Monday, May 31, 2010

"Sumer is icumen in"

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
- Middle English lyrics of English folk song


Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
- Modern English translation of lyrics


The calendar may still say it is spring, but when the temperature is in the upper 90s and the humidity is close to the same, I'd say that summer has definitely "come in". For several days now, my area has enjoyed(?) those conditions and there is no doubt in my mind that summer is definitely here.

Even the cuckoo agrees. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo has been present here for some weeks now and I hear its quirky calls high in the trees often throughout the day. This is the bird that, as a child, I knew as the "rain crow". This solitary and secretive bird was a well-known visitor to our woods in summer. Its call was said to presage the coming of rain. As farm people, we liked to believe that bit of folklore during our hot and dry summers when the earth and the people were parched and thirsty for rain.

Sometimes the bird's calls did actually come before a shower or thunderstorm and that confirmed our belief. Most of the time, no rain fell after the calls were heard, but we just shrugged our shoulders and ignored that evidence. Just like believers of other myths, circumstances that seemed to intersect with our beliefs were accepted while anything contradictory was cast asunder.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo may not actually be much of a rain forecaster, but, as a bird, it is very interesting. It is, as I stated before, very secretive and, even though it is a fairly large bird, it is often hard to see amid the leafy trees where it does most of its gleaning for insects, its main diet. In fact, its call is often more than likely to be the only evidence that the bird is present.

This bird and its cousin, the Black-billed Cuckoo (which also is sometimes commonly called "rain crow") spend their summers with us here in North America and then head south again when autumn tells them that cooler weather is on the way. Thay are birds that definitely like it hot, all the time.

As things continue to dry out here on my little half-acre, I listen to the calls of the rain crow and I hope that he knows something that the weatherman doesn't. My thirsty garden hopes so, too. Summer is most definitely here and the summer drought is well under way.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The spill

I can't bear it. I can't bear to watch television images of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico, my backyard, and on the Gulf Coast. I can hardly bear to read of it, only if I skip over the most excruciating parts, the parts about helpless animals caught in this man-made catastrophe. Anyone who cares about animals and the environment, for that matter anyone who cares about his/her fellow humans who are suffering because of this biggest environmental disaster in the history of our country, is being daily bombarded with hard punches to the heart as this unspeakable befouling of the earth continues.

How did we ever let this happen? Why do we allow drilling for oil a mile down in the ocean when we have no effective plan for dealing with potential explosions and oil spills? Are we truly so addicted to oil that we have lost all perspective on what is important? Even a bird knows that its nest mustn't be fouled. Are we not as smart as birds?

The president has reversed himself and announced a moratorium on deep water drilling for the next six months while his commission studies the problem. This president is nothing if not deliberate and he doesn't like to act hastily, but it seems very evident to me that a six month moratorium is not enough. There needs to be a complete and total ban on such drilling until such time that we can be absolutely assured that these oil companies know what they are doing and that they have a feasible, workable plan for handling events like the one we are witnessing now. Furthermore, the laws should be changed to ensure that oil companies will have to pay for every penny of damage that they cause. Even before they begin to drill, they should have to pay a substantial bond that would be utilized to help mitigate any damage that ensues. These companies are the richest corporations in the world. They make money hand over fist every day the sun rises because of our addiction and our obstinate refusal to address the problem - so don't tell me they can't afford it. They can afford it.

And, yes, what about that addiction? Now, of all times, the government should be doing everything it can to enhance and expand the use of alternative sources of energy and to find and develop new types of energy. We need a crash program to ensure that this happens. It won't be easy to get anything through a congress that is bought and sold by the oil industry, but if the administration is tough enough, persistent enough, and especially if it gets the public on its side, now might just be the time to do it. Now, while the earth is bleeding oil into our gulf waters.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's all about guilt

I've been thinking about global climate change deniers because on one of my other blogs, I've been having a conversation with a reader on the subject. This reader is a passionate denier, and anytime I mention a story about climate change on the blog, I can expect to get a comment telling me it is all a load of horse pucky.

Why is it that otherwise intelligent people, who would normally accept overwhelming scientific evidence on a subject, reject such evidence when it comes to climate change? They will argue until the cows come home that it is all a hoax. The scientists are lying to us (but Fox News is telling the truth!) and very few people believe them. And, of course, if a majority of people do not believe that climate change exists, that means it is not true, correct? Truly, the mind boggles.

