30 September 2012

WYOMING WOLF HUNT


Excerpts from David Lawlor's excellent piece for the website Earthjustice ~

"Since returning to their native landscape, wolves have restored a more natural balance to [the] Northern Rockies ecosystem. Wolves benefit the health of elk and deer populations by primarily hunting animals that are old, very young, injured, or diseased, leaving the healthiest animals to produce the next generation.  In Yellowstone National Park, the renewed presence of wolves has altered the behavior of elk, which now commonly avoid areas where they are most vulnerable to predation, and in turn has reduced overgrazing of young aspen and willow shoots. This restoration of shrubs and trees is essential, especially in riparian areas where the trees reduce stream erosion, and support native bird communities, beaver populations, and other wildlife.  Wolves aggressively prey upon coyotes within the wolves' home territories.  By reducing the number of coyotes in the area, the presence of wolves has also benefited populations of small rodents, birds of prey (who feed in the rodents), and pronghorn antelope (who are often preyed upon by coyotes).  As the gray wolf's reintroduction illustrates, healthy ecosystems are interconnected, holistic entities requiring rich biodiversity, including the presence of apex predators such as wolves.

" .... In 2011, Congress gave hunters and trappers in Montana and Idaho the right to kill wolves that had previously been protected under the Endangered Species Act, nullifying a court victory won by Earthjustice that would have prevented the hunts.  Since then, management of wolves in the two states has grown increasingly hostile as the states have expanded their wolf quotas and hunting seasons.  During the 2011-2012 season, hunters and trappers killed 366 wolves in Montana and Idaho.  Even while approving state management of wolves in those two states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the past denied this authority to Wyoming due to its even more extreme anti-wolf laws.

"But now, the fate of Wyoming's wolves is in serious jeopardy.

"Shortly after Congress stripped Endangered Species Act protections from Montana and Idaho wolves, FWS proposed a similar rule to remove protections for Wyoming wolves and turn management authority over to the state.  Wyoming's brutal wolf management plan calls for unlimited shoot-on-sight killing of wolves in about 85 percent of the state and the licensed killing of wolves in the remaining 15 percent.  Independent scientists say that a sustainable, fully recovered population would require 2,000 to 3,000 wolves in the Northern Rockies.  Currently there are an estimated 1,700 wolves in the region, about 326 of which are in Wyoming.

" .... Hunters in the Northern Rockies have been bending the ears of the region's politicians for years, complaining that wolves have decreased elk and deer populations, making hunting more difficult.  And ranchers in the area frequently bemoan the killing of livestock by wolves.  But in fact, most elk herds in the Northern Rockies are larger than state management objectives.  Indeed, Wyoming recently authorized additional elk hunting in that state to address high herd numbers.  And while ranchers express concern about the loss of livestock, studies show that wolves kill a very small  number of livestock ~ digestive problems, harsh weather and domesticated dogs all account for exponentially more livestock deaths than wolves."

So here we are.  In less than 24 hours, wolves will be shot on sight and trapped throughout most of the state.  It will even be legal to gas wolf dens, kill wolf pups, and bait wolves into conflicts as a pretext for wolf killing.  Anyone who follows this forum knows that in my view predators should be protected, not murdered.  Gray wolves should never have been removed from the Endangered Species list.  Wolves were virtually exterminated from the American West in the last century.  It took years of research and public pressure to facilitate their reintroduction into the northern Rocky Mountain states, and as the first paragraph describes, the result has been decisively healthy for the entire ecosystem.  Now that wolf numbers are approaching even a conservatively estimated sustainable population, national politicians no longer want to be bothered, and state and local politicians are eager to pander to the bloodlust of the hunters and ranchers among their constituents.  The locals too often do not see the bigger picture.  Those who do see the bigger picture, are abdicating responsibility for stewardship not only of wolves, but of ALL species in the wolves' community.

This is why, contrary to my custom of not soliciting readers, I urge you to go to the Earthjustice website ("because the Earth needs a good lawyer"), and make a donation toward getting the Wyoming wolf hunt ruling reversed.  It is only by safeguarding predators in the wild (along with protecting and expanding natural habitat) that we can comprehensively protect wilderness in its entirety.  We humans need wilderness, even if we never in our lives visit there.  It is a core component to the health of our own souls.

29 September 2012

BREASTS


It isn't my imagination.  The necklines on women's clothing have been scooping lower and lower over the past decade, everywhere you look.  There's been a steady progression during my lifetime from seeing the hollow at the base of a neck, to seeing collarbones, to seeing the hint of the topmost swell of a breast, to plunging so low that only the nipples are left to the imagination (and sometimes not even them).

I'm not exactly complaining.  I just wish that revealed cleavage wasn't some sort of uniform.  Variety is the spice, a little mystery is nice.  Not to mention, I'm sorry, but most obese or overweight women (and men) should not be baring their blubber.  That's my bias.

In general, though, men enjoy watching women's bodies, and seem especially to enjoy looking at women's breasts.  So much so that for some men, an autonomic reaction sets in ~ they are seized by paralysis, their eyeballs nearly pop out of their skulls, and they all but salivate.  Many women mock men's response, even as they (women) bare ever more flesh.

So is this just men being childish idiots?  Turns out it's not ~ there's more to men's obsession with breasts than meets the eye (as it were).  Studies have tested hypotheses ranging from "full-breasted women subconsciously signal reproductive advantage" to "breasts came to men's attention when (over evolutionary time) sexual intercourse shifted from rear-entry to face-to-face, with breasts providing a powerful visual stimulus linked to coupling".  As an evolutionary biologist, I can see some merit to either argument, but doubt that this is the whole story.

George Dvorsky at the blog io9 reports on a biochemical alternative, proposed by the authors of the new book The Chemistry between Us ~ Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.  Their explanation relates to a mother's bond with her infant, and is summarized thus ~

"When a woman gives birth, her newborn will engage in some pretty elaborate manipulations of its mother's breasts.  This stimulation sends signals along nerves and into the brain.  There, the signals trigger the release of a neurochemical called oxytocin from the brain's hypothalamus.  This oxytocin-release eventually stimulates smooth muscles in a woman's breasts to eject milk, making it available to her nursing baby.

"But oxyotocin-release has other effects, too.  When released at the baby's instigation, the attention of the mother focuses on her baby.  The infant becomes the most important thing in the world.  Oxytocin, acting in concert with dopamine, also helps imprint the newborn's face, smell and sounds in the mother's reward circuitry, making nursing and nurturing a feel-good experience, motivating her to keep doing it and forging the mother-infant bond.  This bond is not only the most beautiful of all social bonds, it can also be the most enduring, lasting a lifetime.

