Sunday, September 29, 2013

Poetry Sunday: A Dirge

Last week, I read The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling, and I enjoyed it immensely. I learned that the rather enigmatic name of the book was taken from an evocative and affecting poem by Christina Rossetti called A Dirge. Let's make it the featured poem of the week.

A Dirge

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
   For their far off flying
   From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
   And all winds go sighing
   For sweet things dying.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Caturday: Internet Cat Video Festival

Did you know that there is an Internet Cat Video Festival? I suppose it should not be surprising that there is a festival honoring one of the most popular cultural phenomena of our time. 

The second annual festival was held in Minneapolis in late August and it was reported on by the international press. And, of course, there was a video about the festival! 

How long will it be, I wonder, before this festival is a yearly, much-anticipated event on television with the attendant red-carpet stroll and a scornful Joan Rivers critiquing the diamond collars worn by the kitties?

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As all the reading world now knows, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I admit I had not heard of the book before the brouhaha broke when that fact was leaked, apparently by someone associated with the law firm representing Rowling.

I went back and read some of the reviews of the book that were published before the true authorship became known and found that most were quite positive. Some even remarked that it was a particularly accomplished effort for a debut novel!

I think I can understand Rowling's decision to publish under a pseudonym in an effort to have the book stand on its own rather than be influenced by readers' preconceptions. The irony, of course, is that the book had very modest sales until it became known that it was a Rowling work. Then it immediately shot to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. And one of those buyers was me.

I am glad that the book was brought to my attention, even if it was at the sacrifice of Rowling's wish for anonymity. It is an excellent mystery in the classical mode and was a quick and highly entertaining read.

We meet private detective Cormoran Strike at a low point in his life. He had served in the British military in Afghanistan, where he lost the lower part of one leg to a land mine. Back home again, fitted with a prosthetic leg and learning to cope, he has started a private investigation business, but it is failing badly. He has only one client and he is being hounded by creditors.

His long-time rocky relationship with his fiancee, Charlotte, has ended on an acrimonious note and he has been forced to live in his office, sleeping on a camp bed. Could he possibly sink any lower?

Then, two things happen that will change his life. Temporary Solutions, an agency that supplies temporary clerical staff, sends him a secretary named Robin. On the same day that Robin arrives, a new client, John Bristow, shows up.

Bristow wants to engage his services to investigate the death of his sister, a supermodel named Lula Landry, known to her friends as Cuckoo. A few months earlier, Lula had fallen to her death from the balcony of her third-floor flat.

The death was ruled a suicide. Lula had been known to have mental problems. But Bristow doesn't buy it. He believes she was murdered and he hires Cormoran Strike to find the truth.

The search for the truth plunges Strike, aided by his amazingly adept and enthusiastic assistant/secretary Robin, into the world of the multi-million pound beauty business - unbelievably skinny but incredibly beautiful models, rock-star boyfriends, and designers desperate for the services of the models and for the notoriety their escapades can bring to their creations. All of them are unquenchable narcissists, for whom the world revolves around their every whim. Galbraith/Rowling describes their world and their relationships with the knowing eye of one who seems to have observed them at some length.    

In Cormoran Strike and Robin, the author has created two enormously appealing characters that the reader can root for unreservedly. They each have overcome obstacles in their lives and they each feel an excitement about the search for the truth that others sometimes misinterpret or do not understand. Robin's fiance, for example.

As Robin's temporary assignment at Strike's detective agency nears an end, both employer and employee are regretful and the reader senses that this isn't really going to be the end of this relationship.

The plot of this story had me completely fooled, I freely admit. I thought I knew whodunit, but I was wrong. At one point during the story, I had briefly entertained the idea that the murderer was the one who, in fact, it turned out to be, but I thought, "No way! The writer would never do that." Little did I know...

So, yes, the book kept me guessing right up until the end and it kept me turning those pages to find out what twist the plot was going to take next.

The Cuckoo's Calling is styled as "Cormoran Strike, #1" so I assume there is going to be a #2, #3, etc. I would certainly hope so. This was a very promising beginning and I look forward to reading more about the adventures of Cormoran and Robin.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Landscaping with Native Plants of Texas by George Oxford Miller: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was shopping at Lowe's the other day when I happened to spy this book on a rack near the garden gloves that I was trying on. The title was appealing so I picked it up and thumbed through it and then dropped it in my shopping basket. One more success for the art of product placement. One more impulse buy.

As impulse buys go, this turned out to be quite a useful one. I'm always looking for more information to help me with the establishment and improvement of my Southeast Texas habitat garden, and this book is quite chock full of such information.

The author, George Oxford Miller, is an environmental photojournalist and the book features his pictures of the plants which he discusses in the text. There is an amazing variety of them - wildflowers, shrubs, trees, vines, cacti, and groundcovers. These are all native plants that are adapted to the ecosystems where they thrive, and, thus, a gardener within one of those ecosystems can be pretty well assured that the recommended plant is going to do well for him or her. There are few things more deflating to a gardener than placing a beautiful, healthy plant in the garden only to watch it decline and wither. Not much chance of that with these tough plants.

