Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Painted Lady

Our rosemary bush is still attracting butterflies. Here is a painted lady, Vanessa cardui, photo taken today, November 29. Painted ladies are the most widely distributed butterfly species in the world, found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Some of them migrate long distances.

This one has lost a small portion of hindwing.

Another view of the same butterfly

Monday, November 28, 2005

Brief birdwalk on a too-windy day

The sky today was blue with more wind than birdwatchers like. I didn’t bring my camera. How do I describe this? Faint clouds of blackbirds pulsate in the distance like living iron filings. Then they’re gone. Now a bunch—cowbirds, I think—appear overhead, squint-focus into a throbbing disorder like amplified Brownian motion, then they turn back into a dissolving haze like the first bunch. They’re gone, swept up by some lines of remote and ancient force, and I am thinking the words fossil pollen. Not necessarily the right image. Close, though.

Under the wind a treeload of grackles startles outbound with a sound that is more than a sound, more like an undertow, or a giant flutter like roomful of moths or a pulse in the eardrum, or the fibrillation of a squadron of helicopters low overhead if you are deaf. (I never get tired to trying to describe this common event. Forgive self-plagiarism of previous posts.)

Now they’re gone, replaced by the rabbit stillness of a field full of heartbeats. A silence that rises like buttermilk in a jug paradoxically even as the wind rushes unvoiced consonants through increasingly leafless branches. Yellow cedar elm leaves depart their trees in unfurled banners for the winter.

A hawk circles over the trees. A red-tailed hawk. It’s gone. I’m back at my car.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Is New Orleans a glimpse of things to come?

I am not necessarily talking about global warming in my question. It could be earthquakes, it could be peak oil, it could be something completely unforeseen, an asteroid landing in Kansas (OK, an ID asteroid with a sense of irony). But what New Orleans is coming feel like to me is the feeling you have on those occasions when you wake up in the morning with a feeling that you have forgotten something important. (Then I remember: we had this huge disaster three months ago.) In that scant time, a growing TV-mediated memory hole has begun swallowing the very images the networks brought to us such a short time ago.

I guess the subtitle of this blog entry should be: Media as mnemoniphage. The daily news as brain-suckage. The public imagination as re-recordable media.

We saw it happen, and we--most of us--were horrified at the devastation, and furious at the paralyzed governmental response to it. Slowly, finally, people were rescued. People sent money, volunteered to help. Then the whole thing dropped out of sight.

The dispossessed and displaced went away.

Now, though, we have an unknown number of refugees--I am going to use that term, though it may upset some, because refugees is what they really are, and, like refugees the world over, they have essentially already been cast aside and forgotten--who are well on their way to becoming a permanent underclass. Or rather, well on their way to joining an enduring underclass we already have with the permanent homeless already living in the heart of the American Empire.

Just as an example, here in Austin, most of the Katrina victims are existing in cheap apartments on the outskirts of town, many of them a mile or two beyond the last stop on the bus route. And their rent runs out soon.

FEMA, busy spending the taxpayers' money on a giant welfare project to help out the stockholders of Halliburton, says, essentially, tough shit, folks, you're on your own. Get a job.

Some of them have. Most would like to. But many of them, as any honest Republican can see (my little joke, sorry), are not going to be able to do that.

It would be an interesting experiment to put your average Republican moralist in the same situation. Pay their rent for several months, but take away their cars and their drivers' licenses and burn any diplomas they might have gotten through the accident of having had parents who could help out with tuition.

Plus, throw away their computers and cell phones and electronic address books and move all their friends to secret locations. Deprive them of contact with their usual, um, support network and resources, which, though they imagine them to have been acquired by the sweat of their brow, are mirages which can be dispensed with as readily in our experiment as the associations and friendships and sources of help formed among people who really worked for a living and for whom the sweat of their brow was not a metaphor was ripped away in reality.

In other words, let them be reborn behind a version of Rawls's veil of ignorance, which was the philosopher's conceptual device for having us think about fairness--an imaginary world we create where we can make the world according to whatever ideology we wish, except that we will not know what our original position in it will be, where we will be born in it, what our education will be, what our abilities will be, what our sex will be--what kind of world would you like to see under those circumstances? An interesting question.

But to get back to the matter of our national forgetfulness: how does the memory hole work? Well part of the mechanism is obvious--the media have moved on to new stories: daily disasters never stop.

But as for the psychological mechanism--and I'm just guessing here--I think it works because of fear. (My subtitle above is misleading--the media doesn't do it to us, we do it to ourselves.) Americans can now visualize future disaster happening to them. To us. We don't wanna think about it. No one wants to confront an idea like a New Orleans happening to their neighborhood, or their town, or all the people they know--it's like confronting mortality, it's not in our comfort zone. But the fact of covering it up and forgetting about it is exactly what endangers us all, when disaster does happen again, and surely it will.

I wonder if the fear-response to New Orleans is a variant of the fear-response to 9/11? In both cases, the response has been ineffective and irrational. In one case we handed over the keys to the bus we are all riding in to a psychotic drunk driver. And in the other case, we are just trying to forget about it. Is fear the reason? I can't think of any other answer.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Saturday after Thanksgiving at Searight Park

After a hard rain last night, it turned out to be a beautiful day, 70 degrees and bright sunshine. So I drove a mile to Searight Park to enjoy the afternoon outdoors. I took a few photos.

