Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Update

A brief note to those of my readers who have been kind enough to notice my absence: My husband had what the doctors have termed a "mild" heart attack - a wake-up call. Friday night, actually early Saturday morning, we ended up at the emergency room. Bob was admitted to the hospital. Tests were run and the problem was located. Early Monday morning the cardiologist set about doing repairs and fixes. Bob is healing quickly. In fact, today he is quite chipper. We hope he will be released no later than tomorrow or next day. Once I get him back home, I'll be back here giving you my opinions and reporting on the world around me. Thanks for your concern and please continue to send Bob your positive thoughts as he recovers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Please pardon the interruption

No post today because of a family emergency. I hope to be back at the keyboard in a few days. Keep watching this space!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Will the monarchy survive?

El Nino has struck hard in many places this winter and the area of Mexico where Monarch butterflies overwinter has been devastated by the effects of winter storms. This is tragic news for the people who live in these regions, but it has been a real disaster for the Monarch.

Unprecedented rainfall from late January through the first week of February led to flooding and landslides that resulted in the loss of many lives and in the near destruction of the towns of Angangueo and Ocampo, the two municipalities that serve as base for tourists who visit the Monarch colonies at Sierra Chincua and El Rosario. The community of El Rosario was also hit with a major landslide that buried more than a dozen residents and destroyed much infrastructure in the region. The consequences of this disaster will be felt by the residents of this area for years to come. But it wasn't only people who were affected.

The Monarch colonies were strongly impacted by the unprecedented rainfall. The final estimate on the mortality suffered by the butterflies is not yet complete, but it is already clear that more than 50% of the overwintering population died as a result of the harsh winter conditions. It is expected that the number of Monarchs returning north this spring will be fewer than at any time since the wintering colonies became known to science in 1975. These numbers are so low that they are sure to have a long term effect on the butterfly population and the number of Monarchs that will be available to make the flight back to Mexico next winter is likely to be substantially less than in recent years.

I saw my first Monarch of the year in my garden earlier this week on March 22. In the winter of 2008-09, I had Monarchs overwintering in my garden. The weather was so mild that I had butterfly weed full of fat Monarch caterpillars on January 1 of that winter. The winter just past was quite different. We had our first hard freeze on December 4 and it remained cold from then through the end of February. I did not see a Monarch in my yard after December 4 until this week.

My butterfly weed is planted and waiting for any of the beauties that may need to deposit their eggs there, but I haven't seen another of the butterflies since my first sighting. I've had a few Swallowtails and Sulphurs and yesterday I had a Red Admiral, but no more Monarchs. Yet. It is very unusual to be near the end of March with only one Monarch sighting. Obviously, this does not bode well for the monarchy.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The party of the hissy fit

In The Times today, Timothy Egan had an opinion piece in which he branded the Republican Party the "party of the hissy fit." It seems to be a particularly apt sobriquet.

This is the party in which the most recent presidential candidate has said that he's through cooperating(!). He will not be cooperating or participating in the legislative process for the rest of the year. I'm not really clear how this is supposed to be different from what's been happening over the last year. It's a bit like a kid who loses in a playground game threatening to pick up his marbles and go home.

Then we have the spectacle of Republican state attorneys general around the country rushing to file suit challenging the constitutionality of the new Health Care Reform law. I admit I am not a constitutional expert, but I would estimate that their chances of prevailing in such a suit stand at about the same as a snowball's chance in hell. But that doesn't bother this party of "fiscal conservatives" who will be profligately spending taxpayers' money on these doomed efforts. And, by the way, whatever happened to those conservatives who were so dead set against "frivolous lawsuits"? If this isn't the definition of a frivolous lawsuit, I don't know the meaning of the words.

Of course, here in Texas, we have the esteemed member of the House of Representatives who took pitching a hissy fit to a new level, breaching the decorum of the House by shouting "Baby killer!" at another House member during the debate on the HCR bill. He's now using this example of his temper tantrum worthy of a two-year-old as a fund-raising vehicle in his political campaign and apparently people are actually sending him money because of it!

Meanwhile, the Republican Party leaders in the House and Senate are pledging to "repeal the bill" without quite explaining just how they are going to go about that. Apparently, their aim is to reinstate all the inequities that have existed in access to health insurance in this country. It will certainly be interesting to hear just how they explain this to voters.

