Sunday, February 28, 2010

The martins are here!

Or perhaps I should say, "The martin IS here." So far, I've seen only one.

I've been scanning the skies for weeks, whenever I'm outside, looking for the first Purple Martin of the year and checking the scout reports online to see where they have been reported. They've been all around me, according to those reports, for weeks, but there was no sighting of them over my yard.

Then, this morning, I was outside in my backyard puttering around when my ear caught a familiar sound. I looked up just in time to see him as he swept by the martin mansion on his blue-black wings. He didn't stop this time, but at least I know that he knows it's there.

So, the question now is, will I have martins nesting in that mansion this spring? Last spring, we put up this new house after removing the old ones we had had for many years, the ones in which many, many generations of martins had begun life. The birds completely snubbed the new and improved housing. Not a single one nested with us last year.

I'm hoping for a better result this year, but only time will tell. Nevertheless, today I'm happy. The martins are here!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

That girl

I am reading the first in the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I'm finding it virtually unputdownable. It's that good.

The book was originally published in Larsson's native Sweden in 2005 and the buzz about it started soon thereafter. I've had it on my wish list for reading for quite some time now and finally I'm acting on that wish.

Do you know about Stieg Larsson? He was a Swedish journalist and activist, a crusader against racism and right-wing fanatics. He lived under constant threat of violence and death from those that he opposed. He started writing the Millenium Trilogy mostly for his own amusement and had not attempted to have it published. He finally delivered the three completed novels to the publisher shortly before his death from a massive heart attack in November 2004. He was only 50 years old.

He had mapped out plans for additional books in the series, a total of ten in all. Now, of course, we'll never see the final seven, but we have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. All have been highly acclaimed and the first two have already won several awards, in addition to being international best sellers. It seems likely that the final book of the trilogy will follow that tradition.

Larsson definitely knew how to write. He has created some fascinating characters and the plot, at least of this first book, is tightly constructed. Perhaps his journalistic training taught him to write in this way - with no unnecessary words.

I could say more, but I've wasted enough time here at the keyboard. I need to get back to my book.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Curling: The next blockbuster sport?

Have you been watching the Olympics? I confess I haven't watched a single minute of the games and I really don't have any great interest in them, except that I would like to see Canada win a lot of medals. I mean, after all, it is their backyard, and it seems only neighborly that we should wish our good neighbor well.

The only parts of the Olympics that I have seen are the promos that are shown when I happen to be watching other shows on television. About 99% of the promos that I have seen have been for curling, leading me to the conclusion that this must be the most important game in the winter Olympics.

Now, I know nothing about curling, but judging from the promos, it involves teams sweeping a big ol' shiny stone across ice with a broom, attempting to guide it toward a target designated on the ice. It seems to be extremely popular already in some parts of the world. The icy parts, I would guess. There appears to be what I would consider to be an inordinate amount of interest in the outcome of the curling competition in these Olympics.

Well, I wish all the curlers well and I hope there is a spirited competition right up until the end, where Canada takes the gold.

Will curling's popularity transcend the Olympics? Will this, in fact, become "the next big thing" in the world of sports? Time will tell. But I'll probably never know because I won't be watching.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bluebird of happiness

It was one of those absolutely perfect late winter days here today. Golden sunshine splashed over everything with temperatures in the 50s, but what really cinched the perfection of the day for me was the bluebirds.

Several years ago, I had bluebirds nesting in my yard, but then there got to be a cat problem in the neighborhood and since I was at work all day and unable to keep an eye on the bluebird boxes, I took them down. I didn't want to provide snacks for predators. Since then, the predator problem has abated and I've put my bluebird boxes back up, but several years have gone by and no bluebirds have nested there. Sometimes chickadees or wrens have nested in the boxes but no bluebirds.

This winter, though, there have been lots of bluebirds around, singing their little red, white and blue hearts out and that has given me hope that THIS MIGHT BE THE YEAR! A few days ago when I saw a male bluebird actually inspecting one of the houses, I was ecstatic.

Today we put up the BirdCam to spy on the box and see what was going on there.

I was delighted to find that there had been quite a lot of bluebird action at the box today. Here the male looks things over.

Soon the lovely little female came by to check things out, too.

Showing what a good and conscientious provider he would be, the male brings a beakful of material to be used in constructing the nest.

The female gives her okay to the progress thus far and...

... disappears into the house.

"Hey, get that camera out of my beak! How about a little privacy here?"

And so, we'll leave them there - my own personal bluebirds of happiness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Baseball's back. All's right with the world.

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal. - George Will

There is very little space in this world where I could find common ground with George Will, but I have to admit, the man does have a feel for the game of baseball. He's absolutely right. Not all games are created equal, and baseball just happens to be the best game ever invented by a human.

People who think of baseball as dull are simply dull people. There is so much going on in a game at any one time that there is just no way to follow it all. There's the way the outfielders are positioned, the way the infielders get set for each pitch, the way the pitcher "plays" the umpire, trying to get him to call the strikes the pitcher wants. There's the way baserunners try to fool fielders and the way fielders attempt to "deke" baserunners. And strategy always depends on who's up to bat next and next after that. There's is always something to think about. And that's just if you are watching the game on television.

