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Monday, May 30, 2011

Cupboard love

By Jamie Lutton

I took some time this morning before I opened to go look for that crow's nest I recalled. I saw it being built a few weeks ago.  I caught sight of a crow with a bit of twig in it's mouth, flying overhead, and I tracked it down to this tree. The crow had hid her nest very carefully; it is quite hard to see from the ground. This morning, I went to look for it, it took two tries to find it, as it blends in perfectly with the branches. I saw no activity, but I figured that they were being quiet, as I am sure they knew I was below. Perhaps the eggs had not hatched yet, either.

There were several crows in the vicinity of the nest. They were carefully not paying attention to the nest, but they were doing crow wrestling.  That is when one crow dives into another crow in flight, to knock the other crow about. I see the crows doing this when I throw out the treats one at  a time. I think it is a form of dominance, to show that the crow starting the contact wants the other crow to back off. I, perhaps, should not throw the treats out one at a time, as this does make them anxious. But it does keep them around me a bit longer, so that I can look at them.  

I left and was walking down Broadway. Suddenly, at my feet, I heard 'Aw, Aw, Aw'. There was a big, shiny fat crow, cawing very loudly. I got down on my knees, as if he was a dog or child, and said 'well, hello there', and gave him two dog treats (now, I don't give dog treats to the kids).  He got within six inches or so of me; picked the treats up, and dropped them, hopping about. Two people walked up,and he hopped away. Then, as I stayed kneeling there, he came back, picked up the treats, and then flew off.

He got very close to me, closer than any other crow. I do think this is the same crow as the other day, who perched next to me, to keep me company on the steps.

I think I've got myself a new friend. Though, as my mother said to me, when a dog would huddle close to get a snack, it is just 'Cupboard love'.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

crow affection towards this human

by Jamie Lutton

The crows I see in my walk to work have been scarce, the last month or so. The four birds who occupy the two nests near my house have not been making themselves known; mostly I see the trash-eating birds who eat out of the bags of garbage left by the Thai restaurant on Broadway.  Unfortunately for their neighbors, they are leaving their trash out in thin plastic bags, and the crows know what to do with those. They rip them open with their beaks, and are learning to love Thai leftovers.

There is constantly a group of about eight to twenty crows picking the bags open and feasting on the bags of leftovers piled up on the side street by the garbage bin. By the time they are done, the trash is scattered everywhere. These crows are  very fat and happy looking, by the way. They have very shiny looking feathers, and they strut about like they own the street. They cluster in groups on the sidewalk, openly just hopping away from humans who pass by them.

 I hope all that spicy food is not making them sick.

They do not bother to hit on me for treats very seriously. I watch them eat the garbage; they hop over to me to see if I will give them a dog treat or two, but they are very happy to just munch on Phad Thai, and there is enough for everyone. They  hop about the bags as if it was a buffet.

A neighboring business owner took the bags one dawn and slashed them open, and left them in front of the restaurants door one day, to protest the mess, but they still use the same flimsy bags.  I saw the crows in front of the restaurant that day; they were having a wonderful time, as their work was done for them getting into the bags.

Some of these particular crows have no fear of me. I sat down about a half a block from this area, on some steps with a metal railing overhead, and watched them for a while with my treat bag in hand.  A few of the fattest, biggest crows would land on the railing, or right next to me on the steps, six inches away, both times, and keep me company; just sitting and staring at me while I stared back.  One of these crows had a crow shit stain on its face;  bright white, meaning he or she was feeding babies, as that is how they get a mark like that.

I have had this happen sometimes. A crow will just sit with me, or near me, and not ask for food, or take the food offered. I think they are just saying hello. I will quietly look back, and enjoy their dark beauty.

This morning I was leaving for work, and as usual my little black cat raced out between my legs onto my open leni, running down towards my neighbor's doorway, where sometimes the door is open and she can run inside and bother their cats.   I walked down and grabbed her gently, telling her she was a good cat, but I had to go to work. I felt her head swivel over my shoulder; she was staring at something behind me.  I looked back, there was a crow on the railing, staring at me.

I popped my cat in my apartment and turned around. The crow was still there, looking at me.  I threw a treat over to where he was, on the floor of the leni.  He shifted from one foot to the other. I put a few treats on the railing; he continued to stare at me, and walked back and forth on the edge of the leni.

He eventually took one of the treats,  walking over to it slowly, and  flew away.  His motive might have been just to drop by and say hello; maybe not hunger as the first motive.  And he forgave me for having a cat, which he could clearly see was mine, as I picked her up in front of him.

He stayed with me awhile, and we stared at each other  for a quiet moment. 

When I went outside, he was not in sight; I scanned the skies carefully, looking for him in the trees near my building, holding still so he could see me, and come down .  I did not interact with another crow till I was well away from the apartment.

In Crow Planet, the author said that if a crow is fond of a human, it will perch near him, and spend time with him. A crow does not want to be touched, as that slides into the predator/prey relations; in the wild if it is being touched, it is on the verge of being eaten. So, in the wild, a crow showing affection to another crow sits near it, and possibly preens it.  A crow could not preen a human; so a crow will just sit near a human,  I believe.

Crows are showing they like me now and then, and just sit near me, and let me look at them.  Usually it is very fat, older crows, who have figured out that  I mean no harm to them, that I am just a food tossing human.  The skinny,  younger crow are always still skeptical and skittish.

Other birds I have seen recently include a family of finches on my balcony. The nest on my balcony was never used, though completed. This made me sad, as I thought possibly one of the finches had been picked off by a predator; perhaps even a crow. But I had been putting out unsalted sunflower seeds on my balcony, as I heard finch song some mornings. And the seeds were being taken. One day, I looked out, and there were about 9 finches lined up on my balcony, and some of them were fat and were crouching on the balcony railing, instead of perching on it. Standing by them were a male and female, and they were all singing songs I had not heard before. Now and then, they flew down and ate out of the little bowl of seeds I had left for them.  Held my breath, peeking out at them. My little black cat ran from window to window, chattering her teeth, getting very excited.

One by one, however, they dropped into the air and flew away, though I would swear to it that the their parents were giving them flying lessons, by the way the older birds were chirping at them and the way they left, one by one, and not perched on that railing, but hugging it, hunched down and sitting on it, as if a bit nervous about the seven story drop in front of them.  They did fly well, however, and very fast, much faster than any crow I have ever seen; blip, and gone.

This was not my last  sighting of these finches.  These fat babies have come back to eat out of my bowl feeder, each time in the company of their dad.  I have seen them sitting, squatting, not perching, by the bowl, stuffing themselves on seeds, while the dad was perched on the other side of the bowl, shifting from one position to the other, hopping about, guarding the chick. I have seen him twice, with a baby finch, who was stuffing him or herself on seeds.

