31 March 2010


I've been a supporter of Barack Obama ever since he announced his candidacy for the Presidency. I believe that, on balance, this Constitutional scholar explores the facts on all sides of a given issue, assessing the pros and cons, and then makes informed decisions which are practical, rational and aimed at the greater good.

President Obama has, however, made several policy decisions and concessions which are, in my view, misguided attempts at political appeasement, when he should be taking a firmer stand. Our continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is one example. Today's announcement that he proposes to open vast expanses of American coastline to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, comes as a painful shock to this observor.

Included in his proposal are immense stretches of Atlantic coastline from New Jersey to Florida, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska's entire North Slope. Here is a map showing the affected areas.

Mr. Obama justifies his decision by noting that "given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy." I'm thinking. WHAT? I respect Mr. Obama's ability to find the middle ground on difficult issues, but this is not the middle ground -- this is abject surrender.

In his provocative and well-researched book The Limits of Power, Andrew J. Bacevich describes in vivid detail American assumptions about their right to unlimited energy use, their resistance to simple and effective energy conservation, and the economic, military and political forces which combine to encourage our profligacy. The author lays out an array of alternatives which would go a long way toward reversing this trend. When 2 percent of the world's population accounts for two-thirds of the world's energy consumption, clearly our perception of our own energy needs bears re-evaluation -- not to mention our assumptions about unharnessed economic growth and competitive businesses. Further, the U.S. possesses only 2 percent of the world's known oil reserves, yet is responsible for 20 percent of world oil consumption. To imagine that this proposal will make even a dent in our current consumption, without addressing the need for a profound paradigm shift in our production and use of all forms of energy, is whistling in the wind.

Further, what constitutes "homegrown energy"? More offshore oil drilling? More strip mining for coal or shale oil? More nuclear power plants? I am deeply disturbed by the direction being taken by this administration's energy policy. I'm trying to keep an open mind, trying to see the big picture. But some things are not negotiable, particularly given the environmental (and yes, the economic) risks involved. Can you spell "oil spill"? Are our memories really that short?

I've learned over the years that whenever there is a peculiarity or an unexplained question in politics and in business, the answer usually hinges upon political power, dollar signs, or both. This proposal smacks of both. The President appears to be trying to appease conservatives in hopes of winning more support for a climate bill from undecided Republican legislators. Given Republicans' scandalous and intransigent obstructionism on other progressive measures, I have small hope that this proposal will be welcomed with open arms by conservatives, nor by conservationists. Certainly not by this conservationist.

30 March 2010


On this date in 1867, the U.S. purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million. The purchase was initiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward -- and many who were skeptical of all that "useless wilderness" so geographically remote from the contiguous Unites States, dubbed it Seward's Folly. We gained 586,412 square miles of magnificent mountains, fertile valleys and pristine tundra, along with untold natural resources -- timber, oil, game and fish, all for barely over two cents per acre, easily rivaling the purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape tribe for 80 guilders in 1626, each the bargain of its respective century.

With this difference -- Alaska is a land of superlatives, including Mt. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America (20,320 feet from sea level to summit), a stunning array of glaciers, turbulent whitewater rivers, abundant wildlife, and ... well, size. Texans take note: Alaska is so vast that if we cut it in half, Texas would become the third largest state.

29 March 2010


Leave it to me to discover a quality TV series six years after its debut. At least I have a good reason -- no cable or satellite service. The L Word ran on Showtime from 2004 to 2009, and portrayed the intertwining lives of a group of lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their friends. Set in Los Angeles, the storylines and characters form the best kind of drama -- nuanced, multi-dimensional and real. As a straight man, I am thoroughly enjoying the series, available for rental through Netflix. I've always been open to alternative lifestyles, and have gay and lesbian friends all around the country, as well as straight friends. I like the fact that these characters are presented as whole human beings, with individual strengths and flaws, fears and dreams. The series does contain thoroughly erotic (and tastefully presented) love scenes, but as in life, sex is only one thread in the tapestry of their lives. Like the movie Brokeback Mountain, The L Word is much more about love than it is about sex.

Having said that, I also am enjoying the window into lesbian culture -- the issues frankly discussed, the dynamics of attraction between women, the parallels and differences between gay and straight life. Altogether informative, often funny, always fascinating.

Here's a different link to the series -- SPOILER ALERT, it contains synopses of the episodes of all seasons. You might want to see the DVDs first.

28 March 2010


A year ago today, I registered with a service called Sitemeter, which tracks and records visitors to one's blog or website. The information gathered spans a wide and useful spectrum. One can identify the number of visitors during the preceding hour, day, month, or year. Further, one can identify the source of visitors -- by domain name, by source of referral, by world map, by city location, or by entry pages and exit pages. One can rank one's posts by the number of visitors to that specific post. One can even access a statistical prediction for number of visitors over the next hour, day, week or month.

