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?

Friday, May 31, 2013

Can't cure stupid

When I was in high school, significant exams tended to be clustered in similar time frames. So did telephoned bomb threats, which disrupted the schedule of some of the exams. It was clear to wiser and simpler heads alike that someone in the student body benefited.

What was curious that a similar pattern prevailed when many of us moved on to the state university. The difference over time was that the university began to blow off bomb threats during mid-terms and finals, which meant whoever benefited ceased to benefit. And yet the threats continued. They didn't stop until someone from my high school, someone I knew well, dropped out. He had candidly said that his main reason for attending college was to dodge the draft. Finally, we became seniors, and he became married. Evidently it occurred to him that marriage was  almost as good a draft dodge as college.

This memory comes to me often when stupid people do stupid things that are not only stupid per se, but wildly out of proportion to the stimulus and hysterically counterproductive.

Think, for instance, of the maroons who react to almost any person with whom they disagree by sending them a death threat. Today, think no further than the genius who has advanced the agenda of the NRA by sending letters laced with low-grade ricin to New York Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama. In case there was any doubt about the chip on the perp's shoulder, the letters rant on about taking his guns from his cold, dead fingers, or words to that effect. This is extraordinarily helpful to the NRA's objective of showing how helpful it is to arm all sane and responsible citizens. Guns aren't enough: let's enable the citizens to deploy chemical weapons.

Sorry, Wayne Lapierre: with friends like that, you don't need enemies.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Notes from the wildlife preserve

I'm not a friend to grackles. My brother and I spent a good deal of our island childhood scaring the miserable shits away from our high-bush blueberries: sometimes with a shout, often with slingshots.

But if I have to keep company with a feathered pest, I prefer native species such as this to invasive ones.

I never saw a starling until I moved to Massachusetts. Once here, for a long while they were the only blackbird we saw, at least in town.

And we saw them in the thousands, classic vast flocks that moved around town like plagues of feathered locusts. Apart from feasting on everything, they were as talented at shitting on humans as pigeons (which we don't have) and seagulls (which we do).

Over the past four or five years, the starling population around here seems to have fallen off. I haven't yet found an ornithologist's explanation for it, but it suits me fine.  In the past two summers, the grackles have appeared to fill the blackbird niche. Since we're trying to raise native, fruit-bearing bushes to feed more welcome birds, the presence of the grackles bears close observation. In addition to fruit, their diet is reportedly composed of "everything else," including other songbirds.

In our innocent childhood, on an island far from the law, we though nothing of showering grackles with rocks and slingshot projectiles. I now learn that they are classified as a "native songbird" and thus are protected.  I can buy protected, but songbird? Their call resembles the creak of rusty springs in an old upholstered rocker in the house on the island.

Starlings, on the other hand, are invasive birds and thus, it seems, subject to all the abuse that humankind can inflict upon them. Although happy that a native species seems to have taken the upper, er, wing in ecological competition, I have no plans to roll out the red carpet for these birds.

Meanwhile, on terra firma, we have unexpected guests. A few days ago, the neighbourhood optometrist was surprised by three deer as he opened his office. Curious, he followed them across the main drag where his office is, into our block. They crossed down over four lots, finally leaving by way of ours. Another neighbour was up and verified the sighting.

One would be happier to see deer except for the gift that comes in their wake: deer ticks and Lyme disease. Where I practice archery, up near the New Hampshire border, deer and ticks and Lyme have become a serious problem. Our host has been infected, despite considerable precautions. His physician said this problem is a result of overpopulation. If deer can manage to scrape a living in this densely settled coastal town, I'm ready to believe that.

The news marked the end of my uxorial unit's latest venture into support of the natural habitat. In order to protect the brief bloom of native violets, which in turn are the food of the fritillary butterfly's caterpillar, we had to forgo mowing the lawn. It's been wet. The grass has grown fast. In the quest to provide habitat for the fritillary, our lawn became a perfect habitat for deer ticks. Violet season is over, so I have been out haying to set things up for the mower. All I need now is some kind of domesticated ruminant to keep up the good work.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Colliding impressions

Instead of spending this morning at the office, I got out of the house earlier than I have in five years or so to drive to the middle of the state for a clinical meeting. Some, but not all, regular readers here have clinical backgrounds, and I hope they'll forgive me for skipping the details. I found it absorbing. A description would put non-clinical folk into a coma.

Just the other day I was thinking about how our arrangement of the calendar in these latitudes wastes about a quarter of the year's gift of sunlight. We obstinately start our summer seasons at Memorial Day and end them at Labour Day. This cuts a month off the long days of May, and ignores the last final fortnight of mild temperatures in September. We have few enough of either and should get the most from them.

