All posts by coupdefoudre

Nature Red in Tooth & Claw

Two Square Miles of the New West

I live in the New West (as in the Longmire TV series ‘west’ that has been filming in the alfalfa field down the road.) Interestingly, no one seems to have relayed this news to Mother Nature. And, as such things go, it may not be all that important anyway. It is worth pointing out, though, for those who require up to the minute briefings, that no text message, not a peep nor tweet about this development was sent to the many new-ish transplants to the region. I’m not sure who is culpable. Nevertheless, the fact is (you heard it here), the New West is as bloody as the Old.

When the church belfry was re-done some time back they discovered tons of collars and tags with names like Muffy, Spot and Max. Needless to say, there were also significant deposits of scat, bones, hair and fur. The pair of Great Horned Owls that are resident hereabouts take no prisoners — or rather, they do, but none escape to bark and meow about it. Before the dead tree by the old acequia pond toppled in a wind storm, I could drive home at night with the sun roof open and see the huge female look down at me with eyes imperious. What other animal observes one with such a superior, disdainful attitude? Actually, I anthropomorphize by writing ‘disdainful’. It is more accurate to say that I was an insignificant speck mostly beneath her concern.

Coyotes abound and a friend told me about a fellow who, while walking his Westies unleashed, had one of his precious white pups snatched by Mr. Wily and carried off to a certain doom. No children’s story of a cute domesticated doggy being taken away and raised by wild coyotes here.

Last summer we watched a coyote in the arroyo valley behind the house entice three dogs in a game of cat and mouse. The dogs, a German Shepard mix and two nondescript but sizable hounds, would chase after the playful coyote. When they tired the coyote would stop, turn around and taunt the dogs with its yipping bark into further continuing the chase. What the dogs did not know, and we could see from our bird’s eye vantage, was the rest of the coyote pack waiting, out of site, along the arroyo. It was like a ring-side seat for a PBS Nature episode. Singly, most coyotes are no match for a large dog, but working as a team, like wolves, they are masters of the hunt. An Australian cattle dog belonging to the neighbor on the next parcel was lost to them last year and one of my workmen had his great Rottweiler destroyed by a pack. The poor beast had to be put down.

I have yet to view a cougar, sometimes called mountain lions, but they’re around. A few miles away, toward Los Alamos, a guy who keeps ducks and geese was awakened by the manic sounds of his birds and went to the fenced area where they spend the night. He was dismayed to see a cougar going back over the fence with one of his ducks in its mouth. A few nights later the ruckus started again and he dashed out to see a black bear scaling the same fence, but with a goose. Drought and habitat loss, they say. And so it goes.

I have not been privileged to see one of the bobcats that prowl round about either. Definitely my loss. When we moved into this house we decided to get satellite TV instead of just staring at a blank screen. One of the features of our Spanish southwestern architecture is the ramada, an open porch roofed by thin beams, essentially an arbor. We have a nice one at the north end by the kitchen. On the section nearest a vertical wall it was thickly covered with climbing silverthorn. The planting expanded everywhere, topping out at the second story. I vividly remember the afternoon I heard a scream from the installing technician. Hurrying outside I expected to find him writhing on the ground from a fall. Instead, he was quivering saying a bobcat had jumped out of the dense greenery, shot past, leaped off the ramada onto the grounds and sped off. It was very exciting but had the unfortunate effect of dislodging the cat forever. My wife said, with little sympathy for any party, “Too bad!”

Snakes, scorpions and tarantulas are part and parcel of rural New Mexico living. I have yet to see a scorpion on the property but red racers, bull snakes and prairie rattlers are par for the course. I’ve taken Dharma, our yellow lab, to snake avoidance training to, hopefully, dodge the bullet that has plagued a neighbor: dogs dying from rattlesnake bite. Because of the nosing behavior of dogs they are most always bitten in the face. Such a bite is invariably fatal if you are not around to rush the dog to a vet for anti-venom. Even so, an unfair number succumb. Better to train the dog to avoid rattlesnakes like the plague.

Ah… plague, the Black Death, yes, it still exists, surviving quite comfortably here in the Land of Enchantment. As does hantavirus. The bacterial vector for transmission in bubonic plague is primarily the flea. It is carried on rodents like our endearing, big-eared and -eyed woodrat, more commonly called the pack rat from its habit of squirrilling away the shiny trinkets and detritus of human civilization. (They seem inordinately fond of the wiring on expensive European automobiles, frequently causing thousands of dollars of damage.) One of my good friends, a sturdy, strapping guy, may hold the world record for plague survival. He lived a week, undiagnosed, before his illness was accurately identified. Most people die a ghastly death by day four if they remain untreated.

Hantavirus in its pulmonary form appears to be spreading out from our Four Corners region. When the infected urine or feces of the Deer Mouse dries, and is aerosolized, it becomes possible to inhale the virus unknowingly. The problem is that it presents as a classic case of the flu. When left untreated it can be fatal.

