Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thursday Birdblogging

Great Bustard, found on Malta, hoping to see one.


Found scattered across Europe and Asia, the great bustard is thought to breed in Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and China (2).

UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre View a distribution map for this species at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


The great bustard inhabits steppe, grassland and open, agricultural land. Areas with little or no human disturbance are favoured for breeding (2).
Male great bustards become sexually mature at four to five years of age, while females are known to have bred at just one year of age (5). Males compete in what is known as a lekking system, gathering together at small display grounds (known as a 'lek') from where they attempt to impress females (6). The nests, which are shallow pits on dry, soft slopes and plains, are usually situated close to leks. After the female has chosen a male and mated with him, she lays one to three eggs and incubates them for 21 to 28 days (5) (6). The male does not incubate the eggs or contribute to caring for the chicks. The chicks can stand soon after hatching and will forage alone after ten days. After 30 to 35 days, the fledglings will be able to fly (6).

Some great bustard populations are migratory (5), and gather in large numbers at pre-migratory sites in order to move collectively to winter grounds (6). Both winter and summer grounds differ between populations.


Ooops, That's Your New Simple Math

The lately developing statistics have a certain simplicity to them. We can't go on like this. In forty years, we're going to double the damage we've already done, and guess what? Life gets unsustainable.

The world has already burned half the fossil fuels necessary to bring about a catastrophic 2C rise in average global temperature, scientists revealed today.

The experts say about half a trillion tonnes of carbon have been consumed since the industrial revolution. To prevent a 2C rise, they say, the total burnt must be kept to below a trillion tonnes. On current rates, that figure will be reached in 40 years.
Chris Huntingford of the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said: "Research often reveals new complexities, but this analysis could actually simplify matters for policy makers. The relationship between total emissions and future warming can be inferred largely from quantities we can observe, and is remarkably insensitive to the timing of future emissions."

The key implication of the research, the scientists say, is that access to fossil fuels must somehow be rationed and eventually turned off, if the 2C target is to be met. "If country A burns it then country B can't," said Bill Hare, a climate expert with the Potsdam Institute in Germany. "It's like a draining tank."

The research also highlights that continued high rates of fossil fuel use in the next decade will demand extraordinary cuts in emissions in future decades to hit the 2C target. Allen said: "If you use too much [carbon] this year, it doesn't mean the planet will come to an end. It means you have to work even harder the next year." (Emphasis added.)

Of course, there is another choice: self-annihilation.

It is necessary that in order for us to continue as a species, and have a world around us, that we The stark simplicity has a great appeal, and I can hardly wait to hear the engines turn off.

Hopefully, I'll be here on the way to Majorca when that happens.

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Wishful Revisionism

Here's how the President answered the question:

You know, the -- my view on -- on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue.

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they -- if they suggest -- and I don't want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with.

The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that -- that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their doctors, with their clergy.

Here's how I wish he had answered the question:

Look, I'm the President. I lead the executive branch. My job is to execute and implement the laws passed by the legislature and to uphold the Constitution as construed by the courts.

The current law of the land on the issue of abortion has been expressed by the US Supreme Court in Roe v Wade. My job is to enforce and uphold that law. My personal or moral judgments should have nothing to do with it.

Next question.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Who Loves You?

Something that has really impressed me about these Yurpeen socialist countries is that the schools are such a point of caring. In our U.S. schools, from my experience, we are doing nothing to help, and often a lot to cripple, our future.

In Malta, I learned that if you get into the academies there, you are sent by the state, and as long as you are doing well, you even get a stipend. If you have to repeat a grade, you can do it, but the financial support isn't given.

Today in Sardinia, at the top of the hill at the port, the main feature of the area is its school. The university has the highest and most distinguished structure, an old fort overlooking the bay. It's a focal point for their support, and shows caring that just doesn't apply for us.

The success stories bear out the source of our increasing economic and social failures, our lack of interest in our kids and their education.

Top of the class, the latest report from the OECD’s PISA assessments, shows Finland and New Zealand in the lead for science excellence, with one in five 15-year-olds reaching top levels of science proficiency. In Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, by contrast, fewer than one in 20 students make top grades.

Countries with more top-level science students do best in science overall. In United States, the average performance of 15-year-olds is below the OECD average because of a large number of low performers. But the US has the same proportion of top performers as Korea, one of the best performing education systems overall but with weaker performance at the top.

In Japan, Finland and Austria, more than one in three students from disadvantaged backgrounds become top performers. In many other countries, by contrast, social barriers to excellence in education remain very high.

The study shows that while many high performing 15-year-olds have a general interest in scientific careers, about half are not well informed about what this entails. Less motivated high-performing students tend not to enjoy science lessons and not to get involved in science outside school, even if they do well on a test.
Schools and careers services should do more to improve knowledge of science as a career, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said. Schools should make an effort to make science studies enjoyable. Outside school, societies can also do more to engage students in science....“It is important for the future strength of economies to develop a large and diverse talent pool ready to take up the challenge of a career in science,”Gurría said.

The years of domination by our ignorant element, claiming that business interests were advanced by neglecting our educational system and the kids in it, have set back the country substantially. Watching the careful nurturing that those Yurpeens are effecting, I want to smack down the wingnuts and their negative family values permanently.

What hilltop haven do you see where our kids are put on the pedestal they ought to have, and the effort directed at making their lives as good as they can be? I don't see that happening. As a result, our economy and our society is on the skids.

We can't continue to be that leading nation while we dig holes to pitch our future in. It's time to get back into the business of a future, not pitching it away on the pretense that that's going to make it easier for those job creating fantasies of the past maladministration.

There's no excuse for throwing our good taxpayer dollars after the bad of the past failures.

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The Silenced Majority

The irony is amusing to me, that now we have those Democrats plugging along trying to get something done through the barrage of wingnut bombast about born again worries about fiscal irresponsibility, socialism and Big gubmint. That majority is about to happen, and it seems that we have U.S. voters unavoidably brought back to reality based policies. Welcome back, indeed.

The defection of Senator Specter is big on the BBC tube I'm watching on shipboard. The international press is covering the Republics' insistence on an ideologically based review of public service rather than actual performance in its votes on the president's cabinet, as well, particularly as relating to swine flu/HHS. The future looks pretty bleak for the wingnuts outside of the absolutely recidivist areas it still holds.

"The BBC's Richard Lister in Washington says the news has sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill, where the president's power has been blunted by the votes of Senate Republicans.

The move should make it easier for Mr Obama to pursue his ambitious agenda, our correspondent adds.

Mr Specter was facing a tough challenge from conservative Pat Toomey in a primary election to decide who would run as the Republican candidate for Mr Specter's Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2010.

Polls suggested that Mr Specter's decision to vote for the president's economic stimulus package earlier this year had been unpopular with Republican activists in the state.

"I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing," Mr Specter said.

Since then, he added, "it has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable".
We've been systematically making the case since the election that the GOP is now a regional southern party. And what better way to strike home that point than to see a moderate northeastern Republican switch parties, complaining about his party's swing to the far right?

Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos

The theft of their own party hasn't worked out so well for the wingnuts, and that is resoundingly good for the country. What we have lost in the past eight years includes world influence, humanity, decency, prosperity, ethics and justice. Encouragingly, that makes a big difference to voters, and yes, we have to put that interpretation on Specter's switch. Without the liberal vote, he is not going to stay in office.

Thanks to those of us who have stuck firmly with our principles, the country wins. Welcome aboard even to those who went with ideology, and found themselves on the losing side. Of course, what we need to do now is clean house.

In view of the U.S. public's showing that facts matter, it's time to weed out the delusional, who've put us through the hell of the past eight wingnut years and the crises that have been the result.

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New Face?

The news that Arlen Specter has decided to run as a Democrat during the next election was, at first blush, rather a stunner. The Pennsylvania senator was quite candid in his remarks, however, admitting that one of the major reasons for his party switch was that he would be in the fight of his life during the GOP primary and might very well lose to a very conservative candidate. So he cut a deal with the Democratic leadership, and while the details of that deal have not been officially announced, enough of the details have emerged to conclude the deal looks remarkably like the one offered "Independent" Joe Lieberman to keep him in the Democratic caucus after he was beaten by a true liberal in Connecticut for the Democratic nomination in 2006.

