Thursday, August 31, 2023

Notes from an Evening watching a Blue Moon Supermoon

August 30, 2023. A pastel orange supermoon rising.
I live in a rural area Southwest of Duluth, MN. We live here because we have a couple small gardens and the growing season is two weeks longer than on the North side of the city. Our property has a remote feel, bordering a 40 acre swath on the one side where a couple dozen young bulls graze for half the year. Across the gravel road to the West there are trees, shrubs and trails where untamed animals journey by on their way to whatever is next. The back of our property slides into a wide, plegmatic section of a creek which the locals call Rocky Run. Our house is set back from the road about the length of a football field and the home next door to the South is tucked up near the road so as I sit here making these notes there is no light pollution from any direction as I watch the moon propel itself into the sky above the treetops.

On the other side of Rocky Run is a gravel pit where a variety of Northern Minnesota wildlife hang out. We've had wolves, coyotes, deer, bears, and even a cougar now and then passes through our neighborhood. At this moment I'm seated in the darkness out back, listening to the night, watching the moon while typing up my impressions and observations. 

About fifteen minutes ago there were coyotes chattering down below in the gravel pit. They did their little sequence of yips, then listened. A minute later the alpha male gave a call which sounded a little nearer, over my right shoulder. No more sounds from the coyotes afterwards.

Other sounds tonight include cars and trucks scrolling down Highway 2, Maple Grove and the Midway Road; the buzzing of mosquitos; the chirping of crickets (unless that's my tinnitus, which it may well be); and very little else. 

The moon glows. It's not blue. Rather, as it broke above the horizon it was a pale orange. Several cars pass. Near silence again.

They say that God speaks in a still, small voice. What a contrast to the contemporary sensory assault we get through the media. Talking heads, sound bytes, high volume hyper messaging, Tik Tok mania, animated podcasters and amped politicos.... all dedicated to keeping us jazzed, stimulated, distracted, delirious, juiced, provoked and fired up, all in the name of keeping us "informed."

Laptop on my lap, typing my observations in real time.
The moon continues to rise, radiating and aura. It's called a Blue Moon when you have two full moons in the same month. It's not descriptive of the moon itself.

Truly silent now. One car way off in the distance. Nothing passing on the highway. And now that car has passed as well.

In the shrubs to my right I hear the sound of an animal of some kind, a scratching sound, quiet but noticeable. 

More silence.

Throughout this time the stars have been emerging. A jet plane way up in the stratosphere is silently gliding by, red and white lights flashing.

Time passes. Now there is the call of what sounds like a goose in the distance to my back. The bird makes a half dozen calls, then waits. After a minute lapses, there is a call from the North, somewhere in the cattle pasture. A truck passes and temporarily drowns the plaintive calls that soon re-commence.

Another plane quietly passes overhead... and the lonesome goose continues his or her melancholic wistful call.

This supermoon, purportedly 17% larger than normal due to its proximity to earth, looks like most of the moons I've seen over the years. The universe is so vast of a backdrop that this 17% is hardly noticeable except when it first breaks the horizon. Or so it seems.

Were you watching the night sky last night? Where? And what did you see?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Another Day, Another Coup in Africa: A Brief History of Gabon

NPR this afternoon did a brief segment on the latest coup in Africa which occurred last night. The president is deposed, the military now in control. This is the 8th "democracy" overthrown in recent years on that continent. 

I'm not sure how various spinners will spin this, but it does seem to suggest a few things. As much as we exalt Democracy (with a capital D), an honest assessment here would suggest that it's only an ideal. In the real world, it doesn't always work. 

For those unfamiliar, here is a brief history of this African nation along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, abutted by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the North and Congo to the East.

The history of Gabon begins with the arrival of the Bantu people in the region around 3,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers and farmers who lived in small villages. In the 15th century, the Portuguese arrived in Gabon and began trading with the local people. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, English, and French.

In the 19th century, Gabon became a French colony. The French ruled Gabon for over 100 years. During this time, they built roads, railways, and schools. They also introduced Christianity to the region.

In 1960, Gabon gained its independence from France. The first president of Gabon was Léon M'ba. He was autocratic and ruled the country with an iron fist. In 1967, he was overthrown in a coup d'état led by Omar Bongo. Bongo ruled Gabon for over 40 years until his death in 2009.

Since Bongo's death, Gabon has been ruled by his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba. Ali Bongo has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

Despite these challenges, Gabon has been a relatively stable country with a growing economy. It is a major producer of oil and timber. Gabon has also been a popular tourist destination, known for its beaches, rainforests, and wildlife.

