Friday, December 31, 2010

Happier New Year!

Let's face it: 2010 was pretty much a downer of a year. From the earthquake in Haiti at the beginning of the year to the earthquake in our domestic politics at the end, the year just didn't have a lot to recommend it. And looking ahead to 2011, one can't muster any optimism that the new year is going to get much better.

Still, time and events have a capacity for surprising us and of working out in highly unexpected ways. As we stand on the cusp of this new year, perhaps we would do well to remember the Desiderata and its assurance that whether or not it is clear to us, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should...

DESIDERATA
-written by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.


With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy
.


May we remember to look for the beauty in the world in 2011 and may we strive to protect and preserve that beauty. Here's to a happier New Year for us all.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reality shrugged

The intellectual hero of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is Rep. Paul Ryan. He is hailed by the Washington media as a Very Serious Person, someone who thinks long and deeply about all things related to the national debt. He is said to have a Plan for reducing the deficit and putting the government back in the black.

His Plan involves reducing Social Security benefits, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, repealing the Health Care Reform Act, in short, stripping away what meager social safety net is left to the vast majority of Americans who do not make over $200,000 a year and who do not have golden parachutes to see them through their old age. He would then give additional tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. This then is what passes for Very Serious Thinking, for Intellectualism, among our national media and within today's Republican Party.

It was with some bemusement that I read the other day that Ryan's intellectual hero and muse is Ayn Rand and that he requires all his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, Rand's final novel about a dystopic America in which the profit motive is the ultimate good, the ultimate salvation of society. That explains a lot I guess.

Ryan's devotion to Rand and her ideas brought to mind a quote that I first read in Paul Krugman's blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal", but the source of the quote seems to be Kung Fu Monkey.
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
Paul Ryan and his ilk, it seems to me, are living a childish fantasy that has engendered a lifelong obsession with unbelievable characters like John Galt, leaving them emotionally stunted, lacking in compassion or empathy for real people, and unable to deal with the real world. And these are the people who will be leading the House of Representatives for the next two years. God help us.

Would that Ryan had instead fallen in love with Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and Gandalf. At least he would have learned the meaning of friendship and self-sacrifice and working together for the common good. As it is, when faced with the reality of Ryan and his profit motive philosophy in power for two years, one can only...shrug.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Falls by Ian Rankin: A review

One of my reading projects for the year has been to read the Inspector Rebus series. Ian Rankin first introduced his popular detective to us back in 1987, but I came to know him long after that.

I didn't complete all the Rebus books this year, but that just gives me something to look forward to in 2011. The Falls is number 12 in the series which runs through 17 books.

Rankin was always a good writer right from the beginning, but over the years he has just gotten better and better. His John Rebus is a fully fleshed-out character, someone we know and empathize with, if not admire. His is a dark and moody soul that seems right at home in Edinburgh, as it would be perhaps nowhere else.

The starting point of the mystery in The Falls is the disappearance of a student, one Phillipa Balfour, the privileged daughter of a prominent banker. At the beginning, there are no real clues to the disappearance and the Lothian and Borders police must dig deep to try to find some scrap of information which may lead them to a resolution of the case. Rebus is not alone on the force in sensing almost immediately that the girl is dead, but where? How? And, most of all, why?

In combing records of past crimes, Rebus begins to see patterns and wonders if perhaps a serial killer is at work. His colleague and friend, Siobhan Clarke, uncovers evidence that Phillipa was playing an Internet game, run by someone called Quizmaster, at the time of her disappearance. Could those two events be related?

Siobhan signs on and contacts Quizmaster who begins sending her clues for the same game, the same scavenger hunt that may have brought Phillipa to her death. Because she is dead, as if there were ever any doubt. Her body is eventually found. She's been strangled and now it is a murder case. It's the kind of convoluted case, with red herrings smelling up the joint, at which John Rebus excels. He is an intuitive copper and amid all the misdirections, he once again manages to intuit his way to the right conclusion.

One thing I've learned in reading twelve of these Rebus books, they are addictive. You can't read just one. Finishing one leaves the reader itching to get on to the next one, and why should I deny myself?

So I plan to close out the year with Rebus and Resurrection Men, lucky number thirteen in the series.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Global warming is causing four foot snow drifts!

Much of the East Coast is struggling to dig out from under four foot snow drifts. Much of Northern Europe, too, has been stopped in its tracks by giant storms and in some areas people have died as a result of the cold weather.

At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization has just released a report showing that 2010 will be among the three warmest years on record - possibly the warmest on record. Moreover, the decade ending with 2010 will be the warmest decade on record.

