Monday, December 31, 2007

A Look Back at 2007

This year has held its share of accomplishments and surprises. Elly took over as the manager of the Nelson Atkins Museum Store last December, so this marks her first full year in charge. She oversaw the transformation of the original store off Kirkwood Hall to the much larger space in the new Bloch wing of the museum. Thanks to her skill and hard work, and that of her team, the new store is a triumphant success.

I completed the construction of my 22-Inch Dobsonian telescope, which was started in 2005. Building my own telescope has been a dream of mine for years and the result has turned out even better than I had hoped. It is a life-time achievement and will provide many years of enjoyment under the night sky.

Not all the news this year was good. At the beginning of July our beloved dog, Samba, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an incurable and highly aggressive bone cancer that is all too common in large dog breeds. We were devastated. Many dogs with the condition survive for only a few months.

The tumor was on Samba’s left front leg, just above the pastern. We took him to the Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Clinic in Overland Park, Kansas. The doctors advised against a common treatment approach (leg amputation followed by chemotherapy) and recommended instead radiation therapy combined with monthly intravenous pamidronate injections. The results have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Samba has not limped since his first radiation treatment, so far the cancer does not appear to have spread, the original tumor has shrunk and significant bone remodeling has occurred(reducing fears that his leg might break). He is comfortable and happy, romping about having the time of his life. Every additional moment we spend with him is a blessing.

On a happier note, I took up watercolor painting this year, something I have wanted to do for ages. My friendship with Dahl Metters, a work colleague and mentor, has grown considerably. I have made new friends online, especially since starting my blogger site. Among these is Diana Sudyka, a Chicago illustrator and poster artist who volunteers as a bird preparater at the Chicago Field Museum, and whose beautiful bird paintings can be viewed on her blog, The Tiny Avery.

Benazir Bhutto

Like so many others around the world, I was shocked and saddened to learn of Benazir Bhutto’s senseless murder on December 27. Such horrible deeds cause one to dispair for the human race. While exploring Cathy Johnson’s website, I chanced to visit the blog of another artist Cathy praised — Laurelines Drawings and Paintings — and found this beautiful and moving watercolor portrait, made on the day of Bhutto’s assasination as a tribute to her memory.

Discovering Cathy Johnson

Elly told me yesterday that John Hamann, the Nelson Atkins Museum Store’s wonderful book buyer, has added some more watercolor books to their inventory and she thought one would be of particular interest to me. And she was right, of course. I fell in love with Cathy Johnson's Creating Nature in Watercolor: An Artist’s Guide the moment I opened it. I was even more charmed to find one of the demonstration exercises is a painting of the river overlook at Weston Bend State Park, which is just north of Kansas City and a park Elly and I frequently visit. It turns out Cathy lives in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, which is not far from Kansas City. Cathy has a wonderful website, a link to which I have added to my Flora and Fauna list.

I took up watercolor painting this year and have checked out some books from the library, and purchased a few others. It dawned on me I have one of Cathy’s books checked out, Painting Watercolors, a North Light Books First Step Series title, and I also own The Sierra Club Guide to Painting in Nature, which is another of her books. She also offers online classes, which is something I plan to look into. Cathy has a fresh and frank approach to art instruction that is friendly and easy-to-understand. She has published many books. I was thrilled to learn she is a fellow Missourian.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Owen Flanagan on Quietism

“The failure of the arguments that there is a God warrants quietism. ...When we try to speak of God, we attempt to go outside the world, to transcend the concepts that are required for us to have coherent thoughts. ...The quietism I am recommending involves resisting the question, saying that I cannot speak on the issue (nor can you, despite your willingness to do so) because we have reached the limits of language. I am being asked to speak about matters on which I cannot coherently or sensibly entertain thoughts. ...The quietist thinks that there is nothing worth saying, nothing sensible to be said, either about any conceivable positive characterization of God or about the denial of any characterization. Some people will see this quietist as tantamount to an atheist, and that may be a reasonable way to understand her. But she is not an atheist who disbelieves a certain conception of God. She sees no basis to coherently believe to be true or false any claim for any God.” (pp 207-208, The Problem of the Soul)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Atheist Shock-Jock

The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. Though I hold a naturalistic world view, do not share the beliefs of any organized religion, and have been a long-time fan and admirer of Richard Dawkins’s science writing, I was surprised and disappointed with his book on atheism, The God Delusion. It is an ill-conceived and poorly researched polemic against religion, primarily Christianity, that does no credit to Richard Dawkins or atheism in general. Instead, the book showcases an accomplished science writer lowering himself to the level of a TV “shock-jock,” exhibiting the same lack of concern for accuracy, and the same simplistic, narrow-minded orientation.

