30 November 2009


Today's NYTimes online features an article on something I've long wanted to do -- experience the Grand Canyon on foot, alone, with no time limitations. the "alone" part isn't adviseable for safety reasons, though Colin Fletcher famously did so in the 1960s, as chronicled in his book The Man Who Walked Through Time. Fletcher's trek took him the 200-plus-mile length of the Canyon, while most people (including the article's author) are content to hike from the rim to the bottom and back (itself a satisfying accomplishment).

If you scan the Times article, be sure to check out the accompanying slide show. No photo can do the Canyon justice, just as no photo can do the night sky justice. But perhaps the seed of your own adventure to the Canyon will be planted. Everyone should see it in their lifetime.

'Course, one of my other dreams is to kayak the Colorado River through the entire length of the Grand Canyon. But that's another story. (click on images to enlarge)

29 November 2009


Astute readers will recall that on 03 November, I described entering an online contest called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or NNWM as I abbreviate it). The intent is to encourage people who've always wanted to write a novel, to do so with guidance, encouragement and a 30-day deadline. That works out to about 1666 words per day, a very manageable number, even if one works and/or has a family to raise. No one profits from your work -- in fact, after November's composition and December's revisions, the writer retains all rights and ownership, and the website deletes all entries. It is an altruistic venture in the purest sense.

The "contest" is actually with oneself, not between writers -- the challenge is to discipline oneself to sit down daily and write. The fun of it is, there's no one looking over your shoulder, judging grammar, syntax or quality of content. It is simply an exercise to boost the aspiring writer off dead center, and get into the writerly habit.
"Thirty days and nights of literary abandon"

My story centers on a man who is single, and learning about the world of online dating services. His exploration consumes most of the story, with some space devoted to contrasting being single now to being single in the mid-1980s, pre-Internet, when one's choices were limited to blind dates through friends (iffy), the bar scene (ugh), or personals ads in the local alterntive newspaper. The latter was, in those days before AIDS, actually quite a safe and fun way to meet people. A teaser -- my character learns through both personals ads experience and online experience that of those women who are reasonable prospective matches, roughly half turn out to be duds (they lied about their age or their weight or their intelligence, or were simply not a good psychological fit: another fourth rated a second or third date but didn't really go anywhere; slightly less than a fourth became relationships of varying duration; and one (the last one, obviously) becomes true love. The devil is in the details ....... the story describes examples of each interaction, with names and other particulars changed to protect the identities of the innocent (or the guilty).

Well, in spite of starting late, I finished yesterday. The NNWM website validated my word count at 50,921 -- or an average of 1959 words per writing day. The experience was a tremendous confidence booster, and an inspiration. I was increasingly aware of something that many writers describe -- how one's characters take on a life of their own, with their own aspirations, quirks, and follies. Throw in their interactions with each other, and with their social environment, and the writer starts to feel a bit like a reporter at times, rather than a creator. It is only a feeling, of course. All those people and events arise from our conscious or subconscious minds. Still, a lot of fun. I never knew from day to day, what was going to end up on the page as I sat down to write.

This first book is not likely to see publication -- though the premise is relevant and the prose is passable. I almost feel possessive of it, wanting to share it with only those few whom I trust. We shall see. My thanks to my friend Celeste for introducing me to NNWM. I shall forever be in her debt.

28 November 2009


Regular readers know that I'm an avid advocate for predators in general, and the big cats in particular. I happened upon an article about a non-feline predator with a partly-feline name, due to the markings on its skin. The leopard shark ranges along the Pacific coast of North America, from Oregon in the north, to Mazatlan in Mexico in the south. a relatively small shark, the four to five foot long leopard shark often swims in large schools in coastal waters less than 13 feet deep -- bays and estuaries, intertidal mud flats at high tide, or rock-strewn areas near kelp beds or reefs. Since most leopard sharks live within a defined territory, there exists genetic divergence between populations of sharks living in different areas within the species range. such divergence is one of the many possible sources of speciation, i.e., the splitting of one species into two or more distinct sub-species,
Leopard sharks are harmless to humans, and sadly are harvested both for food, and to stock exotic salt water aquaria in offices and homes. (click on image to enlarge)

27 November 2009


Documented as the fastest land animal, the African cheetah can reach speeds between 70 and 75 mph, in short bursts covering distances up to 1500 feet. It has the ability to accelerate from 0 to 65 mph in three seconds, faster than most supercars. North America's pronghorn antelope is marginally slower, but can sustain its speed over much longer distances than the cheetah.

Cheetahs exhibit very little genetic variability among individuals, the result of a prolonged period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age. one consequence is that the entire species is highly vulnerable to any potential infectious disease that is species-specific. New research indicates that the last known common ancestor to all cheetahs lived in Asia 11 million years ago.