"Another human oddity is that we're among the very rare animals that have sex face-to-face, looking into each other's eyes.  We believe this quirk of human sexuality has evolved to exploit the ancient mother-infant bonding brain circuitry as a way to help form bonds between lovers.

"When a partner touches, massages, or nibbles a woman's breasts, it sparks the same series of brain events as nursing.  Oxytocin focuses the brain's attention to the partner's face, smell, and voice.  The combination of oxytocin release from breast stimulation, and the surge of dopamine from the excitement of foreplay and face-to-face sex, help create an association of the lover's face and eyes with the pleasurable feelings, building a bond in the woman's brain."

But wait ~ what about the man's brain?  It seems likely to me that the same oxytocin-dopamine release serves as a pleasure enhancer for infants/men too.  Either neurochemical by itself exerts a powerful influence on perception and behavior.  Together, they are mutually-reinforcing, and can form a feedback loop which is stimulated by the sight of an attractive pair of breasts.  If more men (and women) were aware of this, perhaps they would show more restraint in their displays and in their ogling.  Perhaps not.

A footnote ~ it is a mistake to think that all men are obsessed with big breasts.  As with any other aesthetic experience, beauty and pleasure are varied and subjective.  There are those of us who prefer breasts that are small-to-medium in size, pleasingly-shaped, and part of a slender, athletic physique.  I have the sense, with no research to back my intuition, that the neurochemical research summarized above might explain more than the visual pleasure men take in women's breasts (or the pleasure that women take in a man's taut, firm butt ~ all you women who work out at a gym know what I'm talking about).  The visual might also translate into a compelling tactile wish.  For me, it's as though magnetized nerve endings in my hands and fingers are activated ~ they want to reach out and cup, caress, and tease those beautiful orbs.  It takes the force of will to restrain them.

Lest you feminists/humanists out there (of whom I am one) get the wrong idea, this discussion is not about objectifying women, or reducing them to their body parts.  It is simply an attempt to understand one facet in the complex interplay between women and men.  My eyes travel to a woman's face before detouring to her body.  Beautiful eyes, sensuous lips, and most of all a lively intelligence are the initial attractors for me.  Call me a sapiophile ~ intellect, creativity, imagination, and humor get my attention and turn me on.  That sweet double-handful is icing on the cake.

My gratitude to Dr. Carin Bondar for the research link.

28 September 2012

27 September 2012

ANDY WILLIAMS 1927-2012


One of the signature singing voices of the twentieth century left us this week.  Andy Williams, whose clear effortless tenor, easy smile, and startling cerulean eyes made him a natural for 1960s television and nightclubs, was best known for his romantic ballads.  His style was more understated than many, and perhaps it was precisely that which set him apart.  Any song he performed, became his own.

My musical tastes at the time tended more toward classical/jazz, or rock and roll.  Middle of the road music just didn't appeal.  Yet as a former vocalist, I can tell you that the quality and range of Andy's voice was superb.  He was a natural.  (Plus, I was envious of his marriage to French singer Claudine Longet.)

You can learn more about his life in remembrances in the NYTimes and the Washington Post.  And here is his extensive discography ~ 42 studio albums, 2 live albums, 16 compilation albums, and 79 singles.  Scroll down to the list of singles and you'll discover the songs which his voice caressed, including Hawaiian Wedding Song, Lonely Street, Danny Boy, Twilight Time, Days of Wine and Roses, Dear Heart, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, Music to Watch Girls By, and his theme song, Moon River.  For your listening pleasure, here is the purer studio version of Moon River, and here is his live performance (so that you can see his relaxed, romantic singing style.)  Enjoy.

26 September 2012

HONEYBEE MYSTERY SOLVED


Starting in 2006 and continuing into the present, the widespread disappearance of worker honeybees became so severe that it was classified as colony collapse disorder (CCD), a term with implications similar to 'epidemic' or 'plague'.  This event is of major economic and nutritional importance to humans, since honeybees pollinate many agricultural crops worldwide.    As honeybees disappear, foods become more scarce and more expensive.  There are also ecological implications, given that honeybees also play a central role in the reproduction of plants in the wild.

Multiple potential causes of CCD have been proposed, including biotic factors like mites and insect diseases, as well as stress from malnutrition, pesticides, and environmental changes.  A recent report by Reuters summarizes research that indicates two definitive causes for the collapse of honeybee colonies.  One is the widespread use of "a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.  In the U.S. alone, these pesticides, produced primarily by the German chemical giant Bayer and knowns as 'neonics' for short, coat a massive 142 million acres o corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds .... Research published in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by the plants' vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter on their rounds.  They are a nerve poison that disorients their insect victims, and appear to damage the homing ability of bees .... Purdue University entomologists observed bees at infected hives exhibiting tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions, all signs of acute insecticide poisoning.

" .... But scientists believe that exposure to toxic pesticides is only one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees in recent years.  The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of land development and the spread of monoculture agriculture, deprives pollinators of their diverse natural food supply.  This has already led to the extinction of a number of wild bee species.  The planting of genetically modified orgamism (GMO) crops ~ some of which now contain toxic insectiides within their genetic structure ~ may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems."

It is an old story, played out once more because myopic corporate interests do not let the memory of past destruction interfere with profit margins.  In the early to mid-twentieth century, the major pesticide culprit was DDT, which produced so much collateral damage to birds, wildlife, and humans that it was banned in the U.S. in 1972.  So what have the manufacturers of DDT done to avoid profit loss?  They simply export the lethal substance to third-world countries where no law exists to ban its use.

Similarly with habitat destruction ~ over the course of half a century, as small farmers have been forced by economic pressures to sell their land to ever-growing mega-corporations, crop diversity has been replaced by the species monocultures found in commercial forestry.  The more we rely on one species for food, timber, or medicine, the greater we risk disaster if a natural event like disease or climate change ravages that species.  That's why biodiversity is so important in both  agricultural and natural communities.  More species means less risk of catastrophic loss to the community as a whole.

In addition, it is important NOT to simply clear-cut vast swaths of land for seeding, but rather to employ smaller tracts, interspersed with natural plant growth along fence lines, streams, low-lying swales, and in the corners of fields.  This provides both shelter and a pathway for migration for birds, insects, and wildlife.  The importance of working with nature rather than against it is stressed by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben ~ "Past a certain point, we can't make nature conform to our industrial model.  The collapse of beehives is a warning ~ and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out hot to work with bees, not as masters but as partners, offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas."