The McGraths offer a much-needed response in this succinct and intelligent book, which I noticed in the New Books section of the Kansas City Public Library a few weekends ago. At 118 pages, including end notes, annotated bibliography, and author profiles, it is not a lengthy reading project. In their introduction the authors explain they do not intend a point-by-point rebuttal of all the inaccuracies, misstatements, and mistakes in The God Delusion, which would be tedious indeed given the long list of blunders it contains. Their approach, instead, is to challenge Dawkins “at representative points and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgment.” (p 13)

Their challenges are presented in four chapters, “Deluded About God?,” which critiques the distorted characterization of contemporary religious belief Dawkins presents; “Has Science Disproved God?” which explores scientism (a worldview insisting only scientific investigation can provide reliable knowledge) and takes exception with Dawkins’s argument that the vast majority of scientists are atheists; “What are the Origins of Religion” highlights gross mischaracterizations by Dawkins about research on the historical origins of religion and also demonstrates Dawkins’s conclusions about it have no evidentiary basis and are, in fact, nothing more than uninformed speculation; and “Is Religion Evil?,” which provides a balanced view of the healthy and unhealthy aspects of religious belief, as well as other sociological processes that can also lead to violence.

These chapters are not constructed as comprehensive arguments, but provide general overviews of the topics covered and direct readers to more detailed resources for further reading and evaluation. Alister McGrath, the principal author, has a tendency to repetition with increasingly emphatic statements. One rather imagines him typing away at the word processor, becoming more and more heated by some particularly irksome inanity in Dawkins’s book, pounding the keyboard with more and more force, until Joanna pokes her head into the study with a mildly admonishing “Alister, perhaps it’s time for some tea?”

One passage I found telling occurs in the chapter on the origins of religion. The authors discuss cognitive biases which “predispose us to fail to notice or to discount data that are inconsistent with our view. On the whole we do this because it is efficient — it takes effort and is upsetting to have to change one’s mind — even if change is in a positive direction.” The God Delusion is then presented as an example of such bias. “Without full awareness that he is doing so, Dawkins foregrounds evidence that fits his own views and discounts or distorts evidence that does not.” (p 62)

This struck me because I have had difficulty accounting for how an experienced science writer with a reputation for accuracy could distort and misrepresent so many reference sources. While reading the book, I began obtaining some of Dawkins’s references and found that he frequently does misrepresent them. Just one salient example is Max Jammer’s Einstein and Religion, which Dawkins uses to support a statement that Einstein was “repeatedly indignant” about being described as a theist; that is, one who believes in God (Dawkins, p 18). Jammer’s book demonstrates exactly the opposite: Einstein was repeatedly indignant about being described as an atheist. “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” (Jammer, p 97)

Such problems, and this is only one of many examples, demonstrate that Dawkins’s position regarding atheism is so strongly biased he cannot be objective about the evidence. He can’t even read references accurately.

Einstein’s phrase, the “harmony of the cosmos,” recalls another passage from The Dawkins Delusion, which sites an argument for the existence of God, as phrased by Richard Swinburne, “that the intelligibility of the universe itself requires an explanation.” In other words, what can account for the natural order of the cosmos which science has been so effective at discovering? Answers to this question seem clearly beyond the realm of science. Is faith not a legitimate response? Earlier in their book, the McGraths observe that much of the available evidence supports both atheistic and theistic interpretations. Fundamentalists on either side of the argument deny this, but the observation should give pause for thought to readers with more moderate views.


Sightings: Extraordinay Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen. Keen offers his take on naturalistic spirituality in a series of short essays, many of which center on the author’s experiences as a birdwatcher. More than a few of these present what sounds like a romanticized version of his childhood, as, for instance, when he describes his first sighting of an Indigo Bunting (at the age of 10) as effortlessly slipping “into a state of grace in which I felt honored by a magical being...”. Some of the personal revelations also seem unnecessarily confessional.

