28 February 2011


STRANGE FRUIT. On this last day of Black History Month, it is important to face the fact that racism is still with us. During my lifetime, American society has gone from public lynchings to the civil rights movement to the election of our first black President, and yet no one can reasonably claim that blacks in America endure no discrimination or prejudice, or that blacks enjoy equal economic and social status with whites. Ours is an inherently racist society -- blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans have felt the oppressive and sometimes fatal sting of bigotry. How ironic, then, that white Americans are already a numerical minority in some cities and a few states, and will be a minority nationally before too long. It's about damn time.

Strange Fruit is a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, possibly after having seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana (see image above). The poem was set to music, and you can hear Billie Holiday's sublime rendition here.

Clearly discrimination and racial violence are not limited to the American South. Nor are they limited to the past. Mike Sager notes in the introduction to The Someone You're Not that "Our packed prisons are starting to disgorge hundreds of mostly African-American men who, over the past few decades, were wrongly convicted of violent crimes. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years in prison for something you didn't do. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years as someone you aren't. And for Ray Towler, this is what it's like to be free." Ray Towler was 24 when, in 1981, he was arrested, tried and convicted for child molestation -- a crime he did not commit. He lost a huge chunk of his life appealing, writing letters, talking to anyone who would listen, trying to tell his story. Even though wrongfully convicted, Towler was a model prisoner -- taking classes, staying in shape, never getting into trouble. It was only after science caught up with society that DNA evidence proved Towler had been innocent all along.

Sager's description of Towler's life is harrowing, and redemptive. It is a cautionary tale for all of us who make assumptions based on the color of someone's skin.

SEA RISE. One segment on a recent PBS Need to Know episode presented a stunning visual image of the effects of climate change -- not as something abstract to be debated, but as something that is already happening, and accelerating. William Brangman notes in his introduction to the video that "In any debate over federal funding priorities, the underlying argument is over policy. For example, defunding Planned Parenthood is a way to further limit abortion. If you defund environmental legislation, you've effectively crippled the government's response to climate change. And that's what's going on in the Republican-controlled House. The Republican majority is seeking to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, cutting the EPA's budget by $3 billion, and they've proposed defunding the White House's Office of Energy and Climate Policy.

"Many of these lawmakers do not believe climate change is endangering our future, if they believe in climate change at all. But for those who want proof that sea levels are rising as the planet warms, they need look no further than Norfolk, Virginia."

Here is a link to the eleven and a half minute segment. Guaranteed, when you watch an American coastal city already being inundated by the ocean, it will get your attention. And this is only the beginning. This should be required viewing for every politician, every citizen, who doubts that climate change, global warming, and the rise in sea level is already upon us. Mean sea level has risen 1.8 mm per year over the past century, and the rise has accelerated to 2.9-3.4 mm per year since 1993. That may not sound like much, until you consider that 2.54 mm equals one inch. So if sea level is rising one inch per year, that's one foot every twelve years, and the pace is picking up as global warming intentifies. Here is a very useful global map -- you can click on the tabs across the top or simply click-and-drag to position the map to the location of your choice. You can then select from a range of sea level rises, to see how much land would become submerged.

During the next century or two, we face the imminent flooding of many major cities around the globe. Just imagine not only Norfolk, but New York City (see image above, click to enlarge), San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Saigon, Venice, all of Bangladesh .... under water. Do you still want to continue spewing carbon dioxide into the air, using fossil fuels, avoiding pushing for alternative energy sources? Are your feet wet yet?

27 February 2011


RUBBER DUCKIES. In Lost at Sea: On the Trail of Moby-Duck, Guy Adams describes how "a flotilla of 29,000 plastic ducks has been hailed for revolutionizing mankind's knowledge of ocean science .... They were in a crate that fell off the deck of a container ship during a journey across the Pacific from Hong Kong in January 1992. Since that moment, they have bobbed tens of thousands of miles. Some have washed up on the shores of Alaska and Hawaii; others have been sunk in Arctic ice. A few crossed the site near Newfoundland where the Titanic sank, and at least one is believed to have been found on a beach in Scotland.

" .... No one knows exactly how many containers are lost at sea ... oceanographers put the figure at anything from several hundred to 10,000 a year. While some sink, others burst open, throwing their contents into the upper layer of the ocean where they often pose a threat to wildlife.

" .... The fate of the ducks has been studied by a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts since roughly six months after the accident .... [A retired oceanographer] was able to locate the exact point at which their journey began. He was able to track their rate of progress on the constantly rotating circular current, or gyre (see image below, click to enlarge), which runs between Japan, southeast Alaska, Kodiak, and the Aleutian Islands .... a couple of thousand of the ducks are still in the gyre, and have completed half a dozen circuits. Others went south toward Hawaii or north toward the Bering Sea, through which they are thought to have reached Europe."

Understanding the major gyres that move water through the World Ocean is important, not only in tracing lost cargo, but also in helping to predict the effects of climate change on the marine environment. Rubber ducky, you're the one ! (Thanks to Bill for the link to this article.)

MEMORY. Joshua Foer is a mind-gamer and a world-class memory athlete. In his NYTimes article Foer demystifies human memory, and suggests that we all have the capacity to remember more, and in more detail, than we ever thought possible. He traces the history of the study of memory, as well as our current understanding of how memory works, asserting that, among other things,
  • Photographic memory does not exist. Even the most adept memory athletes have only average memories which have been trained and exercised, like the speed and strength of any physical athlete.

