31 January 2012


For most, our understanding of prison conditions comes from movies.  Only a few films come close to capturing the reality ~ The Shawshank Redemption and American Me, to name two.  My exposure has been more direct.  Here's how it all began ~ 

In 1988 I entered into a long-term relationship with a woman who was about to become a JD/PhD. That is, she was an attorney who was conducting the research and analysis required for her doctoral dissertation in psychology.  Her research project was massive ~ exploring the victim-offender relationship by interviewing nearly 300 inmates in the Arizona prison system, all of whom had been convicted of violent crimes.  Each interview was the same ~ asking for responses to a lengthy questionnaire, in the privacy of a room with no guards present.  She also had access to prison records on her subjects, so that she could compare their responses to recorded events.  It was an ambitious and impressive project.

Her trust in my intellect and my judgment was such that she asked me to join her and her TAs (teaching assistants) in administering the questionnaires.  The prisoners we interviewed were detained in varying security conditions, ranging from a minimum-security prison near Tucson, and in maximum and supermax conditions at the prison in Florence.  It is a very creepy feeling, even as a visitor with a clearance, to walk through the maze of secure corridors, checkpoints, surveillance, and doors which close with the ominous clang of finality.  

Long story short, the interviews went without incident (except for one TA who inappropriately flirted with prisoners), my partner completed her PhD, and for the next sixteen years I followed her career around the country ~ to her internship in Charleston, SC,  then to positions as a professor in Criminal Justice at universities in Philadelphia, PA; Vancouver, WA; and Johnson City, TN.  During that time she devoted herself not only to teaching, but to ongoing research, publishing in professional journals, and attending CJ conferences around the country and around the world.  I learned much from her about criminal justice (or the lack of it) in the United States.  We had numerous discussions based on her findings, and I proofread many journal articles and was her ally in academic politics.

During those years, I worked in two settings which allowed me to experience firsthand the humanity and the struggles of those who've been through the system.  In Philadelphia, I worked as a teacher and counselor for at-risk youth of both genders in a private, residential school for adolescents who'd been removed by the courts from abusive or neglectful family settings.  Many of my students had brushes with the law, though that was not the reason for their being remanded to the school's custody.  Nearly all were diagnosed as SED, or severely emotionally disturbed.  Nearly all were in regular therapy, as well as being on medication.  The setting was highly structured, with the students living in on-grounds cottages that were miniature dormitories.  

As I came to know more and more individuals, I concluded that the SED label was in many cases inaccurate and unfortunate.  Yes, these kids were struggling emotionally, having endured abuse or hardships on top of the hormonal confusion of adolescence.  But I found that if I treated my students with affection and respect (while remaining clear about rules and consequences), and if I went out of my way to make learning both challenging and fun, they responded in kind.  I'm not a large man, but I never felt unsafe, even when talking with an angry young man twice my size.  I related to them as I would have wanted to be related to.  The only exceptions were those times when a student had to be put into passive physical restraint to prevent harm to others or to themselves.  Even then, at least two trained staff took part to minimize injury, until the student had regained self-control or had been removed to a separate room for counseling.

The second setting was in Tennessee, where I worked as a security officer and de facto counselor at a DCS boys group home.  The population there was very different ~ all boys, and all had been convicted and served time for crimes which, if committed by adults, would be felonies ~ ranging from burglary to grand theft auto to murder.  The home was a halfway house, where the boys were taught the skills and attitudes they would need to re-enter society, whether back with their families or not.  Security was strict, and runaways were common.  There were far fewer passive physical restraints, and far more personal and room searches for contraband.  Nearly all the boys were wannabe thugs, and some had actual gang affiliation.  They put up a hardcore front, but here too, I found that I could reach most of them as individuals by simply treating them with caring and respect (for their essential selves, not for the crimes they had committed).  

In addition to annual training (alongside guards from the adult prison system), I had occasion to visit a youth detention center and an adult prison.  As had been true during my help with research in Arizona, I always felt claustrophobic in lockup, but at least now I had a state ID and badge to prove my identity.  

Here are several similarities and differences between the two work settings.  In Philadelphia, our total population was 60, with 20 being boys.  Dorms were segregated by gender, but all other activities were coed.  The age range was 13-18 years old.  Probably one third of the kids (and staff) were black.  Most had experienced urban life on the streets, yet beyond recreational drugs or petty crimes, most had no experience with serious violations of the law.  To my knowledge, very few ended up in jail or prison.  Some (based on academics and behavior) were allowed to attend classes at a mainstream high school, where they experienced prejudice from other students because of where they lived.  Most students were with us for 1-4 years, giving us ample opportunity to get to know them and work with them to clarify their goals and provide tools for reaching those goals.

In Tennessee, our total population was 12, all boys.  The group home was a single building, with living quarters (2-4 boys per room) upstairs.  The age range was 14-18 years old.  Roughly half or more of the boys were black.  As described above, all were convicted criminals, whose release depended on their behavior and reaching their academic and work goals while in the group home.  Most had off-grounds jobs, usually at fast food joints.  I have no documentation, but my hunch is that a higher proportion recidivized, i.e., committed other crimes and ended up back in the system.  Most students were with us for 6-8 months, giving us little opportunity to get to know them and really work with them to change their life paths.

