31 March 2013


Do you think you have a pretty good grasp of world geography?  Consider the map shown above (click to enlarge).  It is an upside-down version of a standard Mercator projection of Earth's three-dimensional globe onto a two-dimensional map.  If you're like me, it will set you back for a few seconds, as you sort out distances and the transposed relationships between familiar features like countries or bodies of water.  The experience is a useful thought exercise which allows us to see things (in this case, literally the world) in a new way.  To fly to Costa Rico, I would have to travel north.  To fly to France, I would have to travel west.

In passing, I can't help wishing that we would wean ourselves from Mercator projections, because their design distorts north-south distances.  The proportion of areas near the equator is fairly accurate, but the farther you go north or south, the more inflated areas become.  Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland are not really as bit as they appear when compared to Thailand, Mexico, or Somalia.  A Mollweide projection, on the other hand, sacrifices accuracy of angle and shape in favor of accurate proportions in area (see image below).

You can learn more about the virtues and shortcomings of assorted map projections here.

Back to the upside-down map for a moment.  Imagine that our physical world really was arranged thus.  Psychologically, our culture is predisposed to attach greater importance or primacy to objects near the top.  This tendency is reinforced by an accident of history ~ European explorers (northern hemisphere) drew the earliest maps to see widespread use, their navigation aided by visual reference to Polaris (the north star).  It is no accident that the prime meridian, the global north-south line corresponding to 0 degrees longitude, runs through western Europe ~ specifically Greenwich, England.  Lines of longitude farther west or east from the PM gain in numerical value until they meet on the opposite side of the globe at 180 degrees west/east.

Thus psychologically, for our Eurocentric ancestors, the two American continents fell in the western hemisphere, while Asia was seen as the far east.  Further, when we think of seasons, we tend to default to those in the northern hemisphere.  Never mind that the advent of spring and warmer weather here, means the advent of autumn and cooler weather in the temperate parts of the southern hemisphere.

What if the earliest global explorers with an industrial base and technology for reproducing maps had originated in the southern hemisphere instead?  What if seafarers from Peru or Ecuador visited and colonized the four corners of the Earth guided by the Southern Cross, and subsequently on maps the prime meridian ran through Lima or Quito?  The map above gives some insight into how we might then view our world.

It also helps us in rethinking our assumption of ascendancy among nations, and hopefully to gain some empathy for those who live in so-called third world countries.  For them, it is we who live in exotic directions from their familiar homes.  That upside-down map might not be so bizarre after all.

30 March 2013


Imagine this ~ in 1948 a single-strip airport is opened for service.  Not just any airport.  Meigs Field (see above, click to enlarge) was built on a man-made peninsula running parallel to downtown Chicago's lakefront.  The airfield was connected to the mainland by a causeway at its northern end, and its harbor sheltered a busy marina.  Within only a few years, Meigs became indispensable for travel to and from downtown. Commuter airlines, business aviation, search and rescue, helicopters, private aircraft, and air transport of patients to downtown hospitals made Meigs one of the busiest small airports in the nation.  It was highly valued as a reliever satellite for Chicago's giant O'Hare International Airport, providing quick and convenient access to and from downtown.  When you build a mile of road, you can travel a mile. But when you build a mile of runway, you can travel anywhere in the world.

Meigs was also the default airport for pilots and aviation enthusiasts who learned and practiced flight maneuvers using Microsoft Flight Simulator on their computers, until 2004.  When you fired up MSFS, the first thing you was was the Chicago skyline, viewed from Runway 36.

Ten years ago tonight, all that came to an abrupt halt.  At 1:30 a.m. on March 31, 2001, upon illegal orders from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, city bulldozers destroyed the runway at Meigs by carving deep X's into the runway, making it impossible to use (see center image).  Daly acted without prior notice, and without authorization from the FAA.  He'd planned for years to replace the thriving airport with a waterfront park and business complex.

True to Chicago's tradition of corrupt politics, rather than going through legal channels (and likely facing stiff opposition from the aviation community and the tens of thousands of people who used Meigs each year), Daley summarily ordered that the airport be rendered useless, in the dead of night ~ stranding a number of aircraft which were parked at the field, and forcing a number of inbound aircraft to divert to other airports.  His actions were described as appalling by aviation interests and by the FAA, but the damage had been done.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized ~ "The issue is Daley's increasingly authoritarian style that brooks no disagreements, legal challenges, negotiations, compromise, or any of that messy give-and-take normally associated with democratic government .... He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could."

The penalty for Daley's depredation was minimal ~ the city paid $33,000 to the FAA for closing the airfield without notice, and $1 million in misappropriated FAA Airport Improvement Program funds (Daley diverted the $1 million from AIP funds intended for O'Hare).  No one was tried or sent to prison, no one received more than a slap on the wrist.

And an airport jewel was shattered.

Today the peninsula is in a state of neglect (see before-and-after image below).  A modest, uninspired park with walking paths exists  The former air traffic control tower is in disrepair.  The runway and taxiways are gone.  And a legend lives on, in older flight simulator software and in the long memories of aviators everywhere.

29 March 2013


I first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known to veterans simply as the Wall) when my then-wife and I were living in Philadelphia in the early 1990s.  We drove down to Washington, DC, to spend a spring day exploring the wealth of monuments and museums arrayed around the National Mall.  I'd known about the Wall since its controversial planning and completion in 1982.  It was our first stop that day.

The Wall is designed as a shallow V when viewed from above.  One end points toward the nearby Lincoln Memorial, the other points toward the more distant Washington Monument.  The top of each end of the V is level with the ground, while the base and the viewing walk sink gradually beneath ground level as one approaches the apex.  The face of the Wall is open to air and sunlight, and the back melds into the earth.  Etched on its face are the names of the 58,272 service men and women who died or remain missing during the Vietnam War.  Names are incised in the chronological order of their deaths, with the shallower height of the Wall at each end matching the lower numbers of casualties in those years of the war itself.