The small inhabitants of our world are as noteworthy as the large — if harder to find and follow. I have watched a lizard in the back yard attack and tussle with one of the large, native centipedes. Some of these crawlies get as big as a #2 pencil. It was a battle worthy of the cheesy, cinematic, fighting dinosaurs from one of my childhood favorites: The Lost World. It took an hour for the chameleon to down the whole wiggling mass with the yet-to-be-swallowed tail half of the whipping centipede rolling the little lizard this way and that for the first 10 minutes of the fight.

Tarantulas, given a bad rap by Hollywood, are spectacular, large spiders, harming no one. It is a real treat to see one lumber along, minding its own business, heading for its hole in the ground. I am told they make nice pets.

All is not the survival of the fittest, however. (I lie, because really it is, we just don’t see it.) The last couple years the kestrel population has grown from never seeing one to having several resident families. A peregrine pair has returned for the last few breeding seasons as well. I am waiting for one to dive on the non-native intruders nesting in the juniper near the koi pond: Eurasian Collared Doves. First arriving in the States in 1982 they have spread like wildfire over the lower 48, adapting particularly well to human-altered environments. Ours are in their second season of setting up housekeeping.

Is it little wonder that so many of my easily unnerved and queasy coastal, big-city friends marvel at the rough and tumble available simply by stepping out our door? The New West may now be loaded with Birkenstocks, vegans and anti-gun sentiment, but it rides alongside much Old West wildlife and the struggle for survival still.

Oh… I have to stop now. The grand yipping and howling of a nearby coyote pack bears closer investigation. Perhaps they have waylaid a jack rabbit for tonight’s appetizer. Gain and loss, joy-pain, win-lose: the motion of life & death goes on, with or without our noticing or a ‘by your leave’.

As for me, I try to be aware. A key: keep your eyes open. Alert ears help, too.

People mean different things by the word ‘Nature’: some personify Nature; for some, Nature is an impersonal symbol; for some, Nature is an active force; for others, Nature is passive being; for some, Nature means God; for others, not.  But whatever meaning we attach to the term, it is not true that Nature is cruel; and therefore it cannot be true that Nature sets a headline for man’s cruelty… . For nature does nothing idly, makes nothing bad or ugly….  — Arthur Aston Luce, Fishing and Thinking, London: Hodder and Stoughton; 1959.

Coda:      The investigation had to be cut short. Fierce, and uncomfortably close, lightning played in the sky. It might have been the 4th of July. Finally, about 10:00 p.m., after ninety minutes of light show, the sky broke open from the east and we had a real, honest-to-goodness monsoon. A downpour of biblical proportions. The first decent drenching in about a year. A year in which many of our 1200 trees have begun to die; about all the vegetation in the back forty bit the dust by early summer.

When the cold rain hit, mixed with a little hail, I felt like raising my arms skyward in Moses-like supplication, sinking to my knees, kissing the hard earth. If you don’t live in the drought-gripped southwest you might not understand. If you do, you’ll be nodding your head saying, “Amen.”

Greatest Hits & CTE

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Malcolm Gladwell continues to amaze and inspire. He spoke on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS this morning about why college football should be eliminated. (He was also a panelist, teamed with Buzz Bissinger, in a very good debate on the TV program Intelligence Squared. Gladwell and Bissinger are opposed by former footballers Tim Green and Jason Whitlock for ‘the motion’ “Ban College Football”.) The gist of the argument is that players are at risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain injury resembling Alzheimers but more aggressive in its display.

I have written a bit about CTE in relation to Ernest Hemingway in my forthcoming book on wine. One now has to wonder whether CTE affected people like Paul Robeson, an All-American at Rutgers who also played a couple seasons professionally with teams in Akron, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

There will come a time, no doubt, when we will take a closer look at those seeking public office who were formerly involved in contact sports like football, hockey and boxing. Did they suffer any head trauma or concussions while engaged in these activities? Even soccer may have its affected players what with head butts to the ball and collisions between players.

Shattered by Dick Francis

Encounters with the Famous: Authorship as Collaboration

In 2000 I went to hear the mystery author Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis (1920-2010) read a selection from his just released book, Shattered. All of us in attendance were fortunate in that he was accompanied by one of his sons, Felix, and his wife Mary Margaret.

Francis, born in Wales, was a one-time jockey, including for horses of the Royal Family. Like most jockeys who ride for any length of time (it’s the most dangerous sporting profession), he suffered through many accidents and so turned to covering the horse racing circuit for a newspaper. After completing his autobiography he became a professional writer and published a book every year between 1962 and 2000, the year we met him for the first time.

(Dick Francis’ whole life was wrapped up in horses. His first horse related injury came when a pony fell on him when he was 12 years old. He volunteered for the English calvary in WWII, but instead ended as a sky jockey piloting bombers and fighters. Mary became a pilot, as well.)

When we met in 2000 Dick Francis said he thought he might retire. There was an audible groan in the room. Fortunately, he did published five more books after Shattered, four of them with his son Felix. I was surprised – but not. It is difficult to retire from something you, if not exactly love, do not loathe. What no one foresaw was that Mary would die shortly thereafter. And she was essential in his work.