Still, a lot of party loyalists are cooing and crowing over the move, suggesting that once Al Franken is finally seated as the Senator from Minnesota, the Democrats will finally have that magical 60 seat number in the Senate, enough to stop any GOP filibuster. Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times isn't quite so sure that the Democrats should be celebrating just yet. He also notes the high cost of the defection to the Democrats.

Obama and the Democrats, to win Specter over, offered him an amazingly good deal. The president promised to support him in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary next year. (Presidents don't normally intervene in primary contests -- at least, not so openly.) Gov. Ed Rendell, the most popular Democrat in Pennsylvania, promised to help too. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada allowed Specter to keep the 28 years of seniority he has amassed as a Republican -- meaning he'll replace some unlucky Democrat of longer standing as chairman of a major committee.

So, not only will Sen. Specter emerge with greater power as head of a major committee (the Senate Appropriations Committee?), thereby kicking a more loyal Democrat to the curb, he also will have the support of key Democrats during the election campaign, thereby dashing the hopes of any liberal running for the seat. Remind you of Connecticut, 2006?

And just what will the Democrats be getting for their generosity? According to McManus, not as much as they think.

...60 seats can be a mixed blessing. With 60 seats, the Democrats will have no excuses, no one else to blame, any time they can't hold their big caucus together. Their most independent, unpredictable members will enjoy massive power -- not just Specter but also Lieberman and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, another centrist. [Emphasis added]

I dispute the designation of either Nelson or Lieberman as centrists. Both are a bit to the right of center on most major issues. What is more important, however, is the shift of power to all three men who will now have the leverage to get what they want when they want it every time a vote is called. None of them are really mavericks, just men who like being senators will all the perqs that involves.

And it's not like Sen. Specter has been sympathetic to the Democratic agenda all along. According to Congressional Quarterly, his record shows otherwise. As a Republican, his record at the end of 2008 shows a Party Unity score of 62%. In other words, he voted with Republicans nearly two-thirds of the time. Is that now going to change? I somehow doubt it.

So, the leadership of the Democratic party has decided to bank on Sen. Specter for that elusive 60th vote by offering him the moon and shutting out other Democrats, both now and during the 2010 election.

Interesting strategy, that. Interesting and absolutely nuts.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Those Beginnings

Today I visited the oldest structures made by man that still exist in Europe, the Temples of Tarxien and Hagar Qim on Malta. These are still somewhat crude, and deteriorated, constructions, but the feeling of standing where men began to build, to make something of their own conception, is quite heartening.

To quarry the limestone here on the island of Malta isn't as difficult as some places, it's a soft limestone that carves easily. The color is lemony, and many of the blocks that otherwise would just have been stone are pitted with regular, round holes all over the surface like measles. Or, more like, bubbles. The places seem to have been places of worship, and a few predictably pregnant carvings of women are placed where they seem to have been the objects of the worship. Large, skirted remains are still left at Tarzien, though the actual statues have been replaced with replicas so the originals can be preserved.

We were on the sea coast at Hagar Qim, with a glorious view that must have inspired many yearnings for the original Maltese, and there is an alignment with the sun at Spring and Fall solstices. From the inside of the temple, the sun will come up over the land just inside the door from the altar. Our guide has been there for the event, and says she was disappointed not to be there alone, but have hundreds of other aspiring sun advocates around her.

Our guide also maintained that the temples on Malta are the earliest structures in the world, but I'd be surprised if there aren't structures out in the wilds of China, maybe even in S. America, with histories as old. These are dated back 5,000 years - although of course the world isn't that old according to some of our degenerated religious sects.

There is no written record to tell us about the temples on Malta, so everything we know is learned from the structures, and the carvings, themselves. They advance from the early, crude, first temple to groupings of three, each progressively more skilled in its form. Our ancestors improving on themselves seems endearing to me.

As we sailed back out of the harbor, I was enthralled to see that solar panels were powering the lighthouse at the outer realm of the bay where we'd been harboring. That solar observation we began with is proving to have a lot to offer, indeed. Improving on our ancesters as always.

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Sending Messages in Bottles

Here on the high seas, hearing about closing borders is a little encouraging. What if I'm condemned to stay here in the Med for a few months whilst the flu gets 'contained'? Okay, the potential isn't scary for me. But does anyone volunteer to take on my cats for a bit?

Of course, my N. TX. hometown isn't right next to Mexico, which has the worst of it, but we have a lot of through traffic from that country. Perhaps I could apply for asylum. I will send in my posts in a bottle overboard, then.

From W.H.O. assistant Director General Fukuda, a longterm plan appears to be the best we can do at this point in the spread of swine flu.

"In other words, at this time we think we have taken a step in that direction, but a pandemic is not considered inevitable."

He said the virus had become too widespread to make containment a feasible option, and said countries must focus on trying to put measures in place to protect the population.

He also stressed that the experts did not recommend closing borders or restricting travel. "With the virus being widespread... closing borders or restricting travel really has very little effects in stopping the movement of this virus," he said.

The first batches of a swine flu vaccine could be ready between four to six months, but it will take several more months to produce large quantities of it, Mr Fukuda said.

Health experts say the virus comes from the same strain that causes seasonal outbreaks in humans. But they say this newly-detected version contains genetic material from versions of flu which usually affect pigs and birds.
Dr Richard Besser, acting director of the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has warned that a new US travel advisory is being prepared suggesting "non-essential travel to Mexico be avoided".

This is pretty terrible for a tourist industry already afflicted with gang warfare, which prompted warnings not to visit Mexico during spring break. With economic meltdown all around us, the potential for real suffering in Mexico is pretty disheartening.

Don't you wonder why we aren't hearing more about helping sustain their economy in the face of these blows to industries of all sorts? I susect that our officialdom is not so concerned with the prospect of hunger in Mexico as with the prospect of blowback if they start addressing that coming problem while our media is concentrated on tracking down the perpetrators of the health crisis. I just watched BBC reporters in the small town where the first victim was located, and their questions did not include what damage to the family has been suffered by their loved one's sickness and death.

As for my concern, I'll be volunteering to help out by staying here on the ship. Just think! I can help keep swine flu from spreading, and conquer the disease by staying away from any source of infection... okay, yes, with shipmates going ashore all over the tourist areas here we probably have already had contact and just don't know it yet. Today, in Malta, I will probably touch something that's been touched by a recent visitor to Mexico, New York, even San Antonio.

We're going to need to use that hand sanitizer a lot more. We also are going to need to think about what we can do to assist those suffering from the effects of crippled industries.

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Just Say No

The current GOP strategy is about as effective as prior editions. Now, however, at least a majority of the electorate is onto their games. The elections of 2006 an 2008 made that clear, yet the Republicans keep on keeping on, convinced that their base (the base-base) will return them to power. Any day now. Or at least soon.

One of the features of that strategy is to deny confirmation of President Obama's nominees to key government positions. A pretty good example of that is his nomination of Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The former governor of Kansas has a good track record in terms of dealing with bureaucracies and untangling difficult issues. She had, however, some tax difficulties (unlike any Republicans or their corporate overlords--who pay little if any taxes), so her confirmation is being held up.

In the mean time, the world's airwaves are being filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the outbreak of a particularly virulent influenza which some epidemiologists liken to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Mexico, the US, and the World Health Organization have declared a state of emergency with respect to the outbreak. Unfortunately, we don't have an HHS Secretary. We do, however, have an "Acting Secretary": a Bush appointee whose experience is as an accountant, which is, I suppose, better than having a FEMA head whose experience is running Arabian horse shows, but not by much.

OK, the timing is unfortunate, but perhaps not deliberate. I'll try to be fair because I'd hate to think there are any humans, including Americans, who would wish death on anyone.

So let's move on to another Obama appointee whose confirmation is being held up: Harold Koh as legal advisor to the State Department. Mr. Koh is the dean of Yale Law School and has served with distinction in the Clinton and Reagan administrations. Republicans are unhappy with this nomination as well, even though a couple of non-DFHs, Kenneth Starr and Theodore Olson, have endorsed Koh's appointment because they consider him a brilliant scholar and a man of integrity.

So what's the problem? Well, a recent editorial in the Boston Globe gives an ostensible reason and the real reason. First, the ostensible reason:

Right-leaning Internet sites have promoted several outlandish claims against Koh, including that he opposes Mother's Day. But the one charge worth engaging is that Koh harbors a dangerous legal philosophy that they dub transnationalism: the application of international law in deciding US cases. "Once we sign our rights over to international law, the Constitution is officially dead," fulminated Fox News host Glenn Beck this month.