It is very likely, I would imagine, that a polling agency could find evidence that a majority of people in this country believe the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it. Furthermore, that story about men walking on the moon? They were really on a beach in Florida. Yes, I have no doubt that there are people who hold such opinions.

The thing is, people are entitled to hold any opinion they wish to, no matter how stupid or uninformed it may be. People are not entitled to invent their own facts. And when it comes to climate, the facts very much have a bias in favor of human affected global climate change.

So why do some people have so much trouble accepting these facts? I have a theory, an opinion, you might call it.

I have noticed that global climate change deniers often refer to Al Gore in their sneering denigration of the whole idea that the earth is getting warmer too fast. They seem to truly hate Mr. Gore and anything that they associate with him must be wrong; ergo, since Al Gore has spent most of his adult life trying to warn people about the global warming phenomenon, the whole idea must just be something he thought up and it is a hoax. I believe that their hatred of Mr. Gore, and thus their fevered attempts to prove global warming a hoax, is based in guilt.

Yes, the deniers feel guilty because they know that Mr. Gore won the election for the presidency in 2000. The majority of those who voted in the country in that year voted for him and wanted him to be their president, but a politicized Supreme Court ruled that all votes did not have to be counted and that George W. Bush should be president. And we know how that turned out. The deniers know all of this and even though they will never ever admit it, that is the reason that they refuse to believe the scientists on climate change. Because, you see, Al Gore stands with the scientists and he must be beaten and proven wrong. Otherwise, the whole house of cards that was constructed so carefully beginning with that court decision in 2000 and running through 2008 will all come tumbling down.

That's my opinion anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rampant intellectual dishonesty? Or just politics as usual?

Only ten short years ago the budget of this country was in the black. We had a substantial surplus and things were looking really bright for the future of the country. Then came the selection of a new president by the Supreme Court in 2000 and things began to turn around.

Over the next eight years, through two expensive wars, one of them totally unnecessary, through unfunded drug programs and various other unfunded initiatives, and through tax cuts that allowed the richest people and corporations in the country to pay minimal taxes, all of the surplus was used up and we sank into the red. Way into the red.

Meantime, a refusal to regulate financial institutions, oil and other energy companies was driving the overall economy into a very deep ditch, taking ordinary citizens along for the plunge.

Now that the country has been driven into debt and to the brink of ruin by the policies of that Supreme Court selected president, so-called libertarians and patriots are screaming about the state of the nation and yelling that they want to take the country back. But I wonder, where were their protests when all of this was happening?

I don't remember any noisy demonstrations by today's loud protestors about the state of the economy before Barack Obama took office. In fact, the eight previous years had been marked by their virtually total acquiescence and support for everything the administration was doing. Thus, they were, in fact, complicit in the results achieved by the policies of that administration. And NOW they choose to complain about those results!

Is this just another example of politics as usual, i.e, when your guy is in office everything is wonderful but when the other party's guy is elected he gets blamed for everything bad whether he really had anything to do with it or not? Or do they truly not understand how all of these things came to be?

Put another way, can these people truly be as intellectually dishonest as they seem to be? Yes, I'm very much afraid that they can be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A new love

I've been going to bed with Ian Rankin this week and it has been great fun!

Most readers of mysteries probably are familiar with Rankin and with his detective Inspector Rebus of Edinburgh, but I've only just made his acquaintance, although I've known about him for years, of course. There are around twenty books in the Rebus series. I've finished one and two, Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek. Now I'm reading number three, Tooth and Nail. These books are fast reads and are very hard to put down once you get into the story.

Rebus is an interesting and flawed character. The reader can easily empathize with his weaknesses and cheer him on as he stumbles along trying to solve the latest murder mystery. Part of his attractiveness, I think, comes from his surroundings. Edinburgh is full of history and quirkiness, and Rankin has a way of painting a picture of the city with very spare language. There are no flowery passages. No word is wasted, but one feels the atmosphere of the place, just as one gets the gist of the personality of Rebus.