The trend toward using native plants in landscaping has been one of the more heartening occurrences in gardening practices in recent years. It is easy to understand their appeal. Native plants meet many of the needs of the home gardener. They can provide year-round beauty with virtually no maintenance. Moreover, using native plants contributes to the repair of the natural ecosystem and makes our gardens a more integrated part of the environment.

The vast diversity and spectacular array of native plants in Texas provides species that can combine ornamental qualities, beauty, adaptability, growth habit, and low maintenance for the maximum value to the landscape. That diversity is very much on display in this book in which the author provides in-depth plant profiles that describe the habitat requirements of the each plant and help the gardener select the ones that meet his/her needs.

In an early section of the book, George Miller provides drawings which illustrate Texas' landscape zones. These illustrations include information about the mean annual precipitation in the various zones, as well as the cold hardiness of the area.

There is also a map which shows the ten vegetative zones of the state and the descriptions of those zones detail the prime geological features and the type of vegetation that is native to them.

Overall, I found the book well-written, devoid of jargon, and presented in a way that was very practical and useful to me as a gardener. In addition, the pictures of and descriptive text about the native plants will be helpful in clearing up questions of identification of plants. I do have useful field guides, but many species are very similar to each other and sometimes it helps to have just one more perspective from one more picture.

So, this is not one of my impulse buys that is destined to be thrown out with next week's trash. This one is a keeper.  

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Fall migration

Autumn is an exciting time for birders, even for a backyard birder like myself. Birds are on the move and have been for several weeks now. All those migratory species that spent their spring and summer raising families in North America, some in the very far northern reaches of the continent, are now on their way south to find their winter ranges in Central and South America.

Fall migration actually starts in late June or early July for some species. Typically, the shorebirds that nest in the far north start wending their way south at this time. But even some of the familiar songbirds begin their fall migration this early. For example, the Purple Martin, which is one of the earliest arrivals among the spring migrants, typically arriving in my area in late January, is one of the earliest to leave. By mid-July, these big swallows, so much a part of the avian sights and sounds in my community for six months, are completely absent.

By late July, early August, I begin seeing migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds passing through my yard. It starts as a trickle of a few birds a week and the numbers swell to a flood by this time of year. There is a constant whirl of hummingbird activity in the yard as these pugnacious and extremely territorial little birds battle over nectar feeders and their favorite flowers and shrubs.

 Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits the blossoms of the Hamelia patens (hummingbird bush or Mexican firebush) in August of this year.

At some point, the Ruby-throats are joined by Rufous Hummingbirds. The Rufous is better adapted to withstand cold weather and many of them now spend their winters in our area. For the past couple of years, I have had two of the birds spend their winters in my yard.

Female Rufous Hummingbird, one of my winter visitors last winter.

By this time of the year, or course, most of the songbirds that are going to migrate are well on their way. These include the rock stars of the songbird world, the warblers. Just last week, I recorded warblers passing through my yard, including a wonderful Wilson's Warbler that I was able to photograph.

All of these birds have been or soon will be joined by flycatchers, sparrows, finches, and their much larger relatives like raptors, geese, ducks, and cranes. My yard is on the route that is taken by the wild flock of Whooping Cranes that winters on the Texas Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, but I've never been lucky enough to see any of the big birds passing over. However, I have seen their smaller cousins, the Sandhills, flying over my yard in migration.

Nearly every day now brings a new species to the yard or flying over the yard. You never know what wonders you might see when you walk out that back door in the morning.

But it's not just the birds that bring the excitement. The migratory Monarch butterflies are on the move also, headed toward their winter home in Mexico. The Monarchs have been devastated by loss of habitat and harmful weather events in recent years and their numbers are greatly reduced over what they were even five years ago. Nevertheless, a few of the beauties do show up in my yard at this time of year. It is always a treat to see them.

 A male Monarch drops in.

Migration is a fascinating and somewhat mysterious event in Nature. It has been extensively studied by scientists and is certainly much better understood today than it has been in the past, but still there is much that is not known about how it works and what triggers it.

Even with the facts and figures which science is able to provide, it still seems to border on the miraculous that a tiny 4.75" long creature like the Wilson's Warbler can fly all the way from northern Canada to South America, thousands of miles, and that it will make the same trip in the opposite direction a few months hence.

Or that a thing as fragile as a butterfly will fly towards a destination which it has never seen, many miles away, guided only by an instinct honed over thousands of years of experience by its ancestors.

Perhaps it is just as well that Nature is able to keep some of her secrets and that we are able to keep our sense of wonder about the phenomenon that is migration.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the freedom to read

Every year during the last week in September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week. It is an event which unites librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all kinds in a shared appreciation and support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those that some people might consider unorthodox or unpopular or even offensive.