Many people think we have no fall colors in Austin, but that's not true. Every once in a while you run across a local a tree or bush whose leaves turn at least a little bit red. Here are two kinds of sumac, one being poison ivy and the other a skunkbush sumac. The pointed leaves are the poison ivy.

A flameleaf sumac beside a juniper tree.

A small dam on Slaughter Creek, and (barely visible) either a flameleaf sumac, or else an oak locally called a "Spanish Oak", Q. Texana in the distance (I can't tell from the photo which it is--they both turn this color in the fall.)

Here I am sitting on a limestone ledge beside Slaughter Creek. My camera is propped up on a rock.

Junonia coenia or common buckeye butterfly, less faded than the one I had a photo of a few weeks ago. It has survived at least 2 or 3 mornings of freezing temperatures. I still have a surprising number of butterflies around my house, mostly small. This buckeye is a fairly big butterfly--a couple of inches from wingtip to wingtip.

Mourning dove. The bluish ring around the eye, usually hard to see, is easily visible (at least it is if you click to enlarge.)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Friday cat blogging

Once again these are yesterday's cats. Here Gray is unstraightening the Thanksgiving tablecloth before the people arrive.

Both cats enjoy rumpling this tablecloth

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving meal gatha

Traditionally, in Zen buddhism, before eating there is a short ceremony of untying the bowls you are going to eat from, which are which are wrapped in a cloth. This is called opening the Buddha's bowls.

Then, depending on which meal, and which Buddhist tradition, some verses like this (called a "gatha") are recited, and, ideally, reflected upon.
Seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us.
We should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
As we desire a natural harmony of mind, we should be free from greed.
We take this food to support our life
and to attain the Way.

First, this food is for Buddha, the Buddha's path, and the Buddha's community.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.

Thus we eat this food with everyone

We eat to stop evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings

And to accomplish our path.

I don't recite these verses aloud at Thanksgiving, because of the diversity of people we have over--I wouldn't want anyone to feel the discomfort I used to feel at elaborate mealtime prayers at the houses of people who were devout in a way I was not--but I silently go through this little series of thoughts. It's kind of like reflecting on a rosary.

And, very usefully, it encourages moderation in eating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Romans and Americans

Occasionally you run across a comparison, invariably unfavorable to both parties, between us, the postmodern Americans, and the ancient Romans. Usually the comparison is based on our decadence, or theirs, or our domination of the world, or theirs, or on their downfall, and the downfall we project, with very good reason, for ourselves.

When I was young I studied Latin some, and I was fascinated by how a sensibility in some ways absolutely familiar to me, and in other ways absolutely alien, existed in the same ancient writer or poet. For me, long ago, it was maybe my first experience of culture shock.

I liked the Latin love poets, especially Propertius. Translating them was almost impossible, though I tried--the combination of the strange and the familiar made for some beautiful stuff, but the juxtaposition was too weird to bring into English very successfully.

So, lately (one of the vices of retirement), I have been looking at some of my long-ago efforts at translation. My Latin vocabulary is long gone, and my grammar is fuzzy. But the impossible strangeness of what I "translated" remains. I once even tried to translate some philosophical poetry. Lucretius, on the nature of things; long, incredibly tedious, but with occasional flashes of a brilliant psychological insight. Technically, he was an epicurean, but temperamentally, like all Romans actually, he was a stoic. This hard, impenetrable pessimism is possibly the most alien thing about the Romans to me.

Anyway (as you might have feared, this is leading up to a translation, and--even worse--it's not a love poem), I found a segment of Lucretius which I tried to translate 35 years ago, a very famous passage on why death should not be feared. Now, somehow, it sounds like a very depressed and depressing Buddhism, but with this very odd stoic edge that I still like. (I am a Buddhist, and take my word for it, Lucretius is not at all Buddhistic when you get right down to it.)

I translated it as prose, of course--to try to make it into English verse would make it laughable.

Why you shouldn't be alarmed at death
--by Lucretius

Death is of no consequence, since the soul ends in the very state it begins in, and--just like in the time before we were born we felt no agony in the African wars when the world under the rim of heaven shook in the clash of arms, and no one could know whose reign they would live or die under--even so, when we exist no longer, and when body and soul combined in us now are cut apart, no evil then can happen to us.

When we are completely nonexistent there is no pain; even if earth is inundated or the sky falls or the world ends, it won’t matter to us. Even if some kind of awareness could remain after mind and body separate, that can be no concern of ours, for the Self is by nature the mind and body linked together. Nor would it matter if after death the eons reassembled our atoms and put them together as they are now, not even if the flame of life were rekindled, once the recollection of our past selves was interrupted.

When you look back through infinite expended time, the belief comes easy that the same atoms of which we are now made could have existed before in the same order and rank, since the movements of matter are endless. But we could never bring our present selves to mind again, for there was a pause of life, and the atoms wandered and danced far from our senses.

And to be in pain and anguish in some future time your self has to exist again, and death forbids it. Harm cannot befall any man dead. Know, therefore, that there is nothing to fear in Death, for a man who does not exist is not miserable. You can no more suffer in your future nonexistence, once immortal Death rips your life away, than you did before your birth.