Maybe I know why they look so fat. I did set a good table; I kept the bowl full.

On my way home last night, and this morning, I spotted a starling's nest in the wall above a shop, from the noise the parents were making. I stopped, crained my head up, to watch them getting fed.  The nest was in a tiny hole in the wall of the shop, 15 feet up, above a tiny projection from a metal bit. The parents perched on the metal bit sticking out of the wall, and fed the babies, who stuck their heads out of the wall. You could barely see the hole, except from the bright white streak of their bird poo.

The mother or father would fly in, disappear into the hole for awhile, fly out, and the little heads would stick out, cheeping. The mother or father were making regular visits, as I watched, flying to the hole, and flying out and towards Dick's Drive In, looking for crumbs, I guess. I wanted to stay, and watch them, but my neck was giving out, and I had places to go.

This morning, on my way to work, after being visited by that crow, I looked up and I saw the parents visiting this nest again.  The babies were still sticking their heads out ,and making cheeping noises, as the parents flew back and forth to the nest.  Yesterday, I had gone inside to one of the business where I have friends, and told them about the nest. They knew about the babies, and had been watching them, too. They said that earlier, the parents had dive-bombed them,  when they took too close an interest.

I am resolved next spring to take the time to go looking for more nests, so I can see more young birds and their parents.  These glimpses have made me want to see more, and learn more, about birds in general, not just my magnificent crows.

There is one crow's nest I know the location of. I am going to check it and see if there are any youngsters in it right now.  I will report back if I could see any young crows.

I hope not to be attacked by irritated a papa and mama crow. 


  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Make Gaza part of Egypt

by John MacBeath Watkins

I'd say this is good news, though some might not agree. Egypt has opened its border to the Gaza strip, as one might have expected once a less autocratic regime took over the Egyptian government. Here's the New York Times story on it:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/world/middleeast/29egypt.html?_r=1&hp

In a lovely bit of understatement, the Times notes that:

For years the Rafah border crossing has been a kind of geographic emblem of Egypt’s complicated relationship with Israel.

Egypt had controlled Gaza from the 1949 armistice until the 1967 war, when it lost control to Israel. Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 and was assassinated for his trouble in 1981. Egypt never offered citizenship to the residents of Gaza.

In my humble opinion, they should do so now. Under Hosni Mubarak, Gaza's status was the worst of all worlds, with a border closed to ordinary commerce and numerous tunnels under that border that were tolerated for the smuggling of arms to Hamas.

Why did he permit such a situation to persist? Well, for one thing, the suffering of the people of Gaza meant even less to him than the suffering of his own people. He could maintain that he was holding up his end of the peace with Israel, thereby avoiding a costly war, while maintaining some cred with the Arab street by turning a blind eye to the arms smuggling for the continuation of Hamas' symbolic war in which they sent missiles shooting off to kill random Israelis. This did no tactical good but made them look like a force opposing Israel, which helped them stay in power.

Predictably, ordinary Egyptians would not tolerate this once Mubarak had fallen. They want an open border to end the suffering of the people of Gaza, who have been supplied with missiles but not food and medicine. Opening the border, though, could make the transport of weapons into Gaza easier even as it makes the transport of food easier, and that could put an end to the peace treaty with Israel.

The solution is simple, but like so many things in the Middle East, has not been in the interest of the leaders. Make Gaza part of Egypt. Hamas can win an election in Gaza, and put in place a government inflexibly opposed to the very existence of Israel. They cannot win an election to become the government of Egypt, and the government of Egypt will have the ability to police Gaza so that the rockets cease to fall on Israel.

Part of the problem for the Palestinian people has been that they are not a part of their own state, and they are not a part of any other state. In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan even made war on the PLO in his country and expelled them, a necessary step to maintain his own power, but a slap in the face for Palestinians.

Egypt has by now realized the futility of trying to seize Gaza by force, but I don't think force is needed to absorb Gaza. Israel should be happy to see someone other than Hamas rule Gaza, and the people of Gaza should be happy to be a part of a country. The odd man out, of course, is Hamas, but if Egypt offered citizenship to their people, could Hamas stand against them? And how could Israel object to Gaza becoming part of a Muslim nation that has accepted Israel's right to exist?

It is to his shame that Gamal Nassar never offered citizenship to the people of Gaza between 1949 and 1967, when Egypt controlled Gaza. The situation is now fluid in a way it hasn't been since then, and it's time to try something new. What I propose would solve one of the problems that have prevented peace from taking root in this troubled region, but the reason it could happen is not that a peace process could be imposed from the top, but that the people of Egypt wish to see the suffering of Gaza ended. That's a goal that is achievable, and a good on its own.

Too few of the steps toward peace have popular support and a reduction of suffering going for them. This step does, and should be taken.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Let slip the nerds of war!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Great TED talk about Suxnet.


http://www.ted.com/talks/ralph_langner_cracking_stuxnet_a_21st_century_cyberweapon.html

Looks most likely the US is behind this, and the US is also the location of most of the potential targets for this sort of attack. This could really come back and bite us in the arse, but I suppose if we hadn't done this, it wouldn't have delayed anyone else using it. Thing is, it looks really hard to defend against, even if you know it's a possibility.

Here's the first post I read about it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Great Mutiny, by James Dugan, a book about some history that is far too often forgotten

by John MacBeath Watkins

A friend is getting his carpal tunnel opened up (I envision brave Chinese workmen blasting rock, Irish immigrants hammering spikes to build nerve pathways that will open up this important route to the hand) so he'll be laid up a while and asked for book recommendations. It's occurred to me lately that I'm writing too much about politics and not enough about books, so here's one I recommend to any of my readers who find themselves laid up. Or not, you could read it just for fun, like I did.

The Great Mutiny, by James Dugan, first published in 1965.

England was at war with France in 1797, and the entire Home Fleet mutinied. Napoleon was unaware of the mutiny, but was, just by coincidence, sending an invading force consisting of the Legion Noire, a unit made up of the dregs of the prisons and galleys (the official name of the unit was La Seconde LĂ©gion des Francs. Their uniforms, captured from the British, were dyed with indifferent success a sort of dark brown/black color which gave the legion its name.)

The British mutineers certainly had a point. It wasn't just that the pay scale for the British Navy was established in 1658 and there'd been a bit of inflation since then, it was also that many of them hadn't been paid in two years. After two years' service at sea they were not granted shore leave because their officers, knowing their men to be rational, expected them to desert.

And remember, the pursers on these ships hadn't seen their wages rise in 139 years, either, but they had a way to supplement their income. They could cheat the sailors on their victuals.