Mary Margaret Francis was as important in the writing of Dick Francis’ novels, a co-equal, if you will, as Mr. Francis himself:

“Mary and I worked as a team. … I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary’s family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”*

So why was Mary important in his writing? Along with editing the manuscripts she did all of the research for those interesting jobs in the books. Shattered features a glass blower, Reflex features a photographer, Rat Race revolved around an air-taxi service, Straight has a jewelry business theme. Mary investigated all these fields in-depth to lend veracity to the books. (Elmore Leonard, for instance, uses the same technique but has an employee do the research for his dialects, vocations, etc.)

Unusual, for me, in thinking ahead, in 2000 I thought to take along a wood horse, cut out of a board with a jigsaw, to the book reading. I planned to insert it into the lintel of a built-in book case where my signed Francis titles were kept. (I have since moved and took the horse and its mate with me!)

Dick Francis signature on my wood horse
Dick Francis signature on my wood horse

When the reading ended and people lined up to get their books signed I began talking to Mary about the world of art glass. She said she had found the research fascinating. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask her if she would sign my copy of Shattered. She was, after all, an enormous part of this, and many other Francis titles. She reddened in the face and tittered like a young schoolgirl, saying no one had ever asked her to sign one of the books. She then wondered aloud if she really should as she was not the author. I pointed out that she was responsible for the verisimilitude in the work and so she agreed.

All we had at hand was one of the short, stubby pencils the bookstore used for people to write their names on a pre-made form so Dick Francis would not have to ask whose name to sign the books to. (A great system for the hard-of-hearing and for those with names that are difficult to spell!) We used this nubbin of a scribe and Mary, in a shaky hand, added her name after her husband’s. She then made a joke about this copy being worth more now that it had a unique combination of autographs. Six months later she had a heart attack and passed away.

I cherish my unique copy still.

* Swanson, Jean; Dean James (2003). “An Interview with Dick Francis”. The Dick Francis Companion. New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. pp. 1–10.

GALAX Space Observatory Shut Down

 

Cygnus Loop - photo from NASA
Cygnus Loop – photo from NASA

NASA Budget Constraints Kill 10-Year Old Successful Program

The only UV camera in space was de-commissioned at the end of June so its funding could be used for other NASA departments. While the ending of this mission was scheduled, it is highly disappointing that a still functioning observatory that provided much deep-space data has had its plug pulled. All the more shameful considering the many wasteful federal programs that ought to be axed instead.

Unlike visible light telescopes GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) scanned our universe in the ultraviolet spectrum viewing both the birth and death of stars thereby telling us much about their creation.

NASA has a site showing some of the amazing images captured by GALAX.

The above image is Cygnus Loop nebula, the debris from a star that died thousands of years ago. The image is ultraviolet light emitted from the expanding tendrils of hot gas that was the star.

Pop-Up Ideas: BBC Radio 4 has a new series. 1st up: Malcolm Gladwell on listening in Vietnam

“Listening is hard because the more you listen the more unsettling the world becomes”

4 Episodes
15 minutes each
First broadcast: Tuesday 09 July 2013

Tim Harford (the Financial Times‘ ‘Undercover Economist’ and presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less) has a new live-recorded, mini-series in Pop-Up Ideas, 15 minute programs exploring how prominent thinkers use “key ideas in anthropology and the social sciences to tell fascinating stories about how we – and the world – work.”

Program 1: New Yorker ‘Staff Writer’ Malcolm Gladwell describes how the U.S. war in Vietnam might have gone differently had the military listened to one of its own researchers, Konrad Kellen (family birth name Katzenellenbogen.) Kellen’s job was to debrief captured Vietcong guerrillas and describe their mind-set vis-à-vis the war. (Kellen’s life story is fabulous and fascinating.)

In one such debriefing he asked the captured senior officer if the officer believed the North Vietnamese could win the war. “No,” was the reply. Minutes later he asked if the Americans, then, would win the war? “No.”

This was interpreted by top U.S. Army brass as the answers of a demoralized enemy. Kellen, however, believed the answers were the responses of someone who did not think in terms of winning or losing at all — an entirely different view and one much more threatening to any eventual U.S. and South Vietnamese victory.

Listen to Gladwell’s interview here starting about minute time stamp 2:20.

The other programs (from the BBC Radio 4 website):

Program 2: One of the world’s most influential counter-insurgency experts, David Killcullen, whose ideas were described by the Washington Post as ‘revolutionizing military thinking throughout the West’, talks about how future instability will emanate from rapidly-growing coastal megacities.

Program 3: The financial journalist Gillian Tett describes how her background in anthropology led her to predict the financial crisis in 2008.

Program 4: Tim Harford explores the concept of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ – a term coined by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin in a hugely influential 1968 essay.

Malala Day at the United Nations

First Formal Public Remarks by the Pakistani Girl Shot by the Taliban

Malala Yousafzai gave a speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly yesterday morning. I would like to think of it as her western ‘coming out’ talk — hoping we will hear more from her in the future. (Although she is not a neophyte when it comes to presenting her views: she had a blog hosted by BBC Urdu when she was 11 years old, hand-writing her entries that were then transcribed and uploaded by a reporter.)

