Musings From Above

January 31, 2011

The plane’s trajectory provided its passengers a bird’s eye view of New Mexico.  Below, rectangles and odd-shaped lines proclaimed ownership of the land below.  Multi-colored circles resembled pie charts no doubt replicated in board rooms across the country.   An array of colors had been painted over a tan canvas like an artist pallet.   In the distance, man-made ponds interrupted the landscape as did the screeching white wind turbines that poked toward the sky.   The encroachment of man stretched as far as the eye could see.    

Natural causes had affected Mother Nature’s smooth skin, as well.  Portions of her raw flesh had crumpled where mountain ranges had sprouted like acne and had collapsed like wrinkles where rivers had formed.  Parts of her still remained as she had intended.  But as night descended, man once again commanded the scenery.  City lights emboldened the sky in defiance of the sun’s disappearance.    

Mother Nature is conquered under the brilliant glow.  Perhaps, in time she will have the final word.  Mother has been through this before.  She knows that men are no match for wars and weather.  She knows that when man leaves her land, the concrete will crumple and weeds and grasses will invade.  Perhaps, her diversity will never be restored.  In the end, though, she may be altered, but she will never be conquered.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

January 24, 2011

2010 was my year of museums.  2011 is my year of Classics.  I am “reading” two at the moment, one of which is To Kill a Mockingbird.  Actually, I am listening to Sissy Spacek narrate the Book on CD.  

I don’t recall much of my impressions of this book as a high schooler, but as an adult I have to say I love it.  Scout resonates with charm and honesty.  I have experienced both a sweet nostalgia for my own carefree summer days as well as regret for my own children who never openly wandered the neighborhood.  My girls don’t really know our neighbors and never really hung out together with their sisters.  

As a writer, I understand the timelessness of this book.   The characters are well developed.  I loved Ms. Caroline Fisher’s discomfort with Scout’s reading ability and how her training had not prepared her for the issues of the small, relatively poor town of Maycomb.   A compelling air of mystery surrounds Boo Radley.  Scout keeps us guessing as to whether he is someone to be feared or just a tragic fellow.   

Scout’s short temper, her and her brother’s antics are universal experiences that will endear readers for decades to come.  I am about half-way through the book and am anxious to get in the car for the next chapter.

What are your favorite Classics?  Have you reread them as adults and found your experience of the story altered by your own changing perspective?


A Theory to Explain the Dead Birds

January 15, 2011

Let me start this blog by saying I am no expert nor I do not believe the sightings of dead birds and massive fish kills are a sign of impending doom (“flockopalypse”).   If you haven’t followed the events, here is a quick recap of the incidents (source Reuters January 6th article).   Up to 5,000 blackbirds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve in BeeBee, Arkansas.   A few days later, approximately 450 red-winged blackbirds and starlings were discovered along a highway in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Massive bird deaths have also been reported in Tennessee and Kentucky.  This week about hundred birds were found along a roadside in Geyserville, California.   

I have heard lots of ideas on why the birds are dying (fireworks, thunder/lightening storms, car collisions, power lines, intentional poisoning, disease, cold, and secret government testing) tossed around and have found none of them satisfying.  How many mass bird deaths have been recorded in years past due to fireworks?   I haven’t heard of any.   Since when do birds fall from the sky when disoriented? Road kills might nab a few birds, but by the hundreds?  Early necropsies findings have not revealed toxins were the cause.

It seemed to me that while the truck or the fireworks might have triggered the birds into flight, it would not account for the scale of observed deaths.  I started to think that maybe the root cause of the deaths was that the birds were disoriented.   The dead birds are largely comprised of   blackbirds that are known to have limited ability to navigate at night.  Could the phenomenon  be a result of magnetoreception gone awry?

According to a 2005 paper by Mouritsen and Ritz (Current Opinion in Neurobiology Vol.15, pages 406-414), birds navigate by two primary mechanisms:  by a light-dependent compass and an ability to detect changes in magnetic field intensity and/or inclination.  If the birds were known migrants, the first mechanism supports the theory that  fireworks could very well have been responsible for the Arkansas die off.  However, it seems more likely that if birds use the earth’s magnetism, then being unexpectedly startled might create disoriented birds.   Mouritsen and Ritz (2005) noted that the European robins, a night migrant, can become disoriented when exposed to  radio-frequency magnetic fields.   

These lines of evidence lead me to explore the web and what I found supported my theory.  An airport in Tampa Florida actually closed its runways on January 6th due to a shift in the magnetic north pole. Scary?  Not really.  The shifting of the North Pole is not a new phenomenon.  Back in 2005, Joe Stoner, a paleomagnetist at Oregon State University, reported that the shift is likely a normal oscillation of the Earth’s magnetic field (see full article by National Geographic News: news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1215_051215_north_pole.html).

