Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Andre Codrescu On New Orleans Public Libraries

Southeast Louisiana's favorite in-house ex-pat social critic, Andre Codrescu, wrote this piece recently on the state of N.O. libraries, on books, reading and the general state of these institutions. Good thoughts, miserable situation.

Monday, January 30, 2006

More NAIS

On a keyword search at Yahoo news (for "NAIS") I found this story today seeming to offer a hint of evident opposition, if not quite hope that the whole idea would simply crumble beneath its own ridiculousness. Here's a snippet:

"USDA, after hearing strong opposition from the industry, has abandoned its earlier decision to allow a single private entity to manage the livestock movement database in connection with the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

"But that wasn't the only major announcement from the agency concerning NAIS:

"The agency's NAIS coordinator, Neil Hammerchmidt, told last week's meeting of R-CALF USA that there won't be a mandatory ID program by 2009, as previously announced.

"And, he said, USDA attorneys are researching whether they have the legal authority to require producers to report livestock movement to a private entity."

But after forwarding that link to a person closely following this story, I received his quick and deflating reply: "I wish it was good news, but what I hear them saying is they are going to do the database private to prevent Freedom of Information Act access . . . and that they won't hit the 2009 deadline on mandatory but still plan it to go mandatory. Slipped deadline is all. Keep fighting the good fight."

How did this happen to our country? Where did we fail ourselves?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Stop NAIS!

I have written here before about NAIS (National Animal Identification System), the insidious plan by the federal bureaucracy and "Big Ag" to microchip every farm (and probably every domestic) animal in the country. It seems to still be rolling on, virtually unopposed, except by some small breeders, organic farmers etc., but virtually everyone who checks into it is horrified. Now Vermont farmer- blogger Walter Jeffries, who writes from Sugar Mountain Farm, has started a new blog called "NoNAIS" dedicated to stopping it.

This is an issue you think would arouse every civil libertarian, traditional conservative, fan of Michael Pollan, and back- to- the- lander, or even the yuppies who buy at Whole Foods-- where are they?

Consider:

"They are snaring homesteaders by including even livestock you might keep for your own consumption. The government is implementing huge "non- compliance" fines if you don't report your backyard flock of chickens, your summer feeder pig, your lawn mowing sheep, etc. This will take away your right to raise your own source of eggs, meat, and wool.

"They are including animals that are not in the food supply such as pets like horses, llamas, etc that are not used for consumption.

"Under the plan every animal must be identified. Any births, deaths, or movements on or off the farm will be required to be logged and reported to the government. If you take your sheep to a show you will have to track their location and submit paperwork to the government. If you go on a trail ride with your horse you will have to report that to the government. If your pig has piglets you'll have to report that and then if some of those piglets die or you eat one you'll have to report that."

And now the government has a NEW plan. This AP story details how the same USDA that wants to bring you NAIS wants to import Chinese poultry. " The Agriculture Department is seeking to allow importing of poultry processed in China, where thousands of birds and several people have died from bird flu..... The Agriculture Department proposed the rule, with no announcement, on Nov. 23. The period during which it accepted comments on the proposal ended Monday. The rule still must be finalized before it takes effect."

You can't make these things up... one of ther easons that the USDA gives for NAIS is to control bird flu, which is about to join "the children" and "cruelty" in the list of the top five excuses to take our liberty away. Please "read the whole thing", cross- post, and spread the info. I haven't even scratched the surface here..

Maybe it's time to move to Russia?? (See below).

Update: a friend and neighbor, rancher Jim Nance, adds the following:

"We have been campaigning against this from the start.

"It is so the large packers will have no liability in any kind of food scare. It will put small producers out of business.

"The funny thing is that the same companies that want the animal IDs are fighting against Country of Origin Labeling. So they could trace an animal back to my ranch, but have no information at all on the thousands of cattle from Mexico and further south!"

Friday, January 27, 2006

Another Threat

Anne Pearse Hocker just sent a news item from New Jersey-- it seems that illiterate lawmakers may inadvertently (I hope?!) ban falconry and hunting with dogs in their efforts to do away with "cruelty":

" "This bill would clarify that cruelty to animals ... includes the use of an animal to injure or kill another animal," says an explanation accompanying the proposed legislation. It adds that Bill 666 [!!] would make clear that "the use of any other direct or indirect means to inflict the cruelty" also would be illegal.

"But Tony Celebrezze, the sportsmen's alliance's director of state services, wonders if the proposed law would apply to hunting with a dog. The hunter is using a dog to lead him to another animal for one purpose: to shoot that animal."

(Snip)

"Then comes falconry, and the plot thickens. Here we have people using trained raptors to seek out and attack other critters, including rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks*, pheasants and quail. While politicians have yet to make it illegal for hawks to dive-bomb and snatch scurrying rodents, this bill just might make it a crime if they do it at the urging of humans."

It is a truism that any Nanny- State legislation can be justified by appeals for the safety of "The Children". Similarly, any legislation against human - animal interaction will be justified by appeals against "cruelty".

Though he is not involved here, I think I am going to introduce a new and relevant mantra here, and repeat it whenever relevant: "Santorum delenda est!" There is nothing "conservative" about being an animal rights loony.

* WOODCHUCKS?? Though maybe Teddy Moritz, New Jerseyite, breeder of my dachshund Lily and dog- in- law on several levels, just might... she is one of the fiercest hunters with hound and hawk I know.

Bat Falcon

Querencia reader and frequent commentor Annie D has just been to Costa Rica, where she photographed many amazing birds, insects, and plants. One of my favorite sequences (other than some beetles I hope to get later for Pluvialis) was this group. The toucan


was one of a group trying to steal eggs from a Bat falcon, which was nesting in a hole in a tree trunk. Bat falcons are tiny-- even smaller than Merlins-- but true falcons, and one of the most beautiful at that. They have been tried in falconry, but all I know have been eaten by larger birds of prey when flown in the open--!!-- they apparently are used to the cover of at least partial canopy forest, and need it, unlike most falcons. Will Beebe wrote of the nesting habits of a pair in one of his long- out- of print books from the Thirties that made me want to go places and see things-- I was ruined by books! This sequence captures the gorgeous little predator facing off, calling out in alarm, and finally taking off to repel the bigger birds. Thanks, Annie!



The Mechanical Contrivium

Pluvialis at Fretmarks and Chas at Nature Blog led me to this surreal site.

Here are Querencia's results:

1.You should always store Querencia in an airtight container in the fridge.
2. Humans share over 98 percent of their DNA with Querencia.
3. Scientists believe that Querencia began billions of years ago as an enormous ball of dust and gas.
4. If your ear itches, this means that someone is talking about Querencia.
5. Querenciaicide is the killing of Querencia!
6. Querencia can use only about ten percent of its brain.
7. Querencia can only be destroyed by intense heat, and is impermeable even to acid.
8. Querencia can't sweat!
9. The smelly fluid secreted by skunks is colloquially known as Querencia.
10. White chocolate isn't technically chocolate, because it doesn't contain Querencia!

They pale beside Fretmarks':

1. Lightning strikes fretmarks over seven times every hour!
2. If you don't get out of bed on the same side you got in, you will have fretmarks for the rest of the day.
3. All shrimp are born as fretmarks, but gradually mature into females.
4. The canonical hours of the Christian church are matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, fretmarks and compline!
5. All swans in England belong to fretmarks.
6. Europe is the only continent that lacks fretmarks.
7. Snow White's coffin was made of fretmarks.
8. Julius Caesar wore a laurel wreath to cover up fretmarks.
9. Apples are covered with a thin layer of fretmarks!
10. Neil Armstrong first stepped on fretmarks with his left foot.

Or Collie Dogs.

Or Tam, whose excellent gunblog I should link to far more often.

Sad and Infuriating

Last week, Matt's 82- year- old grandmother was attacked and brutalized by two young thugs.

" Two men followed her home from the shopping mall, a distance of a few miles over quiet residential streets. One man remained in an idling silver sedan while the other attacked, wielding a chunk of broken concrete that officers found later in Grandmother's car. The attack broke five of Margaret's facial bones, including three around her left eye, the bridge of her nose and left cheek. She sustained deep lacerations that bled profusely and remain grotesquely swollen and bruised. She will need surgery to mend the facial fractures and a later procedure to repair her left eye, currently sightless. The attackers drove away with forty dollars in stolen cash, a few credit cards and a checkbook."

