Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hey, hey, he was a Monkee!

Sad news today that Davy Jones of "The Monkees" has died at the age of 66, much too young.

I am of an age to be able to remember the Monkees when they were hot back in the 1960s. The concept for the group was dreamed up by the publicity department at Columbia. The four young guys - in addition to Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesbith - were sort of a poor girl's Beatles. They starred in a popular television show called, oddly enough, "The Monkees" in which they had all manner of madcap G-rated adventures every week, patterned somewhat on the Beatles' Hard Day's Night. They were supposed to be something of an antidote to the Beatles' more R-rated adventures, and fans absolutely loved them.

Of course, they were never as big as the Beatles, but for a while, they reigned atop the television world and managed to produce some pretty decent music in the process. They were trailblazers in the sense that they were among the first, if not the first, of the manufactured boy bands - groups that were deliberately put together to appeal to a specific demographic consisting mostly of preteen girls.

Each member of the band had a particular role to play. Davy Jones was the cute little (he had formerly been a jockey) heartthrob, a sort of Paul McCartney type. He played his part well and after the Monkees broke up, he continued as a single act and later did some acting on other television shows. All in all, he had a moderately successful, if not blockbuster, career, brought pleasure to thousands of fans, and lived out his later life in some obscurity, probably quite happily.

I have fond memories of the Monkees and of Davy Jones. It is sad to see him leaving us, as so many others of that era, my youth, have already done. Time marches inexorably on. Doesn't mean we have to like it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Biologists consider the consequences of a warm winter

All across North America, the adjective that has most often been used to describe the winter we are currently experiencing is "mild." January and February which often bring the harshest winter weather with plenty of snow and ice and below-freezing temperatures have been unusually warm this year. Although there have been isolated snow storms and some periods of cold weather, they have been few and far between and of short duration.

Scientists considering the implications of these weeks of relative warmth in what is usually the coldest part of winter speculate that when all the data is collected, this winter may be close to an all-time record breaker. While a mild winter in North America is still considered a rare event, it is likely that such winters will be much less rare in the future. And that has serious consequences for plants and animals whose lives are bound to the cycle of seasons.

Plants are flowering earlier than ever and, while it is a boost to the spirits to see these bright colors in the middles of a season that is usually mostly brown, since most places in the country still have the possibility of a freeze for several weeks yet, if a freeze does occur, it could destroy those early blooms and, with them, the hope of any fruit from those blooms. This, of course, is of particular concern to farmers, horticulturalists, and home gardeners who grow fruit trees and vines. If an apple tree flowers early and then gets hit by a frost, there goes any possibility of an apple crop this year.

It's not only plants that are affected. Plants and their pollinators - bees, moths, birds, etc. - are normally in sync. The pollinators show up just as the appropriate plants are blooming and they do their jobs. But if the plants bloom early, the pollinators may or may not be there at just the right time and the job of pollination may not get done.

Moreover, animals such as birds time their breeding to occur at a time of plenty. Birds' migration patterns are related to the time of hatch of their prey insects or to the production of the particular plant on which they feed. Early warming throws all of that carefully calibrated mating dance into chaos.

Climate scientists always say that they cannot draw conclusions on the basis of one season or one weather event, but as unusual and downright freakish weather events continue to happen with increased frequency right around the world, the conclusion seems inevitable to me. The climate is warming and we are the ones who lit the fire. Of course, that won't convince the dedicated deniers who just stick their fingers in their ears and shout, "La, la, la, la, la, la!"  But denying what's happening won't stop it from happening.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh, please! Just shut up and/or go away!

"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up and it should make every American…Now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square. " - Rick Santorum to George Stephanopoulus on Sunday television show This Week    
"I'm for separation of church and state. The state has no business telling the church what to do."
- Rick Santorum in Michigan today
Taking these two quotes from Rick Santorum together, one can see that he doesn't believe that the state should have any control over religion. On the other hand, he obviously does believe that the church should be able to tell the state what to do, no matter how much he may deny it now that he has started to receive flak because of his ignorant statement to Stephanopoulus on Sunday..

Rick Santorum, I remember Jack Kennedy's speech back when he was running for president. Rick Santorum, you are no Jack Kennedy.

Of course, Kennedy, the first and so far only Catholic president this country has had, never said anything close to what Santorum accused him of saying, as Joan Walsh carefully delineated in her excellent blog post on entitled "Santorum's JFK story makes me want to throw up" in which she quotes extensively from JFK's speech. But Santorum, like many other Republicans, is in no way bound by the truth. They seem to believe that if they can say it, it somehow magically becomes true. This entire year of vying for the Republican presidential nomination could justly be called "The Year of Magical Thinking."

What is particularly troubling is that Walsh is one of the few journalists on the scene today who is willing to point to such statements as Santorum has made and call a lie a lie. This is true even though the lie is easily debunked with only a brief internet search to call up the Kennedy speech and read it.

And so we continue to get lies such as Gingrich's statement that Senator Obama voted in favor of infanticide or Romney's insistence that the economy is in worse shape today than when President Obama took office. And we continue to hear the lie that Barack Obama was not born in this country or that he is not a Christian but a Muslim. There seems to be no depth that the perfidy and dishonesty of these people will not plumb in their desperate attempt to remove from the White House a black president whom they despise and disrespect.

