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Showing posts from December, 2010

Happier New Year!

Let's face it: 2010 was pretty much a downer of a year. From the earthquake in Haiti at the beginning of the year to the earthquake in our domestic politics at the end, the year just didn't have a lot to recommend it. And looking ahead to 2011, one can't muster any optimism that the new year is going to get much better. Still, time and events have a capacity for surprising us and of working out in highly unexpected ways. As we stand on the cusp of this new year, perhaps we would do well to remember the Desiderata and its assurance that whether or not it is clear to us, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should... DESIDERATA -written by Max Ehrmann Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggre

Reality shrugged

The intellectual hero of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is Rep. Paul Ryan. He is hailed by the Washington media as a Very Serious Person, someone who thinks long and deeply about all things related to the national debt. He is said to have a Plan for reducing the deficit and putting the government back in the black. His Plan involves reducing Social Security benefits, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, repealing the Health Care Reform Act, in short, stripping away what meager social safety net is left to the vast majority of Americans who do not make over $200,000 a year and who do not have golden parachutes to see them through their old age. He would then give additional tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. This then is what passes for Very Serious Thinking, for Intellectualism, among our national media and within today's Republican Party. It was with some bemusement that I read the other day that Ryan's intellectual hero and muse is Ayn

Wordless Wednesday: The bottle tree

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The Falls by Ian Rankin: A review

One of my reading projects for the year has been to read the Inspector Rebus series. Ian Rankin first introduced his popular detective to us back in 1987, but I came to know him long after that. I didn't complete all the Rebus books this year, but that just gives me something to look forward to in 2011. The Falls is number 12 in the series which runs through 17 books. Rankin was always a good writer right from the beginning, but over the years he has just gotten better and better. His John Rebus is a fully fleshed-out character, someone we know and empathize with, if not admire. His is a dark and moody soul that seems right at home in Edinburgh, as it would be perhaps nowhere else. The starting point of the mystery in The Falls is the disappearance of a student, one Phillipa Balfour, the privileged daughter of a prominent banker. At the beginning, there are no real clues to the disappearance and the Lothian and Borders police must dig deep to try to find some scrap of inf

Global warming is causing four foot snow drifts!

Much of the East Coast is struggling to dig out from under four foot snow drifts . Much of Northern Europe, too, has been stopped in its tracks by giant storms and in some areas people have died as a result of the cold weather. At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization has just released a report showing that 2010 will be among the three warmest years on record - possibly the warmest on record. Moreover, the decade ending with 2010 will be the warmest decade on record. How does one resolve the seeming dichotomy between the fact of four foot snow drifts and the fact that the world will be setting a record for heat this year? According to Judah Cohen, writing today in The New York Times , it is all due to the topography of Asia. The high topography of Asia influences the atmosphere in profound ways. The jet stream, a river of fast-flowing air five to seven miles above sea level, bends around Asia’s mountains in a wavelike pattern, much as water in a stream flows arou

The Good Samaritan and the Red-tailed Hawk

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The magnificent Red-tailed Hawk . Red-tailed Hawks have a claim on our imagination. They are so majestic in appearance, so cool, so... Zen . Some of them have become quite famous. Pale Male , the 5th Avenue, New York City bird, for example, has his own website and Twitter account and a host of followers and fans, as the authorities found to their chagrin when they tried to move him and his mate a few years ago. The birds' nest on the side of an apartment building at a posh address on 5th Avenue was causing a mess so the owners of the building had it taken down. That resulted in a series of noisy protests and an international outcry. Those quirky New Yorkers, it seems, preferred the mess and their birds. In the end, they got them back. The Red-tails and their fans were triumphant. Another Red-tailed Hawk found recently near Monroe, New York does not have Pale Male's notoriety or fan base. She doesn't even have a name, although if someone wanted to give her an app

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard: A review

Djibouti, Elmore Leonard's latest, may be unique in his oeuvre in that its main characters apparently do not have any criminal history. They are identifiable Leonard characters though with their super-cool, super-smart personas and their dropping of pronouns in their conversations. Much of the first half of this book is taken up with conversations betweeen those two characters, Dara Barr, a 30-something award-winning documentary film maker and her right-hand man, six-foot-six, 72-year-old Xavier LeBo, able seaman, cameraman, schlepper and somewhat of a sexual athlete as written by the 85 year-old Leonard. Hmmm... Dara and Xavier are from New Orleans and they met there in the aftermath of Katrina while Dara was filming a documentary of the catastrophe. That film won an Academy Award for them. Now Dara is interested in filming the modern-day pirates of Somalia, and Xavier, with his seafaring experience and all-round super cool, is just the man to help her. The long expository

Haley Barbour steps in it again

Forward-thinking Mississippians (yes, there are some) must cringe everytime their obnoxioua governor steps before a camera or submits to an interview. Even as a former Mississippian who hasn't lived in the state in more than thirty-five years, I know that I cringe. He is, in fact, one of the truly cringe-worthy governors in the country, right up there with Jan Brewer of Arizona and Texas' own Rick Perry. And now he's gone and done it again. In an interview with The Weekly Standard , he opined that he didn't remember the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi, or specifically in his home town of Yazoo City, as being all that bad. He recollected the transistion from segregation to integration as being rather peaceful! This will, of course, be news to the families of Mississippi martyrs to that cause like Medgar Evers and James Chaney, not to mention all the people who were beaten and brutalized by police and by the Ku Klux Klan in that era. But all that passed righ

The waxwings are here!

