Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday cat blogging

Here's Gray outside in back of the house

and here's Grendel still in bed

Friday butterfly blogging

This is a checkerspot: probably a silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis), but possibly a Gorgone checkerspot (C. gorgone). The two species are almost identical, the silvery having a little more white in the hindwing spots.

Checkerspot on a rock

Getting ready to fly

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Today's butterflies, little brown ones, mostly

This one is a Texan crescent, Phyciodes texana. The USGS butterfly page says of this species, "Males perch in gulches to watch for females." It's a Texas thing.

Here's another buckeye, Junonia coenia. This has been the most common butterfly I have seen in Austin since late last summer, when I first took an interest in butterfly photography, and I've posted several photos of them.

This one I have never seen before, and I named it, provisionally, "ugly brown butterfly," til I could find it among the USGS thumbnails. It is some kind of duskywing, most likely (as best I can judge from the pictures I can find) a Juvenal's duskywing, Erynnis juvenalis. Duskywings are often named after Latin writers--besides the Erynnis juvenalis, there is an Erynnis named after Horace, Persius, Martial, Propertius, Lucilius, Pacuvius, and a very obscure comic poet named Afranius. There is probably a story there, but I have not found out what it is yet. Sorry.

And a monarch on a milkweed. Adult monarchs feed on milkweed nectar, but this milkweed is not flowering right now, so possibly the butterfly is laying eggs. The caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, thus making themselves bad tasting for birds.

(click to enlarge)

Studies in gray

It's been dark and rainy in Austin, but I went out this morning and found a bright haze instead of low clouds.

Here's a mockingbird on a gate in the back yard.

And here's a plane low overhead, a bit away from the regular flight path of the airport ten miles away. Unlike most commercial aircraft it is not brightly painted with a corporate logo. I thought it was pretty, silvery in the thinning clouds. But it does have a corporate logo: when I looked at the photo in its original resolution could I make out the insignia and "Navy" on the side of the plane.

(click to enlarge)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Would you buy a used Fugitive Slave Act from this man?

James Sensenbrenner, the multi-jowled Wisconsin Republican congressman recently notorious for running away with the House Judiciary Committee gavel as a means of stifling unwelcome debate, is the primary author of just-passed anti-immigrant House bill 4437 which would make illegal alienhood a felony. The bill also specifies that anyone who shelters, harbors, hires, or helps an illegal alien is a criminal. Rep. Sensenbrenner said, by way of explanation for this draconian statute, "we've got to get control of our borders."

Wow! A law which could put eleven million immigrants behind bars, along with anyone who takes them in and shelters them, is right up there with the Fugitive Slave Act. You don't see something like this every day in Washington, even with a Republican congress. All eyes are now on the Senate. But for the moment, let's look back at the House, at Jim Sensenbrenner himself.

Mr. Sensenbrenner's ancestors, according to an online genealogy I find on the web, came to America from Alsace around 1850. Unfortunately, online genealogical information does not give us any evidence of when--or if--any of the original Sensenbrenners who came over the water became citizens.

In the mid 19th century, because of the ease of immigration (alas, we had no "control of our borders" at the time) combined with the difficulty of naturalization (somewhat more restrictive than today) the first citizens in an immigrant family would often be children who were minors at the time of their parents' immigration, or the children born here--either category automatically becoming good Americans without having to swear fealty to the new country or renounce the old.

So it is entirely possible that the first Sensenbrenner to be a certifiable American was Congressman Sensenbrenner's grandfather Frank, the inventor of Kotex, who was born in 1864 in Wisconsin, son of a man who came here without papers. (Yes, yes, I know, everyone came here without papers--that's kinda my point.) Maybe he came because of perceived political oppression by the French--certainly one of the few plausible motives I can think of for someone to emigrate from Alsace to Wisconsin before the Civil War to become a farmer.

The reason I go on about the ancestors of Rep. Sensenbrenner (or "Tex" as he is called--a nickname that reportedly displeases him, indicating a modest but not unexpected deficit in his grasp of the comic) is that those ancestors, if they came over today would--under the statute he introduced and hopes will become law--be deported or imprisoned, along with the crew of the boat that brought them.