I am so sick of all of these puny little unworthy men running for the Republican Party's nomination for president that I just want them all to go away - the sooner the better. They are an embarrassment to a once proud party and to this country. The thought that any of them could stand a snowball's chance in hell of becoming president of the country is enough to make me throw up.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The annoying thing about history books

One of the things that I find unutterably annoying about history books is their insistence upon dwelling on wars.  To read most history books, you would think that nothing of importance ever happened without battles, bloodshed, people dying. And yet the advance of the human race from bare survival to thriving as the most successful species on the planet has been the result of a much quieter revolution and evolution. The advance from wandering around gathering wild fruits and roots and seeds to settling down and growing them in one spot. The invention and development of tools and shelters and medicines to make life easier. For the most part, you don't see monuments to those kind of things. No, such edifices are only erected for battles and for the men who fight them. And so, when I read this poem today, I thought, "There are places like this all over the world. Places where no battles happened and the 'only heroic thing is the sky'."

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford 

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

It seems to me that the most hallowed ground should be that on which nobody died and where the air is tame and birds can fly unfettered and in peace. An un-monumental place.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nature: Red oak awakening

Spring has come early to my yard this year. The oak trees are awakening, bringing promise of the season to come. After more than a year of extreme drought in Southeast Texas, we've had a very wet beginning to 2012. The trees that have survived the drought have drunk deep from all that water and restored themselves. It is a very hopeful thing to see.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt: A review

In the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum naturaOn the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenblatt assures us, of unsurpassed beauty, but it was also a work which explored and tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. It explained that everything from stars to earthworms was made up of atoms, tiny particles which could not be divided. Beyond the atoms was the void, and that is the universe: atoms, void, and nothingness. You might say that this poem was the beginning of string theory, the attempt to explain everything.

Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus. He believed the highest good was pleasure and that everything about humans including the "soul" was made up of those atoms that he described. When humans die, the soul, which is a physical part of the human, dies, too. There is no afterlife of either reward or punishment. Therefore, human beings should seek pleasure in this life since that's all there is. In seeking that pleasure, though, they should try to live a moral and abstemious life, one that brings good not just to the individual but to the community of which he is a part.

Lucretius' poem was lost sometime in antiquity. In 1417, an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy of it in a German monastery. He had it copied and sent it to a fellow humanist in Italy. In time, more and more copies were made and distributed and the philosophy of the poet began to find its way into the conversations and the thoughts of intellectuals and artists of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church tried to stop the dissemination of ideas which flowed from the poem. They convicted many admirers of the poem of heresy and killed them in the most horrendous and cruel ways possible. But they were unable to stop the flow of ideas.

Stephen Greenblatt makes a strong case that the modern world actually began with the wider distribution of Lucretius' poem, helped along by Gutenberg and his printing press. Throughout the six hundred or so years since the poem emerged from obscurity, it has influenced the thinking of many movers and shakers who have helped to create the world we know. Not least of these was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote to a correspondent who asked his philosophy of life, "I am an Epicurean."

Interesting stuff and very well-written. Greenblatt knows how to tell a story that connects all the dots.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The dangerous profession

Journalism, when it is done right, can be a dangerous profession. We've had at least three tragic reminders of that fact this week, all of them related to the conflict in Syria.

First, award-winning reporter Anthony Shadid of The New York Times died tragically and unnecessarily. His death was apparently the result of natural causes, a severe asthma attack, but if he had not been in that dangerous part of the world, trying to shed light on the murky situation there for his readers, he would probably have gotten the medical attention that he needed in time to save his life.

But then, later in the week, two more journalists, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and her companion, French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the shelling of the city of Homs. There have been suggestions that journalists are actually being targeted by the repressive Syrian regime as it tries to hold on to power. They don't want the story of their brutality to be shown to the world and so they must stop courageous journalists from reporting it.

Assad's government has shown no compunction about turning guns on their own people. Syrian children, women, and noncombatant men have been senselessly slaughtered in this reign of terror. The United Nations has accused the regime of crimes against humanity and it is long past time that they should be gone and allow the Syrian people to begin to rebuild their country.

And speaking of the Syrian people, they have shown remarkable courage in this dangerous situation. Again and again, they have taken to the streets, putting their lives on the line to try to bring about change. That is the story that Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin were trying to tell with their journalistic talents and that Remi Ochlik was trying to show to the world with his camera. They had courage to match that of the Syrian people.

Courageous journalists can make a difference. I only wish that we had more such journalists who were willing to stand up to power and to tell the truth in this country.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who will win Oscars this year?

The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday night with Billy Crystal hosting the show this year. There doesn't seem to be much excitement and anticipation about the movies up for awards this year. There isn't any obvious favorite as often happens, and speculation, which sometimes runs wild by this time in the process, has been notably subdued this year.

Personally, I've only seen three of the movies that up for the major awards: The Help, The Descendants, and Bridesmaids. I thought they were all good movies, not great movies. If I were forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be The Descendants, just because of George Clooney's performance. But I don't feel that strongly about either of the movies.

The Artist has a lot of supporters, but not having seen it, I can't really offer an opinion. Likewise, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life have created a bit of buzz, but I'm at the same disadvantage with them.

So, who will win the Oscars this year? And does anyone really care anymore? I used to love the Oscar show when I was a kid. All that glitz and glamour was really something to look forward to each year. But the whole idea of awards shows has been so cheapened by their proliferation in recent years, they just don't have the same cachet any more. Every organization with even the most tenuous link to movies gives out awards these days.