In fact, service in His Majesty's Navy was so prized a profession, the Navy had to send out press gangs to kidnap unwary sailors (or, should the gangs run short of sailors, tailors, farmers, etc.) Volunteers were clamoring to have nothing to do with the Navy. But even so, the sailors swore that if the French fleet should come out, they would sail out to fight them. They were fed up, but still patriotic.

Meanwhile, the French fleet was landing la Legion Noire at Fishguard, Wales, under the command of an elderly American named William Tate, who spoke no French (also under the mistaken impression that the Welsh would rise up against their English oppressors.) The French captains, unaware of the mutiny of the fleets at Spithead and the Nore, were afraid to hang around and land supplies for Tate and his men, so they left as soon as they disembarked the last of the Legion.

The French had invaded Britain, and had done so in such a way as to get rid of an annoying American and a large number of criminals. Since they had equipped the legion with materiel captured from the British, it cost them next to nothing to be rid of the lot of them.

Spoiler Alert! There, now those of you who don't know how the Napoleonic wars came out can remain in suspense.

Tate, realizing that his forces lacked anything to eat or drink, sent his men out to forage for supplies. His men, being for the most part thieves, were right up with him on the part where they were go out into the countryside looking for farmhouses that might contain food and brandy or wine (that part of Wales was heavily engaged in smuggling, and a Portuguese ship with a cargo of wine had been wrecked not long before) and possibly a young lady of the house or two. The instruction to bring food back to the Legion's camp they viewed as a bit silly, really, since they were (once in possession of said food) warm, fed and a bit tipsy, and no one was shooting at them. Manly camaraderie with Tate and his staff palled in comparison.

In the meantime, Captain William Bligh's ship was one of those involved in the mutiny at Spithead, and his fellow captains viewed him as the local expert on mutinies, since it had happened to him once already, on his 1787 voyage to get breadfruit from Tahiti. As it happened, he was the wrong sort of expert. He had a third mutiny while governor of New South Wales, and by then, the authorities didn't even bother to hang anyone. Some folks just can't get along with people, and Bligh's ship was the last to surrender to the authorities at Spithead.

Though the leaders of the mutiny were hanged, there were reforms and pay rises for the common seamen.

Next, perhaps I'll recommend something about the War of Jenkins' Ear. It really is my favorite name for a war, after all, and it had historic consequences of which all too few people are now aware.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fact-check fail on Israel, American policy, and the pre-1967 borders as a basis for peace negotiations

by John MacBeath Watkins

 Like President Obama, as an undergraduate I studied political science with a concentration in international relations. Perhaps this is why, when people talk rot about the subject, I get my knickers in a bit of a twist.

I've just read Glenn Kessler's "fact check" on Obama's statement that the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel should be used as "a basis" for negotiating a peace deal, with agreed-upon land swaps, the goal being secure and recognized borders.

Kessler blew it.

For example, he quotes this Reagan speech on the topic:

“In the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely ten miles wide at  its  narrowest  point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”
— President Ronald Reagan, September 1, 1982

He holds this as evidence that Reagan would not ask Israel to withdraw to within the pre-1967 borders. You'd thing the meaning of the sentences quoted would be clear enough, after all...unless you'd taken the trouble to read Reagan's entire speech.

Here's what else he said that day in September 29 years ago:

We base our approach squarely on the principle that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be resolved through the negotiations involving an exchange of territory for peace. This exchange is enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which is, in turn, incorporated in all its parts in the Camp David agreements. U.N. Resolution 242 remains wholly valid as the foundation-stone of America's Middle East peace effort.

It is the United States' position that - in return for peace - the withdrawal provision of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza.

What does Resolution 242 say? Well, the resolution, adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council in Nov. 1967 (remember, we're a permanent member of the Security Council and have the power to veto such resolutions) requires Israel to withdraw to within the 1967 borders. So Reagan said in one breath that he wouldn't ask Israel to live within the pre-1967 borders, and in the next insisted that they withdraw within those borders.

Many politician say two different things that cannot both be true. Reagan's genius was that he could believe two mutually exclusive things at the same time. It was as if he were a politician who prepared for the role like a method actor, knowing that if he said things he didn't believe, people would spot the lie. So he believed what he was required to say.

I saw the mask slip once, in the wake of the early revelations about the Iran-Contra scandal, but within a couple days, he had his lines down and could say them with conviction. Hell, he didn't just say those things, he believed them, the way a method actor learns to believe the character's role. If you play a gangster, you believe the what the gangster says and does, because the conviction comes through to the audience. If you play a president, it's just the same.

You need to understand this to grasp the audacity of that 1982 speech, in which he both said that he would not ask Israel to live within the pre-1967 borders and that he insisted that Israel withdraw from the land it had occupied in the 1967 war. And you need to know the weakness of his logic before you go relying on one thing he said without reading the whole speech it was taken from, because his appeal was never logical consistency. He was able to apply method acting to the entire montage of things he was supposed to say.

Those early borders, by the way, resemble the proposed 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine that the U.N. thought would give both Jews and Muslims land of their own, and peace going forward with two states. Israel accepted the partition, but the Arabs didn't, and the ensuing war resulted in boundaries that were pretty much what the U.N. had proposed, though actually more favorable to Israel than the U.N. offer the Israelis had agreed to.

In addition to successfully defending those borders and taking additional territory in 1948, Israel not only defended them, but seized more territory in the 1956 and 1967 wars. For borders that couldn't possibly be defended, they've done pretty well, and with the Soviet Union no longer sponsoring the Syrian army, Israel is in better shape than it was then militarily.

I'm actually quite pessimistic about the possibility of peace in the Middle East. The Arabs have never accepted the partition of Palestine, and the Israelis, having won war after war, have become so confident of their might that they see no need to give up territory. But that doesn't mean that we can't discern outlines of what peace would look like, if the combatants wanted it enough.

The outlines of a possible peace have been clear since 1947, when the Israelis accepted  the U.N. proposal for something a bit less favorable to Israel than what President Obama has proposed. There have been no takers in the years since, but make no mistake, America was at least as influential in the U.N. in 1947 as it was in 1967, or is now. We've known what to work for all that time, and we have worked for it though a series of administrations of both parties.

Reagan called Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders "the foundation-stone of America's Middle East peace effort." Obama called it the "basis" for working out a peace deal. You couldn't slide a grain of Sinai sand between those positions. Kessler claims to be "The Fact Checker" and says he reveals "The truth behind the rhetoric." It's all right there with his byline. If only it were true.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Role-Playing Game, new version


New version of The Role-Playing Game, with a chorus that could be sung like an anthem for clumsy lovers. Now, all it needs is music.



 The Role-Playing Game
(A fool's anthem)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I should begin my journey to lay siege to your heart
(a trebuchet, a catapult, mines beneath the walls
armor seared in boiling oil, charges into pitfalls)
but my forces seem to scatter before I make a start.

