29 June 2013


Using any electronic device while driving or walking in public should be illegal.  It is well-documented that doing so divides one's attention, reducing the user to the coordination and safety level of a drunk.  Those who text, talk on a cell phone, or even use a hands-free device like a Bluetooth mobile headset, lose awareness of their surroundings.  Such drivers weave erratically in their lanes, fail to see brake lights or stop lights, and eventually cause accidents.  Even wired pedestrians become distracted and walk into light poles, fire hydrants, or traffic.

Whenever I see someone texting or using a cell phone while driving, it makes me crazy.  If you must talk, pull over and stop in a safe location.  I've often secretly wished for a device which would jam or deactivate the offending instrument.

Well, it turns out that others are thinking along the same lines.  Elinor Mills reports at CNET that "A team of do-it-yourself technology gurus is creating a video series that will show you how to hack everyday objects to get more ~ and novel ~ uses out of them .... The video series demonstrates how to create the devices, from showing exactly what parts you need to how to solder them and build the final electronic item .... the videos are open source and will be available online for free.  Exploring the technology you use everyday can increase and improve its uses, as well as save millions of electronics from piling up in landfills."

Among the demonstrations are creating a SIM card reader, hacking a pay phone, a GPS jammer or tracker, and wearable devices that block security cameras.  AND, a cell phone jammer that fits into a cigarette pack.  Since I'm not certain of the legalities of altering devices that fall under the purview of the FCC, I am not recommending that you use one.  I do, however, encourage you to educate yourself.  Nothing wrong with knowledge.  

The CNET article explains each item and its uses nicely.  Scroll to the bottom for a brief sample video on the cell phone jammer.  Then, follow your judgment and your conscience.

28 June 2013


Washington, DC

Bill Moyers recently posted on his Moyers & Company website an infographic developed by the U.S. Census Bureau, which breaks down the makeup and distribution of our country's veterans.  Here is the visual, and below are the findings ~

  • There are 21.8 million veterans in the United States.  Of these, 20.2 million are male, and 1.6 million are female.
  • By race and ethnicity, 17.5 million are white, 2.4 million are black, 1.2 million are Latino, 265,000 are Asian, 157,000 are Native American, and 28,000 are Pacific Islander.
  • States having a high proportion of veterans ~ California with 2 million, and Texas and Florida with 1.6 million each.
  • Education ~ 92% of veterans 25 and older have at least a high school diploma.  26% of veterans 25 and older have at least a university bachelor's degree.
  • Veterans of two wars ~ 837,000 served during Gulf War I & II.  211,000 served during both Korea and Vietnam.  147,000 served during both World War II and Korea.
  • Veterans of three wars ~ 49,500 served during Vietnam and Gulf War I & II.  54,000 served during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
  • Economy ~ A veteran is more than twice as likely as a non-veteran to hold a job in public administration.  Veterans own 9% of all U.S. businesses, generating $1.2 trillion in receipts and employing 5.8 million people.
  • Income ~ Veterans' median annual income is about $10,000 higher than the average American.
I was a little surprised at the small number of veterans relative to the nation's 300 billion+ population.  Then I reminded myself that the World War II and Korean War generations are aging and passing from our midst rapidly.  Even Vietnam vets (including me) are near or past retirement age.  That leaves veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars which have lasted a long time, but didn't employ as many active-duty troops at any one time.

In any event, as Independence Day approaches, I hope that you will thank any veterans you know or meet for their service ~ as we should also do for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  In spite of the patina of glamour, duty, honor, and adventure painted by Hollywood, it is a grisly, terrifying, and often fatal experience.  Of those who survive, too many suffer from PTSD, and of those, too many resort to suicide.  A willing and grateful listener can make a difference.

27 June 2013


I have neither a cable or satellite connection for my TV, so to watch certain finely-crafted series, I must rely on DVDs from Netflix (which usually become available 6-12 months after a given season has ended).  Recently I discovered a series which had its debut earlier this year, and it is a beaut.  The Newsroom has many of my favorite traits in a series ~ an ensemble cast, a mix of interweaving story lines, crisp production values, and an intelligent and resonant script.

The premise is this ~ a major cable news channel rededicates itself to the classic standards of broadcast journalism, in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, et al. ~ to research and report the news with accuracy, relevance, and attention to detail.  Each episode is built around a major news event of the recent past in the real world, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at how a news story comes into being.  Superimposed are the connections and conflicts among the personalities of the news staff.  The superb cast is headed by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.

Critical response ~ "at its best, The Newsroom has wit, sophistication and manic energy.  At its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony."  I don't share the "sanctimony" view.  To me, the penetrating interviews on the show are how the fourth estate should carry out its role.  The producer and chief writer is Aaron Sorkin, a brilliant craftsman not noted for being shy with an opinion, so long as he has facts with which to back it up.

Other series which appear on my list of favorites include ~

There is no single thread of traditional genres ~ rather, I am taken by shows which make me think, and which offer a window onto other realms of experience, other times, or other life dilemmas.  So say we all.

26 June 2013


3 - 2 - 1 - LIFTOFF !

Synchronized kittens

"Ahem ~ me please?"

Fading out  ....