Honestly, are there no grown-ups left in this party, no one to tell their colleagues that holding their breath until they turn blue just doesn't work?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Jane in the 21st century

Who doesn't love Jane Austen? Well, actually, there probably are some curmudgeonly people who don't, but it is a truth universally acknowledged among those who read that to know her is to love her. One can sink into one of her novels and completely lose oneself in the morals, mores, and manners of late eighteenth century England. It was a time when roles in society, particularly women's roles in society, were strictly defined and limited, and social intercourse was tightly choreographed, not unlike the country dances that were so popular in the period.

There has been a surge in the popularity of Jane in the past 10 to 15 years, spurred on by some truly wonderful film versions of her books and by successful books written in homage to Jane or in her style.

I just finished reading one of those "homage" books. It was The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. I had actually seen the movie based on this book, but evidentally it didn't make too big an impression on me, because I couldn't remember much about it other than the concept. It is about six Californians who form a book club to read and discuss the six novels of Jane Austen and who discover, in their reading, parallels between Jane's stories and their own lives. I thought Fowler did a creditable job of drawing those parallels and of making the point of Jane's relevancy to our times. Human nature truly never changes, and Jane was a consummate observer of and reporter on human nature. Today's dances may be different than they were in Jane's time - the people aren't.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot. Maybe I picked it up when I was in just the right mood for it, at a time when I needed its gentle diversion. For whatever reason, it was a fun read for me. I liked and empathized with all the characters, and I finished reading wanting to know more about them and hoping that things would work out well for each of them. Since I can now make up my own endings for them, I can tell you that, in fact, things did work out well for them! (I love it when I get to be "the decider.")

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, Canada! I think I love you.

Did you hear the latest about Ann Coulter? It seems that she was scheduled to give speeches in a series of Canadian universities, but when some of the students at those schools heard about it, they decided to exercise their right of free speech and peacefully (It's the Canadian way.) protest her coming to their schools. Apparently, thousands of the students joined in the protest. They did not want this noted purveyor of hate speech on their campus.

Now, Coulter is a bold proponent of free speech, so you would think that she would rejoice in the Canadian students exercising their rights. You would be wrong. It seems she is only a proponent of HER freedom to speech, but not if she feels threatened in any way. Apparently, she did feel threatened by the peaceful Canadian students because now she has canceled her speeches rather than face them. Of course, Coulter and her ilk were never long on physical courage. It is why you will almost never find any of them serving in any military service, much less fighting in a war. They will always find some reason to be excused.

The Canadian students rejected Coulter because of her racist hate speech. She uses the most scurrilous terms to incite her listeners, to stir them up and make them unwilling and unable to listen to any other side of any issue other than the one she advocates. She is not alone in the tactic, of course. There is a long list of such hate speakers in America today. Chief among them are people like Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, and Rush Limbaugh, but Coulter ranks high on this list of dishonor, also.

Canada has laws regarding hate speech and I think it is very wise to draw a line in the sand against such behavior. As a matter of public policy and safety, one should not be allowed to yell, "Fire!", in a crowded theater. Neither should one be allowed to yell, "Kill the liberals!" in an overheated political atmosphere.

I'm all for free speech, but your right to free speech ends when you are encouraging people to do violence to me. We could benefit from Canada's example in this regard, as in many others.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It couldn't be done

Paul Krugman got it right in his column today about the passage of Health Care Reform. The column was accurately titled "Fear Strikes Out."

As I followed the progress of the three votes through the House of Representatives, the old Edgar Guest poem about never quitting kept popping into my mind. I'm sure you must of learned this as a child as well.

It Couldn’t Be Done
Edgar Guest


Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But, he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn’t," but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: "Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one has done it";
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle it in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That "couldn’t be done," and you’ll do it.


No, it's not exactly Shakespeare, but it seems to fit on this occasion.

I remembered this little poem and I thought about all the people who kept going with the Health Care Reform fight when the pundits kept writing them off and saying how weak and inept they were. I thought about those "who kept their head when all about them were losing theirs" and kept pushing, pushing until success was achieved. And I thought about the real hero in this long fight, the one who always kept HER eye on the ball. Yes, my hero, Nancy Pelosi. As far as I'm concerned, this day belongs to her.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Sunday afternoon in Texas


"In future time, then may the pilgrim's eye see here an obelisk point toward the sky...."
— Anonymous poet

The above prediction was penned in the poem: “Ode to San Jacinto”, even before the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas. Today, the world’s tallest war memorial stands at San Jacinto—15 feet taller than the Washington monument—honoring all those who fought for Texas's independence.

The design was the brainchild of architect Alfred C. Finn, engineer Robert J. Cummins, and Jesse H. Jones. Construction ran from 1936 to 1939. With continued support, the San Jacinto Museum of History Association has occupied the facility since its doors first opened.