For an immigrant to come here without documents, to work hard so that his son would be in a position to make a fortune in paper products which could ultimately fund the political campaigns of a remotely descended racist congressman, would now earn him hard time in the federal correctional system, under Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill. Or, if the Homeland Security Apparat was operating in its most benevolent mode, such an Alsatian immigrant would, at best, all be bundled up with his family and sent back, without much benefit of due process, to the Old Country where their rights as good Germans would surely receive but scant respect, Alsace now being once again French.

I know it's an old American tradition that once you get here you energetically help haul up the ladder behind you. But why Tex Sensenbrenner should actually believe a choleric, bloated, red-faced Republican pol is somehow entitled to live all his life off the earnings of his grandfather and hold powerful public office courtesy of a fortuitous boat ticket bought by his undocumented great-grandfather, but that Mexicans who presently come here to build our houses and harvest our crops, should be rounded up and deported or imprisoned, escapes me.

I don't think anyone tried to ask Tex about that, cuz he would have cut off discussion and run away with the gavel with a haste that woulda made all his chins jiggle, and surely we would have read about that in the papers.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday cat blogging

Gray in a window in the morning sun

After Gray leaves, Grendel investigates the window carefully

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More signs of spring

Swallowtails rarely sit still, so I had to do the best I could with this giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) hovering over a species of flowering sage. The first couple of photos are of the butterfly fluttering, wings partly blurred by motion, and the third is of the butterfly momentarily at rest.

(click to enlarge)

Giant swallowtails, as you might guess from the name, are among the largest north American butterflies.

All in all, it was quite a nice day for butterflies today in Austin, bright and sunny, and I also saw some monarchs, pictures, though I spent half an hour trying.

Meanwhile, as I was following butterflies around, I heard a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, making its rasping, hawk-with-emphysema cry, sounding distant and whispery...

which soon attracted a gang of crows, neighborhood toughs who drove the hawk away.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

And on a lighter note...

...some signs of spring.

A Mexican buckeye, Ungnadia speciosa. Not a true buckeye, though a member of the same family

A bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis. The Texas state flower. Actually, if I remember correctly, four bluebonnet species are officially the Texas state flower. A west Texas lupine, taller and bluer than this one, is my favorite. Apparently legislators from areas of the state not favored by L. texensis lobbied hard to overcome the meaning of "the" and make whatever blue lupine species grew in their part of the state also the official state flower. And they were accommodated.

This is a new leaf of a redbud, Cercis canadensis

Here's a spiderwort, a Tradescantia, I don't know which species, deep in some hackberry woods

And this is a Texas spiny lizard, Sceloporus olivaceus, basking on my front porch.

(click to enlarge)

War, famine, pestilence, and death: a review of The Weather Makers

"If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century, I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable."

This should probably be the first sentence of Tim Flannery's book The Weather Makers, but it is at the bottom of page 209. In the 208 pages before it Flannery tries to explain some essential concepts, like greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, albedo, abrupt climate changes in the geological record and possible causes for them, climate feedback loops, Milankovich cycles, el Niño and la Niña, ocean acidification and its implications, climate modeling, and so forth. He also provides some grim biological case studies: reef destruction, frog extinctions, water shortages in Perth and Sydney, and many others.

He wants to provide the reader with some of the tools to understand the problem, and some indication of the gravity of the problem--in other words, scare the hell out of us, after a basic groundwork has been laid.

The central chapter of the book is one in which he outlines three catastrophe scenarios. As a worst case, any of them could occur well before the end of this century, and indeed possibly before the middle of it, if we do nothing. The interruption of the Gulf Stream, with especially terrible consequences for Europe, is the one that has most entered the public imagination, thanks to an exaggerated disaster movie. The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction estimates the chances of this before 2100 to be about 5%. The second catastrophe would the collapse and desertification of the Amazon rain forest, which could lead to 1000 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature increases of 18° F by the year 2100, according to Flannery. The third would be a methane hydrate release either from the the sea floor or thawed arctic soil, or both, which could trigger the kind of massive die-offs that the world saw at the Permo-Triassic extinction event, which could have been in part, and possibly entirely, caused by such a belch of methane.

What Flannery makes clear to any reader, even one with little scientific background, is that there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused global warming is already well underway, and that if the CO2 increase causing it continues, the scenario we are looking at is not one of gradual, slow, linear changes to warmer conditions, but rather at some point a sudden and extremely dramatic jump to an altogether new climate equilibrium, with huge changes in sea level and rainfall as well as temperature. Computer climate models, the ice-core record, and the geological record all suggest this is the way it will happen, if CO2 concentrations continue to increase.

