Thursday, March 31, 2011

At long last, baseball!

Our long national nightmare is over. Baseball season has begun.

The boys of summer begin their game these days in places where it is still winter. Many of the ball parks hosting games over the next few days will be having snow flurries and weather more typical of football season. Nevertheless, the calendar says it is time and so we begin.

My beloved Astros will be starting their season in Philadelphia tomorrow, a daunting prospect for them since they had the worst record in spring training and Philadelphia is one of the strongest teams in the league, the one that many prognosticators pick to go to the World Series this year. And now the Astros are further hobbled by injuries to key players on whom they were depending for improved play this year. It seems the poor guys just cannot catch a break.

Still, one of the reasons that we love this game is that, on any given day, any team can beat any other team, even if that other team looks far superior on paper. They don't play the game on paper; they play it on the field, and on the field strange things can happen. The ball can bounce in crazy ways or the wind can lift it. An outfielder can misread the ball and turn the wrong way and, the first thing you know, you've got an inside-the-park home run!

It's the first day of the season. Only a few games were played today. The rest of the teams will play tomorrow, and so, at this point, anything is possible. Even the Astros could go to the World Series! I mean so far they have a clean slate. Their lousy spring training is behind them and they haven't lost a single game in the 2011 season.

Monday, March 28, 2011

This taxes my patience

A story that received attention from some news organizations in the last few days was all about how General Electric Corporation paid zero income tax in the past year. It would be bad enough if this were an isolated instance and if most multi-billion dollar corporations in America paid their fair share of taxes. It is not an isolated instance.

Corporations such as Bank of America, Boeing, and Citigroup, to name just three, join the rolls of tax laggards. They, too, paid no taxes, in spite of the fact that they had record profits. And there are many, many others who take advantage of tax loopholes to reduce their tax liability to nothing.

That is the real scandal here. It is not that these corporations are necessarily doing anything illegal. I'm sure they have the very best legal and tax advice that money can buy and that those advisers have made sure that they remain within the letter of the law. The scandal is that there are so many loopholes written into the tax laws, often by legislators who are benefiting from campaign contributions from these corporations, that they are able to legally avoid paying taxes. Their actions may not be illegal, but they are most certainly immoral.

Many, in fact most, of these corporations receive subsidies and, in some cases in recent years, taxpayer bailouts to ensure their profitability or to keep them from failing. The average American taxpayer - that would be me - is being asked to support these gigantic corporations with our dollars, while they are doing absolutely nothing to support the infrastructure, social safety net, and defense of this country, all of which are paid for by taxes.

This is a situation that cries out for political courage from our elected representatives. It is the kind of thing that they should be working on instead of trying to repeal health care reform, Wall Street reform, and 30 years of progress in womens' rights. Unfortunately, these same corporations have bought and paid for a sizable number of our elected representatives, perhaps even a majority, and it appears that we, the average taxpayers, can expect no relief from them.

The only thing that these legislators fear more than losing the big bucks from the corporations is losing an election. An aroused and well-informed voting public could make that happen. There will be elections again in one year. Let us do what we can to be sure that the voting public is aroused and informed on this issue. It would be so exilarating to see average voters finally come together and vote in their own economic interests rather than simply succumbing to the scare tactics of slimy politicians. We might finally see true reform happen in our country - our country which needs that reform so badly.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I'm losing my second-favorite Bob

Bob Herbert's op-ed columns in The New York Times have very often been beacons of light in the darkness. His writing is always characterized by clear thinking, by ideas stated simply and understandably, by an elegance of writing that I can only admire and never hope to emulate. Sadly for his readers, in his latest - and last - column, he announced that he is leaving The Times. His absence will leave a void in public discourse that will be hard to fill.

Herbert's last column is titled "Losing Our Way" and it is all about how America of the 21st century is a place where "Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home."

Goodness knows this nation of failing infrastructures, growing poverty, and millions of people who are unable to get even basic medical care, needs building. But where is the leadership to do that? And where are the journalists who will point out that such leadership is needed? Who will take on Bob Herbert's mantle? I'm very much afraid the answer is no one.

As Herbert wrote in this last column:

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.

I'm not sure what it will take for us to find our way again or even if we can, but I think it will be harder without my second-favorite Bob there shining the light of his intelligence for us.


And who is my favorite Bob? Well, that would be my husband, whose birthday is today. Happy birthday, Light of My Life!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors by Jerry Liguori - A review

Hawks are a long-time nemesis of mine when it comes to bird identification. In fact, I have several nemeses - hawks, shore birds, sparrows, to name the three worst of the lot.