Still, this is the big one. The Oscars. So I'll probably be watching Sunday night, even though I don't really care who wins. Anyway, Downton Abbey ended its season last Sunday so my viewing time has been freed up and come Sunday night. I'll be suffering from Downton withdrawal. Something has to fill the void. Might as well be Oscar.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting take on The Descendants from today's

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The 32,000-year-old flower

A team of Russian scientists claims to have generated living plants from the tissue of a plant which died 32,000 years ago. This is amazing stuff and, if confirmed, would be the oldest plant from which living offspring have been created.

In the past, there have been stories of seeds taken from the tombs of pharoahs, thousands of years old, that have germinated and produced plants. On closer examination and carbon dating, those seeds were proved to be modern contaminants in the tombs. Currently, the oldest confirmed case is a date palm that was grown from a 2,000-year-old seed from the Jewish fortress of Masada. Carbon dating has confirmed the age of the seed in that instance.

So far, studies of the Russians' claims for their plant, an Arctic flower called the narrow-leafed campion, have supported their claims. The seeds for the plant were taken from an ancient squirrel's nest that had been sealed by sediment and frozen for thousands of years. The scientists first tried germinating the seeds but were unsuccessful. Then they took tissue from the placenta, the organ of the plant that produces the seeds, and they were able to clone living plants from that tissue.

And here it is, blooming!

I'm not sure what practical application this research has or what it might mean for the future of botany, but I just think it is extremely cool. A 32,000-year-old flower. Wow!

Monday, February 20, 2012

From "must-win" to "can't win"

After weeks of seemingly taking for granted that he would win in Michigan, Mitt Romney is now playing down the state, trying to lower expectations. I guess he's been reading the polls which have shown Rick Santorum leading him by a substantial margin.

Actually, in polls released today, there seems to be a swing back toward Romney, but Santorum still leads. Significantly, though Romney likes to claim Michigan as one of his "home states," the people there don't buy it. Two-thirds of those who participated in the poll did not consider him a Michigander.

In fact, Republican voters across the country don't seem to be buying much of what Romney is selling these days. Even if he manages to eke out a win in Michigan now, voters really, really don't seem to like him and are not ready to get behind him in a big way. But do they like Santorum any better? Well, women don't, and for good reason since he seems intent on denying them basic rights to health care. Not that Romney, or any of the other Republicans for that matter, are any better on women's issues.

At this point, it seems to me that Romney just can't win in Michigan. The only way he could be considered a winner would be if he racked up a huge margin over Santorum. But that seems more and more unlikely.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The trees say, "It's time to begin afresh."

The fig tree is budding.
The Trees
by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
The Collected Poems by Philip Larkin
The trees in my part of the world had a very rough time of it last year. Thousands of them died due to the drought. But now the survivors have had their winter's rest and they are ready to put all of that behind them. The rains have come and the trees have drunk deep. "Last year is dead, they seem to say," and if they could speak, this would probably be their advice to us: The past is dead. Time to "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Blueberry buds.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Great Backyard Bird Count is on!

This weekend marks the fifteenth annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This event is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada. Thousands of people with an interest in birds from all over North America and the State of Hawaii go into their yards or to some public space over the four day weekend and watch and count birds and then report what they have seen on the GBBC website. Participation is free and is open to anyone, regardless of their level of expertise about birds.

This is one of several citizen science projects related to birds or butterflies that take place throughout the year and in which I participate. I have to admit, though, that this is probably my favorite of all. This is my ninth year to participate since 2003. (I've only missed one year, 2004, due a death in my family.)

My designated count area is my suburban garden and I count on all four days of the event. I try to spend as much time as possible outside observing the birds during the weekend, but if you choose to participate, the time you spend is entirely up to you. A participant can spend as little as fifteen minutes counting.

There are around 30 - 35 species of birds which could reasonably be present in my yard in mid-winter and I try to see and count as many of them as I can. This year is off to a poor start, mostly because of rainy weather. Over two days of counting, I've only tallied twenty species so far. But even under less than optimal conditions, it is always a pleasure to watch and count birds and I always learn more about the birds and the Nature that exists in my yard in the process.

For anyone who has the slightest interest in Nature, this really is a fun and educational project. There are two days left in the weekend, plenty of time for you to take part. Just go to the GBBC website and read the instructions and start counting. The data collected are important to ornithologists in studying bird populations and in attempting to devise ways to assist populations that are in trouble. You can help in that effort.

Female Northern Cardinal in my yard. She got counted today. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Complaints by Ian Rankin: A review

When Inspector John Rebus rode off into the sunset to the sound of Exit Music a few years ago, I suffered withdrawal pains. How would I now get my Edinburgh fix? The other Edinburgh series that I was reading by Alexander McCall Smith just wouldn't do it for me. I needed Rankin's Edinburgh.

Well, it turns out, I didn't have too long to wait. In 2009, The Complaints came out, the first in a series featuring Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. I have to say that I hesitated about picking up the book, but once I did, just recently, I was soon committed. Here's another series that I'll have to add to my to be read list.

The thing about Rankin's writing is that the city, Edinburgh, is a character in his stories. I love the history, the culture, and all the notes about the grittier side of the town. In this entry, we meet the city and Scotland at a difficult moment. The financial bust has hit the economy hard. Unemployment is up and even those who still have jobs are having a difficult time of it. Immigrants who had come to Scotland during boom times are finding that they are not quite as welcome now.

This is the atmosphere in which we find Malcolm Fox and his team in internal investigations wrapping up a big case against a cop who broke the rules but always "got results." Hmm...reminds one a bit of John Rebus. But Rebus always kept his honor even when he bent the rules. Glen Heaton had no honor. 