25 June 2013


"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.
Just get people to stop reading them."
~ Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

24 June 2013


When I was young, up through my 20s, I had no problem falling asleep and sleeping deeply.  As I've grown older, insidious invaders have conspired to interrupt the degree to which I sleep soundly.  They include ~

  • Stress.  Starting in my mid-30s during an ugly and protracted child custody dispute, I found myself obsessing over the emotional warfare as soon as the lights went out.  That was the origin of my habit of reading in bed until my eyelids will no longer stay open.
  • RLS and PLMD.  After a sleep study at around age 50 I was diagnosed with not one, but two neurological disorders ~ Restless Legs Syndrome, which manifested as a skin-crawling sensation at night, and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, during which my leg muscles would involuntarily jerk, waking me up without knowing the cause.  A single medication, clonazepam, has proven effective in controlling both conditions.
  • Chronic pain.  Starting in my mid-50s, I began to notice the onset of osteoarthritis.  This discomfort was magnified to chronic pain by a herniated lumbar disk, a result of on-the-job working conditions.  A variety of treatments ~ including epidural and facet injections, use of a TENS unit, and others ~ failed to provide lasting relief.  My injury isn't severe enough to warrant spinal fusion surgery, to which I would not submit anyway, since it has only a 50/50 success rate.  The only course was to retire on disability, which I did. I take a muscle relaxant at night, and ibuprofen as needed, which controls my pain, but does not erase it.  Ever.
  • Aging.  As we grow older, our circadian rhythms shift, and the amount of sleep we need usually changes.  One result can be yet another disorder, CRSD.  You guessed it, I've gained another companion.  Left to my body's own devices, for a long time I was staying up until 1 a.m. and sleeping until 11 a.m.  I've been trying gradually to shift both times to an earlier hour, to be more in sync with the quiet or noise of my human surroundings.  In addition, within the past six months I've developed increasingly pronounced hand tremors which interfere with any fine motor skill like typing or eating, and also may delay falling asleep.  I'm seeing a neurologist this week, to rule out the possibility of Parkinson's disease
  • Speaking of noise, I've always been a light sleeper, and find it useful to run a small fan to provide white noise to mask the sounds of night.  Without it, I would be startled awake half a dozen times nightly.
In today's NYTimes online there is an informative article on sleeping better.  Among the author's recommendations ~
  • Do not exercise within 2-3 hours of bedtime (but do exercise).
  • Avoid stimulating medications like decongestants, caffeine, or beta-blockers.
  • Avoid large amounts of food, as well as any alcohol, close to bedtime.
  • To overcome stress, try a nightly ritual like a hot bath, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or other soothing activity (like reading!).
  • Other tips include drinking 8 oz. of diet quinine-containing tonic water daily, and taking a 3 mg supplement of melatonin after sundown.
I have two further suggestions.  First, a high quality bed is essential.  Second, in the absence of a nurturing relationship (I am single), having a furry friend can be quite soothing.  My two cats love to nestle next to me, or even on my legs.  The warmth and body contact are quite helpful.

23 June 2013


Below are two very different, but equally beautiful, slide shows.

In nature, camouflage is an adaptive trait for both hunter and prey.  A hunter whose appearance blends into its surroundings can more closely approach its intended victim.  A camouflaged and motionless prey may be overlooked by the hunter altogether.  Here are 15 images of superb concealment in plain sight.  You can see each creature non-concealed by clicking on its respective name in the list below ~

The biggest and brightest full moon of the year is currently gracing the night sky ~ apparently big because it is close to Earth in its orbit, not because the moon has been pumping steroids.  Here is a collection of 15 sublime images from today's Washington Post.  Enjoy.

22 June 2013


Courtesy xkcd, the seminal "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language".

On each xkcd installment (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays), when you place your cursor on the panel, a subtext caption appears.  For this illustration (# 1228), the caption reads ~

" 'I'm here to return what Prometheus stole' would be a good thing to say if you were a fighter pilot in a Michael Bay movie where for some reason the world's militaries had to team up to defeat every god from human mythology, and you'd just broken through the perimeter and gotten a missile lock on Mount Olympus."

21 June 2013


As a timely follow-up to yesterday's post, new research has found an antidote to snap judgments, rigid thinking, and bad decision-making ~ reading fiction.  The scholars found that "The thinking a person engages in while reading fiction does not necessarily lead him or her to a decision.  This decreases the reader's need to come to a definite conclusion.

"Furthermore, while reading, the reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike.  One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character.  This double release ~ of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different from one's own ~ may produce effects of opening the mind.

" .... It is likely that only when experiences of this kind accumulate to reach some critical mass would they lead to long-term changes of meta-cognitive habits.

" .... These results should give people pause to think about the effect of current cutbacks of education in the arts and humanities.  While success in most fields demands the sort of knowledge gained by reading non-fiction, it also requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives."

I heartily agree with, and have long pursued, the need to satisfy a balance in one's reading between non-fiction (history, memoir, news analysis) and fiction (short stories and novels).  During my university years, which were steeped in dense and demanding texts on biology, ecology, evolution, mammalogy, ornithology, herpitology, animal behavior, oceanography, environmental education, genetics, comparative anatomy/physiology, and multiple math courses, I found relief and a measure of balance by hungrily consuming fiction, especially science fiction.  The release into imagination was helpful, and reminded me of my hunger for fiction as a child.

These days fiction is prevalent, yet non-fiction eerily makes a regular appearance as I follow the recommendations of book reviews.  Life is good.

