30 November 2012


I'm getting a very late start on my day, so I'll simply offer several quite wonderful and entertaining videos.  Enjoy.

  • What would happen if humans in groups behaved like schooling fish or flocks of birds, which seem to spontaneously self-organize and move seemingly with one mind?  An experiment involving professional dancers and interested non-dancers provides one possible answer.
  • Does the universe have a purpose?  The amazing whiteboard artists at Luminosity, along with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, collaborate to explore the possibilities.
  • An African lion embraces the woman who nursed him back to health in an animal shelter in Colombia.
  • My favorite ~ The Parent Rap ~ yo yo, dis vid iz da *bomb*, for realz.  (I couldn't stop grinning through the whole thing.)

29 November 2012


Two nights ago my monthly reading group was discussing Ken Kesey's seminal novel Sometimes A Great Notion, which is set in a coastal Oregon logging community in the early 1960s.  The book was made into an eponymous film in 1970.  Our conversation about the characters, the plot, and the writer's craft was wide-ranging, and at one point diverged when a member remarked upon the dangerous nature of logging, and mentioned a list of the top ten most dangerous jobs.

It turns out that certain seemingly obvious professions (police officer, fire fighter) don't appear on the list, which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Here, in descending order of risk, are the most perilous jobs in this country, followed by their death rates ~

  1. Fisherman ~ 200 per 100,000
  2. Logger ~ 61.8 per 100,000
  3. Aircraft pilot ~ 57.1 per 100,000
  4. Farmer/rancher ~ 38.5 per 100,000
  5. Roofer ~ 34.7 per 100,000
  6. Structural iron/steel worker ~ 30.3 per 100,000
  7. Refuse collector ~ 25.2 per 100,000
  8. Industrial machinery maintenance worker ~ 18.5 per 100,000
  9. Truck driver ~ 18.3 per 100,000
  10. Construction worker ~ 18.3 per 100,000
My resume happens to include a wider variety of jobs than many.  Of the ten above, I've worked at five.  In addition to the explanations of workplace peril offered in the list, I offer these comments ~
  • Fisherman ~ I spent the summer of 1982 working on board a 300' processing/freezer ship in the coastal waters of Alaska.  The work is brutal ~ long hours in cold and wet conditions, around equipment which will readily dismember or kill.  I narrowly escaped injury more times than I can remember ~ climbing steep wet metal stairways, traversing from one ship to another tied up alongside by means of a swaying foot-wide rope bridge suspended over nothing but icy water, walking along a deck thick with fish slime and rainfall, dodging falling metal cages.  The sea was cold enough to be called "five minute water", meaning that if you fell overboard, your chances of surviving hypothermia and exposure were nil unless you were rescued within five minutes.  One crew member did fall in ~ the ship's crane was hoisting on board one of two dories, and the crewman was in the dory when one of the suspension cables snapped.  Luckily he was right alongside the ship, and as the tidal flow swept him aft, onlookers were quick to throw him  a life preserver on a rope, then climb down a rope ladder to water level to help him back aboard and immediately into a hot shower.  Another crew member lost his footing on one of those steel stairways, fractured his spine, and had to be ferried to shore and airlifted out.  *Note ~ life on board smaller fishing boats (see image above) is even more dangerous, with shifting gear and a deck that plunges and bucks in heavy seas.
  • Logger ~ For a year following Hurricane Hugo's landfall on coastal South Carolina, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildlife tech, doing habitat recovery for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW).  Much of the Francis Marion National Forest had been flattened, including the nesting cavity trees of the woodpeckers' colonies.  As professional loggers worked to clear the salvageable downfall, our crews used similar equipment to install artificial nesting cavities to save the RCWs ~ climbing gear, chainsaws, along with hand tools and construction materials.  Most of our cavities were installed at heights of 20 or 30 feet, but some had to be placed at 40 or 50 feet above the ground.  Long work days, fatigue from lugging 60-80 lb. of gear through a swampy maze of fallen trees, working at height with a chainsaw ~ one slip could cost a limb or a life.
  • Aircraft pilot ~ My experience here is peripheral.  I've studied aviation for nearly 15 years. The statistical danger in being a pilot is certainly higher in small aircraft used for transport, recreation, crop dusting and bush flying.  Airline pilots don't face nearly the same risks (and get paid much more).
  • Farmer/rancher ~ I grew up on farms, and am on intimate terms with the hardships faced by workers of the soil ~ exposure to weather, heavy lifting, machinery breakdowns, or injury from machinery or animals.  Whether you're working with a crew at harvest time, or alone and miles from help, you'd better be resourceful and careful, especially as that hard day wears on.  
  • Truck drivers ~ Here too, my experience is analogous.  I've never driven truck, but I spent two 3-year periods as a professional driver of large, multi-ton vehicles.  I drove transit buses in two municipal systems.  Imagine being on call from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., expected to pilot a 40-foot bus through dense traffic (whose drivers seem intent on cutting you off at every opportunity) while picking up and dropping off passengers, collecting fares, all on a set route and a tight schedule.  Add the distractions of passenger arguments, profane or violent teenagers, drunks, people who got on the wrong bus, making PA announcements, talking on the radio with your dispatcher, answering passenger questions, and all the while keeping a sharp eye out for errant drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and other large vehicles.  The hours wear you down.  Now multiply the stress level by 10 during an urban rush hour.  The risk to life for bus drivers may not approach the risk for truck drivers, but the risk of injury is common to both.  I owe my herniated lumbar disk to my most recent bus driving stint.  Plus, the risk of being in a traffic accident is substantially higher, because a bus is always in traffic.
Enough anecdotes, with this footnote ~ I'm assuming that the list applies to civilian jobs only, and does not include combat infantry in a war zone.  That's a whole 'nother level of danger.

Thanks to Keith for his insight, and for the USBLS link.

28 November 2012


Wherever I live ~ prairie, desert, coastal swamp, city, temperate rain forest ~ I have one or more special places where I commune with nature.  The spot may come with a sweeping view embracing hundreds of square miles, or it may by a niche small enough to conceal me.  There I watch, listen, and feel the living world.  

If I am alert and quiet, the creatures who call the place home will eventually accept my presence, and go about their lives.  Birds and small mammals take me for granted.  So do reptiles and insects.  These times are necessary to my well-being.  Paradoxically I lose my sense of self into the flow of wind, weather, earth, rocks, sun, and sky. It is quite wonderful. 

Perhaps because I grew up in farming country, with ready access to the Rocky Mountains, this connection comes naturally to me.  I truly believe that if more people were able to set aside a portion of each day immersed in nature, we would all be healthier, and better able to fashion a just and balanced world.