This writer is humbly gratified at the amount of traffic to a blog that is quite modest, as blogs go. My readership started out small, and spread both by word of mouth and by subject searches through engines such as Google. I write about what interests me -- social justice, the arts, astronomy, history, aviation, ecology and the environment, to name a few -- and make no apologies for my opinions. Comments are always welcome, and I post them all, including those which dissent from my views -- so long as the discourse remains civilized.

According to the most recent weekly summary (which Sitemeter emails to me every Friday), this blog receives an average of 28 visitors daily. The average number of page views per visitor is 1.4. As I write this, my writing has been viewed by a total of 10,512 visitors (some of whom are regular followers) in one year.

To ALL my readers, regular or sporadic or accidental, thank you. I welcome suggestions for topics, and I encourage one and all to post your comments in response to a given entry -- just click on "comments" at the bottom of the article. Cheers.
(click on the stats graph below to enlarge)

27 March 2010


The theater of the absurd continues as Sarah Palin sucks up to the reactionary Tea Party nut jobs in Nevada this weekend -- the same people who gave us eight years of inanity, war, economic meltdown and a plummeting reputation among other nations under GWB. It would be entertaining if these folks didn't take themselves so seriously. They give me the creeps on a level with encountering real zombies -- the living dead, convinced that we live in a bygone era of racism, sexism, ageism, and every other -ism we've tried to outgrow for the past half century.

NYTimes columnist Charles Blow describes the phenomenon eloquently, in the context of the recently (FINALLY) passed health care reform bill. "Bullying, threats and acts of violence," not to mention distorting reality beyond all recognition, and acts of domestic terrorism. We live in a world of psychopaths. I've become frankly cynical toward anyone who drapes him/herself in the American flag and claims to be a patriot.

Here's my thought -- If Sarah Palin (or George Bush, or Dan Quail, or any of a long string of right wing airheads) is the answer, what is the question?

26 March 2010


Ninety years after the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote, one hundred years after the first International Women's Day, and nearing the end of the 30th Women's History Month, I pause to reflect on our progress toward gender equality. I entered adulthood during the second wave of the feminist movement, and was a declared feminist (just as I was a declared environmentalist) long before it was fashionable to do so.

A recent Newsweek article by Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison reports that the gender gap, the pay disparity between men and women for comparable work, is alive and well. Although there has been token movement into more prestigious and lucrative positions in the business world, in politics and in academia, emphasis remains on the word "token". "Women still make 76 cents for every dollar a male earns in the United States", the article notes. Further, women tend to be clustered in entry level and midlevel corporate positions, with very few penetrating to the upper levels of management. Hence the term "the glass ceiling".

This persistence of discrimination is unjust and intolerable. The pace of progress is painfully slow. My hope has been that, just as younger generations have been far less burdened by the racist attitudes of their elders, that sexism would similarly die of attrition. Now I'm not so sure. There's no predicting which of our prejudices will fade more quickly, or what prejudices may replace them. One can only plan and hope for the best, and remain prepared for the worst. A sad commentary on our enlightened age.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Speaking as a male, as I would not be the victim of discrimination, so I would not be its perpetrator. My thanks to my dear friend IZ for sending the article.

25 March 2010


Yesterday I chanced upon a song that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Sung by Irish balladeer Robbie O'Connell, Kilkelly's lyrics take the form of letters written from home to a young Irish man who has emigrated to America during the Irish Diaspora of the early to mid-1800s. The country was struck by a potato blight which resulted in mass starvation, the Great Potato Famine. Many Irish men, women and children fled to the far corners of the globe, in search of a new home and a decent living.

24 March 2010


"PARIS -- Delegates to a United Nations conference on endangered species voted down three of four proposals to protect sharks on Tuesday, landing another victory for Japan, China and countries opposed to the involvement of international authorities in regulation of ocean fish." -- David Jolly, NYTimes.

Like many predators, sharks have historically suffered from an undeserved reputation as blood-thirsty monsters. In fact, most sharks are merely curious about humans -- attacks are usually provoked by the presence of blood in the water, or by humans unintentionally behaving in the manner of an injured prey species. As in all environments, it is common sense to educate oneself about the natural residents, both prey and predator species. They were here first.

In recent decades, numerous species of sharks have been pushed to the brink of extinction, both by so-called "sport" fishing, and by hunting sharks for their fins. The latter is uniquely cruel -- once the fins are hacked off, the living shark is tossed back into the ocean, no longer able to steer or direct its motion through the water, ultimately to die from loss of blood or from predation.

In this viewer's eyes, ALL endangered species deserve protection, regardless of the ridiculous myths attached to them, and above all top predators -- for without them, the entire food web is thrown into disarray, and ecosystems are placed in jeopardy. Beyond the practical consideration of preserving the planet which supports human life, there is this ethos: that all life forms deserve the chance to live their lives, for their own sake. We lack sufficient knowledge and understanding of the interdependence of creatures, from microbes to eagles, to carelessly, even brutally assume the role of arbiter over who lives and who dies. As for our grasp of ethics .... the UN vote speaks for itself.
Please read the entire NYTimes article here for a more complete view of the shark vote, and the national and economic players involved.

