Showing posts from February, 2012

Hey, hey, he was a Monkee!

Sad news today that Davy Jones of "The Monkees" has died at the age of 66, much too young. I am of an age to be able to remember the Monkees when they were hot back in the 1960s. The concept for the group was dreamed up by the publicity department at Columbia. The four young guys - in addition to Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesbith - were sort of a poor girl's Beatles. They starred in a popular television show called, oddly enough, "The Monkees" in which they had all manner of madcap G-rated adventures every week, patterned somewhat on the Beatles' Hard Day's Night . They were supposed to be something of an antidote to the Beatles' more R-rated adventures, and fans absolutely loved them. Of course, they were never as big as the Beatles, but for a while, they reigned atop the television world and managed to produce some pretty decent music in the process. They were trailblazers in the sense that they were among the first, if not t

Biologists consider the consequences of a warm winter

All across North America, the adjective that has most often been used to describe the winter we are currently experiencing is "mild." January and February which often bring the harshest winter weather with plenty of snow and ice and below-freezing temperatures have been unusually warm this year. Although there have been isolated snow storms and some periods of cold weather, they have been few and far between and of short duration. Scientists considering the implications of these weeks of relative warmth in what is usually the coldest part of winter speculate that when all the data is collected, this winter may be close to an all-time record breaker . While a mild winter in North America is still considered a rare event, it is likely that such winters will be much less rare in the future. And that has serious consequences for plants and animals whose lives are bound to the cycle of seasons. Plants are flowering earlier than ever and, while it is a boost to the spirits to

Oh, please! Just shut up and/or go away!

"To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up and it should make every American…Now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square. "  - Rick Santorum to George Stephanopoulus on Sunday television show This Week     "I'm for separation of church and state.  The state has no business telling the church what to do." - Rick Santorum in Michigan today Taking these two quotes from Rick Santorum together, one can see that he doesn't believe that the state should have any control over religion. On the other hand, he obviously does believe that the church should be able to tell the

The annoying thing about history books

One of the things that I find unutterably annoying about history books is their insistence upon dwelling on wars.  To read most history books, you would think that nothing of importance ever happened without battles, bloodshed, people dying. And yet the advance of the human race from bare survival to thriving as the most successful species on the planet has been the result of a much quieter revolution and evolution. The advance from wandering around gathering wild fruits and roots and seeds to settling down and growing them in one spot. The invention and development of tools and shelters and medicines to make life easier. For the most part, you don't see monuments to those kind of things. No, such edifices are only erected for battles and for the men who fight them. And so, when I read this poem today, I thought, "There are places like this all over the world. Places where no battles happened and the 'only heroic thing is the sky'." At the Un-National Monument A

Nature: Red oak awakening

Spring has come early to my yard this year. The oak trees are awakening, bringing promise of the season to come. After more than a year of extreme drought in Southeast Texas, we've had a very wet beginning to 2012. The trees that have survived the drought have drunk deep from all that water and restored themselves. It is a very hopeful thing to see.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt: A review

In the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called  De rerum natura ,  On the Nature of Things . It was a poem, Stephen Greenblatt assures us, of unsurpassed beauty, but it was also a work which explored and tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. It explained that everything from stars to earthworms was made up of atoms, tiny particles which could not be divided. Beyond the atoms was the void, and that is the universe: atoms, void, and nothingness. You might say that this poem was the beginning of string theory, the attempt to explain everything. Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus. He believed the highest good was pleasure and that everything about humans including the "soul" was made up of those atoms that he described. When humans die, the soul, which is a physical part of the human, dies, too. There is no afterlife of either reward or punishment. Therefore, human beings should seek pleasure in this life since that&

The dangerous profession

Journalism, when it is done right, can be a dangerous profession. We've had at least three tragic reminders of that fact this week, all of them related to the conflict in Syria. First, award-winning reporter Anthony Shadid of The New York Times died tragically and unnecessarily. His death was apparently the result of natural causes, a severe asthma attack, but if he had not been in that dangerous part of the world, trying to shed light on the murky situation there for his readers, he would probably have gotten the medical attention that he needed in time to save his life. But then, later in the week, two more journalists, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and her companion, French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the shelling of the city of Homs. There have been suggestions that journalists are actually being targeted by the repressive Syrian regime as it tries to hold on to power. They don't want the story of their brutality to be shown to the world and so they mu

Who will win Oscars this year?

