Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday photo miscellany

A checkered setwing on a barbed-wire fence near Buda, Texas

A halloween pennant near the Hornsby Bend sewage treatment plant

A swift setwing at dusk in an Austin park

Another swift setwing--they get a darker coloration as they get older

A snowy egret in Onion creek

(click photos for larger view)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Jill Greenberg and the boundaries of art

A month or so ago a blogger writing under the pen name of Thomas Hawk complained, in his blog, about the well-known photographer Jill Greenberg putting up a photo exhibit of small children, all sobbing. According to Hawk, they had been induced to cry by Greenberg herself, who would offer the children--who all seem to be about 3 years old--something they wanted, like a lollipop, and then would take it away.

"The children I photographed were not harmed in any way," said Greenberg. If the lollipop business is true, that would be something of an equivocation.

The photos sell for several thousand bucks a print, and, on the walls of those who can afford such reminders, illustrate the tragedy of the human condition and the peril facing future generations through religious fundamentalism, to summarize to the art-talk press release of the gallery showing them. Hmm.

Hawk said it was abusive and wrong. I tend to agree with Hawk on that. He also said that he thought Greenberg should be arrested for child abuse. I am not sure it rises to that level.

You can see the exhibit here, if you wish, at least for the moment.

But now, it seems, Greenberg and husband are trying to shut Hawk up by contacting his employer, trying to get him fired, and also threatening to sue for libel. You'd think if they are calloused enough to play somewhat cruel tricks on small children for money, or art, that they wouldn't be so thin-skinned. But I guess you would be mistaken.

It's interesting that the apologiae for Greenberg in the comments to Hawk's original post all resort implicitly to the the romantic cult of the artist as Nietzschean ubermensch. Strange that this (you'd think) archaic religious system has survived intact, in all the arts, from the late 19th century through modernism and whatever chapter and verse of post-postmodernism we are living through now. Its persistence probably deserves some sort of attention.

The problem for Art is that It gets harder and harder to throw off the shackles of bourgeois convention. Short of non-ritual cannibalism or deliberately making small children cry to take photos allegedly representing the sorrow of our times, it can't be done.

And sometimes throwing off the shackles doesn't work the way you expect.

Once, many years ago, Kay and I went to a reading of a short story by a serious young writer. A friend of the writer had urged us to go.

Anna was about 9 years old. We didn't have a baby sitter, but Anna was always quiet and amused herself when taken to grown-up places. She had a couple of her cherished Tin Tin books. We went in and sat down, and Anna began reading one of her books, and was lost to the world.

The writer was an intense, goateed, kinda scrawny starving-artist looking guy with thick glasses, overcompensating perhaps for his Woody Allen stature by shaving his head and wearing motorcycle boots. I vaguely remember a tatoo.

He looked out over the audience and scowled. He began reading. It quickly dawned on Kay and me that his story was an elaborate, and hopefully completely fictional, account of a sadistic rape and murder he imagined himself committing. It involved kidnapping, bondage, torture, disembowelment, and blood, prior to the execution.

As he read, he began exhibiting facial tics and showing signs of great distress, pausing occasionally, to scowl especially fiercely at Anna, who was oblivious to this, and at Kay and me. Both of us at that point considered getting up and leaving, taking Anna out. But, I thought, she's completely unconscious of the reading. It would be disruptive, and perhaps embarrassing to the writer. Such was my thinking. Kay apparently thought something similar. Maybe we looked at each other and shrugged. I don't remember now.

But I do remember that the writer's forehead broke out in sweat, as he was describing some gruesome act of defiance of bourgeois convention, which I somehow imagined he would have read boldly and with provocative fervor before another audience.

His voice rose in pitch and would break occasionally.

He halted several times, glaring in our general direction, though with the thickness of his glasses, I obtusely imagined at the time that he might just be overcome with the emotion of reading, and simply pausing to peer around his audience.

But it became clear that it was us.

Finally, he slammed his notebook shut, shouted in a sort of anguish, "I can't do this here! With _her_ in the audience," pointing at Anna, and stalked out in a great fury.