Suppose you meet someone who claims to know we die, but who also is sad that when he dies they will bury his corpse and he will rot, or wild animals will gnaw his flesh, or funeral fires will turn his bones to ash—this unfortunate man really doesn’t understand he will die at all: thus the anguish in his heart.

Not truly realizing he will die, he imagines himself on the other side of death and persists in thinking himself somehow alive in that future day when the carrion birds and the wild animals claw at his corpse, and he is sorry for himself. He imagines he stands beside his own dead body and somehow feels its pain. He is upset that he was made so as to die, and does not see that in true death, there is no other self to stand by and mourn the self that is perished, or feel the funeral fire burn up his abandoned body.

Men often take their places at banquet, faces darkened under wreaths, and grasp their cups and spill these words from the soul: "Our joy is short and soon gone, and once gone it will never come back. No longer will you delight in coming home to the best of wives, your lovely children running to you with kisses, touching your heart with sweetness. What is now yours will be taken from you. One evil day plunders these flowers of your life." But they do not add: "Nor will you ever more desire any of these things."

This reminds me very much of a similar argument on the same matter by Sigmund Freud. But Freud lacked the rolling cadences and the archaic sensibility of Lucretius.

And of course it goes without saying that we Americans are not at all like Romans.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Vultures (no, not a political post)

Sunday I posted a photo of a distant vulture on his evening roost. Today I stopped beside an abandoned farmhouse on Nuckles Crossing Road where these turkey vultures were enjoying the sun on the roof ridge.

Not approving my intrusion, they spread their wings and prepared to leave

and here's one in the air

...and here's another

...and then they're gone

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sunday at McKinney Falls in Austin

For the most part it was cloudy and not the best day for birdwatching at McKinney Falls State Park, but, as always, there were things to see and a few things to take pictures of. I wish the light could have been better for the armadillo, but hey...

A junco in the grapevines

A Yellow rumped warbler in an oak tree

An armadillo notices my presence...

...and makes a break for it

Turkey vulture settles onto his evening roost

End of the day at the park

(click on photos to enlarge)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Saturday backyard wildlife

Phaon crescent butterfly, Phyciodes phaon. My rosemary plant, a big out-of-control shrub which I never water or pay attention to which has taken over 8 feet of flower bed on the south side of the house under a regimen of total neglect, is still flowering after 2 freezes and it seems to be the place to be in the lepidoptera community. All the butterflies I took pictures of earlier in the week were here, and today this crescent showed up, along with a large orange sulfur who does not photograph well and a bunch of brown skippers.
(Click to enlarge)

And here is what we call a yellow jacket, Polistes exclamans. The exclamans part is correct. Usually if one stings you, several others do too, because you have disturbed their nest. Out by themselves like this, they will normally never bother you. The exception is summer day picnics, where sometimes they get territorial about your Coca Cola and will try to take it over. In that case I recommend abandoning the Coke, which is not that good for you anyway.

A bird in the bush. A cardinal, of course. They are one of the more common species around here, but I have found them surprisingly hard to photograph. Most of the year they skulk in the underbrush.

Friday, November 18, 2005

We will be greeted as liberators

The Bush Administration seems to have decided that the key to recovering their lost popularity is a "push back" consisting, among other things, of accusations that those who now oppose the Iraq war are trying to rewrite history. Dick Cheney promised that he would throw the revisionists' words back at them.

Presumably he was talking about the words of the cowardly Democrats who voted for the Iraq War, who more than deserve to have their words thrown back at them IMO. But those who live in glass houses, like Dick Cheney...

Dick Cheney, about three days before the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, said, "We believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." Now this is a serious charge. It is hard to know what the mystery word "reconstituted" here was supposed to mean, but whatever Cheney meant by it, it is an adjective modifying the term "nuclear weapons," whose meaning Mr. Cheney's intended audience, the public, could be relied upon to understand. I certainly understood what he meant. Didn't you?

(Unlike the cowardly senate Democrats, I didn't pretend to believe him, not having lost the ability to ask myself the important question, "would we _really_ undertake a ground invasion of a country we knew to have nuclear weapons, like, say, North Korea?" Seemed to me, at the time, that the answer would be "no." The invasion preparations themselves seemed to indicate that claim was a deliberate lie. As indeed, in retrospect, it surely was. But I digress.)

In any case, in hindsight, in the light of facts now recognized by everybody in the known universe, Big Dick seems to have been caught in a major untruth. There were no nuclear weapons, reconstituted or otherwise. Bad intelligence? Well, if so, Mr. Cheney continued to get lots of it.

Dick Cheney claimed, as late as Oct. 10, 2003, long after everyone knew this charge was false, that Saddam Hussein had "an established relationship" with al Qaeda, and said that Iraq had trained al Qaeda in bomb-making and the manufacture of poison gas.

In fact he had been marketing his cherished Atta-Saddam connection since late 2001, when he said that the Atta-in-Prague story was "pretty well confirmed." The inconvenience that everyone who investigated the Atta-Saddam story found no evidence for it did not stop Cheney at all. Even as late as 2004 Cheney continued to insist that Iraq and Al Qaeda were connected, again using his favored phrase that they had an "established relationship."