You may remember that she is the little Pakistani Pashtun girl shot (along with her friends) in the head and neck October 9, 2012 by the Taliban for saying that girls should have the right to go to school. As she stabilized, in critical condition, she was airlifted to England for rehab.

She is now 16 years old!

You can skip to time stamp 3:45 to get by the Introductions and Thank You comments.

The UN video

Clash of the A & A Titans

It was the Bezos of times, it was the …

Most folks involved in the retail and wholesale business of buying and selling books know of the head butting between Amazon and Apple in their e-book fight (via publishers as their proxy.) Could one ask for a more engaging contest?

In one corner stood a CEO whose mantra was ‘extract every last drop of financial value’, that is, always charge more for a non-open source product — customers should expect to pay extra for sleek design and better utility. In the other corner bounced a CEO whose shareholders steadfastly back him up on selling items below cost (to quote an old joke, perhaps they make it up on volume.) And the winner is……

The five publishers who were charged with colluding with Apple on e-book ‘price fixing’ settled with the U.S. Department of Justice some time ago. Apple, however, denied wrong-doing and said, “we’ll see you in court!” And so they have — and say they will again. Wednesday U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, Southern District of New York, ruled against Apple writing that they violated anti-trust law (Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C., 1 as well as various state’s laws) in a conspiracy with the five publishers. A trial for damages is now in the wings with Apple saying it will appeal the ruling.

Joining the feds in the June 3 − 20, 2013 bench trial (a non-jury proceeding) as plaintiffs were 33 U.S. states and territories. The five previously involved publishers were Hachette Book Group, Inc., HarperCollins Publishers LLC, Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC d/b/a Macmillan, Penguin Group (USA), Inc., and Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Aside from the non-disguised machinations between Apple and the publishers in working this collusion, the scheme failed from Steve Job’s hubris in thinking that readers would turn in droves toward his iBookstore and glitzy technology, all coming at an increased financial price for readers. And, indeed, prices for e-books did rise from an average of $9.99 to some as high as $14.99 — overnight. Why did Jobs believe he could succeed? He was using his music world revolution with iTunes as a model. Why did publishers join in? Because they were feeling the pressure from the 800 pound gorilla in the ring: Amazon.

Apple was attempting to institute a service where the publishers would set e-book prices (“agency pricing”) and their vendor, Apple, would take a 30% cut. In this scenario Apple would make money, always a Jobs requisite, but the publishers would actually make less money than they were making with their Amazon deal! (Amazon buys e-books wholesale from the publishers at, generally, $12 to $14 dollars and sells them at $9.99.)

How did this work and why were publishers willing to lose money they were currently earning per book? Let’s break it down.

Apple sells an e-book for $10. It keeps $3.00 and forwards $7 to the publisher (who, remember, has set the $10.00 retail price.) Amazon, using a “wholesale pricing” model, sells that same e-book for $10.00 and forwards, say, $12.00 to the publisher (who has set this as their wholesale price with the retailer selling the book for whatever price they wish.) In this real world scenario Apple has made $3.00 per book and Amazon, on that same book, has lost $2.00. Crazy, eh? Publishers made money on both sales, but more on the Amazon sale, $12 gross profit, than on the Apple sale, $7.00. Confused yet?

Publishers were willing to make less money in a deal with Apple to counter what they see as their ‘death by a thousand cuts’ from Amazon. Competition is at the heart of a healthy economic system. When it disappears quality, service, diversity — everything suffers. Although Amazon disavows the idea, everyone pretty much has figured out that the company would like to drive competition out of the arena. Imagine, as the physical book disappears one’s recourse is an e-book, sales of which have just surpassed the sales of (non-children’s) physical books for the first time. With its Kindle as king Amazon would be in a powerful position to dictate prices — and more. They already give away some public domain books for free and don’t charge for the bandwidth used by the Kindle service.

Kindle Direct is an Amazon program where authors can bypass the traditional publishers altogether. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that publishers recognize the writing on the wall: their futures are in a precarious position. Physical book publishing is an expensive operation what with paper, shipping, returns, etc. E-books are cheap by comparison. But you have to be around, in business and have a distribution network to take advantage of this new-ish technology. A buffer, that is, a competitor, who could go toe-to-toe with Amazon was a desirable thing. So desirable that publishers were willing to take a momentary loss of revenue to prop up Apple as that competitor.

See U.S. District Judge Denise Cote’s ruling here.

SIDE NOTE: Stephen King, one of the first authors to have his books come out in e-book form, is releasing his latest book, a sequel to The Shining, as a physical book only, to help a small publisher.

The Master-Slave Relationship: More Kinship Than Cruelty?

The Paula Deen Implosion

I have mostly ignored the Paula Deen implosion. But a friend recently sent an email asking if I had seen her appearance at NY City’s October 2012 Wine & Food Festival. While there she gave a videotaped interview with The New York Times Atlanta Bureau Chief and, months before her recent trials and tribulations, it would not have been too difficult to see the mindset that would eventually get her into trouble.