There is a popular film that provides a window into the life and personality of a cheetah that was raised as a pet and returned to the wild -- director Carroll Ballard's Duma.

26 November 2009


I refer to how white America's celebration of Thanksgiving tastes to most Native Americans -- like bitter ashes. European American invaders used disease, lies and the fine art of massacre to steal Indian land, and tried to obliterate their culture, language, traditions. Confined to ghettos euphemistically called "reservations", decimated by broken treaty after broken treaty, Indians have become the forgotten minority in the U.S. -- the most oppressed, the most impoverished, the most plagued by alcohol and unemployment.

And yet, against all odds, decent and informed (and sometimes justifiably angry) Indian voices persist -- writers, scholars, historians, activists. There is as much variety of opinion and behavior among Indians as there is among whites, with this difference -- whites hold the financial and political power, but seldom the moral high ground.

On this day, I am thankful for those other voices, which sit on my shoulder and whisper into my ear about conscience, honor, pride.

25 November 2009


some images just don't need the clutter of commentary -- this splendid APOD photo of our Milky Way galaxy is one such. click on the links for descriptions. click on the image to enlarge. enjoy.

24 November 2009


For those of you who use the app Farm Town on Facebook, here is an updated chart showing all existing and new crops, grouped according to how long they take to mature. Within days-to-mature groups, all crops are arranged in ascending order of profit per day. This gives you a much more useful comparison than simple seed cost, or simple harvest yield. Time, cost of seed, cost of plowing, and harvest yield affect your profit and profit per day, and are figured into the chart.

Crop...........Time to Mature....Profit... Profit per day


Raspberry......2 hours..................12..........(depends on # plantings)

Grape..............4 hours..................16...........ditto

Beets...............4 hours..................18...........ditto

Squash............8 hours..................24...........ditto

Basil................8 hours..................28............ditto

Asparagus....12 hours..................27............ditto

Sugar cane...12 hours..................31............ditto


Strawberry.....1 day....................35...............35

Watermelon....1 day....................37...............37

Potato..............1 day....................39...............39

Cabbage...........1 day....................42..............42

Eggplant...........1 day....................47..............47

Sage..................1 day.....................52...............52


Tomato............ 2 days..................70...............35

Wheat.............. 2 days..................80...............40

Rice...................2 days..................90...............45

Peas..................2 days..................92................46

Carrot...............2 days..................98................49

Pepper..............2 days................108................54

Blackberry.......2 days................120................60


Coffee................3 days...............128.................43

Corn.................. 3 days...............135.................45

Sunflower..........3 days...............142.................47

Onion.................3 days...............148.................49

Blueberry..........3 days...............177.................59

Pineapple.......... 3 days..............192.................64

Rosemary..........3 days...............211................70


Cotton.................4 days..............160.................40

Pumpkin.............4 days..............176.................44

Broccoli...............4 days..............197.................49


NOTE: Farm Towners, if you would like to see the complete chart, which includes seed cost, plowing cost, time to mature, harvest yield, profit, profit per day, and XP (experience points earned), let me know, and i'll send you an email with the chart as an attachment.

NOTE: As always, your available time, personal preference and aesthetics trump this chart. This information is intented solely for those who seek to maximize their profit for a given time period. :)

23 November 2009


I've discovered a weekly show on PBS which focuses on the humane training of horses. It's called "Saddle Up", hosted by Dennis Brouse. The show is remarkable for two reasons. The first reason is that the training practiced on the show is clearly influenced by Monty Roberts and other so-called horse whisperers, trainers who "adopt a sympathetic view of the motives, needs and desires of the horse, based on natural horsemanship and modern equine psychology." Both the book and the movie The Horse Whisperer were based loosely on Roberts' life and philosophy, in which the emphasis is on paying attention to the horse's behavior, in effect listening to its non-verbal language, and on negotiating with a horse to form a voluntary, non-violent relationship with the trainer.

The second reason is that in addition to helping individual horse owners to train their animals, Brouse introduces his audience to different horse breeds, and to the variety of ways in which humans and horses associate, from trail rides to polo to steeplechase.

My own experience with horses is mostly limited to having ridden bareback as a child, during a time when my dad had his own farm. I still prefer riding bareback to a saddle -- there is a more immediate connection and communication between rider and animal. It feels more like a partnership, rather than one being imposing its will on another. But to each his/her own. I can well understand the enhanced control and safety which a saddle affords.

