Saturday, March 31, 2012

How To Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovitch: A review

Birders, even non-competitive backyard birders like myself, are always looking for something that will give them that extra edge as they pursue their winged quarry for the purposes of identification and listing. Because, let me tell you, birding is hard. Birds almost never cooperate. They flit around, constantly in motion, as you try to follow them with your binoculars, and just when you get focused in, zip! They're gone. Frustrating little critters. Warblers are the worst. 

But help is on the way. Derek Lovitch has written a book which is useful for birders at any level of proficiency from the beginner to the obsessive lister. 

It is a short book, only 179 pages in the edition which I read, and very accessible. He explores best practices and gives tips on advanced field identification, birding at night, birding and habitat, geography, and weather. He writes about how to anticipate vagrants, those birds that show up in wildly out-of-range places where they really shouldn't be. Understanding the area that you are birding and knowing what is likely to be found there, as well as having some idea of what might turn up unexpectedly, is more than half the battle in this hobby. 

One thing that I particularly liked about Lovitch's book was his emphasis on "birding with purpose." He is (as I am) an enthusiastic proponent of citizen science projects. He argues for the importance of birders of all levels participating in events such as the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, and Project FeederWatch and he strongly advocates for birders contributing checklists to the online data collecting resource, eBird. The data collected by all these citizen science projects are important to the efforts of conservationists to protect and defend birds and their habitats. 

Lovitch has a clear and readable style of writing and he includes links to additional resources for readers who want to learn more about a specific subject. No matter what being a "better birder" means to you, this is a book that can help you reach your goal. 

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Splattered Blood by Michael A. Draper: A review

Would-be writers are always told to write about what they know. Perhaps that is why Michael Draper chose as the hero of his first mystery novel a mild-mannered insurance agent. Draper works in the insurance field and obviously knows it well and, in the course of his work, we are told that he has developed relationships and contacts with law enforcement personnel. He draws on all of that experience in plotting his tale of amateur detectives trying to solve a murder case. 

The murder case itself starts out as a putative suicide. Johnny Kelly, the chief of internal security for a professional basketball team, the Highlanders, is found dead in his office. There is a suicide note and at first everything seems straightforward, but when the grieving widow gets a look at a copy of that note, she points out several anomalous and suspicious facts which convince her that her husband wrote the note under duress and wrote it in such a way as to alert her to that fact. 

The widow, Roseanne, has not been happy with the police investigation of her husband's death and she determines to look into it on her own with help from her brother, Graham, and her friend, the aforementioned mild-mannered insurance agent, Randy. Soon the three, sometimes accompanied by Roseanne's seven-year-old son, are traveling around the East Coast, from Connecticut and Boston to Washington, D.C. following up on investigations that were being conducted by Johnny Kelly before his death and trying to discover a link between those investigations and his murder. By now, the police are convinced that it was murder and are conducting their own investigation but they seem much slower off the mark and much less successful than the three amateurs! 

Splattered Blood is an apt title for this book for soon the bodies are piling up and blood and gore are all over the place. There are shootouts with drug gangs, connections with organized crime and the Russian Mafia. It feels like the author is using the "everything including the kitchen sink" theory of plotting. I think it might have been wiser to simply focus on one source of evil and keep the plot a bit simpler, but you have to admire Draper's reach if not his grasp in this first effort. 

I really wanted to like this book a lot because I do identify with the efforts of the first-time novelist. In the end though, I have to be honest and say that I found the plot slow-moving and cluttered with a lot of extraneous details and I was annoyed by the constant use of the present tense throughout the book. (I know - that's my own personal eccentricity, but there it is!) First novels are often problematic and not necessarily emblematic of a writer's best work, but the ice has been broken now. Michael Draper obviously does not lack in the imagination department. It will be interesting to see what he imagines for his next effort.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The blurb from The New York Times which graces the front cover of this book says, "The best historical novels ever written." Well, I haven't read all the historical novels ever written, so, far be it from me to judge, but so far, I've read two of the books in the series and, yes, I rate them very highly. This one even more than the first, Master and Commander

The first book established the relationship between Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's doctor (Not "surgeon" as I once called him. Terrible faux pas.) Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is the enthusiastic somewhat overgrown child, not really as mature as his rank might suggest. Maturin is the more complicated character, a man of many parts who plays many roles. 

Post Captain finds the two ashore at the beginning of the book, ensconced in a cottage on the Downs and keeping company with some young ladies of the area - one Sophia Williams and the widow Diana Villiers. Aubrey has been overly generous, as is his nature, in his spending, depending upon receiving some prize money from his most recent successful campaign on the Sophie. When his agent absconds with the money, Jack is left high and dry and insolvent with the bailiffs pursuing him. 

Times are desperate. Aubrey needs a ship and fast. He is not a favorite with the Admiralty and all they offer him is an insalubrious sloop called the Polychrest. Beggars can't be choosers and he accepts the appointment and sets sail, where at least the bailiffs can't reach him. 