Hawks present a particular problem because one seldom sees them close-up in the field. They always seem to be at a distance and very often on the wing, so the birder is only able to see their belly. Moreover, their plumages are so variable that it is very difficult to isolate field marks that one can point to with assuredness.

And then there is the matter of their speed. If you are looking at a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk or one of the falcons, you had better look quickly because these babies are fast!

So what's a poor birder to do? Well, we rely on our field guides, but very often those are of minimal help. What we really need is a field guide that will help us identify hawks at a distance.

Jerry Liguori, a leading expert on North American raptors, recognized that need and has tried to meet it with his new book, Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors.

Liguori's innovation is to show these magnificent birds as you most often actually see them - in flight and at a distance. He does show one close-up shot of most of the species, but he follows that with many shots of the bird in action from different angles. Studying these excellent pictures gives one a sense of the shape of the bird, which is one of the most indicative traits for identification, and it allows you to see those obvious field marks that might actually be seen from a great distance.

It is an interesting concept and one that I think may be extremely helpful to many serious birders. For the typical backyard birder like myself, well, I'm not so sure. I've studied the book for several days now and I'm afraid I'm not any closer to being an expert identifier of hawks. I can easily identify the Sharp-shinned (squared tail), Cooper's (rounded tail), Red-tailed and Red-shouldered, the hawks that I see every day. I'm still going to have to work harder to be a good identifier of those less common hawks, but at least this book is one more tool in my kit and I need all the help I can get.

(Full disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher for purposes of this review.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The King's Silence

Have you heard what they are doing to the Oscar-winning movie, The King's Speech? They are muzzling it!

The King's Speech, in case you've been living under a rock and don't know, is the story of King George VI of England, the father of the current queen. It is a wonderful movie about a man who was never meant to be king. But then his older brother who was meant to be king decided that he couldn't do it without the help and support of "the woman I love", the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. And so he abdicated, passing the crown along to his younger brother, Albert, or Bertie as he was known to his family. But Bertie had a serious handicap as a king. He couldn't speak publically because of a terrible stammer. When he was forced to make a public speech, it was a humiliating and cringe-worthy event. Many different therapies were tried to help him. Finally, his wife Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died just a few years ago, found an Australian speech therapist and failed actor who had a unique approach to conquering stammering.

The wonderful story of the movie is really the developing friendship and trust between these two men - the king and the therapist. One of the ways the therapist finds to help Bertie is by encouraging him to swear, the theory being that swearing is a visceral act that short-circuits the part of the brain that considers the precise meaning of what you are saying. You don't think, you don't hesitate, you just let it fly! When Bertie finally lets go with a string of expletives, he does so without a single stutter. It is one of the most powerful moments in this powerful movie, because at that moment, we see and Bertie sees that it's really not his tongue that is tied - it's something higher up that is preventing him from using it effectively. It is the critical moment that changes everything. And now, the Weinstein Company, which produced the film, will silence that moment, in order to get the film a PG-13 rating and perhaps make a few million more dollars.

To that I say &%#$@! This is sacrilege. Not only that but it is stupid sacrilege. The movie will not be as powerful without that scene and if kids under 17 can't see it with the scene, then let them go watch Rango. Let us adults have this one. Don't silence the king.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wisdom lives

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the oldest known American bird in the wild was a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. Wisdom was 60 years old and she had just produced a chick on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific where she breeds. Then came the earthquake and the tsunami. All over the area, seabirds and their helpless chicks were swept out to sea and drowned by the thousands. It was initially feared that Wisdom and her chick were among them.

But Wisdom hasn't survived 60 years in the wild by being stupid. Her nest and her chick were on higher ground. National Fish and Wildlife Services personnel soon were able to verify that the chick had survived. But Wisdom was nowhere to be seen. This was not necessarily indicative of tragedy though, because albatrosses often spend days cruising and feeding over their ocean home before they return to feed their chick. And so it proved to be with this bird. This week she returned.

Wisdom tends her chick. (Picture by Pete Leary of U.S. F.W.S.)

Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader of the Hawaiian and Pacific Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said of the bird's return: "Although wildlife biologists generally manage at the level of populations, we, too, become entwined in the fates of individual animals. Wisdom is one such special creature. She has also provided us with valuable information about the longevity of these beautiful birds - in her case over 60 years - and reinforced the importance of breeding adults in the population. It is very humbling to know this 8-pound bird has been producing chicks longer than I have been alive."