Deen goes into some of her family history with a story of how her great-grandfather “was devastated” after the Civil War. He had lost his son and the war and “didn’t know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. You know there was 30 something [35, actually] people on his books” [euphemism for “slaves owned] and then the next year zero. He committed suicide. She goes on to say, “I feel like the south is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives, they were like our family.”

(Presumably she was not thinking of dysfunctional families like the one in Cleveland where Ariel Castro is alleged to have kept three women and his child by one of them in captivity, often chained.)

The real highlight and moment of revelation that told me Cholesterol Queen* Deen is largely clueless, like many of her peers, was when she called one of her black employees Hollis Johnson, up to the stage. “He’s black as that board” she said, pointing to the stage backdrop, adding “Come out here Hollis, we can’t see you standing against that dark board!” The audience began to laugh and Hollis came up on stage as Deen talked about him, “This is my son by another father.” He bent over and gave her a peck on the cheek as he departed.

The whole scene was one of those encounters where you feel mightily embarrassed for all the people on stage. Deen, apparently, has no clue to how 21st century race relations ought to be conducted. It was similar to being at a dinner party where someone begins telling racial or ethnic jokes in a mixed-race crowd. It just isn’t done. Period.

See the lengthy New York Times event video here. Go to minute time stamp 40:09 for a look at her learning about her great, great-grandfather’s slave ownership. For her interaction with Hollis Johnson see time stamp 46:07 — 50:07.

*To be fair Paula Deen says she does not advocate eating, on a daily basis, the style of food she has become known for.

Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) Force-Fed Under Standard Guantánamo Bay Procedure

A Video of the Procedure

A leaked document sets out the military instructions, or standard operating procedure, for force-feeding detainees at Guantánamo. In this four-minute film made by Human Rights organisation Reprieve and Bafta award-winning director Asif Kapadia, US actor and rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), experiences the procedure. — The Guardian Newspaper

What are the alternatives for keeping the prisoners (100 hunger-strikers with 40 being force fed) alive? I do not know.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler has ruled that the court cannot make a ruling on whether the detainees can be force-fed by the military, adding “The President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, has authority – and power – to directly address the issue of force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

If you would like to read reporter Ben Ferguson’s eye-witness account of the making of the video, click here.

NOTE: This video is not for the faint of heart (nor, as you will see, was the procedure for Mos Def, a Muslim, born Dante Smith in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Image Credit: Reprieve and Bafta



Weiner-Spitzer: Grilling the Candidates

Hot Dog! A Campaign Made for Jokes

I did not think the possibilities for puns and jokes could get any better when former NY Representative Anthony D. Weiner tossed his 10-gallon hat in the ring as a candidate for mayor of New York City.

But now we have former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer deciding to run for comptroller.

Politics. You just have to love a profession where there’s more forgiveness and second acts than we see in the church!

Read more at The New York Times

Popo Spouts Off

Popocatepetl Eruption Continues in Oaxaca

Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl
Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl – Wilbur Norman

Popocatepetl is a stratovolcano, or composite, volcano near Puebla, Mexico. These types of volvanos are built up of many layers and often have that cone-shaped mountain profile. They sometimes blow their tops in massive explosions that slump areas or crack off the cone and send debris flying, leaving a caldera (see a previous entry where I briefly describe Valles Caldera.)

Archaeological evidence shows that Popo (smoking mountain) has had many violent eruptions in the not-too-distant past, well… recent past if we are using geological time as our frame of reference. There have been major Plinian eruptions in the last 5000 years and an event 23,000 years ago where a whole flank of the mountain collapsed à la Mount St. Helens. (Plinian eruptions are named after the Roman historian and agriculturalist Pliny the Elder. He died in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., probably of an asthma attack aggravated by his enormous bulk.) These eruptions, also called Vesuvian, eject columns of gas and ash high into the stratosphere. They also produce enormous amounts of cascading lava in pyroclastic flows. Their eruptions can resemble the photographs we have all seen of the cloud that develops from the detonation of an atomic bomb. The airborne ash may circle the globe for years, even affecting global weather. Depending on the season, Popo’s ash would first fall on the city of Puebla (winter, spring) or Mexico City (summer or autumn.)

Popo (5,426 meters/ 17,802 feet and 5th highest mountain in North America) is one of three mountains with year-round glaciers in Mexico. All three are popular destinations for mountaineers. Mexico’s third highest mountain is Iztaccíhuatl (in my day spelled Ixtaccíhuatl, 5,230 meters/ 17,160 feet) and is quite a slog as the mountain is more like a spine than a cone.

Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl (5,636 metres /18,491 feet), is Mexico’s tallest peak and the third highest in North America. It is very impressive as, like Kilimanjaro, it juts up from a plain and is visible long before one actually arrives at its base.

Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon in the distance.
Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon cloud in the distance. Dec. 1980.