Obviously if we reach such a tipping point, there will be massive extinctions. Flannery does not believe it would lead to human extinction, but he does believe civilization as we know it would end, and much death, disease, and hardship would follow.

He shoots down some of the happy talk about global warming, like the idea that increased CO2 would lead to more abundant crop yields and the abolition of hunger. Cereal grains are among the plants least susceptible to increased yields from greater CO2 concentrations, and are among the plants most sensitive to the water and heat and soil problems that would be implied in the likely climate regimes. There would be more hunger, not less, in other words.

So far, not an encouraging picture. His discussion of Kyoto is also not encouraging. The proposed 5.2% reductions in CO2 emissions were rejected by only two significant countries, the US and Australia, both of which operate under a national frontier mythology of perpetual growth. Five percent is a start, but what is needed is a _seventy_ percent reduction of CO2 emissions by the middle of this century if we are to save the world from war, famine, pestilence, and death. That's a big gap, especially when we don't have the world's biggest polluter on board even for the five percent.

So what to do? Here's where Flannery's optimism may be a little forced. He suggests grassroots action, if top-down action is out of the question, as it clearly is in the US in the immediate future. At this point he sounds kinda like the little pamphlets that come with my electric bill, with helpful hints for energy savings. But he doesn't make a bad case for personal action and, by implication, spreading the word to go thou and do likewise. To reduce your personal CO2 usage by 70 percent would be fairly easy. Buy wind generated electricity, where possible. Invest in passive solar heating and photovoltaics. Don't use power you don't need. Make your next car a hybrid. Greater use of solar, wind, and geothermal power, and dramatically better gas mileage, if widespread, gets us individually under the 70% reduction mark. We can all work towards that.

No one hopes that's true more than I do. But I fear that the only way this will catch on is if something bad happens to actually get the public's attention. Katrina did, for a while. Flannery mentions peak oil only once in the book, and only in passing. Peak oil may itself be calamitous, but it might be to the world's advantage if the peak oil calamity struck first, because while it could also--as a worst case--put an end to civilization as we know it, it would be unlikely to go on to kill all mammalian life on the planet, as a worst case climate catastrophe could very well do. And a slow descent down the far side of the oil peak curve could be the impetus for people to reduce carbon emissions.

How's that for optimism? I guess it's my optimism, not Flannery's.

But in the meantime we have madmen or gangsters or both running the country. Here in Texas we have a crazed governor, a sort of Bechtel-powered puppet with windproof hair, who is trying to sell the public a gigantic Great Wall of China transportation scheme consisting of several mile-wide highway corridors crisscrossing the state containing super-superhighways funded up front with public money, to be repaid out of tolls over the coming half century.

Such folly would be comic, were the guy not serious, or if he did not have a chance of getting any of these roads built. But the bulldozers are already at work building one east of Austin.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Waist deep in the Big Muddy, And the big fool says to push on

Every once in a while, like on the third anniversary of the Iraq War, it's good to step back and ask some basic questions, like: What are we doing there? Well, as you remember, originally our goal was to rid the world of the threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and to put an end to Saddam's training of al Qaida terrorists. Both these goals would be accomplished at once by overthrowing Saddam.

We did get rid of Saddam, but as the whole world now knows, there were no WMDs whatsoever in Iraq. Moreover, Saddam, as the world now knows, never trained al Qaida or gave money or materiel to bin Laden's cause. The alleged links--remember the secret meetings between Atta and Saddam's emissaries in Prague?--have all turned out to be fiction.

A person of integrity would say "oops," but Bush put on a flight suit and said "mission accomplished."

Saddam is gone, but we are still there and still fighting a war, three years after our blitzkrieg and two and a half years after Mission Accomplished.

So new goals seem to be needed. Though, like most things Republican, our official goals float freely in the winds of expediency, two seem to be drift by most often. One is to establish democracy. The other is to fight terror.

By democracy we mean an elected secular government friendly to our interests. We did at least hold an election. But so far we have not gotten a government at all, much less a secular one, and whatever government emerges from chaos and civil war is likely to be a theocracy friendlier to Iran than to us. The public is slowly becoming aware of this, no thanks to the mainstream media, which is probably the reason for much of Bush's decline in popularity.