23 March 2010


John Tierney has written an evocative NYTimes article on the notion of fair, unselfish behavior toward strangers. Treating others justly and responsibly if a universal precept among the world's major religions and cultures, each with its variant on the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), and each with a common goal -- to estabish and preserve order, and to resolve conflicts.

Philosophers, animal behaviorists and evolutionary biologists have all examined selfless, altruistic behavior, and its genesis in both the natural world and human society. At its most fundamental, occurring among many species, altruism appears to present distinct advantages to those who practice it. One advantage is genetic. Within a family if you do something which offers you no direct gain, but which furthers the survival of someone related to you (hence someone who shares a portion of your genes), you are enhancing the possibility that those shared genes will be passed on to future generations, an effect known as kin selection. Among birds, mammals and insects, we find individuals caring for the offspring of their own parents, even at the expense of producing their own young. Think jays, wolves, bees, among many others.

Another advantage is collective or tribal -- it is referred to as reciprocity -- cooperative or altruistic behavior which may lead to future mutual interactions. At this more advanced stage of organization, one might find agreements between clans or between nations which provide some form of benefit for both parties.

At a theoretical, meta level, as discussed in philosophy, altruism becomes a bit more murky. One can argue that if I do something positive for you, at some energy or material expense to myself, there has to be some other benefit to me -- perhaps an apparently altruistic act allows me to feel virtuous or otherwise better about myself, enhancing my self-image (not to mention my image in the eyes of others).

So is there truly such a thing as pure altruism? A parent protecting his/her child is, in a real sense, protecting a huge genetic and material investment. The proverbial Boy Scout helping an aging woman across the street, is earning the admiration of adult society. Why does a soldier fall upon a live hand grenade, sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his buddies? Why do the wealthy make hefty, charitable donations to causes such as the arts, humane charities, or disaster relief?

Is it love? Is it enlightened self-interest? Is it an act arising from loneliness? Is it a form of insanity? This is hardly a new question, but I'm interested in your thoughts.

22 March 2010


In today's NYTimes, Steven Strogatz continues his hugely informative and entertaining series on math -- this installment titled Think Globally. The shortest distance between point A and point B on a flat sheet of paper like a map (a plane) is simply a straight line. The shortest distance between two points on the surface of the Earth (a sphere) is called a great circle, and once the notion is explained, it makes perfect sense, and explains why aircraft routes appear to follow non-intuitive, non-"straight" lines.

Carrying things a step further, Strogatz describes and illustrates elegantly what a line might look like on a cylinder or a two-holed torus -- depending on the initial conditions which we impose on the search. Even for the math-challenged, this is fun stuff, especially the videos.

21 March 2010


Anyone who spends any time at all on Facebook, the social networking website, knows that the hundreds of apps and social games generate genuine friendships between people living all over the globe. Alas, that forum can also bring out the more troubling qualities of human nature -- competitiveness, superficiality, insecurity, narcicism, rudeness, deceipt -- just about all the seven deadly sins plus a few unheard of in the 14th century.

The inane drama can reach proportions both epic and ironic. And irony is the tone which Kate Miller-Heidke wields with the deftness of a stilletto and the subtlety of napalm, in her viral YouTube "Facebook Song". Fair warning for those of tender sensibiilties, her lyrics contain a bit of cursing. But the brilliance of her satire overshadows all other considerations. Click on the song link and enjoy !!

20 March 2010


Years ago, I worked in suburban Philadelphia at a private, residential school for teenagers who'd been removed by the courts from their families, for reasons of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Residents lived in dorm-like cottages, and attended school on grounds. Facilities were excellent, including a gym, cafeteria, swimming pool, infirmary, a staff of degreed therapists, and acres of tree-shaded lawn.

Our student population was co-ed --forty girls and twenty boys. Class sizes varied, averaging 12-15 students per room. I taught biology, environmental studies, math, algebra, and geometry, as well as doing daily counseling with students, individually and in groups, and running the school's nascent computer lab. The school faculty was small, so we often filled in for each other if a teacher was sick, or if a student's needs called the teacher from his/her classroom.

My best friend there was a fellow teacher, Tony Sherman, who taught history and civics. Tony was a model of dedication to excellence in his work, and genuine caring for our students. He was also an officer in the Army Reserve, and on more than one occasion was called to serve on active duty. Tony was the best and truest kind of patriot -- someone who believed in service to his community and his country, and acted on that belief. His was not a vacant, unquestioning intellect. He fulfilled his duty with Quality, while reserving the right to question the validity or practicality of political or military policy. Just as every good citizen-soldier should.

He and I dropped out of touch a few years after I left Philly. It wasn't until yesterday that I heard of him again -- indirectly, from one of our former students who found me on Facebook. She alluded to "bad news", and I quickly Googled Tony's name. He died in Kuwait on 27 August, 2003, of "non-combat-related" injury. Further internet investigation revealed that a suspicious cloud surrounds his death, and the deaths of many others -- a mysterious pneumonia which may be linked to anthrax or other innoculations. There are more questions than answers, which leads me to believe that there's a military coverup going on, another in the cascading scandals permeating Bush's war for oil, profit, and political/economic hegemony in that part of the world. Ironically, today marks the seventh anniversary of our invasion of Iraq during the current conflict there.