25 September 2012

DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION


Excerpt from a recent email to a friend ~

"I've been dealing with depression lately.  I've gone through episodes in the past, debilitating enough to warrant anti-depression meds.  This isn't quite that bad (yet), but life is still a struggle.  So much revolves around being impoverished.  My SS disability falls short of meeting my living expenses each month, even with penny-pinching.  I drive as little as possible, don't eat out at restaurants or go to movies, and am in dire need of a visit to the dentist and an opthamologist ~ I have a chipped tooth, and my vision is changing such that while driving, I cannot read road signs until I'm very close to them.  Gotta figure out a way to finance the latter before next March, when my driver's license comes up for renewal.

"SS allows me to ear up to $700-800 per month without deducting anything from my disability check, but I haven't found any jobs where my back injury wouldn't limit me.  Sitting is the worst posture, pain-wise.  Lying down with a lumbar support is best, but who'll pay me to do that, since my name isn't Li'l Abner?  Sigh.

"The other hard part is no social network locally.  My friend Perry and I talk on the phone weekly, and my book club meets once a month, but that's about it.  I let Match.com expire, it was useless.  Even family members are distant .... Thank goodness for my cats."

As I've given this more thought, two other factors weigh in.  One is impending winter.  It's nice when it snows a lot, adding beauty and quiet to the cityscape.  When it doesn't snow much, it's just gray and cold, from October until May, or so it seems.

The other factor is deeper, more evasive.  It happens to everyone as they age, and now it's happening to me ~death or brushes with death among friends and loved ones.  I'm no stranger to dying or catastrophic injury.  I was surrounded day and night during my year in Vietnam, episodes about which I've written in previous posts.  When I returned home, then moved to southern Arizona, my first job was as an ambulance driver, a time during which I learned even more morbid ways in which people can be hurt or killed.  But that experience had the saving grace of being present to help people when they were most in need.

That was forty years ago, and I've been fortunate to have spent the interim not often dealing on a personal level with the grim reaper.  (A girlfriend was killed on the freeway in 1969, and one of my two best high school friends took his own life in 1998.)  Inevitably, lately things have accelerated ~
  • In 2010 my professor, friend and mentor from college passed away.
  • In 2010 a friend and fellow worker underwent heart surgery.  Then this year the same friend was stricken by swine flu complicated by pneumonia.  Adding insult to injury, he contracted MRSA in the hospital.  Thankfully medication controls his symptoms, but he can no longer work.
  • Earlier this year my daughter-in-law's mother died from cancer.
  • Last month a cousin was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live.  Since then her health has improved in response to chemotherapy.
  • This week my ex-brother-in-law died, a gentle man cherished by his family.
  • Yesterday I learned that one of my oldest friends was bitten by a water moccasin.  If others had not rushed him to the hospital, he surely would have died, given his age and diminutive stature.
Surreptitiously, death has been circling, affecting my mood along with other influences.  It is good to become consciously aware, thereby better able to counsel myself.  I'm lucky ~ most of the friends I've made over the years are well and thriving.  My parents, both in their late 80s, are still alive as well.  Each was among the youngest of a large group of siblings, so each has had to deal with the passing of older brothers and sisters, not to mention friends.  Here's a poignant aspect of their lives ~ theirs is the generation which fought during World War II.  My dad kept in frequent touch with his old Army buddies all this time, but they too, are dying.  I don't know how they've dealt with it.  I don't know how I will deal with it when my parents pass on.  It is beyond the ability of my imagination to grasp.  They've been in this world all my life.

I've no doubt that I'll get through that loss.  We all do.  Humans are resilient, plus there's no other choice.  I've survived war, three divorces, a five-year estrangement from my son, and the limitations and infirmities that come with age.  During a few of the rockiest passages, I thought about suicide, but never acted on it.  Back then, the thought was "How would this hurt my son?" Now it is also "Who would love and care for my cats?"

So you're stuck with me, gentle reader.  I hope that is a positive thought for you.  I'm reminded of the end scene in the movie Papillon, in which Steve McQueen's aging and infirm character has successfully, finally escaped from his island prison.  Floating out to sea on a raft of netted-together coconuts, he shakes his fist at the sky and shouts "Hey, you bastards!  I'm still here!"  Here is the highly emotional scene.

24 September 2012

FOUNDING PRINCIPLES


From time to time it is useful to talk about the core focus of this forum ~ the importance of predators in nature's balance.  Most humans are guided by myth and misinformation in forming their views about how much (if at all) we should tolerate, even encourage, the presence of wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, grizzly bears, and other meat-eaters.  Here's why ~

"Carnivores play an integral role in maintaining healthy ecosystems by regulating deer and elk, as well as smaller mammal populations.  Most of these species need large areas of land to meet all of their food and habitat requirements.  For this reason, carnivores, especially wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears, are considered to be 'umbrella' species.  By protecting large wild areas for predators to live and roam, we are, in effect, saving a place for many more animal and plant species.

"Yet sustained lethal control, as well as trophy hunting of some of these species, has had a devastating impact on the environmental health of the North American continent.  Biologists have found that many large native carnivores are 'keystone species', and play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological integrity and preserving species diversity.  The disappearance of a keystone species (wolves, mountain lions, etc.) triggers the loss of other local species, and the intricate connections among the remaining residents begin to unravel.  Species losses cascade and multiply throughout the ecosystem in a domino effect.  In the words of conservation biologist John Terborgh, 'Our current knowledge about the natural processes that maintain biodiversity suggests a crucial and irreplaceable role for top predators.  The absence of top predators appears to lead inexorably to ecosystem simplification accompanied by a rush of extinctions.'

"Simply put, by protecting top and mid-level carnivores, we protect the health of natural biological systems upon which other species depend."

  Among the species whose survival is at stake is homo sapiens.  We fancy ourselves to be apart from, and dominant over, the natural world.  In truth we are only one part in the web of live ~ an increasingly parasitic, destructive part.  With each habitat we destroy, with each species we disrupt or drive to extinction, we hasten the day when we ourselves face oblivion.

But species-centric survival aside, with self-awareness and power comes responsibility.  It falls upon us to learn to be good stewards for life on our planet.  Our ability (or lack of ability) to assume the mantle of protector, must be informed by our sense of ethics, our empathy for other living beings, and our understanding that they too have a right to exist and thrive.  Should we fail in this endeavor, we will prove to be nothing more than a cancer on the face of the Earth.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the world will little note nor long remember our passing.

More on the ecological importance of carnivores

Cougar predation key to ecosystem health

Without top predators, ecosystems turn topsy-turvy

Top predators key to ecosystem survival, study shows

Next phase in protecting species ~ living with them

Without sharks, food chain crumbles

More science about carnivores

Cougar management guidelines for North America

Cougar population dynamics and viability in the Pacific Northwest

Ecological melt-down in predator-free forest fragments

The importance of large carnivores to healthy ecosystems

Saving the big cats

My thanks to the group Anti-Hunting in America for the quoted text and references.

