31 December 2009

NEW YEARS EVE 2009-2010

It's all psychological. Yet any arbitrary event which seems to carry the promise of a new beginning is alluring. There's something transcendent and powerful about being able to cast aside old worries, fears and other emotional junk, and be able to start fresh. Deep sigh of personal satisfaction. A birthday, an anniversary, New Year's Eve, a personal or social rite of passage -- any of these can give us reason to pause, consider, and redirect our lives. It is a distinctly human and touching ritual.

It's all arbitrary, of course. I could randomly choose a date, or a given hour each day, on which to rededicate myself to my personal goals, or even change those goals. That does not detract from the importance of the act.

So Happy New Year, one and all -- just for fun, here is Wikipedia's article on how New Year's Eve is celebrated around the world. May the new year bring to each uf us our heart's desire.

30 December 2009


Here is a link to a fascinating website, sent to me by my old (as in both ancient, and long-established) friend Bill in Chicago. Do a search on a word, and you will be presented with a display resembling the brain's neural net, showing your word's etymology, synonyms, and other associations. Simply place your cursor on any of these "nodes", and a further explanation appears. To anyone who (like me) loves language, or to anyone who is simply curious about a particular word, this is a valuable resource, an adjunct to your dictionary and thesaurus.

29 December 2009


Latin for "seize the day". An article in today's NYTimes online reports that in the context of pursuing personal pleasure, recent studies reveal most people to be self-defeating. The Latin motto is usually associated with professional or personal achievement. But when it comes to being good to ourselves, we are often pathologically procratinators. I know I am. When I think of all the beautiful natural areas and historic places within a few hours' drive of where I live, it is embarassing to say that I've never been, never seen.

It was not always thus. In my youth, I was more spontaneous. Living in Tucson, I was often astonished to meet native Arizonans who had never been to that grandest of spectacles, guarantees to take your breath away, the Grand Canyon. It's true no matter where you live. A Philadelphia native might think, "The Franklin Institute? the Museum of Art? Hawk Mountain? Cape May? They'll always be there, I'll go next year, or .... sometime." How many Alaskans have never seen Mt. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America? How many Floridians have never ventured down to Key West? Or Massachussetts residents to Provincetown?

Destinations aside, think of more accessible sources of joy -- a book reading club, an adult class in birding (or insert your preferred avocation), a fine bottle of wine, an extravagent meal out, learning to kayak or play chess, getting involved in local theater. As adults, we are so-o-o-o responsible, often to the point of self-neglect. We all deserve kindness and loving attention, most especially from ourselves, every single day of our lives.

28 December 2009


On this day in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. From an environmental standpoint, this legislation was one of the three most significant laws passed in the latter half of the twentieth century, along with the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The ESA has consistently aroused controversy, meeting considerable (and myopic) resistance from both private and corporate sources ranging from hunters to the fishing and logging industries, to name a few. How unfortunate that the short-range pursuit of profit and/or a trophy on the wall prevented, and continues to prevent, so many from seeing that we inherited a garden planet, as far as we know the only one of its kind in the universe. It is more important to assume the role of responsible stewards for our fellow creatures and their habitat, than it is to view them as resources to be harvested. We must disenthrall ourselves from the homeocentric view that humans are the masters of the planet, and embrace the view that we are co-residents along with all those animals, birds, fish, plants and microbes we take for granted.

Where it has been enforced with care and balance, the results have been spectacular. Our national bird, the bald eagle, has rebounded in numbers sufficiently to be removed from the list of endangered species. Humpback whales are beginning to rebound from their near extinction. Similarly, gray wolves have been reintroduced to portions of their former range in the Rocky Mountain West, and have thrived to such an extent that (prematurely) several states have issued licenses for renewed hunting seasons on wolves. This is a travesty, as their populations are still much too small to possess the genetic diversity needed for successful long-term survival.

