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May Hooray 1

May is a cheery month, I think. Or at least it should be one. It’s bright, the weather’s getting nice, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, baseball is a quarter-way through the schedule and getting interesting (well, most years!), we’re able to shed our winter clothes. If you’re a student, the end of the school year is almost upon you and if you’re at work, we’re getting to the time of long weekends and summer holidays. May should be a fine month which uplifts us all.

Of course, this year is a bit different. “Covid 19” and “Social distancing” are running neck-and-neck for the most used new entries into our lexicon and both can make us nostalgic for ones which popped into popular use in recent years… things like “Gangham style.” Even “impeachment” see downright warm and fuzzy by comparison.

So since we’re all quite probably stressed about the virus, about our health and the health of the economy, this May looks a bit darker and drearier. But there’s still lots of good out there, lots to enjoy,so this month I’ll try to put out a few thoughts on things which we can be thankful for, or enjoy even in Pandemic Times. It’s an idea that’s not altogether new to me. In 2015, I put out a book (Thank Goodness – 101 Things To Be Grateful For Today) designed to do the same – make one see the good all around them every day.

So let’s start with a simple one…we can still spend time with our families and the ones we love at home. People are finding ways to have fun with their kids. Some families might even be re-discovering forgotten pleasures like playing board games together or running through their library of favorite old movies. And while many, like me, are missing pro baseball and the kids can’t play organized little league that doesn’t stop everyone from having a little fun on the diamond, like this father and son:

Try to enjoy your day, and if you have little ones, remember any day can be a special one.

Bryson Book Badgers Britain

I imagine a lot of you will be getting in a bit more reading time these days, even if not by choice. Publishers thank you, corona virus.

Anyway, my latest book read is The Road To Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. It is, like almost all of Bryson’s books, a humorous travelogue. This one is a trip across Britain, a follow-up to his first look at the UK, Notes From A Small Island, back about 20 years ago.

For the uninitiated, Bryson seems like a terrifc and fun guide whom we’d probably hate to hang out with. He has an attentive eye and great writing skill and a droll, sarcastic sense of humor. One which seems to find fault in almost everything and every situation, making life a bit tedious for those around him I’m sure.(Trying to buy a ticket for a train trip for instance, he complains the self-serve machine wouldn’t serve, forcing him to line up to deal with a rail rep “who had once answered a British Rail ad that said ‘wanted: cheerless bastard to deal with the public’”)

Bryson is American by birth but chose to relocate to the British Isles while middle aged. One has to wonder why, given the amount of complaints he has about the British public (he notes, for example that a study shows the average American won’t walk more than 600 feet to get anywhere and speculates that while once Brits were energetic, today that stat would hold up there too but the difference is the Brit would have to stop to get a tattoo and throw some garbage on the street before going 600 feet). He loves baseball – non-existant there – and seems indifferent to soccer, “football” to them, which is nearly a religion on that island.

That said, he finds much to like about Britain as well, mainly the examples of old architecture and the landscape.

I don’t know if i’ll be getting to the UK any year soon, but if I do, I’ll be taking along the book to help find some of the better parks, museums and small towns to visit… and which train stations to avoid! But even if I never get there, The Road to Little Dribbling is an entertaining read. Recommended for anyone who enjoys traveling or getting a taste of foreign cultures.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 3

What will the new normal be when things finally revert back? Perhaps that’s the biggest question of all these days, even more than “when”.

I’m far from unique in pointing out that when things went back to “normal” eventually after the 9/11 attacks, we found that “normal” was different than had been on Sep. 10, 2001. It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Corona virus will be similar in that eventually, when it fades into the background or even disappears, things will be different. What does take imagination though is to figure out just how they’ll be different.

There will be some negatives for years to come, of that we can be sure. The economy’s already taken a major hit worldwide and we’re not even close to wrestling this illness to the ground. The “stimulus” package just passed in the U.S. is said to cost some two trillion dollars, and guess what – that’s got to come from somewhere. Yes, that’s probably very necessary to help out people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, temporarily at least, and having to pay unexpected out of pocket expenses but is also about $8000 per taxpayer country-wide. Expect either tax increases or cuts to other government services for years to come. Likely both.

Obviously, some businesses that are closed now may not come back. Many non-essential retailers are shut down for the time being in the name of public safety, and for some that are already teetering on the edge of oblivion, it may be too much to ever come back from. I’d be surprised to see an open Sears or JC Penney store in the future, personally. Same goes for Pier 1 as well. That company just closed about half of their whole chain just before this occurred, and I wouldn’t bet on the remaining 450 stores or so in the future. After all, the chain was already nearly completely bankrupt in good economic times; nice but expensive imported pillows, wall hangings and tableware may find an even smaller market in tough times that will follow. And yes, tougher times will follow.