23 September 2012

HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID


That's only one of a wealth of great lines from the movie Casablanca.  The sentiment is offered in the form of a toast ~ "a ritual in which a drink is taken as an expression of honor or goodwill .... Toasts may be solemn, sentimental, humorous, even bawdy or insulting" (in a good-natured spirit).  One can toast a person, an event, or an object ~ newlyweds, victory in war, someone who has achieved a personal triumph, all are fair game.

Courtesy of The Daily Sip, did you know ~

  • The word "toasting" is said to come from the Latin tostus, which means parched or roasted.  It refers to the Roman custom of tossing a piece of charred and spiced bread into a vessel of wine.  Most sources say the goal was to improve the flavor of the wine, others say the host would eat the soggy bread after everyone had been served.
  • The host or hostess of the party should always be the first one to toast the guest of honor.
  • The Scandinavian toast skol comes from the word for skull, at one time a popular drinking vessel.
  • Don't drink when you're the object of the toast ~ it's like singing happy birthday to yourself.
  • Once a toast is made to you, it's considered good manners to stand and return the favor.
  • Some historians surmise that clinking glasses together when toasting was done to scare away evil spirits.  Others say clinking glasses is a way of adding a personal gesture to the good wishes being offered.
  • When you toast, always look the person in the eye.  Otherwise, you might be in for seven years of bad luck.  Other versions warn of seven years of bad sex.  (Oh no!)
  • A Greek host would take the first drink of wine from the communal pitcher to show everyone that it was good stuff and not poisoned, and then pass it around.  Since we drink from individual glasses today, a simultaneous toast revives that communal spirit.
  • Your toasting wine should be the best one of the evening, since everyone's palate is fresh enough to appreciate its flavors.  Later, move into the more affordable wine.
You can find a list of toasts from different nations at this link (scroll down to "Worldwide").  Here are several of my own favorite toasts ~

Traditional Spanish ~ 
"Salud, dinero y amor .... y el tiempo para disfrutario".
  Translation:  "Health, money and love .... and the time to enjoy them."

Traditional Irish ~
"May the road rise up to meet you.
 May the wind be always at your back.
 May the sun shine warm upon your face.
 And rains fall soft upon your fields.
 And may ye be in heaven a half-hour
 Afore the devil knows you're dead!"

Retrieved from somewhere in the dim recesses of memory ~
"Here's to our wives and lovers.  May they never meet."

22 September 2012

A GRASPING TONGUE


Above is a photomicrograph of a hummingbird's tongue (click to enlarge).  Like bees, hummers are nectivores, feeding on the sweet nectar of flowers.  In the process, they help to cross-pollinate between flowers, enhancing genetic variabillity.  Such a mutually beneficial arrangement is one example of a symbiotic relationship.

The two halves of a hummingbird's beak have a pronounced overlap, with the lower half (mandible) inside the upper half (maxilla).  When hummingbirds feed on nectar, the beak is usually only opened slightly, allowing the tongue to dart into the interior of flowers.

Here's what surprised me as I researched the surprising image above ~ though the long-held belief was that hummingbirds drink via capillary action, high-speed photography has revealed that the hummingbird's tongue's tubes open down their sides, and close around nectar.  This is as counter-intuitive as learning that when cats drink, they do not lap water up over the tongue and into the mouth.  Rather, cats form the tongue into an upside-down U, and lap water in beneath the tongue.

The world is full of wonders, waiting to be discovered.

21 September 2012

A WEE SMALL FANTASY


Among my many computerized lists are my favorite male and female actors ~ each entry including several films in which that person has appeared.  It goes without saying that for the list of women actors, there are many I find deeply attractive (Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Shahi, and Tricia Helfer, to name a few).  If I were offered the opportunity to spend time with just one woman from that list, difficult though the choice would be, I would arrive at last with Natascha McElhone.  

She first caught my eye with her riveting performance as an Irish terrorist in the 1998 film Ronin, opposite Robert De Niro.  More recently, I've become hooked on the TV series Californication, in which she plays the girlfriend of David Duchovney's character.  Their relationship ricochets from tender to volcanic, anchored by their precocious daughter.

I can't help it, I'm a sucker for beautiful eyes, and Natascha has them in spades (see image above, click to enlarge).  I'm also a sucker for a lithe and slender figure, one which conveys health, athleticism, and grace.  Above all, I'm drawn to intelligence, sensitivity and humor.  Clearly I don't know Natascha personally, but my intuition tells me that I would be far from disappointed.

Sadly, she lost her husband in 2008, leaving her with three sons.  She's written a book entitled After You, based on letters and diary entries written to her husband after his passing.  A pensive soul.  A daring actor.  A woman I would like to call friend.

20 September 2012

AMISH HATE CRIMES


No, I do not refer to hate crimes committed against Amish people.  I refer to hate crimes committed by Amish people against other Amish.  Today's NYTimes reported that "Samuel Mullet Sr. (shown above), the domineering leader of a renegade Amish sect, and 15 followers were convicted of federal conspiracy and hate crimes Thursday for orchestrating a series of bizarre beard- and hair-cutting attacks last fall that spread fear through the Amish of eastern Ohio.

" .... Although Mr. Mullet did not directly participate in the attacks, prosecutors labeled him the mastermind of the assaults, in which groups of his followers held down victims and sheared their beards and hair.  Among the traditional Amish, men's long beards and women's uncut hair are central to religious identity.  Prosecutors argued that the attacks were intended to humiliate those who questioned Mr. Mullet's cultlike methods, like forcing errant followers to live in chicken coops and pressing married women ~ including his own daughter-in-law ~ to accept his intimate sexual 'counseling'.

"Some of the nine victims had offended Mr. Mullet by moving out of his settlement, and others had angered him by refusing his call to shun people he regarded as enemies of his church.

" .... The defendants did not deny their roles in the attacks, which were carried out with battery-powered clippers, scissors and razor-sharp shears that are designed to trim horse manes.  Rather, the case turned on the motives of the attacks and whether it was appropriate to make them into a major federal case under a 2009 hate crimes law.

"To prove the most serious charges, the jurors had to be convinced that the defendants had caused 'bodily injury', which could mean 'disfigurement', and that the attacks on nine of the victims were based mainly on religious differences.

' .... The violent assaults, and now the public trial, have been a searing experience for the region's Amish, who normally lead placid and intensely private lives, without electricity or cars, and try to settle disputes peacefully without involving law enforcement."