22 November 2009


when i was a lad, i spent much time outdoors, exploring the prairies and mountains of northwestern Montana. during those times when i was indoors, i could be found either reading voraciously (which i still do), or assembling models from kits. those models not only taught me about planning, constructing and artwork, they also seized my imagination. models ranged from military aircraft, classic cars and medieval knights to naval warships and sailing ships. of the latter, one of my very favorites was the Flying Cloud, a clipper ship built in 1851. clipper ships were designed for speed, with a long narrow hull, and billowing mountains of square-rigged sails mounted on multiple masts. they were merchant vessels, plying the trade routes that ran between the u.s. east and west coasts via south america's cape horn during the california gold rush, and also the routes to asia from the u.s. and europe. the Flying Cloud set a speed record of 89 days for the cape horn trip in 1853, a record for sailing craft that stood until 1989.

ultimately clipper ships, whose visual image blended an impression of immense speed with powerful grace, were replaced by steamships, and their doom was sealed by the construction of the suez canal, though elements of their design were incorporated into modern warships. today three clippers are known to survive. of those three, only the Cutty Sark remains in serviceable condition. it is being renovated to become a floating museum in greenwich, england.

21 November 2009


the Irish War for Independence was a guerrilla war mounted against the British government by Irish citizens. the revolt began during the Easter Rising of 1916, during which various factions proclaimed an independent republic. during the subsequent period of violent repression by the British Army, by its intelligence agency MI5, and by the loyalist Irish Auxilliary Division, rebel factions united under the umbrella of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), led by Michael Collins. in 1919 the IRA's political arm, Sinn Fein, under Eamon de Valera, issued a formal declaration of independence and established an elected assembly, the Dail Eireann.

the war continued until July 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty ended British rule in most of Ireland, establishing the Irish Free State. however, the northeasternmost 6 of Ireland's original 32 counties, being predominantly Protestant and loyal to the Crown, opted out of the treaty, choosing to remain under British rule as Northern Ireland. the remaining 26 counties, mostly Catholic, form the present-day Irish Republic.

during the war, one of the most significant events was Bloody Sunday -- 21 November 1920. on that day, an IRA operation in Dublin led to the deaths of 12 British agents and 2 Irish sympathizers. in reprisal, that afternoon the British Army and the Auxiliary Division surrounded and attacked unarmed civilian spectators at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, massacring 14 Irish men, women and children, and wounding many others. although the IRA's attack provoked condemnation from the British government, it was the British reprisal which solidified Irish opposition against the Crown, and which fueled world criticism of the British government.

the foregoing is only a cursory summary of the events and participants of those violent times. for greater and more colorful detail, i recommend Morgan Llywelyn's "Irish Century" series of novels -- 1916, 1921, 1949, 1972, and 1999.

20 November 2009


on this day in 1820, the whaling ship Essex encountered a sperm whale that was much larger than normal. the whale rammed the ship twice and sank it while the crew was hunting and killing other members of the whale's pod (family). the ship sank 2000 miles west of the west coast of south america. of those sailors who escaped in whaleboats, only eight survived.

this incident formed the basis for one of the great novels in american literature, Moby Dick by herman melville. unfortunately, melville turned his fictional whale into an archetypal figure of vengeance which bordered on caricature. in real life, the whale upon which Moby Dick was based, was only protecting his family and himself. my own feeling is that all human hunting should be structured so that there is equal risk to hunter and hunted -- bow hunting or spears only, no GPS tracking, no high-velocity rifles with scopes. i'm just sayin'.

19 November 2009


a quarter century ago, i was fortunate to be an undergrad student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) program and the University of Arizona in Tucson. i was well into my thirties, and had a clear sense of direction in my studies. with most of my general requirements having been satisfied previously at another school, my courses were predominantly math and science, in which i flourished. all those amazing labs, all those far-ranging field trips in southern arizona and northern sonora, studying everything from mammalogy, herpitology and ornithology to oceanography and biogeography. many of my classes were graduate-level, and i mingled freely with grad students as equals.

i've always been drawn to taking the longer view, seeing the bigger picture. EEB was ideal in that respect. ecology is the interdisciplinary study of the interactions between organisms, as well as the relationships between organisms and their environment. evolutionary biology is also interdisciplinary, and concerns itself with the origin of species, and how species change, multiply and diverge over time. coursework included microbiology, cell biology, genetics, paleontology, taxonomy and animal behavior.

both professors and guest lecturers were high calibre. one that stands out in my memory is dr. lynn margulis, one of the founders of the gaia hypothesis and of the endosymbiotic theory. another, my de facto mentor, was dr. paul s. martin, author of the theory that north america was populated by waves of immigrants from asia during the last ice age, and also the theory that these immigrants were responsible for the extinction through overhunting of native megafauna such as north american camels, mammoths, and great sloths, among others. and let us not forget dr. james brown (no, not the football star or the soul singer), now at the university of new mexico, whose original thinking on island biogeography did so much to promote that body of knowledge.

i was a lucky, lucky lad.