People are going to lose their jobs, not only in companies like theirs which will probably go under. Right now the tourist trade is taking a beating, understandably, and while the beaches of Florida, the Eiffel Tower, Disney World, the pyramids of Egypt and so on will always be draws, if the economy shrinks, they may not draw as many people. It’s unlikely the government’s going to let major airlines or hotel chains fold entirely, but not unlikely they’ll shrink. Fewer tourists means fewer jets in the air, fewer pilots and flight attendants, fewer hotels needed. Not to mention fewer restaurants and bars near those attractions, fewer gas stations along the way.Hence fewer jobs.

I wonder too, if many businesses still operating but operating differently won’t choose to opt for the new ways. For instance, many stores have cut their hours (that made no sense to me in the case of supermarkets, which were already busy and seeing a jump in sales) … neighborhood “24 hour” Walgreens now close at 9 PM in many cities and it’s rare to find a supermarket or Walmart open before sunrise now. If they find people still find ways to shop during the reduced hours, will they revert to the old, longer hours that require more manpower and electricity down the road? Less all-night shopping, and thus fewer retail jobs may emerge from Corona. On the other hand, shopping online may become even more dominant than it has been up to now.

With many offices doing all they can now to get the majority of their staff working from home to prevent the spread of the illness, it’s not hard to imagine that if that goes without too many snags, they may not be anxious to bring their whole roster back to the home office five days a week. A lot more people may be telecommuting in the future, good for the bottom line of the corporations (less office space means less rent, electricity etc.), good perhaps for our environment (imagine the savings in gas for just an ordinary worker not driving perhaps ten miles a day to work… now multiply that by millions) but perhaps not good for socialization or for the real estate market.

Speaking of real estate, if the economy flounders for some time as a result of this virus, tough times may befall real estate agents. But it could be a bull market for Lowes and Home Depot, as well as books by those “Property Brothers” or Gainses of Fixer Upper fame as people decide to just “spruce up” the existing home instead of looking for a bigger and better one to move into.

Let’s hope though that some good things will arise from this mess. For instance, people are now hyper-vigilant about washing their hands and not standing near people coughing or sneezing. Perhaps that will become more of a habit down the road, and we’ll all be a little bit healthier in years to come. Same goes for staying home when you’re sick, which might become even more ingrained into our consciousness if more employers offer sick days as a result.On a bigger scale, perhaps governments, American especially (but others as well)  will see a positive aspect to perhaps spending more on defending their population’s health, even if it means spending just a little less on defending borders with space-age jets and missiles.

People are getting by without going out to the malls for recreation right now; while we don’t want to see large chains go out of business and people losing thousands of jobs, our society might do well by having some people realize that shopping is more a necessity from time to time than a daily recreational activity. If our society becomes even a little less consumeristic and more people-oriented as a result of Corona Covid 19, it could be a bit nicer, and less wasteful world to inhabit.

The U.S. has a way of looking rather narrowly at the world and seeing itself not only as the Center of Everything, but as a bit of an island. (An example which comes to mind to me, as a Canadian, is how most American publications will refer to American records as the only ones… when they speak of “best-selling albums of all-time” for instance, they almost invariably are referring only to U.S. figures, ignoring the ones sold to the other 6.7 billion people elsewhere) If people come to look outwards a bit more, and see themselves as part of a global community besides just being a part of their own country, we might benefit. That of course is true of other countries as well, although I think that mentality is most applicable to the United States.

But the U.S. isn’t the only country which will hopefully go about things a bit differently in the future. It might be politically incorrect so say, but it’s true nonetheless that China needs to change the way of some of its people. I know, many think it hypocritical to say we can eat cows or pigs but others shouldn’t eat other mammals, but there’s a reason people don’t normally eat bats, cats or rats. Corona virus came out of a “wet market” in Wuhan, somehow making the jump from infected bats there to local people to wardrobe consultants for Law & Order SVU across the Pacific in a matter of about three months. These markets not only treat animals inhumanely, they crowd together any number of exotic species in close, and unsanitary conditions, proving a nice little petri dish for viral experiments. Corona came from there; SARS and the Swine Flu from similar situations in China earlier this century. Time for bats and wildcats to be left to the wilderness and the animals we choose to consume to come from farms which meet certain health standards, in Wuhan just as much as Wisconsin.

