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Showing posts from February, 2010

The martins are here!

Or perhaps I should say, "The martin IS here." So far, I've seen only one. I've been scanning the skies for weeks, whenever I'm outside, looking for the first Purple Martin of the year and checking the scout reports online to see where they have been reported. They've been all around me, according to those reports, for weeks, but there was no sighting of them over my yard. Then, this morning, I was outside in my backyard puttering around when my ear caught a familiar sound. I looked up just in time to see him as he swept by the martin mansion on his blue-black wings. He didn't stop this time, but at least I know that he knows it's there. So, the question now is, will I have martins nesting in that mansion this spring? Last spring, we put up this new house after removing the old ones we had had for many years, the ones in which many, many generations of martins had begun life. The birds completely snubbed the new and improved housing. Not a

That girl

I am reading the first in the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo . I'm finding it virtually unputdownable. It's that good. The book was originally published in Larsson's native Sweden in 2005 and the buzz about it started soon thereafter. I've had it on my wish list for reading for quite some time now and finally I'm acting on that wish. Do you know about Stieg Larsson? He was a Swedish journalist and activist, a crusader against racism and right-wing fanatics. He lived under constant threat of violence and death from those that he opposed. He started writing the Millenium Trilogy mostly for his own amusement and had not attempted to have it published. He finally delivered the three completed novels to the publisher shortly before his death from a massive heart attack in November 2004. He was only 50 years old. He had mapped out plans for additional books in the series, a total of ten in all. Now, of course, we'll nev

Curling: The next blockbuster sport?

Have you been watching the Olympics? I confess I haven't watched a single minute of the games and I really don't have any great interest in them, except that I would like to see Canada win a lot of medals. I mean, after all, it is their backyard, and it seems only neighborly that we should wish our good neighbor well. The only parts of the Olympics that I have seen are the promos that are shown when I happen to be watching other shows on television. About 99% of the promos that I have seen have been for curling, leading me to the conclusion that this must be the most important game in the winter Olympics. Now, I know nothing about curling , but judging from the promos, it involves teams sweeping a big ol' shiny stone across ice with a broom, attempting to guide it toward a target designated on the ice. It seems to be extremely popular already in some parts of the world. The icy parts, I would guess. There appears to be what I would consider to be an inordinate amount

Bluebird of happiness

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It was one of those absolutely perfect late winter days here today. Golden sunshine splashed over everything with temperatures in the 50s, but what really cinched the perfection of the day for me was the bluebirds. Several years ago, I had bluebirds nesting in my yard, but then there got to be a cat problem in the neighborhood and since I was at work all day and unable to keep an eye on the bluebird boxes, I took them down. I didn't want to provide snacks for predators. Since then, the predator problem has abated and I've put my bluebird boxes back up, but several years have gone by and no bluebirds have nested there. Sometimes chickadees or wrens have nested in the boxes but no bluebirds. This winter, though, there have been lots of bluebirds around, singing their little red, white and blue hearts out and that has given me hope that THIS MIGHT BE THE YEAR! A few days ago when I saw a male bluebird actually inspecting one of the houses, I was ecstatic. Today we put up

Baseball's back. All's right with the world.

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal. - George Will There is very little space in this world where I could find common ground with George Will, but I have to admit, the man does have a feel for the game of baseball. He's absolutely right. Not all games are created equal, and baseball just happens to be the best game ever invented by a human. People who think of baseball as dull are simply dull people. There is so much going on in a game at any one time that there is just no way to follow it all. There's the way the outfielders are positioned, the way the infielders get set for each pitch, the way the pitcher "plays" the umpire, trying to get him to call the strikes the pitcher wants. There's the way baserunners try to fool fielders and the way fielders attempt to "deke" baserunners. And strategy always depends on who's up to bat next and ne

Just the facts, ma'am.