The purpose of Banned Books Week is really to draw attention to the harm that censorship does. The books that are featured have all been targeted for removal or restriction in libraries and schools, but, while some books have been and continue to be banned, there is reason to celebrate the fact that, in the majority of cases, the books have remained available. This is true thanks to the efforts of librarians and members of the community who continue to stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

In recent years, the big push among those who seek to ban books has been in the field of young adult fiction. The would-be banners are apparently driven by a desire to protect teenagers from tales of sex, drugs, and suicide, according to reports from the ALA. It's an understandable impulse driven by what may be a laudable concern for the sensibilities of teens, but it seems ultimately misguided. It is not as if teenagers are unaware of these topics. They are curious about the topics and they need information. A well-crafted and sensitively-written bit of fiction can provide a great deal of illumination on the subjects. It seems (to this outside observer, at least) that teenagers are more often harmed by a lack of information than they are by too much or even the "wrong" kind of information.

The books that appear on the most challenged or banned books year after year tend to be books about outsiders. They open their readers to other experiences and emotions and they can be reassurances to the teenage outsider that he or she is not alone and that it is okay to be different.

Moreover, reading about racism or about teen suicide will not make you a racist or induce you to commit suicide. On the contrary, it may help you to better understand those issues and make you less likely to fall prey to them. In fact, teenagers who are over-sheltered may find it more difficult to cope with the world as adults. Reading a variety of literature can help to prepare them for the struggles they will face.

The ALA first started monitoring complaints and requests to ban books in 1982. It says that it has recorded challenges to more than 11,300 titles during that time but estimates that the real number is probably much higher since all attempts to ban books are not necessarily recorded. The authors that have most often appeared on the banned-book list since 1982 are J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, Judy Blume, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, and John Steinbeck. These were coincidentally some of my teenage daughters' favorite authors as they were growing up.

During 2012, they recorded 464 complaints, and these were the books that were most often challenged and the stated reasons that they were challenged.
  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey.
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
    Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
  9. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence
Banned Books Week runs through Saturday, September 28. Celebrate it by reading something outrageous this week!


Monday, September 23, 2013

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We last visited with Patrick O'Brian's creations Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in The Ionian Mission during which they spent an interminable amount of time in a blockade off Toulon. It was a boring assignment for Aubrey/Maturin and crew and somewhat boring for the reader, as well. Now, the action picks up again in Treason's Harbour, the ninth entry in the series.

This tale is set mostly in and around Malta, which turns out to be a veritable hotbed of intrigue. Half the population seems to be spying on the other half and nobody is to be trusted.

Spying, gathering intelligence, is, of course, the purview of Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and erstwhile biologist. Malta is both a Mecca and a nightmare for him. When his ship is sent on what turns out to be a wild goose chase that is meant to lead them into a deadly trap, it becomes apparent that the admiralty's intelligence network has been compromised. It is only Captain Aubrey's vast experience and naval expertise that allows them to escape the trap unscathed.

Jack and Stephen encounter a beautiful young woman whose husband is a captive of the French. It develops that the French intelligence network is threatening her with having her husband executed if she does not assist them. She is meant to seduce Stephen and gain valuable information from him, but she confesses all of this to Stephen and a counterplot is put into motion - one that will feed false information to the French.

In order to advance their plans, it is important that everyone thinks that Stephen is engaged in an affair with the young woman, which, as it turns out, gives an enormous boost to his reputation and standing among the sailors!

Meanwhile, Jack's main concern is getting repairs made to his ship and hanging on to his hand-picked crew, which other captains are attempting to steal away while the frigate Surprise is stuck in port. While waiting for those repairs and a return to the sea, Aubrey is given the extremely distressing news that this will be the final mission for his beloved Surprise. She is to be sent back to England where she will be decommissioned and broken up. This hits him like a death in the family.

One of the many things that I enjoy about these novels is Dr. Maturin's interest in biology and the environment of all the places which they visit. In particular, he is a keen birder and constantly makes observations of local bird life, both at sea and on land. I was particularly interested to read in this book of their visit to an area where the Purple Gallinule is found and Stephen's interest in seeing it, since, just recently, I went on my on quest for that bird which summers here in Southeast Texas. (And I found it!) It's tidbits like that, rather than all the sailing lore and terminology that is dear to the hearts of many of O'Brian's readers, that truly bring these stories to life for me.

That and the continuing relationship of Maturin and Aubrey are the elements which keep me coming back to continue reading this series. By now, the two of them are like a long-married couple who complement each other's strengths, ameliorate each other's weaknesses, and make allowances for their partner's annoying little habits. Most of all, each knows that he can absolutely depend on the other. In a dangerous world where Napoleon's agents are everywhere, that fact has often been the difference between life and death.      

Patrick O'Brian's strengths as a writer include his character development and, of course, his mastery of British naval history and naval terminology. As usual, a lot of that terminology went right over my head and, unlike some readers, I did not feel a compulsion to turn to one of the companion dictionaries to the series to learn the meaning of every single nautical term. Understanding the context seems sufficient for me and I'm able to enjoy the action and follow the flow of the story without necessarily getting every nuance. Maybe that makes me a superficial reader, but I can live with that.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Walrus and the Carpenter

How about a little nonsense poetry for today? Well, here's a famous one from the king of nonsense poets, Lewis Carroll.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

"The sun was shining on the sea,
      Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
      The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
      The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
      Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
      After the day was done —
"It's very rude of him," she said,
      "To come and spoil the fun."

