30 April 2013


In 1936, a writer, eccentric, and self-help guru named James T. Mangan published a book titled You Can Do Anything!, which included a section called "14 Ways To Acquire Knowledge".  Modern writer Maria Popova revisited Mangan's 14 guidelines.  Her summary should be read at least one a year by everyone involved in learning or teaching, whether formally or on one's own.

Here are the fundamentals ~

  1. Practice
  2. Ask
  3. Desire
  4. Get It From Yourself
  5. Walk Around It
  6. Experiment
  7. Teach
  8. Read
  9. Write
  10. Listen
  11. Observe
  12. Put In Order
  13. Define
  14. Reason
Simple and obvious, you may say.  But if you scan the explanation for each step in her brief article, you'll realize that most people tend to omit important elements in the learning process.  The reminder is timely ~ old dogs can learn new tricks, with the right mindset.

29 April 2013


When it comes to the environment, wildlife, wilderness, and overall human behavior, the news normally ranges from discouraging to dire.  All the more reason to celebrate the announcement that the growth of solar energy jobs in the U.S. is outpacing nearly every other sector.  To wit ~

"California, the state that the Hollywood film industry calls home, can boast 43,700 paying jobs in the solar industry in 2012, versus only 32,300 paid actors.  Texas clocked in with 3,200 solar jobs, in comparison to the state's 270 to 2,410 ranchers.  And across the entire nation, 119,000 Americans were employed by the solar industry in 2012, versus only 87,500 by the coal mining industry.

"All that is according to The Solar Foundation (TSF), which compiled its 2012 survey of solar jobs in the United States several months ago, and just released the numbers via a new interactive map.  That map also provides info on each state, including solar jobs per capita, number of solar companies, number of solar-powered homes, and the legal status of third-party ownership.

" .... TSF's work also determined that several of the top states ~ New Jersey Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Ohio ~ actually rank in the bottom 30 percent of states in terms of available sunlight.  The strong industry presence despite a seemingly unfavorable climate is thanks to 'high electricity prices and favorable tax and regulatory policies', as CNN Money put it.  Skeptics might consider that evidence of an artificial market created through government intervention, but then our national failure to properly price carbon emissions and natural capital is massively subsidizing non-renewable power in the opposite direction.

"Other facts The Solar Foundation dug up include a 13.2 percent job growth rate inthe solar industry from 2011 to 2012 ~ which added almost 14,000 jobs ~ versus a mere 2.3 percent growth rate in the overall economy."

This, along with the similarly-burgeoning growth of wind energy production, provides a ray of sunshine in an energy landscape fouled by the consumption of coal, oil, fractured natural gas, and the heavy clout which those industries wield among lawmakers and regulatory agencies.  While government continues to try to force down our throats ill-begotten projects like the Keystone Pipeline, offshore oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, coal mining, and other polluters and contributors to global warming, the solar and wind sectors have quietly been seeding a long-overdue revolution in energy production.

Here's to the insurgency.

28 April 2013


The following information is courtesy of the website 100 People ~ A World Portrait.  The premise is this ~ if the world's 7 billion human population were represented by 100 people, how would that break down by gender, age, religion, language, etc.?  A visual summary appears in the circular chart above (click to enlarge).

Many of the proportions are surprising, and some are humbling.  It is important to bear in mind that this is a world portrait, not a U.S. portrait.  Consider the categories below ~


  • 50 would be female
  • 50 would be male
  • 26 would be 0-14
  • 66 would be 15-64
  • 8 would be 65 or older
  • 60 would be from Asia
  • 15 would be from Africa
  • 11 would be from Europe
  • 9 would be from Latin America & the Caribbean
  • 5 would be from North America
  • 33 would be Christian
  • 22 would be Muslim
  • 14 would be Hindu
  • 7 would be Buddhist
  • 12 would believe in other religions
  • 12 would not be religious or identify with a particular faith
First Language
  • 12 would speak Chinese
  • 5 would speak Spanish
  • 5 would speak English
  • 3 would speak Arabic
  • 3 would speak Hindi
  • 3 would speak Bengali
  • 3 would speak Portuguese
  • 2 would speak Russian
  • 2 would speak Japanese
  • 62 would speak other languages
Overall literacy
  • 83 would be able to read and write
  • 17 would not
Literacy by Gender
  • 88 males would be able to read and write
  • 12 males would not
  • 79 females would be able to read and write
  • 21 females would not
  • 76 eligible males would have a primary school education
  • 72 eligible females would have a primary school education
  • 66 eligible males would have a secondary school education
  • 63 eligible females would have a secondary school education
  • 7 would have a college degree
  • 51 would be urban dwellers
  • 49 would be rural dwellers
Drinking Water
  • 87 would have access to safe drinking water
  • 13 would use unimproved water
  • 15 would be undernourished
Infectious Disease
  • less than 1 would have HIV/AIDS
  • less than 1 would have tuberculosis
  • 48 would live on less that 52 USD per day
  • 1 out of 2 children would live in poverty
  • 78 would have electricity
  • 22 would not
  • 75 would be cell phone users
  • 30 would be active internet users
  • 22 would own or share a computer
  • 65 would have improved sanitation
  • 16 would have no toilets
  • 19 would have unimproved toilets
Please refer to the website for source references for the statistics quoted.

So what do you think?  Were any of your assumptions challenged?  Do you detect any oddities or seeming discrepancies?  For instance, is it contradictory that nearly half the world's people are poor, yet 75 percent are cell phone users?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it is a matter of priorities, and communication is one key to escaping poverty.

Certainly any level of poverty, or poor sanitation, or malnutrition, or lack of access to education, is unacceptable.  Economic and social inequality underlie most wars, most prejudice, most individual or cultural oppression.  We owe it to our world community and to our children to leave the world a better place than we found it.

I'm interested in the thoughts of all readers ~ please use the "comments" prompt below.

27 April 2013


On this day in 1810, Beethoven published his original manuscript for his Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano, popularly known today as Fur Elise.  Most people in western culture have heard it, whether or not they knew the name of the music or who wrote it.  The printed score for an abbreviated version appears above (click to enlarge).

I have a heart-shaped music box, with a hummingbird exquisitely carved into the lid.  When you open it, the sweet strains of Fur Elise lift into the air.