When I run across the same idea from two different respected sources in the same day, I have to figure that the universe is trying to tell me something. First, this morning, I read Leonard Pitts' column . Pitts was decrying the fact that, as he stated it, we have become "a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic. alienated from even objective truth." We are not persuaded by facts and by objective evidence. We reject any evidence that conflicts with our own preconceived ideas. We believe what we want to believe and anything that does not validate our beliefs is automatically rejected. The sad thing is that a people who reject critical thinking and who refuse to consider any alternative evidence or ideas are doomed. Just because you refuse to believe that a brick wall is a brick wall does not make the wall cease to exist, as you will discover when you walk into it. That column gave me quite a bit to think about, and then, this afternoon, I hap

What rock did these guys crawl from under?

I don't even know how to begin to say anything sensible about this state legislator from Virginia : State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas says disabled children are God's punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy. He made that statement Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood. "The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," said Marshall, a Republican. "In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest." So children that are born with disabilities are God's punishment on the mother. And then there was this statement by a member of the House of Representatives from Iowa: Steve King To Conservatives: 'Implode' IRS Of

The seed thief

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Who me? You lookin' at me? I'm totally innocent, man! I was just checkin' out the scenery from up here.

Offered for your attention...

I've just finished reading another book that I would like to recommend to you. It is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and it is a wonderful book. It's the story of a man of the early 20th century, Harrison William Shepherd, born in 1917 near Washington, D.C. to a Mexican mother and American father. His father is a government employee, whom his mother soon tires of, and when Harrison is 12 years old, she ditches the father and takes the son with her to Mexico, following an oilman to his estate on Isla Pixol. There the mother and son encounter howler monkeys which terrify them. They believe they are carnivorous demons. Howlers will be a recurring theme in Harrison's life. The mother continues to chase love and adventure in the form of various men throughout Mexico. Finally, in Mexico City, Harrison meets Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and starts working for their household. There he later meets the exiled Communist leader Lev (Leon) Trotsky. Through it all, he keeps

Stupid Texans!

Don't you just love polls? They tell us such interesting things about ourselves. Of course, everything hinges on the way the poll question is worded, and, for that reason, one has to look at who conducted the poll and consider what axe they have to grind before deciding whether to take the results well-salted. But I really doubt that the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune newspaper have any desire to make Texans look particularly bad, so I tend to believe that their poll is on the level. Here are just a few of the "facts" that the pollsters found that Texans believe: - 38 percent agreed with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago." - 22 percent said life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time. - 51 percent disagreed with the statement, "human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." - 41 percent were aware that humans did not live

Who's your great, great, great granddaddy?

There may come a time, perhaps even within our lifetimes, when treatment for our illnesses will depend upon our very own unique genealogy. At least, that is my take away from a fascinating story about human genomes that is in the news today. The New York Times detailed how scientists have decoded the complete genomes of five individuals from southern Africa. The Africans included four Bushmen hunter-gatherers and one member of the Bantu tribe. None of the Bushmen would likely be known outside of their own communities, but the Bantu individual is very well-known indeed. He is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu is said to have been selected because he has a very keen interest in medicine and in the human genome project and he fit the profile that was needed for the research. His parents came from the two largest Bantu groups in South Africa, the Sotho-Tswana and the Nguni. African genomes are of particular interest to scientists because they have more variation in their

GBBC wrap-up

This year's Great Backyard Bird Count is history, but we will have to wait until after March 1 for all the data reports to be finalized. Participants can still report their counts up until that date, so until then we won't know whether this will be another record-breaking year for the popular mid-winter bird survey. If I had to guess, I would say that this probably will not be a record-breaker. The severe weather in many places probably limited some counters' efforts, so we may fall a little short of the record of 634 species that were reported in the 2008 count. As for my own personal count, I ended the weekend with a total of 28 species, not a record-breaking year for me, either. There were several species that are regularly seen in my yard that did not show up during the weekend - birds like the little Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Eastern Bluebird . I didn't even see a Black Vulture or a Red-tailed Hawk flying over my yard, even though in the usual course of event