In 60 years in the Pacific, Wisdom has no doubt survived tsunamis before, and now her story provides one small victory, one tiny point of light in an otherwise dark ongoing tragedy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Big Love's finale

Did you watch "Big Love" last night? This HBO series about a modern day polygamist cult in Utah ended its five-year run last night with an episode that rushed about madly trying to tie up all the loose ends of all the wild and crazy story-lines it had introduced this season.

I watched the entire series, all five years, every episode, with two big fans of the show. I was a...little fan of the show.

The first year was very entertaining. Partly, I think, it was the novelty of the situation - a marriage of a man, a successful businessman, and three women with all their many children all living together in three adjoining houses in Salt Lake City. If nothing else, there was enough prurient interest to keep the series going that first year, but after that season, it began to flag a bit in my estimation until, in this last season, the show had lost its focus altogether. It was a mish-mash of competing and fragmented story-lines that went nowhere and contradicted much of what had gone before.

Take Bill the polygamist's parents, Lois and Frank, for example. These two characters had spent four years trying to kill each other, but in this season, we find out that Lois has Alzheimer's disease and she wants Frank to take care of her. And he does! The last scene that we see of them is with the two of them lying in bed, empty pill bottles on the bedside table, and Frank talking about the good old days when they were first married. Lois appears to be asleep or maybe already dead. And what of Frank? Has he committed suicide, too? Well, that is left to the viewer's imagination.

I was never able to work up much empathy for any of the characters in the show. Bill Hendrickson, the main character, was a real piece of work! He wanted to have sex with lots of hot women, so he invented a theology and a cult that made it okay for him to do that. In doing so, he joined a long line of horny men throughout history who have invented similar religions for similar reasons. What perplexed me was why the three hot women (and they were hot) would go along with it.

The most interesting thing about the series for me was the relationship of the three "sister wives." Barbara, Nicky, and Margene were really like sisters. There were jealousies and conflicts, but ultimately they did support each other. Their characters showed the most growth and development through the life of the series. By the end, even spacey Margene showed signs that she might actually develop into a fully-fledged adult human being and Nicky gave glimpses that she might grow a heart, while Barbara seemed poised to take over the leadership role in the cult.

What I would really be interested to see would be Barbara, as leader, opening up their cult to polyandry. I mean, why should men have all the fun? How about a family of one wife and three husbands? Now, I might watch that!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The right-wing flaps

The latest thing that the right-wing has its knickers in a twist about is President Obama's trip to South America. How could he take a "Rio vacation", they scream, when the world is in turmoil? Never mind that the diplomatic trip - which is actually part of the job description of being president - has been planned for months. No, these bozos want him to drop everything and hole up in the White House to handle the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear power plant leaks, and now, the military action against Libya. Apparently they assume that he is out of contact with his administration and with the world when he's in Brazil. But then they never did really understand the way technology works.

Earlier this week, these same people got all hot and bothered because President Obama took time to fill out his brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament. And, of course, the idea of him actually taking time to play golf just about sends them over the edge. Funny, I don't remember them getting this concerned when George W. Bush spent most of his presidency clearing brush and mountain biking in Texas. Context is everything, I guess. Actually, party affiliation is everything as far as these guys are concerned.

Personally, I'm not really interested in college basketball, but I'm glad that President Obama gets some enjoyment and relaxation from it. Same thing with golf. It's not my thing, but it's okay with me if he plays a few rounds occasionally.

This president works at being president about as hard as anyone ever has, I think, and he came to the presidency at a time when the country was in one of the deepest holes it has ever been in. The problems and worries that are on his shoulders are just about unimaginable to the average citizen and most certainly to the pundits on Fox News. He needs and deserves some occasional "down time".

But the trip to South America is not "down time". It is a working trip designed to build our relationships with some of the powerhouses of that region. That is a region that this country ignores to its peril and it is important for us to strengthen our ties there. If the right-wingers were not so blinded by their prejudice, even they would be able to see that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Land of the Painted Caves by Jean Auel: A review

Jean M. Auel's first book in her "Earth's Children" series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was published in 1980, and introduced Ayla, a Cro-Magnon child who had lost her family in a earthquake. She was found by a group of Neanderthals, the Clan of the Cave Bear, who took her in and raised her. It was a well-written and thoroughly researched book which brought the people of that prehistorical period to life.