Within the security classification system in American prisons, both settings were minimum security.  Escape was not that difficult.  It was important to help each young person understand that it was in their own interest to stick it out, and to leave the right way.  Most succeeded.

In an actual prison, things would have been much different.  There, the guard-inmate relationship is all about power, and is often predatory.  U.S. prisons are, in my opinion, based on a very medieval concept of punishment and isolation from society.  My onetime partner firmly felt that true rehabilitation had never been meaningfully attempted in American prisons, and I believe that.  Except for minimum security facilities, prison is a grim, often violent place.  It is a whole different world with its own language, status hierarchy, rules, group (gang) affiliation, and consequences for mistakes.  And that's just in the context of other inmates.  A prisoner's treatment by guards can be just as savage, or even more so.  One study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that "at least 216,600 inmates were [sexually] victimized in 2008 alone.  Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members ~ corrections officers whose job it is to keep inmates safe.  On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year.  The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint."

According to another report, "In 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans.  By 2010, the number had more than tripled, to 731.  No other country even approaches that.  In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education .... The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.  Every day, at least 50,000 men ~ a full house at Yankee Stadium ~ wake in solitary confinement, often in supermax prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they can see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour's solo 'exercise'.  (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)  Prison rape is so endemic ~ more than 70,000 prisoners are raped each year ~ that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected."

Here's another aspect of the American penal system which I find disturbing ~ outsourcing the construction, staffing, and management of prisons (which are government functions with at least nominal government oversight) to private, for-profit companies.  The stated intent is to save money, but the reverse holds true.  The privatization of prisons ensures that the least qualified applicants will be hired as guards and supervisors, that staff brutality will go unreported, and that the quality (such as it is) of service provided will be poor to non-existent.  It's like one of the Apollo astronauts commented to his two capsule mates just before launch, in words to the effect of "Yeah, I feel supremely confident.  Here we are, sitting on top of a rocket full of fuel, made up of a million components, all assembled by the lowest bidders.  What could go wrong?"  

Here's one example of what could go wrong.  A Justice Policy Institute report states that "the political strategies of private prison companies 'work to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.'  The report's authors note that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, correspondingly.  Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007.  And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits.  Last year the two largest private prison companies ~ Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group ~ made over $2.9 billion in revenue.  JPI claims the private industry isn't merely responding to the nation's incarceration woes.  It has actively sought to create the market conditions (i.e., more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.

"According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy ~ lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking.  The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians.  They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts."

I started this post describing my own experiences with the criminal justice and mental health systems.  I expanded my comments to include broader systemic practices and policies.  I'd like to conclude by taking one more step back for perspective.  I just received the ACLU's winter 2012 edition of their national newsletter, Civil Liberties.  The lead article shares its title with the title of this post ~ "A Nation Behind Bars".  The captions of several illustrations in the article are instructive.  

~  Nearly half of all state prisoners are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
~  The United States prison population rose by 700% from 1970 to 2005, a rate far outpacing that of general population growth (44%) and crime rates.
~  By 2007, states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration and related expenses, a 127% jump from 1987.  Over this same period, spending on higher education rose just 21%.

Here's the single slap-in-the-face fact that should linger for any reader ~ "With an incarcerated population of well over 2 million, the United States has earned the disgraceful distinction of being the world's largest jailer, ahead of China and Russia.  We have 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners.

" .... How did we get to this point?  Blame it on policies of the past 40 years such as the 'War on Drugs' and 'Tough on Crime', which have produced legislation such as 'Three Strikes, You're Out' and mandatory minimum sentencing,  These policies ~ based not on sober scientific fact, but on fear ~ have done little to protect the public, while overcrowding prisons, burdening taxpayers, and normalizing an overly punitive mindset that turns to incarceration as a first, rather than a last, resort.

"What's more, African Americans and Latinos disproportionately bear the brunt of the over-incarceration crisis because of discriminatory laws and biased enforcement and sentencing, even though white Americans commit crimes at the same rates as people of color.  A schocking one in nine young black men (aged 20-24) is behind bars.

"Another disturbing trend resulting from our nation's over-reliance on incarceration and excessive sentencing is the rise in the number of elderly prisoners ~ the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.  It costs two to three times more to house elderly prisoners than younger people.  At the same time, an increase in age is correlated with a diminishing risk of recidivism.  So, until we change our practices, the United States will continue to waste vast resources on people who no longer pose a threat to the community.

" .... We have become a nation behind bars and a prisoner to a broken correctional system.  The time for reform is now."  When you treat people like animals, eventually many can't help but behave like animals.  Ironically, we wouldn't even treat animals like we treat each other.  Our prisons are little more than vicious crime schools, little pieces of hell.  What does that say about us as a society?

30 January 2012


NASA has announced that the Kepler Space Observatory has identified "11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets.  These discoveries nearly double the number of verified Kepler planets and triple the number of stars known to have more than one planet that transits, or passes in front of, its host star .... The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter .... The planets orbit their host star once every six to 143 days.  All are closer to their host star than Venus is to our sun."  For reference, Venus orbits an average of about 68 million miles from the sun, and the Earth about 93 million miles.  That's a pretty tiny volume of space to be populated by so many planets, some of them more than twelve times the diameter of Earth.