Heaton, though, had his admirers and supporters and it soon seems that one or more of them may have found a way to get back at Fox. He finds himself accused, along with a younger cop named Breck, of malfeasance. Both are suspended, with pay, and must find a way to clear themselves, while simultaneously investigating the murder of Fox's sister's life partner. Fox and Breck eventually figure out that there may be a connection between that murder, the apparent suicide of a local builder for whom the sister's lover worked, and their own suspensions. We follow them as they investigate and slowly unravel the ball of yarn leading to the final solution of the mysteries.

Malcolm Fox is a much different character than John Rebus, but they share some of the same tenacity and the same tendency sometimes to get it wrong before they get it right. But there's a "result" in the end.

Ian Rankin's police procedurals are just as sharply written and engaging as ever. I look forward to getting to know Malcolm Fox better.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Contraceptives and religious freedom as the press sees them

The rule promulgated by the Obama administration regarding the coverage of contraceptives by insurance companies continues to make news. But most of the news that it makes has been about the shouting of the Catholic bishops over what they think is their right to impose their religious beliefs on everybody regardless of the individual's religious or non-religious beliefs. Much less attention has been paid to the rights of women to control their own bodies and their own sexuality and their right to use contraceptives should they choose to do so.

The Republicans and their overlords at Fox News have gone to great pains to obscure and fail to report the simple fact that the right to contraceptives is overwhelmingly popular in this country. Instead, they obsess about the poor downtrodden bishops being forced to provide contraceptives and pay for the coverage. Which, of course, they aren't. Under the rule, the coverage has to be offered and paid for by the insurance company. Meanwhile, the churches get to keep all their government goodies - their tax-free status and government grants - which ARE PAID FOR BY ALL OF US REGARDLESS OF OUR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS! That means you and me, sister. Yes, poor downtrodden bishops.

Even when contraception is discussed on cable news networks, it is almost never discussed as a women's health issue, which it clearly is. This chart from Media Matters for America shows how the issue has been covered recently by the three major news networks. It is clear that the main concerns have been political and religious. Only one network, MSNBC, has had any public health experts (one!)  discussing the issue.

Today, Rep. Darrell Issa, (Wingnut, CA) convened his committee to discuss the issue, again as a religious freedom concern. Here is a picture of the "experts" who were called to testify about whether covering contraceptives is a violation of religious freedom:

Do you see anything odd about this panel of "experts"? They are all men! 

Issa refused to allow a woman called by Democrats to testify. That's when Democratic women on the committee walked out.

Darrell Issa says, "Don't worry your pretty little heads about this, women. The issue is much too complicated for you to understand."

It will be very interesting to see how the news networks handle this story!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The fine art of poking fun at stupidity

The ability to create comedy out of the deadly serious news of the day is a delicate art. Nobody does it better than Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. His comedy is always right on target and never really mean-spirited as is so much of what passes for comedy these days. On some days, he doesn't have to do much more than play the clips of the day's news and react with facial expressions. Other stories deserve a little more explication. Like Liz Trotta talking about women in the military being raped "just enough."

Priceless. Sadly, some of the barricades to full equality for women are guarded by women like Liz Trotta. The only compensation, really, is that they make Jon Stewart's art so much easier.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Intelligent evolution

I am always fascinated to read about the ways in which evolution works to create an integrated and interactive ecology. It's especially interesting to read about the defenses which both animals and plants perfect through the mechanism of natural selection over the course of thousands of years. And not just defenses as such, but also the ways that the bodies of animals - or plants - change over time in order to take advantage of the environment in which they live. That's how the giraffe got its long neck or the elephant its trunk. And, of course, it is how humans developed their upright stance and their big brains.

But how did zebras get their stripes? And why did zebras get stripes?

Well, the obvious answer is that in the tall grasses where they often grazed, the stripes helped to camouflage them and hide them from predators like lions and cheetahs. It turns out though that the stripes also seem to hide them from a much smaller predator.

Scientists have recently completed a study of what kind of hides are most attractive to bloodsucking horseflies. They determined that spotted or solid color coats of animals were most apt to draw the pest, while a striped hide was most repellent to them.

Horseflies are an annoyance to any hoofed animals in their neighborhood but they can be much more than just an annoyance. They can carry deadly diseases, as well, and pass them along to their hosts. Thus, being less attractive to a horsefly can be a positive defense against disease and death. And so, Nature gave zebras, from whom the bloodsucking pests would normally love to feed, a marvelous defense against not only lions and cheetahs, but even the lowly horsefly.

I love science! And I especially love the intelligence of evolution.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Poor Mitt

Poor, poor Mitt Romney. He just can't get any respect from his own party. And if he can't get them to fall in line, how will he ever win a general election?

By now, it was supposed to be all over but the shouting. He was supposed to be able to show his strength in these February primaries and caucuses and put to rest any doubts about his ability to appeal to the base. Instead, he has lost a majority of the contests to Rick Santorum (!) and barely scraped by on others. True, he did win Florida by a good margin, but that's looking less and less impressive.

I think the problem with Mitt is that no one really knows who he is. He's afraid to show them who he is for fear they will turn against him. In fact, if he could just once take a real authentic stand on...anything, really, it might actually turn things around for him. But he doesn't trust himself to do that. Maybe he's switched sides so many times and tied himself into so many knots trying to make himself attractive to all sides of the issues - which in Republican politics means the conservative side, the really conservative side, and the bat-shit crazy wingnut side - that he no longer really knows what he believes or where he stands. I have a sneaking suspicion that the only thing he believes any more is that he should be president, no matter what the cost in money or in sacrificing principles.