If I were king of the world, my approach would come as no surprise to regular readers. Given that there are now roughly six billion humans on the planet, and given that (by my estimate) the earth can reasonably sustain only one-tenth that number if significant tracts of true wilderness are to be preserved, I would institute (at least) three requirements. The first would be the reintroduction of all top predators (e.g. wolves, mountain lions, tigers, sharks, et al.) and their representative prey species to all areas of the world, including urban areas. The second would be the outlawing of human technology which lends unfair advantage to the human hunter, including firearms. The third would prohibit human hunting in groups. Solo hunting only. You want to kill a wolf? Use your woodcraft skills and a knife. At least it would be a fair hunt.

Oh, lest we forget, we also need to brainstorm acceptable ways of rapidly decreasing human numbers. I do not advocate euthanasia, genocide, or anything of the sort. At the very least, there should be a limit of one child produced by any individual (regardless of how many serial partners he/she has). This practice would be followed until world human populations decreased to around 600 million. [If there should be any who wonder if I practice what I preach, I do. I fathered one son. Period.]

Radical problems sometimes call for radical solutions. And we are undeniably both the cause, and experiencing the effects, of a plethora of radical problems in the natural world and its enviroment.

For now, let us recall and celebrate victories like the ESA, and work locally, nationally and globally to strengthen and broaden their scope -- for the sake of all species, and for the sake of the world which our grandchildren will inherit.

Note: top photo, Siberian Tiber. Bottom photo, Northern Spotted Owl.

27 December 2009


In his seminal memoir Desert Solitaire, environmental activist, writer and iconoclast Edward Abbey describes his seasonal employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah. During one incident in the book, he joins a search and rescue party attempting to locate an overdue and presumably lost hiker in that magnificent redrock wilderness. Eventually they found the hiker, dead. He had apparently realized that in his dehydrated and disoriented state, there was little hope for survival in the desert heat -- so he found a tree perched at a natural overlook with a spectacular view, sat down leaning back against the tree, and there his spirit left this mortal coil.

I met Abbey a few times, and I share his sentiments on death -- if I knew I had a terminal illness or injury, with a finite time in which to live, I would not want to enrich the vulturine mortuary industry, nor impoverish my surviving family, with a conventional funeral. Rather, I would see that my possessions and financial assets (meager) went to the proper recipients as gifts, say farewell to those who love me, and set off into a secret wilderness. There I would find an inaccessible place of beauty where the components of my body could rejoin Mother Earth, to nourish her and complete my part of the cycle of life.

There are those who prolong their lives using extraordinary medical measures, at great financial and emotional expense to their families. Understandably so, for who would want to voluntarily leave the astonishing festival of life? Today's NYTimes online features an article on patients who carry that tenacity a step farther, living in a state of perpetual sedation. This I confess I don't comprehend. Where is the value of existing, if one is (in effect) in a drug-induced coma, unable to engage in life? Minimize pain, yes. Remove consciousness, never.

A footnote: Edward Abbey passed away in March of 1989 at age 62 (my current age). He had left precise instructions on what to do with his remains, as recorded by David Quammem in "Outside" magazine. To wit: "He wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck. He wanted to be buried as soon as possible. He wanted no undertakers. No embalming, for godsake! No coffin. Just an old sleeping bag. Disregard all state laws with regard to burial. 'I want my body to fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.' As for his funeral, he wanted gunfire, and a little music. 'No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.' And then a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, gay and lively music. He wanted bagpipes. 'And a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing hollering, talking, laughing and lovemaking."

Ed's close friend Doug Peacock (the probably model for Abbey's character George Hayduke in his rousing ecosabotage novel The Monkey Wrench Gang), and a small group of friends saw that his wishes were carried out. Abbey is buried at an obscure location in the Agua Prieta Desert (rumors vary between Arizona and Sonora), where "you'll never find it." A marker carved on a nearby stone reads:

No Comment

While my own preferences might differ in some details from Abbey's, we absolutely share the wish for a spirit of celebration of life, unmarred by the trappings of "civilization". I value culture as I value wilderness, but if I had to choose one or the other to survive, wilderness would rule. Earth First!

26 December 2009


Just for fun, here is a brief sampling of links to informative websites and engaging blogs. Check'm out ...................