In one essay he makes the somewhat bizarre assertion that his DNA has been around since the Big Bang (p 53), indicating a decided lack of familiarity with astrophysics and genetics. He subsequently states he does not understand much about the Big Bang (p 80), which, unfortunately, does not prevent him from indulging in loopy speculation about it.

The theme of the book, experiencing the sacred through rapport with the natural world, is appealing, but the author fails to convey the essence of such experiences and his thinking is often muddled and confused. Despite these problems, the ideas he tries (somewhat ineptly) to explore are worth the attention of those interested in naturalism. Personally, I found myself in strong agreement with some of his arguments and enjoyed the book despite its flaws. My favorite among his essays, “Dwelling Among Familiars,” concerns a flock of wild turkeys that congregated around his house one year.

Mary Woodin’s lovely watercolor illustrations compensate to a certain extent for the shortcomings of the text. The book itself is beautifully designed, as Chronicle books tend to be.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Birds Today

We had ice and snow yesterday, but today dawned sunny and clear. Our home is in an urban, residential area, an older neighborhood that thankfully is near several parks and some bluffs which cannot be developed and are overgrown with trees and shrubbery — ideal habitat for birds. When winter weather strikes, birds like white-throated sparrows, which rarely venture away from the wooded areas, visit our backyard feeders.

This morning I surprised a Northern Mockingbird (above) when I stepped out on the front porch to check our rosemary bush to see if some of the sprigs are still good for cooking. It is next to our porch steps, with a southwest exposure. We have been surprised to find it generally lasts the whole winter. Rosemary is a very hardy plant, I guess.

The mockingbird was sunning itself in the hedge in front of our porch, which faces south. The stone facade collects heat from the sun. Many birds like the spot.

I took some fun pictures of this goldfinch and downy woodpecker on our feeding station in the afternoon sunlight. I saw the goldfinch in the morning, but the feeder was strongly backlit, not good for pictures. It often happens that birds which show up in the morning come back for more in the afternoon when the lighting is better for pictures. The downy is a male, indicated by the red marking on the back of its head. He is a regular visitor, seen often every day. It has been some time since we’ve seen a female downy, but one showed up a few days ago. The goldfinch may be a male or female. The winter coloring of the males is similar to that of the females, but in the spring the males turn brilliant yellow with jet black markings on their foreheads.

Here is a closeup of the goldfinch.

The male downy left and the female showed up on our peanut feeder, but had only been on it for a few moments when a starling zoomed in. This picture was taken the instant before the starling landed. Pretty funny.

The downy decided it was too crowded on the peanut feeder and joined the goldfinch on the sunflower chip feeder. In warmer weather, goldfinches confine their attentions to our niger feeder, which is just to the right of the super starling shot above. The feeder is constructed so only smaller birds can get the seed. In the winter, though, goldfinches switch over to sunflower chips, I guess because they need the energy boost. We have noticed that when grackles show up in late April (they mostly go south in the winter), the goldfinches immediately abandon the feeders and are not to be seen in our yard again until the grackles head south in the late fall. We have found a number of young sparrows killed by grackles. Their aggressiveness is undoubtedly the reason goldfinches (which are smaller than sparrows) avoid them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Great Invention of the West

“The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the ‘immanent’ involved denying — or at least isolating and problematizing — any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and ‘the supernatural’ on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever.” (p 15)

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Galileo's Glassworks

Elly brought home Galileo’s Glassworks by Eileen Reeves this evening, a gift to me from John Haymon, the book buyer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum Store. John has a rare skill for selecting wonderful books, which is evident after perusing the book selection at the store for only a few moments. I was pleased and charmed by his gesture.

Eileen Reeves is Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Her book concerns the period between the invention of the telescope, in the Hague in 1608, and Galileo’s acquaintance with the instrument ten months later. Reeves “explores how and why information about the telescope was transmitted, suppressed, or misconstrued...and, more generally, shows how documents typically outside the scope [pun intended?] of early modern natural philosophy — medieval romances, travel literature, and idle speculations — relate to two crucial events in the history of science.” Sounds like fun!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Emerson’s Science-Baffling Star

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all tings find their common origin. For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we now not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed.

