26 February 2013


Language is central to our lives as sentient, bipedal, opposable thumbed, social animals.  We communicate using gestures, body language, facial expressions, and by spoken and written language ~ words and phrases which are symbols for a thought, an object, an action.

Language evolves.  I once took a class in Middle English literature, in which the professor insisted that we learn the spellings and pronunciations of the 12th to 15th centuries.  The experience was actually more complex and difficult than my two years studying classical Latin, which is the root of all Romance languages.  Much has changed in 600 years ~ vocabulary, grammar, syntax.

In vocabulary alone, American English has morphed significantly just since the mid-1900s, as social norms, technology, and the influence of other cultures have introduced new words, and new meanings for existing words.  The richness of meanings can lead to ambiguity ~ not inherently a bad thing, since nuance is one of the joys of communication.  Still, it can create the potential for misunderstanding between speaker and listener, writer and reader.

So with these two concepts in mind ~ linguistic evolution and ambiguity ~ Elizabeth Parker proposes that in the realm of political discourse, there are 10 Phrases Progressives Need To Ditch (And What We Can Say Instead).  Her suggestions have little to do with being politically correct (though there is nothing wrong with seeking to minimize offense).  Rather, they seek to shed outdated associations and substitute more accurate ones.  Here is her list of phrases to be airlocked, along with their replacements and the reason for the change~

  1. Big Business.  Instead, try Unelected Government.  "This puts them in their proper context as unelected entities with unprecedented powers, whose actions have immense impact on our lives, and which we are powerless to hold accountable."
  2. Entitlements.  Instead, try Earned Benefits.  "Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Compensation are all forms of insurance that we pay into all of our working lives ~ via a percentage of our income ~ and then collect from when the time comes."
  3. Free Market Capitalism.  Instead, try Socialized Risk & Private Profits.  "This best describes the dramatically failed experiment in unfettered [unregulated] capitalism, as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries .... an unworkable failure and damaging to society."
  4. Government Spending.  Instead, try Investing in America.  "Because that's what our federal tax dollars do.  They invest in education and infrastructure that wouldn't prove profitable for businesses, but which still benefit society in the long run."
  5. Gun Control.  Instead, try Gun Safety.  "It sounds so nice, non-coercive, and reasonable ~ plus, it's true.  Most of us aren't against guns, we just want them used safely."
  6. Illegal Aliens.  Instead, try Undocumented Residents.  "Why not?  They already do much of what we officially-recognized U.S. citizens do, plus they're having more kids than Anglos are.  Seems like immigration provides an ideal way for us to avoid the demographics crisis hitting Western Europe and Japan."
  7. Pro-Life.  Instead, try Anti-Choice.  "Because that's what they really are all about.  They don't care about 'life' [especially after birth].  They only seek to deny choices to women.  Not just the choice of whether or not to have a child, but whether a woman can ~ like a man ~ embrace her full sexuality without having to worry about pregnancy, and whether she can make related choices about her body, her career,and when to have children, as men always have."
  8. Right-To-Work.  Instead, try Anti-Union.  "It's far more accurate.  In 'right-to-work' states, non-union workers in union shops can decline paying union dues.  Which sounds fair, but is not, because union shops pay better wages to their employees .... 'Right-to-work' really does mean 'right to choose among sucky wages and benefits packages'."
  9. The Environment.  Instead, try Shared Resources.  "We may not care about some factory dumping crap into the ocean, but we dang-well care about our neighbors up the river not properly maintaining their septic tank."
  10. Welfare.  Instead, try Safety Net.  "When people think of a safety net, they're more likely to think of a protection of last resort .... a source of help that's available when we need it, and that we pay for through our taxes .... and one that they can instantly bounce out of.  If we continue to grow the middle class, instead of cutting taxes for the rich and allowing companies to pay sub-living wages, perhaps the latter will be true again."
You can check here to read the full article.  Most of Parker's proposals make sense ~ the only one I take issue with is number 9 ~ The Environment.  If we want to use "the environment" interchangeably with shared resources, that's okay, but suggesting that ocean dumping (or any other destructive activity that is hidden from us) is vaguely acceptable, is myopic.  The larger view is that we DO live in and alter our environment ~ the same environment shared by all other living things.  And that environment WILL come back to bite us if we don't make choices that are forward-thinking, and that protect the planet.  The phrase "shared resources" may be useful to a point, but it fails to take into account the reality that those resources either support other life, or ARE other life.  In either case, we have no right to assume ascendancy.  We are only part of the whole.

25 February 2013


The premise.  Humans have catastrophically overpopulated the Earth, beyond the planet's carrying capacity for our numbers.  We have perpetuated the illusion that its plant, animal, and mineral wealth are "resources" for our use.  Acting on that illusion with little restraint, we poison and acidify the ocean, pollute the air, destroy forests which produce the oxygen we breathe, raze entire ecosystems to make room for our expansion, drive hundreds (probably thousands) of species to extinction through over-hunting or habitat destruction, use up non-renewable fuel reserves, desecrate beauty and fracture biodiversity.

The situation.  Starting about forty years ago, climate scientists, ecologists and naturalists began raising the alarm ~ we as a species had set in motion physical and chemical processes which would rapidly achieve such momentum that they would be unstoppable ~ environmental collapse, global warming, the eradication of a multitude of life forms.  At the time, it was within our power to rein in our corporate greed, rethink our assumptions about our garden planet, and reverse the abuse and plundering of the planet.  The warning was sounded ~ we are approaching a threshold beyond which degradation would be irreversible.  We have crossed that threshold.

Climate change is only the most obvious and immediate symptom of the changes we have wrought.  As the planet warms, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, the complex course of global ocean and air currents is being altered, droughts and storms are intensifying in their duration and frequency, each phenomenon influencing the others in an ever-evolving feedback loop.  Crops fail, weather patterns change, sea level rises.

To visualize the Earth's interlaced cycles and their disruption, it is worth setting aside two hours to watch the PBS Nova episode Earth From Space ~ just click on the green "watch the program" prompt.  Satellite imagery and narration bring to life new information from nearly every field of science.  The program is informative and visually arresting.