How does one resolve the seeming dichotomy between the fact of four foot snow drifts and the fact that the world will be setting a record for heat this year? According to Judah Cohen, writing today in The New York Times, it is all due to the topography of Asia.

The high topography of Asia influences the atmosphere in profound ways. The jet stream, a river of fast-flowing air five to seven miles above sea level, bends around Asia’s mountains in a wavelike pattern, much as water in a stream flows around a rock or boulder. The energy from these atmospheric waves, like the energy from a sound wave, propagates both horizontally and vertically.

As global temperatures have warmed and as Arctic sea ice has melted over the past two and a half decades, more moisture has become available to fall as snow over the continents. So the snow cover across Siberia in the fall has steadily increased.

The sun’s energy reflects off the bright white snow and escapes back out to space. As a result, the temperature cools. When snow cover is more abundant in Siberia, it creates an unusually large dome of cold air next to the mountains, and this amplifies the standing waves in the atmosphere, just as a bigger rock in a stream increases the size of the waves of water flowing by.

The increased wave energy in the air spreads both horizontally, around the Northern Hemisphere, and vertically, up into the stratosphere and down toward the earth’s surface. In response, the jet stream, instead of flowing predominantly west to east as usual, meanders more north and south. In winter, this change in flow sends warm air north from the subtropical oceans into Alaska and Greenland, but it also pushes cold air south from the Arctic on the east side of the Rockies. Meanwhile, across Eurasia, cold air from Siberia spills south into East Asia and even southwestward into Europe.


And so we get the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsing under the weight of snow, people dying in Poland due to subzero temperatures, and New York shut down for days because of four foot snow drifts. Even here along the humid Gulf Coast, we are not totally immune. We had our first frosts in November, almost three weeks ahead of schedule this year.

But all of this cold weather is not a contradiction of global warming. It is, in fact, confirmation of it. If we don't begin to take steps to walk back our human influence on the climate, we can expect to experience even more severe extremes in weather - both hot and cold - in the future.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Good Samaritan and the Red-tailed Hawk


The magnificent Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawks have a claim on our imagination. They are so majestic in appearance, so cool, so...Zen. Some of them have become quite famous. Pale Male, the 5th Avenue, New York City bird, for example, has his own website and Twitter account and a host of followers and fans, as the authorities found to their chagrin when they tried to move him and his mate a few years ago. The birds' nest on the side of an apartment building at a posh address on 5th Avenue was causing a mess so the owners of the building had it taken down. That resulted in a series of noisy protests and an international outcry. Those quirky New Yorkers, it seems, preferred the mess and their birds. In the end, they got them back. The Red-tails and their fans were triumphant.

Another Red-tailed Hawk found recently near Monroe, New York does not have Pale Male's notoriety or fan base. She doesn't even have a name, although if someone wanted to give her an appropriate one it might be "Lucky".

Just before Thanksgiving, this bird was found by a motorist on Route 17M near Monroe. She was sitting on a dead rabbit on the white line of the road. The motorist, fearing that she would be hit by a car, stopped to try to move her off the road. When he approached and the bird did not move and would not let go of the rabbit even when he tried to move her, he realized that something was wrong. She appeared old and possibly injured. It may be that this was her first meal in a while. She was not going to give it up.

The motorist managed to get the bird into the back of his van where she perched on a mop handle. He took her to Sterling Forest State Park but when a worker tried to transport her in a banker's box, she escaped. She was picked up again the next day on Route 17M and taken to Bear Mountain Zoo and then to a wild-bird rehabilitator in Garrison, New York. When she was finally able to be examined, it was discovered that she had a hairline wing fracture. But the real story was in that aluminum ring she carried around her leg.

You see, this bird had been banded when she was 6 or 7 months old - back in 1983! She was 27 years and about 9 months old when she was recovered, which makes her the oldest Red-tailed Hawk ever found in the wild.

Red-tailed Hawks live lives filled with danger. More than 60 percent do not survive their first year. The ones that do will do well to live half as long as the Monroe bird. She has lived long and prospered for more than 27 years on her own and when at last she needed help, she was fortunate enough to be found by a Good Samaritan who did not just swerve past her on the road with eyes trained on his route ahead. He actually stopped and took the time to investigate and to transport her to where she could get the help she needed.