* * * 

Here are some Tweets from X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

Jackson Hinkle After the coup in Gabon, revolutionaries uncovered suitcases & bags in the ousted President’s family home filled with bundles of banknotes, CFA francs, dollars and euros.‌‌.
Timothy Kalyegira When military coups took place in Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Twitter traffic in Uganda was about 4,700 or 7,560.
The Zimbabwe and Sudan coups went up to 13,000 or 14,000 tweets. By nightfall, Ugandan tweets on Gabon could get to 400,000. WHY? The dynastic similarity.

Timothy Kalyegira Those of you who have built apartment blocks, petrol stations, acquired square miles of farmland (and even built that new shopping mall in Bukedea), all in the confident belief that the present order will continue indefinitely, this Gabon coup is a wake-up call.

Jackson Hinkle Brice Oligui Nguema is the leader of the coup in Gabon who ousted the French-installed leader.

Rep. Matt Gaetz It happened again last night. Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Chad, Guinea, Niger Now Gabon. Under @SecDef Lloyd Austin’s abysmal tenure we’ve gotten 7 coups in @USAfricaCommand alone. Each overthrow connected to people trained by US Taxpayer funds. Wanna know where we can cut spending? How about we spend less training people who overthrow elected governments?

* * * 

DISCLAIMER: These tweets have not been vetted for accuracy. They do raise questions and provide a glimpse of what has been taking place across the pond. How many of these coups do you recall hearing about in the news other than the recent Niger chapter, briefly?

Related Link
Democracy's Achilles Heel: Was Madison Right?
Human Rights in Gabon I Went to Gabon for Football and Found a Massacre

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Complex Balance Between Optimism and Pessimism

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Maybe you're a hybrid who believes he or she is a realist.

While reading a long list of quotes on the theme of "Progress" I came upon this distinctive statement expressing Christopher Spranger's cynicism toward the notion:

"So much havoc has optimism wrought in this world that pessimism appears not only a legitimate way of looking at things but a moral duty."

Spranger was a German philosopher who thought a lot about pessimism and culture. He believed that blind optimism can deceive us into neglecting life's complexities and the struggles inherent in human existence. It's one of the biggest traps that politicians and voters fall into. Legislators push an idea and voters buy into it without understanding that the devil is in the details. 

This tendency toward blind optimism is so pervasive when it comes to most political projects that one wonders how our legislators can be so perpetually in the dark. 

When I first moved to Northern Minnesota there was a big push to promote the Iron Range as a tourist destination. Proponents for Iron World exclaimed that six million people a year would come visit this wonderful tribute to open pit mining. 

The funds came in abundance. The people did not. 

The problem isn't optimism, which breeds its own kind of hope. Rather, the problem is an optimism that has no foundation in reality. 

This is my problem with the EV crusade. Proponents envision a future powered by renewable energy. Fat chance, considering the way things are going now. The only way to get there will be by means of nuclear energy, but the Greens who insist we transition away from oil and coal ignore the science on this one. We are a very, very, very long ways off from an energy grid powered by renewables alone.  

Being optimistic doesn't change reality. Gamblers are frequently optimistic and feel it in their bones, but their optimism has no bearing upon the outcomes generated. 

On the other hand, portraying pessimism as an unequivocal moral duty oversimplifies these matters as well. Pessimism, while offering a cautious perspective, can sometimes lead to stagnation, a lack of innovation, and a defeatist attitude. Embracing pessimism as an absolute moral imperative may discourage necessary ventures and initiatives that drive progress. It's essential to remember that both optimism and pessimism have the potential to influence actions and shape outcomes.

No one starts a new business with the intention of ending in bankruptcy court. A tempered optimism is a fairly essential mindset for business leaders and job seekers. Even here, as former Intel chief Andy Grove asserted, Only the Paranoid Survive

Optimism, with its emphasis on hope, progress, and the potential for positive change, has indeed been associated with unintended consequences. History is replete with examples where unwavering optimism led to complacency, overlooking potential risks, and even causing harm. As such, Spranger's proposition highlights the necessity of tempering optimism with a healthy dose of critical evaluation and prudence.

Each outlook has its place, I suppose. The challenge is finding the equilibrium between them to navigate a world fraught with uncertainties.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Edysseus Perplexed, Edifice Wrekt... A Story from Out of This World

Time: Somewhere in the distant future. 

Edysseus is a Greek astronaut who has been stranded on a distant planet. 
He survives by means of foraging, primarily surviving on fruit that grows in the tropical forest near where his ship crash-landed. For the past 10 years he's been tinkering with his spacecraft's communication gear, his only basis for hope of ever finding his way home again. His spacecraft, permanently irreparable, was damaged and the crew killed in their effort to land during a sandstorm. 

One day, Edysseus is exploring a cave when he comes across a strange device. The device is a small, hardshell box with a screen on it. Edysseus touches the screen, and the device starts to speak.