20 June 2013


It should come as no shock to anyone not living under a rock that American students have been falling steadily behind students of other developed nations in their understanding of math and science.  It turns out that we are falling behind in other areas as well.

Following are excerpts from a PBS Newshour interview with American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel members Richard Brodhead, President of Duke University, and John Lithgow, actor, on the decline in exposure to the liberal arts and the humanities in U.S. schools and universities ~

"We need to remind the world that what makes a person successful are not the things that get you a job the day you graduate.  I know almost no one at 40 or 50 who is doing the thing they did the day after they got out of college.  And when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded.  So you shouldn't prepare yourself too narrowly.  You think you're being prudent, but it's penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Better to develop more parts of yourself, more different skills and abilities, to be prepared for the chances of life.

" .... The first thing we need is for people who know and care about the value of literacy, the value of understanding foreign countries, the value of leading the kind of rich spiritual life you can get through the acquaintance with philosophy and literature and things of that sort."

I could not agree more.  In high school I ate up everything in the curriculum ~ math, history, English lit, biology, chemistry, physics, social studies, music, drama.  In college I was an omnivore, taking many courses having nothing to do with my major or minor ~ courses in math and the sciences, in the arts and literature.  I loved to learn, and I still do.

It saddens me to regard many high school and college graduates today, young people whose understanding of essential, elemental concepts would fit inside my head like a pea inside a watermelon.  This is not the students' fault.  Our public and higher education systems have failed our youth ~ by placing higher emphasis on rote learning than on thorough understanding, by settling for mediocre, under-trained teachers, and by losing sight of the true value of a well-rounded education.  A portion of those who specialize will indeed eventually earn large salaries.  But will they be educated, insightful, thinking citizens?

Our intellectual lives should be both broad and deep.  We need to read more, listen more, engage more.  Learn more.  A life in balance.

19 June 2013


This story, with accompanying photos, has been making the rounds on social media. In British Columbia, Canada, a motorcyclist was traveling on a mountain highway when a gray wolf emerged from the trees and started to chase him.  The man pulled ahead, then stopped and took out his camera.  What ensued is familiar to anyone who has seen a dog chase moving cars ~ the motorcyclist continued on his way at moderate speed, and the wolf followed, never overtaking the bike.  (See image above, click to enlarge ~ I just wish the SUV driver wasn't hugging the right side of the travel lane quite so closely, though he/she probably wanted to get a close look too.)

This highly unusual behavior was witnessed by other drivers, but the photos clinch the story.  Clearly this was not hunting behavior, but play.  It's likely the wolf was young, and had not yet learned to avoid humans (as most wolves do).  The rider was never in any danger, and his presence of mind in taking photos demonstrates that he felt no threat from the wolf.

Using a camera rather than a gun to interact with wildlife is something I've long challenged hunters to do.  In the back country, you still get to enjoy the outdoors, and you also get to demonstrate your field craft and your knowledge of your subject ~ and if successful, you have fine photos as fitting trophies.  No loss of life.  Everyone wins.

Here is an interview with the motorcyclist, along with additional images from the "chase".  I would love to have been that biker!

18 June 2013


The website io9 is a rich source of information on all things scientific and cultural.  Below are three items with an astronomical theme.

  • Planet ~ In our solar system, Mercury's orbit lies closest to the sun, and until quite recently we had little understanding of its geology or even its rotation.  Thanks to this NASA video, a composite of images taken by the MESSENGER probe (recall that Mercury was the messenger among the Roman gods) reveals impact craters, volcanic plains, and much more.  Look below the video to find background on the planet, and an explanation of the color coding in the images.
  • Star ~ Here is a spectacular image of a year's worth of solar storms on our sun, recorded by the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory.  You are seeing the sun not in visible light wavelengths, but rather in extreme ultraviolet light.  Ionized atoms in subsurface upwellings into the sun's corona reach temperatures of 1 million degrees Farenheit.
  • Galaxy ~ Just as moons orbit planets, and planets orbit stars, and stars orbit around the center of their galaxies, so do galaxies can orbit around each other ~ in pairs or in groups.  Our own Milky Way galaxy has two smaller companion galaxies.  The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) orbit each other, and the pair in turn orbits the Milky Way.  NASA's Swift satellite has closely surveyed both galaxies, allowing the creation of this sweeping image of all three star clusters.  At the same link there is a video which explains what you're seeing.
Go in peace.

17 June 2013


Michael Marshall summarized a suite of studies thus ~ "Between a quarter and a half of all birds, along with around a third of amphibians and a quarter of corals, are highly vulnerable to climate change.  These findings have emerged from the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impact of global warming on life.  Its results have led some researchers to warn of the need for unprecedented conservation efforts if we don't cut our emissions.

.... "[The scientists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature] considered how quickly species could relocate, and whether there were barriers like mountain ranges in their way.  They also examined how rapidly species could evolve.  For instance, species that reproduce quickly have a better chance of evolving new adaptations than those that do not.  Species with low genetic diversity are also slow to evolve.

.... "What's more, many of these species are not currently classed as threatened.  [The lead researcher] says that 17 to 41 percent of birds are highly vulnerable to climate change despite being considered safe by the Red List.

.... "Certain areas are hot spots of threatened species.  For instance, the Amazon rainforest contains huge numbers of birds and amphibians that are highly vulnerable to climate change.  Most Arctic birds are also highly vulnerable, as are corals in the Caribbean and the Coral Triangle in southeast Asia."