18 November 2009


the bluespotted ribbontail ray is the most common stingray found in the home aquarium trade. however, like many exotic species, it seldom fares well in captivity. most individuals refuse to feed, dying of starvation in isolation from their home habitat, the tropical indo-pacific region.

the human compulsion to keep animals, birds and fish in cages and aquaria is a common expression of our need to dominate and contain all that is wild, all that is wilderness. having pets as companions is an understandable urge, especially for children, or for adults who are lonely. i have two cats who live indoors, and the only moral justification i can muster is that had i not adopted them as kittens from the animal shelter, the probability is high that they would have been killed. nine out of ten animal shelter refugees never live to enjoy a new home.

still, it is sad when humans keep pets in conditions with too little space for exercise and freedom. this applies to cats, dogs, horses, fish, reptiles, et al. even more sad (for me) is keeping animals caged for public display in zoos. i cannot bear to visit one, even recognizing the recently-emerged and important function of keeping endangered species' genetic pool alive.

as for rodeos, they are down on the same level with dog fights and bull fights -- a barbaric spectacle which demeans the participants and the audience, and is cruel to the animals. sorry, that's my opinion. (here is the natural range of the bluespotted ribbontail ray -- conditions which are a far cry from any aquarium.)

17 November 2009


here is something that is making the rounds by email. the information is illuminating, but i have serious issues with the conclusions drawn. first, the info --

1. If you could fit the entire population of the world into a village consisting of 100 people, maintaining the proportions of all the people living on Earth, that village would consist of --
~ 57 Asians
~ 21 Europeans
~ 14 Americans (North, Central and South)
~ 8 Africans

2. There would be --
~ 52 women and 48 men
~ 30 Caucasians and 70 non-Caucasians
~ 30 Christians and 70 non-Christians
~ 89 heterosexuals and 11 homosexuals

3. 6 people would possess 59% of the wealth and they would all come from the USA.
~ 80 would live in poverty
~ 70 would be illiterate
~ 50 would suffer from hunger and malnutrition
~ 1 would by dying
~ 1 would be being born
~ 1 would own a computer
~ 1 (yes, only 1) would have a university degree
4. If we looked at the world in this way, the need for acceptance and understanding would be obvious. But, consider the following ....

5. If you woke up this morning in good health, you have more luck ehan one million people, who won't live through the week.

6. If you have never experienced the horror of war, the solitude of prison, the pain of torture, were not close to death by starvation, then you are better off than 500 million people.

7. If you can go to your place of worship without fear that someone will assault you or kill you, then you are luckier than 3 billion (that's right) people. And if you have a full fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and a place to sleep, you are wealthier than 75% of the world's population.

8. If you currently have money in the bank, in your wallet and a few coins in your purse, you are one of 8 of the privileged few among the 100 people of the world.

9. If someone sent you this message, you're extremely lucky, because someone is thinking about you, and because you don't comprise one of those 2 billion people who can't read.

10. And so?

~ Work like you don't need the money.
~ Love like nobody has ever hurt you.
~ Dance like nobody is watching.
~ Sing like nobody is listening.
~ Live as if this was paradise on Earth.

12. Send this message to your friends. Bypass those who will treat this as childish, having their own egocentric view of the world. If you don't send it, nothing will happen. If you do send it, someone might smile while they are reading it, and that will be a positive.

13. And apart from that, have a nice day.

got all that? did you notice the GLARING disconnect between entries 1-10, and 11-13? we are presented with a "demographic perspective", courtesy of global village, which spells out how privileged we few are, and what shattered lives most of the world leads. not to mention dismissing anyone who might disagree with the totality of the message as "childish, egocentric". i think the writer needs to look in the mirror.

and then, we're told to celebrate this, smile, be happy, have a nice day.

WHAT?? ok, fine, appreciate what your privileges and gifts. but where is the obvious followup message -- to use those gifts and privileges to make the rest of the world a better place? where is the exhortation to level the economic playing field, eliminate war, poverty, starvation, torture, religious and racial and ethnic intolerance? where is the appeal to conscience? to social responsibility?

and above all, where is the discussion of the root cause of nearly every human misery you can name, which is our own staggering overpopulation? our garden planet could sustainably support roughly one-tenth of our current 6 billion people (a number which is increasing geometrically). where is the call for birth control, for literacy and education, for the global prosperity which would shut down the runaway engine of having more and more children?

where is the recognition that simply placing our heads in the sand, enjoying ourselves, having a nice day, means that we are signing the death warrant for the natural world, which, by the way, happens to make our continued existence possible?

"don't worry, be happy" -- i would suggest instead "stand up to injustice, use your gifts for good, and do so with a happy heart."