My friend, my brother, is dead. When he fell, he was 43 years old, and left behind a wife and an 8-year-old son. When I first met him, he was a Captain. When he died, twelve years later, he was a Lt. Colonel. Far more importantly, he was an inspiration and a role model for literally hundreds of troubled youth, and for his friends as well. He led a compelling, dedicated life. The world is a poorer place without him. On this, the vernal equinox marking the coming of Spring, I salute you, Tony -- and I am joined by all those whose lives you touched so profoundly. You will always be with us.

19 March 2010


This APOD image of the solar corona (the sun's outer atmosphere), revealed during a total solar eclipse, blows me away when you consider the astronomical distances you're seeing. To help, recall that you would have to line up 109 Earths in a row to equal the diameter of the sun. Go ahead, try to wrap your imagination around that. I dare you.
It's like realizing that a photon of light, traveling at a speed of around 186,000 miles per second, can circle the Earth 7.75 times in one second, and yet takes over eight minutes to travel the nearly 93 million miles between sun and Earth.
That 93,000,000 mile distance turns out to be something of a magical balance, given the size and temperature of our sun. If Earth orbited much closer, it would resemble the noxious hothouse planet Venus. Much farther, and we would be living (or not) on a sterile, cold planet much like Mars. The conditions for life as we know it are ideal in this, our home orbit. Tomorrow, the first day of Spring, might be a good time to silently appreciate that fortuitous arrangement.

18 March 2010


On March 19, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated -- its pilots were the first African-American military aviators in the history of the United States armed forces. The 99th formed the nucleus of other black squadrons training at Tuskegee and Maxwell fields. Combined, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group, the famed Tuskegee Airmen. In all, 994 pilots were trained at Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946, about 446 were deployed overseas, and 150 Airmen lost their lives in accidents or combat.

In spite of American society's rampant and institutionalized racism, and in spite of resistance from all levels of the U.S. military establishment, the 332nd trained to a high standard, and went on to distinguished service in North Africa and Itally during World War II. They were initially equipped with P-40 Warhawks, then after a succession of other fighter aircraft, flew the ultimate fighter of WWII, the P-51 Mustang. Initially most bomber groups (commanded and flown by white pilots) which the 332nd escorted on missions were astonished and reluctant to have their fighter protection in the hands of black pilots. But the 332nd's reputation for fierce air combat spread, and before long there was active competition for their presence, and with good reason. Even though the 332nd itself lost pilots and fighter aircraft, not a single bomber they were protecting ever was shot down by enemy fire. Not one. The distinctive all-red tail markings (see below) of the 332nd's fighters were a signal of security for U.S. pilots, and a signal of trouble for enemy pilots.

After the war, the Tuskegee Airmen returned to an ungrateful nation. Racism and ignorance remained the order of things, and the 332nd had to wait until March of 2007 to receive the national recognition it so richly deserved, the Congressional Gold Medal.

17 March 2010


"I taught the lesson, but they didn't learn it." How many times have incompetent teachers fallen back on that lame explanation? Speaking from both theory and personal experience, I suggest that teachers are guides in the learning process. If they fail to understand the presence of different learning styles among their students; if they fail to bring enthusiasm, creativity and dynamic flexibility to their exchange with students; if they fail to model respect and affection for their students, and for the act of learning; or if they fail to keep up with the evolution of their subject matter, then they should not be teaching.

From the general to the specific -- there is an insightful article by Ralph Butcher in the current issue of AOPA's Flight Training magazine. Butcher is the chief flight instructor at a California flight school, and a military veteran pilot. His articles are informed and enriched by both his military and civilian experience.

In recent posts I've commented on teaching, as it exists in both public and private schools. Butcher adds a valuable perspective, which I would like to quote directly. He attributes the following to Glen Williamson --

"To teach is a somewhat meaningless term. I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only help them to learn something -- maybe. I can try to be an enabler.

"To really learn requires full participation by the learner. Also, and more importantly, learning is not a linear process. No one learns in a straight line, logically or sequentially. I have only met one person who claimed to learn in a linear fashion. He is feeling much better now, and will be released next September.

"Learning is the accumulation of bits and pieces of knowledge and information. For everyone these can be different. It is the accumulation that is important.

"Oh yeah, there is the absolutely mot important required ingredient: curiosity! Without curiosity you may as well close the book and take up taxidermy."

Hear hear!! Butcher adds: "The importance of individual backgrounds, which always vary, cannot be overstated. When an identical flight lesson is given to several students, each will assimilate the lesson differently. That's why a good flight instructor will take time to understand a student's background and will always ask questions during the pre- and post-flight briefings to ensure proper student knowledge. You say, 'My instructor does not conduct those briefings.' Get another instructor."