The warning signs have been in place for decades.  There is virtually no place on Earth that is safe from harm at the hands of humans, whether the effects are direct (hunting and loss of habitat) or indirect (ocean acidification, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps).  Economic and political leaders (especially in the United States) are stupifyingly slow to act ~ many are in denial that a problem exists.

The threshold for preventing a climate trainwreck has already passed.  Species extinctions are already taking place daily, and entire ecosystems are lost weekly.  The best we can hope for is to minimize the damage.  But that will require intense and immediate pressure from individuals and organized groups.  Decision-makers respond to the fear of loss of votes, and to the fear of loss of profit.  We must speak to them in language they understand.  Now.

16 June 2013


5 facts about fathers ~

  1. The Census Bureau estimates that last year there were about 189,000 stay-at-home dads, defined as married fathers with children younger than 15 who stayed out of the labor force for at least one year, primarily to care for the family while their wife works outside the home.  Those dads cared for an estimated 369,000 children.
  2. Fathers have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend with their children, from 2.5 hours in 1965 to 7.3 hours per week in 2011, according to a Pew Research report that analyzed years of time-use data.  Despite that increase, 46% of fathers said they spend too little time with their children, compared to 23% of mothers who said the same.  Half of dads said they spend the right amount of time.
  3. In 2009 there were 2.4 million custodial fathers (that is, raising their children while the mother was living elsewhere), versus 11.2 million custodial mothers, according to a Census Bureau report.  About 169,000 custodial fathers were due child support.
  4. More than three-quarters of new fathers took one week or less off from work after the birth or adoption of their most recent child, according to a 2011 Boston College study of fathers at four large companies.  16% didn't take any time off at all.  Most new mothers at the same companies took anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks off.  Of those who took time off, 92% of fathers said they had a positive experience being with their child during that time.
  5. Forget the ties, the "World's Best Dad" t-shirts and other clothing cliches. According to a 2012 poll from market-research firm Ipsos, most dads would prefer to either spend quality time with their families on Fathers Day (40%), or receive no gift at all (22%).  Gift cards were a distant third at 13%.
(Courtesy of Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center)

14 June 2013


Yesterday the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) published in the Federal Register its reckless proposal to remove gray wolves from endangered species status in the entire lower 48 United States.  The entry is long and sounds scholarly, but it is not.

Roger Hewitt of Great Falls wrote in a letter to the Missoulian ~ "Look at the list of anti-wolf groups wanting to have the wolf delisted in the lower 48 and manage wolves on a state-by-state basis, which in effect puts the fate of the wolf in traditional wolf-hating, marginalizing hands so that ungulates like elk can be farmed, and these groups are still using three lies and myths that have no basis in fact, science or logic ~

  • Wolves are significantly depredating cattle.
  • Wolves are depredating elk.
  • The wolf is sufficiently recovered in the lower 48, so can be turned over to state management because they are best managed at the state level.
"Counterpoints ~
  • Wolves are not significantly depredating cattle only 0.002 percent in Montana in the past few years with only 67 of 2.6 million cattle last year (2012).
  • Elk numbers are up in all states ~ 37 percent in Montana since wolf re-introduction (1995), and Wyoming has had 10 years in a row of record elk harvest.
  • Wolves are not best managed at the state level because of the political nature of wolf management at the state-by-state level and the liaison of wildlife agencies with hunter groups and ranchers."
This morning I visited the federal government's website for commenting on the FWS proposal.  Here is the gist of my remarks ~
  • Gray wolf recovery is not complete.  This decision would derail wolf recovery efforts in areas around the country where it has barely begin ~ in places like the Pacific Northwest and in states that possess some of the nation's best unoccupied wolf habitat, such as northern California, Colorado, and Utah.
  • Delisting would prematurely turn wolf management over to the states.  We've already seen what can happen when rabid anti-wolf politics are allowed to trump science and core wildlife management principles.
  • Montana, Wyoming and Idaho ~ where wolves have already been delisted ~ are not managing wolves like other wildlife such as elk, deer, and bears.  Instead, they're intending to drive the wolves' population numbers back down to the bottom.
  • Other species, such as the bald eagle, American alligator, and peregrine falcon were declared recovered and delisted when they occupied a much larger portion of their former range.  Wolves deserve the same chance at real recovery. 
There is a 90-day public comment period before a final decision is made to implement the proposal, and I urge everyone to speak out on this transparently political move which has no basis in science, and is opposed by wolf ecologists, by those who study biodiversity, and by those who (like me) have worked with endangered species.

13 June 2013


"I think that I shall never see
a poem as lovely as a tree."
Trees, by Joyce Kilmer

It's no secret that most humans derive pleasure from seeing or being among trees.  They appeal to our aesthetics, our spirituality, our peace of mind.  Not to mention supplying us with oxygen as they respire.

New studies have shown that not only are more trees good for our health, fewer trees degrade our health.  With more trees, "people recover faster from surgery, and take fewer drugs if their hospital room has a view of trees .... [and] mothers with more trees around their homes are less likely to have underweight babies.  It's been shown that if you put people in a natural environment, it can reduce their blood pressure, heart rate, and other measures of stress.  Obviously we also know that trees can improve air quality."