Anna was still completely absorbed in her book, and knew nothing of it.

So we all got up and left.

(This blog entry is an expansion and digression on a brief comment I made to Idyllopus's post on the same subject at Meanwhile back at the ranch.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

You don't find these often

A blue-bell gentian, Eustoma grandiflorum

(click to enlarge)

These summer flowers are spectacular and uncommon. I found this one growing by the banks of Onion Creek. This flower is about 2 1/2 inches across and there were several flowers on the plant. The plants are about 2 feet tall. It is one of our wildflowers that should find its way into people's gardens, but I have never seen one in a domestic setting. I gathered a few seeds once years ago with the intention of trying to grow them, but I must not have cared for them properly, because they did not sprout.

Though I only run across a few every summer, they are not as far as I know endangered, and are a pleasure to find in the wild.


A quick google search tells me that they are in fact found in the horticulture trade. That's probably a good thing, because, unlike some cactuses, people don't dig these up in the wild to domesticate them. They are a native flower of the southern plains, and their uncommonness probably is due to their preference for moist environments, had to come by around here, certainly.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Some Saturday dragonflies

All these photos were taken at McKinney Falls State Park near Austin. The third photo below may not be for the squeamish.

Spot-winged glider, Pantala hymenaea

Red Saddlebags, Tramea onusta

Widow skimmer eating a cicada, starting with the head.

Click any photo to enlarge

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The devotional impulse

I was looking up something to do with Buddhism and somehow ended up reading a "web presentation" of a poem by Gary Snyder called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais, where a group of superannuated hippies and some younger people led by Snyder were photographed in 1996 as they stopped at various places on a trail that apparently had been made all the way around the mountain, pausing, as if at stations of the cross, to chant things like the Heart Sutra and the Dharani of Good Fortune to Turn away Calamity, in the process of a day-long trek. The photos accompanied the text of the poem.

Walking around a stupa or sacred mountain or some other holy place is a common devotional and meditational practice in Buddhist Asia.

I like Snyder's poetry well enough, and for whatever reason seeing these pictures of Snyder jogged my memory of a time long ago, maybe 1977, when Gary Snyder stood in our kitchen in El Paso waving a wineglass in one hand and a tortilla chip in the other singing "the workers' flag is deepest red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead...though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, (fortissimo) we'll keep the red flag flying here," to the tune of Tannenbaum.

He had been invited to El Paso to give some sort of talk, and ended up in our house for a reception that had been arranged there--perhaps because it was thought he would like the photos of Native American rock art that decorated our walls. Kay was an anthropologist and taught courses on Indians. I can't think of any other connection. (We had lots of Mexican masks and and a huge ornate canvas rubbing of a northwest coast petroglyph. "He'll like your house," the arranger of things said to Kay, or something like that. After all these years I am unclear on such details.)

Snyder turned out to be a very personable and outgoing guy, enjoyable to have over for wine, tortilla chips, and conversation, and did not recite any poetry or talk about Turtle Island or Buddhism or Japan; instead after he arrived, looking as we expected with a beard and wearing a red hippie bandana tied around his head, and gasshoing reflexively to a Buddha statue on the mantle of the fireplace, immediately went off into our kitchen looking for food and drink and found several hard-left individuals pouring themselves the inexpensive house wine and disparaging the operation of the free market.

Snyder seemed to like such company and soon surprised everyone by breaking into song and leading everyone in singing The Red Flag, a fine old socialist anthem, from memory, more or less correctly and possibly all the way through, with several of us joining in, all loudly.

This was not what the people who invited Snyder had imagined as a get-together. I had a Wobbly songbook which somehow got into the kitchen, and many songs of a class-warfare nature got sung that evening, which may have caused despair for the several aspiring poets who had come with folded sheets of their own verse in their pockets, hoping for an opportune moment to show them to the guest of honor.