For all I know he is still claiming it, even as the big Bush glass house shatters around him.

Cheney's English, like Republican English in general, has become a kind of Orwellian inversion of normal language, a Satanic record played backwards.

"WMD's exist" means they don't exist. War is peace. Up is down. Black is white. Clear cutting forests for pulpwood is a "healthy forest" initiative. Grandfathering antiquated, substandard coal-fired power plants so they can continue to billow out acid smoke is a "clean air" initiative. Selling our public lands at orders of magnitude below market value is "budgetary responsibility", the same responsibility that brought us, and continues to bring us, enormous debt thanks to tax giveaways to billionaires and publicly funded bribes in the form of bridges to uninhabited islands given to thinly populated Republican states with important Senate seats.

Republicans like John Cornyn, voting against casinos in his state as a favor to casino operators in another state, after having received a great honking campaign contribution as an incentive to do so from the Christian middleman between him and Jack Abramoff, its source, call it "voting your conscience." I am willing to bet Ralph Reed calls being the middleman for Jack Abramoff's bribes an exercise in "Christian family values."

Destroying the Front Range and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to provide a few more drops of oil for Republican Hummers is called an "energy initiative."

You'd think getting cut by the falling glass of Abu Ghraib would deter a serial liar like George Bush from ever lying again. But you'd be wrong. Serial lying is hard to cure. When Mr. Bush gives a speech in which he says "we do not torture," he actually means, in Republicanspeak, "of course we torture, and in fact the whole world knows it, and we are gonna keep doing it."

Once you realize that they say the opposite of what they mean, and they do it _really consistently_, it gets a lot easier to read the newspaper.

"We will be greeted as liberators."

Friday cat blogging

These are actually Thursday's cats, but today's uploads.

Gray looking mysterious in a shaft of morning light

Grendel crouched by the wood stove on the back porch

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Checkered whites, and checkered skippers

We had a freeze in my part of Travis County last night, and I was curious if butterflies would be around today. They were. I saw a beautiful red admiral, but he left before I could take his picture. The emperors and question marks seem to be gone. But there were several tiny sulphurs and metalmarks around the rosemary bush, as well as these two species below that I managed to get photos of.

A pair of checkered whites on my rosemary bush. The female has heavier patterning. Pontia protodice

A pyrgus species, probably Pyrgus oelius, the tropical checkered skipper. It could also be a white checkered skipper or a desert checkered skipper, but from the available photos on the web, I'm guessing the tropical. All 3 species are found in Austin.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

New Mexico landscapes, with only a little context

My slow scanning of old slides and negatives continues. Every once in a while I find a picture that has some emotional resonance with me, and I try to figure out if it is because of memories it brings back, or because of something intrinsic to the photos themselves. Often it's hard to decide. In this case, I think I just like the pictures. I don't have a specific memory of taking them. One is a grainy photo of a southern New Mexico camposanto, quite different from Mexican graveyards in Texas that I wrote about, and showed pictures of, a couple of months ago. This is very New Mexico, and very stark. You can almost hear the crunch of the coarse sand under your shoes.

The other is labeled as being near Glenwood. Like I said, I don't remember taking it, but I remember the trip. We had been camping out, Kay and Eve and I, not roughing it exactly, maybe eating breakfast in camp before moving on, but more often driving to the nearest town and eating in a local cafe. Hearty American slow-food breakfasts, cooked while you wait a long time and some smoke emerges from the kitchen when the foodserver comes through the swinging doors with your bacon and eggs and toast.

I remember one place where the waiter was also the owner, a little guy wearing red suspenders and an enormous cowboy hat with a feather in it, shirt buttoned at the neck, pants tucked into his tall ornately tooled boots. Mustache. He said he had been a working cowboy all his life, before he decided to invest whatever life savings he had and buy this place. He gave us a card saying he and his wife did a comedy act. I don't remember anything comic, though. He chewed tobacco and was very polite. There were two dogs in the dining room, which had an enormous window looking out across at a cliff across the river. I asked what the dogs were named. The smaller dog, who was clearly the dog in charge, became very suspicious when I spoke his name, backed away stiff-legged and went outside.

I remember near Silver City on the way to Glenwood, Kay became upset, I don't remember about what, and impulsively threw her ice-cream cone out the window as an expression of her discontent The gesture did not come off as planned; the cone and its contents separated such that the empty cone went all the way out the window as intended, but the ice-cream glob had more inertia I guess, and didn't quite make it out but was grabbed by the wind so that half of it went into the back seat where Eve was reading and the other half went out and sort of splatter-painted the outside of the car and the back windows on that side. This ruined Kay's dramatic gesture. It somehow became comic. Later in the trip, a mime-reenactment of it might occur whenever anyone started complaining about anything. Which we found funny; trips do this to people. We did not have cards printed up when we got home, though.

I have notes describing a Blue Front Cafe and Bar that I am pretty sure was somewhere in that part of New Mexico. The bar portion of the place was nearest the entrance, a poolroom was in middle, and a small restaurant in back. When we came in to eat dinner there was one slightly fat, fiftiesh hippie, earring in left ear, cigar in mouth, long gray ponytail, playing pool. A craggy rancher came in and joined his game after we were seated, with real a cowboy strut, accentuated by very tight Levis and possibly by arthritis--highly stylized, you might say.