Today, this lucky bird is at The Raptor Trust in northern New Jersey and she is on the mend. If she fully recovers and is able to fly, she will be released to the wild again in the spring, to soar free once more.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard: A review

Djibouti, Elmore Leonard's latest, may be unique in his oeuvre in that its main characters apparently do not have any criminal history. They are identifiable Leonard characters though with their super-cool, super-smart personas and their dropping of pronouns in their conversations.

Much of the first half of this book is taken up with conversations betweeen those two characters, Dara Barr, a 30-something award-winning documentary film maker and her right-hand man, six-foot-six, 72-year-old Xavier LeBo, able seaman, cameraman, schlepper and somewhat of a sexual athlete as written by the 85 year-old Leonard. Hmmm...

Dara and Xavier are from New Orleans and they met there in the aftermath of Katrina while Dara was filming a documentary of the catastrophe. That film won an Academy Award for them. Now Dara is interested in filming the modern-day pirates of Somalia, and Xavier, with his seafaring experience and all-round super cool, is just the man to help her.

The long expository conversations in the first part of the book take place after they have shot the action in and around Djibouti and they are looking at it on Dara's laptop and deciding how to edit it and whether it should be another documentary or a full-length feature film. Frankly, the book drags a bit during these parts, but finally, as we meet the characters in Djibouti, the action begins to pick up.

There's the successful pirate who tools around Djibouti in a Mercedes and may or may not be a good guy. Dara wants him to be a good guy.

There's the Texas billionaire, Billy Wynn, who is sailing around the world with a red-haired fashion model named Helene who is auditioning to be his wife. Billy has a gun fetish - the bigger the gun the better - and he dearly wants to blow something up.

Finally, there is Jama Raisul, formerly James Russell of the United State, an African-American who converted to Islam while in prison and who is now one of al Qaeda's operatives with a promising future. He, too, has vowed to blow something up. Something big.

How Dara and Xavier step into the middle of this combustible situation, film it and manage to (Spoiler alert!) get out alive, makes for a fast-moving typical Leonard story, once we get all of that annoying conversation out of the way.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haley Barbour steps in it again

Forward-thinking Mississippians (yes, there are some) must cringe everytime their obnoxioua governor steps before a camera or submits to an interview. Even as a former Mississippian who hasn't lived in the state in more than thirty-five years, I know that I cringe.

He is, in fact, one of the truly cringe-worthy governors in the country, right up there with Jan Brewer of Arizona and Texas' own Rick Perry. And now he's gone and done it again.

In an interview with The Weekly Standard, he opined that he didn't remember the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi, or specifically in his home town of Yazoo City, as being all that bad. He recollected the transistion from segregation to integration as being rather peaceful! This will, of course, be news to the families of Mississippi martyrs to that cause like Medgar Evers and James Chaney, not to mention all the people who were beaten and brutalized by police and by the Ku Klux Klan in that era. But all that passed right over Barbour's head. He was oblivious. The only things he was interested in were football and girls. For anyone with an interest in national public office, which apparently Barbour has, this was a remarkably obtuse statement.

As soon as the interview was published and his words hit the fan, spreading the stink far and wide, Barbour and his spokesmen started trying to walk his ignorant statements back. He's still issuing clarifications saying that he didn't really mean that the White Citizens Council was a worthy organization that helped to keep the peace in Mississippi. He now says that the organization is indefensible, "just like segregation."

This is standard operational procedure for politicians caught with their feet in their mouths. The usual line is, "My statement was taken out of context" or "I was misunderstood," sometimes followed shortly thereafter by "I want to spend more time with my family."

Barbour, though, was not taken out of context. Indeed, he has made similar jar-dropping (to anyone who lived through those years in Mississippi) statements in the past. I believe his statement to the Standard represents his true feelings about the subject and is indicative of his very selective memory.

Selective memory seems to be an epidemic in the South these days. For example, we have several southern states, perhaps most notably South Carolina, celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War without any reference to the prime cause of that war, which was the southern states' refusal to give up their "way of life", i.e. slavery.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. We need to look at history with clear eyes and to demand the truth from those in power who speak about it. A good place to start would be for journalists who interview such people to do their due diligence and to hold their interviewees accountable. To, in short, not let them get away with lies. I know that I am being naive in even suggesting such a thing and I fear that our country will, in fact, be doomed to repeat its repressive history, as it descends ever farther to the status of a banana republic.

(Update: For a more in-depth discussion of this subject, read "What Haley Barbour's amnesia tells us" in Salon.com.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The waxwings are here!