Here is a link to the NASA announcement, which explains the planetary systems more fully, and comes with two embedded videos ~ one is an overhead view of all the systems with more than one planet, showing the relative speeds of planetary motion;  and the other is an animation showing the difference between planetary transit timing of single and multiple planetary systems.  It's fascinating stuff.  Like the Hubble Space Telescope, Kepler is producing images and information that are priceless.  The image above (click to enlarge) portrays Kepler's search area set within the vast reaches of our Milky Way galaxy ~ an area so small, it is not unlike exploring the ocean by examining a bucket of water on the beach.  We live in marvelous times.

29 January 2012


It is a story told time and again in the history of commerce ~ over the past century, small local stores providing everything from food to clothing, furniture, hardware or music, have been driven out of business because they could not compete with larger store chains which buy in volume and sell for less.  In recent decades entire chains have disappeared, either bought out by competitors or rendered obsolete by shifting technology.  

Thus it is with bookstores.  Julie Bosman writes in the NYTimes that "Inside the great publishing houses ~ grand names like Macmillan, Penguin and Random House ~ there is a sense of unease about the long-term fate of Barnes & Noble, the last major bookstore chain standing.  First, the magastores squeezed out the small players .... then the chains themselves were gobbled up or driven under, as consumeers turned to the Web.  B. Dalton Bookseller and Crown Books are long gone.  Borders collapsed last year.

"No one expects Barnes & Noble to disappear overnight.  The worry is that it might slowly wither as more readers embrace e-books.  What if all those store shelves vanished, and Barnes & Noble became little more than a cafe and a digital connection point?  Such fears came to the fore in early January, when the company projected that it would lose even more money this year than Wall Street had expected.  Its share price promptly tumbled 17 percent that day.

"Lurking behind all of this is Amazon.com, the dominant force in books online and the company that sets teeth on edge in publishing.  From their perches in midtown Manhattan, many publishing executives, editors and publicists view Amazon as the enemy ~ an adversary that, if unchecked, could threaten their industry and their livelihoods.

"Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces.  Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books.  Amazon's chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman ~ that is, traditional publishers ~ by publishing e-books directly.

"Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brute capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry's future.  Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket.  But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books.  If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back on its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and ~ well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.

" ... These are trying times for almost everyone in the book business.  Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly 500 independent bookstores ~ nearly one out of five.  About 650 bookstores vanished when Borders went out of business last year.  No wonder that some New York publishers have gone so far as to sketch out what the industry might look like without Barnes & Noble.  It's not a happy thought for them.  Certainly, there would be fewer places to sell books.  Independents account for less than 10 percent of business, and Target, Walmart and the like carry far smaller selections than traditional bookstores.

" .... What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect.  Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one ....  What's more sales of older books ~ the so-called backlist, which has traditionally accounted for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the average big publisher's sales ~ would suffer horribly.

" 'For all publishers, it's really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive,' said David Shanks, the chief executive of the Penguin Group USA.  'Not only are they key to keeping our physical book business thriving, there is also the carry-on effect of the display of a book that contributes to selling e-books and audio books.  The more visibility a book has, the more inclined a reader is to make a purchase.' "

I'm sitting here, trying to imagine a world without bookstores.  It is as inconceivable as a world without public and university libraries.  And yet we and our institutions co-evolve.  How many could have predicted thirty years ago that the Internet, personal computers, portable smart phones, wireless technology, GPS, and e-book readers would transform every corner of our lives .... and leave very few corners private?

Don't get me wrong, I love technology, when it is done well.  But I do not want to see bookstores go the way of the buggy whip.  When I lived in suburban Philadelphia, I was close to both Borders and Barnes & Noble stores, as well as smaller independent bookstores.  In Vancouver, Washington, it was an accessible drive across the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon and Powell's City of Books, whose four floors cover a city block.  Here in Missoula, Barnes & Noble is a three block walk away.  Bookstores and libraries are among the first resources I locate when I move to a new place.

Nothing can replace the texture, weight, smell, and mystery of a book, preferably hardbound.  Reading is the last thing I do at night before turning off the lights for sleep ~ novels, history, biography, science, aviation.  It relaxes me while engaging my imagination.  And no batteries are required.

27 January 2012


In Psychology Today, Susan Biali, M.D., sets forth definitions and strategies 'for dealing with mean or crazy people .... A difficult person in your life might not have a full-blown personality disorder.  They may just have related traits that express themselves from time to time.  It still takes a toll on your self-esteem and well-being to be around them."

She goes on to list some of the types of people she suggests are unreasonable ~

~ Those with whom you can't have a reasonable conversation
~  People who make demeaning comments disguised as a 'joke'
~  Those who don't respect boundaries
~  People who aren't willing to consider your point of view or listen to your side of things
~  Bullies
~  Verbal or emotional abusers
~  Manipulators
~  Liars
~  People who provoke you into acting crazy or unbalanced, when your behavior across the rest of your life is proof that you're not
~  The excessively charming who are too good to be true and have an ulterior motive

Following are strategies which minimize the danger to yourself, your days, your sanity, and your life ~

~  Minimize time with them
~  Keep it logical
~  Don't drink with them
~  Focus on them in conversation
~  Give up the dream that one day they'll be the person you wish they'd be
~  Stay away from topics that get you in trouble
~  Don't try to get them to see your point of view
~  Create a distraction

Not all relationships are worth keeping in your life.  "But in some cases if the person is a family member, boss, or some other key fixture you can't cut out of your life, these tactics may prove to be lifesavers."  Please see the article for a fuller explanation of each strategy.