If you are lucky enough to actually be in attendance at a game, the sensory overload is overwhelming. The fans, the scoreboard, the noise, the smells, the sounds - all in addition to the actual game of nine men on the field trying to keep other men off the field. It's all proof of the truth of those lines that James Earl Jones spoke about baseball in Field of Dreams:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

It's the thing we cling to, this game that we know so well. The game of our childhood, the game of our golden memories. For me, it is Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris. For you, it's probably some other group of players. It doesn't matter. It's all the same.

Today, of course, I am an Astros fan. The Astros had a terrible year last year, but this year they have a new manager and some new players and spring training is in session. All things are possible. As Richard Justice said in his blog today, the Astros have had some great years and they have had some lousy years, but even the lousy years are better than they would have been with no baseball.

Forget the Olympics. Let the real games begin.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just the facts, ma'am.

When I run across the same idea from two different respected sources in the same day, I have to figure that the universe is trying to tell me something.

First, this morning, I read Leonard Pitts' column. Pitts was decrying the fact that, as he stated it, we have become "a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic. alienated from even objective truth."

We are not persuaded by facts and by objective evidence. We reject any evidence that conflicts with our own preconceived ideas. We believe what we want to believe and anything that does not validate our beliefs is automatically rejected.

The sad thing is that a people who reject critical thinking and who refuse to consider any alternative evidence or ideas are doomed. Just because you refuse to believe that a brick wall is a brick wall does not make the wall cease to exist, as you will discover when you walk into it.

That column gave me quite a bit to think about, and then, this afternoon, I happened to be in the car as All Things Considered was on NPR and I heard about the Cultural Cognition Project, a group of scholars who study how cultural values shape public perceptions and policy beliefs.

The social scientists involved in this project have conducted experiments in which their subjects are asked to describe their cultural beliefs and then they are presented with some objective scientific facts. They are then asked to interpret or draw conclusions about these facts. The scientists found that the prestated values of the subjects significantly affected the way they interpreted the "facts."

As one of the scientists, Don Braman, stated, "People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view. It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information."

Or as Leonard Pitts might say, the facts don't matter. The only things that matter are our beliefs, i.e., our preconceived ideas.

Unless we can learn to keep an open mind and think more critically about things, we may, in fact, be doomed as a people. Yes, I think maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. I hope that I am open enough to accept it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What rock did these guys crawl from under?

I don't even know how to begin to say anything sensible about this state legislator from Virginia:
State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas says disabled children are God's punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.

He made that statement Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood.

"The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," said Marshall, a Republican.

"In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest."

So children that are born with disabilities are God's punishment on the mother.

And then there was this statement by a member of the House of Representatives from Iowa:
Steve King To Conservatives: 'Implode' IRS Offices

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told a crowd at CPAC on Saturday that he could "empathize" with the suicide bomber who last week attacked an IRS office in Austin, and encouraged his listeners to "implode" other IRS offices, according to a witness.

That suicide bomber with whom Mr. King "empathizes" murdered one innocent American citizen whose only crime was to go to work that day. He also seriously injured several others who committed that same crime.

I guess the only thing I can possibly say is, thank God they are not from Texas.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The seed thief

Who me? You lookin' at me? I'm totally innocent, man! I was just checkin' out the scenery from up here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Offered for your attention...

I've just finished reading another book that I would like to recommend to you. It is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and it is a wonderful book.

It's the story of a man of the early 20th century, Harrison William Shepherd, born in 1917 near Washington, D.C. to a Mexican mother and American father. His father is a government employee, whom his mother soon tires of, and when Harrison is 12 years old, she ditches the father and takes the son with her to Mexico, following an oilman to his estate on Isla Pixol. There the mother and son encounter howler monkeys which terrify them. They believe they are carnivorous demons. Howlers will be a recurring theme in Harrison's life.

The mother continues to chase love and adventure in the form of various men throughout Mexico. Finally, in Mexico City, Harrison meets Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and starts working for their household. There he later meets the exiled Communist leader Lev (Leon) Trotsky. Through it all, he keeps diaries of events and of his impressions and he starts his first novel. Harrison is a born writer. It is what he was meant to do.

When Trotsky moves to another house, Harrison goes with him and continues his diaries. Trotsky becomes mentor and friend, almost the father that Harrison never really had. When Trotsky is killed, Harrison returns to America on a mission to deliever paintings for Frida Kahlo and to escape the "howlers" of the Mexican press.

In America, he finds that his father has died and left him a small inheritance. He moves to Asheville, N.C., and that is where Harrison becomes a published writer and where he finds two friends, his stenographer Violet Brown and his lawyer Arthur Gold.

By now, we are into the 1940s and the House Un-American Activities committee is coming to the height of its power. Because of his fame as a writer and his former associations in Mexico, Harrison comes to their attention. The "howlers" are after him once more.

I don't want to give away any important details of this book because I hope you will read it for yourself. Kingsolver has written a historical novel that resonates with today's headlines. She has woven together details of history, archaeology, food, and nature to make a powerful statement about modern America and how we came to be the people that we are. It is a call to recognize the truth of our history and to respond to the stirrings of our conscience. It is an important book.

Read it!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Stupid Texans!

Don't you just love polls? They tell us such interesting things about ourselves. Of course, everything hinges on the way the poll question is worded, and, for that reason, one has to look at who conducted the poll and consider what axe they have to grind before deciding whether to take the results well-salted. But I really doubt that the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune newspaper have any desire to make Texans look particularly bad, so I tend to believe that their poll is on the level.