16 November 2009


plunging 2647 feet from top to bottom, venezuela's angel falls is the world's tallest waterfall. as wikipedia explains, the height of the falls is so great that before getting anywhere near the ground, the water is atomized by the strong winds and turned into mist, which can be felt a mile away. (click on image to enlarge)

the falls descends from the rim of a tepuy, or table-top mountain (similar to, but higher than, the north american mesa). tepuys are found only in south america's remote guiana highlands. angel falls did not become known to the outside world until 76 years ago today, when aviator jimmy angel flew over them on 16 november 1933. returning in 1937, angel and three companions (including his wife marie), tried to land on the tepuy near the head of the falls, but their plane's landing gear was damaged and became mired in marshy ground. the party had to descend the tepuy on foot, taking eleven days to reach civilization. the waterfalls, previously known as kerepakupai maru in the native pemon language, was renamed angel falls ((salto angel in spanish) in jimmy angel's honor. it is located within canaima national park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

15 November 2009


remember the 05 november post on cruise ships and barefoot windjammer cruises. today's NYTimes online features on article on even smaller, and more affordable, sailing options. i especially like the sailing yachts on which one pays a reasonable sum which covers berth and meals, and sailing lessons, in exchange for performing crew duties when needed. a win-win proposition, seems to me.

14 November 2009


remember the discussion of fractals and the mandelbrot set which i introduced in an earlier post? my good friend bill in chicago sent me a link to a jaw-dropping website, at which the two-dimensional math and art are transformed into three dimensions. i am utterly mesmerized by this. i heartily encourage the reader to check out the mandelbulb website, and read about the background and discussion of this rendering of math and art that is orders of magnitude more subtle and complex than the original 2D vision. prepare to be stunned and delighted.

13 November 2009


glacial lake missoula was a preshistoric proglacial lake that formed periodically at the end of the most recent ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. the lake measured about 3000 square miles and contained about 500 cubic miles of water, making it as large as lakes erie and ontario combined. glacial lake missoula was formed behind an ice dam on the clark fork river at the eastern end of lake pend oreille in the idaho panhandle. the dam, reaching heights of 2000 feet, was the southern encroachment of an arm of the cordilleran ice sheet. the lake backed up as far as 200 miles upstream into the watersheds of western montana, the largest ice-dammed lake known.

periodic rupturing of the ice dam resulted in the missoula floods -- cataclysmic floods that swept across eastern washington and the columbia river gorge approximately 40 times during a 2000 year period. the cumulative effect of the floods was to excavate 50 cubic miles of loess sediment and basalt from the channeled scablands of eastern washington, transporting it downstream. the floods also produced canyons and other large geologic formations, by cataclysmic rather than gradual erosional processes.

an excellent PBS NOVA documentary on glacial lake missoula, and the detective work that went into deducing its causes and the effects of flooding, can be foung at this link. (as always, click on images to enlarge for full effect.)

12 November 2009


dialogue from the movie Serenity --

captain malcolm reynolds: so, you gonna ride shotgun with me, help me fly?

river tam: that's the plan.

mal: we need to work out ...... ok. clearly some aptitude for the ...... it ain't all buttons and charts, little albatross. know what the first rule of flying is? well, i suppose you do, since you already know what i'm about to say.

river: i do. but i like to hear you say it.

mal: love. you can do all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurtin' 'fore she keens, makes her home.

river: storm's getting worse.

mal: we'll pass through it soon enough.

11 November 2009


today is veterans day in the u.s., a national holiday dedicated to honoring military veterans. it originally was called armistice day, celebrating the signing of the treaty that ended World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

all my adult life, i have taken this day off from work, spending the time in reflection. i'm a veteran of the vietnam war. i was in-country from march 1968 to march 1969, during the height of u.s. military presence in south vietnam, when 500,000 troops were in the combat zone. the vietnam generation of vets is the only one (to my knowledge) which was vilified and spurned when they returned home. the war itself divided the country, costing LBJ his presidency. it is a national tragedy that at that time, people didn't distinguish between the war and the soldiers in it. my generation of veterans was betrayed by our own country and its citizens. GI benefits were minimal, and verbal and physical abuse were common. we quickly learned to go underground, to sublimate our experiences and feelings. PTSD had years to torment our psyches. vietnam vets sometimes sought each other out for counseling, because we were the only ones who spoke the language of our war and its aftermath. but mostly we became deeply isolated, silently bearing our grief and our anger.

to illustrate -- in over forty years, aside from vets i've counseled with, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have asked me what it was like in vietnam. and you can count on precisely two fingers the number of people who have asked to see the photos i took overseas. no matter what the discomfort, such ultimate callousness is inexcusable.