Koh is hardly the first legal scholar to invoke international treaties or institutions in making legal arguments, especially as they relate to human rights. The Guantanamo rulings are a case in point.

OK, this is silly. Once we sign an international treaty and that treaty is approved by Congress, it's the law of the land. We signed and approved the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war. That's why the currently constituted Supreme Court, much against the wishes of some of its more trogladytic members, ruled as they did on the right to habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees.

That, however, is clearly not what's going on here. The pusillanimous Republicans have their Depends in a bunch for less honorable reasons, as the editorial points out.

The animus toward Koh may be partial payback: he spoke against Alberto Gonzales for attorney general because of his justifications for harsh interrogation techniques that Koh correctly defined as torture. Koh opposes the death penalty, and, like other opponents on the Supreme Court, he cites the bans against capital punishment by most other countries. Opponents say this proves he would allow foreign laws to trump the Constitution. Koh himself has been mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court, which only raises the stakes. [Emphasis added]

I suppose we could give points to the Republicans for not being concerned about keeping their powder dry at this point in history (unlike congressional Democrats the past six years), but it's hard to justify this kind of game playing when so very much is at stake in the real world (not the "created world" of the last administration). Harold Koh is the real deal, qualified for the post at State, and certainly qualified as a Supreme Court Justice (even Kenneth Starr attests to his qualfications).

This recalcitrance would be amusing if we were talking about the distribution of cookies at preschool, but the stakes are much higher. Much, much higher.

Very few media outlets are pointing this out, preferring instead to go with the GOP faux tears of Glenn Beck and his ilk. What is so heartbreaking is that a paper facing a forced shut-down by a corporate owner is still trying to do its job. I suppose all that we can do is what we've always supposed to have been doing, which is to raise our voices in all the various ways available to us in this brave new world and to let Congress and everyone else who claims to control the discourse know that we've had enough and we're not going to put up with it anymore.

And if that doesn't work, we can always get the steel wool out to polish up our pitchforks.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

End Times

Hope the title didn't frighten you, but I did have a little chat with a very nice waiter in the elegant restaurant (where you have to dress up, and there are several courses, and yes, it's included in the trip charges) and he announced that we're in the end times, then went right on with talking about his home in Jamaica. Funny, if he thinks it's the end times, he ought to be glad to have me on board.

My history with blowing away is growing, after having lost a roof in early April. Living on tornado alley means that isn't all that uncommon, of course, and I've had to replace roofs previously. Last night the wind came up here on our way from the Italian peninsula to Sicily, and the winds were whipping up a lot of white caps. This morning on our way into port, I got a view of something I never saw before, those horses of the sea's manes blowing in the wind. Yes, we've probably all heard it before. But from my lower deck porthole, I could look at the waves whipping up that high, their froth tops were taken by the wind and blown out in long streaming froth from the top of the wave, making wonderful whips out of the froth. I think if I had never been on the sea when it happened, and right on the level of the waves, I would never have seen that happen. Hopefully my pictures, taken through the porthole, will turn out. If I'd been on deck, I wouldn't have been able to see those whipping wavetops streaming out in the sky. I feel very good, and very fortunate.

The upper deck have balconies. I have incredible sights. I choose my porthole, and of course, decided when I chose my cabin that if I wanted to watch the sea, I'd go on deck. Little did I know.

Last night, the captain announced this a.m., we were sailing through close to hurrican level winds, blowing 64 knots. I think I'm just zephyrric by nature, new word. Of course, I check the weather reports and understand my little area of north Texas has had more tornadoes, looking to see if I have a roof to replace again when I get back.

Hope you all are well, and that you are having exceptional experiences too.

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Please Flutter By

Not too long ago, we were chatting at eschaton about the missing fireflies that used to be everywhere after dark in the south when it was warm. Now it's rare we see them, and to see a whole field occupied by those little lightning blinks is almost unheard of. Partly we have all those lush green lawns requiring loads of insecticide to blame, I suspect, but what about climate change as well? Today I came across an article on butterflies disappearing from England that may apply to our disappearing natural world in the U.S. as well.

I began a less than scientific monitoring of butterflies in a little notepad when I was eight, helping my dad count the tiny brown argus on the Norfolk coast where we spent our summer holidays. Finding this darting, chocolate-brown gem ignited an awkward passion for butterflies that I kept well hidden during my teenage years. Dad and I would go on expeditions to discover, and photograph, rare species: we would sit in a wet meadow in Cumbria waiting for the marsh fritillary to emerge, or hover by piles of horse manure in the woodlands of Surrey, hoping the majestic, haughty (and turd-loving) purple emperor would descend from the treetops for us. Twenty years on, some of the nature reserves we visited have lost their precious rarities. If trends continue, another couple of bad summers could kill off some species for ever.

Numbers of the delicate wood white were down by 66% last year on dismal 2007; its population has slumped by 90% over the long-term recording period. The duke of burgundy and the high brown fritillary are most at risk of extinction. The high brown survives in just 50 small sites: at one spot in Dartmoor, there were 7,200 in 1995; last year, there were just 87. Nationwide, numbers have fallen by 85% over 10 years. "This run of bad weather has really pushed those species to the brink in many areas," says Martin Warren, the chief executive of Butterfly Conservation.

Wood white butterfly. Photograph: Peter Eeles Butterflies find it difficult to fly, feed and mate in bad weather but these figures are not just a seasonal blip caused by freakishly soggy summers. The collecting of British butterflies has ceased to be acceptable and yet butterfly populations have still plummeted. Far more devastating than unscrupulous collectors of old has been industrial agriculture and the loss of 97% of England's natural grassland and wildflower meadows; planting conifers or letting our broadleaved woodlands become too overgrown for woodland flowers; and the sprawl of motorways and urban development.

To this deadly cocktail has been added a new poison: climate change. In theory, a gentle global warming should benefit almost all of Britain's butterflies. Creatures of sunshine, most of our butterflies are found in southern England where many are at the limit of their natural range; as our summers become hotter, these butterflies should thrive and spread further north. There are a few winners already: the beautiful comma is moving north and the rare silver-spotted skipper has done well thanks to hotter summers. Britain may also be visited more regularly by exotic species that were once rare migrants.

A painted lady butterfly. Photograph: The Linnean Society of London The fate of one much-loved native shows that this happy outcome, however, will not come to pass for most species. The small tortoiseshell is the labrador of the butterfly world: cheerful and content to live close to humans. Its caterpillars devour ubiquitous nettles. As an adult butterfly, it feasts on suburban flowers and hibernates in garden sheds, pitter-pattering against our windows when spring comes round again. Thanks to climate change, it is spreading north and is now seen for the first time in remote parts of Scotland. Unfortunately, so too is Sturmia bella (how the person who named this ugly brute could call it beautiful is beyond me), a species of parasitic fly.

This nasty fly was recorded for the first time in Britain in Hampshire 11 years ago. By last summer, it had reached Merseyside thanks to a modus operandi every bit as gory as the Alien films. It lays its microscopic eggs on patches of nettles where small tortoiseshell caterpillars feed. These unwittingly eat the fly's eggs which become tiny worms inside the caterpillar, bursting out of their bodies just when the small tortoiseshell is beginning its miraculous transformation into a butterfly inside its chrysalis.

Last year was the worst ever year for small tortoiseshells, its population slumping by 45% compared with 2007, despite thousands of migrant small tortoiseshells arriving from Europe in September.

Those swarms of migrating monarchs that used to pass through my lawn haven't just taken a detour, it seems. We spray them, and we run their water supplies through the rinse cycle and our lush green lawn sprinklers, and we destroy their climate with our insistence on our own comfort.

It's probable that all of us reading this post, though, take a lot of precautions against damaging the world around us since we are concerned enough to inform ourselves and act responsibly. Sadly, that category of 'us' isn't large enough to make the difference. Our climate change is taking its toll on fellow creatures, and we have to be active to make the changes in all our lives if we're going to save the beauties of the universe.

Today I'm in Sicily, and it's overcast. I wonder if I'll see a butterfly at all. If I do, I'll be very glad. But whether I do or not, I do see that our activism is going to be increasingly important to that butterfly and its fellows.

