Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David Hall, Beneath Cold Seas: the Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest

This book is a revelation. David Hall's astonishing photographs show the vibrant colors and teeming life of a part of the world I always thought was rather drab, the oceans off Canada's Pacific coast. Sure, I knew about seals and sea otters and kelp, and killer whales, but I never suspected these spectacular wonders. I have never looked through a book of nature photographs that wowed me so consistently. From brilliant anemones to illuminated squid to rococo sea slugs, Hall has documented an Alladin's Cave worth of visual wonders.

Here is a night time swarm of cross jellies, from the surface and under water.

A sculpin.

Sea stars.

Salmon headed upstream.

Sea pens.

A wolf eel.

Most of these pictures are from Hall's web site; I tried scanning other images, but to capture their glory required files of unmanageable size. Look for this at your library, and keep it in mind for any nature lovers on your next Christmas list. Amazing.

Snake Trouble in the Everglades

Imported snakes are taking over the Everglades, displacing alligators as the top predators and, a new study says, causing a decline in native mammals like raccoons and bobcats. Above, "University of Florida researchers hold a 162-pound Burmese python captured in Everglades National Park, Fla. Therese Walters, left, Alex Wolf and Michael R. Rochford are holding the 15-foot snake shortly after the python ate a six-foot American alligator."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Requiring Catholic Universities to Pay for Birth Control

Ross Douthat, who often makes sense except when anything to do with religion is on the agenda, wrote a long lamentation in the Times to the effect that requiring institutions run by churches, but not fundamentally religious -- e.g., Catholic hospitals and Baptist universities -- to pay for birth control is
an intimation of a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together. 
This is what you might call a slippery slope leading to a cliff leading to an abyss sort of argument. A tad overblown, shall we say? But I don't think churches are being crazy to protest the birth control rule. Problems like this are one of the reasons I think we should have government-run healthcare instead of a mandated private scheme like the Affordable Care Act. We should not rely on private entities to guarantee what we have decided is a right of all the citizens.

But since we have decided to provide health insurance through employer-subsidized private plans, those plans have to provide public rights as the public -- through the government -- defines them. Since we are trying to make health insurance a right for everyone, employees shouldn't lose that right when they choose to work for a Catholic University instead of a public one.

I think that in general the civil rights of employees always trump the civil rights of employers. Nobody should lose a right because the only job he or she can get is at a Baptist college.

Hopi Petroglyphs

In most of the world, petroglyphs remain largely mysterious. They were carved long ago by people whose cultures have vanished, and at best we can vaguely relate them to half-forgotten myths. Most could mean anything.

This is not true in the American southwest. Here, thousands of surviving petroglyphs were carved by people whose culture still endures among the Hopi and Zuni.

The most common symbols are those of the Hopi clans, of which these are a sample.

Others depict the myths that the Hopi reenact in their famous rituals.

These depict the trickster musician kokopelli.

Mindful of this heritage, the Hopi tribe has been cooperating in an effort to digitally record the most important petroglyph sites, especially those no longer on tribal lands. A worthy cause, I would say.

100% of Economists Agree

Northwestern University and University of Chicago’s business schools surveyed a group of top economists, as well as the public at large, and found some big differences when it came to economic policy. Some of the questions tested basic economic literary: A full 100 percent of economists agreed that permanently raising the federal tax rate by 1 percent for those in the top income tax bracket would increase federal tax revenue over the next 10 years. By contrast, only 66 percent of the general public agreed that this was the case, with just 50 percent of Republicans concurring and 80 percent of Democrats.
So there you have it. People who know something about taxation and government revenue, whether we're talking economists or the Congressional budget office, agree that raising taxes raises government revenue. This is also what you find empirically, that is, raising taxes has, historically, always raised government revenue. Why do so many Americans disagree?