News and opinion ~

Amy Walter on politics -- http://www.nationaljournal.com/hotline/

The Angry Black Woman on social issues -- http://theangryblackwoman.com/

Amy Alkon on in-your-face relationship advice -- http://www.advicegoddess.com/ag-columns-blog/newindex.html

what's new online -- http://www.reddit.com/

Diane Rehm interviews (NPR) -- http://wamu.org/programs/dr/

Charlie Rose interviews (PBS) -- http://www.charlierose.com/

Reference ~

distance calculator -- http://www.travelmath.com/driving/

confirming/debunking urban legends and rumors -- http://www.snopes.com/

vocabulary (NYTimes) -- http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/

Entertainment ~

xkcd, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language -- http://xkcd.com/

music animation (five stars) -- http://www.musanim.com/

free online chess -- http://www.freechess.org/

free online scrabble -- http://www.isc.ro/en/download.html

25 December 2009


I'm a ten-year member of AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Both I (as an aspiring private pilot) and AOPA (which serves over 400,000 members) have a vested interest in hearing accurate news coverage of political and fiscal news which affect us. There are "news" organizations like Fox News and USA Today which are really editorial forums for right-wing fringe elements whose agenda is both transparent and twisted.

Recently, in response to deceptive and distorted comments published in USA Today on congressional appropriations for smaller, general aviation (GA) airports, AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller issued a clarifying statement. To assist in setting the record straight, I quote directly from his statement here --

"Surveys tell us people view general aviation as an important part of our national transportation system. But we also know GA is not well understood. It comprises all flying except scheduled airlines and the military. That means law enforcement, firefighting, air ambulance, search and rescue, traffic reporting, package delivery, and more fit under the "general aviation" banner. In short, GA provides services that millions of Americans and thousands of American businesses rely on every day.

"Just as highways crisscross the nation, serving small towns and big cities, so the nation's more than 5000 public-use airports link communities of all sizes. Commercial air carriers serve fewer than 150 of those airports -- that's like having a highway system that connects only the country's 150 largest cities.
"Just as every driver pays taxes that fund road maintenance and development, so every person who flies pays taxes to maintain the airport and air traffic control system. You may never drive to the tens of thousands of small communities served by our national highway system, and you may never visit thousands of small airports that make up our aviation system. But because these roads, and airports, serve the public good, we all pay a share for their maintenance.

"Many public-use airports, large and small, are eligible to receive federal funding for infrastructure maintenance and improvement. In FY 2007, GA airports that received federal funds got an average of $750,000 each. That same year, commercial air carrier airports that received funding got an average of $5.5 million each -- more than seven times the amount awarded to smaller fields.
"Small airports create jobs and development opportunities, attract businesses and allow them to grow. In fact, GA is responsible for creating some 1.2 million jobs and contributing $150 billion annually to America's economy.
"And general aviation airports relieve congestion and reduce delays at the big air carrier airports. Without them, thousands more flights would crowd into already overburdened airports each day, slowing traffic, increasing delays, and adding to security lines.

"A robust general aviation system is a valuable national asset and vital transportation link serving millions of Americans every day. Let's keep it that way."
AOPA sponsors a campaign called GA Serves America, to educate citizens and policy makers about the economic role general aviation serves in our communities and in our nation. If you would like to learn the truth about general aviation in america, please visit the website. If you are so inclined, you can contribute to our educational outreach.

24 December 2009


By now most people (hopefully) have seen the classic 1970s video Powers of Ten, which begins with an overhead view of a couple picnicking, zooms back (up). Every ten seconds the view is ten times farther away, and the field of view ten times wider, than the previous increment. This geometric progression from person to landscape to continent to planet to solar system to galaxy, culminates in what was then thought to be a view of the entire universe. Reversing the process, the virtual camera zooms back to the couple, and continues magnifying until reach the atomic level. The narration clarifies any ambiguity nicely.

Recently I discovered a variation on this video, The Known Universe, produced by the American Museum of Natural History. Computer animation is orders of magnitude more sophisticated, and no narration is needed, since visual labels appear at regular intervals. The zoom down to the cellular and atomic levels is not included.