Edinburgh is the setting of another series that I was reading earlier this year, the Isabel Dalhousie stories by Alexander McCall Smith. Now Smith is a very different kind of writer. You won't find any serial killers in his books, but in the Dalhousie books, too, Edinburgh is almost a character in itself. The action is firmly set in that place and couldn't really happen anywhere else.

So it is with Rebus. Edinburgh is part of him, even if he travels to London or to other places; you can take the detective out of Edinburgh but you can't take Edinburgh out of the detective.

It's always exciting to meet a new character in fiction with which one can feel a connection, and it is always exciting to meet another writer who can give you that connection and that thrill.

And now, if you'll excuse me, Rankin is waiting for me next to my bed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Have you hugged an endangered species today?

How much do you know about endangered species and the Endangered Species Act that protects them?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency primarily responsible for protecting native species in this country. What with invasive species, habitat loss due to development, and changing climate patterns, to mention just three challenges, they've certainly got their hands full. And that doesn't even begin to take into account the ignorance and apathy of the public.

Still, they have had some notable successes and today they are celebrating. Yes, today is Endangered Species Day.

So, how much do you know about endangered species? The USFWS has a quiz to help you find out. Click on this quiz link to answer the questions and find out just how knowledgable you are.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rand Paul, the quintessential tea party candidate

So, Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Kentucky, is ready to fight the good fight to "take our country back." Take our country back from whom, I wonder?

He celebrated his victory in the primary at an exclusive country club where most of his prospective Kentucky constituents would not be welcome. It would appear that he wants to take the country back and give it to the country club set that he "pals around" with, to coin a phrase.

On Rachel Maddow's show last night, he professed to be leery of parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so I guess he wants to take the country back from folks who are covered by those acts. He doesn't think that private business owners, WHO OFFER SERVICES TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC, should be forbidden from discriminating against someone because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, or gender. He also apparently does not believe that businesses, WHO OFFER SERVICES TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC, should have to make provision to provide those services to persons with disabilities. He believes, essentially, that private business owners should be able to run their businesses anyway they want to and to choose whom they will and will not serve. In other words, Jim Crow is okay.

This is not just something that he came up with last night in answer to questions from Maddow. He has expressed such views repeatedly over the years, and apparently they were fairly well known in Kentucky. Of course, a state that elected the wackadoodle Jim Bunning to the Senate might feel that Paul is a worthy successor!

Now that his views have been expressed in the open forum of Maddow's show and have become public fodder for pundits to chew on, certain Republicans are trying to distance themselves from him or to pretend that they haven't heard what he said and so can't comment on it. And now that Paul sees what he has wrought, he's trying to walk back from the blatancy of his oft-expressed opinions. But this quintessential tea party candidate has now revealed his true colors for all to see. If the world of journalism does its job and holds his feet to the fire, it should be very hard for him to repudiate what he has so clearly said.

Well, it COULD happen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Election Day

It was primary day in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Oregon, and an interesting one it was, too.

At this hour, it has been determined that the tea party candidate, Rand Paul, has won the Republican primary for senator of Kentucky. The Democratic race for that office has been much closer with two strong candidates, the current Attorney General and Lt. Governor of the state. At present the Attorney General has a slim lead. Interestingly, both the Attorney General and the Lt. Governor have received more votes than Rand Paul did! I wonder if the mainstream media will mention that. I would guess not.

In Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter found that switching parties was not the golden ticket to continued incumbency that he had thought. Rep. Joe Sestak beat him rather decisively. It will be a tough battle for Sestak in the general election, but he might just pull it off. He's a pretty tough campaigner.

The really interesting race in Pennsylvania was the special election for the seat of Rep. John Murtha who died earlier this year, and, upsetting all the conventional wisdom, the Democrat won! This was the only district in the country that went for Kerry in the presidential election in 2004 and then voted for McCain in 2008, but it is a very conservative district and the Democrat who won there today will be another Blue Dog in Congress. Still, he'll have a D after his name and I do love that he overturned the projections of the pundits by winning.

In Arkansas, it looks like the real Democrat, Bill Halter, has forced a runoff with the faux Democrat, Blanche Lincoln. This should be good!

As for Oregon, well, it's still early there, but there is little in doubt anyway.

All in all, it hasn't been a good day for conventional wisdom. So, I wonder what else the CW pundits will get wrong this election year?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oil? What oil?

