Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Apple pilfering

This afternoon, one - just one - of my apple tree branches began to sway up and down. The swaying intensified as, through the leaves, my red squirrel came into view.

The squirrel, who makes the southern half of my block his territory, crept along ever more tiny branches, which swung in wilder and wilder arcs. No matter to the squirrel who, with perfect balance, snuck down a twig to grasp a low-hanging apple significantly bigger than its head. The squirrel bit into the fruit, secured his grip with another crunch, and with sure feet and an ever-waving tail ventured back up the twigs and tiny branches to the sturdy trunk behind the foliage.

I couldn't see the squirrel, but I could see little apple crumbs falling to the ground.

Minutes later my familiar deer, already mottled with the beginnings of her winter fur, wandered beneath the tree and gobbled some fallen apples - quite unaware that her quickly diminishing supply of ripe fruit had been burglarized.

As the doe settled herself into the grass, I imagined I could hear a squirrel, high above, silently chortling.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ever heard of this guy?

Robert Ingersall (1833-1899) was the preeminent orator of his generation, attracting millions of listeners across the nation. That he has been pretty much lost to history isn't all that surprising, given that history is largely written by people skittish of agnostics.

So, of course, are voters (then and now), and Ingersall quickly realized that his political ambitions were hopeless. But he remained a sought-after speaker, mesmerizing on all the issues of the day, not just his dissent to conventional religion. He constantly was attacked by both the orthodox Christian community and the far left for his Republican Party values. He answered well: "We are not endeavoring to chain the future, but to free the present. We are not forging fetters for our children, but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation, and thought."

He was instrumental in restoring the memory of the country's secular and rationalist heritage, rooted in the Enlightenment, to a generation of late 19th Century Americans. He said of the Founding Fathers:

"They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few."

We have no figure comparable to Robert Ingersall in America today. We could use one.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ever heard of this gal?

When I was a young boy in the 1950s I distinctly remember my mother, in a rare moment of pensiveness, confessing that what she'd always really wanted to be was a minister. She said it with yearning, but with a resignation learned from her girlhood on an isolated Wisconsin farm still more Victorian than not. Of course no woman could ever be a minister.

In my head, unspoken, I categorized this as bullshit - a prepubescent "feminist" years ahead of his time. (It was just one more piece of grownup crap that turned me into the rather feeble respecter of authority I am today.)

I recalled that moment as I learned recently about Margaret Fuller - a women who in the 1830s and 1840s (with Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many others) was not only a suffragette, but a person of great intellect who railed against a culture in which women not only could not vote. That was just part of it. A married woman was chattel who could not own property on her own. She could hold no professional position other than housekeeper and raiser of children. In a real sense, she was little more than a slave. She was only a partial person, thought by many barely able to think.

Fuller was a powerfully influential writer and profoundly influenced the thinking of men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. She gained even more notoriety when she died at 40 in a shipwreck along with her Italian husband and son.

She and the other early female reformers died before woman's suffrage finally passed 90 years ago - and long before their ideas could filter down to the likes of my mother. Mom lived well into the 21st Century, still studying the Bible, but I don't think she ever got what those feminists of the 1970s and later, taking up a legacy from the 1800s, had brought about.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Does bigotry make standing?

One of the first questions lawyers are being asked to address in the long battle over California's Proposition 8 - banning same-sex marriages - is simple: who, if anyone, has "standing" to defend the resolution? (After a federal district judge shot down Prop 8, his ruling was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which directed both sides to discuss standing. After all, the State of California has no interest in an appeal - Gov. Swartzenegger likes the decision. But what gives standing to ProtectMarriage.com, the pro-resolution group defending the lawsuit?)

The issue can get complicated. For instance, in Montana not too long ago, a group of homosexuals filed suit against the state's long-unused sodomy law. The state's primary line of defense was that the plaintiffs had no standing - after all, none of them had been prosecuted under the law. And if they were worried about prosecution, well, they themselves had confessed to breaking the law in their lawsuit.

The courts threw that argument out on its butt - if a state law makes what you do illegal, you sure as hell have standing.

In California, the situation was reversed. The plaintiffs, denied marriage, certainly had standing to sue. But who was damaged by Prop 8's repeal? Some religious-conservative housewife who gets all weepy at the thought of same-sex marriage? Those who fear - with utterly no proof - for children raised that way? Those who contend, with absolutely no logic, that gay marriage somehow "threatens" the institution?