Extending this idea, perhaps the most difficult unreasonable personality one can encounter is the full-blown racist.  A number of studies have linked right-wing ideals with racism ~ they share a rigid black-and-white view of the world, an intolerance of ambiguity, and a tendency toward insecurity and degrees of paranoia.  Dan Evon reports that low intelligence "is the one constant   factor behind racism .... people with low intelligence tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies."

The researcher does not conclude that all conservatives are ignorant racists, merely that there is a significant tendency.  He points out that "There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals .... [Nevertheless] people with low IQs may be drawn toward conservative beliefs because they offer structure.  People who have a hard time understanding the complexities of the world find comfort in a simple belief system .... Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order.  Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice."

Racism is one mindset to which the gentler avoidance strategies set forth in the first study (above) are not useful.  Any behavior which harms others must be confronted.  You may not be able to reason them past their prejudice, but you can certainly make it clear what the consequences will be for acting it out.

NOTE ~ Happy 124th anniversary to the National Geographic Society, whose historic mission remains "to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world's cultural, historical, and natural resources."  Long may you sail !

26 January 2012


I've been gathering resources relating to how we think, how the process is changing, and what we can do to enhance our mental functioning.  Here are two items of interest ~

In A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond, Patricia Cohen writes about the apparent decline in creativity, and learning capacity after about the age of 40, and memory after about the age of 50 ~ and how that perceived decline is coming under new scrutiny as we learn more about the nature of intelligence.  "Many researchers believe that human intelligence or brainpower consists of dozens of assorted cognitive skills, which they commonly divide into two categories.  One bunch falls under the heading 'fluid intelligence", the abilities that produce solutions not based on experience, like pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking, the kind of intelligence tested in IQ examinations.  These abilities tend to peak in one's 20s.

'Crystallized intelligence, by contrast, generally refers to skills that are acquired through experience ans education, like verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment.  While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity, and culture .... One of the brain's most powerful tools is its ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem.  In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.

" .... Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.  Most important, they discover that despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improved with age."

So the question becomes, can anything be done about the decline in fluid intelligence with age?  The author describes several studies which explore this very question, and "The most consistent results involved education.  All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test.  Up to age 75, the studies showed, people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger."

It doesn't end there.  Even absent a college degree, "Into middle age and beyond, people could make up for educational disadvantages encountered earlier in life.  Everyone in the study who regularly did more to challenge their brains ~ reading, writing, attending lectures or completing word puzzles ~ did better on fluid intelligence tests than their counterparts who did less."

Another study showed that "adults, particularly men, with low levels of education could also improve mental function by using a computer.  Although researchers are not sure why, they speculate that computers require users to switch mental gears more frequently or process information in a new way, which quickens reaction time."

Finally, researchers "noticed other similarities among people with the strongest cognitive skills.  Senior citizens who performed as well as young adults in fluid intelligence tended to have four characteristics in addition to having a college degree and regularly engaging in mental workouts ~ they exercised frequently;  they were socially active, frequently seeing friends and family, volunteering or attending meetings;  they were better at remaining calm in the face of stress; and they felt more in control of their lives."

More research remains to be done.  For now, it is encouraging to understand that both college education and continuing education can help keep us sharp well into our golden years.

In What You (Really) Need To Know, Lawrence H. Summers suggests that while part of universities' function is to keep alive man's greatest creations, passing them on from generation to generation, it is interesting to speculate how the university experience might be different if the educational system is altered to reflect the structure of society and our evolving understanding of how people learn.  He offers the following "guesses and hopes ~

~  Education will be more about how to process and use information, and less about imparting it.
~  An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.
~  New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.
~  'Active learning classrooms' (which cluster students at tables with rearrangeable furniture and integrated technology) will help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences.
~  The world is much more open .... and it will be essential that students have international experiences.
~  Courses of study will place more emphasis on the analysis of data.

"A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could."  

To be continued tomorrow ....

25 January 2012


From Science Now ~  "Saturn boasts one of the solar system's most geometrical features, a giant hexagon encircling its north pole.  Though not as famous as Jupiter's Great Red Spot, Saturn's Hexagon is equally mysterious.  Now researchers have recreated this formation in the lab using little more than water and a spinning table ~ an important first step, experts say, in finally deciphering this cosmic mystery.

"Saturn's striped appearance comes from jet streams that fly east to west through its atmosphere at different latitudes.  Most jets form circular bands, but the Voyager spacecraft snapped pictures of an enormous hexagonally shaped one (each side rivals Earth's diameter) when it passed over the planet's north pole in 1988."  To learn more about this enormous presence, check out the article and embedded video here.

Speaking of fascinating fluid formations, from New Science TV ~ "If four vortices were let loose in a cup of melted ice cream and chocolate sauce, what would it look like?  In this simulation, mathematical artist Jos Leys illustrates the result by imagining that the two are ideal fluids, meaning that they have no viscosity and slide past each other with no resistance."  Here too, don't miss the video for some breathtaking Art Nouveau effects.