Both videos are well worth watching, for a deeper understanding of the relativity of distance and the sheer vastness of space. I once read that if you were to place three grains of sand inside the largest cathedral on Earth, the ratio of matter to empty space would approximate that found in the universe, or in an atom. This was before the discovery of dark matter, but the analogy is still illuminating.
[FOOTNOTE, dated 21 Jan 2010: I actually scooped NASA in posting AMNH's The Known Universe video -- the APOD post appeared today.]

23 December 2009


No, I'm not taking cheap shots at individuals serving their country. Rather, I'm sickened and outraged by the decisions of commanders and civilian policy-makers, past and present. Let me explain.

ITEM ONE. Major General Tony Cucolo, the new U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, has created a furor by announcing stiff penalties for troops who commit infractions ranging from gambling and using drugs to stealing historic artifacts and selling weapons and .... becoming pregnant, or causing another soldier to become pregnant. The NYTimes reported that Cucolo wants his 22,000 troops to think before they act, and to understand that a pregnancy removes a soldier from the battlefield. He has proposed penalties including courts martial and being returned to the U.S. -- the latter for female soldiers only, not for the male soldiers who impregnate females. Say WHAT? Cucolo may be backing down from his earlier announcement of penalties to be imposed. Details are lacking.

It is not uncommon for a new commander to assert his/her authority by presenting a strict, by-the-book persona. On the other hand, we're in the 21st century, deploying a mixed-gender military whose members are only human, especially in inhuman circumstances like an unjustifiable war. So far seven soldiers (four women and three men) have fallen victim to the Cucolo's ruling. Speaking as one who has supervised mixed gender groups ranging from 10 to 60, I've always found that education and understanding are much more productive than a bludgeon, even in a military setting.

ITEM TWO. I watched the movie Taxi to the Dark Side yesterday. The 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary examines how military interrogators illegally detained, tortured, extradited, imprisoned, and in some cases murdered hundreds of Afghan civilians over the past decade, under direct orders from the highest levels of government during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld (BCR) administration. The film was graphic, raw, and disturbing on many levels -- but every person who is concerned about human rights, and every person who thinks of him/herself as a patriot, should see this movie. We think of ourselves as a civilized species and a civilized nation, yet we persist, when presented the opportunity, in indulging in barbarism in the name of freedom, madness in the name of security. Note: of all those arrested and tortured and dehumanized, not even 5% proved to have any connection with Al Qaeda or terrorist activities. During all that time, while the BCR triumvirate was stonewalling and pontificating, and oh yes by the way mentioning a few "bad apples", it was those very three who were formulating and approving behavior which violates every concept of human dignity, not to mention numerous U.S. and international laws governing the humane treatment of prisoners. Yet only low-ranking individuals were ever successfully prosecuted. Echoes of My Lai, only this time there was no Hugh Thompson to step forward and forcefully intervene.

War exacts a bizarre and violent toll on the human psyche. All the more reason for supreme caution before entering a state of war, and all the more reason for a meaningful system of oversight by both military and civilian leadership. Instead the skunks were running the henhouse -- skunks who, by the way, had never served on active duty in wartime themselves.

I was against both Iraq wars -- they were transparently about oil and vengeance, not about spreading the values of democracy and freedom. I'm also against the current, escalating deployments to Afghanistan. Did we learn nothing from Vietnam? The response to insurgency is counterinsurgency, not conventional masses of troops. Our successful use of Army Special Forces and Delta operatives in Afghanistan proved that. In fact, our own Revolutionary War proved that. Some people never learn, or simply don't want to.
In the context of prisoner interrogation, it is a long-established fact that torture does not work. Eventually the detainee will say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. Value of information obtained -- zero. It is of far greater value (though more time-consuming) to gain the subject's trust, to help him safeguard his family, to treat him with simple human dignity and respect. The FBI interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan knew that, but they were supplanted by CIA and military interrogators with a different, more malicious, and far less useful mindset.