My initial flippant reaction upon reading the headline and the first few paragraphs of the article, was "Oh no!  Not the Amish too!  Has the whole world gone mad?  Craig Ferguson and Jon Stewart are going to have a field day with this.  'News flash ~ In a world filled with bloody warfare and gang violence, assault rifles and mass murders, the members of a renegade Amish sect are going after other Amish with .... wait for it .... hair clippers.' "

But that moment of flippancy quickly passed as I read further, and realized what a horrible assault that would be for the Amish victims.  Imagine being peacefully at home, and suddenly and violently being invaded and overpowered by a group of assailants who defile you in a manner calculated to offend your deepest beliefs.  It isn't an exaggeration to call it a form of rape.

Further, Mullet's cult has, in its own way, the trappings of the mindless behavior of the followers of Charles Manson or Jim Jones ~ not fatal, but just as vicious.  Very, very creepy.

I'm not at all religious, but my heart goes out to the victims of Mullet and his sect.  The Amish and similar groups deliberately choose pacifism and a simple life.  Here in Montana, Hutterites are a similar branch of Anabaptists, with a similar worldview.  These minority religious groups are targets for prejudice and sometimes abuse by intolerant members of the communities surrounding them.  Yet they prosper.  It's not a life I would choose, as it is too insular.  But I respect those who are true to their beliefs, and who do no harm to others.

19 September 2012

THE REAL 47 PERCENT


If you've been living under a rock this week, you may have missed the political firestorm ignited when a video was released showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fund-raiser among wealthy patrons.  Romney didn't realize he was being recorded, thus did not censor his remarks, which included statements like ~

  • "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.  All right, there are 47 percent who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to take care of them."
  • "These are people who pay no income tax.  47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.  So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.  So he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich.  I mean, that's what they sell every four years.  So my job is not to worry about those people.  I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
A segment on last night's PBS Newshour showed Romney's remarks, and analyzed the sources for his 47 percent figure.  It turns out that his assertions are full of omissions and distortions, and that his equating those who pay no income tax with Obama supporters is disingenuous, if not downright vacuous.  You can view the Newshour coverage, along with commentary by two non-partisan economists, here.  And here is a full transcript of Romney's fund-raising remarks.

It appears that consistently, Romney feels compelled to insert his foot in his mouth so far that he kicks himself in the ass.  The GOP establishment (not including the extreme right wing Tea Party fringe) has been engaged in damage control over Romney's public pronouncements for months, and many are distancing themselves from his campaign.  He's managed to offend every country he's visited, alienate numerous minority groups here at home, and now summarily dismisses half the American population (whose votes he needs to win) as being tax evaders, social parasites, and irresponsible for their own lives.

All of which fairly drips with irony, since it is the obscenely wealthy who are the true tax evaders, people who (like Romney himself) make their fortunes off the labor of people who work for inadequate wages, then avoid taxes by secreting their wealth in offshore bank accounts.  Just what is Romney hiding by adamantly refusing to release his tax returns?  Even his own father has urged him to do so.

Back to his hypothetical 47 percent for a moment.  As Mother Jones reveals, you may be among the 47 percent if you are ~
  • Superwealthy.  High earners take advantage of tax loopholes, tax exemptions, tax credits, tax havens, and the means to hire skilled accountants to minimize or eliminate any taxes owed.  Case in point ~ Romney qualifies for the 35 percent tax bracket, yet on his 2011 tax return ended up paying only 13 percent in taxes.  And that's just on his reportable wealth in the U.S.  Add in Swiss and Cayman Islands accounts, and one can only wonder just how much he is hiding.  Clearly Romney himself is a member of the 47 percent.  Last year 491,000 households with incomes exceeding $100,000 paid no income tax.  Of those, 7,000 households earned over $1,000,000.
  • Just pretty wealthy.  The chasm between the few who are rich and the many who are of moderate to poverty-level income has been widening.  The proportion of wealthy Americans who pay no income tax has been growing.
  • Working hard.  About three-fifths of the 47 percent make less than $20,000 per year, yet those households continue to pay payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment), as well as state and local income taxes.
  • Living in a red state.  It is ironic that solidly Republican states, notably the South, include a disproportionate number of those on social welfare and relief programs.  
  • The lucky beneficiary of Republican tax policies.  The Reagan and Bush tax cuts erased many Americans' tax liabilities.  The Republican philosophy of cutting taxes while cutting spending is emphatically unrealistic.  Government exists to serve and protect the people. This includes military defense, infrastructure, consumer protection, a clean and safe environment, and regulation of those industries (oil, banking, automobile, manufacturing, food to name a few) which have shown themselves incapable of responsible behavior in their pursuit of more and more profit.
  • Down on your luck.  A growing number of Americans are simply too poor to qualify for paying income taxes ~ including not only the working poor, but the unemployed.
  • A senior citizen.  The pittance paid to most recipients of Social Security is too small to require paying income taxes.
  • In college.  Most scholarships and financial aid are not taxable.  Those students who work their way through school do pay taxes.
  • In a combat zone.  Military personnel in combat are exempt from paying income tax.
  • A corporation.  Yes, nearly 55 percent of large American-owned corporations report zero tax liability ... and corporate income taxes' share of total federal taxes collected has been falling steadily.
The Mother Jones link includes a series of compelling charts, and links to documentation.  Bottom line ~ the era of corporate welfare and welfare for the rich must end.  It is a hard nut to crack, since so many legislators are controlled by Wall Street.  Persuading these legislators that it is in their best interest (re-election) to enact tax reform and election reform laws will be in part a grass-roots effort, meaning that the wealthy establishment has a monumental spending advantage.  

The other force capable of change is that body of politicians of conscience and integrity already in office.  Lest their voices be stifled, it appears vital to this observer that Barack Obama be re-elected to the presidency, and a Democratic majority be elected to the House and Senate.

18 September 2012

JESUS THE FAMILY MAN


Being an atheist, I rarely find much in the world of religion of sufficient interest to comment on.  In today's NYTimes, however, there was an intriguing report fleshing out the findings of Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, who "has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture:  "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... '

"The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card (see image above), wth eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass.  Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says 'she will be able to be my disciple.'

"Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife, and whether he had a female disciple.  These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say.  But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage."

Indeed.  My own view has long been that Jesus existed as a man, apparently a very good man, but not the son of a deity.  It is a myth which wasn't even written down for several centuries, relying on word of mouth.  Once begun, the writing continued over a period of centuries, undergoing the distortions and internal contradictions inherent in translation from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to several revisions among modern languages.  Like Beowulf and The Iliad, the Bible in general and the Christ story in particular are subject to a wide range of interpretations.  Not the least of the questions raised is whether the events described took place at all, or whether they belong among the lexicon of other mythologies.  (We know that The Iliad, at least, is Homer's telling of a historical event, the Trojan War ~ we remain unsure of the details Homer weaves in.)