It originally troubled me that blackbirds and starlings appear to be the types of birds primarily included in the mass die offs.   However, it is relatively rare to observe intact dead birds in the wild.  Scavengers have a way of running off with their windfalls.  Perhaps the changing magnetic field has affected other species, but we just haven’t noticed because the scale of the deaths are small by comparison.  And, of course, perhaps I am wrong.  Like I said, I am no expert.  This explanation is just a theory.


The Meaning of “Meaningful”

January 14, 2011

A few months ago, a man I respect told me that no one has meaningful careers anymore, everyone just has jobs. I disagreed. But it raised the question: What exactly is a meaningful career?
I am a manager of I.T. working for an insurance company. My undergraduate degree is in Psychology, which would hardly seem fitting for an I.T. manager. I also have an MBA, but no education in I.T. beyond lots of on-the-job training, and seminars or conferences. As I don’t have a Computer Science degree, would my career be in management, or in I.T.? Since I work at an insurance company, does that say anything about my career, or is the place of employment incidental?

I like to believe I have a meaningful career as a manager of I.T. I haven’t always been an I.T. manager. I started out doing clerical work in I.T., became a technician, then a network administrator before I became a manager. Once I became a manager, I learned much more about technology through the many activities of my team of technicians, systems admins and engineers.
Also I learned about people, how they think and work, and how to encourage them to work together; the importance of respecting others and earning others’ respect. And I manage not only people but projects, contracts, time, budgets.

All of these add up to a career built over time, a melding of experience in both technology and management. Satisfaction comes from working with a team who understands a job well done. But what makes it meaningful to me, are the rich human relationships I enjoy every day I walk onto my job. The greatest rewards are in helping and watching people learn, grow and prosper. That is what a meaningful career is to me.

Can you have a career without it being meaningful?


I Write Like Who? – Really? Part 2 of 2

January 14, 2011

This blog further explores my findings using the website, iwl.me, which takes a few paragraphs of your work and reveals what famous authors your writing most resembles.  As noted in Part I, my poetry was compared to the writing of James Joyce and P.G. Woodhouse.  I write in many different arenas and not surprisingly, the findings of this website revealed  my writing style was as diverse as the forums: blogging, novels, and personal essays.  

I was particularly curious to see if a letter I had written for a contest where I was supposed to impersonate Jack London writing a query letter in the present day to sell one of his short stories would indicate I write like Jack London.  Here is the opening paragraph from that letter:

Although I cannot help but feel that the chances run somewhat against me, I am writing to ask you to reconsider your rejection of my short story, “To Build a Fire,” for your esteemed magazine, Alaskan SkyCrest.  I chose your monthly because the readers of your magazine will be flying to or from Alaska, and it would seem certain that my story of 7,096 words would give them great pleasure.  Perhaps, those patrons that proceed to venture into the wilds of Alaska might even be spared the fate of the fire-provider in my story. 

Did I succeed?  Nope.  The website declared I write like Vladimir Nabakov.   I tried the closing paragraph and was informed the writing was comparable to James Fenimore Cooper.   Hmm.  Did I get the right era?  Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876. Vladimir Nabakov was born in Russia in 1899, but is known as an American novelist.   Not bad.   James Fenimore Cooper was an American born in 1789, almost 100 years prior to Jack London, but again, is described as an American novelist.  At least, I succeeded in writing like an American.  The biggest letdown was when I put in second paragraph, the website suggested a similarity to Dan Brown’s writing. And that’s when the pattern developed.

I have completed two very different novels, one is a contemporary young adult story from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl and the second is historical fiction novel set in the 1700s with a male protagonist.  I took excerpts from various chapters from both of these novels and consistently got the same result:  Dan Brown.  I admit I was a little disappointed, but then I got to thinking about my technique.  I am a plot driven writer.  I pride myself on producing solid endings to my chapters with the intent to keep the reader wanting to turn the page.  My novels both have a sense of an underlying mystery.  I have written my novels for commercial appeal.  To that end, it would appear I do write like Dan Brown.

I put in a few samples of blogs and personal essays that suggested various other authors, including Stephen King.  Not once did Dan Brown pop up, nor did a woman author materialize from the algorithmic analysis.  Guess I write like a man.

What author does your prose most resemble?  Visit  iwl.me to find out and then add a comment on what you discover.


I Write Like Who? Part 1 of 2

January 11, 2011

I am not one of those people inclined to fill out a questionnaire that will tell me what Harry Potter character I most resemble.  But when friend and co-writer Elizabeth Tuck sent out a link designed to illuminate what famous author a person’s writing resembled, I took the bait.  The website, iwl.me, asks that you post a few paragraphs of your work.  I write in many different arenas and not surprisingly, my writing style was as diverse as the forums: blogging, novels, personal essay and poems.  I was particularly curious to see if a letter I had written for a contest where I was supposed to impersonate Jack London would pop up as Jack London.  There is too much material here for one blog, so I am doing a multi-part series.  This first post addresses my poetry.