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The Tortured

At this point, we don't know the extent of permanent psychological damage caused to those who have been detained and tortured by the US government. Surely the harsh treatment will leave deep scars, some of which may not be treatable. Just as important, it seems to me, is that we also don't know what effect the torture will have on the interrogators who engaged in those reprehensible tactics. An interesting opinion piece written by Frank Snepp for the Los Angeles Times provides some insight into what kind of marks are left on the psyche of the interrogator.

Mr. Snepp was a CIA analyst and interrogator during the Vietnam era. He was charged with obtaining information from a high level North Vietnamese officer captured and worked over first by the South Vietnamese army. Snepp didn't slam his prisoner's head against a wall repeatedly, nor did he waterboard the man time after time after time. He did, however, keep the North Vietnamese prisoner in isolation with the air conditioning turned up, and he did impose drastic changes on the daily routine of the man, mandating breakfast at midnight and lunch at dawn. Penny ante stuff, compared to what we now know took place the past seven or so years, but to a certain extent, the precursor of those actions, at least in Mr. Snepp's view.

How can the lawyers live with those images? And what damage did the interrogators who used the techniques sustain to their souls?

These are not academic questions for me. As a CIA interrogator in Vietnam during the last five years of the war, I know I put my soul at extreme peril. I am still haunted by what I did, and I suspect that what I witnessed and perpetrated in those years set the stage for the Bush Justice Department's approach to torture

But I did become complicit in the psychological manipulation and torment of a prisoner. Never mind that the North Vietnamese inflicted far more brutal treatment on the American inmates of the "Hanoi Hilton." My "success" in promoting a "dialogue" with Tai was based on his lingering fear that, without dialogue, he would be tossed back to the brutal South Vietnamese -- an impression I encouraged. The isolation, the chilled air, the disorienting new routine were all things I imposed.

My CIA colleagues and I used to rationalize our tactics, and some still insist that psychological intimidation, verbal threats and tight handcuffs are perfectly acceptable in terms of both morality and expediency. But I believe there is an organic connection between the tactics I applied against Tai and those approved by the Bush Justice Department. Controlled brutality is a slippery slope, and once you pass through the moral membrane that should contain our worst impulses, it becomes so very easy to rationalize another step, and yet another, in the wrong direction.
[Emphasis added]

That's a heavy burden for an otherwise decent human being to carry. Now, Frank Snepp didn't go on to become a serial killer, nor did he choose to lapse into a drug or alcohol induced fog. He's a successful investigative news producer for a major television network. But he is still haunted by what he did decades ago, and that haunting has become even starker by the revelations of the past months, moving him to write this remarkable confession.

I wonder whether the current crop of interrogators will be as fortunate.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

ee cummings


Today I actually did get to the top of the volcano that created Pompeii. Yes, it was a strenuous climb but the view of the bay of Naples with its' cityscape laid out across the valley, the flows of cooled magma and the blue water sprinkled with volcanic islands was well worth it.

There is still steam rising from vents in the rock, which I didn't expect since the last time Vesuvius blew was the year of my birth, 1944. There's life in us old folks, yet, I suppose.

One of those pieces of info that the guide gave out was that the unemployment rate in Naples is 20%. I questioned him about whether that has been the rate for a long time, and he assured me it was almost permanent because all the resources of the country are concentrated on the northern areas. Those more politically ascendant areas seem to rake off the revenues, most of them from tourism, and put back in as little as possible. As I say, this was the guide's POV, can't give you figures behind it, but it is an area of obvious impoverishment.

The view from the top sort of blurs out those details, but nearly every balcony had a load of laundry drying on it, and many really gorgeous stone homes were very neglected.

The tomatoes are supposed to be great, with the basaltic base to the soil. Sorry, I didn't get any.

Then of course we went to Pompeii, and toured the basaltic flow that has been slowly, carefully, chipped away to reveal the city that was buried beneath it. One feature that I hadn't expected was a brothel, so yep, I've seen the Greatest Little Brothel in Pompeii. Very detailed and frank illustrations on the walls told about the national origin, as the guide put it, of the offered ladies. Their pictures will be featured in a course on Italian history that will be offered next semester to his college history course by the brother of the ship's 'escort', the member of staff who covered this trip today. He says there are openings if I'm interested. I'm still mulling that over. It helps that I speak some German and French, of course.

Do you all expect me to come home? Oh, yes, the kittehs.


Picture This

Those excruciating pictures of Abu Ghraib are responsible for a lot of things, but not for the humiliation of this country. That was accomplished by the creepy war criminals who tunneled through our system of laws and carefully realigned the executive branch to serve party politics rather than the country's best interests. The pictures of their degradation are not the problem, nor the solution.

We need publication of the scenery of our disgrace, no matter how distasteful it is. This is that thing called a 'learning experience' that comes into our lives unwelcome but leaves us better or destroys us if we can't bear up under it with some grace.

As Diane has said; Justice and our national honor require no less.

The torture of our victims has led to worse than bad information, and we need to face all that it did destroy. Relations with our allies, even to the point that they refused to share information with us, also suffered.

AT the height of the American-led war on terror, George W Bush began to encounter an unexpected problem. The use of harsh interrogation techniques on captured Al-Qaeda terrorists caused a damaging rift with leading US allies, among them Britain and Israel, according to a former State Department official.

Philip Zelikow, a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, revealed last week that “some of Europe’s best allies found it increasingly difficult to assist us in counterterrorism, because they feared becoming complicit in a programme their governments abhorred”.

A member of Barack Obama’s presidential transition team also disclosed yesterday that during a series of secret briefings late last year at the CIA, aides to the then president-elect were told that several foreign intelligence services had refused to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in the use of torture during interrogations.

Evidence of allied resistance to US anti-terror tactics added yet another layer of controversy to an anguished debate about torture that has confounded Obama’s attempts to draw a curtain over the past and is threatening to overshadow his presidential record as he marks his 100th day in office on Wednesday.
From The Sunday TimesApril 26, 2009

Allies split with US over tortureTony Allen-Mills in New York
AT the height of the American-led war on terror, George W Bush began to encounter an unexpected problem. The use of harsh interrogation techniques on captured Al-Qaeda terrorists caused a damaging rift with leading US allies, among them Britain and Israel, according to a former State Department official.

Philip Zelikow, a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, revealed last week that “some of Europe’s best allies found it increasingly difficult to assist us in counterterrorism, because they feared becoming complicit in a programme their governments abhorred”.

A member of Barack Obama’s presidential transition team also disclosed yesterday that during a series of secret briefings late last year at the CIA, aides to the then president-elect were told that several foreign intelligence services had refused to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in the use of torture during interrogations.

Evidence of allied resistance to US anti-terror tactics added yet another layer of controversy to an anguished debate about torture that has confounded Obama’s attempts to draw a curtain over the past and is threatening to overshadow his presidential record as he marks his 100th day in office on Wednesday.

Related Links
One tortured lie: that’s all it took for war
CIA: torture memo release has put US in danger
TEXT: 10 'torture' techniques blessed by Bush
After a week of ugly disclosures and furious recriminations, it was clear that far from laying the torture issue to rest, Obama has created a legal and political nightmare that may haunt his presidency.

A barrage of revelations about who knew what about torture and when will be followed this week by the release of hundreds of photographs depicting abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration.

Officials insist there is nothing in the photos as shocking as previously circulated pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison. But they are certain to arouse Middle Eastern anger just when the US military is struggling to contain a renewed outbreak of suicide bombings that killed at least 159 people in Iraq last week.

Hillary Clinton, Rice’s successor as secretary of state, arrived in Baghdad for a surprise visit yesterday and sought to calm local alarm by describing the latest bombings as “a signal that rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction”.

The Pentagon photographs, which are being released to avoid an embarrassing legal battle that was heading for the US Supreme Court, will also fan demands from many of Obama’s supporters for a formal commission of inquiry to consider prosecutions of officials who authorised or engaged in torture. The proposal has divided America, provoked consternation at the CIA and is causing serious strains within the president’s Democratic party.

Several former Bush aides and ex-CIA officials warned last week that what some described as a “witch-hunt” would have disastrous effects on US counterterrorist capabilities, crippling the CIA’s intelligence gathering and bolstering the morale of America’s enemies.