While working in my backyard this afternoon, I heard a familiar sound and looked up at the sycamore tree just in time to see a flock of perhaps twenty Cedar Waxwings take flight. Yes, one of my favorite winter birds is back in town and had dropped in to announce its arrival. Just in time for the Winter Solstice and just in time for Christmas. What a lovely Christmas present!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I cannot like Julian Assange

The liberal blogosphere and various liberal commentators (see Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann) hail Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy, as a hero who is just doing what a good journalist would do - if there were any good journalists left. They excoriate the judicial system of Sweden for insisting that Assange must face the charges of rape that have been lodged against him by two women. The charges are all political, they cry. I doubt it.

I don't think women are generally thinking in a political way when they charge a man with rape and I see no reason to believe that Assange's accusers were. So what were the Swedish authorities to do? Ignore the complaints? Sweep it all under the rug? It's what happens in all too many countries of the world today with crimes against women and I'm very much afraid that it happens all too often in this country. But not, apparently, in Sweden.

So Keith Olbermann has been in high dudgeon all week railing and fulminating, as he is wont to do on his Countdown program, about the injustice of Assange being locked up. He's had his good buddy Michael Moore on a few times so that they can fulminate and sigh loudly together. My personal instinct, although I can't prove it, is that there is more than a little misogyny in their rantings. This, I admit, is fueled by my memory of how Olbermann treated the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in such a contemptuous and condescending manner back in 2008 when he was madly in love with Barack Obama and Obama could do no wrong. (Of course, now, to hear him tell it, Obama can do no right!)

Olbermann tweeted incessantly about the Assange case until he started getting pushback from advocates for rape victims. Then all of a sudden we hear that he is suspending his Twitter account until "the frenzy" dies down! Yep, he can dish it out but he can't take it.

Meanwhile, his partner in fulmination, Michael Moore, continues to produce heated pieces for sites like Huffington Post insisting that the rape charges are all a conspiracy run by the U.S. government to silence Wikileaks. Does he have proof of this? Not so that I can see. It's just one of those things that "everyone (i.e., all liberals) knows." Well, I'm a liberal and I don't know that at all.

Frankly, I cannot like Julian Assange. He seems a bit of a narcissistic jerk to me. (In fact, I could say the same thing of Olbermann and Moore.) As for the Wikileaks leaks, perhaps I am just dense, but I can't see that much good has been accomplished by them and perhaps relations between some countries have been damaged by them, for no good reason. There are times when leaks are an appropriate response to government actions (See the Pentagon Papers) but these Wikileakers seem to leak simply because they can. I cannot see any moral purpose being served by their actions.

The leaks, of course, are a separate issue from the rape charges, however much Assange and his rabid (mostly male) supporters seek to conflate and confuse them. Even if one supports his actions in leaking government documents and believes him to be a hero for that, one should insist that he face the charges of rape that have been lodged against him and, if they are found to be true, that justice be served on him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Watching Fox News rots your brain

I've long suspected it and now there is some independent proof: Watching Fox News rots your brain.

The University of Maryland has conducted a study of consumers of news from various sources and they found that by a rather overwhelming percentage, the viewers of Fox News were the most ill-informed group that they surveyed. They polled their survey participants on a wide range of topics and found that Fox viewers were most likely to believe things that were demonstrably untrue.

Overall, 90% of respondents, consumers from all sources of news, said they felt they had heard false information being given to them during the 2010 election campaign. However, while consumers of just about every news outlet believed some information that was false, the study found that Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to believe that:

--Most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)

--Most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points more likely)

--The economy is getting worse (26 points more likely)

--Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points more likely)

--The stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points more likely)

--Their own income taxes have gone up (14 points more likely)

--The auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points more likely)

--When TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points more likely)

--And that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points more likely)


All of these statements are false on their face. They are provably false. Incontrovertibly false, based on facts that are readily available to anyone who takes the time and trouble to look. But, of course, some people do not believe in facts. They assert their alternate reality as the "true facts". Such people are called Fox viewers.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the study not only found that viewing Fox led to believing outright lies to be facts, but increased viewership of Fox News led to increased belief in these false stories. Like I said, it rots your brain.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The owl prowl and other nighttime adventures

Do you live in an area where there are owls? Barred Owls. Eastern Screech Owls. Great Horned Owls. At this time of year, these birds can be especially active and especially noisy. Particularly those Barred Owls. I can remember well lying in my bed on December nights as a child and listening to two or more of the birds carrying on a loud conversation in the trees outside my window. It certainly sounded like more than two. It sounded like a whole convention of the birds, but it may have been only one amorous pair.