Meanwhile, Bonaparte seems about to declare war momentarily, possibly bringing Spain along with him, and Stephen Maturin is pursuing his second occupation of spy. He travels back and forth to Spain - he has a castle in Catalan - to assess the situation there and report back. His friend Aubrey never suspects a thing and once loudly denies any attempt at espionage to one who suggests that Stephen might be guilty of it. Aubrey is in so many ways an innocent. 

Their voyage on the Polychrest is fraught with peril, because it really is an unreliable ship with a sometimes mutinous crew, but, in the end, it is covered in glory when it captures a French vessel. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the Polychrest sinks in the effort. Subsequently, Jack is finally made Post Captain and is offered the temporary command of a crack frigate, the Lively. Soon Aubrey and Maturin are once again at sea and all is right - or mostly right - with their world as they pursue French and Spanish ships. 

Once again, I find that I easily glide right over much of the nautical terminology and descriptions of battles that are so dear to the heart of many O'Brian fans. I'm more interested in the human relationships and the development of character and there is plenty of that to be found here. Thus, I think these books have interest for at least two kinds of readers: Those fascinated by naval history and those who revel in fascinating characters. It is much to O'Brian's credit that he was able to appeal to such a wide readership.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Noise-loving hummingbirds reduce the number of trees in the forest

Scientific research often turns up unexpected findings. Consider a recent study about how noise pollution impacts forests in the Southwest.

Previous studies had shown that the Black-chinned Hummingbird seemed to have a high tolerance for areas with extreme noise pollution, while another bird, the Scrub Jay, was sensitive to noise and avoided noisy areas.

Now, Scrub Jays are known to prey on the eggs and young of the hummingbirds; therefore, the conclusion is that the hummingbirds choose to frequent areas which the jays avoid. In other words, the hummers are using noise pollution as a defense against the jays.  The latest study now shows how this dynamic affects forests.

Hummingbirds feed on the nectar of flowers and, in so doing, they pollinate the flowers and help to increase their numbers. Scrub Jays feed on pinyon pine cones and, in so doing, they spread seeds of the pines and increase the number of trees. But in areas of excessive noise, the number of flowers are increasing (thanks to the hummingbirds) and the number of pine trees is decreasing because there are fewer jays there to spread the seeds.

Everything is interconnected. Even things, which on the surface seem to be totally unrelated, upon closer examination are shown to be inextricably intertwined. Thus, changing one factor - increasing human-produced noise pollution - affects everything else in the ecosystem. So changes are wrought upon the landscape and so the laws of evolution and natural selection apply to even the smallest things.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The slooooow cooker

We had a family luncheon on Sunday to celebrate my husband's birthday. I'm very far from what anyone would honestly call a great cook - or even a good cook - but I'm the one who usually winds up preparing these meals, so I'm always looking for the easy way out so I won't embarrass myself and my family.

Of course, the easiest way out would be to get someone else to do it or have it catered or just take everybody out to eat, but since I usually can't do any of those things, the next best solution that I have found is the slow cooker.

The crock pot is a great invention for people who really don't have much time to cook, those who are working full-time, maybe raising a family, and commuting to and from work, as well as ferrying kids to their various activities. Been there, done that, and have the wrinkles to prove it.

Now, I have the time to cook, but I really prefer to spend that time doing other things that I enjoy more, so the crock pot is still one of my best friends in the kitchen, right up there with my ancient KitchenAid stand mixer and my food processor.  One-pot meals are my favorite way to go and it's really hard to mess up such a recipe. You just kind of toss everything into the crock pot and let it do the work for you.

One way you can mess it up is with the seasonings. Too much or too little of a good thing makes a really big difference in the way the food tastes. That's why I was interested when I ran across this blog post today (one day too late!) which had a helpful hint about seasoning food in the slow cooker.
Hold back on the seasoning when you prepare your meal, then reinforce it at the end. Fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of hot sauce also go a long way. 
"Well, big duh!," you might be saying, but, as I said at the beginning, I am not a great cook and it's something that I just hadn't really thought about. I tend to season my food as I put it in the pot and sometimes it winds up over- or under-seasoned. I'm going to try to remember this tip for the future though, and who knows? Maybe it will make a better cook of me. I may never achieve greatness, but maybe I can at least achieve...mediocrity.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seeing ourselves as others see us

If only we had the power to see ourselves as others see us, how might it change our opinions of ourselves? How might it change our behavior and perhaps make us more forgiving of the foibles of others? Or maybe it would just needlessly depress us...


To a Louse 

by Robert Burns
(On seeing a louse on a lady's bonnet at church!)