In fact, does the man even have principles? Well, he doesn't worry about poor people, he believes that corporations are people, and that the poor downtrodden banks are "hurting" and "scared." These core values lead him to the conclusion that the interests of the 1% must at all costs be protected and never mind the 99%.

Oh, yes, and he thinks it might be a good idea to start yet another war in the Middle East - this time with Iran.

You would think that all those "principles" would be like catnip to the Republican faithful, and yet still they just can't fall in love with him. They don't believe that he believes what he is saying. Poor Mitt. He just can't close the deal. Maybe he never will.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why plant a tree

"I can't stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but I can plant a tree."                                                                     - Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin 

The poet W.S. Merwin draws much of the inspiration for his poetry from the world of Nature. In that, I find that I am like Merwin for my inspiration, too, comes from Nature.

Recently, also, I am inspired by Merwin's poetry. Thus the circle is complete.

My daughter brought this Merwin poem to my attention. I like it very much. It speaks to me. I hope it will inspire you, too.
by W.S. Merwin

On the last day of the world 
I would want to plant a tree

what for 
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit 
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands 
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already 
going down

and the water 
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead 
and the clouds passing

one by one 
over its leaves
Time to go and plant a tree.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The natural history of Earth

The natural history of our planet and how the continents came to have their shapes and to be placed just as they are on the face of Earth is a fascinating subject. Throughout the history of the planet, through the mechanism of plate tectonics, continents have come together to form super continents and then broken up and drifted apart again. We live in a time when the continents are separated by large bodies of water, but we now know that they are moving and that, in all likelihood, some day they will come together again.

As for how these movements will affect North America, geologists theorize that the north shore of South America will slide onto the Gulf Coast of the United States. The Gulf Coast shoreline will disappear and the Caribbean will be squeezed out of existence. Likewise, the mass of Eurasia will compress the Atlantic out of being and the Eurasian and American super-masses will slide toward a polar rendezvous. The future, in short, may look a lot like the last 600 million years of Earth's geological history, only in reverse.

However the continents finally align themselves though, it is likely that our beautiful planet will still look like a big blue marble floating in space.

The eastern hemisphere of Earth as seen from space, showing Africa, parts of Europe and Asia and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. (Photo credit: NASA/NOAA)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mary Boleyn, Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir: A review

Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn, has had an unfortunate reputation over the past half millennium. During her lifetime, rumors flew about her licentious behavior. She was alleged to be very free with her sexual favors, something that only high-born men, including kings, were allowed. 

As a young teenager, Mary spent time at the French court of Francois I. It was suspected and has been repeated by historians throughout the last five hundred years, that she was Francois' mistress. We have a term for that today. It's called statutory rape. If a 13, 14, 15 year old girl did have sexual intercourse with the all-powerful king, it is very unlikely that she had much choice in the matter. But, as Weir points out in this study of Mary's life, there is really no independent proof that this ever happened. 

Neither is there any real proof that, later, Mary became the mistress of Henry XIII or that she bore him at least one child. Henry never acknowledged the child, as he did many of his bastards, although he does seem to have made some provisions for her along the way, which may be an indirect evidence of the relationship. 

Mary Boleyn was one of three children of a cold and calculating father, Thomas Boleyn. Thomas felt no compunction about using his children to further his ambitions. And he was very ambitious. Of the three children, Anne became queen, George flew very high at Henry's court, but Mary was always in the background. She never earned the fame - or notoriety - of the other two. That turned out to be a very fortunate thing for her. 

In fact, in Weir's telling, Mary seems to have been a very ordinary woman with very ordinary dreams and desires. She married once in an arranged match and had two children in that marriage, a daughter and a son. The daughter may have actually been Henry's. The son pretty certainly was not. It was apparently not a particularly satisfying marriage, but then it ended with he death of her husband. 

In good time, she met William Stafford, a soldier in the king's army, and Stafford, who was several years younger than Mary, fell in love with her. She did not immediately return his feelings, but after she got to know him, she did. They married secretly without asking permission of the king or queen, who by this time was Mary's sister, Anne. For a high-born woman to marry in such a manner was a great scandal. But it seems to have been worth it to Mary because she was very happy in her marriage. 

Weir has meticulously researched this story and the footnotes and appendicies are extensive. In the end, we know all about the speculation concerning Mary Boleyn's life, but we also know that, for the most part, it is just speculation made up of the fevered imaginations of male historians over the centuries. In truth, very little is actually known for certain about this woman's life. She will ever remain a mystery. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reporting on the contraceptive brouhaha (with update)

Reporting by the mainstream media, by which I mean mostly the inside the beltway media, regarding the Obama administration's rule about providing contraceptives as preventive health care under the new Affordable Care Act has been noticeably co-opted by the Catholic bishops. The press has basically swallowed hook, line, and sinker the outrage of these allegedly celibate old men who are in no way affected by the rule. Even such normally reasonable pundits as E.J. Dionne and Mark Shields have fallen in lockstep with their more conservative fellows on this issue. They are sure that President Obama has rung the death knell for his presidency and for his hopes for reelection with his stance on this issue. Catholics will never support him now. Republican leaders in Congress are trying to latch onto what they see as a winning issue by hopping on the bandwagon

One thing you might notice about all the reporters reporting and all those pontificating on the issue: They are almost all middle-aged or older white men who are not affected by the issue. What do those who are affected by it think? In other words, what do women think?