Thus the Ninth Circuit appeal might end with a whimper: The court might find that nobody, except gay couples themselves, has the slightest legitimate interest in the matter.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doe eyes

I look into the eyes of "my" doe, curled up in the grass near my garage, staring off into the distance, and I wonder what if any window her eyes open to the animal world. After all, cats stare all the time. Dogs, more scrutable, stare at you with obvious wants: "Food? Anytime soon?" "A walk? I've got tree trunks to sniff." "Would it kill you to throw a stick?"

My doe, however, takes her eyes off some distant alarm and reverts to the prey's 1,000-yard stare - anything, anywhere, could be dangerous.

One of her stomachs pulse, making cud. Her foot twitches. She lies there, waiting to chew. Now, I can tell, she's staring at nothing. (Although her ears never quit.) Apples lie nearby, but for the moment she's not interested.

As rutting season approaches, I hope things work out, and I see her and a fawn or two next spring. Then, if she survives the winter culling season, I'd like to think she'll be staring at something much closer to home.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"We, the (Protestant) people"

Before there was the NRA, there was ... the NRA.

Today's NRA - the National Rifle Association - is of course the forceful and influential lobbyist for the right to bear arms. In the Civil War era, gun control was hardly an issue. The National Reform Association had a much different cause - to put an end to the separation of church and state.

For decades prior to the war, conservative Protestant leaders in the north argued from their pulpits that abolitionists were wrong - God had created the world in just the way He intended, slavery included, and to try to change things was a sin. They found plenty of Bible verses to "prove" their case. After the onset of the war, however, they shut up about that. Instead, they found a new rallying cry.

Such a great American calamity, they said, could only be the result of the country's failure to honor God and Jesus Christ in its constitution. The National Reform Association was organized to propose an amendment so that God would not "crush us to atoms in the wreck."

Here's what they came up with - replace "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union ..." with:

"Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government ..."

Abraham Lincoln accepted the petition with grace, and then did nothing with it. He was far too savvy a politician to raise this new divisive issue at a time when the county already was divided by war. Likewise, Congress ducked the proposal to Christianize the Constitution, tabling similar resolutions year after year.

But conservative religions are persistent. Unquiet ghosts of that early NRA roam the country yet today.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tom Paine's fate

Thomas Paine is remembered by most of us as the author of "Common Sense," the rallying cry for the American revolution for which Paine received no money. In the dark days of Valley Forge, George Washington read parts of Paine's writings to the troops to keep up their morale.

But how many of us know that Paine died destitute and despised by many?

The cause was his writing of the "Age of Reason," which condemned the excesses of the French Revolution but also attacked all beliefs at odds with science and rational thought. Paine was seen, in the eye of the times, as bad news. His friends, embarrassed by his anti-Christian writings, deserted him. After he died in poverty, his bones eventually were removed to his native England for burial by William Cobbett - who had written a blistering Paine biography but who had changed his mind after actually reading Paine's work. Unfortunately, the bones never were interred, and were lost to posterity. As biographer Moncure Daniel Conway wrote in 1892, "As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principles rest not."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ever heard of this guy?

William Ellery Channing, whom I'd never heard of, has jumped onto my list of cool historical figures.

Channing was born in 1780 in Massachusetts and came of age at a time when waves of Christian conservativism, revivals and Great Awakenings were in the air. He was a theologian and minister who was widely influential as an opponent of slavery and poverty. Poverty - not poor peoples' evil nature - was the cause of social ills - a relatively unheard-of stance at the time.

He is best known, among Unitarians at least, as the father of Unitarian Universalism. He eschewed fine points of doctrines or dogma, emphasizing social responsibility, charity, and moral action. Thus he split with more conservative Congregationalists who still clung to Calvinistic tenants of original sin and predestination - ideas he believed got in the way of moral behavior.

Here's a great quote: "I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come." These were fighting words in the early 1800s.

As a boy, I was subjected to far too many hours of watching the likes of Oral Roberts. I'd roll my eyes, wondering who could take this clown seriously. (Of course, I'd roll those eyes behind my mother's back, and speak not a word. When mama's not happy, nobody's happy.)

But as I learn about William Ellery Channing, I see that his was the best of that old-time religion.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How to be immortal

I was reading an article titled "Why can't we live forever" when I came across a graphical sidebar containing drawings of various animals, each labeled with their maximum recorded life spans in the wild.