Last but not least, let’s hope we can all gain even a wee bit of a new set of priorities and appreciation for things we can take for granted. In the city I’m in, the large public park near me is closed down – presumably because the virus could infect kids playground equipment or a drinking fountain. It’s rather a drag. Maybe when things go back to “normal” , people will appreciate that park and walking through it a little more. And maybe we’ll rediscover the simple joys of things like walking around the parks enjoying the singing birds and blooming flowers; like doing arts and crafts or playing Clue with the family. Getting to appreciate what we have now, and those we have in our lives, a bit more. That wouldn’t make the current pandemic a good thing, but it sure could mean some good might eventually come from it.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 2

Wuhan, it turns out is a city that’s the same size as New York. Yet it’s only the ninth biggest city in China. The U.S. has one city (the Big Apple) with more than five million residents; China, 19 of them. Which along with it being about 5000 miles removed from the nearest port on our shore, explains why three months ago most of us had never heard of it. Until, that is, people who shopped in a “wet meat” market started getting sick, and in some cases dying with what originally seemed to be a weird pneumonia.

That was around Christmas time, but due to both the Chinese government’s secrecy and our own fascination with efforts to impeach the president and all those TV singers wearing a mask, we didn’t really begin to hear about the Corona Virus, or Covid 19, until about a month later.

The first news reports seemed bad, but also seemed almost irrelevant to us here. Yes, thousands were sick there but not here and China, seemingly to their credit looked like they had gone to lengths to contain it. It was downright bizarre to watch news reports from China – not even just Wuhan, but other major cities – and see huge modern expressways into skyscraper-sprouting skylines completely deserted; see reporters talking in malls bigger and shinier than ours which were modern, gleaming … and empty.

Then somehow, Iran became infected. Then Italy. People got worried. Japan shut down their whole school system for a month, despite not reporting many cases. Italy quarantined the whole northern half of their land. Then a couple dozen people contracted it on a cruise ship off the California coast and the president didn’t want to allow it to dock. All for a disease which we initially were told was nothing worse than the flu, which we already have over here and kills thousands of people a year, and for which we do nothing other than suggest people get an annual shot that may or may not help prevent it. It made very little sense.

It really seemed like it wasn’t our problem until very recently. That’s the striking thing – how quickly our world has changed. Not as fast as if a jet had flown into a building, but quickly nonetheless. And the impact might be just as resonating.

The first sign things were really haywire was only about two weeks back, when the NBA suddenly suspended their season, only a couple of weeks short of beginning their playoffs. Hours after that announcement, we found one Utah player had the illness. Then two. Then four New York ones. I was dumbfounded when I read that news before going to bed that night, less than two weeks back now. Personally, I don’t care for basketball, so it mattered little at all to me, but it was shocking because it matters to millions of people, and generates hundreds of millions, billions even, of dollars. You don’t just erase dozens of games (many with 18000 or so tickets pre-sold for them) at a drop of the hat. Within 24 hours, the NHL had followed suit and the writing was on the wall for baseball which was ramping up to full speed about a week and a half away from opening the regular season. A day or two later, MLB had stopped all spring training games and delayed the opening of the season to who knows when. That’s when it started to become a bit of a real annoyance to me… and people began to panic.

Fast forward only about three days from there and we get to two Saturdays back. By now, the U.S was up to a few thousand known cases, and about 11 or so fatalities, mainly in one old age home in the Seattle area. It seemed alarming, but still entirely controllable. Not to the masses though.

I ventured out to one of the larger mid-town supermarkets that Saturday night and left basically empty handed. Entire aisles had been cleaned out as if a Biblical plague of locusts had descended. There was not one roll of toilet paper to be found, nor paper towel. Only a handful of loaves of bread remained in the 40-foot aisle, and those were mostly those oddball “organic, gluten-free, quinoa with fig bits” loaves that sell for about $6. Or actually, don’t sell. Most of the canned goods were gone. The next afternoon at Walmart, more of the same. No milk or eggs either. And that’s about when the craziness really set in.

We know a couple in Austin who weren’t feeling well. We see them about once a year. Somehow, communications lines got crossed and there was a rumor they had Corona Virus. The Kiddo here told someone at her workplace that and the boss jetted in like a 747 into an office tower and told her to leave immediately and not set foot back in the store until she’d been tested and could prove she was corona-negative. This for a teen girl who was showing no symptoms.

Her mom and I kind of rolled our eyes and sighed, and said well, fine if that’s what they say we’d better take you to a hospital and have you tested. Mother phoned both of the large regional hospitals only to be told they had no tests available. On Monday we found that there was testing in a city 80 miles away… but you had to have symptoms and be referred by a doctor. We began to realize why the current administration was being raked over the coals for not handling this crisis well. Not handling it at all actually.

The kiddo tried to explain that to her manager, and the latter reluctantly let her come back to work in the store which had by then cut its hours. All a moot point now as that retailer has shut all of its doors until some time in April at best.