Surveys have shown that 99% of sexually active women in the country use, or have used, contraceptives. Moreover, the same surveys show that 98% of Catholic women use, or have used, contraceptives. Isn't it possible that all of these women might like to have their contraceptives covered by their insurance? Furthermore, isn't it possible that these women vote?

We are fortunate to have some women journalists who report and opine on the issue and I think they represent a more realistic view of the situation, For example, my favorite, Gail Collins, has a column about it in The New York Times today. As she astutely points out, there is nothing in this rule that prevents the celibate bishops and priests from preaching whatever they want to preach. It only prevents their imposing their religious views on others. Isn't this what America is supposed to be about?

In, Joan Walsh, who is a practicing Catholic and a woman, has written about the issue as well. Her argument is that Catholics who themselves do not follow the bishops' directives on contraceptives (98% of Catholics) should not - and most likely will not - hold it against a president who refuses to enforce the bishops' religious dogma.

Also in today, Sarah Posner makes the argument that we need a secular president, a secular government, because a government that is based on science and reason is most likely to ensure the religious freedom of all faiths.

Indeed, I think all aspects of government are best served by a philosophy based on science and reason. I'm very glad that we have some talented women journalists with unclouded vision who are willing to expound on that theme.

UPDATE: Here's more from Joan Walsh today on this important issue for women.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The secret lake at the bottom of the world

There was an interesting story - interesting to me anyway - in The New York Times today about a discovery recently made by Russian scientists drilling on Antarctica.

It seems that these scientists stationed at the Vostok Research Station have been drilling through the ice there for a decade. They sent their drill cutting through two miles of solid ice and, finally, at a depth of 12,366 feet, they hit water. It is water from a pristine freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario which has never before been touched by humans or their equipment. The water in the lake has been sealed off from water and air for somewhere between 15 and 34 million years. This is one of more than 280 lakes that are known to exist deep under the miles-thick ice of the frozen continent.

So why do scientists want to drill to this sealed lake? Well, because it's there, of course, but, also, there are theories that ancient unknown life forms may exist there. If such life forms could be found, it would lend credence to the possibility of finding life on some of the frozen bodies in space, on one of the moons of Jupiter, for example.

The Russians have named their newly discovered lake Vostok, after their research station. The research station itself is in the middle of the East Antarctic ice sheet about 800 miles from the South Pole. It holds the distinction of having recorded the coldest temperature ever documented on Earth. That was minus 128.6 degrees in July 1983. Makes me cold just to think of it.

One has to admire the dedication of such scientists who work under incredibly difficult conditions to add to the sum of human knowledge. It's certainly something that I could never do, but somehow it makes to happy just to know that there are people who can and will do it for the thrill of discovering something new - or something very old - in the world.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Halftime in America

Well, that certainly caused quite a stir! Republicans everywhere have been outraged, outraged I tell you, over the  "blatant politicization," "partisanship," the "free political ad for Obama" which they attribute to this ad by Chrysler that played during halftime of the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Of course, President Obama did work to save the American auto industry and to bail out two of the three major carmakers (one of which was Chrysler) in the face of much Republican opposition, including that of Mitt Romney who spoke out against the plan and even wrote a strong op-ed piece saying that the auto makers should declare bankruptcy and move on. Never mind all the jobs that would be lost and their ripple effect in a failing economy. But the industries were saved and have come back strong. They've even paid back to the American taxpayer most of the money that was used to bail them out. They are a contemporary American success story, one that we need in these rough times. So any ad that highlights this story, as the Chrysler ad does in a very understated way, is bound to cast a favorable light on President Obama's leadership.

But, forget all that, if you can. Just look at that ad again from an artistic viewpoint. It is brilliant! The lighting, that Eastwood walk down a lonely street, the play of light and dark, the famous gravelly voice narrating the scenes, the faces of the ordinary people in the various shots, it is all just perfect. It might have been a movie directed by Clint Eastwood instead of a car ad directed by David Gordon Green.

It's not just the images that we see here that affect us. Even more, it is the words that explain the images. What inspirational words they are. They don't sugarcoat the situation they are portraying. They acknowledge that these are tough times and that people are suffering, but they reassure us: We've been here before. We've passed this way and we've come through. We will again, as long as we stick together and don't tear each other down. It is an essentially inspirational and uplifting commercial, made even more so by the narration by Clint Eastwood, a man who notably goes his own way but has famously been a supporter of Republican candidates for president over the years, including John McCain in 2008.

I don't know when I have seen such an affecting and effective television commercial. We don't often think of such commercials as being works of art, but this one certainly is.

The fact that it also pisses off Karl Rove is just a bonus.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The war against women

The war against women's rights in America has taken a nasty turn in the past year, especially since the election of 2010 when the Republicans made such inroads into state governments as well as the House of Representatives. They took that as a mandate, as confirmation that the nation was behind them in their attempts to put women in their place, which in their worldview is at home, homeschooling the children.

The strong-arm tactics of these people who bill themselves as "small government conservatives" and their attempts to insert themselves between women and their doctors has been an especially troubling aspect of this war. They have attempted - and succeeded in all too many instances - to roll back access to women's preventive health care in virtually every state where Republicans now hold power in the government. From access to abortion to access to contraceptives, they have made it their business to stick their long noses into women's business everywhere.