Even if every nation on Earth were to immediately cease emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, halt over-fishing and deforestation, devise a humane and acceptable method for reducing our population to one-tenth its current size, stop all drilling and mining for oil, coal, and natural gas, reestablish wilderness and wildlife ~ even if we managed such a miracle, the momentum of change would take centuries to slow and reverse.  In the interim, permanent changes and losses will have occurred.  Already life forms from coral reefs to tropical rain forests, songbirds to tigers, are disappearing quickly.

The analogy.  It is a sad fact that humans tend to behave reactively in response to a crisis, rather than thinking ahead and behaving proactively to prevent one.  This is especially so when it comes to the intangible ~ concepts like environmental change don't hold the attention of most people for long.  Now that evidence of anthropogenic change is clear, our responses are varied, and tend to conform to the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross model commonly known as the five stages of grief.  See which stage(s) you occupy ~
  1. Denial ~ "I don't believe it."  "This can't be real."
  2. Anger ~ "This is so wrong!"  "Those damn greedy corporations/banks/politicians!"
  3. Bargaining ~ "How can we buy more time?"  "Recycle!"
  4. Depression ~ "I'm too sad to go on."  "What's the use?"
  5. Acceptance ~ "It's happening, we might as well prepare for it."
If this sounds grim, it is.  Just in the sixty years since I entered first grade, exotic creatures and places I marveled at (and hoped to one day see) are either diminished or no longer exist.  I cannot begin to describe the grief I feel.  Yet I am determined to minimize further damage, and to seek ways to restore a balanced relationship with nature.  Not just for me, not just for all of us, not even just for our children's children, but also (most importantly) for all the living beings with whom we share this world.  As an intelligent and self-aware species, stewardship is our privilege.  As the agents of so much destruction, restoration is our responsibility.  

As the planet goes, so go we all.

~ For an expanded and more articulate version of this view, check out Richard Schiffmann's excellent article The Five Stages of Environmental Grief.

24 February 2013


Out in the mountains nobody gives you anything.
And you learn what the rules were after the game is over.
By then it is already night and it doesn't make any difference
what anyone else is thinking or doing
because now you have to turn into an Indian.

You remember stories and now you know that the tellers
were part of all they told,
And everyone else was, and even you.
They're all around you now, but if you're afraid
you will never find them.
And those questions that people always ask ~
"What would you do if .... "
They have their own answer right now ~ nothing.

Some things cannot be redeemed in a hurry
no matter what the intentions are.
What could be done
had to have been done
a long time ago.
Because mistakes have consequences that do not just disappear.
If evil could be cancelled easily it would not be very evil.

And so, the stars see you.
While you drift away they have their own courses
and they watch you.
And listen, they already know your name.

~ What Happens When You Get Lost
by William Stafford

23 February 2013


Here are a few comparisons of heart weight and performance, in order from smaller to larger species ~ note that heart weight increases and beats per minute (bpm) decreases with the size of the creature.


  • weight 0.0035 lb.
  • rate 6000 bpm
  • weight 0.001035 lb.
  • rate 1300 bpm
  • weight 1 lb.
  • rate 120 ~ 250 bpm within seconds, allowing acceleration from 0-40 mph in 3 strides
  • weight 25 lb.
  • rate 65 bpm
  • multiple arterial valves in their necks, and the highest blood pressure of any mammal ~ 280/180 mm mercury
  • weight 26-46 lb.
  • rate 30 bpm
Blue Whales (image above)
  • weight 1,300 lb.
  • rate 7 bpm
  • largest mammal on Earth (>100 ft. long), heart pumps 7 tons of blood
So where do we fit in?  

  • weight 0.8 lb.
  • rate 70 bpm
  • during an 80 year lifespan, your heart will beat roughly 100,000 times per day, or 2.8 billion times overall
Comparisons courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation.

22 February 2013


In two days, the 85th Academy Awards ceremony will be held, honoring the best films of 2012 in the United States.  Because I live in a town whose theaters cater to the lowest common denominator (i.e., showing popular movies which rake in the maximum revenue, as opposed to showing excellent movies) I have seen only one of this year's nominees ~ Lincoln.  It is a superb film.

Today's NYTimes featured a fascinating visual resembling a six degrees of separation chart.  On it are the photos and names of the actors and directors of the year's most prestigious films. Lines connect individuals via films in which they've worked with other nominees.  Other, short lines connect to dots representing an association with films nominated in years past.  If you place your cursor over the various intersections and dots, the relevant film title, year, and award nomination appears.

For many years, the tradition was to limit the number of nominations to five in the top categories ~ best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress. This year there are nine nominations for best picture ~ one hopes this is a reflection of the high number of excellent films shown in 2012.

An aside ~ I've always thought it odd that, in our culturocentricity, we only have one category with five nominees devoted to "foreign" films (those made outside the U.S.).  World cinema is far more extensive, nuanced, and diverse that American films alone can possibly represent.  The list of wonderful movies from other countries is impressive, and most are short-changed by the rules of the Academy.  This limitation is a disservice to those films, and a disservice to American audiences.

In any event, I'll probably tune in and out of the televised awards.  It's fun to star-gaze, but the speeches can be interminable.

21 February 2013


I grew up on the prairie, on farms and in small rural towns.  I grew up amid quiet.  When I think back, the sounds that I recall are the rustle of tall grass, the calls of meadowlarks, and the wind ~ the Earth breathing.  Now things have changed.

The Setting
I currently live in a city of about 70,000 people.  I've lived in places with many more (5 million), and many less (3).  Several years ago, I was forced into early retirement by injuries related to my work.  Now I exist on Social Security Disability, limited both by my disability and by my tiny income from enjoying the active life I pursued as a younger man.

As that younger man, I usually had music of one genre or another playing all the time at home.  But in recent years I've come to favor quiet.  And there's the rub, because true quiet is scarce where I live.  Here are the sounds which accompany my days and nights ~

The complex of one-bedroom apartments where I reside is situated near the intersection of two major traffic arteries ~ I'm one block from the four-lane east-west street, and two blocks from the six-lane north-south street.  Traffic noise is constant until late evening, especially in the summer.  