I can think of two reasons. First, many people think that rich people somehow weasel out of paying taxes, which they often do, but not so well that they don't still pay a lot in tax. Second, the Republicans have been lying about this since Reagan, and they have persuaded a lot of people who dislike taxes that they really don't work. But they do work, that is, they raise money for the government, and the higher they are, the more money they raise.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Today's Indian Palace: Thirumalai Nayak, Madurai

This impressive palace was built in the 1630s by King Thirumalai Nayak. Madurai is in India's far south, and this architectural style is called Dravidian. Only about a quarter of the original palace remains, mainly two buildings facing a columned courtyard. One is the royal audience hall, the other a dance hall. (Meaning a place to watch professional dancers, not a ballroom.) The king is supposed to have consulted an Italian architect in the design, but so far as I can tell this is a bit of nineteenth-century folklore and it may have been dreamed up to explain the octagonal dome and the European details in the molding.

The audience hall is a very impressive space.

The dance hall.

This 1798 drawing by Thomas Daniel shows some of the ruins that once surrounded the surviving parts of the palace, until they were built over.

America is Not Becoming More Polarized

Pollsters have been asking Americans a standard set of political questions since 1970, and the latest study of this data shows that America is not becoming more polarized. People are spread across the political spectrum in about the way they always have been, with a lot of us in the middle.

On the other hand, Americans think the country is becoming more polarized. But just ordinary folks; political professionals and Congressmen correctly believe that we are about as polarized as always.

Why might people think the country is more polarized? Well, the political parties are becoming more polarized, with the demise of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. So it is harder to put together a bipartisan coalition. And the news media have also grown more polarized, at least on cable tv and the internet.

From Burning Man 2010

200 Years of Mississippi Steam

On January 27, 1812, the first steamboat docked at New Orleans. Built at Pittsburgh by a consortium of investors that included Robert Fulton, the New Orleans took four months to make the journey. Contemporary drawing of the New Orleans above.


there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

--Charles Bukowski

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Rocks by Helder Domingos

Conspiracy Theories and Contradictory Beliefs

A study of people who believe in conspiracy theories showed that their main motive seems to be distrust of authority, or resistance to the official version of events. They are more likely to believe any idea that is contrary to the mainstream narrative, even if it contradicts other things they believe. People who think Princess Diana faked her own death are more likely that others to think she was murdered. People who think Osama bin Laden was dead before 9-11 are more likely than others to think he is still alive.

Dancing in the Kitchen, Saturday Afternoon

 My sister-in-law and my two youngest children, today.



Marine molluscs of the class Polyplacophora, of which there are more than 900 species. Many are brightly colored.


Wolf Crazy: in California, Mad for OR7

A GPS-collar wearing wolf known to biologists as OR7 has become a celebrity in California. OR7 is a young male gone wandering, as many young male predators do, looking for his own territory and mate. On December 28 he crossed into California and became the first wolf to live in the state in 88 years. (That's him above, back in November.) This has launched a little media frenzy of news reports, and a contest to give him a name -- "Journey" was the winner. Now he has at least two twitter accounts, one of which, WolfOR7, has this for its profile:
Native Oregonian, now living in California. Grew up in troubled family. Daddy wanted by the law. Hobbies: wandering, ungulates. Don't call me Journey.
Sample tweets:
This deep snow is an elk-chaser's dream. Didn't need/miss the pack today. You haven't lived until you've dined on elk liver.
Why is everybody so worried about my love life?
I have mixed feelings about all  this. The picture above is OR7's father, the alpha male of the Imnaha pack, with tags on both ears and his own GPS collar. He looks like anything but a wild wolf. And, in truth, these animals are not truly wild, but "managed."

Wolves are exciting. They represent the wild in its pure, dangerous form, and of course people are thrilled to hear that there are wolves back in California. As wolves slowly spread across the Rocky Mountains -- according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there are now 1,651 in the region -- something wonderful that was lost is coming back. The picture above is the Imnaha pack: alpha female to left, alpha male in center, juvenile in back and a pup to the right. This is a healthy wolf pack, breeding and increasing their numbers.