22 December 2009


If you took a photo of the sun at exactly the same time every day, from the same position on the ground, using the same composition with respect to the horizon and nearby objects, the resulting pattern of solar positions over the course of the year would describe a lopsided figure 8, called an analemma (see image above). The horizontal/vertical position of the figure 8 will be determined by the time of day you choose for recording solar position in the sky. By working backward, one can deduce with reasonable accuracy the time of year, from the sun's position at that assigned time.

Recently NASA's website APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) posted a most unusual analemma variation -- one which was timed to record a total solar eclipse. The resulting, very special figure is called a tutulemma -- a word coined by the photographers based on the Turkish word for eclipse (see image below). As always, click on an image to enlarge it.

21 December 2009


Today at 5:47 p.m. UTC will mark the moment of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere -- the shortest day and the longest night of the season. Earth's seasons, the the transitions beteween them, the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumnal equinoxes, are cause by the tilt of the earth's axis (currently 23 degrees 44 minutes) with respect the the plane of our orbit around the sun. In our case tonight, the north end of the axis is pointed farthest away from the sun, as seen in the image above. The axis tilt during an entire yearlong orbit may be seen below.

The axis tilt is more or less stationary in terms of human lifespans, though over geologic time it does undergo precession or wobble, with each cycle taking about 26,000 years. This is why our "north star" (the star toward which the north axis end appears to point) is currently Polaris, but in another thousand years will be Gamma Cephei.

Long story short, starting tonight the days will become longer, and the nights shorter. Small wonder that both ancient and modern cultures all over the globe celebrate the coming of light, and of hope for renewed life.

20 December 2009


GJ 1214b is the second exoplanet (after CoRoT-7b) discovered to have an established mass and radius less than those of the gas giants of our solar system. It is an oceanic plant (75% water with a 25% rock core), with a possible hydrogen and helium atmosphere. Life there would be a rather warm experience, with temperatures ranging from 120-282 dC, or 248-549 dF. The planet has a radius approximately 2.7 times that of earth, and orbits star GJ 1214 in the constellation Ophiuchus, approximately 40 light years from Earth. Above is an artist's rendition of the planet, and below is a size comparison chart -- Earth, GJ 1214b, and Neptune. As always, click on any image to enlarge.

19 December 2009


How naive Americans can be. We adore and venerate the famous -- in sports, in entertainment, in politics -- until the famous make a slip, then we're all over them like flies on honey. Hypocrisy and greed drive the media scandal machines to sanctimonious sensationalism. Someone of lesser note who makes the same lapses in judgment, doesn't have to see his/her face and name plastered all over the tabloids and TV. We drive ourselves into rabid fits of self-righteousness over events which most Europeans only shake their heads at, knowing that humans are fallible and imperfect.

Tiger Woods, arguably the best professional golfer ever, and a pure athlete in the mold of Michael Jordan, is living in hell right now. Woods has admitted to marital infidelities, and has left his sport to pay full attention to his family, which appears to be coming apart at the seams. He is visibly, genuinely tortured. Those who live in glass houses might say, "and rightly so." Be careful what you wish for.

For a different, less rigidly judgmental view, i offer Dick Cavett's column in today's online NYTimes. Cavett is intelligent, witty in a quiet understated manner, and has been around long enough to have witnessed the rise and fall of countless careers and reputations. His observations don't so much focus on Tiger, as shed light on our own hysterical, irrational double standards.

18 December 2009


Imagine the Mediterranean Sea as a completely dry desert basin encircled by continents. This was the situation prior to 5.3 million years ago. The northward movement of the African continental plate had sealed off the flow of water from the Atlantic Ocean eastward through the Strait of Gibraltar, leaving only freshwater replenishment from the watersheds feeding the Mediterranean. The rate of evaporation exceeded that of replenishment, and the inland sea dried up.

According to an article in the 10 December issue of the journal "Nature", rising Atlantic waters eventually found their way past the sill which forms the strait. Erosion created a deeper channel, which hastened erosion, in a self-feeding cycle forming a flood of monumental proportions -- a current of 100 million cubic meters of water per second, traveling at 100 kilometers per hour. Due to the gradual slope of the substrate, the flood appeared more like a very fast (and wide) river, rather than like a waterfall. Imagine being in a kayak or raft, on such a rushing flood.

