Tuesday, October 25, 2016

False equivalence explained

One of the most annoying things about this presidential campaign, or politics in general in this country, is the false equivalence between the two sides that the media has invented, and that has become an ingrained part of our national consciousness and vocabulary. How often have you heard, "Both sides do it!"?

But, in fact, both sides don't do it, and pretending that two things are equal doesn't make it true. Facts are still facts, even in 2016.

Jen Sorensen's four-panel cartoon skewers the utter ridiculousness of the concept.

Two. More. Weeks.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin: A review

Several months ago, I read and enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea Cycle." It seemed to be about time to move on to the second one, and after re-reading my review of that first book to refresh my memory, I did just that.

But the start of The Tombs of Atuan and the first several chapters were a disappointment. Reading about the young girl, Tenar, who is taken from her family at the age of five, in a process that is very reminiscent of the Buddhist search to discover the new Dalai Lama when the old one dies, is really tough going. There are no familiar characters here and there is really no satisfactory (to me) explanation of just what these Nameless Ones whom Tenar is destined to serve are and why we should care about them or her.

Tenar is transformed into Arha, the High Priestess who serves the Nameless Ones of the Tombs of Atuan. Serving them involves spending an awful lot of time underground in the dark. Light is forbidden and Tenar/Arha must learn to find her way around by touch. Why? Because that's just the way things are, I guess. The whole thing just made me feel claustrophobic.

It's all doom and gloom and there is no life in the darkness underground and no explanation of what it is that these Nameless Ones - the malevolent spirits of the place - represent other than the jealous guarding of the treasure that exists there. Where did the treasure come from? That was never really made clear to me, but for a thief to try to steal it means death.

By the time Arha has been in her position for several years and has forgotten her birth family, she has already had occasion to sentence three such thieves to death by starvation, but when she discovers yet another "thief" in her sacred Labyrinth, something makes her hesitate.  
And a good thing, too! It turns out this "thief" is the young wizard from A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged, aka Sparrowhawk.  He has come to find the lost half of the sacred ring of Erreth-Akbe, which is a part of that aforementioned treasure and which, when reforged by Ged's magic, will help to ensure peace in Earthsea. 

But first he has to retrieve it out of the darkness of the Labyrinth and Arha with it. He must convince her to leave the darkness and venture into beautiful, bright, and kindly light of Earthsea's day.
You must make a choice. Either you must leave me, lock the door, go up to your altars and give me to your masters; then go to the Princess Kossil and make your peace with her - and that is the end of the story - or, you must unlock the door, and go out of it, with me. Leave the tombs, leave Atuan, and come with me oversea. And that is the beginning of the story.  
Can you guess which one she chooses? Here's a hint: This isn't the end of the story.

The action picks up considerably after the reintroduction of Sparrowhawk/Ged and the narrative is saved. Seen through his eyes and as a contrast to him, the reader learns more empathy for Tenar/Arha and wishes her well as she ventures into a world of light.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Definitely

Browsing the Poetry Foundation's online magazine last week, I came across this poem. It is by a poet that I was not familiar with and I'd never read the poem.

A little research turned up the fact that she is an American poet from Missouri and she is 70 years old. She is an honored poet and has previously won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

I was entranced by her poem, although I can't really explain why. I'm not even sure that I know what it means, but something about the cadence of the words, their energy and subtle imagery caught my imagination. 

So, what do you think the poem means? 


by Mary Jo Bang

What is desire
But the hardwire argument given
To the mind's unstoppable mouth.

Inside the braincase, it's I
Want that fills every blank. And then the hand
Reaches for the pleasure

The plastic snake offers. Someone says, Yes,
It will all be fine in some future soon.
Definitely. I've conjured a body

In the chair before me. Be yourself, I tell it.
Here memory makes you
Unchangeable: that shirt, those summer pants.

That beautiful face.
That tragic beautiful mind.
That mind's ravenous mouth

That told you, This isn't poison
At all but just what the machine needs. And then,
The mouth closes on its hunger.

The heart stops.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

This week in birds - #228

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

A Red-tailed Hawk rests on a post at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


There is enough data accumulated to declare that 2016 will be the hottest year on record. This will be the third consecutive year to claim that title. 2014 was the hottest until displaced by 2015 and now that year has been displaced by 2016. But never fear! The New York Times has got your back. They've done investigative reporting and have now listed the nine cities where you can move to escape the effects of global warming.