Emerson’s use of this lovely metaphor, his “science-baffling star,” to portray the divine element which he believes all people possess and which can manifest itself if only we will trust our inner nature, occurs in his essay “Self-Reliance,” which was published in a collection titled Essays: First Series in 1841. The essays are based on lectures given by Emerson during the preceding years.

Although one can enjoy and appreciate this passage purely in its own context, it is fun to know the star Emerson most likely had in mind can be observed on summer and fall evenings from northern latitudes.

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessell, a German astronomer, announced in 1838 that he had succeeded in measuring the stellar parallax of 61 Cygni using an extremely precise Fraunhofer 16-centimeter heliometer. Bessell was able to determine the distance, 11.4 light years, through mathematical computations on his parallax determination of 2/3s of an arc-second. 61 Cygni thus became the first star whose distance was accurately measured, a task that baffled scientists for centuries.

Parallax can be understood quite simply by holding one’s finger at arm’s length and sighting along it at the background while keeping one eye closed. After the initial sighting, open your second eye and close the first. Your finger will appear to have moved in relation to the background. This occurs because the distance between your eyes forms a triangle with its apex at your finger tip. Using math, the length of your arm can be determined by knowing the precise distance between your eyes (the triangle’s baseline) and measuring the apparent shift of your finger against the background, which establishes the angle of the triangle’s apex (your finger’s parallax). Of course, one’s arm can easily and more simply be measured by other means. The distance to a star cannot.

In the wake of Copernicus and Kepler, astronomers realized they could establish an enormous baseline, the width of the Earth’s orbit, by taking measurements six months appart of a star in relation to background stars. In fact, early arguments in favor of a geocentric solar system (i.e. the Earth being the center of the universe), included the point that stellar parallax had not been detected. If the Earth truly moved, it should be found. What the geocentric proponents did not count on was the vast distance of the stars, which makes the apparent shift of even the closest stars quite tiny indeed.

By Bessell’s day the heliocentric solar system had long since been established and the orbital elements of the planets had actually been worked out so the size of the Earth’s orbit was known. Still, one had to choose an appropriate star to measure. This was done using another form of stellar motion known as “proper” motion. Some stars, being closer to our own solar system than others, are seen to move over time in relation to more distant stars. That is, the motion would not be cyclic during the course of one year (resulting from Earth’s motion) but would actually be due to the motion of the star itself. The stars with the highest proper motion could be assumed to be the closest to us and the most likely to exhibit stellar parallax. 61 Cygni had the highest proper motion of any star known at that time — 5 arc-seconds annually — and was therefore of considerable interest to astronomers.

Successfully measuring its parallax, the equivallent of measuring the size of a small coin at several miles, was a major feat of technical innovation and design.

61 Cygni, can be found in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, whose primary asterism is commonly described as the “Northern Cross.” It is actually a double star consisting of two k spectrum red dwarfs which can be separated with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. They present a beautiful chrome orange color in telescopes, and are of interest not only because of their historical significance but because they are the coolest and least luminous dwarf stars visible to the naked eye (from a dark sky site). They can be readily observed with a small telescope from urban areas despite light pollution.

For more on 61 Cygni, see James B. Kaler’s The Hundred Greatest Stars. 61 Cygni is entry 87. Alan W. Hirshfeld’s book, Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos, tells the tale of the quest to find the distance of the stars.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Winter Evening Reading

Elly and I have spent our evenings reading for the past three nights, which has been relaxing and enjoyable. Kansas City was due for a major ice storm, but we got just enough to coat the trees and make a winter spectacle. The roads never iced over, thankfully, and much of the storm went around the metropolitan area. Unfortunately, Elly had a stomache flu Monday, which caused more than a little discomfort. She was still fighting the flu Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, but was not as sick as on the first night.

She read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, finishing it on Wednesday. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read in recent years. Harry Potter for adults is the inevitable comment, though it doesn't do justice to Susanna Clarke's magical prose or her skill as a storyteller. I'm not one of those who disparages J. K. Rowling's Potter series, which is fun, but not in Clarke's league.