I'd heard from others, and read in news accounts, that the Wall's design, combined with the memories which visitors bring, make most visits highly emotional.  As we approached it from the northeast, as yet unable to see the face of the memorial, I found myself walking more and more slowly, overcome by feelings of dread and loss.  Finally I reached the east end, and was able to see along the entire length of all those glossy, reflective black panels which (a) list the dead, and (b) reflect the image of the living viewer.  My heart was racing, and as I descended the gentle incline, each name became a once-living person.

Arrayed along the base were mementos people had left to honor loved ones ~ photographs, letters, brief notes, military medals, flowers.  I paused and knelt to read frequently, and without knowing it, was sobbing uncontrollably.

I've visited the Wall several times, and each has been powerful, cathartic.

Over the years, the Park Service (which maintains national monuments), the military, and private non-profit groups have taken steps to make the Wall experience more accessible to those who may not live near enough to visit.  Scale-down replicas have toured the nation.  I recently discovered an on-line resource called The Virtual Wall ~ a website where one can perform a search for a particular person by last name, by city & state, or by military unit.  One can also simply choose a unit and browse the casualties sustained.  Or, one can view facsimiles of individual Wall panels by date or panel number, then click on a given name to view that person's dates of birth and death, military unit, and (where available) a photograph.

It is a remarkable and poignant experience, one I recommend to everyone, whether or not you (or someone you know) was in the service then, or is now.

28 March 2013


In recent days, several remarkable collections of images have crossed my view.  The media are photography and paint, the subjects are original, and the retinal after-images are persistent.  See what you think ~

  • 15 Totally Trippy Photo Illusions ~ in the form of a slide show.  Just look for the "next" arrows in the lower right hand corner to browse.
  • The Physics of Fluid, Revealed in Spellbinding Color ~ combining paints and power tools at the intersection of science and art.  See one example above, click to enlarge.
  • 'Mirror' Series ~ a thoughtful, poignant slide show of 12 photographs, each showing an older person viewing his/her younger self in the mirror.  "The photographer arrived upon the concept of his bittersweet series after a conversation with an 80-year-old World War II veteran who couldn't believe how quickly time had passed.  He felt he was still a young man .... The results .... capture the perplexing relationship we have with our changing bodies over time."
As I age, I often wish it were possible to meet and talk with myself at five-year age intervals, starting with 5 years old.  I wouldn't want my younger self to retain a conscious memory of our conversation, just a subliminal impression of empathy, encouragement, guidance, and unconditional love.  

Not to mention the fascination of being reminded how I looked, how my voice sounded, what my thoughts and doubts and fears and dreams were.  A childhood friend recently sent to me a pair of photos of myself, one about age 6, one about age 10.  The effect was hypnotic.  Was that handsome, clean-cut, shy little boy really me?  Is he still?

27 March 2013


People just don't swear like they used to.

As long ago as 1944 H.L. Mencken, the great observer of American language, sadly noted that cursing had been on the decline since the Civil War, and that while there was still obscenity, 'It is all based upon one or two four-letter words and their derivatives, and there is little true profanity in it.'

Taboos against what we would today consider mild exclamations like 'damn!','hell!', and 'Jesus Crist!' led the swearers of years past to come up with creative substitutions that gave them some measure of emotional release while keeping within the bounds of propriety.  These substitutions are called 'minced oaths', and they've left their mark on our vocabulary.  Gosh, gee, golly, dagnamit, darn, drat, gadzooks, zounds, heck and cripes are all minced oaths that are still around to charm us with their innocent, old-timey ring.  But there are others you may not have heard of.  They could come in handy when you get tired of ho-hum obscenity and want something with a little more profane zing.

  • Bejabbers!  A substitute for 'by Jesus!' that is similar to 'bejesus!' but jabbier.  An Irish import, along the lines of 'faith and begorrah', especially good for toe-stubbing.
  • Consarn!  A substitute for 'goddamn'.  From an 1854 Dictionary of Northamptonshire words ~ 'Consarn you!  If you don't mind what you're about I'll give it to you!'  Slow down and hit both syllables equally hard, and it's like squeezing a stress ball.
  • Dad-sizzle!  Another 'goddamn' form.  'Well, dad-sizzle it!' was one way to show you meant business.  There was a whole range of 'dad' form, from 'dadgum' to dadblast, dad-seize, dat-rat, dad-swamp, and many more.
  • Thunderation!  A substitute for 'damnation', similar to 'tarnation' and 'botheration'.  WTF is so tired.  Try 'What in thunderation?' instead.
  • Great horn spoon!  Something you can swear by, used in a way similar to 'by God!'  It seems to have come from seafaring slang, and might refer to the Big Dipper.  But you don't need to know the origin to find it useful.  Today the strange randomness of the words makes it mystically satisfying to shout.
  • Snails!  A shortening of 'by God's nails!'  This kind of shortening also gave us 'zounds!' (God's wounds), 'Gadzooks' (God's hooks), 'strewth!' (God's truth), and 'ods bodikins!' (God's little body).  If you yell it thinking of actual snails instead, it's less profane, but more adorable.
  • Gosh-all-Potomac!  This one goes along with the rest of the 'gosh all' family ~ goshamighty, gosh-all-hemlock, gosh-all-fishhooks, etc.  'Gosh all Potomac' is the earliest one attested in the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, and it's about time we brought it back.
  • G. Rover Cripes!  One of the minced oaths that approximate the sounds in 'Jesus Christ!', it uses all the strategies found elsewhere.  The 'gee' sound (Gee!  Jeepers!  Jeez!), the middle name (Jesus H. Particular Christ!), and the 'cr' sound (Crikey!  Criminy!  Cracky!  Christmas!).
  • By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of Purgatory!  There is no St. Boogar.  This is a line from Sterne's Tristram Shandy, considered by scholars to have a homoerotic subtext.  Let it fly with pride.
  • By the double-barreled jumping jiminetty!  It's too bad the tradition of productive, long 'by the' swears has fallen out of fashion.  You could load enough crazy-sounding nonsense on there to really scare your kids into cleaning their rooms.
Props to Arika Okrent for this material.  I'm particularly partial to 'Great horn spoon!' and 'Snails!'.  I also discoverred where  'Jesus H. Christ on a crutch' comes from, and why the middle initial 'H.'  But I'm still uncertain where the crutch fits in (as it were).  For a different resource, check out the Periodic Table of Swearing above (click to enlarge).

