more to provide the pleasure formerly found in smaller amounts of food.  The FDA is on the verge of approving a drug called Qnexa, which is intended to increase the pleasure of food while reducing the desire to keep eating.
  • Other studies offer unsurprising findings ~ that people can overcome a predisposition to obesity by walking briskly for an hour a day ~ that people who drink high-sugar soft drinks have a 20 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease ~ that soft drink companies spend $70 million annually to lobby against state taxes on sodas ~ that obese men are more likely to be infertile and to have a lower sperm count ~ that health care costs for obese people are fully twice as high as the costs for people with a normal body mass index, to the tune of an additional $80 billion for costs related to obesity in 2011 alone.
It is a weighty subject.


16 March 2012

MY LAI



Certain words or phrases are freighted with intense emotion, or with pivotal history.  43 years ago today, on 16 March 1968, American soldiers and officers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in what became infamous as the My Lai Massacre.  Most of those killed were women, children, and the elderly.  Of 26 soldiers charged with criminal offenses, only Lt. William Calley was convicted.  He served only three and a half years of an original life sentence.


When the killings became public knowledge in 1969, they prompted outrage worldwide, and dramatically increased U.S. civilian opposition to the Vietnam War.  On that horrific day, three brave men earned the much-abused title of 'hero'.  Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., was a helicopter pilot who, overflying the killing zone, saw dead and dying civilians, and others still being executed.  The only weapons in sight were those wielded by U.S. troops.  At personal risk to their lives and their careers, Thompson and his crew landed and intervened, using their own weapons to hold off approaching American soldiers in order to rescue children trapped in a bunker.  Repeated radio calls brought no military intervention or medical assistance, so Thompson returned to the slaughter scene to save more lives.  


I've written about My Lai and about Thompson's heroism several times in the past.  It remains one of the defining moments of that bloody and shameful conflict, an emblem of all that can go wrong in any war.  By chance, I had arrived in country a week before the events at My Lai, and I did not hear about it until well after I had returned to the U.S.  Most of those who face the prospect of combat ask themselves whether they will have the courage to stand and fight.  Beyond that, here is the burning question that every man or woman who takes the oath of service must ask ~ if faced with egregious, criminal, lethal behavior by my peers, what would I do?  If ordered by an officer or senior NCO to execute an unarmed civilian, what would I do?  If I came upon a scene of mass murder being committed by several hundred troops, and I was one of only three present to oppose their bloodlust, what would I do?  


In my thinking, courage is not about acting fearlessly.  Courage is feeling fear, and acting past the fear to do the right thing.  More than once during my year in Vietnam, I was confronted with the choice between hiding from danger, or facing it to save lives.  Each time, I passed the test.  I do not believe that qualifies me as a hero, a word I've come to detest because it is applied these days to anyone in uniform who happens to get shot, regardless of circumstances.  I only know that I could not have done otherwise.  I did not face the gut-wrenching scene that Hugh Thompson faced, and I cannot claim to know the degree of fear or surreal disconnect that he must have felt.   But I think he would understand what I'm describing.  He is one of my personal heroes.


Hugh Thompson, Jr., died of cancer on 06 January 2006, at the VA Medical Center in Pineville, Louisiana.  

15 March 2012

PARADIGM SHIFT IN EDUCATION



Many thanks to my friend Beth for turning me on to this lively RSA Animate video called Changing Education Paradigms.  The video operates on two very effective levels ~ its content (which contains ideas certain to challenge one's assumptions) and its presentation (which proceeds at a pace guaranteed to engage our total attention).  The speaker, Sir Ken Robinson, suggests that a paradigm shift from production-line education to the nurturing of divergent thinking is not only desirable, but essential if we hope to produce creative and original thinkers among our youth.  I couldn't agree more.  Please, please watch just the first few minutes.  I think you'll find yourself unable to disengage from the flow of his ideas.


How's this for a headline?  Sex Education Delays Teens' Sexual Activity ~ not only that, those teens who do take sex ed classes are far more likely to practice safe sex than those teens who didn't take the classes.  I find the delay factor fascinating.  It goes a long way toward challenging the paranoia of adults who are opposed to sex education due to fears that it may encourage sexual promiscuity.


If you've ever had the good fortune to study ecology, chances are you'll have come across at least one course in environmental education.  At the University of Arizona I had the great good fortune to enroll in the environmental ed class taught by Dr. Paul S. Martin, a geoscientist and Renaissance man who became my de facto mentor.  The class is intended both for those who plan on becoming teachers, and for those whose careers will involve outreach to the public.  