The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday night with Billy Crystal hosting the show this year. There doesn't seem to be much excitement and anticipation about the movies up for awards this year. There isn't any obvious favorite as often happens, and speculation, which sometimes runs wild by this time in the process, has been notably subdued this year. Personally, I've only seen three of the movies that up for the major awards: The Help , The Descendants , and Bridesmaids . I thought they were all good movies, not great movies. If I were forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be The Descendants , just because of George Clooney's performance. But I don't feel that strongly about either of the movies. The Artist has a lot of supporters , but not having seen it, I can't really offer an opinion. Likewise, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life have created a bit of buzz, but I'm at the same disadvantage with them. So, who will win the Oscars

The 32,000-year-old flower

A team of Russian scientists claims to have generated living plants from the tissue of a plant which died 32,000 years ago. This is amazing stuff and, if confirmed, would be the oldest plant from which living offspring have been created. In the past, there have been stories of seeds taken from the tombs of pharoahs, thousands of years old, that have germinated and produced plants. On closer examination and carbon dating, those seeds were proved to be modern contaminants in the tombs. Currently, the oldest confirmed case is a date palm that was grown from a 2,000-year-old seed from the Jewish fortress of Masada. Carbon dating has confirmed the age of the seed in that instance. So far, studies of the Russians' claims for their plant, an Arctic flower called the narrow-leafed campion, have supported their claims. The seeds for the plant were taken from an ancient squirrel's nest that had been sealed by sediment and frozen for thousands of years. The scientists first tried ger

From "must-win" to "can't win"

After weeks of seemingly taking for granted that he would win in Michigan, Mitt Romney is now playing down the state , trying to lower expectations. I guess he's been reading the polls which have shown Rick Santorum leading him by a substantial margin. Actually, in polls released today, there seems to be a swing back toward Romney , but Santorum still leads. Significantly, though Romney likes to claim Michigan as one of his "home states," the people there don't buy it. Two-thirds of those who participated in the poll did not consider him a Michigander. In fact, Republican voters across the country don't seem to be buying much of what Romney is selling these days. Even if he manages to eke out a win in Michigan now, voters really, really don't seem to like him and are not ready to get behind him in a big way. But do they like Santorum any better? Well, women don't, and for good reason since he seems intent on denying them basic rights to health care. N

The trees say, "It's time to begin afresh."

The fig tree is budding. The Trees by Philip Larkin The trees are coming into leaf Like something almost being said; The recent buds relax and spread, Their greenness is a kind of grief. Is it that they are born again And we grow old? No, they die too, Their yearly trick of looking new Is written down in rings of grain. Yet still the unresting castles thresh In fullgrown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh. The Collected Poems   by Philip Larkin The trees in my part of the world had a very rough time of it last year. Thousands of them died due to the drought. But now the survivors have had their winter's rest and they are ready to put all of that behind them. The rains have come and the trees have drunk deep. "Last year is dead, they seem to say," and if they could speak, this would probably be their advice to us: The past is dead. Time to "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh. Blueberry buds.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is on!

This weekend marks the fifteenth annual Great Backyard Bird Count . This event is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada. Thousands of people with an interest in birds from all over North America and the State of Hawaii go into their yards or to some public space over the four day weekend and watch and count birds and then report what they have seen on the GBBC website. Participation is free and is open to anyone, regardless of their level of expertise about birds. This is one of several citizen science projects related to birds or butterflies that take place throughout the year and in which I participate. I have to admit, though, that this is probably my favorite of all. This is my ninth year to participate since 2003. (I've only missed one year, 2004, due a death in my family.) My designated count area is my suburban garden and I count on all four days of the event. I try to spend as much time as possible outside observ