I will have died a thousand deaths before I reach your door
I'm not the hero of your heart, I'm just the fool you've seen before.

But I'll speak up for the fools who came before me
and I'll speak up for the fools we've yet to see
those who cawed like crows instead of cooing like a turtledove
the ragged voices that have never found a way to speak of love.

I should begin my journey from my battered high redoubt
(tumbled stones from fallen towers, broken wheels from ruined carts
a clock whose hands forget the hours, ashes in abandoned hearths)
but my forces melt around me before I can remount.

I must endure a thousand deaths before I reach your door
to be the hero of your heart, or just the fool you've seen before.

And I'll speak for all the fools who came before me
and I'll speak for all the fools we've yet to see
those who cawed like crows instead of cooing like a turtledove
the ragged voices that have never found a way to speak of love.


(The image is one of Dore's illustrations for Don Quixote.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Class warfare" -- words with a past

by John MacBeath Watkins

Paul Ryan is accusing President Obama of "class warfare" because he calls for increases in taxes on the wealthy. Nothing new there, you say, we've been hearing the term for years, but you may not know that the term has a history.

I didn't know this myself, until I read a 1937 book titled The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, which I wrote about here.

Of course, the concept of class struggle is better known in Marxist theory, and they were all for it. What's less known is that in the fascist movements of the 1930s, class warfare was a different kind of rallying cry. The fascists believed in the natural inequality of mankind, and believed that the class structure was both natural and necessary.

Mussolini claimed that this inequality was "irremediable, fruitful and beneficent," and the Nazis were so certain of the biological determinacy in their philosophy that they felt the sons of laborers were born to be laborers, the sons of industrialists were born to be industrialists, etc. About the only way around this was advancement through the Nazi Party. Or, of course, you could have the outward trappings of superiority -- wealth and status -- but be Jewish, and therefore the rule saying all wealth was earned and deserved didn't apply to you.

If we are born to the station we are suited to, class warfare would be against nature, not merely wrong from the point of view of those now at the top of society but wrong and repellent from the standpoint of what is natural for people -- so class warfare would be the ultimate evil.

Now, Paul Ryan is no fascist. He is more of an Objectivist, a follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy. In this philosophy, if you are poor you should get rich, and if you can't, you should admit that you're not good enough to be rich. But strangely, Objectivists are also against inheritance taxes, even though inherited wealth should not be a reflection of personal worth. This has always struck me as a little strange, and perhaps a reflection of the fact that some in this movement admire wealth, and see it as a sign of personal worth regardless of its source.

It strikes me that both the fascist and Objectivist approaches to inequality are philosophies that attempt to make people comfortable with the way the world is by explaining the inequities they see around them as just. In fact, Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, says something similar to this -- that Objectivism assumes a "benevolent universe" in which, if you adapt to the world, you can achieve your values. This competes with the dystopian view of Marxists, which says that the world is unjust, and you must make it just by overturning society.

The fascist view is an example of the "just world" fallacy, which we explored in this post. The Communist view is perhaps even more unrealistic, that the world is unjust, and by blowing up the whole show you can make it just. The progressive view, that the world is in some ways unjust, and we ought to fiddle with it a bit to see if we can make it a bit more just, lacks the intellectual purity of these extreme viewpoints, which is actually what I like about it.

But there is a niggling little detail that makes nonsense of Ryans claims. CBS reports that Ryan claims Obama is "sowing social unrest and class envy" by pushing a tax increase on the wealthiest individuals in order to help address the deficit and debt.

Yet Ryan's own Roadmap for America proposes to shift the tax burden from the wealthiest to the middle class. Why is it "class warfare" and "sowing social unrest and class envy" to increase the taxes on the rich, but not to decrease them? And why is an increase in taxes on the middle class not as bad as an increase in taxes on the wealthy? Either way, government is changing the distribution of wealth from our present system.

Ryan says he worries about "a class of governing elites picking winners and losers, and determining our destinies for us."

 Why, heavens. These faceless fiends might do things like letting an academically unimpressive George W. Bush into Yale, or bail him out when his business ventures looked like they might fail, which might help determine his destiny. The "governing elites" might even pass big tax cuts for the kind of people who donate money to their campaigns so they can get re-elected, thereby picking "winners."

It ain't a just world, Paul Ryan, and if you want to make it a little more just, you're not helping.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

She rises! A link to the Merry Maiden rebuild

by John MacBeath Watkins

Remember, back in February, I mentioned that my friend, Seton Gras, was faced with the Merry Maiden, the vessel he spent much of his childhood on and lived on as well, sinking?

Well, he's making good progress on putting it back together, and he's got a Facebook page where you can follow his progress. There's also a PayPal donation button, in case you feel inclined to avail yourself of it.

It's good to see this historic vessel coming back together.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Deep thoughts on the 'need for cognition' metric

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today I was thinking about someone I interact with on-line, contemplating what I find annoying about him. He's not a bad sort, really, but he never seems to bother to get his facts straight and his comments on any topic are vapid.

Then, mousing around the Internet to some blogs I only occasionally visit, I found the answer. Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, on his blog, Rough Type, introduced me to the concept of the Need for Cognition metric. It measures how much you like to think.

You see, although I score well on tests and am generally considered a bit of a wonk by my friends, I've never thought my brain was particularly powerful, but I do seem to think more often than most people, collecting information like an intellectual magpie and entertaining myself with finding new connections between disparate facts. Give me a test, and there's a good chance I've thought about a lot of stuff on it. In addition, if you practice anything, you get better at it, and practicing solving problems pays off on many types of tests.

Carr brings up the need for cognition metric in regard to a study of Facebook use:

The study revealed a significant negative correlation between social network site (SNS) activity and NFC scores. "The key finding," the authors write, "is that NFC played an important role in SNS use. Specifically, high NFC individuals tended to use SNS less often than low NFC people, suggesting that effortful thinking may be associated with less social networking among young people." Moreover, "high NFC participants were significantly less likely to add new friends to their SNS accounts than low or medium NFC individuals." 

More broadly, social networking, whether by Facebook or in real life, may involve a different set of priorities than deep thinking, which might be why the best students are often "nerds" who don't become popular by networking.

This does not mean that those high need for cognition people are superior, any more than the social pecking order in high school reflects the real worth of the students in it. Society needs both deep thinkers and networkers, and different people develop different skills, which is why we don't all have to be geniuses and we don't all have to be skilled at organizing parties, social or political.

But one consequence of this is that in some settings, such as Internet forums, some people will use them for social interaction while others hope to hash out the intellectual issues. I still won't bother to read the posts of the fellow who irritates me, but I'll better understand what he's doing commenting on things he doesn't bother to know much about. While I'm saying, "let's think this through," he's just saying "Hi there!"