The case of the murdered monarch - who wasn't

I am fascinated by the history of early human cultures. I have been known to opine that nothing really interesting or new has happened in human history since about 1000 C.E. Everything since then has just been a rerun of happenings in ancient Egypt, Greece, Meso-America, China or Rome. Since, as a species, we seem to be incapable of learning from our history, we are doomed to repeat it, endlessly. We are all players in a colossal blockbuster of a movie just like Groundhog Day . I enjoy reading historical fiction that is set in those ancient cultures, especially ancient Egyptian or ancient Roman mysteries. The period of Egyptian history that I particularly like reading about is that which occurred from the time of Queen Hatshepsut through the time of Ramses II (the Great), i.e, the late 18th and early 19th dynasties. It was an interesting time, full of colorful characters that are relatively well-known to us today, even though they lived more than 3,000 years ago. The most famo

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains it all

Have you hear of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Well, neither had I until today, but now that I have, I must say I think it explains quite a lot. I came across a discussion of the effect in a blog that I follow called Skeptical Science . It's a blog that explains sometimes very complicated scientific concepts in relatively easy-to-understand layman's (or laywoman's) terms. Dunning and Kruger are two Nobel Prize winning scientists who wrote a scientific paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called "Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments." I love that title and it pretty much says it all. The "effect," as I understand it, is that the more unskilled or unaware an individual is, the more likely his/her assessment of his/her own abilities is likely to be inflated and not consistent with reality. Conversely, as one's skills and knowledge level incre

Nature Sunday: The promise of spring

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The blueberry blossoms may not be completely open yet, but they offer the promise that spring is finally on its way. It has been a long, relatively cold winter, even here near the semi-tropical southern coast of America, and we are more than ready to welcome spring. We take our hope where we can find it - even in the promise of a half-opened blossom.

A modest proposal

Tom Tancredo, that racist, migrant-hating, tea-partying bundle of bigotry, wants to reinstitute Jim Crow laws in regard to voting rights. He wants people to be able to pass a literacy test before they can vote. The test would no doubt be devised and scored by local election officials. I'm sure it would be totally unbiased. As worthy as Tancredo's idea might be on its face - and one can't deny that there are some astonishingly ill-informed people who cast their votes in our elections - I find that I really can't support it. Jim Crow laws were used to deny people basic rights during my lifetime. I don't want to go back to that dark place. Besides, I have what I think is a much better idea. Instead of testing the potential voters, let's test the potential candidates for office. Have you listened to some of the people who hold office in this country today? What rocks have these folks crawled out from under? They have no idea of basic American history an

Calling all bird geeks!

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As a certified bird geek myself, one who is never happier than when outside, binoculars in hand, gazing at some feathered phenomenon, this is absolutely one of my favorite weekends of the year. It is Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all wrapped up together. Yes, this is Great Backyard Bird Count weekend. The count starts today, Friday, and continues all the way through Monday, Presidents' Day. It takes place every year on this weekend, and I have been looking forward to it now since Christmas. In the event that you are among the uninitiated, here's a little background. The GBBC is a joint project of the National Audubon Society , Bird Studies Canada , and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology . It is a citizen science project. People with all levels of skills in birding, from beginners to experts, participate. There is no charge for participating. All you have to do is observe and count the birds in your yard or at some alternate site and then report what you

AHHHRRRGGGH!!!!!!!

So now our elected representatives in Washington think that it might not be possible to pass a bill addressing global climate change and its adverse affects on the future of humankind (and, incidentally, the world) because it is SNOWING IN WASHINGTON??? They think it would be TOO HARD to convince people to vote for it because it is cold on the East Coast in February!!! AHHHRRRGGGH!!!!!!!!!!!! Are these people f... er...uh...you know, what Rahm said? Apparently they are. And that is being overly kind. Can they really be so uninformed that they do not understand that weather is not climate and that because it is cold in the northern hemisphere in winter does not mean that the earth is not heating up? Because it is, you know. The year 2009 was the second warmest year since records have been kept, beginning in the 1800s. It was the end of the warmest decade ever recorded. The hottest year on record also occurred in that decade - 2005. They could read all about this on the NASA website -

Did you know...