Its builder was the Warren S. Bellows Construction Company of Dallas and Houston. The monument building alone—apart from its great historical significance—is worth a trip to the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. At 570 feet, this Texas giant one of the finest examples of Moderne (Art Deco) architecture in the United States. The monument has been recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The museum is located in the base of the monument, greeting visitors with bronze doors emblazoned with the six flags of Texas. The base is 125 feet square, with text panels highlighting significant events in history leading up to and resulting from the Texas Revolution.

The shaft itself is octagonal, 48 feet at its base, 30 feet at the observation level and 19 feet square at the base of its crowning jewel—a 220-ton star made from stone, steel and concrete. Despite the scale, danger and novelty of the project, not a single life was lost during its construction.

- from History of the San Jacinto Monument

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Countdown

We are in the final countdown to Congress' action on the Health Care Reform bill and the opponents of reform seem to be getting more and more desperate, hysterical, and unhinged from reality and the norms of common decency.

Yes, indeedy, there was another tea party at the Capitol today and the partiers showed their true colors - not that there had ever really been any doubt about their colors. They run the full range of hues from white to - um - white.

These party-goers today jostled and shouted abuse at Congressional Democrats entering the Capitol to perform their duties as elected representatives of the people. Many of them carried signs with entirely heinous slogans, some threatening violence. The obscenities shouted, as well as the signs, clearly revealed the homophobic and racist tendencies of the crowd and said a lot more about the shouters than about the recipients of the verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse. At least one of the representatives was spat upon.

Really? Is this the level of civic discourse that we've come to in this country? We reason with elected representatives by spitting on them?

This story makes me sad and mad, in equal portions, but honestly, these little people are so pitiable and frightened that it is hard to sustain any feeling about them other than compassion. They are dupes. They have been lied to and scared out of whatever wits they may have had and misled into to thinking that their "cause" is saving their nation, when, in fact, they seem to have very little idea of what their nation is all about. Their true cause is what their leaders stir them up to support - namely protecting insurance companies and other corporations that use them for their own financial gain. This is most certainly not in the financial interest of the tea partiers themselves who would benefit from the policies against which they protest so loudly.

But, in their minds, it seems that their "noble cause" is all about God and guns and white male domination of society. If they could - and this is the one REALLY scary thing about them - they would create a theocracy based on their own very narrow interpretation of the Bible. They are the American equivalent of the Taliban.

Their interpretation of the Bible certainly doesn't include any of Jesus' teachings about caring for the poor or being a "Good Samaritan" to your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Is it the woman who will die tonight because she has no health insurance? I think I know what Jesus would say. And I think I know what tea partier Dick Armey would say. I believe I'll stand with Jesus on this one.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What a lot of crap!

Have you noticed that there is literally almost nothing but crap on television these days? Oh, I know there is the occasional worthy show, but, on the whole, at any given hour of the day or night, when you pick up the remote and hit the on switch, all you will have to choose from is crap.

Wasn't there a song a few years back about "200 channels and nothing to watch"? Well, if there wasn't, there should have been. Maybe I'll even write one.

This wouldn't really bother me so much normally, because television and I went our separate ways several years ago. I used to be deeply in love with it in my younger days. In fact, you could hardly drag me out of its embrace. But over the years, I admit I grew increasingly unfaithful because I had met other, more interesting and satisfying loves. (I'm sitting in front of one of them now.) In the end, we had just grown too far apart. Irreconcilable differences, I believe is the term. I still tried to remain friendly with the old flame and I would drop by to visit on a regular basis, but I never stayed long - an hour or so at most.

But these last few days I've been in enforced confinement because of illness and my eyes hurt too much to read, so I turned to radio and then television to entertain me. NPR radio offered some relief but what a disappointment television was. Our high-powered satellite dish brings us channel after channel of pay-per-view (mostly movies I never heard of or don't care to see), games, every sport ever invented by man, music of every conceivable genre, sex channels, soap opera channels, channels that claim to be 24-hour-news-channels but are really 24 hour propaganda channels, channels that are all-Hitler all the time (And what's with this fascination with Hitler, anyway?), faux science networks - well, I could go on but I'm depressing myself. I guess somebody out there must want to watch this stuff, but other than things like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the occasional Nature or Nova or Masterpiece program or HBO series, there just isn't anything there that I can stand to sit still for. How my old love has let itself go.