The north-south street arches onto an overpass to accommodate both the east-west street and a parallel set of railroad tracks on the far side ~ tracks which then branch and branch again to form the city's railroad yard.  When train whistles or horns are distant, they evoke a romantic echo.  When they are closer, not so much.  The rumble of passing trains can occur day or night.  As if for emphasis, a railroad siding branches from the main line and passes within 40 feet of my door.  Once a day, an engine and two or three freight cars thunders past to the siding terminus, where a metals recycling plant loads materials, then thunders back ~ thankfully at a slow speed because of the curves in the track.

Nearby is a beer distributor, from which emanates the "beep-beep-beep" back-up warning horn of delivery trucks and pallet loaders.  There's also a paper-cardboard-plastics recycling plant whose heavy machinery emits a high-pitched mechanical whine.  In another direction sprawls a shopping center, contributing to the volume of traffic.

As if this confluence of noise producers weren't enough, I'm also near the traffic pattern for the city's airport.  Thankfully the number of aircraft landing and taking off is small.

Adding to the mechanical outside noise, pedestrians on the sidewalks outside either end of my apartment sometimes detract from my privacy ~ by talking loudly as they pass, even yelling.  Most of the residents are courteous, but some are college students who have yet to learn that their behavior impacts others.  

My door opens onto a three-story stairwell, whose concrete steps are supported by steel beams which extend into the building's frame, thus acting as a magnifier for every footfall on the stairs.  Those who are heavy-footed or in a hurry generate their own muted thunder.  Foot traffic is not constant, but certainly noticeable.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that my city isn't a busy seaport.

I live on the ground floor, with neighbors on either side and upstairs. During my seven year tenure, neighbors and their particular sounds have come and gone.  The complex has formal quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m., which helps establish a baseline.  When someone's noise is especially intrusive, my approach is to go to their door, explain the problem, and ask for their cooperation.  If it happens again, I call in a noise complaint to the police, and notify the property management agency.  No second chances.  I've only had to call the police a handful of times.  Most people are willing to tone it down, once they realize how conductive the walls are.

At the moment, I have a neighbor on one side who is learning to play rhythm guitar, a neighbor on the other side who has a resounding voice (especially on the telephone) plus an irritating cackling laugh, and a neighbor upstairs who practices karate.  I've had to approach all three, but only the would-be guitarist has required a call to the police.  Once.

The floor plans are such that I can tell when one neighbor is cooking, or when another is using the bathroom, or when another is doing laundry.  Charming.  

One might wonder, with all the noise sources, how is it possible to sleep?  I'm a night owl, so when my bedtime rolls around, usually others are already quiet.  As insurance, I run a small floor fan to provide white noise.  It works quite well ~ except for that passing train on the siding.

The Outlook
It is my goal, by the time my lease expires in August, to find a place to live that is either in a quiet neighborhood, or completely out of town ~ perhaps in another climate altogether.  I would prefer a house with plenty of space for my cats to run around in, windows for them to watch the world go by, and a garage for my winter-abused truck.  Residential rentals in this city are ridiculously overpriced, so we'll see what I have to compromise on.  In the meantime, I believe it's time for some classical music.

20 February 2013


Here, courtesy of the League of Conservation Voters, is a very useful tool ~ a map of the U.S., showing how each state's Senators and Representatives (on separate tabs) scored in 2012 on their votes on environmental issues, with a higher percentage indicating votes more friendly to the environment.  Overall the picture is not pretty ~ the Senate's average score is only 56%, and the House's average is a dismal 42%.

It is instructive to flip back and forth between Senate and House, and note how an individual state's score can change.  In my state of Montana, for instance, our senators score in the top 20%, while our representative scores just above the bottom 20%.

The page also features voting graphs for each chamber, as well as a record of the votes cast on individual pieces of legislation.  There is also a search tool for finding your members of Congress, a scorecard archive, and a list of recent votes in 2013.

This resource should be one of every voter's primary tools in deciding for whom to vote in the 2014 and 2016 elections.  For those who understand that our crumbling environment is the paramount issue facing voters, the issue which influences all others, there is no more important criterion for judging candidates.

19 February 2013


The scene ~ a rally protesting illegal immigration.  The moment of truth ~ a Native American man (with his child) vigorously and angrily confronts the entire crowd over their hypocrisy and double standard.  It is a humbling and uplifting moment ~ and amusing to watch the white demonstrators disappear in the face of his wrath.  View the 1 minute video here.

We are ALL immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants (see map below, click to enlarge).  Get used to it.  Some people try to draw a fine line between "legal" and "illegal", but the fact is that like history, immigration laws are written by the victors, whose legitimacy as residents is usually highly suspect.  Witness the expansion of America from a few European settlements on the Atlantic Coast, outward to the north, south, and west, cheating or stealing territory belonging to native tribes, breaking hundreds of treaties in the process.

It is a truism that the last immigrant group to arrive suffers the intolerance and rejection of previous groups ~ and paradoxically, the last group often wants to shut the immigration door behind it.  Our avaricious nature is nothing of which to be proud.  We would do well to adopt an attitude of humility, especially with regard to those 10 million undocumented non-residents already within our borders.  Many of them arrived across the U.S.-Mexican border, fleeing poverty and unemployment in their native lands, and willing to perform hard labor at low wages (by U.S. standards) ~ whether to send to their families at home, or to make a better life for themselves in their adopted country.  By and large, such immigrants have NOT taken jobs away from American workers ~ rather, they have taken jobs which American workers refused to do.

Ironically, American workers have indeed lost jobs, but it was at the hands of corporate employers who chose to outsource those jobs overseas, to poor nations where people are willing to work for low wages.  The corporations increase their profits, at the expense of the American communities which supported them for so long.  The last thirty years of such behavior are a shameful passage in our history, one which has resulted in a widening chasm between the wealthy few and the struggling majority of Americans.

And the poorest, most abused group of all is rarely even thought of as a minority, because few people think of them at all ~ indigenous Native Americans.  The entire continent once belonged to them, until hoards of heavily armed, illegal immigrants invaded their land and took it.  The only amazing thing is that more Native Americans don't rise up in righteous indignation to point out the degrading ironies in the current immigration debate.