my own catharsis didn't start until ten years after my return from the war. i began to read everything i could get my hands on, fiction or memoir or history. i sought out peer counseling, and ultimately became leader of a men's support group and active in counseling vets. at around this time, the american public was finally ready to face its national psychosis (compounded of guilt, grief, confused patriotism and curiosity), and mainstream movies, books and television shows started to embrace the vietnam years -- our longest war to date, 1963 to 1973. the presentations were usually sloppy and unrealistic, but at least we had dialogue.

for many vets, it was too late. forever scarred, physically and emotionally, a disproportionate number of vietnam vets became lost souls, succumbing to homelessness, failed marriages, drugs, drifting from job to job, or withdrawing from society altogether. i'm one of the lucky ones. my PTSD is real enough, but manageable. my toughest days are the anniversaries of specific events during the war, as well as holidays (memorial day, independence day, and veterans day), when the nation tries to salve its conscience with superficial patriotism (an insult to those of us who were abused and abandoned by our nation), compounded by the crass commercialization of what should be a hallowed remembrance.

am i a patriot? yes, in the original, fundamental sense of one who understands the concepts of liberty and equality expressed in our founding documents, the constitution and the declaration of independence. a resounding no, in the sense that i do not subscribe to the notion of "my country, right or wrong." i do not confuse superficial symbols like the american flag, with the substance of those ideals for which generations have fought and died. further, i recognize that most of the wars this country has fought were not over freedom, but over territory or resources or some other expression of covetousness or greed or power. ours is not a blameless nation. ask all those who are descended from african slaves. ask all those native peoples whose land, way of life, language, whose very identity was stripped from them. ask anyone descended from immigrants who endured prejudice and ostracism. ask anyone who has been to war, and been dehumanized by it.

our patriotism has been too often misplaced -- manipulated by those in power (who rarely are those we elect to office). i am assuredly a cynic, in the original sense of that word, one who believes that we ought to live our lives by the standards of virtue, in harmony with nature -- and one who clearly sees the difference between that ideal and harsh reality.

so, on this day i contemplate those whom i knew, and grieve for those who did not make it back. my thoughts are with those serving in iraq and afghanistan, and with their families. if you meet a veteran, if you KNOW a veteran, please take a moment to say "thank you, and welcome back." it will mean more than you can ever know.

10 November 2009


earlier today, as i was notifying individuals and websites of my email change, i came across a message that had been left for me at My Birding Place, a site where individual birders can record their sightings, life lists and field trips. out of respect for the writer's privacy i won't reveal any names, but here is the message:

"for many months i have been intrigued by your blog, the eloquence, the range of topics, and stunning visuals."

i am deeply gratified by the kind words, and deeply mortified that they had been recorded six months ago. if the email woes that i described in yesterday's post hadn't forced me to change providers, and send out notifications of the change, it might have been even longer before i discovered the writer's praise. ultimately for my morale, the timing was perfect. thank you, generous reader. your words inspire me to continue to deliver eloquence, a wide range of topics, and stunning visuals. cheers.

09 November 2009


my current email provider has been out of service for ten days. it is a regional outfit, not a national one, and the problem resides in their connection to their ISP. my email inbox there is full, and new mail is being returned to senders, including individuals and websites. i cannot access it, and i cannot contact tech support, either online or by phone (busy signal).

i have an alternative, national email provider, and am trying to configure Outlook Express on my laptop to be compatible with the new provider. it tries my patience, since a wrong spelling on any configuration entry will bollix up the works. so far i can send from OE to my new provider, but cannot download email from my new provider to OE. grrrrr.

there, that's it. no enchanting posts on science or the arts or social issues. just my life at the moment. back to the grind.......

08 November 2009


the movie "Bobby" portrays robert f. kennedy's final day alive, before he was assassinated during the presidential campaign of 1968, the year i was in vietnam . the film, directed by emilio estevez, presents multiple viewpoints, with an ensemble cast portraying characters both central to, and at the periphery of, kennedy's appearances. there is also archival footage of kennedy himself during the hours leading up to his death. we all know how it will end, yet the film grips our attention throughout.

just before the credits start to roll, the audience hears kennedy speaking on behalf of those who were most affected by the racial discord and intolerance of the times. following is my transcript of that prophetic speech:

"it is not a day for politics. i've saved this one opportunity ... to speak to you about the mindless menace of violence in america, which again stains our land, and every one of our lives. it is not the concern of any one race. the victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. they are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed.

"no one, no matter where he lives or what he does, can be certain who next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. and yet it goes on, and on, and on, in this country of ours. why? what has violence ever accomplished? what has it ever created? whenever any american's life is taken by another american unnecessarily, whether it is done in the name of the law, or defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence, whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives, which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, whenever we do this, then the whole nation is degraded.

"yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity, and our claims to civilization alike. too often we honor swagger, and bluster, and the wielders of force. too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of other human beings. but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression breeds retaliation, and only in cleansing our whole society can we remove this sickness from our souls. for when you teach a man to hate, and to fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color, or his beliefs, or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who are different from you threaten your freedom, or your job, or your home, or your family, then you also learn to confront others, not as fellow citizens, but as enemies to be met not with cooperation, but with conquest, to be subjegated, and to be mastered.

"we learn at the last to look upon our brothers as aliens, with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in a common dwelling, but not in a common effort. we learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.

"our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great, to let this spirit flourish any longer in this land of ours. of course we cannot banish it with a program, nor with a resolution. but we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can. surely this bond of common fate, surely this bond of common goals can begin to teach us something. surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at our fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us, and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again."

robert francis kennedy died on the morning of june 6, 1968. his wife ethel was by his side.

07 November 2009


many years ago, my first ex and i were co-caretakers at a nature conserancy preserve -- canelo hills cienega. we lived on-site in a two story adobe ranchhouse that was built in 1882. the two-foot thick walls provided wonderful insulation, summer and winter. the cienega itself was a relict habitat, a remnant upland marsh of a type more common a few centuries earlier, before spanish, mexican and american cattlemen overgrazed the grasslands, creating soil erosion and lowering water tables. our cienega had the advantage of yearround water from a spring-fed stream, thus had survived. a reliable source of water is vanishingly rare in souther arizona. such oases are a magnet not only for resident wildlife, but also for migratory birds. we were fortunate to see bird species which summered in the far north, as well as those which wintered in the tropics.

at the time there were three principle conservancy preserves in the region -- canelo, patagonia-sonoita creek, and ramsey canyon. we were good friends with the other caretaker/managers, in particular with the couple who ran the rental cabins and gift shop at ramsey. the man and i shared the same first name, and called each other "ditto". he was a butterfly enthusiast. one year as a birthday gift, his wife asked my ex and me to design and paint a much-enlarged image of one of his favorite butterflies, the california sister, on the spare tire cover for their VW van (the spare tire was mounted in front, so the butterfly would be visible to all). we did so, and the gift was a rousing success. so far as i know, even though they've long since sold that van, they still have the tire cover as a memento of our friendship.

i was reminded of those times, and of my old and dear friends, when i came across this image of an old world swallowtail on wikipedia. here's to lepidopterans, and to good friends across the years.

06 November 2009


here's something i didn't know -- remember the plasma lamps that were popular as novelty items and science displays, a few decades ago? usually shaped as a glass sphere, they featured a single central electrode, and were filled with a mixture of gases (e.g., helium and neon), which were then excited into filamented plasma illumination by introducing a high frequency alternating curent. placing an obect, say a hand, upon the surface of the sphere would alter the electric field, causing a single plasma beam or filament to migrate from the inner electrode to the point of contact.

the plasma lamp was invented by nikola tesla, the genius who spent his life as an inventor and a mechanical and electrical engineer. his patents and theoretical work form the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electrical systems and the AC motor. active into his 80s, tesla was under-appreciated during his life, yet he persisted in his studies. his biography makes for fascinating reading.

05 November 2009


while browsing wikipedia, i came across an article about the completion of a cruise ship the size of rhode island -- the MS Oasis of the Seas. calling it a small city understates the sheer mass of the thing. at 1181 feet in length, it is three times as long as the fishing ship on which i worked during the summer of 1982, off the coast of alaska. the MV All-Alaskan, aka the Blue Zoo, served as a processing and storage intermediary, taking on the fish in season (salmon, for instance) from smaller fishing boats, processing the fish in assorted ways ranging from simple gutting to full dressing out, depending on the demands of the buyer, then casing the results in hundred-lb. strapped boxes and placing the boxes in the freezer hold. later, those same cases of fish were sold to, and transferred to, korean and japanese freighters. it was a complex and dangerous operation. work shifts were twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and worker safety was not a high priority on board. worker appetite was taken seriously, however -- i ate four large meals a day, but worked it all off, speed-gaining in muscle mass in my back and shoulders and arms, losing nearly all my body fat.

in such an environment, fatigue and injuries can lead to flaring tempers, not an inviting prospect when the tools of the trade included razor-sharp filleting knives and assorted hooks and mauls. fights were officially frowned upon, and could result in summary dismissal and being put ashore for the state highway patrol to pick up. but it was a big ship, and much went on unnoticed -- arguments, sexual liaisons (it was a coed crew), the sale of marijuana and alcohol.

my time on board began at kodiak island, and ended in bristol bay near dillingham. there are too many war stories to include here. a vivid, colorful summer, the entirety of which was spent wearing long johns and seeing my breath. the tales of instant wealth turned out to be urban myths. i only cleared a few thousand $$. but the experience was worth it.

as for pleasure cruises, i think i'd prefer a windjammer barefoot cruise in the caribbean (though that particular company has gone out of business, the concept is terrific). i've always loved old sailing ships, and the chance to be both passenger and deck hand would be fantastic. sign me up !!