It is customary to call such humans "beasts" or "animals", but I don't know many animals that would so brutalize an elderly female of their species.

Libby wrote him thus:

"I'm for bringing back the pillories and stocks -- stake the mo-fos out in the town square with a sign that says "These two "men" mugged and robbed an 82 year old woman." And let them take whatever abuse comes their way. And after that, stick them in jail for about 20 years. And for God's sake, don't let them pass on their genes which appear to be defective and rotten to the core.

"When, oh when, will our society make it not worth anyone's while to do things like this??

"Compassion? Only for your grandmother. Revenge? Sweet."

Kipling, as always, said it well:

"When the Himalayan peasant meets the he- bear in his pride,

He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.

But the she- bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male."

It is good to know that Matt's grandmother is also angry and unbowed.

Russia Post # 2: "Hazing"

Hazing is always nasty, and Russian military hazing has perhaps always been bad. But this.... (also an expired- link Moscow Times story):

"The Defense Ministry said Thursday that it would close the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy, where a brutal New Year's Eve hazing resulted in a conscript having his legs and genitals amputated."

(Snip-- no, let's NOT use that word)

"[Defense Minister] Ivanov..... at first played down the hazing as "nothing serious."

Reasons? Actually, this makes as much sense as anything:

""Hazing is a wild and barbaric way of maintaining discipline in the Russian army. In the absence of professional sergeants who maintain discipline in the barracks in any normal army, Russian officers put responsibility for keeping order on dedy " military analyst Alexander Goltz wrote in Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. Dedy are older servicemen who have completed a year or more of compulsory service and routinely abuse younger servicemen."

I have just been reading this book on the experiences of a Dartmouth Classics major who became a Marine officer, and the civilized nature of our services is in impressive contrast to this barbarity ( professional sergeants play an important part in our military culture).

Russia Post # 1

The former soldier turned defense writer and novelist, Ralph Peters, once mentioned that Russia would always break your heart. This may be in part because there is so much potential there, and there are so many obstacles to reaching it.

For an instance of the first: despite past horrors and the existence of places like Norilsk, Russia's environment is in pretty good shape. (Both this story and the next are from the Moscow Times-- links expired).

"Take a deep breath and a swig of water. Russian air, water and sanitation systems are among the best in the world, according to a study that will be released Thursday at the World Economic Forum.

"Russia, in 32nd place, ranks a few notches behind the United States (28) and above Poland (38) in the 2006 Environmental Performance Index, compiled by researchers from Columbia and Yale universities.

"Russia's environmental health -- measured by indoor air pollution, the prevalence of smog outside, the quality of drinking water, child mortality and adequate sanitation -- is approaching its optimal level, or 92.3 out of a possible 100, according to the report, which will be presented at the annual gathering of world and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland."

Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union are actually among the few places other than the States I'd consider living. But check out the next item as well...

More Links

From Tech Central Station: is your mind stuck in 1968? I try to be open to ideas, whether they come from left or right-- have linked to TCS, Orion, 2Blowhards, Sailer, Derbyshire, the NY andLA Times(es), and more. But I often find conservatives (of a certain kind anyway) and libertarians more open to heretical ideas than liberals...

A hilarious Instance of Doom & Gloom, sent by a reader to the Doom & Gloom master himself, John Derbyshire-- from the works of P G Wodehouse!

" "I hope you don't disapprove of weddings, Ferris?'
"Yes, sir."
"Why?"
"They seem to me melancholy occasions, sir."
"Are you married, Ferris?"
"A widower, sir."
"Well, weren't you happy when you got married?"
"No, sir."
"Was Mrs. Ferris?"
"She appeared to take a certain girlish pleasure in the ceremony, sir, but it soon blew over."
"How do you account for that?"
"I could not say, sir."
"I'm sorry weddings depress you, Ferris. Surely when two people love each other and mean to go on loving each other ... "
"Marriage is not a process for prolonging the live of love, sir. It merely mummifies its corpse."
"But, Ferris, if there were no marriages, what would become of posterity?"
"I see no necessity for posterity, sir."
"You disapprove of it?"
"Yes, sir."
"George walked pensively out on to the drive in front of the house. He was conscious of a diminution of the exuberant happiness which had led him to engage the butler in conversation. He saw clearly now that, Ferris's conversation being what it was, a bridegroom who engaged him in it on his wedding-day was making a blunder. A suitable, even an ideal, companion for a funeral, Ferris seemed out of harmony when the joy-bells were ringing. "

Derb adds that his "...diligent reader may have tracked the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement back to its source..."

Check out wonderful new blog "Birding Babylon", by a former soldier stationed in Iraq. It even has falconry! (He links to this First Science post that Reid or Matt may have mentioned before-- not entirely convincing but interesting nevertheless). He also has a general natural history blog here. Both are full of good things. Hat tip to O & P.

And a final food post (for now): "The Scottish Executive wants to prevent primary schoolchildren from eating haggis more than once a week. Has the world gone mad?" (From Arthur's Seat).

A Winter Braise

(First Published in Three Martini Lunch).

Sometimes a phrase will inspire you. I was reading a really bad issue of Esquire, including incompetent food writing (apparently their restaurant critic thinks that gizzards are “chicken assholes” and that kidneys are inedible) when I came upon a simple recipe for braised lamb shanks. The phrase was “use ten times as many vegetables . . .”

Hmmm. I didn’t have any shanks, nor were the fennel bulbs asked for available in Magdalena, but what else could I find for a snowy day long- cooked meal?

It was noon. I found eight carrots and a parsnip that needed using. Went to Trail’s End and found a nice beef arm roast— not too lean, not too tender— perfect. Added a white onion , a red one, and some mushrooms.

At home, I coated the roast with a mix of flour, paprika, salt, and pepper, and browned it in a Dutch oven in olive oil and butter. Removed it, and put the onions, chopped, half the carrots ditto, and about four chopped garlic cloves in, and cooked it all until it was translucent. Deglazed with a LITTLE red wine— maybe a small wineglass, scraped, cooked down until it was syrupy. Put the roast back in, and added a bit more than a cup of chicken stock. Added a whole head of garlic, cloves separated but not “skinned”.

I had put the oven on to 275 degrees. Into the oven with the Dutch oven, with the lid on, and just forget about it.

Some time between 5 and 6, I opened it up. Removed the now- tender roast. Strained the vegetables through a sieve, and returned the liquid to the Dutch oven.

Now: put the remaining four carrots and the parsnips, cut up, and the roast, back in. In half an hour, add however many chopped and peeled potatoes you want. Sweat the mushrooms in olive oil and butter and add them. When the potatoes are done, remove all meat and vegetables to a warm covered platter and reduce the liquid to a thick cup or less. Pour over the roast and serve. It will warm you.

Oh, and— this is infinitely variable— turnips or leeks or fennel can be added or subtracted, etc . . .

Recipes

I have been recipe- blogging at Roseann's Three Martini Lunch. I will always post these things there first, but will eventually move them here. First, a response to Matt Miller's request for a jackrabbit-- read "hare"-- recipe:

"We eat lots of hare, as the dogs allow.

The thing to remember is that they are HARES, not rabbits. Unlike those little white-meat creatures, they have about the darkest, richest meat in North America (with the possible exception of woodcock), and they are runners, so it is not initially tender. Most people in the US, if they eat it at all, pressure- cook it and use it for taco fillers or in chile. I think that is a waste of one of our most delicious and unusual meats, not to mention sporting (if you run them with hounds and/ or hawks) quarries! But if you don’t like game, you won’t like hare.

The recipes are all there, in European cookbooks, marked, well, “Hare”- jugged hare, civet du lievre, hasenpfeffer.

First, I usually remove the fillets from the saddle—the area behind the ribs along the backbone and before the hindquarters. To quote from Nicola Cox on Game Cookery, “Bone out the saddle of hare, removing all the bluish membrane and tendons.” She continues, “Place the fillets and both tiny fillets mignon from under the saddle in a glass or china bowl and pour the marinate ingredients over them . . .” You can do this but I prefer to dust them with a dry rub— some good chile powder maybe, and/ or ground Szechuan peppercorns, a bit of salt etc— and then saute them in a hot skillet for less than 5 minutes, then turn them over and turn the heat off, and take them out of the pan and serve them in about 2 or 3 minutes. Perfect!