Friday, May 13, 2011

When torture changes America

by John MacBeath Watkins

About 20 years ago, I sensed that torture was becoming a moral issue in the world, no longer so unspeakable that it was never discussed, and more commonly practiced than it had been at times in the recent past. I wrote this story about the topic then (and updated it a couple years ago,) never dreaming that torture would become an official policy of the U.S. government.

We'd been to some dark places during the Viet Nam War, and it was rumored that the CIA had engaged in torture with the Phoenix Program, but the U.S. government claimed to be in compliance with the laws of war and of South Viet Nam. I didn't believe that claim, but but at least our government tried to provide plausible deniability to Americans, allowing them to believe that the abuses of the Phoenix Program were the work of rogue CIA officers who needed to be reigned in. This was itself an acknowledgment that torture was wrong.

During the Bush Administration's war on terror, unrepentant officials as high as the Vice President were ready to own up to approving waterboarding, even adopting the term "enhanced interrogation," which echoed the term "Verschärfte Vernehmung" used by the Nazis. To this day, former Bush Administration officials are willing to defend the use of techniques we used to prosecute soldiers for using.

In 1947, Yukio Asano, a Japanese officer who had waterboarded American prisoners of war, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. In 1983, Texas Sheriff James Parker and three of his deputies were sentenced to four years in prison for using waterboarding to extract confessions, according to this NPR story.

And today, we have former U.S. Attorney General Michael Murkasey defending waterboarding.
Strangely, his reply to Sen. John McCain's op-ed article calling him out on the issue wasn't in an op-ed penned by Murkasey himself, but in one penned (keyboarded?) by former Dick Cheney spokesman Marc Thiessen.

McCain wrote:

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.
 Murkasey replied, through Thiessen:

Senator McCain described as “false” my statement that Khalid Sheik Mohammed broke under harsh interrogation that included waterboarding, and disclosed a torrent of information that included the nickname of Osama bin Laden’s courier.  He strongly implied in the remainder of his column in the Washington Post that this harsh interrogation was not only useless but also illegal.  He is simply incorrect on all three counts.


Murkasey relies on the word of former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell, under whose watch the abuses occurred, as his source of the claim that torture was effective. I cannot imagine people culpable in torture admitting that they had engaged in such odious activities to no avail, especially when talking to someone who could prosecute them. Surely, they had every reason to try to justify their actions by any means available to them. After all, if torture doesn't produce result, it's just sadism.

McCain consulted current CIA director Leon Panetta, who according to McCain told him:

The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.
As for legality, Murkasey said:


So far as the waterboarding technique used by CIA operators, as outlined in the memoranda released by the Department of Justice, it was entirely legal at the time, which is to say before the passage of later statutes in 2005 and 2006, by which time it was no longer in use and under which it has not been evaluated.

So it would appear that sometime between the 1947 American prosecution of Yukio Asano and 2005, something changed that made waterboarding legal, but he fails to inform us what this was. Of course, if waterboarding was illegal and Murkasey didn't prosecute it, what sort of prosecutor was he? Could that have something to do with why he now wants to present torture as legal and effective?

One of my major disappointments with the current administration was their decision not to prosecute those who initiated, provided the legal justification for, and executed the use of torture as the official policy of the U.S. government. I realize that it would have torn the country apart, and I realize it would have jeopardized the  many things Obama wanted to accomplish as president. But we crossed a line when we made torture an official instrument of American policy, and if America stands for anything, we shouldn't stand for that.

Wars change countries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. America had to deal with Antisemitism and racism after World War II instead of letting these ills fester any longer, because we fought against them. The Roman republic couldn't survive the Punic Wars -- the changes in wealth distribution as cheap slave labor impoverished farmers with small holdings worked against it, as did the administrative needs of a large standing army and distant provinces in a growing empire.

We need to take a close look at how the war on terror is changing us, and whether American ideals of liberty and democracy can survive it. When I talk to people who see nothing wrong with torture, I worry for my country. All the tools needed to destroy our republic are those we're tempted to use in war.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Friendly crow attention

By Jamie Lutton

I was late to work today, but I always, always walk slowly up the street, looking up, to see if I can spot any crows. They usually see me first, but nothing today. It was  chill, and looked and felt like rain was coming. As I walked to Starbucks for a Tuesday New York Times (has the Science section in it) and then to my coffee at TNT Espresso a block south,  (their coffee is better and cheaper, sorry) walking on Broadway, a heard a crow scold me.

I looked up and saw two crows on the top of the building behind me and one on a wire. One of them scolded me again. I threw out a treat (I usually don't do this on Broadway, but the street was deserted) but the crow just scolded me again. After I got my coffee, I was preparing to walk south down Broadway, as I was really late for work, and it quicker to do that than to walk down Harvard.

A crow came from behind  me and flew on top of and scuffed my head, then flew to the top of the building beside me. I could hear the flutter of his wings, for a split second. . I looked up, made eye contact, and said 'pretty bird'. He looked at me for a long moment, then disappeared, walking back further on the roof. I thought I knew what he wanted; that he wanted me to walk behind the building, on Harvard.

Soon as I turned the corner to walk west to Harvard, about seven crows appeared in the trees across the street by the Broadway Market complex. I threw down one treat, and four pounced on it, scuffling. I then tossed out enough for all of them. They all few down and grabbed treats; some took the time and assembled two in their beaks before flying off.  I stood for a long moment, watching them, even though I was a bit late.

The moment out of time, with the crows, was worth it.

I thought that would be the end of my close encounters with crows today, but when I came to work, I looked up, as  I was unlocking the door of the shop. I saw a crow flying over to me, and roosting in a tree. I threw out a treat on the sidewalk. I then saw two more fly over and land in on a roof across the street. The crow was very high up in the tree. They all looked at the treat on the sidewalk, but did not come down. I arranged several treats on the railing of my ramp, all in a row.

Then one crow flew down and began to peck at the treat on the sidewalk. In a slow heartbeat, another one from the roof  landed on the railing, just a few feet from my left hand, below me a bit.   This had not happened before. None had gotten this close to me while I was still outside. I held very still. The crow looked at me, and walked up the railing, to just by my hand, and took one treat, then another. He was six inches from my left hand.

He was the most beautiful crow I had ever seen. Plump, shiny, black crow, with ease all over his body in the way he moved. Confident, happy crow. He was so confident with me that he took his time loading up and assembling two treats in his beak. to carry off.

He knew I meant no harm, and that I was his friend, or at least an easy touch that would not hurt him.

This  was great moment. No crow had gotten this close to me before. I wanted to stop people in the streets and tell them; I repressed that, and wrote this, instead.