A recent infestation of a beetle called the emerald ash borer in the northeastern U.S., and the resulting deaths of one hundred million trees, provided the evidence that with fewer trees, there are "increased rates of [human] death from cardiovascular and respiratory mortality in the counties with emerald ash borer .... the effect got bigger the longer you had the infestation .... [the effect] was repeated over and over again in places with very different demographic make-ups .... places with high education, with low education, with great income, with low income, with different racial makeups."

So what is the take-home message?  "Maybe we want to start thinking of trees as part of our public health infrastructure.  Not only do they do the things we would expect like shade our houses and make our neighborhoods more beautiful, but maybe they do something more fundamental.  Maybe trees are not only essential for the natural environment but just as essential for our well-being.  That's the message for public health officials.

"For ordinary people ~ get involved in planting trees.  In most cities, either the city itself or nonprofits will help with tree planting efforts.  Also spend time in the natural environment.  I think people intuitively know that.  There's a reason that we like to go walk in the woods or that we like to spend time in the park."

I've long been intimately familiar with the feeling of well-being that comes with walking among trees.  My home town on the northern Montana plains was an arboreal oasis surrounded by treeless prairie and farmland.  Thankfully my family liked to spend time in nearby Glacier National Park, and my boy scout troop similarly enjoyed numerous campouts in various parts of the Rocky Mountains.  Of all the places I've lived or visited the ones which set me most at ease were forested ~ higher elevations in the desert Southwest, the coastal plain of the Southeast, the deciduous canopy in the Northeast, and the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest.

We know that trees provide much more than beauty and shade.  They are essential to our physical and emotional health.  More trees means better health for the environment and for all its residents ~ animals, birds, reptiles, insect, and humans.

12 June 2013


Several decades ago, I spent four years as caretaker at a nature preserve in southern Arizona. The habitat was a relict (a remnant of what was once common in the region) ~ an upland marsh  fed by a year-round stream.  The marsh and riparian vegetation was tall and lush, while the drier surrounding hills hosted juniper/oak woodland.

This oasis amid desert grassland attracted rainbows of migrating birds in spring and fall, and was home to a wide array of resident birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects.  Several species were rare or endangered, including Mearns Quail and Canelo Ladies Tresses orchids.

My duties included greeting and educating visitors, maintaining the historic adobe ranch buildings, monitoring natural events, keeping records, and (during hunting season) patrolling the preserve boundaries to discourage hunters from poaching deer, bobcat, and other game.  I did so wearing a visible sidearm as a deterrent to violent misbehavior.  It worked.

In other nations, especially those where poachers are after bigger, more valuable game, government rangers have found themselves in an escalating arms race.  In Africa and Asia, the rewards are huge for elephant tusks, rhino horns, and the trophy skins and internal organs of tigers, lions, and other predators.  Gangs of thugs heavily armed with automatic weapons don't hesitate to murder the guardians of wildlife, so the guardians are literally fighting back.  If you're caught poaching, you die on the spot.

This may sound draconian, but I support it.  Since the time of my childhood, the world's wildlife has been decimated to a small fraction of former population sizes, both by hunting and by the destruction of habitat.  Case in point ~ as recently as the 1990s, there were 5,000-7,000 tiger in India.  Today the number stands at a mere 1800, which neverthless represents fully half of the world's surviving tigers. Poachers have become so bold and relentless that the western India state of Maharashtra has passed a law authorizing its forest guards to kill poachers on sight.

Sound extreme?  Consider this ~ if a law enforcement officer responded to a call of shots fired, and encountered one of our recent mass killers shooting people, that officer would not hesitate to shoot the gunman.  In such situations, due process and the reading of rights are suspended.  Thus should it be for the illegal killers of wildlife.  I'm not referring to licensed hunters (though I have a beef with them too), but rather to poachers, who know exactly what they're doing, and brazenly proceed.  Especially where endangered species are concerned, the fatal risk of getting caught must be high, and inexorable.  As responsible planet stewards, we can do no less.

11 June 2013


The Gulf Stream ~ Winslow Homer

It is said that stressors (situations which trigger a stress response) may emanate from a variety of sources ~

  • environmental stressors
  • daily stress events
  • life changes
  • workplace stressors
  • chemical stressors
  • social stressors
My environmental stressors derive from where I live ~ in an apartment complex which is located near the intersection of two major traffic arteries, near a railroad yard, and beneath the flight path to the local airport.  The constant background noise from vehicles, trains, aircraft, and apartment occupants on two sides and above, all combine to elicit an ongoing feeling of claustrophobia.  That feeling is compounded by the absence of trees, parks, or other natural landscape within walking distance.  Being in nature has always been important to me.  Being without it is like trying to breathe in smoky air.  Literally.

A subset of environmental stressors is deep concern about the environment itself ~ wildlife and wilderness, the need for clean renewable energy, the pollution of our water and air and soil, the effects on all of us when the wealthy few get to make decisions which impact everyone.  I'm active in social media, and sign a dozen or more e-mail petitions daily.  It never gets easier.

My daily stress events are more limited ~ dealing with traffic when I go out on errand runs 2-3 times per week, and being awakened in the wee hours when one of my cats decides that he's hungry.  Dude is loud.  But the sight of the water squirt bottle is usually enough to persuade him to postpone his complaints for a few precious additional moments of snoozing.