The only way a friendly secular government could emerge in Iraq would be via dictatorship. Perhaps Karl Rove, who regularly inverts normal English for partisan ends, could be assigned to this problem, such that we could purchase and set up a friendly strongman, start referring to his government as a democracy, and all would be well. It is probably too late for that. Besides, we had exactly that kind of democracy with Saddam up until the end of the Iraq-Iran war, but we somehow screwed it up. For another thing, events have now spun out of control. We don't have the power to install anybody, plus our entourage of mud-wrestling dwarves have exhausted themselves in their struggle, and no strongman has emerged.

As for fighting terror, killing somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000 Iraqis (the Lancet 100,000 estimate, though disliked by Republicans, is statistically sound and is now certainly an underestimate) and reducing their country to misery probably isn't in the fighting terror manual. We seem to be using the Mi Lai manual instead, even though we found out long ago that that manual doesn't produce good results.

In fact we see here one of the problems with Republican terminology inversion. Murdering large numbers of people and ruining the lives of the survivors looks exactly like terrorism to anyone who is on the receiving end. When we instead call it "fighting terrorism" those who survive our good intentions will look on us with disfavor, to put it mildly.

Bush seems to have realized we've run out of goals in Iraq, so it's time to move on to Iran. Bush mentioned IEDs 24 times in his speech Monday, and said Iran is supplying our enemies with these IEDs. That sounds familiar. The next day Marine General Peter Pace, when asked if he had proof that Iran was doing this said "I do not, sir."' (Reuters). It's fair to say General Pace is either looking at rephrasing his four word summary of the matter or else he is looking at early retirement.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tuesday sparrow blogging

Here are two views of a Lincoln's sparrow in my yard. These birds are quite small, even for sparrows. This one was solitary, which is typical--when I put out birdseed they never appear in flocks like white-crowned sparrows and house sparrows. Sometimes they will forage as pairs, but this one is the only one around at the moment.

The species was not named for Abe Lincoln, by the way. Thomas Lincoln was a young man on one of John James Audubon's field expeditions, and it was this Lincoln in 1832 in Labrador who shot one for Audubon to first examine and paint. Audubon named the bird "Lincoln's Pinewood Finch" for his marksman. Audubon's painting shows two birds in weird and unbirdlike poses, the consequence of painting dead birds while trying to imagine them alive. Audubon's birds usually look odd and not like real birds.

I shouldn't fault Audubon for falsifying the appearance of his subjects when the camera, in its own way, does the same thing. These photos are not what the eye sees, or for that matter what you see through binoculars. My eye, at least, sees small, quick birds as a kind of movement narrative, and even with binoculars I can't _examine_ what I am seeing the way I can with a photo. The live bird changes constantly. Little birds in particular never sit still. The photographed bird OTOH is frozen in a pose that may be more natural-looking than one of Audubon's strange paintings, but is nevertheless unnatural in that your eye can move over it and look at isolated detail. In nature you can't do that.

That does not keep me from taking photos, of course. We are monkeys, not birds, and as such we like to examine detail, turn things sideways and look at them from odd angles.

Lincoln's sparrow with rock and snailshells

Larger view of same sparrow

click to enlarge

Friday, March 10, 2006

Friday cat blogging

Both cats consent to look directly at the camera this morning

Grendel on the back porch

and Gray in a sunny window

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon

Edward Gibbon, a model of certain type of writer, presented his patron, the Duke of Gloucester, with the results of several years of writing furiously, and the good Duke's famous deflationary response to this was "Another of those damned fat, square, thick books! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon."

Now, I would not compare myself with Edward Gibbon in any way except in the compulsion to scribble department. But I notice that today, as it happens, marks the date of my first entry in this blog a year ago. Once or twice in the course of that year I have announced that I intended to reduce the frequency of entries, and then, usually as a response to some kind of political horror, I have rushed out and stepped on my own announcement. According to my statistics I have made 356 entries in this blog since I started it.

I'm supposed to be retired.

But I think I will once again announce, maybe with less confidence, a work slowdown. Whether it turns out to be an ineffectual job action, scorned and ignored by management, or will lead to a long-term improvement in working conditions, remains to be seen.

I am also thinking of making this more of a photo-blog and less of a political blog. For any regular readers who look forward to polemics against the Bush administration, I am pretty sure that any effort I might make to quit completely, cold-turkey, would fail, so I think, realistically, those kinds of entries will continue to appear, albeit (hopefully) less often.