Then you want to cook the fore and especially hindquarters, which really do need marinating and long cookery (the ribcage etc. are best just used for stock— too fiddly). Nicola Cox has some good recipes— here is an adaptation of an Italian one we like.

Marinade:
3tbs olive oil
3 tbs lighter cooking oil
1 chopped onion
2- 4 cloves chopped garlic
Sprigs rosemary, thyme, fresh sage
3- 4 tbs balsamic vinegar

Front and hind quarters of hare
Dried porcini (cepe) mushrooms
Olive oil
I diced carrot
I diced stick of celery
Several cloves of garlic
1 oz flour
2-3 tbs balsamic vinegar
Cup white wine
1 tbs tomato puree
Cup or more good stock
Enough butter to cook:
1/2 lb fresh assorted mushrooms

Marinate in fridge for 2- 4 days. Drain and pat dry.

Soak the dry mushrooms in hot water, ten simmer until the liquid is reduced. Reserve.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or other roomy heavy pot. Add diced vegetables, and cook over moderate heat until soft. Then turn up heat and hare pieces, salt, pepper, and flour. Turn until “sealed” and add wine and vinegar. Reduce again. Add tomato puree and dried mushrooms and their liquid. Add some stock.

At this point you should cover and simmer for 2 1/2 hours— so they say. Maybe it’s true at sea level (we are at 6500 feet), but I have never seen one done that fast— try at least 4 hours, and some older hares take longer. Personally I like to put it in the oven, covered, at a very low heat for about 4 hours, then check it out. If you are cooking for a group and need a “deadline” it is often better to do it up to this point the day before and then finish it— the flavors actually improve.

Finally, reduce the hare liquid on the stove top over brisk heat until it is sauce- like. Cut up and sautee those fresh mushrooms in butter, and combine. Cook for 20 minutes or so, at a lower heat. The meat should be falling off the bones. A squeeze of lemon or a bit of nutmeg can’t hurt. Serve over polenta or pasta. (You could also take it off the bones and make it into a very rich pasta sauce).”

Catchup: Blogwatch and Newswatch

One of the things I do when I am busy (I am currently revising a novel, starting another, cutting a lot of firewood, and continuing to help translate an 1865 book from Siberia-- apologies to correspondents as well) is just pile up interesting references that I find in the evening. So bear with me as I give you a linkfest rather than an essay. More to come!

Here are two links for the price of one: Steve Sailer on a fascinating and counterintuitive study implying that the frontal lobes of humans in England have increased since Medieval times-- quick human evolution! -- and his link to a fine NYT essay by Charles Siebert on animal minds and personalities that Reid recommended. Newsflash to those who are still amazed by the fact of animal personality: they are individuals! I have ordered this book by Siebert on country and city life, a subject that always interests me (I am generally thought of as a countryman, which is true enough, but I have lived my life either on dirt roads or in big city apartments!)-- will report.

Apparently some members of the ornithological establishment aren't comfortable with the rediscovery of the Ivory- billed woodpecker, calling it "faith- based ornithology". I admit a bias-- one of the rediscoverers. Tim Gallagher, is a friend. But because I know him, I respect his field skills; the photos look clear enough to me; and I have seen this kind of sad turf- guarding by professionals and academics before. Tim is an editor, photographer, and writer, not a PhD. As I wrote to Reid, "Some of these guys won't be satisfied until a PhD shoots one".

Evolution is not always as "contingent" as the late Stephen Gould believed; certain patterns tend to evolve again and again, not randomly. This NYT article is about a"new" fossil discovered in the already- excavated Triassic "Ghost Ranch" treasure trove from Northern New Mexico. It is a crocodle relative that resembles the (much later) birdlike predator Velociraptor, even down to certain small skeletal details and probable ecological niche. The same kind of creature would evolve a third time after the dinosaurs' extinction, in the form of the "Terror crane" Dyatrima.

Matt Mullenix has started a new blog about, and defending, working animals. To quote from his opening statement:

"To some no human use of animals can be more than predatory or exploitive. But human and animal partnerships are easily and widely demonstrated facts, not to mention long necessary and mutually beneficial. They are so obviously a part of the human experience, it seems ludicrous to attempt this defense of them. And yet, every year it is needed more.

"As we become less directly and personally dependent on natural systems (a dangerous illusion), we afford ourselves a dangerous conceit: that we are alone, we are self-sufficient, and we are liberated. If this conceit leads some to seek "liberation" and self determination for other animals, it is maybe understandable. But it is wrong.

"Human beings need animals. We need them not only in the abstract but in the actual and physical ways we have always needed them. We raise and protect them, hunt and eat them, train and learn from them. We share their space, and they share ours. By virtue of our greater foresight and insight, we are finally responsible for every other animal. By virtue of their greater strength, loyalty, speed, endurance and awareness, they were always responsible for us."

Amen to that! I will put the link on our blogroll, and I hope to contribute. Please consider doing so yourself.

And finally-- I don't know whether to laugh or cry about this one. That reactionary curmudgeon Fred (do NOT bother linking to him if you have any lingering political correctitude!) has just written an essay titled "A Colony Again" in reaction to a WaPo piece on, well, graduate students who can't read. I wish I could say it's unbelievable...

Longer stuff to come, recipes, and more...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Quest for an Aussie

My wife and I have been on a search the last few weeks. Our favorite breed of dog is Australian Shepherd. We have had two as pets and they were both wonderful - very intelligent and very socialized to people.

Osa (1983-1999) was a blue-merle female we bought for $10 at a ranch near Bailey, Colorado. She was the dog of a lifetime. She knew us all by name, knew the vehicles, knew parts of the house. When the kids were toddlers she would herd them. Every evening at bed-time she would go around and "count" us all, to make sure we were in the sheep fold. She had a wonderful long run, but it hit us hard when we lost her.


Here's our daughter Lauren and Osa when they were both pups.


Here's me and the kids with Osa when she was full-grown. We're on an outing to St. Mary's Glacier in Colorado.

One of my favorite Osa stories happened when we were in Tehachapi and she was getting on in years. One evening she came up to me and gave me the "Dad, it's suppertime, feed me!" look. I had already told Travis to feed the dogs, so I said to her (sorta jokingly) "Travis is going to feed you. I think he's in the bathroom." She immediately turned and left the living room, walked across the entry hall, then the length of the family room to the bathroom where she sat down and gave Travis the same look. Like she understood every word.

Kate (1995-2004) was a tri-color female we got for $50 from some folks in Tehachapi. Another smart, sweet dog we lost to a cancerous mass in her abdomen. She was the dog who had a leg broken in the coyote attack I talked about here.


Here's Kate on a beach walk here in Santa Barbara with Connie and Maggie our Lab.

We saw a tri-color pup while walking the beach a few weeks ago and she inspired us to start looking for another aussie.

It's always intrigued me how the breed got its name. The ultimate origin of the breed isn't in Australia at all but in the Pyrenees of France and Spain, where they were bred by Basque shepherds. In the last quarter of the 19th century, improved breeds of sheep were brought to the western US from Australia. These were often accompanied by Basque shepherds who had earlier emigrated in search of work to the sheep-pen the British made of Australia. The Basques brought with them what contemporary observers called their "little blue dogs." As they got off the ship with the Australian sheep the misnomer began.

It's obvious looking at contemporary aussies that they also have significant genetic contributions from Border Collies, Rough Collies, and German Koolies. The bottom line has been that these dogs were a working breed selected for endurance, intelligence, herding skill, and affinity for humans. It makes me sad that the AKC has recognized them. Now you can see people breeding for appearance and not behavior. Aussies are having problems with their eyes and hip dysplasia. The AKC has ruined more breeds.


The internet has made searching for the dog you want a much different process than I have been used to. We could cast our net pretty wide. We made visits to see dogs in the Santa Ynez Valley and last week-end I drove all the way down to Riverside County where I found this female pupShe won't be ready to leave her mother until the end of the month when we will go down and pick her up. I was very impressed at how intelligent and socialized all of the dogs were at this breeder's house in contrast to other places we had been. This was especially true of this puppy's father and mother
I will keep you posted after our new friend comes home.

Horses and Weeds: To Blame or Not to Blame

I saw this interesting but ultimately frustrating piece in the LA Times a few days ago. For years horses have been blamed as part of the problem for the spread of non-native plants and noxious weeds into National Parks and Wilderness Areas in this part of the world. The reasoning goes that horses eat these plants and deposit the seeds in their manure where they later sprout in new locations. Apparently the NPS has required horsepackers operating in their parks to use certified weed-free feeds based on this.