Admittedly, to most people, hearing most of these mutated curses would evoke an image of a crotchety, sour-tempered old person venting spleen.  And that's the point ~ in much the same manner as the Shakespearean Insults I posted recently, truly virtuoso swearing is a measure of one's creativity and literacy.  I think Mark Twain would agree.

26 March 2013


Jonathan Benson has assembled a list of Nine Foods You Should Never Eat Again, complete with explanations and links to references for each.  For those who pay attention to health and diet, most entries are familiar.  A few may not be.  They include ~

  • white bread / refined flours
  • conventional frozen meals
  • white rice
  • microwavable popcorn
  • cured meat products with nitrates, nitrites
  • most conventional protein bars / energy bars
  • margarine
  • soy milk and soy-based meat substitutes
  • "diet" anything
My first thought was "only nine?"  Of course the list could be extended to include foods high in salt or sugar or fat, fast foods, etc.  But these nine items are a good start.  Check the article for more info on each entry.  What you find may creep you out, which is a good thing.

24 March 2013


Whenever I come across an article or image of interest, I bookmark it for future reference.  Some items hang around, lose their appeal, and get deleted.  Others remain until they get filed into a folder with similarly-themed items, or until they are referenced individually.  Today I'd like to share a cluster of demographic maps (maps being one of my passions).

  • A Revealing Map of Who Wants to Move to the United States ~ people in 154 countries were asked if they would like to live in another country, and if so, where.  An estimated 138 million would like to relocate to the U.S. (see map above, click to enlarge) Click on the link for a more detailed analysis.
  • 20 Countries with the Most Flirtatious People ~ this is actually a slide show rather than a map, but it's fun to flick through, and contains a few surprises.  The rankings are based on how many women initiate contact with men, so assumptions may not apply.
  • The Map that Shows You What America REALLY Looks Like ~ the continental U.S., with state and county borders shown, color-coded by median family income.  You can compare 1980 to 2010.  Twelve income levels are delineated, ranging from Monied Burbs to Military Bastions, Industrial Metropolises to Tractor Country.
  • What Your State Is Good At, and What It's Lame At ~ this pair of maps is a real eye-opener.  Which state has the highest breast-feeding rate, the most academic research funding, the highest number of black-owned farms?  Which state has the most avalanche deaths, the most endangered species, the most trash per capita?  Check it out.
  • Which Kills More People in Your State ~ Cars or Guns? ~ In 2010 in the U.S., there were 32,885 traffic fatalities and 31,672 gun fatalities (of the latter, 19,392 were suicides).  The map indicates those states in which total gun deaths exceeded traffic deaths, and also those states where gun suicides alone exceeded traffic deaths.  You can tease out the numbers for a particular state by hovering your cursor over that state on the map.  It would be exceedingly interesting to have this data for every decade going back to, say, 1910, just before mass production of cars began.
  • How Connected Is Your Community? ~ Measuring access to high-speed Internet access, the U.S. ranks 15th in the world, with only 68.2 percent of households having the option of a broadband connection, and our broadband is more expensive than in other nations?  This is a national scandal.  87 percent of the households in Iceland have broadband, as do 97.5 percent of those in Korea.  In addition to this resource, you can learn whether your specific community has high-speed access by checking the National Broadband Map, where an entire suite of maps and data await you.
There, that should keep you busy for a while.  If you have similar maps or information sources, please share them at the "comments" prompt below.

23 March 2013


From Huffington Post

"While some of the most oppressive parts of the world have made significant gains in democracy in the past year, the overall pace of democratic change remained stagnant in 2012 That is the conclusion of The Economist Intelligence Unit's recently published annual report on the state of global democracy for 2012.

" ... The Democracy Index analyzes 165 independent countries and two territories to show the status of regional and worldwide democracy. The index uses five criteria ~

  • electoral processes and pluralism
  • civil liberties
  • the functioning of government
  • political participation
  • political culture

"Each nation is categorized across gradient levels of regimes ~ full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. [see image above, click to enlarge]

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most democratic countries are found in Scandinavia, with Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark occupying the first four spots on the list, and New Zealand rounding out the top five.  Overall, half the world lives under a democracy of some form.  However, only 15 percent of countries enjoy full democracy and nearly a third of the world's nations are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

"The reasons for such disappointing numbers vary between regions.  The report writes that some countries in the West are struggling to maintain long-established democratic systems due to political infighting, declining participation, and the sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of national security [my emphasis].  The U.S., for example, ranks 21st on the list, behind such democratic bastions as Uruguay, Mauritius, and South Korea.  The lowest scores Washington received were in the categories of political participation and functioning of government.

" ... Despite all that, the report is optimistic for the growth of democracy around the world. The developments in the Middle East and North Africa show the potential for change, even as the political wave that was expected to result from the Arab Spring has yet to be fully realized ... Elsewhere in the world, in countries like Zimbabwe and Cuba, long-standing autocratic leaders are unlikely to remain in charge.  As the report states, 'The longer aging autocrats hang on to power, the more out-of-touch and corrupt their regimes tend to become, and the more of an anachronism and an affront they become to their peoples.' "

Check out the entire HuffPost piece here ~ in particular to view the Democracy Index 2012 slide show at bottom, with scenes and captions for each of the 25 most democratic countries of the year.  It is hugely informative, and for Americans, a healthy dose of humility.

22 March 2013


Today is my 66th birthday.  I was born on 22 March 1947.  66 divided by 22 equals 3.  3 is the 2nd prime number.  Each 2 in my birthdate is the 1st prime number.  I am finely prime.