I have been reading an eclectic selection of authors, including Emerson (more on him in another post), selections from Thoreau's journal, ( I to Myself edited by Stephen Cramer), Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (see previous post), some Martin Gardner essays, a chapter or two from The Lord of The Rings, which I dip into regularly, and John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, which I find interesting but not as engaging as some readers have reported. I have also read three of Washington Irving's Christmas sketches, "Chistmas Eve," "Christmas Day," and "Christmas Dinner," each of which I found charming and enjoyable. I have to say that charm is a quality conspicuously lacking from Emerson. Irving provides a welcome and cheerful relief. Here is an excerpt from "Christmas Dinner" dinner, which harks to the traditional Christmas ghost story.

I am half inclined to think that the old gentleman was himself somewhat tinctured with superstition, as men are very apt to be who live a recluse and studious life in a sequestered part of the country, and pore over black-letter tracts, so often filled with the marvellous and supernatural. He gave us several anecdotes of the fancies of the neighbouring peasantry, concerning the effigy of the crusader which lay on the tomb by the church altar. As it was the only monument of the kind in that part of the country, it had always been regarded with feelings of superstition by the good wives of the village. It was said to get up from the tomb and walk the rounds of the churchyard in stormy nights, particularly when it thundered; and one old woman, whose cottage bordered on the churchyard, had seen it, through the windows of the church, when the moon shone, slowly pacing up and down the aisles. It was the belief that some wrong had been left unredressed by the deceased, or some treasure hidden, which kept the spirit in a state of trouble and restlessness. Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch; and there was a story current of a sexton in old times who endeavoured to break his way to the coffin at night; but just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretched him senseless on the pavement. These tales were often laughed at by some of the sturdier among the rustics, yet when night came on, there were many of the stoutest unbelievers that were shy of venturing alone in the footpath that led across the churchyard.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting by Hugh Brewster, mysteriously found its way into my shopping bag on Saturday (along with a few other books) as I was Christmas shopping for the nieces and nephews at the Nelons-Atkins Museum Store. It tells a charming tale about John Singer Sargent and the creation of this famous painting, now in the Tate Gallery in London. The narrator is five-year-old Kate (Katharine) Millet, a young girl who was originally to be a model for Sargent but was replaced by Polly and Dolly Barnard, whereupon she makes a little song: "I hate Polly, and I hate Dolly. Now they're here I'm not very jolly..." Kate is soon reconciled with her friends, though, and Sargent eventually paints a portrait of her.

Brewster's book is wonderful for both children and adults, combining Kate's observations with period photographs, art work, and other details related to the story, along with interesting background information about the artists who gathered at the village of Broadway, Worcestershire in the mid-1880s, including Edwin Austen Abbey, Alfred Parsons, Francis Davis Millet (Kate's father), Frederick Barnard, and the American novelist Henry James.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Column Envy

I had column envy after visiting cool blogs with three columns instead of two, like dovegreyreader, so I googled some help for adding a column to the Blogger minima template and found this article on Tips-For-New-Bloggers. Worked like a charm.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mrs. Mabb

“Majestic trees of great age and height stood about a great expanse of velvety green lawn. The trees had all been clipped into smooth rounded shapes, each one taller than Kissingland church tower, each one a separate mystery, and each one provided by the evening sun with a long shadow as mysterious as itself. Far, far above, a tiny moon hung in the blue sky like its own insubstantial ghost.”

from “Mrs. Mabb,” The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

Monday, December 3, 2007

An Owl

Going out front yesterday evening to snip some rosemary for a chicken I was roasting (my first whole roasted chicken :-) ), it had already grown quite dark, and as I started snipping off sprigs, I heard an owl softly hooting. I looked at all the nearby trees where it might have been perched, but couldn’t spot it. I went back inside for my binoculars, and heard it again when I came back out, but still couldn’t see it. It was making a who hooting call, something I haven’t heard barred owls do. Mark McK said that great horned owls make a soft call like that. I have seen great horned owls before, but they are usually silent. And I would have thought an owl that big would be easy to spot.

The chicken turned out well. I was following an Alice Waters recipe for roasted chicken, which called for an hour in a 400 degree oven with three turns — breast up, breast down, breast up. I had read through quite a bit of direction in our Cook’s Illustrated New Best Recipe guide, which said the approach recommended by Waters (they did not reference her directly, just the temperature she specified) would result in the outer 1 inch of breast meat being overcooked. And, they were right. It was still good, but I plan to follow the Cook’s Illustrated approach for my next chicken.