Here is the entire 3 minute piece.  Close your eyes, relax, and enjoy.

26 April 2013


How to Survive Living With a Writer
Top 10 Tips
  1. Never, ever ask when the book will be published.
  2. Don't ask a writer if they wish they had written the most recent best-seller.
  3. Never say you're thinking of writing a book.  Never, ever say you'd also write a book if only you had the time.
  4. Don't call the police if you happen to see a writer's browsing history.  The average writer is not planning to poison you, hire a hit man, or move to Afghanistan.  It's simply research.
  5. Leave a writer alone when the writer is actually writing.  You have no idea how difficult it is to enter the zone.
  6. Don't pick unfair fights with a writer.  Writers do get their revenge in print.
  7. If you do want to fight, make it memorable.  The writer is always looking for material.
  8. If your writer wanders off at a party, don't panic.  Writers love to inspect the host's bookshelves and medicine cabinets.
  9. Buy your writer notebooks and cute pens as gifts.  Do not buy flowers.  Chocolate is also acceptable.
  10. Leave your writer alone when a rejection letter arrives.  After the deadly silence, screaming, crying, moaning, and muttering have subsided, offer your writer a cup of coffee or tea.  And a cupcake.  And a huge hug.
(courtesy of WritersWrite)

25 April 2013


Here's an excerpt from a thoughtful discussion by science writer Kyle Hill on the significance (if any) of the coincidences we happen to notice in our lives ~

"I have written before about understanding the statistics of coincidences, making the point that even having a dream that seemingly predicted the future isn't all that amazing.  Still, coincidences have the staying power to survive attempts to rationally explain them away.  Blame it on your attention.

"Your attention ~ the ability to focus your mental life on one problem or conversation or task ~ is a lighthouse in the night.  The illuminating part spins around and around, lighting up important areas but missing most of the sea and land.  Of the billions or trillions (choose a very large number) of events that happen around the world each day, each second, you are only privy to a few.  By the numbers alone, there are bound to be numerous crazy grandmother photobombs that no one will ever recognize.

" .... Like human concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, Kirk or Picard, meaning only arises because of us.  If humans were extinguished from the universe, would it still make sense to call an action on Earth good or bad?  Similarly, when a bunch of particles interact with another bunch of particles, it takes one of us to grant it meaning.  And coincidences have their own special kind of meaning.  There is poetry to them ~ they seem special.

" .... Coincidences are meaningful.  They let us share experiences and come closer together.  Great coincidence tales can span generations, or create a family narrative that everyone rallies around.  But coincidences are not cosmically meaningful in the way many are taken to be.  Coincidences aren't portents of fate or the cosmos slapping you around, and it is still mistaken to assume that a coincidence was too miraculous to have happened, if it did indeed happen.  Connecting A to B can make for a great story or experience, but remember that you connected those events, not the universe."

24 April 2013


In September 2012 astronomers first detected the approach of Comet ISON.  The comet is expected to slingshot past the sun in November 2013 ~ it will pass so close that the gases and dust that boil off the comet's surface to form its tail will be visible to the naked eye for Earth-bound observers, perhaps spectacularly so.

Above is a Hubble image taken two weeks ago.  At the time, the comet was 386 million miles from the sun, just inside the orbit of Jupiter.  For a frame of reference, Earth orbits about 93 million miles from the sun.  According to the NASA news release, "Even at that great distance the comet is already active as sunlight warms the surface and causes frozen gases to vaporize .... The comet's dusty atmosphere, or coma, is approximately 3,100 miles across, or 1.2 times the width of Australia.  A dust tail extends more than 57,000 miles."

Here is a NASA video showing the path of the comet through the Solar System, with commentary explaining what to look for ~ the arrival of a meteor shower and cometary dust on Earth, and possible noctilucent clouds.

It is remarkable to me that just within my lifetime, space observation has graduated from mountaintop telescopic observatories to orbiting space telescopes, and that our ability to predict the timing and trajectory of a distant object has become so finely-tuned, honed in part by our experience with the complex physics and math of manned space flight and unmanned space probes to the sun, other planets and their moons, and beyond the solar system.

One hopes that we humans will survive and solve the problems we've created with climate change, overpopulation, pollution, and loss of wilderness/wildlife, so that we may continue our exploration of the next (not last) frontier ~ space.

22 April 2013


In 1996, Shirley and Jenny, two former circus elephants who hadn't seen each other in 22 years were reunited at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.  They recognized each other immediately, and their deep attachment is captured in this video of the reunion.  Tissue alert ~ tears may ensue.

The PBS show Nature published an update on Shirley and Jenny's lives.  Tissue alert ~ tears may ensue.

On this Earth Day 2013, it is good that we examine the large-scale issues facing humans and the environment, which happen to include stories like this one, in which responsible people take it upon themselves to provide a refuge for the innocent victims of human exploitation.  Today, zoos and nature preserves are steadily becoming not merely places of entertainment, but centers for conservation research, the preservation of endangered species' gene pools, and sanctuaries for the plants and wildlife which live there.

In Africa today, elephants are being murdered at an alarming rate by poachers in search of the valuable ivory in their tusks ~ ivory which often ends up in Asia.  Some national parks employ armed rangers who patrol against poaching, putting their own lives at risk to defend the resident wildlife.  All of Africa is being transformed, as humans encroach upon the wilderness that remains, threatening the homes and the lives of all the continent's magnificent wildlife.  As with most of humanity's woes, our own runaway overpopulation lies at the root of the conflict.

Can you imagine a world with 700 million humans, rather than the current 7 billion?  A world in which people could thrive and still coexist with, even treasure, wilderness and wildlife?  Everyone needs a dream.  That is mine.

21 April 2013


It's a case of too little, too late according to the latest clean energy report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).  Nina Chestney from Reuters ~ "The development of low-carbon energy is progressing too slowly to limit global warming.  With power generation still dominated by coal and governments failing to increase investment in clean energy, top climate scientists have said that the target of keeping the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius this century is slipping out of reach.

" 'The drive to clean up the world's energy system has stalled,' said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA's executive director, at the launch of the agency's report on clean energy progress.  'Despite much talk by world leaders, and a boom in renewable energy over the past decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.'