Did you know... ...that the Health Care Reform proposal will force people to give up their current health insurance and sign on to government insurance which will cost more than $400 per month per person? Plus, everybody will have to pay a high tax in addition to that? ...that Barack Obama is going to put a tax of $50 per gun on all guns in the country? If you don't pay it, your guns will be confiscated and you will go to jail. ...that for the last 20 years or so George W. Bush has been carrying on an illicit affair with Condaleeza Rice? ...that the Obamas regularly host heavy drinking parties at the White House where everyone gets totally soused? ...that if Health Care Reform passes, we will all have to pay MUCH, MUCH higher taxes and health care will be rationed? I know all of these things are true because I heard them all from impeccable sources at my hairdresser's shop today. If I didn't occasionally get my hair done, I'd neve

Crazy Dude - not

I guess I must be one of the very few people in the world who have not seen Avatar . Heck, I still haven't seen James Cameron's other big blockbuster film, Titanic . It's not that I am averse to seeing either movie. It's just that it has never been absolutely convenient for me to do so. Let's face it - I lead a pretty sheltered life and I don't get out much, but I do see the occasional movie. I've even seen some of Avatar's competition for the big awards this season, movies like Invictus , Sherlock Holmes , and Up in the Air , all of which I liked. There is another film that has been out in limited release for a while that I would like to see. That would be Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges. At long last, it has made it to the "theater near me," the one where I see all my movies, so there is a possibility that I will finally get to see it. Of course, the movie has had the critics raving since it first came out and Bridges has swept all o

"The Life of the Skies"

(Originally posted here .) Sometime last year, a fellow birder and blogger recommend The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen as a book worth reading. I subsequently bought the book and put it on my "to be read" shelf where it languished for many months. I finally picked it up to read, and then found I could hardly put it down. It is a fascinating book. Birds and birding are the central theme of the book, of course, but then Rosen wanders far afield, touching on many issues, from politics to literature to religion, that you might not normally associate with birds or birding. For him, it is all connected, and he is able to bring his reader along with him as he looks at the interconnectedness between birds and all the human activities he chooses to explore. Much of his book is taken up with a history of the American conservation movement and how it was engendered by a concern for birds. He tells again the familiar story of John James Audubon but he relates it to the soc

Sarah the r-word

So, Sarah Palin actually appeared on a Sunday morning news show today. Of course, it was Fox News Sunday . Did you think it would be another network's show? Anyway, the host Chris Wallace asked her a question about her husband Todd's participation in her governance of Alaska during her brief tenure as governor there. This is her answer, word for word, as reported by Huffington Post: "He was forwarding on emails. And here's another thing. Todd and I being, in some cases, thousands of miles apart, if I emailed him about being, say, outside traveling, Todd's home, he's there, there, as a desktop, and I'm telling Todd, "Hey! Todd! Print this off for me, I'm going to grab it on my way home, because I work off a Blackberry, constantly, for practical reasons, it helped too. Todd helped as Alaska's "First Dude" with no staff. with no office, being thousands of miles away during a lot of times, with his job in Prudhomme Bay on the North S

Broken government

"Washington was immobilized by snow on Friday. This is highly unusual. Normally, Washington is immobilized by senators." - Gail Collins, The New York Times "Far too many of the president's nominees were never afforded an up or down vote because several Democrats chose to block the process for political gain." - Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama during the presidency of George W. Bush Funny how elections change one's perspective. During the Bush presidency, no one howled louder than Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama anytime a vote on one of the president's nominees to fill a position was delayed. It was unconscionable and the worst kind of political obstructionism any time a Democrat sought to block an appointment or to delay a vote on a single nominee. Now, Shelby is blocking not one but seventy - that's 70! - Obama nominees. What profound constituional principle is Shelby upholding? Why, the principle that Richard Shelby must not be obs