Well you know the rest, because it seems like whether you’re in Tennessee or Florida or north of the border in Ontario, it’s the same. We’ve had a week where people are panicking, lines form around the block two, three hours before supermarkets open in the morning with people eager to have a chance at getting a 6-pack of toilet paper or case of bottled water and by mid-day, most shelves in the food and cleaning aisles are empty as if the Grinch had just gone through leaving one crumb too small for even a mouse.

On the plus side, city streets which are usually gridlocked at 4 PM are a nice easy glide and the gas to do so cheaper than it’s been for years, because people have nowhere to go. Businesses are shut down, you can’t go out to eat or watch the game (which isn’t taking place anyway!) , telecommuting has in 10 days gone from the unlikely and a perq of the few to the way offices do business now.

My sweetie works in a large, modern office for a large local company. She handles customer inquiries and complaints, quite well I must say. Flu swept through it last winter, the company seemed not to notice. Corona though, is a different breed of virus. By mid-week last week, they were asking workers to work from home. Today she started doing so, for the forseeable future. The company even sent home one of her large monitors so she could use a bigger screen than her laptop offers. So far, it’s going well though she already misses some of her “team members” and her bigger, liftable desk there. Which is understandable to me, as I’ve found that the thing that makes most jobs mentally worthwhile is the co-workers you interact with and the friendships you make there.

Of course, it’s not just her, nor just offices. Can you imagine being an NBC exec and suggesting three months ago, “I think we should prepare for when Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker have to do the Today Show from their own living rooms and our nighttime talk show guests will be being interviewed remotely via Skype?” The company would’ve shown you the door and stuffed a map to the local mental hospital in your pocket on the way out. Yet that too is the new reality.

It’s scary. The illness seems random. Some have it and barely feel “under the weather”, others get it and are in the ground a week later. That’s scary. In Italy and elsewhere, it seems to explode like a bomb after the public makes real efforts to do what we’re told – wash hands, stay indoors and so on. That’s scary. Every day that passes makes it less likely fans like me will be watching baseball this year, or like my dad, the Olympics this summer and that’s … well, not exactly scary, but mind-blowing nevertheless.

Eventually, we’ll go back to normal. But what will the new “normal” be? It might be bad but maybe, just maybe it won’t be that scary….

One Person, One Vote – Is That Rocket Science?

My old homeland recently had an election, and to little surprise, Justin Trudeau won re-election and will continue to be the Prime Minister of Canada. Although perhaps there was a little surprise at that. Trudeau’s governing had been marred by political scandals as well as personal ones related to his fondness for dressing in Halloween costumes using “blackface” makeup. Debatable as to a costume choice, but certainly not a good look for a politician leading a party which bases most of its policy on social inclusiveness and tolerant multiculturalism.

Perhaps a little surprising as well, the fact that although he and his Liberal party won the election, Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party got more votes than the Liberals. The Liberals scored 5 916 000 votes, or 33.1% of the total. Scheer’s Conservatives, 6 155 000, or 34.4%. And no, your math skills haven’t taken a hit since you left school – the two don’t add up to 100% since Canada has a couple of other popular parties plus a regional one of some account in Quebec.

Of course, the pattern is familiar to Americans. Let’s remember that in 2016, Donald Trump actually was voted for by 62 980 000 or so folk; Hillary Clinton by 65 845 000. Yet we know who got to go to the White House.

It seems weird at first that if the popular vote was what counted, “liberal” Canada would have a right-wing, Conservative leader and to the south, the “conservative, Christian” USA would be being led by a liberal woman. That’s a bit of a simplification though, as in Canada, the left-wing part of the populace has three parties to choose from, the Clinton-esque Liberals, the Bernie Sanders-inspiring NDP and the AOC-style Green Party. Together, they represented nearly 60% of the Canucks. Still though, it somehow seems wrong, doesn’t it?

The difference is caused by the route to leadership in both countries. In the U.S., the Electoral College is the way the prez gets chosen, and that’s no exact representation of voter preference for two reasons. First, states are disproportionately represented. Even the most sparsely populated states have 3 of the 538. Wyoming, for example, gets 3 Electoral College votes, with its population of 570 000 (about the same number as the city of Memphis). that’s one vote for every 190 000 residents. Fiery California, meanwhile hosts 39.75 million people, but has just 55 votes, or one per 723 000 residents. Hardly fair that, if we believe in “one person, one vote.”

Secondly, the states by and large give their votes in an all-or-nothing fashion to the winner. It makes no difference if the candidate scores 50.1% of the ballots or 99%… they’re going to get all the Electoral votes. Candidates who lose some of the very closely-contested “Swing states” by a narrow margin, but win their states by a landslide get discriminated against. Result – twice this century already, a President not chosen by the majority of American voters.