It was interesting: there was the house mouse (4), the jackrabbit (13), the dog (29), the cat (36), a human (122), the Galapagos tortoise (150), and the koi fish (200). Then I came to the end - the jellyfish and the hydra (a tiny creature biologically related to the jellyfish) - and the graphic said these creatures are immortal!

Say what? Immortal? There are creatures that are immortal? My skeptical genes kicked in. So I turned to my friend, Mr. Google.

It turns out that there are an endless number of types of jellyfish, and most of them live relatively short lives - a few months, say. One rare species apparently can live for 30 years. But scientists have discovered that one species - Turritopsis nutricula - apparently has the ability to switch back and forth between the two stages of its life cycle. One is medusa (the umbrella shape we picture) and the juvenile polyp stage. If they can do that indefinitely, goodbye death.

The hydra stays in the polyp stage. It reproduces by budding. But, in the late 1990s, scientists found something amazing - hydra don't undergo senescence (aging). So if they don't get old, how would they get old and die?

The lesson: If you want to be immortal, just transform yourself into a T. nutricula jellyfish or a hydra. You probably, however, shouldn't bother to bring any beer along.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bye Bye Birdie

We've all heard about global warming likely caused by human activity, but lurking in the background is something we're probably also aware of - the accelerating pace of species extinction.

For the first time, I've seen some impressive numbers to back it up. For instance, how do current extinction rates compare with other great extinctions?

From the latest Scientific American:

The biggie - the Permian-Triassic Extinction - wiped out up to 96 percent of species around at the time. The event last some 1 million years, so the rate of extinction was 9.6 percent per millennium.

The Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction - the one that creamed the dinosaurs - lasted only 10,000 years. The rate of species loss was 15 percent per millennium.

These extinctions were, of course, exceptional. On average, over the three or four billion years of life's (pre-human) existence, the extinction rate was a mere 0.1 per millennium.

That jumped, from 1900 to 2000, by a factor of 100 to a rate of 10 percent. And in the next 100 years, the rate is expected to reach 20 percent - clearly surpassing even the worst extinctions of the past.

How long do you suppose we ought to allow this to continue?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Polymath envy

Martin Gardner, so often, was way too smart for me. I first encountered him in the 1970s in the magazine "Scientific American," where he wrote a column on scientific puzzles and games. He often left me in the dust. But Gardner, a polymath writer, critic, and debunker of cranks and charlatans, never failed to entertain.

Gardner, who died in May at 95, has been celebrated for something like 70 years, and after his death several compilations of quotes from his work have been published. Many come from his skeptical writings, such as this definition of a crank: "If a man persists in advancing views that are contradicted by all available evidence, and which offer no reasonable grounds for serious consideration, he will rightfully be dubbed a crank by colleagues." He said, however, that "Even when a pseudoscientific theory is completely worthless there is a certain educational value in refuting it."

In this age of 9-11 "truthers," Obama citizenship-doubting "birthers," evolution deniers, cell-phone-caused brain-cancer fans, vaccine-caused autism worriers - the list does not end - it was great to have the clear thinking of a Martin Gardner. But my favorite quote comes from his introduction - in 1960 - to an edition of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum: "We are all little children walking down a road of yellow brick in a crazy, outlandish, Ozzy sort of world. We know that wisdom, love and courage are essential virtues, but like Dorothy we cannot decide whether it is best to seek for better brains (our electronic computers grow more powerful every year!) or for kinder, more loving hearts."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Apples on their mind

In the cool, 52-degree temperature of early morning - never mind that it would near 90 by mid-afternoon - I glanced through the window at my outdoor thermometer and saw a "new" deer savoring apples. She was the first different deer to visit in about a month. But there was something different about this doe's behavior as well.

She kept looking around nervously between bites. Was she concerned about a predator? Hearing disturbing sounds? It didn't seem likely - her big ears weren't zeroing in on any particular direction. I shrugged, wished her well, and went to the front door to get the morning newspaper. That's when I saw the answer in the form of a worried-looking fawn.

The little squirt, three months old or so, had given up on leaping the four-foot-high fence its mother had jumped and was heading around the house, looking another way to get into the back yard where the apple feast was going on. Unfortunately, that four-foot fence was the lowest access point available. The fawn was out of luck.