The sea was wet as wet could be,
      The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
      No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
      There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
      Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,'
      They said, it would be grand!'

If seven maids with seven mops
      Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
      That they could get it clear?'
I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
      And shed a bitter tear.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!'
      The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
      Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
      To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
      But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
      And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
      To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
      All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
      Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
      They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
      And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
      And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
      And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
      Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
      And waited in a row.

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.'

But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!'
No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed —
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.'

But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!'
The night is fine,' the Walrus said.
      Do you admire the view?

It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
      Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
      I've had to ask you twice!'

It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
      The butter's spread too thick!'

I weep for you,' the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
      You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They'd eaten every one."

Or is it nonsense? Does it, in fact, have some hidden meaning? Perhaps something along the lines of what Matt Damon's character Loki explained to a nun in the movie "Dogma"?

Nah, I think it's probably just nonsense. But enjoyable nonsense.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Proof that science has a sense of humor

The eagerly awaited - well, I always look forward to them - Ig Nobel prizes in science were handed out this week. These are the prizes that began 23 years ago as a spoof of the somewhat more prestigious Nobel prizes that will be given out next month. The humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research organizes and sponsors the ten awards and the ceremony takes place at Harvard University around this time every year. The stated aim of the awards is to "first make people laugh, and then make them think." There's certainly a lot in this year's awards to make us think. And occasionally retch.

For example: The archaeology prize went to Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl for parboiling a dead shrew, then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days just so they could determine which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system and which bones would not. The sacrifices that some scientists are willing to make for their research!

Continuing with the excreta theme, a joint prize in biology and astronomy was awarded to a group of scientists who discovered that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way. Even insects that spend their time rolling up balls of poop can look at the stars. Who knew? Well, now we do, thanks to these scientists' selfless work.

The peace prize was awarded jointly to Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

In public health, the prize was given to a group of surgeons who described their medical techniques in a report entitled "Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam." Apparently, their techniques are recommended, except in cases where the amputated penis has been partially eaten by a duck. (Don't ask. You'll just have to read the report.)

In psychology, several researchers were recognized for their experiment which confirmed that people who are drunk tend to think that they are more attractive. Their paper was entitled "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder."

A group of physicists won that category's prize by discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond - if those people and that pond were on the moon. Sheldon and Leonard of "The Big Bang Theory" would be so proud!

Several scientists worked together in the field of chemistry to discover that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized. For that, they won a prize.

But I've saved my two favorites of this year's prizes for the last.

Bert Tolkamp, Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, David Roberts, and Colin Morgan spent a lot of time closely observing cows and they discovered two things: (1.) The longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and (2.) Once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. For this startling discovery, they won the probability prize.

And last but certainly not least, the late Gustavo Pizzo invented an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. His system would drop the hijacker through trap doors, seal him into a package and drop the encapsulated hijacker through the airplane's specially-installed bomb bay doors, whence he parachutes to earth, where police, having been alerted, await his arrival. I think Mr. Pizzo may have watched a few too many James Bond movies. But what an imagination!

And imagination and innovation and the willingness to pursue an idea even if it seems crazy and the whole world laughs at you - that is what the Ig Nobels are all about.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Should journalists point out blatant lies that politicians tell?

During a segment on "Morning Joe," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. (MSNBC reporter Chuck) Todd said that Republicans "have successfully messaged against it" but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that's President Barack Obama's job.
"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it," Todd told Rendell. "They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."  - from TPM

What is the responsibility of an ethical journalist when it comes to reporting news on which there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints? Do they simply report "he said, he said" and let their audience decide who is telling the truth? Or, if they have incontrovertible information that one side or the other is lying and misstating facts, do they have an obligation to say so?  

What passes for journalism in today's environment demands that reporters take the first option. "He said, he said" is all we hear on most broadcast news shows. No analysis, no background, no additional information provided by the reporter to help his audience discover the truth - just one argument juxtaposed against its opposite. This is a grave disservice to the consumer of news and a grave disservice to society as a whole. 

Journalists are, we assume at least, in a better position to know all the facts of a story than the average Joe or Jill in the street. I certainly don't have the time or resources to research every important news story that comes along or to ferret out the truth on controversial subjects. I rely on trusted sources to provide me with information and guidance. 

But what if the sources we rely on are lazy or are taking their guidance from some central authority which gives them daily talking points that they must adhere to in their reporting of the news? What if our "journalists" are unworthy of the name and instead are complicit in pulling the wool over the eyes of their audience? 

Television news reporters today, and to a certain extent print reporters as well, seem to have given up any obligation they ever felt to be truth tellers. They appear to feel no obligation to do the work of finding out what the truth actually is and passing it along to their viewers or readers. Thus, they will report with a straight face a blatant lie about some subject - the Affordable Care Act is the big one of the moment - and will never by word or deed inform their audience that they KNOW it is a lie. And then, when the public is confused about the subject, they blame someone else, as Chuck Todd blamed the President for not "selling" the program. 