In the next ten years, Auel published three more books in the series: The Valley of Horses; The Mammoth Hunters; and The Plains of Passage. The books continued to show the author's attention to getting the details of prehistoric life plausible and as correct as possible, and they contained a wealth of information about how those lives may have been lived. But by the fourth book, the series was definitely running out of steam.

Twelve years passed before Auel completed the fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone, in which Ayla and her lover, Jondalar, were mated and settled down to life in the Ninth Cave of the Zeladonai, who were Jondalar's people. Now, nine years later, the sixth and, apparently final, book in the series, The Land of Painted Caves, will be released on March 29. I received an advance copy and spent this week reading it.

I am fascinated by anthropology and archaeology, especially of prehistoric humans, and so this series would seem like manna from the heavens for me, and, indeed, I have enjoyed it for the most part. This last entry, though, was a disappointment.

The book is divided into three (very big) parts. In part I, Ayla is an acolyte to the Zelandonii, who are healers and keepers of the people's myths and ancient wisdom. Ayla and Jondalar have a baby daughter, Jonayla, and Ayla experiences all the conflicts of any working mother. In part II, five years have passed but Ayla's training continues and she must often spend time away from her family to perform her duties. In part III, she becomes a full-fledged member of the Zelandonii, but her relationship with Jondalar suffers and conflicts threaten to tear them apart.

This is a very, very long book, over 700 pages, and it seems longer.
It could have easily been shortened with some judicious editing and I think that would have made it a better book. As it stands, the writing is boringly repetitious. The author recapitulates all Ayla's history from the previous books. There might have been a need for that once, but it seems like she does it in practically every second chapter. After the second or third retelling, I'm saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know! Just get on with the story!" But she doesn't.

In truth, not much happens in this book. There isn't much drama at all until part III. Mostly it is a relating of the day-to-day lives of the Zelandonai (Cro-Magnon) and how they utilize the resources around them to make life better and easier for themselves. As a gardener myself, one of the things that I truly enjoyed about the book was all the lore about plants and their uses, including psychotropic plants and how they might have been utilized. Auel has not lost her touch as a researcher and the intricate explanations of the uses of plants is proof of that.

I'm sorry to say, though, that I think she has lost her touch as a story-teller, and perhaps it is just as well that this is the last in the series.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The chickadees must be Irish 'cause they paint their nest green

The Carolina Chickadees are ready to produce the next generation of their kind and I am convinced they are Irish, because they love the green so much that they insist their babies are born to it.

They build their nest entirely of soft green moss. They've taken over not one but two of my bluebird boxes for the purpose. The bluebirds returned too late to find the chickadees already in possession of the boxes.

The nest is all green moss except for the very top where the eggs, and later chicks, nestle. For that, the chickadees find the softest material available - in this case, cat fur! Yes, I have two cats that live in my backyard, and at this time of year, whenever they groom themselves and leave tufts of fur behind, it is grabbed by nesting birds as soon as it hits the ground. The chickadees and titmice especially prize it. (And, no, these cats are no danger to birds or other wildlife.) The little eggs, as you can see here, are smaller than my fingernails. They are just about the size of a large sugar snap pea. It's hard to believe that fully-formed birds will emerge from them in a couple of weeks. There are five eggs already in the nest, but the little female may not be finished. These birds sometimes lay as many as eight eggs. Maybe that accounts for the fact that my yard is overrun with chickadees!

My little chickadees and I wish you a happy St. Patrick's Day from my very green yard.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The fascinating science of a terrible event

The ever-expanding catastrophe faced by Japan's people as a result of last week's earthquake (now rated as a 9.0 on the Richter scale), the tsunami that followed, and now the very real possibility of a nuclear disaster is almost too awful to imagine. No, in fact, it is too awful to imagine and, frankly, I am not sad that my imagination is not up to the task.

All the reports about the events that I have seen or heard emphasize that Japan is about as well-prepared for disaster as any country can be. They are well-aware of the seismic neighborhood in which they live, and they expend every possible effort to make people knowledgable about what could happen and to get them ready for the eventuality. Even so, the devastation is terrible and the tasks people face in rebuilding their lives seem almost beyond human capabilities. It breaks the heart and stuns the mind.

And yet, in spite of all that, if one can manage to step back for a moment from the human devastation and simply consider the science of the event, it is fascinating and - yes, I will even use that terribly overused word that I hate so much - awesome. There was a really good article by Kenneth Chang in The New York Times today which explained in easy-to-understand terms just how awesome it was.