Combining science and art can have unanticipated and pleasing results.  Take wind turbines used to generate electricity ~ most of us have seen these towering, oddly graceful constructs that look like a giant airplane propeller mounted on a tower.  Japanese engineers have improved on the design with the simple addition of a circular rim called a wind lens.  Conventional designs are inherently inefficient.  The lens, or brim diffuser, creates vortices on the downwind side of the rotating blades, dramatically increasing the speed of air flow through the turbine.  More speed yields more power generated from the same moving air mass.  A wind farm of 29 lens turbines is capable of producing the same amount of electricity as a nuclear power plant.  Alternative energy just became an order of magnitude more attainable.  Here is the announcement ~ again, the video provides compelling clarity.  (It occurs to me that this technology has application not only in wind turbines, but also on any propellor-driven device such as an airplane or a ship.  The simply addition of a circular rim can triple the rotational speed, meaning more forward motion using the same amount of fuel.  Win-win.

Finally, on general principle, a shout-out to Design Milk, whose beautiful designs are elegant in their simplicity.  Check out the tabs for architecture, art, home furnishings, interior design, style & fashion, and technology.  Here's an example ~ a spiral staircase unlike any I've seen.

24 January 2012


The scene ~ Mid-September 1967, Fort Lewis, Washington.  With only a few days left in Army basic training, the members of my company (C-3-1) had gathered around Drill Sergeant Hess to hear our assignments for AIT, Advanced Individual Training.  He took his time going down the roster, calling each trainee's name, his destination, and the type of training he would receive there ~ infantry, artillery, armor, vehicle mechanic, communications ~ along with any wry comments that came to mind regarding that particular Army post.  At length he reached my name, looked at my assignment in silent mourning, then looked up with a grin and called out "Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  That's where you can go AWOL, be gone three days, and they can still see you."

At the ripe young age of 20, this Montana boy had never traveled east of the Mississippi, and rarely south of the Wyoming Rockies.  Arizona.  The desert.  Visions of endless Saharan sand dunes popped into my head.  Amid the laughter of my friends, my thoughts ran to "Aw hell, why did I have to request radio school?"  

A week or so later, after the obligatory graduation parade and ceremony, we headed for Sea-Tac airport, there to scatter to destinations around the country.  My flight was to Tucson, Arizona.  It was my first ride ever on a passenger jet, and being pushed back in my seat by the acceleration of takeoff was thrilling.  My desert foreboding remained.  We landed after dark, and were met by an Army bus driver for the ninety-minute drive southeast to Fort Huachuca.  There was little desert to be seen in the inky darkness, but my discomfort wasn't improved by the news that the previous night a skunk had taken up residence beneath the in-transit barracks.  Sleep was fitful, and reveille arrived much too soon.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that far from having arrived on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, the landscape surrounding the fort was actually green with desert shrubs and trees, presided over by the Huachuca Mountains to the west.  An aside regarding nomenclature ~ for readers in the American east and south, what you regard in awe as "mountains" only qualify as foothills out west.  But then, eastern mountains are ancient and worn down, while western mountains are geographically young and dramatic.  Ask anyone who has moved to Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, or any of the other Rocky Mountain states.  Once while working for the Forest Service in South Carolina, I was directed to follow a "ridge" to reach a particular red-cockaded woodpecker colony.  Ridge?  It took some explanation before I understood that they were talking quite naturally about a rise of ground barely three feet above the surrounding terrain.  Where I grew up, it took you the better part of an hour to climb a ridge, the shoulder of a mountain.  It's all in what you're used to.

I won't go into the rest of my military experience here, other than to say that I became used to the desert, this desert, very quickly.  The Sonoran Desert covers part of the southwestern United States and part of northwestern Mexico.  It embraces a number of climate zones ranging from desert to sub-alpine, and is home to an amazing array of plants, animals, birds, reptiles, and  fish.  It is a harsh land if that is what you expect.  But if you take the time to learn how to be a good visitor, you'll be astonished at the beauty of the desert.  It is dry (except during the monsoon seasons), it is clean (except where people insist on 'developing' the land, thereby desecrating it), it is verdant and very, very alive.  It is a land of magic.  Small wonder that on my copy of Edward Abbey's seminal novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, the back cover features the lament, "Desert, o my desert, yours is the only death I cannot bear."

After radio school at Fort Huachuca, radioteletype school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and a year in southern Vietnam during that war, I was honorably discharged from the service.  I spent a brief few months with my parents before moving back to the southwest, back to Tucson, back to my beloved desert.  And stayed there for the next 20 years in the best of both worlds, enjoying the border culture of the city, and mother nature in the surrounding desert and mountains.  I lived in many homes, enjoyed many friends and lovers, got married and sired my magnificent son, and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  To my delight, my studies included numerous science labs (biology, chemistry, physics, mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, comparative anatomy, island biogeography, animal behavior) and, most vividly, numerous field trips into the desert, some lasting for days.  