The underpants bomber speaks

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a plane in Detroit on Christmas Day, is only 23 years old. It seems unlikely that he has a very sophisticated view of the world. I can remember - barely - what I was like at 23, and much more recently, what my children were like at 23. While my children were a lot smarter and a lot more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than I was at that age, I think it is fair to say that none of us really understood the workings of the powers that ruled our world. I strongly suspect the same is true of the would-be underpants bomber. He was susceptible to being led and misled and indications are that he was, particularly by an American-born Yemeni radical cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. This man also allegedly had ties to the 9/11 attacks and to the soldier who shot up Fort Hood last November. Al-Awlaki is now supposedly somewhere in the mountains of Yemen. Abdulmutallab may have an idea as to where he is, and Abdulmutallab s

The new miracle drug: Vitamin D

My sister-in-law is a very health-conscious individual. She watches her diet very carefully. She's into yoga and Pilates, and she's always looking for the next new thing to give her an edge. Her latest new thing is a naturopathic doctor who has helped her to feel better than she ever has. I had an email from her recently touting her latest find via the new doctor. It is vitamin D. On the advice of her doctor, she takes large doses of vitamin D at every meal. She doesn't have much faith in what she refers to as "conventional medicine." She says that most "conventional docs don't ever know these findings" about vitamin D. In this case, though, she is wrong. My doctor, who has been my doctor for more than twenty years, is a "conventional" doctor and she advised me to take extra vitamin D almost a year ago . I agree with my sister-in-law on one thing at least: I feel much, much better since I started taking it. Of course, this is

Oh, that thing about the link between vaccines and autism? Never mind!

My beautician is a conscientious mother who tries to do what is right for her two kids. In January, 2009, she had her second child, a boy. Since then, she has engaged in an ongoing battle with her conscience about whether she should have him on the regular schedule of preventative vaccines for young kids. You see, she has heard rumors and seen rants on the Internet about how vaccines are the cause of autism in children. The last time I talked to her about it, she was still delaying. The source of the rumors and the concern about a link between vaccines and autism is a study authored by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the British medical journal, The Lancet , twelve years ago. In his article, Wakefield maintained that he had found such a link. That was enough for some of the paranoiacs who are always looking for conspiracies and postulating that all authority figures are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. That paranoia has been further fed by people like Glenn Beck an

Cutting for Stone

Writers are always told to write what they know. Well, Dr. Abraham Verghese did that and he came up with a winner. Cutting for Stone is on many lists of the best books of the previous year. If I were making such a list, it would most certainly be on mine. The title of the book is a play on words. Verghese's main characters have the last name of Stone. The Hippocratic Oath admonishes doctors not to "cut for stone" (i.e., perform surgery) but to leave that to the specialists. All of the main characters in this story are surgeons who do "cut for stone," as well as other things. Verghese has constructed a rich tale of a blended family in a time of tumult. The story begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the 1960s, but has its roots in Mother India, and its tendrils reach all the way to America where they intertwine once again. It is the story of Shiva and Marion, identical and Siamese twins, joined at the head and separated at birth at Missing Hospital in Ethi

NIMBY syndrome

Gail Collins had an excellent column in The New York Times the other day, as she usually does whenever she contributes an op-ed. This one was entitled "Another Inconvenient Truth" and it spoke of the sour, me-first attitude that seems to prevail in the United States today. The latest manifestation of this attitude is the mayor of New York's about-face on having trials of terrorists conducted in his city. Suddenly, it would be too much of an imposition, an inconvenience for the people of New York, to have such a trial held in their city and it would give the terrorists a "platform to air their views." Plus, it might make New York a target. As if they and all of us are not already targets of fanatics who want to kill us. On the contrary, it seems to me that the symbolism of having the trial in New York where the major part of the killing took place would be a powerful one. It would show the whole world that we are courageous enough to live up to our idea