As Chang explained, the force of the earthquake actually moved Japan's coastline, making it, in places, as much as 13 feet closer to the United States West Coast. It also changed the balance of the earth, causing a redistribution of the planet's mass that slightly tilted its axis, and has possibly shortened our days by a couple of millionths of a second.

Chang writes:

That part of Asia, to the surprise of many who look at the geological map, sits on the North American tectonic plate, which wraps up and around the Pacific plate and extends a tentacle southward that part of Japan sits atop. The Pacific plate is moving about 3.5 inches a year in a west-northwest direction, and in that collision — what geologists call a subduction zone — the Pacific plate dives under the North American plate.

Most of the time, the two tectonic plates are stuck together, and the North American plate is squeezed, much like a playing card held between the thumb and forefinger.

As the fingers squeeze the card, it buckles upward until the card pops free.

In the same way, the North American plate buckles, and the eastern part of Japan is slowly pushed to the west. But when the earthquake, which occurred offshore, released the tension, the land jumped back to the east.

As it unbuckled, a 250-mile-long coastal section of Japan dropped in altitude by two feet, which allowed the tsunami to travel farther and faster onto land...

Trying to wrap my head around all of this just makes me wish I had spent more time on geology and earth sciences in school. The processes by which this planet constantly shapes and remakes itself are so finely tuned and so intricate and so downright fascinating that one could spend one's life studying them and never completely understand them. Of course, many scientists do spend their lives in that effort. I envy them.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore: A review

I have loved Sherlock Holmes since I was twelve years old and spent the summer reading the complete collection of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about the iconic detective. A sure-fire way to catch my attention for a book is to give it a Holmesian theme, so when I saw news of the publication of The Sherlockian by Graham Moore, of course I had to read it.

Moore had a doozy of an idea for this, his first novel. He would write a tale of two storylines. One would be a historical mystery involving Arthur Conan Doyle and his friend Bram Stoker solving a series of murders that occurred around the turn of the twentieth century. The second storyline would take place in the present and would involve the present-day disciples of Conan Doyle's famous detective, the Sherlockians. Moore switches back and forth from one chapter to the next in telling his two stories and he does quite a masterful job of juggling the two tales and keeping the reader's interest.

Moore actually begins his tale back in 1893 at the time that Conan Doyle "killed" Sherlock Holmes by sending him over those falls in Switzerland. Doyle found that the reaction of the reading public to his "murder" was quite extreme and unrelenting, but he was undeterred. He hated his creation and wanted him dead.

Fast forward seven years and Doyle and his "Watson," Bram Stoker of Dracula fame, become involved in the investigation of the murders of two young women that seem to be linked. In the course of their investigation, a third young woman is brutally murdered and Doyle learns that being a detective is not quite as easy as Holmes (i.e., he) made it appear.

Meantime, we meet a newly-minted Sherlockian, Harold White, in 2010. He is attending a convention of Sherlockians at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where one of the prominent members is to talk about having found Arthur Conan Doyle's lost diary and present it to the gathering. But, before he can do that, he is found strangled in his hotel room and no diary can be located. Harold and a reporter named Sarah set out to solve the mystery of what happened. Naturally, they end up in London among the streets and byways once familiar to Arthur Conan Doyle and well-known to any reader of the Sherlock stories.

This book is full of red herrings and blind alleyways and the ultimate solutions to both of the mysteries are not really what I was expecting, but they are satisfying.

The only criticism that I have of the book is that the writing often felt a bit stilted to me. It didn't flow organically as, for example, a Sherlock Holmes mystery would. But, after all, it was Moore's first book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Terrorism in the House

Rep. Peter King, R-NY, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and former avid supporter of the Irish Republican Army, is very, very concerned about terrorism and the danger it poses to America. He is concerned that American citizens are being radicalized to commit violence against other American citizens and so he convened this investigative hearing of his committee today.

But he confined his hearing and his investigation to only Muslim Americans. If Rep. King is truly concerned about radicalization of Americans, I have a few suggestions for his investigations and hearings.

How about investigating the militia movement right across the country that is busily arming itself and advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government?

Or, in a similar vein, he could investigate all the white supremacist groups which periodically foment violence against Americans who do not meet their rigid racial specifications.