18 February 2013


A few years ago, gray wolves were delisted from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in their ranges in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.  Management of wolf populations was left up to the respective state wildlife management agencies.  Immediately, licensed wolf hunts were established in Montana and Idaho, and a year later in Wyoming.

The rationale for wolf hunts is that they prey on populations of big game (elk, deer, bison), and also that they prey upon domestic livestock.  The reality is that when wolves were eradicated from these regions in the early 20th century, wild prey populations exploded.  Human hunters were delighted, since having more targets meant an easier kill.

But human hunters have not regulated prey species as well as wolves do.  Historically, wolves take down the easiest animals ~ the old, the sick, the very young.  The result is a dynamic equilibrium in which the health of prey species improves over time.  As elk increase in numbers, so do wolves.  As elk decline in numbers, wolves produce fewer and smaller litters of pups to compensate.  This balance worked for thousands of years before European settlers invaded the Americas.  (Humans, on the other hand, tend to target elk in their prime, for trophy heads and for meat.  Genetically, this leaves weaker individuals to breed and perpetuate the species.)

Without their natural predators, prey species numbers blossom beyond the ability of sport and trophy hunters to keep up.  One result is overbrowsing and overgrazing, degrading the habitat for all wild species which live there.  But hunters have grown used to that, and accept it as the norm.  In their eyes, reintroduced wolves are intruders which decimate prey populations (when actually the wolves are only harvesting prey down to a naturally sustainable number, without the need for human intervention).

Since their reintroduction in protected areas like Yellowstone National Park, wolves have thrived.  Their presence not only winnows out the overpopulated elk, it also forces elk to stay on the move, allowing native plant species to reestablish themselves in overgrazed areas.  The return of biodiversity has meant a healthier ecosystem within Yellowstone.  It would mean the same for the entire West, if wolves were protected.

Yellowstone is surrounded by wilderness and ranchland.  Since wolves don't recognize human borders, occasionally an individual or small pack will wander outside Yellowstone, where there are fewer elk and bison, but more cattle.  Being opportunistic hunters, inevitably there have been livestock kills.  Countermeasures designed to discourage wolf predation exist, but most ranchers would rather take the easy way and shoot the wolves.  Or trap them.  Or poison them.

Recently several wolves which were wearing tracking collars as part of ongoing scientific research within the park, were killed outside its boundaries.  An outcry arose among biologists and conservation groups.  In response, Montana wildlife officials proposed a hunting-free zone covering about 60 square miles along the northern edge of the park (see pink area in map below, click to enlarge), but retaining the wolf hunt in the rest of the state (which has an area of 147,000 square miles).  Hunters and ranchers howled, and a judge issued an injunction against the proposal, wildlife officials abandoned their plan, and the hunt goes on.  Statewide, slightly over 650 individual wolves live.  The present goal of wildlife officials is to reduce that number to 450 wolves.  (This, in a state large enough to support several thousand.)

The issue is polarizing and volatile.  A few days ago a blogger called for a boycott of Montana beef as a means of pressuring state officials (and ranchers) to moderate the violence being visited upon wolves.  The statement reads in part ~ "[humans] are waging a war of extermination on wolves, bison and other native species, unparalleled since the ecologically reckless 1800s .... Don't fall prey to the feel-good lure of 'sustainable' grass-fed Montana beef.  In order to sustain cattle, the livestock industry demands that wildlife be controlled by any and every lethal means imaginable.  It's time to hit where it hurts.  For the sake of wolves and bison and biodiversity, boycott Montana beef!"

Those are fighting words to ranchers, who maintain that they not only provide food for the nation, but also that they are preserving a way of life which goes back generations.  That's true as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that a majority of beef cattle raised in the U.S. come not from the arid West, but from feed lots in the Midwest.  Further, the small-ranch "way of life" is hanging on by its teeth, with many small ranchers having sold out to corporate interests not based within Montana.  Further still, only a part of the larger ranches in the West is deeded land (land owned outright).  A greater portion of the land under their control is leased from federal agencies like the BLM, at a massive discount of pennies on the dollar compared to the leasing of private land.  In short, they're running cattle and making a profit on public land.  Our land.

Emotionally, because I support wildlife over human interference, I'm empathize with the cry for a boycott.  Rationally, I know that inflaming passions will not help the wolves in the long run.  Only reasoned, respectful debate backed by evidence will establish a compromise most of us can live with ~ small ranchers, conservationists, and ecotourists.  With regard to sport and trophy hunters, and especially trappers, I have no sympathy.

17 February 2013


National media are finally getting around to asking questions about law enforcement tactics in the killing of accused murderer Christopher Dorner ~ questions which I first posed six days ago before Dorner had been located, and elaborated upon two days ago in the wake of the gun battle and deliberate arson (by sheriff's deputies) which took Dorner's life.  Last night on the CBS Evening News there was a brief report featuring video on which law enforcement could be heard making radio calls, including ~

  • "Burn that f***ing house down.  Get going right now."
  • "Burn that motherf***er.
  • "We're going to go forward with the plan with the burner.  Like we talked about."
The "burner" refers to a remote-control battering ram (there were seven of them on the scene) used to deliver the incendiary tear gas which set ablaze the house in which Dorner had taken refuge.  

At a press conference, San Bernadino County Sheriff John McMahon (image above) stated that "we did not intentionally burn that house down", in contradiction to the recorded radio calls.  He also said that the most likely cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  A single shot can be heard on the tape after the house had become an inferno, but it is impossible to tell from the remains whether Dorner died of smoke inhalation, or burned to death, or was killed by a police bullet or by one of his own rounds set off by the intense heat.  If Dorner did take his own life, he knew he was already a dead man.

Culpability for this major mishandling of a manhunt rests squarely with several law enforcement agencies, most immediately with the San Bernadino County Sheriff's Department.  One has to wonder whether they would have been as aggressive and impatient to silence Dorner if he had been white rather than black, and if there had been no other controversies surrounding his dismissal from the Los Angeles Police Department.