Above is a photo I took of our climbing team on a trip one December long ago. My then-girlfriend and I drove our khaki-tan 1979 Toyota Landcruiser all the way from Philadelphia and everywhere the Mexican police would stand around and marvel at the vehicle as it looked so militar. To get the above photo I exhausted myself scurrying across the glacier (ca. 16,500 feet) to get this perspective of the team we hooked up with on the mountain!

U.S. House Committee Hearings on Copyright Law

Where are the writers on the U.S. House of Reps hand-picked Copyright Principals Project?

On May 16th the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held their first hearing on reform of the 1976 U.S. copyright law. The 5-member panel known as the Copyright Principals Project were the only witnesses. The five members are lawyers, professors and a Microsoft entry, all important voices, of course, but I will be following to see if other speakers are scheduled in the coming months.

 

Filibuster vs. Cloture

Current Events & Things You Should Have Learned in School

Last week, just after the June 25th Texas senate debate when Wendy Davis filibustered Bill 5 for some ten plus hours, I heard someone say, “See Democrats in the U.S. Senate are always trying to do away with the filibuster but when it’s something they care about they resort to doing it themselves.”  Leaving aside the obvious apples & oranges comparison (Davis is a Texas state senator, not a U.S. Senator) it seemed to me that the person I overheard was conflating two separate, but connected, political processes: the filibuster and cloture.

 

What many U.S. Senate Democrats want to do is to require a senator who wishes to stop a bill to actually be present and talking, to filibuster by putting his body where his mouth is. Currently, senators do not even need to be present to stop movement on a bill. Most Americans still think of the filibuster as a senator holding the floor for hours talking and reading anything he/she can to take up time. That is not the case with the current U.S. Senate rules. Unless there is a call for cloture, and it passes, bills can be stalled, held in limbo with the objecting senator truly having no skin in the game.

 

Think back to the dim days of Mr. Moody’s 8th grade civics class. Civics, by and large, was a dull affair. It lacked the pizzazz of history and possessed all the charm of balancing a bank account.  Like health class, it was always taught by the coaches of our sporting teams. But I do recall our discussions around the process of cloture (from the French for closure.)

 

According to the U.S. Senate Glossary, in an attempt to curtail unlimited debate whose purpose was to block voting and adoption of a bill, “in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as ‘cloture.’” If cloture passed, an up or down vote on the bill in question could then be taken after an additional thirty hours of debate, thus breaking a bottleneck. Wilson had called for enacting a cloture provision because he saw the senate as,

“the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

Wilson’s sharp talk was in response to a twenty-three day filibuster against his placing arms on merchant ships in World War I.

 

Southern senators filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sixty days, proving that two-thirds of the Senate, 67 votes, can be a difficult thing to get.  Between 1917 and 1960 cloture was used only four times. In 1975 the number of senators needed for approval on a vote of cloture was reduced to 60 votes, with 16 members needed to bring the cloture question up for a vote. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008) cloture was enacted 61 times and then 63 times in the 2009-2010 congress. Yes, that’s correct, the 111th congress in one term voted cloture more than fifteen times the frequency it occurred in the first 43 years of its existence as a senate rule.

 

It is worth pointing out that the additional 30 hours of permitted debate after cloture is ruled, must be “on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate.” That is, you cannot read out your mother’s recipe for Derby pie or eloquently speechify on the entries in a dictionary (unless either of these is somehow relevant to the bill on the floor!)

 

Fortunately, the filibuster was eliminated from the U.S. House of Representatives’ rules as the assembly began to grow larger with the addition of new states. Could our already greatly deadlocked lower legislature be even less effective?

The Supremes

Lots of protest but no Protestants

Front row from left: Thomas, Born Catholic, appointed while Episcopalian, returned to Catholic Church in late 1990s/ Yale; Scalia, Catholic/ Harvard; Roberts, Catholic/ Harvard; Kennedy, Catholic/ Harvard; Ginsburg, Jewish/ Columbia. Back row, from the left: Sotomayor, Catholic/ Yale; Breyer, Jewish/ Harvard; Alito, Catholic/ Yale; Kagan, Jewish/ Harvard.
Front row from left: Thomas, Born Catholic, appointed while Episcopalian, returned to Catholic Church in late 1990s/ Yale; Scalia, Catholic/ Harvard; Roberts, Catholic/ Harvard; Kennedy, Catholic/ Harvard; Ginsburg, Jewish/ Columbia.
Back row, from the left: Sotomayor, Catholic/ Yale; Breyer, Jewish/ Harvard; Alito, Catholic/ Yale; Kagan, Jewish/ Harvard.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court is out of session for several months legal eagles can pick apart their decisions decoding for anything that suits their fancy. When I wrote my blog commentary a few days ago about a couple of their decisions I started thinking about how little our presidents and justices represent the mainstream demographics of the country’s population anymore…. perhaps they never did.

No matter how egalitarian we call ourselves as a nation, attendance at Princeton, Harvard and Yale gives you a pole starting position. More accurately, it flings you like the Starship Enterprise using a planet’s gravitational force to rocket you into the stratosphere of our country’s infrastructure.