Here are just a few of the "facts" that the pollsters found that Texans believe:
- 38 percent agreed with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago."
- 22 percent said life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time.
- 51 percent disagreed with the statement, "human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals."
- 41 percent were aware that humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.

The poll also found that Republicans were more likely to believe the above-stated "facts" than Democrats and that supporters of Kay Bailey Hutchison for Republican nominee for governer were even MORE likely to believe them.

When I casually mentioned the findings of the poll to my husband, the born and bred Texan who refuses to live anywhere else, his response was, "Not surprising - there are an awful lot of stupid people in Texas!"

In that case, we've certainly got the right governor. Rick Perry is now suing the EPA - on our dime, by the way - over its intent to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. Never mind that the Supreme Court, which Perry probably loves, has said that the EPA has that right and responsibility. No, ol' Ricky, you see, doesn't believe in all that global warming, human-produced greenhouse gases crap, and he's going to prove to the world that we don't need no stinkin' EPA telling our oil refineries what they can and cannot emit!

Of course, I'm sure that the fact that Perry, who apparently wants Texas to secede from the United States of America, is trying to fend off Kay Bailey Hutchison and tea party darling Debra Medina in the Republican primary in a couple of weeks has nothing to do with this. He would not be so cynical as to spend perfectly good state money on a quixotic quest meant to appeal to those tea partiers and far-righters. Oh, by the way, let me introduce you to my pet dinosaur.

I wonder if the UT/Texas Tribune pollsters polled our esteemed governor. Even if they didn't, I'm sure he would strongly endorse the poll's results - especially if it would win him a few votes.

Poor Texas.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who's your great, great, great granddaddy?

There may come a time, perhaps even within our lifetimes, when treatment for our illnesses will depend upon our very own unique genealogy. At least, that is my take away from a fascinating story about human genomes that is in the news today.

The New York Times detailed how scientists have decoded the complete genomes of five individuals from southern Africa. The Africans included four Bushmen hunter-gatherers and one member of the Bantu tribe. None of the Bushmen would likely be known outside of their own communities, but the Bantu individual is very well-known indeed. He is Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Tutu is said to have been selected because he has a very keen interest in medicine and in the human genome project and he fit the profile that was needed for the research. His parents came from the two largest Bantu groups in South Africa, the Sotho-Tswana and the Nguni.

African genomes are of particular interest to scientists because they have more variation in their DNA than other populations. Everyone from outside of Africa is descended from a small group of pilgrims who left that continent and ultimately colonized the world, beginning some 50,000 years ago. Thus, the genomes of all these people were drawn from a smaller pool and are fairly uniform. But the vast majority of humans who stayed behind on the mother continent and who were the ancestors of today's Africans represent a great diversity of genomes.

The Bushmen are especially fascinating because their ancestors branched off from the main line of human ancestry earlier than anyone else. Researchers found that most of the variations in their genomes were acquired after that great branching.

The Bantu, Archbishop Tutu, actually turned out to have Bushman mitochondrial DNA. (Mitrochondrial DNA is the genetic element that is passed down through the female line.) Apparently, this DNA came into his ancestry in the very distant past because the rest of his genome proved to be Bantu.

The practical application of all this genome research is to find ways to more effectively treat disease. By studying a person's genome, doctors may well be able to tailor their medicines and therapies to the individual's genealogy. So in the future, the pills we take may very well be determined by who was our great, great, great granddaddy. Or, even more likely, our great, great, great grandmother.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

GBBC wrap-up

This year's Great Backyard Bird Count is history, but we will have to wait until after March 1 for all the data reports to be finalized. Participants can still report their counts up until that date, so until then we won't know whether this will be another record-breaking year for the popular mid-winter bird survey.

If I had to guess, I would say that this probably will not be a record-breaker. The severe weather in many places probably limited some counters' efforts, so we may fall a little short of the record of 634 species that were reported in the 2008 count.

As for my own personal count, I ended the weekend with a total of 28 species, not a record-breaking year for me, either. There were several species that are regularly seen in my yard that did not show up during the weekend - birds like the little Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Eastern Bluebird. I didn't even see a Black Vulture or a Red-tailed Hawk flying over my yard, even though in the usual course of events, I see them almost every day. Neither did the big Pileated Woodpecker or the little Brown-headed Nuthatch put in an appearance.

I was pleased to encounter one unusual bird, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Although these birds visit our area in winter, I almost never find one in my yard, so seeing one here was a great treat for me.

I always enjoy consulting the top ten lists on the results page of the GBBC website and this year is no exception:

Most Frequently Reported Birds
Rank Species Checklists

1 Northern Cardinal 43,160
2 Dark-eyed Junco 39,415
3 Mourning Dove 36,884
4 Downy Woodpecker 32,141
5 Blue Jay 31,831
6 American Goldfinch 30,994
7 Tufted Titmouse 29,393
8 House Finch 26,847
9 American Crow 24,808
10 Black-capped Chickadee 24,086
Statistics updated 17-Feb-2010 18:05 ET

Most Numerous Birds
Rank Species Individuals

1 American Robin 1,783,686
2 Canada Goose 574,979
3 American Crow 422,279
4 European Starling 420,545
5 Snow Goose 368,170
6 American Goldfinch 343,885
7 Common Grackle 329,365
8 Dark-eyed Junco 301,610
9 Red-winged Blackbird 244,892
10 Mourning Dove 229,709
Statistics updated 17-Feb-2010 18:05 ET

When the final count is in, some of these rankings and numbers may change, but there is unlikely to be any great upheaval in the standings. For a look at all the various "top ten" lists, click here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The case of the murdered monarch - who wasn't

I am fascinated by the history of early human cultures. I have been known to opine that nothing really interesting or new has happened in human history since about 1000 C.E. Everything since then has just been a rerun of happenings in ancient Egypt, Greece, Meso-America, China or Rome. Since, as a species, we seem to be incapable of learning from our history, we are doomed to repeat it, endlessly. We are all players in a colossal blockbuster of a movie just like Groundhog Day.