A sidebar in Butcher's article is a useful guide to the learning process in any setting. Using aviation examples, here is what the sidebar presents --


Every flight instructor learns early on that there are four basic level of learning. These four levels represent steps at which students comprehend and can utilize information. Your goal as a student is to reach the top level. Using airspace as an example, let's explore all four:

Rote -- Can you recall basic information as it is presented to you? That's a rote level of learning.
Example -- You know that the regulations require a transponder to operate in Class C airspace.

Understanding -- At this level, you can comprehend why something is the way it is.
Example -- You understand a transponder is required in Class C airspace because air traffic controllers talk to pilots in the area.

Application -- When you've reached the application level of learning, you're able to put your learning into practice.
Example -- You contact ATC prior to entering Class C airspace for a transponder code because you know a transponder is required, and why.

Correlation -- Once you take your knowledge and apply it to different situations, you have reached the highest level of correlation.
Example -- You contact ATC prior to entering Class B airspace because you know it's even busier than Class C, and thus a transponder is required.

Pretty cool, huh?

16 March 2010


The acronym HALO stands for a High Altitude, Low Opening parachute jump from an airplane. A NYTimes article reports that Felix Baumgartner, one of the world's most experienced extreme skydivers, plans to take things to new heights later this year by jumping from a helium-filled balloon in the stratosphere, at least 100,000 feet above the earth. Wearing a suit not unlike that of an astronaut, he will quickly reach descent speeds in excess of 690 miles per hour, becoming the first skydiver ever to break the speed of sound (which varies with altitude and the density of the air). If all goes according to plan, his freefall will last five and a half minutes before his parachute opens, bringing him safely to the surface.

That's the theory. No one knows for certain what the effects will be upon the human body as it passes through the shock wave in transiting the sound barrier. But as the article makes clear, the project is proceeding with every attention to safety and proper science. The article's companion videos, The Science Behing a High Altitude Jump and The Highest Parachute Jump Ever, are well worth watching.

I'm reminded of two similar scenes -- the head first freefall jump in the 2009 movie Star Trek, and also a riveting scene from a science fiction story (title and author long since forgotten), in which a military astronaut escapes his endangered spacecraft by the simple expedient of leaping from it in an intentional HALO jump. His special suit protected him from heat buildup and air pressure differentials, and he landed safely from 25 miles up. The sheer audacity of the jump took my breath away. And still does.

15 March 2010


"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." -- Helen Keller

Recently I sent the above quote to a number of email correspondents. Clearly the word "security" means different things to different people. Here is a sampling (anonymous) of the replies that came back:

~~ Yes. And for verification, read The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts .... Odd. Now I work for a company doing "software security."

~~ say what...

~~ I don't know about that. I figure I have a better chance of surviving Afghanistan if I stay out of there.

~~ Now that is thought provoking ! I, in my own little world, would like to think that there is security. However, in light of my time here on earth and experiences, I know all too well how vulnerable we all are and how fast life can change and cease to exist as we have known it !

I'm inclined to agree with Keller's quote. Granted, security is relative, and one risks it by running out into traffic (or traveling to Afghanistan). It seems to me that security is not black or white, present or absent. Rather, it exists along a continuum between, say being 99% secure (100% being dead), and 1% secure (0% also being dead?). So, are the extremes defined by (at one end) a police state, and (at the other end) anarchy? Or are they defined by monotony vs. adventure, as Keller suggests?

Further, there is the dualism of external, physical security and internal, emotional security. One may be physically safe, but not feel safe. One may also feel unsafe, but be physically safe. It seems to me that physical security is corporeal, and never fully assured. Emotional security, in contrast, is a state of mind under one's control, therefore as assured as one wishes to make it. It is analogous to identity. I am me, complete and inviolate and unassailable, right up to the moment of my physical death. Does my identity (soul, spirit, personality) persist after my body's demise? I have no definitive answer, nor does anyone else -- if they claim differently, they're trying to sell you something.

My hunch is that physical death is identity death as well, food for the fishes and worms and microbes, furthering the cycle of life. On a primitive level, the thought of an afterlife is appealing, as is reincarnation (though I would hate to come back as a fungus, or as Carl Rove. Still, I'll be content to have my molecules remix with the planet .... if only it were possible to watch where they travel next.

In a parallel vein, recall the mis-quoted phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin -- "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Old Ben (or whoever the author was) was seeing things in stark, black-and-white terms. No continuum here, though the moral stand is clear. Or is it? Hmm.

14 March 2010


The language of flight contains an abundance of two components: acronyms and aphorisms. The latter express sound advice or penetrating observation, usually with dry wit. Today's post is devoted to a few of my favorites, garnered with gratitude from Slipping The Surly Bonds, by Dave English ~~

~~ Fly it until the last piece stops moving.

~~ If you're ever faced with a forced landing at night, turn on the landing lights to see the landing area. If you don't like what you see, turn 'em back off.

~~ Experience is the knowledge that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

~~ Flying is the second greatest thrill known to man ..... landing is the first !

~~ Flying is like sex -- I've never had all I wanted but occasionally I've had all I could stand.

~~ There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.

~~ You know you've landed with the wheels up when it takes full power to taxi.

~~ Experience is a hard teacher. First comes the test, then comes the lesson.