So, Brit Hume of Fox News can't see the Gulf oil spill from his window in Washington or New York or wherever it is that he is based and so it must be no big deal.

On Fox News Sunday he said:

There's a good question today if you are standing on the Gulf, and that is: Where is the oil?...It's not on -- except for little of chunks of it, you're not even seeing it on the shore yet.... But you know where the greatest source of oil that seeps into the ocean is? It's from natural seepage from subterreanean deposits. That's where most of it comes from, not from drilling accidents....The ocean absorbs a lot, Juan, an awful lot. The ocean absorbs a lot.


I guess Hume hasn't seen the satellite pictures taken from space of the the oil slicks spreading out over thousands of acres of the ocean. He probably also hasn't seen the pictures of the dead animals washing up on beaches along the Gulf now. But even if he has, why should he pay attention to them? He works for Fox News which means that he gets to make up his own "facts" and report them as news. Thus, BP and their partners in crime can destroy the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico but they can depend on Hume and Fox News to have their back. It's a kneejerk reaction really. Fox executives don't even have to think about it. If the liberals and tree-huggers say it is a bad thing, then, by God, it must be a good thing and they will defend it to their last breath.

Has Fox even sent a reporter to the Gulf region to take a look around? Since I don't watch them, I can't answer that, but I think they should. And I have a candidate to recommend for the job. How about Brit Hume? Send him and his family on an expense accounted trip there and take pictures of them frolicking in the Gulf. It might even benefit the local economy by increasing tourism. After all, it's just a little oil. The ocean will absorb it. No big deal.

And those dead animals washing up on shore? They're probably just faking it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Oh, just turn down the thermostat and forget it!

NASA is out with another report on the climate. Their data on the earth's temperature show that the last 12-month period is the warmest on record. In addition, April 2010 was the hottest April on record and March 2010 was the hottest March on record. Furthermore, taken together, January, February and March this year set records as the hottest of that three-month period on record. NASA now predicts that a new record 12-month global temperature will almost certainly be set in 2010. This has all happened, or is happening, in spite of the "moderate negative effect of the reduced solar irradiance."

So, during this period, there has been reduced solar irradiance which should have meant that the earth would be cooler. Instead, we've recorded the hottest temperatures on record. Gee, I wonder how that could have possibly happened?

But...but, 1998 was cooler. And all those purloined emails from scientists in England - didn't they prove that the data was dodgy and that scientists just made it all up? Besides, there were snowstorms in the Northeast last winter. Doesn't that prove the earth is cooler?

1998 was an anomalous year and only one year. Every year since then has been one of the hottest on record. The purloined emails only proved that scientists are human but did not call into question any of the data. Snowstorms happen in winter. If it starts snowing in the Northeast in July and August, then the deniers might have a case. Or not.

What can we do about this? Just turn down the thermostat and forget it? Shouldn't we be trying to affect the policies of our country to address the monumental problem of climate change and all the related problems that it brings? There is a bill before the Senate now, a far from perfect bill, but then most bills that manage to get brought up in that imperfect body are. Imperfect, but it's a start. Perhaps we can begin with that and build on it.

Meantime, the news media in this country could do us all a favor and do its job by reporting the data from NASA, instead of engaging in the kind of he said/she said polemics that they usually employ. Just the facts, media. Just report the temperature data. Everyone is entitled to form his or her own opinion, but there is only one set of facts. Why don't you report them for a change?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

They do protest too much, methinks

In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Gertrude say in regard to a character in a play, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Like so much else that the Bard wrote, this quote has come to address a particular circumstance in life. When one is guilty of something which he/she does not want known, he/she may strive to give the appearance of being and doing the opposite of that thing. And so the dishonest woman proclaims her honesty - "I would never lie to you!" The thief professes his innocence - "I've never stolen anything in my life!" The false lover vows, "Of course I'll still respect you in the morning!"