Recently the NPS hired a university researcher to do a complete literature search on the subject of horse-spread weeds. The results of this showed that no empirical studies of the subject had been conducted. Everyone assumed that horses were an agent but no experiments had ever been done to actually prove it.

So the NPS paid these guys to develop a protocol for sampling manure, putting it in pots, watering it and seeing what sprouted. Sounds like a good idea to me. The preliminary results of the experiments reported here show a few non-native plants and no noxious weeds have sprouted and the article uses this for its headline: "Who Spreads the Weeds? Don't Bet on the Horse." The reporter asserts that this means the notion that horses spread weeds, "...looks like a myth." Later you see that this lack of weeds in the samples is attributed to - use of weed-free feeds.

So what good are the studies if you don't control for what the horses are eating? I'm sure Senator Proxmire is at least twitching in his grave. It's also scary that the reporter doesn't seem to realize his copy doesn't support his headline. This is an issue that really does need to be studied, but we're sure wasting time and money running in circles with this approach.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Surviving

Michael Blowhard tells a moving story of being free from cancer after surviving cancer for five years. Read, please, and raise a glass.

Also on 2Blowhards, Friedrich posts on the innate sadism and nastiness of the Classical Romans. I never did quite understand why the culture that gave us the Colosseum is held up as a model of republican virtue. Quoting Rodney Stark : " [The Roman aristocrat and writer] Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace. [The Roman historian] Tacitus charged that the Jewish teaching that is “a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child” was but another of their “sinister and revolting” practices…"

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Some Critics' Movie Columns

I have been following the noise over Brokeback Mountain with some amusement, knowing whatwever they say it will all make Annie Proulx money. Suffice to say that I owe her many things, not least that by teaching me to TEACH writing she also taught me much about analyzing writing and so made mine better.

I probably shouldn't be writing this because, living where I do, I haven't even seen the movie yet-- it most likely won't come to Socorro County (not as much because of the gay content as because only the biggest box- office moneymakers-- think Star Wars-- or kids' films do); so we will have to travel the hundred miles to Albuquerque or wait until DVD. But I know the story well, I know Annie was at least pleased enough with the screenplay to collaborate on a book about it, and I suspect that I can tell if reviewers understand what is going on or not. Oh, and I like Ang Lee!

I think the most perceptive (and very favorable) review I have yet read is the one by Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, who is-- perhaps a surprise for some coastal readers-- young, Catholic, conservative, and southern, here. (He also has a book coming out attempting to reconcile "green" values and conservative ones, which should at least be interesting, and which has the first subtitle I have ever seen too long to fit on Amazon).

Dreher has so many good things to say that you should definitely read his whole essay, but here are a few quotes:

"What gets lost in the culture-war blitzkrieg over homosexuality are the complex and ambiguous truths that real people live and struggle with. Art that reduces messy humanity to slogans and arguments is not art at all, but sentimentality, kitsch, anti-art – in a word, propaganda. "

"Intrigued, I found on the Internet a link to the Annie Proulx short story on which the movie is based and was shocked by how good it was, especially at embodying the "concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position here on earth" – Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's description of what true artistry does. Though director Ang Lee's tranquil style fails to capture the daemonic wildness of Ms. Proulx's version, I came away from the film thinking, this is not for everybody, but it really is a work of art. "

"It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we'd legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis' pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool – social, moral, spiritual and erotic. I In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality , or "about" anything other than the tragic human condition. "

"To the frustration of ideologues, artists like Annie Proulx and Ang Lee undertake a journey to those depths and return to tell the truth about what they've seen – which is not necessarily what any of us wants to hear. As Ms. O'Connor taught, "Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction." "

"Or read it. Or watch it. "

Cant add a thing to that. Most favorable reviews, like this intelligent one by Lee Harris on the libertarian site Tech central, seem to think that its theme is that it's all society's fault, for one reason or another. Such views deny the innate complexity and tragedy of human relations; though Harris does have some interesting things to say, I don't buy the "homosexuality is a construct" deal from either the left or the right.

Finally, I cant resist quoting this absolutely hilarious if unfair review, titled "So long, but thanks for all the sheep" . How can you resist an essay with these lines:

"It is worth mentioning that Jack marries a woman who doesn't so much age over the next twenty years as start wearing a succession of ever larger poodles on her head. In the circumstances can one blame him for driving to Mexico in order to pick up male prostitutes? Much can be forgiven a man whose wife has poodles instead of a coiffeur, and whose ability in bed can (and is) summed up in the phrase,"She's great at selling combine harvesters"."

Zoomorphic Art, Plus

(Which is a term I more or less made up just now). I love art, especially sculpture, that includes or references natural objects without exactly mimicking them. Our friend the zoologist and artist Jonathan Kingdon . has done some such work; another friend, local artist Yvonne Magener-- I'll try to get some of hers up soon-- does combinations of skulls and metal that are elegant and fascinating.

By synchronicity, friends have just found or revealed two more. The more whimsical was found by Roseann, in the form of this rather creepy (but still whimsical!) "statue" made from an old pet's bones and metal. But if you go to their site you will find that sculptor Jessica Joslin and her painter husband Jared have constructed some wonderful objects.


And from Pluvialis at Fretmarks comes a recommendation for the mysterious and elegant work of Steve Dilworth. Take a look at "Woodcock"


which apparently is in part a coffin for said bird, or "Cuckoo".


I want one!

While you are at Fretmarks, take a look at the post below (previous to) the Dilworth, "Envy". I LOVE this exchange, between Pluvialis and a friend re a popular novelist known by both :

"And when the envy reaches heights as high as it did this morning, when I leafed bitterly through her four-page feature illustrated with photos of herself on beaches and in spas, all I need to do is remember my dear friend B telling me why he'd bought The Novelist's first novel. "I'd heard it was kind of autobiographical" he explained, "and I knew her quite well at college, and I was looking forward to seeing how she'd based all the characters in the book on people we knew."

"Cool!" I said. "Who was in it?"

There was a pause. "I got halfway through" he said, mournfully, "before I realised there weren't any other characters in it at all".

A Random Twig...

... on Tree of Life. Though delicious, the monkfish may not look like you think it does. And remember, the left half is HEAD, and the creature may be three feet long...



One of the best ways to entertain yourself exploring this ambitious phylogenetic site is to just let it pick a species at random.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Re: Writing for Money

Thank you for sharing that story, Matt. I really enjoyed it.

I believe that this sort of thing has been going on in one form or another as long as there have been journalists. Savvy PR people know exactly how to get their stories with the proper spin placed with sympathetic journalists. Most of the time they don't have to spend cash to do it. Reporters need stories, interviews, exclusive information, and quotes. Publicists can "spend" access and information on journalists to get what they need in front of the public.

The thing about it is, reporters do it too. My latest encounter with this was about three years ago when I had a project in the Central Valley here in California. I was monitoring the construction of a large water pipeline in an area known to have many buried archaeological sites. If we saw evidence of buried deposits in the excavated trench we had authority to stop work to assess them. One day the excavator hit human remains several feet below the surface: a prehistoric burial and the residue of several cremations. We stopped work immediately. The protocol under California law required me to call the County Coroner to inform him of the find, no matter if we knew the remains were prehistoric or not - these eventually proved to be more than 4000 years old.

About two hours after my call to the Coroner, a TV news reporter and cameraman showed up at the work site. And we were in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was obvious that the TV station had a "friend" in the Coroner's office, paid to tip them to anything that happened. The reporter was not very happy when I escorted him off the site with no video, no interview and no information after that long drive. I had my client's interests to protect and the Native American monitor who was working with me was in no mood to see his ancestors' remains on the evening news.

My relations with media journalists have been few, but almost all have been of very poor quality. As long as I'm on a roll here, I'll tell another horror story. Years ago, I managed an archaeological excavation project under contract to a government agency in a certain western state. An employee of that government agency, not the person I was directly working for, but one senior enough that I couldn't turn him away, showed up at my site one day with a psychic in tow.