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho' faith, I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunned by saunt an' sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar's haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle
Wi' ither kindred, jumpin cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn or bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud ye there, ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rels, snug an' tight;
Na faith ye yet! ye'll no be right
Till ye've got on it,
The vera tapmost, towering height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an' grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie ye sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surprised to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On's wyliecoat;
But Miss's fine Lunardi!—fie!
How daur ye do't?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An' set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
And ev'n Devotion!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A wonder of Nature

The migration of animals is one of the true wonders of Nature, and none of those migrations is more wondrous, bordering on the miraculous, than that of the Monarch butterfly. Each late summer and fall the colorful orange, black, and white butterflies from all across the North American continent head south toward their winter home in Mexico. For such a fragile creature to make such of journey seems incredible, but it happens to be true. And when winter is over the butterflies head north again.

An individual butterfly may not necessarily make the entire journey. The female butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants along the way and succeeding generations of the species then continue the trip until they reach their final destination. Some of them go all the way to Canada.

There has long been speculation about what percentage of the butterflies actually fly the entire distance and what percentage are born along the way. Now there has been some research done which has given answers to those questions.

Researchers at the University of Guleph in Canada sampled butterflies from 44 sites in Ontario and in the northern United States. By analyzing chemical markers called stable isotopes and examining wing wear, the researchers found that about 10 per cent reaching the northern breeding range in the spring come directly from Mexico. Thus, 90 per cent of the butterflies had been hatched somewhere along the way.

In my garden this week, I was visited on two separate days by at least two female Monarchs. Both of the ladies sought out the milkweed plants I had planted for the purpose and left a number of eggs on their leaves.

This Monarch visited on Thursday. Here she is laying an egg on a milkweed leaf.

And here is one of the eggs she left. No bigger than a pinhead now, with any luck, it will release a tiny caterpillar in a few days and that caterpillar will munch the milkweed leaves and grow until it is ready to pupate and become another colorful butterfly. And then the amazing journey will continue.

The Monarch is in trouble for a number of reasons. One problem has been severe weather occurrences in recent years. Drought and excessively cold winters have taken their toll. There is also habitat degradation at their wintering site in Mexico due to trees being cut, changing the character of the forest. Mexicans revere these butterflies and they are making an effort to protect the area where they spend their winters, but, of course, they can't control the weather.

Another problem is development in North America which is destroying much of the milkweed which the butterflies depend on as a host plant for their caterpillars. This, at least, is something with which gardeners and home owners can help. All across the country, gardeners are being encouraged to plant milkweed in their gardens and they are responding as I have. It's a chance to throw out a lifeline for a creature that captures our imagination and makes us pause and consider this incredible wonder of Nature. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

This man is an idiot

Geraldo Rivera said Friday he would “bet money” that Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been fatally shot if the teenager hadn’t been wearing a hoodie....
“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies,” Rivera said on “Fox & Friends.” “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
Wow. You think that you've seen and heard it all and then along comes Geraldo Rivera to blame an innocent teenager's murder on the hoodie he was wearing. I suppose if the young man had been a young woman and that young woman was wearing a short skirt, then Geraldo would expect that she would be raped and it would be all because of the skirt. Just another instance of totally clueless commentary by one of the most utterly clueless so-called pundits on television today.

Now, I wear a hoodie when there is a chill in the air. It doesn't happen too often here in Southeast Texas, but when it does, a hoodie is my outerwear of choice. It's the perfect garment to protect one from a light chill or a light rain, which I believe was the weather on the day that Trayvon Martin was shot.

So the next time I go to Target wearing my hoodie, do I have to be afraid that some jerk will mistake me for a criminal and shoot me in cold blood and then claim self-defense? Well, probably not. In the first place, I'm white. In the second place, the arthritis in my knees and hip make me move slowly and I doubt many people, seeing me move, would  feel threatened by me.

Nevertheless, I feel a solidarity with Trayvon Martin and with all those kids who wear hoodies. One's life should not be placed in jeopardy because of the garment the s/he chooses to wear no matter what Geraldo Rivera blathers on Fox. The man is an idiot.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Rope by Nevada Barr: A review

In sixteen previous Anna Pigeon mysteries, author Nevada Barr has given us occasional glimpses of her background and of what led her to the life of a park ranger, but we've never had the full story. Until now. 

In this prequel to the series, we learn about Anna's first experience as a 35-year-old seasonal employee with the Park Service at the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. Anna was running from the heartbreak of her beloved husband's untimely death in New York and running also from her self-destructive reaction to that death. She looked for something different and far away from her life in New York and accepted the first job she was offered. 

On arriving at her post, she was assigned to assist an educational/interpretive ranger in cleaning human waste from the beaches in the park. She was literally on shit detail. It was hard physical labor but it turned out to be just what she needed. 

Anna came slowly, very slowly, to appreciate some of the wonders of Nature in the park, as well as some of the attributes of her fellow employees, but just as she is beginning to learn to really see what is around her, she interrupts three young toughs who are in the process of raping a woman. The young men turn on her and she is knocked out and ultimately dumped in a pit in the desert. When she awakes, she finds herself trapped there, naked, without water, with no means of escaping. It looks very much like the beginning of her career with the Park Service will be the end of her life. 