I've been through more than my share of life changes ~ marriage, divorce, changing jobs,  moving, grieving the death of a loved one.  So have most of us.

Workplace stressors?  No and yes.  No, because I'm retired and no longer have to arrange my life around a job (secret gloating).  Yes, because I'm retired and subsisting on a very meager Social Security check each month.  I've no pension, IRA, stock dividends, or other income.  Long story.  So money stress is huge.

There are no chemical stressors in my life, in the sense of dependency on licit or illicit drugs.  My various medications address my physical challenges ~ high blood pressure, high cholesterol, acid reflux, recurrent pre-cancerous skin growths, and the pain reliever and muscle relaxant which allow me to sleep (mostly) in spite of chronic pain from a herniated lumbar disk.  So I guess you could say that chemicals help me deal with the physical stressors inherent in having lived a long, active life.  Getting old isn't for sissies.

So we come to social stressors, which weigh heavily.  Because I'm limited physically and financially, I don't go out much.  My good friends are scattered far and wide, with only one locally.  Further, my family members are geographically or emotionally distant (or both), which is a source of deep sorrow.  

Most days, I manage by distracting myself with writing, reading, spending time online, or watching rental DVD movies, plus enjoying the symbiosis with my two cats.  I miss the physical and financial freedom of my youth ~ being in romantic relationships, traveling, attending plays and concerts, going out every weekend to a movie and dinner.  Realistically, I've moved on to another life stage, but I refuse to simply settle for mediocrity.

Hence my current search for another place to live ~ a house or duplex in a quiet neighborhood with trees and birds, with more interior space for my own need to breathe, and in which my cats can chase each other to their hearts' content, or lie sunning on a windowsill watching the birds.  You'd think this search would be a pleasure, like a kid in a candy store.  Not so much.  The quality of life I'm looking for is quite expensive here, more than it ought to be, and perhaps more than I can afford.  It's a lot like looking for work ~ finding the right fit can take a long time, and rejection wears you down.

Thankfully, due to experience and counseling, I understand how prone I am to depression, and have an arsenal of coping skills.  If I had Aladdin's lamp and its three wishes, I'd wish for wealth (which solves most material problems), better health, and better connections with friends and family.

For now, it's back to the housing ads online.  Wish me luck.

09 June 2013


As climate change accelerates, extreme weather events in all seasons are becoming more severe.  This includes tornadoes, whose rotational windspeed can exceed 300 mph and whose diameter can exceed 2 miles.  Just such a nightmare twister struck El Reno, OK, on May 31, 2013.  The El Reno twister was clocked by Doppler radar at 295 mph, and its width reached 2.6 miles.  (Click on the image above of a much smaller tornado ~ notice how it still dwarfs the white building at center left.)

Most folks who live in Tornado Alley take tornado season very seriously.  They pay attention to weather alerts, and understand the need for a storm-proof safe space within a home or public building ~ either a dedicated tornado shelter or an interior room or hallway which is surrounded by weight-bearing beams and has no windows.

For meteorologists, the advent of weather satellites, together with Doppler radar, has improved advanced warning time considerably.  Even so, when a tornado is powerful enough to be rated F5 on the Fujita scale, the scale of destruction can resemble the aftermath of an atomic bomb blast.

The situation is compounded when teams of amateur and professional storm chasers, as well as foolish thrill-seeking civilians, use their vehicles to actually place themselves near, or in the path of, an oncoming tornado.  Such activity can become a traffic jam, especially when combined with the flow of vehicles trying to escape the storm.  With nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, such crowds ironically become a potential target for approaching disaster.

Thus John Rennie's observation during the El Reno tornado's aftermath that "It became clear that surviving an encounter with a tornado is not just a matter of doing the right things.  It's also about not making some lethal errors."  Here are a few of them ~

  • Don't be in a car during a tornado .... Tornadoes can change course unpredictably, and it isn't always easy to see their funnels in the murk of bad weather surrounding them .... Moreover, according to NOAA, tornado warnings give on average only 13 minutes notice.  That's enough time to drive miles away ~ but not with throngs of cars all trying to abandon the area at once.  So trying to drive away during that small window of opportunity could easily lead to your being trapped in your car as the tornado bears down on you.  No car's safety features offer much guarantee in that case.  The greatest harm may come from flying debris, which can be of any size or composition, moving on average about 100 mph .... Moreover, even if your car isn't tossed by a tornado or shredded by debris, and even if it isn't stuck in traffic, the danger isn't over.  Severe rain and hail can make driving hazardous .... Torrential rain also leads to local flooding, so it's not uncommon for cars driving away from tornadoes to end up underwater.  According to the National Weather Service, most of the people killed by floods during tornadoes drown inside their cars.
  • Don't hide under an overpass .... Overpasses seem as though they would offer great protection from the wind ~ and sometimes they can, if the tornadic winds are coming primarily from certain directions.  From other directions, however, the narrow confines of an overpass will focus and intensify the winds, and funnel flying debris toward anyone hiding inside.  Winds during tornadoes are highly changeable, so even if conditions under an overpass seem benign at first, they can rapidly (and lethally) change for the worse .... If you're in a car and need protection from a tornado, what should you do?  The best option would be to leave the car and try to get inside any nearby house, store, office building or other sturdy structure ~ ideally, one with a good basement or a proper tornado shelter.  But short of that, counter intuitively, if you can't find indoor refuge, your best bet may be to lie flat in a ditch, holding onto something heavy as an anchor, with cushions or blankets over you as a shield against debris.
  • Don't open the windows and doors of your house.  If you do have the option of sheltering indoors, you want to seek a spot that is underground, or in a windowless space toward the center of the structure .... Be attentive to what might fall on top of you in the event of a building collapse ~ if you can get under a strong piece of furniture for additional protection, do it.  But don't try to protect the house as a whole by opening all the windows and doors in the interest of making it easier for the pressures inside and outside to equalize.  [That received wisdom] is a myth.  When a tornado hits a house, it subjects the structure to complex, fast-changing forces that push and pull in rapid succession .... exposing any weakness.  Opening the windows and doors only succeeds in letting the winds into the house so that internal supports can be shaken apart, which weakens the structure even more.
Here is a video demonstration of how leaving a house door open makes a catastrophic difference in its stability.

