Showing posts from January, 2012

Volcanoes and the little ice age

Earth's climate and the cycles of warming and cooling that it goes through is one of the more fascinating subjects in earth science. It's a subject that has become fraught with passion in recent years as climatologists have repeatedly tried to warn us that humans are upsetting Earth's cycles and science deniers have done their best to shout them down. But looking back at the historical data is perhaps a little less controversial. Scientists have recently been doing research on the period from the 1200s to the 1900s, a very cold time in the northern hemisphere that has come to be known as the "little ice age." There have been many theories over the years about what might have caused this prolonged cold period which, in many ways, shaped the culture of Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. At the time it was happening, some people blamed witches. The ignorant always find a scapegoat. But this new study may give a definitive answer to the question of why it ha

Newt-tron bomb

It has been fascinating on many levels to watch the progress of the Republican presidential nominating process. For awhile, it was fun to speculate about who would be the new front runner of the week as they struggled to find someone - anyone - who was not Romney and who might have a possibility of destroying the hated Obama in the fall election. Now that the field has been winnowed down to, essentially, two more or less viable candidates, the whole thing has become a little less exciting and more predictable. Still, one thing continues to fascinate and amaze and that is the  level of support which Newt Gingrich has garnered among the righteously evangelical voters . This was, of course, particularly on display in South Carolina, where those who said that "family values" and social conservatism were the determining factors in their votes actually voted for a womanizing serial philanderer who has betrayed the marriage vows he made to at least two women. As for that third mar


In one of my other blogs, Backyard Birder , I have reported on the arrival in California of the first wild gray wolf seen there since the 1920s. The wolf is a two-and-a-half year old male from a pack in Oregon. He is fitted with a GPS tracking collar and is designated as OR7. He crossed the state line from Oregon into California on December 28 and, since then, he has become an instant celebrity .   The wolf's image was captured by a wildlife camera that had been set up in the field. The last gray wolf previously known to be in California was shot in 1924. In the early part of the twentieth century, the species was mostly extirpated throughout the West, and, indeed, throughout the country. It was listed as endangered under the newly passed Endangered Species Act in 1974. Then, in 1995-96, wildlife officials trapped 66 Canadian gray wolves and released them in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho. Despite some predictable setbacks, the wolves have flourished, and the area i

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: A review

Baseball has been used by some very good writers as a metaphor for life. It is an apt metaphor. Baseball, like life, is a game that teaches one to deal with failure. The best hitters fail about two-thirds of the time. Pitchers are charged with either success or failure as reflected in their won/loss record. They are the only team member whose stats clearly reflect the success or failure of the team.  It is a team sport, but when playing defense, there are no team errors. Any individual player who fails to catch a catchable ball or who throws errantly is charged with an error. It is the stat by which fielders are judged. That is a fact which Henry Skrimshander, a shy, small-town kid from North Dakota, knows, and it is why he works relentlessly every day of his life from childhood to master the art of fielding. It is why he has committed to memory the book of instruction written by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, "The Art of Fielding." The book contains such Zen-like statements


PolitiFact , the self-proclaimed checker of facts in the world of politics has become nothing more than a sad joke. Like so many in the world of journalism, or what passes for journalism these days, they are obsessed with appearing "fair and balanced" and never betraying a "liberal bias." Unfortunately for them, the truth does, in fact, very often have a liberal bias , but you'll never catch them conceding that. If necessary, they will distort the truth themselves in order to protect their credibility with right-wingers. It's a hopeless cause, for right-wingers have never given them any credibility anyway. PolitiFact's latest fiasco was their assessment of President Obama's State of the Union speech last night. In the speech, he made this statement: "In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005." PolitiFact originally rated that statement as half-true! When col

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian: A review

Various members of my family are big fans of this series and for years I've heard them rave about how wonderful it is. At length, I decided to find out for myself and I put O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books on my reading list. I'm happy to have now finished with the first one. O'Brian's style of writing seems very much of the period about which he writes, which is to say the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. In fact, his writing reminded me of perhaps the most famous English writer of that period, Jane Austen, in its language and turn of phrase. Of course, O'Brian was writing of naval history, not Austen's country manners and manors, but still the similarities are there. What true O'Brian fanatics love about his writing is all that nautical stuff - the descriptions of the ships, all their riggings and their personnel and the intricate detailing of the battles at sea. Frankly, my eyes glazed over a bit at much of that terminology and I te

Happy Year of the Dragon!

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year! Today marks the New Moon in the lunar cycle which means that it is the Chinese New Year's Day and this is an especially propitious year - the Year of the Dragon. The Chinese lunar calendar recognizes a twelve year cycle, each characterized by a particular animal: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. As you will see from looking at a list of these animals, they are all real except for the dragon. Dragons are mythical creatures and they are the most powerful of all the animals in the Chinese calendar. As such, years dominated by the dragon are generally considered lucky years. To be born in a Year of the Dragon should be especially fortuitous and the Chinese are expecting a baby boom this year . Persons born in such a year are said to be innovative, enterprising, flexible, self-assured, brave, and passionate. That's quite a set of positive attributes! On the other hand, being posse

Help! I'm a prisoner in Downton Abbey!