  • Until relatively recently, people read intensively. They had only a few books, and they read them over and over again, usually aloud or in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.

  • Today we read books extensively, often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture.

  • Part of the reason that memory training techniques work so well is that they enforce a degree of mindfulness that is normally lacking.

  • What distinguishes a great mnemonist is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other that it cannot be forgotten.

Those are only a few teasers. Check out the article to learn more ... perhance to remember more as well.

26 February 2011


JUDICIAL WRATH. Judge Marilyn Milian, a former Florida state circuit court judge who now presides over TV's The People's Court, is normally the soul of composure, respectful congeniality, and fair play. On one episode, however, when a young defense attorney (a second-year law school) got cocky and sassed her in court, Milian's blood rose, and she spent the next scathing minute and a half putting the attorney in his place. Here is the video, which delighted me. I hope it does you, too.

WINGNUTS. It seems that the radical right is spinning out of control. At the federal, state, and local levels, neo-cons and Tea Party sociopaths are determined to (a) erase all semblance of humanity and dignity from their discourse, (b) destroy democratic government and the services it provides, while offering nothing in its place but empty jingoistic/misogynist rhetoric, and (c) completely humiliate the U.S. before the other nations of the world.

Here's an example. Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin has introduced a bill that would criminalize miscarriages, making abortion and miscarriage -- or "prenatal murder" in the language of the bill -- potentially punishable by death. Dubbed the craziest wingnut in America, Franklin is merely the tip of the radical Republican iceberg in its war on women. Thankfully, a few sane voices are pushing back. New York Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner went on the record in opposition to the G.O.P.'s retrogressive policies -- his speech was timely, and one hopes that Democrats and moderate Republicans will grow a pair and start declaring their support for social programs and human rights.

SYMPHONY. Not your usual orchestral work, the Symphony of Science - We Are All Connected features the images and voices of Carl Sagan, Richard Feynmann, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye, digitally adapted from speaking to singing, in an ingenious challenge to our imaginations and our common humanity. We are all starstuff.

"We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden ... "

~ Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

25 February 2011


SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH. Yesterday the U.S. space shuttle Discovery lifted off on its 39th and last mission into orbit, as the shuttle program winds down, with no replacement in sight. I've never seen a shuttle launch in person (much less been aboard a shuttle flight), and have long dreamed of doing both. For those who, like me, are limited to vicarious pleasure, check out 3 Great Ways to Watch the Last Space Shuttle Missions, via streaming video online, of course.

REVELS. According to Wikipedia, on this date in 1870 "Hiram Rhodes Revels [became] the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Because he preceded any African American in the House, he was the first African American in the U.S. Congress as well. He represented Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during Reconstruction. As of 2011, Revels is one of only six African Americans ever to have served in the United States Senate."

It is items like this that make me appreciate celebrations like Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March). As curious as I am about other cultures and about our collective past, as much as I've read and listened and paid attention, I'm forever learning new and fascinating and sometimes shameful things about our society. On the one hand, it seems like a minor miracle that Revels was elected from Mississippi, perhaps the most virulently racist state in the Union .... and as early as 1870. On the other hand, only six black Senators in the 146 years since the end of the Civil War? What's wrong with this picture, in a society whose population is over 12 percent black? Not to mention the underrepresentation (and the implied disenfranchisement) of Latino, Asian, and Native American citizens in the halls of national government. Very, very sad.

CHEATING. Most of us have a clear perception of our own ethical standards. Yet recent research suggests that when ideals are confronted with reality, we may not be as moral as we would like to believe. Here's the setup -- "For this study, three groups of students were given a math test of 15 questions. One group was told that a glitch in the software would cause the correct answer to show on the screen if they hit the space bar -- but only they would know they'd hit it. This group took the test; a $5 reward was promised for ten or more right answers. Another group was given a description of this moral dilemma, and was then asked to predict whether they would cheat for each question. The third group just took the test without the opportunity to cheat.

"During the trial, electrodes measured the participants' heart contractions, their heart and breathing rates, and the sweat in their palms -- all of which increase with heightened emotion. Not surprisingly, those facing the real dilemma were most emotional. Their emotions drove them to do the right thing and refrain from cheating. The students asked only to predict their actions felt calmer -- and said they'd cheat more than the test-takers actually did. Students who took the test with no opportunity to cheat were calmer as well, indicating the arousal that the students in the first group were feeling was unique to the moral dilemma.

"But emotions conflict, and that figures into decision making too. If the stakes were higher -- say, the reward was $100 -- the emotions associated with that potential gain might override the nervousness or fear associated with cheating .... The essential finding is that emotions are what drive you to do the right thing or the wrong thing."

I confess I'm not totally swayed by these results. Throughout my academic career, high school and university, I never cheated. If we are in school to learn, and if (sometimes a questionable assumption) a test or exam is intended to measure what we have learned, then what's the point of cheating? A falsely higher grade does not reflect my knowledge or understanding. I realize that the pressure for grades (to get into law school or med school, to please parents, to feel a sense of accomplishment) can be high. But personally I would rather fail with honor, than pass with dishonor. Alas, I'm apparently a minority voice.