If reporters simply reported the truth about what the program does and will do, it seems highly unlikely that "selling" would be necessary, because poll after poll shows that when people are asked about the individual parts of the law, they overwhelmingly approve of it! As Jason Linkins writes in The Huffington Post, "But informing the public is the full-time job of journalists as well. The notion that a journalist can possess the means to mitigate public confusion on any topic and pass on doing so is just unfathomable to me. In many cases, the information you need to perform that task is hard-won."

Certainly the Administration has an obligation to help inform the public, but that doesn't relieve journalists of their obligation to report the truth and to point out obvious lies ("death panels!") to the public. Unfortunately, I don't see the Chuck Todds of the journalism world having the courage or the work ethic to shoulder that responsibility anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Mediterranean gecko

Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) by unknown photographer

In this part of the world, we are blessed with the presence of several different types of very beneficial little reptiles. I routinely encounter green anoles, garden skinks, as well as small snakes in my garden. They are all welcome here. But one of the most interesting of our small reptiles is not a native but actually an introduced species that has made itself right at home in our area. It is the Mediterranean gecko.

As its name would imply, it is native to the Southern Europe and Northern Africa area. It is adapted well to living in and around homes and has spread to many other parts of the world, including Southeast Texas, and their numbers are apparently increasing. They are insectivores that eat many harmful insects, including cockroaches. 

By day, these little lizards usually hide in cracks, crevices, and under tree bark or other such spots. At night, they become most active. They are frequently found near lighted areas, such as windows or entries of houses, where small insects are abundant during warm weather.

A Mediterranean gecko on the ceiling of my front porch waiting patiently near the light for an unwary insect.

These little lizards remain active during spring, summer, and fall in our area. Like other reptiles, they disappear during the colder months of the year.

One of the interesting things about Mediterranean geckos is that, unlike most reptiles,  they are capable of vocalizing. Males make a call consisting of several clicks and they use vocalizations in territorial disputes and to deter predators. 

Another characteristic of geckos which they share with anoles and some other lizards is the ability to cast off their tail as a defense when they are attacked and to regenerate that tail. It takes them about three weeks to grow a new tail.

They have a relatively long breeding period. They breed March through November here. The adult females lay two eggs in a clutch, often in communal nests, and at this time of the year, it is very common to encounter very tiny geckos that look as if they just popped out of one of those eggs. In fact, just recently, I had to rescue such a baby from Bella the cat when the little critter managed to get into the house. I returned him to the outside world where he promptly skittered away to hide.

Mediterranean geckos do have a somewhat odd appearance with their large, unblinking eyes and their bumpy, warty skin. They look like a creature that, much enlarged, you might see in a science fiction movie, playing the "monster that ate Phoenix" or some such role. But they are benign creatures, at least as far as humans are concerned, and great fun to watch. Moreover, they are important helpmates for the organic gardener.   

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: A review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Am I alive and a reality, or am I but a dream?"  - Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Return of Tarzan

People of a certain age - my age - remember fondly the great television series of 1959-1964, "The Twilight Zone."  Each week it presented stories of a unique vision, stories that could be loosely categorized, as could this book, as science fiction. Indeed, as I read Kate Atkinson's latest marvelous book, Life After Life, I kept thinking that this would have made a great tale for "The Twilight Zone."

Earlier this year, I first met Kate Atkinson through her Jackson Brodie series. I read all four of the books in that series, in which she explored the outer reaches of possibilities of the mystery genre, beginning with Case Histories. In this new book, she seems to be exploring the outer limits of possibilities of science fiction. She imbues the genre with her own unique brand of creativity.

But how to begin to describe this story? Well, it has its beginning on February 11, 1910.

On that date, Ursula Todd is born in a village in England, in a house called Fox Corner. But she is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and before she can draw her first breath, she is dead.

On February 11, 1910, at Fox Corner, a baby girl is born to Sylvie and Hugh Todd, their third child. She is a healthy, bouncing baby girl and she is named Ursula. She will live a long and eventful life.

Or, when she is a baby, Ursula is smothered by a cat lying on her face while she is in her cradle.

Or, she is saved when her mother shoos the cat away.

Or, when she is four, her older sister Pamela pulls her into deep water while they are on a seaside vacation, and they both drown.

Or, they are both rescued by an onlooker and carried safely back to their mother.

On her sixteenth birthday, Ursula is raped in her home by a loutish friend of her older brother. In her complete innocence, she doesn't really understand what has happened to her and is later surprised to learn she is pregnant. She goes to London and confides in her Aunt Izzie, her father's sister, who arranges for an illegal abortion, which nearly kills Ursula.

Or, on her sixteenth birthday, she shares a chaste kiss with her next door neighbor, Benjamin, a darkly handsome boy on who she has a crush, and afterward they embark on an innocent first love affair.

She goes to Germany as a student, lives with a German family, and meets and befriends a young woman named Eva Braun. She meets Eva's lover, Adolf Hitler, and one day at a cafe, she manages to shoot him, thus changing the course of history.

Or, she tries to shoot him and is herself killed by his companions.