.... "With the world still reliant on fossil fuels, the deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is critical, but there are no commercial plants in operation.  The IEA has envisaged that CCS, which buries and traps CO2 underground, should play a major role in cutting global emissions and had forecast 63 percent of coal power plants should be equipped with the technology by 2050.

"However, there are only 13 large-scale demonstration projects in operation or being built, with the capacity to store about 65 million tonnes of CO2 a year.  This represents only a quarter of the storage capacity needed by 2020.

"New nuclear plant construction is also well behind target, and global biofuel production stalled in 2012."

As this link confirms, I've written numerous times about greenhouse gases, global warming, climate change, and sea level rise.  The implications for all life on Earth are profound.  Every natural cycle is already being interrupted, and severe weather events are becoming more intense and more frequent.

Consider that many of the world's major population centers are coastal.  A rise in sea level is already happening, and it will only become more pronounced as air and water temperatures rise, glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, and a self-feeding, runaway cycle arises.

To visualize this, here is a set of interactive maps of U.S. cities, which "show coastal and low-lying areas that would be permanently flooded, without engineered protection" ~ you can set the sea level rise selector to 0, 5, 12, or 25 feet.  The city maps include ~

  • Baltimore, MD
  • Boston, MA
  • Charleston, SC
  • Houston, TX
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Long Island, NY
  • Miami, FL
  • Mobile, AL
  • Jersey City, Newark, and Atlantic City, NJ
  • New Orleans, LA
  • New York City, NY
  • San Francisco and Sacramento, CA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Portland, ME
  • Portland, OR
  • Providence, RI
  • San Diego, CA
  • Savannah, GA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Tampa Bay, FL
  • Virginia Beach and Norfolk, VA
  • Washington, DC
  • Wilmington, DE
I have lived in four of those cities, and visited nearly all the remainder.  Now multiply the centers of culture and the numbers of human lives to all the coastal nations on Earth.  The destruction and loss are staggering.

And yet we continue to deny or ignore climate change, assuming it won't happen in our lifetimes.  But it is already happening.  The Arctic sea ice maximum in 2013 is the sixth lowest on record.  The 2012-13 Arctic freezing season never had a chance to fully establish itself.  Summer ice melt on the Antarctic Peninsula is now nonlinear, the fastest in over 1000 years.  As all that ice melts, sea level rises inexorably.  

As Bill Moyers challenged us, it is time to end the silence on climate change.  It is time to become fully, militantly involved.  Positive change can happen (as it has in Germany, where fully 65 percent of the country's energy comes from wind and solar power).  We must first inform ourselves, and then we must pressure our local, state, and national elected representatives to pass stringent laws requiring polluting energy producers (coal, natural gas, nuclear) and other polluting industries to clean up their act or face stiff sanctions, not excluding losing their license to conduct business.  We must promote and support clean renewable energy sources (solar, wind, tides, geothermal).  It makes environmental sense.  It makes economic sense.  It makes ethical sense.

But not in five years, not next year, not even next month.  Now.

20 April 2013


It seems that every state in the union has odd, antiquated, or humorous laws which are still in force.  Here is a sampling, one such law from each of the fifty states ~

  • Alabama ~ Incestuous marriages are legal.
  • Alaska ~ It is considered an offense to feed alcoholic beverages to a moose.
  • Arizona ~ It is unlawful to refuse a person a glass of water.
  • Arkansas ~ Oral sex is considered to be sodomy.
  • California ~ No vehicle without a driver may exceed 60 mph.
  • Colorado ~ It is illegal to allow a llama to graze on public property.
  • Connecticut ~ It is unlawful to walk backwards after sunset.
  • Delaware ~ No person shall change clothes in his or her vehicle.
  • Florida ~ It is illegal to sell your children.
  • Georgia ~ Donkeys may not be kept in bathtubs.
  • Hawaii ~ Residents may be fined for not owning a boat.
  • Idaho ~ You may not fish from a camel's back.
  • Illinois ~ Law forbids eating in a place that is on fire.
  • Indiana ~ The value of Pi is 3.
  • Iowa ~ A one-armed piano player must perform for free.
  • Kansas ~ If two trains meet on the same track, neither shall proceed until the other has passed.
  • Kentucky ~ Dogs may not molest cars.
  • Louisiana ~ It is illegal to rob a bank with a water pistol.
  • Maine ~ To stroll down the street playing a violin is against the law.
  • Maryland ~ It is illegal to take a lion to the movies.
  • Massachusetts ~ All men must carry a rifle to church on Sunday.
  • Michigan ~ A woman isn't allowed to cut her own hair without her husband's permission.
  • Minnesota ~ It is illegal to sleep naked.
  • Mississippi ~ Cattle rustling is punishable by hanging.
  • Missouri ~ It is not illegal to speed.
  • Montana ~ It is illegal to have a sheep in the cab of your truck without a chaperone.
  • Nebraska ~ It is illegal to go whale fishing.
  • Nevada ~ Sex toys are outlawed.
  • New Hampshire ~ On Sundays citizens may not relieve themselves while looking up.
  • New Jersey ~ You may not slurp your soup.
  • New Mexico ~ Idiots may not vote.
  • New York ~ The penalty for jumping off a building is death.
  • North Carolina ~ It is against the law to sing off key.
  • North Dakota ~ It is legal to shoot an Indian on horseback, provided you are in a covered wagon.
  • Ohio ~ An ordinance prohibits the installation and use of slot machines in outhouses.
  • Oklahoma ~ It is illegal for the owner of a bar to allow anyone inside to pretend to have sex with a buffalo.
  • Oregon ~ Babies may not be carried on the running boards of a car.
  • Pennsylvania ~ You may not sing in the bathtub.
  • Rhode Island ~ No person may bite off another's leg.
  • South Carolina ~ A permit must be obtained to fire a missile.
  • South Dakota ~ It is illegal to lie down and fall asleep in a cheese factory.
  • Tennessee ~ Skunks may not be carried into the state.
  • Texas ~ It is illegal to sell one's eye.
  • Utah ~ It is illegal to detonate any nuclear weapon.
  • Vermont ~ All residents shall bathe every Saturday night.
  • Virginia ~ It is illegal to tickle women.
  • Washington ~ All lollipops are banned.
  • West Virginia ~ Roadkill may be taken home for supper.
  • Wisconsin ~ State law forbade serving apple pie in restaurants without cheese.
  • Wyoming ~ You may not take a picture of a rabbit from January to April without an official permit.
Here is the website, which lists many more such laws within the U.S.