“We ask these [CIA agents] to do extremely dangerous things, things they’ve been ordered to do by legal authorities, with the understanding that they will get top cover if something goes wrong,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA assistant director.

“They don’t believe they have that cover any more and [releasing the photographs] will make it much worse.”

There was also alarm at suggestions that the government should prosecute Bush administration lawyers who wrote widely criticised memos justifying the use of waterboarding (simulated drowning) and other extreme methods.

The quandary about what to do about crimes is specious at all levels. Under a rule of law, prosecution is the natural outgrowth of criminal behavior. Without that punishment phase, the term 'Rule of Law' is hollow sham.

The information we were denied might have assisted our intelligence community. The result of torture was bad information from the tortured and no intelligence from civilized nations.

We need to redeem our own intelligence community by putting it back on the right path, and renouncing the regrettable incidents we committed and caused.

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Unexamined Assumptions

The revelation that no careful analysis of the effectiveness of torture techniques in gathering useful intelligence was ever performed by the last administration comes as no surprise. That would have been too risky: it might have shown (and probably would have shown) the practices used by the CIA and military intelligence were ineffective, thereby depriving the administration of an excuse for using torture. Just how determined the Bush administration was to subvert any such analysis was outlined in this Los Angeles Times story.

The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency's inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked.

When the CIA finally did the "comprehensive examination," it wasn't conducted by "outside experts." It was done by two former government officials --one an aide to Newt Gingrich -- who had no expertise in interrogation techniques.

...neither the inspector general's report nor the other audits examined the effectiveness of interrogation techniques in detail or sought to scrutinize the assertions of CIA counter-terrorism officials that so-called enhanced methods were essential to the program's results. One report by a former government official -- not an interrogation expert -- was about 10 pages long and amounted to a glowing review of interrogation efforts.

"Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques -- enhanced or otherwise -- to see what resulted in the best information," said a senior U.S. intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program.
[Emphasis added]

Yes, I'm sure that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" resulted in volumes of information; we just don't know whether it was accurate or useful information. Chances are that it was not. Even assuming, however, that we got some useful nuggets from the torture, there is no way of telling whether those nuggets could also have been mined by using traditional and legal methods, methods which would not have shamed this nation the way the use of torture has.

The use of torture did not make this country more secure after 9/11. In fact, it probably has had the exact opposite effect. To see just one example of the collateral damage our use of torture had, drop back by about 9 AM (PDT). Ruth will tell you all about it.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Leaf-Cutter Ant

(Photograph by Alex Wild and published at National Geographic, which contains this interesting bit of information:

This leaf-cutter ant species is all female and thrives without sex of any kind—ever—according to a new study. The ants have evolved to reproduce only when queens clone themselves.

Click on the link for more information.)

A Tricky Trail Of Blood

I stole the title of this post from headline of an article written by Christian Wernicke for Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung. I chose Mr. Wernicke's op-ed from this week's collection at Watching America because it provided a welcome perspective on what can only be seen as America's shame.

Mr. Wernicke has captured precisely the American zeitgeist which allowed for the rationalization of torture as an acceptable tool in the Global War On Terror:

Back then, a few months after September 11th, they all feared that the al-Qaeda murderers might strike again. That’s what drove the Republican leadership to break with that which had always been at the core of America: democratic control of power: reverence for justice and respect for human values and rights. And they signed off on that which the CIA and Pentagon warhorses asked them to: a license to torture in the name of national security.

Nobody questioned anything back then; the end justified the means, as well as the so-called improved interrogation techniques. Morals weren’t the only thing swept under George Bush’s strategy table in his global war on terror.

He then moves on to the "tricky" path President Obama must now travel with respect to this shameful episode in our history. The president has already issued the equivalent to a pre-emptive pardon to those who did the torturing. CIA agents who engaged in that reprehensible behavior are forgiven because they were assured that what they were doing was "legal." Because of the hue and cry from his own citizens and from nations all over the world, however, he cannot just assume this will now all just go away so that he can "look forward." Recent revelations from Congress and from the release of Justice Department memos justifying the "enhanced interrogation techniques" cannot just be ignored.

It gets trickier for Obama the higher the torturers’ bloody trail leads. The former Justice Department bureaucrats, for example, who approved maltreatment on a large scale, should now be held accountable.

The next higher echelon will be even trickier. The Senate recently made an investigative report public in which there is a clear chain of circumstantial evidence against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, showing his responsibility for the shameful and disgraceful events that took place at Abu Ghraib prison.

Obama cannot and should not ignore all this. But as President of all Americans, he also cannot unilaterally pass judgment on Rumsfeld, himself.

That’s why he’s considering the idea of placing the matter in the hands of an independent commission. He sees that as an act of reconciliation, but he must be careful that it won’t turn out to be just an excuse for forgetting the whole episode.

Mr. Wernicke must have written his column before further revelations made it clear that other members of the Bush administration were complicit in the affair. Vice President Cheney and then-National Security Advisor Condaleezza Rice joined in the call for the use of torture even in the face of both domestic and international law forbidding such interrogation techniques. The trail leads right into the heart of that administration.

The president has to stop wringing his hands nervously over worries of the faux claims of "partisanship" which will be made regardless of any moves he makes. While an independent commission with subpoena power and a pipeline to the Justice Department for the securing of indictments as necessary and as justified might be one approach, a surer, more direct road would be to assign the issue directly to the Justice Department. That is the agency charged with investigating crimes.

The president should also stop suggesting to Congress that it has more important things to do than to "look backward." Congressional investigations should be encouraged, not quashed, even if members of the intelligence committees of the two houses are found to have been less than diligent in their oversight.

Justice and our national honor require no less, and make no mistake: if this nation does not act on this foulness, other nations will, thereby increasing our shame. This is a time for leadership, not pearl clutching. I hope President Obama is up to the job.

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You may be wondering what effect it's having on people who just flew in from all the corners of the earth to take a cruise, to find out that going home they're going to encounter a new airport dilemma. We are out here in an idyll and on the way home will be questioned about flu-like symptoms, all the while we're encountering some kind of exposure in these ports like, Rome today, Pompeii tomorrow, and on to Malta, some islands, then back to Barcelona. All the while, an epidemic has struck back at home in Texas and neighboring Mexico with its constant contacts with my world there. Yes, I will inquire about getting a flu shot, today when the medical center opens at 4 p.m. shipboard time - about 3 a.m. in Texas.

Museums, libraries, theatres, schools and universities were shut in Mexico City yesterday after the spread of a hitherto unidentified strain of flu, which has so far killed as many as 60 people and raised fears of a pandemic.

Authorities acted to try to control the spread of swine flu, which the World Health Organisation said had killed up to 60. Around 800 people have the "influenza-like" symptoms, the WHO said.

Mexico's government said at least 20 were confirmed to have died of the illness, and it may have been responsible for 40 further deaths. There have also been seven reported cases of the same virus in the United States: five in southern California and two in Texas. All those patients have recovered.

"This is a new virus," health minister José Ángel Córdova said in an interview with MVS radio. "We have taken these measures because this is a virus that has the potential to become a pandemic."

The minister said most of those infected were in the Mexico City metropolitan area, which has a population of 20 million, although three other Mexican states have also been affected to a lesser degree.

He said the authorities were considering extending their precautions to include shutting workplaces as well as schools, but for the moment urged employers to be tolerant of absences.

While he believed the situation was "very worrying", he also thought the epidemic was controllable.

The impact of the preventive measures on city life was felt immediately as the population woke up to news of the epidemic, announced in a late-night statement.

Radio and TV stations repeated official advice to stay away from crowded places "unless urgently necessary", and to seek medical help at the first sign of the very high fevers and acute respiratory symptoms associated with the illness.

At the city's biggest airport, airlines began requiring passengers checking in for national and international flights to fill out forms to help decide who could be at risk of carrying the virus. Anybody deemed to be a risk was reportedly being asked not to fly.

The passing of flu from swine to human is a new development, I heard today via BBC news. While I'm pretty far away from the point of its outbreak, there's no way of avoiding contact with it. As I mentioned before, in airports and in the ports we're visiting, we're meeting germs - oops, sorry, carriers - from everywhere, and will no doubt run into the usual unforseeable possible threat of diseases of all sorts. It's been a bit sobering to know that a pandemic we've always heard about has arrived.