This is neither an owl nor a chicken, but my next door neighbor Joan wearing a festive hat. I took the picture yesterday when Joan and Diane were putting up Christmas decorations in their yard.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Devour Pinot Noir 2005

The accompanying image of this inaptly named pinot indicates what Elly and I did not do with the bottle — devour it. This 2005 Napa Valley Carneros district pinot looks (and unfortunately tastes!) for all the world like water tinted with a slight amount of red food coloring. Not recommended.

What’s with the FCD?

FCD stands for Friend of Charles Darwin. Not just anyone can claim these initials! To find out more, visit the Friends of Charles Darwin website. But now I have a problem. How exactly should the FCD be printed? All capital letters? All lowercase? Should each letter be followed by periods? We have so little experience with this sort of thing in the states...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Is This Dangerous Reading?

I’ve been surfing around looking for cool blogs on reading and have found a few, most notably Eloise by the Books Piles, which is absolutely charming and first-rate. A “must see” for readers. Eloise led me to Ex Libris, which led in turn to Estellas Revenge: A ‘zine about books and the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge.

The challenge is to read one intimidating or dangerous book per month during 2008, and the Estella article linked above includes a list of 12 official titles, but also encourages readers who want to develop their own list to do so.

Like I needed encouragement to go my own way? :-)

I decided to pick 12 books already in our house. This isn’t the limiting factor some might suppose — we have literally thousands of titles begging to be read. In fact, whenever I start doing housework, straightening things up, putting books away, etc., it is hard not to notice some interesting book which has languished on a shelf for years, pick it up for a quick perusal, and let an hour slip by before I feel the eyes of Elly on the back of my neck and hear an amused (and mildly chagrined) comment along the lines of “So this is where you have gotten off to.” Last Sunday, for example, I was lead astray by The Letters of E.B. White. (What self-respecting reader could resist such temptation?)

Anyway, here is my list of 12. These aren’t necessarily dangerous — as long as I’m not reading them when I should be doing chores — they are just books I have meant to read, or reread, and have actually acquired copies of through the years, but have somehow not made time for them. Also, while novels predominate, several works of nonfiction are included, not necessarily with any rhyme or reason but simply because when I wandered through the house picking out titles they caught my eye.

January: Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott.
February: The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser.
March: Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes.
April: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
May: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin.
June: Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
July: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
August: Boswell's Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
September: Middlemarch by George Eliot.
October: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollop.
November: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James.
December: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

And now Samba has arrived to remind me it is well past his dinner time...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reading Emerson

I have been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson after noticing a small hardback edition that combined excerpts from his book Nature and his essay "Self-Reliance" at Borders a few weeks ago. I was looking for, of all things, a tree identification guide: such is the serendipitous value of shopping at a bookstore. As it happens, I did not purchase the volume, wanting the entire text of Nature and his other writings as well.

Here is the first paragraph from Emerson's introduction to Nature, the bit that captured my attention at Borders:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

I checked out from the library several editions of Emerson's writings, and found the most enjoyable to read for me is the 1992 Modern Library cloth edition titled The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I compared it with the Library of America edition, which comes in two books. After perusing both for a few evenings I found myself preferring the quality of type and paper in the Modern Library edition and set the other aside.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

As Elly and I were watching birds at our feeders this morning, a hawk swooped over the backyard fence and down on a starling. Birds started scattering as soon as the hawk appeared, but it was moving too fast for them all to escape. The back fence is maybe 30 feet from the feeding station. I actually saw what I think was the same bird yesterday morning, making a similar maneuver. It came swooping down and then flew back up over our roof chasing a sparrow. I only saw it for a moment yesterday.

We identified it as a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Sibley describes it as “Our smallest accipiter; relatively small-headed, small-billed, and broad-winged.” It also states the sharp-shinned hawk, along with the other accipiters (Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk) are agile in pursuing small birds through trees and bushes. We decided on the identification both because of the bird’s relatively small size, and the broad, coarse brown streaks on its breast. Juvenile Cooper's and Goshawks have darker, thinner streaks, and are much larger.

The starling tried to fly sideways when the hawk snagged it, but was forced down to the ground about eight feet from the feeding station. The hawk spread its wings, both I think to maintain its balance as the starling was frantically flopping about and also to corral its prey and prevent it from escaping in case it lost its grip on the bird (which didn't happen). This isn’t a great shot, but is the only one I got showing the hawk with its wings spread out.