I started out feeding and writing about crows, so I could  send Daddy the blogs last fall, when he was dying. At the end, I just told him stories.

Now, they raise my eyes, and my heart, and I scan the skies all the time, whenever I am outside, to catch a glimpse of one, going about it's business.  I stand on Broadway, still, looking up, scanning the skies, trying to hear a crow cry, whenever I am out on store business.

Theses days, they are oftentimes flying high, straight, on mysterious errands, or carrying a bit of branch or grass to build a nest.   But when we make eye contact, or a couple of them spot me,  we have a bit of fun; with me feeding them dog treats, and them showing off flying tricks for me while they gather them up.  It is a moment out of time, when I can hang with the crows and watch them arrive, roost, and fly down.

It is the unexpected contact I like best. When that crow brushed my head this morning (not the first time this has happened), then flew to the top of that building, there was an attempt to communicate there; different from the usual  begging. He was trying to say 'go around the other way', but in a trickster crow fashion.  Or the crow walking toward my left hand today, knowing that I was just a happy anomaly in their life, a treat-thrower  human.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Signs of the counter-enlightenment

by John MacBeath Watkins

The newest iteration of the counter-enlightenment is fully upon us. Now it's not just new-age beliefs, fantasy literature or fundamentalist religion of both the Christian and Muslim churches, there are actually people being arrested for sorcery.

Of course, these arrests are part of a feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about who should be Iran's Intelligence chief, but the belief in sorcery is surely a Great Leap Backwards. One wonders what punishment is in store for the magical practitioners in Iranian justice, and whether they will escape with the aid of their djinn.

The counter-enlightenment was primarily a reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution, and had its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its advocates have included Edmund Burke, with his preference for tradition over reason, the Romantic writers with their emphasis on intuition and beauty, 20th century conservatives, feminists, environmentalists and postmodern Marxists -- in short, a heterogeneous group that had nothing in common except that they felt the Enlightenment had over-emphasized reason as a guide to how we should understand our lives and how we should live them.

This is entirely appropriate, as the Enlightenment was itself a far from homogenous movement. The Wikipedia entry on the Enlightenment includes figures from James Cook to Emanuel Swedenborg, and groups from the Royal Society to the Freemasons to the Grub Street hacks. What they had in common was a belief in reason as the primary guide to understanding the world and to telling us how to live in it. This emphasis on reason led to to a questioning of traditional sources of authority, academic, religious and political. It produced great advances in science, the Industrial Revolution, the American system of government, and to a certain hostility to organized religion, exemplified in the deist movement, whose adherents included Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

It's natural enough that a "divine watchmaker" was not the sort of God that everyone wanted to worship, and fundamentalists of any church would have reason to oppose it. The Enlightenment grew, in part, from the corruption of a Catholic Church that seemed, prior to the Reformation, less concerned with truth or faith than with power and money. The authority of the church was in question when advocates of reason as a guide gained ground in the world of ideas, but reason was not the only possible alternative. Another was a return to an older way of thinking, a less rational and more emotional faith, exemplified by religious leaders from Martin Luther to Billy Graham. Another response was a return to old beliefs about ghosts and magic, exemplified by the Spiritualist movement. Still another was the philosophy of sturm und drang (literally storm and urge,) stressing emotion and subjectivity as a counter to the constraints of rationality.

Now, I happen to like the American system of government, with its insistence on freedom of religion (which requires, of course, freedom from other peoples' religion being imposed on you) and emphasis on freedom of speech, and thought. I can certainly see the point of the traditionalists and romantics, and I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings (though on reflection the multi-ethnic industrial society of the Dark Lord Sauron looks more like the society I live in than the world of knights, magic and religion to which the heroes of the trilogy belong.)

And I certainly don't care for the arrogant intolerance of evangelical atheists who wish to convert me to their way of thinking any more than I do for the Ayatollah's own intolerance. But arresting sorcerers? Is this the sleep of reason? I know that in parts of Africa, religions are valued for their potency against witches, and I suppose that's to be expected -- we don't all have the same history, after all, and the Enlightenment was a European export. But is it really time for a new translation of the Malleus Maleficarum?

Or does the Age of Reason continue to add converts, while the Ayatollahs fight a rear-guard action? It could be that the Jasmine Revolution is the real future of the Arab world, and we will not see the abandonment of reason. We do not know an Age has ended until some generations later, someone notices that it's gone.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More about the death of an affectionate man

by Jamie Lutton

I have not written very much lately; have been distracted and saddened by my business partner's sorrow about the death of his father. I liked John Sr, very much. He and I agreed on very little, but we liked to rhubarb, as he enjoyed starting  arguments even more than I do.  I don't know what impression you got about him from John Jr. blog's about him, but I thought he was a riot.

They don't make them like him anymore. Most now in conversation are soft, and avoid conflict in discussion, like it was a disease or something. John Sr. started them up, joyfully, for the heck of it, all the time.

I went to his funeral yesterday, and saw what was left of him put in a box in the ground, and realized I did not make enough time for him. I had been going back to Eastern Washington to visit my Mom and  Dad, and after that, mourning them, when I had invites out to the Watkins house.  I bitterly regret not going out to visit this grand old man more often.

His wife and the rest of the family are very friendly to me, of course, but I always felt this man understood me, and liked me, for what many see as my faults. My acerbic temperament, my liking to argue, my maverick and (to some) inconsistent politics; he liked me the way I was.

I had plans to get to know him better. He reminded me of two of my brothers for his itch to argue, and my mother, interestingly enough.  My mother lived to argue.. (My first memories of my mother, politically, was her yelling at Nixon on TV about 1966.)

I had told John Jr. that I was going to come out to visit regularily, and I had plans to draw his old man out, and enjoy the back and forth. Even though John Sr. was conservative, the itch to talk about politics overrides the actual side one is on. And besides, I am not a doctrinaire liberal.

injured crow, banded crow.

By Jamie Lutton

by Jamie Lutton

A few days ago, walking to work in this awful cold spring we are having, I had a big fat crow fly down from the South area to land at my feet. This could even be the same crow who had walked me to work for years. I threw him a treat.. then suddenly he was joined by a smaller crow, that landed close to him. This crow, possibly his mate, was heavily favoring one leg.  I put down on the ground several dog biscuits, and watched the second crow stop to eat one, before ferrying them away to a hiding place. I noticed that she continued to limp, and flew with the injured leg tucked up. When she landed on a wire overhead, she clung to the wire with one leg. I left the pair a pile of treats, for them to eat later.

I knew that unless she was very lucky, this little crow would not live very long.  Unless her mate fed her, she would not make it through next winter.   It has been four days now, and I have not seen her since. I know that wild birds have a high mortality rate, but it was sad to see her hurt like this, and not be able to do anything. These birds had flown about my head, and overhead, in acrobatics for me, when they saw me, in the winter. I wanted them all to live a very long time.