16 February 2013


Here are a few interesting interactive maps to play with ~

  • Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks ~ a map of income and rent in every neighborhood in every city in America.  It would be interesting to have an overlay indicating race, to show the connection between race and poverty.
  • Minimum Wage ~ how many minimum wage hours does it take to afford a two-bedroom apartment in your state?
  • Electoral College Reform ~ a rather wild redrawing of state lines, yielding 50 states with equal population.  Some of the new state names are colorful, and a few would be controversial to residents.
  • Mass School Shootings Since 1996 ~ 31 in the United States, 14 in the rest of the world combined.
  • Gigagalaxy Zoom ~ discovering our Milky Way, and how tiny we really are.
  • Climate Change Is Simple ~ a 15 minuted educational video.
  • How Connected Is Your Community? ~ Internet connected, that is.  High speed internet access, to be more specific.  With broadband available to only 68.2 percent of American households, we rank 15th internationally.  There are links to the National Broadband Map (see sample above), and to the FCC's Quality Test where you can learn your own computer's connection speed.  (Imagine the quantum leap forward if President Obama's proposal to establish free wireless access to the entire nation becomes reality.  Here too, we lag behind other nations.)
  • Finally, just for fun, 19 People Who Are Having a Way Worse Day Than You.  Each is a looping video lasting a few seconds.

15 February 2013


My prediction came true.  Four days ago, in recounting the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles police officer accused of the revenge shootings of other LAPD officers,  I expressed my concern that Dorner would be terminated with extreme prejudice (executed) before he could be arrested, incarcerated, and brought to trial.  Yesterday, the manhunt came to an end with Dorner trapped in an empty vacation home.  As reported by CBS News (see both transcript and videos), the fugitive was surrounded by dozens of officers ~ including tactical assault teams ~ from a number of law enforcement agencies.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired during the ensuing gun battle.  It is unclear whether any serious attempt at surrender negotiation was ever attempted.  In a situation like that, Dorner probably knew that he had little chance of survival, much less a chance for a fair trial.  A trained sniper, he defended himself.  Ultimately rounds of tear gas were fired into the house, followed by a more potent, highly flammable form of tear gas.  Moments later, the house was consumed by flames.  Dorner's path of violence came to a fiery end.  Was that law enforcement's plan all along?  The image above shows the fire-leveled house, with nothing left standing but the fireplace chimney.

Understand ~ I am not saying that Dorner was innocent.  I'm saying that he was presumed guilty by police.  Dorner was fired from LAPD in 2008, and apparently had harbored a grudge over his dismissal ever since.  Given the passage of nearly five years, if he was guilty of the police shootings, they were not impulsive acts.  They were carefully planned and carried out.  Charges of murder and attempted murder had been filed against Dorner by the LA district attorney.

Here's what I am saying ~ there's too much we don't know.  The details of his firing have not been revealed, other than that he accused a fellow officer of police brutality against an arrested man, and the hearing board decided that the accusation was unfounded.  Then came his dismissal from the force.  Was the decision a case of racial prejudice (Dorner was black)?

Further ~ there has been no mention of previous false statements or erratic behavior in Dorner's record.  All applicants to major law enforcement agencies undergo rigorous background checks and psychological evaluations.  If Dorner was a lethal sociopath, wouldn't some indication have turned up?  Something is not ringing true.

We have no idea what events or forces may have set Dorner off.  We likely never will, given LAPD's long reputation for abuse and coverup.  Perhaps something in him truly did finally flip.  Perhaps he was provoked.  It's too easy to dismiss the chain of events as the work of a deranged mind carrying out grudge killings.  We've seen so many portrayals of serial killers on TV and in the movies, it is convenient to make that leap of judgment.

From the little we've been told, it seems that Dorner killed with premeditation.  We do not know why.  And that is why he should have been arrested and brought to trial ~ to bring to light any mitigating circumstances, and to reveal any other culpable parties.  That is how our system of justice is supposed to work.  It failed miserably.

14 February 2013


(from Lady and the Tramp ~ click to enlarge)

I've long thought that the personalities
of the two starring dogs
 were modeled after

13 February 2013


On this day in 2008, I posted my first entry on this blog.  My early entries laid a foundation, explaining the genesis of the name Predator Haven and my choice of Rys as a nom de plume.  Gradually, as I found my sea legs, I began to research, summarize, and comment on issues in social justice, the environment, the arts, science, aviation, literature, cinema, humor, politics, sexuality, and dozens of other realms of interest.

In December of that founding year, work-related injuries forced me to remain home, and ultimately to retire.  The annual totals of posts reflect this ~

  • 2008 ~ 105 entries
  • 2009 ~ 362 entries
  • 2010 ~ 340 entries
  • 2011 ~ 341 entries
  • 2012 ~ 355 entries
  • 2013 ~  54 entries (so far)
As of this writing, I've received 590,830 page views from readers in 207 nations and territories.

My gratitude to everyone who explores this column.  Enjoy and spread the word.  I encourage all readers to respond with your views by clicking on "comments" at the bottom of whichever posts you find evocative.  All comments are published, with the exception of those which indulge in profanity or verbal abuse.  This is a forum for civil discourse, for respectful debate, and for fun.

I also encourage you to become a follower of the blog ~ you'll find a prompt on how to do this in the right-hand column.  Your registering here is held in confidence, and you'll receive each new entry in your e-mail.  You can opt out at any time.

And now onward into the next five years!

12 February 2013


February 12 happens to be the date on which two of my favorite people were born ~ Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Lincoln was perhaps our greatest U.S. president, guiding the nation through a bloody and divisive civil war, and successfully pushing to end black slavery.  Darwin was one of humanity's most original thinkers, proposing that life on earth evolved through natural selection.  Both men were vilified in their lifetimes, yet history has vindicated their ideas.  It is doubtful that they ever met, but if they had, I would love to have been present for the conversation.

11 February 2013


By now, most people are aware of the February 2013 shootings of uniformed police officers in the Los Angeles area, and of the massive manhunt for the alleged shooter, former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner (image above) ~ a search involving thousands of law enforcement officers from multiple agencies, spanning four states (California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico).  The hunt has already led to police accidentally shooting two women and one man.