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While working in my backyard this afternoon, I heard a familiar sound and looked up at the sycamore tree just in time to see a flock of perhaps twenty Cedar Waxwings take flight. Yes, one of my favorite winter birds is back in town and had dropped in to announce its arrival. Just in time for the Winter Solstice and just in time for Christmas. What a lovely Christmas present!

I cannot like Julian Assange

The liberal blogosphere and various liberal commentators ( see Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann ) hail Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy, as a hero who is just doing what a good journalist would do - if there were any good journalists left. They excoriate the judicial system of Sweden for insisting that Assange must face the charges of rape that have been lodged against him by two women. The charges are all political, they cry. I doubt it. I don't think women are generally thinking in a political way when they charge a man with rape and I see no reason to believe that Assange's accusers were. So what were the Swedish authorities to do? Ignore the complaints? Sweep it all under the rug? It's what happens in all too many countries of the world today with crimes against women and I'm very much afraid that it happens all too often in this country. But not, apparently, in Sweden. So Keith Olbermann has been in high dudgeon all week railing and fulminating, as

Watching Fox News rots your brain

I've long suspected it and now there is some independent proof: Watching Fox News rots your brain. The University of Maryland has conducted a study of consumers of news from various sources and they found that by a rather overwhelming percentage, the viewers of Fox News were the most ill-informed group that they surveyed. They polled their survey participants on a wide range of topics and found that Fox viewers were most likely to believe things that were demonstrably untrue . Overall, 90% of respondents, consumers from all sources of news, said they felt they had heard false information being given to them during the 2010 election campaign. However, while consumers of just about every news outlet believed some information that was false, the study found that Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to believe that: --Most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely) --Most economists have estimated the health care law will wo

Wordless Wednesday: Warbler time

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The owl prowl and other nighttime adventures

Do you live in an area where there are owls? Barred Owls. Eastern Screech Owls. Great Horned Owls. At this time of year, these birds can be especially active and especially noisy. Particularly those Barred Owls. I can remember well lying in my bed on December nights as a child and listening to two or more of the birds carrying on a loud conversation in the trees outside my window. It certainly sounded like more than two. It sounded like a whole convention of the birds, but it may have been only one amorous pair. If there are owls in your area, you might want to step outside well after dark on one of these clear, cold nights and listen for a few minutes. If you are lucky, you will hear the distinctive call of a Barred Owl - hoo hoo ho-ho, hoo hoo ho-hooooooaawr , which is usually rendered as " Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all ?" It is perhaps not surprising that this bird should speak with a Southern accent since it is the quintessential bird of Southern swa

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron by Stephanie Barron: A review

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron is the latest in the Jane Austen pastiche series by Stephanie Barron, in which Jane appears as the solver of mysteries. The series and this book are great fun to read. Any fan of Austen's writing will immediately feel at home in one of these books. Barron does a creditable job of imitating Austen's style of writing, even using the unique turns of phrase that often appear in Austen's books to convince us that these are, in fact, memoirs written by the Great Jane. This is the 10th book in the series, not my favorite of the lot but still an extremely entertaining read. As the book opens, we find Jane about to lose her beloved sister-in-law Eliza to breast cancer. Her brother Henry summons Jane to Eliza's bedside where she remains until the end. She then perceives that she and her bereaved brother are in need of a holiday to restore their spirits. Off they go to the glittering resort of Brighton which proves to be not very restful

Silent Sunday: Just passing...

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Fiddling while the earth burns

The United Nations conference on climate change that was held in Cancun this week was able to close out with some face-saving modest agreements, but on the whole, it seems that very little was accomplished. While some of Earth's nations have gotten serious about tackling the issue of climate change, the United States is still lagging behind. One would have hoped that once the climate change denying Bush was gone from office some progress might have been made, but it has proved difficult because of the intransigence of the Senate which must approve any treaties. The Senate, as it has proved on this issue as well as many others over the last couple of years, is currently a hamstrung, non-functioning government entity. As long as addressing climate change depends on these people, we can expect the earth to continue to burn while they dither. Meantime, 2010 is on track to be one of the hottest years on record and the past decade is the hottest decade on record. But don't le