If there are owls in your area, you might want to step outside well after dark on one of these clear, cold nights and listen for a few minutes. If you are lucky, you will hear the distinctive call of a Barred Owl - hoo hoo ho-ho, hoo hoo ho-hooooooaawr, which is usually rendered as "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?" It is perhaps not surprising that this bird should speak with a Southern accent since it is the quintessential bird of Southern swamps.

I can't say that I've heard a Barred Owl recently, but I did see one a few days ago very late in the afternoon on a gloomy day. It was in low flight over a field, quartering it, searching for its supper.

Prowling for owls on these crisp clear nights is only one of many activities to engage the interest of Nature lovers this December. Did you know, for example, that we are currently in the middle of one of the best meteor showers of the year? The Geminid meteors come from the constellation Gemini and if you head outside after 9 PM and look a little north of due east, you might be able to see them for a few more nights. Tonight, in fact, is the peak of their activity when there should be 50 to 80 meteors per hour racing across the sky.

Not interested in meteors? Perhaps a lunar eclipse might be more to your liking. One week from tonight, on December 21, which is coincidentally Winter Solstice, there will be a total lunar eclipse which will be visible across the country. You will have to stay up late because the eclipse will not start to be noticeable until around midnight Central Time, with the total eclipse beginning around 1:41 AM. But it is a rare and magnificent show, worth losing a little sleep over.

Even if you can't keep your eyes open for the eclipse, you can still see something beautiful in the December night skies - Jupiter. Jupiter is that brightest wanderer that is near the moon now in its nightly journey across the sky. It is not quite as grand a sight now as it was about a week ago before the moon got so big and bright and began to outshine it, but it is still a wondrous heavenly object, especially in combination with the moon. With powerful binoculars or a small telescope, you might even be able to see Jupiter's moons as they circle the giant planet.

Owls, meteors, eclipses, close encounters with giant planets, December has it all. All we have to do is go outside and open our eyes and ears. Nature will put on a show for us.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron by Stephanie Barron: A review

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron is the latest in the Jane Austen pastiche series by Stephanie Barron, in which Jane appears as the solver of mysteries. The series and this book are great fun to read.

Any fan of Austen's writing will immediately feel at home in one of these books. Barron does a creditable job of imitating Austen's style of writing, even using the unique turns of phrase that often appear in Austen's books to convince us that these are, in fact, memoirs written by the Great Jane.

This is the 10th book in the series, not my favorite of the lot but still an extremely entertaining read.

As the book opens, we find Jane about to lose her beloved sister-in-law Eliza to breast cancer. Her brother Henry summons Jane to Eliza's bedside where she remains until the end. She then perceives that she and her bereaved brother are in need of a holiday to restore their spirits. Off they go to the glittering resort of Brighton which proves to be not very restful at all.

Also in residence at Brighton is the "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" Lord Byron. Jane and Henry soon learn first hand that His Lordship's reputation as a seducer of women is no fable, as they must rescue a young girl of fifteen years from his grasp. A few days later this young girl's body is found after having been drowned, sewn into a sack and left on what had been the bed of Lord Byron at an inn in Brighton. Has Byron killed the object of his lust or does someone hate him enough to want to make it seem so?

Soon Jane encounters Desdemona, the niece of her own lost love, Lord Harold, the man she refers to as the Gentleman Rogue, and together, the two women, with the help of Henry and Desdemona's husband, set out to find the truth about who killed the young woman. Public opinion and the powers that be have already decided that Byron is the culprit, but Jane doubts that he is capable of murder. Will she be able to prove it before the poet meets the hangman?

Stephanie Barron does a masterful job of recreating the social milieu and atmosphere of early 19th century England and she constructs mysteries that are lively and believable. The reader sinks into the story and can easily feel herself slipping back to that time. This series should certainly entertain any lover of Austen, or, for that matter, any lover of mysteries.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fiddling while the earth burns

The United Nations conference on climate change that was held in Cancun this week was able to close out with some face-saving modest agreements, but on the whole, it seems that very little was accomplished.

While some of Earth's nations have gotten serious about tackling the issue of climate change, the United States is still lagging behind. One would have hoped that once the climate change denying Bush was gone from office some progress might have been made, but it has proved difficult because of the intransigence of the Senate which must approve any treaties. The Senate, as it has proved on this issue as well as many others over the last couple of years, is currently a hamstrung, non-functioning government entity. As long as addressing climate change depends on these people, we can expect the earth to continue to burn while they dither.

Meantime, 2010 is on track to be one of the hottest years on record and the past decade is the hottest decade on record. But don't let that light a fire under YOU, members of the Senate! After all, we mustn't be hasty.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The merry band of haters marches on

Brace yourself. The execrable Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are planning a new outrage.

