28 February 2010


Today's NYTimes online features an excellent opinion column by the always-erudite Frank Rich, entitled "The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged." Rich discusses the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, TX, on February 18. To quote Rich: "What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass -- or, worse, flirted with condoning it." Stack's Tea Party-like manifesto might explain the resonant sympathy which the wacko right wing apparently feels toward his martyrdom. This observer is disturbed by the echoes of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists hijacking airliners and flying them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, not to mention the echoes of homegrown terrorists who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. How can any rational citizen of whatever political persuasion possibly justify random acts of violence committed by misguided, barking mad ideologues?

Tea Party supporters Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and Ron Paul, take note: once you set loose an "unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right", and rationalize any mayhem which follows as somehow being the inevitable result of too much government, you not only reveal your own dementia, you also place the larger society at risk. Anarchy is no substitute for rational thought and civil justice.

A footnote: be careful what you wish for. What goes around, comes around.

27 February 2010


Actually I'm not one of those knee-jerk NRA types who twist the Second Amendment beyond all recognition. Nor am I a hunter. Yet (if labels must be used -- they can be simplistic and misleading) I am a proud progressive liberal who happens to understand, respect and own guns. I have no problem whatsoever with gun control, i.e., registering firearms and requiring that their owners be trained and certified. We do the same thing with motor vehicles. I also have no problem with restricting the sale and ownership of obviously military weapons like assault rifles.

I grew up in northern Montana, where guns are treated with respect and it is a rite of passage to take a hunter safety course. I was trained further in the Army, qualifying with both the M14 and the M-16. Over the years I've owned (and been proficient in the safe use of) a Ruger .22 magnum revolver, a Smith & Wesson 9mm semi-auto pistol, a Remington .22 semi-auto rifle, and most recently a Glock .45 semi-auto pistol.

Today I took a required safety class in order to obtain a concealed carry permit for the .45. I owned such a permit once before, in an urban setting, after my life had been threatened at work. My intent currently is similarly self-defense, in compliance with the law -- be it defense against a person who intends to do me harm, or defense against an aggressive animal predator in the back country. The latter need is far less likely, since most predators will give you a wide berth if you don't surprise them, or make them feel cornered, or present a perceived threat against their young. It is we who are guests in their home, not the other way around.

The class instructor's credentials were impeccable. He'd served for several decades as a law enforcement officer -- beat cop, detective, fugitive pursuit, crime scene investigation, internal affairs, and firearms training for police cadets, most recently in Atlanta, GA. He also has a private investigator's license. During the classroom portion, the information he presented was clear, logical and thorough -- including firearms history, demonstrations of the safe operation of many types of handguns from the instructor's collection, as well as several anecdotes about cops he's known who should never be allowed within ten yards of a gun, due to their own incompetence, negligence or plain stupidity [which reinforces my personal bias that I trust NO ONE with a firearm except myself].

To qualify in performance, the class moved to a shooting range, where each student demonstrated an understanding of his/her personal weapon, firearms safety on the range, stance, sight picture, and controlled fire in two exercises -- five untimed shots at a small circular target, and five timed shots (ten seconds) at a human silouette target. Safety and accuracy were key -- accuracy being measured by a tight shot group, placed as closely as possible to the center of the target.

I'm proud to say that of the eight students, my shooting was the most accurate and controlled, even though my .45 was the largest caliber being fired, hence the weapon with the heaviest recoil -- the others were .40 caliber, 9mm and even a tiny .223.

Being licensed for concealed carry won't make me more aggressive, nor more likely to look for opportunities to use a weapon. I doubt that I'll even carry it that often. Frankly, I've seen too much of the damage that guns can inflict, both while serving in Vietnam, and subsequently as an ambulance driver. But it's good to know that when I see the potential need, I'm legal to carry a weapon whose concealment will prevent others from freaking out needlessly, but which will still be available for self-defense if needed.

26 February 2010


This week's issue of the Missoula Independent includes an illuminating article by Michelle Nijbuis on a concept that I first heard discussed as an ecological theory a quarter century ago, when I was a student at the University of Arizona. The article describes the appearance of wolves in northwestern Colorado for the first time since their extirpation nearly a century ago. They probably migrated from the packs which were reintroduced to Montana and Wyoming in the 1990s, traveling down the Rocky Mountain corridor. By good fortune, the wolves have found refuge on a sprawling ranch owned and managed by a man who understands and fosters the total health of the ecosystem -- in short, a responsible land steward. Paul Vahldiek runs only a minimum number of cattle on his 300 square mile spread, The High Lonesome. His operation hosts hunting and fishing expeditions, but above all he encourages scientific research into all aspects of the natural world.