Of course, we have those other sixteen books, so we know it wasn't the end, but once Anna is able to emerge from her would-be grave (carrying a baby skunk!) the horror is just beginning. There is something - someone - very evil at Glen Canyon and that person seems bent on destroying Anna Pigeon. Little does that person know with whom s/he is dealing! 

This is another fine entry in the Anna Pigeon saga and it kept me on the edge of my seat and turning those pages. This series has long been a favorite of mine and The Rope lives up to Barr's usual standards. A blurb on the dustcover features a quote from The New York Times book review: "Barr writes with a cool, steady hand about the violence of nature and the cruelty of man." That about sums it up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lousy choices

Yesterday was the primary day in Illinois and Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary going away. Last night I listened to his victory speech and Rick Santorum's non-victory speech after the race was called. My reaction to both speeches can be summed up in two words: How lame.

Admittedly, this is the first time I have really listened to a speech from either of the candidates all the way through from beginning to end, so I don't know if this is typical of their message to voters, but from what I gather from previous snippets that I've heard and from reading about the campaigns, I suspect the speeches were typical. They seemed to carry all of the themes that I have heard about in past coverage. Their watchword, of course, is "freedom."

Yes, this generation of Republicans really, really believes in freedom.

- Freedom of corporations to rape the land and sea and pollute the atmosphere and continue to heat up the earth until it is unlivable.

- Freedom of the rich to do virtually whatever they want without restrictions and to not pay any taxes whatsoever even though they profit more than anyone else from the taxes that the rest of us pay.

- Freedom of the states to decide who will be allowed to vote in their elections, even if it means, in practice, denying the right to vote to large populations of citizens who would otherwise be eligible.

- Freedom to deny workers the right to organize and try to improve their working conditions through collective bargaining.

- Freedom of people who can't afford medical services or insurance to cover medical services to die early deaths and get out of the way.

- Freedom to build a 20 foot tall electrified fence between the United States and Mexico that will instantly kill anyone from south of the border who touches it.

- Freedom to impose Christianity and their own warped interpretation of that religion ("Blessed are the rich...") as the state religion. No other religions need apply.

- Freedom to distort the teaching of science to their children to conform to their own prejudices rather than to the truths revealed by actual unbiased research.

Yes, these Republicans are all for freedom. Freedom for everyone to believe exactly what they believe and behave exactly as they behave.

There's one freedom that you will never hear them mention though. That, of course, is the freedom of women to control their own lives and bodies. No, in this - as, in fact, in a lot of things - these Republicans are very much aligned with the Taliban. They really should change the name of their party to the American Taliban Party.

Poor Republican voters. What lousy choices they have in this primary season. Romney or Santorum. Each is equally unpresidential.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

When you're in a hole, stop digging

It is axiomatic that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. But some people never learn.

High on the list of those who have trouble learning to put down the shovel are politicians. It seems to be deep within their DNA to believe that if they just keep on shoveling the same old BS that eventually they will fill the hole up and be able to climb out on top. It never works.

The latest example of this is Rick Santorum. Over the weekend, Santorum appeared at right-winger Tony Perkins' home church where he was introduced by a pastor named Dennis Terry. Pastor Terry, in his introduction, went into a long rant about how this is a Christian nation and there is no room for anyone who isn't Christian. All liberals, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, atheists, in short anyone who doesn't accept Jesus as a personal saviour should "Get out!"

When he finished his rant, Santorum applauded him and he's been trying to explain that applause ever since. His response boils down to "I wasn't really listening and I don't agree with all of his remarks."

Then Santorum dug yet another hole for himself with his own statement that he didn't care about the unemployment rate or the economy, that his campaign is focused on bigger social issues. Any unemployed person who is desperately trying to find work to support him/herself and his/her family would no doubt consider his/her lack of employment as a social - in fact a moral - issue. But Santorum and, indeed, all the Republican candidates for the presidency are so disconnected from the middle class and from average Americans that they do not appreciate that simple fact.

Whether those average Americans are  liberal, conservative,  Buddhist,  Muslim,  Jewish, atheist or any other permutation of belief, they love their country and they love their families. They certainly have as much right to be here as any fundamentalist Christian and until Santorum and his peers can truly believe that and unequivocally state it, as far as I am concerned, they can get out.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens: A review

Hmmm...A super intelligent gender ambiguous female, who was born in Central Africa to indifferent parents, ran away to a gunrunner and his gang when she was a teenager and became a tough, butch member of the gang earning the respect of all those brutal customers. Haunted by an abusive, tortured background, she grew up to be an emotionally crippled, socially inept adult whose super gifts (which included speaking 22 languages!) allowed her to construct a whole world for herself - a world where she was the unrivaled ruler. The character sounds vaguely familiar, like someone we may have met in a best-selling trilogy not so very long ago. 