Now, I don't have any illusions about my photography. I think of it only as an enjoyable hobby. Perhaps its also a very Zen way of running a blog, seeking a glimpse of the ox, and putting up pictures now and then with the subtext, "well, you may not see it, but I swear to God, I did, or at least, so it seemed at the time."

I am aiming at one or two entries a week, rather than one a day.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Practical Republicanism; or, Pre-emptive catastrophe

Reality-oriented bloggers have for a long time now noticed that we have turned the government over to people who do not really believe in government at all, except in the sense that burglars believe in unlocked doors.

Maybe we're stuck with this situation, for the time being anyway, and have to make the best of it, but why not do it with a little creativity? Once we think outside the box of civilization, many scenarios are possible, only one of which is given below, just for illustrative purposes. We don't have to wait for another New Orleans.

Now if Republicans do not believe in government, what do they believe in? Well, for one thing, they believe in privatization, and their view is that we all benefit from it, with the nudge/wink understanding that the actual beneficiaries, even if designated as "we" for rhetorical purposes, turn out to be very special subsets of the public, like Halliburton executives for whom the ratfuck profiteering of the boardroom and the provender of the pork barrel placed before their snouts by the taxpayer provides a useful focus for their natural talents and inclinations, and thus saves them from a life of stealing from church collection plates and mugging the elderly.

So, let's look at a practical application of Republican doctrine and faith, as follows: We could all prosper by the selling off of our national parks for open pit mining.

No, you say. You object.

But wait, not so fast. Don't be so negative.

Think of the benefits. Republican stewardship of these resources could use every part of the former parks, much like the Inuit used every part of a harpooned walrus. At the end of it we could reclaim the mined-out craters as much-needed nuclear waste disposal facilities, or, if proximity to population centers allows, regional sanitary landfills. And if open pit mining turns out to be, somehow, impractical--say if the copper ore in Yosemite and Yellowstone turns our to be too low-grade, or if people-who-hate-freedom should object to radioactive drinking water--we could instead lease these properties to timber interests for clear-cutting, followed by large-scale construction of vacation living-quarters for persons whose movements may one day need to be restricted by double rows of chain-link fences topped with concertina wire (already in the works, as part of the homeland security bill, btw.) And finally we could hold a clearance sale of hard-to-sell holdings of former parkland at ten cents on the dollar to developers of 5-acre ranchettes, fulfilling a demand for rural housing for Gulag-Yellowstone admin personnel.

Likewise with the national forests. The Republican odd-lot stealth sales of national forest land have until now been depressed by the ever-present danger of uncontrolled fire. This obstacle is overcome if these lands are stripped and left treeless after the last logging truck has pulled out in a cloud of sawdust and pulverized caliche, leaving behind a rubble or rocks and stumps and splinters all easily leveled off to a fireproof tarmac by bulldozers and readied for future retail or light-industrial development.

Final disposition of public grazing lands now managed by the BLM and leased to ranchers at 85 percent below market might be a problem, given the excellent deal the ranchers presently enjoy feeding at the public trough. But if the ranchers are made an offer they can't refuse; say, purchase at a modest fraction of assessed value plus a guarantee of not waking up with the severed head of one of their remuda string in bed with them, naturally, as good Republicans, they will go for it. Karl Rove is good at this kind of persuasion, having learned as much from watching the Godfather over and over as from his study of Triumph of the Will.

As for Indian-owned lands, co-opted tribal interests who have already gained some needed savvy in their previous experience with Jack Abramoff could doubtless be enticed to collaborate in the sale of the roadside portions of Indian reservations for casino development, leaving the backcountry leftovers to be sold off to K Street friends who could ultimately rent these tracts out to the Air Force as gunnery ranges.

And another problem of big government is solved. This is just one example. We don't have to wait for natural disasters.

You think I am kidding. The Republicans know I'm not.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Unprecedented legal protections:" coming soon to a detention facility near you

Alberto Gonzales tells us that prisoners at Gulag Guantanamo should be happy as clams, what with all the good food and excellent medical care. Indeed, though he did not spell it out, the good food and the excellent medical care are provided with the same feeding tube.

Best of all, the prisoners enjoy "unprecedented legal protection."
Gonzales said all detainees at the camp in eastern Cuba were granted an assessment by U.S. authorities, a right of reply and a separate, formal hearing of their case before a three-member tribunal with a right to appeal.
"We are aware of no other nation in history that has afforded such protection for enemy combatants," he told the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Reuters)

And even better, he and George Bush show every sign of wanting to extend this unprecedented legal protection to the rest of us.