One important finding has been the realization that where there are no top predators, herds of grazers like elk and deer become sedentary, feeding on young shoot of aspen, willows and cottonwoods before the trees can mature. Before long those plant species start to disappear from the landscape as older trees die out. But when natural predators are present, elk and deer spend more time on the move, increasing the chances that biodiversity will flourish. This top-down effect was recognized by Aldo Leopold in the 1930s when he saw the connection between the killing of predators and "the modern curse of excess deer and elk." As the article notes, in 1980 ecologist Robert Paine coined the term "trophic cascades" to describe the ripple effects of predators on herbivores, and herbivores on plants.

Here's the tie-in to the mid-1980s debate: with regard to protecting endangered species (in this case wolves), is it better to have numerous small, scattered reserves for endangered species, or is it better to have fewer but larger reserves? For maintaining a large, diverse gene pool, clearly the latter is prefereable. Even more preferable is a newer concept -- designating large, contiguous tracts of land to accomodate not only residence but also migration. Such wildlife corridors, or wildways, allow naturally wide-ranging species (herbivore and carnivores) to do what they've always done -- roam freely.

What about ranches, farms, cities, highways? It is possible for humans and wildlife to coexist peacefully, it turns out. All it takes is for humans to rethink their assumptions (and set aside their fears, in the case of wolves), and brainstorm creative ways to allow the natural world to flourish. Wildways are an example of an accomodation that works. Here is a link to the homepage of the Wildlands Network, which was established to educate and promote large-scale wildways, including those of truly visionary scope like the Spine of the Continent Wildway (see illustration below, click to enlarge) -- a network of interlinked project which, taken together, protects the greater Rocky Mountain region with minimal impact on human activity.

25 February 2010


Day before yesterday, when I posted on the prime importance of creative teachers over all other aspects of education, the service which tracks visits to my blog (and presents them by day, week, month, entry post, exit post, and other useful lenses) recorded a record number of visits in one day -- 64. This is roughly twice the average number of daily visits. A similar spike occurs when I look at entry pages -- that day's subject drew a lot of attention. It is both gratifying and intriguing to me, since I discuss a wide variety of issues, and deliberately take a provocative stance on many. If you're reading this, please visit the entry for 23 February, and post a comment. In fact, I welcome comments for all posts. Simply click on the "comment" prompt at the bottom of each day's entry. (Note: click on the graph below to enlarge for better legibility.)

24 February 2010


One of my favorite popular science writers, Olivia Judson, reports in today's NYTimes that a chair can be one's worst enemy, particularly for those whose work involves sitting for long periods of time. Part of the problem is low energy use, making it easier to gain weight (this, in a country where fully one third of the population is clinically obese, and another third is seriously overweight -- check out your Body/Mass Index or BMI to see where you fit in). Another part of the sitting problem is that our bodies become more prone to metabolic problems, heart disease, muscle degeneration, cardiovascular dysfunction, digestive difficulties, and diabetes.

Judson's suggestion? Simple -- get up to stretch and move around frequently. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Work at a desk designed for standing. Wiggle and flex yourself even while sitting. Forget what your teacher told you in school -- fidget !!! Anything to keep your heart, lungs and other systems active. All this is above and beyond the regimen of eating well and regular dedicated exercise which we all should be practicing.

Good advice from "Dr. Tatiana".

23 February 2010


For five years in the early 1990s, I was privileged to work as a counselor and teacher at a small, private residential school in suburban Philadelphia. The 60 students (40 girls, 20 boys) ranged in age from 13 to 18, and came from varied economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. All had been removed from their families by the courts after suffering physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. All were diagnosed as SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed), and many were on psychotropic medications. Nearly all had grown up streetwise and cynical.

The facility was wonderful, especially considering that it was funded on a non-profit basis. Formerly the mansion of a very rich benefactor, it included six dormitory-like cottages, the school (complete with full gym and cafeteria), a swimming pool, grassy wooded grounds, and an infirmary building which also housed both nurses and a permanent staff of therapists.

I chanced to apply for work at a time when the school needed a biology teacher. My duties rapidly expanded to include teaching math, algebra, geometry, and environmental studies (a course I designed myself) -- as well as filling in for other teachers in all disciplines as needed, running the school's nascent computer lab, creating and maintaining school records, and creating preadmission academic evaluation tests.

But this school environment was behaviorally on another planet, since all the kids were struggling with PTSD, depression and other intense emotional issues, over and above the raging hormones of adolescence. For me, lesson plans were futile, since any class period was bound to be disrupted by arguments, a fight, a time out for counseling, or a student needing to be passively physically restrained by staff until he/she regained control.