The world has contracted for us all to just about one big contact point. No, it's not flat, it's a pinhead.

Good luck, and have you had your shots?

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The Science Of Compromise

The "center-left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times was much kinder to President Obama this morning than it should have been when it comes to the White House cop-out on stem cell research.

Yes, the president kept his promise by lifting some of the restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. No longer will research be limited to the dozen or so stem cell lines already in existence at the time President Bush imposed the ban on the use of new lines. However, under the new NIH guidelines, some of the old restrictions remain firmly in place.

In unsettled times, perhaps it's appropriate to move cautiously on some fronts, aiming for consensus rather than contention. If that's the case, the Obama administration made a savvy move with its compromise draft rules on embryonic stem cell science: It greatly expanded the number of embryos available for federally funded research, but refused to open the door to funding research on embryos created for that purpose.

It was an important step forward,but not the kind of bold move promised by President Obama when he pledged to "base our public policies on the soundest science" rather than on politics. ...

The new NIH rules would not allow the use of federal money for studying stem cell lines derived from embryos created specifically for research. Such research might involve attempts to produce genetically matched organs for transplant or stem cell lines that reflect racial and ethnic diversity.
[Emphasis added]

The fact of the matter is that the primary sources of the embryonic lines used in research are the fertility clinics which freeze and store the unused embryos. The people who use such clinics to assist in conception are almost always white and at least middle class because the procedures are so expensive. That shuts out cell lines from other races and ethnicities. Consequently, a huge segment of the population may very well be shut out from the benefits anticipated from the research.

Appropriate ethical guidelines can be developed to forestall any misbegotten experiments. After all, responsible researchers are not freakish Dr. Frankenstein wannabes and would no doubt be quite happy to do their jobs within the framework provided as long as that framework doesn't tie their hands completely.

To shut down one important facet of that research in the name of "consensus" does not reflect the leadership one expects from the President of the United States. This is another case of the science of compromise leading to the compromise of science, a situation which Mr. Obama promised to change.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Catblogging



" target="_blank">Cornish Rex cats in Philly need home/rescue;

Breed: Cornish Rex
Names: Gus & Z
Age: 11½ year old
Neutered: Yes
Declawed: Front paws only

Gus and Z are a bonded pair of brothers. They are a playful and loving duo. Neither cat likes to be held but if your lap is empty, it won’t be for long. Human companionship is as necessary to them as the air they breath. I can often hear them knocking at my bedroom door and calling for me. Every person that enters our home is greeted by a meow and a touch of their paw in hopes of gaining some attention.

This breed has a very thin layer of fur so their bodies need to generate more heat to keep them warm. They are a couple of warmth junkies wgi search out the warmest places in the house like the heat vents, top of the cable box and under blankets which makes them a perfect pair of napping companions. They love nothing better to burrow under your blanket and curl up against you.

In spite of their years, Gus and Z are two very frisky felines, chasing each other throughout the house. Tussling and playing with each other before snuggling down for another nap.

Gus, the smaller of the two has a huge appetite. He will eat anything, anytime yet still retain his youthful figure. I feed them a half of a 4 oz. can of Iams cat food at breakfast and dinner. I found that this works best with their digestive system. Then I leave a bowl full of Iams dry food for them to snack on throughout the day. Z, or ZeeBee as we affectionately call him, is a picker eater. He also always waits for Gus to eat his share of wet food before finishing up. Gus always leaves half for Z to finish.

Gus’s coat is sparse. He was the runt of the litter and never has a great coat. He has lost all his teeth and Z has two left. ZeeBee is a tail sucker and a tummy kneader with a beautiful coat. They both have benign pustules on their belly. Unsightly but not a health problem. Their shots are up to date and I can supply veterinary reports at your request.

Gus and Z’s litter habits need to be retrained. This has been the way they show anxiety. The first incident occurred after we left them home while we took a long weekend vacation. We left them with plenty of food, water, and a clean litter box. What we failed to provide was human companionship. Since then I have someone visit them twice a day when we go away. Things were going well until recently. I am going through a divorce and not home nearly as much as I was. They’ve also picked up on the stress of our family situation plus my daughter’s absence every other weekend. For example, when my husband moved out he took all the family room furniture with him. Z came downstairs for breakfast, but first stepped into the empty family room. The poor thing sat himself down in the middle of the room and just kept turning his head left and right as if to say, “Where did all my favorite furniture go?” Since then they have resumed their inconsistent use of the litter box. Their need to be placed in a stable home where they will get lots of attention and affection from their humans, is a point I can’t stress enough.

My future is very uncertain and though we are heartbroken, I can no longer give Gus and Z the kind of home they need. My daughter is going off to college soon and I’ll be working full time. I don’t even know where I’ll be living six months from now. Please give my cats a good home. They will thank you with more love and affection than you’ll know what to do with.

Okay, this is cheating, it's the cats-eye nebula. Good luck in seeing one.


Trip Advisory

Today was a day to wander around Florence, and I did something that I very much advise anyone taking a trip. I went online weeks ago and reserved a ticket for the Ufizzi Galleries. Today I was talking to a very unhappy lady who learned that she should have reserved in advance to see the Sistine Chapel tomorrow. Not only is this not someplace that is in low demand, we are presently in Italy for a holiday. The day it was liberated from Nazi occupation is celebrated tomorrow, here, and students are out of school, with free admission most places. There was an immense line for the free admission at the Uffizi, something I was really glad I avoided. As it was, I had to wait for awhile before looking at some of the limited admission rooms inside.

No, I didn't make it through everything. Starting at eleven and finishing after two, I did wash out before I got to the 17th Century in the first floor - exhibits begin on the second floor. But I got my first view of the original of the >'Venus on the Half Shell' (you pro'ly know it as The Birth of Venus) by Botticelli, and at last I can actually see the zephyrs in the air that give it a quality no reproduction has ever captured for me.

And a couple of other things, too, but I won't tell you all about it, you have to come see it for yourself. Oh, one more I have to indulge myself in enjoying - el Greco friars with their solidity descending to those ephemeral hands and cheekbones -well you just go look.

A few things about Italy I totally enjoy, the stone farmhouses that date back to the middle ages, and the fortresses on top of hills where little nation/states held their own against marauders for centuries. Ironically, I watched 'Quantum of Solace' on my movie channel last night, with its scenes of the horse racing in Sienna. Nice background when you're off the coast of Italy. Tomorrow I get to see 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Little bonuses of a cruise , patting ourselves on the back, for having discovered you can travel without living out of a suitcase and constantly looking for edible food at a good price. Last night over dinner it was a delightful couple from New York, originally Russia, who are going to check out cabdrollery and get into arguments with me, zestfully but with good cheer. If you're reading this, Hi Boris and Irina!

Okay, now I'm hungry. And it's almost time to watch us set sail for Rome. Where I will not be going for a third visit, tho I thought about doing the catacombs maybe, but really I am looking forward to a day on board. I get the jacuzzi to myself! and time for a made-to-order omelette.

Yes, this is the getting spoiled that I was ready for. Please don't hate me, think of all the gruesome stuff I put up with to get this far. Next time I choose a life of leisure, and believe me, my character will not suffer.


More On The Uighurs

The seventeen Uighurs mistakenly rounded up in Pakistan are still sitting in Guantanamo Bay, awaiting the release a federal judge ordered months ago. The problem cited by the Bush administration (and now the Obama administration) is that the government isn't quite sure where to release them, even though sponsors and friends across the nation offered to take them in. The real problem, however, is that the Bush administration saw that their release would be a tacit admission that our government screwed up by detaining them, and the Bushistas weren't having any of that. The Obama administration, not hamstrung by fears of admitting the last administration screwed up, has been hesitant to release them for fear of angering China, which wants these "terrorists" returned to China for investigation and punishment.

Apparently there has been some movement by the US government, however. The Los Angeles Times reports that as many as seven of the Uighurs will be released in the US, presumably in the Washington, DC suburbs where there are other Uighurs living. The Obama administration is still moving slowly, however, citing fears that China will be angered at the move and that Americans will be unhappy at having men held as terrorists moved into their neighborhoods.

Both fears, even if not baseless, could be handled effectively with a little openness and honesty by our government. To begin with, the Chinese have to be well aware by this time that the US has no intention of returning the Uighurs to China, a point confirmed in the article.