We've seen this play so often in recent years that we should be able to write its ending every time. Nowhere is the ending to the play more obvious than in the political arena with those politicians who wrap themselves in the blanket of family values and excoriate anyone who is deviant from what they define as the path of righteousness. And so we get the spectacle of Larry Craig and his "wide stance" in that Minnesota men's room, or Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina giving new meaning to the phrase "hiking the Appalachian Trail", or Sen. John Ensign paying off the cuckolded husband of his lover in order to keep from being exposed, or Ted Haggard railing against homosexuality while secretly carrying on with a male prostitute. Well, the list goes on and on. And now we can add another name - George Rekers. George Rekers and his "rentboy".

George Rekers who was considered by the States of Florida and Arkansas as an expert on "curing homosexuality" and was paid by those states to testify in court on this subject on which he had alleged expertise. He was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars! If I were the people of Florida and Arkansas, I'd be asking for my money back. I'd also be asking some hard questions of the state officials who paid him that money.

But all of these guys and so many others pretend or have pretended to be something they are not. The homosexuals pretend to be heterosexuals. The faithless husbands pretend to be loving family men. And, most despicably, all the while they preach to others about what their proper behavior should be!

One can only surmise that they hate themselves and what they are so much that they feel the necessity of building a wall of protection around themselves. And so they protest too much - "Homosexuality is a sin and I would never ever engage in it." "My wife and family are the most important things in my life." - and all the while they continue engaging in that behavior which they publicly deplore.

These people are pitiable on one level. But they are also thoroughly despicable for the pain they cause others with their self-righteous fulminations. And for that, they deserve to be exposed and made the butt of late night comics' jokes. It seems that Jon Stewart will not be running out of material any time soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Root, root, root for the Astros!

Baseball season lasts from April through September, and, if you are very good, even longer. But even fans of the most mediocre baseball team are guaranteed at least six months with the best outdoor game ever invented that involves a ball.

It's a long season and that's the way it is supposed to be - the way God intended - although, to some of us, the season seems to go by in the blink of any eye. The analogy is often made by sportscasters and writers that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is truth in that. Teams have to play all 162 games and every inning of every game, but even though it doesn't always seem that way, the games that are played in April count just as much as the games that are played in September. The point being that teams that get off to a slow start can find themselves in a hole too deep to climb out of even before a quarter of the season is over.

That's the position that my favorite team, the Astros, find themselves in this year and almost every year. They are notoriously slow starters, but this year the start has been epically slow. Already they have had TWO eight game losing streaks. It is hard to get up much momentum or much enthusiasm from the fans with a record like that.

But this week, something remarkable has happened with the Astros. They went to St. Louis, the home of their nemesis, the Cardinals, and played three good games in a row! THEY SWEPT THE CARDINALS IN THEIR HOME PARK! Let me just repeat that because it feels so good: THEY SWEPT THE CARDINALS IN THEIR HOME PARK! That's the first time they have done such a thing in St. Louis in about six years.

Today, in the final game of the series, our rookie Bud Norris beat their ace Chris Carpenter 4-1. It just doesn't get much better than that, because Carpenter has virtually owned the Astros over the years.

I don't know how many more such days Astros fans will get this season, but this series has at least been a reminder to us that such days are possible, and that rooting for the Astros is not always a lost cause.

And that old adage about how on any day, any given team can beat any other team? It's still true.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elena Kagan = Harriet Miers? Really?

It's funny how one's perspective changes with time and circumstances.

For example, when George Bush nominated Harriet Miers, who had zero judicial experience and little other experience except for being a Bush sycophant, for the Supreme Court back in 2005, our own Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison thought it was a great nomination. Hutchison said Miers was a "wonderful choice" in 2005, but today she "has some concerns over Elena Kagan's lack of judicial experience."

Likewise, Texas' other esteemed senator, John Cornyn, said of the Miers nomination,
"One reason I felt so strongly about Harriet Miers' qualifications is I thought she would fill some very important gaps in the Supreme Court. Because right now you have people who've been federal judges, circuit judges most of their lives, or academicians."

But that was then. This is now. Cornyn says of Kagan, "Ms. Kagan is a surprising choice because she lacks judicial experience. Most Americans believe that prior judicial experience is a necessary credential for a Supreme Court Justice."

It is not only Texas' senators that are afflicted with this wandering point of view. Jeff Sessions of Alabama thought Miers was a peachy keen nominee. "It is not necessary that she have previous experience as a judge in order to serve on the Supreme Court," he said. "It's perfectly acceptable to nominate outstanding lawyers to that position."