When I was about 6 years old (66 divided by 6 equals 11, the fifth prime number), the world seemed a much broader and taller place, and time seemed to stretch forever.  Math told me that if I wished to live to see the year 2000 ( a mystical number, that), I would have to survive for 53 years.  Back then, anyone that old seemed Pleistocene old, Methuselah ancient.  I wasn't sure I'd live that long.  Now, 53 seems like distant history, and I have to laugh.  Oh, to be 53 again!  53 seems a long way back in my rearview mirror.  Ah, youth.

53 is the 16th prime number.  16 is the square of 4 (4 times itself), and 4 is the square of 2, and we're back to that pair of 2s again.  There's something suspicious going on ~ perhaps an interconnected spider's web of numbers.  Spiders have 8 legs and 8 eyes.  8 is the cube of 2 (2 times itself, times itself again).

The year 1947 is often abbreviated as '47.  47 is the 15th prime number.  15 is the product of 3 and 5, also prime numbers.  5 minus 3 yields .... 2.

Seen above (click to enlarge) is M-66, or Messier 66, or NGC 3627, the 66th celestial body catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier (pronounced messy-AIR, not MESSier).

The old U.S. Route 66, the Mother Road, traveled through 8 states.  8 is the cube of .... never mind, we already did that.  They even wrote a hip song about the highway.  "Get your kicks on Route 66."

66 written in Roman Numerals is LXVI, the only value to employ all of the lowest four Roman numerical characters.  Written as 66, it has these associations.

22 March is an interesting day in history ~ assorted massacres, expulsions, treaties, and near approaches by comets.  I share my birth date with an array of statesmen, emperors, actors, writers, athletes, explorers, physicists, musicians, and other vagabonds.

Longevity (a friend tells me) is 30 percent genetics, and 70 percent lifestyle.  Going by genetics and my family history, I can expect to live for another 20 to 30 years.  What if I set my sights a bit further, say to the year 2047?  A ripe, even 100 years old.  Attention to diet, exercise, and happiness/fulfillment vectors might get me there.  It seems as far away as 53 did to my young self.

What will life be like then?  So much has changed just within the past 67 years ~ I grew up listening to the radio, reading, and playing outdoors for entertainment.  No TV, no satellites, no cell phones, no Internet or home computers, no DVDs or CDs, no GPS, no Tea Party.  Simpler times.  Check out these images from 1947.  As the pace of change continues to accelerate, what will we take for granted in 34 years that does not yet even exist in the year 2013?

Stay tuned.

21 March 2013


This week marks the 10th anniversary of the 1991 invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops ~ essentially the second Iraq War.  Everywhere there is commentary and remembrance, examining the political legerdemain with which President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld employed to lure a gullible nation (and a gullible congress) into the desert quicksand which would claim 4,486 American lives in combat (not to mention the collateral damage of injuries, PTSD, and an epidemic of military suicides), and the reminiscences of those who fought. Those casualties don't even include the many thousands of Iraqi military and civilian lives lost and damaged.

Entry into any war involves support or complicity by three components ~ political leaders, military leaders, and the public.  Lies about WMDs aside, once a war has begun, its outcome is determined (usually) by the quality of the military leaders on both sides.  If commanding generals are well-educated in their craft, and possess both a clear understanding of the overall strategic situation and the daring to take swift advantage of specific tactical opportunities, they will likely be successful leaders.  If they are too hesitant, or too rash, or fail to grasp the military and political situation on the ground, they will fail.

For a deeper understanding of how leadership affects war, I highly recommend a new book titled The Generals ~ American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks.  It is a fascinating history which interweaves the stories of generals within a war, and between wars.  We are witness to the emergence of the careers of men whose names are familiar to anyone who has served in the military, or whose life has been affected by war ~ George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, Terry Allen, Douglas MacArthur, William Simpson, Matthew Ridgway, Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, William DePuy, Colin Powell, Norman Schwartzkopf, Tommy Franks, David Petraeus, and others.  The author pulls no punches, exposing both the strengths and the shortcomings of our military leaders and, more importantly, how the culture of the officer corps has evolved from a military to a business mentality, starting after World War II.

From the book jacket ~

"History has been kind to the American generals of World War II ~ Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley ~ and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed.  In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is.  In part, it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability.  During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough.  Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq war, 'As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.'

"In The Generals, we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers.  Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine general O.P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught in Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

"But Korea also showed the first signs of an Army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring.  In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse, until finally American military leadership bottomed out.  The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, was the emblematic event of this dark chapter in our history.  In the wake of Vietnam, a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success.  It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up.  But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered with familiar problems, resulting in tactical savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly, from the first Iraq war of 1990 to the present.

"Ricks has made a close study of America's military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning ~ about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails."

It happens that I arrived in Vietnam about two weeks before the My Lai massacre, although few heard about it until the news emerged a year later.  What I did witness was a command culture which emphasized an officer furthering his own career at any cost.  A six-month assignment in a combat zone was "getting one's ticket punched", a prerequisite for advancement from field officer to flag officer status.  Rare was the officer or NCO who would place his rank in jeopardy in order to protect his troops from an incompetent order or policy.  In reality, a military leader's first loyalty should be to his subordinates, then his commanders, and lastly to himself.  Embracing all these is his loyalty to his nation.

During the years and wars since Vietnam, everything I've witnessed supports the history presented in The Generals.  It is a gripping read, and a sober assessment of how this nation wages war ~ or fails to.

19 March 2013


If you ever witness police behavior which may verge outside legal limits, the U.S. Department of  Justice (DOJ) contends that you are within your rights under the First, Fourth, and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution to record the event using a still camera, a video camera or an audio tape recorder.