I enjoy reading historical fiction that is set in those ancient cultures, especially ancient Egyptian or ancient Roman mysteries. The period of Egyptian history that I particularly like reading about is that which occurred from the time of Queen Hatshepsut through the time of Ramses II (the Great), i.e, the late 18th and early 19th dynasties. It was an interesting time, full of colorful characters that are relatively well-known to us today, even though they lived more than 3,000 years ago. The most famous of these is King Tutankhamum, a very minor king. His fame stems not from any of his deeds but from the fact that his tomb was found intact by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. The riches of that tomb dazzled the world and still dazzle us today wherever they are exhibited.

Much of the popular literature that is set during the time of Tutankhamun postulates conspiracies against him and assumes that he was assassinated by ambitious characters to get him out of their way. Now science has finally identified his "murderers". It seems that he was done in by a combination of genetics and tropical disease, namely malaria.

Studies of his DNA have proven that poor Tut was heir to several genetic weaknesses that may have contributed to his demise, and some time before he died he suffered a broken leg, but the ultimate cause of his death seems to have been malaria, a disease which still plagues that and many parts of the world today. The report of the findings was published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and there will be a two part Discovery Channel program detailing the results of the study on next Sunday and Monday night.

So, will this be the end of all those potboiler mysteries with titles like "Who Killed King Tut?" Probably not. When did facts ever get in the way of a dedicated conspiracy theorist?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains it all

Have you hear of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Well, neither had I until today, but now that I have, I must say I think it explains quite a lot. I came across a discussion of the effect in a blog that I follow called Skeptical Science. It's a blog that explains sometimes very complicated scientific concepts in relatively easy-to-understand layman's (or laywoman's) terms.

Dunning and Kruger are two Nobel Prize winning scientists who wrote a scientific paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called "Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments." I love that title and it pretty much says it all.

The "effect," as I understand it, is that the more unskilled or unaware an individual is, the more likely his/her assessment of his/her own abilities is likely to be inflated and not consistent with reality. Conversely, as one's skills and knowledge level increases, one tends to be more realistic or even modest in evaluating oneself. If you look around, I think you can find plenty of examples to illustrate this effect in public life today, but I can best describe it using myself.

I can remember (barely) that, years ago, I used to believe that I was pretty smart. Fresh out of college with my shiny new degree, I was ready to take on and conquer the world. As life experiences accumulated, I began to realize that not only had I not been nearly as smart as I originally thought, but I had also been hopelessly naive. Through the years, my assessment of my abilities has been adjusted downward time and time again until I think I may be finally nearing a realistic view of what I can actually do and accomplish in life. It is a humbling process, but one that anyone with an ounce of self-awareness must go through in their life.

One could only wish that some of our more self-important and self-aggrandizing leaders would go through that process - the sooner the better. But perhaps that is one of the hallmarks of such people; i.e., they go through life with the firm idea implanted that they are smarter than everybody else and that they can change the world. Sometimes, they even manage to do it, but not necessarily for the better.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nature Sunday: The promise of spring

The blueberry blossoms may not be completely open yet, but they offer the promise that spring is finally on its way. It has been a long, relatively cold winter, even here near the semi-tropical southern coast of America, and we are more than ready to welcome spring. We take our hope where we can find it - even in the promise of a half-opened blossom.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A modest proposal

Tom Tancredo, that racist, migrant-hating, tea-partying bundle of bigotry, wants to reinstitute Jim Crow laws in regard to voting rights. He wants people to be able to pass a literacy test before they can vote. The test would no doubt be devised and scored by local election officials. I'm sure it would be totally unbiased.

As worthy as Tancredo's idea might be on its face - and one can't deny that there are some astonishingly ill-informed people who cast their votes in our elections - I find that I really can't support it. Jim Crow laws were used to deny people basic rights during my lifetime. I don't want to go back to that dark place. Besides, I have what I think is a much better idea.

Instead of testing the potential voters, let's test the potential candidates for office.

Have you listened to some of the people who hold office in this country today? What rocks have these folks crawled out from under? They have no idea of basic American history and civics, judging by the content of their speech and by their actions. I think that anyone who puts himself or herself forward as a candidate for an office in this country should have to know at least a minimum amount about the country's history, its laws and Constitution. If they can't pass a basic civics and history test, they should be barred from running. They should not be allowed to harass us with their kooky ideas, nor impose their strange beliefs on the rest of us.

We could start here. Click on the link and take the test and see if you can pass it and would thus be allowed to run for office under my modest proposal.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Calling all bird geeks!