But NOW Sessions thinks Kagan warrants close scrutiny because "Ms. Kagan's lack of judicial experience and short time as Solicitor General is troubling."

Similar contradictory statements have come from such people as Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby.

The new meme that has been trotted out by Obama's opponents is that Kagan is his Harriet Miers. That is as thoroughly laughable as these hypocritical senators changing the "values" by which they will judge judicial nominees according to who is in the White House.

Kagan has clerked for two judges, one of them a Supreme Court Justice. She worked as an advisor in the Clinton White House. She has had an honored teaching career and has been Dean of Harvard Law School. She serves now as Solicitor General, for which position she was confirmed by the Senate. She is in no way comparable to Miers who hitched her star to the politician George W. Bush, who she fawned over as "cool", and she never wavered from that position. The only experience Miers had was working for him and, in the end, even Republicans agreed that that was not enough. Her candidacy for the Court was doomed.

I don't know if Kagan is the best candidate for the Supreme Court vacancy or if she will be a Justice of whom we can be proud, but there seems very little doubt that she is qualified for the position. Again, I think that, in the end, even Republicans will agree.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A taxing canard

There is a meme that is perpetuated by every conservative organization, think tank, pundit, and man in the street in this country. That meme states that we are a heavily and unjustly taxed people. That meme is a total falsehood.

In fact, ours is one of the lower taxed countries among western nations.

Any member of the tea party movement, meanwhile, knows and will be glad to tell you in a very loud voice that taxes have been raised since Barack Obama became president. The fact that this, too, is totally false will never stand in the way of a true teabagger rant.

In fact, taxes for most Americans were lowered in 2009. In actuality a USA Today analysis shows that taxes in 2009 were the lowest they had been since 1950 when Harry S. Truman was president. Yes, he was a Democrat, too.

So much for the Republicans' constant harping about how taxes are always higher under a Democratic president.

The USA Today story stated in part:

Federal, state and local taxes — including income, property, sales and other taxes — consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century.


Now that the truth is out, I feel sure that all those tea partiers and Republicans will be retracting their statements about how taxes are higher now than they have ever been and they will be apologizing to President Obama for defaming him and lying about his policies. It is what any honorable person who made such an egregious mistake would do, right?

Oh. Right.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Down with pundits!

The Washington Post asked twelve people what in the world they would like to get rid of. Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the people that they asked, Donna Brazile who is herself a TV pundit, said that we should get rid of pundits. I agree.

As far as I can tell, the only function of the TV pundit is to scream at his/her opposite number. The modus operandi of cable television is to bring on two pundits from opposite ends of the political spectrum and let them yell back and forth at each other, adding heat but no light to the subject. They get extra points if they constantly interrupt the other person and never let him/her finish a thought. In fact, the whole purpose of the pundit is to keep the other person from coherently stating his case. It doesn't matter if the professional pundit doesn't really have a cogent case himself/herself, he/she wins by simply not letting the other person talk. This, then, is what passes for "fair and balanced" journalism in the world of cable news.

Brazile says, in part, "If a single move could restore civility to politics, that is it. Get rid of the left-vs.-right commentators who are just out scoring points for their team. This sort of opinion-mongering is not only boring and predictable, it is destructive of the truth. If your only credentials are "GOP shill" or "Democratic hack," you've no business cluttering up the airwaves or the op-ed pages. My momma always told me that if you don't know what you're talking about, it's best to keep your mouth shut. That's good advice."

That is good advice, but advice that is not often followed in the world of politics.

So who should replace the pundits on cable news shows? Brazile suggests that it should be genuinely knowledgable people, people who have actual experience and expertise in the issues of the day - things like health care reform, the vagaries of the financial system, immigration policies, etc.

Hey, maybe instead of having tea partiers and people like James Inhofe on their shows explaining why climate change isn't happening and that the only energy policy we need is "drill, baby, drill", they could persuade some actual climate scientists to come on and explain the mechanisms of climate and why excess carbon dioxide really is a threat to us all.

It's a great suggestion, Ms. Brazile, but I won't hold my breath for the cable news executives to take you up on it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Evolution 101

"Life will find a way." - Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park


Two stories in the news this week remind us of the power of evolution and the fact that life will fight hard to sustain itself and that, very often, it will "find a way." These stories are all about the ability of species to adapt to new circumstances.