No Buddhism whatsoever was discussed--though now that I think about it, it woulda been kinda cool to have chanted, at the end of that night, the Dharani of Good Fortune that Averts Calamities, which is spoken an incomprehensible Sino-Japanese-Sanskrit pidgin that sounds like a bunch of people vigorously reciting, rapidly and not quite in unison, and with equal weight on every syllable, all the numbers from one to fifty in an invented language that no one understands.

It grows on you. And God knows good fortune is hard to come by.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sunday dragonflies

All these photos were taken at Zilker gardens in Austin.

Blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

Neon skimmer, Libellula croceipennis. This is a male, which is a brighter red than the female.

Great spreadwing, Archilestes grandis. I think this is the largest of damselflies. I'll have to look this up to be sure.

Desert firetail, Telebasis salva, another damselfly

Slaty skimmer, Libellula incesta

Eastern amberwing, Perithemis tenera. This is a very small dragonfly, here holding to the edge of an unfolding water lily leaf.

Click any photo to enlarge

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Zilker Gardens

Friday I spent the morning in Zilker Gardens in Austin. The best part of it is the Taniguchi Japanese Garden, created by Isamu Taniguchi, born in Japan in 1897, and who came to the US at age 17 and became a farmer, first in California and then in South Texas. He was held in an internment camp during World War II. His son Alan Taniguchi became an important Austin architect and was dean of the UT school of architecture (and later head of the architecture department at Rice.)

When the elder Taniguchi retired from farming in 1967, he moved to Austin to be with his son and he began building, on an unused hillside in Zilker park, an "Oriental garden" with pools and streams and a waterfall and bamboo and water lilies. The word Oriental had not fallen into disfavor yet. He built a bamboo "tea house" which is still a nice place to sit on a hot day. He did much of the work himself. Actually, he probably did most of it--he had one assistant. There's a little wooden footbridge. A waterfall. Stone stairs. Nice stonework. Koi in the ponds, enormous ones. Water lilies in many colors. Lotsa bamboo, of many different species and horticultural varieties. On some days you see Asian people, who may possibly be Japanese tourists, taking photos with much better cameras than mine.

The city has built a formal rose garden and several thematic gardens next to the Japanese Garden, all of which together are now called Zilker Gardens. Like everything to do with civilization nowadays, the gardens are underfunded, so portions are poorly maintained. I don't mind that. It wouldn't be Austin if it were well organized and had all the plants properly labeled and cost $6.00 to get in. There is perpetual talk of making it a "real" botanical garden, with admission fees and with all the quirk removed.

When dinosaur tracks were discovered in the hillside below the garden, a "prehistoric garden" was built around the trackway, with some cycads and stuff and a big 13 foot bronze Onithomimus dinosaur in the middle of a pond. An Ornithomimus made the tracks. I have a photo of the statue below.

As you enter the gardens, a glass covered bulletin board next to the parking lot announces 10 or 15 points of garden etiquette, including not picking the flowers, not eating your lunch on the grounds (that one is a mystery to me), keeping your dog on a five foot leash and out of the ponds, and so forth. Posted more prominently, above the sheet of etiquette, is a medical advisory on heat stroke and heat exhaustion, which enumerates, as bullet points, even more warnings than the etiquette sheet. Small print. Alarming to read. Cannot be encouraging to summertime visitors from Tokyo, or anyone from a cool climate.

Friday morning I ran into, or was run past by, occasional loose swarms of children wearing matching t-shirts being steered through the garden by unenthusiastic young people of camp-counselor age desperate to hold the attention of their charges using a strategy, doomed from the start, of pitching their voice at a register of unconvincing excitement, announcing, as one example I remember, the discovery of a turtle among the lotuses.

The children were not interested in lotuses, though were somewhat interested in turtles, only momentarily, but were mostly interested in running off in several directions while the vocal register of the leadership slipped in the direction of ineffectual shouts disappearing into the wind. Get back here. Eventually the pod of children would reassemble, through some kind of social gravity, not the will of the leadership, and they would move on to the next point of interest, the ponds full of enormous koi, which did indeed seem to engage everyone, or so I deduced from shouts beyond the bamboos.