This, however, is not Lisbeth Salander and the writer is not Stieg Larsson. Taylor Stevens wrote this book and it is her first. One gets the feeling that she has definitely read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and has lifted the plot right down to the missing and presumed dead heiress and transferred it onto a Texas and then African landscape. 

There's nothing wrong with a writer being inspired by another writer or even with that writer using the outline of a previous story to construct his/her own story. After all, there hardly is anything new under the sun and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Unfortunately, this bit of flattery falls a bit flat in the character development department and it is often repetitive in its descriptive parts. 

The main character here is Vanessa (aka Michael, aka Essa) Munroe, the tortured, kick-ass heroine who has built a thriving business using her own unique set of gifts and expertise in extracting and collating information for her clients. Those clients include corporations, heads of state, and private clients who can meet the price for her services. Munroe grew up in Africa but has not returned since she left there about a decade before. Now she is based in Dallas but globe-trots right around the world. 

She is offered the unusual job, outside the parameters of her normal work, of looking for the stepdaughter of a Houston oil billionaire who disappeared in Africa four years earlier. Other investigators have tried to find out what happened to her, without success. Now the billionaire wants Vanessa/Michael to try, but he insists that she take along Miles Bradford, a bodyguard who will watch her back. Vanessa/Michael certainly does not need a bodyguard but it is part of the contract and she agrees to it. 

Back in Africa, in the land of her childhood, Vanessa/Michael meets old friends and lovers and quickly runs afoul of the corrupt government. But soon she is consumed by the mystery of the missing girl, even as she finds herself cut off and facing implacable enemies who will see her dead before they will allow her to find the answer to the mystery. Maybe she will need that bodyguard after all. 

Parts of this book sound like a romance novel is trying to break through the facade of the thriller. Overall, I found it pretty predictable, but not so terrible for a first effort. This is one of the two first novels by Texas authors that my Mystery Book Club has read in recent months. It is probably not a book that I would have chosen to read on my own, but it was an okay, two-star read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

One daffodil does not a spring make

One daffodil doesn't make a spring in our wintry hearts.

It needs a leucojum, too.

And maybe a butterfly or two.

But for the poet, William Wordsworth, all it took was a crowd of daffodils to rouse him from his lonely state and make him rejoice in being alive. And that is the very essence of spring.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
It's already been spring for several weeks where I am, but if the season hasn't reached you yet, be assured that it is on its way and when it does, I hope you'll find that your heart "dances with the daffodils." 

Friday, March 16, 2012

At long last - a commitment to truthtelling

NPR has announced a new editorial policy which consumers of news can only hope will set a new standard for other news organizations. They have committed themselves to eschew "he said, she said," or more often, "he said, he said," reporting in favor of actually reporting the truth. What a concept! As journalism critic Jay Rosen wrote, in reporting on the change:
NPR [now] commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.
Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin! 
There was nothing like that in the old Code of Ethics and Practices.
For too long, too many news organizations have simply reported what is said about both sides of any controversial issue, without regard to whether one or both of those sides is lying. This creates the "false balance" that we have, unfortunately, come to expect from the purveyors of journalism. This does not serve the public well; moreover, it encourages politicians (and others) to simply lie their way out of any situation because they know that no journalist is going to call them on their falsehoods. They'll simply report what he said and then they'll report that someone else disagreed with him, but there'll be no attempt to sort out fact from fiction.

Now, NPR is saying they are going to end all that. They are going to try to sort fact from fiction and give their listeners the truth. I say, it is about bloody time! But better late than never. Let's hope this new idea - truthtelling - will catch on.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: A review

I read this book during a time when the right-wing's war against women in this country was heating up to boil over and the mainstream media was finally beginning to take notice. Thus, I experienced the book through the prism of modern events. Not exactly what the author had in mind, I suspect, but unavoidable under the circumstances. 

I read the book with rising feelings of anger and frustration as I realized that the story that Alice Hoffman was telling about a religion and culture from more than 2,000 years ago would fit right in with the world view of fundamentalists of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths today. This was a religion and a culture in which women had no value. They were strictly expendable throw-away people. Again, I don't think this was the message the author hoped to impart, but it was driven home again and again as she introduced us to the four dovekeepers of Masada. 

The myth of Masada is a persistent one. Masada was a fortress built on a mountain by the Jewish king, Herod. It was a marvel of engineering and virtually impregnable. Thus, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. and Jews were hounded from the city, many of them made their way to Masada and to other strongholds that had been built by the now long-dead Herod. Eventually, around 900 people made Masada their home. But the Romans were not content to let them linger there. The Tenth Legion was brought in to lay siege to the place and they finally overran it. The story goes, as told by the historian Josephus, that when the Romans entered the stronghold, they found that all the people were dead. They had committed mass suicide. Allegedly, two women and five children survived the massacre. Hoffman imagines lives for the survivors, as well as the lives and deaths of those who didn't survive. It must be said that there is slim archaeological evidence to support the story of the mass suicide, but that shouldn't trouble us here because this is historical fiction, with the accent on fiction. 