The scale and ferocity of the search dwarfs any previous manhunt in Los Angeles history.  Even given the very real threat which Dorner apparently poses to others, it remains true that so-called 'cop killers' arouse a desire for retribution that is both unprofessional and far out of proportion to the crime.  It raises the question ~ are the lives of police officers worth more than the lives of civilians?

Dorner was terminated from LAPD in September 2008 for filing a report against a fellow police officer, alleging excessive use of force during an arrest.  Dorner cited his termination, alleged corruption within the department, and alleged racism within the department as his reasons for committing the February shootings.  His remarks were included in a manifesto posted on his Facebook page.

Journalist Arturo Garcia summarizes the allegations made by and against Dorner, and states that while terrorist acts cannot be condoned, they nevertheless must be understood.  The $1 million reward for information leading to Dorner's capture, along with the scale of the manhunt, suggest that the department, in addition to their concern for public safety, may also be concerned that Dorner's accusations will be examined closely and found to have merit.

I hope that Dorner is captured and brought to trial.  Given the number of adrenaline-pumped, trigger-happy police officers on the hunt (a few of whom may have something to hide), it remains possible that Dorner is a marked man, that he will be shot and killed while "resisting arrest".  He is undeniable dangerous.  But he is also one important side in a story whose dimensions we've only begun to understand.

While I condemn Dorner's violent path of revenge, and while I have deep respect for the stress and responsibility involved in being a police officer, I also know that the LAPD has a long history of corruption and police brutality (remember Rodney King?).  To clear their reputation, it is imperative that they conduct the arrest, detention, and questioning of Christopher Dorner in a manner beyond reproach ~ as though the public were watching every move.  Because we are.

10 February 2013


There is a viral e-mail making the rounds, one that first surfaced several years ago.  The e-mail describes a chance meeting with WWII veteran Darrel "Shifty" Powers (see photo above).  The misleading part is that authorship is attributed to retired Major General Chuck Yeager.  In reality the author was a man named Mark Pfeifer.  Everything else in the e-mail is true, according to Snopes.  Here is the narrative ~

We're hearing a lot today about big splashy memorial services.

I want a nationwide memorial service for Darrel "Shifty" Powers.

Shifty volunteered for the airborne in WWII and served with Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division.  If you've seen Band of Brothers on HBO or the History Channel, you know Shifty.  His character appears in all ten episodes, and Shifty himself is interviewed in several of them.

I met Shifty in the Philadelphia airport several years ago.  I didn't know who he was at the time.  I just saw an elderly gentleman having trouble reading his ticket.  I offered to help, assured him that he was at the right gate, and noticed the "Screaming Eagle", the symbol of the 101st Airborne, on his hat.

Making conversation, I asked him if he's been in the 101st Airborne or if his son was serving.  He said quietly that he had been with the 101st.  I thanked him for his service, then asked him when he served, and how many jumps he made.  Quietly and humbly, he said "Well, I guess I signed up in 1941 or so, and was in until sometime in 1945 ...." at which point my heart skipped.

At that point, again very humbly, he said "I made the five training jumps at Toccoa, and then jumped into Normandy .... do you now where Normandy is?"  At this point my heart stopped.

I told him "Yes, I know exactly where Normandy is, and I know what D-Day was."  At that point he said "I also made a second jump into Holland, into Amhem."  I was standing with a genuine war hero .... and then I realized that it was June, just after the anniversary of D-Day.

I asked Shifty if he was on his way back from France, and he said "Yes .... and it's real sad because these days, so few of the guys are left, and those that are, lots of them can't make the trip."  My heart was in my throat and I didn't know what to say.

I helped Shifty get onto the plane and then realized he was back in coach while I was in first class.  I sent the flight attendant back to get him and said that I wanted to switch seats.  When Shifty came forward, i got up out of the seat and told him I wanted him to have it, that I'd take his in coach.

He said "No, son, you enjoy that seat.  Just knowing that there are still some who remember what we did and who still care is enough to make an old man very happy."  His eyes were filling up as he said it.  And mine are brimming up now as I write this.

Shifty died on Jan. 17 after fighting cancer.

There was no parade.

No big event in Staples Center

No wall-to-wall, back-to-back 24/7 news coverage.

No weeping fans on television.

And that's not right!

Let's give Shifty his own memorial service, online, in our own quiet way.

Please forward this email to everyone you know.  Especially to the veterans.

Rest in peace, Shifty.

09 February 2013


For decades, the U.S. has been neglecting its infrastructure.  Thousands of bridges and many miles of highway need rebuilding, air traffic is chaotic with superfluous security check-ins and the airlines' disastrous hub-and-spoke system, water and sewer facilities are antiquated, the power grid needs greater reliance on green energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal), telecommunications are vulnerable to attack by domestic and international hackers, and mass transit is woefully inadequate to the needs of the populace.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the nation's rail system.  Amtrak has been neglected and underfunded to the point of embarrassment ~ engines and rolling stock are old, and service has been steadily curtailed, both in scheduling and in the elimination of entire routes.

Albert Twu would like to change all that.  Last Sunday he published a map showing proposed high-speed rail lines linking the major cities in the continental U.S.  (If you click on the above image, you can view his map in detail.)  Twu wrote that his map is "a composite of several proposed maps from 2009, when government agencies and advocacy groups were talking big about rebuilding America's train system."

Such a rebuild is long past due.  Compared to high-speed rail development in Europe and Japan, the U.S. is in the Dark Ages.  In a nation as large as ours, efficient transportation is critical, yet efficiency is sorely lacking.  Our cities experience increasing traffic gridlock, and travel by air is slower and more cumbersome than it was fifty years ago.  These bottlenecks would be relieved by a nationwide system of affordable high-speed rail lines.  Imagine rush hour traffic eased as more drivers opted for the comfort and safety of a train.  Imagine the long waits at airport terminals diminished ~ who knows, the competition from high-speed rail might prod the airlines to redesign passenger cabins to allow more space per individual seat, so that air travelers didn't feel like sardines.

But we must not make the mistake of a token effort (a token high-speed line along the Washington DC-New York City-Boston corridor, for instance).  Referencing the map, we need to address not only the colored routes, but also the faint gray routes (e.g. Portland to Salt Lake City, or Seattle to Minneapolis), in order to fully serve all regions of the country.