DOJ filed this rare opinion in the lawsuit filed by journalist Mannie Garcia against the Montgomery County, MD, and individual police officers.  The officers were arresting two men, and Garcia feared that police brutality would ensue, so he began videotaping the arrest.  Garcia charges that "police dragged Garcia to the police car, put him in handcuffs, threw him to the ground by kicking his feet out from under him, taunted him, threatened to arrest his wife if she came too close, then took his camera and seized the battery and memory card, which were never returned.  The result was a disorderly conduct charge, for which he was acquitted, but before he went to trial Garcia lost his White House press credentials due to the charges."

According to Politico, which first broke the story, "the Justice Department argues that not only do individuals have a First Amendment right to record officers publicly doing their duties, they also have Fourth and 14th Amendment rights protecting them from having those recordings seized without a warrant or due process."

Thus it is settled law, according to the DOJ, that citizens have the right to record police.  The DOJ Civil Rights Division made it plain ~ "The United States is concerned that discretionary charges, such as disorderly conduct, loitering, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, are all too easily used to curtail expressive conduct or retaliate against individuals for exercising First Amentment rights .... core First Amendment conduct, such as recording a police officer performing duties on a public street, cannot be the sole basis for such charges."

To view a 3-minute interview with Garcia, check out The Daily Bail's coverage, and click on the second video.

This observer found the DOJ stance reassuring, in a time when political issues are so highly polarized and the U.S. Supreme Court is leaning further and further to the right.  One can only hope that President Obama will have the opportunity to nominate one or two new justices, and that his nominations won't end up in filibuster limbo at the hands of the extreme conservative wing of the generally-obstructionist Republican Party.

17 March 2013


The observant reader will have noticed that in recent days, my posts have tended toward lists and images which have informative or entertainment value (or both), and less toward comment on issues of serious substance or controversy.  This is because I'm struggling with a few health issues, and find it difficult to (a) focus my analytical attention, and (b) remain seated at my laptop for very long without discomfort or pain.

But I'm hanging in there as best I can ~ I thought you might enjoy this collection, The 50 Most Perfectly Timed Photos Ever.  Any such collection is subjective in its choices, but nearly all of these are quite visually arresting.  Some images clearly were intentionally positioned and timed by the photographer (like the image above, click to enlarge), while others clearly were serendipitous.  I hope you like them.

And I hope that I recover enough resilience to spend the several hours of research, writing, revising, and photo selection normally required for discussion of substance.  Until then ~

16 March 2013


The Pew Research Center has put together a 13-question quiz on people, places, and events in the news.  Once you take it and your results are scored, you can see where you stand compared with over one thousand other Americans who took the test.  And here it is.  I got 13 out of 13 correct, let's see you do better.  Have fun!

15 March 2013


1. Click on image to enlarge
2.  Focus on the "+" at the center
3.  Notice how the faces begin to distort

14 March 2013


Kudos to Lili Shirley at the Project on Government Oversight for assembling the list of resources below, and to Bill Moyers' website for passing the information along ~

"Thanks to our open records laws, you can find a treasure trove of information on the Web ~ everything from details about publicly traded companies to where stimulus funds are going.  You can even submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests online.

"Take some time to educate yourself about the information and data available from government websites.  Below are five great online tools that you can use to help hold government accountable.

FOIA Online

"FOIA Online allows anyone to submit a Freedom of Information Act request online, track their request, and search past FOIA requests.  Currently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Commerce, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Merit System Protections Board, and the National Archives and Records Administration use FOIA Online.

"One of the great things about FOIA Online is that you do not have to be registered to submit or search FOIA requests. This makes it incredibly easy for anyone to begin research into what is going on in different agencies and different departments of the U.S. government.


"Recovery.gov was established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the "Stimulus", and is managed by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.  It shows the distribution of all Recovery funds and how each agency is spending the money.  Agencies involved must submit weekly financial reports that describe how the funds are allotted to them are being distributed, and those who receive contracts, grants, and loan awards of Recovery funds must submit similar reports four times each year.

"Recovery.gov not only allows the public to view, research, and review the information, but it offers the ability to report suspected fraud, waste or abuse that relates to the Stimulus.

The Consumer Complaint Database

"The Consumer Complaint Database displays information from consumer credit card complaints that are reported to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"The data allows people to gain insight on other users' experiences with different credit card companies.  The website has also been designed so web developers can pull data and other information to create other online tools.

SEC's Electronic Data-Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval System (EDGAR)

"The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires that all publicly traded domestic companies file necessary forms on EDGAR.  Its purpose is to increase efficiency and fairness in the securities market by speeding up the analysis of the required forms.

"EDGAR also allows the public to view statements of income, cash flow, shareholder equity, and operations.  This leads to safer, more reliable investments, as well as giving the public the ability to research earnings of specific companies.


"Ethics.gov puts records and date from throughout the federal government into one place.  It contains Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records, Lobbying Disclosure Records, Federal Election Commission (FEC) candidates and contributions, Office of Government Ethics (OGE) travel reports, and White House visitors.

"It allows people to review information on candidates and campaign financing.  You can see who has been visiting the White House and review payments to lobbyists and see what issues they've worked on."

13 March 2013


Neurons in Japanese sumi-e ink wash painting
Greg Dunn collection and website
(click image to enlarge)

12 March 2013


Poet and playwright William Shakespeare is widely held to be the greatest writer in the English language.  Even though his known work was produced between 1589 and 1613, the language he employs is gloriously accessible to modern readers.

Shakespeare had a prodigious grasp of human nature and of language ~ he was not only supremely articulate in the lexicon of his time, he also made up over 2,000 words that are still in use today.  His plays should be performed or read at an attentive pace, so that the audience may absorb and savor the wit and nuance in his text.

It would be a mistake to think of Shakespeare as a stilted, formal writer.  He delighted in wordplay.  Nowhere is this more true than in the insults which he devised for one character to sling at another (or for a battle of wits between two or more characters).  Here is a sampling ~ I encourage all to explore the plays for context, and to appreciate the riches with which Shakespeare gifted us.

