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Archive for February 2012

Required Reading: the powerful storytelling of the natural world.

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This story has everything: Mystery, science, adventure, night-time rock climbing, a race against time, politics, shark-infested waters, desperate scientists, romance, and really humongous insects.

So. Read how a giant insect long though extinct was rediscovered, in a group of only 24, on an isolated volcanic island with only the sparsest vegetation to feed on, and about the scientists who worked to save the species. Because all life deserves to be preserved, even creepy giant walking sticks that I hope never to encounter in the night.

image credit: Rod Morris, Beyond New Zealand, from NPR's story

One can never tire of all the mysterious, delightful, crazy things that are always happening on this planet, without any concern for us showboating, camera-hogging humans.

From NPR: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides for 80 Years, by Robert Krulwich.

Here’s the story: About 13 miles from this spindle of rock, there’s a bigger island, called Lord Howe Island.
On Howe, there used to be an insect, famous for being big. It’s a stick insect, a critter that masquerades as a piece of wood, and the Lord Howe Island version was so large — as big as a human hand — that the Europeans labeled it a “tree lobster” because of its size and hard, lobsterlike exoskeleton. It was 12 centimeters long and the heaviest flightless stick insect in the world. Local fishermen used to put them on fishing hooks and use them as bait.
Then one day in 1918, a supply ship, the S.S. Makambo from Britain, ran aground at Lord Howe Island and had to be evacuated. One passenger drowned. The rest were put ashore. It took nine days to repair the Makambo, and during that time, some black rats managed to get from the ship to the island, where they instantly discovered a delicious new rat food: giant stick insects. Two years later, the rats were everywhere and the tree lobsters were gone.
Totally gone. After 1920, there wasn’t a single sighting. By 1960, the Lord Howe stick insect, Dryococelus australis, was presumed extinct.


Written by Christopher ZF

February 29, 2012 at 13:11

Posted in wildlife

Tagged with ,

winter cherry blossoms

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TRC has been waiting for real winter to arrive in St. Paul. This year. Yesterday we had our first real “winter storm,” which for St. Paul turned out to be a dump of sleet and rain, upon which about 2 inches of heavy, wet snow fell. The morning shovel felt terrible. And the snow is not going to hang around long. Paul Huttner told me on MPR this morning that it’s going to be nearing 50 degrees next week. So much for MN winter.

But at least our Cherry Blossom Tree looked lovely this morn.

Written by Christopher ZF

February 29, 2012 at 09:48

Posted in Minnesota, weather

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the Presidential Election forthcoming

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President Obama has been presented with a great luxury. While the Republican candidates for President are finding new ways to draw (political) blood, the President can remain free from the muck. The muck will of course come to him, but the longer the GOP folks fight amongst themselves, the more time Obama has to remind America why he inspired them in the first place: he is an awfully engaging, powerful campaigner. When full campaign mode comes, it won’t be easy for President Obama, obviously. There will be a terrible, ugly fight. Just as Liberals shouldn’t get too over-confident as Santorum and Romney say stupid thing after stupid thing, the GOP shouldn’t forget who they are running against.

Just thinking strictly politically, if I were a Republican, I would worry that one these two:

will eventually have to engage with this guy:

Written by Christopher ZF

February 28, 2012 at 14:46

Now or never for the GOP?

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Here’s an article that seeks to make sense of the apocalyptic tone of the GOP 2012 Primary and Presidential Election strategy. Essentially, the piece looks at the changing demographics in the US–that we are and will continue to become less-white and more educated, and sees the voting bloc for today’s GOP shrinking into the future. As a result, the current form of conservatism of the past 40 years is getting desperate to remain relevant.

What that means, and how it will play out, remains to be seen. As the author surmises, it could mean that this election will be the last chance this current manifestation of the Republican Party has to survive. I’m not endorsing this view of the future. But it’s an worth considering.

So TRC recommends 2012 or Never, by Jonathon Chait, for NY Magazine.

Obama’s election dramatized the degree to which this long-standing political dynamic had been flipped on its head. In the aftermath of George McGovern’s 1972 defeat, neoconservative intellectual Jeane Kirk­patrick disdainfully identified his voters as “intellectuals enamored with righteousness and possibility, college students, for whom perfectionism is an occupational hazard; portions of the upper classes freed from concern with economic self-interest,” and so on, curiously neglecting to include racial minorities. All of them were, in essence, people who heard a term like “real American” and understood that in some way it did not apply to them. Today, cosmopolitan liberals may still feel like an embattled sect—they certainly describe their political fights in those terms—but time has transformed their rump minority into a collective majority. As conservative strategists will tell you, there are now more of “them” than “us.” What’s more, the disparity will continue to grow indefinitely. Obama actually lost the over-45-year-old vote in 2008, gaining his entire victory margin from younger voters—more racially diverse, better educated, less religious, and more socially and economically liberal.
Portents of this future were surely rendered all the more vivid by the startling reality that the man presiding over the new majority just happened to be, himself, young, urban, hip, and black. When jubilant supporters of Obama gathered in Grant Park on Election Night in 2008, Republicans saw a glimpse of their own political mortality. And a galvanizing picture of just what their new rulers would look like.