How to finance such a venture?  For starters, the expense of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere should have been diverted to domestic use.  Further, I'm certain that any number of venture capitalists would see the potential for a generous return on their investment.  And the number of jobs created for construction and maintenance would be a significant boost to our flagging economy.  As an added benefit, carbon dioxide emissions by high-speed rail are a small fraction of those generated by car or airplane travel (see image below).

I love to travel by rail.  If I lived near an Amtrak line, I could travel to see friends and family, enjoy the scenery, and arrive refreshed.  If I lived near a high-speed rail line, so much the better.

08 February 2013


Every parent and every child will identify.
Courtesy of the webcomic xkcd
(click image to enlarge)

07 February 2013


From Cornell University ~ "After 12 years of work, Cornell's Macaulay Library archive, the largest collection of wildlife sounds in the world, is not digitized and fully available online.

" .... All archived analog recordings in the collection, going back to 1929, have and can be heard for free online.  The collection contains nearly 150,000 digital audio recordings equaling more than 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours.  About 9000 species are represented.  There's an emphasis on birds, but the collection also includes sounds of whales, elephants, frogs, primates, and more."

When you click on the above link, it will take you directly to the library's archive, which enjoys close ties with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  If you have a particular species in mind, you can perform a search at the top of the page ~ which will yield video, audio, or both.  Or you can scroll down to browse by taxonomy, take an audio quiz, or check out library news.  Spoiler ~ in Spring 2013 the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will release its downloadable guide to North American birds sounds.  All for Free.

This is only the latest development in the availability of free information online, reinforcing my belief that the Internet is a world library.  Another prime example is the increasing number of university classes offered for free online, often for university credit.  An expanding community of prestigious universities sponsor the classes, available directly from each university or from an umbrella organization like Coursera.

As a teaser to introduce you to Cornell's archive, here is the sound of one of my favorite birds, the Canyon Wren (see image above, click to enlarge ~ photo credit Nick Athanas).

06 February 2013


On 24 January 2013 the Pentagon lifted its ban on women serving in direct combat roles. While hailed by many as a bold step in the direction of gender equality, in truth the move simply recognized what has been reality all along in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In a combat zone with no front lines, there are no "safe" jobs.  Women who drive trucks in military convoys, women who serve as medics, women who pilot helicopters and fighter aircraft, have been using weapons, fighting, getting wounded, and dying alongside their male counterparts for years.

Raising restrictions on the MOS (Military Operational Specialty) to which a woman can be assigned opens up pathways of career opportunities which were officially closed to women until now.  It also recognizes the reality that men and women are equally capable of just about anything.  A minority of gender traditionalists complain that the presence of women in a combat unit might serve as a distraction to the men, but experience has proven otherwise.

Others point out that anatomically, women don't have the upper body strength that men do ~ strength that might be required to carry a wounded comrade to safety.  Here too, reality indicates otherwise.  In fact, for each gender there is a bell curve for physical strength, with some men (and women) excelling while other men (and women) struggle to keep up.  There is considerable overlap between the two curves, meaning that many women are actually stronger and more agile than many men.  Thus it makes no sense to restrict an entire group, when any evaluation should be done individually.  I know from experience that trained women are equal to men in marksmanship, in hand to hand combat, in judgment under pressure, in intelligence and resourcefulness and courage, and in loyalty to their peers and their country.

The key, as some Marine officials point out, is to set a challenging standard, and train both genders to that standard.  If both are required to do 20 pull-ups, both will train and meet that goal.  Women themselves advocate equal training requirements.

It is not particularly useful for different branches of the military to use different training standards.  Currently the Marines are shifting to gender-equal goals, while the Army is lagging behind, clinging to gender-adjusted tests.  This does no one any favors.  I know that if I were back in the military, in a gender-integrated unit, I would expect all the men and all the women in my unit to be able to perform well.  The lives of everyone depend on it.

05 February 2013


In my private reading, I tend towards fiction over non-fiction.  The power of metaphor resonates within me, more so than does the recitation of events ~ though there are always exceptions.  Further, I favor the possibilities for painting a larger canvas inherent in longer fiction forms (novels) over shorter forms (short stories).

Hence it was with some interest that I watched an interview on last night's PBS Newshour with short story writer George Saunders.  He made a case for the writing of short stories which parallels the writing of poetry ~ the development of characters and the arc of the narrative must be distilled, compressed, pared down to its essence.  I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms, but it makes sense.

Saunders said something with which I identify, in response to a question about whether he starts to write with an idea in mind ~ "Well, I do, but my approach is much more intuitive.  What I find usually, if I have a subject and I do that, it tends to be a little dull.  So, for me, the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed, crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it.  And then by this process of revision, mysteriously, it starts to accrete meanings as you go.

"And those meanings tend to be a little more emotional, a little more intense than the ones that you plan in advance.  So it's kind of an elaborate exercise in being comfortable with an element of mystery."

Which is exactly how my own writing has evolved, including posts for this forum.  During my day, as I come across ideas or news of interest, I may bookmark them for later use, but there's no guarantee that a given idea will see the light of day.  If it does, it is usually through a process quite similar to that which Saunders describes ~ finding some little seed, an image or an idea, and then allowing my imagination to flow with it.  I may flesh out my own narrative with links to source material, or to references which explain a term in greater detail, all of which requires a bit of research on the fly.  But rare is the day that I open the "new post" screen with a fully-formed entry already planned.

I'm comfortable with that.  Like Saunders, I find that embracing ambiguity and spontaneity opens more paths for discovery.  If you'd like to see or read more, here is the interview with Saunders, both in video and transcript form.

As a reader, I still prefer novels ~ they offer the creative scope of a symphony, compared to a short story's sonata or concerto.  Thankfully, there is room in life for both.

04 February 2013


Yesterday's NFL Super Bowl XLVII is now history.  It was a wild ride ~ the Baltimore Ravens dominating the first half, and the San Francisco 49ers regaining momentum in the second half, following a 34 minute power outage in the stadium.  Brilliant plays and painful mistakes were made by both sides.  Ultimately, in the final seconds of the game and just yards away from the winning touchdown, San Francisco just couldn't quite make it happen.  The Ravens won, 34-31.

