Showing posts from March, 2011

At long last, baseball!

Our long national nightmare is over. Baseball season has begun. The boys of summer begin their game these days in places where it is still winter. Many of the ball parks hosting games over the next few days will be having snow flurries and weather more typical of football season. Nevertheless, the calendar says it is time and so we begin. My beloved Astros will be starting their season in Philadelphia tomorrow, a daunting prospect for them since they had the worst record in spring training and Philadelphia is one of the strongest teams in the league, the one that many prognosticators pick to go to the World Series this year. And now the Astros are further hobbled by injuries to key players on whom they were depending for improved play this year. It seems the poor guys just cannot catch a break. Still, one of the reasons that we love this game is that, on any given day, any team can beat any other team, even if that other team looks far superior on paper. They don't play the g

Wordless Wednesday: Bluebird house usurper


This taxes my patience

A story that received attention from some news organizations in the last few days was all about how General Electric Corporation paid zero income tax in the past year. It would be bad enough if this were an isolated instance and if most multi-billion dollar corporations in America paid their fair share of taxes. It is not an isolated instance. Corporations such as Bank of America, Boeing, and Citigroup , to name just three, join the rolls of tax laggards. They, too, paid no taxes, in spite of the fact that they had record profits. And there are many, many others who take advantage of tax loopholes to reduce their tax liability to nothing. That is the real scandal here. It is not that these corporations are necessarily doing anything illegal. I'm sure they have the very best legal and tax advice that money can buy and that those advisers have made sure that they remain within the letter of the law. The scandal is that there are so many loopholes written into the tax laws, o

Silent Sunday: The first Monarch


I'm losing my second-favorite Bob

Bob Herbert's op-ed columns in The New York Times have very often been beacons of light in the darkness. His writing is always characterized by clear thinking, by ideas stated simply and understandably, by an elegance of writing that I can only admire and never hope to emulate. Sadly for his readers, in his latest - and last - column, he announced that he is leaving The Times. His absence will leave a void in public discourse that will be hard to fill. Herbert's last column is titled "Losing Our Way" and it is all about how America of the 21st century is a place where "Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home." Goodness knows this nation of failing infrastructures, growing poverty, and millions of people who

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors by Jerry Liguori - A review

Hawks are a long-time nemesis of mine when it comes to bird identification. In fact, I have several nemeses - hawks, shore birds, sparrows, to name the three worst of the lot. Hawks present a particular problem because one seldom sees them close-up in the field. They always seem to be at a distance and very often on the wing, so the birder is only able to see their belly. Moreover, their plumages are so variable that it is very difficult to isolate field marks that one can point to with assuredness. And then there is the matter of their speed. If you are looking at a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk or one of the falcons, you had better look quickly because these babies are fast! So what's a poor birder to do? Well, we rely on our field guides, but very often those are of minimal help. What we really need is a field guide that will help us identify hawks at a distance. Jerry Liguori, a leading expert on North American raptors, recognized that need and has tried to me

The King's Silence

Have you heard what they are doing to the Oscar-winning movie, The King's Speech ? They are muzzling it ! The King's Speech , in case you've been living under a rock and don't know, is the story of King George VI of England, the father of the current queen. It is a wonderful movie about a man who was never meant to be king. But then his older brother who was meant to be king decided that he couldn't do it without the help and support of "the woman I love", the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. And so he abdicated, passing the crown along to his younger brother, Albert, or Bertie as he was known to his family. But Bertie had a serious handicap as a king. He couldn't speak publically because of a terrible stammer. When he was forced to make a public speech, it was a humiliating and cringe-worthy event. Many different therapies were tried to help him. Finally, his wife Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died just a few years ago, found an Australia

Wordless Wednesday: Spring in Texas means...


Wisdom lives

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the oldest known American bird in the wild was a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. Wisdom was 60 years old and she had just produced a chick on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific where she breeds. Then came the earthquake and the tsunami. All over the area, seabirds and their helpless chicks were swept out to sea and drowned by the thousands. It was initially feared that Wisdom and her chick were among them. But Wisdom hasn't survived 60 years in the wild by being stupid. Her nest and her chick were on higher ground. National Fish and Wildlife Services personnel soon were able to verify that the chick had survived. But Wisdom was nowhere to be seen. This was not necessarily indicative of tragedy though, because albatrosses often spend days cruising and feeding over their ocean home before they return to feed their chick. And so it proved to be with this bird. This week she returned. Wisdom tends her chick. ( P