The doe, seeming more disturbed all the time, didn't stick around long, despite the abundance of fruit. Within minutes it soared over the fence and went looking for the youngster.

Late this afternoon I looked out again. There was my old pal, the doe with markings I know so well. She was relaxing at the last station of the apple tree. Soon she'd be gone, too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The burden is on us

As a journalist for my whole career, I've long been aware that, in covering a dispute, try as he or she might, somewhere in a reporter's head lurks a judgment as to who is right. The key to honest journalism is not to try to be some kind of magical person with no opinions. It is to be a fair person - one who makes sure to accurately report all sides of a dispute. (And not just the nut-case arguments, but the best arguments.)

(Which is why, the more I read about the Fox "News" commentary by Beck, O'Reilly, etc., the more I have to cringe.)

Anyway, what has caught my eye in recent days is the brouhaha over plans to build an Islamic Center, complete with gym and swimming pool, a couple of blocks (and behind tall skyscrapers) from what probably forever will be known as "ground zero" in lower Manhattan. Latest in the brouhaha was Obama's assertion of the Constitutional right to religious freedom in the United States. Naturally, some people freaked.

But, once again, the question is how to fairly report the issue. I think reporters have done rather well. Covering the pro-project people, journalists have pointed out that the developer, Columbia grad Feisal Abdul Rauf, who calls himself an "anti-terrorist," is co-chair of the Interfaith Council of New York which promotes interfaith harmony. His wife notes that 19 Muslims died in 9-11. What better place, say says, to begin that harmony. Certainly that's what the Bush administration was after - promoting a rational Islam by helping build "moderate" mosques across the world.

Yet opponents say most people who lost loved ones on 9-11 are against an Islamic Center so close to Ground Zero - the symbolism is just too tough to take. Right-wing politicians are having great fun blasting Obama, Muslims, and crying big tears for the bereft mothers.

So how do you report this in the mainstream media? How do you emphasize the Constitution right to freedom of religion in this country - and the danger of succumbing to the mob - while still giving equal time to those stirring the mob?

America has a long history of religious intolerance, starting with the Catholics. Journalists know this. But they also they know they must contact everybody concerned, and report all sides of such disputes.

It's up to you and me, the readers or listeners, to sort it out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hand me a tuber

I can remember, as a little kid, watching my paternal grandfather sit in his chair, watching football. We were in Beloit, Wisconsin, and the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi were starting to be a cool team.

Grandfather would sit there - a retired congregational minister - expecting his wife, Clara, to wait on him hand and foot.

Even as a kid, I thought, hey?

Later, growing up, I watched my father, a WW2 vet, leap out of his chair to help with the dishes. But more often - more often than not - he'd watch as my mother would pretty much do all the housework. And then ask for a bowl of ice cream.

By the late 1960s, when I was newly married, I distinctly remember how a fellow 1965 high school grad and I so proudly told each other that we were not ashamed to hang up wet clothes on the line - despite how embarrassing it might be, in full view of the neighbors.

I though of this personal history as I read about the gatherers and hunters who made up nearly all of our human lineage. In such bands, women - the gatherers of vegetables, tubers, small game, etc. - provided the primitive band with at least 70 percent of its calories. The chest-thumping men came up with 30 percent, tops.

And, of course, gatherers and hunters had to work only about 20 hours a week to make do. Men, lolling around the campfire, may have worked even less. Hey, bitch, hand me a tuber.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Deer bliss

It would be silly to think of a deer taking part in a ritual - perhaps creature of habit (a REAL creature!) would be a better term - but I can't help thinking of the stations of the apple tree.

A recent thunderstorm and a few other windy periods have created plenty of windfall, and my part-time doe has been singling "Heaven. I'm in Heaven." At least that's what I imagine as each day around 9 a.m. she hops my fence for an extended stay. (I've come to recognize her by markings on her flanks and legs.)

The doe will look around, making sure she's alone, and then start eating apples. Then, invariably, she'll move near the tall old lilac bush at the back of my yard (but not in the shade as the temperature still is in the delightful 50s), settle into the grass, and take it easy. (I've learned I don't need to keep watching because she'll be there for an hour or more.)

Next time I look, the doe is up again, eating more apples. She first sniffs each one, preferring recent arrivals over apples that insects have had time to colonize. Then she plops down again, this time near the tree.