He wanted the psychic to take "readings" on the site and on artifacts we had recovered. It was a very embarrassing situation. I didn't particularly want them around, but he was my customer and I couldn't tell him no. My crew was scandalized. But I went along with it. After work that day, I brought several artifacts with me to a meeting with the psychic. He would hold one in his hand, squeeze his eyes shut tight, and either start asking leading questions ("Was this found to the left of something?") or uttering meaningless "readings" ("I see cottonwood trees!") It was obvious the guy was a total fraud.

The next day, the psychic came out to the site and walked over part of the unexcavated area. He placed four or five stakes in the ground and made very specific predictions about what we would find at each spot: a stone fireplace, the grave of a person who died of small pox, etc. After doing that, he left with his government friend and I was relieved to have them out of my hair. Of course when we excavated under his stakes we found absolutely nothing that remotely resembled what he had predicted. I figured that was over and done with and I had heard the last of it.

Wrong. About two months after we returned from the field, one of my co-workers (who had been at the site) came into my office with a horrified look on his face carrying a newspaper. Sure enough, in a major regional paper was a half-page, by-lined article, complete with picture of our psychic, describing how he had visited my site and successfully predicted the location of every artifact and feature that I found. It was amazing.

The reporter had done what a good reporter does - completely swallow a free juicy story with no background research, no fact-checking and no attempt at a third party verification of the events. She was indignant when I called her and told her of her mistake. Who was I and how was I in any position to know about it? It was probably just a difference of opinion between me and the psychic. I had placed the locations of the psychic's predictions on the site map and offered to meet with her (and the psychic if she wanted) so she could see how far off he was. She refused to meet me and stopped taking my calls. Her editor wouldn't take my calls. I had to make do with a letter to the editor that they grudgingly printed after editing all the meat out of it. Live and learn.

So Matt, don't worry about being cynical. Remember what Lily Tomlin said, "I get more and more cynical every day, but it's never enough to keep up."

Precolumbian Chinese and the Vinland Map

The BBC had an interesting item last week about this Chinese map that is dated to 1763. It obviously displays knowledge of the Americas, not surprising in a map of that age, but a statement on the map says that it is the direct copy of a map made in 1418. If true, that would buttress claims that Chinese explorers reached America early in the 15th century, bumping Columbus from second (behind the Vikings) to third place in the Post-Pleistocene Discovery of America Sweepstakes. This theory was most recently advanced in Gavin Menzies popular book 1421.

I'm sure Menzies is giving people high-fives about this, but there are obvious problems with a second-hand map, even if it is authenticated to 1763. You can't be sure what the 1418 map really looked like - maybe the cartographer only copied the Old World portions from it. But it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

I like to keep an open mind about these things. There is no reason that the Chinese couldn't have reached the New World. They were certainly technologically capable of doing it - their ships were at least as good as Columbus's. My first post on this blog discussed some theories of prehistoric contact between Polynesia and California. We do know that Polynesians reached South America in prehistoric times - sweet potates, a South American domesticate, were found throughout Polynesia at European contact. Which means that I erred with my initial PPDA Sweepstakes list, and I must award the Polynesians first place.

But back to the Chinese. We just need some physical proof. Finding the original 1418 map wouldn't hurt, but say some nice Chinese porcelains in a good prehistoric site here in North America would be better.

I mean, we went through all this with the Vikings about 45-50 years ago. Once a Viking settlement was excavated at L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada in the early 1960s, that was settled. The Chinese map story reminded me of the Vinland Map (a portion pictured above) that was a sensation when it came to light in the mid-1960s. Yale University acquired this map and an associated manuscript that were purported to date to the first half of the 15th century. As you can see above, it shows the North American coast as a couple of islands in the Atlantic based on information from the Icelandic sagas.

This site collects a lot of information on the Vinland Map and the various controversies that have dogged it. It has variously been trumpeted as a confirming document or denounced as a clever fake. As the Viking settlement in Canada had already been discovered, the stakes were not quite as high for the Vinland Map as they might be. I hadn't heard much about it in recent years, but discovered in researching this that two studies of it in the last five years have given conflicting results. The parchment the map is drawn on was radiocarbon dated and was verified as dating to the 1430s. On the negative side, a chemical study of the ink showed it contained chemicals that weren't used in inks until the 20th century. A modern fake drawn on old salvaged parchment is possible. But then other researchers said they had found the same chemicals in authenticated 15th century documents. It goes on and on. Hopefully this Chinese map won't have as tortured a history.

Writing for Money

As an aspiring writer for money and other good reasons, this Yahoo News piece caught my eye: Scrushy Said to Pay for Positive Stories. I'm unfamiliar with the court case it hinges on but gather the defendant managed to swing some good press from a freelance writer. A public relations firm and an influential local newspaper may have facilitated the deal. The writer received $11,000 for her work, and the defendant was acquitted.

Eleven grand for a few stories, doubtless light on the research end, sounds like good money to me. I've done more for less (often much less) in my own freelancing. I wonder, would I turn this one down?

Two sides weigh in with considerations:


"U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who prosecuted the case, said the claims of Audry Lewis and Henderson, if true, do not appear to amount to a crime. 'If you want to pay someone to write favorable stories and can get a paper to print them, I don't know of any law it violates,' Martin said. "


A counter argument comes from the highly ethical field of professional journalism:


"Kelly McBride, who directs ethics programs of the Poynter Institute, which trains professional journalists, said the payments described by Audry Lewis are 'a complete aberration' in American journalism."
Really? Am I so cynical?

Would any of the many good writers in orbit of Querencia like to comment here? For the record, I would probably take this job. I have probably done worse.

You can contact me privately for a quote.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Malaria Watch!

No, not watching out for Malaria; but, courtesy of Peculiar, a wristwatch that detects Malaria. I could have used one of those in Zimbabwe years back, as he well remembers...

More Flu- anoia

Everyone continues to lose it over H5N1. The Economist opines that the Turkish government should stop allowing villagers to raise their own chickens, apparently preferring that they confine all chicken raising to industrial breeds in the kind of industrial chicken concentration camps that are breeding factories for diseases, then SELL them to the peasants. Yeah, in the Urfa Wal- Mart-- that'll work. Meanwhile the Turkish government alternates between denial and ordering mayors to confiscate chickens-- one is reported to have in turn ordered children to round them up. John Burchard reports that farmers are sending all their sick and poor birds to market on trucks. Meanwhile, Russia has announced that it will ban tourism to Turkey in the spring if the flu is not under control...

Meanwhile in an AP report a turkish villager is quoted saying that he wll never touch birds again. I wonder how much of what I saw last month is already gone? Of course, village culture may be more resilient than that....

Pluvialis of Fretmarks had some pungent comments on lost biocultural resources and the mindset of bureaucrats vs peasants in a note this AM:

"As for the pigeon thing, sigh. The Economist aside made me mad. And then it made me laugh, because it reminded me of a story I heard years ago about a NGO project that tried to teach Peruvian villagers (who keep guinea pigs in their houses, yes? to eat on celebration and feast days) that in fact, with a bit of western farming know-how, they could set up battery guinea-pig farms so they could have protein-rich guinea-pig every day of the week! It seemed so obvious to the NGO! And the response, after hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in, and pilot projects set up, was hilarious. Peruvian villagers said, great, that's really clever. But we only eat them on feast days and celebrations. That's what we do. And we like to keep them in our houses. So go away and leave us alone. Excellent."

She also sent this interesting link to some theories about things other than migrating birds that could be spreading the disease. Makes sense to me. For one thing, birds don't generally migrate laterally. For another, chickens don't spend a lot of time hanging out with migrants-- ducks, maybe, but not chickens.

Meanwhile, courtesy of Walter Hingley, a story from the ultra- right Russian nationalist, that always- reliable paranoiac, sometime polygamy advocate, and rabid anti- Semite, the redoubtable Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has a new good idea: keep the flu (and birds) at bay with "rifles":

“We must force the government to stop the bird migration,” Zhirinovsky said. “We must shoot all birds, field all our men and troops ... and force migratory birds to stay where they are.

Yeah, THAT'll work!

What will likely hapen is that something totally unforeseen will show up, like the Mexican hemorrhagic fever that according to the February Discover may have been what REALLY did in the Aztecs-- and still may be out there..

(Not on line, yet).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fretmarks


I can't believe I didn't know anything about this blog. Its proprietor, "Pluvialis", just shyly told me of it, though apparently she has been linking to us for a while.