All of which raises an interesting thought ~ is novelist Dan Brown's presentation of Jesus's life in the book and the 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code more realistic than audiences imagined?  He posits that Jesus was not only married to Mary Magdalene, she was also one of his disciples, and they parented a family whose descendants are living today.  The tale of The Da Vinci Code is part thriller and part historical detective story.  In the light of Dr. King's papyrus findings, Brown's book and the movie might have more credibility.

There was an even earlier hint at this scenario.  The 1953 novel and the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, included a sequence in which Jesus is married.  It turns out to be a dream or a vision, however.  Perhaps writer Nikos Kazantzakis thought the concept too threatening to the religious establishment at the time, and had to content himself with merely hinting at such a radical alternative to the standard narrative.

Being a non-believer, I have no particular investment in the question of Christ being married or not, beyond historical curiosity.  But for many who do believe, the implications of a married Christ on their assumptions about divinity, family, and the accuracy of holy text, are potentially profound.  After all, if the Bible got this simple, fundamental relationship wrong (or if it was intentionally suppressed at some point), what else might be cast into doubt?

17 September 2012

TRACKING THE VOTE 2012

Huffington Post has created a very useful visual and statistical tool for keeping tabs on the evolution of the 2012 presidential race.  This website features a map color-coded to show strong, moderate, or undecided support for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.  If you place your cursor over a given state, the respective percentages of support or that state pop up.  That information can also be found in a comprehensive table further down the page.

If the election were held today, President Obama would win re-election by 316 electoral votes to Romney's 206.  When you glance at the map, that balance seems counter-intuitive, because there appear to be many more red (Republican-leaning) states than blue (Democrat-leaning) states.  The explanation, of course, is that under the electoral college system, votes are decided according to population, not area.  A few states with more voters can carry the election over more states with fewer voters.

To see this in operation, at the linked website look closely at the upper right corner of the map.  You'll see a tab marked "Geographic" (the map you're viewing), and another tab labelled "Cartogram".  Click on the second tab, and voila, you're presented with a cluster of color-coded circles whose size corresponds to the number of electoral votes wielded by that state.  Suddenly it becomes clear which states are key to winning the election ~ the larger circles.  And it also becomes clear that there are (currently) more large circles that are blue, than red.  Hence Obama's lead.

(A different kind of cartogram would distort the size of each state in proportion to its electoral clout.  The image above is an example, showing the electoral results by state in the 2008 presidential election.)

An additional handy feature at the linked website lies at the lower right of the map/cartogram ~ a visual depiction of half a dozen states which have recently shifted their political alignment.  The trend toward or away from strong support for either side is important to track, as we near election day.  Thanks to HuffPost for this service to the electorate.

16 September 2012

SELF-INFLICTED DAMAGE


Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is upon us, with growing severity and no end in sight, since we stubbornly resist committing to strong, systematic steps to slow or reverse our behavior.  The U.S. is most egregiously in denial, being the only major industrial nation to sign the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  Just think, 191 nations of the world have officially recognized the role of carbon emissions in the over-production of greenhouse gases which lead to global warming.  The U.S., governed as it is by Wall Street rather than by the electorate, prefers to live in a state of denial which threatens all of life on earth.

The consequences are dire.  They include (but are not limited to) ~

  • rising temperatures leading to melting of glaciers and polar icecaps
  • rising sea levels
  • shifting weather patterns, with more severe and more frequent extreme events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts
  • shifting ocean current patterns which affect all of the above
  • increased volcanism and earthquake potential
  • migrating climate zones ~ resident plant and animal life, as well as human agriculture, must change location, adapt to new conditions, or perish (see map above, click to enlarge)
The impacts on human health are diverse, and just starting to emerge.  In addition to increased malnutrition and starvation, the vectors for infectious diseases are responding by spreading past former barriers that no longer exist.  The EPA has stated that "disease-causing agents are passed on through food, water and animals ... Climate change may be altering these transmitters, allowing certain diseases to proliferate as extreme changes in water, heat, air quality and more wreak havoc with the waters and animals that host some of our deadliest diseases.  What's more, climate change will increase all water-borne diseases via heavy rainfall and flooding.  Heavy storm water runoff will contaminate [rivers and] lakes.  Sewage systems will be overwhelmed, spilling waste water into crop and beaches.  Gastrointestinal distress will take on a whole new meaning to us all."

Here are five examples of diseases which are on the move in North America, thanks to climate change ~
  • PAM.  As warmer temperatures migrate northward, so are populations of a single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowlen.  The organism "enjoys lakes, rivers, hot springs, and your brain.  If you are unlucky enough to swim with the mini-beasts, you may develop what the CDC refers to as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM).  In other word, an amoeba attacks your brain tissues and you die."
  • Lyme disease.  "Carried by ticks, the illness is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorfen.  Once infected, humans experience fever, headaches, and other maladies.  Most people recover after taking antibiotics, while up to 20% of sufferers experience symptoms that can continue for years."  Formerly found mostly in warmer and moister southern states, cases of lyme disease are spreading to more northerly states and into Canada.
  • Malaria.  A mosquito-born flu-like illness caused by a parasite, malaria was essentially eliminated from the U.S. by 1951.  However, the number of malaria cases rose sharply in the 1990s.  1500 cases are reported in the U.S. annually.  Symptoms of fever and headache may progress to coma or death if the victim is not promptly treated.
  • Ciguatera fish poisoning.  This immune response to tainted fish magnifies the effects normally felt in food poisoning (vomiting, diarrhea), augmented by neurological problems (e.g., reversing the feeling of hot and cold).  "Ciguatera is considered endemic from Florida through the Caribbean.  It's caused by eating fish that gorge on the algae of coral reefs.  As waters warm, new cases are popping up in previously unexposed northern latitudes ... As sea levels continue to warm due to climate change, the impact zone of ciguatera will contnue to grow."
  • West Nile virus.  WNV is considered "an unstoppable illness which can leave its victim with symptoms ranging from fever and vomiting to brain-swelling and death.  The virus is carried by mosquitoes feeding on infected birds."  The higher temperatures created by climate change actually improve a mosquito's ability to bite through both infected birds and us.  Worse, drought conditions also encourage transmission.  Standing, tepid water is an excellent draw for mosquitoes and the infected birds looking for water."  As of August 21, 2012, a total of 1,118 West Nile cases have been reported in the U.S., including 41 deaths in this year alone.  Rising temperatures account for much of the increase ~ July 2012 was the hottest month on record in U.S. history.
I'm reminded of the wonderful cliff jump scene from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Caught between a relentlessly-pursuing posse and a vertiginous river gorge, the two outlaws are debating what to do, fight or jump.  But Sundance has a problem.  Here is the scene.  Perhaps a good laugh will help us to learn to swim in this new world we've created.