As a certified bird geek myself, one who is never happier than when outside, binoculars in hand, gazing at some feathered phenomenon, this is absolutely one of my favorite weekends of the year. It is Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all wrapped up together. Yes, this is Great Backyard Bird Count weekend. The count starts today, Friday, and continues all the way through Monday, Presidents' Day. It takes place every year on this weekend, and I have been looking forward to it now since Christmas.

In the event that you are among the uninitiated, here's a little background. The GBBC is a joint project of the National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is a citizen science project. People with all levels of skills in birding, from beginners to experts, participate. There is no charge for participating. All you have to do is observe and count the birds in your yard or at some alternate site and then report what you saw on the GBBC website.

Many people choose to count birds in parks, wildlife refuges, or other public places, even commercial properties. All of the counts are important, because the object is to find out where the birds are here at mid-winter. Bird populations are always shifting due to climate change, habitat destruction (or improvement), availability of food and other reasons known only to the birds. This weekend's survey will help the ornithologists who track such things have a better idea of which birds are where all across Canada and the United States, including Hawaii.

Considering the truly bad weather conditions that prevail in much of the eastern part of the continent now, it will be very interesting to see what results the bird watchers will report and how the weather might be a factor. It probably will be more of a factor for the reporters rather than the reportees.

Here in Southeast Texas today, it is a cold, gray, cloudy day with a temperature of around 39F the last time I looked. The conditions are not the best for watching the birds, but any day I can get outside with my binoculars in my hand, it is a good day!

Happy birding and don't forget to report what you see to GBBC.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


So now our elected representatives in Washington think that it might not be possible to pass a bill addressing global climate change and its adverse affects on the future of humankind (and, incidentally, the world) because it is SNOWING IN WASHINGTON??? They think it would be TOO HARD to convince people to vote for it because it is cold on the East Coast in February!!! AHHHRRRGGGH!!!!!!!!!!!!

Are these people f... know, what Rahm said? Apparently they are. And that is being overly kind.

Can they really be so uninformed that they do not understand that weather is not climate and that because it is cold in the northern hemisphere in winter does not mean that the earth is not heating up? Because it is, you know. The year 2009 was the second warmest year since records have been kept, beginning in the 1800s. It was the end of the warmest decade ever recorded. The hottest year on record also occurred in that decade - 2005. They could read all about this on the NASA website - if they ever bothered to read reports put out by government agencies that are charged with tracking such things. They could also find that the evidence for abrupt climate change, outside the realm of normal fluctuations in Nature, is overwhelming.

Since they evidently do not read, here for the written-word-challenged representatives and anyone else who may not understand is a link to a visual presentation on YouTube that may just help.

Watch and try to understand, Inhofe. Then you and your whole global climate change denying family meet me on the steps of the Capitol on August 9 and explain to me how the earth is not heating up. That would be the most hilarious entertainment I'm likely to get on my birthday.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Did you know...

Did you know...

...that the Health Care Reform proposal will force people to give up their current health insurance and sign on to government insurance which will cost more than $400 per month per person? Plus, everybody will have to pay a high tax in addition to that?

...that Barack Obama is going to put a tax of $50 per gun on all guns in the country? If you don't pay it, your guns will be confiscated and you will go to jail.

...that for the last 20 years or so George W. Bush has been carrying on an illicit affair with Condaleeza Rice?

...that the Obamas regularly host heavy drinking parties at the White House where everyone gets totally soused?

...that if Health Care Reform passes, we will all have to pay MUCH, MUCH higher taxes and health care will be rationed?

I know all of these things are true because I heard them all from impeccable sources at my hairdresser's shop today. If I didn't occasionally get my hair done, I'd never know what was going on in the world.

Oh, and did you know that Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is an American citizen and that is why the Bush Administration gave him his Miranda rights and tried him in a civilian court? I heard that from that estimable truth-teller Newt Gingrich on last night's Daily Show.

Of course, anyone with half a brain will immediately recognize that all of these "facts" are lies. (Well, I don't know about that Bush/Rice thing. She did once slip up and call him her "husband," didn't she? Even so, I'm willing to believe that that is a lie, also.) But, apparently there are a bunch of people running around out there with less than half a brain, because they will believe any outrageous thing and pass it on as the truth! And sooner or later, I'll hear about it from my hairdresser.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Crazy Dude - not

I guess I must be one of the very few people in the world who have not seen Avatar. Heck, I still haven't seen James Cameron's other big blockbuster film, Titanic. It's not that I am averse to seeing either movie. It's just that it has never been absolutely convenient for me to do so.

Let's face it - I lead a pretty sheltered life and I don't get out much, but I do see the occasional movie. I've even seen some of Avatar's competition for the big awards this season, movies like Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, and Up in the Air, all of which I liked.

There is another film that has been out in limited release for a while that I would like to see. That would be Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges. At long last, it has made it to the "theater near me," the one where I see all my movies, so there is a possibility that I will finally get to see it. Of course, the movie has had the critics raving since it first came out and Bridges has swept all of the "best actor" awards so far. Apparently, it is about real people, not ten foot tall blue beings, so I think there is a possibility that I could relate to the characters.

Actually, I always relate to any character that Bridges plays. He's one of those enormously likable and naturalistic actors that I always believe no matter what the role may be. I enjoyed him in Seabiscuit a few years ago, but I think my favorite role of his was "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski.