How about the evangelical Christian groups who encourage the killing of doctors who perform a legal medical procedure called an abortion, or who would force a 12-year-old incestual rape victim to bear a child that results from that rape, even if it puts her life in jeopardy?

For that matter, he might choose to investigate the radicalized state governments - all or mostly all male - that insist on passing draconian laws that demonize American citizens who seek abortions.

I would submit that terrorism is alive and well in America today and it is not at all hard to find, but most of it has nothing to do with mosques or Muslims. If King is truly concerned about stopping terrorism in America, then he should broaden his investigative hearings to cover all those places where it occurs, perhaps even including the terrorism that is being perpetrated in the House of Representatives with its singling out of the Muslim community.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Newt explains it all

Serial adulterer and perpetual hypocrite Newt Gingrich is making noises about possibly running for president again. I don't think he will. I don't think he even wants to really. I think he just wants the notoriety that comes from having his name mentioned as a possible candidate and the financial benefits that accrue to one who claims to be considering the race. But if he did run, it would be particularly ugly because all that nasty stuff about his sexual history would become a hot topic once again.

Newt is on his third marriage and his method for finding new wives has been nothing if not consistent. He cheated on his first wife and divorced her while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He then married his mistress. He cheated on her with a young staffer as the second wife was being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He divorced her* and married his mistress who is now his third wife.

So how does he justify all that? Well, you see, it was just because he is so passionate about this country and he was working so hard for it that "things happened." Funny, I thought things happened because he was so passionate about all those mistresses. Silly me!

This is what he actually told an interviewer on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network:

There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness. I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people, deep down in their hearts hope there’s a forgiving God. Somebody once said that when we’re young, we seek justice, but as we get older, we seek mercy. There’s something to that, I think.

So it all happened because he is just so darn patriotic and he felt compelled to spread that "patriotism" around as much as possible. (I would be interested to know which young staff member he's spreading it around to now.) But it's all okay because God forgives him. Funny how that works.

If I could offer two words of advice to the current Mrs. Gingrich, assuming she wants to remain the current Mrs. Gingrich, it would be these: Stay healthy. If you are diagnosed with a debilitating illness, you can expect the notice of divorce to be delivered post haste.

*He persuaded the Catholic Church to annul that second marriage so that he could marry his current wife who was and is a Catholic. Newt was not a Catholic at the time but promised to become one. Thus is the Catholic Church complicit in his adulteries, as indeed it is for many powerful men who are members, speaking of hypocrisy.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A different kind of bird guide

American birders are used to birding field guides that can be easily carried into the field where the user can refer to them when they see an unusual bird. Richard Crossley comes from another tradition. He grew up in England where the practice was to take a notebook and pencil with you when birding to make notes about or draw what you saw. Then you returned to base and compared your notes or drawings to what was shown in your birding guide books. That tradition has informed his recently released magnum opus, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

This is not a book to carry into the field with you, unless you are planning to combine your birding with weight-lifting. This is a BIG book. But it is definitely a book that you would want to refer to after your return from the field for it provides a wealth of information about birds.

Here, for comparison of size, are a few of my guides laid out on my dining room table. Crossley is on the left; next is the recently published Stokes guide which is also a big book. Then, in order, are the National Geographic, the Sibley, the Kaufmann, and, lastly, my old Peterson guide.

The book is big at least in part because of Crossley's revolutionary approach in presenting his species pictures. He has taken photographs of the individual bird species in many different plumages and poses and placed them (using modern photographic technology) in a naturalistic setting that depicts the bird's normal habitat. The result is a kind of diorama of bird activity for each species.

Thus, when you look at a species' page, you are looking, in effect, at a flock of the birds as they might appear in the wild if you saw that many of them together. They are flying or perching or walking or eating or singing. As you gaze at them in all these different poses, Crossley's idea is that you will be seeing the birds close to the way that you actually saw your bird in the wild, rather than the more structured way that birds often appear in field guides.

For example, this is the Crossley page for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The bird is shown in several plumages and different poses within a setting such as you would be likely to see the bird in naturally.

This, on the other hand, is the way that the Stokes guide, which also uses photographs, solves the problem of showing the different plumages of the same bird.

And this is the Sibley which uses the traditional approach of depicting the bird against a white background and pointing out field marks that help to identify the bird. This is the method that was pioneered by that father of field guides and of modern birding, Roger Tory Peterson.

I think Crossley's idea is a brilliant innovation and a step forward in the production of bird guides. Moreover, it is one that I think is likely to prove very popular with my fellow birders.