Canada’s system is not that different. There are some 338 “ridings” and each one “votes” for the Prime Minister based on whoever won the local vote. Again, some politicans (in this year’s case the Conservatives) win some seats by a landslide and lose others by the narrowest margins, but like the American system, a win is a win is a win. Even when it means the candidate with fewer votes gets elected.

I’m not a political science student but it seems to me that a system which results in the candidate with fewer people voting for him or her winning rather regularly is not a good, working system! So I offer a simple solution. America, let the candidate with the most votes be President. It doesn’t matter if he wins Florida by 100 votes and there are hanging chads, or if 88% of Wyomingians pick him, if the grand total doesn’t favor him, he’s not president.

Canada, similar suggestion. First off, have a separate box to fill in for “Prime Minister”. Right now, it’s done by a rather convoluted system where you vote for your local candidate and if they win their riding, they in turn vote for their party leader to be the boss. Vote for your local parliamentarian, yes, but also vote separately for PM. And have the one with most votes win. Simple.

And while we’re at it, another common sense suggestion. Isn’t a politician’s loyalty supposed to be to first, their country, then the local constituents and only after that the party? Seems like much of the time, those priorities are reversed these days, with leaders (and here we’re not only referring to Mr. Trump although it certainly is applicable to him) seemingly bullying their underlings in Congress/Parliament to vote according to the Head Honcho’s wishes, not their own beliefs or constituent choices. Could this not be fixed by having votes on important issues – raising taxes, imposing tariffs, changing laws, impeaching presidents and so on – be done by hidden ballot? Give the politicians a ballot with a Yes/No box to fill in at their seats and have them folded up and put into boxes. Or for the millennials out there, have them swipe their phones left for “yay”, right for “nay.”

This isn’t about Donald Trump, nor Justin Trudeau, specifically. It’s about a system which is supposed to be democracy hardly recognizing the will of the people anymore.

Recalling July 20 , 1969

As news anniversaries go, today’s quite a biggie: the 50th anniversary of astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon for the first time. The “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moment.

I imagine most Americans, and a lot of people from elsewhere remember the moment very well. One of the indelible moments etched into memories for life, enhanced by the then space-age fact that it could be shown on TV. I’m too young to really remember, but I’m told our family were camping somewhere like New Brunswick the day it happened and some people had brought along portable TVs to watch it on.

As a kid, I thought it was pretty cool. We drove near the Kennedy Space Center at least once when I was a youngster, seeing an Apollo rocket there sitting waiting to launch towards the moon a day or two later. I had a souvenir model of an Apollo rocket from Florida, about a foot high, that I kept on my bookshelf for years.

But as time has gone by, my opinion has become that NASA and Space Shuttles, Space Stations and all the rest are rather a massive waste of money. Been there, done that. It was rather cool, and useful I guess in the day to show we, as a species, could go to the moon, and find out what it was made of. Alas, not great cheese samples came back with the astronauts, just rocks! But do we really need to spend billions to explore Mars to confirm it would be an inhospitable place for people? I think the money is better spent making this planet better and more livable.

But in the spirit of the day, I do find some words of importance from Apollo. Neil Armstrong was in awe, apparently, when “it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea,pretty and blue, was earth!” He felt small and our world suddenly looked very finite. His crew mate Michael Collins said “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of say, 100 000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed.” Various Russian cosmonauts have made similar remarks.

That makes sense to me. See the planet from space and you’d realize how beautiful it is compared to most solitary orbs in space, how there wasn’t much difference between Cuba and Florida, Russia or China from up there. That it was one planet we need to work together beyond national boundaries to protect and enhance.

So if Amazon and Virgin Atlantic and Elon Musk want to spend billions upon billions to fly people into space for a look see, I say go for it. Just make sure you take up the president of the U.S., the leader of China, the Russian premier, German chancellor, and a few titans of industry (especially the fossil fuel and chemical ones) up to take a look back. Maybe if even one felt the same way as Collins did, it would be worth the cash. One giant leap even.

Earth Day

The atmosphere of Mars is made up of over 90% carbon dioxide, with less than 1% oxygen. Nitrogen appears to be almost non-existent on the little red planet. Back home here, however, no matter how much we humans try to foul it up, our air is some 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Carbon dioxide comprises less than 1% of what we are living in.

Further, scientists tell us that while it can hit 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Mars, it can still drop to -100 at night… colder at the poles. Water, is scarce if it is there at all.

These are a few things scientists have been able to discern about the planet next beyond us, some 49 million miles off in space. In part they can tell that because of things like the Mars Rover , the probe which just stopped transmitting pictures back a few years after it was sent roving at a cost of just over $2 billion.