Now, I am not much of a poet, but as a previous blog noted, my dog Bailey, inspired my fingers to click out a few verses.  I’ve written nine poems in all about that silly mutt. When I put the following verse in, the website pronounces that I write like James Joyce:

Cold black nose nudges hand
Lifting, up, up
Exposing the vulnerable neck
Pet me here
I trust you

I admit I felt a bit honored by this comparison. I looked up some information on the author and he has been described as one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors.  He was born in Dublin, so we both share Irish blood. I have a real hodge podge of ancestral origins:  Irish, English, German, French, and about a dozen others, but I am a quarter Irish and that is the largest percentage of any of my myriad of bloodlines.  Do nationalities affect our voice?  Maybe the era of the writer important.  James Joyce was born in February 1882.  Would a different poem in would I resemble a different author?

The following verse declared I wrote like P. G. Woodhouse:

Scratch me here
Leg bicycles the air
Oooh, that tickles
Pant, Pant
More please

Again, a tingle of pride shimmied across my cerebral cortex.  An English author this time though.  So much my theory about Irish descent.  However, Woodhouse was born in October 1881, only a few months later than Joyce .  Maybe I’m just old fashioned.  So I plugged in one more poem:

Brown puppy-dog eyes
Clear and bright
Say,
I’ll stay beside you
Forever.
Now,
Can we go for a walk?

This time I was compared to Cory Doctorow.  No straightening of the backbone here.  My reaction was, who?  A quick google search revealed Doctorow was a Canadian journalist and science fiction writer born in 1971.  The formatting of this particular poem is deliberate, but I wondered if it had influenced the outcome.  However, a reanalysis with the revised format still resulted in a comparison to Doctorow.  I pulled in another poem and came full circle to James Joyce again.  Interesting that the same subject matter would give me such a diverse group of author comparisons.    Also interesting that at least two different poems would offer up James Joyce as my writing muse.   I take that as a complement. 

What author does your prose most resemble?  Visit:  iwl.me and let us know.


The Economics of Extinction and Nature Writing

January 10, 2011

What do we lose if we don’t write about nature?  What might we gain if there were no museum specimens of extinct species?   It’s an intriguing question.    One I hadn’t given much thought.

I missed seeing the film, Ghost Bird when it was first released.   The official opening of the documentary happened on Endangered Species Day in 2010 (May 21st).  Sadly, this film wasn’t successful enough to make the mainstream theaters.   This movie is much more than a quest for finding the truth about a February 2004 sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that had been presumed extinct.   This movie is a story of hope, of science, of ego, and of moral dilemma.   It also raised my awareness of the importance of books amidst this discovery. 

The skeptics, comprised of credible scientist, soon claimed the video documentation of the bird was not the extinct bird, but rather a similar woodpecker species, the pileated woodpecker.   Seemingly, innocuous facts, such as when the bird was observed vocalizing, became key facts in deciphering the possibility that the sighting of the ivory-billed was not real.  Fortunately, the detailed biology of the bird was documented in James T.  Tanner’s 1942 thesis, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  This important report was later published in 1966 in unabridged form and became available to the general public.  In our current day publishing environment, I can’t help but wonder if his book would have been considered marketable enough to warrant publication.  Even if  Tanner had managed capture the interest of a present-day publisher, would they have asked Dr. Tanner to cut his work to some specified word count?  Would the economics of today’s publishing world have resulted in the loss of critical information?

The film doesn’t ponder this particular financial aspect, but it does explore the human connection and the economics behind the sighting.  The town of Brinkley in Arkansas, a causality of hard times, expected an economic windfall.  The mayor hoped to open several bed and breakfasts to handle the anticipated influx of tourists eager to see the bird.  Shops created souvenirs.  A local hair dresser advertised that she gave Ivory-billed haircuts.  

The movie also explores the question of whether museums in their zeal to collect specimens to display might have contributed to the extinction of the woodpecker.  The Harvard Museum of Natural History houses over 61 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers.   I mean really, how many dead birds do you need?   If they had only killed a few would the species have survived?

According to the website, ghostbirdmovie.com, since announcing the Ivory-Bill’s rediscovery, Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, The Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal, state and local agencies, have attracted over 10 million dollars for the search expedition as well as habitat acquisition, preservation and rehabilitation.  On the surface, this might seem a positive outcome, but the film soon reveals the money had been diverted from other program funding allocated to help endangered species actually known to exist.   I wish I knew how much, if any, of that money, was designated to fund publications so that if the species end up going extinct, more than a few elite scientists would know how the animals behaved when they were around.    I fear the written word may be the only way to save some of these species for future generations.

For more information on the movie, Ghost Bird, visit:  http://ghostbirdmovie.com/