24 February 2011


SEX AT DAWN. Referring not to the timing of bliss with one's partner, but rather to a remarkable book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is a revelation. I first discussed it in this forum seven months ago, but had not yet read it. Since then I have, and I'm mightily impressed. Ryan and Jetha's scholarship is impeccable, and their style of writing is direct, clear and forceful. The book jacket itself provides a succinct summary --

"Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science -- as well as religious and cultural institutions -- has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

"How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

"Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

"With intelligence, humor, and wonder, Ryan and Jetha show how our promiscuous past haunts our struggles over monogamy, sexual orientation, and family dynamics. They explore why long-term fidelity can be so difficult for so many, why sexual passion tends to fade even as love deepens, why many middle-aged men risk everything for transient affairs with younger women, why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic, and what the human body reveals about the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality.

"In the tradition of the best historical and scientific writing, Sex at Dawn unapologetically upends unwarranted assumptions and unfounded conclusions while offering a revolutionary understanding of why we live and love as we do."

If, after reading the above summary, you remain skeptical, that's understandable. I was too, in my initial post. But reading the book is its own reward. The depth and breadth of their evidence, and their thorough, common-sense examination of the faulty assumptions and shaky conclusion of the "standard narrative", have persuaded me that we humans have much more potential than we give ourselves credit for. I invite you to read this book, and share your own impressions afterward. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

EN-V. Last night on the PBS science series NOVA ScienceNOW, one segment was on small, robotic cars, in particular the GM concept car known as the EN-V. It is a dandy idea for urban commuters, but would require a system of dedicated streets or lanes for these two-wheeled electric vehicles, since they are so small and light that they would not stand up to a collision with a standard automobile. Further, at this early state in development the EN-V (tested in three different configurations) has only a 25 mile range, and can only travel at 25 mph. It's also not clear how such an underpowered machine would cope with steep hills, potholed roads, or nasty weather. Nevertheless, the idea is appealing. Who knows -- someday a refined iteration of the EN-V may be a common sight on city streets or even on interstate highways. The thought makes me smile.

To view the six and a half minute PBS segment, click here and then click on "Watch Robotic Cars".

23 February 2011


BACKLASH. The above image shows the Wisconsin budget protests against Governor Scott Walker (a Tea Party candidate). His plans to cut benefits and collective bargaining rights are a sign of just how sick and inhumane the Tea Party's agenda is. Those protests are spreading to all fifty states. Jon Steward offers his own satirical commentary in Crisis in Dairyland. But the situation is all too grim, locally and nationally. The Republican party in the U.S. House of Representatives, an anachronism in the best of times, has been hijacked by a shrill minority of freshman Tea Party members. As a result, moderate Republicans have become an endangered species, and effective two-party government has become even more polarized.

Last week the House passed a bill to bar Planned Parenthood from all federal funding for any purpose whatsoever. That means no funding to Planned Parenthood health centers for birth control, lifesaving cancer screenings, HIV testing, and other essential care. Click here to find out how your representative voted, and then send him or her a message. It is past time to take back our government from anarchists and the radical right. Given their way, they will return America to the Dark Ages.

The backlash against the Tea Party has even arrived on Facebook, with a rapidly-growing group called Americans Against The Tea Party. The group's slogan -- "When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die," a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre. Perhaps there is hope that the electorate is coming to its senses. Time will tell. In the meantime we are treated to surreal scenes right out of Alice In Wonderland, to which one wishes the Tea Party would return. For a stark comparison of liberal and conservative values, check out the video I'm a Little Confused. Thanks for the link, Irene.

PRISON FOR PROFIT. The Southern Poverty Law Center has long been a vital source of information on civil rights, hate groups, and issues of justice. In Destroying Young Lives Should Not Be Profitable, SPLC writer Sheila Bedi questions "the wisdom of allowing for-profit companies into the juvenile criminal justice system. The toxic effect of for-profit companies on the juvenile justice system is indisputeable. Across the country, nearly half of all children held behind bars live in facilities managed by private, for-profit companies. And tough economic times may spur more local governments to consider turning over their juvenile facilities to companies.

"But when we create a profit motive to imprison children we risk creating a public safety crisis. The bottom line is that private prison companies make money when young people fill their facilities. A private prison company has no incentive to provide rehabilitative services that -- if done correctly -- could decrease the demand for prison beds. These companies similarly have no incentive to question whether the children in their custody could be better served in far less expensive community-based interventions. These realities can stymie reform and create a costly, self-perpetuating cycle of imprisonment."

Bedi's remarks are right on the money, and they apply equally to the adult prison system, and more broadly to the privatization of ANY service which should legitimately be performed by local, state or federal governments. That is why we pay taxes, and for those who advocate cutting taxes, you get what you pay for. It is only through governmental oversight that we citizens can have control over the quality and cost-effectiveness of services -- be they criminal justice (private prisons), military deployment (mercenary "contractors"), consumer goods manufacturing (outsourcing overseas), or maintenance of our infrastructure (roads, water, power, telecommunications). Once oversight is removed, the potential for corruption and malfeasance becomes a certainty -- as in the case of the judge cited in Bedi's article who took kickbacks for finding accused young people guilty and sending them to juvenile prison. His was not an isolated case of abuse. We NEED governmental oversight, however faulty and itself in need of reform, far more than we need to flush money down the toilet of private enterprise.