It was using its talons to puncture the starling’s chest and almost immediately started ripping feathers out of the bird’s tail. Neither Elly nor I are starling fans, being well aware of the devastating effect they have had on native songbird species since being introduced to North America from Europe. Still, it was upsetting to watch the bird struggle as the hawk ripped out feathers. Within a few minutes, however, it started ripping at the starling’s neck, pulling its head off, which put an end to the struggling.

At first, it tried to fly off with the starling, even before it had subdued the bird, but after one experimental takeoff attempt it gave up on that and went to work dispatching its prey, pulling out feathers, removing the head, and pulling off both wings. We thought it intended to eat the starling where it landed, but eventually realized it was removing all the extremities so the carcass would be easier to carry off. I was able to take over 160 digital images. Unfortunately, due to the angle from our kitchen door, one of the columns on our back porch was close to our line of sight and interfered with picture taking. Any attempt to go outside would have frightened the hawk away, so we kept watch from the kitchen.

Amazingly, this squirrel showed no fear of the hawk and seemed more curious about what it had than anything else. Squirrels have a tendency to rush birds feeding on the ground to flush them into the air and claim peanuts and the like for themselves. The squirrel didn’t try this with the hawk, but did come within a few feet of the bird’s watchful glare.

After about 45 minutes of pulling and tearing it finally carved the carcass down to a manageable bundle and flew off.

The aftermath was a two foot circle of feathers and small bits.

Mute testimony to the violent and cruel struggle in our backyard on a seemingly peaceful Saturday morning. The other birds soon returned and continued foraging.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007

For the first time in the 23 years, Elly and I decided to spend Thanksgiving together at home instead of attending or hosting a big family event. We have hosted many Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers for my brothers and sister living in Kansas City and their children since we moved into our midtown home in 1988. And when we haven't hosted the event, we have traveled to Colorado to spend Thanksgiving with Elly's parents.

With only ourselves to plan for, the day was relaxed, fun, and stress-free. Well, mostly stress-free. Elly has a fondness for trying new recipes at Thanksgiving, despite my encouragement to stick with the tried-and-true. All of the experimental dishes turned out well, however, giving only a few anxious moments.

One thing we never mess with is pumpkin pie. The secret to a great pie is to follow the recipe on the Libby’s can. (And use Pillsbury pie crusts!)

Given that we were cooking only for ourselves (and Samba), Elly limited the menu to ten dishes. These included an arugula salad with sliced pears, roasted grapes, and a roasted shallot dressing; a three-mushroom stuffing made with rosemary olive-oil bread; a sweet potato gratin on a base of carmelized onions; home-made cranberry sauce; white-cheddar mashed potatoes; turkey and cognac gravy (Elly, being a vegetarian, doesn’t partake of these two items, but Samba and I make up for that); deviled eggs (de rigueur for holiday events); brussel sprouts with an old-fashioned mustard butter sauce; some broccoli dish with pecorino romano cheese I can’t recall the details of at the moment; and, of course, pumpkin pie

Naturally, we had half a dozen issues of Fine Cooking and Gourmet magazine available for frequent reference while we were cooking, not to mention an extensive library of cookbooks. One nice change from previous years, since we were not concerned about dining in the early afternoon, was that Elly didn’t have to get up at three in the morning to start cooking.

We spent our day in the kitchen, which had been our plan, cooking, listening to Christmas music, and watching the many birds that visited our feeders. We saw most of the birds that regularly visit including dark-eyed juncos (the first to arrive), a beautiful pair of cardinals, blue jays (after peanuts), a young crow who has recently started visiting (our first), mourning doves (zillions), cow birds, starlings, a red-winged blackbird, downey woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, a light colored house finch, and a gold finch.

Another pleasant change from Thanksgiving pasts is that Samba was able to spend the day with us instead of locked in his kennel upstairs. (Samba is not fond of children.)

Here are the roasted grapes. The foil pouch holds one of the shallots for the dressing. Roasting grapes takes a surprisingly long time.