The Complaints by Ian Rankin: A review

When Inspector John Rebus rode off into the sunset to the sound of  Exit Music  a few years ago, I suffered withdrawal pains. How would I now get my Edinburgh fix? The other Edinburgh series that I was reading by Alexander McCall Smith just wouldn't do it for me. I needed Rankin's Edinburgh. Well, it turns out, I didn't have too long to wait. In 2009,  The Complaints  came out, the first in a series featuring Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. I have to say that I hesitated about picking up the book, but once I did, just recently, I was soon committed. Here's another series that I'll have to add to my to be read list. The thing about Rankin's writing is that the city, Edinburgh, is a character in his stories. I love the history, the culture, and all the notes about the grittier side of the town. In this entry, we meet the city and Scotland at a difficult moment. The financial bust has hit the economy hard. Unemployment is up and even those who still

Contraceptives and religious freedom as the press sees them

The rule promulgated by the Obama administration regarding the coverage of contraceptives by insurance companies continues to make news. But most of the news that it makes has been about the shouting of the Catholic bishops over what they think is their right to impose their religious beliefs on everybody regardless of the individual's religious or non-religious beliefs. Much less attention has been paid to the rights of women to control their own bodies and their own sexuality and their right to use contraceptives should they choose to do so. The Republicans and their overlords at Fox News have gone to great pains to obscure and fail to report the simple fact that the right to contraceptives is overwhelmingly popular in this country. Instead, they obsess about the poor downtrodden bishops being forced to provide contraceptives and pay for the coverage. Which, of course, they aren't. Under the rule, the coverage has to be offered and paid for by the insurance company. Meanwh

The fine art of poking fun at stupidity

The ability to create comedy out of the deadly serious news of the day is a delicate art. Nobody does it better than Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. His comedy is always right on target and never really mean-spirited as is so much of what passes for comedy these days. On some days, he doesn't have to do much more than play the clips of the day's news and react with facial expressions. Other stories deserve a little more explication. Like Liz Trotta talking about women in the military being raped "just enough." Priceless. Sadly, some of the barricades to full equality for women are guarded by women like Liz Trotta. The only compensation, really, is that they make Jon Stewart's art so much easier.

Intelligent evolution

I am always fascinated to read about the ways in which evolution works to create an integrated and interactive ecology. It's especially interesting to read about the defenses which both animals and plants perfect through the mechanism of natural selection over the course of thousands of years. And not just defenses as such, but also the ways that the bodies of animals - or plants - change over time in order to take advantage of the environment in which they live. That's how the giraffe got its long neck or the elephant its trunk. And, of course, it is how humans developed their upright stance and their big brains. But how did zebras get their stripes? And why did zebras get stripes? Well, the obvious answer is that in the tall grasses where they often grazed, the stripes helped to camouflage them and hide them from predators like lions and cheetahs. It turns out though that the stripes also seem to hide them from a much smaller predator. Scientists have recently complete

Poor Mitt

Poor, poor Mitt Romney. He just can't get any respect from his own party. And if he can't get them to fall in line, how will he ever win a general election? By now, it was supposed to be all over but the shouting . He was supposed to be able to show his strength in these February primaries and caucuses and put to rest any doubts about his ability to appeal to the base. Instead, he has lost a majority of the contests to Rick Santorum (!) and barely scraped by on others. True, he did win Florida by a good margin, but that's looking less and less impressive. I think the problem with Mitt is that no one really knows who he is. He's afraid to show them who he is for fear they will turn against him. In fact, if he could just once take a real authentic stand on...anything, really, it might actually turn things around for him. But he doesn't trust himself to do that. Maybe he's switched sides so many times and tied himself into so many knots trying to make himself a

Why plant a tree

"I can't stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but I can plant a tree."                                                                      - Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin  The poet W.S. Merwin draws much of the inspiration for his poetry from the world of Nature. In that, I find that I am like Merwin for my inspiration, too, comes from Nature. Recently, also, I am inspired by Merwin's poetry. Thus the circle is complete. My daughter brought this Merwin poem to my attention. I like it very much. It speaks to me. I hope it will inspire you, too. Place by W.S. Merwin On the last day of the world  I would want to plant a tree what for  not for the fruit the tree that bears the fruit  is not the one that was planted I want the tree that stands  in the earth for the first time with the sun already  going down and the water  touching its roots in the earth full of the dead  and the clouds passing one by one  over its leaves Time to go and plant