So I taught off the top of my head, following only a general course outline, and since I knew the material well, it worked. I was able to adapt each day's teaching to take advantage of questions raised, and to tie in my course material to other classes to show the relevance of it all to their world. Most importantly, I both modeled and expected from my students two attitudes -- respect and affection. Even on those dark days when affection wasn't possible, respect was always a requirement. By keeping it real at all times, being firm, fair and consistent, we all created together a thriving learning environment.

Because I had creative latitude not often enjoyed by teachers in public schools, I was able to introduce a variety of learning games, field trips and animated discussions. There was a clear correlation between my performance and that of the students. If one learns a subject best by teaching it, I learned a great deal -- not just about academic subjects, but about the learning process itself. Being their counselor/confidante as well as their teacher enabled a bond of trust and respect to develop over time. Whatever their academic records, I always held out to my kids my faith and expectation that they were brilliant -- and more often than not, their self-confidence grew and they rose to the challenge. The faces and personalities of my students remain vivid in my memory to this day.

A few were beyond our help -- kids too deeply into gang culture, or too deeply hurt by life. Most used their time with us (varying from one to three years) for gradual healing and growth. Our small staff (seven teachers and a handful of aides) was overworked, underpaid, and uniformly dedicated to their work. Professionals, one and all.

I was reminded of my time as a teacher by Bob Herbert's excellent column in today's NYTimes, in which he describes "program elements" (class size, curriculum, school size, length of the learning day) as being not nearly so important as having talented and passionate teachers. The focus of Herbert's column is a woman named Deborah Kenny, who has developed successful charter schools in Harlem. Her understanding of the supportive and challenging environment which fosters great teachers, and her understanding of the clear, attainable goals she presents to her students, are nothing short of inspirational. I share her world view of education completely -- "It never crossed Ms. Kenney's mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment." Bravo ! !

22 February 2010


In August of 1989, my then-partner and I moved to Charleston, SC. One month later, our suburban community, Mount Pleasant, was at the precise center of the path of Hurricane Hugo as it arrowed inland from the southeast. The entire populace of Charleston was ordered by the governor to evacuate inland. We secured our house as best we could, packed essentials into our two cars, and headed up the only interstate highway toward Columbia -- along with about 100,000 other vehicles. Imagine a 45 mile long traffic jam, moving at a crawl.
The hurricane hit Charleston at high tide, in the wee early morning hours of 22 September. The resulting storm surge devasted communities and marinas along the coast, particularly on the barrier islands. Given Hugo's intense winds (peaking at 150 mph), and its counter-clockwise rotation, the greatest damage to homes and the neighboring Francis Marion National Forest along the right (northeast) side of the storm's path.

It was three days before authorities lifted travel restrictions and allowed Charleston residents to return. We were so lucky -- the magnificent Cooper River Bridge had survived, and even though the area looked like the aftermath of an atom bomb blast, our house somehow survived intact, though we were without electricity for several weeks.

Not so the forest. The landscape was surreal -- hundreds of thousands of trees snapped off a few feet above the ground, all pointing in the same direction (away from the wind). As chance would have it, that part of the national forest was home to a population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW). Many of the birds' cavity trees had been snapped in two, leavng them homeless. The US Forest Service put out an emergency job announcement for wildlife techs to be trained in habitat restoration. I was one of eight from around the nation to be selected (being a local resident helped my chances immensely). Four of us were trained to use large gas-powered drills to excavate artificial cavities imitating the original, and the other four (including me) were trained to use chainsaws to excavate holes to accomodate prefabricated nesting boxes to serve as artificial cavities.

RCWs are unique among woodpeckers, in that they peck out their nesting cavities in living trees, rather than in dead ones. Longleaf pines are favored (see photo above for typical habitat before the hurricane struck) -- the pines are subject to a fungus infection called red heart rot, which attacks and softens the center of the tree trunk, making an ideal nesting place. Further, RCWs ingeniously discourage predation from rat snakes (which can quite adeptly climb a vertical tree trunk) by drilling quarter-sized resin wells around the cavity entrance. Sap oozes from the holes, forming a protective sill or shield which the snakes are repelled by, partly by its stickiness and partly because the sap may contain an irritating toxin (see sill photo below - the bird is partially obscuring the entrance hole).

Further, RCWs are gregariously social, nesting in family colonies called clans. Thus part of our work involved creating artificial nesting cavities at known colony sites, and also included doing sunrise and sunset clan counts to ascertain the population status of the birds. It was an arduous and priceless year -- hauling up to 60 lb. of gear (chainsaws, cavity boxes, Swedish ladders, climbing harness, tools) from the nearest forest service road through miles of thick underbrush, downed trees and swamp. A summer workday might begin at 3:30 a.m. when the alarm went off, and end around 9 p.m. with the last clan count. But it was glorious -- doing important work to help an endangered species, and seeing exotic birds, plants, snakes and other critters for the first time.