But there is hope for the old flame. Soon baseball season will be starting and television will have a chance to redeem itself and become desirable to me once again. For the next six months or so, we will have a hot fling, just for old time's sake. In the meantime, thank goodness for radio and audio books and for the fact that my eye is getting better so I can read again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rampant denialism

These past few days, I have been laid low by a tiny, vicious bug, one that made me unable to raise my head off the pillow or drag myself to the keyboard to connect with the world. Consequently, when I finally was able to make that trek from my bed to the chair in front of my computer today, I found my Google Reader full to overflowing with posts from the blogs that I follow.

Skimming through those posts, there were a number of very interesting ones to which I need to give further thought, but one in particular caught my eye. It was an entry from Skeptical Science about a peer-reviewed scientific paper that explores the roots and the methods of scientific denialism. Here, I quote extensively from that post.

The authors define denialism as "the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists". They go on to identify 5 characteristics common to most forms of denialism:

1.Conspiracy theories
When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes something is true, the denialist won't admit scientists have independently studied the evidence to reach the same conclusion. Instead, they claim scientists are engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The South African government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by conspiracy theorists claiming that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. When such fringe groups gain the ear of policy makers who cease to base their decisions on science-based evidence, the human impact can be disastrous.

2.Fake experts
These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry who developed a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This tactic is often complemented by denigration of established experts, seeking to discredit their work. Tobacco denialists have frequently attacked Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, for his exposure of tobacco industry tactics, labelling his research 'junk science'.

3.Cherry picking
This involves selectively drawing on isolated papers that challenge the consensus to the neglect of the broader body of research. An example is a paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which suggested a possible link with immunization. This has been used extensively by campaigners against immunization, even though 10 of the paper’s 13 authors subsequently retracted the suggestion of an association.

4.Impossible expectations of what research can deliver

The tobacco company Philip Morris tried to promote a new standard for the conduct of epidemiological studies. These stricter guidelines would have invalidated in one sweep a large body of research on the health effects of cigarettes.

5.Misrepresentation and logical fallacies
Logical fallacies include the use of straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented, making it easier to refute. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 1992 that environmental tobacco smoke was carcinogenic. This was attacked as nothing less than a 'threat to the very core of democratic values and democratic public policy'.

Why is it important to define the tactics of denialism? Good faith discussion requires consideration of the full body of scientific evidence. This is difficult when confronted with rhetorical techniques which are designed to distort and distract. Identifying and publicly exposing these tactics are the first step in redirecting discussion back to a focus on the science.


It is clear to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that these methods of denialism do not exist only in the world of science, although they may be most virulent and harmful there. They are certainly rampant in the world of politics and even religion in this country where it is impossible to have a rational, "good faith," discussion with a certain segment of the population which is enthralled by a web of conspiracy theories, fake experts, and cherry picking of information. For confirmation, just spend any hour of the day watching the Fox News Network.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Is this finally it?

Is this the week when we finally get a major health care reform bill, however weakened it may be, signed into law by the president? The signs are looking favorable and yet one is almost too terrified to hope at this point. The opposition has been so implacable and so utterly devious and unreasonable, so concerned for the welfare of their corporate sponsors rather than for the average citizen. I am sure they will fight an entrenched battle right up to the very end, so it is essential that those who are trying to pass this bill stay alert and stay strong and do not falter as they near the finish.

From what I understand of what will be in the final bill, it is certainly not what I and many others had hoped for. It will not provide universal health care coverage to Americans, as most countries in the industrialized world provide for their citizens, and yet it is an important step forward.

It is important because it is the first step, the foot in the door, so to speak. Once the principle is established, one can only hope that the law will continue to be amended and improved over the coming years, so that, finally, in a number of years, we may find ourselves on a par with Costa Rica or Canada or France.

Until then, we will continue to be at a disadvantage in the world. A disproportionate percentage of our gross national income will continue to be spent on health care. Money that could be spent to take care of other national needs will be consumed by the monster that is our health care system.

I'm really tired of reading and hearing about this issue. I'm particularly tired of all the lying, hypocrisy, and disingenuousness of the dishonest opponents of reform. I sincerely hope that this week will finally bring them the defeat that they so richly deserve and that we can then move on to some of the other pressing issues facing our country.

Reform of financial institutions and services, for example.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Adapting to change

The Houston Chronicle online has a story about the release this week of a study entitled "The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change." The state of the birds report is updated and released every year. Last year's report highlighted the fact that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in decline due to challenges such as the loss of wetlands, commercial hunting and pesticides. As the title suggests, this year's study focuses on the effects of climate change on bird populations.