My point is that for me, Mars doesn’t sound like a treat. That two billion dollars might be better used here making this little planet, the one with the water and the sunlight and the fish, more livable for us. Whether you’re religious and see Earth as a gift of God or just practical, it’s difficult to suggest that we as a people would be better off somewhere way off in the galaxy than right here. So, no offense to the chocolate-laden bunny and the day we celebrated yesterday but I think today is a pretty important one on the calendar.  Earth Day.

I guess it just comes naturally to me. My parents, for all their differences, were both avid gardeners and loved spending time outside when the weather was fair. I grew up watching Wild Kingdom. To me Marlon Perkins was as much a star as Robert Blake or the Three Stooges were to some of my classmates. Other little kids (apparently, we’re told) aspired to be astronauts or firemen or pro hockey players when they grew up; I dreamed of being a weatherman. By the time I was ten, I’d probably have corrected anyone who said “weatherman” since it seemed rather common and commercial. A “meteorologist” was my dream destiny, studying and forecasting our weather, the power and fickle nature of our atmosphere. I had a wind vane on the garden shed, barometer, thermometer with a reading inside from the device placed outside the window, you name it. I recorded the data in a little log book.

I never did become a professional meteorologist; when high school was winding down I looked at the course load and thought there was too much physics and calculus involved in a specialty degree in meteorology, too little looking at maps or chasing storms across the countryside. Besides, seeing perhaps a limited scope of possibilities for the profession, I feared getting assigned to some weather station in a remote and arctic hick town rather than the environs of Toronto I was familiar with. My love of weather has stuck though; a couple of years back I took a course to become a certified amateur weather reporter, trained to know when common a garden thunderstorms become something to be concerned by and how to report the info.

Weather might have evaporated like a passing cirrus cloud in my career goals, but by the time I hit university, I’d segued into another area of earth science. For the college summers and a while right after, I worked in a park service, doing this and that. Some days I’d be leading school tours around conservation areas, others I might be out looking for wildlife coming up with biological surveys of areas of interest. I wrote up brochures for the public and scientific reports for the agency. I felt like I was accomplishing something important for the future.

Life’s taken a lot of twists and turns since then but one thing that’s never changed for me is my love of nature…and my concern for our environment. If there’s a blue box around, that can and newspaper is going in it. If I’m a passenger in the car I’m probably watching the birds on the power lines. When I have some extra mad money, some of it will probably go to the local nature organization or the national Nature Conservancy, which realizes government can’t do everything and tries to buy up important natural areas before they get paved and turned into parking lots, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

More and more we’re realizing for us to thrive, nature has to thrive as well. Cities which are poorly planned and have too much development in the river valleys tend to be cities which flood. Ones with forested valleys not so much. Planners have found that marshes – old-fashioned cattail ponds – can clean up our water about as well as filtration plants…and they cost a lot less. When we have lots of swallows and flycatchers, we don’t have as many mosquitoes and we don’t have to spray a lot of costly chemicals which may or may not kill us in the long run as effectively as the insects they’re supposed to combat.

So here’s to Earth Day. Here’s to all those who choose to live a little “greener” and look down at the ground instead of up to the stars when dreaming of a home for the kids and grandkids.

Earth – third from the sun, first in our heart.

Does The Only Queen We Need Sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”…Not Live In A Palace?

I would have expected more of the royal family.” So said achy Emma Fairweather, complaining loud and wide to the British media about her broken wrist, which could have been much worse, after the car she was in was smashed into by the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Fairweather was a passenger in a car driving along a British highway when it was broadsided at high speed by a Land Rover, driven by Prince Philip. 97 year old Prince Philip. Witnesses to the crash say that Fairweather’s car clearly had the right of way, and was traveling under the posted 60 mph limit, when the Land Rover sped out of the driveway from the royal Sandringham Estate and smashed into her without slowing. The dazed royal driver took about ten minutes to regain his wits, and said he was blinded by sunlight, which Fairweather doubts. It was, according to her ,“overcast”. Photos taken minutes later at the scene would suggest her weather report was more accurate than the prince’s. The same witness does say the prince eventually asked if everyone was OK and headed towards the other car before being stopped by guards or police. A mere 48 hours later, papparazi snapped him again behind the wheel, sans seat belt. The police say they gave him “advice” on safe driving but of course, no charges have been laid. Do you want to be the traffic cop writing out a warrant for the Queen’s hubby?

Fairweather says neither the Prince nor the Royal family have even said sorry. “What would it have taken for him and the queen to send me a card and a bunch of flowers,” she wonders.

Fair question and one which leads to a lot more questions. Like should any 97 year old be motoring around freely? Drunk driving is illegal because being impaired dulls your reflexes and cognitive powers. I hate to say it, but nature does exactly that to very old people. No 97 year old is going to be able to make quick snap judgments and react properly when motoring along at 60 clicks.