08 June 2013


After training and certification, I spent the summer of 1985 as a lifeguard at the swimming pool at Christopher City, the University of Arizona's family housing complex.  The pool was small but busy, since many children lived in the complex.  (Residents had to be UA students, and had to be either married or single with children.)  It was a great place to be a student and parent, because any child had lots of potential playmates ~ many from foreign countries ~ and parents watched out for each other's kids.

(Note ~ in researching this post, I learned that Christopher City was demolished over ten years ago, and the land sold to a housing contractor for "development".  No doubt the move generated a profit for the university, but in my eyes the failure to rebuild the single-story apartment complex was a grave disservice to students who are married and/or parents.)

Sitting up in the tall lifeguard's chair was wonderful, wearing polarizing dark glasses to better see beneath the water's surface, with a whistle on a yellow lanyard around my neck.  The opportunity to discreetly glance at attractive, bikini-clad mothers was a perk not mentioned in training.

But most of my time and energy were spent scanning ~ watching children at poolside with frequent warnings to "Walk, don't run", and watching several dozen children in the water for signs of either too-rough water play, or signs of distress.  We'd learned and practiced the protocol for responding to an apparently-drowning person, and mentally rehearsed responses constantly.

I was reminded of those hot, sunny poolside days by an article in Slate by a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone.  In it, the author dispels myths about the visible signs of a person who is drowning, and explains what to actually look for.  To summarize ~

"The Instinctive Drowning Response [IDR]~ so named by Franceso A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.  And it does not look like most people expect.  There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind .... Drowning does not look like drowning.  Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guards On Scene magazine, described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this ~
  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help.  The respiratory system was designed for breathing.  Speech is the secondary or overlaid function.
  2. Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water.The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help.  Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface.
  4. Throughout the IDR, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their own movements.
  5. From beginning to end of the IDR people's bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.  Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.
"This doesn't mean that a person who is yelling for help and thrashing isn't in real trouble ~ they are experiencing aquatic distress.  Not always present before the IDR, aquatic distress doesn't last long ~ but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue.  They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

"Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water ~
  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs ~ vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder
"So if a [person] falls overboard and everything looks OK, don't be too sure.  Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don't look like they're drowning.  They may just look like they are treading water and looking up.  One way to be sure?  Ask them, "Are you alright?"  If they can answer at all, they probably are.  If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.  And parents ~ children playing in the water make noise.  When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why."

Here is a video demonstrating the Instinctive Drowning Response.

As the Slate piece reminds us in its title, drowning doesn't look like drowning.  In many child drownings, adults are nearby but have no idea the victim is dying.  Now you know what to look for.

07 June 2013


photo credit ~ Gary Kramer

The NYTimes announced today that the Obama administration has give the go-ahead to a formal delisting of all gray wolves in the lower 48 states from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Decisions on the wolves' welfare, including whether and when to establish licensed hunting and trapping seasons, will devolve to the wildlife agencies of individual states.

According to Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, "We have seen what happens when premature delisting leaves wolves to the mercy of anti-wolf politics and politicians who are unwilling to protect them.  In Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, more than 1,100 wolves have been shot or trapped since losing ESA protection in 2011. And we have seen some of Yellowstone National Park's most iconic and beloved wolves shot and killed just [outside] the park border."

Leaving wolf management up to the states is, over the long term, a death sentence.  Without federal protection, it is all too easy for sports hunters, ranchers, and professional trappers to lobby state officials, who are themselves predisposed to eliminating wolves.  Rare individuals within those groups are informed about the science and biology of predators in general, and wolves in particular.  Most are willfully ignorant.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity had this reaction ~ "The proposal concludes that wolf protection in the continental United States, in place since 1978, is no longer needed, even though there are fledgling populations in places like the Pacific Northwest whose survival hinges on continued federal protection.  This is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they're still attached to life support.  Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48, and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on.  They need to finish the job that Americans expect, not walk away the first chance they get.  This proposal is a national disgrace.  Our wildlife deserves better."

Wolves today occupy just 5 percent of their historic habitat in the continental U.S.  Today's proposal means that wolves will never fully reoccupy prime wolf habitat in the southern Rocky Mountains, California, or the Northeast, and it will hinder ongoing recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers ESA protection and issued the federal delisting proposal under White House direction, must take public comments for the next 90 days.  I urge everyone to go over their heads and contact Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell here, demanding that delisting gray wolves be removed from consideration.  The world's leading wolf researchers, biodiversity ecologists, and nature lovers everywhere agree, it is a catastrophic idea ~ not just for the wolves, but also for the health of their prey populations and of the ecosystems which all inhabit.  The plan is based on politics, not on science.