The natural history of Earth

The natural history of our planet and how the continents came to have their shapes and to be placed just as they are on the face of Earth is a fascinating subject. Throughout the history of the planet, through the mechanism of plate tectonics, continents have come together to form super continents and then broken up and drifted apart again. We live in a time when the continents are separated by large bodies of water, but we now know that they are moving and that, in all likelihood, some day they will come together again. As for how these movements will affect North America, geologists theorize that the north shore of South America will slide onto the Gulf Coast of the United States. The Gulf Coast shoreline will disappear and the Caribbean will be squeezed out of existence. Likewise, the mass of Eurasia will compress the Atlantic out of being and the Eurasian and American super-masses will slide toward a polar rendezvous. The future, in short, may look a lot like the last 600 million

Mary Boleyn, Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir: A review

Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn, has had an unfortunate reputation over the past half millennium. During her lifetime, rumors flew about her licentious behavior. She was alleged to be very free with her sexual favors, something that only high-born men, including kings, were allowed.  As a young teenager, Mary spent time at the French court of Francois I. It was suspected and has been repeated by historians throughout the last five hundred years, that she was Francois' mistress. We have a term for that today. It's called statutory rape. If a 13, 14, 15 year old girl did have sexual intercourse with the all-powerful king, it is very unlikely that she had much choice in the matter. But, as Weir points out in this study of Mary's life, there is really no independent proof that this ever happened.  Neither is there any real proof that, later, Mary became the mistress of Henry XIII or that she bore him at least one child. Henry never acknowledged the child, as he did many

Reporting on the contraceptive brouhaha (with update)

Reporting by the mainstream media, by which I mean mostly the inside the beltway media, regarding the Obama administration's rule about providing contraceptives as preventive health care under the new Affordable Care Act has been noticeably co-opted by the Catholic bishops. The press has basically swallowed hook, line, and sinker the outrage of these allegedly celibate old men who are in no way affected by the rule. Even such normally reasonable pundits as E.J. Dionne and Mark Shields   have fallen in lockstep with their more conservative fellows on this issue. They are sure that President Obama has rung the death knell for his presidency and for his hopes for reelection with his stance on this issue. Catholics will never support him now. Republican leaders in Congress are trying to latch onto what they see as a winning issue by hopping on the bandwagon One thing you might notice about all the reporters reporting and all those pontificating on the issue: They are almost all mid

The secret lake at the bottom of the world

There was an interesting story - interesting to me anyway - in The New York Times today about a discovery recently made by Russian scientists drilling on Antarctica . It seems that these scientists stationed at the Vostok Research Station have been drilling through the ice there for a decade. They sent their drill cutting through two miles of solid ice and, finally, at a depth of 12,366 feet, they hit water. It is water from a pristine freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario which has never before been touched by humans or their equipment. The water in the lake has been sealed off from water and air for somewhere between 15 and 34 million years. This is one of more than 280 lakes that are known to exist deep under the miles-thick ice of the frozen continent. So why do scientists want to drill to this sealed lake? Well, because it's there, of course, but, also, there are theories that ancient unknown life forms may exist there. If such life forms could be found, it would lend

Halftime in America

Well, that certainly caused quite a stir! Republicans everywhere have been outraged, outraged I tell you, over the  "blatant politicization," "partisanship," the "free political ad for Obama" which they attribute to this ad by Chrysler that played during halftime of the Super Bowl on Sunday. Of course, President Obama did work to save the American auto industry and to bail out two of the three major carmakers (one of which was Chrysler) in the face of much Republican opposition, including that of Mitt Romney who spoke out against the plan and even wrote a strong op-ed piece saying that the auto makers should declare bankruptcy and move on. Never mind all the jobs that would be lost and their ripple effect in a failing economy. But the industries were saved and have come back strong. They've even paid back to the American taxpayer most of the money that was used to bail them out. They are a contemporary American success story, one that we need in th

The war against women

The war against women's rights in America has taken a nasty turn in the past year, especially since the election of 2010 when the Republicans made such inroads into state governments as well as the House of Representatives. They took that as a mandate, as confirmation that the nation was behind them in their attempts to put women in their place, which in their worldview is at home, homeschooling the children. The strong-arm tactics of these people who bill themselves as "small government conservatives" and their attempts to insert themselves between women and their doctors has been an especially troubling aspect of this war. They have attempted - and succeeded in all too many instances - to roll back access to women's preventive health care in virtually every state where Republicans now hold power in the government. From access to abortion to access to contraceptives, they have made it their business to stick their long noses into women's business everywhere.