18 April 2013


I'm a member of a book-reading club that meets once a month to discuss a novel we've all read.  This month's selection is Barbara Kingsolver's Pigs In Heaven, the story of an abandoned young Native American girl who was adopted by a single white woman, and her tribe's attempt to nullify the adoption and return the girl to tribal care.

The legal and family issues are complex, but the story is excellent.  Kingsolver's prose is thoroughly leavened with a poet's sensibilities, and her characters are rich with humor and human flaws.  I find myself savoring each sentence, lingering over phrases.  And all the while the author is propelling the reader along the story's arc with finesse.

Coincidentally, as reported on last night's PBS Newshour and in today's NYTimes, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case involving .... you guessed it, the adoption of a Native American girl (image above) by a white family, being contested by the child's father (who had never met his daughter).  The case hinges on South Carolina adoption law, U.S. law (specifically the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (which was enacted to protect Native tribes and families from abusive adoption practices), and a complex effort to assess the best interests of the child.

Here's an additional twist ~ the father is 3/128ths Cherokee, and the daughter is 3/256ths Cherokee, which raises a question familiar to members of both the Native American and the black communities ~ how small does one's genetic inheritance have to be, before it is irrelevant?  Many people of mixed ancestry self-identify with their minority blood.  Some do not.

The Court, after much soul-searching, decided in favor of the father.  I'm conflicted about that decision.  The adoptive parents have loved and cared for the little girl since birth (the birth mother was Hispanic, not Indian).  On the other hand, the father was willing to cede parental rights to the birth mother, but not to adoptive parents.  It is a thorny issue, one with implications for (as the family's attorney pointed out) "women's rights, racial equality, and countless adoptions" ~ including all the couples and single parents who adopt children from other countries.

My heart goes out most to the little girl.  How will she be scarred by this experience, and how will she heal?  Will her father provide her with a safe and much-loved childhood?  I hope so.  To get a flavor for the legal and emotional journey, I hope you'll read Kingsolver's book.  You won't regret it.

17 April 2013


A few days ago, one of my former biology students sent me a Facebook message.  She had seen a bird with distinct markings, and sought out my help in identifying it.  I was gratified that her confidence in me has remained intact after twenty years, but I was also a bit hesitant.  You see, even though I've been an avid birder since my early 20s, and took a university ornithology class as part of my degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and have sought out local adult evening classes (which feature field trips guided by local experts) each time I've moved around the country ... nevertheless it has been at least ten years since I've done any serious birding.

Back in the day, I was pretty good at mentally sorting through a bird's field markings, songs, and behavior, and arriving at a tentative I.D. that was either spot-on or in the ballpark.  I would follow that initial impression by flipping through my reliable old Robbins field guide to the birds of North America ~ the species are arranged taxonomically, and with practice one can confidently flip to the correct page without reference to the index.  Less practice, less confidence.

My student's initial visual clues rang conflicting bells ~ a blue bird (but not a jay), with wing bars of red and yellow.  She lives in Pennsylvania, so there are several blue possibilities, but the wing bars are diagnostic of a Red-winged Blackbird (see above), which is, well, black.

I followed up with questions about her bird's size, beak shape and size, flight pattern, where she'd seen it land, and asked if she was certain the body color was one solid color, or whether there might have been different colors on the belly, chest, head, wings, or tail.  On a hunch, I sent Wikipedia's link to the Red-Winged Blackbird, and suggested that in certain light, its black feathers might iridesce to the illusion of a blue shade.

She shot back, "That's it!  You're the greatest!"  I was beaming.

My instincts were accurate, at least on such a common species. I'm far from a world-class birder ~ in that community, one is considered committed after having identified 700 species or more.  Those dedicated souls can usually afford trips to exotic places around the world.  My own life list totals a mere 350 species, including U.S. sightings in the Southwest, Southeast, Northeast, Northwest, and Alaska.  If I were to move back to any of those regions, many birds would be intact in my memory, but others would require verification in a field guide.  The price of an itinerant life, I suppose.

So now I'm leafing leisurely through my Robbins, which is heavily annotated with the dates and places of first sightings ~ getting re-acquainted with old friends.  Birding is a wonderful pastime ~ it gets you outdoors (ideally with other birders), it attunes you to habitats and weather and  the rhythms of the natural world.  The only requirements are a good field guide, a good pair of binoculars, and a willingness to be enthralled by beauty you hadn't expected.

The larger bookstores stock an array of excellent field guides with slightly different formats ~ guides by Sibley, Audubon, Peterson, National Geographic, et al.  Some publish range maps next to the species illustration and description, while other group range maps at the back of the book.  Some cover the species of half or all of a continent, others cover more limited regions.  I prefer whole-continent guides, so that I'm prepared when I travel.  Larger hardcover guides are fine for home, but look for a smaller, lighter softcover edition to carry in the field.  And don't forget a pen for keeping notes on your sightings.

A word about binoculars ~ you get what you pay for.  An investment in newer models by Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Swarovski, Leica, or Zeiss with their state-of-the-art optics coatings is money well spent.  You'll find that binoculars are classified by a pair of numbers, e.g. 7x35.  The first number indicates the degree of magnification, while the second number is the diameter of the objective lens.  More magnification allows you to see the bird up close and in detail, but the narrower field of view may make spotting the bird more difficult.  A larger objective lens means more light-gathering power for greater clarity, but also implies a heavier instrument which may be hard to hold steady for long periods.

7x35 is a good entry level combination.  As you gain experience, you may wish to graduate to 8x40, or 10x50.  Useful tip ~ notice that in each pair, dividing the first number into the second number yields 5.  This relationship provides the best combination of magnification and light gathering ability.  You can find binoculars with greater magnification but a smaller objective lens to save on size and weight (for example, 8x20), but their performance is limited at best.  I have 7x35 and 10x50 binoculars, and would like to add a pair of 8x40s.