But most of the visitors--and there weren't many, really--were small families, usually mothers with one or two children. One lady admonished her son, who had just pushed his sister, to behave better, "or people will think you don't have any brains." It was like she was speaking these words to be heard by those hypothetical "people," causing me to swirl momentarily into the whirlpool of someone else's family drama, I being the only person around. But they went on their way and then I was alone again with the dragonflies for a while.

It's a nice place, though as I have said, it doesn't know quite what kind of garden it wants to be, and has weird stuff no serious botanical garden would put on display, like a fake old-timey blacksmith shop with a wooden corral with rusting mule-drawn farm equipment out back, and an enormous iron cauldron four feet across and two feet deep, in front. It was unclear what the tub was used for. A plaque speculated that it may have been involved in making gunpowder during Confederate times.

Then there are two transplanted log cabins. I don't think anyone really knows why they are there. One of them is the old Esperanza School, a single dank room moved from its original location. Esperanza is a surname, but also means "hope" in Spanish, which is the exact opposite of the message this structure conveys. It has a large millstone as a steppingstone before the doorway. The other cabin was built and occupied by Swedish settlers on the east side of town, before being moved here. Austin had a lot of Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. The most interesting thing about the Swedish cabin was the sign on the wall which declared the edifice was "an example of free enterprise that built America." As with the no-lunch rule, I was puzzled by that.

I took a good many dragonfly photos--the lotus ponds hosted an aerial circus of odonates--but I will save them for later.

Pictures of the garden

The dinosaur pond, with 13 ft. Ornithomimus


Bamboo grove

Big goldfish and waterlilies

Pink waterlily

Untended roses

Dinosaur garden waterfall

Click any photo to enlarge

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Neons, gliders, and nightshades

I spent much of the nearly 100° afternoon today trying to take photos of a white-eyed vireo. Except for cardinals and painted buntings, white-eyed vireos are the only birds that sing in the five o'clock heat around here. I came very close to actually getting a clear view of a vireo, but not very close to getting a picture. They are easy to hear but hard to see. I have never gotten a recognizable image of one. Maybe someday.

So instead, I took more pictures of dragonflies.

Two views of a neon skimmer, Libellula croceipennis. Males are bright red, females a duller yellow or orange. This is a female, first in the shade... lit by the sun

A wandering glider, Pantala flavescens. This is one of the most widespread dragonflies in the world, found in all of the Americas up to southern Canada and in most of Asia. Some of them migrate long distances, are are occasionally found far at sea.

And here is one of our few remaining flowers, a solanum, a silver-leaf nightshade. They seem to thrive in the heat. These are generally considered ugly and noxious weeds--the plants are prickly and the berries are somewhat poisonous--but the flowers are quite showy and beautiful, and I like to photograph them. This is a picture I took yesterday. The petals have a curious retroflexed habit.

click any photo to enlarge

Friday, June 09, 2006

Morning light on Onion Creek

This is Onion Creek early in the morning

Female widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa, near the creek

A four-spotted pennant, Brachymesia gravida, on a stick over the water

Common Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia, in the morning light

Hackberry Emperor, Asterocampa celtis, in the morning light

Cottontail rabbit, ears somewhat illuminated

A juvenile green heron standing in the creek regards the photographer with alarm.

click any photo to enlarge

Pascal's Wager and the prospect of hell

I have neglected my blog lately, and I confess that I have enjoyed doing so. For several days I have hardly read the political blogs and the news media, except to notice, on the occasion of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the reassertion of our peculiar national personalization of war. If you'll remember when we invaded Iraq, our leaders and the media hardly ever said we were at war with Iraq, but rather that we were engaged in a struggle with "Saddam." Naturally it became very important to kill or capture Saddam Hussein, though our failure to do so expeditiously didn't keep the President from declaring Mission Accomplished from the deck of an anchored stageprop aircraft carrier. Six months later, a new round of triumphalist rhetoric was set off when a gratifyingly bearded, disheveled and disoriented Saddam Hussein was removed from his hideout, which, strangely was almost uniformly called a "spider hole" by the media. What was that about?