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men [and women] to do nothing."  ~ Edmund Burke

06 June 2013


Here's a toy to tempt tropical tourists ~ the Ego semi-submarine personal watercraft.  Topside, it looks like a fancy raft on floats (see image above, click to enlarge).  But note the open deck hatch, with a ladder leading down into .... a two-person observation and control cabin (see images below).

The Ego is something of a hybrid.  The manufacturer, Korean-based Raonhaje, calls it a semi-submarine, since it is not built to actually dive.  Thus it is simple enough for nearly anyone to operate from the cabin, which rests below the waterline, providing increased stability.  The pilot can see underwater (and is aided by an electronic depth sounder) to avoid contacting the sea floor or any obstructions, and can see events above via an LCD monitor attached to a camera topside.

Propulsion is green technology.  Rather than fuel-consuming engines, the craft's twin propellers are battery-powered.  The Ego can run at a top speed of 5 knots for four hours, or at reduced cruise speed for eight hours.  Clearly this is a calm-water, clear-water pleasure craft ~ if it happened to get caught in an ocean current or rip tide of any speed, it could not avoid being swept along.

Given that caveat, the Ego looks like a lot of fun for the leisurely exploration of shallow sea life, coral reefs, or even inspection the hulls of other watercraft.  Here is one website's review, and here is a 3-minute video of the Ego and its features.

03 June 2013


Peter Sagal, the quick-witted host of the weekly NPR news quiz Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, has made a brilliant addition to his resume ~ hosting the four hour-long episodes of a PBS miniseries on the document that binds us, divides us, and defines us ~ the United States Constitution.

The series, titled Constitution USA, explores the history, the language, and the ongoing controversies which surround our nation's seminal document.  Sagal traverses the country on his "We The People" motorcycle (above), visiting key locations in our nation's saga and interviewing constitutional scholars as well as passionate representatives on both sides of current debates.

Here are links to each of the four episodes ~

I cannot recommend this series highly enough.  Sagal isn't afraid to look under rocks in his search for understanding, asking incisive, thoughtful questions and drawing conclusions that may be necessarily ambiguous at times.  "Necessarily" because the Constitution is a living document, framed with provisions to grow and evolve as our understanding evolves as we consider concepts like equality, freedom, responsibility, individuality and community.

This should be required viewing for all American government students, all those seeking citizenship, and anyone else who has only a partial understanding of the Constitution and its amendments.  Further, every citizen should have his/her own copy of the document, and read it at least once a year.  If you are not well versed in the Constitution, and if you do not vote, you have no credibility when you take a stand on any political issue.

You can watch a preview of the series here.

Could you pass a U.S. citizenship test?

02 June 2013


Actor, author, human rights activist,
seen above in his role as Hikaru Sulu,
offers a meta-comment
on intellect.

01 June 2013


The quirks of memory never fail to amuse or befuddle.  Sometimes a word, name, or place which I've known all my life will elude me.  Other times I recall with crystal clarity the setting, the company, and the time of day when I first encountered a new idea.  In the present instance, a 6th grade science teacher pulled down one of those roll-down maps that schools used back in the day ~ a Mercatur projection map of the world.  He pointed out how closely the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa fit, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  At one time, could they have been a single land mass?  

It wasn't until years later as a university student that I discovered not only the theory but the theory of continental drift, developed most fully in 1912 by Alfred Wegener.  His ideas were superseded by the theory of plate tectonics in the late 1950s (about the time I was in 6th grade).  The earth's crust (the lithosphere) is made up of constituent tectonic plates, puzzle pieces which are stronger and less dense than the underlying asthenosphere upon which they 'float'.  The asthenosphere is weak, viscous, and molten.  It is in constant global slow-motion circulation, carrying the floating plates with it.  

Plates may interact in several ways.  They may grind against each others' sides, or they may meet head-on, in which case one plate rides up atop the other.  That is how the world's mighty mountain ranges were formed,  The Andes, the Rockies, the Himalayas.  Volcanoes, earthquakes, island formation, and sea-floor spreading are all evidence of plate activity.

The continents are passengers in this merry dance, which proceeds at the speed of roughly 3-6 cm per year (about as fast as your fingernails grow).  Looking at the world today, and using tools in the geological record, it is possible to roll the film in reverse.  It turns out that the continents have gone through several cycles of clumping together and dispersing.  The most recent episode of convergence happened around 300 million years ago ~ all the dry land on the planet was clustered in a supercontinent called Pangea.  Surrounding Pangea was a single global ocean, Panthalassa.

We understand the direction and rate of travel of Pangea's components as it dispersed to the position of today's continents ~ which are still in motion, by the way.  Here is an animation showing that epic journey.  And here is another animation which projects the continents' motion 400 million years into the future, when they form a new Pangea.

All this discussion has been background for the illustration above (click to enlarge), which shows the positions of today's nations as they would have appeared in the most recent Pangea.  Political borders would have a very different relevance, with very little water separating countries.  One can only hope that mutual aid and cooperation would evolve, as it has in the European Union.  Imagine, driving over to Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca for an exotic lunch and intrigue, then back to Manhattan for the evening.  Could be fun.

Thanks to io9 for the original idea.