A couple of hours later, presumably after another apple snack, she's relaxing near my garage door. The temperature has risen, and she's in the shade.

Maybe an hour later I see she's moved around to my shaded side yard. I watch as she lumbers to her feet and starts sniffing around for more apples. She grabs each one by her front teeth, moves it toward her back teeth, raises her head, and starts crunching in earnest. Eventually she settles down again, a little closer to the front fence. Before long, she will disappear.

What's interesting is that every day, the pattern has been the same: Back by the lilac, near the tree, beside the garage, and on to the side yard. Hey, who said there wouldn't be rites in Heaven?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Common sense and culture

Cultural anthropologists, says Professor Edward Fischer of Vanderbilt University, like to think in terms of a peoples' mental models - ideas widely shared within a population that actually make up much of that population's culture. In the United States, for instance, people tend to share such ideas as "time is money," and the (obviously mythic for most) "American dream." Then there are such erroneous models as the idea held by many that weather causes colds. These "cognitive models" can change - not too long ago alcohol or drug addiction was a moral failing, hard-to-deal-with kids were naughty, and soldiers affected by shell shock were just weak. Now the culture has agreed that addiction is a disease, bratty kids can have attention deficit syndrome, and soldiers can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But different cultures' cognitive models can vary widely: From the danger of the "evil eye" to whether menstruating women (or just women) can "pollute" males to what constitutes incest, cultures around the world have their own definitions of what constitutes "common sense." (For instance, some matrilineal cultures think marrying your mother's brother's daughter is incest, while marrying your father's sister's daughter is ideal.)

Mental cultural models are the sort of thing you don't think about. For instance, it is a common and uncontested American view that a mother and a newborn baby instantly bond. The idea is so pervasive that new mothers who don't feel that bond are shattered and become depressed. Yet studies show that in poverty-stricken regions of the world, where half of a woman's babies survive less than a year, mothers don't shed a tear when a baby dies. They invest no love in a baby until he or she begins to thrive. This shows, says anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, that instant mother-child bonding is nothing but a Western ideology we have wrongly assumed is universal.

Even such basic ideas as the two sexes - talk about common sense! - can vary with cultures. Take the Berdasche of the Northern Plains Indians, or the fa'fa'fine of Samoa - men who early on adopt women's dress and women's work. Samoans who choose that path really get pissed when they vacation in Australia and get accused of being gay or transvestites. Australians (and Americans) have no category for them. Samoans, meanwhile, value a person who can do both women's and men's work.

Anthropologists pride themselves on doing wide-open, subjective science. We could argue. But I think they are right when they suggest that while studying other cultures, we can learn something about ourselves.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A case of fine tuning

Nearly a quarter century ago, back when my son was a high school senior or thereabouts, he wandered into our living room and asked what I was reading. I said the book was about the "fine tuning problem:" The fact that if you change almost any of the laws of physics and their parameters - the speed of light, Planck's Constant, the force of gravity, the weight of a proton or neutron, you name it - the universe would be utterly unable to support any form of life. Just how lucky are we?

Don, taking about half a second to recognize a tautology when he heard one, answered, "So?"

"I know," I said, somewhat defensively, "but they did write a whole book about it."

Well, tautology or not, the fine tuning problem remains a bone of contention today. Physicists and cosmologists still are sharply divided about what it really means.

There are four main answers, none of which has attracted a majority following:

1. In the future, a deeper understanding of physics will show that the constants have no choice but to be what they are. (This is a common sort of thing in science - mysteries get explained.)

2. A creator wanted it that way.

3. This isn't a real problem. Of course the constants support life, because here we are! End of story. (For instance, of all the planets in our solar system, only one is known to support life. Guess which one we live on!)

4. We are in a multiverse containing many universes - most sterile because of different laws of nature, but a few fertile. Guess which type universe we live in!

I like Number 4. It turns out that inflation, according to our current understanding, not only could create a universe out of practically nothing, but could be part of a chain of inflations constantly spinning off new universes ... forever. This idea has gained support since it has been shown that both inflation and string theory can indeed generate universes with different physical constants. I like it, however, because it's cool.

Hey, none of this means you don't still need to get out there and smell the flowers.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Time to say goodbye?