I've long wondered how the RCWs are doing. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover this environmental video in today's NYTimes online, describing how RCWs and other species are flourishing on the large tracts of land that make up military bases. In the 1990s the military became gradually more attuned to environmental issues, and RCWs have benefitted. They still face ongoing loss of habitat to the timber industry and to the spread of human "development". But my little birds are tough and resilient, and I am mightily pleased. Here is a map showing the RCW's historic and current ranges. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

21 February 2010


Evan Bayh, former governor of Indiana and a U.S. Senator since 1999, wrote an opinion piece in today's NYTimes, explaining his decision to retire from the Senate. Boiled down to its essence, his reasoning is that it's not a nice place anymore. The decades-long spirit of compromise and mutual respect between liberals and conservatives, even on issues in which their respective ideologies disagreed, has been supplanted by political polarization, rancor, and hostility toward moderates from either party.

I'm thinking, so what? It is precisely our conduct and decisions during the hard times which define us. Did my parents' generation run and hide from the global threat of Hitler's Germany during WWII? No. Did radio journalist Edward R. Murrow shrink from the bully tactics of Senator Eugene McCarthy when McCarthy was painting everyone in sight as a Communist? (See the excellent film Good Night and Good Luck for an intense dramatic portrayal of those times.) No. Famously, McCarthy was challenged during a public hearing in which attorney Joseph Welch admonished, "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ... Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

These days the bullies are the cadre of powerful conservative Republicans whose greed, cronyism and arrogance created the worst economy since the Great Depression (which, coupled with two unjustifiable wars, smeared the U.S. in the world's eyes), yet who unflinchingly obstruct all efforts by liberals and moderates to remedy the situation. They and their policies were roundly voted out in 2008, yet their acrimonious and libelous behavior has the American public disgusted with the entire Washington establishment. Like McCarthy, they are little more than overgrown playground bullies. And from them, otherwise decent public servants like Bayh should flinch and run away?

Hell no!! Rise to the occasion, you Democrats and moderates who are trying so hard to be civil. Always leave the door open for rational compromise, but don't just abandon your principles (and the nation) and give up the field. Grow a backbone. Those old lions from both parties who were able to find common ground in the past, woud be ashamed of you.

I'm reminded of the picaresque Don Quixote, that nobel and somewhat delusional knight who, seeing giants, attacked them. In the eyes of onlookers, the "giants" were merely windmills, but it would be a mistake to mock the Don for his delusion. In a grand and paradoxical manner, he was true to his beliefs, and in taking on the insurmountable, proved it to be merely ordinary. Obstructionist conservatives are the windmills of today. Have at them !!

The Impossible Dream (listen here)

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To live pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

20 February 2010


Be sure to check out Nature on PBS Sunday night -- according to an article in today's NYTimes, the episode will cover the spread of Burmese pythons in the Everglades and other parts of Florida (see map below). The pythons are, of course, an exotic, non-native species, now numbering in the tens of thousands, introduced from two apparent sources. The first is fickle owners who buy a cute baby snake, then release it into the wild when it becomes unmanageably large as an adult. The second is escape into the wild from zoos or from the warehouses of those who (often illegally) import exotic species for sale, usually when a structure is damaged during a hurricane. The trade in exotic animals, reptiles, fish, insects and birds is both lucrative and cruel -- sometimes as few as 25% of the original number of captured creatures survive transport, warehousing and sale. In my never-to-be-humble opinion, those rat bastards who traffic in exotic species should be fed to piranhas.

One of the largest snakes in the world, Burmese python adults can range in length from 12 to 26 feet, and be as thick as a telephone pole. They prey upon or compete with native species, many of them endangered. Prey ranges in size from rabbits to alligators. Pythons pose an increasing threat to humans as they spread to the environmental limits of their potential range (see map at bottom). This is not the snakes' fault, though they will ultimately be the ones who suffer the consequences. It is irresponsible humans who are the root of the problem.

The introduction of invasive species is nothing new -- witness the spread of organisms as diverse as the European starling, kudzu, the zebra mussell, and the Norway rat. The list is long. Many of those species are so successful that they take over the environmental niches of native species, or fill niches which were previously unoccupied, or introduce genetic pollution to native species. They may also carry non-native diseases which decimate native populations. In an era of global trade, it is easy enough for exotic species to hitchhike to far-flung places aboard ships and aircraft. Spreading them intentionally is an ecological tragedy, and unconscionable. And now we face the prospect of pythons in the semi-tropical U.S. To paraphrase the old TV commercial -- "It is 10:00. Do you know where your children and pets are?"