Personally, I think we are better off with precedented.

Now this is kinda tricky. What he said about unprecedented is, in fact, absolutely true. That's because the category "enemy combatant" is itself unprecedented, having not previously existed as a legal status, and is unknown in the Geneva Conventions, which, as it happens, we are signatory to, and which, under the Constitution, have the force of America law, or at least that was the case before the unprecedented set in.

Our creation of a bogus category like "enemy combatant" for prisoners is itself an unambiguous violation of the Geneva Conventions, which clearly, in the plainest possible language, oblige us to treat all prisoners taken in military operations as either soldiers who must be treated as prisoners of war (under the 3rd Geneva Convention,) or as civilians who must be charged with a crime and given a fair trial, (according to the 4th Geneva Convention.)

The 1st and 2nd Geneva Conventions specify treatment for wounded captives and captured sailors, respectively. All these categories of prisoners have specific rights, which, as the entire world now knows, we have denied them, including, for starters, the right not to be subjected to humiliation or torture.

We certainly do have every right to hold civilian terrorists prisoner. But the Geneva Conventions oblige us to charge them with specific crimes and put them on trial. We have every right to hold captured soldiers for the duration of a war. But they have to be treated as prisoners of war. We can charge them with war crimes, if we wish, but we have to present specific charges and give the accused soldiers at least the semblance of a fair trial.

Gonzales could probably do semblance, if he set his mind to it.

None of this has happened, not even the semblance. We have failed all our legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Is that what he means by unprecedented?

Monday, March 06, 2006

A few birds of Town Lake, plus a butterfly near my house

A windblown snowy egret

A coot in open water...

and a coot in some reeds

A pair of lesser scaups

a mute swan which just had its head in the water

A little blue heron

A great-tailed grackle

and a gray hairstreak butterfly, strymon melinus. This photo is inverted for the comfort of human viewers: the small butterfly always landed and fed head down, in this case on an agarita flower. I'm guessing the spots and appendages on the tail are fake eyes and antennae to deceive predators.

(click on any photo to enlarge)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The swiftboating of reality

The Republican propaganda apparatus is a lovingly crafted and astonishingly successful deception-machine, a work of perverse genius in its intellect-damping automatically generated fog of logical flaws rolling out like stage smoke at a bad rock concert, with flashing lights and a thunder of rhetorical cheap shots amped-up to seizure-induction levels, all deployed in the service of lies, superstition, oppression, and avarice, never mind if the stage fireworks should set the house on fire and kill the audience. Swiftboating has become part of the language because, unfortunately, it has become part of the Republican business model. The world has seen nothing like it since Goebbels, whose work, absent the technology Karl Rove has at his fingertips, seems primitive by comparison.

Apparently no part of the world of reality can be left unassailed. Having discovered they can successfully cast doubt on the extremely heroic military service of John Kerry and Max Cleland, and do so on behalf of the likes of someone whose whereabout during his last two years of his entirely stateside National Guard obligation is completely unknown, having been expunged from the historical record, their hubris leads them to think they can do anything, perhaps even cast doubt on science itself--which seems to be their current project.

As the evidence for catastrophic global warming leads the scientific community to near-unanimity on both its actuality and danger, Republicans respond with official doubt and obstinate denial. Global warming "skeptics" come out of the woodwork with bad mathematics and incorrect data to muddy the water. It's bizarre, as if Karl Rove were both recreation director and de-facto captain of the Titanic (the de-jure captain being on vacation in his cabin) insisting to the last that there are no icebergs in the North Atlantic, and somehow succeeding, with the help of acolytes in the crew, in convincing everyone in the wheelhouse, as well as on the ballroom dancefloor, that this is so. As crazy and stupid as such a smoke and mirrors project would be, you have to realize that we are the passengers, full steam ahead to a Republican future. And of course the Republican crew will shove the women and children out of the lifeboats when reality reasserts itself, as it will.

But there is no more a spare planet for them than for us, to evacuate to. I guess that's justice, but that's not going to be a consolation to most of us.

Peak oil is going to be soon, if it is not here already, and Republican car executives want to build more Hummers, better gas mileage and public transit be damned. And it's all over the country. Here is my part of Texas, the Republicans have hammered all efforts at light rail, and have ramrodded a toll road project that will saddle our children with crushing debt 20 years out. You could laugh if these people were not so dangerous.

