Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How the world sees us

Many Americans like to think of our country as being "exceptional" - by which they seem to mean that it was divinely created and that we are outside of history and are not subject to its laws.

That's all a lot of hooey of course. We are very much a part of history and, while the people who founded this country were certainly exceptional and enlightened far beyond the times in which they lived, we seem to have fallen very far from that ideal today, to the point where we no longer even honor science and learning. We seem to be turning in upon ourselves and refusing to see the world as it really is.

But how does that world, looking back, see us?

There is a clue from a recent report from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The committee looked at seven different countries and analyzed the state of their racial relationships. One of the countries reviewed was the United States.

While the committee did find several positive things to praise about progress that has been made in the effort to establish equality of treatment in our country, they also found a number of areas in which we are falling short. This is the list of problems they found:

1. Lack of a national human rights institution
2. Persistent racial profiling and illegal surveillance 
3. Prevalence and under-reporting of racist hate speech and hate crimes 
4. Disparate impact of environmental pollution in low income and minority communities 
5. Restrictive voter identification laws leading to unequal right to vote
6. Criminalization of homelessness when homeless people are disproportionately minorities
7. Discrimination and segregation in housing
8. De facto racial segregation in education
9. Unequal right to health and access to health care
10. High number of gun-related deaths and “Stand Your Ground” laws, which disproportionately affect members of racial and ethnic minorities
11. Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials
12. Increasingly militarized approach to immigration law enforcement
13. Violence against women occurs disproportionately more frequently for women from racial/ethnic minorities
14. Criminal justice system disproportionately arrests, incarcerates and subjects to harsher sentences people from racial/ethnic minorities
15. Youth from racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately prosecuted as adults, incarcerated in adult prisons, and sentenced to life without parole
16. Non-citizens are arbitrarily detained in Guantanamo Bay without equal access to the criminal justice system, while at risk of being subjected to torture
17. Unequal access to legal aid
18. Lacking rights of indigenous peoples (the report lists numerous different concerns)
19. Absence of a National Action Plan to combat racial discrimination
That's a pretty appalling list and it's impossible to refute any of it. Unfortunately, the solution to all of these problems is political and as long as one of the two major national political parties exists for the sole purpose of opposing anything that the president proposes, solutions are impossible to achieve.

It is a truly depressing state of affairs, but it seems that the image that we present to the world and how the world sees us is unlikely to become any more positive in the near future.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Indignation by Philip Roth: A review

(Happy Labor Day! I hope you are enjoying a rest from labor today. I am resting from my blogging "labors" by featuring some of my writing from the past. In this case, it is a review of Phillip Roth's Indignation which I read and reviewed in 2009. My review was originally published on Goodreads on April 1, 2009.)

IndignationIndignation by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a quick read for me, first of all because it is a short novel and second because once I started reading I was hooked and found it hard to put down.

Marcus Messner is someone I know.  I strongly identified with his college experience.  Going to a faraway school to get away from an oppressive atmosphere at home, being hopelessly innocent, naive, and "out of it" once you get to that school.  Yes, I remember those feelings very well - lo, these many years later.

Marcus is an extremely dedicated student - dedicated to getting all As and graduating as valedictorian of his class.  He has internalized the lessons taught by his hard-working parents in Newark.  He is their only child (Note: I, too, am an only child.) and carries the full weight of all their hopes and aspirations.

And he loves his parents.  But in the middle of his freshman year at a local Newark college, his father began to obsess about Marcus's safety and in the end that obsessiveness became a kind of madness.  He was driving his son crazy, too, and Marcus had to get away.  In his sophomore year, he did, transferring to a college in Ohio.

There, he is matched with roommates who, it turns out, piss him off even more than his father did.  He moves twice within a few weeks, finally winding up in the most undesirable room on campus, but it is heaven to him because he is alone.

He meets a girl.  He has his first sexual experience.  (Here, I was reminded strongly of Roth's early works such as Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus.)  But it turns out that his new love is a very fragile vessel and destined, it seems, to break.