A casual reading of the news since WikiLeaks (an online group dedicated to making secrets public) released about 76,000 classified American military field reports and other documents, would suggest that little of the information was news or actually very secret. Such a reading would be superficially correct - we've known for some time that President Hamid Karzai is corrupt and hated by civilians, that Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency is in cahoots with the Taliban, and so on. As a Wall Street Journal editorial said, "Among the many nonscoops in the documents, we learn that war is hell."

But a couple of examples - from documents rife with such examples - might shed some light:

- A police district commander reported to have raped a 16-year-old Afghan girl was confronted by Afghan civilians. He ordered his body guard to shoot them. The bodyguard refused. So the commander pulled a gun and shot him. Guess which taxpayers are paying for this sort of thing.

- The ISI, in May, 2007, sent 1,000 motorcycles for use by suicide bombers to the Haqqani network, which attacks U.S. forces. Guess which taxpayers ultimately paid the bill.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page may find such stuff insignificant, but I would suggest that, echoing Amy Davidson, senior editor at the New Yorker, information like this just might be important. We could narrow our focus to just the Taliban. We might even decide, she offers, that "nine years after our arrival, it is time to leave Afghanistan."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The world's greatest do-little body

Learning a new thing is such a hoot. Today I learned that the word "filibuster" comes from vrijbuiter - old Dutch for "looter."

"Looter," of course, is a pejorative term, one we tend to feel is perfectly appropriate when we - and a majority of the Senate - favor a bill that is being delayed by the minority. We must remember, however, what Senate old-timers would say to young, reform-minded new-comers: "You've never been in the minority."

Anyway, I picked up my latest bit of etymology in a New Yorker article by George Packer detailing how the U.S. Senate has become a steaming pile of delay, obstructionism, and inability to address issues vital to our country.

Packer's long piece shows with excruciating clarity the year-and-a-half Senate battle leading to the narrow passage of health-care reform and financial regulatory reform. But he points out that filibusters hardly exhaust senatorial obstruction. In this session, for instance, 345 bills passed by the House never have been allowed to come to a debate in the Senate. Meanwhile, 76 nominees for judgeships and executive appointments approved by Senate committees have been blocked from a full-Senate vote.

Packer warns that the passage of health and regulatory reform depended on special circumstances - like a strong Democratic majority and a president with an electoral mandate - that may not be repeated. Two days after regulatory reform was passed, it was announced that the Senate would not address comprehensive energy reform legislation for the rest of the year.

Let me quote some of the article's final words: "And so climate change legislation joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans' care, campaign finance, transportation security. labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world's greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Stargazing today

Professor Mark Whittle, a Brit cosmologist currently at the University of Virginia, is one of those teachers you want - someone really jacked up about their subject. And he's hardly alone. There are few cosmologist not jacked up in the past few years. Suddenly, within the past decade, bits and pieces of tantalizing data and theoretical work over the past 80 years is coming together. New data, made possible by new technology, is connecting nearly all the dots.

At a time when humans are screwing up down on the surface of the Earth - was there ever not such a time? - cosmology, says Whittle, "is in a golden era - the story has more clarity and coherence than ever before."

The basic deal is that all the measurements - entirely different data sets - are coming together. These parameters include accurate distance measurement to galaxies both near and far, the microwave background, the huge web pattern that all the galaxies have formed, and the abundance of light elements. This information not only has allowed a sure-thing estimate of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), proof that the universe has a flat (Euclidian) geometry, and the necessary and stunning existence of dark matter and dark energy that make up 96 percent of all there is. (Matter we could see makes up a mere 4 percent.)

All this mathematical and observational information together makes the current Big Bang model of the origin of the universe almost certainly correct.

But, as Whittle points out, not all is solved. Not least, he suggests, the question of "why there is something and not nothing."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It was pop, dammit, not soda

Having grown up in Wisconsin, I had to smile as I read an article by Joan Houston Hall, currently the chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Hall moved to Madison, Wis., in 1975, and she recalled being flummoxed by a restaurant sign that said: "BRATS ON THE TERRACE." She soon learned that this "was not an effort to segregate unruly children but to invite people to eat bratwurst alfresco." Some help with pronunciation would have given her a clue: When you pronounce "brat" you say "ah."

Hall also was amazed that Wisconsinites might call a pastry a "kringle" and a water fountain a "bubbler." (Actually, I only called it a bubbler when the water bubbled straight up from the center of the bowl - not when the water streamed across the bowl from the side.)