Look at the law schools represented by the current sitting court: Harvard/ 5, Yale/ 3, Columbia/ 1. Although graduation from law school has been the norm in the last 60 years, historically, of the 112 justices appointed to the Court, only 47 have had law degrees, an additional 18 attended some law school but did not receive a degree, and 47 received their legal education without any law school attendance, mostly apprenticing to the trade as was the norm in the early years of our country. (Henry Julian Abraham, Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Bush II. 2007, p. 49.)

Supreme Court justices also no longer get their hands ‘dirty’ as criminal defense attorneys: Thurgood Marshall is said to be the last justice to have represented a death penalty client. (Sherrilyn Ifill, Commentary: Break the mold for Supreme Court picks. CNN, May 4, 2009.) All current justices but one were working on the East Coast upon their nomination. Nineteen states have never had a justice hailing from their confines (yes, I know, some states did not exist until the 20th century.) But we have had a justice from Vienna, Austria (F. Frankfurter), David Brewer (now Izmir, Turkey) and others from abroad. There is, unlike with the presidency, no requirement that a federal judge be an American citizen.

More importantly for our country, justices no longer seem to pull their law clerks from across the board as they did in past Courts. The mental associations we bring to the word clerk make it sound like a relatively unimportant job but they have a huge importance in setting up the arguments and reasoning in cases. Justices Thomas, in selecting clerks with prior federal clerkship experience, so far as I can ascertain, has only pulled ones who worked for a judge appointed by a Republican President.

Why is this bad? Because it sets up a situation where you do not get a good, frothy, debate on points of law. I won’t go so far as to say that such clerks are “yes” men and women but how are they able to provide searing, pointed debate mounted from other views on legal questions during the closed-door discussions that lead to written opinions? Here are scores for the other justices with regard to their hiring clerks (with prior federal clerkship experience) in adherence to the ‘think-alike’ syndrome (2005 – 2010): Scalia (100%); Alito (91.7%); Roberts (88%); Sotomayor (87.5%); Kennedy (83.3%); Ginsberg (83.3%); Kagan (75%) and Breyer (54.1%). (Data current as of 2010.) It was not always so, even taking into account that the ratio of Democratic to Republic-selected federal circuit court of appeals judges has not been close to even since the end of President Clinton’s administration (67 Democrat to 67 Republican appointed.) The ratio is now incredibly lop-sided as Republicans in congress consistently stall votes on Democratic president’s nominations to judgeships.

A study published by the Vanderbilt University Law School Review (Nelson, et.al. The Liberal Tradition of the Supreme Court Clerkship: Its Rise, Fall, and Reincarnation? 2009) notes:

“Whatever the cause of this polarization, what seems significant – and arguably troubling – about the putative emergence of politically oriented practice groups is a tendency to reify the role of the Court as a super-legislature responding to ideological arguments rather than a legal institution responding to concerns grounded in the rule of law.” Justice Thomas has commented that selecting clerks is like “selecting mates in a foxhole.”

Small wonder our legislatures and courts make most Americans think we at war… with each other.

Hooray! The Tropenmuseum is Saved

Well, at least until 2017

 

A view of the central interior plaza of the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

 

As the public face of the Royal Tropical Institute, a foundation that sponsors the study of tropical cultures around the world, the Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) is one of Europe’s leading ethnographic museums. Established in 1864, it’s beautiful brick building dates from 1926 and sits alongside the spacious greenery of Oosterpark. Between its rich permanent collection, which reflects Dutch colonial history, and its vivid temporary exhibitions, visitors can glimpse the past, present and future of non-Western cultures around the globe. A visit to the Tropenmuseum is a journey through old Asia, Oceania, Africa and Latin America via art, household and religious objects, photographs, music, film and interactive displays. The museum is also renowned for its efforts in child-friendly exhibitions. Tropenmuseum Junior offers an educational, inspiring and entertaining program for kids (6 to 13 year olds), aimed at introducing them to different cultures.

The Tropenmuseum is one of the most fascinating anthropological museums in the world, but is in danger of being closed with its collections dispersed – or so I wrote to colleagues a few weeks ago as the museum and the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT Research Library) was slated for closure. Over half of the staff was beginning to lose their jobs and the research library was closing (it is filled with one-of-a-kind publications from around the world from as early as 1400 A.D.)

The Dutch government promised to consider extending funding for the museum and library for two years if folks could get 40,000 signatures (Dutch and/or Worldwide) signaling that there was interest in keeping the museum and library alive. After this period the Tropenmuseum would have to merge with two other institutions.

Now for the good news!

The petition has actually helped: on June 20 the relevant Dutch ministers, in debate with the House of Parliament agreed to a transitional arrangement to fund the museum until 2017. The plan requires the Tropenmuseum, in the coming years, to merge its 175,000 objects into the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and the small Afrikamuseum in Berg and Dal. The price to be paid by the museum is that it will be cut loose from the KIT archives & library and that the collections become the property of the state.