David Haskell, a fellow ecologist and evolutionary biologist, agrees.  As described in James Gorman's NYTimes article Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature, Haskell visited the same patch of Tennessee forest many times over the course of a year, relaxing and noticing his breathing, and recording the events and changes he witnessed.  He published his observations in a book, 

According to Gorman, "It is this kind of perception, halfway between metaphor and field note, that makes his voice a welcome entry in the world of nature writers.  He thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist.  He avoids terms like 'nature deficit disorder' and refuses to scold the bug-fearing masses. His pitch is more old-fashioned, grounded in aesthetics as much as science.

" 'You an live a perfectly happy life never having heard of Shakespeare,' he says, 'but your ife is in some ways a little diminished, because there's so much beauty there.  And I think the same is true of nature.' "

I find this approach very appealing.  It is in the spirit of the old naturalists ~ Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and even in his own way Edward Abbey.  No matter where you live, you may be surprised by the discovery of your own patch of nature.  Seek it out, and open your senses.  You don't have to take notes, write a book, or become an environmental activist, though any of these may sprout.  Just breathe, watch, listen, feel.

27 November 2012


Apparently variants of these have been around for a few years, but I only became aware of them about a month ago when a Google+ friend hosted a Purity Party hang-out ~ in G+ hang-outs, as many at 10 people can take part in a simultaneous video chat ~ sort of like a virtual BYOB party.

The schema was to have fun going through a chosen purity test, with participants sharing aloud their responses to questions ranging from "Have you ever held hands" to "Have you ever smoked crack cocaine" to "Have you ever been part of an orgy".  I'd purchased a webcam for the gathering, but the G+ plug-in software wasn't installing properly, so I missed all the fun.  Sigh.  I heard later that the hilarity went on for hours.

The word on the net was that we would be taking this 1500 Question Purity Test.  I did so beforehand to familiarize myself with the range of questions, and was surprised that my final score didn't indicate less purity and more depravity.  Quelle horreur !  That version took about an hour to complete.

As it turned out, the group actually took this 500 Question Purity Test.  Less scandalous detail, but more time to spend talking and laughing about each question within the group.  If you take it by yourself (and who wouldn't?), I recommend the longer version, for a more thorough and detailed understanding of just how pure or perverted you really are.

Meanwhile I have to get the interface between G+ and my webcam resolved.  Have fun.

25 November 2012


Not long ago, I subscribed to daily e-mails from an organization called International Living, which provides information and guidance for those thinking about retiring outside the U.S., as well as overseas travel and investment.  The daily windows onto living overseas are interesting, and often tempting.  I'm not certain how well I would adapt to being an ex-pat, but given the dozens of places I've lived over the years, I suspect the adjustment wouldn't be that difficult.  One retains one's U.S. citizenship, and surrenders no rights or entitlements like Social Security.

Recently IL published a list of their choices for the top ten retirement havens ~ places where living is both sweet and inexpensive compared to the U.S.  Each entry includes an overview which includes climate, cost of living, health care, and inducements aimed specifically at retirees.  The nations include ~

Exotic, no?  It's hard to argue with the attraction of living in a semi-tropical country where one's income affords a comfortable-to-generous lifestyle.  Learning a new language is one consideration (except in Belize, where the official language is English) ~ but while you're learning, you are bound to find enough English-speakers to help in the transition.  And your choices in-country are up to you ~ whether to live on a tropical beach, in the mountains, in a city or the countryside, perhaps a secluded village with access to both culture and nature.  (Click on either photo to enlarge)

No relocation need be permanent, of course.  And one would want to research and visit one's top choices before making a decision.  Who knows, it might be entirely workable to spend a year or two in each of a series of countries and cultures.  Me, I wouldn't mind adding Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, and Botswana to the list.  My only hesitation is leaving my cats behind.  Who knows, living somewhere so exotic might lure my son and his family, or certain treasured friends, to visit!

So what destinations entice your imagination?

24 November 2012


Wherever I've lived ~ city, suburbs, country ~ I have felt privileged to share territory with wild animals, reptiles, birds.  This was never more true than when I was caretaker for a Nature Conservancy preserve in Southern Arizona.  We lived on the property, in a century-old, two-story adobe ranch house.  My guideline was simple ~ just as I would never invade the nest of an acorn woodpecker, the den of a twin-spotted rattlesnake, or the lair of a bobcat, likewise I kept the house free of wildlife whenever possible.  But we all shared the same outdoor habitat, so there were lots of encounters with curious residents.

In all, it worked well, with a few exceptions ~ like the deer mice who invaded the walls, ceiling, and pantry with impunity, or the ongoing battle of wits trying to come up with a foolproof way of keeping raccoons out of the trash cans.  It would be pointless (not to mention unethical) to simply kill intruders.  Others would replace them.

So humans just need to be smart about how, where, and when they store and protect things which might attract wildlife ~ stored food, garden crops, refuse.  This is true whether your surprise neighbor is a mountain lion in Colorado, a whitetail deer in Pennsylvania, a grizzly bear in Montana, a water moccasin in South Carolina, a gray wolf in Wyoming, or a pallid bat in Arizona.

Certain boundaries apply.  At the preserve, whenever I discovered a rattlesnake on our porch, I would use a homemade snake hook on a six-foot pole to place the snake in a metal trash can without harming the snake, put on the lid, then carry it several hundred yards away to be released.  Tiny invaders like ants or hornets or black widow spiders were not allowed, period.  Other than that, we completely enjoyed having wildlife take the exterior of our house for granted as part of their domain.

Jeanette Smith has written a brief list of suggestions for peacefully coexisting with whatever wildlife happens to frequent your backyard.  Her article focuses on urban coyotes (see image above), one of the opportunistic species which is so adaptable that their range has actually expanded, in spite of concerted (and usually horrific) efforts to eradicate them.  Those efforts generally have the opposite effect from extermination, for two reasons ~  (a) The surviving animals will be those smart enough to figure out and avoid traps, guns and poison, thus passing both their genes and their experience on to the next generation, and (b) under population stress, coyotes start breeding at a younger age, and have larger litters.

Smith is an advocate of coexistence, and offers a number of means for getting along with feeling intruded upon.  One method is non-lethal, non-cruel hazing of coyotes, using noise, water, and repellents to discourage these shy but curious omnivores.  The hazing guidelines were adopted from the successful Denver, CO, Coyote Management Plan endorsed by the Humane Society.  The focus is on urban coyotes, but the methods would work equally well away from cities.

Getting along with wildlife near your home is similar to getting along with wildlife when you visit their home.  Smart wilderness hikers and campers understand that they are guests, and are required to behave with courtesy and common sense.  Pets should be leashed, food should be stored in locked containers hung from a tree  away from the campsite, and care should be taken to avoid surprise encounters (making noise, steering clear of danger zones).