Changes in climate are an immediate threat to oceanic birds like albatrosses and petrels because of the changes being wrought in marine ecosystems and the rising sea levels. But, in the longer term, as we have deeper and longer droughts, more intense flooding, and, in some places, colder winters, or other phenomena associated with climate change, birds of the forests or arid regions or even suburban backyards are threatened by the changes.

Already scientists have documented that migration and nesting patterns are changing for some birds. From our own observations, we can attest that very many tropical birds are moving farther and farther north each year. Their presence delights birders, but, in some cases, they may increase pressure on birds that are already residents here, making survival harder for them.

This is just one more challenge for birds that are already stressed by loss of habitat and by the effects of pollution. Endangered birds like Texas' own Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo and Whooping Crane are, thus, even more at risk. For birds that are already fighting for their survival, climate change may just be the final straw.

I would never count birds out though. They are nothing if not adaptable. That's why we have birds instead of dinosaurs in our backyards.

Birds spend their lifetimes adjusting to changes around them and some become even more successful with the changes. But change is a stressor and why would we want to do anything to make more difficult the lives of the birds that give us so much pleasure?

This report makes some suggestions for ways that we humans can mitigate the negative impact on birds. These include very common sense things like habitat restoration, the creation of new wildlife refuges, regulations to reduce bird kills in fishing operations, and the reduction of greenhouse gases. I think all of these suggestions are things that anyone who loves birds can support.

You can read the full report at: http://www.stateofthebirds.org.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Apple blossom time

I remember a song from my childhood called "Apple Blossom Time." It was a big hit, I think, for the female trio that sang it, the Andrews Sisters.

I thought about that song when I looked at my apple tree this morning and now I've had the tune stuck in my head all day.


Although the song lyric speaks of May as being "apple blossom time," March is definitely that time here in Southeast Texas.

My old Ein Schmer apple tree is sanguine about late winter in our part of the world and so it is holding back some of its buds. It will open them slowly over the next week or so, thus just in case there is a late freeze, it won't lose all of its blossoms. It will still have more buds to open when the weather warms again.

The bees are very happy about these blossoms. Both the honeybees and the native bees have been busy today visiting the apple blossoms and the blueberry blossoms that are open.


The blueberries are much more profligate with their blossoms, more trusting that the cold weather is truly over and it's safe to open to the world these delicate vessels that hold the plants' precious pollen.

I think I'm with the blueberries on this one. It's still eight days until the official beginning of spring, but I don't think winter will muster another assault against us this season. It's done enough already. Time to move on. Time to let the bees do their work and assist the apples and the blueberries in making their fruits.

And then time to let us enjoy the fruits of their labors. The labors of "apple blossom time."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mississippi dreamin'

I see in the news from my home state that Mississippi is making itself notorious again. At least, the school board in Itawamba County is. It seems that they have canceled the senior prom because a lesbian student wanted to attend with her girlfriend and she wanted to wear a tuxedo. This was just too much for the sensibilities of these sensitive souls who were apparently afraid their their own kids might catch "the gay" from attending a social event with a lesbian couple. So they canceled the event and expressed the hope that some "private group" might sponsor a prom for the kids. What they didn't say but probably meant was that the "private group" should sponsor a prom for the straight kids.

It's hard to believe that in the year 2010, the sexual orientation of a teenage girl is enough to cause grown-up people to behave this way. Why do they feel so threatened by this? What are so they afraid of? Do they really think that the homosexual couple is so powerful and attractive that they are going to subvert the straight kids to their way of loving?

They would probably say that homosexuality is a sin and they don't want the supposedly morally pure straight students to be exposed to it. But if they are Christians, as I'm certain they would profess to be, and if they are really confident of the rightness of their convictions, shouldn't they be concerned also for these socalled sinners? Shouldn't they want to expose them to "normalcy" so that perhaps it will rub off on them or they will be converted and thus saved from a life of sin? Moreover, do they really think that we live in a segregated society where gay people are not a part of every group and every activity, where they are not a part of the tapestry of our everyday lives, even in Mississippi? I would venture to say there might even be some gay people who are members of boards of education in Mississppi. Possibly even in Itawamba County.

Homosexuals do not choose to be homosexual any more than heterosexuals choose to be heterosexual. They are born that way. It is not a disease and cannot - nor does it need to be - cured. It is not a sin. It is just another way of being human. It could have been a valuable lesson for the students of that Itawamba high school to learn that not every human being has to believe and act and look exactly as they do, but that that makes them no less human and no less worthy of respect. The board of education could have stood up and acted like responsible adults and taught them that lesson. Instead, they chose to continue to live in a dream world where uniformity of opinion and belief and life style is all that matters.