Here's what's remarkable -- the fact of a dry Mediterranean being refilled isn't news -- I recall reading about it in school, a quarter century ago. What has geologists and others stunned is the rate of replenishment -- less than two years. This is the blink of an eye in geologic time.

17 December 2009


No, not the rock/blues band. In yesterday's mail I found a small packet containing my 10 year pin -- acknowledging my ten years' membership in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Of all the special interest groups to which I've belonged over the years (aviation, birding, environmental activism, natural history, et al.), AOPA by far gives the most bang for each membership buck. The organization publishes two high-quality monthly magazines, and offers member services which include (but are not limited to) political advocacy, air safety seminars, aircraft title and insurance services, medical services, product reviews (both aircraft and pilot equipment), an exhaustively researched and informative airport directory, online newsletters .... the list goes on and on.

AOPA came into being in 1939, and in the 70 years since, has grown to over 400,000 members, including professional pilots (airlines, freight, corporate, police, air ambulance, crop spraying, academic/scientific research, small business, or anyone else who flies for hire), recreational pilots, student pilots, and a scattering of wannabe pilots like me who read and dream and study and breathe aviation while saving for actual flying lessons. Wish me luck ....

16 December 2009


In the past, tests to meaure intelligence have been notoriously plagued by ambiguity (what is intelligence?), by the difficulty in quantifying intelligence scientifically, by cultural and racial bias, and by our rapidly-evolving understanding of the complex interrelationships between what is innate vs. what is learned (nature vs. nurture).

Here is a link to a thoughtful discussion of several scales of measurement. I find the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) to be the most useful, because it derives from a wide range of verbal and performance subtests. It was developed and later modified by David Wechsler, a well-known American psychologist whose work influenced the thinking of my ex, herself a brilliant JD/PhD (attorney and psychologist). I also find the Wechsler scale appealing because it places my own IQ, roughly 135, within his "Superior" category, among the top 8.9 percent of the population -- a moderate ego boost, though not even close to genius potential. Perhaps in a future incarnation .....

15 December 2009


I've been an avid birder (not "bird watcher") for 40 years, though I haven't been very active in the past 5 years. during that time my life list of confirmed species sightings reached a modest but yeomanly 350 species in 46 states and northern mexico.

The birding community is remarkably diverse and welcoming. Whether exploring solo, or as part of an organized field trip, fellow birders are friendly and willing to share local sightings and personal experience. To test the waters, all one need do is enroll in an adult evening class.

A tip on optics -- you get what you pay for. Buy the best quality binoculars and spotting scopes that you can afford. Apparent deals on lesser quality brands, or items on sale, will usually yield a very disappointing visual experience. Modern optics and lens coatings provide sensational viewing, so don't stint on quality.

Here is an important guideline when comparing binoculars in particular. The viewing capability is expressed in two numbers joined by the letter "x", e.g., 7x35, 8x40, 10x50. In each pair, the first number is the degree of magnification, and the second number is the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters. So for a pair of 7x35 binoculars (the most useful size for a beginner), an object will appear to be 7 times larger than when viewed by the naked eye, and the objective lense is 35mm.

Note that in each example, the first number divided into the second number yields 5. This ratio is something to look for, as it produces the best balance of field of view (the width of the scene through the lens) and light-gathering capability. A pair of 8x20 binoculars will have slightly better magnification, but poorer light-gathering ability. Hence 8x40s are preferable.

Note also that the greater the magnification, the larger and heavier the binoculars. Over long periods of viewing, it becomes harder to hold them steady. Also, greater magnification means a narrower field of view for spotting birds on the move. The best approach is to try several different sizes, at a retail outlet or through friends, and decide which is right for you. I used 7x35s for many years, currently have 10x50s, but believe that for me, 8x40s are probably the best combination.

As for spotting scopes (mounted on tripods), the standard seems to be 20 power (20x). I've never owned a spotting scope, but know from group trips that they can be most useful in locating a bird, then allowing multiple birders to see it.