The title is a falconry term-- the marks made on a growing feather by stress or lack of food. But though Pluvialis does indeed deal with falconry (check out the sapphire and diamond hoods from the Emirates), you will also encounter everything from Martha Stewart as a "predator" to mushroom hunting, rock & roll, (good) TV, guns, and the covers of (very odd) WWll British military books by Penguin (one is titled "I knew your Soldier", by Eleanor "Bumpy" Stevenson-- as Pluvialis says, "They HAVE to be joking". You will learn of such obscure characters as one Bernard Acworth, a lunatic anti- evolutionist friend of C S Lewis who in 1929 wrote a book titled "The Bondage" with the thesis that (1) birds didn't migrate-- they blew on the wind; and that (2) so did airplanes, so international air travel was impossible. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up-- she has links.

Pluvialis is completing (or not-- I'll let her decide) her PhD at Cambridge University-- see the post with the visual of Fuseli's "Nightmare"-- is an active falconer, has written a soon- to be - released book full of good writing that I endorse (yes, she quotes me once or twice, and I will link when I get one), and can write gracefully about pop or high culture.


For some reason her post about the good cancelled series Firefly seemed worth a quote for a bit of her flavor:

"....I was a crewmember once. Not a spaceship crew: this was in Wales. And we didn’t deal in contraband. We didn’t smuggle in Marlborough Lights and fence them in pubs along the Tenby seafront. We were a bunch of oddballs; ex-marines, skate-punks, kleptomaniacs, rugby-players, literature graduates, biologists, and the sons of colonial farmers, all obsessed with falcons, stuck in a cold, wet hollow in the middle of nowhere. Wet rot and flystrike. It breeds strange behaviour, such kindly isolation."

Put her on your list!

"What Questions Have disappeared?"

This post from Steve Sailer on an essay by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller caught my eye for several reasons. It is on questions about your child's prospective mate that, for (PC? ) reasons, we no longer ask or even admit to thinking about. Some of the difficulty is that we legitimately resist social stereotyping-- I have known a few WASP types who considered my possession of "Mediterranean genes"-- ie a vowel at the end of my name-- to be a real fault.

But Miller's take on the second question in particular, "What are their accomplishments?", was wonderful.

"The question "What are their accomplishments?" refers not to career success, but to the constellation of hobbies, interests, and skills that would have adorned most educated young people in previous centuries. Things like playing pianos, painting portraits, singing hymns, riding horses, and planning dinner parties. Such accomplishments have been lost through time pressures, squeezed out between the hyper-competitive domain of school and work, and the narcissistic domain of leisure and entertainment. It is rare to find a young person who does anything in the evening that requires practice (as opposed to study or work)--anything that builds skills and self-esteem, anything that creates a satisfying, productive "flow" state, anything that can be displayed with pride in public. Parental hot-housing of young children is not the same: after the child's resentment builds throughout the French and ballet lessons, the budding skills are abandoned with the rebelliousness of puberty--or continued perfunctorily only because they will look good on college applications.

"The result is a cohort of young people whose only possible source of self-esteem is the school/work domain--an increasingly winner-take-all contest where only the brightest and most motivated feel good about themselves. (And we wonder why suicidal depression among adolescents has doubled in one generation.) This situation is convenient for corporate recruiting--it channels human instincts for self-display and status into an extremely narrow range of economically productive activities.

"Yet it denies young people the breadth of skills that would make their own lives more fulfilling, and their potential lovers more impressed. Their identities grow one-dimensionally, shooting straight up towards career success without branching out into the variegated skill sets which could soak up the sunlight of respect from flirtations and friendships, and which could offer shelter, and alternative directions for growth, should the central shoot snap."

By luck and temperament, we seem to have raised our child by "Victorian" principles-- adventure, skills, music (encouraged not forced), a diverse bunch of accomplished if often impoverished friends as examples of some- damn- thing. And not only has he found a mate whose interests, accomplishments, and friendships seem to mirror his; they have an entire, if small, community of friends with the same values. Despite Doom and Gloom, all is not yet lost...

Doom and Gloom: the Continuing Series

Does Iran want to hit us with a nuclear pulse and destroy all our electronics? Gloomy enough for Derbyshire!

Artificial Elephants


Perhaps the oddest things to buy I have ever seen. I saw this in one of the high- end sporting mags, the ones Libby calls "gun porn". The ad copy is even odder: "KR reproductions are completely bug resistant and guaranteed not to crack, split or have any other problems associated with the use of a real elephant skin".

Wonder what it costs? (No I don't, don't want to know). Soon to come: robotics and, apparently, a T- rex.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Winter Rituals

What happens when it snows? One thing that happens is that people are absolutely compelled to build snowmen. I have posted here before on the strange compulsions people have in certain situations.

So what happens if you live in a place where it doesn't snow and you are hit with the snowman compulsion?

You build driftwoodmen! Connie and I saw this example from a creative local at the beach on Sunday. We thought the hair (a kelp root-mat) was a nice touch.

This is actually the first one of these I have ever seen. But I am familiar with his cousins from the desert Southwest.


Tumbleweedmen.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Suburban Wildlife


These two pictures of bobcats appeared in today's Santa Barbara News-Press. The article is subscribers-only so I haven't bothered to try to link. They were taken last week in the backyard of a house that adjoins Tucker's Grove County Park, which is a quarter-mile north of where we live.

Our neighborhood really is pretty classic California suburbia, but we butt up against foothills that are minimally developed, and the Los Padres National Forest boundary is about mile north of Tucker's Grove. We aren't that far from decent habitat for lots of wild animals, plus we have a lot of environmental diversity in a small area, as the elevation (south to north) goes from sea-level to 4000 feet in seven miles.

Our house is across the street from San Antonio Creek, an intermediate seasonal drainage. The San Antonio Creek arroyo is wide enough and has enough relief and cover that it serves as a wildlife corridor for all sorts of animals to come down out of the foothills into populated areas. I haven't seen or heard (if you've ever heard them in heat you'll never forget it!) these bobcats, but I wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't ambled by some evening.

We hear coyotes howling fairly frequently at night in Winter, and I have seen them many times walking on the other side of the street in the early mornings after coming up out of the creek bottom. We haven't had any real problems with them, however. Perhaps we don't give them many targets: our trash cans are covered, our dog food is always kept indoors and our dog is too big to be a temptation. And we are veterans of aggressive coyote behavior. When we lived in a more rural area (Tehachapi) one of our puppies was attacked by two coyotes at night in our backyard. They broke her front right leg, but she recovered to have a good life.

I think our most common wild mammal visitors are skunks. At night, at all times of the year. There have been countless nights that I have been awakened by rustling noises in the back-yard followed by that distinctive smell. Our black lab Maggie got sprayed once. We bathed her in a hydrogen peroxide-based concoction recommended by our vet to try to get rid of the smell. It bleached the tips of her black hairs white and gave her a kind of punk-rock dog look. Also there have been a number of occasions on nocturnal dog-walks that skunks have decided that the side-walk was theirs and we gladly gave them the right-of-way.

For some reason, we don't seem to have many opossums or raccoons in the neighborhood. I have seen them many other places in town, but not around our house.

Overall, I kind of like having them around. We don't seem to really bother each other. I also like that their home territory is a short walk away.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

La Conchita

I have been wanting to write something about the La Conchita landslide for some time, and anniversary of its occurrence last week as recounted in the LA Times gave me something to hang it on.

La Conchita is a hamlet on the Ventura/Santa Barbara County line along US 101 just south of here. Last January, during a period of heavy rains, the hillside gave way above the community and ten people were killed. It was a tragedy that was a one-week wonder on the cable news channels. Gov. Schwarzenegger came and vowed to help the people rebuild. But a year later not much has been done.

A look at the picture above will tell you why. You can plainly see the scar of the landslide on the hill. If you look closely to the left of it, you will see another scar, more overgrown with vegetation, from a 1994 landslide that luckily hurt no one. The 2005 landslide was not a bolt out of the blue. Everyone has known this situation has existed for many years, and as people tend to do (especially I think here in California) just ignored the unpleasant truth.

Predictably, the victims' families are suing Ventura County for not protecting them. Residents are unhappy that Ventura County won't spend $30-40 million on terracing the slope to protect the 250 or so people who still live there. The County says that the situation is so unstable that terracing can't guarantee another slide won't happen.