So what have the kids of Itawamba County and of Mississippi learned from this? "Don't be different and, if you are different, don't tell! And, for gods' sake, don't stand up for your rights!"

What they have probably learned is that their society approves of and rewards the cowardly conformist. What a lesson for high school seniors to take with them into the world.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How plants do it

Olivia Judson has a great piece in The New York Times today about the sex lives of plants. Plants, just like the rest of us, have, over millions of years, worked out strategies of sex and reproduction that successfully perpetuate their kind, but, as Judson points out, the plants' sex lives come with some unique obstacles.

The most obvious obstacle is that the plant can't move around to find another of its kind to hook up with and so it has to depend on intermediaries. Flowers are the plants' vehicle for delivering their sperm and egg cells to the appropriate recipients and they essentially have two ways of getting those precious bits of matter to combine and make a new plant.

One of their allies in reproduction is the wind. It is a bit quirky and unpredictable it is true, but about ten percent of flowering plants do use the wind to spread their pollen. Since the wind goes its own way and is a bit unreliable, wind-pollinated plants tend to produce huge quantities of pollen as anyone who lives in pine country can attest. Very soon now our air will be turning yellow with mass amounts of pine pollen and people will be suffering from itchy eyes and tickling noses for the duration of the pine sexual orgy.

The other ninety percent of flowering plants take a more direct and intimate route to pollination by attracting individual pollinators like bees and various other members of the insect family and birds such as hummingbirds. The flowers attract these pollinators by offering them something they need - food in the form of nectar. In the process of consuming the nectar, the little pollinators pick up bits of pollen which they then carry to the next plant, completing the cycle of fertilization. It's a win-win situation.

It's interesting, but probably irrelevant, that the plants that use bees as their pollinators are also attractive to humans because they are bright and colorful and they smell good. But it's important to remember that all of this color and scent is for the bees or the other pollinator insect. It isn't for us.

Even so, we can be very grateful that these creatures are such efficient pollinators and that plants vie for their attention. In the process, the Earth has bloomed and our lives have been made a lot more colorful and pleasant.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The quiet yard

When I first walked outside this morning, I sensed almost immediately that there was something different about my yard. But as I stood there in my typical morning fog, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I picked up my newspaper and went back inside and it wasn't until a few hours later that I actually figured it out.

I was sitting in my backyard resting from my gardening labors, and, as I usually do in these instances, I was watching my backyard birdfeeders, when suddenly it hit me. The goldfinches were gone! There was not a single goldfinch at the feeders for the first time since December. There were no goldfinches in the trees around the yard, trilling their spring song as they had been recently. The yard suddenly seemed very, very quiet.

They were still here yesterday. I saw them at the feeders throughout the day, even in the rain. I understand now that they were filling up for the journey ahead of them. Sometime during the night, they packed their bags and left.

I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose. As I said, the birds have been singing their spring song for a while now, which is an indication that they were practicing for the big show ahead when they will have to defend a territory and attract a mate. Even more telling, the green birds of winter had been turning into the golden birds of summer almost before my eyes. Yes, something was definitely up with these goldfinches, but I hadn't really given it much thought. My mind was on other things.

As I was sitting there contemplating the change in the yard, a flock of about thirty Cedar Waxwings landed in the sycamore tree above my head, as if to say, "Never mind! We're still here." And indeed they are and will be for a while longer. The waxwings are almost always the very last of my winter birds to leave.

Yes, the waxwings are still here. The cardinals and mockingbirds, doves and chickadees are still here, and so are the woodpeckers, titmice, and, of course, the bluebirds. My yard is hardly devoid of avian life. But today, it almost seems as though it is.

Monday, March 8, 2010

And the winner is...DVRs!

People love to bash the Oscar Awards show, and truthfully, I haven't watched it in several years. The last time I watched I remember it as being interminable and interminably boring. But last night as I walked through the room where others in the family were watching, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin caught my eye and ear and I sat down to watch. I must admit, much to my surprise, I quite enjoyed it.

Steve and Alec were a good team, I thought, and they struck just the right note of irony as they poked gentle fun at the high-powered Hollywood celebrities in front of them, particularly their prime target George Clooney. They actually made me laugh out loud a few times, which isn't always easy. Several of the presenters brought smiles and chuckles, if not outright guffaws, as well. Ben Stiller was a hoot in his blue Na'vi makeup presenting the award for make-up artistry and Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr. played off each other perfectly as they presented the screenwriters' award.