War and its aftermath: A meditation

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, died last week at the age of 88. I admit when I read the story, the name meant nothing to me at first, but then I looked up a couple of her poems and thought, "Oh, yeah!" Unfortunately, I don't read Polish and so I can only read her poetry in translation, but those translations make clear that this was a woman with a unique view of the world, a unique understanding of human society and the way it works. Of the few of her poems that I have read. this is a favorite of mine. I find it particularly relevant just now as the war in Iraq ends (at least for us) and the one in Afghanistan starts winding down (at least for us). THE END AND THE BEGINNING by Wislawa Szymborska  After every war  someone has to clean up.  Things won’t  straighten themselves up, after all.  Someone has to push the rubble   to the side of the road,  so the corpse-filled wagons  can pass.  Someone has to ge

Trying to save the woodland caribou

The woodland caribou is a species of the far north which, in the past, roamed all across the northern tier of the United States. Today, it has been reduced in the lower 48 states to a small herd of about fifty animals that inhabit one remote area of the Northwest in Idaho and Washington. Most of the human residents in that area apparently can't wait for them to become extinct. The animals are already listed as endangered and the lands where they roam are mostly owned by the federal or state governments, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups, proposes to further protect the animals by setting aside about 600 acres of land as "critical habitat" for them. Local residents are up in arms - almost literally - against the proposal. At a recent public meeting, about 200 angry people showed up to accuse the government of trying to destroy their way of life. Allegations of  United Nations conspiracies and a governmental land g

Breakdown by Sara Paretsky: A review

The famously cranky and snarky Chicago private investigator Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is back with another quest in search of justice for the powerless and downtrodden. At age fifty, V.I. (Vic) does not seem to have mellowed one whit. Her outrage at injustice burns as brightly as ever. In  Breakdown , there is plenty of injustice for her to confront.  The story begins with her being called from a social gathering she's attending with her friend Murray. Her young cousin, Petra, is worried about a group of pre-teenage girls who were in her care. It seems that, under the spell of Carmilla, Queen of the Night, a fictional magical shape-shifting character who is a hero to the girls, they have slipped out at night to an old abandoned cemetery to perform an initiation ritual. Vic leaves her party and goes to the cemetery to round up the girls, but there, she finds more than she bargained for. Near where the girls are performing their ritual is the body of a murdered man with a stake

Television news: The world of misinformation

The January ratings for the thirty top television news shows have been announced and, once again, unsurprisingly, Fox News dominates the ratings . The first thirteen shows listed are Fox entries. The inevitable conclusion is that most of the people in this country whose prime source for news is television get their news from Fox. Moreover, at least two scientific studies have revealed that Fox viewers are less well informed about current events than those who get their news from other sources. That explains a lot about our society and its dumbing down. Rupert Murdoch has a lot to answer for. I don't watch Fox and so perhaps I'm not the best judge, but from what I read about the various shows, I believe that perhaps the worst offender of all may be Fox and Friends , the show that rates number 13 in the top 30, just above the first MSNBC entry to appear on the list, The Rachel Maddow Show , which I do watch. My impression is that Fox and Friends routinely and shamelessly dist

The Super Bowl ad phenomenon

Are you one among the millions who will be glued to your television screen on Sunday watching the Super Bowl? It's become almost a rite of passage among Americans, something one must do. However, iconoclast that I am and non-football-fan that I am, I don't plan to be watching the game. I'd be more likely to watch the Puppy Bowl. I say that even though I do admit to a rooting interest in the game. Archie Manning was a football star at the University of Mississippi when I was at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Coming from Mississippi myself, Archie was, of course, a hero to me and when his team played my college's team, I had very torn loyalties. Later, I followed his career with the Saints, and later still, I was interested when his sons, Peyton and Eli, started playing for the pros. I have continued to follow their careers, not avidly, but with some interest, and, in fact, I will be pulling for Eli and his Giants to win the big game on Sunday. Even if I d