Written by Christopher ZF

February 27, 2012 at 12:36

Posted in 2012 Elections, Republicans

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Deserts on Mars and an old TRC essay.

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I wrote an essay a few years back about deserts that I am particularly fond of, which considers the notion of deserts on Mars. That essay opens:

 Deserts frighten me. I come from the Midwest, and with the exception of the anomaly in Wisconsin, we have no desert; we have trees and grass in abundance. As a natural landscape, deserts push against the forests I am familiar with and do not make sense beyond a raw, rudimentary notion of scarcity. I’ve been in deserts and I can not see them clearly; I want a way to see the desert clearly. With this hope in mind, I have been turning to the Encyclopedia of the Solar System. My human view may be too intimate. How does the place look from space? Discussing the terrestrial geomorphic process of weathering, the Encyclopedia reads:  “Aeolian, or fluvial, transport of fine material can only occur if a source of fine material is available to be transported.” Weathering is the process that produces fine material for transport. As consolidated materials are broken down into fine materials via weathering, the fine material is moved throughout the terrestrial landscape via the fluvial and aeolian transport systems.
Or, sand is moved by wind and water.

Is that it? Sand, wind, water. Is there something to fear here? The Encyclopedia relates that such Aeolian transport of grains on Mars provides “important information on current wind regimes and on the constitution of fine material based on observations and modes of terrestrial dune morphologies.” Those words don’t mean much to me, but I learn there is desert on Mars, and the prospect of alien deserts, like terrestrial ones, is frightening. The cosmic view, after all, cares little for my dread.

I thought of it today as I made the morning blog round-up and landed on a Bad Astronomy post about the dunes of Mars. It included this stunning picture which in my mind accompanies well that old essay.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Not only does the image itself address content of the essay, but the blue frost on the sand dunes of the red planet seems to coincide well thematically, and thus I thought I would package them together. You know, for my own self-promotion.

Written by Christopher ZF

February 27, 2012 at 12:00

Posted in Personal Entry

Protect separation of church and state from Rick Santorum.

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The idea of the separation of Church and State is integral to the United States. Upholding the idea remains as important today as it was when our founders built a nation that expressly forbid the mingling of the Church with the operations of the government.

Rick Santorum, though, disagrees. He says:

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute,” he told ‘This Week’ host George Stephanopoulos. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country…to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up.”

Two quick things for Mr. Santorum.

One: I disagree vehemently, and am terrified that a Presidential candidate would claim that the church should have influence and invovlement in the operations of the state. That is unconstitutional, and opposes the very foundation of the US as a nation by people who understood the dangers of allowing the inter-mingling of the two. It’s one of the reasons we decided England just wasn’t for us. Bone up on your Thomas Jefferson.

Two: Your second point is invalid, as the separation of church and state does NOT say that people of faith have no role in the public square. People of faith have every right to civic and public involvement, and any notion that people of faith are somehow kept out of the public square is just straight lunacy. See many atheists running our government, do you Mr. Santorum? Your brand of Christianity already has too much of a role in our government for comfort, and to hear you claim otherwise shows how capable you are of ignoring reality.

You have it backwards, and you need to learn: the idea that the church can have influence and involvement over the operation of the government is antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. People of faith, of all faiths, are welcome into the process. But the church is not.

Written by Christopher ZF

February 26, 2012 at 12:05

Rick Santorum on education proves Rick Santorum wrong on education

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Here’s a cautionary tale about the perils of education in the United States. Rick Santorum, presidential candidate and maker-up of history has been claiming that Presidents of the US home-schooled their kids in the White House for the first 150 years of our nation’s history. He continues that the federal government runs public education, and recommends that we use a 19th century education model for today’s youth.

Well, that may sound like a series of great arguments for home-schooling, but it just ain’t so. Especially that bit about federal government controlling public school. It’s a great line to incite worry, but public education is not even close to being controlled by the feds.

Rather, these are the kinds of thing Santorum and others really want to be true, and if they repeat it enough or hear it from the right source, well, that’s just good enough.

This tendency is also called: being uneducated. TRC has nothing against home-schooling. But regardless of where one is educated, there is still a premium to be placed on accuracy, history, and knowledge.

From Salon: Santorum flunks the history of home-schooling.

The fraudulence of almost every single one of these claims makes Santorum himself a cautionary example of the failures of the American education system. (One wishes that as a former U.S senator, Santorum would at least know that state and local boards of education, not the federal government, run public schools.) Santorum makes up facts, misunderstands education in early America, and manages to invoke the legacies of both racists and secularists, neither of which, I assume, he wants to claim as his forebearers. The solution to our education crisis must not be to withdraw public interest and investment from education, leaving people like Santorum to pass on these misunderstandings to another generation.

Written by Christopher ZF

February 25, 2012 at 13:48