19 February 2010


Two recent posts may have left the reader with the impression that I am a political hawk. This is not the case. One must always give peaceful means a chance first. Diplomacy and economic/political sanctions are the interaction of choice, with military intervention as a last resort. My only point is that when force is called for, it should be used wisely and well, adapting strategy and tactics to the situation on the ground rather reacting with a formulaic response.

Events over the past several weeks illustrate my point.

On 19 January, Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was surgically assassinated at a hotel in Dubai. It is suspected that the team of eleven agents were members of Israel's Mossad.

On 8 February, Afghan Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a covert operation by CIA and ISI agents in Karachi, Pakistan.

Each event was professionally planned and carried out, with no collateral damage or loss of life. This would not have been the case if a larger military unit attempted, Hollywood-style, to track down and neutralize the threat in question.

I am not persuaded that violence is always justified. But we live in a world of fundamentalist extremists (Islam, Christianity, pick your faith) who have no respect for the rule of national or international law. It would be naive to react to their terrorism with talk alone. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt summed it up best when he quoted a West African proverb: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." The world is changing, the lines between good and evil are gray and shifting. We must be adaptable, always ready to negotiate, yet always ready to greet force with force. Sad, I know. I wonder if humans will ever evolve into a true, diverse global community based on mutual respect? I am reluctantly pessimistic.

But then I read a finely-crafted book, or listen to an elegant and moving piece of classical music, or watch a brilliant film from another country, or immerse myself in nature, and a soft glow of cautious optimism persists.

18 February 2010


Today's NYTimes reports that the U.S.-led forces in the current Afghan offensive are coming under increasingly frequent and accurate fire from Taliban snipers. The report is one more link in the chain of evidence that you can't wage a conventional war against guerrilla forces. If we didn't learn that lesson in Vietnam, we certainly should have learned it from the disastrous Soviet invastion of Afghanistan (which was fought against the native, U.S.-backed Mujahideen, which evolved into today's Taliban fighters).

"Sniper -- a highly trained marksman who shoots targets from concealed positions or from distances exceeding the capabilities of regular personnel. Snipers typically have specialized training and distinct high-precision rifles. In addition to marksmanship, military snipers are also trained in camouflage, field craft, infiltration, reconnaissance and observation techniques."

Snipers have been used in every major war since at least the 1700s. Their value lies in their ability to take down a specific target with high precision, and with the least risk to large numbers of combatants or civilians. The motto which emerged from the Vietnam War was "One Shot, One Kill." From the standpoint of both human lives and economics, this makes eminently more sense than sending in large numbers of soldiers who expend literally tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition for that same single kill.

Our current involvement in Afghanistan is questionable. While we undeniably must combat terrorist organizations, the most effective proven method is by using small units of Special Forces or Delta Force counter-insurgents, who train and advise local military units, as well as providing medical and infrastructure assistance. In any conflict, especially one in which there is such a complex array of political and military factions, one must win the hearts and minds of the populace, in addition to using unconventional military tactics. Tactics which should include our own use of snipers, as well as the use of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) drones for surveillance and for the launch of highly accurate laser-guided missiles and bombs.

17 February 2010


Last night on PBS, an episode of NOVA documented the runaway melting of glaciers in the arctic, the antarctic, and at higher continental altitudes. Even for someone who is persuaded to the reality of global warming, the evidence presented was enlightening and disturbing. Global ice fields act as a vital regulator of ocean currents and climate. Their disappearance (see image above) will not only disrupt the supply of fresh water to many developing countries, but more critically will lead to rises in sea level which will affect billions of people clustered in low-lying coastal cities (see the "mapping sea level rise" feature, and the image below). I encourage everyone to view the episode online (just click on the episode link above) -- this material makes many of our daily concerns shrink to insignificance.

On a lighter note, I recently learned that the word hippopotomonstrosesquippededailophobia purportedly means .... the fear of long words. You gotta love the irony.

16 February 2010


Today's NYTimes features an evocative opinion column concerning the role of women in combat situations in Iraq -- and by extension, in any war. I fully agree with the author, Catherine Ross (an Army Reservist and veteran of tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2004) that U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) policy lags behind not only the reality on the ground for all American troops, but also lags behind the reality demonstrated by Israel, which has actively recruited women to serve alongside men in combat since the nation came into being in 1948, not to mention a history of women soldiers dating back 4000 years. Despite lingering gender stereotypes, women are just as capable and qualified as men are -- sometimes more so -- for serving in both support and combat roles: as ground troops, as combat pilots, or in any other combat capacity.