The bad news: Regrettably, those curators and others who recently were cut from the staff as a money saving measure will not be coming back, an example of “the wrong way to save money” by losing all their expertise. But perhaps the best to be expected in these times of universal budget cuts for cultural institutions.

 

The organization that spearheaded this massive outpouring for the museum is Petities.nl. Note that their website is, of course, mostly in Dutch.

The museum itself has a searchable database in English at:

Many Thanks to all my friends who added their names to the petition!

Flights of Fancy

Western Tanagers & Bullock’s Orioles Galore!

 

Bullock’s oriole, © Glenn Bartley

 

This spring we have seen more Western Tanagers and Bullock’s orioles than ever — and longer than ever. According to local specialists this had to do with the weather north of us. Apparently these birds (as well as the large numbers of hummingbirds hanging around) subscribe to cable TV and keenly watch The Weather Channel. The cold spell northward and the heavy winds here had these birds stacked up in northern New Mexico much like jets circling an aviation control tower: they were just awaiting the word that conditions had improved so they could resume their remarkable journeys.

The trick to keeping the hummers happy is nectar. The secret for Bullock’s and Scott’s orioles is nectar in an appropriate feeder. They are also inordinately fond of oranges and grape jelly. I think most of us know about the set-ups for hummers. What many may not know is how to set up nectar for the orioles. If you take one of those hummingbird feeders with a flaring red plastic base and pop out the yellow fake florets surrounding the feeding holes this will allow the oriole’s larger bill to access the nectar. The Tanagers like suet and the gelatin binder in those solid seed columns. They also seem fond of cranberries. A birdbath, of course, is just the ticket for these and the numerous grosbeaks, lazuli buntings, sparrows and other songbirds coming your way if you live in the inter-mountain west.

A few Bullock’s, perhaps late comers, seem to have stayed this year. Alas, I can’t actually see any nests as they build up near the tippy-tops of tall trees. But, they are still coming to the re-purposed nectar feeder as I write this!

In the future I will write about some of the seventeen species of hummers that either pass thru or spend the summers here.

***************

Late morning addition: “Scores of twitchers flocked to the Outer Hebrides to see a bird that has been recorded just eight times previously in the UK in nearly 170 years – only to see it slain by a wind turbine.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/10146081/Twitchers-flocking-to-see-rare-bird-saw-it-killed-by-wind-turbine.html

I Wanna See That!

New York City PBS 13 Out-Realities “Real” TV

A great series of five advertising posters are appearing in the New York City Subway system during the month of June. Entertainment Weekly carried a quote from a press release by Jeff Anderson, Executive Creative Director at CHI & Partners NY (the ad agency that created the campaign), “It’s pretty scary when you look out there and see what’s on television these days… If New Yorkers want an inspiring and educational option, they need to get behind a network that we sometimes take for granted.”

 

 

Three of the five spoof TV show posters appearing in the NYC Subway system until June 30.

New Mexico Wines

Part 1: The First Vines

Grapes were first grown in the New World near the middle Rio Grande River of New Mexico. Initially, Franciscan monks’ only access to sacramental and drinking wine was from casks shipped from their home country, Spain. And, it had to enter through the ports in Mexico and thenceforth northward to Nuevo Mexico – a journey of several months. As wine exports provided one fourth of Spain’s foreign revenue, a 1595 law forbade export of vines to the New World. Around 1629, the Franciscan padres, tired of the logistics and expense, smuggled vines from Spain to New Mexico, a classic example of our New Mexican do-for-self ingenuity. A Franciscan and a Capuchin planted those first vines near what is now the city of Socorro. Appropriately, the variety was the Mission grape, a vitas vinifera and it is still going strong in the state.

There are now twenty plus wineries in New Mexico producing about 350,000 gallons of quality wine on 1200 acres (circa 5 square kilometers.) While substantial, this is still less than was produced during the heyday of New Mexican wine making. Production rose from 16,000 gallons in 1870 to 908,000 gallons in 1880 with twice the acreage of the vineyards in present-day New York state. Alas, floods, then Prohibition, then more floods put paid to the industry. The historic 1943 flood kicked the final leg from under the state’s wine makers. It is only in the last score of years that wine-making has enjoyed a renaissance, especially with cold-hardy French-Hybrid varieties pushed by European investors.

We frequently have out-of-state visitors, as does almost everyone who is fortunate enough to live near Santa Fe, and one of the things we always try to do is visit the vineyard nearest us: Estrella del Norte Vineyard owned and worked by Richard and Eileen Reinders. They have a beautiful tasting room and host parties and neighborhood pot-lucks where their wines are available. Richard’s wines, along with many other New Mexican wines, have won numerous awards. Here in the Land of Enchantment wineries feel free to break the bounds of tradition and experiment. Probably the best-selling wine in our northern part of the state is a merlot laced with chocolate. Although I am more of a traditionalist in my wine enthusiasms, it’s not bad and I suspect will introduce many non-drinkers to the gift of the grape.
Article © 2013 Wilbur Norman

 

Photograph © Estrella Del Norte Vineyard
Photograph © Estrella Del Norte Vineyard