Anyway, Mission Accomplished II didn't seem to have been any more of a keeper than Mission Accomplished I. And now we have this gruesome display of Zarqawi's corpse, a sort of trophy, I guess, but I think this time that it's going to be sold as Turning the Corner, or Light at the End of the Tunnel, rather than Mission Accomplished III--if they have learned anything from the unravelling of MA1 and II.

But I digress. What I was going to say was that we might have another look at Pascal's Wager.

I never took Pascal's wager very seriously. I have always thought it was a philosophical absurdity. But that's because I am a reality-oriented person, and I see no tangible evidence that I am any more likely to be penalized by a Deity with anger-management problems for not believing in Him, than I am by malignant ghosts if I show insufficient respect to them when walking past a graveyard. (There are more sophisticated philosophical criticisms of Pascal's Wager than this, but clearly no sane Buddhist, much less a sane secular person, is going to accept Pascal's Wager if it's about dangerous ghosts. Same with wrathful deities, in my book. )

But there is a version of Pascal's Wager that makes a lot of sense. And climate change provides us with that version. Imagine an unknown chance of civilization being destroyed if we do nothing. We don't know the magnitude of the risk, but we do know, and can verify--unlike the stuff about malign Spirits--that known causes, operating today, can lead to civilization being chaotically disrupted unless unless some intervention occurs to save us from such chaos.

I am talking about global warming.

That is, many of the CO2-driven climate changes predicted by current computer modeling would, if they occurred, lead to widespread temperate-zone desertification, famine, wars over remaining water and arable land, and the creation of vast throngs of desperate refugees displaced by rising sea levels, or hunger, or violence, or disease.

There are reasonable actions that could prevent some or all of the potential climate changes from happening. These actions might be inconvenient. On the other hand, will you risk the continuance of a livable world on the basis of a belief that mechanisms as yet unknown will fortuitously save us?

We do know, absolutely, that if you pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that the atmosphere will get warmer. The laws of physics require it. We know it for the same reasons we know if you park your car in the sun with the windows up it will get hot inside. The physics is established and beyond dispute.

You can prevent your car from getting hot inside in about 3 ways. You can open the windows. You can turn on the engine and run the air conditioner. Or you can cover the windows (and the top of the car) with a reflective shade.

Opening the windows is equivalent (depending on when you do it) to either not putting excess CO2 in the atmosphere in the first place, or to sequestering the CO2 if you have already had some greenhouse warming. Running the AC is equivalent to an ice age starting up, assuming that it could happen on our command. Reflective shade is equivalent to increasing the cloud cover, to keep the solar heating out of the atmosphere sufficiently to nullify the CO2 forcing.

The global warming denialists either have to assume that there is a loophole in the laws of physics to exempt our atmosphere from greenhouse effects, or that the not entirely understood forcings that have created previous ice ages will fortuitously begin to operate just as we need them, canceling out the CO2. (Of course you never know--we could be plunged all the way back to full-glacial conditions, rather than just balancing the CO2 exactly. That's the problem with relying on chance or magic.)

Another chance-or-magic scenario is to assume that natural feedback mechanisms, presently unknown, will sequester the excess CO2.

Or, similarly, we can assume that the increased CO2 will, by mechanisms also presently unknown, increase the albedo to reflect enough sunlight that the increased CO2 will again be cancelled out.

All the global warming denial arguments seem to require that we ignore physics, or foreseeable risks, or common sense, or maybe all three. And if we do that we could easily end up in hell. I think I'm with Pascal here.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


I took some photos of a cattle egret near Town Lake in Austin, and I thought it was flapping its wings to keep its balance on the flimsy branch it had lit on. Only in looking at the pictures when I downloaded them did I realize that it was actively breaking off a small branch with its beak. Cattle egrets build nests out of sticks. I read somewhere that the female builds the nest with sticks the male brings her. If so, this is a male doing his stick-gathering chores.

Grasping the branch with its beak...