This is a surprising book in many ways, including the enigmatic title which comes from a quotation by Bertrand Russell. The dialogue of the main character quotes extensively from Russell's lecture "Why I Am Not a Christian." Though it has its comic moments, it is full of human tragedy.  Through it all, Roth's deft writing kept me turning those pages and it was all over much too soon.    

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Ordinary

A summer dragonfly.
The ordinary days of the long, hot summer, the season of the dragonfly, are coming to an end. Leaves are already beginning to fall, harbinger of the season to come. 

But still the grass grows and must be mowed and still the dragonflies follow in the mower's wake. Summer maintains it grip and will not go quietly. When it is gone, these ordinary days and hours will be remembered with love. 

The Ordinary

It's summer, so
the pink gingham shorts,
the red mower, the neat rows
of clean smelling grass
unspooling behind
the sweeping blades.

A dragonfly, black body
big as a finger, will not leave
the mower alone,
loving the sparkle
of scarlet metal,
seeing in even a rusting paint
the shade of a flower.

But I wave him off,
conscious he is
wasting his time,
conscious I am
filling my time
with such small details,
distracting colors,

like pink checks,
like this, then that,
like a dragonfly wing
in the sun reflecting
the color of opals,
like all the hours
we leave behind,
so ordinary,
but not unloved. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This week in birds - #123

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

A Black-crowned Night Heron searches for food among duckweed covering the water. The Black-crowned is less frequently seen here than its Yellow-crowned cousin, so it is always a treat to be able to capture one with the camera.


We know that our bodies are host to any number of tiny organisms with whom we share a mostly symbiotic relationship. From the perspective of these organisms, we are a distinct universe.

Among the tiny creatures that live with us are two species of facial mites and it seems that almost everyone has them. They are probably crawling around your eyebrows as you read this - and among mine as I type it. They are not very attractive creatures but they are benevolent. A case could be made that they are our best friends!


Organisms that are distinctly not benevolent cause problems for some species of birds - specifically finches. Conjunctivitis is a plague among some populations of House Finches. Surprisingly, research has shown that most species do not get sick from this disease, but the House Finch is extremely susceptible to it for some reason. In some places it is simply referred to as "House Finch disease."


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently announced a new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act which will limit its reach and make it more complicated for species to receive the protection provided by the Act. One is tempted to wonder just whose side the FWS is on.


A new study shows that golden orb-weaving spiders that live in urban areas grow bigger and produce more offspring than their country cousins.


Birds can travel a long way on migration and, depending on where they stop, can evolve into distinct species or populations within species. A study of the beautiful little Wilson's Warbler, a frequent visitor to my backyard during migration, revealed that there are six distinct populations of the bird present in North America.


Another very interesting study shows that birds' songs and their feather colors can be changed by the birds' exposure to mercury contamination. These birds can be important environmental barometers revealing the health of the biosphere.


Three conservation groups and a leading lepidopterist have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give the Monarch butterfly "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act so that it can be given additional protection. Many scientists and ordinary observers (like myself) have become alarmed at the drastic decline in population of these butterflies in recent years and at the threats they face from pesticides and from the farming practices prevalent in the Midwest. Many believe the only hope for the beautiful insect is for the FWS to step in and provide protection.


The U.S. Forest Service has issued a tentative ruling that salvage logging may proceed in the area of 2013's Rim Fire near Yosemite. This is causing consternation among conservation groups because of the presence of Northern Spotted Owls in the area. It is likely that the groups will sue to stop the plan.


Iceland's seabird colonies are vanishing, with massive die-offs of chicks this breeding season. The cause seems to be a warming climate and ocean which has changed the nature of the food available to the birds. A similar phenomenon has occurred along the North Atlantic coasts of North America.


One of the biggest problems for conservation today is that it ignores some 95% of known species on Earth. Most of these species are invertebrates or micro-organisms and so are easily overlooked, but they are the backbone of all the biosphere.