Following are a few online resources on bird sightings and other discussions ....

The latter two in particular are personal favorites, which does not detract from the utility of other sites. We all have our biases.

There is also a plethora of sites which deal in bird houses, feeders and such. Google the product you're seeking, and have fun !!

14 December 2009


Only it's not an act, it is all too real. Just as the namesake glaciers in Glacier National Park are fast disappearing in both number and size, the Arctic ice cap is shrinking at an alarming rate. You don't have to take my word for it -- simply compare the NASA photos taken in 1979 (above) and in 2007 (below). According to 350.org, an organization devoted to public education and action on global warming, the Arctic will be completely free of ice during the summer between 2011 and 2015, some eighty years earlier than scientists had previously predicted. 350.org and other efforts are the brainchildren of Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist and writer.

The disappearance of Arctic ice has global climate consequences, most directly in the removal of its regulatory effect on the circulatory currents of the world's oceans. Arctic ice forms both a temperature and salinity buffer, as well as a physical barrier defining current patterns (for example, the gyre formed by the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Drift, and the North Equatorial currents in the Atlantic Ocean). Altering ocean current paths, temperatures and salinity will have inevitable ripple effects on all life forms in or near the ocean. Including humans.

None of this is news to those of us who've studied the environment for any length of time. I received my bachelor's degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology over twenty years ago, and these events were already being discussed. We have already pushed the planet past numerous thresholds, and even with the best of intentions and overnight cooperation between all governments and all peoples, an inexorable momentum of change has been established, which it will take decades (if not centuries) to stabilize, then reverse. The question in my mind is this: how many ecosystems and species (including our own) have we doomed by our own myopia?

Special thanks to my friend and correspondent J, who turned me on to the 350.org website.

13 December 2009


(Note: click on any image to enlarge) I was thinking about plate tectonics, the well-proven theory describing the division of the earth's lithosphere (crust and upper mantle) into distinct solid plates, which float convectively upon the hotter, deeper, liquid asthenosphere (termed visco-elastic -- think lava), not unlike icebergs floating on the ocean's surface.

Tectonic plates are categorized as being continental or oceanic, depending upon whether their surface is higher or lower than sea level. Unlike the iceberg analogy, however, tectonic plates are jammed together and in constant motion, with new material being formed constantly by upwelling molten rock along mid-oceanic ridges, driving the plates apart. in the convergent boundaries where plates are forced together, they either collide directly, with one plate being forced beneath the other (a collision which forms mighty mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Himalayas), or they collide indirectly, traveling like passing cars, rubbing together to produce earthquakes and/or volcanos, e.g. the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Tectonic plate movement is relatively slow -- ranging from 10-40 mm per year (about as fast as fingernails grow), up to 160 mm per year (about as fast as hair grows).
So even when we're standing still, we are in motion. This set me thinking in the other direction, from down to up. Here we are, standing on the earth's surface, apparently motionless. But if the earth's atmosphere were completely stationary relative to the surface, we would immediately sense our rotational speed by the relative wind -- about 1000 miles per hour at the equator. So motion is compounded upon motion, and we're not even taking a step in any direction.

That's not all. The earth is revolving around the sun, covering its orbit in a year by traveling at a leisurely 1,600,920 miles per hour.

Further, the entire solar system is part of the rotating Milky Way galaxy -- our speed around the galactic center is very roughly 1,296,000 miles per hour.

All without moving a muscle.

12 December 2009


I receive regular e-announcements from NASA regarding weather, space and other issues. Here is a comprehensive online resource called Climate One Stop, organized by a group of US and international organizations, including NASA, USAID, the National Science Foundation, the Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology (IAGT), the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and CATHALAC in Panama. NASA spokesperson Dan Irwin describes the website as "a 'calm spot' where scientists, decision-makers, non-profit workers and officials can find all the latest research" amid the storm of information in climate and environmental research. The site presents a comprehensive and organized catalog of information, more easily searchable than by simply Googling a given topic.