Moreover, it makes me wonder why the Prince is driving himself around anyway. The U.S. president, far younger and hopefully more mentally acute, is famously not allowed to drive himself (or herself should a woman ever gets there) around. That’s what the Secret Service is for.

Indeed, perhaps some would applaud Philip for being independent and driving himself where he wants, when he wants.Like an ordinary guy. Problem is, he is no ordinary guy – which leads us to the paradox which shows why royalty is outdated and pointless.

The royals whole point is that they aren’t the same as us. Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton are pretty and from most accounts, entirely lovely young women. But as princesses, if I was a Brit, I wouldn’t want to be standing in the checkout line behind them as they buy tampons. The young princes – William and Harry- both have done some fine charity work and might be very decent young men, but they aren’t ordinary dudes. I don’t want to have them in the neighborhood bar throwing darts and spilling Newcastle Brown Ale on their Levis with the locals who are coming off their shift in the coal mines. If the Queen is supposed to be something above the rest of us, then she should be sitting in some Disney castlein London, wearing a big crown, waving to commoners and adoring tourists, Monday to Friday. Not donning a frock and going shopping at Marks and Spencer’s. And her husband shouldn’t be driving an SUV recklessly around. He should be in some sort of golden pumpkin, being transported along by a team of white stallions.

It’s a paradox. The more the royals try to prove they’re just like us, the more they prove they’re irrelevant. If they’re ordinary average guys and gals, why does the country give them huge estates, riches and jewels to wear? If they are something of a privileged elite class born to rule over everyone else, they should act like they’re something special… and be prepared to answer a lot of questions as to why their DNA gives them some sort of birthright to rule over all the rest.

Prince Philip is 97. He’s said that badly made items “look like they were made by an Indian” and publicly worried that English students visiting Asia might come back “slanty-eyed.” He’s an anachronism from another age, one most of us would rather turn the page on. Which is kind of representative of the whole concept of “royalty”.

May You Be Smarter Than Your Phone This Year

Hermits Don’t Have Any Peer Pressure” – Steven Wright

I finally gave into peer pressure this fall and got a smart phone. Kicking and screaming all the way to the discount store, I might add. Up until then I’d been the last kid on the block to still have a state-of-the-art – state of the 2003 art that is – celphone generally referred to as a “flip phone” although my particular model didn’t flip… it just looked like a very small, very basic “Blackberry” with fewer keys. It made phone calls. It received phone calls, from within this country at least, and with my choice of four ringtones. It sent and got texts. That is all. Which worked for me.

Until it didn’t. I would have likely kept going with that little device were it not for two things which happened more or less simultaneously. First, the actual phone worked less and less. The battery, which once was an endurance athlete of the power world, often lasting a week without charging, was holding its charge less and less until it had become a 50-yard dasher, sometimes running out of power during relatively short car trips.

Secondly, we moved in October. And even though we are still located in a large subdivision in a metropolitan area of a quarter million people or more, the move of about 8 miles across a city limit somehow befuddled the discount carrier I had. The phone got no reception at home anymore… I had to go about half way back to our previous address before it picked up. I’d know where reception began because I’d suddenly hear the chiming as I drove along and the phone suddenly pulled in a day or two’s worth of messages all at once. Obviously, having a celphone for a “home phone” didn’t work for me if it didn’t work at home!

So I had to go out into the big, bad confusing world of phones and get a new one, and a new carrier with reception to the outer limits of the large city at least, if not the outer limits of the continent. Quickly I came to realize that there really weren’t many “old school” phones out there to choose from and I’d need to make the leap to the “dark side”. The big clunky, messy touch-screen side of the phone world… otherwise known as “my precious baby” to most of the rest of the world.

I had resisted them for a number of reasons. That seems funny when you consider that I was actually an early adopter of celphones in the ’90s, when they were big,clunky and expensive. A combination of a car that was less than consistently reliable, a brief relationship with a girlfriend who lived in a really bad neighborhood and my love of nature – hence frequently going to some remote park areas – made it seem like having a way to call for help 24/7 no matter where I might be would be a smart splurge. So why didn’t I like the newest, best yet versions of them? There were reasons aplenty. Some of them to do with the phones themselves and some to do with the users.

When it comes to the phones themselves, I simply didn’t see a lot of personal advantage in spending extra money to get a bunch of features I wouldn’t make use of. Enthusiasts speak glowingly of the streaming video capability and audio, but I personally generally don’t want to see a movie on a two inch screen and am not so unimaginative or impatient that I can’t stand in a line at the grocery store without watching 10 minutes of the latest Robert Downey offering.