CAT LASER BOWLING. Many kitties love to chase the dot of light from a harmless toy laser, often with hilarious consequences. This video shows how. Alas, my own cats are too hip -- after a minute or two, they just sit down and give me a look like "DAD, do we really look that juvenile?"

22 February 2011


CREATIVITY AND INSIGHT. Andrea Kuszewski, psychologist and science writer, confronts several recent studies in The Neuroscience of Creativity and Insight -- The Good, The Bad, and The Absolutely Ridiculous. Her writing is lucid and easy to follow, and she pulls no punches in her assessment of weak science. In her article Kuszewski describes the 'Ah ha!' moment -- "the point at which everything rapidly and often suddenly comes together to form a whole, complete idea, sometimes out of nowhere. This is also known as the moment of insight, the pinnacle of the creative process. Anyone who's experienced this moment knows how addicting that feeling can be. For me, it's like being high on ideas -- scrambling to dictate, transcribe, and extract as much information as you can from this mental epiphany before it escapes into the haze of unrealized theories. When it hits you -- and you are in that moment -- it's heaven.

"And so, like most wonderful things, science wants to replicate it artificially. In fact, some scientists even claim they found a way to induce creative insight -- with a jolt of electricity to the brain .... So. Plausible? Possible? Hell, I'm just going to come out and say it -- you can't zap your brain and magically turn yourself into the next Leonardo, no matter how much electricity you use. Not even if you use a little fairy dust (although it does add a little flair) .... First of all, insight is a moment of clarity, the second a solution hits you. Creativity is a process, a way of thinking and feeling .... Knocking your brain free from a fixed pattern is helpful, but it doesn't give you an amazing, creative solution to a problem, it merely stops preventing one from coming in, the opening of a door. But you need to generate the info coming in the door yourself, it isn't provided for you. For people who are trying to solve a problem and get "stuck", I can see how this might be useful. But then again, so is stepping away from your work for a minute to clear your head -- to break free from that fixed mental state -- the good old-fashioned way. Added bonus: no risk of brain damage from electric shock!"

Kuzsewski goes on to critique other research based on faulty assumptions or weak methods. This is an integral part of science -- gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. Good hypotheses have replicable results, and stand the test of time and analysis. Poor hypotheses do not. It is important for both scientists and lay people to realize that just because a study has been published, doesn't mean that the hypothesis is correct or incorrect. Only after examination and questioning can this evaluation be made. Sharp observers like Kusewszki make the process easier and more transparent.

MAPPING SCIENCE. We're all familiar with maps as symbolic representations of geography, objects or even ideas. In Mapping Science, Iris Monica Vargas describes a meta-level of mapping -- portraying the total amount of digital content that humans have produced. Ever. "Just like maps of Earth that have long helped travelers -- especially seafaring men and women -- take to the oceans, find their land destinations, and return safely to their loved ones, these new maps of science will, ideally, help their users understand where they are on the landscape of science. Given the abstract way that science is often taught in today's classrooms, this landscape can strike many students as foreign ground. It's as if scientific disciplines weren't interconnected. It's biology and chemistry and physics ans astronomy, but you don't really know how they all go together. But there are very interesting networks of connections and dynamics between them.

"Increased computing power and visualization software allowed a team from SciTech Strategies, Inc., to render a map of similar purpose using the largest set of scientific literature yet mapped .... On the resulting Maps of Science .... each colored node represents a discipline or set of journals in a discipline -- biology, physics, math, earth science, and chemistry, among others -- that cite a common literture. The lines between nodes symbolize shared citations. Thus, closely related disciplines like computer science and math will also share a dense network of lines, bringing them closer together over the spherical surface .... Using this map, researchers can search for common patterns, identify emerging trends, and explore relationships across disparate fields, from computer science to infectious disease to the humanities."

Twenty years ago when I was teaching (just as the Internet was becoming popular among the general public), I was a firm proponent of cross-discipline teaching, integrating history, language, music, poetry, art and popular culture into my science and math classes. It is the most effective way to help students understand why a seemingly dry or alien subject is actually relevant to their lives. The Maps of Science project would have been a wonderful illustration tool. Below you will find one of many maps produced by the project, this one portraying institutional strategies at NASA. Click on any image to enlarge.

21 February 2011


FIRST RESPONDERS. Thanks to my Tucson friend Lou for sending me this article -- "A veteran city firefighter's refusal to respond to the January 8 shooting spree may have slowed his Tucson Fire Department unit's response to the incident that left 6 dead and 13 wounded" .... at first the firefighter cited "political bantering" and said his refusal was "for the good of the crew" .... upon being told that wasn't a valid reason for failing to do his job, the firefighter simply said he was going home sick.

Initially I thought the firefighter was someone who might be opposed to the politics of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims. Upon reading the article more carefully, I learned that the firefighter actually had voted for Giffords, was angered by her shooting, and said he did not share the political views of some of his crew. Either way though, refusing to respond constitutes gross dereliction of duty and disobedience of orders. The firefighter himself later recognized this, and after apologizing to his crew, retired from TFD.