"Hello," the device says. "My name is Athena. I am a goddess from ancient Greece."

Edysseus is shocked. He cannot believe that he is talking to a box.

"I'm not a box. I am a goddess."

"How is this possible?" Edysseus asks. "Are you inside this box? How can you be so small?"

"Listen, you knucklehead," Athena says. "I'm projecting my image onto the screen of the device you're holding. This isn't rocket science."

"I'm so glad I found you. I have been stranded on this planet for years, and have been trying to find a way home."

"I know, Edysseus. I have been watching over you. I'm here to help you get home."

"You know my name?"

"Of course I know your name. I am Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare. I have been helping you this whole time."

"But how? I thought you were just a myth."

"I am not a myth. I'm as real as you. And I am here to help you get home."

"How can you do that? I mean," and Edysseus carefully pondered before making his next statement. "I'm just a fictional character in a story."

"Posh. You humans are always so full of self-doubt and insecurity. It's a wonder you accomplish anything," Athena said squinting. "Let's focus on one thing at a time and get you on your way. You must first complete a quest for me."

"What kind of quest?"

"You must find and bring back the Golden Fleece. It's a magical object that can grant wishes. Once you have found it, I'll help you get home."

Edysseus concealed his anxiety, knowing that the quest will likely involve some serious risks. 

Edysseus suddenly has flashbacks of scenes from The Wizard of Oz, especially the flying monkeys scene and that nasty, Wicked Witch of the West. Finally he agrees to submit to whatever she asks. "Turn around," Athena commands in a soothing but authoritative voice. Hovering there before him is a magic sword along with a map to the location of the Fleece. Edysseus firmly grasps the sword, which he swings in a gliding arc that seems to fill him with power. With his left hand he takes the map and studies it carefully.

In the exchange that follows, Athena outlines the obstacles he must overcome, only a few of them real life-and-death concerns. "I should mention that if you do succeed with this task and return to your own people, they will quickly throw you in jail on a variety of pretexts. You're a man who has seen too much."

Edysseus mumbles something inaudible.

"Here's the good part," Athena said. "While imprisoned you will share a cell with a writer. The writer will listen to your tales and record them in a book that is destined to become a 'must have' bestseller. No one will read the book because the time has come when people prefer listening to podcasts, or watching them. Nevertheless, podcasters won't be able to stop commenting on it because the human hive will be buzzing about it for a very long time and the residual income from a lifetime of sales will produce for you the illusion of security."

"And how do you know all this?"

"I told you, I am the goddess Athena. I have been to the Oracle for you. Do you wish to hear the rest?"

"Actually,  I'm not too fond of that part about the illusion of security. I think I'd rather play the rest by ear," Edysseus says as he sets off on his journey. You can read the details of that journey in the yet to be published stories of his life. Eventually he finds the Golden Fleece and brings it back to the cave where he first encountered Athena.

"You did wonderful, Edysseus," Athena exclaims as a hologram of herself emerges from the box to receive the Fleece. 

Edysseus lays the object across her shoulders like a mantle. In turn, Athena lifts her hand and with a wave transports him back to Earth where he is temporarily reunited with his family and friends. 

He's shocked at how grown up his children are, and even more shocked at how quickly the authorities arrive to carry him off to prison. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Five Pictures of a Teacher and Why Teachers Still Matter in the Age of AI

Last night while painting in my studio, I did a little touch up--made the orange more vibrant--on one of my pieces from ten years ago, acrylic on canvas paper. I called it The Teacher

I proceeded to photograph it, then fed it digitally into an AI art program. By varying the prompts, I ended up with some very different images. Here are the ones I didn't discard, plus a few quotes about teaching, to inspire those considering this profession.
Let's start with this quote by C.S. Lewis: "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts."

"A teacher's job is to take a bunch of live wires
and see that they are well-grounded."
--D.D. Martin

"Students don't care how much you know
until they know how much you care."
--John C. Maxwell

"The best teachers are those who show you
where to look 
but don’t tell you what to see."
--Alexandra K. Trenfor

"Education is our passport to the future,
for tomorrow belongs to the people
who prepare for it today."
--Malcolm X

Here's the current status of the original:

Picture of the Day:
The Teacher

The AI compositions here are hybrids comprised of
my painting, a prompt and Dream by WOMBO

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Right Here and Now: Navigating Life's Burdens with Wisdom

"Each of us has a burden to carry in the heat of the day."
--Robert Lookup

I have been on somewhat of a cleaning binge lately. Yesterday, while shuffling through some notebooks, I found the quote above about burdens. It made me think of a Rumi quote, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

No, actually, I thought of the Rumi quote because I thought it ended with "carrying a heavy burden." Turns out that was wrong.