Service to one's nation is not gender-specific, in my view. Every citizen should be required to fulfill a minimum of two years' national service -- be it in the military, the Peace Corps, a revived Civilian Conservation Corps, or any constructive equivalent. No exceptions. With regard to combat duty, it is discriminatory and a waste of valuable talent to forbid women from equal participation with men. Like any other MOS (Military Operational Specialty, or job description), soldiers should be selected for combat training based on their skills, abilities and potential, not on their gender.

As it stands today, women in the U.S. military in Iraq (and now Afghanistan?) are called upon daily to fight, regardless of their job title. Commanders on the ground must use the resources available to them. The tragic disconnect is that those same women haven't received the same level of combat training as men, so must operate at a disadvantage. DOD and Congress must act to rectify the situation, revising policy to afford the same training to both genders.

Here is the link to Sergeant Catherine Ross's column. Be sure to check out the embedded videos, one on women in the Israeli military, the other on women in the American military and the inadequate training which they receive. Every man and every woman in service deserves the best training, equipment and leadership. Not everyone is getting it.

Here is a photo of Ross in Iraq.

15 February 2010


I'm far from a rabid sports fan. I'll sometimes watch the playoff and title games in pro football or college basketball, plus anything to do with whitewater or flying (which rarely make it to non-cable broadcasts). The qualities that engage me are skill, strategy and good sportsmanship.

Add to that list the America's Cup, a sailing regatta match whose prize is the oldest active trophy in international sports (including the modern Olympics). I'm hopelessly out of touch with developments in sailing -- before yesterday, my mental images were similar to those portrayed in the 1992 film Wind, one of director Carroll Ballard's visual feasts.

So imagine my surprise to learn that racing technology has long since gone beyond the traditional single-hulled yacht with conventional fabric sails (see image above, showing two racers vying for upwind positional advantage). The 2010 winner was a trimaran propelled by a rigid wing-sail. A trimaran's added stability enables a hull with a shallower draft and no need for a deep heavy keel, all of which enable enhanced speed and stability, but at the expense of maneuvering tight turns (see image below).

For more on this year's winner, and on the controversies surrounding the race, click here.

14 February 2010


Here's a love story to warm any heart, however wounded, numb or cynical. In 1977 astrophysicist and famed astronomy popularizer Carl Sagan and media producer Ann Druyan collaborated on the famous golden record of Earth sounds that was sent aloft to interstellar space aboard the two Voyager spacecraft. They had known each other as colleagues and friends, but something about the highly charged nature of the project and the time in their lives clicked, and they fell in love. You can hear the NPR segment, hear a sampling of sounds from the golden record, and read the full, wonderful story here.

To all my past, present and future valentines, I send my love. And to Carl Sagan, wherever you are, the world misses you. Billions and billions ...........

13 February 2010


On 13 February 2008 I began this blog. Early entries informed the reader of my intended course, the genesis for the blog's title, PREDATORHAVEN, and the source of my nom de plume, rys. Over time I've posted on subjects as varied as astronomy, racism, war, environmental activisim, books, movies, music, online resources, and gee-whiz topics of whimsy or wonder.

Two years ago my readership started small, and grew steadily through both word of mouth and fortuitous web searches on specific topics. According to the site meter I installed last March, I'm averaging between 500 and 600 visitors per month. Not a startlingly large number, but not bad for a small operation with no advertising. I try to post daily, consistent with my aspirations toward becoming a professional writer.

If you are reading this, I encourage you to: (a) sign up as a follower of the blog, which will send my posts to you automatically; and (b) feel free to comment on specific posts. I would love to generate some comment threads, especially on controversial issues. My opinions are expressed freely, and I invite you to join in. Whether we agree or disagree doesn't matter, so long as we treat each other with mutual respect.

So. Here's to us all -- may we learn to live together in relative harmony, and may we learn to love and nurture this planet we call home.

12 February 2010


Today marks the 101st birthday of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It is one of the oldest and most effective civil rights organizations, catalyzed into existence during a time of race riots, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, legalized racial segregation (see Plessy v. Ferguson) and the systematic disenfranchizement of racial minorities. Summoning sterling courage and devotion to justice, NAACP members have face a gammut of opposition ranging from U.S. Presidents to the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet the NAACP has never been, in my eyes, a politically radical group. Members have consistently strived to effect change within our system of laws, even as they spoke out forcefully and eloquently for the civil rights which the then-white majority enjoyed. In any movement for social change, there is a place for moderation (the NAACP) and for radical protest (the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam). Each has its strengths and weaknesses, each has a legitimate contribution to make toward improving society.