Even so, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation story about defunding Planned Parenthood broke early last week, it was a bit of a shock. Like most people. I had assumed that foundation was non-partisan and was interested only in health issues and saving women from breast cancer. More fool I! It turns out that the foundation is run by right-wing ideologues who seem to be more interested in pushing the Republican agenda against women than in actually saving women's lives.

After the story broke, the storm broke. Planned Parenthood backers, like myself, reacted with fury and many of us did what we could to help make up the shortfall caused by the withdrawal of Komen grants. What we could do individually was little enough, but when you multiply that little by thousands of individuals and throw in a couple of $250,000 gifts from some rich people, you find that you really can make a difference. Most importantly, you find that speaking out through letters or petitions or tweets or however you can DOES add up and, in the end, you CAN change things.

In the end, Komen could not withstand the firestorm they had unleashed and they caved.  But they were unable to cave gracefully. Their handling of the reversal of their decision was just as hamhanded as the original announcement and it left no doubt that they had originally decided to cut off funds from Planned Parenthood for nothing more than political reasons. All the other arms of the Republican Party establishment were beating up on the organization so they thought it would be safe to join in. It proved to be one step too far in the war against women in America.

The lesson to be learned, I think, is simple. Never underestimate the power of a group of really angry women. It's a lesson that I hope we can remember and apply to other issues of importance to us, for I can assure you, the war against us will continue.

UPDATE: More fallout and another resignation at Komen in the wake of the debacle.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

War and its aftermath: A meditation

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, died last week at the age of 88. I admit when I read the story, the name meant nothing to me at first, but then I looked up a couple of her poems and thought, "Oh, yeah!"

Unfortunately, I don't read Polish and so I can only read her poetry in translation, but those translations make clear that this was a woman with a unique view of the world, a unique understanding of human society and the way it works. Of the few of her poems that I have read. this is a favorite of mine. I find it particularly relevant just now as the war in Iraq ends (at least for us) and the one in Afghanistan starts winding down (at least for us).

THE END AND THE BEGINNING by Wislawa Szymborska 

After every war 
someone has to clean up. 
Things won’t 
straighten themselves up, after all. 

Someone has to push the rubble  
to the side of the road, 
so the corpse-filled wagons 
can pass. 

Someone has to get mired 
in scum and ashes,  
sofa springs, 
splintered glass, 
and bloody rags. 

Someone has to drag in a girder 
to prop up a wall.  
Someone has to glaze a window, 
rehang a door. 

Photogenic it’s not, 
and takes years. 
All the cameras have left  
for another war. 

We’ll need the bridges back, 
and new railway stations. 
Sleeves will go ragged 
from rolling them up.  

Someone, broom in hand, 
still recalls the way it was. 
Someone else listens 
and nods with unsevered head. 
But already there are those nearby  
starting to mill about 
who will find it dull. 

From out of the bushes 
sometimes someone still unearths 
rusted-out arguments  
and carries them to the garbage pile.  

Those who knew 
what was going on here 
must make way for 
those who know little.  
And less than little. 
And finally as little as nothing. 

In the grass that has overgrown 
causes and effects, 
someone must be stretched out  
blade of grass in his mouth 
gazing at the clouds. 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak 

I can still hear my mother saying to me when I was a teenager, "We have to clean up the house. It won't straighten itself!" How I hated those words.

But she was right. Szymborska was right. That's the way it is in life. That's the way it is after every tragic event. Someone's always got to clean up. The survivors have to clean up. Things have to be straightened before they can get on with their lives.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Trying to save the woodland caribou

The woodland caribou is a species of the far north which, in the past, roamed all across the northern tier of the United States. Today, it has been reduced in the lower 48 states to a small herd of about fifty animals that inhabit one remote area of the Northwest in Idaho and Washington. Most of the human residents in that area apparently can't wait for them to become extinct.

The animals are already listed as endangered and the lands where they roam are mostly owned by the federal or state governments, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups, proposes to further protect the animals by setting aside about 600 acres of land as "critical habitat" for them. Local residents are up in arms - almost literally - against the proposal.

At a recent public meeting, about 200 angry people showed up to accuse the government of trying to destroy their way of life. Allegations of  United Nations conspiracies and a governmental land grab flew around the room. As noted, most of the land is already federally owned but that made little difference to the shouters.

As Terry Harris of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance noted, this area is one of the few places left in the United States that still contains all of the species that were present when Lewis and Clark traveled through it 200 years ago, including the endangered caribou. He made the point that it is important not to lose that distinction. Still made no difference to the complainers. They want their "rights" respected and forget about the right to exist of any other residents of the land, even if they were there long before the current human inhabitants.

We've seen this drama play out many times before, and, though I don't want to pick on the West, it seems that it most often happens in that region - perhaps because that is where so many endangered species barely cling to life. It is also where much of the land is under federal control. And it seems to be an area which has a high percentage of residents who, for lack of a better word, are paranoid. Who else could see a desire to preserve an almost extinct herd of animals as a United Nations plot? Those people probably spend their days watching the skies searching for the invading black helicopters.

I confess I just don't understand such attitudes and probably never will. If I owned property that was important to the survival of a species, I like to think I would be amenable to working with the government to protect the species.

Well, in fact, I do own such property in the form of national wildlife refuges and other federal lands all over this country. Some of that property is located in Idaho and Washington. I would like to see it used to offer sanctuary to the severely endangered woodland caribou.      

Friday, February 3, 2012

Breakdown by Sara Paretsky: A review

The famously cranky and snarky Chicago private investigator Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is back with another quest in search of justice for the powerless and downtrodden. At age fifty, V.I. (Vic) does not seem to have mellowed one whit. Her outrage at injustice burns as brightly as ever. In Breakdown, there is plenty of injustice for her to confront. 