Wikipedia lists first responders as being paramedics, emergency doctors and nurses, and emergency medical technicians in the civilian world; medics in the military. I would also include police and firefighters. All first responders are trained to place their personal views and feelings on hold when sent to an emergency. For some, subsequent therapy or counseling is helpful in reconciling traumatic or conflicted feelings. Forty years ago I was an ambulance driver in Tucson, back in the days before EMTs even existed. All you needed was a Red Cross first aid card and an Arizona chauffeur's license (now known as a CDL or Commercial Drivers License). Training was primitive compared to today, yet we always did our best with what we had, and we always responded to a call. I cannot begin to understand a veteran first responder (one who had been an exemplary and competent employee) freezing up as this man did. But then, I've never walked in his shoes. All I can think is that for his own emotional health, as well as for the safety of the public, his leaving was the right choice. It's a sad state of affairs when the job stress placed on medical personnel, police, fire, and other emergency responders becomes so severe that it clouds their judgment and potentially risks the lives of others. Upon reflection, I empathize with the firefighter, and hope that he finds a place of comfort and forgiveness in his heart.

In contrast to this man's reaction, consider the NYPD aviation unit helicopter pilot who was called to rescue two West Point cadets from an 18-inch wide mountain ledge where they had been stranded 500 feet above the ground for eight hours. When local authorities were unable to reach the climbers, the NYPD crew responded. The pilot steadied the helicopter "against winds exceeding 30 mph as it hovered about 60 to 80 feet above the men, the chopper's blades just 20 feet from rocks and trees. The helicopter was kept within a 3-foot radius as the men were secured to a horse-collar style rescue harness dropped from it." As an aspiring pilot, I can tell you that is some kind of flying.

WAR ON WOMEN. Hyperbole or fact? I'm inclined to believe the latter, given efforts by members of the Republican party to redefine rape, belittle victims of violence, and attack women's right to choose. Here for your consideration are The Top 10 Shocking Attacks from the GOP's War on Women. I can't help wondering how Republican women feel about this. What's next -- burkhas?

20 February 2011


MEXICO. From the San Antonio Express-News, an article headlined "Another Ominous Turn In Mexico" wastes no time in outlining an event which received scant attention in the broadcast media -- "The violence in Mexico has taken a number of disturbing turns in recent years. It's not only the level of violence that is troubling, with more than 28,000 deaths since the government of President Felipe Calderon began to fight back against the drug cartels back in 2006. It's also the methods employed by the criminal syndicates -- beheadings, car bombings and mass murders -- that are indistinguishable from terrorism.

"This week there was another ominous development with the ambush of two U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents between Mexico City and Monterrey. As many as 15 armed men attacked the agents, killing Jaime Zapata and wounding Victor Avila.

"The ambush occurred in an area where the Zetas, a criminal organization of cartel enforcers, are known to be active. Since Zapata and Avila were driving an armored SUV with diplomatic license plates (see image above), it seems obvious the gunmen knew they were attacking officials or agents of the United States government.

"A bad explanation is that a rogue group of Zetas carried out the hit, indicating cartel violence is getting even more out of control. A worse explanation is that the attack on the U.S. agents was directed from the top of the Zetas, which could only mean they have decided to declare war on U.S. law enforcement, and not necessarily only on the Mexican side of the border."

As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, life along the border and within Mexico was relaxed and decidedly non-dangerous. I lived 16 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in rural southern Arizona for four years, and took many extended camping trips to the Sea of Cortez in northwest Sonora, both privately and as part of University of Arizona class field trips. How deeply sad that the region has turned into a war zone, whose genesis is (proximally) the failed war on drugs, and (ultimately) the demand for drugs in the U.S. and the demand for weapons in economically bereft Mexico. The tragedy of the slain agents is but a symptom of issues portrayed compellingly in the film Traffic. However, the intensity and sophistication of violence by both sides has become an order of magnitude worse in the decade since Traffic was released .... so much so that an international intervention is called for, on the scale of sending UN/NATO peacekeeping forces into the wartorn, genocidal region of Bosnia-Serbia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. Let's not wait until such an effort is too little, too late.

G.O.P. NYTimes columnist Frank Rich's article The G.O.P.'s Post-Tucson Traumatic Stress Disorder was music to my ears (to mix a metaphor). In it he describes the plummeting fall from popularity of right-wing media attack dogs like Glenn Beck, right-wing political nut cases like Sarah Palin, and the shortfall in substance within Republican policy. With the influx of Tea party radicals, and G.O.P. leadership's response (bending over and smiling) to ultraconservative attempts to defund, debunk and eviscerate humanitarian social programs like Medicare, Social Security, community health clinics, education, et al., Republicans are reduced to trite and frankly embarrassing tactics like questioning President Obama's U.S. citizenship, all the while hoping desperately for the miraculous emergence of a new Ronald Reagan. One almost hopes that Republicans will continue to seek destructive solutions to the issues we face, since in doing so they are alienating not only American voters but also world opinion. In the end, as happened during the McCarthy era, they will self-destruct, and the rest of us can return to a more rational and constructive society.

GIRL SCOUTS. Are Girl Scout cookies killing orangutans? When two girls scouts in Michigan discovered that the answer, indirectly, is Yes, they took action. Here's the setup -- "Many varieties of Girl Scout cookies include palm oil, the No.1 culprit behind deforestation in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. When (the two scouts) found out that Girl Scout cookies were destroying the forest homes of endangered wildlife like orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran tigers -- and displacing indigenous peoples -- they sprung into action. First, they stopped selling the cookies, and then launched an effort to encourage the Girl scouts to switch to more environmentally-friendly (and healthier) alternatives like canola oil. The Girl Scouts USA and their CEO Kathy Clonginer have refused to act despite efforts by Girl Scouts across the country and the encouragement of organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Biological Diversity .... the Girl Scouts' sister British organization, the Girl Guides, have eliminated palm oil from their cookies, and are offering to help the Girl Scouts USA and Girl Guides Canada do the same."