The struggle for true equality is far from over. Perhaps it will never be over. But that does not relieve us of the responsibility for (and the pride in) leaving the world a better place than the one we inherited. Here is a link to the NAACP's website.

11 February 2010


Here's a group I didn't know about until today -- the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). It is a democratic, international umbrella organization of indigenous peoples, occupied nations, minorities and independent states which do not enjoy diplomatic representation internationally. UNPO acts to educate, to mediate disputes, and to advocate for human rights and for recognition by the nations of the world. Though members appear to come mostly from developing and former communist regions (see map above, click to enlarge), there are groups like the Lakota Nation which reside in developed countries, in this case the U.S.

I wish them well. Here is UNPO's flag.

10 February 2010


We're all familiar with the psychological/emotional response known as denial -- "a defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence." The unpleasant fact being avoided might be death (one's own or that of a loved one), an addiction, responsibility for one's words or deeds, the impact one's behavior has on others, even denial itself.

When translated to a group of people or an entire population, this behavior is termed denialism -- "choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an unpleasant truth ... refusing to accept an empirically verifiable reality ... an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event."

Michael Specter has written an engaging and informative book called Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter writes about science, technology and global public health, and has received awards from the Global Health Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His prose is clear, descriptive and eye-opening.

The book addresses growing the public's growing mistrust toward science in six chapters:

1. Vioxx and the Fear of Science

2. Vaccines and the Great Denial

3. The Organic Fetish

4. The Era of Echinacea

5. Race and the Language of Life

6. Surfing the Exponential

Quoting from the book jacket: "Just as an individual who is uncomfortable with the truth will go into denial, so will a larger group go into denialism when confronted with complex or unnerving realities. The issues we face may be complex but our choices are not ... One source (of denialism) is our burgeoning difficulty in accepting what we used to take for granted: that progress always entails some risk. Our poor grasp of history can also spawn denialism. Like those parents who've never faced the deadly diseases they refuse to vaccinate their kids against, we forget too easily how good a life science has granted us and how vigilant we must be to maintain the advantages we have attained. Denialism also arises from our propensity to perceive things we don't understand in terms of conspiracies and other false explanations. By exposing all these traps -- and several others -- Denialism offers a defense against dangerous ignorance and a road map back to hard-earned, life-saving truths."

Whether or not the reader agrees with every position taken by the author, the book is a lucid, well-researched and thought-provoking read. And that can only be a good thing.

09 February 2010


Yesterday's Missoulian featured a front page article that is bound to arouse violent controversy among hunters, ranchers, and others with a vested interest in the status quo. The gist is that researchers have determined that one approach to the decades-old problem of soaring populations of elk and deer in our national parks (not to mention in metropolitan suburbs and large urban parks) is to take a cue from nature, and introduce small packs of wolves to restore prey herds to more sustainable sizes.

My first response was "gee, ya think?" Wolves and other large predators were the perfect regulators of grazing species for millenia before European settlers "conquered" North America. Entire ecosystems weren't endangered (as they are under human mismanagement), because native predators culled the herds of those animals too old, too sick, or too young and unprotected by adults to escape. Predation not only kept the herds down to reasonable numbers, but also improved the overall health of prey species since only those best adapted to escape, survived to reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation. Humans (both aboriginal and white colonial) upset that dynamic balance, first demonizing and then wiping out predators, removing any perceived competition for game animals.

Predator reintroduction has been successful where it has been attempted, in spite of the resistance (sometimes violent) of knee-jerk reactionaries who still believe the same tired old myths about wolves. There is no excuse for living in denial of the facts.

One aspect of this new proposal that I find disturbing is that the researchers want to appease livestock owners (many of whom pay a pittance for the privilege of running their stock on public lands, a form of welfare that they vehemently deny) by sterilizing the introduced wolves, so that they cannot reproduce beyond the ridiculously low numbers being suggested. Let them breed!! They'll already be shock-collared, fitted with radio tracking devices, and fenced in. Collaring and tracking I support. It is important to track the wolves' movements, and to minimize their impact on livestock. But if nature has shown us anything, repeatedly we've seen that predator and prey species will once again achieve that dynamic population balance without interference from humans.

Well, whatever my reservations, I have to admit that this proposal is a baby step in the right direction. The only thing that mystifies me is WHY IT HAS TAKEN SO FREAKIN' LONG FOR OTHERWISE INTELLIGENT PEOPLE TO FIGURE THIS OUT. It is a simple and elegant solution, and one I've been advocating for many years. Denial runs deep in the human psyche, as does the delusion that we are masters of the planet. Like the Hindu deity Shiva, we are capable of being either destroyer or benefactor. The choice is ours.