Yellow-crowned night heron with willows, at the shore of Town Lake.

Yellow-crowned night heron with poison ivy, a few hundred yards away, taken half an hour later. This may be the same bird as the one above.

click any photo to enlarge

Friday, June 02, 2006

Madness and retributionism

Today I was reading a New York Times story about Scott Panetti, a lunatic on Death Row in Texas whose appeal, not unexpectedly, has been rejected by a three-judge 5th Circuit panel, despite a Supreme Court ruling 20 years ago that the 8th Amendment forbids execution of the mad.

They have a test. It's a sort of Byzantine catch-22 whereby a condemned but insane murderer is, um, "competent" to be executed if he can "factually understand the reason" (as the prosecution put it) why the state wants to kill him. Now, certainly the sanest people in America would have a great deal of trouble "factually understanding" the government's reasons, either in particular or in general, for judicial killing, but that is a quibble that plays on the meaning of the words "factual" and "understanding" in a way detrimental to the dignity of the state and is unlikely to impress men in black robes.

More to the point, in my lifetime I have known a number of insane individuals. These were people who had recurring psychotic episodes, and in several cases, had become more or less permanently mad, despite the best medications medical science has to offer.

One was a very brilliant woman who had almost gotten a PhD, before schizophrenia barred the way. Even in the grip of her psychosis she could have very easily understood the State's reasons for the death penalty. She grasped complex, difficult, convoluted and even dodgy, reasoning without difficulty. She was a cultural studies type, a postmodernist--though that was not the origin of her psychosis. She was delusional in many ways--for example, she was troubled by guilt for having had regular sex with dogs earlier in her life. There is no doubt that she was crazy, but she would have been completely executable, if the State had come to feel that imaginary sex with dogs was a capital crime, because she could have followed the State's reasoning.

Likewise I knew another unfortunate person, who heard command voices, usually spoken by the Archangel Michael, that told him to kill himself. He tried twice, and succeeded on the second occasion. During the decade between the onset of his illness and his death he held down a job as a computer programmer, and never went more than a few days without hearing the voices during that time. But he could understand a chain of reasoning, simple or complex, good or bad, without difficulty.

My point is that I very much doubt if _any_ genuine psychotic would be exempted by the current legal test. So we have what some would call a perfect legal rule, that protects the mad from execution, but whose protection no madman will ever qualify for.
"In Texas," said Greg Wiercioch, a lawyer with the Texas Defender Service who has consulted with Panetti's defense, "if you cast a shadow on a sunny day, you're competent to be executed."

Liberal lawyers in Texas, who more or less by definition, lose on appeal, at least get the satisfaction of delivering such folksy lines before the bench, though, alas, it only slightly impedes the steamroller of the law as it runs over justice.

Robert Blecker, a law professor at the New York Law School and a cautious supporter of the death penalty, said Panetti's execution could serve the goal of retribution.
"He knows what he did," Blecker said. "He knows what the state is about to do to him, and why. For the retributivist, the past counts. It counts for us, and for us to be retributively satisfied, it must also count for him."

I wonder what it feels like, to be "retributively satisfied?"

As an aside, I have never run across the term "retributivist." I guess I don't get out enough. It's the perfect word, though, for those who believe in, enable, and grease the skids of, our present criminal justice system. I'd prefer something like the term "accomplice," but I can settle for Professor Blecker's word instead.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


I seem to be getting the hang of photographing dragonflies. The main secret is luck. I have now attempted enough pictures of these guys, that, by the laws of chance if nothing else, I have gotten lucky a few times.

Other than luck, standing in the hot sun by a pond or a creek for a long time helps too.

This is a swift setwing, Dythemis velox

A female widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa

This is a male powdered dancer, Argia moesta, resting on the limestone by Onion Creek

This is probably a female powdered dancer, but it could be a female blue-fronted dancer. They are hard to tell apart.

This is most likely a female dusky dancer, Argia translata. Female dancers are hard to identify with certainty.

And here is a western pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis.

(click any photo to enlarge)