A court in North Carolina has upheld protections given to breeding colonies of shorebirds at Cape Hatteras. The decision essentially prevents off-road vehicles from riding roughshod over the nests and nestlings.


The Egyptian Goose has been officially added to the American Birding Association's checklist of birds. The exotic geese have established a breeding colony in Florida.


The Common Raven, like many birds, is expanding and changing its range in response to a changing climate. It is now seen in New York City and may be nesting there.


Coastal Louisiana is drowning. It is losing the equivalent of about a football field of coastline every hour. That's sixteen square miles a year. This is due to a combination of the topography of the region and human activity which has decimated the barrier islands and other natural obstructions that protected the land from the sea. Most of the damage is being done by the activities of petroleum companies and since the government of Louisiana is in thrall to those companies, it is doubtful that anything effective can be done anytime soon to stop the erosion. And soon enough it will be too late.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The week that was

It has been another thoroughly awful week in what has been a spectacularly terrible summer of news events so far. Thank Mother Nature it is coming to an end. At least the season is. The nature of humankind probably guarantees that the bad news will continue, but perhaps we'll have some more pleasant weather to ameliorate its effects.


The Middle East continues to be the Middle East. Syria and Iraq continue to be Syria and Iraq, and ISIL/ISIS continues its campaign to dominate them both as well as the rest of the region. They see it as their Allah-given right, just as some sects in this country see it as their God-given right to dictate to the rest of us how we should live. (Really, wouldn't it be wonderful if all of these fundamentalists could just be isolated to one corner of the world and allowed to slug it out?)

ISIL/ISIS, of course, commits really horrific acts, including beheading people while distributing the video of it to the world and, apparently, burying people alive. Their totally perverted interpretation of Islam tells them that they can do whatever barbaric thing they wish to anyone who isn't an adherent of their particular sect.

Unfortunately, the United States must bear some of the responsibility for the uprising of this group, because of the principle of "You broke it, you own it." We broke that region when we manufactured an excuse for invading Iraq and securing "regime change." Our government sowed the wind and continues to reap the whirlwind and no doubt will for years to come.

Meanwhile, the architects of that phony war go unpunished and live out their lives in comfort while the victims of the war - the members of the military who fought it and the Iraqi civilians who were just trying to live their lives - continue to suffer. One wonders when the arc of the universe will bend toward justice in this case.


Back in this country, it was another week of people shooting each other. The most egregious example of that was a nine-year-old girl at a shooting range in Arizona who shot her instructor. With an Uzi. With the parents standing by.

In what universe is it okay for a parent to hand their nine-year-old daughter a submachine gun to play with?

Of course, the NRA was all over it with their tweet about seven ways kids can have fun at shooting ranges. Presumably one of those ways was not shooting one's instructor.

I wonder, would these people accept ANY limits to people wielding guns? Would they, for example, defend the right of a two-year-old to have an Uzi?


In another troubled part of the world, Ukraine, the stealthy invasion by Russian troops continues and Putin continues to deny that it is happening.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this story from an American viewpoint is that some of the radical right-wingers in our country wish that we had Putin in charge here. They are great admirers of what they consider his decisive action.

These are some of the same people, by the way, who want to impeach President Obama for acting by executive order, bypassing Congress. Consistency, thou art not a Republican!


We also learned this week - not that there had ever really been any doubt - that the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers. It will be very interesting to see whether the recordings of various Republicans sucking up to these guys in their meeting with them will have any effect on the races where they are candidates. Or are Americans so apathetic and cynical that they no longer care that their candidates are bought and paid for by billionaires who definitely do not have their interests at heart?


And then, of course, there is Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot multiple times by a policeman sworn to serve and protect the community, was buried this week. His funeral was attended by thousands who never knew him but who wanted to express their outrage at what happened.

The Ferguson police department continued its not very subtle campaign of attempting to destroy Brown's reputation and a new recording came to light of the sound of shots being fired at the time of the killing of this young man.

A grand jury is considering the facts of the shooting - at least the facts that are presented by what, from this distance, appears to be a totally biased district attorney's staff. Frankly, it seems depressingly unlikely that there will ever be justice for Michael Brown, just as there has been no justice for Trayvon Martin or countless others before him.