The fashion show was, of course, fascinating, and I thought most of the dresses were quite beautiful, although some were admittedly a bit on the bizarre side. But it wouldn't be Oscar without a touch of the bizarre. Strapless dresses with tight bodices and big skirts seemed to be the theme of the night. Several of the stories I saw about the show today compared it to prom night. Not an inapt comparison, actually.

The pace of the show was pretty brisk and there was little of the tedium and awkwardness that I remembered from acceptance speeches in the past. Of course, it might have helped that we were watching the DVR'd version of the Oscars and so we were able to fast forward through commercials and any speeches that we weren't interested in hearing. The three hour plus show thus took just about half that time. Yep, I think the DVR has definitely been a great advancement in one's enjoyment of awards shows.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"The science is solid"

My local newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, had an op-ed piece today that is sure to bring out the global warming deniers, of whom there are an abundance in the Chronicle's readership. The piece was authored by scientists from several of Texas' preeminent universities, namely Texas A&M, University of Texas, Rice University, and Texas Tech. All of them are specialists in atmospheric science or environmental sciences, so one can assume that they have some expertise in this area. I'm sure that won't stop their critics.

The bottom line conclusion of these scientists is that the science on global warming is essentially settled: The earth is warming and humans are a very large contributing factor in that warming, especially in the unnatural speed with which it is taking place. They point out that satellite measurements show that the first decade of this century was the warmest since records have been kept. The next warmest was the 1990s and then the 1980s. Do we see a trend developing here?

They also point out that in spite of all the shouting by Sen. Inhofe and his ilk about the record snowfalls on the East Coast this winter, in fact, worldwide, January 2010 was one of the hottest for that period. They also point to a recent federal report "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" which was commissioned by the Bush administration in 2008. This report details how rising sea levels threaten our coasts and how weather variability, including drought, heavy rainfall events and, yes, more severe winter storms are affecting our infrastructure, energy, and even our health.

Of course, all of this reasoned analysis by these eminent scientists will not change one mind among the deniers, because, frankly, they are not swayed by reason. But perhaps it will help nudge those who accept that the global warming phenomenon is real to move a little faster in trying to counteract its deleterious effects. At least, we can hope.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The sea around us

The Highest Tide was Jim Lynch's first novel, published in 2005. Earlier this year, I read his second novel, Border Songs, and absolutely loved it. The earlier novel isn't quite on a par with that one but it is still a very good book.

Lynch seems to have a feel for oddball characters like the savant Border Patrol officer in his second novel. In this first book, his main character is a 13-year-old genius who is in love with the sea and Rachel Carson and his neighbor and former babysitter Angie Stegner, in that order. First and above everything though is his love for the sea. His knowledge of what lives there seems as big as the sea itself and when he starts discovering strange creatures in the Sound near his Olympia, Washington home, the world starts to take notice of little Miles O'Malley. He becomes a reluctant celebrity in his coming-of-age summer.

This book feels like an homage to Rachel Carson. Miles has memorized long passages from her book, The Sea Around Us, and he quotes from it at the least provocation. Near the end of the book, he quotes this passage to Angie Stegner:
"In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea - to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end."

The vastness of the sea is really the final frontier for exploration on earth. This womb from which life emerged is still the most mysterious place on our planet. What we really need are a few more Miles O'Malleys who get it all and can explain it to us. I have a feeling that they exist out there somewhere and that they would really enjoy this book.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Not a bad winter for the whoopers

After last winter's deadly season for the Whooping Cranes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, in which 23 birds died from lack of sufficient food, there was concern that this winter might be equally problematic for the birds. Fortunately, it hasn't turned out that way.

The latest aerial survey counted 263 birds. That is down by only one from the highest count of the winter, 264 on January 8. The one bird that died was a juvenile.

Of the 263 birds present at the refuge, 242 are adults and 21 are juveniles. This compares to the 247 birds that survived last winter at the refuge and started the flight north in the spring.

The National Parks and Wildlife officials who monitor the birds say that food availability at the refuge is improving. The salinity levels of the bay have risen and more blue crabs, which are the big birds' favorite snack, are now present in the bay. This bodes well for the continued health of the flock through the remainder of the winter and for their strength to complete the migration flight to Canada in the spring.

Personally, I find this exciting news and very reassuring. I follow the recovery efforts of this endangered species pretty closely, and it is always good news when they can finish the winter with a higher total of birds than was present in the winter before. Inch by painful inch, they move back from the brink of extinction. It looks like this winter may actually move them back several inches.


The stately crane - long may it stalk the wetlands and marshes of Aransas Bay in winter.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let's just chuck it all and go live in trees!