15 September 2012

SMOKE IN THE AIR


The 2012 Sawtooth wildfire is located in the forests of the Bitterroot Mountains west of Hamilton, Montana (see image above and maps below, click to enlarge).  The fire is roughly 60 miles south of Missoula, and the enormous volume of smoke produced by the 6 square mile fire is making breathing a health hazard for communities in the Bitterroot Valley and confluent valleys and basins.  For the past several days, the smoke has been so thick in Missoula that clear visibility is limited to a distance of a block or two.  The mountain ranges surrounding the city are invisible through the miasma.  The photo in a Missoulian article gives you an idea of air conditions this far from the fire.  The residents of Hamilton must be suffering.

Given that my allergies include smoke, I venture out only rarely and briefly for mail or groceries, until the air clears.  Thankfully my tiny apartment has air conditioning, making indoor life bearable for me and my two cats.  Others are not so fortunate.  This is part of living in southwestern Montana.  Winter is long, Spring and Fall seem to last only a few weeks, and summer invariably brings wildfire season with its attendant smoky air, which can last from a few weeks to a few months.  As climate change brings ever-drier conditions to the West, this writer is seriously considering moving to the moister climate of the Pacific Northwest.

Here is a map depicting the locations of serious wildfires in the U.S.  The website is a seriously useful tool, including tabs to maps which show HAZMAT situations, disease outbreaks, gang activity, terrorism events, earthquakes, drug interdictions, and human trafficking.



14 September 2012

PHYSICS AND SCIENCE FICTION


I've been a sporadic reader of science fiction since high school, with a more intensive period during college when the genre provided an escape from the intensive reading in my science and math classes.  Not all science fiction is created equal, however.  Some writers ground themselves more firmly in the "science" part of the name, while others pay greater attention to the "fiction" part.  In my eyes the best writers are those who have a deep understanding of science (especially physics), as well as an artist's eye for plot, character development, and imagination.

You don't have to read science fiction to notice the interplay of these two elements.  A fair number of movies fall within the sci-fi category, and like books, they span the continuum between hard science (with a poor story line) and a ripping good story (with a poor science foundation).  Here's a curious thing ~ perhaps because film is a visual medium, even though the best science fiction movies contain both science and fiction, many films ignore essential physics in favor of enhancing the story, and get away with it.  Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Avatar, Serenity, Pitch Black,  and John Carter are just a few made within the past few decades that play fast and loose with the principles of science.  An example ~ we all know that real life astronauts live in zero-gravity, floating freely within their spacecraft.  Yet in the movies people in space are nearly always seen walking, feet on the floor, as though gravity were somehow present.  It's not weird enough to distract us ~ in some ways it can enhance the story by providing a touch of seeming normalcy in an otherwise alien environment.  But what if all those movies had been presented with the characters in zero-G?  I think that would have been just as much fun (though probably much more expensive to film).

To expand upon this theme, here are 10 Myths about Space Travel that Make Science Fiction Better (click on the link for a fuller exploration of each myth ~ and be sure to read the comments beneath the list) ~

Call me old school, or call me someone who thinks laterally, but I think that a century from now (assuming we haven't destroyed Earth first), those who look back on today's crop of science fiction films will be just as bemused by our awkward efforts as we ourselves are, when we look back on space travel as it was depicted in early 20th century movies.  As a Yale astrophysicist put it, "The bottom line is that although many topics in astrophysics are ideal for science fiction settings, the universe is stranger and more wonderful than anything authors could imagine."

13 September 2012

WIND AND SOLAR


This just in ~ new research indicates that  "there is enough energy for people to reap from the wind to meet all the world's power demands without radically altering the planet's climate, according to two independent teams of scientists.  Wind power is often touted as environmentally friendly, generating no pollutants.  It is an increasingly popular source of renewable energy, with the United States aiming to produce 20 percent of its electricity by wind power by 2030.  Still, there have been questions as to how much energy wind power can supply the world, and how green it actually is, given how it pulls energy from the atmosphere.

"Adding wind turbines (see image above, click to enlarge) of any kind slows winds, and .... adding more than a certain number of turbines would no longer generate more electricity.  Still, simulations suggest that at least 400 terawatts ~ or 400 trillion watts of power ~ could be generated from surface winds, and more than 1,800 terawatts could be extracted from winds throughout the atmosphere.  In comparison, people globally currently use about 18 terawatts of power.

"Simulating a century's worth of amped-up wind energy production suggests that harvesting maximum power from these winds would have dramatic long-term effects on the climate, triggering major shifts in atmospheric circulation .... In contrast, extracting enough wind energy to satisfy current global power demands would only have minimal climate effects, as long as wind turbines were spread out.  Doing so might affect surface temperatures by about 0.1 degree Celsius and affect average precipitation by about 1 percent.

"The researchers suggest half these turbines be placed in the ocean, while the others would require a little more than 0.5 percent of the Earth's land surface ~ about half the area of Alaska. Virtually none of this area would need to be used solely for wind, but could for instance also serve as farmland, ranchland or wildlife preserves.  Spreading out the ground-based turbines in windy locations worldwide such as the American plains and the Sahara would increase efficiency by keeping them from stealing energy from each other, and would reduce their overall environmental impact."

To my knowledge these are the first studies to quantify the available power available from surface winds, as well as from winds at various altitudes, and compare that to the current and projected power needs of the human population. The studies also take into account possible adverse effects from erecting too many wind turbines, ranging from climate effects to mortality inflicted on migrating birds.  It appears quite impressive that wind power alone could meet the energy needs of the planet.

Geopolitical realities may complicate matters, however.  Implicit among the assumptions of the studies is the notion that a global power grid would operate in tandem with global wind energy production.  Currently power grids are at best national or regional (as in the European Union).  Given the positive impact on any nation's economy, the potential for eradication of poverty, and the potential stabilizing effect on political relations, one would hope that the majority of nations would be willing to participate ~ mediated, perhaps, by an international body such as the United Nations.

Together with ongoing developments in solar power (see image below), this writer believes that it is time to rid ourselves of reliance on more dangerous and costly energy sources such as nuclear power, not to mention time to reverse corporate and government determination to eke out the last ounce of profit from highly polluting, non-renewable energy sources such as fracking for natural gas, offshore drilling for oil, or mining for coal.  The ideas and the funding have been available for decades.  All that's been missing is the vision and the will.  The time has come to embrace the vision, and to exert our will ~ in the voting booth, in the media, and on the streets.