It is up to each of us to learn the habits and needs of any of the creatures we may encounter, and to protect both them and ourselves from unpleasant encounters.  That's just good sense, and it creates opportunities for wonderful experiences with wildlife, while avoiding bad experiences.  We really can all get along.

23 November 2012


For as long as I can remember, people have complained about the crass commercialization of Christmas.  During my childhood stores and towns started putting up Christmas decorations in early December.  As time has passed, the decorations and the sales hype have begun earlier and earlier ~ right after Thanksgiving, right after Veterans Day, right after Halloween.  Before long we'll be assailed by ho-ho-ho after Labor Day, then Memorial Day, Easter, Ground Hog's Day.  Eventually the buying season will overlap itself, and a new psychosis will appear in the DSMV ~ Temporal Disorientation Disorder ("Wait, am I buying for this year, or for next year?")

Of course, it's not merely the gaudy visual decorations which grate on one's nerves, it's the pre-pre-pre-holiday sales themselves.  In recent years the ritual commencement of buying frenzy, Black Friday, fell on the day after Thanksgiving.  Like, early in the morning.  Oh-Dark-Thirty.  Long lines of shoppers arrived as early as the evening before, sleeping bags and thermoses of hot liquid at hand in the freezing darkness.  Surreal ~ like cannibal tribesmen gathering for the boiling of the newest missionary, or like vultures circling a road kill carcass.

This year many big-box chains got a jump on things by starting their sales on the evening of Thanksgiving day, cutting into family time to rack up those profits.  And people responded, grotesquely Pavlovian in their devotion to the Great American Pastime ~ shopping.

I don't get it.  Two hundred years ago, most folks did their modest shopping on Christmas Eve.  Me, I often plan ahead by picking gifts out in the spring and summer ~ not in response to any sale, but just because I'm casually browsing in a store or crafts fair, and see something I know a friend or relative would like.  No pressure, no crowds.

Choosing gifts has become a mindless, visceral response to advertisements and peer pressure.  The irony is that, according to Neil Irwin's analysis in the Washington Post, all the players (retailers, the media, and consumers) are reacting to the ever-tightening buying spiral, with no real forethought.  One retailer decides to open his doors earlier than last year to get a jump on the competition, and others follow suit.  The media, having little else to report on, broadcast the earlier shopping as though it were real news.  And consumers, well, they let themselves get suckered into the cycle, lured by lower prices on a limited number of items, and regular prices on everything else.

Capping the irony, Irwin points out that the Black Friday sales frenzy (contrary to myth) has little correlation or predictive power on holiday sales overall, or the state of the economy as a whole.  In fact, higher Black Friday sales tend to forecast a slightly poorer spending season.

So why go through the mania?  Do your shopping months early at a time a place of your choosing, and then forget the crowds and stay home with your loved ones.  Black Friday?  Just say no.

22 November 2012


Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is seen by some as a celebration of the conquest and genocide of Native Americans by European colonists. Professor Dan Brook of University of California at Berkeley condemns the 'cultural and political amnesia' of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving, saying that 'We do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something.'  Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin is somewhat harsher, saying that 'One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective fasting.

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England, a protest group led by Frank 'Wamsutta' James that has accused the United States and European settlers of fabricating the Thanksgiving story and whitewashing genocide and injustice against Indians, has led a National Day of Mourning protest on Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, MA, in the name of social equality.

Some Native Americans hold 'Unthanksgiving Day' celebrations in which they mourn the deaths of their ancestors, fast, dance, and pray.  This tradition has been taking place since 1975.

~  Wikipedia

21 November 2012


For the first time in Israel, a group of Arab and Jewish parents decide to establish a bi-national, bilingual grade school in the Wadi Ara village.  Bridge over the Wadi follows the school's first year and the fragile attempt to create an environment of co-existence against the backdrop of a complicated reality.

This 54-minute documentary was aired on the PBS program Global Voices.  When people of good will and clear vision unite in common cause, even the most intractable differences can be overcome.  In the light of the violent unrest in Syria, in Libya, and between Israel and Palestine, this lesson should be required viewing for all children, all parents, all teachers, and all political and military leaders around the globe ~ including those opposed to immigration in the U.S.

20 November 2012


Billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet, in an interview with CNBC, offered his solution to the U.S. debt crisis ~ one which might induce cardiac arrest among most wealthy individuals (especially those on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill) ~

"I could end the deficit in 5 minutes.  You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election."

Buffet advocates that every person who agrees with his proposal pass it along to 10 or 20 others.  He envisions a national groundswell for reform within days ~

"The 26th Amendment (granting the right to vote to 18-year-olds) took only 3 months and 8 days to be ratified.  Why?  Simple!  The people demanded it.  That was in 1971 ~ before computers, e-mail, cell phones, etc.  Of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution, seven took 1 year or less to become the law of the land ~ all because of public pressure."

Buffet supports passage of a Congressional Reform Act, which states in part ~

  1. No tenure / no pension.  A member of Congress collects a salary while in office, and receives no pay when they are out of office.
  2. Congress (past, present and future) participates in Social Security.  All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately.  All future funds flow into the Social Security System, and Congress participates with the American people.  The system may not be used for any other purpose.
  3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
  4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3 percent.
  5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.
  6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
  7. All contracts with past and present members of Congress are void effective 12-1-12.  The American people did not make these contracts with members of Congress.  Congress made all of these contracts for themselves.  Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career.  The founding fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s),then go home and back to work.
While the reform act provisions alone do not provide the specific remedies to immediately address the U.S. budget deficit and the looming fiscal cliff, over the long term they would supply an incentive for lawmakers to genuinely seek solutions and compromise.  This would require the presence of ideological moderates in both parties, to temper the intransigence of more radical elements. 

One things is for certain ~ the days of exceptionalism enjoyed by the super-wealthy cannot be allowed to persist.  We have a graduated tax scale for a reason.  Those who are poor cannot afford to pay the same tax rate as those who are rich. Historically, whenever the wealthy have paid a significantly higher rate, the nation's economy has prospered.  But whenever the wealthy have pressured, persuaded, or bribed politicians to establish lower tax rates for the wealthy, the nation's economy has suffered.  (see graph above, click to enlarge)

All the Republican smoke-and-mirrors about the wealthy being the "job creators" is baloney.  Most have one guiding principle ~ to maximize profit.  In recent years that has actually meant outsourcing jobs to other nations, contributing to unemployment and economic stagnation, while widening the gap between the most wealthy 2% of Americans and everyone else.  Add to that their access to well-paid accountants with intimate knowledge of tax loopholes and the tax shelters provided by offshore accounts, and many of the wealthiest end up paying little or no tax whatsoever.  Recent Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is a case in point.