"If these people are terrorists, they should be punished. If they are not terrorists, the United States should apologize to China for holding them so long and make compensation," said Zhang Jiadong, an expert in terrorism at Fudan University's Center for American Studies. Zhang said, however, that he did not expect the Chinese government to retaliate because it was already widely anticipated in Beijing that the United States would not return the Uighurs to China. [Emphasis added]

As to the concern that we're setting loose a group of terrorists in the US, most agree that the Uighurs are not a real danger, no matter what some hold-overs from the Bush administration will claim. The Uighurs' beef has been with China, not the US, and even though illegally detained by the US at Gitmo for years, they have been treated a little better than most of the other detainees. Released to compatriots who have been living freely in the US would serve to ease some of the pain these men must feel.

There is also a very good, albeit pragmatic, reason for releasing at least seven of the Uighurs into the US. President Obama has been urging other nations to accept some of the detainees as part of his plan to close Gitmo. The response has been chilly, primarily because the US has refused to accept any. The White House surely understands that, and, as the article points out, "the Uighurs would be the easiest detainees to relocate in the U.S."

Hopefully the Obama administration will move quickly. These men have been held for far too long. It's time to change that.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday Birding

The Peregrine Falcon from ground level, looking up.

The Peregrine Falcon is exciting to watch. I expect to see some on the islands I'll be visiting in the Mediterranean, maybe Malta.

P.S. I am almost sure I saw one in Barcelona.

Cool Facts

* The name "peregrine" means wanderer, and the Peregrine Falcon has one of the longest migrations of any North American bird. Tundra-nesting falcons winter in South America, and may move 25,000 km (15,500 mi) in a year. Maps of the migration of individual falcons determined by satellite telemetry can be seen at Environment Canada.
* People have trained falcons for hunting for over a thousand years, and the Peregrine Falcon was always one of the most prized birds. Efforts to breed the Peregrine in captivity and reestablish populations depleted during the DDT years were greatly assisted by the existence of methods of handling captive falcons developed by falconers.
* The Peregrine Falcon is a very fast flier, averaging 40-55 km/h (25-34 mph) in traveling flight, and reaching speeds up to 112 km/h (69 mph) in direct pursuit of prey. During its spectacular hunting stoop from heights of over 1 km (0.62 mi), the peregrine may reach speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph) as it drops toward its prey.
* The Peregrine Falcon is one of the most widespread birds in the world. It is found on all continents except Antarctica, and on many oceanic islands.


The Phone Ringing at 2 A.M.

With the same insouciance it showed in wiping out statues of the Buddha that far predated its sway in Afghanistan, the Taliban is sweeping out local authorities in Pakistan after getting its way. The new and untested government of Pakistan made the effort to survive by giving up territory; does that have a familiar ring? In WWII it was Nevil Chamberlain's policy, and it didn't work.

The sudden action of the Taliban has a chilling resemblance to the Third Reich's moves swiftly and mercilessly into territory in Europe, and the character of the Taliban has much resemblance to that earlier regime.

Taliban fightersspilling out of the Swat Valley have swept across Buner, a district 60 miles from Islamabad, as Hillary Clinton warned the situation in Pakistan now poses a "mortal threat" to the security of the world.

The US secretary of state told Congress yesterday that Pakistan faced an "existential" threat from Islamist militants. "I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists," she said. Any further deterioration in the situation "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world", she said.

In Buner, Taliban fighters occupied government buildings, ransacked the offices of aid agencies and ordered aid employees to leave. Fighters brandishing guns and rocket launchers patrolled villages, forcing beleaguered local police to retreat to their stations. Local courts have stopped functioning and judicial officials have gone on indefinite leave.

When governments fall suddenly before military might, the countries of the world need to act. Of course, the U.S. is totally out of its depth here, because our military has been stripped of its power and wasted in illegitimate and unproductive warfare by the minions of the right wing over eight years just ended by their ouster. We are that pitiful, helpless giant that Nixon liked to refer to when he wanted to frighten the weakminded into ceding him ever more power. Sadly, that is a tactic that is wrongheaded, and leads to selfdestructive behavior. That self destruction has proceded so far that we are in real danger this time.

We are seeing the beginnings of a return to world friendships through the President's diplomatic overtures to that estranged community, but will those beginnings lead to enough support for the dangers the previous maladministration has brought on us?

We are about to find out.

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Tiresome Whining

One of the last places I would have expected to find an article decrying excessive executive compensation is the Business section of the Los Angeles Times, yet Michael Hiltzig's column today does just that. He is disgusted not only by the pay some of these yahoos are pulling down, but also by the unseemly whining over the caps in pay which are part of the conditions for the TARP bailout.

Every day seems to present yet another example of the disjunction between the financial community's sense of entitlement and the real world occupied by everybody else.

The other day, the inspector general for the government's financial bailout program, known as TARP, revealed that Chrysler’s lending arm requested $750 million in new money but was turned down because its top 25 executives wouldn't all agree to the compensation limits TARP requires.

That's after the government had already given Chrysler Financial $1.5 billion. (Chrysler says, for its part, that it decided it didn't need the additional money after all. Nothing to do with the pay caps, it says. But of the original $1.5 billion, so far it has repaid only $3.5 million.)

Meanwhile, a passel of Wall Street professionals unburdened themselves to New York magazine about the punitive cuts in pay and bonuses they’re suffering -- imposed, to their minds, by jealous people less talented and successful than they.

Talented? Perhaps some, maybe even most, of these business whizzes are talented, but those talents must have been directed at something other than ensuring their companies or banks would remain healthy and productive. I suspect their own incomes and perquisites were considered more worthy targets for those talents.

Successful? At what? These companies were/are about to go under because of appalling mismanagement over at least the last decade. Solid companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers, AIG, and a host of commercial banks were driven into the ground by these "talented and successful" people.

It's hard to summon even a sympathetic grimace for people who now complain that they will have to "fly commercial" rather than use the company jet and will have to buy fewer designer fashions for the Spring. Many of us who still have jobs have had our hours cut, and those who have been laid off are wondering how they will feed and house their families on unemployment benefits, knowing even that income source isn't going to last forever.

The last thing we want invading our space is the sound of adults whining endlessly about how we just don't understand or appreciate them and their need for annual salaries in the $10 to $30 million range.

Parasitic morons.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bad Guys

Luckily, I didn't sink to watching Faux News, but today it seems that ex-Darth used it to make sure no one thought he had any respect for that wimpy peace stuff. Seems that the administration now trying to clean up his messes is his idea of naive and uninformed, and not even inclined to try that mutilating folks - that resoundingly succeeded in alienating the world from the U.S. for the eight years he spent in the executive branch.

Former vice president Dick Cheney and former Bush political guru Karl Rove could both be found on Fox News last night, preaching doom and spreading bile.

Fox last night aired the second half of an interview Cheney conducted with Sean Hannity.

Hannity asked if the Obama administration is "naive, that maybe they don't understand the nature of the war on terror?"

Cheney replied: "Yes, basically. I think there's -- the assumption seems to predominate on the other side that the reason there's been problems in the world is because of U.S. activity, U.S. conduct.

"We're the bad guys. We're the ones that lead people to become terrorists. We're the ones that generate the kind of criticism that has given al Qaeda an excuse to come attack the United States.

"I don't think that's true. I don't think they needed any excuse when they came here on 9/11, killed 3,000 of us. I don't think as we strip ourselves of important capabilities in terms of our interrogation program for detainees. I don't think there are members of al Qaeda out there around the world this morning that say, 'Oh, gee whiz, isn't that great? Barack Obama and his administration are no longer going to ask our guys tough questions when they are captured. Now, maybe we won't behead their people when they capture them.' I mean, it's just -- it says something about a mindset that I worry about very much...."

Hannity: He just doesn't have the courage to say it's a war on terror?... Does that seem like a weakness? Is that telegraphing weakness?"

Cheney: "I think it does. And I think it says to -- well, to the world out there that this is no longer a war, this is law enforcement. And our most important obligation responsibility is to read their rights to the people we capture, that we're going to treat them -- we're going to Mirandize them before we do anything else."

Cheney also said the release of last week's torture memos was "being done essentially to appease a certain element of the Democratic Party, or because of campaign commitments that were made in last year's campaign."