Or, she goes to Germany as a student, lives with a German family, meets a young man and marries him and they have a daughter named Freida. She gives up her English citizenship and becomes a German citizen and as war is approaching and she desperately wants out of Germany and to get back to England and Fox Corner, she finds herself trapped with her daughter. She survives the war, but in 1945, with her husband long dead, her little daughter deathly ill and the Russians on the outskirts of Berlin, she obtains drugs for suicide. She gives them first to her daughter and watches her die and then takes the drugs herself and darkness falls.

Or, she returns home to England after her time as a student in Germany, continues her education and ends up as a civil service employee, where she serves throughout the war years. She also serves in the local brigade which has the task of rescuing living victims caught in the rubble of the blitz and digging out the dead. She has several affairs but never marries and never has a family of her own, but she is devoted to her two younger brothers and her older sister Pamela and her children.

Or, she lives until June 1967 and on the eve of her retirement from the civil service, she takes a walk in the park, sits on a bench lost in her memories and in the pain of a severe headache. And she dies. Or...

And so it goes throughout this book. Alternate lives. Alternate deaths. Not only for Ursula but for those around her. What part is "real" and what part merely a dream or a premonition of something that might have been different? Does it matter?

Or, to put it as Edgar Rice Burroughs did, "Am I alive and a reality, or am I but a dream?"

It is not really possible in a short synopsis to convey the atmosphere of this novel. It is by turns funny and sad, ironic and poignant. For me, perhaps the most poignant and the most revealing part of the book was being able to see the horror and privation of World War II for civilians both in Germany and in England through the eyes and experiences of one character. It is a brilliant and heartbreaking portrait of war, one that only a masterful writer - dare I say a woman writer? - could paint.

Kate Atkinson is a masterful writer and she has written an extraordinary book, one that moved me as few books have. Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, provided a blurb for the book which appears on the front cover. It says, "One of the best novels I've read this century." To which I can only add, "Me, too."        

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Hatewatching "The Newsroom"

"Are you sure you aren't just a massive bag of douche?" - MacKenzie to Will during the finale of this season's "The Newsroom" on HBO
There are some shows on television that I watch because I love them. "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory," "Orange is the New Black," and "House of Cards" to name a few. ("Breaking Bad" will probably be added to this list if I can ever get around to watching it on Netflix.)

There are some that I'm not crazy about but can tolerate because there might be at least one character that I am invested in - "Boardwalk Empire" and Richard, for example.

Then, occasionally, there are shows that I actively hate and yet I still watch them, because... I'm not sure why. Because they are there? Because it's the hour that I've designated for television watching and I'm a creature of habit? Because they are like train wrecks and I just can't turn away? I think that last one comes closest to the truth, at least as it pertains to the train wreck which is HBO's "The Newsroom."

Last night was the finale for this season. Thank goodness. So that's one hour of torture I won't have to endure on Sunday nights for a while. But I understand it is supposed to be back for a third season, (HBO pulled the plug on the excellent "Enlightened" after two seasons and this "bag of douche" gets a third??? Truly, life is not fair. Neither is television nor HBO.) and, yes, I'll probably be at my post on Sunday nights watching the slow-motion disaster once again.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When I first heard about this show, I thought it was an interesting idea and one that might translate well into a weekly series. Moreover, it had actors that I knew and had enjoyed watching in other things. Then I saw the first few shows of the first season. And from then on "The Newsroom" was firmly relegated to my "hatewatch" category.

My objection to the show can be summed up quite succinctly: the women. The women of the newsroom, supposedly highly talented and highly intelligent individuals who are proficient at their craft, teeter around on their tippy, tippy toes all day long in four-inch heels, breasts thrusting forward and butts protruding backward due to the laws of physics. And, of course, their necklines are all plunging toward their waists. The physical image would be bad enough. The intellectual and emotional image is even worse.

These women, who have worked their way to the top of their profession, are complete clumsy ditzes. They constantly say the dumbest things in a breathless rush, while the Great White Men of the show stare at them as if they are aliens and they are trying their best to understand them. And understanding them is a problem because Aaron Sorkin seems to be in a contest with himself to see how many syllables he can cram into a minute in his women's speeches. They all talk like this. Their words tumble over each other as if the speaker is afraid she's going to be momentarily interrupted. And if you are the character named Sloane, you certainly will be. She's hardly ever allowed to finish a sentence.

Of course, the women of "The Newsroom" often burst into tears or get into delightful pickles from which they have to be rescued by the Great White Men. A woman watching this show can only assume that Aaron Sorkin hates women and wants to make them look as ridiculous as possible. He certainly has no understanding or appreciation of the hardworking professionals who are female and who manage to get up every morning and go to jobs where they have to excel above and beyond any standards for males in order to have their efforts noticed. They are tough and they definitely do not burst into tears at the drop of a hat.

Much has been written of Sorkin's inability to write realistic women. Some even accuse him of outright misogyny. You might as well accuse him of racism as well because all of his strong characters are Great White Men. Personally, I don't know what his problem is. Maybe he just isn't a very good writer. And yes, I know he's won a ton of awards. Hmm...I wonder who were the judges for all those awards?

Anyway, my judgment of "The Newsroom" is that it is a mess and it should have been allowed to die a merciful death after last night's show, but apparently Sorkin will be forced to write more of those ditzy dame scenes.