I hope that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress stand firm on increasing the tax burden on those earning over $250,000 per year.  Fair is fair.  Even the increases being put forth do not come close to the tax rates which the wealthy have paid in years past, as the graph below affirms.  Starting with the Reagan presidency, and cemented by the Bush I and Bush II presidencies, wealthy individuals and corporations have become the true welfare queens in our nation.  It is long past time to remedy that disparity.  Rather than the current 17 percent, let's see a return to a tax rate of 70-90 percent for the top tax bracket, with no loopholes or exemptions.  Tax evasion through offshore accounts should be a separate felony under the tax code, with large fines and prison time.  It is hardly evidence of the patriotism which wealthy conservatives claim as they wrap themselves in the American flag.

19 November 2012


1.  Click on the above image to enlarge.
2.  Stare at the red dot for 30 seconds ~ maintain focus.
3.  Shift your gaze to a white wall or other blank space.

What do you see?

(Normally when we stare at a photo-positive image for this exercise, our eye and brain reverse it to a photo-negative afterimage when we look away.  Since this image is already a photo-negative, you should see the original photo-positive when you move your eyes away.)

18 November 2012


I have a thing for peace and quiet.  I seek it, I cultivate it, and at times I insist upon it.

I live in an apartment complex made up of efficiency apartments sandwiched together, with neighbors on both sides and above.  Many of the residents are university students, so during the seven years I've lived here, neighbors have come and gone.  Each time someone moves in, they bring their particular noise habits (e.g., music, heavy footfalls, loud conversation, slamming cabinet doors) with them.  Sometimes I get lucky ~ a new neighbor enjoys quiet as much as I do (and extends equal courtesy to those who live beyond our shared, thin walls.

More often, new residents choose to ignore the apartment management's rules of conduct, apparently feeling entitled to play music at disturbing levels during quiet hours, or to party loudly when others are trying to sleep or simply read a book.  Thus it falls upon me (apparently one of the few quieter residents assertive enough to object) to knock on the oblivious person's door and explain that he/she is disrupting my life, and the lives of everyone else who lives there.

I'm always soft-spoken and courteous, but also clear and insistent.  Sometimes one visit is enough ~ the person graciously apologizes, problem solved.  More often, I'm met with indifference or hostility.  Thus when a second offense occurs, I feel no qualms about calling the police with a noise complaint ~ and will do so thereafter every time I'm disturbed by that person.  There's the further avenue of filing an official noise complaint with the apartment manager.  A letter in the mail from the manager is usually sufficient to get the attention of even the most obtuse tenant.

Inconsiderate noise isn't limited to where I live.  How often have we been subjected to overly-loud cell phone conversations in public places ~ theaters, airplanes, stores, even public libraries?  How often have we had to endure the tinny cacophony of music emanating from the ear buds of someone's iPod?  (And just think, if the music is that loud to us, what kind of ear drum damage is being inflicted on the wearer?)

And don't even get me started on barking dogs and screaming children.  I realize that ultimately the fault rests with the owner/parent.  Still.

It has been documented that with our plethora of gadgets and the explosion in our numbers, it is becoming more and more difficult to find privacy and quiet.  Even more sadly, we are adjusting our expectations to accommodate the uproar, rather than insisting that the uproar be muted.

I know I'm not alone in feeling this way.  In fact, I was delighted to discover Tim Kreider's article entitled The Quiet Ones in today's NYTimes.  Consider this exerpt, and you'll understand ~

"Ever since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak's Quiet Car.  The Quiet Car, in case you don't know, is usually the first car in Amtrak's coach section, right behind business class.  Loud talking is forbidden there ~ any conversations are to be conducted in whispers.  Cellphones off ~ music and movies on headphones only.  There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon.  The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol.  Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car's rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.

" .... In a 2006 interview David Foster Wallace said, 'it seems significant that we don't want things to be quiet, ever, anymore.'  Stores and restaurants have their ubiquitous Muzak or satellite radio.  Bars have anywhere between 1 and 17 TVs blaring Fox and soccer. Ads and 30-second news cycles play on screens in cabs, elevators, and restrooms.  Even some libraries, whose professional shushers were once celebrated in cartoon and sitcom, now have music and special segregated areas designated for 'quiet study', which is what a library used to be.

" .... People are louder, too.  They complain at length and in detail about their divorces or gallbladders a foot away from you in restaurants.  A dreaded Amtrak type is the passenger who commences prattling on her cellphone the instant she sits down and doesn't hang up until she gets to her stop, unable to bear an undistracted instant of her own company.  People practice rap lyrics on the bus or the subway, barking doggerel along with their iPods as though they were alone in the shower.  Respecting shared public space is becoming as quaintly archaic as tipping your hat to a lady, now that the concept of public space is nearly as extinct as hats, and ladies.

" .... It's a pathology that seems increasingly common, I suspect in part because people now spend so much time in the solipsist's paradise of the Internet that they carry its illusion of invisible (and inaudible) omniscience back with them into the real world.

" .... Those of us who despise this tendency don't have a voice, or a side, let alone anything like a lobby.  There are anti-noise-pollution groups, but they can fight only limited skirmishes over local nuisances ~ the war is lost.  It's impossible to be heard when your whole position is quiet now that all public discourse has become a shouting match.  Being an advocate of quiet in our society is as quixotic and ridiculous as being an advocate of beauty or human life or any other unmonetizable commodity.

"And so the volume has incrementally risen, the imbecilic din encroaching on one place after another ~ mass transit, waiting rooms, theaters, museums, the library ~ until this last bastion of civility and calm, the Quiet Car, has become the battlefield where we quiet ones, our backs forced to the wall, finally hold our ground.  The Quiet Car is the Thermopylae, the Masada, the Fort McHenry of quiet ~ which is why the regulars are so quick with prepared reproaches, more than ready to make a Whole Big Thing out of it, and why, when the outsiders invariably sit down and start in with their autonomic blather, they often find themselves surrounded by a shockingly hostile mob of professors, old ladies, and four-eyes who look ready to take it outside.

" .... We're a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows.  We are a civil people, courteous to excess, who disdain displays of anger as childish and embarrassing.  But the Quiet Car is our territory, the last reservation to which we've been driven.  And we can be pushed too far.  Our message to the barbarians who would barge into our haven with their chatter and blatting gadgets like so many bulldozers is ~

17 November 2012


Each of us is an ecosystem.  In fact, each of us is an entire planet of ecosystems.  Most of us are familiar with the symbiotic relationships we have with the millions of tiny creatures who live in our gut ~ bacteria which help us digest our food and process waste, in return for enough fuel to live and reproduce.  But we also host intricate communities of microorganisms in the most unlikely places ~ our eyelashes, our armpits.