And she was struck by the idea of a "golden birthday" - when, say, you were born on the 20th and you turn 20. You mean EVERYONE doesn't know the concept?

My smile broadened as I remembered that Hall's "My Turn" article in Newsweek had been edited by New Yorkers. You don't pick up much lingo at 30,000 feet.

But then I remembered that when my wife and I moved to Montana, I just had to start talking and people assumed I was from Canada. Uf Da!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

In defense of young marriage

As someone whose marriage ended distressingly short of the "until death do you part" part, but lasted long enough to pretty much raise a couple of cool kids, it is with mixed feelings that I read this week an article in the "New York Review of Books" that examined a handful of new books on the subject of getting hitched.

(I get the following statistics from the author, Diane Johnson, a novelist and writer of non-fiction.)

First off, religious conservatives frightened by gay marriage have little to worry about. Americans continue to see a "normal" marriage as an ideal. A mere 10 percent of people here think marriage is outdated compared, say, to a third in France. Fact is, by the time they are 40, 84 percent of American women have been married - a figure that's higher than in any other other Western nation.

Unfortunately, 54 percent of those marriages end in divorce within 15 years. (About the same percentage of breakups between men and women living together also happen in that time frame ... but even sooner.

It turns out that 40 percent of American children will "experience the dissolution of their parents' intimate partnership" by the time they are 15 - a higher figure than anywhere in Europe.

Anyway, the review of the books in question - ranging from what essentially are marriage manuals to sociological studies to best-seller Elizabeth Gilbert's new one called "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage" - bats the idea of marriage all over the place. Is it good for women? For men?

After reading the review, I'm left with a basic question: If there is a better way for a young man and woman to start their adult lives, what could it possibly be?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

An apple feast

It's apple time in the Northern Rockies, and at least one deer in Helena is a happy, if perhaps a bit sated, ruminant.

The doe was relaxing in my back yard when I got up, no doubt enjoying the 60-degree morning temperature. She sat in the grass for about another hour. I'd glance out my kitchen window once in a while, and usually there was no movement beyond a twitch of ears. Sometimes she'd twist her long neck around to groom her flank, or lift a hind leg to scratch her cheek.

Then she arose in that awkward way of deer - first rocking to her front knees, then straightening her back legs, then lurching to stand all the way. It soon was apparent what she had in mind.

I have an ancient apple tree. It produces smallish fruit, yellow in color, sweet but somewhat mushy. By early August, apples have begun ripening and falling to the ground. The mule deer walked directly to the nearest ground fall, sniffed the apple, and downed it with obvious relish.

Before she quit eating, she had gulped no fewer than 17 apples.

Then she walked back to her original position, dropped to her front knees, collapsed her hind legs, and settled down into the grass. She had some digestion to do.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Some minor, century-and-a-half-year-old news

Watching the network news this past week, I found the line-up rather depressing. The news often would start out describing how Democrats remain inept. (Remember Mark Twain's comment to the effect that "I'm not a member of an organized party. I'm a Democrat.") Then would come another example of Republicans' on-going problem with being brain dead. This would be followed by news that the Gulf disaster is intractable, people remain freaked about Arizona's immigration law, and the economy might be tanking again. Somehow, the final half of the programs, focusing on "people making a difference," and so on, really didn't help a hell of a lot.

With this unhappy news in mind, I turned to my complete "Poems of Emily Dickinson." She's my buddy. It has been said that Dickinson's 1,700 or so poems can be divided as: one-third not so good, one-third pretty good, and one-third wow. Many of the not-so-good poems can be called not so much poems, as aphorisms - adages, so to speak.

Regarding the Arizona law, not long ago I noted that as a young girl, Dickinson parroted her elders in bemoaning the "invasion" of the Irish. Yet, at her death in 1886, she directed that six Irish servants be her pallbearers. (Her brother, appalled, quickly named six upstanding Amherst citizens as her "honorary" pallbearers." But I wondered: When did this change come about?

This evening I stumbled on one of Dickinson's "minor" poems. It was early in 1864. The Civil War still raged, it's outcome uncertain. Dickinson was 34 years old. She had recently traveled to consult an eye doctor. In Boston. Her "aphorism" went like this:

"These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me -
Befriend them, lest yourself in Heaven
Be found a refugee"

Hmm. Maybe I need to watch more of those "people making a difference" segments.