That was one weird movie, but then most movies by the Coen brothers have a touch of weirdness about them. That's one of the things I like about them. But amid all that weirdness the bowling slacker who was "The Dude" was someone that I liked and that I wanted to win. I suspect I will feel the same about this Crazy Heart guy when I finally see the movie. Such is the talent of Jeff Bridges for portraying normalcy in the midst of any craziness.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"The Life of the Skies"

(Originally posted here.)

Sometime last year, a fellow birder and blogger recommend The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen as a book worth reading. I subsequently bought the book and put it on my "to be read" shelf where it languished for many months. I finally picked it up to read, and then found I could hardly put it down. It is a fascinating book.

Birds and birding are the central theme of the book, of course, but then Rosen wanders far afield, touching on many issues, from politics to literature to religion, that you might not normally associate with birds or birding. For him, it is all connected, and he is able to bring his reader along with him as he looks at the interconnectedness between birds and all the human activities he chooses to explore.

Much of his book is taken up with a history of the American conservation movement and how it was engendered by a concern for birds. He tells again the familiar story of John James Audubon but he relates it to the social and political history of the times in which he lived.

He talks also about the great American poets and essayists of Nature - from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost to Wendell Berry and beyond. These writers have helped us to see and value Nature and they have been instrumental, even when that was not necessarily their intention, in the founding and popularizing of the conservation movement in this country.

For Rosen, as indeed for me, birdwatching is a meditative act. It puts us in touch with Nature and with ourselves and with our place in Nature. It reminds us that we are part of a greater whole. That chickadee that we see in our binoculars lens is connected to us by more than just our line of vision.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Rosen's description of his trips in search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He didn't find one, of course. But in the end it almost didn't matter. He found the possibility of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker - a place where such a bird could potentially exist and possibly still does.

In discussing the bird in literature, one of the works that Rosen quotes is Robert Frost's well-known poem, The Ovenbird. The last two lines of that poem state:

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

It is a changed and diminished world that we live in. Much of Nature has been lost and will not be returning to us. Still it is a wondrous place and when we look at birds, we understand, even though we may not acknowledge, the wondrousness of it. A diminished thing it may be, but a thing worth saving still.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sarah the r-word

So, Sarah Palin actually appeared on a Sunday morning news show today. Of course, it was Fox News Sunday. Did you think it would be another network's show? Anyway, the host Chris Wallace asked her a question about her husband Todd's participation in her governance of Alaska during her brief tenure as governor there. This is her answer, word for word, as reported by Huffington Post:

"He was forwarding on emails. And here's another thing. Todd and I being, in some cases, thousands of miles apart, if I emailed him about being, say, outside traveling, Todd's home, he's there, there, as a desktop, and I'm telling Todd, "Hey! Todd! Print this off for me, I'm going to grab it on my way home, because I work off a Blackberry, constantly, for practical reasons, it helped too. Todd helped as Alaska's "First Dude" with no staff. with no office, being thousands of miles away during a lot of times, with his job in Prudhomme Bay on the North Slope and commercial fishing. He helped with workforce development issues, issues that meant a lot to him and people out there, IN THE REAL WORLD. With carhearts, and steeltoed boots and hardhats trying to build this country. Todd helped in that respect. He never got into the minutiae of the politics, Todd's too good for that, he hates this kind of periphery political bull-stuff that we go through. He's not a part of any of that and, no, more power to Todd for being a good adviser and being a good practical person with common sense solutions."

The woman is completely incoherent. She seems incapable of stringing together words in a simple declarative sentence that makes sense. How can anyone in his/her sane mind take her seriously? And yet she is the most recognizable face of the Republican Party. Sarah the tea-partying Republican is truly re...volting!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Broken government

"Washington was immobilized by snow on Friday. This is highly unusual. Normally, Washington is immobilized by senators." - Gail Collins, The New York Times

"Far too many of the president's nominees were never afforded an up or down vote because several Democrats chose to block the process for political gain." - Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama during the presidency of George W. Bush

Funny how elections change one's perspective. During the Bush presidency, no one howled louder than Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama anytime a vote on one of the president's nominees to fill a position was delayed. It was unconscionable and the worst kind of political obstructionism any time a Democrat sought to block an appointment or to delay a vote on a single nominee. Now, Shelby is blocking not one but seventy - that's 70! - Obama nominees.

What profound constituional principle is Shelby upholding? Why, the principle that Richard Shelby must not be obstructed in his desire to bring as much pork as possible to Alabama! He wants a defense contract to build a new tanker to be awarded to a bidder who will do the assembly work in Alabama, and he wants a new F.B.I. facility for testing explosive devices to be located in Huntsville, Alabama. Of course, the fact that the contractors involved in these projects have poured enormous amounts of money into Shelby's political campaigns has nothing to do with his actions. Shelby has magnanimously said that the Obama Administration can come and talk to him about the matter any time.

Meantime, understaffed government agencies will just have to make do with the personnel they have. Nobody is getting confirmed while Shelby sits on his two-bit throne and thumbs his nose at the American people.