~~ Helicopters don't fly. They beat the air into submission.

~~ Please don't tell Mum I'm a pilot. She thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.

~~ Flying is not dangerous. Crashing is dangerous.

~~ Aerobatics -- it's like having sex and being in a car crash at the same time.

~~ It's a good landing if you can still get the doors open.

~~ You can only tie the record for flying low.

~~ If at first you don't succeed, well, so much for skydiving.

~~ I want to die like my grandfather did, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

~~ The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work.

~~ It's better to die than to look bad, but it's possible to do both.

~~ Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase headwinds.

~~ A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.

~~ Son, I was flying airplanes when you were still in liquid form.

~~ Eagles may soar, but weasels never get sucked into jet air intakes.

~~ It's easy to make a small fortune in aviation. You start with a large fortune.

~~ When the last Blackhawk helicopter goes to the boneyard, it will be on a sling under a Huey.

~~ Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory.

~~ If you must make a mistake, make it a new one.

~~ The nice thing about a mistake is the pleasure it gives others.

~~ Things which do you no good in aviation --
  • Altitude above you.

  • Runway behind you.

  • Fuel in the truck.

  • The airspeed you don't have.

  • Half a second ago.

~~ "If you don't get in that plane you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life." Rick Blaine, in the movie Casablanca, 1942

13 March 2010


Nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened, or suffering from population decline, according to an Interior Department report cited in today's NYTimes online. In recent decades the known culprits have included destruction of habitat, hunting, pesticides, invasive species and the loss of wetlands. Both the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have reported alarming declines in the numbers of both resident and migratory birds during the decade since 2000.

The current State of the Birds Report adds climate change to the list for the first time. Rising sea levels associated with global warming cause rapid fluctuations in marine ecosystems. These same ecosystems are not only home to a large number of oceanic and shore birds, but also act as a valuable filtering mechanism which prevents sediment and human contaminants from reaching the global ocean.

Their loss is one more among the cascading impacts which humans have on the environment, as well as something more -- a bellweather, like the canary in the coal mine, a warning that we continue to unleash forces which we cannot control. We ignore such warnings at our own peril.

12 March 2010


I just started reading Andrew J. Bacevich's 2008 book The Limits of Power, and I am enthralled. At last in the wilderness of unrestrained consumption, political corruption and military adventurism comes a rational, persuasive voice of restraint and common sense. Bacevich examines our current national (and global) crises through the lens of unadorned history, so that the reader may understand the roots and underpinnings of our common assumptions about what's materially possible vs. what's ethically defensible. His prose is clear and accessible, his reasoning sound, and his conclusions inescapable -- we change our assumptions, or we perish as a culture. Far from being a baseless, alarmist tract, this book is straightforward and eminently credible. I recommend it highly.

A quote from the book jacket: "The Limits of Power identifies a profound triple crisis facing America today: the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; the nation's involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic. These pressing problems threaten us all, Republicans and Democrats ..... Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a historical perspective on the multiple illusions that have governed American policy since 1945. The realism he proposes includes respect for power and its limits; sensitivity to unintended consequences; aversion to claims of American exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving the use of force; and a conviction that, at the end of the day, the books will have to balance."

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

11 March 2010


An article by Sam Dillon in today's NYTimes describes an education panel's proposal that there be a uniform set of academic standards in all the nation's public schools, without regard to the state in which they happen to be situated. This is a concept that is many decades overdue. Too many states and too many school districts are clueless concerning what constitutes even an adequate education, much less an excellent one. The decision-makers-that-be too often have an extremely limited education themselves. This is like taking your car to someone who only knows how to change the oil, and asking that person to replace the engine. Except it's our children we're talking about, and their children, and theirs.

The proposal in question falls far short, in that it only addresses standards for language and math. Dazzlingly absent is science. The panel, like most school districts, wimped out rather than face controversy from those ignorant and misguided souls who feel threatened by any knowledge which might cause them to question their irrational religious beliefs. Creationists cannot even hear the word "evolution" without foaming at the mouth. Since when do we allow those without knowledge to dictate what knowledge will be taught to our children? The religious far right are a direct threat not only to rational public discourse, but also to our nation's ultimate place among the community of nations. Already U.S. children lag far behind their peers from other countries in science and math. It is a national disgrace. I'm a firm believer in the separation of church and state -- if you want your kids to learn creationism, let them do it in church, or start your own church-based charter school. Tax-funded public schools are no place for teaching religion.

I would take the panel's proposal one step further. There should be global standards for the education of all the world's children. Why should those who come from poverty be penalized? Naturally, a nation's particular history would receive special attention in that nation. But the quality of teaching and the content of classes in language, math, science and the arts should never be up for regional or local debate. There are too many small-minded people with parochial axes to grind.

If you have any doubt about this, please take a moment to view a video called "Did You Know?" A five minute investment of your time will leave you speechless at how rapidly human knowledge is expanding and being refined, so much so that in technical realms, what is taught is obsolete by the time a student graduates. The rate of change may not be quite as startling in math or the humanities, but it is cause for concern. Buckminster Fuller was the first to observe that the rate of change (not just change itself, but how quickly change accelerates) began to increase at an exponential rate (see green line in the graph below) with the Industrial Revolution. Every information revolution since, from the advent of the space age to the arrival of the computer age, has further intensified how quickly our knowledge multiplies.