Not satisfied with disrupting the funerals of military personnel with their hate-filled signs and slogans, they are now planning to use their tactics to crash the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards on Saturday. Edwards died earlier this week after a long and valiant battle with breast cancer.

The "Christians" of Westboro Baptist plan to display signs saying "Thank God for breast cancer" and similar slogans. They will be shouting sentiments such as "Elizabeth Edwards is in hell" and just generally doing their best to make this miserable day for her children, family and friends even more miserable. Those who cared for Edwards are now working to organize a counter-protest that will keep these people as far away from the mourners as possible, as has been done recently in other places where Phelps' band has appeared.

I can't begin to fathom what motivates people like this, other than the desire for notoriety, but I must admit I take some comfort in the fact that they, too, one day will die. Perhaps some of them will even die of cancer. I wonder if, as they lie dying, they will remember and reflect upon the time when they carried a sign reading, "Thank God for breast cancer."

I am willing to bet that, in fact, Elizabeth Edwards is not in hell. I suspect that the Westboro crew will some day learn that first hand.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith for years. When I reached the end of the Precious Ramotswe series (at least temporarily) last year, I decided to give his Isabel Dalhousie series a try. This series is set in Edinburgh, an attractive venue, and, appropriately enough for that place, Isabel is a philosopher who edits a small philosophy magazine. This is the fifth book in the series.

In this entry, Isabel, the philosopher, explores the meaning of chance and the role and effect of guilt and jealousy in human lives. Chance, of course, is a constant which we all deal with, as are, to a greater or lesser extent, guilt and jealousy.

Guilt, in this instant, comes into the equation when Isabel is asked to look into a situation in which a doctor has been accused of negligence in a drug test that eventually led to the death of a man. She explores and comes to feel that the man is innocent and that there should be some way to repair the damage that has been done to him. Then she meets with the man and all her theories are exploded.

Jealousy is a very unbecoming trait, one that Isabel wrestles with throughout this book. She is jealous and insecure about her lover, Jamie, who is also the father of her child. He is several years younger than she and Isabel feels instinctively that their relationship is doomed as they grow older. She sees rivals for his affections at every turn - both male and female - and she responds by manufacturing crises in her own mind.

In fact, all of the crises in this book are of Isabel's own manufacturing and, frankly, Isabel is a bit of a bore. All the action is inside her head and nothing ever really happens to her. She constantly reminds us, as we are privy to her thoughts, that she is very, very rich and nothing can actually touch her.

Everytime I read a book in this series, I am always irritated by this - the inaction and the self-satisfied smugness of the main character - but then time goes by and I think to myself, "I wonder what Isabel Dalhousie is up to. Maybe I'll read another of those books and give her another chance." It's just possible that "chance" could change things and that all will be different this time. But it never is.

I won't deny that these are pleasant enough reads. Smith is a good writer. I just wish his main character were a bit more dynamic and appealing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Better to be his enemy than his friend

I remember during the presidential primaries of 2008 hearing some commentator on radio or television - I don't remember which or who - repeating something that had been told to him by a person who knew Barack Obama in Illinois. The person had said that it was "better to be Barack's enemy than his friend." The commentator explained that what was meant was that Obama would do anything to placate his enemies while ignoring his friends. "That's a very odd thing to say," I thought, but after watching him as president for two years, it is all too clear that that Illinoian knew him very well.

So Obama has his tax compromise and his enemies who will do anything to destroy him, the Republicans, are ecstatic. His friends are seething. Though he says otherwise, I'm not so sure that this "compromise" was not what he wanted all along. He has shown little inclination to get the rich to pay their fair share during his tenure as president. From Wall Street to Health Care Reform to the tax compromise, he has been very timid in his handling of them.

And where does this leave us?

It leaves us, in short, with the only thing standing between us and a budget-busting, deficit-increasing tax cut for the rich being the demoralized, overlooked, unconsulted friends of Obama, the Democrats in the Senate and especially in the House. As I predicted here a few days ago, that really means Nancy Pelosi. If she can hold the line and keep her caucus together, this bill will not pass. But she is up against the combined forces of the Republicans, her president, and some Blue Dog Democrats and none of them wish her well.