In my mind, one doesn't need a government or organization affiliation to educate oneself -- climate change is a global issue, and as world citizens, it is incumbent upon us all to clearly understand what's going on, and be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

11 December 2009


No, I didn't forget my spacing in the title. SpaceShipTwo (image above) is a suborbital spaceplane for carrying space tourists. A recent AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, of which I am a member) article states:

"SpaceShipTwo is the sequel to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne, which completed the world's first manned private space flights in 2004. The spacecraft was unveiled with its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo (image below) .... (and) has been designed to carry many thousands of private astronauts into space."

The design team at Scaled Composites is headed by legendary aircraft visionary Burt Rutan, whose creations include the VariEze, the Long-EZ, and the globe-spanning Voyager. If SS2 becomes operational in my lifetime, I shall do whatever it takes to book passage, since traveling in space is on my short list of fantasy activites -- along with conducting an orchestra playing Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony, kayaking the Grand Canyon, and writing my next twenty novels!

10 December 2009


my good friend bill in chicago recently sent a link to an article on travel by cargo ship. according to wikipedia, freighter travel is a viable alternative to the security hassles and weather delays of air travel, or to the much more expensive commercial sea cruise lines. essentially, you are paying a cargo vessel to transport you along with whatever they are ferrying across the sea. passenger manifests are limited to 5-10, and you enjoy a small cabin with a sea view. your meals are taken with the crew, you have access to the crew lounge, and your time is your own. it is a no-frills experience -- no upscale restaurants or ballrooms or social events. you provide your own ways of passing the time at sea. aside from books, activities might include enjoying the sea, the weather, passing birds, and land when you are near port.

passsengers tend to include retired people, traveling students, relocating executives, airline pilots, and those who simply prefer a more leisurely journey than that afforded by air travel. see the above links for more information on what to expect, as well as links to travel agents and shipping companies. as someone who worked on a freezer ship along the southern coast of alaska in 1982, i recommend freighter travel as a unique and colorful way to journey around the world.

09 December 2009


if the title seems a bit macabre to you, that's because the concept to which it refers is fairly gruesome to me. the custom of decorating trees at christmastime started in 16th century germany, and spread through european countries and their overseas colonies. initially, people were content to brighten up outdoor trees with color and lights -- but it wasn't long before christmas trees were cut down to be brought indoors for decoration. as a child, i was charmed, and didn't question the ethics of killing a living thing for a few weeks of visual pleasure, much less the environmental significance of removing millions of oxygen-producers from the world's forests every winter.

as an adult, it breaks my heart. i've lived all over the u.s., including regions where commercial tree farms raise acres and acres of monocultured trees, to be "harvested" and sold in urban tree lots like so many chickens at the supermarket. whenever i see a truck loaded with trees on their way to sale in homes (or trees to be cut into lumber -- see center photo), i grieve for all those tree corpses.

there are alternatives. we could return to decorating living, outdoor trees. we could buy live trees in potting soil, and after the christmas season, plant the trees in our yards and parks. as a substitute for trees, we could decorate live plants of any species which fits into our homes -- from bamboo to cactus to native ornamental shrubs. it's not an either/or situation.

all i'm suggesting is that we reconsider destroying entire forests of young trees every year, when the planet is in such desperate need of these organisms which live on carbon dioxide, and produce oxygen. not all customs are defensible, just because they are traditional. i'm just sayin'. (top image, outside notre dame cathedral in paris. bottom image, in a private home.)

08 December 2009


Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No Hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

~~ "Imagine"

07 December 2009


In the realm of personal adventure, few pursuits remain unaccomplished. A former British Army captain, Ed Stafford, is undertaking what no person had done before -- hiking the 4,400 mile length of the world's most imposing river, the Amazon, from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth (200 miles wide) on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. He began over 600 days ago, and hopes to complete his journey by August 2010, with no sponsors or support team, no plush gear, literally living off the land. Why? As Sir Edmund Hillary explained when asked why he was the first to scale 29,000 foot Mt. Everest, "Because it's there."

Here is the article, sent to me by my amigo Bill in Chicago, which describes in fascinating detail Stafford's journey. (click on images to enlarge)

06 December 2009


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

~~ William Ernest Henley