19 February 2011


It is a sunny winter's day outside, and time for a few grins.

Long, Stabby Thing is a British newscast that morphs into a hilarious contest of suggestive comments that sees the two men retreating in helpless laughter, and the two women serenely retaining their cool.

Superheroes, Robots and a Psychotic Tire: 2011's Most Intriguing Movies -- a collection of 20 previews of upcoming adventure and sci-fi films.

ColbertNation features the week in revue and Stephen's rapier wit on an assortment of topics and personalities.

Weiner Calls On Republicans To Defund Their Health Care Plans is, for sheer entertainment value, hard to beat. Yeah, like that's really going to happen. You have to give U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner his due for calling a spade a spade, and calling the radical Republican majority on the carpet for their Ghengis Khan budget tactics -- pillage, rape and burn. Who elected these Tea Party morons (he asked, rhetorically)?

JAYFK, the Journal of Are You F***ing Kidding, like the Weiner speech, brings truth to the sentiment, "I'm laughing because otherwise I'd be crying."

Where is Mark Twain when we need him? At least we still have Keith Olbermann.

18 February 2011


I've always had a thing for bridges, and tunnels, and any non-ordinary structure that enhances a highway or railroad track. In August 1989 my SO and I moved from Tucson, AZ, to Charleston, SC, a city trisected by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The Grace Memorial Bridge (see image above, click on any image to enlarge) was especially impressive. Like San Francisco's Bay Bridge, the Grace Bridge is supported partway along its length by an island. Unlike the Bay Bridge, which retains an essentially flat trajectory, the Grace Bridge arched high above the river to allow merchant and military ships to pass beneath. The effect was much like a monumental roller coaster. There were only two lanes in each direction, and the view from the top was spectacular, and a little vertiginous. I tried riding my motorcycle over it a few times, but found that the winds up there were too scary for a vulnerable rider on two wheels, with traffic roaring past inches away.

We settled in the Charleston suburb of Mt. Pleasant, on the east side of the Cooper River. This meant crossing the Cooper River bridge whenever we needed to reach Charleston, which was often. No matter the weather, it was always an exhilarating ride. But weather took on an entirely new meaning when, one month after our arrival, Hurricane Hugo tracked westward across the Atlantic, then turned and aimed directly at the South Carolina coast. (See the track of the storm below -- the center of the hurricane's eye made landfall precisely at Mt. Pleasant.) The governor ordered the entire city of Charleston to evacuate inland, and we did. After hurriedly packing our two vehicles with necessaries and valuables, and taping the windows to prevent shattered glass from littering the house, we set out across the bridge and then onto the freeway north to the state capitol, Columbia -- along with hundreds of thousands of other vehicles. Traffic was crawling bumper to bumper for hours before it finally loosened up.

We stayed in Columbia for three days, hanging on the news, until the governor gave the all clear for Charleston residents to return. Those 120 miles seemed to take forever, for we knew that if the hurricane had destroyed the bridge over the Cooper River, we would not be able to reach home. Our breathless approach ended with a whoop of relief when we saw that magnificent pair of arches still spanning the river. Once onto our own street, there were fallen trees and litter everywhere, with neighbors and contractors already clearing the debris. At home, another relief -- the only damage to our house was a tree which had fallen across one corner of the roof. All else was intact (if you don't count living with no power or hot water for three weeks until repairs were made).

Ironically, Hugo provided me with work. Northeast of the city, the Francis Marion National Forest had been decimated, with millions of trees snapped over like matchsticks, all pointing in the direction of the prevailing winds (which were aimed inland to the right of the storm's eye, and aimed out to sea to the left of the storm's eye, since in the northern hemisphere tropical storms and hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise). That same forest was home to a population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), and the US Forest Service put out the emergency call for eight wildlife technicians to perform habitat recovery for the RCW, installing artificial nesting cavities at their established colony sites scattered throughout the forest. I was one of the fortunate eight hired for the work, which turned out to be grueling. Restoration involved lugging 80-100 lb. of special ladders, safety gear, tools and supplies through swamps and mazes of downed trees to the colony sites, then (at heights of 20-50 feet) using either chainsaws or drills to create the cavities for the homeless birds. Throw in census checks at dawn and dusk, extremes of heat and humidity, swarms of mosquitoes, an array of venomous snakes, and the occasional personality conflict, and you had a long, long day. But also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Our stay in South Carolina only lasted for one year, then it was on to Philadelphia, PA; Vancouver, WA; Johnson City, TN. After my ex and I parted ways, I returned to Missoula, in my home state of Montana. Recently a memory prompted me to do a Google image search for the Cooper River Bridge. I was surprised to learn that the old bridge had been replaced by a more modern design, the Ravenal Bridge (see image above), which dwarfs the Grace Bridge in size (see comparison image below), but to my mind could not possibly replicate the thrill of that long, steep climb up and down the arches of the old bridge. I'm certain the Ravenal is safer, and accomodates more traffic, and Charleston residents can certainly be proud of it. Still, I'll always have fond memories of what in my mind will always remain the Cooper River Bridge -- that brontosaurian span which withstood a hurricane.