I recall in the lab portion of a biology class at the University of Arizona, seeing a series of petri dishes, each containing a substrate of nutritive agar on which had been swiped Q-tip samples taken from everyday surfaces, to demonstrate the vigorous micro-biodiversity living all around us.  Here was a dish containing multicolored molds from the hallway water fountain.  Another was the new home of mildew and fungus sampled from the lab doorknob.  Perhaps the most memorable was a flourishing colony of ... something ... labeled "Susie's kiss".  Some brave coed had consented to place her lips against the uncontaminated agar, and the result was a gray furry township in the shape of, well, a kiss.

During this same time, I was privileged to attend a guest lecture by Dr. Lynn Margulis, during which she expanded upon her theory of the symbiotic origin of eukaryotic organelles in particular, endosymbiotic theory in general, and her contributions to the more massive Gaia hypothesis.  She would have felt right at home discussing a human being as an assembly of component communities of microbes.

I was reminded of all this when I happened upon an article in National Geographic News online.  What began as a lab researcher's lark became a full-blown study on the inhabitant of the human navel.  Yes, whether you have an outie or an innie, your belly button is home to dozens of bacterial species.

"From 60 belly buttons, the team found 2,368 bacterial species, 1,458 of which may be new to science.  Some belly buttons harbored as few as 29 species, and some as many as 107, although most had around 67 species.  92 percent of the bacteria types showed up on fewer than 10 percent of subjects ~ in fact, most of the time they appeared in only a single subject.

"One science writer, for instance, apparently harbored a bacterium that had previously been found only in soil from Japan ~ where he has never been.  Another, more fragrant individual, who hadn't washed in several years, hosted two species of so-called extremophile bacteria that basically thrive in ice caps and thermal vents.

"Despite the diversity, themes emerged.  Even though not a single strain showed up in [all subjects], eight species were present in more than 70 percent of the subjects.  And whenever these species appeared, they did so in huge numbers.  That makes the belly button a lot like rain forests.  In any given forest, the spectrum of flora might vary, but an ecologist can count on a certain few dominant tree types."

All of which is fertile ground for fantasy.  Imagine a children's book in which a kid is shrunk to microbe size, and finds him/herself having to survive in his/her own belly button!  Personally I find it charming to imagine my navel populated by tiny jungles, jaguars, anacondas, macaws, and aboriginal tribes.  Kinda gives a whole new meaning to navel-gazing.

Who lives in your belly button?

16 November 2012


With age has come the awareness that I experience certain time intervals differently from the awareness of my youth.  In childhood and early adulthood, hours, days, weeks, months, and years each had a prescribed duration.  Now, subjectively, it feels like an hour has passed, but the clock testifies that it is four hours later.  Days pass by in a blur, my mind's camera focused on the spot past which railroad cars are speeding by.  Is it Friday again, already?

Getting older is not for sissies.  Besides the physical infirmities, there are the memories of blunders one wishes it were possible to go back and correct.  Increasingly, I know before it happens what someone is going to say or do ~ simply because I've been here before.  Yet trying to explain my cumulative experience and perspective to a young person is whistling into the wind.  I was that way too, once.

All of which makes me more curious about what lies on the other side of death.  I don't have a religious or new age belief in heaven, an afterlife, or reincarnation.  Yet something in me senses that there is .... something.  When I find out, I'll be sure to let you know.

15 November 2012


Cybersecurity writer Nicole Perlroth has a list of suggestions for devising passwords that will discourage hackers.  Her NYTimes article acknowledges that "Chances are, most people will get hacked at some point in their lifetime. All it takes is clicking on one malicious link or attachment.  The best they can do is delay the inevitable by avoiding suspicious links, even from friends, and manage their passwords.  Unfortunately, good password hygiene is like flossing ~ you know it's important, but it takes effort.  How do you possibly come up with different, hard-to-crack passwords for every single news, social network, e-commerce, banking, corporate and e-mail account and still remember them all?"

To answer that question, Perlroth consulted with two experts ~ a former hacker turned security tech officer, and a cryptographer.  Here is a summary of their ideas ~

  • Forget the dictionary ~ hackers often test passwords from a dictionary.  Your password should not appear there.
  • Never use the same password twice ~ once a hacker cracks your password at one site, she/he will see if it works at other sites on your computer.
  • Come up with a passphrase ~ longer is better, preferably 14 characters or more.  Rather than use recognizable words strung together, choose a phrase from a song, movie quote, or poem, then use only the first letter or two from each phrase word to construct your passphrase.
  • Or just jam on your keyboard ~ randomly hit letters and numbers, inserting the odd Shift and Alt strike.  Then copy the result into a text file stored on an encrypted, password-protected USB drive.  You won't have to remember the random set ~ you can access it on the USB.
  • Store your passwords securely ~ which means not in your inbox or on your desktop.  Store your password file on an encrypted USB drive.  Alternatively, simply write your password file on a piece of paper (or better yet, write password hints) kept in your wallet.
  • A password manager?  Maybe ~ some password protection software allows you to store usernames and passwords in one place.  Professionals avoid this approach, for two reasons ~ the software still lives in your computer, and if your computer is stolen, your goose is cooked.  Secondly, even protection cryptography can be hacked.
  • Ignore (or sidestep) security questions ~ the limited set of answers to generic questions like "what is your favorite color?", or "what is your mother's maiden name?", can be found online.  Hackers can use the information to reset your password and access your account.  Better to enter a password hint that has nothing to do with the security quuestion itself.  For example, if the security question asks for the city in which you were born, establish a non sequitur response such as the phrase "your first pet's name".
  • Use different browsers ~ "Pick one browser for 'promiscuous' browsing ~ online forums, news sites, blogs ~ anything you don't consider important.  When you're online banking or checking e-mail, fire up a secondary Web browser, then shut it down.  That way, if your browser catches an infection when you accidentally stumble on an X-rated sited, your bank account is not necessarily compromised.  As for which browser to use for which activities, a study last year by Accuvant Labs of Web browsers ~ including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Microsoft Internet Explorer ~ found that Chrome was the least susceptible to attacks."
  • Share cautiously ~ whenever possible, do not register for online accounts using your real e-mail address.  Instead use 'throw-away' e-mail addresses like those offered by 10minutemail.com .  Once users register and confirm an online account, the false e-mail address self-destructs.
There's an old cautionary warning to the effect that you should say or do nothing that you wouldn't want to see as a headline in the NYTimes.  Similarly, recognizing that you will almost certainly be hacked (and probably already have been), don't record anything personal online that you don't want falling into the wrong hands.

14 November 2012


Here's a shout-out to my friend Dr. Carin Bondar, who is hosting a soon-to-be-released series called "Wild Sex" ~ i.e., eye-popping intimate encounters in the animal kingdom.  Here is the trailer for the series, which will be streamed at the web TV site EarthTouch.  I know from my own studies over the years that we humans are far from being the most athletic, well-endowed, or kinkiest performers among our fellow species.  This should be fun!