Hoffman weaves an interesting tale of four women who have made their way to Masada after the destruction of the Temple. She tells the story in their four voices; the voices of the Daughter of the Assassin, the Wife of the Baker, the Lover of the Warrior, and the Witch of Moab. These are strong and resilient women, yet without value in their culture. Unfortunately, their four voices sound very much the same, virtually indistinguishable. They might be four aspects of the same character.

One of the things which I found fascinating about this story was the reliance by that culture on magic. They turned repeatedly to potions, spells, and divinations in their attempts to control and overcome the consequences of their actions and of their environment or to understand or propitiate their God. 

It was interesting also to see that the Roman legionnaires were depicted as bloodthirsty and without mercy, but the Jewish warriors, who committed exactly the same acts - with the exception of crucifiction - are portrayed as heroes. When you do it in the name of Adonai, it's okay. I have a bit of a problem with that philosophy. 

Hoffman chose to tell her tale in a very straightforward manner, using mostly simple declarative sentences. It was an effective writing strategy which seemed right for this story. I confess I have not read any other works by her and so I don't know if this is her usual way of writing, but, in this instance, I thought it worked very well.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

One snark-free column doesn't make a trend

Well, will wonders never cease? Maureen Dowd has managed to write a column about Hillary Clinton that seems to be completely snark-free.

Dowd had become notorious over the years for her hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Whenever she mentions either of them in a column, it is only to damn them. Her inability to give them credit for anything good has been just one of the symptoms of a columnist who has lost her perspective and has become more and more irrelevant. I mean, who even reads her anymore? But when I happened to read the first two sentences in today's column, I thought, "Hey, this is something different!" Dowd had written:
Hillary Clinton has fought for women’s rights around the world. But who would have dreamed that she would have to fight for them at home? 
She goes on to quote from Clinton's impassioned speech at the Women in the World summit that took place last Saturday in New York. Clinton said, “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world.”  Moreover, Dowd reported the statement without irony or her usual dismissive comments.

When Maureen Dowd begins to take seriously the attacks against women in this country and to align herself with her most-hated nemesis Hillary Clinton, you begin to suspect that a sea-change has happened.

Women all over the country are angry and outraged over the Republican war against women. Republicans are famous for repeating the Grover Norquist quote that they want to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. But these guys have proved again and again in the last two years that what they really want to do is shrink it to the size that can fit in a woman's vagina.

They are all for small government, except when it comes to women. Then, as Hillary said, they want to control us. They want to control the choices we make about our health and our bodies. They will not be satisfied until they have completely marginalized one-half of the human race.

Dowd seems to be belatedly aware of the danger in which we find ourselves here in the 21st century(!), and she seems ready to join the resistance army, even if that army is led by General Hillary Clinton. But I won't be making any bets just yet. One snark-free column does not a trend make.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

And the stock market goes wild!

Wow! How about that stock market? The Dow closed well above 13,000 today at 13,177.68, up 217.97 points since yesterday. That's the highest it's been since back in 2007. It seems that somebody out there must be optimistic about the way the economy is headed.

A few more days like this and I may be able to bear to look at my 401(k) balance once again!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A few interesting poll results

The polling organization Public Policy Polling has been busy in Mississippi and Alabama ahead of this week's Republican primary there. What they have found is that there is a virtual tie among Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney. That's probably bad news for Gingrich since this should be his natural territory.

The poll-takers have been asking questions besides candidate preference, as well, and some of their findings are really interesting, if not particularly shocking for those of us who lived a good portion of our lives there. On questions involving President Obama's religion and the respondent's belief about evolution, this is what they found.

Alabama Republican Primary voters:
Do you think Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim, or are you not sure?
Christian: 14
Muslim: 45
Not sure: 41
Do you believe in evolution, or not?
Believe in evolution: 26
Do not: 60
Not sure: 13
Mississippi Republican Primary voters:
Do you think Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim, or are you not sure?
Christian: 12
Muslim: 52
Not sure: 36
Do you believe in evolution, or not?
Believe in evolution: 22
Do not: 66
Not sure: 11
Tomorrow, these people will be helping to decide who the next Republican nominee for president will be, and, in November, they will help decide who the next president will be. And, not to just pick on Mississippi and Alabama, there are people who are just this ill-informed and close-minded all over this country, which doesn't say much for our educational system or for a political system that encourages such ignorance. Truly, the mind boggles.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

You like grits? Really?

One of the funnier things in the political news of the week has been the sight of Mitt Romney trying to cozy up to Southerners as the Republican primaries move to Mississippi and Alabama next week. Romney has been talking about how much he likes grits and about how he's learning to say "y'all." Of course, he's already tried to woo NASCAR fans, talking about how some of his best friends are NASCAR team owners.