This is just the latest symptom of a Senate that is broken and unable to do the people's business. It is broken because of the arcane rules of the body. The thing is these rules are not laws, they are not constitutional requirements, they are just rules - and rules can be changed if they are not working. The Senate has it within its power to change the rules. There is no earthly reason in a democracy that it should take 60 votes to accomplish ANYTHING in the Senate. Why should not a simple majority apply here as it does anywhere else in a democracy? It should! But it never will unless the members of the Senate summon the intestinal fortitude to make the needed reforms. And the Senate will not find that intestinal fortitude unless it has strong leadership either from the President or from the leaders of the Senate or both.

The frustration of the American people with their broken government is palpable. They want action - on the Health Care Reform bill, on financial oversight reforms, on jobs programs, and on a whole range of other problems. Will the Senate, which is the roadblock to all these actions, rouse itself and stop people like the execrable Richard Shelby from blocking everything to achieve his petty political ends? Sadly, I am not hopeful.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The underpants bomber speaks

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a plane in Detroit on Christmas Day, is only 23 years old. It seems unlikely that he has a very sophisticated view of the world. I can remember - barely - what I was like at 23, and much more recently, what my children were like at 23. While my children were a lot smarter and a lot more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than I was at that age, I think it is fair to say that none of us really understood the workings of the powers that ruled our world. I strongly suspect the same is true of the would-be underpants bomber.

He was susceptible to being led and misled and indications are that he was, particularly by an American-born Yemeni radical cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. This man also allegedly had ties to the 9/11 attacks and to the soldier who shot up Fort Hood last November. Al-Awlaki is now supposedly somewhere in the mountains of Yemen. Abdulmutallab may have an idea as to where he is, and Abdulmutallab seems not at all reticent about telling authorities all he knows.

Abdulmutallab was captured, of course, during his attempted attack and has been in the custody of law enforcement since then. First, he was taken to the hospital and given medical treatment, because the only person he managed to injure was himself. Since then, he has been advised of his legal rights and, from all that we can tell, has been treated very humanely. Some of his family was flown from Nigeria to meet with him and talk to him. His uncle and his father, who had warned American authorities that his son had been radicalized and posed a threat, talked to the young man and persuaded him to cooperate with authorities and tell them what he knows. It seems that he is doing that. While the FBI has been pretty tight-lipped about the information he has given them, they have stated that he has provided "actionable intelligence."

All of this was accomplished without waterboarding or sleep deprivation or sexual humiliation or any of the other torture techniques employed by the previous administration. It was accomplished by respecting the individual's rights and our constitutional principles and by treating him and his family with dignity. Imagine.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The new miracle drug: Vitamin D

My sister-in-law is a very health-conscious individual. She watches her diet very carefully. She's into yoga and Pilates, and she's always looking for the next new thing to give her an edge.

Her latest new thing is a naturopathic doctor who has helped her to feel better than she ever has. I had an email from her recently touting her latest find via the new doctor. It is vitamin D. On the advice of her doctor, she takes large doses of vitamin D at every meal.

She doesn't have much faith in what she refers to as "conventional medicine." She says that most "conventional docs don't ever know these findings" about vitamin D. In this case, though, she is wrong. My doctor, who has been my doctor for more than twenty years, is a "conventional" doctor and she advised me to take extra vitamin D almost a year ago. I agree with my sister-in-law on one thing at least: I feel much, much better since I started taking it.

Of course, this is just anecdotal evidence of vitamin D's worth, but even the "conventional" medical profession is taking such reports very seriously. There is at least some evidence that this "miracle drug" can strengthen the immune system and lower risks of many illnesses including heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes.

A report in The New York Times earlier this week stated that Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, a Harvard professor who is chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, will be leading a major study over the next five years that, it is hoped, will answer some of the questions about vitamin D and provide a firmer scientific foundation for its use. The study will also include the use of fish oil by some of the participants. Fish oil is another substance that has long been considered by naturopaths and the "common wisdom" to have beneficial properties.

In the meantime, before the findings of the study are finalized and published, the attitude of my "conventional" doctor seems to be that vitamin D and fish oil in moderate quantities will not hurt me and may just possibly help me. So far, I think they have and I intend to keep taking them. I don't think I can wait five years for the study to give me the green light.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Oh, that thing about the link between vaccines and autism? Never mind!

My beautician is a conscientious mother who tries to do what is right for her two kids. In January, 2009, she had her second child, a boy. Since then, she has engaged in an ongoing battle with her conscience about whether she should have him on the regular schedule of preventative vaccines for young kids. You see, she has heard rumors and seen rants on the Internet about how vaccines are the cause of autism in children. The last time I talked to her about it, she was still delaying.

The source of the rumors and the concern about a link between vaccines and autism is a study authored by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, twelve years ago. In his article, Wakefield maintained that he had found such a link. That was enough for some of the paranoiacs who are always looking for conspiracies and postulating that all authority figures are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. That paranoia has been further fed by people like Glenn Beck and Bill Maher who have used their positions on TV to lend whatever credibility they have to it.

Well, now, twelve years later, The Lancet has printed a retraction. They have concluded that Wakefield provided false information in his report and acted with "callous disregard" for the children in the study. That study, by the way, was conducted on only twelve - twelve! - children, and from that meager data, Wakefield drew his sweeping conclusions. Other researchers have tried to replicate his study without success. The whole thing was a farce. The only question is whether Wakefield, who now practices medicine in Austin, knew that it was a farce or whether he was just careless and incompetent. Either way he has a lot to answer for.