Remember Pedals, the New Jersey black bear that walked on two legs? His front legs had apparently been partially amputated or else he was born with a congenital defect. I told you about him here in installment #220 of "This week in birds." Well, New Jersey recently had its first sanctioned bow and arrow bear hunt in decades and Pedals was killed by one of the hunters, sparking a considerable amount of outrage among his fans. The hunt itself sparked a good bit of outrage in New Jersey and those who opposed it hope that a new governor will see fit to put an end to it.


The current population of endangered California Condors are all descended from just 14 individuals; thus, genetic diversity is very low. But a new study provides evidence that, before the species' population crash in the 20th century, they were much more numerous and had much greater genetic diversity.  


There seems to be little doubt among biologists that Earth is, in fact, in the midst of its sixth great extinction event. Often overlooked in the reporting of that event are the invertebrates and the role that they play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. 


Prince Charles of England has lent his voice and his influence to a number of environmental projects over the years and one of those has borne gratifying results. He backed a project to kill rats that were devastating nesting birds on two of the Isles of Scilly. The success of the venture is evidenced by the fact that this year the population on the islands of the rare Manx Shearwater rose to 73 nesting pairs, the highest in living memory and almost triple what it was just three years ago.


The problems that plastic waste cause our planet, especially in the seas, has been well-documented, but do you know whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution? Well, The New York Times has a quiz that you can take to find out. Warning: The result may make you feel bad about yourself.


As I've reported here before, Africa's vultures are being hunted and poisoned into extinction and this is a very big problem for the environment because these birds are a front line defense against the spread of disease. Conservation groups are working to try to save the birds. Some of their efforts are documented in a photography exhibit, Wildlife Photographer of the Year, that opened at the Natural History Museum in London this week.


Commercial fishing is destroying key nutrients of coral reefs. The most effective way to protect the reefs is to prevent overfishing.


Shorebirds frequently have funny looking bills that are adapted to take advantage of a particular food source. One of the weirdest is named for the shape of its bill, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. It is listed as critically endangered worldwide but scientists have been in doubt as to its actual population size. Finally, researchers have been able to make an estimate of that population size based on available data.  

Photo by Pavel S. Tomkovich.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper


Migratory restlessness in songbirds is difficult to assess, but with the use of radio telemetry, scientists are better able to measure it. A study of the European Blackbird revealed that, rather than gradually increasing restlessness, they switched abruptly to the nocturnal pattern of activity - most songbirds migrate at night - when they were ready to start migration. 


Krill is a tiny pink crustacean that is the lifeblood of the Antarctic ecosystem. They are the main source of food for a number of Antarctic species, including some of the largest animals on Earth. Researchers are studying the tiny animals, seeking to learn more about them in order to better protect them and ensure the health of the ecosystem of which they are such an important part.


"Extinction Countdown" documents the slow-motion extinction of the Mangrove Finch of the Galapagos Islands as a result of a combination of problems that include the depredations of invasive rats and parasitic flies.


The Fulvous Whistling-Duck, a close relative of the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck which may be the most numerous year-round duck in our area, is expanding its range. It has been seen all over the lower 48 states and is becoming much more common along the Gulf Coast. Where it will finally end up is anybody's guess.  


Long-distance travel is like a walk in the park for the Bar-tailed Godwit, a bird that can and does fly as much as 7,000 miles nonstop on migration.

Photo by Eric Hosking/Corbis

Bar-tailed Godwit


A pioneering research project in Puerto Rico is testing how tropical forests in the Amazon, the Congo, and elsewhere will react to the rising temperatures created by global climate change. This will be the world's first attempt to try to find out how such forests will react to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air, warmer temperatures, and changes in precipitation.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday rant

You know what pisses me off about the 2016 presidential campaign? A lot of things, actually. But there is one thing in particular that I feel the need to rant about today.

Throughout the campaign, I've heard and read journalists considered (at least by themselves) to be knowledgable about such things describe the election as a choice between "the lesser of two evils." Thus do they normalize a completely unqualified and clueless candidate the likes of which this country has never before seen and - please God! - never will see again.