What a concept, it's law enforcement - not a unilateral war on a nation that did not attack us, on the pretense that it had a vague and still undefined relationship with one that did. The sort of action that brought the former World Trade Center bombers to justice. The sort of action that actually worked, instead of leaving the country in deep debt with lots of dead people and no functional government in place.

From decreasing numbers who watch Faux news it would that there is a diminishing charm to watching this POS accuse anyone but himself of making the world a less safe place to live.

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Earth Day

Happy Earth Day from the Norwegian Jade!

Okay so the Spanish keyboard is a little different, YOU try getting @ without a shift key.

The first thing I saw flying in from Philadelphia was the mountainous coastline, and on the wonderful craggy mountains, there were windmills shining in the morning sun. Windmills on all the highest mountaintops, with high velocity lines running off to the inner areas. Energy from the wind, it's beautiful. The mountains flying into the Madrid area still were covered with snow at the tops, with occasional small villages and roads but not exactly crowded.

As we approached Madrid, the scene was very different from suburbs in the states, with their innumerable single-family dwellings and roads that go to each house. Here, I noticed, there are developments of multi-family homes and apartment houses, surrounded by parks. In the approach to Madrid, there were any number of orchards that had to be olives. And to confirm that, every shop in the airport had a huge selection of different types of olives, some even had truffles. Sadly, I didn't get enough time to go to Madrid - the Philadelphia take-off was delayed for a few hours.

Maybe it's a specialized taste, but I think it's exciting to have two-level flushes on toilets as well. At the Hotel H10 Marina in Barcelona, I learned how to use those two levels. I can choose to save water! That's not something I've encountered at any hotel in the states, if you have, please let me know. Also at the hotel, a request for saving water, though I've seen that in the states before.

Of course, in addition to the energy saving devices at hand, small cars predominate, with a good smattering of bicycles and motorscooters that have parking equipment everywhere along the streets. Of course I'm right on the shore here in Barcelona, but I have noticed absolutely no pollution. The sea is bright and clear as the sky, as well.

Now I'm on board, and just learning to use the internet here, thankfully with a standard U.S. keyboard that I am familiar with. And delighted that I have two level flush on the toilets, here, too.

Now for more free all I can eat sushi and stir fry.

Tomorrow I will visit with more informative posts. For today, hello again, wishing you all well.


Shades of Bhopal

The arrogance of some American businesses is truly a wonder to behold. When disaster strikes, some companies simply turn off all the safety and information gathering systems, sit back, and dare the US government to investigate, according to this article in the NY Times:

When a huge explosion occurred last August at a West Virginia chemical plant, managers refused to tell emergency responders for several hours about the location of the incident or the toxic chemical it released, and they later misused a law intended to keep information from terrorists to try to stop federal investigators from learning what happened, members of a House subcommittee said Tuesday. ...

Devices meant to detect releases of the chemical, methyl isocyanate, known as MIC, had been disabled, and video cameras had been disconnected, steps that “raise concerns about an orchestrated effort by Bayer to shroud the explosion in secrecy,” said the subcommittee chairman, Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.

After the Bhopal catastrophe, Congress created an independent agency, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to investigate chemical accidents in this country. But the president and chief executive of Bayer, William Buckner, said in his prepared testimony that company officials believed they could “refuse to provide information” to the board.

Later, Mr. Buckner said, company officials labeled some documents as having security-sensitive information in order to “discourage the C.S.B. from even seeking this information.” The company acted under a 2002 law intended to make ports more secure; the company brings barges in on the Kanawha River. The company asserted that it was under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, an agency that does not have extensive experience in chemical processing.

By stalling the emergency responders for hours and initially refusing to even let them know what chemical was involved in the accident (MIC was the same agent which caused so many deaths and injuries in Bhopal, India), Bayer put the citizens of the area at great risk. Fortunately, because the local government wasn't sure just what dangers were involved, it took the safest route and ordered townspeople to stay indoors with the windows closed until the emergency passed.

The stonewalling didn't stop there, however, as the company did everything it could to stymie any investigation of the accident by invoking some rather bizarre legal theories. Fortunately, somebody at the company must have caved, because enough details have emerged to show what lengths the company was willing to go to hide the important facts:

Committee investigators found internal Bayer documents that detailed a company strategy to “marginalize” a local citizens’ group and the local newspaper, The Charleston Gazette.

The strategies didn't work, at least this time. I wonder how many often the strategy did work the past eight years, at Bayer and other companies. I also wonder what it will take to stop this kind of dangerous nonsense. A good start might be some stiff fines for the company and some criminal charges for those who were actively engaged in the cover-up.

I know, I know. I'm showing my naivete again.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Things That Make You Go "Wow!"

An article in today's Washington Post restored some of my good humor. Far-sighted and well-intentioned people have found another good way to use the internet:

A globe-spanning U.N. digital library seeking to display and explain the wealth of all human cultures has gone into operation on the Internet, serving up mankind's accumulated knowledge in seven languages for students around the world.

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress who launched the project four years ago, said the ambition was to make available on an easy-to-navigate site, free for scholars and other curious people anywhere, a collection of primary documents and authoritative explanations from the planet's leading libraries.

The site [full link below] has put up the Japanese work that is considered the first novel in history, for instance, along with the Aztecs' first mention of the Christ child in the New World and the works of ancient Arab scholars piercing the mysteries of algebra, each entry flanked by learned commentary. "There are many one-of-a-kind documents," Billington said in an interview. ...

Development costs of more than $10 million were financed by private donors, including Google, Microsoft, the Qatar Foundation, King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. By comparison, the American Memory project cost about $60 million, suggesting that more funds will have to be raised as the World Digital Library expands.

I clicked on the link to see just how easily navigable the site was and to sample some of the early works which have been digitized and the "learned commentary." The site is pretty easy to get around in, but only after a couple of false starts. Thumbnail pictures serve as links, but they get you only to larger pictures of the texts themselves. Clicking on one of the categories at the top of the page ("place," "time period," "subject") was easier for me.

The commentaries are placed alongside the reduced pictures, and are rather helpful in understanding just why the subject is important to the culture that produced it and to the rest of the world. The only defect I see is that the commentaries are a bit too succinct for the average person, although there are additional links on the page (which I did not check out) which might make that defect moot.

All in all, the project is amazing, even at this early stage. Mr. Billington, the United Nations agency in charge, and the various philanthropic organizations which funded the project are to be congratulated and thanked for bringing this vision to fruition.

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Priorities, People

There's some real creativity going on at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake: tiny missiles built at a fraction of the cost of their big brothers but which are just as lethal are at the test stage, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

In the next month or so, researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake expect to test a 2-foot-long Spike missile that is about a "quarter of the size of the next smallest on the planet," said Steve Felix, the missile project's manager.

Initially intended for use by ground troops against tanks, these small guided missiles have been reconfigured to launch from unmanned airplanes to destroy small vehicles. In the test, the missile will be fired from a remote-controlled helicopter and aimed at a moving pickup truck.

If the test is successful, it will mark another milestone in the development of weapons for unmanned aircraft, a nascent field reminiscent of the early days of flight nearly a century ago when propeller-driven biplanes were jury-rigged with machine guns. ...

The Spike, which uses commercially available computer chips and components, is expected to cost about $5,000 a pop, compared with more than $100,000 for the current generation of guided missiles.

Now, I'm all for cutting costs when it comes to the Pentagon's bloated budget, and this latest development in asymmetrical warfare is certainly one of the cheapest weapons (relatively speaking) I've seen being proffered in a long time. I also appreciate that mammoth tanks aren't much use in the kind of warfare being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Unmanned air vehicles carrying a load of these mini-missiles are going to be far more effective at wiping out the target and less hazardous to American troops, none of whom will be onboard the UAV. And I must admit to being impressed at the ingenuity being displayed by the young engineers and technologists who have developed these weapons.

I just wish such efforts were being directed to some of the other issues facing the world, like towards the development and transmission of non-carbon-based energy, or towards the inexpensive delivery of cutting edge drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV.

I guess the Pentagon has more clout when it comes the development of killer weapons than Health and Human Services does when it comes to the development of life-saving technology.

One more thing: a special shout-out to the Times editors for giving us one of the most amusing malapropisms ever: jury-rigged.

Nicely done.