I've visited and like both cities, so it was a tossup whom to root for.  Just before the game I decided on the Ravens ~ I like their team colors.  (That's how seriously I take most team sports ~ mostly I just watch championship games.)  Besides, the 49ers had won the Super Bowl a number of times, and the Ravens, only once.  Both teams had fine coaches (the brothers Harbaugh) and great quarterbacks, so I knew the outcome was not predictable.  I was right.  It was a squeaker.

At one point during the game a brawl broke out among players on the field.  Emotions were running high on both sides.  I was reminded of how, when I was growing up, team coaches stressed the virtues of good sportsmanship, "an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one's competitors."  Today's displays of chest-beating and macho posing after a touchdown (in football, or a score in other sports) turn me off.  Braggadocio just cheapens the game.  You make a touchdown, that's your job. Show some class.

On the flip side, I had to grin at the photo in today's Washington Post (see above, click to enlarge), showing a Ravens player making a confetti angel to celebrate the team's victory.  His exuberance says it all.

03 February 2013


This morning, as is my habit on Sundays, I was listening to Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me! , a news quiz in game show format on NPR, while doing my daily physical therapy.  The special guest contestant was Mae Jemison, a physician and astronaut who was the first black woman to travel in space (1992).  This remarkable woman holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.

Near the end of her participation, she revealed that among many other commitments, she is actively involved in a NASA project called 100 Year Starship, whose aim is to achieve interstellar travel within the next century.

Intrigued, I visited the website.  The project's mission statement points out that ~
  • Pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will create a better world today.
  • Technologies created for ~ and made possible by ~ space exploration permeate, shape, and are an integral part of our world.
  • The capabilities needed to accomplish human interstellar travel are the same ones required for successful human survival on Earth, as well as for the exploration of our solar system.
I am a child of the space age.  I was ten years old when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the very first orbiting satellite.  Along with the rest of the world, I paid rapt attention to our subsequent voyages into space, including humans orbiting the earth and journeying to the moon (less than 100 years after science fiction writer Jules Verne first wrote about a manned moon landing), as well as all the robotic survey missions to the planets, their moons, the sun, and beyond the solar system.  

The thrill of those years was not allowed to flourish.  After the final moon landing, the next logical step would have been turning our attention to manned missions to other planets.  Instead, we pulled into our shell and contented ourselves with Earth-orbiting space shuttle missions, orbiting deep space telescopes and the international space station, and robotic solar system survey missions.  As valuable as each of these projects has been, none can substitute for an actual human presence at the helm.

The flame of space exploration flickered, but it did not die.  Visionaries like those at 100 Year Starship understand that in addition to the material benefits gained from space exploration (GPS, remote sensing, weather satellites, light-weight materials, device miniaturization, new medical procedures, the accelerated development of communications and computer software and hardware, and on and on), it is equally important to engage the human spirit and imagination.  

When the first man set foot on the moon, people in nations all around the world celebrated wildly.  We were united in our humanity.  A common purpose helps us to transcend our differences, and enriches us all.  It is time to re-engage, to lift our eyes once more toward the stars.

02 February 2013


I am no friend of commerce for its own sake.  Retailers who callously take advantage of holidays to manipulate shoppers with their "sales" advertisements turn me off.  Capitalism itself, in its 21st century incarnation, is seriously flawed.

Thus is it not surprising that I turn the sound down for TV commercials, and have little patience for them.  Rare is the ad that doesn't insult the intelligence of the viewer.  Oddly, there is a program which airs only once a year, which attracts some fairly ingenious ads ~ yes, I refer to football's annual Super Bowl and its commercials.  In this morning's online Washington Post there is a collection of eleven of "the most successful Super Bowl ads from years past".  It's not clear whether "successful" translates to popularly enjoyed, or to increased sales for the product or service.  They include ~

  • 1979 ~ football player "Mean Joe" Green for Coca-Cola
  • 1984 ~ Apple's "Big Brother" ad for its Macintosh computer
  • 1995 ~ Budweiser's CGI chameleons and frogs
  • 1992 ~ model Cindy Crawford displaying sex appeal for Pepsi
  • 1999 ~ Monster.com's children talking about their hopes
  • 2012 ~ actor Clint Eastwood's "Halftime in America" for Chrysler
  • 2010 ~ Old Spice Man
  • (various) ~ CareerBuilder.com's office staff of chimpanzees
  • 2011 ~ rapper Eminem defending Detroit and Chrysler
  • 2010 ~ the E-Trade baby talking about investing
  • 2012 ~ soccer star David Beckman baring skin for bodywear
Here is the collection, a series of scrollable videos.

2013's ad campaign has already gone viral for Budweiser.  The ad "Brotherhood" portrays the growing bond between a trainer and a Clydesdale from newborn colt to adulthood, and what happens when the two are separated as the horse joins the Budweiser Clydesdales circuit.  I have to admit, it made me weepy.

So who knows, I might even tune in to Super Bowl XLVII, to see that ad and the spectacle of opposing head coaches who are brothers ~ Baltimore's John Harbaugh and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh.  Or, I may take advantage of so many people staying home for the game, and go out to see the movie Lincoln in a less-crowded theater.  Win-win.

01 February 2013


Last Sunday on 60 Minutes, President Barack Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were interviewed together, at the president's request.  The interview examined their "evolution from bitter opponents [for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination] to partners in the corridors of power".  And clearly the two now regard each other with respect and affection.  Obama's selection of Clinton for such an important post, and her acceptance in the name of service to her country and her president, echo Abraham Lincoln's selection of both political allies and political opponents to fill his cabinet ~ as described in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's biographical portrait Team of Rivals.  In these times of ideological trench warfare in Congress, it is refreshing to see that opponents can become allies.

Here is part 1 of the Obama-Clinton interview (14 minutes), and here is part 2 (7 minutes).  The event, along with her four-year tenure as Secretary of State, can only enhance Clinton's propects for another run for the White House in 2016 ~ perhaps to Vice President Joe Biden's chagrin, and surely to the dismay of most conservatives in the Republican party, and misogynists in general.