Young men sitting more or less mute at the bar had multi-day beards. An ultra-grizzled, deranged looking 30 year old guy who in Austin would be considered a streetperson by his appearance, came into the restaurant and ate alone. A hispanic guy with a bemused expression probably the product of alcohol or mota, or both, called to the grizzled guy asking if he had been fishing. Yeah. Hispanic guy went over to confer about the fishing. The waitress was a nice looking 45 year old. Also wore tight blue jeans which in her case accentuated her figure, not her mannered walk. She was very chatty, but I didn't write down what we talked about. The food was good.

Anyway, somewhere near that bar and poolhall, if not right out the door, it looked very much like this.

(click on photos to enlarge)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Birds against the sky

A cold front blew through Austin today, with clouds and wind. Saw lots of birds out flying in the wind (robins are back, by the hundreds), but they were mostly dark against the clouds, and hard to take pictures of--silhouettes against clouds or sky.

This robin was twisting in the air directly overhead

A crow rowing against the wind

A red tail hawk gliding away after the weather had cleared a little

(click to enlarge images)

Getting your terrorism priorities straight

From the Science Daily blog, I have found that the FBI, galvanized by new opportunities to investigate citizens brought to them by recent events, is actively investigating terrorism--by animal rights activists.

Naturally, the FBI is getting the full cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry.

National Association of Biomedical Research, a group funded by big pharma, maintains a database of "terrorist" actions committed by animal rights extremists. So far this year, the database includes 57 instances of terrorism. They range from "filling out magazine subscription cards for executives of companies that do business with Huntingdon [an animal testing firm] to spray painting and vandalizing homes of pharmaceutical executives to stealing research animals."

Well, these actions are very reprehensible. Moreover, one animal rights nut case, Jerry Vlasak, has reportedly said it would be justifiable to kill animal-testing researchers, if they cannot be stopped any other way. Even more reprehensible.

The problem, however, as I see it, is the misuse of the word "terrorism" here, for purposes having nothing to do with protecting the public from suicide bombers. What we have instead is an instance of the Bush administration and industry propagandists using a convenient scare word to advance their own parochial goals, and in the process fucking over our freedoms, as well as skewing a rational response to _real_ terrorism. (Imagine that, one could say, with heavy irony.)

By real terrorism, I mean things like the deliberate, politically-motivated killing of large numbers of civilians to incite, well, "terror"--as opposed to imaginary terrorism, such as: the spray painting of drug company executives' houses, and subscribing chimp-research magnates to unwanted magazines. Calling the release of laboratory rats terrorism is not only a stretch, it is one with somber implications, if we look at the remedies proposed by the victims of this, um, terrorism.

The pharmaceutical industry is seeking to get our conspiracy laws broadened so the government can prosecute activists who "target individual employees or attempt to damage a company financially." Like, sending a protest email to a large retail chain complaining about a druggist who works for them refusing to fill a Plan B prescription? Like organizing a boycott of Walmart? Well, we would certainly find out, if such laws were passed.

This ongoing willingness to destroy established civil liberties, on the basis of patently insufficient reasons, unsurprisingly does not seem to be confined to business interests. The present government of this country is more than willing to carry water for these bean-counter totalitarians. John Lewis, deputy assistant director for counter-terrorism at the FBI, has gone before congress to campaign for such laws. Maybe it really the other way around: the bean-counter totalitarians are more than willing to carry water for the heavy hitters in the totalitarian thuggery department: the government that brought us Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and a string of secret torture prisons around the world.

So. Boycott Target. Go to jail.

Thankfully, civil liberties concerns have so far kept these laws from being passed. So, keep your fingers crossed. (If I said keep your powder dry, I'd likely get a humorless visit from the FBI. Keep your figures of speech low-profile.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fall in Austin--Sunday butterflies

Hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) distinguished from the very similar tawny emperor by the eyespots on the forewing.

Question mark butterfly, Polygonia interrogationis

Both butterflies seemed interested in the moisture in the fissures in the bark of this Arizona ash in my yard

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Chagra update, of interest to my mystery readers

Somewhat to my surprise, the most popular post I have ever written, since I started this blog, was this one about Lee, Jimmy, and Vivian Chagra--mostly about Vivian. The post was nominally about Senator John Cornyn's seeming approval of the killing of judges, but really it was just a few words about the Chagras, from the perspective of my wife and I having been good friends with Vivian.

I have no idea why I keep getting hits on this. I think there may be a persistent interest in Jimmy and Lee--maybe they are becoming part of America's folk legends of larger-than-life outlaws. I read somewhere that Jimmy is out of prison now, and part of the witness protection program. Maybe people are looking for his whereabouts. Who knows?

But I recently found a wonderful photo of Vivian, in which you can see her beauty, which had become somewhat careworn and haggard--it was a year or two before it was discovered she had terminal cancer--and in which you can see her remarkable strength of character. Or at least I can.

So here is the photo. I have updated the original post with a link here so interested readers can see it.