It is no time for a Luddite return to the "good old days" (they were never really that good), or for hesitation. The future is now. In fact, the future was yesterday.

10 March 2010


I learned from AOPA's online newsletter about a remarkable half-hour film called Gray Eagles, which captures the emotional reunion between a World War II P-51 Mustang pilot, Jim Brooks (now 88) with a reconstructed Mustang that is the twin of the one he flew -- six decades after his last flight. The Mustang was built from scratch by one of Brooks' neighbors, to conform in every way from construction to paint job to match Brooks' warbird, February.

The event was the catalyst for a breakthrough in Brooks' relationships with his grandchildren, who had always been in awe of their reticent grandfather. Brooks was an ace during the war, but rarely talked about his experiences as a fighter pilot. In the film he reveals his part in that historic era for the first time.

As an aspiring pilot, as a father and grandfather, and as a military veteran who similarly rarely talks about my personal war, Vietnam, I was spellbound by this story, and moved to tears more than once. Through the month of March, you can view the video for free online here. If you choose to buy it, please do so at the Gray Eagles Foundation website -- your purchase will help finance their education efforts and restoration of World War II aircraft. Note: the Mustang was the finest fighter of WWII, so advanced that future generations of fighters would be measured against it. Of some 16,000 Mustangs built, only 200 remain worldwide. Any pilot would sacrifice greatly for the chance to fly a Mustang today -- it is an aviation icon, the same aircraft flown by the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

09 March 2010


Well, the Academy Awards have been presented, and here is a list of the nominees, with winners highlighted. I was a little disappointed that Avatar didn't pick up a few more awards than it did, but c'est la guerre.

Thanks to the recommendation of my friend JM, I've been enjoying a few very excellent older films -- the Three Colors trilogy Blue, White, and Red by the masterful Polish director Krzysztok Kieslowski. Each film stands on its own as a distinct story, yet the three are interwoven in their exploration of the virtues of liberty, equality and brotherhood (symbolized by the three colors on the French flag, and in the film titles) as they appear with beautifully subtle irony and ambiguity in the lives of Kieslowski's characters. The acting is heart-breakingly superb, as is the direction. Ancillary interviews and analysis on the DVDs sheds light on each film, and on the director's remarkable human achievement.

This is art, compared to the merely transitory entertainment that passes for movie-making in most Hollywood productions. One more reason to appreciate Netflix -- access to films from many countries, many decades, many directors. Here is an IMDB link to Kieslowski's filmography.

08 March 2010


During World War II, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew military aircraft for the US Army Air Force (belatedly following the example of the British). Organized and commanded by already-famous women pilots Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love, the WASPs flew 60 million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towed targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transported cargo. They flew nearly every type of military aircraft used during the war, including bombers and fighters. Between September 1942 and December 1944, WASP pilots delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types, to destinations both domestic and overseas. Their service freed many male pilots for active combat flying, something for which many WASPs themselves were qualified, even though they were denied combat training.

Of approximately 1900 pilots, 38 WASPs lost their lives while serving during the war -- 11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be military pilots under existing guidelines, fallen WASPs were sent home at family expense without military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow an American flag to be placed on a fallen WASP pilot's coffin.

The PBS series The American Experience televised an excellent series called Fly Girls, documenting the WASP experience. It is highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in aviation, in history, or in the ludicrous limits imposed by social gender roles.

And now, 65 years after being disbanded, the WASPs are finally receiving the recognition they so richly deserve. AOPA writer Alton K. Marsh reports that WASP pilots will be honored for their service on March 10, 2010, with the Congressional Gold Medal (which, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest civilian medal awarded in the United States). More than 1100 former members will receive replicas of the medal, as will the families of 11 pilots killed in training.

Recognition for service to community and nation has always come slowly for women, as it has for members of racial minorities. Still, 65 years -- it's about time, don't you think?

07 March 2010


Not so brightly anymore. This Chinese Year of the Tiger could be the last which sees tigers living freely in the wild, according to an article by Bill Marsh in today's NYTimes. The GLOBAL wild tiger population has fallen below 3000 -- less than 3 percent of what it was just one hundred years ago. Further, as Marsh notes, "their range has been reduced to small patches, isolating many of the animals in genetically impoverished groups of dozens of cats or fewer." (see map at bottom, click on image to enlarge)

The loss of habitat for large predators (the tiger is the largest of the Big Cats, with male Siberian tigers reaching 800 lb. in weight and 12 feet in length) is critical. So is persistent poaching for tiger skins, "medicinal" body parts, and game trophies. Where a few African governments have finally come around to militantly protecting endangered species (including lions), Asian governments seem content to turn a blind eye to the loss of the tiger from our planet.