But even in the remote country of northeast Oregon they have to be carefully tracked. The wolf recovery has been managed by people at every step, under the terms of the Endangered Species Act. This law is bureaucracy in its most maddening form, hated by timber companies, miners, and anyone who wants to build anything in some parts of the country. The recovery of the American wolf has come at a real cost, tens of millions of dollars in direct government expenditures and at least as much by people struggling to comply with the ESA. I think it has been worth it, and I think most Americans agree. Wolves have recovered so well in the Great Lakes region, with more than 4,000 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, that last month that population was removed from the Endangered Species List. Wolves may soon be delisted across much of the Rocky Mountains as well.

Delisting will reduce the paperwork burden but it won't end the conflicts between wolves and people. This is and always has been a troubled relationship, especially since humans started raising sheep. Wolves love sheep, which from their perspective are fat, juicy meals too stupid to run away. They will attack cattle if they catch one alone. They also kill dogs. They don't attack people very often but it can happen, and they make parents very nervous. 

So the management of wolves will continue -- tracking collars for selected animals, population studies, shooting of individuals and even whole packs who get the habit of sheep stealing. The world has become too crowded, and our expectations of safety too high, for us just to leave wolves alone. Like many environmentally-minded people I sometimes fantasize about creating immense national parks spanning whole states -- Wyoming, anyone? -- where animals could really be wild. But that won't happen. Instead we will continue to live together with animals, and they will not be truly wild, any more than the twitter-celebrity OR7 is.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Gates of Hell

In Turkmenistan, in 1971, geologists drilling a test well tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a hole 230 feet (70 meters) across. To protect themselves from the poisonous gas, the geologists set it on fire. It's still burning. Locals call the spot the Gates of Hell.

From World of Mysteries.

Are Bonobos Self-Domesticated Chimps?

Self domestication is an idea that I think may explain a lot of human evolution over the past 50,000 years. The basic concept comes from the Belyaev fox experiment, carried out by Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev. Belyaev showed that he could produce the whole suite of traits that mark domesticated animals, from short faces to spotted coats, by breeding silver foxes for one trait: the willingness to be touched by people. What if, as we came to live in larger and more settled communities, we effectively selected ourselves for our willingness to live at close quarters with other people? That might explain a big part of why we look different than we did 30,000 years ago.

Now that same idea has been proposed as a way to explain the differences between chimps and bonobos. Ed Yong:

The two apes above might look very similar to the untrained eye, but they belong to two very different species. The one on the right is a bonobo; the one on the left is a chimpanzee. They are very closely related but the bonobo is slimmer, with a smaller skull, shorter canines and tufts of lighter fur. There are psychological differences too. Bonobos spend more time having sex, and playing with one another. They’re less sensitive to stress. They’re more sensitive to social cues. And they are far less aggressive than chimps.

Many years back, a young researcher called Brian Hare was listening to the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham expound on this bizarre constellation of traits. “He was talking about how bonobos are an evolutionary puzzle,” recalls Hare. “They have all these weird traits relative to chimps and we have no idea how to explain them.”

But Hare had an idea. “I said, ‘Oh that’s like the silver foxes!’

Meanwhile, in Tennessee

Some people can't stand facts that complicate the world, making heroes less good or villains less bad:
Tennessee teachers shouldn't talk about American slavery and race together. That's what the State's Tea Party is saying.

Its on of a list of the five legislative priorities presented to state legislators by several Tennessee tea parties, includes a proposal to eliminate from history books references to the Founding Fathers owning slaves or encroaching on Native American lands, originally reported by a Memphis newspaper.

Click here to find out more!
We talked to Tea Party leader Hal Rounds Wednesday. He described the way slavery is taught now as race-baiting. When asked if kids are walking out of school thinking our founding fathers were evil, he said "(The kids) are being taught (the Founding Fathers) were hypocrites and slave owners and part of the teachings about slavery was that it was inherently cruel."

Albino Hummingbird

Photographed by teenage friends in Staunton, Virginia.