Vivian Chagra, in about 1984 (click on image for larger view)

Note on the comments: The two entries I have on the Chagras have gotten more comments than any others on this blog. Unfortunately Haloscan, the free commenting utility I unwisely chose when I started this blog, is going out of business. Thus the comments will probably disappear at some point in the next few weeks. (New comments will supposedly be possible using the native Blogger comment utility, but the old comments will go away.) Please be assured that I am not eradicating the comments myself. On the contrary I thought the ongoing comments, sometimes approaching a conversation, were fascinating, and I have enjoyed having them here. I am sorry they are going to be taken down.

One way of looking at a grackle

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

--Wallace Stevens, the fifth of 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

The poet was perhaps thinking of the quiet inflections of a few redwings in a Connecticut marsh. Austin blackbirds score low in the innuendo department. Our main blackbird is the grackle.

Grackle, feeding. (Click for larger image.)

What! Are you lookin' at me?

Well, it doesn't bother me, pal.

These are photos of the great tailed grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus, taken in my back yard. These grackles, maybe the most spectacular of American blackbirds, make themselves quite at home wherever they go, regarding humans perhaps as a necessary nuisance in the conduct of their busy and noisy lifestyle, little knowing that we have actually provided them with the noise and chaos they enjoy so much. They prosper with urbanism and are supremely adapted to Austin's worst drabscapes where they congregate, excited and raucous, in enormous roosts in the evening in trees in the dreary stripmalls beside I-35, on poles and in trees over all-nite gas stations, and (in this case considered a nuisance) in the trees of the University of Texas. They like crowds and clamor, wherever they find it, whether produced by the traffic on I-35, or by 48,000 university students on a busy campus.

During the day they disperse to forage, and frequently land in my yard. Every once in a while, they'll decide to roost in trees in my neighborhood, but you can tell their hearts aren't really in it. Too rural. Plus, people will get out and throw rocks at them, to keep the birds from shitting all over their cars, and eventually the grackles will say, collectively, it's too quiet and the monkeys are throwing rocks at us, and they lift off all together at once with a huge fluttery low-frequency rumble, in the direction of the freeway.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Patriotic gore

Veteran's Day, like Memorial Day, seems to be primarily a moment for opportunistic politicians to wrap themselves and their agendas inside the flag and make reality-challenged testosterone-soaked speeches from podiums decked in bunting, and in these speeches claim, as they have always claimed and always will claim, that our cause is pure and our warriors noble, and that anyone who disagrees is in league with our enemies.

Mr Bush's speech today, as is his wont, was delivered to a guaranteed non-heckling audience, inside a military warehouse at Tobyhanna Army Depot in northeast Pennsylvania, to a crowd of of soldiers who are subject to his orders and who are no more going to boo the son of a bitch than I would have jeered the Commanding General of Ft. Polk when I was in basic training there in 1965.

Soldiers, unlike the current president, do have a practical grasp of cause and effect.

Veteran's day started out as Armistice Day. People were happy that the Great War was over. But it has devolved into a glorification of any and all American wars, whatever War we have fought or will fight, America's once and future War, disguised as a tribute to our soldiers.

Why don't we have a few honest words on Veteran's Day, or Memorial Day, or on the Fourth of July? Words that point out truly that war is a terrible and evil business that debases the country that engages in it, and brutalizes its footsoldiers. There is nothing glorious about it.

If some wars can be considered--in the abstract--as "just" and necessary, even those wars, in the actual fighting of them, are cruel and cause enormous harm to--perhaps--do marginally greater good. They should not be undertaken lightly, and should never be entered into on the basis of deceit. Surely the Gulf of Tonkin, and the fictional WMDs of Iraq, would today be the subject of hundreds of cautionary speeches, if we had patriotic holidays where truth was given the time of day.

Bush was a far less honorable and decent young man than most of those who got drafted and shipped to Vietnam, but he did share one very human trait with them: his desire not to get killed. And we don't know what would have happened if he had gone to Vietnam--he might have come back a better man, and America might be a better place as a consequence, or he might have come back, after dropping a few bombs on a few "targets," as a person just as insensate as he was as a boy blowing up frogs in Midland. He might have come back a person as Machiavellian he is today, when he used his bully's pulpit as you would expect: to attack the patriotism of those who caught him in his lies. Or he might have come back in a box, thanks to Lyndon Johnson's and Robert McNamara's delusions and falsehoods. You never know.

What we do know, and should say in our speeches on Veteran's Day, is that soldiers are the victims of wars--the designated victims, in fact. The so-called laws of war, intermittently and poorly observed as they may be, prohibit the deliberate killing of civilians. To deliberately kill soldiers, however, is what war is all about: the central fact of war. And we train soldiers to reverse our normal human instincts. If you see someone drowning, you would throw him a rope, not try to kill him. Military basic training is designed to change that.

I am not patriotic. Not as it is defined by our, um, leaders. We have done great harm to a huge number of people we have outfitted with uniforms and trained to feel OK about killing other people. We harm them when they come back in coffins, or come back maimed. And we harm them when they kill our enemies and they come back feeling OK with that. And we harm them when they kill our enemies and come back and don't feel OK with that.

Veteran's day should be a day of mourning and contrition.

I guess that's my Veteran's Day speech.