13 November 2012


The flip side of yesterday's post, "Science and Play", is that as students playfully explore science, primary and high school teachers and schools are required to operate with certain well-formulated goals for learning.  Anna Kuchment writes in Scientific American that "Standards are the foundation upon which educators build curricula, write textbooks and train teachers ~ they often take the form of a list of facts and skills that students must master at each grade level.  Each state is free to form its own standards, and numerous studies have found that high standards are a first step on the road to high student achievement.  'A majority of the states' standards remain mediocre to awful', write the authors [ of a new report on state science standards across the United States].  Only one state, California, plus the District of Columbia, earned straight A's.  (Note ~ click on the map above to more clearly view the science standards grade earned by each state.)

" .... What exactly is going wrong?  The study's lead authors identified four main factors ~ an undermining of evolution, vague goals, not enough guidance for teachers on how to integrate the history of science and the concept of scientific inquiry into their lessons, and not enough math instruction.

" .... A bit of good news.  At least 26 states have signed on to an effort to write new, common 'Next Generation Science Standards' that will be more rigorous and specific than what many states currently have on the books.  To read more about that effort, visit nextgenscience.org or achieve.org, or read the document upon which the standards will be based here."

Given that the science standards of most states are rated "mediocre to awful", and given that students from those states with well-developed standards enjoy an advantage over others in gaining a decent university education and entering chosen careers, it makes sense to me that all schools in the nation should adhere to a national set of standards in all subjects, particularly in math and science.  I can hear legions of conservative thinkers howl in protest, arguing that we need local control over local education.  I submit that with the advent of the Internet, in a global economy and a global community, local education no longer exists.  For the sake of our children, and their children, we desperately need national standards which are competitive with those of the best schools around the globe.  Local control has failed miserably.

I'm not the only one who thinks so.  Check out this Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Science Education.  (It addresses physics, but could equally apply to all the sciences.)  An exerpt ~ "The United States ~ a country with 5,000 nuclear weapons, home of the first atomic clock, and creator of the Global Positioning Sytem.  Chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don't know one iota about the science behind these things .... That's because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865.  Yes, 1865.  That's the year the Civil War ended, and well over a decade before Albert Einstein was even born.  Do you know what can happen in 150 years?  A lot."

This 4 minute piece is typical of the brief, upbeat videos from MinutePhysics ~ witty, informative, and fun.  Science and play.  Sound familiar?

12 November 2012


TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences are stunningly original and penetrating resources.  The website is the jumping-off point for hundreds, perhaps thousands of individual talks on every topic under the sun, and some that are not.  Just click on any of the tabs at the top of the home page, and start exploring.

For starters, I warmly invite you to spend 15 minutes watching and listening to Beau Lotto as he captivates his audience in Science Is For Everyone, Kids Included.  He is animated, funny, and brimming with insights into how we learn science.  Play is a key component of the best science learning, because the two share certain traits.  They ~

  • celebrate uncertainty
  • adapt to change
  • are open to possibility
  • are cooperative
  • are propelled by intrinsic motivation (the behavior is its own reward)
I dare you to watch his presentation without smiling, and without a light bulb of recognition illuminating over your own head.  Enjoy.

11 November 2012


On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as "the Great War".  Commemorated as Armistice Day beginning the following year, November 11th became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938.  In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars.

Veterans Day coincides with Remembrance Day in British Commonwealth nations.  Remembrance Day's intent is similar to America's Memorial Day in the month of May ~ to pay tribute to those who have died in military service.  Both Remembrance Day and Memorial Day are commemorated by the wearing of red remembrance poppies (see image above).  The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields, whose opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers' graves in Flanders, an area that overlaps parts of France and Belgium.

Veterans Day is distinguished from Memorial Day in that it honors all those who, past and present, have served in the military, whether or not they died in the line of duty.

I am a veteran of the Vietnam War.  I served in country from March 1968 to March 1969.  My Army base camp was located at one apex of the Iron Triangle.  As a highly trained radioteletype operator with a Secret security clearance and access to sensitive cryptographic equipment, I spent part of my tour in base camp, and part in the field, attached to a mobile artillery battery of 155mm self-propelled howitzers.  I spent time at fire support bases (FSBs) in the Mekong Delta, Cholon (the Chinese suburb of Saigon), Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, and near the Parrot's Beak of neighboring Cambodia.

Time at base camp was safer (relatively).  The military base at Phu Loi included several military units and an airfield, and was surrounded by a perimeter defense of armed bunkers, trip flares, mines, and barbed wire.  Nevertheless, we experienced rocket and mortar attacks there.

Time in the field was much more dangerous.  Fire support bases were essentially populated by our artillery battery, and if we were lucky an infantry detachment.  Perimeter defense was rudimentary ~ ranging from fortified foxholes to nothing at all.  In the field, whether dug in at an FSB or in convoy to our next assigned location, we were the targets of rockets, mortars, and probes by enemy infantry.  As a communications operator, I had a bounty on my head and thus was a favored target for snipers as well.  Thankfully I was never hit.

I returned home physically unscathed, but psychologically unbalanced by the PTSD which afflicts nearly all combat veterans.  My symptoms were not at debilitating as they were for many, but they were (and remain) bad enough.  Being around anyone, even a police officer, carrying a firearm puts me on edge.  Sudden loud noises cause my heart to stop.  I have to insulate myself from the sights and sounds of 4th of July celebrations ~ they bring back too many memories.

Yet I am highly functional, for which I am grateful.  I'm also grateful to all those men and women with whom I share the language of the military experience ~ my fellow veterans.  Each of us has a story to tell, though we often are only comfortable sharing it with other veterans.  If you haven't been there, you don't speak the language, you don't comprehend the same set of experiences.  I don't say that in a condescending manner.  It is simple truth.  I truly wish that more people did grasp how the military changes you ~ it trains you (sometimes brutally), it places you in fight-or-flight situations, it expects you to take human life.  You may be exposed to gruesome scenes out of unimaginable nightmares, moments which etch themselves permanently into your psyche.

And it also introduces you to cultural diversity, the common bond of sharing the risk of death, and a journey in which you discover reservoirs of resilience and strength you never knew you possessed.  The bond spans generations, and is shared by former adversaries.  Just as I weep whenever I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, so would I weep if I could visit the Normandy cemeteries near the D-Day landing beaches, or a memorial to the Vietnamese soldiers who once wished my death.

John McCutcheon's ballad "Christmas in the Trenches" (based on a real event during World War I) sums it up ~ on each end of the rifle, we're the same.

10 November 2012


As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the presidential election's results (by electoral college votes and by the popular vote), here is a visual on the distribution (click to enlarge) ~

It is an interesting exercise to compare the more liberal (blue) states and the more conservative (red) states with another map, this one showing the locations of the nation's top universities overlaid on the voting map ~

There does seem to be a correlation between education and how residents vote.  One might argue that even in those conservative states with a top university, the university town may be a liberal enclave within the state.  One example is Tucson, Arizona.