The merry band of haters marches on

Brace yourself. The execrable Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are planning a new outrage. Not satisfied with disrupting the funerals of military personnel with their hate-filled signs and slogans, they are now planning to use their tactics to crash the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards on Saturday. Edwards died earlier this week after a long and valiant battle with breast cancer. The "Christians" of Westboro Baptist plan to display signs saying "Thank God for breast cancer" and similar slogans. They will be shouting sentiments such as "Elizabeth Edwards is in hell" and just generally doing their best to make this miserable day for her children, family and friends even more miserable. Those who cared for Edwards are now working to organize a counter-protest that will keep these people as far away from the mourners as possible, as has been done recently in other places where Phelps' band has appeared. I can't begin to fathom what motiv

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith for years. When I reached the end of the Precious Ramotswe series (at least temporarily) last year, I decided to give his Isabel Dalhousie series a try. This series is set in Edinburgh, an attractive venue, and, appropriately enough for that place, Isabel is a philosopher who edits a small philosophy magazine. This is the fifth book in the series. In this entry, Isabel, the philosopher, explores the meaning of chance and the role and effect of guilt and jealousy in human lives. Chance, of course, is a constant which we all deal with, as are, to a greater or lesser extent, guilt and jealousy. Guilt, in this instant, comes into the equation when Isabel is asked to look into a situation in which a doctor has been accused of negligence in a drug test that eventually led to the death of a man. She explores and comes to feel that the man is innocent and that there should be some way to repair the damage that has been done to him. Then she me

Better to be his enemy than his friend

I remember during the presidential primaries of 2008 hearing some commentator on radio or television - I don't remember which or who - repeating something that had been told to him by a person who knew Barack Obama in Illinois. The person had said that it was "better to be Barack's enemy than his friend." The commentator explained that what was meant was that Obama would do anything to placate his enemies while ignoring his friends. "That's a very odd thing to say," I thought, but after watching him as president for two years, it is all too clear that that Illinoian knew him very well. So Obama has his tax compromise and his enemies who will do anything to destroy him, the Republicans, are ecstatic. His friends are seething. Though he says otherwise, I'm not so sure that this "compromise" was not what he wanted all along. He has shown little inclination to get the rich to pay their fair share during his tenure as president. From Wal

Backyard Birder report

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This is one of the best times of the year for backyard birders in Southeast Texas. The permanent resident birds are settling in for the winter. The wild food is beginning to get scarce and they are turning to our birdfeeders more and more often. At the same time, winter birds are continuing to pour into the area. The flight song of the American Goldfinch is constant background noise when I'm in my yard these days, as is the chittering call note of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the "chipping" of the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Any day now they will be joined by one of my favorite winter birds, the Cedar Waxwings. With this changing cast of visitors, I never know what to expect when I step outside every day, but this morning's tableau was a definite surprise. As I stepped from my back patio to the backyard, a fox squirrel jumped from the nearby sycamore tree to one of the apple tree's limbs, which made me look up just in time to see a big hawk - one of the Buteos

Silent Sunday: Long-billed Curlew

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I'm disgusted!

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the bill that would give 100% of American taxpayers an extension of the tax rates presently in place, up to a limit of $250,000 in earnings. The House did not extend the ADDITIONAL tax break that those who earn more than $250,000 now get and have gotten for the last ten years - one of the big reasons for our current astronomical deficit. Today, the Senate voted on the same measure and they voted 53-36 in favor of it! So...it passed, right? Right? Honestly, only a fool would believe that, for in the U.S. Senate, the majority does not rule. The minority does. In order to get virtually anything passed, the bill has to get 60 "aye" votes, a 3/5 majority. Yes, only in the U.S. Senate and places like Myanmar is a majority not really a majority. So, what happens now? No doubt, the Senate will come up with a "compromise" proposal, which in reality means that they will approve the Republicans demand to extend

The rich must not suffer!

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition and one of the hosts was interviewing a Republican congressman. I don't even know which one it was, but it really doesn't make any difference. They all speak from the same script and say exactly the same thing. Exactly! If the word of the day is "uncertainity", you can count on every Republican to use it at least fifteen times in any conversation or interview with the press throughout the day. Anyway, the interviewer was asking the man about his vote against the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. He mentioned that virtually every economist - except possibly ones employed by the Republican Party or Fox News - states unequivocally that one of the most stimulative things that you can do for the economy is to provide unemployment benefits, because the recipients of those benefits are certain to spend them almost as soon as they receive them. They have to in order to pa

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A review

I'm not sure that Howard Jacobson would welcome the comparison, but he reminds me of Philip Roth. Roth at his best, that is, because Jacobson's Man Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question is very good. It is an exploration of the Jewish identity - the Jewish (Finkler) question - laced with good humor and a comic sensibility that is accessible to any reader without respect to religious background or preference. Jacobson tells his story through the perceptions and worries of one Julian Treslove, who isn't a Jew. In fact, he is one of the few characters in this book who isn't. His two best friends, Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, are both Jews and Treslove is envious of them. He feels excluded from their culture and he very much wants in. Treslove has lost his job at BBC and now makes his living impersonating famous people like Brad Pitt and Colin Firth. His life is changed when he is mugged one night - by a woman! - and he comes to believe that he was attacked

Wordless Wednesday: Rosa floribunda 'Monkey Business'

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