What's funny, though, is how it was not Rumi who originated this quote many attribute to Rumi. A fellow named John Watson is cited as the source, until you dig deeper and see that Plato made the same statement 2500 years ago. 

Here are five quotes about Burdens that I thought were insightful:

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
--Dr. Martin Luther King

People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.
--George Bernard Shaw

I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.
--Phillips Brooks

None knows the weight of another's burden.
--George Herbert

Remember, the burden of sorrow is doubled when it is borne alone.
--Goran Persson

* * * 

For what it's worth, here's one more quote that came to mind after reading all these others. Matthew 11:28-30

    [28] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
    [29] Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
    [30] For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Friday, August 25, 2023

How Much Do You Know About Antarctica?

Most of us know that it's cold in Antarctica, but have you ever thought about why it's so cold? Until today I always assumed it was because of the tilt of the earth on its axis. Although that's partially so, there are a number of additional reasons it's the coldest place on earth. And it's intriguing how logical it all is.

Here are a few of the noteworthy features of this massive continent. In addition to being the coldest place on Earth, it is also the driest and windiest continent on Earth. The average temperature in Antarctica is -56.7°C (-69.9°F), and the coldest temperature ever recorded was -89.2°C (-128.6°F). That's pretty cold.

Most people familiar with stories about Antarctica know that there's a lot of ice there. How much ice? The Antarctic ice sheet contains 90 percent of all the world's ice and 70 percent of all the world's freshwater. 

I never gave much thought to how thick that ice was. At its thickest point the ice sheet is three miles thick. On average, this continent-sized ice sheet--5.5 million square miles of it--is more than a mile thick, and it sits atop of what is already a mountainous altitude. 

Why Is Antarctica So Cold?

We already mentioned the tilt of the Earth's axis. What this means is that in summer, the South Pole receives 24 hours of sunlight, but in the winter, it receives no sunlight at all. This lack of sunlight means that the ground doesn't warm up, and the air above stays cold. (How can it warm up anyways if it is under a mountain of ice?)

The high altitude of Antarctica surprised me. Antarctica is the highest continent on Earth, with an average elevation of 2,835 meters (9,301 feet). The higher the altitude, the colder the air becomes, which is why you can see snow-capped mountains year 'round in the Rockies.

Another feature also keeps it from warming up. The ice and snow there reflects the sunlight back into space, which prevents it from warming the ground. 

Finally, the winds in Antarctica are very strong and they can blow for days or even weeks at a time. These winds can carry away heat, which helps to keep the continent cold.

In spite of all this desolation, there are a few places in Antarctica where the temperature can get relatively warm. The warmest place in Antarctica is McMurdo Station, which has an average temperature of -17.2°C (1.2°F). That surprised me. I think I could actually handle that quite alright. McMurdo Station is located on the coast of Antarctica, where the ocean helps to moderate the temps.

Anyways, I was thinking about Antarctica this morning. Too bad they can't figure out a way to transport all that ice and cold to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona for part of the year. 

What's the most surprising thing to you about Antarctica?

Related Links

A number of years ago I wrote a poem called Hitchhiking Across Antarctica in which I imagined what extreme loneliness would feel like.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Remembering That Trailblazing Firecracker Katharine Hepburn

Grave foto by Gary Firstenberg.
American actress Katharine Hepburn had a long and successful career in film and theater. Known for her intelligence, wit, and unconventional style, Hepburn won four Academy Awards, more than any other actress in history. She was also nominated for 12 other Oscars, and won numerous other awards, including four Golden Globes and a Tony.

This week Nevada Bob Gordon and his photographer Gary Firstenberg were in New England. One of their stops was the gravesite of Ms. Hepburn who was born in 1907 and lived into the 21st century, passing in late June 2003. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette. 

Cate Blanchett played Ms. Hepburn in The Aviator, the DeCaprio film about Howard Hughes. You got a glimpse of the real Hepburn as well as the soil from which she spring.

A tomboy growing up, Hepburn loved sports and outdoor activities. She also loved to read and write.

She made her Broadway debut in 1928 when she was 21, and her film debut in 1932. She quickly became one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood, starring in some of the most iconic films of the 20th century, including "Morning Glory" (1933), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "The African Queen" (1951) and "On Golden Pond" (1981). (My dad very much disliked all the swearing in that last one.)

Hepburn was an independent spirit who was not afraid to speak her mind, often challenging the status quo. She was also a lifelong feminist and used her platform to advocate for women's rights.

Hepburn retired from acting in 1994, died in 2003 at the age of 96. She's remembered as one of the great actresses of all time. 

Here are seven quotes for today's take-away.

If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.

What in the world would we do without our libraries?

If you need a helping hand, you can find one at the end of your arm.

Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.

Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.

You politicians remain professional because the voters remain amateur.

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