Yes, there's the heat.  The joke goes that in the desert there are two seasons, January and summer.  The summer I moved to Arizona, it was 115 degrees Farenheit in the shade.  Not every summer is that extreme, but anything above 85 is hot, especially when you're working outdoors with no air conditioning.  Each summer I swore it would be my last summer in that heat, yet I remained.  How can one leave a land of magic?

Things have changed since I moved away in 1989.  Tucson has grown carcinogenically, judging from the street maps I see in bookstores.  What was once virgin desert, serenaded in the clean dawn light by mourning doves, curve-billed thrashers, phainopepla, cactus wrens, and (yes) road runners, has become overrun by housing developments and paved streets.  Much desert remains, of course.  It is a big, big place.  But life along the border has changed in other ways.  At one time when I was living on a nature preserve near the border, if I saw a Mexican walking northward, I knew it was just someone looking for work.  I would offer him water and see him on his way.  Now the violence of drug wars and gun-running has tarnished the peace of the land.  I hope that we all come to our senses and stop the trafficking in both.

Ah, but the magic remains.  Why else would so many people move there, diluting the very qualities of life that they seek?  I was reminded of our conflicting images of the desert by an article by Jen Patton.  She says in part, "There are, according to Randall Henderson, founding editor of Desert Magazine (1937-1985) two deserts in the American imagination.  One is full of 'venomous reptiles and unbearable heat .... it is the desert visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment is unbearable which does not provide all of the comforts and services of a pampered civilization.'  this is 'fostered by fiction writers who dramatize the tragedies of the Desert for [their own] profit.'  By contrast, the real desert, as Henderson saw it, 'offers rare gifts, health giving sunshine .... a sky studded by diamonds .... a breeze that bears no poison' to those who come 'in friendliness and understanding.'

"There is, of course, only one desert, equally full of comfort and danger, plenty and lack.  Its gifts ~ that diamond sky is real ~ are for everyone, but its history shows all America's small scars."  Patton's very partial explanation of the human history of the region only goes back a few hundred years.  That is another part of the magic ~ the pre-European human presence of the Anasazi, the Hopi, the Navajo, the Apache, the Yaqui, the Seri.  That's a story for another day.

23 January 2012


Last night I watched one of the most wrenching and inspirational films I've ever seen.  The First Grader is based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan man who enrolled in elementary education at the age of 84 after the Kenyan government announced universal and free education in 2003.  Sounds all warm and fuzzy, right?  It gets much, much deeper.  Maruge (pronounced mah-ROO-gay) is a man possessed by memories.  He grew up in poverty, in a family which had no money to pay for education.  As a young man, he married and had a child.  Then came Kenya's struggle for independence from colonial Great Britain in the 1950s ~ referred to by the white press as the Mau Mau Uprising.  Many Mau Mau freedom fighters were from the Kikuyu tribe (though not all Kikuyu were Mau Mau activists).  Individuals from some tribes were collaborators with the British, assisting in their cruel repression of local insurgents.  As in all wars, atrocities were committed by both sides, but only Mau Mau violence received attention from the world press.  Please refer to the excellent Wikipedia summary of the uprising for more cultural and historic detail.

Because Kimani Maruge took the oath of allegiance to the cause of Uhuru (the Swahili word for 'freedom'), he was singled out by the British for special treatment.  I won't give too much away, in hopes that you will rent the film (available through Netflix).  It is enough to know that he endured eight years of imprisonment and torture before being released by the new Kenyan government.

So the story of an 84-year-old man whose limp requires the assistance of a walking staff, whose eyesight and hearing are failing, and whose spirit has never been crushed, seeking to learn to read in a school overcrowded with children only tall enough to come up to his waist, takes on a poignancy that borders on heartbreak.  Yet it is Maruge's spirit which buoys us up as his story unfolds, as he endures and must overcome unexpected obstacles to his dream ~ and an unexpected ally in reaching out to fulfill it.  

Because I was once a teacher, I'm a sucker for well-made films about education.  Films like Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, Lean On Me, The Class, Good Will Hunting, and To Sir, With Love offer insights into the process of learning from the point of view of teachers, or from (usually) the point of view of teenage students.  The First Grader is in a class by itself, the story of a complex elderly man who finds challenge and redemption among the young children who are his classmates.  I would watch this film over and over.

22 January 2012


Well, a lot has been happening, so it's time to get caught up on science news. 

From the article Scientists Gear Up To Take A Picture Of A Black Hole ~  "The field of gravity around a black hole (see artist's rendition above, click to enlarge) is so immense that it swallows everything in its reach.  Not even light can escape its grip.  For that reason, black holes are just that ~ emitting no light whatsoever, their 'nothingness' blends into the black void of the universe.  So how does one take a picture of something that by definition is impossible to see?

"As dust and gas swirls around the black hole before it is drawn inside, a kind of cosmic traffic jam ensues.  Swirling around the black hole like water circling the drain in a bathtub, the matter compresses and the resulting friction turns it into plasma heated to a billion degrees or more, causing it to 'glow' ~ and radiate energy that we can detect here on Earth.

"By imaging the glow of mater swirling around the black hole before it goes over the edge of the point of no return and plunges into the abyss of space and time, scientists can only see the outline of the black hole, also called its shadow.  Because the laws of physics either don't apply or cannot describe what happens beyond that point of no return from which not even light can escape, that boundary is called the Event Horizon."