The story begins with her being called from a social gathering she's attending with her friend Murray. Her young cousin, Petra, is worried about a group of pre-teenage girls who were in her care. It seems that, under the spell of Carmilla, Queen of the Night, a fictional magical shape-shifting character who is a hero to the girls, they have slipped out at night to an old abandoned cemetery to perform an initiation ritual. Vic leaves her party and goes to the cemetery to round up the girls, but there, she finds more than she bargained for. Near where the girls are performing their ritual is the body of a murdered man with a stake through his heart lying on a tomb. And thus the adventure begins. 

One of the girls in the group was the granddaughter of a billionaire survivor of the Holocaust. He is supporting a liberal candidate, a family friend, for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. On the opposite side of the political divide is a cable news network that specializes in giving a radical right-wing slant to all its "news" stories. Its biggest star is Wade Lawlor, a Glenn Beck type character, who rants and rages and cries on camera and has a huge and devoted following. The "news" network and Lawlor are out to destroy Chaim Salanter, the Holocaust survivor, and his candidate for the Senate. To bring about that destruction, they are trying to dig up dirt from the past of Salanter. 

Vic gets involved further when a call from an old friend, a brilliant but mentally erratic lawyer, brings her to a meeting, but she arrives too late and finds her friend crumpled in a heap and almost dead, apparently having jumped from a high place. But something doesn't add up and Vic keeps digging which brings her to a state mental hospital where her friend had been a recent resident. Her investigation keeps turning up anomalies and strange links between events and she begins to suspect that everything is related. 

Sara Paretsky's plots are always complicated and are overlaid with a strong political point of view. It's one of the things that I enjoy most about her writing. Moreover, her V.I. Warshawski has changed and grown over the years. She has constructed an extended "family" for herself consisting of Mr. Contreras her elderly neighbor, the dogs Mitch and Peppy, her young cousin Petra, and Jake her neighbor with whom she has established a fairly stable (for her) romantic relationship. And, of course, there are always Lotty and Max, themselves Holocaust survivors, who are Vic's oldest and staunchest friends and Murray Ryerson, the journalist with whom she has long worked and who is now being pushed out of his job by the news mogul who owns the right-wing network. All of these characters play strong roles in the present mystery. 

Paretsky is a very good writer and her stories always seem torn from today's headlines. It's been that way from the beginning of this series in 1982 with Indemnity Only. I've read all eighteen of the books in the series and it has been fascinating to watch the progression of V.I. Warshawski's life and career. Throughout it all, now thirty years later, she and her creator have retained their edge. 

Paretsky's is not really escapist fiction, but stories that are designed to make the reader stop and consider what is actually happening in the real world. It's the kind of fiction which one probably either loves or hates. I happen to love it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Television news: The world of misinformation

The January ratings for the thirty top television news shows have been announced and, once again, unsurprisingly, Fox News dominates the ratings. The first thirteen shows listed are Fox entries. The inevitable conclusion is that most of the people in this country whose prime source for news is television get their news from Fox. Moreover, at least two scientific studies have revealed that Fox viewers are less well informed about current events than those who get their news from other sources. That explains a lot about our society and its dumbing down. Rupert Murdoch has a lot to answer for.

I don't watch Fox and so perhaps I'm not the best judge, but from what I read about the various shows, I believe that perhaps the worst offender of all may be Fox and Friends, the show that rates number 13 in the top 30, just above the first MSNBC entry to appear on the list, The Rachel Maddow Show, which I do watch. My impression is that Fox and Friends routinely and shamelessly distorts stories in the news to reflect the talking points of the right-wingers who control the network. Most, if not all, of Fox's programs apparently do this, but Fox and Friends seems the most egregious of all.

Media Matters has compiled an extensive list of the show's "Big Lies" from the previous year. For their work, the media watchdog awards them the title of "worst misinformer of 2011." Goebbels had nothing on these folks. And more than a million of your fellow citizens watch them every day and hang on every word they utter. That should keep you awake at night.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Super Bowl ad phenomenon

Are you one among the millions who will be glued to your television screen on Sunday watching the Super Bowl? It's become almost a rite of passage among Americans, something one must do. However, iconoclast that I am and non-football-fan that I am, I don't plan to be watching the game. I'd be more likely to watch the Puppy Bowl.

I say that even though I do admit to a rooting interest in the game. Archie Manning was a football star at the University of Mississippi when I was at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Coming from Mississippi myself, Archie was, of course, a hero to me and when his team played my college's team, I had very torn loyalties. Later, I followed his career with the Saints, and later still, I was interested when his sons, Peyton and Eli, started playing for the pros. I have continued to follow their careers, not avidly, but with some interest, and, in fact, I will be pulling for Eli and his Giants to win the big game on Sunday. Even if I don't care enough to watch.

But, in thinking about the Super Bowl today, I was pondering the question of when the ads became almost as big a deal as the game itself. Back in the days when I did have an interest in football and watched the games - mostly in the early '70s - I don't remember the ads having the overwhelming importance that they seem to have attained today. Many people seem to watch the game as much to see the ads as the game itself!

I find it especially interesting that this year the ad-makers are intent on giving the women something to watch. So it's not going to be all beer and pick-up truck commercials. They are dishing up a slice of beefcake for the ladies. The most prominent such ad apparently features David Beckham. Hmmm...maybe I will just take a peek at the "game" after all!