There are several online birding resources.  Among the best is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website.  Browse the Bird Guide, Bird Cams, Birding Basics, and Living Bird tabs.  And have fun!

16 April 2013


My home for the first 20 years of my life was located 60 miles south of the Canada-U.S. border.  It is the longest international border in the world shared by the same two nations ~ 5,525 miles in total.

After military service, my home for the next 20 years of my life was located 60 miles north of the Mexico-U.S. border ~ more modest in length, but still substantial ~ 1,969 miles.

The contrast between the two boundaries is stark.  Canada and the U.S. share similar cultures, both having once been colonies of Great Britain.  Relations are friendly, English is spoken in both nations, and both nations enjoy relative economic prosperity.  For many years (until heightened security following 9/11) one could freely pass back and forth between the two countries with a greeting and a question or two.  Today at formal border crossings, a passport is needed, but there's still no feeling of entering into alien territory.  Searches for contraband are rare, and about the only thing Canadians worry about is that Americans may stay and seek Canadian jobs.

The cultures of Mexico and the U.S. are more dissimilar.  Mexico was once a colony of Spain, hence Spanish remains the unifying language, and Mexican culture is fairly distinct from the hodgepodge of U.S. culture.  Relations are somewhat strained, since Mexico's economy is not as developed, and many poorer citizens seek jobs in the U.S.  Things became even more complicated in recent decades with the illegal transport of drugs (especially marijuana and cocaine) northward to U.S. consumers, and the illegal transport of guns southward for sale to the drug cartels.  As a result, crossing the border is sure to involve a close examination of documents and a higher probability of personal and vehicular searches.  High fences, armed Border Patrol reconnaissance by ground vehicle, UAV, and satellite surveillance, and the potential for violence are the order of the day.

Here is an excellent description of borderlands culture.

Yet in spite of the language and cultural differences, most Mexicans share common values and aspirations with most of us who live in the U.S. or Canada ~ a desire to earn a decent living, a high value on close family ties, a wish for peace.  It is unfortunate that borders tend to generate we/they thinking and misleading stereotypes.  I've traveled freely and without fear in northern Sonora, back before the drug wars.  I've also traveled freely and without fear in southern Alberta, as well as northwestern British Columbia and the Yukon.

Perhaps there's something to be said for a pan-American economic zone like the European Economic Community ~ with a shared currency, mutual support, and unrestricted travel between the nations of North, Central, and South America.  U.S. Corporations already export jobs to other nations, and hire undocumented immigrants to perform menial labor which U.S. workers are unwilling to seek.  Why not make it a two-way street with comprehensive immigration reform and the realization that in spite of U.S. isolationism, we are all dependent upon each other?  Imagine being able to travel by car, plane, boat or rail between all those nations, with only cursory border inspections ~ something Europeans take for granted.

Realistically, that vision won't happen until those in power on all sides see a profit in it.  Until then, one can only remember simpler days when, living near the Canadian border, visitors from the north on vacation were welcomed (and still are), and when, living near the Mexican border, visitors from the south seeking work were given water and friendly advice (but no longer are).  It is up to each of us to temper we/they thinking, and to try to see this new person as a fellow human being.

14 April 2013


While cruising the Interwebs, I happened upon a photo of what looked like a huge shark leaping out of the water ~ with people inside, visible through a transparent canopy.  Intrigued, I began to search for the source.

Until recently, one- or two-person submarines were ungainly-looking, expensive, and usually equipped for scientific or military research at depth.  Now a new generation of mini-subs has surfaced (so to speak), one aimed squarely at recreational use.  An example is Seabreacher, a personal submarine designed for surface or near-surface play.  It is capable of speeds of 40 mph on the surface, and up to 20 mph submerged.  By design, It will not dive much deeper than 5 feet.  Generous hull flotation means the sub is inherently stable, and unsinkable even if the cockpit and engine bay are fully flooded.  An optional snorkel (to feed air to the engine) is available for extended shallow-submersion cruising.

A variety of custom cockpits and paint schemes is available.  My personal favorite is the orca design (image above, click to enlarge).

Interestingly, the company recommends that a companion boat be deployed, in radio contact with the sub.  This is to prevent other watercraft or swimmers from trying to approach too closely.  Under Coast Guard rules, the sub falls in the same class of watercraft as jet skis, and is capable of operation in fresh or salt water.  No special license is required for operation.

Like jet skis, these personal submarines are mostly intended for fun.  Still, I suspect an enterprising soul could find practical uses to justify the expense.  Swimmer rescue?  Smuggling?  Patrolling nude beaches?  Thrill rides for hire?  Could be fun.

13 April 2013


A poll was recently conducted by Huffington Post and YouGov, exploring the public's attitudes toward allowing robots to engage in various services to humans ~ services ranging from cleaning our homes and caring for our elderly to fighting our wars.  Responses varied with the level of intimacy in the human-robot relationship, as well as with the age of the human respondents.

The robotic service which generated the greatest cognitive dissonance, and the most hesitation, was in the role of sex partner.  "18% of respondents indicated that they believed sexbots will be available by 2030.  9% indicated that they would have sex with a robot if they could .... Sex with a robot raised some thorny ethical questions, including whether a married person who hooked up with a robot would be guilty of infidelity."

Carrying the thought experiment one step further, Chris Matyszczyk at CNET speculates about the progeny of unions between fertile humans and fertile robots.  The ultimate hybrid.

Limiting our consideration to recreational sex for the moment, it seems to me that having a robot partner is just as harmless as any other sex toy.  Both genders pleasure themselves, whether or not they are in a committed relationship ~ manually or using vibrators, simulated genitalia, or sex dolls ~ and both genders fantasize about others while having sex with their partner.

Such pursuits are perfectly normal and healthy.  They only pose a problem if they begin to interfere with one's human relationship.  Having access to a sexbot carries the potential for a complication not unlike having access to a second human lover ~ that is, if feelings of attachment or love arise, then clearly there is a threat to the primary relationship.  Becoming accustomed to a particular form of arousal does happen, especially when it is experienced as exotic or illicit.