This guide is short on text. Crossley states right up front that he doesn't like text. For him, the picture's the thing. If one picture is worth a thousand words and this book contains over 10,000 pictures...well, you do the math.

If you love birds, whether you are a dedicated and obsessive birder, a backyard birder, or just someone who enjoys birds and wants to know more about them, you need to check this book out on your next trip to the bookstore. You might find it is just what you've been looking for.

(Full disclosure: A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

The anti-scientists

It is very frustrating and at times downright appalling to be an average citizen of reasonable intelligence and to see the direction in which the new leaders of our House of Representatives are taking that legislative branch of government. Elections do have consequences and, in this case, the consequences for the environment and for our descendants will be dire indeed. But, if it is frustrating for the average citizen, imagine how galling and downright apoplectic-making it must be for the decent congressman or congresswoman who is trying to do his or her job and make the country and the world a better place to live for us all. Consider Henry Waxman, D-California.

When the Democrats held a majority in the House, Waxman was the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He worked on policies in behalf of health, telecommunications, energy and environmental legislation, including the sweeping climate change and energy bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate and eventually died there. Now, Waxman is the ranking Democrat on that committee which is chaired by Fred Upton, R-Michigan. Upton is sponsoring a bill to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that heat-trapping gases endanger public health and the environment. He is one of many of the human-caused climate change deniers in the House and Senate. He and his pal Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma apparently believe if they can just repeal that nasty EPA finding, that will be the end of it.

Representative Waxman has a different view of the matter. He said, "The new Republican majority in the House has a lot of power to write our nation's laws, but they do not have the power to rewrite the laws of nature. Republicans in Congress can't cure cancer by passing a bill that declares smoking safe. And they can't stop climate change by declaring it a hoax."

He went on to say that if the Congress does not recognize the seriousness of the threat of climate change and take appropriate action that "history will not judge us kindly." My fear, however, is that history will not judge us at all, because there will be no human civilization left to remark on our failures.

One more tiny vignette really tells us all we need to know about the petty childishness of this Congress and its leaders and their anti-scientific attitudes. When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, she did away with the use of styrofoam cups in the cafeteria because they are not environmentally safe. They are not biodegradable. One of John Boehner's first acts was to rescind that policy and reinstate styrofoam cups. It turns out that the owner of the company that makes the cups is a former executive in the Koch brothers' company. That's right - the Koch brothers who contribute millions of dollars to Republican and tea party campaigns and causes. Of course, that was just a coincidence, they say.

And if you believe that, I have this lovely bridge I'd like to sell you.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff - A review

It is said that history is written by the victors and thus it is extremely difficult to get a true picture of the vanquished. They are almost always demonized and denigrated. There is probably no more cogent example of this than Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her first biographies were written by Romans, eager to please her implacable enemy, Octavian, soon to be Caesar Augustus. Octavian was the victor; Cleopatra and Mark Antony were the vanquished. They could expect nothing good to be written or remembered of them.

The early biographies and histories that were written of Cleopatra were biased and politically motivated. The writing was altogether xenophobic and sensationalistic. Even in these accounts though, something of the strong will and personality of the woman came through to inspire later poets and writers. For more than 2,000 years she has fascinated us and still does. She has been written about time and again, and in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, the excellent historian Stacy Schiff has sifted through all those writings to reconstruct the real Cleopatra and give us a portrait of the woman of charisma and formidable intelligence, as well as iron will and self-control.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt and a good part of the Mediterranean region for some twenty years. She was a resourceful leader who was apparently beloved by her subjects. She was a leader who, Schiff writes, "knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine."

The broad outlines of Cleopatra's story are almost too well known, from her audacious gambit of having herself smuggled into the palace where Julius Caesar was staying and presented to him, to the final act after the battle at Actium, after Mark Antony had committed suicide and Octavian had taken her beloved city of Alexandria. Cleopatra committed suicide probably not with the aid of an asp but with a quick-acting poison hidden in a basket of figs. Thus she deprived Octavian of the ultimate victory of being able to parade her through the streets of Rome in golden chains.

Interestingly, Sciff postulates a theory that Octavian may actually have been complicit in her suicide, realizing that having Cleopatra as an ornament in his triumphal parade might not be altogether wise or seemly. She had, after all, been the mistress of the divine Julius and the mother of his child. Romans could be fickle in their affections and they might not take kindly to seeing her humiliated. There is no way of knowing the truth of the matter, of course, just as there is no way of knowing the truth of much of Cleopatra's story.