Libby Bodio used to live in the area and a former co-worker of hers was one of the ten people killed. We talked about this last week and her take was, "...all you have to do is take one look at La Conchita and you can see that it is not a good place to live. Even a rudimentary idea of geology makes it obvious that sooner or later, gravity will take over and the hill will slide. I always used to shake my head when I drove down the PCH through Malibu and Santa Monica -- you could always see the half-houses and swimming pools on the hillsides. The same at Faria Beach -- the ocean has been pounding at the shore for eons, and even a seawall that costs $1000 a foot isn't going to stop it. Live and invest there if you want but don't expect anyone to bail you out when the inevitable occurs."

Well, they still expect us to.

The photo above is of a surfer's memorial service held for the landslide victims last week. That is appropriate as La Conchita is a surfer's town. One of the most famous Southern California surf spots, Rincon Point (immortalized in The Beach Boys "Surfin' USA") is 3/4 mile away.

Green Pigs

It was all over the news services last week: researchers in Taiwan had bred transgenic green pigs that glowed in the dark.

These pigs are green inside and out. Apparently the purpose is to aid in genetic research: "The scientists will use the transgenic pigs to study human disease. Because the pig's genetic material is green, it is easy to spot. So if, for instance, some of its stem cells are injected into another animal, scientists can track how they develop without the need for a biopsy or invasive test."

So at this point, they really aren't being bred for the table yet. However, I must say that this does move us much closer to achieving Dr. Suess's ideal meal of Green Eggs and Ham.

Sappho, Vodka, Wildfire, Bad Poetry about Toads...

... and more, brought to you by Odious and Peculiar.


For a sample of the last:

A linked chain of bubbling notes,
When birds have ceased their calling,
That lulls the ear with soothing sound
Like voice of water falling.
It is the knell of winter dead;
Good-by his icy fetter.
Blessings on thy warty head:
No bird could do it better.

Cig Kofte

I love Turkish food! Any New Mexican would love its creative use of hot peppers (just as hot as ours and far hotter than European varieties) and its innovative use of meat-- lamb, especially-- spiced or ground or in kebabs. I can enjoy lentil soup for breakfast, pilafs, garlic- spiced yogurt, and pizza- like "pide". All of these can be found in The Sultan's Kitchen by Ozcan Ozan, which I highly recommend.

But there are stranger things. A delicious "Iskander Kebap" I ate in Ankara-- thin slices of grilled lamb served over pita bread-- had first a tomato sauce: "juice", said the waiter: then a heaping portion of "pan drippings"-- pure liquid lamb fat-- poured over it (I loved it, though I don't know about my arteries.... no, scratch that, just got my "numbers" and they are better than usual!) Dessert was a sort of pancake of with a coarse, shredded- wheat- like texture-- shredded filo dough?-- with liquid sugar syrup poured over it.

And then there is cig ( pronounced more like "jig") kofte. In the section on (Sanli)Urfa, the Lonely Planet Guide has this to say about that regional dish: "Urfa's culinary specialties include cig kofte (minced uncooked mutton), a sure- fire recipe for gastrointestinal disaster in this hot climate..."

Well, maybe. We were privileged to see a demonstration of its preparation by Kemal, the cousin of our friend and voluntary guide, Ahmet (also the only food prepared by a male in any private house we visited). He started by taking the meat and grating it in a large metal pan with a bottom like a cheese grater as he sat on the floor (I just asked Libby what it might be called and she inventively came up with "a meat rasp!" Gradually he mixed in a small chopped onion, two or three chopped cloves of garlic, tomato sauce, and at lkeat one very hot pepper.

He did this for an HOUR, kneading it, re- mixing it, sometimes adding a little salt, working up a sweat with his efforts-- his brother occasionally wiping his brow with a towel. Sometimes he used ice to keep the mixture from sticking.

Finally he began to mix in fine yellow bulgur, kneading it in just as thoroughly. At the end, he added green onion and parsely. He served it on lettuce, in a patty, with his handprint on it like a signature. You garnish it with, perhaps, a little lemon juice or mint leaves.

I ilked it-- the strangest thing about it was its texture, from the bulgur-- and will probably atttempt a version here with the kind of quality beef you use in steak Tartare. One of my companions couldn't eat hot peppers, so it was lost on her. Janet did well that night but fell to the same thing served in a nightclub later. I survived even that-- I always say New Mexico has Third World germs.

When Birds Attack....

To some of us, the news that Reid posted about below in "Not Aways at the Top of the Food Chain" was not exactly news. One of the main suspects in the death of the Taung Baby is the Crowned Eagle, an enormous and intimidating forest predator. In Birds of Prey of Southern Africa, published in 1982, Peter Steyn had this to say:

"One grisly item found on a nest in Zimbabwe by the famous wildlife artist D. M. Henry was part of the skull of a young African. That preying on young humans may very occasionally occur is borne out by a carefully authenticated incident in Zambia where an immature Crowned Eagle attacked a 20 kg seven- year old schoolboy as he went to school. It savagely clawed him on head, arms, and chest, but he grabbed it by the neck and was saved by a peasant woman with a hoe, who killed it, whereafter both eagle and boy were taken to a nearby mission hospital. The boy was nowhere near a nest, so the attack can only have been an attempt at predation."

Here is a photo of a Crowned Eagle that was used for monkey control in Zimbabwe. The photographer told me that she sometimes eyed adult humans as though she might be considering taking them on, and that it was unnerving to have her stare at you.

( Photo credit Craig Golden)

But relatively recently, there were even bigger birds than that, which almost certainly preyed on humans.



This petroglyph is believed to have been made by early Polynesians-- the ancestors of today's Maori-- in the 13th or 14thcentury AD. It most likely represents the most formidable eagle of all-- the recently extinct Haast's Eagle, Harpagornis moorei. Worthy and Holdaway, the authors of the splendid monograph The Lost World of the Moa, about the extinct fauna of New Zealand, call it "the grandest eagle". Like the Crowned, the Harpagornis was a forest- adapted eagle with relatively short wings. But it was HUGE-- those "short" wings might have spanned nine feet. Flying birds are very light because of their pneumatized, hollow bones. The Harpagornis probably weighed up to 18 kg. Does that sound small? Well, the extinct Teratorns of the La Brea tar pits weighed about 14. Harpy Eagles, the largest alive today, weigh 9. And Golden Eagles, which the Kazakhs still use to hunt wolves and which have been known to kill humans, weigh less than that.

The Haast's Eagle apparently hunted moas, the great extinct flightless birds of New Zealand. Many moa bones of several genera have been excavated by the authors, showing deep punctures in the pelvis that correlate perfectly with the talons of the eagle! The Maori have legends of being attacked by giant flying birds as well as many more rock paintings of them. The authors say: "Although it never can be known for certain, it is possible that eagles killed people, just as people killed eagles.The birds were certainly powerful enough to do so, and their claws were much larger than those of the Mongolian Golden Eagles that can-- and do-- kill the falconers who fly young birds against wolves. Accustomed as they were to preying on large bipeds, the eagles could easily have mistaken the newcomers for a bizarre new form of the old quarry, a mistake that would have been all the easier if the human was wearing a sealskin cloak or one made of moa feathers".

The great bird survived the coming of the Maori, in the 13th century, and one plausible report is dated 1860! But the Haast's Eagle, like America's Pleistocene predators, at last had to follow the moas, its prey base, into extinction.

There is something deeply frightening about being attacked forom above. Maybe it's a primitive reaction to our-- meaning mammals'-- oldest predators. For, as we all should know by now, birds are dinosaurs are birds.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Donner Party and Alferd Packer

One of the great stories of western US history is that of the Donner Party, a wagon train of emigrants bound for California. Their timing for the journey was bad and they were trapped by snow in the Sierras during the winter of 1846-47. They ran out of supplies, couldn't find much game to hunt, and when the survivors were rescued the next spring it came to light that they had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

So it was interesting reading in the LA Times today that an archaeological excavation of a camp occupied by the Donner family that winter failed to find any evidence of human bone in the food remains. Julie Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon presented a paper this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology giving the results of their excavations at the camp at Alder Creek. It seems that the Donner Party had settled into two different camps after they were stranded, and the Donner family camped with part of the group near Alder Creek.

The researchers found food residue that showed the people were stressed - they ate their pets - but nothing to indicate cannibalism. They are careful to say that this is not absolute proof either way, but descendants of the Donners are claiming vindication as their ancestors reported they had not taken part in cannibalism.