I missed the first season of the excellent PBS (by way of BBC) television series Downton Abbey , but in this day when the Internet can provide instant gratification, failing to catch the series when it is first shown is no barrier to its enjoyment. After all the acclaim and awards it received in its first season, I decided that perhaps I was missing something, and that I needed to catch up on it by watching online in order to prepare myself for the second season which started a couple of weeks ago. I didn't quite make it in time for the start of the season, but this week I finished watching season one and then went on to watch the two episodes already shown in season two. Now I'm all caught up and ready for Sunday night's showing of the third episode. I'll be there because I am well and truly hooked ! What is it about this upstairs, downstairs soap opera of the veddy, veddy rich of early twentieth century England and their faithful (and not so faithful) servants that

Governor Goodhair heads home to Texas (with update)

Rick Perry was finally able to read the handwriting on the wall and so he gave up his campaign for the presidency today. It was a campaign that rates as perhaps the most gaffe-prone in the history of presidential politics, marked by one stupid, inane remark after another. The campaign could be summarized by that word that Perry uttered on that unforgettable occasion when, during one of the debates, he forgot the name of the third agency he wanted to get rid of: "Oops!" So we won't have Rick to kick around anymore, at least not on a national level. Unfortunately, now he's headed back to Texas where we'll still be stuck with him until the end of his term. And who knows beyond that? Texas voters are not known for being discerning. They might very well give him their votes again. Anyway, considering Texas' recent history, once he's gone, we'll probably just elect someone even more embarrassing to be our governor. Then we'll find ourselves longing

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: A review

What a delicious read! This book combines two of my favorites: Jane Austen and P.D. James. James writes here in the style of Austen.  She has taken up the story of two of the most-loved characters from  Pride and Prejudice , Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, now Mr. and Mrs Darcy of Pemberley. We meet them six years after their wedding, now at home with their two sons. Elizabeth has adjusted to the role of mistress of Pemberley and is busily planning the Lady Anne ball held each October in honor of her husband's late mother. The ball is to take place on the morrow when suddenly all the best-laid plans are torn asunder by a violent death which occurs in a woodland on the Pemberley estate.  Most distressingly, the Darcys first learn of the death when a horse-drawn conveyance comes barreling up to the house and a hysterically screaming woman emerges from it. The woman turns out to be Elizabeth's ditzy youngest sister, Lydia, who is screaming that "Wickham is dead!" 

A meditation on self-love

Occasionally, we all need reminding that we are only human and that, while it is good to have high standards and expectations of ourselves, we must acknowledge that at times we will fail and fall short. We will not always be that person which we want to be and which we strive to be. At such times, it is easy to fall into depression and even self-hatred. It is at these times that we need a reminder and affirmation of our humanity and our essential worth. This weekend as I was going through my Google reader, I came across one of the blogs that I read, Snap's Tales from Twisty Lane . Hers is an inspirational blog and she often has posts that speak to me in a very spiritual way. That was the case on this day. She referred to an article by Laura Fenamore in Tiny Buddha which was entitled "Create solutions not resolutions." Since this is the time of year for resolutions and since resolutions are notoriously easy to break and forget, it struck me as highly appropriate to be t

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5) by George R.R. Martin: A review

George R.R. Martin is back on his game with this fifth volume in his  A Song of Ice and Fire  saga. He wastes no time in bringing us up to date on the charismatic characters, such as Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, who were missing from the fourth book, a pale effort compared to the previous three. This book follows those characters and then, in the final third of this very long tale, it brings together many of their stories with some of those that we came to know in the previous book. The paths of the stories converge and one begins to see the faint glimmer of an outline of how the saga may go from here on out. I believe there are at least two more volumes planned and  A Dance With Dragons  certainly leaves enough loose ends to fill them with their conclusions. We can only hope that we will not have to wait as long as fans of the series waited for this book (six years) before  The Winds of Winter , #6 of the "Songs" is delivered to us.  Jon Snow, the 998th Lord Commander of

The Tebow phenomenon

I don't follow football and so, when we were in Colorado in late October and everyone was talking about Tebow, my reaction was, "What's a Tebow?" Well, it turns out it is both a noun and a verb. The noun is Tim Tebow who is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. The verb is an act that he does after a winning football game where he ostentatiously kneels on one knee and prays, giving thanks to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At least that's what I read . I can't say that I've actually seen him do this. It's all hearsay - or readsay - but there's a lot of it around. People just can't stop talking and writing about him. He is, of course, a darling of fundamentalist Christians and a figure of fun for late night television comedians. I know very little about the young man actually, but apparently his devotion to Jesus is completely sincere and unironic. Personally, I find the overt public displays of one's religious faith a bit offputting.

Weak tea

The Republicans really, really don't like Mitt Romney. The tea party Republicans positively despise him. If the tea partiers had a single candidate, they could swamp Romney and chase him out of the race, but they don't. They are fragmented, squabbling among themselves over which candidate offers them a chance to win. So far they have tried out Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but they haven't fallen in love with any of them - at least not for more than a few weeks. Meantime, the inevitable Mitt Romney rolls on and looks to be unstoppable. Will they finally, grudgingly, get behind Mitt? Well, if there is one man they despise more than Mitt, it is Barack Obama. For these people, he will always be the illegitimate, Kenyan, socialist, Muslim, privileged, elite, black man who usurped the White House. The fact that the truth is that he is none of those things - except a half African-American, half white man which makes him black in

Wordless Wednesday: Snack time


The American caste system

The New York Times last week had a report about how the myth of the American meritocracy is just that - a myth. In fact, of all the countries in the industrialized world, it is harder for a person of low economic status to rise higher in the United States than it is almost anywhere else. If America as the "land of opportunity" ever existed, it has disappeared, and this is primarily due to the policies pursued by the government. The governments of other developed countries make it their goal to protect and help their citizenry and to take care of those who are least able to take care of themselves. In this country, the government only very begrudgingly assists at all, and thus the poorest must fend for themselves and find ways to improve their economic lot if that is to be done and there will roadblocks all along the way to a better life. Roadblocks put in place and defended unto death by the government. This is not a pretty picture and it is certainly not the image that mo

Sex and the Republicans

The Republicans running for president this year are really, really obsessed with sex . Not only their own sex lives but everybody else's. They want to proscribe what you can do and with whom you can do it and they especially want to control women's bodies and their ability to make decisions about their bodies. As I noted yesterday , they would like to take us back to a time when women had no rights, when they were chattel at the mercy of their lords and masters. In Republican thought, this is the way the world was intended to operate. Intended by God, of course. The surging Rick Santorum, the latest not-Romney, is particularly pernicious and strait-laced in the way he views sex. First of all, in Rick's world, there would be no contraceptives of any kind allowed. Sex would only happen within marriage and only for the purposes of procreation. I can see a few problems with that idea. For example, what about post-menopausal women? Are they just supposed to give up sex once

Taking it back to the Magna Carta!

Have you heard the latest from New Hampshire? No, not the primary they'll be having there next week. This time it is the state legislature that is making news. A state legislature, like so many this year, dominated by Republicans. It seems that three Republican members of the legislature are proposing a law that would require that any new bill proposed in New Hampshire cite a passage from the Magna Carta as its basis and reason for being. The Magna Carta, as you will no doubt recall from your history lessons, was a charter forced upon King John of England by feudal barons in the year 1215 ! Yes, as I've long suspected, the Republicans don't just want to repeal the twentieth century and the modern era; they want to take us all the way back to medieval times. To quote from Wikipedia's information about the Magna Carta: The 1215 Charter required King  John of England  to proclaim certain liberties, and accept that his will was not  arbitrary , for example by explicit

Wordless Wednesday: "Where's that chirpy bird?"


A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire #4) by George R.R. Martin: A review

"A Lannister always pays his debts" is a refrain that we saw often repeated throughout the first three books of this series. But once Tyrion Lannister paid his debt owed to his father Lord Tywin near the end of  A Storm of Swords , he disappeared and he did not reappear at all in volume four. That is unfortunate since he is easily the most interesting character created by George R.R. Martin in this epic saga, but that's only part of the problem with  A Feast for Crows .  Also among the missing here are Jon Snow (except for a short bit at the beginning), Daenarys Targaryen, and most of the far-flung remaining Starks. Arya and Sansa do appear but they feel tangential.  In fact, most of the characters in this book, many of them new ones that we hadn't heard from before, seem tentative and incomplete. They are not people who engage our attention and sympathies.  And the blood! My god, the blood and gore! The incessant and incredible cruelties perpetrated on these ch

Go Rick!

I'm on pins and needles waiting for the result of the Iowa Republican caucuses tomorrow. Who will a few thousand ultra-conservative Iowans anoint as the next President of the United States? They've been thoroughly wishy-washy in making up their minds and, according to polls, a lot of them are still undecided, but I have decided who I'm hoping to see in the winner's circle come tomorrow night: Google's favorite Rick Santorum! Joan Walsh had a piece in today's where she described Santorum succinctly: " By contrast with most of the GOP field, Santorum is the real deal, a dull, home-schooling culture-warrior who likes to brag about fathering seven kids, as though morality can be measured in offspring." Walsh goes on to say that even though Santorum is surging now and is the natural darling of Iowan evangelicals, he doesn't stand a chance to become a truly national candidate because of his extreme extremism. But I say any party that co