Speaking of scenes, the only ones worth watching this season were the ones between Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston. They were rather fun, but I think they would have been fun even if those two pros had just been reading the phone book.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Poetry Sunday: A Woman Waking

My featured poet this week is Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate who spent his early years writing verse between shifts as a Detroit autoworker. It has just been announced that Mr. Levine has been awarded the Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievementThe prize, which comes with a $100,000 award, is given annually for “outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry."

Mr. Levine is the quintessential blue collar poet, a poet of the commonplace. I looked at a number of his poems over the last few days and found them quite affecting, but there was one in particular that spoke to me. And here it is.

A Woman Waking
She wakens early remembering
her father rising in the dark
lighting the stove with a match
scraped on the floor. Then measuring
water for coffee, and later the smell
coming through. She would hear
him drying spoons, dropping
them one by one in the drawer.
Then he was on the stairs
going for the milk. So soon
he would be at her door
to wake her gently, he thought,
with a hand at her nape, shaking
to and fro, smelling of gasoline
and whispering. Then he left.
Now she shakes her head, shakes
him away and will not rise.
There is fog at the window
and thickening the high branches
of the sycamores. She thinks
of her own kitchen, the dishwasher
yawning open, the dripping carton
left on the counter. Her boys
have gone off steaming like sheep.
Were they here last night?
Where do they live? she wonders,
with whom? Are they home?
In her yard the young plum tree,
barely taller than she, drops
its first yellow leaf. She listens
and hears nothing. If she rose
and walked barefoot on the wood floor
no one would come to lead her
back to bed or give her
a glass of water. If she
boiled an egg it would darken
before her eyes. The sky tires
and turns away without a word.
The pillow beside hers is cold,
the old odor of soap is there.
Her hands are cold. What time is it? 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Caturday: Scaredy Cats

As a human who lives with two cats who are extremely sensitive to unexpected sounds, sights, or movements and who can jump several feet in the air flatfooted when startled, I can appreciate the cats in this video.

They are not really scared - they are just drama queens and kings.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The myth of exceptionalism

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."   - Vladimir Putin in New York Times op-ed

Russia's Vladimir Putin made a big splash this week with his op-ed  piece in the Times in which he lectured the United States and President Obama about the "need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." Of course, he doesn't mention here the fact that Russia has vetoed any effort by the Security Council to address the two year old crisis and civil war in Syria. 

He goes on to piously discuss democracy as an ideal toward which countries are moving at their own speed, with the implication being that countries must be allowed to work out their destinies without interference from the outside, even, I guess, when those countries enact such undemocratic laws as the recent Russian acts which discriminate against homosexuals.  

It's hard - impossible really - to know if Putin himself actually wrote this op-ed or if it was written by the public relations firm he employs, but perhaps it doesn't really matter. No doubt it fairly represents the opinions of the man himself. As such, the hypocrisy of the piece is truly staggering, coming from a man who has been a chief obstructionist of peaceful negotiations of many conflicts in the world, as well as a man who runs a very illiberal and undemocratic regime in his own country. 

Nevertheless, if one merely takes the op-ed at face value, there are certain statements that make sense and with which a reasonable person can agree. One of those is the quote with which I opened my blog post.

For a long time, it has irked me almost beyond endurance to hear jingoistic American politicians talking about "American exceptionalism," which some of them do at every possible opportunity. Their clear implication is that this is a country which was established by some Outside Power, usually a long-robed, long-bearded, all-powerful Judeo-Christian God, and that the country continues to be watched over and protected by that Outside Power, in a way that is not true of any other country in the world. Indeed, it is an article of faith among certain fundamentalist right-wing politicians and their followers that we stand outside and are immune from the flow of history. All of that is so much hogwash.

In fact, this country was established by human beings, brilliant but flawed human beings, who were willing to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line to bring it into being. They were human beings who were acutely aware of the lessons of history and who would never for a moment have presumed to believe that they or the country they were creating were immune from and could not learn from those lessons. 

In short, the idea that the United States of America is exceptional and stands outside of the flow of history is a myth and a dangerous myth at that. We are subject to the same natural laws as any other people, any other government. Our system of government which has worked well enough for over two hundred years inevitably contains the seeds of its own destruction. From time to time, those seeds sprout and grow as they are doing now with the refusal of certain elements in our society to live by the tenets of democracy. 

So, I would agree with Putin's statement that it is dangerous to see ourselves as exceptional. We need to accept that we are a part of history and are not immune to its forces. Perhaps this would give us the dash of humility we need to be effective citizens of the world.    

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Warden by Anthony Trollope: A review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most of the reading I've been doing this summer has been of murder mysteries. Noir. Police procedurals. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. But always with a murder involved. It was time for a cleansing of my reading palette.

The writers of those mysteries all tailor their craft for the tastes of typical readers (if such animals exist) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They feature short, pithy, undemanding sentences calculated to keep those pages turning and keep the reader from turning away to any of the other myriad of possible entertainments available to her. They write for a short-attention-span audience, and they are entertaining in their way.

But now, for something completely different.