After 40-odd years living on the New England coast, I haven't got used to the baleful influence of spring sea breezes. Fact is, it doesn't get reliably warm around here until  the middle of June. Those of us subject to what we spent the morning calling thermal allodynia can resent this a bit. Growing up inland,  I came to expect consistent warm temperatures to show up near the end of April. Today's midstate meeting was a reminder that they still do. I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time outdoors, but what I had was sweet.

Add to all this was the Facebook comment of a former colleague and fellow New Hampshire native about the smell of a New Hampshire spring. That brought back a range of recollected sensations. Smell leads the list, for those warm spring days bring out the life in scores of plants just waiting for the prompt. Spring brings out birdsong, and tempts  boys to try the first swim of the year: once I remember trying that from a boat in the middle of a trout pond that still had ice at one end.

It's also the season when a real dirt road is at its peak of favourable sensations. As Newt Tolman wrote, we're not talking about gravel roads here. A true dirt road is a pair of bare ruts surrounded by grass and wildflowers. The dirt is alive; its smell is full of the promise of life. Walking barefoot on a dirt road in spring is a purely sensuous experience. The soil is midway between the yard-deep mud of early spring and the foot-deep dust of summer. Tolman described the texture as glassy. Looking back,  I recall it as that of newly-thrown pottery: cool and yielding to pressure.

It's worth something to spend a few hours listening to lectures in clinical science to get this flood of recall. I hope there are still children in the country uplands who get to taste these things.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Road Rage: his or mine?

OK, I was a little unfair last time to Greater Boston and the Marblehead Reporter. Their bicycle coverage turned out to be reasonable. However, the Reporter also ran an Op-Ed signed by Joe McLaughlin that neatly captured all the venom and hypocrisy of those who don't just dislike bicyclists behaving badly, but hate all bicyclists all the time. It follows the time-honoured pattern of much expression of this hostility. It begins with an attempt at reasonable dialogue, drawing comparisons between Massachusetts road behaviour and West Coast behaviour. (He saw all this on one trip to Seattle.) 

Reason usually is too much for these people to sustain, and they collapse into naked hostility after one or two paragraphs. It would appear that Joe brought nothing back from the West Coast but a skinful of pent-up hostility toward all bicyclists everywhere.

In 30-plus years as a cyclist, what I've observed is that motorists carrying a chip that size on their shoulder remember every bicycle infraction they have ever seen. They don't seem to have quite as sharp a memory for the tens of thousands of thoughtless acts that bicyclists are subjected to daily when they exercise their right to use the road.

Joe informs us that there are two types of "bikers....Turned-down handlebars, skinny tires, Spandex and Day-Glow [sic]: Seldom do the rules apply. [The other group:] Turned-up handlebars, fat tires, polo shirt and Bermudas: Not so much of a threat."

Threat, Joe? Threat? In your stereotyped universe, you seem unable to remember that car and driver outweigh the bicycle and rider by 3500 pounds or more.  Bad behaviour is endemic on the roads of Massachusetts, and isn't confined to people on wheels. But good heavens! A bicyclist's carelessness poses an inconvenience to the Kings of the Road, not a threat. On the other hand, a driver's carelessness or animosity may seriously injure or kill a bicyclist. You seem to forget that, Joe. Your stereotype also illustrates the habit bicycle haters of arguing from the extremes. Cyclists between the extremes seem to be invisible to you.

Despite Joe's failed struggle to be open-minded, he would have us believe that West Coast law enforcement means cracking down on cyclists and giving motorists a pass. Sorry, that's what happens here, now. Experienced cyclists will testify that they feel no one is on their side: not police, not prosecutors, not judges, and certainly no motorist who failed to master the bicycle at age eight, and has it in for everyone who did. When I see cyclists disobeying traffic laws, I blame the individual, not everyone on two wheels. I do the same with careless motorists: I just have many thousands more chances to exercise my forbearance.

The West Coast seems to be ahead of us, to be sure. I can only speak for Berkeley, not Seattle. There, enforcement is level, making no distinction between users of the road. Sorry, no entitlement for anyone. And sorry, Joe, that doesn't mean everyone always obeys the laws. There are still jaywalkers, still sidewalk cruising cycling stoners with headphones, and many thoughtless fools on four wheels. Could Massachusetts laws have more uniform penalties? Absolutely, but whose fault is that? The cyclists and pedestrians, or is it an unmotivated police, judiciary and legislature? None of these can be bothered to take cyclists and road safety for all seriously until there is a fatality, such as the high-profile cyclist death in Wellesley last year? Even after a fatality, the motivation won't stand much strain. Officialdom's attention span is very short where bicycles are concerned.