Still, I would not bet against her. She has more balls than anybody else in Washington. With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Backyard Birder report

This is one of the best times of the year for backyard birders in Southeast Texas. The permanent resident birds are settling in for the winter. The wild food is beginning to get scarce and they are turning to our birdfeeders more and more often. At the same time, winter birds are continuing to pour into the area. The flight song of the American Goldfinch is constant background noise when I'm in my yard these days, as is the chittering call note of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the "chipping" of the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Any day now they will be joined by one of my favorite winter birds, the Cedar Waxwings.

With this changing cast of visitors, I never know what to expect when I step outside every day, but this morning's tableau was a definite surprise. As I stepped from my back patio to the backyard, a fox squirrel jumped from the nearby sycamore tree to one of the apple tree's limbs, which made me look up just in time to see a big hawk - one of the Buteos - make a flying swipe at the squirrel. My presence may have caused the hawk's aim to err a bit, because he missed and the squirrel lived to scold me another day.

I turned and watched the hawk fly across my yard and my next door neighbor's yard and then land in a tree in the next yard. Unfortunately, I didn't have my binoculars so was unable to get a really good look, but I was able to notice a couple of things. First, that, as I said, it was a big hawk, at least the size of the Red-tailed Hawks that I see just about every day now. It had long, broad wings and as it flew and then as it landed in the tree, I could plainly see that the base of its tail (viewed from the top) was white. My immediate reaction was, "Rough-legged Hawk!"

Now, I've never seen a Rough-legged Hawk in my yard, and, truthfully, I didn't get a clear enough look at the bird to say for sure that that was what it was, but that was certainly my first impression on seeing it and first impressions should not be disregarded. Rough-leggeds do wander through the area on migration, so it is possible that this is what it was, although I can't confirm it.

As I walked on into my yard, I heard a noisy bluebird conversation and look in its direction to see four Eastern Bluebirds gathered around the bluebird box that had hosted a pair and their two broods this year. I ran for my camera to try to record the event. I wanted to get all four in one shot, but the birds were uncooperative.


The best I could do was to document a female bird who landed on the box and proceeded to give it the once-over.


There are few prettier birds than the female bluebird with her stonewashed blues, rusty reds and bright whites. The male of the species is more brightly colored, but, for my money, the female is every bit as attractive.


Yep, I think she's definitely interested!

Here's a tip for those of you who might like to host a bluebird family in your yard next year: Now's the time to get your bluebird box installed. These birds scope out possible nesting sites during the winter and so spring may be too late to put up a box to attract a pair of the dazzling beauties.

The bluebirds finished their inspection and flew away and I continued on my way to the metal cans that hold birdseed by the back fence. I scooped some into my bucket and went to fill the feeders. Then I settled down in a chair to watch. But all was quiet.

Perhaps the birds had been spooked by the hawk/squirrel incident, or more likely the Sharp-shinned Hawk that has been hanging around my yard lately was there, somewhere out of my sight but known to the birds. They always seem to know when one of the bird hawks is around, but, of course, their lives depend on that knowledge.

Finally, one brave Tufted Titmouse landed in the hedge along the back fence.


He looked carefully to make sure the coast was clear.


He flew down to the blueberry bush just behind the feeders and sat there for a while before he dashed in and grabbed a seed from the feeder and flew away to a nearby tree to enjoy it.

The other birds were still a long time in returning to the feeders and I had to go back inside, so I missed the rest of the action. But whenever I go outside again, I can always be sure that something interesting will be happening.

(For more action from my backyard, visit my birding blog called, oddly enough, Backyard Birder.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I'm disgusted!

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the bill that would give 100% of American taxpayers an extension of the tax rates presently in place, up to a limit of $250,000 in earnings. The House did not extend the ADDITIONAL tax break that those who earn more than $250,000 now get and have gotten for the last ten years - one of the big reasons for our current astronomical deficit.

Today, the Senate voted on the same measure and they voted 53-36 in favor of it! So...it passed, right? Right?

Honestly, only a fool would believe that, for in the U.S. Senate, the majority does not rule. The minority does. In order to get virtually anything passed, the bill has to get 60 "aye" votes, a 3/5 majority. Yes, only in the U.S. Senate and places like Myanmar is a majority not really a majority.

So, what happens now? No doubt, the Senate will come up with a "compromise" proposal, which in reality means that they will approve the Republicans demand to extend the additional tax cuts to their wealthy supporters. There will have to be a conference committee between the House and Senate to come up with the final version. Unless Nancy Pelosi can hold firm, the final bill will look exactly like the Rebpublicans want it to look. And to hold firm, Pelosi will have to fight the Republicans, many of the Senate Democrats and most likely her own President. The "Incredible Shrinking President" as Paul Krugman has called him. It seems very likely that Obama will cave in and accept the Republican plan on this as he has on so much else, including Health Care Reform. (It won't do him any good though. They still won't be his BFF.)