  • "He has not so much brain as earwax." ~ Troilus and Cressida
  • "No doubt the murderous knife was dull and blunt, till it was whetted on your stone-cold heart." ~ Richard III
  • "Thy mother's name is ominous to children." ~ Richard III
  • "Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed by one, so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse, for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature." ~ Much Ado About Nothing
  • "You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so." ~ Macbeth
  • "Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood." ~ King Lear
  • "Foul spoken coward, that thund'rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform." ~ Titus Andronicus
  • "Away, you three inch fool!" ~ The Taming of the Shrew
  • "Drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine drunk, and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him." ~ All's Well That Ends Well
  • "If you spend word for word with me, I'll make your wit bankrupt." ~ The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • "No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe, and I could find countries in her." ~ The Comedy of Errors
  • "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"  "No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb, sir." ~ Romeo and Juliet
  • "I do wish thou were a dog, that I might love thee something." ~ Timon of Athens
  • "I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets." ~ As You Like It
  • "Thou are a base, proud, shallow, beggardly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave;  a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue;  one-trunk-inheriting slave;  one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongril bitch." ~ King Lear
  • "I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands." ~ Timon of Athens
  • "I desire that we be better strangers." ~ As You Like It
This is the merest sampling of the bard's rapier imagination.  In theatric comedy, history, tragedy or romance, Shakespeare is equaled by few, and surpassed by none.

11 March 2013


Dateline NASA Science News ~ "Vegetation growth at Earth's northern latitudes increasingly resembles lusher latitudes to the south, according to a NASA-funded study based on a 30-year record of ground-based and satellite data sets.

"In a paper published Sunday, March 10, in the journal Nature Climate Change, an international team of university and NASA scientists examined the relationship between changes in surface temperature and vegetation growth from 45 degrees north latitude to the Arctic Ocean.  Results show temperature and vegetation growth at northern latitudes now resemble those found 4 degrees to 6 degrees of latitude farther south as recently as 1982 (see image above, click to enlarge).

"Higher northern latitudes are getting warmer.  Arctic sea ice and the duration of snow cover are diminishing, the growing season is getting longer, and plants are growing more .... In the north's Arctic and boreal areas, the characteristics of the seasons are changing, leading to great disruptions for plants and related ecosystems.

" .... The Arctic's greenness is visible on the ground as an increasing abundance of tall shrubs and trees in locations all over the circumpolar Arctic.  Greening in the adjacent boreal areas is more pronounced in Eurasia than in North America.

"An amplified greenhouse effect is driving the changes.  Increased concentrations of heat-trapping gasses, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane, cause Earth's surface, ocean and lower atmosphere to warm. Warming reduces the extent of polar sea ice and snow cover, and in turn, the darker ocean and land surfaces absorb more energy, thus heating the air above them.  This sets in motion a cycle of positive reinforcement between warming and loss of sea ice and snow cover, [setting up] the amplified greenhouse effect.  The greenhouse effect could be further amplified in the future as soils in the north thaw, releasing potentially significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane.

" .... 17 climate models show that increased temperatures in Arctic and boreal regions could be the equivalent of a 20-degree latitude shift by the end of this century, relative to a period of comparison from 1951-1980."

What applies to the region from 45 degrees latitude to the poles, equally applies from the equator to 45 degrees latitude.  As the entire planet warms,  the broad climate zones which circle the earth ~ tropical, sub-tropical, desert, temperate, subpolar, polar ~ are steadily creeping toward Earth's poles..  In the past, cycles of climate change occurred much more gradually, spanning centuries and millenia.  The communities of plants and animals endemic to a particular zone were able to shift north or south as needed to survive.  But the present cycle is homogenetic ~ caused by human activity ~ and is shifting much more rapidly.  Surely human agriculture can (and will) relocate as needed, but it remains to be seen whether natural biomes can keep pace.

So if you live on the mid-Atlantic coast and always wanted a vacation home in the Bahamas, just hang around a few decades right where you are.  The tropics are working their way to you.

10 March 2013


A survey on the loss in the Northern Hemisphere of large predators, particularly wolves, concludes that current populations of moose, deer, and other large herbivores far exceed their historic levels and are contributing to disrupted ecosystems.  The research, published recently by scientists from Oregon State University, examined 42 studies done over the past 50 years.

It found that the loss of major predators in forest ecosystems has allowed game animal populations to greatly increase, crippling the growth of young trees and reducing biodiversity.  This also contributes to deforestation and results in less carbon sequestration, a potential concern with climate change.

"These issues do not just affect the United States and a few national parks," said William Ripple, an OSU professor of forestry and lead author of the study.  "The data from Canada, Alaska, the Yukon, Northern Europe and Asia are all showing similar results.  There's consistent evidence that large predators help keep populations of large herbivores in check, with positive effects on ecosystem health."

Densities of large mammalian herbivores were six times greater in areas without wolves, compared to those in which wolves were present, the researchers concluded.  They also found that combinations of predators, such as wolves and bears (see image above), can create an important synergy for moderating the size of large herbivore populations.

"Wolves can provide food that bears scavenge, helping to maintain a healthy bear population," said Robert Beschita, a professor emeritus at OSU and co-author of the study.  "The bears then often prey on young moose, deer or elk ~ in Yellowstone more young elk calves are killed by bears than by wolves, coyotes and cougars combined."

In Europe, the coexistence of wolves with lynx also resulted in lower deer populations than when wolves existed alone.

In recent years, OSU researchers have helped lead efforts to understand how major predators help to reduce herbivore population levels, improve ecosystem function and even change how herbivores behave when they feel threatened by predation ~ an important aspect they call the "ecology of fear".  "In systems where large predators remain, they appear to have a major role in sustaining the diversity and productivity of native plant communities, thus healthy ecosystems," said Beschta.  "When the role of major predators is more fully appreciated, it may allow managers to reconsider some of their assumptions about the management of wildlife."