Big Love's finale

Did you watch "Big Love" last night? This HBO series about a modern day polygamist cult in Utah ended its five-year run last night with an episode that rushed about madly trying to tie up all the loose ends of all the wild and crazy story-lines it had introduced this season. I watched the entire series, all five years, every episode, with two big fans of the show. I was a... little fan of the show. The first year was very entertaining. Partly, I think, it was the novelty of the situation - a marriage of a man, a successful businessman, and three women with all their many children all living together in three adjoining houses in Salt Lake City. If nothing else, there was enough prurient interest to keep the series going that first year, but after that season, it began to flag a bit in my estimation until, in this last season, the show had lost its focus altogether. It was a mish-mash of competing and fragmented story-lines that went nowhere and contradicted much of wha

Silent Sunday: Spring's harbinger


The right-wing flaps

The latest thing that the right-wing has its knickers in a twist about is President Obama's trip to South America. How could he take a "Rio vacation", they scream, when the world is in turmoil? Never mind that the diplomatic trip - which is actually part of the job description of being president - has been planned for months. No, these bozos want him to drop everything and hole up in the White House to handle the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear power plant leaks, and now, the military action against Libya. Apparently they assume that he is out of contact with his administration and with the world when he's in Brazil. But then they never did really understand the way technology works. Earlier this week, these same people got all hot and bothered because President Obama took time to fill out his brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament. And, of course, the idea of him actually taking time to play golf just about sends them over the edge. Funny, I

The Land of the Painted Caves by Jean Auel: A review

Jean M. Auel's first book in her "Earth's Children" series, The Clan of the Cave Bear , was published in 1980, and introduced Ayla, a Cro-Magnon child who had lost her family in a earthquake. She was found by a group of Neanderthals, the Clan of the Cave Bear, who took her in and raised her. It was a well-written and thoroughly researched book which brought the people of that prehistorical period to life. In the next ten years, Auel published three more books in the series: The Valley of Horses ; The Mammoth Hunters ; and The Plains of Passage . The books continued to show the author's attention to getting the details of prehistoric life plausible and as correct as possible, and they contained a wealth of information about how those lives may have been lived. But by the fourth book, the series was definitely running out of steam. Twelve years passed before Auel completed the fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone , in which Ayla and her lover, Jondalar, w

The chickadees must be Irish 'cause they paint their nest green

The Carolina Chickadees are ready to produce the next generation of their kind and I am convinced they are Irish, because they love the green so much that they insist their babies are born to it. They build their nest entirely of soft green moss. They've taken over not one but two of my bluebird boxes for the purpose. The bluebirds returned too late to find the chickadees already in possession of the boxes. The nest is all green moss except for the very top where the eggs, and later chicks, nestle. For that, the chickadees find the softest material available - in this case, cat fur! Yes, I have two cats that live in my backyard, and at this time of year, whenever they groom themselves and leave tufts of fur behind, it is grabbed by nesting birds as soon as it hits the ground. The chickadees and titmice especially prize it. (And, no, these cats are no danger to birds or other wildlife.) The little eggs, as you can see here, are smaller than my fingernails. They are just abou

Wordless Wednesday: Japanese maple - coming back


The fascinating science of a terrible event

The ever-expanding catastrophe faced by Japan's people as a result of last week's earthquake (now rated as a 9.0 on the Richter scale), the tsunami that followed, and now the very real possibility of a nuclear disaster is almost too awful to imagine. No, in fact, it is too awful to imagine and, frankly, I am not sad that my imagination is not up to the task. All the reports about the events that I have seen or heard emphasize that Japan is about as well-prepared for disaster as any country can be. They are well-aware of the seismic neighborhood in which they live, and they expend every possible effort to make people knowledgable about what could happen and to get them ready for the eventuality. Even so, the devastation is terrible and the tasks people face in rebuilding their lives seem almost beyond human capabilities. It breaks the heart and stuns the mind. And yet, in spite of all that, if one can manage to step back for a moment from the human devastation and simply c

Silent Sunday: Bumblebees, butterflies, and blueberry blossoms


The Sherlockian by Graham Moore: A review

I have loved Sherlock Holmes since I was twelve years old and spent the summer reading the complete collection of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about the iconic detective. A sure-fire way to catch my attention for a book is to give it a Holmesian theme, so when I saw news of the publication of The Sherlockian by Graham Moore, of course I had to read it. Moore had a doozy of an idea for this, his first novel. He would write a tale of two storylines. One would be a historical mystery involving Arthur Conan Doyle and his friend Bram Stoker solving a series of murders that occurred around the turn of the twentieth century. The second storyline would take place in the present and would involve the present-day disciples of Conan Doyle's famous detective, the Sherlockians. Moore switches back and forth from one chapter to the next in telling his two stories and he does quite a masterful job of juggling the two tales and keeping the reader's interest. Moore actually begins his tale

Terrorism in the House

Rep. Peter King, R-NY, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and former avid supporter of the Irish Republican Army, is very, very concerned about terrorism and the danger it poses to America . He is concerned that American citizens are being radicalized to commit violence against other American citizens and so he convened this investigative hearing of his committee today. But he confined his hearing and his investigation to only Muslim Americans. If Rep. King is truly concerned about radicalization of Americans, I have a few suggestions for his investigations and hearings. How about investigating the militia movement right across the country that is busily arming itself and advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government? Or, in a similar vein, he could investigate all the white supremacist groups which periodically foment violence against Americans who do not meet their rigid racial specifications. How about the evangelical Christian groups who enc

Newt explains it all

Serial adulterer and perpetual hypocrite Newt Gingrich is making noises about possibly running for president again. I don't think he will. I don't think he even wants to really. I think he just wants the notoriety that comes from having his name mentioned as a possible candidate and the financial benefits that accrue to one who claims to be considering the race. But if he did run, it would be particularly ugly because all that nasty stuff about his sexual history would become a hot topic once again. Newt is on his third marriage and his method for finding new wives has been nothing if not consistent. He cheated on his first wife and divorced her while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He then married his mistress. He cheated on her with a young staffer as the second wife was being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He divorced her* and married his mistress who is now his third wife. So how does he justify all that? Well, you see, it was just because he is so pas

A different kind of bird guide

American birders are used to birding field guides that can be easily carried into the field where the user can refer to them when they see an unusual bird. Richard Crossley comes from another tradition. He grew up in England where the practice was to take a notebook and pencil with you when birding to make notes about or draw what you saw. Then you returned to base and compared your notes or drawings to what was shown in your birding guide books. That tradition has informed his recently released magnum opus , The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds . This is not a book to carry into the field with you, unless you are planning to combine your birding with weight-lifting. This is a BIG book. But it is definitely a book that you would want to refer to after your return from the field for it provides a wealth of information about birds. Here, for comparison of size, are a few of my guides laid out on my dining room table. Crossley is on the left; next is the recently published Stokes guide w

The anti-scientists

It is very frustrating and at times downright appalling to be an average citizen of reasonable intelligence and to see the direction in which the new leaders of our House of Representatives are taking that legislative branch of government. Elections do have consequences and, in this case, the consequences for the environment and for our descendants will be dire indeed. But, if it is frustrating for the average citizen, imagine how galling and downright apoplectic-making it must be for the decent congressman or congresswoman who is trying to do his or her job and make the country and the world a better place to live for us all. Consider Henry Waxman, D-California. When the Democrats held a majority in the House, Waxman was the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He worked on policies in behalf of health, telecommunications, energy and environmental legislation, including the sweeping climate change and energy bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate and

Silent Sunday: My little chickadee


Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff - A review

It is said that history is written by the victors and thus it is extremely difficult to get a true picture of the vanquished. They are almost always demonized and denigrated. There is probably no more cogent example of this than Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Her first biographies were written by Romans, eager to please her implacable enemy, Octavian, soon to be Caesar Augustus. Octavian was the victor; Cleopatra and Mark Antony were the vanquished. They could expect nothing good to be written or remembered of them. The early biographies and histories that were written of Cleopatra were biased and politically motivated. The writing was altogether xenophobic and sensationalistic. Even in these accounts though, something of the strong will and personality of the woman came through to inspire later poets and writers. For more than 2,000 years she has fascinated us and still does. She has been written about time and again, and in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, the excellent historian S

The people speak

An interesting thing has been happening around the country this week and, as often occurs with interesting things, it doesn't seem that it is being reported by the mainstream media as much as it would appear to deserve. I'm talking about poll after poll that has been taken within the last couple of weeks by just about every polling organization in the country, and for once they are all unanimous and unambiguous in their results. The people have spoken and they have said that they don't want collective bargaining rights taken away from public sector employees. Furthermore, when they are asked how they prefer to have the budget gap closed, they overwhelmingly prefer the "soak the rich" method. By a large margin, they believe that the rich should pay higher taxes. The results from a New York Times/CBS poll released earlier this week are fairly typical. But even a poll by Rasmussen, the notoriously pro-Republican/conservative polling organization, found similar

Wordless Wednesday: An old apple tree wakes up


The Charlie Sheen affair

This is a momentous and exciting time in the history of the world. All over the Middle East and across North Africa, ordinary people are rising up to demand that basic human rights be respected in their countries and that citizens have a say in how they are governed. In our own country, across the Mid-West, workers are marching in the streets and standing up for their rights to have some control over their own working lives. They are demanding that their dignity and the dignity of their work be respected and not denigrated and scapegoated. In Washington, one of the nation's major political parties is doing its dead-level best to take this country back to the mid-nineteenth century. In China, the government is cracking down on reporters, sometimes beating and arresting them as they attempt to show the effect of all the unrest in their own country. In short, there is plenty of serious news to keep even the 24/7 news cycle of the cable news networks busy reporting it. So what do