As always, deep and open communication is key, along with a clear commitment to one's partner above all else.  Accepting that as a given, I see no harm (and possibly a real enhancement) to the lives of those in relationships.  As for those not in relationships, the question becomes one of privacy and personal preference.

What about you?  If you were alone with a robot of your preferred gender, one which was realistic in appearance, correct in form and function, attractive, and programmed to be vocally and physically responsive, would you be tempted?  What about if you could alter its form or abilities in any way to heighten your pleasure ~ imagine intimacy with a sexy celebrity, or a figure from a dream, or an unrequited love, or one of the Navi from Avatar.  No guilt, no regrets, just pleasure tailored to your desires.  Could be fun.

12 April 2013


Thoughts by 25 practitioners of the art/craft of writing ~

Writing is easy.  All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.
~ Mark Twain

I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.
~ Clarice Lispector

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
~ Virginia Woolf

I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.
~ James Joyce

The first draft of anything is shit.
~ Ernest Hemingway

Always be a poet, even in prose.
~ Charles Baudelaire

Literature ~ creative literature ~ unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable.
~ Gertrude Stein

If you do not breath through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.
~ Anais Nin

One can be absolutely truthful and sincere even though admittedly the most outrageous liar.  Fiction and invention are of the very fabric of life.
~ Henry Miller

Writers aren't people exactly.  Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

The true writer has nothing to say.  What counts is the way he says it.
~ Alain Robbe-Grillet

James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could.  I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.
~ Samuel Beckett

Life is painful and disappointing.  It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels.  We generally know where we stand in relationship to reality and don't care to know any more.
~ Michel Houellebecq

Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being?  Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?
~ Kurt Vonnegut

Skill alone cannot teach or produce a great short story, which condenses the obsession of the creature ~ it is a hallucinatory presence manifest from the first sentence to fascinate the reader, to make him lose contact with the dull reality that surrounds him, submerging him in another that is more intense and compelling.
~ Julio Cortazar

Don't bend.  Don't water it down.  Don't try to make it logical.  Don't edit your own soul according to the fashion.  Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
~ Franz Kafka

Reading is more important than writing.
~ Roberto Bolano

The artist is always beginning.  Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth.
~ Ezra Pound

The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.  Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. lie with reverence and conviction.  Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.  These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started.  Dead on the page.  Too sincere.  Clearly repressed.  Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.  Maybe that'll be the point.  Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels.  Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.  The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal ~ shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism.  Today's risks are different.  The new rebels will be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.'  To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.  Of overcredulity.  Of softness.  Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.  Who knows.
~ David Foster Wallace

The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things.  Words without experience are meaningless.
~  Vladimir Nabokov

Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty ~ describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.  If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it, blame yourself.  Admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches, because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.  And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds, wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond price, that treasure house of memories?  Turn your attentions to it.  Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past.  Your personality will grow stronger.  Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.  And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not.  Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works, for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it.  A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.  That is the only way one can judge it.
~ Rainier Maria Rilke

The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.
~ Walt Whitman

All I know is what the words know, and dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning and a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead.
~ Samuel Beckett

Do you know what I was smiling at?  You wrote down that you were a writer by profession.  It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard.  When was writing ever your profession?  It's never been anything but your religion.  Never.  I'm a little overexcited right now.  Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?  But let me tell you first what you won't be asked.  You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died.  You won't be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished.  You won't be asked if you were in good or bad orm while you were working on it.  Youo won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished ~ I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that.  I'm so sure you'll only get asked two questions.  Were most of your stars out?  Were you busy writing your heart out?  If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.
~ J.D. Salinger

[Source credit ~ ThoughtCatalog]

11 April 2013


Three day ago I wrote about the first episode in Dr. Michael Mosley's 3-part series on health ~ it was titled Eat, Fast and Live.  Last night on PBS I watched the second episode, The Truth About Exercise.  True to form, Dr. Mosley (above) both narrated and acted as human test subject for several newly-developed alternative exercise regimens, each of which promotes fitness in less time per week than the standard model.

Further, the new approaches to exercise take into account the fact that different individuals have different exercise needs ~ there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Each regimen is designed by medical professionals, with measurement of calories burned, body weight, and body fat conducted before and after the respective test periods.  The implications for those who are overweight, who are diabetic, or who have limited access to a gym are discussed.

Two features stood out for me ~ one, that a simple but intense workout on a stationary bike, three sets of 30 seconds each, three times a week, is surprisingly effective in waking up most of the human body's major muscle groups and stimulating them to burn off residual fat in the blood stream.  Two, in the complete absence of scheduled exercise, one can still attain a maintenance level of fitness simply by being maximally active throughout the day ~ by taking the stairs rather than an elevator, by walking or bicycling rather than sitting still or riding in a car.  This can be helpful even for those with sedentary jobs at a desk.  Get up and move around at regular intervals, drink more water, eat fewer snacks, and avoid sodas and junk food.  Break into spontaneous dance once in a while!

I encourage you to watch the video for yourself.  A description alone doesn't convey the full force of the presentation.

One episode in the series remains ~ covering our digestive system.

10 April 2013


Three months ago, I published a post about Wild Sex, a documentary video series on sex in the animal world, produced and hosted by biologist and science writer Dr. Carin Bondar (above).  Included were links to each of ten episodes (each averaging 4-6 minutes in length).  You may want to review that content before proceeding.

I wrote at the time that the ten episodes were the entire series, but I was mistaken.  More episodes have been made public, and in the interest of education and entertainment, you will find links to the new episodes below.

I'm not sure whether even more episodes are in the offing, but if they are, you'll find them here in a few months.  Enjoy!

08 April 2013


When I was in my early 30s, I realized that I was overweight by about 10 lb.  Of the two usual components of weight loss and overall health ~ diet and exercise ~ I focused on my diet.  Specifically, I decided to try fasting.  I would intake nothing but water and fruit juices, with the intent of cleansing the accumulated toxins from my body, and allowing my metabolism to burn off excess body fat.

It wasn't the most informed approach in the world, but it worked.  I lost 30 lb. during several weeks of fasting.  Predictably, when I went off the fast, I regained the weight over several months, because I went straight back to my former unhealthy eating habits, and did not incorporate a balanced exercise regimen into my days.