Likewise, the car I drive has a stereo and a CD player; there’s a little stereo in our house (only a pale imitation of the sound system I had when fresh out of college, but that’s a topic for another day) so I don’t need my phone to be my music delivery system. That they have web browsers isn’t a bad deal, but for the most part I like working on my laptop, going back and forth between office software and the ‘net, focusing on what I’m doing, so times when I’d want to be surfing while away from my computer seemed like they’d be few and far between. And they’re big. My old one could fit easily in almost any pants pocket. I-phones, Galaxys, current LGs, not so much. Especially when encased in Army-grade armored cases which of course becomes necessary when one looks at the cost vs fragility matrixes of the multi-purpose devices which make eggs seem sturdy by comparison. Continue reading “May You Be Smarter Than Your Phone This Year”

Mars? Meh.

I was just a tyke when Neil Armstrong got out of the lunar module and walked on the moon. If you believe. I don’t remember the actual event, but like most kids of my generation I was fascinated by space. My family visited the Kennedy Space Center when I was 8 or 9, I thought that huge rocket building was the coolest thing. For a number of years, I had a plastic model of a Saturn rocket similar to the Apollo ones in my bedroom on the dresser. And of course, I watched The Jetsons and perhaps thought that George and Judy’s life might be the one we’d all be rocketing into at some point.

But things happened and time went by. We watched the Space Shuttles go up, and come back. We watched one Space Shuttle blow up a mile or two off the ground, incinerating all the astronauts within. And one by one, as each Shuttle returned and smiling astronauts stepped out, it seemed like … there wasn’t much to show for it except a photo opp or two and a fancy-looking jet that goes up higher than your run-of-the-mill 747. I grew up. After a while there was no rocket on my dresser (railroad locomotive, perhaps, but that’s a story for another day.)

Which leads us to today as some sort of robot launced by NASA landed on – yawn – Mars. Headlines this morning said “Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives.” It explained that the odds were decent but no sure thing that the spaceship was going to be able to decelerate through Mars’ atmosphere from 12 300 MPH to zero in all of six minutes, then land without destroying itself. But if it did, if it became the 8th successful American probe to land there (out of 9 attempts), we’d get photos of the “Red planet” . After about 8 minutes. That’s apparently how long it takes radio waves to travel the close to 300 million miles between our planets.

What’s more, it will pick up some rocks and run a probe to see if it feels “marsquakes”… presumably so if the rock is shaking, we know where to build a New San Francisco if we go frontier-a-making.

Which all makes me second Love It Or List It (an HGTV show) star David Visentin’s tweet : “one of our measuring tools is touching down on Mars…on Monday. Odd how I am so ‘meh’ about it. How did that happen?” Meh, Amen.

Do you really care if there are earthquakes on Mars? Do you really have a need to see some bare rocky ground millions of miles away? And if, to the surprise of everyone, the cameras found some E.T.s cavorting around and posing for space selfies, do you really believe the authorities would share that with us? My answer to all those is “I don’t.”

What actually bugs me about it though, is the cost. This InSight probe, today’s landing veseel, will cost us about $2.1 billion dollars. The scientists proudly point out that is some $400 million less than the similar one they sent back in 2011 – they perfected the technology a little and had a few spare parts clanking around in the garage.

To me, a few photos of a barren land years away for any of us and perhaps a bit of data about what the rocks are made of is hardly worth over two billion. In all, NASA has a budget of just a whisker under $20 billion this year, or about $65 for every adult and child in the U.S. Now, to be fair, they do accomplish more than send a few probes out into space. We all use satellites, many of which they launch, for things like our phones and TV service and the weather forecasts we rely on that in turn rely on satellite photos of our planet. Still, it seems like maybe we could trim that down a few pesos and not be any the worse for wear.

Perhaps the prevailing reason people want to get to Mars and beyond is uttered by Space X/Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The eccentric Texas billionaire is planning to offer space trips to ordinary people soon, and recently signed up the first candidate – a Japanese fashion executive who wants to go to the moon. Musk says “we should take action and become a multi-planetary civilization as soon as possible”, just in case some “event ends civilization.”

Well, this earthling likes Earth just fine. I don’t want to go and live on some distant, barren rocky planet. It seems like instead of fretting over how livable other (we’re told) entirely uninhabited, lifeless bodies out in space could be, we might do better doing what we can to make our planet better. More livable. Less succeptible to “an event” which would end civilization.

Two billion dollars could do a lot to help create renewable energy which wouldn’t despoil our planet. Or maybe buy and plant about 400 million trees, which could reforest about 6000 square miles, if my math is right. Which would go a long ways to adding oxygen to and cleaning our atmosphere. Or finance the top-quality university education of something like 20 000 smart kids. – kids who adults could probably solve a lot of problems if they concentrate on earth and humanity, not rocks hundreds of millions of miles away. And probably tell me in a second if my tree math was correct.

But that’s just “meh” talking.