Archive for February 2011
Ravens are in the Corvid family, with their Alaska cousins Black-billed Magpies, Steller’s Jays, Grey Jays and Crows. But in Latin America, Corvids are a lot flashier, if less prominent. Here are a pair of Green Jays, photographed in Southeast Ecuador this month:
Winter would be a little bit brighter if Ravens looked more like their Latin cousins. Some ornithologists think that in the dimmer light under a jungle canopy a bird has to look more colorful to be noticed by its potential mates. WC thinks that, at least in the case of Corvids, its more a matter of style.
WC has this idea for a movie. Being a screenwriter is probably a step up for a lawyer, anyway. But here’s the plot.
A political party, desperate to get and keep power, hatches a conspiracy: they’ll deregulate the financial industry, and make their supporters rich by lying, cheating and stealing in the newly de-regulated field. At the same time, they’ll dramatically reduce taxes on their buddies. That will all trigger a big recession. Then they’ll make the government bail out the ruined industry, and their supporters will get to make a yet another killing on the federal largesse.
Then – and here’s the cool part – they’ll then turn around and attack the government for the bailout and the giant deficits, and use it as their platform to regain power.
Naw. It won’t work. No one will believe the voters are that dumb.
Karen Savoca is something of a fixture on the folk music scene. Performing mostly her won songs, and accompanied by the superb guitar work of her accompanist and partner, Pete Heitzman, since 1988 she has been recording and performing her own, unique blend of folk/jazz music.
She was at the Pickle Barrel; excuse me, the Pioneer Park Theater on Friday night, February 25, 2011, and performed two eclectic sets of old and new songs.
On most songs, Savoca played a conga drum and Heitzman pulls notes out of his guitar you never imagined were in there. Sometimes the guitar work is minimal; sometimes Heitzman wails. After 20 years of playing together, their live act is flawless, but still has an improvisational style that is very appealing.
WC isn’t a big fan of Savoca’s “alternate voice,” a scratchy unmelodic rasp, but she only used it on a couple of cuts and others seem to like it. On most songs, she has a clear, lovely contralto, and moves easily between an innocent and sophisticated tone.
The crowd was a bit thin; readers in Fairbanks will know that there was a blizzard, a college hockey game and half a dozen other activities Friday night. But it was a great show and WC once again extends his thanks to Trudy and Mase’s Acoustic Accents for bringing Karen and Pete to town.
Thanks, Karen and Pete, for a great show.
Note: Credit for the title goes to Robin Dale Ford, who described Savoca’s work so aptly that WC couldn’t resist stealing the quote.
WC finds that his semi-anonymity lends him a certain amount of freedom of expression that might not otherwise be available. But another nature photographer caught WC out on South Georgia Island in December 2010, and the photo has gotten out into the general public.
So in the interests of full disclosure, WC reproduces that photo here, with the consent of the photographer, Werner Sinclair, a brilliant nature photographer from South Africa, who sullied his camera to make this image.
This particular photo was taken, without WC’s knowledge, at Salisbury Plain, site of an immense King Penguin colony. The red parka is to assist expedition staff in finding you in the event of an accident. The blue backpack is a water tight bag for camera gear.
Hummingbirds have limitless charm. And part of that charm is in their whimsical names. For example, this species is called a Shining Sunbeam.
This isn’t a species that is attracted to feeders. You have to find this species in the field. And this particular bird was found in El Cajas National Park at the gaspingly high altitude of 12,000 feet. WC could barely breathe there; this hummingbird can flap its wings at 12-90 beats per second.
Another group of hummingbirds are called Woodnymphs; this is a Fork-tailed Woodnymph.
Still another group are called Sunangels. This is an Amethyst-throated Sunangel, photographed in Tapichalaca Preserve, at about 8,500 feet:
Early Spanish explorers called the birds Joyas Voladoras, or “Flying Jewels.” It works for WC. But by any name, they are exquisite, an endless delight.
Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has a column today that puts events in Wisconsin in context. Every Krugman column is interesting; this one is compelling.
If his readers have been paying attention, they are well aware that WC aspires to be a nature photographer, and particularly to photograph birds. WC recently picked up a new piece of equipment, over the protests of Mrs. WC: a new camera, an Olympus E-5, reviewed here:
Olympus famously uses the Four-thirds technology it helped develop in its DSLR products. That technology defines both the strengths and weaknesses of the DSLR product line, including the E-5.
The sensor in Olympus DSLR cameras is half the size of a 35mm frame. On the downside, that limits the number of pixels the sensor can capture, in comparison to a full-frame product. It also implies more noise than a full-frame sensor at the same ISO setting. The E-5 captures 12 megapixels; there are Canon and Nikon cameras in the same price range that get twice as many pixels. The E-5 can now shoot with acceptable levels of noise at ISO1600 (a four-fold improvement over the E-3). But, again, Canon and Nikon DLSR cameras in the same price range manage the same low noise at ISO3200 and even ISO6400. This is by no means the best low-light DSLR camera on the market. The E-series won’t be as long as it uses the Four-thirds technology.
But there are very real, very important advantages to the Fourth-thirds technology, too. The Zuiko lenses built to 4/3rds are quite simply the best DSLR lenses available in the world. It’s not just that they are razor-sharp, aberration free and well-built; the 4/3rds tech makes them focus faster, makes them lighter and superior to the equivalent Canon/Nikon glass. The Olympus 300mm f/2.8 Super Telephoto ED Lens for Olympus Digital SLR Cameras is by far the best telephoto lens WC has ever owned. Because image stabilization is in the camera, not in the lens, the form factor is smaller as well as lighter. The improvements to the E-5 play to these strengths.
WC just finished a 17 day trip into the tropics, photographing birds. WC used the E-5 for every shot. While the E-3 is a splendid camera, that that WC has happily used for years, the E-5 is so superior to the E-3 that WC never broke the E-3 out of his gear bag.
Some of those advantages:
(1) Much faster focusing, and more reliable – although still not ideal – focusing in low light. Focus acquisition with a teleconverter on is especially improved, and it’s now possible to shoot a bird in flight with the 300mm with a Olympus Zuiko EC-20 2x Teleconverter for Olympus Digital SLR Cameras mounted.
(2) Greatly improved performance in low light. Noise levels are acceptable to ISO1600, where the E-3 wasn’t much good below ISO400.
(3) Improved in-camera processing. Images emerge needing much less Photoshop work. The level of detail is simply extraordinary.
(4) Substantially improved multiple shooting, with a higher frames per second rate and a bigger buffer. There’s some improvement in the write speed as well, so you spend less time waiting for the buffer to write to media.
(5) Larger, more accurate LCD view screen. Pixel count and density are higher, and you can adjust the viewer for lighting levels.
(6) Greatly enhanced user configurability. As someone who is left-handed, that’s especially important to WC.
WC understands that the JPG processing is especially good, but WC shoot’s exclusively RAW, so there’s little benefit for him. Art filters aren’t of any use in nature photography, so WC can’t speak to the ten new art filters, either. The new video features are fine, but not WC’s primary goal.
If you have an investment in Zuiko lenses, or want the best possible glass for your work, then the E-5 is an easy choice. Beyond question, you’ll get better photos. If you haven’t invested in Zuiko, then the E-5 may be a more difficult choice. But if you are a nature photographer looking for the sharpest possible images, and not shooting in consistently low light, then Zuiko lenses and the E-5 are the tools of choice.
WC’s very highest recommendation.
WC has applauded the web comic XKCD before, but the post for February 23 is really special:
Munroe’s point, of course, is that we have our “flying cars” but they are so ubiquitous and we are so used to them that we can’t see them for what they are.
Paul Simon said, “We live in an get of miracles and wonders.” We do. Step back a bit and admire and appreciate them.
Ordinarily, WC leaves the issues of other states to those other states. Certainly WC doesn’t appreciate the Lower 48 telling Alaska what to do, and he assumes Outsiders feel the same way. But the tactics of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cross that invisible, internal line and force WC to stick his big, bulbous nose in Wisconsin’s business. Because it could happen here.
Governor Walker pretends that Wisconsin’s fiscal challenges are so dire that state government employees must take cuts. While Wisconsin has fiscal challenges, they are by no means the worst in the nation, and the state employee unions have said they are willing to re-negotiate their contracts to take the financial problems into account.
Let’s pause to note that Governor Walker can’t be that concerned about the fiscal crisis because he is also forcing through the State Legislature a tax cut package that will make the state’s deficit worse. But that’s just garden variety hypocrisy. WC has come to expect it.
But that’s not enough for Governor Walker, because he’s not after fiscal solutions, he wants to effectively abolish state employee labor unions. It’s about power. Governor Walker isn’t even coy about it: the bill that would strip away state employee collective bargaining rights exempts some classes of employees. Those that lean to the right. That’s pretty raw hamburger by anyone’s standards.
Labor unions, including government employee labor unions, are one of the few remaining counterbalances to the economic power of the superwealthy. The pooled resources of employees and the threat of job action are about all that remains to the average Joe when the courts and the Congress have let him down.
And who is behind Governor Walker. No surprise there: the Koch brothers. Their Americans for Prosperity – a doublespeak name if there ever was one – are major supporters of Governor Walker and his tactics. Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips admitted as much to a group of “counter-protesters” in Madison recently. He bragged about it. And Governor Walker inadvertently outed himself in a telephone conversation with a blogger pretending to be David Koch.
Government employee unions make the easy, first target. WC is certain that the Koch brothers and their political front aim far broader than that.
WC can see that same shabby arguments being used in Alaska to further cut state employee benefits. WC hopes that Alaskans and Alaska legislators don’t fall for it. But experience suggests otherwise.
WC has railed before about the looming crisis for Southcentral Alaska: current supplies and reserves of natural gas are insufficient to meet foreseeable demand. In a protracted cold snap, Anchorage may well face rolling blackouts and mandated thermostat settings.
WC takes no particular pride in predicting the crisis; it’s been evident to anyone with napkin-level math skills and a modicum of understanding of the economics of natural gas production. Today, even the Anchorage Daily News noticed the crisis. Although the ADN‘s focus is on the shutdown of the Nikiski LNG operation and conservation of the dwindling supply.
The irony is that Alaska has bountiful supplies of natural gas. On the North Slope. But instead of focusing on getting that natural gas to Southcentral – and Interior – Alaska where it is needed, the Parnell Administration is still obsessed with the money pit that would ship the gas to the lower 48.
WC predicts the focus will change when the lights start to dim during a long cold spell in Anchorage. By then, of course, it will be too late.
This is an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock,one of the more bizarre birds of the Western Hemisphere. To say they have a prominent crest is to completely understate things.
The southeasterly species are orangish instead of red but, and you can trust WC on this, they are just as eye-searingly bright in binoculars.
WC and his group were lucky enough to see this uncommon species on four consecutive days. The female is slightly drabber, but only in comparison to the male. But then a fire engine is drab in comparison to a male Cock-of-the-Rock.
To WC, the only mystery is why everyone isn’t a birder.
in 1975, John Havelock led a study on whether Alaska should have a law school. See Legal Education for A Frontier Society: A Survey of Alaskan Needs and Opportunities in Education, Research and the Delivery of Legal Services. Alaska is the only state that doesn’t have one. The study concluded we shouldn’t try and develop one: not enough demand, hard to make cost-effective, not likely to provide a first rate education, and a host of other reasons.
Havelock – a man WC respects a lot – reversed field in 2008, writing in an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News saying it was time to have a law school here. Nothing about his earlier study had really changed, but now an Alaska law school could become a magnet or something. John doesn’t say who or how this thing would be paid for; it still takes law students. WC thinks John Havelock is dead wrong.
The issue arises because there’s a bill in Juneau to create a law school. True, it was introduced by a State House Democrat, so the bill is probably dead on arrival.
But as recently as February 2004, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Economic Research concluded that a law school wasn’t practical, necessary or cost effective. “The state can meet the legal education needs of its residents by increasing its financial support for students who go outside to law school and by establishing cooperative programs with existing ABA accredited law schools.”
The projections in 2004 for 2010 were a bit optimistic. Total active, in-state bar members at Fall 2009 were 2,443; in 2004 it was 2,552. Law school graduates taking the bar exam are down.
WC fears that if Alaska were to create a law school it would require public subsidy, would be mediocre, would fail to attract the brightest students, and might not produce the best lawyers.
It’s not a good idea. Let it go.
The Republicans in Congress are persuaded that the financial ship of state is sinking. But they have reversed the old proverb; programs for the benefit of women and children are being cut first and hardest. The lifeboats, as it were, are leaving women and children aboard to drown. Consider the following examples:
(1) The Republicans seeks to further restrict a woman’s right to have access to abortion care. Part of their proposal is to allow Medicaid-funded abortions only in the case of “forcible rape.” They earlier encountered a firestorm of criticism over this idea, promised to change the language, but so far have not. WC thinks it’s outrageous that a bunch of old white guys are involving themselves in woman’s right to choose, but this is completely over the top.
(2) Then there’s Georgia state representative Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta). He wants to change the word “victim” to “accuser” in all sexual offense statutes. Only sexually-related statutes would be changed. Someone who house is burgled would still be a “victim,” not an “accuser.” Georgia is already among the top quarter of state in reported rapes. Creating another barrier to reporting sexual offenses makes no sense, unless the Hon. Rep. Franklin also wants to go back to the 19th century.
(3) Or how about South Dakota state Rep. Phil Jensen, who would make it legal to kill a physician providing an abortion, as a “justifiable homicide.” WC can’t make this stuff up.
(4) At the national level, they propose to cut $758 million from food assistance to low-income women, infants, and children. Malnutrition; that’s the ticket. That will fix the problem.
(5) And there’s H.R. 358, sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), which would allow a hospital to watch a woman die for lack of an abortion, rather than provide one that might save her life. WC wonders why all these old white guys hate women so much?
(6) In Maryland, the Republicans voted to kill county contributions to the Headstart preschool program, saying that women should really be married and home with their kids, thus rendering the program unnecessary. Of course, there’s this recession thing going on, and maybe not every father is as committed to supporting his family as the Frederick County Commissioners think they are.
(7) And at the federal level, Republicans want to cut that same program, Head Start, by $1 billion. That means over 200,000 kids could lose their spots in preschool. The interesting thing is that for every $1 invested in preschooling society, over the life of the child, realizes $9. But in whatever world it is that these old white guys live in, the woman’s place is in the home.
(8) Two-thirds of the elderly poor are women, and Republicans are taking aim at them too. A spending bill would cut funding for employment services, meals, and housing for senior citizens. So what is an elderly, partly disabled woman in her 80s supposed to do to eat? To find housing?
(9) Congress voted yesterday on a Republican amendment to cut all federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers, one of the most trusted providers of basic health care and family planning in our country. No federal funds are used by Planned Parenthood to provide or even counsel abortions. This is just plain vindictiveness.
(10) But wait, there’s more: Republicans are pushing to eliminate all funds for the only federal family planning program. (For humans. But Republican Dan Burton has a bill to provide contraception for wild horses. You can’t make this stuff up).
All of these discretionary funding programs constitute about one-eighth of total federal spending. While politically provocative, and useful for old white guys to tell women what they can and can’t do, they aren’t going to balance the budget. It’s window-dressing. To go back to the sinking ship metaphor, it’s rearranging the chairs on the dance floor of the sinking ship.
And the total cost of all of the items WC has described amount to about 20% of the revenue lost by extending the tax cuts to the wealthiest 5% of Americans for another two years.
The Republicans aren’t fixing the underlying problems. They are pandering to their constituents. And putting women exactly where they want them: in the 19th century.
WC was lucky enough to attend a live performance by Solas last night. Solas – the word means “sunshine” in Celtic – was formed in 1996 and is one of the outstanding Cletic music bands in the world today. Composed of American and Irish musicians, they performed a mix of traditional, pop and their own compositions is a fine show.
One of the things that strikes you about this group is that each of them is highly proficient at a number of instruments. For example, Seamus Egan, the group’s co-founder, over the course of the evening played flute, banjo, tin whistle, guitar, mandolin and bodrhan. The band was tight, polished, lightning-fast on many songs and explored an amazing range of music from traditional jigs and reels through Bob Dylan to Sting. An altogether amazing song list.
You wouldn’t think that there could be a new sound, a new approach to traditional Irish folk music. You’d be wrong. The Los Angeles Times said, “Solas offers a compellingly original, strikingly contemporary view of traditional Celtic sounds.” Although Solas can play straight traditional Irish music as well as anyone WC had heard, what was most fun was the varyingmix of traditional and contemporary sensibility. Solas moves between 300-year old songs and current pop hits with an ease and naturalness that is as astonishing.
If you’ve a taste for Celtic music, and Irish music in particular, but might want a new approach, Solas is your group.
Among neoconservatives, there is a movement to characterize the United States as “exceptional.” We are different. We are special. With an emphasis on its divine origin (Christian gods only need apply). In a series or irregular posts, WC will examine the credibility of this claim. We’ll start with crime.
According to the Bureau of Prison Statistics, as of December 31, 2009, there were 1,613,740 prisoners in the United States. That doesn’t include probation. That doesn’t include parole. It doesn’t even include home confinement. Prisoners. People pulling time. If you add all of them up it’s more than 7 million.
And while the United States has only about five percent of the world’s population, it has 25% – that would be one quarter – of the world’s prisoners.
It’s the highest rate in the world.
True, China and Russia outrank the U.S. in political prisoners. The International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London reports we have 751 people in prison per 100,000 in population. The world average is 125 per 100,000 in population.
WC blames democracy. Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected. The voters, bless their hearts, are in favor of being “tough on crime.” So judges issue long sentences to get themselves re-elected. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.
Does that give us a lower crime rate? Not overall. Some property crimes are lower than most other countries, but for drug offenses and, in particular, violent crimes, the U.S. still tops the charts.
In 2006, the last year for which WC can find statistics, the U.S. spent $216 billion on the criminal justice system. Once again, leading the world.
WC supposes that makes us “exceptional,” although perhaps not in the way that neoconservatives who trumpet the word mean.
If there is a single family of birds that will turn normal folks into birders, it’s the Tanagers. Not the cardinal family species we get in the states, but Thraupidae, the tanagers found in Central and South America. Eye-hurtingly colorful, with dozens of species, only Hummingbirds are more colorful. And maybe not even hummingbirds. And like hummingbirds, Tanagers are found only in the New World.
Consider the Green and Gold Tanager:
WC is the first to admit that Black-capped Chickadees have their charm, but seriously, that is one amazingly colorful bird. In sunlight, a clear view of this species sears your eyeballs.
If you think that the Green and Gold is some kind of aberration, here’s an example of a Paradise Tanager:
It’s just as well the bird is a bit further off or it would do permanent damage to your vision when viewed through binoculars, even on a cloudy day.
And there are at least 240 species in this family. Admittedly, not all are as stunning as these two, but there are at least a hundred that will fill you with delight when you see them.
If anyone asks you why WC is a birder, you can point them to this post as a simple explanation.
Any world that has something like an Andean Cock of the Rock in it is a pretty amazing place. The photo isn’t up to WC’s usual standards, but the bird is strange enough that WC will make an exception. Taken in the Bombuscaro region of Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador.
For the next week or two, WC will be revisiting earlier posts to Wickersham’s Conscience. For most readers, these older essays will be new. For those who have read them, well, WC thinks they are good enough to be worth reading again.
WC was listening to Marc Cohn’s fine Listening to Levon (Amazon link) this morning and it occurred to him how influential The Band was for the relatively brief period it existed. Despite recording only a two handfuls of albums, and with no comparable individual successes after they broke up, Cohn can make a first name reference in the first cut on Join the Parade and know that his audience understands exactly who he is talking about.
WC saw The Band live twice. Once in Seattle in the late 1960′s, and again with Dylan in Chicago in the mid-1970′s. As a live act, they were utterly professional. Lead singing was passed around during songs – sometimes during stanzas in songs – with a panache that could only come from decades of live performances. Occasionally, they’d even change instruments in mid-song. And they could bring the house down with The Weight or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. In the Seattle concert, their equipment popped some circuit breaker somewhere, darkening the entire stadium and killing the amps. Levon Helm filled the time with an extended drum solo that was the highlight of the show. Rock critic Jon Carroll was right: Levon Helm is “the only drummer who can make you cry.”
Which is why WC finds The Last Waltz (Amazon link), an otherwise excellent rock documentary, painful to watch. You can see The Band coming apart in too many places. Scorese’s decision to focus on Robbie Robertson may or may not have been the final blow. Helm certainly thought it was, and says as much in his terrific biography, This Wheel’s on Fire (Amazon link). Sure, it was a farewell concert anyway, but WC thinks the stresses were magnified and made irreconcilable by the filming. They forever went their separate ways.
And, individually, they made some nice music but none of it touched their best stuff as a group. Robertson, whose singing makes me cringe, had a couple of okay albums. The “re-united” Band – an oxymoron if there ever was one – made some nice music. And Levon Helm won a Grammy in 2007 for Dirt Farmer (Amazon link), after a bout with throat cancer. But it’s all much less than a poor live show in their prime, And it’s bittersweet. Manuel and Danko are long dead. Robertson performs occasionally, but hasn’t shown anything new in a long time.
The sum was greater than the parts. But for a few years, the music of The Band changed a lot of folks’ lives, WC’s included. Sure, we’re lucky to have what we do, but it’s still a damned shame.
One way to measure the zeal of a birder is to ask him or her about Tapaculos. They are an obscure family of little ground birds of South America, with a confusing number of similar species. All of them are skulky, shy and very difficult to see. So WC’s delight in finding this little Unicolored Tapaculo out in the open was disproportionate for a drab, fairly plain bird.
Getting a photo of a Tapaculo species is fairly unusual. So WC decided to share. Most of the time, you sometimes get a brief glimpse of these guys after a half an hour or more of trying to spot them on the ground through dense jungle foliage. What’s especially maddening is that all the Tapaculo species have loud, clear calls. You know they are there. You just can’t see them. Which makes a photo all the more rewarding.