Friday cat, dog, and butterfly blogging

Grendel enjoying his favorite chair

Bella enjoying sitting in the weeds

A monarch butterfly on a dead juniper twig

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What is the worst place in Texas to be gay?

What would be the worst place in Texas for a gay person to live?

The correct answer would be "anywhere," with the exception, which I will get to in a moment, of Austin.

But, to narrow it down a little, yesterday's gay-marriage-ban vote in Texas may give us an actual locality.

From the figures in front of me, I'd have to say that whatever that place in Texas is, it is also very much in the running for the worst place in the world for a gay person to live, outside of the tribal areas of Pakistan.

In yesterday's vote, the people of Texas decisively amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage and anything that might resemble gay marriage. The vague terminology will no doubt play out in the courts, but I am not optimistic that it will play out in a way conformable with human civilization. Though in a certain sense it makes no difference, since gay marriage was already against the law. But we had not made that prohibition part of the constitution until yesterday.

The figures I am looking at are astonishing for people decently brought up, or who live in the civilized world. Seventy six percent of Texans voted _for_ the ban. Can you believe it? I had expected the ban to pass, but the extent of Texan moral retrogression, as reflected in this outpouring of homophobic venom, was surprising even to me, and I was brought up in this goddamn place.

The _only_ city in Texas to vote against the ban was, of course, Austin, my home, by sixty percent, which would be an impressive majority in most local votes, though it pales in comparison with the statewide results going the other way that I just mentioned. Now if we could just find a way to make Austin part of a nice little New England state...

So to get back to the question, what actually is the worst place? First of all, I guess it depends on what you mean by "place." Texas election results are by county, and many Texas counties consist of a few ranches or farms arbitrarily surrounded by a county boundary. The average drilling rig in the gulf of Mexico has more inhabitants than some of these counties.

But nonetheless, it seems clear the very worst place in Texas to be gay would be Martin County, a few miles north of Midland, President Bush's boyhood home. Martin County voted to ban gay marriage by a margin of 95.41 percent for the ban, 4.59 percent against. _Ninety five_ percent. Jesus fucking Christ. All I can say is that those 4.59 percent are gutsy folks. The next worst place would be Floyd County, (differing by only a tenth of a percent from Martin Country). Floyd County is also in West Texas.

The worst actual _town_ in Texas to be gay would be basically a tie between Longview in East Texas, over near Shreveport, and Midland, which, as I mentioned, and will mention again, is where George Bush spent his formative years, perhaps acquiring his views on gay marriage from his neighbors, along with his opinions on torture from his childhood chums as they blew up frogs with firecrackers. Midland is in West Texas.

The only ray of sunshine here is that younger Texans are far less homophobic than older ones. So, though I doubt if I will live long enough to see this ban go the way of laws against miscegenation, I have some hope that my daughter will.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Walk at McKinney Falls

McKinney Falls is a state park a few miles from my house. I was originally going to call this "Birdwalk at McKinney Falls," but I realized I had taken only one picture of a bird. I got there in the afternoon and there were few birds out, but the walk was enjoyable nonetheless. The baldcypress trees in the creek are having their moment of autumn color--imagine a deciduous fir tree with autumn-maple-leaf colors in the fall, at least in some years. Some years they just turn brown and the needles fall off, but this year they are a nice red and orange. The splash of color above these kids playing in the creek is a glimpse of cypress branch just starting to turn. The photo was taken from the so-called Smith Rock Shelter, a limestone overhang above Onion Creek which, according to archaeologists, was inhabited from 500 AD until the mid 1700s. The vantage point of the photo was the oldest dwelling in Austin, in other words.

Some other photos of the day:

Wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) leaves in the sun, framed by a cedar elm trunk. These plants are also called hoptrees in some parts of the country, and in other places they are called skunkbushes--the leaves have a smell somewhere between skunk and crushed orange peels.

A few days ago I put up a photo of a buckeye (butterfly). Here is a buckeye (plant) seedpod splitting open. This is a red buckeye, Aesculus pavia.

Another buckeye pod

And another

A fall aster (I don't know what species) somewhat the worse for wear, by the Smith Rock Shelter.

A crow, going away.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Another outraged email to Senator Cornyn

Prefatory note: All I wanted to do was send a fax to both my senators expressing my dismay with the prescription drug "benefit" that I, soon to become 65, will be forced to deal with in the next few months.
John Cornyn, the more obnoxious of my two senators, who combines the arrogance once found only in Prussian junker aristocracy with social views well to the right of Otto von Bismarck, tries to make it as difficult as possible for a constituent to contact him. His fax was busy. His fax, in my experience, is always busy.
So, next I try to email him. His email form, even more complicated now than the last time I gave his office my input, demands that I provide a phone number, and pick from a list of 40 or so options as to what kind of street (road, lane, trail, footpath, etc) I live on. Clearly he hopes I will give up and go away.

But, being retired and persistent, I did not.

And, having a blog, albeit a low-traffic one, I will greatly multiply the number of readers (maybe by 2 or 3) of this missive to Senator Cornyn, which would otherwise be restricted to one senate intern, at best.