17 February 2011


WEATHER ANOMALIES. Those of us who live in northern regions may wonder, if global warming is a reality, why are we seeing so much snow and Arctic cold? It turns out that there is no contradiction. An NPR segment, Warming Planet Can Mean More Snow, explains that "The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago means that there's an average of about 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans .... Warmer water means more water vapor rises into the air, and what goes up must come down." Combined with dramatically altered ocean and air currents, the increase in global temperatures and water vapor levels translates to a greater likelihood of precipitation, some of it in places which have previously been more arid.

The segment continues, "There's something else fiddling with the weather this year -- a strong El Nino. That's the weather pattern that, every few years, raises itself up out of the Pacific Ocean and blows east to the Americas. It brings heavy rains and storms to California and the south and southeast. It also pushes high-altitude jet streams farther south, which bring cold air with them .... A storm is part of what scientists classify as weather. Weather is largely influenced by local conditions and changes from week to week. It's fickle, fraught with ups and downs. Climate is the long-term trend of atmospheric conditions across large regions, even the whole planet. Changes in climate are slow and measured in decades, not weeks."

As glaciers and the polar ice caps melt, global ocean currents are already shifting, further altering both local weather and long-term climate. Extreme weather (hurricanes, monsoon rains, winter blizzards, and drought) is already increasing, and expected to continue to do so. A second NPR segment, Researchers Link Extreme Rains to Global Warming, makes exactly this point. As Bette Davis famously quipped in 1950, "Fasten your seatbelts, boys, it's going to be a bumpy night."

SMART BUILDINGS. So how do we cope with uncertain weather? One way is by making our homes and workplaces much more adaptable to change. The Research Support Facility in Golden, CO, is doing just that. Kirk Johnson reports that the architecture incorporates both passive and active energy-saving design features ranging from a photovoltaic roof array to a window shading system (see image below), from "light-bending louvres that cast rays up into the interior office spaces, to the giant concrete maze in the sub-basement for holding and storing radiant heat."

Energy-saving, weather-resistant buildings don't have to be entirely high-tech. Thirty years ago i read about a man living in the mountains of Nevada who designed and built a home which was heated solely by a south-facing greenhouse whose heat was circulated through spaces which enveloped the home, top to sides to bottom. Heat was then stored in a gravel bed beneath the basement. The only mechanical component? A simple fan. Elegant in its simplicity, the home was so efficient that the owner ended up selling electricity back to the power company.

As climate change accelerates in unpredictable ways, it's likely that we will all be looking for ways to adapt -- in our homes, our cars, and our lifestyles.

16 February 2011


LBJ. Vietnam veterans may associate those initials with the notorious Long Binh Jail, where (according to the military grapevine) prisoners were treated brutally. Most Americans of a certain age, however, associate the initials with Lyndon Baines Johnson (at center in photo above), who served as the 36th President of the United States from November 1963 (replacing the assassinated John F. Kennedy) until January 1969. Prior to becoming Kennedy's Vice President, Johnson has served as both a Representative and as a Senator from Texas, and was known as a hard-driving deal maker and a man of ideals.

Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which made it illegal to discriminate against or disenfranchise any citizen based on race or color. During those years the Civil Rights Movement was at its most active (along with the antiwar movement and the women's rights movement, and racial unrest was rampant, especially among the black community. White resistance and repression were also stubborn, and it took a man of Johnson's stature and legislative/executive acumen to overcome resistance to reform.

Further, as President he "designed Great Society legislation that included laws that upheld civil rights, Public Broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education, and his War on Poverty." Lyndon Johnson might enjoy a reputation as one of America's greatest presidents, except for one fatal foreign policy blunder -- his acquiescence to the advice of military and national security advisors to greatly escalate direct American involvement in the Vietnam War. Even though Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy before him had laid the groundwork for an American military presence in Southeast Asia, following the withdrawal of the colonial French, it was under Johnson's watch that the war became the focus of violent polarization, widespread riots and antiwar protests in the U.S., and increasing suspicion toward the government, both at home and abroad. Ultimately it was the quagmire of war which forced Johnson to declare in March 1968 that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

I myself had arrived in Vietnam a few weeks before his shocking announcement. At the time, like many, I equated the war with Johnson, and knew little about his achievements in civil rights, education, or combatting poverty. In the years since, my opinion of Johnson has altered. He was a driven man, a man of high principals and a domineering personality, a man who in the end was torn and tortured mercilessly by the irony of the war becoming his legacy.

In 2002 an excellent biographical television film was shown on HBO -- Path to War. It features a stellar cast of fine character actors, with Michael Gambon riveting in the role of LBJ. The film spans his entire presidency, and is filled with the names and personalities which anyone who lived during those times remembers -- Johnson, Clark Clifford, Robert McNamera, George Ball, Richard Goodwin, Earle Wheeler, Dean Rusk, Everett Dirkson, George Wallace, William Westmoreland, McGeorge Bundy, Bill Moyers, Walt Rostow, Nicholas Katzenbach, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., among them. As I watched, initially I wasn't sure whether the movie would hold my attention, but before long I could not look away. The harrowing conflicts, the triumphs or failures of principle and imagination, are captured well and truly. Not many of those involved emerged without blood on their hands. It is a cautionary tale for any president or any citizen who contemplates entering into war -- right up to the present.