I'm sorry to tell Mr. Romney that the real test of being able to employ true Southern-speak is not being able to use "y'all" correctly. (Non-Southerners almost always make the mistake of using it as a singular noun, when any true Southerner knows it is always plural.) No, the true test is being able to use the catchphrase, "Bless his/her heart!" convincingly.

"Bless his heart" is the phrase used by Southerners, Southern women, in particular, to indicate that no ill will is intended by what is being said - even if it is, and it usually is. You can call a man the most sorry, low-down, despicable son-of-a-whore to ever walk the earth, but as long as you end your diatribe with "Bless his heart!," nobody will accuse you of being mean-spirited.

In fact, I would think that "Bless his heart" might be a very useful phrase in politics. Romney could tear down Santorum or Gingrich or even his favorite target, Obama, at will, and then finish his excoriation by using that magic phrase and everybody will think what a kindly, tender-hearted man he is, one who really tries to think the best of his enemies.

I really think Romney should get himself before a mirror and start practicing that phrase. There might still be time for him to employ it before next Tuesday's primaries and who knows? It might make all the difference. I guarantee you talking about grits and saying "y'all" won't.

At least so far he hasn't been reduced to talking about the height of the trees. But then maybe Alabama and Mississippi trees are not the "right height" as Michigan trees were.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Conspirata by Robert Harris: A review

In the Rome of 63 B.C.E, there occurred a series of incidents which were to cast a shadow over the remaining days of the Republic, and indeed, to lead almost inevitably it now seems to its destruction and its remaking into the power that bestrode the ancient world as its master. At the center of these events was a man named Catalina, a populist who stood against the power of the Senate and sought to supplant it with the "power of the people." With him, of course, at its head. 

There was a vast conspiracy, involving many men of wealth and power, members themselves of the Senate, as was Catalina. There was a suspicion that among the conspirators was one Gaius Julius Caesar, although that was never proved. He was certainly friends with many of the conspirators, but then Caesar's political friendships were always opportunistic. He was always willing to make common cause with anyone who could further his aims. 

Cicero certainly believed that Caesar as well as Crassus and Pompey were involved, but, in the end, none of the three were tainted by the scandal which followed the revelation of the conspiracy. Cicero was the leader in that revelation. He was the leader in exposing several of the ringleaders. Catlina himself escaped to the countryside where he joined up with many of his followers forming an army that fought a final battle against Roman legionnaires led by their general Hybrida - or possibly by his military legate Marcus Petreius. Catalina and nearly all of his followers were killed. 

Back in Rome, Cicero had managed to trick five of the co-conspirators into revealing their plans. These five were ultimately executed at the will of the Senate. Interestingly, one of the five was the stepfather of Marcus Antonius. The ignominious death of his stepfather made the young man an enemy for life of Cicero. 

Cicero's brave defense of his city in the face of the conspiracy made him very popular with both the Senate and the people. He was hailed as the "Father of the City" and for a few years, he was one of the most beloved men in the city. Of course, in politics, such popularity is never a permanent thing. 

Cicero had a faithful secretary, a slave named Tiro, who invented a kind of shorthand and recorded Cicero's speeches as well as writing his letters for him. He was privy to almost all of Cicero's machinations. After Cicero's death, Tiro wrote a biography of him that was well-known in the ancient world, but which disappeared at some point. Robert Harris has taken up the task of recreating that biography as it might have been. This is the second volume in a series. The first was called Imperium and told the story of Cicero's struggle to become Consul. This volume deals with the year when he served as Consul, the year in which the Conspirata came to a head, and the four years beyond. 

In those four years, Cicero clashes repeatedly with Caesar and identifies him as the most dangerous man in Rome. Cicero tries to destroy Caesar. Caesar, in his inimitable style, seeks to subvert Cicero and convert him to his cause. He offers him protection when Cicero is in extremis, abandoned by his friends and allies and beset by enemies who want his blood, but Cicero, ever upright, refuses Caesar's offer and chooses exile from Rome. On the same night that he leaves anonymously under cover of darkness, on the opposite side of town, Caesar and his army prepare to set out for five years in Gaul. Thus the world turns. Thus the world changes. 

It is a remarkable story which never grows dull - for me, at least - in the telling. Harris has plenty of sources to draw from here, and I especially like the fact that the story is told from the viewpoint of Tiro. He was the fly on the wall at all of Cicero's meetings, present but ignored by the participants. He was in the ideal spot to learn all the secrets and to tell the fascinating story. Too bad his actual biography has been lost, but I suspect Harris has done a creditable job in recreating it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wooing the media

The Republican campaign for the presidency has mostly been hostile to the press. Santorum and Gingrich routinely slam the "elites" of the "liberal media." At times you would think they are running against the media rather than against Romney or even Obama.