In Idaho and Montana [and now in Wyoming], hundreds of wolves are now being killed in an attempt to reduce ranching conflicts and increase game herd levels.  The new analysis makes clear that the potential beneficial ecosystem effects of large predators is far more pervasive, over much larger areas, than has often been appreciated.  It points out how large predators can help maintain native plant communities by keeping large herbivore densities in check, allow small trees to survive and grow, reduce stream bank erosion, and contribute to the health of forests, streams, fisheries and other wildlife.

It also concludes that human hunting, due to its limited duration and impact, is not effective in preventing hyper-abundant densities of large herbivores.  This is partly "because hunting by humans is often not functionally equivalent to predation by large, wide-ranging carnivores such as wolves," the researchers wrote in their report.

"The preservation or recovery of large predators may represent an important conservation need for helping to maintain the resiliency of northern forest ecosystems," the researchers concluded, "especially in the face of a rapidly changing climate."

(I am indebted to Science Daily for this report.)

Astute readers will note that in posts over the past several years, this writer has discovered the same predator-prey relationships and reached identical conclusions, point for point, regarding the importance of fostering populations of large predators and minimizing or eliminating human interference.  When nature is allowed to seek its own dynamic equilibrium, human hunting becomes not only irrelevant, but counterproductive.  Even ranchers need rarely resort to killing wolves, if they take advantage of simple and effective deterrents like herd guard dogs, electrified or flagged fences, and motion-sensor alarms.

If the ranchers in Montana's Paradise Valley can learn to coexist with wolves, anyone can.

09 March 2013


There are hundreds of common objects, behaviors, and body parts which each have a name, yet most of us would be hard put to conjure up what that name is.  For instance, years ago I learned the name for the patterned colors we see when we close our eyelids ~ and promptly forgot it.

Which is why I was delighted to come across a two-minute video titled Everyday Things You Never Knew Had Names.  Near the end is the name for those colors.  Before you check out the video, see how many names you already knew from the list below (no fair using Wikipedia or any reference other than your noggin) ~

  • dysania
  • zarf
  • glabella
  • philtrum
  • nare
  • columella nasi
  • Morton's toe
  • feat (not an accomplishment)
  • the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon
  • tittle
  • jib (not a sail)
  • punt (not a boat or a football kick)
  • wamble
  • ferrule
  • purlicue
  • nurdle
  • interrobang
  • rasceta (sounds like pasta, but isn't)
  • lunule
  • grawlix
  • misophania (I experience this in movie theaters)
  • rectal tenesmus
  • phosphenes
  • megagaltastic
Okay, now watch the video and see how your memory for trivia stacks up.  Can you think of better names for any of the entries?  (The last word doesn't appear in my dictionary, but I did find it here.  Who knew?

08 March 2013


From time to time, I enjoy posting about new transportation hardware ~ cars or motorcycles that morph into airplanes, or vehicles of unusual design, shape, size, or propulsion.  That was the subject of a segment on last night's NBC Nightly News ~ a microcompact car made by Renault, called the Twizy (above, click image to enlarge).  It was the top-selling plug-in electric car in Europe in 2012, and comes in two power plant options ~ a 4 kW, 5 horsepower model whose top speed is 28 mph, and a 13 kW, 17 horsepower model whose top speed is 50 mph.  The maximum range is 62 miles.

When you view the video, your first impression may be, "that's just plain silly".  The vehicle is only 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 5 feet high.  It carries two people ~ the driver in front, and a very cramped passenger (or cargo) in the back.  Yet as an urban commute vehicle, it is nimble, quiet, and may be parked in a space so small it would normally only accommodate a motorcycle.  The Twizy looks like a fun experience, especially on European streets.

I have no information on vehicle safety, but just looking at it, one's impression is that a crash would leave a Twizy occupant seriously injured or dead.  Renault says that the car's design and construction are safety-friendly, but I suspect it is no match for a vehicle almost as tiny, the Smart car, which runs on a conventional engine.  Even a motorcycle might be safer, with its superb maneuverability and greater power.

Still, the Twizy's popularity means that many drivers find that it matches their modest needs.  As more car makers present more designs for greener, non-polluting vehicles, the challenge remains coming up with a design that affords higher speeds and greater driving range for the wide open driving spaces of the American highway system.

On the Twizy, windows (and even doors) are optional.

07 March 2013


Ever since I was a wee lad, I've loved tree houses.  Childhood versions were crudely built from scrap lumber and relied on heavy doses of imagination ~ something youngsters possess in abundant supply.

The fascination with arboreal living has persisted into adulthood, for me and many others.  Just do a Google Image search and you'll discover scores of images ranging from rustic to ornate, with room for one person or ten.

The "guest accommodation" industry, seeing a niche market, has created scores of tree house hotels in exotic locations around the world.  Here are four examples ~ from Sweden, Canada, Costa Rica, and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.  (To avoid confusion, note that the photo for each precedes the caption.)  In order, they are ~

Of the four, I'm particularly fond of the Canadian design ~ assuming there were no nearby tree houses to intrude on privacy.  See what you think.

05 March 2013


When I was a biology and math teacher in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1990s, my best friend among the faculty taught classes in history and government.  We both organized field trips for our students, to illustrate and bring to life the material being taught.  Tony often requested me as the second adult on his trips, which I was more than happy to oblige.

One such excursion took us to Washington, DC.  We visited the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then walked the length of the National Mall, past the Washington Monument and into the rotunda separating the House and Senate chambers.  Our timing was perfect ~ Tony had scheduled us to sit in on a U.S. Supreme Court session, just across the street.

Simply waiting on the wide marble steps in front of the temple-like Supreme Court building was impressive.  When our time came, we filed in and quietly took seats in the courtroom (see image above) while the justices were in recess.  Shortly they entered and took their seats, and the case before them resumed.

I've sat in civil and criminal courts before, but they didn't approach the feeling of solemnity and weighty thought that permeates the Supreme Court.  The students were impressed.