Because his study gave the imprimature of acceptance by the conservative field of medicine, many parents believed that they would be endangering their children by getting them vaccinated. And so, they didn't. Consequently, some of those children did get measles, mumps, rubella, or pertussis. Some of them died and others suffered complications from the diseases. I had measles and whooping cough when I was a child, before there were vaccines widely available for those two diseases. I nearly died. Those are not illnesses I would wish on any child.

And what about the children whose parents did have them vaccinated and who were later diagnosed as autistic? Imagine the hurt, guilt, and anger those poor parents must feel when confronted with the "facts" of the link between vaccines and autism.

Yes, Wakefield has quite a lot to answer for, but, of course, the damage is done, and there is no reason to think it will end now. It is unlikely that this report will reach some of the gullible and fearful parents who have already taken or are susceptible to a dose of the snake oil he was selling.

And what about The Lancet? Do they not also bear some responsibility for unleashing this false study on the world and letting it stand for TWELVE LONG YEARS?

Oh, well. Never mind!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cutting for Stone

Writers are always told to write what they know. Well, Dr. Abraham Verghese did that and he came up with a winner. Cutting for Stone is on many lists of the best books of the previous year. If I were making such a list, it would most certainly be on mine.

The title of the book is a play on words. Verghese's main characters have the last name of Stone. The Hippocratic Oath admonishes doctors not to "cut for stone" (i.e., perform surgery) but to leave that to the specialists. All of the main characters in this story are surgeons who do "cut for stone," as well as other things.

Verghese has constructed a rich tale of a blended family in a time of tumult. The story begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the 1960s, but has its roots in Mother India, and its tendrils reach all the way to America where they intertwine once again.

It is the story of Shiva and Marion, identical and Siamese twins, joined at the head and separated at birth at Missing Hospital in Ethiopia. They are the forbidden progeny of a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and the chief surgeon of the hospital, Thomas Stone, a haunted man. The twins' mother dies at their birth and their father, devastated by Sister Mary's death and the birth of sons he didn't even know about, disappears, leaving the boys essentially orphaned. They are raised by Hema, the obstetrician who delivered them, and Ghosh, another surgeon at the hospital, and, in fact, by the entire Missing community. They never want for love.

The boys grow up with a preternaturally close relationship that is finally torn asunder by Shiva's actions. Shiva is an interesting character. He seems virtually amoral or without moral considerations, even though he has an inherent sensitivity to others who are suffering. His passion and obsession is to solve problems. He becomes Hema's apprentice and a great gynecologist with a specialty in fixing fistulas, a plague among Third World women, one that sentences them to isolation and often death.

Marion, meanwhile, takes another route, one that leads him to America and to work as a trauma surgeon in a run-down hospital on the edge of a downtrodden community in New York City. It is there where all of the strands of this story, emerging from Ethiopia, start to come together again.

Some of that "coming together" seems a little forced and artificial. America is a big country, after all, and New York is a big city. What are the odds that all these people from a corner of a country so far away will meet again here? And yet they do. And the story reaches its climax and conclusion.

This is a big book and yet it didn't feel long. It kept me reading and wanting to know more. It is full of the intricate medical detail of surgeries that only a doctor could provide, and much of this story feels very personal to Dr. Verghese, not necessarily that he experienced the events himself, but that he has observed and empathized with those who have. It is also full of cultural details of India and Ethiopia, things that make the reader feel what it might be like to live in those societies.

This is a very good book, fully worthy of all the acclaim it has received. I highly recommend it to your attention.

Monday, February 1, 2010

NIMBY syndrome

Gail Collins had an excellent column in The New York Times the other day, as she usually does whenever she contributes an op-ed. This one was entitled "Another Inconvenient Truth" and it spoke of the sour, me-first attitude that seems to prevail in the United States today. The latest manifestation of this attitude is the mayor of New York's about-face on having trials of terrorists conducted in his city. Suddenly, it would be too much of an imposition, an inconvenience for the people of New York, to have such a trial held in their city and it would give the terrorists a "platform to air their views." Plus, it might make New York a target.

As if they and all of us are not already targets of fanatics who want to kill us.

On the contrary, it seems to me that the symbolism of having the trial in New York where the major part of the killing took place would be a powerful one. It would show the whole world that we are courageous enough to live up to our ideals and offer accused criminals, even those accused of heinous crimes, justice in an American court. I can't think of a stronger message or one that would do more to heal our broken reputation in the world. But Mayor Bloomberg and his lily-livered cohorts want no part of that honor.

They are not alone. Elected representatives from far-flung parts of the country have demanded assurances from the Federal government that detainees from Guantanamo will not be transferred to high security prisons in their states. Apparently, they feel that these men are so powerful that they might be able to walk right through the walls of the prisons or they are so charismatic that they will lead other prisoners in rebellion to take over the prisons and eventually to take over the state and the country.

This is so incredibly stupid, blind, and self-serving as to be entirely laughable. If there is one thing we know how to do well in this country, it is to keep people in prison. But this whole kerfuffle is just a symptom of a wider disease in the country. It's the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome and it is a manifestation of the fact that people in this country do not want to take responsibility for their democracy. They want somebody else, preferably far, far away to do it. They do not want to be inconvenienced in any way.

Until citizens and elected representatives again have the courage to uphold our principles and ideals and to accept responsibility for the duties of citizenship, this country will never deserve the appellation of "great." And that is, indeed, a very "inconvenient truth."