04 November 2009


in tribute to one of my favorite writers, i offer the following exerpt from sherman alexie's short story collection, War Dances:


What kind of bird was that?
An owl.
What kind of bird was that?
An owl.
Oh, that one was too quick and small to be an owl. What was it?
A quick and small owl.
One night, when I was sixteen, I was driving with my girlfriend up on Little Falls Flat and this barn owl swooped down over the road, maybe fifty feet or so in front of us, and came flying straight toward our windshield. It was huge, pterodactyl-size, and my girlfriend screamed. And -- well, I screamed too, because that thing was heading straight for us, but you know what I did? I slammed on the gas and sped toward that owl. Do you know why I did that?
Because you wanted to play chicken with the owl?
So what happened?
When we were maybe a second from smashing into each other, that owl just flapped its wings, just barely. What's a better word than flap? What's a word that still means flap, but a smaller flap?
How about slant?
Oh, yes, that's pretty good. So like I was saying, as that owl was just about to smash into our windshield, it slanted its wings, and slanted up into the dark. And it was so friggin' amazing, you know? I just slammed on the brakes and nearly slid into the ditch. And my girlfriend and I were sitting there in the dark with the engine tick, tick, ticking like some kind of bomb, but an existential bomb, like it was just measuring out the endless nothingness of our lives because that owl had nearly touched us but was gone forever. And I said something like, "That was magnificent," and my girlfriend -- you want to know what she said?
She said something like, "I'm breaking up with you."
Damn, that's exactly what she said. And I asked her, "Why are you breaking up with me?" And do you know what she said?
She said, "I'm breaking up with you because you are not an owl."
Yes, yes, yes, and you know what? I have never stopped thinking about her. It's been twenty-seven years, and I still miss her. Why is that?
Brother, you don't miss her. You miss the owl.

03 November 2009


last night a friend introduced me to NaNoWriMo, national novel writing month. the organizers encourage budding writers to cast inhibition to the wind, and produce a 50,000 word novel (just shy of 1700 words per day) during the month of november, each year. december is devoted to revisions. there are no prizes beyond the epiphany that yes, "someday i'll write a book" can actually happen. quality takes second place to quantity, so the pressure to be perfect is removed. content is on the honor system -- what's the point of quoting from wikipedia when the intent is to celebrate the art and craft of writing? the contest is really with oneself, jump-starting one from lethargy or procrastination or fear.

so, like a fool, i registered at the website, and am now toying with ideas. i'm off to a late start, but my days are free, so i'm trying not to let that seem like a disadvantage. time will tell. this may be the jolt i need to shake the rust off my aspirations, lean forward off that cliff edge past the point of balance, and fly. thank you, celeste .... you encourage and inspire me.

02 November 2009


this morning's xkcd ("a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language") featured impressive and mostly accurate comparative character-interaction timelines for five movies -- the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park, Twelve Angry Men, and Primer. i recommend clicking on this link to the post, then click again on the image to enlarge it for best legiblitiy.

in passing, i recently watched a russian adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, called simply 12. it was uniformly excellent, perhaps even more compelling and nuanced than the original 1957 film with henry fonda. thank the gods for netflix, since most of the decent films that come out each year do not make it to missoula. rather, the local theaters opt for the lowest common denominator, high box office draw over quality, thought-provoking film. so i watch the best movies at home. oh well, my cats appreciate the culture.

01 November 2009


of our five senses, sight is perhaps most used by humans in interpreting information from our surroundings, with a significant portion of the brain's cerebral cortex devoted to processing signals from our eyes. we tend to think of light as being emitted from incandescent, high-temperature sources, e.g. the sun, a light bulb filament, or burning fuel. yet there is a form of light, luminescence, which has its origin in low-temperature sources. some forms of luminescence are familiar to us, others not so much. for instance --

bioluminescence is light from living organisms, produced chemically. fireflies, glowworms, and oceanic plankton are familiar sources. it is a specialized form of chemiluminescence.

chemiluminescense is the emission of light as the result of a chemical reaction. examples: lab analysis of organic and inorganic substances, illuminated watch dials, and spatial lighting or safety lighting (glowsticks).

photoluminescence occurs when a substance absorbs, and then re-radiates, electromagnetic radiation. applications include highly reflective safety clothing and signs.

sonoluminescence is the emission of short bursts of light from imploding bubbles in a liquid when excited by sound.

and so on. now you know.