Not only do they normalize him, they set this man who is the worst that America has to offer, a man who personifies misogyny, racism, privilege, and anti-intellectualism, on the same level with a candidate who is intelligent and qualified, perhaps the most qualified candidate who has ever sought the office, at least in my lifetime. This is a woman who has spent her entire adult life working to make the world more just, equal, and caring for people who have been marginalized by society, and she is opposed by a narcissist whose entire life has been spent in a bubble of privilege where his only goal has been to accumulate more personal wealth. He is a person totally lacking in empathy who has whined, mocked, belittled, bemoaned, and chided his way through the campaign and has never taken responsibility for anything.

THESE TWO CANDIDATES ARE NOT EQUALS! The media do a grave disservice to the country when they pretend that they are. 

They will tell us, of course, that they are just trying to be fair and to give equivalent coverage to each party's candidates. But when one of those candidates is incapable of telling the truth, it is the duty of journalism to point that out. For more than a year, while a demagogue bellowed and blustered and ran roughshod over the other candidates of his party and appealed to the worst of the deplorable base of that party, the media just went along for the ride and the ratings and pretended that this was just another normal campaign. Only very recently have a few media outlets begun to fact-check him and call him out on his lies. 

However one might choose to accurately describe this campaign, it is most definitely not a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is only one evil here and let us hope that he will soon be tossed into the dustbin of history where he belongs and that our long national nightmare will be over. 

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In the Woods by Tana French: A review

How is it that I have never read Tana French? Time to remedy that oversight.

I recently read in The New York Times online a review of French's latest book, The Trespasser. It sounded fascinating and I wanted to read it right away, but then I digested the fact that this is the fifth book in a series and my reader OCD kicked in. Of course, I could not start a series at the end. I am constitutionally unable to do so. One has to start at the beginning. And that's how I came to pick up the first entry in French's Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods.

This book won all kinds of literary awards when it was first published in 2007 and, from my perspective having now finished reading it, all the awards were well-deserved. It is a marvelously well-written book that tells a powerful story through the actions and relationships of interesting if imperfect characters.

The story is told in first person voice by Detective Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad. He introduces himself to us by saying that he is a seeker after truth and that he lies. It's a description that it is important to keep in mind throughout.

Ryan is hiding a dark secret. Twenty years before, when he was known as Adam Ryan, he was at the center of a mystery involving three children who disappeared one summer evening in woods in a Dublin suburb. Ryan was later found, his body pressed tightly against a tree with his nails dug into the bark. His shoes were full of blood and he was in a near catatonic state. He could not remember what had happened. The two other children were never found and the mystery never solved. Ryan still maintains that he cannot remember what happened and he keeps the secret of his past from his associates and superiors on the Murder Squad. All except his partner and best friend, Detective Cassie Maddox.

Now, a 12-year-old girl's murdered body has been found in those same woods and Ryan and Maddox are assigned to the case. The new murder once again raises questions about what happened in that long-ago case. Could there really be two child murderers in this small town or are the cases somehow related? How and why? These are some of the questions that Maddox and Ryan have to answer.

The girl's body was found in an area where an archaeological dig is taking place in advance of a new roadway being built through the site. Some locals are protesting against the building of the proposed roadway there and it turns out the murdered girl is the daughter of the leader of the protest against the roadway. The detectives must consider the possibility that the murder may be a warning to the protesters.

Weeks go by and the diligence of the Murder Squad has yielded no results. Everyone's nerves are frayed to the breaking point. French does a chilling job of conveying the strain, particularly the strain on the relationship between Ryan and Maddox that heretofore had been rock solid.

When the break finally comes, it is due to an insight by Ryan and yet it seems that he can't see the forest for the trees. (Ach! Please forgive the woods pun! I couldn't resist.) The truth turns out to be even more horrible than anyone - except Maddox who suspected all along - could have imagined.

French's plotting and exposition of this crime fiction/psychological thriller is just brilliant. Her writing shows the skilled hand of someone who one would swear was a much more experienced writer, and yet this is her first book. She set the bar very high for herself. I intend to investigate whether she has lived up to that standard in her succeeding books.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars