Archive for the ‘Earth’ Category

This Summer of Horrible News- Get Away From It If You Can


– The 7-year-old son of an Australian member of ISIS is pictured holding the decapitated head of a soldier, a photo distributed on social media by his father.

– A white towel drapes the corpse of 18 year old, Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, two days from starting his first day at college, shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend.

– Far-ranging rockets fly into the night, aimed at Israeli citizens while shells land in “safe” places housing Palestinian refugees, wounding and killing women and children.

– Another 135 people die in a single day from the deadly Ebola virus, now spreading through West Africa.

– An actor and comedian who captured our hearts for over three decades with his obvious love and passion for life, kills himself- the victim of a deep depression.

– An airliner with 300 innocents aboard gets shot out of the sky over Ukraine and it is days before repatriation of the bodies and burials can take place as armed insurgents keep even investigators from reaching the scene.

– Thousands of Central American children who survive a 1,300 mile trek to the American border escaping violent gangs in their home countries, are dispersed throughout towns and villages in the U.S. while the government decides what do with them. In many of those towns, angry protestors demand the children leave and let it be known they are not welcome.

– American politicians forget the art of compromise and the business of governing grinds to a halt as partisan gridlock leaves our Congress as one of the least respected institutions in the nation, unable to address any of the country’s problems.

These eight news stories have one thing in common. These are the headlines of our summer of 2014. I am not alone in remarking about how bleak and horrible the world seems right now. Certainly, for those of us who work in the news business, where these dismal stories are part of our normal routine, it is hard to take. And for those not in the media or journalism worlds, it is all equally appalling and sad.

There is only one answer to this as far as I can tell. The world, despite our best efforts, is not going to fix itself. But you do have the power, mostly, of determining what information you receive. So unplug. Just disconnect every now and then. Don’t watch the news. Stay away from news web sites. Go outside. Breath clean air. Go for a walk. Take in a comedy club. Go to a baseball game. Rediscover your partner.

We all need to take a break from this horrid summer of news. For our own mental health.

“Cosmos” and Resisting the Temptation of False Equivalence

Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543

Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543

The National Science Foundation released a survey last month that found nearly 1 out of 4 Americans mistakenly believe the Sun orbits the Earth. This was all cleared up about 500 years ago by Nicolaus Copernicus who correctly theorized that the Earth and all the other planets in our solar system orbit a largely stationary sun. Still, 25% of the country disagrees. So does this mean the media is obligated to present the other “side?”

We know by now that the earth is a spherical object. There are satellite photos that confirm it. There are still-photos from the moon. Get high enough in a jet and you can see the curvature of the earth. Yet, there is an actual Flat Earth Society that contends otherwise. This is, literally, their take on the world:


Do we carve out a few minutes to give the Flat-Earthers their “side” of the argument?

There is something called the “Creation Museum” that opened in Petersburg, Kentucky six years ago, that among other things, shows humans walking around with their friends, the dinosaurs. There is ample evidence, of course, that humans never co-existed with dinosaurs; the creatures had gone extinct by the time relatively new-fangled human beings came along. But let’s find the Museum Curator and put him on the air because, surely, this is the other “side” of the Dinosaur story.

And now, Neil deGrass Tyson, hosting a modern-day sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is under attack from some quarters for espousing Darwin’s theory of evolution with opposing groups demanding equal TV time from FOX and National Geographic to talk about creationism. That is the very definition of false equivalence.

Science and religion, fact and faith- are too entirely different realms. This does not mean there are no religious or spiritually-inclined scientists or that there are no persons of the cloth who subscribe to scientific discipline and study. It would be great to hear both “sides” on a show that deals with the controversy of creationists versus scientists. But if you’re writing a book or producing a TV series on the history of the universe- it’s about facts, not opinions.

From a philosophical point of view, I must admit I have never understood the revulsion on the part of fundamentalists toward the theory of evolution. How is it, in any way, an affront to the belief in the existence of a higher power? How amazing is a God that creates a universe that allows for the constant change and improvement of all living things through the process of natural selection?

I would go even further and wonder aloud how anyone who studies the infinite nature of our universe could be without a sense of wonder that eventually lands at a spiritual place that attempts to answer what we can’t with pure science. What came before the “big bang” is not knowable. What extends outside the edge of the universe is unfathomable, because theoretically, there is no edge of the universe.

It is in the realm of philosophy where science and spirituality rightfully mingle together. I am grateful to live in a world that considers both. There is little doubt in my mind that all of life as we know it and understand it, spiritually and scientifically, is, in fact, an amazing miracle.

But let’s not corrupt scientific fact with religious opinion by putting spiritual beliefs on some kind of equal footing with objective scientific inquiry. Those beliefs are completely legitimate. In a church. Or in a museum dedicated to Creationism. But not on a television series based on the story of our universe as we’ve come to understand it through long-established methods of scientific research, inquiry and peer review.

The Unheralded Return

September 20, 2013 1 comment


The bearded man was not clean. He did not smell of cologne. His long, unkempt hair fell to his shoulders. He wore simple, nondescript clothing, streaked with the dirt of the city. Pedestrians walked past him, clutching their pocketbooks and their wallets just a little tighter. But he asked for nothing- nothing material. He was not begging. He stood on the street corner talking about love.

He asked anyone who might listen or accidently listen, to consider the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. He talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the lonely and disaffected. In the end, he said, these miserable, poverty-stricken street urchins; these pitiful, sad and needy people that no one seems to care about- these are the people who would inherit the earth, not the mighty titans of Wall Street or the politically powerful or connected. Because the world- the real world- was populated more by the urchins than these Masters of the Universe who would eventually lose everything through their own undisciplined greed.

He did not yell. He spoke in a controlled, soft voice. There was sadness but also a tenderness in his eyes. The men in well-pressed suits walked around him. And the fashionable women paid no heed. And a teenager nearly ran into him as she texted furiously on her smart phone, startled as she caught a whiff of him.

It did not make any Cable News program. There were no breathless, “Breaking News” crawls along the bottom of the TV screen. No one tweeted it. Social media missed it.

It is possible many of those who walked past him attended church the next Sunday. But it turned out that not one of them picked up on the resemblance between the crazy bum on the street corner and the tortured porcelain figure that loomed right in front of them, nailed to a cross. He had come back because the world had never needed him more.

And no one noticed.

Science and the Near-Death Experience

August 13, 2013 1 comment

Near Death Experience
Scientists say they’ve measured significant increases of brain activity at the approach of death, possibly explaining why people think they are seeing typical “near” death experiences like tunnels and bright, white lights, and feelings of being out of one’s body.

I think the scientists have bumped into something important here but my gut and I guess what passes for faith, both tell me we are not hallucinating these things.

First, the findings of the study as reported by the Washington Post:

Scientists from the University of Michigan recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) signals in nine anesthetized rats after inducing cardiac arrest. Within the first 30 seconds after the heart had stopped, all the mammals displayed a surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with consciousness and visual activation. The burst of electrical patterns even exceeded levels seen during a normal, awake state.

One reader commenting on the WP article made this point:


I am a fan of science but this article shows the limits of science’s “logic.” They assume that a surge of brain activity causes the near-death experience. But isn’t it also possible that an actual near-death experience causes a surge of brain activity?

As someone who has had a near-death experience. I can attest that it was certainly not an illusion. It was very real as were my interactions with spirits on “the other side.”


I read an interesting article years ago that theorized there is an enormous rush of endorphins that literally flood and overwhelm the brain at the time of death and that the chemical reactions cause the hallucinations we know as the near-death experience.

But even if true, who’s to say the release of endorphins is not the physiological gateway to the spiritual side? Maybe it’s not a hallucination at all. Maybe the feelings and visualizations that are triggered by the chemicals and measured in the increase of brain activity are the beginning of the transition to whatever lies on “the other side.”