09 September 2012

DREAM THE SONG


Recently during a dream, I began to recall a song from my early childhood.  In the song, (1) one voice sings a melody, then (2) is answered by a vocal ensemble singing a different melody with different rhythms.  Finally (1) and (2) sing simultaneously, their varying melody lines flitting and dancing around and through each other harmoniously.  Somehow, it is possible to track both lines of lyrics.  I'm certain that there's a name for this kind of composition, but the closest thing I've found to approximate it is counterpoint ~ "the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony), but independent in rhythm and contour."

You can hear a simplified version of this effect in a musical round ~ "a musical composition in which two or more voices sing exactly the same melody (and may continue repeating it indefinitely), but with each voice beginning at different times so that different parts of the melody coincide in the different voices, but nevertheless fit harmoniously together."

But the contrapuntal arrangement is more complex, more nuanced.  The song itself is one I haven't thought of in decades, yet during the dream I was able to vividly reconstruct the interweaving melodies and lyrics.  Upon waking, I felt pleased and excited at this, but did not write down the name of the song, so after an hour or two I'd forgotten it.  In trying to remember, finally the final phrase came to mind and I typed it in on YouTube, and discovered my song!  (I'm such a genius, I scare myself sometimes.)

Now that you are doubtlessly dying of curiosity, here is the 1950 version of "You're Just In Love", sung by Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters.  If you scroll down within the link, you'll see the names of other performers who have recorded the song.

Singing in groups is great fun.  Even greater fun is helping a bunch of non-singers to learn the words and melodies of a contrapuntal piece, and then perform it together.  Initially people are either self-conscious or skeptical, but when it all comes together, everyone is grinning and laughing.  I did this twice, with extremely different audiences.  One was a group of high schoolers, when I was teaching in suburban Philadelphia.  The other was a group of men at a co-counseling workshop.  The song in question has not two, but three melodies and sets of lyrics to learn.  Here it is, a commercial for Rice Krispies cereal, dating from the late 1950s.

And finally, here is a hilarious example of interspecies harmonizing, Pink Floyd's Seamus.  I hope you'll have fun and sing (or howl) along !

08 September 2012

CYNEFIN


The word "cynefin" is Welsh.  As nearly as I can track down, it is pronounced "KUH-neh-vin".  (I welcome correction from any reader fluent in Welsh.)  I happened across it on Facebook, on an inspirational image which proclaims that it is "a Welsh word for a place where a being feels it ought to live.  It is where nature around you feels right and welcoming."  It is one's personal habitat, one's natural home.  (See image at bottom, click to enlarge.)

How lovely that such a word exists.  For me, a cynefin must be a place in nature, away from human presence.  All my life I've gravitated to an assortment of cynefins, conscious of the attraction but not aware of the name for such places.  I've lived and traveled across the breadth and depth of the United States, with forays into Canada, Mexico, and Vietnam.  My personal cynefins are both micro and macro ~ places of enclosed intimacy, and places of sweeping vistas.  So many come to mind ~

"Cynefin" had been adopted by cognitive psychology to refer to a problem-solving mindset that takes into account "the relationship between man, experience, and context".  Originally developed for use by business managers, it seems applicable for groups and individuals seeking knowledge management in complex social systems.  Here is a video of Dave Snowden describing the cynefin model.

But back to basics.  When you close your eyes and allow your mind to go blank, what places emerge as your own cynefins, your own places of rightness and welcoming?  What is their appeal for you, in your heart of hearts?  Are you in one at this moment?


07 September 2012

BARACK BRINGS IT HOME


Contrary to my first intent, I've decided to offer brief commentary on all three nights of the 2012 DNC.  Last night Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech for his candidacy for President.  He covered the points he needed to, and there were several memorable moments.  But his oratory wasn't as sweeping or inspiring as it was in 2008.  Perhaps four years in office does that to you.  In any event, here is his address.

What I found remarkable, as has been true throughout the convention, was the diversity in the audience ~ by age, gender, ethnicity.  And that audience was fired up for Obama.  If he can regain his 2008 momentum among women, blacks, Latinos, independents, and younger voters, he'll stand a very good chance of taking the election.

The voters seem to be even more polarized this year.  On Facebook I've come across diatribes against Obama that verged on being rabid ~ devoid of factual content, toxic with empty Tea Party rhetoric.  On the other hand, I've also seen diatribes against Mitt Romney that are just as emphatic.  The difference lies in the evidence backing up the claims of each side.  Anti-Romney appeals, such as his opposition to insurers paying for birth control medications, and his intent to defund Planned Parenthood, are based on Romney's own campaign rhetoric.  One blogger went so far as to document 533 lies Romney told in 30 weeks.

It would be much tougher to provide evidence for lies told by Obama, but that hasn't stopped the far right from trotting out tired old accusations like whether Obama is actually a U.S. citizen, whether he is a secret Muslim, et al.  Still, Romney's core of support is just as fervant as Obama's, so it may take an independent panel of fact-checkers to sort things out.  In the meantime, the show goes on.

06 September 2012

BILL LIGHTS THE FIRE


Well, I'd planned to content myself with just sharing yesterday's moving speech by Michelle Obama at the 2012 DNC.  But last night ... after U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren,  former President Jimmy Carter and several others delivered their addresses, former President Bill Clinton electrified the nation with a fire-breathing call to arms that had the audience crying out for more.  He did what so few Democrats have done ~ simultaneously shredded Republicans' behavior for the past twelve years, point by point, and staunchly defended President Barack Obama's record during his first term.

Clinton was in epic form.  He is justly famous for speaking at length and in detail, and for reaching out to every listener as if he were talking to him/her personally.  Last night's speech was Clinton at his best.  In the years since he's left office, Bill Clinton has remained deeply informed, deeply passionate, and deeply committed to the Democratic party's philosophy of inclusiveness, rather than divisiveness.  The distinction was clear just by looking at the racial and ethnic diversity in the DNC audience, and comparing that image to the nearly all-white audience at the 2012 RNC a week ago.

Clinton addressed every important issue facing the nation ~ the economy, jobs, women's reproductive rights, the wars we've fought, the peace we seek.  He named names, challenged lies, and reminded us of what we all have at stake, together.  He drew a line in the sand, and drew it with emphasis and drama, passion and humor.  For the first time in this long, mud-slinging election season, I'm actually looking forward to the remaining two months before election day.

Here is Clinton's stirring speech in its entirety, with a link to the transcript.  And here is a link to the same speech as broadcast on PBS.  I may watch the 50-minute address all over again, just for the joy of it.