Romney has not been as outspoken in identifying the media as the enemy, but neither has his campaign done much to woo the media. Apparently, all that is changing.

According to Politico, the Romney campaign is on a "charm offensive" to try to cozy up to the reporters who are following their candidate around the country. Even the standoffish candidate himself is said to be making himself more available to reporters and trying to interact with them on a human level. Of course, interacting on a human level is not something that Romney is noted for, so I'm not sure how much help that will be to his campaign.

Politicians and the reporters who cover them are supposed to be in an adversarial relationship, and it is hard to imagine a more adversarial interaction than that between Gingrich or Santorum and their posse of reporters. But I would think that a wise candidate would seek to have at least nominally friendly relationships with the press. After all, reporters are human, and they are more likely to give the benefit of a doubt to someone who doesn't treat them like something they want to scrape off the bottom of their shoe. They might even be persuaded to say nice things about a person who treats them decently.

As a consumer of news, I would hope that reporters would not be overly swayed by any candidate's charm offensive. On the contrary, I would want them to be clear-eyed and fair in their reporting, but also to hold the candidate's feet to the fire on the issues of the day. I would not want them to ask leading questions which beg for a foreordained answer, nor would I want them to engage in trivialities.

The press, when it does its job, has an important role to play in political campaigns. Unfortunately, all too often, the press does not do its job and all of us are less well informed and less able to perform our duties as citizens because of it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bluntly speaking, it's a little late for regrets

Remember the notorious Blunt-Rubio amendment that the Senate voted on last week? If you've erased it from your memory chip already, let me just remind you: It would have allowed employers to exclude insurance coverage for any type of medical procedure from their group policies for employees if they had "moral objections" to that procedure. Thus, if an employer objected on moral grounds to some doctor poking around in the butts of their employees, they could have excluded coverage for colonoscopies.

Of course, colonoscopies were not the target of Roy Blunt and his gang. Their target was women and contraception, but the amendment was written so broadly that it could have applied to anything.

When the amendment came up for a vote, every single Republican in the Senate, with the exception of Olympia Snowe, voted for it. (Snowe had just announced a few days earlier that she was retiring. If she had been running again, I'm guessing that she, too, would have voted for it.) Those voting in favor of the measure included women senators such as Susan Collins, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Lisa Murkowski. Traitors to their sex, all of them.

After the vote, Murkowski went home to Alaska where she got an earful from her constituents who were not at all happy with her support for allowing employers to arbitrarily exclude coverage for contraception. Murkowski was shocked, shocked! Apparently, she had expected to be greeted as a hero because of her vote. She now says that on hearing from her constituents and on reconsidering the issue, she regrets her vote! If she had it to do over again, she says she would not vote the way she did.

Well, she can't have a do-over, but luckily for Murkowski her Democratic colleagues in the Senate saved her by voting down the amendment, so she won't have to face the consequences of her vote. Except when she runs for election again, let us hope that those angry constituents will remember that on this issue, she was on the side of people like Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum, and let us fervently hope that they will hold her accountable for that.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ready for another war?

The drumbeat on the right has been increasing in volume for months now. The same people who talked up the unnecessary war in Iraq that has killed and maimed thousands of people, many of them Americans, are now panting to start such a war in Iran.

What is it about these people anyway? Why is their only way of dealing with the world to start a war? Iran is no threat to us. Even if they had a nuclear capability, they would be no threat to us. Furthermore, they have more than enough problems to deal with in their society. Why should they be looking for another one?

In fact, as far as I can tell from my reading, Iran is not looking for a war with anybody, least of all the United States, no matter what the right-wingers here and in Israel may be saying. The United Nations sanctions against the country seem to be working. Why would we not simply continue those and seek diplomatic solutions to any problems or disputes? Why would we want to jump in and kill thousands of innocent Iranians as we killed thousands of innocent Iraqis? And why would we want to put our own military service people in harm's way when there is no pressing need for it?

In the world that I grew up in, war was considered to be the very last alternative. Today, in the world of the neocons, it seems to be the first choice as a solution to any international problem. They seem to think that war is just like a video game and they crave the excitement of it. Of course, if war should come, you can bet your last dollar that the neocons won't be going to it and neither will their children. No, they'll still be here on the home front beating their war drums.

Fortunately, it seems that President Obama isn't intimidated by their drum and chest beating. As he told AIPAC (one of the chief sources of militaristic fervor) in his speech yesterday:
Already, there is too much loose talk of war.  Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.  Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.  Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt:  Speak softly; carry a big stick. 
Let's hope that he has the courage and good sense to continue to stand firmly by TR's admonition.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The birds

The following words are a meditation by Terry Tempest Williams called "I pray to the birds." They express my feelings about birds and Nature very well. The pictures are birds from my yard, except for the Great Egret, which I photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward.

I pray to them because I believe in their existence,

the way their songs begin and end each day~

the invocations and benedictions of the Earth.

I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear.

And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.