Over the years I've tried fasting more moderately, for 2-3 days at a time, and I always feel refreshed and cleansed afterward.  It's not as difficult as you might think.  After the first day or two, one ceases to obsess about hunger pangs, compensating with water and the reminder that the effort is worth it.  And it is.

Last week on PBS I chanced to see the first of a three-part series narrated by Dr. Michael Mosley, a popular author and TV personality in the UK.  This episode was called Eat, Fast and Live.  In it, Dr. Mosley volunteered to be a human guinea pig as he explored the health benefits and side effects of several variations on fasting, ranging from the rigorous to the indulgent.  Along the way he explained precisely what is going on in the body ~ how one's hormones, digestion, brain function, and predisposition to ailments like diabetes and high cholesterol are affected by fasting.

It was an eye-opening experience.  At my current 5'9" and 140 lb., I do not need to lose weight to remain in my ideal weight and height range.  But the notion of enhancing my overall health and prolonging my life through periodic moderate fasting is very appealing.

I'm looking forward to this week's episode, The Truth About Exercise.  I've been an athlete for most of my adult life ~ kayaking, bicycling, karate, weight training, and home workouts ~ all of which have become harder to maintain with age and injuries.  I want to learn more about the promise of new research which offers the benefits of the traditional two and a half hours (minimum) workout per week, but requiring far less time.

07 April 2013


  • Could you outrun a Tyrannosaurus rex?  Scientific speculation on the posture, hence the speed, of predatory raptors has ebbed and flowed since the late 18th century.  The latest thinking is that you might indeed be able to outpace a T. rex ~ if it was young or injured.  What about other pre-historic carnivores?  Could you escape the jaws of an allosaurus, a dilophosaurus, a velociraptor, or the tiny compsognathus?  Check out the article and the chart above (click to enlarge) to find out.
  • Animal camouflage ~ can you spot the creatures hidden in plain view in each of the 8 photos?  (Bragging ~ I found each one within a second or two, but I'm a trained biologist and fond of visual puzzles as well.)
  • Animated Mandelbulb ~ the sophistication of visual portrayals of fractals, Mandelbulbs, and other mathematical manifestations has become truly astonishing.
  • Book-filled bars ~ a slide show of 15 bars which cater to readers ~ or 15 libraries which cater to drinkers.  Very, very classy.
  • Rising seas swallow 8 cities ~ realistic GIF images of what the progressive rise in sea level could look like in Miami, New York City, Washington DC, Boston, and their environs.
  • Elephants reunited after 20 years ~ the story of Shirley and Jenny.  Prepare to get weepy.

06 April 2013


From last night's PBS Newshour interview with investigative journalist Gerald Ryle ~ 

"Around the world, government officials and individuals use offshore accounts to hide their wealth and evade heavy taxes .... A team of 86 investigative journalists from 46 countries has collectively examined more than 120,000 offshore accounts belonging to individuals and companies from more than 170 countries.  The records show how government officials and individuals use covert accounts and companies to shield their wealth, and how some of the top global banks work within these offshore tax havens as well.

" .... the people that you expect to use tax havens are the super-wealthy.  But when you look into this world, you find that it's not just the super-wealthy that are using it.  It is the moderately wealthy.  And it pervades right down through society to doctors, dentists, small-time developers.  They have all discovered this world.  And they're all using it.

" .... the Tax Justice Network, which is an advocacy group, has got the best figures on what they think is the size of this offshore world.  And they say that half of all world trade and a third of all world wealth now resides in the offshore world [emphasis mine].

" .... this is the first time that anyone has been able to really see into that world.  And I'm not saying that we have got it all comprehensively covered here.  We're only looking at a very small slice [approximately 20 percent] of a very large world.  But it's a deep slice of that world.

" .... there is a whole service industry out there of providers who are used by big banks and everyday institutions.  And they provide the means to set up offshore accounts,the means to set up offshore companies, the means to basically conduct your business through secrecy."

You can see the interview and read the complete transcript here.

Even to someone as cynical as me, the sheer scale of fraudulent tax evasion and international secret commerce is staggering.  An entire parallel global economy exists in the shadows of secrecy and tax evasion.

Ironically, after World War II the U.S. and its allies persuaded and coerced conquered nations to incorporate 20th century capitalism into their economies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, even more nations bought into our economic model.  The trouble is that capitalism itself has morphed into an unrecognizable monster, a system in which a tiny number of individuals control most wealth, and the vast majority of individuals control very little wealth.  The gap between the two has been widening since 1980, as corporations and the wealthy have devised ways to contribute less and less of their share of taxes (both through revised tax laws written by those whose elections the wealthy supported, and by the insidious use of offshore tax havens), while continuing to enjoy the lucrative benefits of the society which supports them.

The result is an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor.  On average, a company CEO makes 400 to 600 times what his/her employees earn, and pays little if any taxes on that wealth.  Meanwhile the conservative far right holds government hostage, blindly insisting on spending less on services (which benefit all of society), and refusing to consider raising taxes on the wealthy (which includes themselves).  Whatever happened to the wealthy philanthropists of yesteryear, who understood that those who benefit the most must also contribute the most?

The system is sick.  How long before it collapses under its own weight?

05 April 2013


From Memolition ~

"Since its inception in 1958, it was made clear by the Space Act that the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) should go beyond studying just space ships.  The law  stipulated that its research and discoveries should benefit the general public.  NASA has faithfully stuck to that precept.  Today, you come in contact with products every day that you probably didn't know were the result of NASA research and development.  These 25 Coolest NASA Discoveries (not counting the innumerable additions to our scientific understanding of the Earth, the Solar System, and the cosmos) are just some of those everyday things that trace their origin back to the government branch commonly linked to space ships and telescopes."

The list includes (but is not limited to) ~

  • long-distance telecommunication
  • solar energy
  • artificial limbs
  • invisible braces
  • scratch-resistant lenses
  • memory foam
  • shoe insoles
  • smoke detectors
  • cordless tools
  • water filters
  • freeze drying
  • powdered lubricants
  • structural analysis software
  • pollution remediation
  • improved radial tires
  • light-emitting diodes (LEDs)
  • vision enhancing systems
Check out the 8-minute video for visuals.  If memory serves, Velcro (see magnified image above), GPS, and WD-40 should be on the list, too.  What a shame that such a productive agency receives less than 1% of the federal budget.  NASA boosts the economies of every U.S. state, and enhances all our lives.

