Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

When there is no news, send rumors

Our text today was provided 150 years ago by a newspaper editor, who sent the instruction that forms the title to one of his war correspondents.

People today forget that 1860s journalism operated during a time of significant technological change. The telegraph made it possible to obtain information in a few hours that had previously taken a week or more to reach the paper. Although the Atlantic cable laid in 1858 had failed, and would not be restored until war's end, telegraphic connections to easternmost Canada, coupled with steamships, meant that news could come and go from Europe in seven to ten days, instead of three to six weeks. At the same time, the invention of wood pulp paper and machinery to produce it meant that American newspapers could readily cater to a large and increasingly literate audience. Circulation was primary; facts became incidental.

We are now living through a period of similar change, in which the speed and cost advantages are even greater. Being first is again vastly more important than being accurate. Out of many candidates for our attention this week, the leader must be initial coverage of the late violence in Norway. Even before this episode had attracted the inevitable claims of credits, Western media speculated that these must be Islamist terror attacks and presented their speculations as fact. All the while that we were being treated to these rumours, the confessed perp was in custody. Islamist? Home-grown terrorist? Not exactly. Breivik was a person of, shall we say, extreme right-wing views, conflating liberalism and Islamism and seeing mortal threats in both.

Sound familiar? Uh-huh. Those whose attention span is longer than a couple of news cycles may recall the anti-Muslim rants that followed the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, the embarrassed silence that followed the arrest of Timothy McVeigh, and the obstinate refusal of some talk radio hosts to acknowledge their own complicity in the disaster. As long as noise substitutes for discussion, and as long as the beat beats acuurate information, we'll have more of this, because some people will think the noise is information, not entertainment.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

At least the count is even

I went to Yosemite last year rather well schooled in the innate stupidity of homo turistus. I was pretty much brought up in the business and had at least collateral acquaintance with it for the first half of my life. It was, then, no surprise to learn that, as of late August last year, motorists had killed 13 or so bears that season. It was also no shock to see happy campers dodging past fences and "keep out" signs to dip in their overheated bodies into the 55 degree water of pools just a few yards upstream of waterfalls 100 or more feet high. That was at the end of a parching hot summer, even by Sierras standards, that had lowered flow rates and raised water temperatures throughout the valley. These show Vernal Falls from top and bottom at its most benign. (There were people swimming within 50 meters of the top of the fall.)

Eleven months later, the Sierras haven't yet disgorged the snowmelt of one of the worst winters in a century. Skiing has slowed or stopped not so much due to lack of opportunity as sheer ennui: I have that from the offspring. She also reported that her group's attempt on Mount Whitney on Memorial Day was turned back by blizzard conditions, near-zero temperatures and a selection of routes that varied from near-vertical to vertical: something like Nordwand set in California.

All this means the waters of Yosemite are enthralling to look at this year, but at their malevolent best at disposing of h. turistus. Thus we hear today that this season's death toll due to Yosemite drownings has risen to six. It appears (surprise!) that tourist negligence was the chief factor in these deaths.

The news sent me to the Park's Web site for a tally of another sort. This year to July 9, motorists in Yosemite have killed six bears. There must be a sort of ursine schadenfreude in the notion that the score is now tied.

(Mr. Hobbes tweets to ask, "now who's the jackass?")

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mr. Hobbes' long-delayed debut.

Last summer, I entertained the masses with reflections on our trip to Yosemite. Among its stars was Hobbes, the opinionated critter I drew for our mule ride.

This week, Em was back for a visit, and finally brought back her pocket camera, the one with the mule ride pictures. Whilst I've dropped his noble profile into its proper place, I'll provide it here as well.

Meet Hobbes.

Here, I think he is wondering how a steel hitching rail might taste, since that was surely the way his mind worked. The distance shot below shows the two jackasses together. It is neither his best side nor mine, but this is how we looked before we warmed to one another.

Which, then is the bigger jackass?

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Silver Linings

The first silver lining on the programme is that by being behind in one's musings, one is freed from the necessity of making topical comments.

Last week, we were on holiday in somewhat northern parts of Vermont. The objective was kayaking, not uncommonly late spring skiing. We had hoped that by taking off before July 4, we would avoid vast family crowds and hordes of motorboats. We didn't expect to avoid motorboats and their bastard offspring, "personal watercraft," almost altogether.

We have the prodigious spring floods of Vermont to thank for that. Although the flood stage moment has gone by in most places, there is hardly a body of water in this part of the state that has got down to normal. We were on Lake Champlain proper once, and another time paddled two of its tributaries. Water level was two to three feet above normal. Launching ramps, beaches, and one large pier were still submerged. A good part of the day-use facilities at Burton Island State Park were more or less in ruins.

Those who haven't been around a flood of long duration may think that the water just comes and goes. Oh no: especially not when the flooded lake is so large that it has a visible horizon line North and South. There are waves on that flood water, which extend the damage well above the official flood stage line. Three or four weeks under water is enough to permit all sorts of marine life to gain a foothold. In some places, small isolated ponds full of fish were stranded by the receding waters. This was a blessing for the seabirds, foxes, cats, and carrion feeders of the area, but they were untidy eaters. To walk along the newly-freed waterfront property was to stroll over marine slime and partially-devoured fish.

As usual, the inhabited areas most exposed to flood damage were those whose residents were least able to afford disaster. The camps of the affluent were mostly well above flood stage. It seems that many of the flooded dwellings had long since ceased to be seasonal. They were, instead, homes for people with little choice but to take a chance. They lost, in this year of 500-year floods.

The floods also left behind a vast amount of driftwood, especially in the smaller ponds we visited. Few motorboaters care to be banged about by floating objects ranging from the size of baseball bats to that of fence posts. Fewer were attracted by the smelly ruins along lakes and rivers. Thus the public waters generally belonged, by default, to human-powered vehicles.

We went bear-less again. Part of our troupe stayed in a campground, not in a cabin, and were once escorted back by a juvenile moose. We shared one lunch spot with a trio of otters. (Judging by size they were an indifferent father, a helicopter mom, and a clueless and accident-prone juvenile.) Our chief companions were birds, ranging from swallows to herons and snowy egrets, plus several ospreys and an eagle.

Final silver lining came after we arrived home and I found my cell phone missing. I began the motions of reporting a lost phone, which came to naught because my daughter owns the account. She was spending the weekend communing with condors in the California boonies, far beyond any cell phone tower. At this moment my wife opened her phone and found a message from Grantham, NH. A couple there had found the phone by the roadside. (We determined I had lost it during a brief driver swap on the way home.) They left their number and arranged to send it back. I have it now. This is a valuable corrective for a cynical old fart with a low opinion of most of my fellow primates, and I suppose I should get myself out and pay this forward. There is all the more reason for doing so, in that the people who returned the phone were themselves paying forward a similar gesture.

Finally, a tangential comment on current affairs comes to us from Thoreau: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk." Google and ponder that, if you will.

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