For an overview of what outreach might look like, check out Jim Moran's excellent essay Three Challenges for Environmental Philosophy.  Convincing people of the need to tread lightly on the planet has been an uphill struggle since the days of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.  It remains so today.  Broken down, Moran argues that in the 21st century the essential challenge are ~

  • overcoming anthropocentrism
  • reassessing our place in nature
  • defining moral status.
It is a thoughtful piece, a window onto the ethics of environmentalism.

14 March 2012

MOYERS ~ HE SHOOTS, HE SCORES



I can't begin to describe how gratifying it is to have the thoughtful interviews and commentary of Bill Moyers back on PBS and NPR.  Moyers & Company made its debut in mid-January, and since then has consistently offered provocative and insightful information and opinions.  Here are two recent cases in point, each featuring the video and a transcript ~


David Stockman on Crony Capitalism ~ the former budget director for President Reagan "shares details how the courtship of politics and high finance have turned our economy into a private club that rewards the super-rich and corporations, leaving average Americans wondering how it could happen and who's really in charge.... money dominates politics, distorting free markets and endangering democracy.  As a result, we have neither capitalism nor democracy.  We have crony capitalism".  


Gretchen Morgenson on Corporate Clout in Washington ~ the Pulitzer Prize-winning NYTimes journalist (see image above) bluntly explains "how money and political clout enable industries to escape regulation and ensure high compensation for executives at the top".  She singles out Wall Street and the banking industry, along with the SEC and the Federal Reserve, for particular attention as examples of what can only be labeled graft and corruption in the mortgage industry.


All of Moyers' guests are articulate, well-informed, and candid.  It happens that they voice perceptions that I've expressed for years.  How refreshing to discover that one's views are actually reaching a national audience, through the auspices of a host whose integrity and devotion to the common good are unquestioned.  Bill Moyers is to Rush Limbaugh as Shakespeare is to pornography.


I would also like to recommend a very moving, troubling movie available on DVD ~ The Whistleblower is inspired by the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a midwestern police officer who volunteered to become part of the UN International Police in post-war Bosnia.  Without giving too much away, she discovered that amid the still-simmering sectarian resentments and lingering violence, human trafficking in sex slaves was rampant.  The trafficking conspiracy was layers deep, and it became harder to know whom to trust in trying to end it all.  Rachel Weiss gives a luminous performance in the lead role.  The subject matter is unsavory, but also very real, and it continues to this day in certain corners of the globe.  Knowledge is power.


Finally, from my Chicago friend Bill, an utterly charming video called The Power of Introverts.  Like all TED presentations, Susan Cain's is engaging, evocative, and opens up one's own imagination to new possibilities.

13 March 2012

AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE



Several weeks ago, the media network Indian Country Today published its listing of the five worst U.S. Presidents ~ with regard to the welfare, indeed the survival, of Native American peoples.  The information supporting each entry is as jolting as that in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which sets the record straight on how American history is presented in a selective, dishonest, and self-serving manner.  Presidents whom we have been told were virtuous visionaries and defenders of liberty, were often just the opposite when it came to dealings with American Indians.  


The worst five presidents by this reckoning, are~

  1. Andrew Jackson
  2. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  3. George W. Bush
  4. Abraham Lincoln
  5. Ulysses S. Grant
I've long held that Native Americans are the great invisible minority in this country, living under the most dehumanizing conditions, having survived a long history of genocide, broken treaties, and relegation to the ghettos we call "reservations".  Some individuals and some tribes have managed to adapt, with varying degrees of preservation of their language, culture, and traditions.  But like any other victim of criminal abuse and neglect, they should never have been placed in that position in the first place.  They were indigenous, sovereign nations.  Europeans were the conquering invaders.

The Indian Country piece prompted a response from Akim Reinhardt, a professor of American Indian history.  In addition to the five leaders already mentioned, he describes other U.S. presidents who have been willing participants in the carnage ~ George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, John Adams.  (And let's not forget Christopher Columbus, who started it all.)

Each article is well worth reading more than once.  It may take repeated exposure to really soak in the enormity of the crimes against humanity committed by leaders we've considered to be honorable men.  Reinhardt's piece provides considerable historical evidence to support the need to reassess the actions and reputations of our country's leaders.