Later that day, I saw a crow, further along my route, encounter a dog biscuit for the very first time. I had just gotten my coffee, and this crow landed on a railing outside a restaurant, and stared me with those cupboard love eyes that crows have, when they want you to give them some food.  (you know that look; dogs and cats have this look mastered). So, I threw him one treat, then another, as he stood in the gutter. He picked up one treat, then tried to pick up the other. He could not hold both at once, as he had had no practice doing so. So, he picked up one, then tried to pick up the other, then the other, then the one, while he kept dropping them both. It was hysterical to watch, as he could not figure out how to carry both, and did not want to leave one behind.  I then threw him a third.  He at that point sort of sighed, ate the third one, stared at the other two, grabbed one of them, and flew off, leaving one behind.  He seemed like a young crow, a bit skinny, who had not figured out the balancing act necessary for carrying more than one treat.

I like to reward crows who get close to me; landing at my feet, or landing on objects that bring them to eye level. I want them to get close to me, so I can look at them close up.  My eyes are not that good, and I have not the forethought (or money) to buy binoculars.

I did see something that has me wondering, yesterday.  One nice fat crow near my coffee stand has been banded. The right leg had a blue band, the left leg had a red band, and maybe a white band.  I am giving a shout out there to the professional crow watchers; please tell me about this crow and your project. I would like to know.

Or, does anyone know who I should ask?

Is this one of the University of Washington's crows in their studies, gone south? 

The crow seems healthy and with a good curious/ belligerent crow attitude.  He (I think it is a he) goes after treats from me and is not shy around me. This crow gets along well with his peers, he appears to not be at the bottom of the crow pecking order or anything.  He ranges in the Broadway area around and one street behind, either side, one block south of QFC at Republican.  I think he is about five or so, from how fat he is but I am wildly guessing.  He hangs out with a gang of about 10 other crows, who have the same weight and size he is.  They seem to be eating the garbage at the cans in the area, mostly.

Whose crow is this?  This is the only banded crow I have seen in the area.

I am asking for a little help here.

Speaking of banded crows, I hear tell there was a study to train crows to go look for Osama ben Laden, since they have such good face recognition.   After I post this, I am planning to go look for that study. I guess this study is moot, now, that the Navy seals caught him and killed him. Now, it will take trained dolphins to find him, where he is now.
                                   

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bonney in the twilight zone

by John MacBeath Watkins

Slowly at first, then more quickly, the world began to disappear around her. Small items went first, just here and there, a few books (she didn't read) and random items of His clothing. This didn't trouble her much. She had His company, which was the important thing, and food and water, a view of prey which, sadly, she was not allowed to kill. She had the company of his other companion, one of her own species. When she was very young, she was treated badly, but that was before Him, and He was the only one of his species she trusted.

Her kind had evolved to hunt the arid grasslands, and were swift and agile, with sharp claws and sharp teeth. The big, clumsy things who ate grain had stores of the useless stuff, which attracted the small grain eaters, which attracted her kind to kill and eat the small grain eaters. The two species had formed a symbiotic relationship, and both had eventually found that bonds of affection grew between them, uncomplicated by a common language or mating pattern.

Her kind did not have names, they had smells unique to each, which complicates writing about them. I will assign, at random, the names Bonney and Bunny. Bonney was the bigger, stronger, smarter and more beautiful of the two, but Bunny had the greater courage and more dominant personality. Bonney ran from loud noises, Bunny ran to confront them. When they ate, Bunney was always pushing past her to eat first, when it came to His affection Bunny was ready to claim it and chase Bonney away. Sometimes she pushed it too far, but Bonney loved her like a sister, which is to say she sometimes beat the crap out of her. And she did claim her own share of affection, and that was the important thing.

Then the world started to disappear more quickly. Large swaths of books came off the shelves and disappeared into opaque cubes, clothing as well, but she had no need of clothing, her own fur with its dazzle camouflage pattern proving stylish in all seasons.

Then other big, clumsy grain eaters came into the world, and made noise and made more of the world disappear. Terrified, Bonney went to her best hiding place. He knew about the hiding place -- she'd spent the first week in His world hidden from Him there -- but was too big and clumsy to pursue her into it, and none could get her out if she didn't want to come. It was a crawl space that she could barely fit into. Bunny didn't come in, but stood guard at the entrance. This was a time when Bonney appreciated Bunny's strong personality.

A roaring creature with a long snout began to feed on small objects, roaring in a most terrifying way. Sometimes it emitted a sound like one of her species being tortured, possibly because that was what was happening, Bonney wasn't sure but did not intend to find out by becoming a snack for the creature.

Finally, the noise stopped. The creatures all went away. The world was empty, with all those objects that bore the comforting smell of Him gone, just flat plains, the white opaque reservoir still filled with water, the eating area with every trace of edible things and utensils He used for eating gone. The soft, short, tan grass of the main living and sleeping areas were without their comforting clutter, all smelling of Him, even the smallest scraps of paper sucked up by the devouring thing that roared.

Bunny ran around inspecting the strange, silent, empty world. Bonney cautiously put her nose out and saw what was there, then retreated, lest she, too, be devoured.

Time passed, and He came back. Bunny frolicked around Him, rubbing against Him, demanding affection, as if no longer noticing that the world was mostly gone. It was her way, Bonney knew. Confront the danger, secure alliances, those were Bunny's goals when faced with danger. Perhaps it made sense if you had Bunny's boundless self-assurance, her belief that she could defeat any threat. But Bonney had no such illusions. She has seen far worse than Bunny ever had, she felt her mortality in her bones, and though He offered affection, offered her favorite food, cooed and coaxed, she stayed in the darkness of her sanctuary.

Then He was gone, and Bunny as well.

Bonney had always feared abandonment, feared the loss of His protection and affection. Her worst fears seemed realized. The world was empty, both of objects and of love. She began to fear she would die there in her sanctuary, having avoided the unknown fate that Bunny and all the objects in the world had suffered. Night closed in, but night was the time her kind evolved for, and cloaked in darkness, she finally emerged, inspected the world, and found it as empty as she feared. Strange smells infested the world, smells of substances that seemed designed to remove all trace of the smells she knew and found comforting. She retreated again to her sanctuary, knowing Bunny was gone, He was gone, the world was a desolate, empty waste, and she would die alone.

Then, the next day, He came back. He cooed and coaxed, lured her with her favorite food, but she was steadfast in her terror and would not emerge. Finally she came close enough to the entrance to her sanctuary that He could stroke her cheek. This was her undoing, for it was love, not food or water, that she would die without.