A couple of days ago, I was reading a story in the newspaper about President Obama's trip to Savannah where he had talked about the need for health care reform. As so-called journalists generally do these days, this writer had ended his story with a quote from a bystander that was meant to be an equal counterweight to everything the president had said. It's a stupid technique, because, in fact, there are not always two equal sides to every story. The truth and lies are not equal, and yet some who call themselves journalists insist on giving them moral equivalency.

Nevertheless, this local man was quoted as saying something to the effect that the government has no business getting involved in health care. The only thing that government should do is fight wars, build roads and run prisons. Other than those three things, it should stay out of our lives.

In this man's perfect world, there would be no police or fire departments. It would be every man or woman for his or herself. There would be no one inspecting to make sure that our food and our water are safe to consume. There would be no public schools or public libraries. There would be no parks or wildlife refuges. There would be no great public museums, no public transportation. For sure there would be no social safety net - no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment benefits, Veterans' benefits, public hospitals, and, of course, it goes without saying that all the veterans' hospitals and clinics would have to be closed. There would be no NASA, no exploration of space, no transportation agencies making sure that planes and trains and automobiles and boats are safe for the public to travel in, and, naturally, there would be no watchdog EPA to try to make sure that our air is safe to breathe. There would be no diplomatic corps and no intelligence agents roaming the world and interacting with other governments and non-government groups with a view to making unnecessary that war that this man wants his government to fight.

In short, there would be no societal organization. Everything that it has taken human beings thousands of years to build up to make our lives more pleasant - in other words, civilization - would be chucked into the dustbin of history if this man and his ilk had their way and we could all go back to living in trees and wearing animal skins - if we are lucky.

The utter mind-numbing lack of awareness of the great sweep of human history and of the interdependence of us all boggles the imagination. But there are such people out there in the world and there are some reporters who will give them the time of day. Incredible.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More bad news for frogs

Scientists have been closely studying frogs for a number of years now, trying to figure out what is causing gross abnormalities in many of them and why these wonderful creatures may be slowly slipping away. This ancient species could be on its way to extinction.

It has already been determined that pollution of their environment is one of the main culprits causing their problems. Frogs are also extremely sensitive to changes in climate, so they are being attacked by modern society on many levels.

Now comes a report from the National Academy of Sciences, as reported in Discover magazine, that details how a herbicide that has found its way into our waterways can alter amphibians' hormones and actually cause them to change sexes. The potential exists that the herbicide would have similar effects on other animals, including humans.

The herbicide in question is atrazine and, apparently, it is widely used in the Mid-West among corn crops and other row crops. It has been found in many of the waterways there. In sufficient quantities, it can have the effect of chemically castrating male frogs and turning them into egg-producing females. This does not bode well for the sex ratio among amphibians, nor for the health of the environment.

As a gardener, it certainly gives me pause when thinking about using any chemicals in my garden. The only herbicide I have ever used is Roundup which has glyphosate as its active ingredient. While it has the reputation of being relatively benign and I am not aware of any problems that it has caused, I don't think I'll be using it again. My yard has a thriving population of amphibians and reptiles of many kinds and I would not want to add anything to their environment that might cause problems for them.

I have always tried to be as organic as possible in my gardening practices, but I have used chemicals of various kinds from time to time. This story makes me want to stop - cold turkey. I think the frogs and toads and other critters in my yard might be happier and healthier if I did. Maybe I would, too.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The earth moves and its axis shifts

NASA scientists are now saying that the massive earthquake that hit Chile last Saturday (Corrected from "Thursday." What was I thinking?) was enough to actually shift Earth's axis by as much as three inches.

I won't even pretend to really understand how this works. It has to do with the movement of rocks in the planet's core and the actual shifting of Earth's weight from one area to another. Sort of like, over time, a person's weight may shift to the center of his/her body, causing a personal axis shift. That's about as close to an explanation of the phenomenon as I can get.

It turns out this is not an unusual occurrence. Whenever an earthquake of this magnitude occurs, it is likely to cause some wobbles in Earth's rotation and changes in the axis. JPL research scientist Richard Gross computed the changes that this particular earthquake caused. He estimates that it has shortened Earth's days by about 1.26 microseconds. A microsecond is one millionth of a second, so perhaps we can be forgiven if we don't notice the change.

The most dramatic effects of the earthquake and the ones that we notice, of course, are the effects that take place on the surface of Earth, the physical damage and the cost in human and animal life and suffering. But it is fascinating to note that the long-lasting results of such events are the ones that are hidden from our view, somewhere in the interior of our blue planet.