First, Science Daily reports that the mosquito that carries yellow fever has developed a resistance to the widely used insect repellent DEET. They have lost the ability to sense the product and so are not repelled by it. Some scientists are now urging restricted use of this and other repellents so that other species of mosquitoes do not become resistant to them.

Secondly, a story in The New York Times detailed how "superweeds" are becoming resistant to the ubiquitous weed killer, Roundup. This herbicide is the number one chemical used in fighting weeds by farmers and by many gardeners around the country. It is not really surprising that weeds would be trying to find ways to defeat it. In many instances, they have.

The most elementary study of evolutionary biology will teach that species are constantly adapting to changes in their environment and that this ability to adapt is one of the driving forces behind evolution. Of course, a society which rejects the whole idea of evolution and, in many instances, refuses to even have its principles taught in schools might well be ignorant of that fact. But even some of those militantly ignorant must have seen Jurassic Park and must have heard the Jeff Goldblum character's famous quote. Yes, life (i.e. Nature) is powerful and it WILL find a way to sustain itself, even if it means withstanding whatever noxious and deadly chemicals we throw at it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Our brother Neanderthal

For years, conventional wisdom among biologists has been that modern humans and the Neanderthal people evolved along separate branches of the hominid tree and that they did not interbreed. Now a set of researchers has presented evidence that this theory of human evolution was all wrong, that in fact there was interbreeding.

Their research on the Neanderthal genome, about 60 percent of which has been recovered, indicates that 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of modern non-Africans was derived from the Neanderthals. This does not necessarily indicate a strong and consistent blending of the two strains, but it seems certain that there was some at least intermittent intermingling, even though the Neanderthal influence does not seem to have played a significant role in the evolution of modern humans.

Back in the 1980s, writer Jean Auel had something of a literary sensation with her "Earth's Children" series of books. The first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, introduced Ayla, a Cro-Magnon orphan who was adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals and raised by them. Ayla later became pregnant by a rather brutal member of the tribe and produced a son, Durc, who was half Cro-Magnon, half Neanderthal. It seems that Auel's imagined history might not have been so far off the mark after all.

Four other books succeeded The Clan of the Cave Bear and followed Ayla as she grew up and found love among "The Others" as the Neanderthals referred to the Cro-Magnons. Auel is now allegedly working on a sixth novel in the series. The timing seems very fortuitous for the release of such a book. The news from the researchers on the Neanderthal genome would seem to create more interest in the subject and to have the potential to boost sales of the book. I smell another bestseller in the making.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why do Republicans hate America?

They want to abrogate the Constitution in regard to the right to be advised that one does not have to incriminate oneself when questioned by authorities, but can instead remain silent.

They do not believe that people accused of crimes should be advised that they have the right to counsel.

They believe that one's citizenship should be taken away if one ASSOCIATES with the wrong people - not that one has been accused of a crime or has been convicted of a crime, but simply that one has associated with someone that the government doesn't approve of.

They have a low opinion of our police departments and of the FBI, believing them incompetent to protect us against domestic terror threats, even though those agencies have been remarkably successful in interdicting such threats again and again. And again just this last week.

Oh, but God forbid that someone who is suspected of the potential for terrorism and is on a "no fly" list should have their right to purchase an AK-47 taken away! The right to have a gun overrules everything including the right of the public to be safe in their homes and in public places.

And so I ask, why do Republicans hate America and its Constitution, apparently every part of it except that bit about the right to bear arms? Why are they so dead set on turning us into a fascist state?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The light at the end of the oil spill tunnel

Paul Krugman had a column in The Times on Monday with which I totally agree. That's hardly news because I usually agree with his columns - some more than others. He says things that I want to say but he says them so much more intelligently and persuasively. And he has a slightly larger audience than I do. Plus there's that Nobel Prize thing...

But anyway, I thought he made a particularly cogent point about this awful oil spill that is consuming our attention. (It seems that we have little time for the flooding disasters that are happening in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, or the would-be bomber of Times Square because we are mesmerized by the sight of that gigantic oil slick sliding, virtually unimpeded so far, toward our coast.) And now that our attention is focused, let us hope that people who are concerned about the environment and who are concerned about the efficacy and safety of offshore drilling can make their points to the public. It seems that the public might finally be ready to listen now that the "Drill, baby, drill!" crowd has suddenly gone silent.