This list of their anti-reality projects is endless, and they seem confident in their expectation that the country, and the world, being boiled like frogs in a stew of rightwing irrationality, will not notice.

Just this morning I was reading about the smear machine cranking up to discredit a New York Times science writer named Kenneth Chang, who actually looked at the names on a list of 514 scientists and engineers who signed a Discovery Institute "petition" professing doubt about evolution. A large number of the signers are evangelical Christians. Only about a quarter of the signers are biologists. Almost none of those biologists are working in fields related to evolutionary theory.

The statement they signed said, "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Actually, all scientists agree with the second sentence. The first is vague and is obviously pitched to the unwillingness of many scientists to accept a full and settled account of anything, science always being a work in progress. Indeed, anybody really knowledgeable about modern evolutionary theory could readily sign the whole statement, simply because random mutation and natural selection are no longer considered the only mechanisms of evolution in contemporary biology.

But no such knowledgeable people seem to be discernible among the actual signers.

What Chang discovered was that a large percentage of the signers are not scientists at all, rather are engineers or physicians, and none are prominent biologists, and indeed of the 20 scientists he actually interviewed we see some odd ducks. One, a cell biologist, does not accept the evidence from physics and astronomy of a great age for the universe. He believes in the biblical account of creation instead. Another, a chemist and self-professed Jew for Jesus, believes the Darwinian evolutionary account is incomplete, but says he may accept evolution with additional evidence.

Discovery Institute could point to only 2 signers, of the 514, who were not fundamentalist Christians. One, a "philosopher and mathematician," works for the Discovery Institute. The other said in the interview with Chang, "I signed [the petitition] in irritation," claiming biologists were unfairly squelching alternative avenues of research. "They deserve to be prodded, as it were," he said "It was my way of thumbing my nose at them." (quotes from the NYT.)

So, all in all, Chang discovered there was less than meets the eye here.

A pretty innocuous article. But, whoa, suddenly there is a rightwing campaign to discredit Chang's fairness and incidentally feed the flames of the general Republican-base hatred of the New York Times. And the campaign proceeds, naturally, by attacking what Chang did not say. John West, of the Discovery Institute, claims:
While Chang's story conveys the clear impression that scientists who support Discovery's Dissent from Darwin statement are motivated by religion rather than science, Chang has now admitted in an interview that 75% or more of the scientists he interviewed did not fit this description. (boldface in original)

Chang could easily admit this, since the article itself did not say the the signers were so motivated. Karl Rove would be proud, making it sound like the reporter is backtracking on something he in fact never, in reality, said.

Specifically, Chang said that 5 of the 20 scientists he interviewed were Biblical literalists whose religious views strongly influenced their skepticism. The Discovery Institute then, in their hatchet job on Chang's article, managed to construe Chang's reiteration of these figures (when they later talked to Chang) as an "admission" that 75% of the 20 were _not_ so motivated. Thus they end up saying that Chang "admits" that a claim he never made is not true. Pretty sleazy.

Chang's article is now behind the pay-to-view NYT archive. The Discovery Institute's dog and pony show about it is all over the Christian webosphere. A typical instance, on a site called, is the headline "summary" of the Discovery Institute slime attack on Chang, "NYT Journalist Admits He Lied About the 500 ID Scientists." The original DI hatchet job could not get away with _that_ claim, but once it gets into Republican Unrealityland, the story, um, evolves. Mutates, as it were.

This Chang business that set me off this morning is trivial, of course, but the very fact that the right wing is mounting its attack on trivial fronts as well as important ones (global warming is a really important issue) shows they are in a full court press against reality itself. Reality always wins, but in the meantime, I guess, they get to exercise power, which I suppose for those of them who are smart enough to not believe in their own foolish arguments, must be motivated by some kind of eat drink and be merry end-of-the-world cynicism.

You gotta wonder why their merriment consists so much in screwing over other people.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Friday vulture blogging

Several turkey vultures circled low overhead today when I was sitting in my yard enjoying the mild weather, drinking green tea and thanking the Lord Buddha that I am retired. The vultures inspected me carefully, and after a few lazy spirals overhead concluded I was going to take too long to die, and they were gone.

(click to enlarge)

Friday cat blogging

Does Grendel think "Snow Lion" refers to him?