It should never have come to this, and with any kind of strong leadership from the White House, it wouldn't have. I'm disgusted.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The rich must not suffer!

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition and one of the hosts was interviewing a Republican congressman. I don't even know which one it was, but it really doesn't make any difference. They all speak from the same script and say exactly the same thing. Exactly! If the word of the day is "uncertainity", you can count on every Republican to use it at least fifteen times in any conversation or interview with the press throughout the day.

Anyway, the interviewer was asking the man about his vote against the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. He mentioned that virtually every economist - except possibly ones employed by the Republican Party or Fox News - states unequivocally that one of the most stimulative things that you can do for the economy is to provide unemployment benefits, because the recipients of those benefits are certain to spend them almost as soon as they receive them. They have to in order to pay their bills, put food on the table, and keep the wolf from the door. The congressman, sounding quite exasperated, said that he would like to provide an extension of long-term benefits, but since he is a fiscal conservative, he wouldn't do so unless those benefits were paid for.

The interviewer did not challenge his reasoning or follow up in any way on that issue, but his next question to the congressman was about the so-called "Bush tax cuts". The congressman, of course, read from the Republican script and demanded that all of the tax cuts be extended and made permanent, including the extra bonus tax cut that taxpayers making over a quarter of a million dollars a year now get. He was appalled at the prospect of voting to extend the tax cuts only for those people who earn less than $250,000 a year.

I remarked to my husband, "Do you think he'll ask him why those tax cuts don't have to be paid for when benefits to the unemployed do?" All I got from him was a disgusted look, but we both knew the answer to my question. The interviewer did not comment on the gross contradiction and hypocrisy of the man and his party on these issues. He simply closed the interview and thanked the man for appearing.

Republicans constantly remind us of what budgetary conservatives they are and yet they are perfectly willing to bust the budget wide open and beggar the country for years to come in order that their friends, the $250,000+ earners, get their bonus tax break which, incidentally, they will not spend - they will hoard. They're just not willing to give assistance to an unemployed person who cannot find a job because of the poor economy, assistance that he would spend, thereby stimulating the economy.

Yes, the unemployed be damned! The rich must not "suffer"! Thus saith the Republicans, those financial conservatives. Those hypocrites!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A review

I'm not sure that Howard Jacobson would welcome the comparison, but he reminds me of Philip Roth. Roth at his best, that is, because Jacobson's Man Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question is very good. It is an exploration of the Jewish identity - the Jewish (Finkler) question - laced with good humor and a comic sensibility that is accessible to any reader without respect to religious background or preference.

Jacobson tells his story through the perceptions and worries of one Julian Treslove, who isn't a Jew. In fact, he is one of the few characters in this book who isn't. His two best friends, Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, are both Jews and Treslove is envious of them. He feels excluded from their culture and he very much wants in.

Treslove has lost his job at BBC and now makes his living impersonating famous people like Brad Pitt and Colin Firth. His life is changed when he is mugged one night - by a woman! - and he comes to believe that he was attacked because the mugger thought he was a Jew. He becomes more and more obsessed with making the mugger's misidentification of him become reality.

Treslove's friend, Libor, is an elderly man, a recent widower who has lost his beloved wife, Malkie, and who was teacher to both Treslove and Finkler when they were in school. He has passed his ninth decade and now he feels bereft and alone without Malkie. He finds it difficult to come up with a reason to go on living without her.

Sam Finkler is a wildly successful writer of pop psychology or pop philosophy books of the self-help variety. He, too, is a recent widower, having lost his wife Tyler. Tyler, who had had an affair with Treslove, which Finkler apparently never knew about. Finkler is a stereotypical self-hating Jew. When Finkler remarks to Libor that he doesn't have anti-Semitic friends, Libor replies: "Yes, you do. The Jewish ones." In the context of this book, that seems all too true.

Jacobson is dealing here with free-floating anxiety. It's the anxiety of the individual "Finkler" as well as the anxiety of the larger Finklerish (i.e., Jewish) community. He explores Jewish attitudes regarding all facets of Middle East politics, as well as attitudes toward Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, and toward the religion of Judaism. He paints with a broad brush, and yet within those sweeping swirls of paint, he manages to delineate the finer details of his characters' personalities.

This is a book that is both funny and sad, bombastic and subtle. It is extremely well-written, as becomes the Man Booker prize winner, and I think it will appeal to a wide audience. It certainly appealed to me.