Anthony Trollope's sentences can in no wise be described as short, pithy, or undemanding. Here is an example from early in the book, where Trollope is describing the warden's habit of playing on an imaginary violincello when he was under emotional stress.
While these vexed him sorely, the passes would be short and slow, and the upper hand would not be seen to work; nay the strings on which it operated would sometimes lie concealed in the musician's pocket, and the instrument on which he played would be beneath his chair; but as his spirit warmed to the subject - as his trusting heart, looking to the bottom of that which vexed him, would see its clear way out, - he would rise to a higher melody, sweep the unseen cords from his neck, down along his waistcoat, and up again to his very ear, create an ecstatic strain of perfect music, audible to himself and to St Cecilia, and not without effect.
Now that is a sentence! And this book is filled with such complicated structures. They demand the reader's full attention. One can't be texting or following Twitter while reading such sentences.

The Warden was the first in a series of six books which comprise Trollope’s Barchester series, one of the most enduring serial collections of British fiction. It tells the compelling story of a good man, the kindly Mr. Harding, warden of the almshouse in Barchester. Mr. Harding, through no fault of his own, finds himself caught in a maelstrom of publicity over alleged financial misconduct. This was a topical subject because financial misconduct by the Church of England was much in the news at this time.

The national scandal was fueled by a reformer named Bold, who was a friend of Mr. Harding and who was in love with the reverend's daughter, Eleanor. Bold believed that the terms of the will which created the almshouse were not being fairly carried out, that too much of the income was going to the warden while it should have been going to the twelve aged indigent residents of the almshouse. The fact that Mr. Harding was tenderly caring for and supporting the residents was never in question - and was never taken into account by the news stories.

Mr. Bold's assertions came to the attention of the Jupiter, the influential newspaper of the day. Soon the newspaper was editorializing about the warden's alleged malfeasance. The story was taken up by pamphleteers, the National Enquirers or Drudge Reports of their day, and it was distorted out of all reason and the warden felt that his reputation was irretrievably blackened.

Anthony Trollope wrote in the Victorian era in England, but one can't help seeing parallels between the media which he describes and the American media of the day. The story of the disgraced warden would have been irresistible manna for the 24-hour cable news networks.

The good and honorable Mr. Harding comes to believe that the charges that he is receiving too much income for the work that he does as warden have some basis in truth, and he sees that the only way out for him to resolve the conflict in his conscience is to resign the post, much to the consternation of his son-in-law and older daughter and other supporters. The only one who supports him in his decision is Eleanor.

And so, he walks away from his profitable post and into a life of genteel poverty, and yet his chronicler says that he "is not an unhappy man." Eleanor marries Bold and, eventually, her sister and brother-in-law are reconciled to the match and they all become friends again.

As for the twelve old men of the almshouse who had dreams of becoming much richer through the efforts of the reformer, they, in fact, became poorer once Mr. Harding left the position of warden, since he had been supplementing their income from his own proceeds. Too late they realized how good they had had it under his benevolent care.

Trollope's rich writing is, in many ways, a comedy of manners reminiscent of Jane Austen. He reveals a society of contrasts between Victorian London and the provincial life of Barchester. His story is one of the power of the press to do both good and evil contrasted against the small but indomitable voice of one person's integrity. It is a story of Victorian England that could just as easily be of modern day America. The Warden is as relevant as today's newspaper or the Internet.

And the writing! Oh, the writing! It is just beautiful. I consider my palette to have been thoroughly cleansed.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Beautyberry

The berries which give beautyberry its name, photographed in my garden this week.

Beautyberry is well-named. Those shiny berries that develop in late summer and early fall on the 3-5 foot tall shrubs are indeed very attractive, both to humans and to birds which love to feast on them.

In fact, I am sure that all the purple-berried beautyberries in my yard were planted by birds - birds who either pooped out the seeds from the berries or dropped them in flight. I do have several of these native shrubs from the verbena family, because, generally, if possible, I just leave them alone and let them grow where they are planted.

Historically, Native Americans made a tea from the leaves and roots of American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), sometimes called French mulberry, which they used for sweat baths for rheumatism, fevers, and malaria. A root tea was used for dysentery and stomach aches. Root and berry teas were used for colic.

The plant is very valuable in a native plant landscape because it attracts birds and butterflies. In areas where deer are a nuisance, unfortunately, it also attracts them.

For gardeners looking for a carefree shrub to add to their gardens, this could be the answer to their dreams. Once established, it requires virtually no maintenance. The only thing I ever do for mine is to prune them back when they get too big for their space. They can be pruned severely before new growth starts in the spring to control the plant's size, and they can be pruned throughout the growing season if they need to be shaped or the size further controlled.

In addition to the more familiar purple-berried plant, there is a white-berried variety which I also have in my garden. The white berries, for whatever reason, seem to be even more attractive to the birds in my yard. They will strip this shrub of its berries before moving on to the purple berries.

The shrubs are deciduous and so are not especially attractive in winter and sometimes during prolonged droughts, as we are prone to have in Texas, they will lose some leaves and the fruit may not develop properly. But, in my backyard, for three seasons of the year, they are an attractive and valuable addition to my habitat garden.