I have posted here before on cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest, but this reminded me of another tale of 19th century American cannibalism and archaeology less well known than the Donner Party. That is the story of Alferd Packer.


Packer (1842-1907) was a Union Army veteran from Pennsylvania who headed West after the Civil War. In fall of 1873 he was the member of a party of 21 gold prospectors who left Provo, Utah headed for diggings near Gunnison, Colorado. The progress of the party was stalled by winter weather. Despite advice to wait until spring to resume the trip, Packer and five other men pressed on in February, 1874.

Packer straggled in alone to the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison in April. He told officials there that he and his companions were trapped by snow in the mountains. His five fellow travelers left to hunt for food and never returned. He toughed it out alone and came down from the mountains when he could. Later he ran into some members of the original party of 21 in a bar at Saguache, Colorado. They didn't believe his story and reported him to the authorities. He was arrested and began telling the first of what became many versions of what happened.

When Packer and his party were trapped by snow and ran out of food he did admit to having cannibalized his companions' bodies after their deaths. But at various times he either said that he hadn't killed any of them, or had shot and killed one man in self-defense. He signed a confession in May, 1874, and was jailed in Saguache. The judge who was remanding him for trial is famously said to have stated, "There was only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you done et five of them." That month the bodies of the five men were found near what is now Lake City, Colorado (the area is called Cannibal Mesa on USGS maps) with evidence of foul play. The bodies were in bad shape either from cannibalism or scavenging by animals.

Later in May, Packer escaped from jail and was not seen again until discovered living under a alias in Wyoming nine years later. He was returned to Colorado for a sensational trial in 1883. He was found guilty of murder, that was overturned on appeal, and he was convicted of manslaughter in a second trial. Packer was sentenced to 40 years in prison and was paroled after 17 years. He lived the rest of his life quietly near Denver and is buried in a VA cemetery there.

There have always been many questions about Packer. He always maintained he was not a murderer and that he had been forced into a survival cannibalism. He was paroled after a campaign by sympathizers convinced the governor of Colorado that he was likely innocent of murder.

A friend and graduate school colleague of mine, Doug Scott, relocated Packer's camp in the late 1970s when he was BLM district archaeologist for that area. In 1989, the grave where the five bodies were buried was excavated, and the remains subjected to a forensic examination. The results of this were reported by Alison Rautman and Todd Fenton in an article in the April 2005 American Antiquity.

This picture of the excavated bodies comes from their report. Their analysis leaves little doubt that Packer was a murderer. To quote: "...the forensic interpretation of this peri-mortem bone damage on all five skeletons is that the individuals were killed, one after another, by repeated blows to the head with a heavy sharp object such as an axe...Defensive wounds to the arms of three individuals suggest that at least three of the men were conscious during the attack and had attempted to defend themselves."
And he did butcher them out. These charts from the Rautman and Fenton report are "cut mark" maps of two of the skeletons. You can see how Packer filleted meat from the arms and thighs.

Alferd Packer has reached a sort of folkloric status in Colorado. At the University of Colorado in Boulder the snack bar in the student union is the "Alferd Packer Grill." When I was in school there they had an Alferd Packer Day in the Grill each spring with poetry contests, eating contests, and songs about his life. They even printed Alferd Packer Day t-shirts with the slogan "Have a Friend for Lunch." I'm told there is a statue of him on campus now. Folk-singer Phil Ochs wrote a song about him. Cannibal! The Musical is a movie based on Packer.

Interesting, isn't it, the strange take our modern culture has on this subject.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Not Always at the Top of the Food Chain

This release from the AP has a humbling title - "Researcher: Early Man was Hunted by Birds." Close re-examination of the skull of the "Taung child" one of the earliest discovered (1924) australopithecine fossils, shows damage at the rear of the eye sockets consistent with patterns seen in eagle predation of monkeys. We should always remember that our ancestors spent millions of years as prey species. As Lee Berger, the anthropologist who did this work, points out: ".... man's ancestors had to survive not just being hunted from the ground, but from the air. Such discoveries are ''key to understanding why we humans today view the world they way we do.''

So we weren't always at the top of the food chain. Actually, we probably had to go quite a ways down the evolutionary road before we emerged as effective predators.

A number of years ago, archaeologist Lewis Binford (one of the most respected in the world) published studies in Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths reanalyzing many australopithecine and Homo erectus sites. Binford had done exhaustive studies comparing bones from kills by humans to those by animals. Restudying sites with objective criteria to differentiate the two showed that most bone from early hominid "kill sites" really resulted from animal predation.

Our ancestors seem to have spent a very long time as opportunistic scavengers. At Olduvai Gorge, Binford found that most of the parts scavenged were leg bones with the meat removed or lower leg bones that had little meat to start with. The only edible part left was the bone marrow that tool-using hominids obtained using hammerstones to crack open the bones. He also demonstrated that a significant percentage of early hominid fossils we have recovered show signs of being killed and partially consumed by animals.

But then, anyone who has hiked unarmed through grizzly country knows what it's like not to be at the top of the food chain.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Alternate Reality?

Crossing several lines through Querencia is the effect of new technology on much older things (namely, places and cultures) and how it might shape their futures. In Eagle Dreams, Steve writes of Mongolian friends in traditional circular tents wired for Internet; of eagle falconers in Mercedes-Benzes. Weird and charming anachronisms are common now but more obvious in some places than others!

Steve invited me to share a story of mine from this morning, an example not just of old-meets-new (or even new-beats-old) but maybe of something altogether new that could never before exist.

Or maybe not: My experience is certainly not unique. A friend emailed three images from his new camera-phone, pictures of his hunting as it happened. I received them at the office, a flashing icon announcing each new image and a few hasty lines of text accompanying: words and images not precisely in real time but so close I was transfixed by them.

Suddenly I was neither here nor there---neither along with my friend on one of our annual hunting trips nor reading about one as written over his after-diner rum-and-coke. I could neither help him flush nor laugh out loud. I sat four states away, watching and waiting.

What is this? Just neat, I guess, and a little bit disturbing. What's next? I don't know.


Pairie Mary on 2Blowhards

I love the interconnected nature of the Blogosphere, so it delighted me to see that my Blogfather Michael Blowhard (that term coined I think by Glenn Reynolds) has caught up with my "blogsister" (coined by Reid?) PrairieMary. He has some good things to say about "regional writing" there too. What are the limits? Am I regional? Ed Abbey? Tom McGuane? Annie Proulx? After all, she lives just as "regionally" as any of us.

Public Access 2

A friend wrote this as a comment on the "End of Hunting" post below, and I thoiught it was important enought to put up front here, with his permission:

"The loss of hunting opportunities is a real concern. I have friends from other parts of the country who are driving 100 miles or more to access hunting areas, this despite an explosion of species like white-tail deer, Canada goose, etc nearly everywhere.I lived in Kansas for a year, and my in-laws have a farm in Iowa. In both states, I would have a hard time affording a lease on my salary. Hunting leases and particularly game ranches look more and more like the European system. The game is intensively "managed" with feeders, breeding stock, even breeding facilities.When I was living in Pennsylvania, a new hunting ranch once contacted me. The owner had heard I had hunted in Africa so I guess he thought I was likely clientele for his operation. He invited me to tour the property, so I did. There were pens where they were breeding "super bucks", which were then released on the 600-acre preserve. We walked around, almost stumbling over huge deer after huge deer, with some 6x6 elk scattered about. The hunting guide said to me "The $5000 fee might seem like a lot for a deer, but it won't the second week of the season when your buddies are asking if you got your deer yet."He was wrong; it still sounded like a huge waste of money. But they had no problem drawing "hunters". For the really big deer, the fees were up to $15,000. I have enjoyed reading several stories in outdoor magazines by the outdoor marketers (I can't in honesty call them "outdoor writers") who have hunted this preserve and raved about how challenging it was. Let's at least be honest about it and call it was it is--shopping for trophies, not hunting. Some hunting ranches in Texas are funding cloning of big game at Texas A in the race to produce bigger and bigger trophies.All this seems to be getting pretty far away from the American model of wildlife and hunting. On another note, I had a very short and tame essay on meat eating picked up by Alternet recently. It advocated buying from meat from local farmers and ranchers, and eating wild game. It received over 300 responses, most of them from irate vegans who wondered how Alternet could promote such horrifying practices as hunting and ranching. So it goes. "