And that was at the heart of what Krugman was saying in his column. The impetus for the growth of the environmental movement back in the late '60s and early '70s was a series of ecological disasters - oil spills, the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, Lake Erie "dying"; the list went on and on. People finally became sufficiently outraged to get off their butts and try to do something about it. And it worked. Much has been accomplished in the last 40-50 years. The Cuyahoga River was cleaned up; Lake Erie did not die; restraints were put on oil-drilling and it was banned in some places, such as offshore in sensitive areas; the air in Los Angeles is cleaner today, and so on. Perhaps people have become complacent because of these accomplishments.

Then the president announces that he's okay with some offshore drilling in order to try to get some Republicans to support a climate bill. Next thing you know this rig blows and we've got oil gushing into the Gulf.

Will this re-energize the environmental movement and gain it some new adherents? One can only hope so. The environment needs all the friends and allies it can get. A re-energized and vigilant environmental movement would be a bright light at the end of this terrible tunnel. But what a price to pay for it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The great oil spill

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

Our regular weekly roundup of news of birds and the environment is this week completely dominated by one story: The explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf and the subsequent gigantic and potentially disastrous oil spill.

As thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush from the area of the rig every single day that the leak goes unstopped, the possibility of a true environmental catastrophe along the Gulf Coast grows hourly. Even now the first of the oil has reached the coastal areas and the first oil-soaked bird, a young Northern Gannet, has been found and is being cleaned by volunteers.

There are several national parks and wildlife refuges that are in the path of the spill which could threaten the coastlines of four states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Among them is the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, where mated pairs of cranes have just hatched their babies in April. These hatchlings would be particularly vulnerable.

In fact, all along the Gulf Coast just now, beach-nesting terns, gulls, and shorebirds have active nests, are incubating eggs, or have just hatched their young. This is the height of the nesting season and that is what makes this oil spill so potentially devastating. Of course, it would be devastating not just for birds but for other wildlife that raise their young along the coastline as well. Wildlife officials have estimated that up to 400 species of animals could be affected. The timing could hardly be worse.

The National Audubon Society has released a list of the birds which it fears will be imperiled by the oil spill. This includes many shorebirds and wading birds that will be familiar to birders of the Texas Coast, but topping the list is the Brown Pelican.






Brown Pelican swimming in Aransas Bay.






The Brown Pelican was on the Endangered Species list for many years and was only removed from that list late last year, after a remarkable comeback. The species, however, is still very vulnerable to storms and habitat loss and would be especially susceptible to the effects of this oil spill. They nest on barrier islands and feed - by diving into the water - near the shore. Their breeding season has just begun and many pairs are incubating eggs. The pelicans have a low reproductive rate anyway, and loss of a large number of eggs and young could have serious effects on the population.

Unfortunately, it isn't only shorebirds, wading birds, and water birds that could be affected by this gigantic spill. Migratory songbirds, some of them our favorite backyard birds, also could suffer from it. Many of these colorful birds, such as orioles, warblers, tanagers and buntings, fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico at this time of year. This is a grueling journey which taxes the birds to their physical limits. They depend on clear skies and healthy habitats on both sides of the gulf in order to survive the journey. The air pollution from the cleanup efforts, if not the oil itself, poses a threat to them - one more obstacle just when they are nearing exhaustion from their flight.

This disaster in the making reminds us of some of the hazards of offshore drilling and gives the lie to industry claims about the safety of such drilling. It should make the president and everyone else in the government who has responsiblity in this area think twice and perhaps thrice before they agree to open up the coastlines near sensitive barrier islands and other such areas for more drilling.

As Audubon Legislative Director Mike Daulton said in a statement this week, "It is unfortunate that it takes a potential disaster to remind the nation of the risks involved with our addiction to oil. This spill would give anyone pause regarding the pursuit of risky drilling in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. For the long term, we need to move as quickly as possible from the addiction to fossil fuels to the promise of clean, renewable energy."

To that I can only add, "Amen!"