It is also evocative to compare the voting map with a map of the slave and free states as they existed in 1852 (courtesy of my friend Bill) ~

The boundaries are not precise, since so much land existed as a U.S. territory rather than a U.S. state, but you can see a clear resemblance in the northeast, midwest, and west coast.

So what am I suggesting ~ that conservatives tend to be less well-educated?  That they are racist rednecks harking back to the days of slavery?  Well, yes, in sweeping general terms.  There are, of course, well-educated conservative individuals, and conservative individuals whose attitude toward race is moderate, perhaps even progressive.  But taken as a group, yes, those xenophobic links exist.

As I entered adulthood, I had virtually no life experience with races other than whites.  I'd grown up in lily-white north central Montana, and my first two years of college were at Washington State University, overall an institution populated mostly by whites.  It took two events to broaden my horizons and shape my preference for diversity.  The first was entering the Army for two years.  In 1967 there was a disproportionate number of young black and Latino men in the military, thanks to the culling effect of the draft ~ it was easier for economically-advantaged young white men to obtain a student deferment or a posting in the National Guard, thus avoiding active duty.  I was surrounded by racial diversity, and I was fascinated, and made friends.

The second event was my moving to southern Arizona in 1969, after leaving the military.  The city of Tucson is a healthy mix of white, black, and Latino residents, and here too, I thrived.  My contact with, and understanding of, other cultures widened even more when I became a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  There my classmates were often from other nations, other traditions and cultures by which I felt enriched.

It is a truism I've witnessed over and over, that even the most bigoted person can shed his/her prejudice when a friendship is formed with someone from the "other" group.  The transformation doesn't usually happen overnight.  It takes time to rethink assumptions, to cast aside the bonds of old thinking.  But the results are breathtaking.  From the military, from my education, from my travels, from my contacts on social media, I enjoy friendships with people all over the country, all over the world.  What could be finer?

09 November 2012


At the blogsite io9, George Dvorsky recently reported that "A clinical trial is about to get underway in Australia, Canada, and other parts of the world to test a new female 'sex-drive' drug that would increase the libido of women suffering from 'female orgasmic disorder'.  Called Tefina, it is a testosterone gel that is sprayed up the nose about an hour before a sexual encounter.  The developers say the drug could boost female sexual arousal and satisfaction."

The article goes on to say that "surveys indicate that 30 percent of women cannot climax during intercourse.  For many women, this inability translates into sexual activity becoming a chore or a duty instead of a shared positive experience .... Differences in sexual satisfaction in a relationship commonly lead to the development of substantial tension within the relationship.

"Clearly, women need to be mindful of their reasons for taking a drug like Tefina while remaining wary of corporate intrusions in the bedroom.  But some of the arguments against its development and use sound nothing short of paternalistic (whether they come from a man or a woman).  It also sounds condescending ~ as if women don't understand their own sexuality and how to manage it .... Ultimately, when it comes to a female Viagra or a male contraceptive, it's about personal choice and a person's right to have access to these technologies.  Assuming they're safe and effective, we can decide for ourselves how to best use them."

Male erectile dysfunction and its treatment, the drug Viagra, have received so much attention in recent years that it's surprising that it has taken this long to examine the female counterpart.  After all, a legitimate physiological need exists, which translates to a lucrative market for treatment.  There may be some women who hesitate to inhale a hormone mist ~ those women should consult with their physician or perhaps a therapist for objective information and encouragement.

There may also be some women who hesitate over the seeming artificiality of "planning" one's sexual encounters, and inhaling the mist an hour beforehand.  Speaking as a male who has used viagra for several years, I offer reassurance that it's really no big deal.  If anything, when a couple gets that mutual gleam in their eye and decides its time for the sublime intimacy of a romp in bed, the delay adds a rather delicious anticipation.

The primary difference seems to be that when a man uses Viagra, his sexual performance and enjoyment are enhanced by up to four hours, but the drug inhibits reaching orgasm.  For a woman, Tefina's intent is explicitly to heighten arousal and orgasm.  For individuals or couples who, by reason of age or other condition experience a less-than-satisfying sex life, one or both drugs could open up new horizons of bliss.

08 November 2012


(I've been absent for nearly a week, taking a physical and psychological breather.  Now I have returned ~ aren't you glad?)

The 2012 presidential election results are all but complete, after a slight delay in tabulating results in (where else?) Florida.  Here are the final tallies ~

Electoral college
  • 332 electoral votes - Barack Obama (D)
  • 206 electoral votes - Mitt Romney (R)
Popular vote
  • 61,140,279 votes - Barack Obama (D)
  • 58,148,398 votes - Mitt Romney (R)
The above figures are courtesy of Huffington Post's election results, which includes a breakdown by state.

President Obama's strongest support came from blacks, Asians, Latinos, women, and younger voters.  Mr. Romney's strongest support came from whites, especially white men.

Joel Benenson comments in the NYTimes that there was more than demographics at play in Obama's re-election.  An exerpt ~ "The president's victory was a triumph of vision, not of demographics.  He won because he articulated a set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in.  A nation that makes the investments we need to strengthen and grow the middle class.  A nation with a fair tax system, and affordable and excellent education for all its citizens.  A nation that believes that we are more prosperous when we recognize that we are all in it together.

" ....Two key data points illustrate why Americans were always far more open to President Obama's message and accomplishments than commentators assumed.  By a three to one margin (74 percent to 23 percent), voters said that what the country faced since 2008 was an 'extraordinary crisis more severe than we have seen in decades', as opposed to 'a typical recession that the country has every several years'.  At the same time, a clear majority, 57 percent, believed that the problems we faced after the crisis were 'too severe for anyone to fix in a single term', while only 4 in 10 voters believed another president would have been able to do more than Mr. Obama to get the economy moving in the past four years.

" .... Moreover, Mr. Obama's strength on the economy was not about 'empathy', as many experts asserted.  Rather, for average working-class and middle-class Americans who have believed for nearly a decade that the economic system in American has fallen out of balance for people like them, the president's personal story and policies engendered trust because they connected with voters' lives, aspirations, and beliefs about what it would take to create the future they wanted.  That trust was the central economic test in this election."

I would suggest that both demographics and values played a role in the outcome.  It is undeniable that the Republican party has become increasingly out of touch with the evolving makeup of the electorate.  Their reliance on the white male vote (especially wealthy white males), giving short shrift and sometimes even insult to women and minorities, proved to be their undoing, at least in the presidential race.  The tectonic shift in who votes, and why, appears to have eluded moderate Republicans, and appears to be an entirely foreign language to more radical conservatives.  Unless they can manage to enter the 21st century, Republican risk becoming obsolete and irrelevant.