An Ordinary Tenant Cabin at Antietam, 1862

Studying the Civil War can get depressing -- so much death, and so many blunders by all concerned that had the effect of stretching the war out for four long years. Antietam is particularly depressing in this way. Lee, spoiling for a fight, deployed his outnumbered men in a weak position, inviting attack by a Union army that outnumbered his 2 to 1, apparently because he felt such scorn for McClellan that he thought he could beat him no matter the odds. Even as his own position was near to collapse he was trying to organize a counter-attack that would have been even more disastrous than Pickett's Charge, had Stonewall Jackson not been able to talk him out of it. But if McClellan was weak, many of his officers were not, and they led the troops McClellan let them take into the battle to the verge of a great victory. Then, when commitment of one of McClellan's two reserve Corps would have sealed that victory and driven the Confederates from the field, McClellan refused, taking one of his pompous poses and saying, "you forget, Gentlemen, that I command the last reserves of the Republic." (Which wasn't even true.) So a day that began with Lee arrogantly exposing his men to Union attack ended, after 3500 on both sides had been killed, with McClellan shamefully refusing to claim the victory his men had won for him.

But one thing I always like about battlefield studies is the window they open into nineteenth-century America. You might be surprised to learn how few descriptions we have of how ordinary people lived just 150 years ago. Before 1860, most of our best accounts were written by foreigners. People wrote about their own lives, or about what seemed interesting or exciting to them. Since few of the diarists and letter writers were poor, we don't have much in the words of poor Americans. And since poor folks were just part of the landscape in which people grew up and lived, nobody bothered to describe their homes and ways of life. Unless, that is, they were far from home, and things were different than what they were used to. In the letters of Civil War soldiers, preserved because of the momentous event they were engaged in, are thousands of descriptions of the people, customs, houses, and farms of they places they were sent to fight. A sample of one of my favorites, written by a Sergeant of the 13th Massachusetts in Stafford County, Virginia:
The house was simply a log house about 15 feet square, containing one room with a door on either side; for a window there was a hole about two feet square with a sliding board in the inside to stop it up when needed. The fireplace and chimney were built on the outside of the house of sticks and mud in regular Virginia style. In one corner of the room on the opposite side from the fireplace stood the family bed. In the corner on the left of the fireplace stood a table, in the center of the room was a bench about four feet long, used for a seat, and there was two chairs without backs, or stools; I have forgotten which. When we entered Mr. Bullard sat on one, and Mrs. Bullard sat on the other, while the five children, the eldest a girl of fourteen, sat on the bench or floor. On being introduced Mr. Bullard arose, shook hands, and invited me to take a seat, offering at the same time his stool. Mrs. Bullard arose, courtesied, and resumed her seat. Declining with thanks Mr. Bullard’s offer of his seat, I said, “I would sit with Haskell on the bench.” We sat facing the fire; the children were scattered promiscuously around. I not noticed why Mrs. Bullard sat so near the fire; she was preparing a meal for them, and the pot was over the fire in which was their “pone cake”, also a frying pan in which, swimming its own fat, was the ever to be found “smoked sides.” On the hearth were two old tin cans (such as the boys had bought can fruit of the sutler in) in which she was making coffee. Mr. Bullard was chewing tobacco, and spitting into, or rather towards the fire, and as he sat some distance away, many were the times that he failed of his mark and there was stream between him and the fire.
Likewise there are few photographs of ordinary houses and farms, except that there are hundreds of photographs of the places where Civil War battles were fought. So the houses of poor folks that happened to lie in the path of armies have been documented for us by photographers interested in something else. Because the glass plate negatives used by those photographers preserved so much detail -- when properly focused and lit -- houses that are just blobs in the corner of battlefield vistas can be blown up to show the details of life. Like in this picture of the Middle Bridge over Antietam Creek. In the yard of this little tenant house, the home of some otherwise unknown family, you can see the tumble-down lean-to, the wheelbarrow, the weed-infested garden, the laundry on the line, and a hundred other items that make nineteenth-century life real for me in a way that nothing else does.