Even though the reader knows how this story is going to end, Schiff has written a highly readable page-turner of the famous events and personalities. She has scrupulously labeled speculation for what it is and has tried to steer us strictly within the confines of the known facts. It can't be easy following in the footsteps of the many writers who have preceded her, beginning with people like Dio, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Josephus, (not to mention Shakespeare) but she has acquitted herself always with audacity and style. Not unlike her subject.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The people speak

An interesting thing has been happening around the country this week and, as often occurs with interesting things, it doesn't seem that it is being reported by the mainstream media as much as it would appear to deserve. I'm talking about poll after poll that has been taken within the last couple of weeks by just about every polling organization in the country, and for once they are all unanimous and unambiguous in their results. The people have spoken and they have said that they don't want collective bargaining rights taken away from public sector employees. Furthermore, when they are asked how they prefer to have the budget gap closed, they overwhelmingly prefer the "soak the rich" method. By a large margin, they believe that the rich should pay higher taxes.

The results from a New York Times/CBS poll released earlier this week are fairly typical. But even a poll by Rasmussen, the notoriously pro-Republican/conservative polling organization, found similar results.

The bottom line is that Americans do not hate unions. They understand that to take away a person's right to organize with like-minded people to protect themselves, their rights, and their jobs is to leave the average worker defenseless against the "Big Bosses" and they don't approve of that.

Also, when given the choice of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and the middle class by tearing holes in the social safety net or by requiring the very, very rich to sacrifice more for the good of all, it is no contest. The people surveyed strongly believe that the rich are NOT paying their fair share and that they should do so.

I think the findings of these polls probably came as a shock to some Republican governors and also to some inside-the-beltway Washington political pundits who are suckers for whatever line the Republicans happen to be peddling this week. Let us hope that the Democrats in positions to take advantage of these findings are reading the polls and that they are smart enough to interpret and use them in their public discourse and in their campaigns in coming months.

The people are speaking and smart politicians should listen.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Charlie Sheen affair

This is a momentous and exciting time in the history of the world. All over the Middle East and across North Africa, ordinary people are rising up to demand that basic human rights be respected in their countries and that citizens have a say in how they are governed. In our own country, across the Mid-West, workers are marching in the streets and standing up for their rights to have some control over their own working lives. They are demanding that their dignity and the dignity of their work be respected and not denigrated and scapegoated. In Washington, one of the nation's major political parties is doing its dead-level best to take this country back to the mid-nineteenth century. In China, the government is cracking down on reporters, sometimes beating and arresting them as they attempt to show the effect of all the unrest in their own country.

In short, there is plenty of serious news to keep even the 24/7 news cycle of the cable news networks busy reporting it. So what do they choose to spend their time reporting on? A drug-addled, egomaniacal actor who is suffering from diarrhea of the mouth. Charlie Sheen can't shut up, and the networks and cable news love him for it. They keep encouraging him and enabling his mental breakdown and his career suicide by offering him chances to be interviewed on their various shows. This poor, sick, self-delusional man has become the main headline of many of the television "news" shows.

To give the devils their due, the news shows do actually spend time reporting on the real news stories of the day, some of which I mentioned in the first paragraph, but still, they give an inordinate amount of air time to this non-story. Another drug addict cracks up. Ho hum. Tell me again, exactly what is news about that?

I understand that Charlie Sheen is - or has been - the star of a popular telelvision show, one that a certain member of my family actually seems to enjoy watching. As such, no doubt his fans are sincerely interested in what is happening to him. His family and the people who care about him must be beside themselves with worry and concern over this sordid affair and certainly their suffering is not made less by the pandering of the news shows.

Personally, I have sympathy for Sheen as a human being. I do believe he is sick and that he needs help and I hope he gets it. But as a news story, I can state unequivocally that I do not give two figs for Charlie Sheen. I do not care if his series is canceled and his career ruined and I do not think that the news shows should spend one precious minute of their air time reporting on his situation. Not when there are people dying on the streets of Libya trying to bring democracy to that country. Not when the workers of America are under attack by determined and well-financed foes who do not believe they should have the right to organize and bargain collectively. Not when children in Texas and across the country stand to lose health insurance coverage and to have the quality of their education debased because politicians want to pay back their wealthy supporters.

No, there are too many real and important stories that need reporting. We do not need the distraction of the Charlie Sheen affair.