Next time you go to the other coast, Mr McLaughlin, try opening your eyes. Next time you drive here, try to generate a little empathy for users of the road other than yourself.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Gather ye bicycles while ye may

I got the mountain bike back on the road. Shakedown cruise revealed the usual  inventory of required tweaks. Headset is a trifle too loose, rear brake cable needs to be tighter. However the main event--the new rear wheel and gear cluster--are working well. I bought the wheel with a bolt-on axle, intending to replace it with a quick-release. That comes later: the quick release I had available has seen better days.

Non-cyclists can wake up now. The question will be whether the media will have run all bicycles off the road by the end of this week's "objective" coverage of sharing the road . The week seems to be shaping up as "trash cyclists" week under the guise of balanced reporting. My opinion of  Greater Boston has been vile since April 15. They're turning the whole week onto this topic and I expect little or nothing in the way of objective coverage. The local media up heah are doing this too.

By the time they're all done, I fully expect to have SWAT teams breaking down my door and bomb squads taking my bikes off for "examination." I've seen some balanced reporting on this subject before. By the time they're done, you'll need to hail a cab to cross the street,  because the balanced reporters will make one thing clear: The road is for no less than four wheels. As I said, I admit my current bias against Greater Boston. I wonder if the host will admit hers?

If we could be objective, I have a contribution to make. I was driving through downtown Salem at lunchtime last week. As a woman stepped out of a restaurant, she was nearly (by nearly I mean inches) run down by a cyclist: on the busy sidewalk, cruising at maybe 12 mph, wearing noise-deadening headphones. He didn't appear to apologise; in fact, he hardly acknowledged the woman's existence.

It's hard to know where to begin critiquing an asshole like this. I just know where I wouldn't begin, and that is to damn all cyclists and keep all of them off the road, but that's exactly what I expect to hear during a week of supposedly objective bike reporting.

Wake me when it's over, and let me know if I should bury the bikes.

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Monday, May 06, 2013

No lack of non-news

I  have little doubt that my skeptical view of the three amigos arrest down in Dartmouth is unpopular. My skepticism is fueled in part by a series of media reports referring to the trio as "terrorists." Did the reporters dream this up themselves or were they led by lapsis linguae on the part of law enforcement? Why do their attorneys find it necessary to insist that they had no part in the bombing when the charges say nothing like that?

I think you have to be an historian, a Southerner, or both to remember Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of conspiracy in Abraham Lincoln's assassination for the crime of setting Booth's broken leg, and perhaps panicking like the Amigos afterward. Despite the reasonable doubt that has caught the attention of many, in the mania that followed the assassination he was tried by military tribunal and convicted. Pardoned in 1869, Mudd's conviction has never been overturned. To  this day, majority opinion is confident of Mudd's complicity in the assassination plot. Links such as this are hard to find.

In the present atmosphere,  Tsarnaev's Three Amigos don't seem to stand much of a chance. Now or for all time. The evidence suggests no more than the crime of aggravated adolescent male stupidity, but that won't signify. There's a lynch mob mentality; there's an obsession with proving the Tsarnaevs didn't act alone. The latter is especially disturbing: the acts of self-radicalised individuals appear to be more dangerous and less predictable than any acts of organised terror. A thoughtful government would focus on that.

I'm also rather ashamed that Boston has to carry on so obsessively about an attack that killed three and injured 280 (including the superficial injuries), whilst Bangladesh mourns over 600 dead in the collapse of a sweatshop. Are we checking labels in our clothing purchases, changing our buying habits, in protest? I don't think so.

Likewise, unpopular as it is, I'm leaning toward support of Ron Paul's criticism of the Boston police lockdown the Friday after the bombing. The problem with giving the police all these toys is how fond they become of using them. We've already had a number of incidents in which police went to arrest someone, without even the quaint notion of probable cause, using 20 cops in BDUs, body armour and helmets, and carrying automatic weapons, smashing down the doors of what turned out quickly to have been an innocent person's house. There's also the disturbing report that in Newtown, CT, police stopped to don their federally funded BDUs, body armour etc. before heading for the school. If true, this would take the riffs of Alice's Restaurant to a tragic extreme.  I fear that the police mentality is too easily distracted by toys of this sort. One cop with a sidearm, on the scene in under a minute, would have helped much more than a dozen with all the militaristic regalia.

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