08 February 2010


Nearly my entire life has been nomadic. Just since leaving home at age 18, I've had nearly forty addresses in nine states. Half of that time was in southern Arizona, in and around Tucson. Although the prospect of moving again now feels physically onerous, I don't see myself spending the rest of my life in Missoula. In regarding possible destinations, my short list includes places I've already experienced, as well as new places I'd like to explore.
Among the latter is Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sunday's NYTimes travel section featured an informative article on Santa Fe. It is one of a tiny number of U.S. cities which will soon be celebrating its 400th birthday. The attractions of living there include a lively arts community, a temperate climate, sweeping natural scenery, and the signature pueblo adobe architecture which the city adopted into its building code in the early 20th century. At an elevation of 7000 feet above sea level, winters are cool and summers warm, with neither tending to exremes. The city enjoys 300 or more days of sunshine per year. It is a wonderful place, with annual international folk art and indian markets, world-class opera and jazz, and a population almost evenly divided between Latino and gringo residents, with a sprinkling of other ethnicities. There is easy access to Albuquerque to the south, and Taos to the north. Santa Fe, and the Southwest in general, are steeped in history and culture. The Four Corners region is rife with ancient ruins and natural splendor.

One of my favorite references for learning about cities is the Places Rated Almanac. This encyclopedic reference examines nearly 400 U.S. cities within criteria which include cost of living, transportation, jobs, education, climate, crime, the arts, health care and recreation. Comprehensive tables make it easy to draw comparisons within any criterion of interest, as well as comparing the overall rating.
A useful online guide to individual cities can be found at city-data.com. Their entry for Santa Fe provides a quick, easy-to-scan overview of the city's features, comparable to the hard copy Almanac.
My short list includes other possible destinations, of course. My personal criteria for a livable place include a vital arts community, access to nature, a pleasing climate, a university, affordable housing, a decent airport with a first-rate flight training school, great restaurants, cultural and ethnic diversity, and ease of access to rail and air travel. Of course, PBS and NPR. Oh, a favorable ratio of women to men would be a nice addition as well. Hey, we all need a dream.....

07 February 2010


As Karnythia points out in her blog post "Transcending Race...A History Lesson," there is racism and there is racism. MSNBC commentator [I hate that word -- one who comments is a commentor. A commentator is just an ordinary spud.], after hearing President Obama's State of the Union Address, rather famously remarked, "You know, I was trying to think about who he was tonight. And, um, it's interesting. He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to becoming a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two." (To view a video of the complete State Of The Union Address, click here.)

Comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart was all over Matthews like white on snow, as was (more thoughtfully) Whoopi Goldberg. For the most incisive commentary, please check out Karynthia's blog post above. It is brief and to the point.

Bottom line, Matthews (who is more liberal than conservative, and who is mostly supportive toward Obama) forgot to put his brain in gear before putting his mouth in motion. Well okay, we all do sometimes. But when you're on national television, and especially when you're commenting on race, you'd be well advised to pause for just a moment and think about how this is going to really sound. Effect trumps intent every time. As Edward P. Jones expressed it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World, "The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it woud kill a man or make a baby just yawn."

Racism is alive and well, even among those who are well-intentioned. Sometimes it takes a faux pas to generate discussion and refine our understanding of just how insidiously deep-rooted this virus really is. Ultimately, if we learn from our mistakes by honestly listening to each other, we take small baby steps toward the day when racism no longer poisons our perceptions, words and deeds. Racism comes in all flavors, and all degrees ranging from mild to severe. The one thing it uniformly is? ............. intolerable.

06 February 2010


That being the byline for AARP online columnist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, the organization's "sex and relationship expert." While I have reservations about anyone considering him/herself to be an expert in sex and relationships -- the subject being emphatically subjective, depending on one's gender, cultural background, and education -- I was nevertheless intrigued by one of her articles, "Where Have All The Good Men (And Women) Gone?". One sees and hears this lament often, especially at social networking websites like Facebook, or at online dating services like Match.com or eHarmony.

So I read the article, and it actually has some interesting alternatives to offer. There are a number of fairly obvious ways in which to meet people, the best being those which involve an activity which one already enjoys -- an adult evening class, a birding group, a hiking club, or a reading club, for instance. In such a group, if you don't happen to meet someone who takes your eye, you're still having a good time. The article has several suggestions for taking the initiative, which I recommend to those of us baby boomers who are over fifty and may have a hard time even locating singles in our age group. As a veteran of all the online resources listed above, I found it refreshing to come across new, non-traditional ideas for meeting intelligent, interesting people. And the good news for you younger readers? These ideas are relevant to you, too.