" .... Even though the black hole suspected to sit at the center of our galaxy is a supermassive one at four million times the mass of the Sun, it is tiny to the eyes of astronomers.  Smaller than Mercury's orbit around the Sun, yet almost 26,000 light years away, it appears about the same size as a grapefruit on the moon.  To see something that small and that far away, you need a very big telescope, and the biggest telescope you can make on Earth is to turn the whole planet into a telescope."

To learn how in the world (as it were) you do that, check out the link.

From Test Tube Yeast Evolve Multicellularity ~ "The transition from single-celled to multicellular organisms was one of the most significant developments in the history of life on Earth.  Without it, all living things would still be microscopic and simple.  There would be no such thing as a plant or a brain or a human .... [At the cellular level], since evolution acts on individual cells, it pays off for a cell to be selfish.  By hogging resources and hindering neighbors, a call can increase the odds that more of its own genes get passed into the next generation.  This logic is one of the reasons it has been challenging to imagine how multicellularity arose ~ it requires the subjugation of self-interest in favor of the group's survival."

The article goes on to describe a simple but elegant experiment to artificially select for multicellularity in yeast.  The results were startling ~ evolution into multicellular functioning, evidence of a rudimentary division of labor, and indications of the first steps toward cellular differentiation, all within a few dozen generations.  An embedded video demonstrates the process, one of the most fundamental in all of biology.

In a humorous aside, Sheril Kirshenbaum recounts the disconnect between science and journalism when she was asked by a television crew to Just Look Science-y.

And finally, with a special focus on the future of our presence in space, Marc Millis goes way out on a limb to predict An Optimistic History of the Next 40 Years.  As a self-described cynical romantic, I doubt that his projected accomplishments will come to pass quite that quickly, but I hope he's right and I'm wrong.  Cheers.

21 January 2012


So what were the effects of the widely-publicized Internet blackout on January 18, protesting the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation which would have placed a burden of government censorship on the free Internet?  Only the largest Internet protest in history, with over 10 million signatures to petitions to members of Congress, and with over 115,000 websites participating (including this blog).  On the day before the protest, only one U.S. Senator was publicly against the legislation.  Two days later, that number shot up to 34, and is still rising.  Here is a summary of blackout stats, along with a list of high-profile website participants and supporters, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Wordpress, Tumbir, Mozilla, Wired, BoingBoing, and many others.  

Participatory democracy works, especially from the ground up.  From the top down, not so much.  Most of the legislative functioning and policy-making of our government has been hijacked in recent decades by corporate and military interests and their lobbyists, with deep pockets and few scruples.  The disenfranchisement of the American electorate has been exacerbated by the widening, deepening divide between the 5 percent of the populace who control over between 80 and 90 percent of the nation's capital, and the rest of us.  Whenever such a gap exists between the few rich and the many poor, the stage is set for dramatic, sometimes violent change.

To prevent the drama and violence, some pragmatists are re-evaluating their participation in the status quo.  In the case of the censorship bills, Jonathan Weisman writes in the NYTimes that "When the powerful world of old media mobilized to win passage of an online anti-piracy bill, it marshaled the reliable giants of K Street ~ the US Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America, and of course, the motion picture lobby .... Yet on Wednesday, this formidable old guard was forced to make way for the new as Web powerhouses backed by Internet activists rallied opposition to the legislation through Internet blackouts and cascading criticsim, sending an unmistakable message to lawmakers grappling with new media issues:  Don't mess with the Internet .... As a result, the legislative battle over two once-obscure bills to combat the piracy of American movies, music and books and writing on the World Wide Web may prove to be a turning point for the way business is done in Washington.  It represented a moment when the new economy rose up against the old."

To clarify ~ battling piracy of intellectual property is a good thing.  But the means chose for doing so by SOPA and PIPA were so draconian that they threatened first-amendment rights on multiple levels within the Internet community.  The bills need to be re-written, and doubtless they will.

In the meantime, I rather relish the role of Internet activist, just as I'm proud to once have been an anti-war activist.  I close with this ~ get involved.  Register to vote, and then vote!  And regardless of your particular views, make your voice heard.  Do so by signing the petitions of  activist groups, by writing letters to the editor, and by contacting your members of Congress and the White House.  Here is the contact information you need.

It is long past time to take our country back from the wealthy few on Wall Street and in Washington, DC.  Occupy America.

20 January 2012


As often happens toward the end of a president's first term, especially when that president is the nation's first black chief executive and commander-in-chief, Barack Obama has been taking heat from both extreme conservative Republican (for being too liberal), and from extreme liberal Democrats (for not being liberal enough).  Obama made it clear when he first ran for the presidency that he is a moderate, and that his policies will reflect not short-term gain but long-term advantage for the country and its citizens.