For years I've followed the Court, both the cases it considers and the votes of individual justices.  Thus it was with some interest that I scanned a NYTimes article in which the issue of video coverage of Supreme Court arguments was discussed.  One expects that the more conservative justices would oppose live coverage, but surprisingly, two of the more liberal justices also oppose (a reversal from their positions during confirmation hearings).

The article explains ~ "In the United States, cameras are commonplace in state trial and appeals courts, and the lower federal courts have experimented with them.  Only in the Supreme Court is there categorical resistance."

Concerns about camera presence seem to take two forms ~

  • Viewers won't understand what is going on ~ the nuances of questions and answers, the rules of evidence, the relevance of case law.  Thus viewers might become bored, or might form mistaken impressions on what is transpiring in court.
  • Justices and attorneys might be tempted to grandstand, playing to the cameras rather than soberly focusing on the essential matter at hand.
To the first objection, I say nonsense.  Any citizen has the right to observe and understand the workings of government, be they executive, legislative, or judicial.  To suggest that those who are not attorneys will be unable to follow or make sense of the proceedings is condescending to the intelligence of those who take an interest in the Court.  It also overlooks the sterling educational value of watching court in session over time, thus learning some of the ins and outs of protocol, rules of evidence, and the relevance of arguments.

To the second objection, I say nonsense.  Justices and attorneys are professionals, steeped in the learning and structure of the law.  Anyone who is so immature (or so insecure in the validity of their arguments) that they would set aside decorum and play to the audience, should not be a justice or an attorney in the first place.  This isn't grade school.

I'm not alone in my perceptions.  The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the Supreme Court of Canada both allow cameras in the courtroom, and in Canada they also allow live streaming over the Internet.  Their experience has been positive.  Even the UK and Canadian justices who were initially opposed, have come around to support video coverage.  The only exception appears to be criminal trials before juries ~ the concern being that testifying witnesses might be intimidated if vested interests outside the courtroom knew the content of their testimony.

Check out the article for further details.  And here is an interview Charlie Rose conducted with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which the topic of cameras in court comes up.

04 March 2013


Speed is a funny thing.  More precisely, it is a relative thing.  If two cars are travelling in the same direction on an interstate highway ~ in adjacent lanes and at the same speed ~ and if driver A looks at driver B, neither appears to be moving relative to the other.  But when driver A returns his/her attention to the road and the passing landscape, suddenly the feeling of speed returns, as apparent motion is visualized with reference to the motionless ground.

Now suppose that both drivers pull over at a rest stop.  Both vehicles are still, relative to each other and relative to the landscape.  But is their speed really zero?  Not really.

Even when you are standing still or lying down, you are hurtling at mind-bending speeds.  How is this possible?  Here's how ~

  • Rotation ~ the Earth rotates (spins on its axis) once per day.  By definition, everything on the Earth's surface matches that speed of rotation.  The Earth is roughly 24,000 miles in circumference.
  • Revolution ~ the Earth revolves (orbits) around the Sun once per year.  All of Earth's passengers are inherently matching Earth's speed as it follows its path around the Sun.  The circumference of Earth's orbit is about 600 million miles.
  • Solar Neighborhood ~ our sun (taking the Earth with it) moves among other stars known as the Local Interstellar Cloud.  The sun's motion is measured, not against that of other stars (which can be variable), but rather against an abstract point called the Local Standard of Rest.
  • The Galaxy ~ our sun also moves in orbit around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a vast stellar spiral over 100,000 light years in diameter, containing 200-400 billion stars.  Our solar system is located within one of the outer arms of the galaxy, the Orion arm.
  • The Universe ~ you thought keeping all these motions in your head was hard?  Now consider that our galaxy is only one of more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, across an approximate distance 300 million light years.  On this scale motion is not simply orbital.  The Universe has been expanding since its origin in the Big Bang, nearly 14 billion years ago.  Galaxies and clusters of galaxies are speeding not just away from the point of that titanic explosion, but also away from each other (a simplistic analogy is the movement of painted dots on the surface of an expanding balloon).  So complex is all that stellar motion that it would be meaningless to pick an arbitrary spot against which to measure our speed within the universe.  Rather, astronomers use Cosmic Background Radiance as a frame of reference.  CBR is the collection of microwaves and other radio waves produced by the Big Bang.  It is a medium through which we move, much like a boat travels through water, or a plane through air.
Okay, enough definitions ~ what are the speeds at which we travel, even when standing in one spot on the surface of the Earth?
  • Rotation ~ at the equator, an object on Earth's surface moves at about 1000 mph.  Nearer the poles, less.
  • Revolution ~ Earth orbits around the Sun at about 66,000 mph.
  • Solar Neighborhood ~ the Sun moves relative to the Local Standard of Rest at about 43,000 mph, in the direction of the star Vega.
  • The Galaxy ~ the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way at about 483,000 mph.
  • The Universe ~ the Milky Way moves relative to the CBR at about 1.3 million mph.
Note that because velocity is paired to a specific reference, it is not meaningful to add all those speeds together.  But who needs to?  Each is fascinating to regard by itself.  Just imagining yourself traveling at Earth's rotation speed is mind-bending.  Each successive higher speed becomes even harder to wrap one's imagination around.

So what's with the interweaving objects in the GIF image at top (click to enlarge)?  That is a sped-up verson of what you might see if you were aboard a spaceship traveling parallel to the sun's path ~ the objects are the planets of the Solar System.  This baroque dance is a far cry from the static concentric orbits usually depicted in illustrations (see below - sizes are to scale, distances are not).  Caveat ~ this image is distorted by speed, and controversial in that it seems to portray the solar system moving in a helical path.  The planets do not trail behind the sun, at least not perceptibly.  Still, it's an interesting exercise in visually separating the motions of the Sun and planets.

For the overall flow of information, I am indebted to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and their excellent article How Fast Are You Moving When You Are Sitting Still?  I highly recommend reading the article for a fuller narrative.