MLK. Speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr. (see image below), one of my favorite bloggers, The Angry Black Woman, posted in January a quote from King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. King's thoughts are so relevant to today that I'd like to offer them here.

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for 'a more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

As TABW asked, is it a more convenient season yet?

15 February 2011


ISLAND LABS. One of my favorite courses during the pursuit of my degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology was Island Biogeography -- a discipline which "attempts to establish and explain the factors that affect the species richness of natural communities," in particular those communities which are isolated by their surroundings -- actual islands in the ocean, or mountain ranges surrounded by desert, or even natural habitats surrounded by human landscapes. Their isolation makes island habitats ideal as laboritories for the study of speciation (the emergence of new species) and extinction (the obliteration of existing species).

If we think of an island as an area of suitable habitat surrounded by an expanse of unsuitable habitat, Island Biogeography proposes that "the number of species found on an undisturbed island is determined by immigration, emigration, and extinction. Further, the isolated populations may follow different evolutionary routes, as shown by Darwin's observation of finches in the Galapagos Islands (in the Pacific Ocean, 525 miles west of Ecuador). Immigration and emigration are affected by the distance from a source of colonists (distance effect). Islands that are more isolated are less likely to receive immigrants. The rate of extinction once a species manages to colonize an island is affected by island size (area effect). Larger islands contain larger habitat areas, and opportunities for more different varieties of habitat. Larger habitat size reduces the probability of extinction due to chance events. Habitat heterogeneity increases the number of species that will be successful after immigration. Over time, the countervailing forces of extinction and immigration result in an equilibrium level of species richness." (See graph below.)

I recently discovered a new manifestation of islands as laboratories -- for the study of the effects of climate change. The NYTimes article begins, "The sign welcoming visitors to a coral reef island 1000 miles southwest of Hawaii reads, 'Palmyra Atoll, Elevation: 6 feet, Population: 10.'" The article goes on to describe the activities of The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an ongoing conservation, restoration and research project which has implications for ALL low-lying island and coastal regions, in the event that global warming produces a significant rise in sea level. Island biogeographers may find themselves with fewer, and smaller, islands to study a century from now.

PARADIGM SHIFT. The phrase is almost a cliche, but Julia Galef's article That's Funny -- Incongruity in Humor, Art and Science deftly introduces paraprosdokia, "a figure of speech whose latter half surprises us, forcing us to go back and reconsider the assumptions we'd made about what was going on in the first half." We may experience this mental shift without noticing it -- in listening to a joke, in hearing an unexpected shift in a piece of classical music, and in forming, testing, rejecting or altering hypotheses to explain anything from where we misplaced the car keys to what might explain an observed phenomenon (just as Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson did in formulating the foundation of Island Biogeography in the 1960s). The article is entertaining and, well, paraproskokian -- a click of recognition.

FEAR OF HEIGHTS. If you suffer from acrophobia, you might want to reconsider that planned hike on the El Chorro Walkway, a vertiginous manmade path that clings to the sides of a limestone gorge in Spain's Andalucia. The trail is not for the faint of heart. There are few protective railings, the dropoff is sheer, and in places one must balance on metal beams or cling to handholds in the cliff. The six and a half minute video The Scariest Path In the World? (thanks, Irene) is an eye-popping adrenaline rush.

14 February 2011


Valentine's Day is upon us -- the day set aside to celebrate the "love and affection between intimate companions" which ideally should happen daily. A friend on Facebook posted the following -- "Happy, Unimaginative, Consumerist-Oriented, and Entirely Arbitrary, Manipulative and Shallow Interpretation of Romance Day. Yep, it's here again. That one day of the year when couples assess the love and affection their significant others feel for them based on the presents they get or the events planned in their honor." Which may sound cynical, but there is truth to her feelings about the hype and commercialization. But I'm a romantic as well as a cynic, so I can enjoy the day with eyes open.

As with so many holidays in Christian tradition, the idea (or at least the timing) of V-Day is probably stolen from another, more "pagan" culture, in this case the archaic Roman rite of fertility known as Lupercalia. Plagiarism is a fact of life -- in the theater, in music, in literature, in politics. We all are influenced by, and derive inspiration from, those who preceded us. Sir Isaac Newton famously observed that "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Here are a few moments which hopefully will rouse a smile -- the possible origin of the Valentine's heart, links to Valentine's-inspired science blog posts, and an xkcd cartoon which made me think "aaaww."

It happens that on Valentine's Day in 1912, Arizona became the 48th state and the last of the contiguous states admitted to the union. As I was finishing Army basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, our platoon sergeant assembled our four squads to announce where each soldier had been assigned for AIT (advanced individual training). When he reached my name on the roster, he quirked a smile, looked at me and said, "Fort Huachuca, Arizona. That's where you can go AWOL and be gone for three days, and they can still see you." Thankfully, his joke was based on the popular misconception that the desert is a flat and sterile place. Actually the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona is lushly teeming with life which has adapted to hot and arid conditions. I was so taken by its clean, otherworldly beauty that after leaving the Army, I moved back and spent the next twenty years in and around Tucson. But that's another story. (Click on images to enlarge.)