Dear Senator Cornyn:

I am 3 months away from turning 65. I am writing to protest the unbelievable and essentially incomprehensible Medicare drug "benefit" passed by Congress a year or so ago.

I have discovered that, in practice, I would need both a lawyer and an MBA specialist in cost-benefit analysis to make any kind of rational decision on how to navigate through this hideous maze.

It is awful.

It is incomprehensible.

You should see the mail I am receiving from companies anxious to take my money as part of this supposed "benefit." The information I get is contradictory, insanely complicated, and I have NO IDEA WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. Neither does anyone else in my situation.

This makes me really angry, and I certainly consider you, as well as the other senator from Texas, to be personally responsible for it.

You and your senatorial colleagues have _very_ generous lifetime pensions, not to mention lifetime medical care, provided by the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, we, the taxpayers, get this "BENEFIT" that is anything but a benefit--it fact it is a disgrace and an outrage.

And I am outraged.


Jim McCulloch

P.S. Also, your email form gets more and more obnoxious. Is it your way of saying screw you to your constituents, especially those of us who do not wish to be categorized as Mister or Mistress or Right Reverend, or the Honorable Grand Wizard, and who moreover do not wish to offload our phone numbers into Republican phone banks?

REQUIRING our phone numbers? No thanks.

And when you say screw you to your constituents, one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, they will say it to you in return.

P.P.S. And just why in the HELL do you demand that I scroll through dozens of options to select "Road" as a separate part of my address, in your incredibly detailed list of options (kind of like the alleged drug benefit) for the kind of byway one lives on, rather than just TYPE IT IN? Are you crazy? Are you just trying to make it as difficult as humanly possible for anyone other than a lobbyist like Jack Abramoff (who probably has your personal pager anyway) to contact you?

Please explain.

Yes, I know. Republicans never explain. It seems to be point of honor amongst you, and I understand it also helps avoid indictments.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Why vote?

Today's New York Times Magazine has a disappointing piece by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt entitled "Why Vote?" The writers seem to be economists, or at least they approach the question like economists, and as far as I can tell they conclude that there are no good reasons for a rational person to participate in elections. A rational person knows that his or her vote makes no difference.

The definitive refutation of this viewpoint, which is mentioned in the article and called the "slippery slope" argument is simply dismissed. That, of course, is the obvious fact that if everybody acted as a "rational" person there would be zero participation in elections.

So really they are talking about the assumed New York Times reader's self interest here--is there any reason for me to get off my ass and go stand in line on election day?--not about whether it would be a good thing if everybody acted with self-interest questions in mind.

The standpoint of the writers is that of course elections will continue to be held, but you and I, being smart people, readers of the New York Times, might as well stay home. At best, if we live in a Swiss village, we might rationally vote just to be seen at the polls and to be able to wear a little "I voted" lapel sticker and thus gain the esteem of our fellow villagers. They actually say something like this.

But the article title "why vote?" raised some issues in my own mind, which I was disappointed the authors did not address.

As I said, they did mention, and give short shrift to, the most literal answer, which is that if we don't vote there will be no elections.

But if we are being rational, why stop here? Why even have elections? I don't mean doing away with democracy, but rather, why not do this scientifically, with well-designed polls?

(I will say at the outset I am opposed to this, but in thinking about it I clarified something of my own view as to the real reason we have elections.)

Pollsters go to great lengths to select their samples accurately, and if their goal were to represent an accurate cross-section of the population in their poll, they would do a far better job of it than we presently do by holding a national election. Elections select for certain kinds of voters in a very unrepresentative way and give those people an excessively large say in public affairs.

This is not at all democratic, when you think about it. To take one example of many, and a very obvious one: angry voters are given more of a say in public affairs than people who are not angry. Likewise, individuals crazed with certainty are given more weight in public decision making than thoughtful but uncertain people. It's hard (self-servingly or not) for a thoughtful person to argue that this is altogether a good thing.

So if we want representative democracy, a scientific poll (ignoring the important question of who determines the sampling procedures and makes sure that they are in fact scientific) will give us better answers on issues and candidates.

The problem is that we--the public--are all of us very well aware that poll results have a range of error, and that they change over time. Such awareness weakens public confidence in their results--as well they should.

So I realized that my own view of "why vote" is that voting is ceremony of civic religion, one that confers on all of us a sense that our government is legitimate. It is an all-important rite of validation. Although a scientific poll is far more accurate as measurement of public sentiment, I don't see any way we could ever come to think of poll results the way we think of election results.

Polls would never give us that sense that we have all decided that candidate Smith or candidate Fulano is legitimately our representative for four years.

So, in short, I think voting is our method of being able to believe in our government.

Part of the reason (only one of many, obviously) that I despise what Republicans are doing, is that they are destroying--for everyone--the sense that elections confer legitimacy. In their drive to win at all costs, like we see in the Florida recount or their Texas gerrymandering, they do win, at least in the short term, but at the cost of the rest of us accepting the legitimacy of government.

This can't be a good thing.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The look of fall in southeast Austin

A horse trail in the afternoon.

Fallen mustang grape leaves underfoot

Bumblebee on a frostweed

Closeup of a frostweed without the bumblebee

Junonia coenia or common buckeye butterfly

Crossroads on the horse trail

Sycamore leaves against the sky