Racism and the targeting of black people by the police continue to be a stain on the conscience of this country. One would like to believe that we would all be in agreement that the stain should be removed, but a brief excursion into the world of social media this week would instantly have disabused one of that fantasy. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that there will be more Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins.

And so it goes.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Out of Range by C.J. Box: A review

Out Of Range (Joe Pickett, #5)Out Of Range by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

C.J. Box has always portrayed his hero Game Warden Joe Pickett as a paragon of virtue. He's not necessarily the sharpest tool in the box but he's always squeaky clean - at least in his intentions. Out of Range gives a slightly new twist to his character.

Pickett's friend and fellow game warden, Will Jensen, is found dead in his state-owned house in Jackson, Wyoming. The cause of death was a gunshot to the head and the weapon is lying by his side. It appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide. It is made more clear-cut by the fact that Jensen had been acting crazy and very much out of character for several months before his death.

The Teton district that was Jensen's charge was an epicenter for many environmentalist causes, as well as an elite playground for the rich and powerful - including a certain vice-president who makes a cameo appearance here. It is about as different from the sleepy little town of Saddlestring, where Joe Pickett hangs his hat, as a place can be. It is a potentially big step up when Pickett is selected to run the Teton district, at least on a temporary basis.

Leaving Saddlestring and his family behind, Joe drives to Jackson in his beat up old pickup. Immediately on arriving, he feels himself completely out of place there and over his head.

As he takes up his new post, he reviews Will Jensen's notebooks and finds that the last one is missing. He begins searching for it and also searching for an explanation as to why Will would kill himself. He soon begins to wonder if he really did. He finds that no autopsy and no toxicology tests were done on the body. Furthermore, the body has been cremated. It all seems highly suspicious.

Joe becomes even more suspicious when he learns that Will was being pressured by a local high-powered, well-connected developer to sign off on a "good food" planned village that he was hoping to build. The problem was his "village" would disrupt migration routes for elk and grizzly bears.

Joe meets the developer who begins pressuring him as well. He also meets the developer's wife and feels an instant electric attraction to her, an attraction he soon finds is reciprocated.

Meanwhile, wife Marybeth has been left at home with their two daughters, including one who is now a rebellious teenager. She has them plus her job to deal with and the family has been receiving scary anonymous phone calls. Joe had asked his friend Nate to keep an eye on the family in his absence and he does. Sheridan, the teenage daughter, thinks he is keeping a little too close an eye on her mother and Marybeth seems to enjoy his company maybe just a little too much. It looks like the Pickett marriage may be sailing into some rough waters.  

Joe carries out his duties in his typical bumbling fashion, but, of course, as always he manages somehow to reach the right conclusions and to ensure that a kind of rough justice is done.

I found this fifth in the Joe Pickett series to be an interesting read. The writing is not particularly scintillating. It sort of bumbles along much like Joe, but somehow it manages to get to the right place in the end.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Two beautyberries

I have two varieties of beautyberry in my garden.

The purple variety, which is the kind that is seen in Nature.

And a white cultivar.

Now, in past years, I have found that the birds in my yard generally wait until a bit later to start hitting the beautyberries for their daily snacks. They would usually exhaust the softer elderberries and the pokeberries which I also have in my garden before they started on the beautyberries. The beautyberry is a harder fruit and it will last longer on the shrub, right into winter. That's mostly when I've noticed birds eating them in past years. But this must be a particularly delicious year for these berries because the birds are already devouring them with great relish.

Also, in the past, the birds usually started with the white berries and stripped all of them before they moved on to the purple. Not this year. They are showing a distinct preference for the purple. Mockingbirds, robins, cardinals, grackles, even wrens and chickadees have been observed eating them. So far, I haven't noticed a single bird eating the white berries.

But they sure love the purple ones! Especially the mockingbirds.

And the robins.

I don't think these berries are going to last until winter this year.