She rubbed against Him, first with her cheek, then He let her put her scent on Him with the glands in her face, so she could claim him again. Gradually she emerged, let Him caress her neck her ears, her face, rub her all over her furry body. The world started to seem right again.

Then He blocked the access to her sanctuary. He pinched the skin on her shoulder, where there was a flap of skin her mother had carried her by in her mouth and a nerve that, when pinched, made her muscles relax. He put her in a cell with opaque, off-white walls and steel bars, which rose in the air and moved her swiftly into a transport device the technology of which she did not begin to understand, and began to move them through the space between the worlds.

She had no reference for the sounds and smells around her. Even Bunny would have been terrified, she knew. The voyage seemed to last an age, but finally they came to a new world, where He let her out of the portable cell.

She smelled Bunny, and books, and Him. Some of the objects were familiar to her, some were not. Out of an abundance of caution, she ran quickly around and found a new hiding place, which seemed safe but was infested with new smells and new sounds.

It was a full day before she emerged. She waited until the place was quiet, night had fallen, and the artificial day the clumsy ones required finally went dark. She emitted a pitiful wail, and the artificial day began again, and He came, and she came out and claimed him with the scent from her face and let him caress her. Then she went to earth again, unsure of what this new world would bring, happiness or the sorrow she always feared lay in store for her.

Gradually, she emerged more often, finding where He slept and demanding his love, claiming it and rubbing against him.


And that, I'm pretty sure, is how my cat Bonney saw the move to new quarters.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Walking softly, using the big stick on Osama bin Laden

by John MacBeath Watkins

Perhaps the most fatuous thing said in the media coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden was the MSNBC reporter who remarked that this was surprising because no one had been talking about this, and in fact it appeared that only a very few people in either the Pakistani or the US government knew this operation was on the horizon.

Um. Do you suppose it was a secret?

But the reporter's remark does highlight an important point. President Obama has taken a lot of heat for not talking tougher, but there may be a connection between not talking tough and getting things done. It's not like bin Laden's compound was small, or even particularly out of the way. The force that attacked his compound didn't find him in a spider cave. Pakistan's secret service, the ISI, must have had people within it who knew where he was.

Trouble is, ever since the Zia administration, the ISI has worked with various types of jihadists, whether in the long struggle with India over Kashmir, in opposing the Soviets with the mujaheddin, or working closely with the Taliban, and such habits die hard. People who have spent their careers working with organizations opposed to the US will have loyalties and views on where the interests of their country, their agency, and their careers lie.

That's why bin Laden felt safe in Pakistan. Overcoming that was a major accomplishment. And talking tough, getting people's backs up, and browbeating people for not already being on your side wasn't likely to get it done. It will no doubt take years for the full story to come out, but perhaps the most interesting part of it will be how we got the cooperation of people who had resisted helping us before. I have no doubt that there were people in the ISI and other branches of the Pakistani government who would have tipped off bin Laden if they could. Part of the game must have been to know who those people were, and how to get around them.

That's done in the shadows, not in the press conferences or campaign speech. That's effective government, not aggressive government. You don't get there by talking brusquely and bragging about how big your stick is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How to get a strange crow to see you

by Jamie Lutton

I have not written about crows, or anything else, for over a month. My time at the computer got co-opted by actual work, so I am writing this on my day off at a xerox shop, to report the latest about the local crows.

They have mostly gotten too busy to visit with me. As April progressed, I have seen fewer and fewer crows in the morning; they must be getting food from other sources.  The South and North nest birds do not drop by as I walk to work, save for one bird from the South nest, who I think is the same bird who kept me company as I walked to work for years. This is a real break from the routine I had expected; they used to visit me every day without fail at 8 am when I left my apartment. I still see a few near the coffee stand, and a few near work, but they are mostly vanished.  About 80% of them have gone off and are busy with other matters.

There is a red finch pair nesting on my balcony. I try not to disturb them, but the male bird sings to me every morning, and I peek out my curtains to watch them build their nest in my sunscreen, which I never unroll. This is the third year they have come back.  The song of the male bird is particluarily beautiful. I put out some unsalted sunflower seeds, and he ate a few yesterday. I don't know if this is their favorite food, but it went over well. I am looking forward to the babies hatching soon.

I walked to my doctor today, for a mammogram, some mile or so away at Virgina Mason. I crossed into territory where  I was not known by any crow. For fun, I tried to figure out how to get the attention of the crows I saw. I figured out a pretty good method that I will pass on here. When I saw a crow or two in a tree across the street, I would stop and stare at them. They would notice me staring at them and look back at me. This I would do for a minute or so, then I would reach into my bag, and get out some dog biscuits, and drop them at my feet. Then, the crows would immediately fly across the street, and roost overhead. I would drop a few more, and walk away. When I left, the birds would fly down and take the treats.  The whole trick was, to make eye contact.

I did this on the way to the doctors. Then I met a crow on the way back and did the same thing.  The crow I met then came right down to me. Throwing a treat only works when they know what you have, usually. When you are on a street where there are cafes, they are used to food falling from human hands all the time. That, and the eye contact makes the connection.
        
I see crows all the time this spring flying up high in straight lines, on some mysterious errand. They do not have time to roost and visit.  I am always looking up to try to spot them when I hear their cries.  They just are not as visible as they were in the winter.

The skies are generally filled with other birds right now. I am going to try to learn all of their names. I can only name the pigeons (of course) the gulls and the crows. There are some small birds that flock that I think are sparrows, and I can identify the robins and the finches, but so many other little birds that  I see that I don't know the names of. They are ducking in and out the trees, especially in the more residential areas, flying fast and low.

When I was walking back from the doctor I saw a great group of pigeons and one gull mobbing a man who was throwing out scraps of bread. He did this for some time. I looked up and saw one crow watching the feeding, perched on the top of a building, silent. There was only bread, perhaps this is why he did not come down.

The ground was covered with pigeons of all descriptions, and one gull. As time passed, more gulls showed up, muscling out the pigeons.  The man who fed them looked a bit woebegone, with patchy, dyed long hair. But he was smiling at the pigeons.  I stayed back so I would not be bombed by pigeon and gull doo from the massive group that had shown up. And I checked; the crow held his spot, just observing the mob of other birds, holding back.

I surmise that the crows are busy courting and raising families, and not feeling the winter pressure to come up with food; so they are scarcer.  I am still looking around and waiting for them to show up. They still drop by work, right when I get there, to beg for dog biscuits. I had gotten in the habit of leaving some outside just as I got to work, on the railing. So, I have three to eight crows visit me and hang onto to wire overhead, waiting for me to go inside work, after I put the biscuits down. Then they elbow each other to grab them, and fly away.  I usually don't see them much for the rest of the day after that, nowadays.

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