Protecting the most promising populations and fighting poachers are the two most pressing needs, according to Alan Rabinowitz of Pantera, a Big Cat conservation group. Any regular reader of this journal will know that I agree -- though I would take a much more severe approach to both poaching and habitat encroachment -- summary execution of the perpetrators, without benefit of appeal. As noted in my 26 February post, large contiguous tracts of wild habitat are crucial for the protection of wild populations, both predators and prey, especially for those species which are endangered or threatened. Extinction is forever. To lose these magnificent, iconic cats because not enough people cared, would be heart-breaking beyond words.

06 March 2010


One of my favorite blogs, scientificblogging, recently posted an article about a sleep disorder with arresting implications -- it's called sexsomnia, a form of non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) parasomnia that causes people to engage in sexual acts while they are asleep, more often than not with no memory of the event, similar to sleepwalking. Both men and women may be afflicted. The condition has been linked to incidents of rape, unintended sex with strangers, and physical injury to oneself. Aggravating factors include alcohol and sleep deprivation.

Sexsomnia, or sleep sex, has only become a recognized diagnosis within the past 15 years. Since the person with the disorder rarely remembers an episode, it is usually noted first by his/her partner. Feelings of shame or embarrassment prevent many from reporting such incidents, since most aren't aware that theirs is not a unique occurance. Diagnosis cam be confirmed using polysomnography during a night spent in a sleep lab. Sadly, most cases only come to light only after criminal charges have been filed. Nevertheless, the majority of events occur in the home and involve no crime.

Please check out the article link for a more thorough description.

05 March 2010


It happens every March, and formally starting in the U.S. in 1987 -- Women's History Month. And think how belatedly !!!! Throughout this country and throughout the world, fully half the human population has been oppressed, disenfranchised and unrecognized. It took the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, fully 144 years after the start of the American Revolution, for women to achieve the fundamental right to vote. Throughout history, women have achieved brilliance fully equal to men in all endeavors, even when the law and custom repressed their efforts.

I was fortunate to get my degree at the University of Arizona, which offered one of the earliest and best Women's Studies (WS) programs, at that time under the energetic direction of Myra Dinnerstein. For a time, WS was my declared minor -- until a change of major (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology) required a shift in minor to match and chemistry. My time in WS was illuminating, not merely for the course content -- Women In American History, Women In Literature, Women In Philosophy stand out in my memory -- but also because as a male, I was in a distinct minority in all classes. At the time, men made up roughly ten percent of feminists, and ten percent of WS class members. Uniformly, the WS professors welcomed male students. However there was some discomfort and some outright hostility directed toward the men by some women students. I fully understand why -- at last here was a program and set of courses taught by women, about women, for women, yet here were these upstart men horning in, like they always seem to do. Or so the thinking went. I didn't take it personally -- if anything, it gave me a window into exactly the sort of treatment women and other minorities experience on a daily basis -- in the workplace, in higher education. Every man should have the opportunity to experience the rejection and oppression which men have for centuries heaped upon women. The world might benefit.

When I taught high school classes in suburban Philadelphia, among a faculty evenly split between men and women, I was always the first to bring up Women's History Month each March -- and the first to organize student projects to research and learn more about women's achievement. It was always an eye-opener for teachers and students alike, but especially empowering for the female students. It sent tingles down my spine to see their eyes light up with pride as they read out loud their reports on pioneer women aviators (Jackie Cochran), social workers (Jane Addams), writers (Jane Austen, Pearl S. Buck), poets (Maya Angelou), physicists (Marie Curie), anthropologists (Margaret Mead), field biologists (Jane Goodall), science theoreticians (Lynn Margulis), birth control activists (Margaret Sanger), abolitionists (Sojourner Truth), civil rights activists (Rosa Parks), journalists (Gloria Steinem), astronauts (Mae Jemison), and yes, heads of state (Golda Meir). These, above and beyond the names of musicians, actors and other artists which come more readily to the minds of most people. The inspiring list goes on and on.

The glass ceiling is a bit higher these days, but it still exists. Women (and other minorities) must still assert not only their ability but their RIGHT to the same jobs for the same pay as men. They still must fight for equal recognition in the arts, the sciences, and in personal relationships. In some countries women are still treated as property. All that is changing for the better, slowly. Thankfully the women in my son's generation face a slightly easier struggle, and the girls in my grandson's generation slightly easier still.

For all of us, it is both useful and necessary to pay homage to those who went before. In March, to all those women (and men) who sacrificed and fought so that women (and men) in future generations might lead more balanced, integrated lives ...... I honor you.

04 March 2010


Thanks to my friend Richard in Tucson, for sending me this link to an animated time-lapse assembly of the International Space Station, from 1998 through today. The ISS is now the largest artificial satellite orbiting the Earth, and is visible to the naked eye. It serves as a research facility for scientists from many nations -- an example of the international cooperation which should permeate all human interactions, and perhaps one day will.

03 March 2010


From my friend Patricia, who lives in Slovakia, comes this evocative series of images set to sublime, meditative music. Take a deep breath, turn up your volume a bit, and enjoy..... I hope that your day is refreshed.