In the most recent issue of Newsweek magazine (see cover above, click to enlarge), Andrew Sullivan addresses this contradiction in his article How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics.  He maintains that Republican Obama-bashing has no basis in reality, that in fact the president has delivered on the majority of his campaign promises, and is succeeding in the long remedial process of healing the disastrous financial and military excesses of preceding Republican administrations, most notably that of George W. Bush.  Sullivan states ~ "A caveat:  I write this as an unabashed supporter of Obama from early 2007 on.  I did so not as a liberal, but as a conservative-minded independent appalled by the Bush administration's record of war, debt, spending, and torture.  I did not expect, or want, a messiah.  I have one already, thank you very much.  And there have been many times when I have disagreed with decisions Obama has made ~ to drop the Bowles-Simpson debt commission, to ignore the war crimes of the recent past, and to launch a war in Libya without Congress's sanction, to cite three.  But given the enormity of what he inherited, and given what he explicitly promised, it remains simply a fact that Obama has delivered in a way that the unhinged right and purist left have yet to understand or absorb.  Their short-term outbursts have missed Obama's long game ~ and why his reelection remains, in my view, as essential to this country's future as his original election in 2008."

If you would like your own visual and personal impression of Sullivan, here is a link to an interview he did with Chris Matthews on Hardball.  Sullivan comes across as down to earth, pragmatic, and willing to point out any myopic thinking by Republicans or Democrats.  It is a fascinating reality check, with Matthews asking pointed questions and Sullivan providing well-reasoned answers. Given the flea circus that is the Republican presidential nomination race, this writer finds it reassuring that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, presents a calm and intelligent alternative who is highly conversant in Constitutional law, and pragmatic in his dealings with allies and antagonists (domestic and foreign).  

P.S. ~ Obama also has a cool charisma ~ during a speech at a fundraising event in New York Thursday night, the President sang while thanking Al Green, who performed earlier at the same event.  Dude has it goin' on.

19 January 2012


Thanks to my Facebook friend Clarity Sanderson for sharing this episode from a hilarious online video series called My Drunk Kitchen. It's a comedy spoof of all the niche cooking shows one can find on TV, performed with cool jazz in the background by Hannah Hart.  Here's a list of the episodes available at the MDK website.  

Speaking of altered states (alcohol above), it now appears that the DEA Finally Admits Marijuana is Medicine ~ "by giving pharmaceutical companies exclusive permission to make pills from it."  I've advocated for over forty years that marijuana should be legalized, its quality regulated, sold by licensed outlets, and taxed for revenue ~ just like alcohol is.  Marijuana is not only infinitely less toxic than alcohol, it is a documented medicinal treatment for relieving the symptoms of glaucoma, chemotherapy, chronic pain, arthritis, AIDS, asthma, bipolar disorder, cancer, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, PTSD, sleep apnea, sickle cell disease, and many more.  This DEA action may be the first step in that direction, though they'll never succeed in granting sole rights for distribution to pharma giants.  Too many states have legalized medical marijuana, which represents a lot of voters.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Here's another reference to individual acceptance of substances which produce altered states ~ 10 Scientific and Technological Visionaries Who Experimented with Drugs.  No Timothy Learys or Andrew Weils are present.  Check out the brief article for a fuller description of each of the following ~

~  Sigmund Freud ~ cocaine.
~  Francis Crick ~ LSD.
~  Thomas Edison ~ cocaine elixers.
~  Paul Erdos ~ amphetamines.
~  Steve Jobs ~ LSD.
~  Bill Gates ~ LSD.
~  John C. Lilly ~ LSD, ketamine.
~  Richard Feynman ~ LSD, marijuana, ketamine.
~  Kary Mullis ~ LSD.
~  Carl Sagan ~ marijuana.

This isn't to suggest that drugs make you smarter.  It does suggest (as confirmed by this writer's own experience) that certain drugs remove our societal or personal preconceptions, allowing us to see (literally and figuratively) not only from new perspectives, but also to notice details or relationships which weren't apparent to us while straight.  There is thus a connection with creativity and original thought, common knowledge in the arts for many years.  Move over, Lewis Carroll.

17 January 2012


Tomorrow, predatorhaven will go dark. No news, no information, no resources. Why? Because I'm protesting Internet censorship.
Websites all over the Internet, including sites like YouTube and MoveOn.org, could be made unavailable if big entertainment companies, the Chamber of Commerce, and their lobbyists get their way by ramming Internet censorship legislation (the Stop Online Piracy act, or SOPA, and the Protect IP Act, or PIPA) through the Senate.
That's why tomorrow, Wednesday, January 18, I'm joining Reddit, Wikipedia, Mozilla, Wordpress, TwitPic, Boing Boing, and thousands of other sites and blacking out predatorhaven in protest.  (Click on the above image to enlarge - courtesy of Hamish Gray, see comments below.)

Call your elected officials.  Tell them you are their constituent, and you oppose SOPA and PIPA.  Why?  SOPA and PIPA cripple the free and open internet.  They put th onus on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the blocking of entire sites, even if the links are not to infringing material.  Small sites will not have sufficient resources to mount a lebal challenge.  Without opposition, large media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for small competing foreign sites, even if big media are wrong.  Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines.

In a post SOPA/PIPA world, Wikipedia ~ and many other useful information sites ~ cannot survive in a world where politicians regulate the Internet based on the influence of big money in Washington.  It represents a framework for future restrictions and suppression. Congress says it's trying to protect the rights of copyright owners, but the 'cure' that SOPA and PIPA represent is much more destructive than the disease they are trying to fix.

If you'd like to learn even more about SOPA/PIPA, click here.