Now think about that remarkable instruction ~ "R&D should benefit the general public".  Would it not be appropriate for any government-funded or subsidized activity to operate this way?  Industries from pharmaceuticals to agriculture, banking to energy, receive our support.  Should they not be required to provide a direct return to the public for our investment, rather than operating merely to maximize profits and dividends to shareholders?  We are their prime shareholders, since their license to conduct business comes from the taxpayers.  

This is one among many ways in which capitalism in its current form fails the public good.  When donations by corporations are made illegal, and those by wealthy individuals are limited, and lobbyists are outlawed on Capitol Hill, and election reform is enacted, we can reclaim our democratic republic from the corporate oligarchy it has become.

Just sayin'.

04 April 2013


Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and writer Roger Ebert died today, after a long, painful, and courageous battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands.  He was 70 years old.

Roger reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, and on TV for 31 years.  During the latter, he famously co-hosted movie review programs with Gene Siskel, who died in 1999.  Their erudite, insightful, passionate, and often argumentative commentary was the most intelligent discussion of film around.

Here is the Sun-Times excellent retrospective on Roger's career.  Here is his essay, "I Do Not Fear Death".  Here is a collection of "The Five Best Things Roger Ebert Said About Politics".  Here is a concise remembrance from NPR.  Here is the PBS Newshour's video coverage.  And here are three unauthorized outtakes from Gene and Roger in the 1980s, doing what they did best ~ arguing fiercely (the profanity and most of the sarcasm never made it on air), laughing deeply, the only two guys in the room who understood the layers of reference and subtext and innuendo.  Gene and Roger rarely socialized together, but as a team on air they were matchless.  When they praised or mauled a film (never giving away too much plot), I always knew if I wanted to see it or not ~ even when they disagreed whether to give it thumbs up or thumbs down.

I'm too sad to spend more time on a tribute or remembrance.  The Sun-Times piece is a fine one, and I recommend it.

03 April 2013


Alright, it's time to put on your thinking caps.  Remember all those famous names you learned in biology, physics, mathematics, and astronomy?  (NO?  Shame on you.)  Below you'll see a chart with eight names ~ click to enlarge.  Each entry is presented as a visual pun, illustrating something that person is well known for.  See how many you can figure out quickly ~

If the connection eludes you, here are links to references ~

Clever, no?

02 April 2013


A few weeks ago I published a post praising a book called The Generals ~ American Military Command from World War II to Today.  It is living history (in the sense that I was alive and aware of names in the news during most of the period covered), and illuminates the lives and relationships among U.S. generals not only during a given war, but between wars ~ their strengths and weaknesses, their friendships and rivalries, and the evolution of military culture from "perform or lose your job" to "conform and we'll cover for you".

I've discovered another, equally illuminating book which covers most of the same time period, but is set in the political rather than the military realm.  It is The Presidents Club ~ Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  The book examines the presidencies of, and relationships between, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  The interweaving of alliance and competition between sitting president and any former (living) presidents has been deeply underestimated in modern political analysis, mostly because the world has been unaware of the existence of the club.  Its members operate behind the scenes, in service to the country and to the office of the presidency.

From the book jacket ~

"The Presidents Club, established at Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, is a complicated place ~ its members are bound forever by the experience of the Oval Office and yet are eternal rivals for history's favor.  Among their secrets ~ How Jack Kennedy tried to blame Ike for the Bay of Pigs.  How Ike quietly helped Reagan win his first race in 1966.  How Richard Nixon conspired with Lyndon Johnson to get elected and then betrayed him.  How Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter turned a deep enmity into an alliance.  The letter from Nixon that Bill Clinton rereads every year.  The unspoken pact between a father and son named Bush.  And the roots of the rivalry between Clinton and Barack Obama.

"Journalists and presidential historians Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy offer a new tool to understand the presidency by exploring the club as a hidden instrument of power that has changed the course of history."

I've paid attention to the world since I was old enough to read, and have distinct memories of all American presidents from Eisenhower to the present day.  My curiosity, starting in my teens, led me to dig beneath the surface veneer of broadcast news, but the contents of this book came as a complete surprise.  The authors make the point repeatedly that, by and large, former presidents stand ready to assist a sitting president regardless of party affiliation, because who but a former president can fully appreciate the crushing pressures and the enormous responsibilities of the job?  Every new president comes in thinking he (and someday she) understands what's involved, only to be overwhelmed by layers of information and decision-making which even his own staff can grasp only partially.  Miscalculations and egregious mistakes often occur during a president's first term as a result.  It is well that our system provides for two terms in office, to allow experience and judgment to develop.

Both of these books should be required reading in any American history class, at the nation's military academies, and for all those newly elected or appointed to Congress, to the Supreme Court, and of course to the presidency.

01 April 2013


Posted on Facebook by Star Trek actor George Takei ~

"Friends, I am thrilled to announce that I'll be starring in the Star Wars reboot directed by JJ Abrams.  I'll be playing Master Ceti Maru, a member of the Jedi High Council.  The new film, entitled "Star Wars ~ Galactic Empire", is greenlit and will begin filming sometime early next year.  It is truly a moment for the Star Alliance.  Thanks to all my fans for their decades of support."

April Fools Day prank, or not?  Let's see ~

  • 'Ceti' could refer to the genetive word used to describe the stars belonging to the constellation Cetus, e.g., Tau Ceti.  CETI is also an acronym for 'Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence'.
  • 'Maru' could refer to a Maori war god, or to the Japanese word for circle or zero, or to the common suffix for Japanese ship names.
I call prank, but one I wish were reality.  It would be wonderful poetry to see George's career come full circle (full maru?) from playing helmsman Hikaru Sulu (an expert fencer) in Star Trek, to playing a lightsaber-wielding Jedi master in Star Wars.  He would be the first actor to appear in both universes.

Here's hoping I'm wrong in doubting Takei's announcement ~ but knowing his sense of humor, this is probably a puckish hoax.