Gray waits by a newspaper. He knows that if he is patient, eventually someone will try to read it, which is his signal to sit on it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Caracara and teal

The crested caracara, or Mexican eagle, is a big long-legged funny-looking bird whose range seems to be increasing northward. It is technically a falcon, but often behaves like a vulture, feeding on carrion. But when you see one in flight the phylogenetic falconhood becomes plausible--they fly fast and erratically, with a falcon-like wingbeat. They are kind of drive-by birds, gone before you get your camera ready. But sometimes a bad photo is better than none at all, at least if you have been unavailingly trying to photograph one for months. So today I got a slightly out-of-focus photo, but better than my previous attempts which have been blurred pictures of trees and clouds.

Caracara over Onion Creek, with missing tail feathers

This green-winged teal was also at Onion creek. Here he is swimming...

...and here he has waddled ashore. Same bird.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cultural notes: the Fredericksburg Stadt Friedhof

Fredericksburg is a Texas-German community about 80 miles west of Austin. I think the graveyard was founded the same year as the settlement, 1846. A few years ago I was looking around in the Fredericksburg cemetery, Der Stadt Friedhof, and found a section of four-foot long rectangles, many of them with their little own wrought-iron fences, looking like rusted metal frames for cribs. I remember being puzzled, and it took a moment for me to realize that it was a children's graveyard.

I had never seen that before in Texas. I have read of children's graveyards in Ireland and other places in Europe, where unbaptized stillborn infants were buried in unconsecrated sites, but this was new to me.

The Fredericksburg Stadt Friedhof is technically a municipal cemetery, but for practical purposes was for many decades a Lutheran burial ground, because almost everybody in town was one or another kind of Lutheran. There were some German Catholics, who started their own graveyard after 1850, and only a few non-German English-speaking protestants.

Lutherans practice infant baptism, so perhaps unbaptized stillborn infants were buried separately. But this was a city cemetery, so I am not sure how one part of it would end up being "consecrated" and another part unconsecrated. Plus many of the graves were not those of infants who died at birth--some were months old, a few were several years old. It seems very unlikely in a small, pious German Lutheran community, that a two year old child would be unbaptized. It's a mystery.

So, yesterday on the way back from Enchanted Rock, I stopped and took a few photos. The main graveyard, 150 years worth of dead people, seems huge for such a little town, and grim, given the German propensity for orderliness carried to the extent of covering most of the older grave plots entirely with concrete. They did not like grass or weeds growing on graves, and Portland cement is a definitive answer to vegetation. Here's an overview of the cemetery.

I like the practice, now fallen out of favor, of glass mounted photos on tombstones. Here, humanizing these ordered ranks of Town Mountain granite gravemarkers, are two faces looking at us out of the past.


Horn player

The children's section is more disorderly, and, to me, more poignant. Maybe it's just the miniature size of the grave plots. I don't know of the photos capture that.

Marbles and a yo-yo left on the grave

The custom of putting shells on graves was common among Central Texas Germans. No one knows where it came from. The practice is not European, and is rare among the Anglo-Texans, who in fact probably got it from the German settlers.

The newer section of children's graves...

...and the older section

The German settlement here was beset by malaria, cholera, and Texans, in order of decreasing morbidity. Malaria and cholera were responsible for many of the older graves here. Texan depredation and outrages against the peaceable German farmers (apparently many of the best Germans came to Texas) reached a peak during the Civil War, when the a large number of the military-age men of the town were slaughtered as they tried to get to Mexico. I don't think they are buried here, though. Texas Germans were pro-Union and anti-slavery, which excited intense hatred among my Texan forebears.

The Fredericksburg colony, unlike any other settlement I know of in Texas, maintained peaceful relations with the Comanches, and did so by the simple tactic making a treaty--with the bands led by chiefs Buffalo Hump and Santa Ana--and then adhering scrupulously to the terms of the treaty. The German settlers lived where they told the Comanches they would live, farmed where they said they would farm, observed boundaries they said they would observe, and allowed the Indians to enter the town unmolested to trade, as they said they would. Indeed, if it had not been for trade with the Comanches a lot more of the immigrants would have died in the two years between their arrival here and the first corn crop they harvested. They also had an agreed-on diplomacy process to iron out problems and misunderstandings. According local mythology it is the only treaty ever reached anywhere with the Indians that was never broken by the white signatories. I don't know if that's true. But the Germans here are proud of it.

In any case, there are no casualties of the Indian Wars buried here, which is not the case with Anglo-Texan cemeteries of a similar age.