I love science too but please don’t mess with my spirits and angels and tunnels and bright lights. If it is all a hallucination, it’s going to be my party anyway, so I guess I’ll see whatever I want to see.

The Little C

March 27, 2013 5 comments

Serene Lake

Well, thank you for your prayers! Looks more and more like I’ve dodged a huge bullet as medical tests continue to indicate I have a very small and early gastric tumor. I’ve seen the pictures; it kind of looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree- just a scrawny little thing.

Blood tests do show a slightly elevated level in a marker that’s an indicator of tumor growth. But a CT scan came back completely boring with nothing irregular whatsoever. This should all mean it’s at a very, very early stage which means everything in regard to stomach cancer. Basically it’s the difference between it being curable or not- the difference between a 5% and a 75% five-year survivability rate.

Within a week or so, I’ll get a treatment plan and then get a second opinion on that plan. I’m pretty sure they will still want to dive in with knives so they can eyeball things for themselves and cut the thing out, along with a hopefully very small portion of the stomach. And while an operation of that nature has risks of its own and really, really sucks for about 7 days in the hospital and then another six weeks of recovery, it’s way more important and significant that long-term survival looks like a real good bet.

My highly amusing doctor, Thomas Butler, tells his patients that the most important part of any treatment plan is looking both ways before you cross the street. Because what good do the best and most intricate treatment plans do if you’re going to go get hit by a truck?

My son has a funny line about trucks too. Last year, I sent him info on what his life insurance benefits would be just in case I get hit by a truck. His dry, one sentence e-mail response was priceless.


Stay away from trucks.



Election Home Stretch: But First a Hurricane

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

(OK, this graphic could have been done more professionally but my resources are limited)

I’m not sure which hype will win the day.  The closest, craziest Presidential election race ever, or the storm of the millennium- a combo hurricane/blizzard/nor’easter more perfect in its evil ingredients than even the last Perfect Storm in 1991 that was so horrific it was turned into a popular movie.

I do know this.  Because I live in the all-important swing state of Virginia, any possible power outages will have the added benefit of wiping out several hundred political TV commercials, thus frustrating the mass media strategies of both campaigns.   Honestly, these media strategies have always been puzzling to me.

On the 833rd viewing of a particular campaign spot, is something supposed to suddenly click?  Does the viewer slap his head in a moment of unexpected epiphany?  “You know, the first 832 times I saw that commercial, I must have missed the candidate’s furrowed brow at the mention of massive deficits- but now it all makes sense to me!”

I get a kick out of the regular “people” in these commercials.  It’s not bad enough that the “small businessman/woman” is clumsily reading cue cards, but they’re also not even a small businessman/woman, they’re just bad actors.  “Ok, honey, at the end of the speech about how your kids are all in debt, give us that forlorn look, right into the camera- bingo, that’s a wrap!”

I’ve been whipsawed now for several months.  It’s Morning in America!  Millions of new jobs have been added!  No, it’s Armageddon in America!  It’s all a living hell until January 20th when everything suddenly changes!

Ok, so Hurricane Sandy’s impending visit will give us a political commercial respite, but what if the power outage also takes out the internet?  Then, what?  Where, exactly, am I supposed to find out the latest on the political polls?  My God, what happens when 1pm comes and goes and I haven’t been able to check the latest Gallup tracking numbers?   Is it really possible I may not be able to read Nate Silver for over 48 hours?

Well, the good news is that not only do I still have leftover tuna cans from last year’s big hurricane, I added to my supplies yesterday with a last-minute, late night visit to the local Harris Teeter.   True, they had run out of cheap water, but I do now have several dozen very attractive and incredibly expensive bottles of Fiji water.

I also have a very entertaining Saturday ahead of me.  From my 10th floor Pentagon City apartment, I have an excellent view of the Costco parking lot.  Storm preparation mayhem and panic all unfolding right before my very eyes as I sip my Fiji water and munch on my tuna and crackers.

God, life is good.

The Week I Didn’t Die

October 11, 2012 14 comments

(Courtesy, Jack Brauer, Mountain Photographer)

Without getting into a lot of rather gory detail, it’s been a tough week.  Almost died.  Recovered.  Came home.  Now I’m typing these words.

In a nutshell- last Wednesday, an undiscovered ulcer went suddenly and completely awry at the same time, coincidentally, a little case of pneumonia set in.  You haven’t lived until you‘ve tried to breath with pneumonia in your lungs and a bunch of staples in your abdominal muscles.  There were machines doing stuff I never imagined possible in strangely, seemingly disconnected places like nasal cavities and stomachs.

Who says antibiotics don’t work?  I’d like to thank three specific kinds of antibiotics very, very much.  You know who you are.

Spent seven days at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.  I am not the most gracious hospital guest in the universe.  My immediate goal on these sorts of occasions, is to get out and fast, which was not possible this time.   But they put up with me, saved me, fixed me, put me back together again.  Every single one of them has a heart of gold, as far as I’m concerned.

So, a week later, I walked into the faintly crisp, cool autumn air and took what seemed impossible a few days ago- a deep breath.  And I felt newly alive and grateful for it.  What an amazing gift; to be given a new life right in the middle of my favorite season- which just happens to completely represent what is now the autumn of my life.

See, that was the part in the old Sinatra song where I started getting bummed out about those damned seasons of our lives.  But, no damn it!  It is a beautiful season.  It’s pumpkins, and fresh, cold mornings.  It’s scary ghosts and little kids in ridiculous little costumes.  It’s apple cider and scare crows and romance and straw and the Wizard of Oz.  It’s not the harbinger of a fast on-rushing winter.  It’s the precursor to snow and Christmas and laughter and hot chocolate and fire places and the stinging feel of fresh cold air against the tiny little patches of skin you’ve accidently left exposed.

So thank you Commander of Fate; Oh Great, Holy Handler of the Cosmic Tumblers.  Whoever puts together these strange combinations of challenges seemingly designed to break us- but don’t.  Thank you for the joy and the utter gift of a second shot this late in life.

Thanks also to painkillers.  Winkin’ at ya.

New Year’s Conversation with an Alien

Wishing all humans a happy and cautious New Year

This is a re-post from exactly a year ago today and not much has changed about how we “celebrate” at this time of the Earth calendar.

There are a lot of traditions associated with the advent of a New Year. A curious alien from another planet would likely pose questions like these about the things we do this time of year.

Alien: Why do you Earthlings “celebrate” a New Year? The odds are that any coming period of time will offer as many bad things as good things. Why is there so much laughter and gaiety when common sense tells you any given coming year may be just as filled with disaster as with happiness?

Human: Well, we choose to look at things optimistically. A new year is a new page, a new start and so we celebrate a new age of possibilities. And we also wish that people will have a good year which is why we say “Happy New Year” to one another.

Alien: Would it not be more appropriate to wish people a “Happy and Cautious New Year?”

Human: Well, I suppose so, but that’s kind of negative and rather wordy.

Alien: It is only two more words. Why do you humans make promises you can’t keep?

Human: You mean New Year’s Resolutions?

Alien: Yes. Why does your species always resolve to make dramatic new changes in your existence at this time in the Earth calendar?

Human: It’s part of that whole “new page” thing- a clean slate; a chance to start over.

Alien: But it is extremely futile. Everyone knows that by the start of the second Earth calendar month, these promises are forgotten. Why would humans think they can change years and years of patterns of behaviors just because there is a new ending number on one of your Earth years?

Human: It’s a retrospective thing. We pause for a moment to assess the things we do in life and think of ways to improve ourselves. That’s not so bad, is it?

Alien: It is not that it is bad. It is silly. Why do you not make new resolutions every three months instead of every twelve months? Why do you not make resolutions in July and September?

Human: You know what? Your questions are getting a little annoying.

Alien: I am sorry. I have more. Why do you humans ingest large amounts of fermented beverages at this time of year? Beverages that will make you act in ways you will later regret?

Human: You mean champagne? Well, that’s just tradition. People like to get a little trashed this time of year- it’s an innocent thing.

Alien: It is rather illogical. Fermented beverages make humans feel sick. Why would a human who is about to resolve to change their lives for the better in the year ahead, start out that same year by poisoning themselves?

Human: Hey, I was kidding about getting “trashed.” Not everyone drinks to excess.

Alien: I am not sure that is accurate. I saw many human beings vomiting last night. I see many more today on the first day of the New Year; taking pills to make the ill effects of the fermented beverages go away.

Human: It’s what we do, ok?

Alien: And why do mostly the males of your species spend the entire first day of the New Year watching gladiator games?

Human: You mean college football bowl games?

Alien: Yes. And why do they call them “bowl” games? Is it because of all the times humans spend on that first day running from their TV screens to the toilet bowl?

Human: You know… hangovers get better as the day progresses. It’s really only in the mornings that you feel like crap. Besides, the games are played in “bowls,” or “stadiums,” hence, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl.

Alien: Why is there a Tostitos Bowl? Why is there an Outback Bowl? These are names for products not games.

Human: You know what? You think too much and ask too many questions. This little interview is about over, buddy.

Alien: Very well. I wish that you take advantage of the good things that will happen in the coming year, and that you will survive all the bad things.

Human: How sweet of you.

Alien: Why do you say that? There is no sugar or glucose in my DNA.

Human: I was being sarcastic.

Alien: Perhaps that is one of the things you should resolve to change in the year ahead.

Congress Temporarily Saves the Incandescent Light Bulb

December 16, 2011 2 comments

Tucked away in the 1,200-page bill that keeps the government funded through the rest of the fiscal year is a teeny, tiny, little provision that denies the Obama administration any of the money that would be necessary for it to enforce new energy efficiency standards that would pretty much eradicate the incandescent light bulb.

Yes, that’s right…for the time being anyway…the old light bulb continues to live on!

For some reason, this has been a huge priority for congressional Republicans- presumably because of the symbolism of it all; playing on the resentment of Americans being forced to use those weird, foreign-looking, squiggly light bulbs by squinty-eyed, bespectacled, nerdy, little, carbon foot-print-measuring, bureaucratic, government weasel-heads.

I’m going with the GOP on this one. You can only judge these things, I think, based on your own experiences. And my one experience with the new fangled light bulbs was not a pretty one. Saw it in the drug store one day and thought, “Oh what the hell, let’s see if these things do as advertised.” So I brought it home, took out my incandescent bulb in my bedroom lamp and screwed in the new one.

The packaging says, “lasts five years!” What a deal, I thought. Yeah, they’re a little expensive but totally worth it for five years, right? Ten minutes after I put that new bulb into the lamp, it popped and died. I was totally outraged. There is a huge difference in my book between five years and ten minutes. Huge. I fished the old incandescent bulb out of the trash can and happily screwed it back in again.

With visible disdain (visible at the time only by my cats), I tossed the failed new fangled bulb into the trash. I felt duped. Violated, even.

Look, I’m as environmentally conscious as the next guy—no—more so. I don’t even own a car. I have the tiniest little carbon footprint of anyone I know. I love the earth and the trees and the grasses and all of God’s creatures. I would even be in favor of the eradication of the incandescent light bulb if it would buy our lovely planet just one more day. But the thing you’re replacing it with- HAS TO WORK.

Otherwise- back off, Mr. Government Bureaucrat Guy. Don’t make me buy a 1960 diesel pick-up truck without a catalytic converter- ‘cause I will mess the earth up. Big time.

Assessing Irene- the Storm, the Hype, the Reality

August 29, 2011 3 comments

There’s a lot of debate this day after the storm about whether the media and governments went overboard on Irene…as if we didn’t have a hurricane the size of Europe bearing down on 60 million inhabitants of the eastern seaboard.


Weather science has come a long way and no one can argue that the tracking of Irene was anything but amazingly precise. What the advance forecasts misjudged was the wind intensity of the storm. Some 72-96 hours ahead of the turn toward the U.S. mainland, forecasters thought they might have a category-4 storm on their hands. In reality, though still at hurricane strength when making landfall in New Jersey, Irene was “only” a category-1 and down to a strong tropical storm by the time it hit Coney Island in New York City.

Meteorologists fully understand that they overestimated the wind speed forecasts and will surely be reworking their models for future hurricanes. From the layman’s eye, what appears to be missing in the analysis is the effect on storms once they start getting broken up as they pass over land. That’s a tricky thing to try to project when a hurricane is hugging a coast-line and as this one, actually had three different landfalls; North Carolina, New Jersey and New York. It’s almost as if the wind-speed analysis of Irene’s potential discounted the energy it would lose as it made its way up the coast through the combination of cooler ocean waters and the land masses it went over.

Government Response

New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie and the folks at the National Hurricane Center are certain that the overwhelming and, in some ways, unprecedented government response to Irene- saved lives. Little solace to the 24 37 people whose families are attending funerals today but only God knows what the total death toll might have been had there not been mandatory evacuations, transit system shutdowns and dire warnings from Presidents, Governors and Mayors.

The Media

Yes, the Weather Channel, Accu-Weather, and local and national media brought out all the bells and whistles, super-duper graphics packages, doubled-up staffs and dramatic language through the course of coverage. Of course there was some hype. For people in the weather and news businesses this was the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Academy awards rolled into one.

People like Daily Beast Washington Bureau Chief, Howard Kurtz, got all bent out of shape over the marketing and the splash. Kurtz was angered by the earthquake media coverage too. Surely by now, though, we’ve grown to accept that news coverage in the 24-hour, web and cable-driven news business is filled with hype and spin and marketing. Hopefully, we’re adult enough to take some of this with a grain of salt.

But you know what? A friggin’ 5.8 earthquake that rattles nerves from Georgia to Maine is a big deal and 3,000 people didn’t have to die to make it a newsworthy event in a part of the country where quakes are rare. A gigantic hurricane aimed at the most populous region of the nation is as newsworthy as newsworthy gets. Decry the surrounding hype and the breathless reporting as much as you want- it doesn’t change the fact that both these events really were big, major news.

The Politics

I don’t understand the meme that’s been building in the right-wing world as exemplified by the Drudge Report which is usually the trend leader in conservative talking points. Drudge has spent the better part of the last 3 days complaining about the hype over Irene, downplaying its seriousness and went as far as to link to a web site that questioned the integrity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while claiming Irene was not really a hurricane and was making landfall with 33 mph winds, data that was disingenuously cherry-picked to the level of absurdity and demonstrably false.

But what motivates this cynicism? I suspect it comes down to the role of government. Disasters are one of those areas in which governments play key roles and exercise tremendous power. The bigger the disaster, the more people depend on government to warn them, take care of them and then fix whatever is broken in the aftermath. Downplaying the size of a coming disaster deemphasizes the role of government and opens the possibilities of claiming government overreaction and intrusion into our lives.

Grateful for the Overreaction

In the end, if Irene wasn’t all she was hyped to be, she still caused enormous damage and inconvenience, and in some cases, death. If all the media hype and governmental seriousness that was attached to Irene helped keep people alive- then good. I’ll take the hype and make fun of it when it’s silly. The worst of it for me was that I now have 48 containers of bottled water and a half-dozen cans of tuna fish I would not otherwise have purchased.

And God help us when the time comes that the media and government under-hype a potential disaster. That’s called getting caught off-guard and usually results in catastrophe. We should be grateful to have avoided that this week whether it was the ground trembling beneath our feet or less-then-expected winds rattling our windows.