There is, of course, more at stake than the economy.  I've pointed out several times the utter absence of a meaningful discussion of the environment and climate change.  Ironically, it was a symptom of climate change in the form of Hurricane Sandy which may have sealed Obama's win in the final days before the election, allowing him not only to appear appropriately presidential during the crisis response, but also to demonstrate his genuine caring as he listened to and consoled the storm's victims ~ harking back to Bill Clinton's genuine ability to empathize with any listener.

So now the players are back in Washington, with a number of new congressional faces (notably women), but essentially the same party balance of power.  There will be tremendous pressure to find ways to break the ideological gridlock which has paralyzed the Capitol during much of Obama's first term ~ a gridlock perpetrated publicly and proudly by Republicans intent on seeing the nation's first black president fail.  The voters made it clear that we have no patience for such foolishness.  The question is, will they listen?

02 November 2012


I came across a piece by Ian McEwan in The Atlantic, entitled Some Thoughts on the Novella.  McEwan's love for this literary form is adamant ~ "I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.  It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who's a genius on his better days).  And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers.

" .... [a novella is] long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter ~ the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures .... To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie."

Let's backtrack, and roughly define the prose forms being described ~

  • short story ~ under 7,500 words, or under 37.5 pages
  • novelette ~ between 7,500 and 17,500 words, or 37.5 and 87.5 pages 
  • novella ~ between 17,500 and 40,000 words, or 87.5 and 200 pages
  • novel ~ over 40,000 words, or over 200 pages
By convention in the submission of manuscripts, at a standard font size and double-spaced, there are on average 200 words per page.  The above word counts are an approximation, with latitude allowed for interpretation by the writer/editor/critic.

McEwan takes issue with those who look upon prose which is less than a novel in length as being an indication of the author's inadequacy.  He likens the novella to shorter pieces in classical music ~ "Composers, including those of the highest rank, have never had such problems of scale.  Who doubts the greatness of Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets or of Schubert's songs? Some, like me, prefer them to the symphonies of either man.  Who could harden his heart against the intimate drama of Mozart's G minor trio, or not lose himself in the Goldberg variations or not stand in awe of the D minor Chaconne played on a lonesome violin?"

Point well taken.  When it comes to classical music, I'm partial to all forms.  But while there are novellas which do possess me, somehow I remain most interested in the epic depiction of life to be found in novels.  There is so much more room for character development, for stroking in the colors and textures, the sounds and landscapes, of one or many environments ~ and the changes in all those qualities over time.

Some writers overdo a good thing, of course.  300-400 pages is a good length for a novel.  600 pages or more suggests that further editing might be profitably employed.  My own novel (which perished when my laptop's hard drive died) was a modest 50,000 words, or 250 pages.  The next one will be longer.

There are those in writing classes who suggest that it's best to start small (short story) and work up.  Perhaps.  But short stories fail to engage me.  They're too much like an overheard snippet of conversation ~ not long enough to give a sense of setting, depth, nuance.  IMHO.

Coincidentally, McEwan likens a novella to a movie screenplay (about 20,000 words).  I've noticed that after over four years of Netflix movie rentals, I gravitate more and more toward long-running, multi-disk dramatic TV or cable series which run for years.  A regular movie is fine too, but the series (the good ones) are more like real life ~ the characters grow and change, new elements are introduced, and one develops a feeling of kinship with their lives.  Not unlike reading a novel.

So, Sir Ian, we'll have to respectfully agree to disagree.  And I remain open to persuasion.

01 November 2012


Some days, it is sweet to read the headlines.  From the NYTimes ~ Bloomberg Endorses Obama, Citing Climate Change ~ "In a surprise announcement, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Thursday that Hurricane Sandy had reshaped his thinking about the presidential campaign and that as a result he was endorsing President Obama.

"Mr. Bloomberg, a political independent in his third term leading New York City, has been sharply critical of both Mr. Obama, a Democrat, and Mitt Romney, the president's Republican rival, saying that both men had failed to candidly confront the problems afflicting the nation.  But he said he had decided over the past several days that Mr. Obama was the best candidate to tackle the global climate change that the mayor believes contributed to the violent storm, which took the lives of at least 38 New Yorkers and caused billions of dollars in damage.

"The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast ~ in lost lives, lost homes and lost business ~ brought the stakes of next Tuesday's presidential election into sharp relief," Mr. Bloomberg wrote in an editorial for Bloomberg View.

" 'Our climate is changing,' he wrote.  'And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be ~ given the devastation it is wreaking ~ should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.'  "

Ya think?  The astute reader will note that often (most recently in yesterday's post), I have been one of a handful of voices in the wilderness trying to call attention to the fact that we have already crossed a number of environmental thresholds, and continue to do so, with deleterious effects on natural habitat and the survival of other species.  Our homocentric attitude toward other life forms and Earth's resources (believing that they exist for us to use/abuse as we see fit), is self-deluding and ultimately self-destructive.

We humans tend to behave responsibly only in reaction to crisis.  Few among us think and behave proactively, considering the potential consequences before making choices, and even then being willing to alter our views as new data emerges.  It is a delicious (and perhaps hopeful) irony that both NJ Governor Chris Christie (a Republican, pictured above with President Obama ~ click to enlarge) and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg have praised Obama's swift emergency response.  The irony is doubled when you consider that Republican candidate Mitt Romney, in typical foot-in-mouth fashion, actually called for defunding FEMA and turning the federal government's role in disaster response over to the states ~ a laughable proposition at best, an insult to every citizen's intelligence at worst.

(Bloomberg had a few choice observations about Romney, too ~ "In the past he has taken sensible positions on immigration, illegal guns, abortion rights and health care ~ but he has reversed course on all of them, and is even running against the very health care model he signed into law in Massachussetts.")

So yes, of course there is an essential, irreplaceable role for a strong federal government, paid for by a fair distribution of taxes.  And of course Hurricane Sandy is a wake-up call on climate change, and not the first to appear.  Extreme weather, the die-off of the world's coral reefs, massive wildfires, rising global temperatures, shifts in oceanic currents, the rapid disappearance of the polar ice pack and the world's glaciers and coastal ice sheets in Antarctica ~ these are all symptoms of climate change, and there is worse to come.  Had all the governments of the world heeded the warnings of climate scientists thirty years ago regarding greenhouse gases and rapid deforestation and the destruction of entire ecosystems, we might ... might ... have avoided a few thresholds.  Even if, overnight, the world's population were to immediately halt carbon dioxide emissions and other forms of pollution (not to mention cutting our population to one-tenth its present numbers), too many local and global processes are already in motion.  It takes time to slow, then reverse, the momentum of such massive systems.  We are out of time.

Now we must deal with the consequences.