I tried making cranberry sauce for the first time last year, following a recipe from the November 2005 issue of Fine Cooking. It is simple to make and delicious — much better than the canned stuff. You combine 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, half a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice, a cup of sugar, and two teaspoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary. Bring this mixture to a boil, then simmer for ten minutes. Take it off the heat, mix in a half teaspoon of grated orange zest, and the dish is finished. (My kind of cooking.)

Here is Elly layering sweet potatos over the carmelized onions for the gratin.

Here are the mushrooms and various goodies for the dressing.

Elly is adding the mushroom mixture to the rosemary olive oil bread.

Samba volunteering his taste-testing services...

And here is the guest of honor, at least from my and Samba’s point of view. It’s an 11 pound organic Diestel turkey.

I brined the turkey for four hours in a concentrated salt-water mixture Wednesday evening and then let it air-dry in the refrigerator overnight. This is a Cooks Illustrated recommendation for a crisper crust. I’m not sure I’ll do that again. Brining makes a huge difference, though. I never roast a turkey without brining it first. I also followed the Cooks Illustrated suggestion to rotate the turkey during cooking: you need a wire rack to do that. Next time I will leave the bird breast down for at least an hour, then flip it breast up, and skip the steps of having one side and then the other up. I’m also not convinced the 400 degree oven is the best approach. I’m going to switch back to cooking longer in a 325 degree oven next time. Still, the turkey was excellent, tender and juicy. I cook to an internal breast temperature of 165 and a thigh temp of 170.

I’m deglazing the roasting pan here with a mixture of dry vermouth, cognac, and turkey broth.

This is the base for the cognac gravy. After this simmers long enough to absorb the turkey drippings and flavoring from the onions, carrots, and celery (roasted with the bird), it is strained and then combined with heavy cream and flour and brought to a simmer in a heavy sauce pot (nothing lo-cal here!).

And here is the reward for our day in the kitchen – a splendid Thanksgiving feast. Actually, spending the day together doing something we love was a reward in itself. We drank a bottle of Duckhorn merlot with our meal: a delicious wine given to us some time back by our neighbors Joan and Diane for watching their deadly feline, Gingersnap, while they were out of town.

After dinner we settled in to watch White Christmas, a Thanksgiving tradition for us. We fell asleep about half way through the movie. Another tradition.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

IC 5217 PN, Lacerta

“...and we receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude and foretell the remotest future.”

I tried to spot this planetary with my 22-Inch Dob from the ASKC dark sky site when I was out with Rob Esson last weekend but couldn’t pick it out. The object is small, 6-7 arc seconds depending on the reference one checks. It looks stellar at low to moderate magnifcations and requires high magnification to differentiate from nearby stars. The seeing wasn’t terrific Friday night, either. In a large scope, stars appear swollen in less-than-ideal seeing conditions. This surely compounded the problem.

I decided to have another go from my backyard in midtown Kansas City using my XT-8 Dob, aided by several hyper-accurate star charts I made using MegaStar. The object’s visual magnitude is generally given as 11.5, easily within the reach of an 8-inch scope under urban skies. Here is one of the two finder charts, this is a wider view showing stars to 10.4 magnitude.

The eyepiece circles in this chart corespond to a 17mm Nagler Type 4 with a Paracorr coma corrector in an 8-inch f6 reflector. One of the excellent features of star-charting software is the ability to accurately depict the field of view seen with a specifc scope and eyepiece. The fields can even be mirror-reversed if necessary to show what is seen in an SCT or a refractor with a star diagonal (a critical navigation aid). The chart simplifies star hopping from an easily located star or object to a more challenging object like IC 5217.

Here is the second, more detailed chart. This shows the view in the same 17mm Type 4 eyepiece, but at a larger scale and with stars to 13 magnitude.

With these charts I was easily able to locate the planetary, even under urban skies. I used a 2-inch UHC filter to "blink" the planetary. This involves holding the filter in front of the eyepiece and then shifting it aside. The filter attenuates light from stars, making them seem fainter while the planetary is made to seem brighter. The technique is a valuable aid for confirming the identity of small planetary nebula. I also swapped in a 5mm Nagler Type 6 eyepiece, which provides a magnification of 280x with the XT-8 and Paracorr. At high magnification, in averted vision, the planetary could just be seen as non-stellar. That is, it had a tiny disk compared with stars in the field, which appeared as pinpoints.

Standard charts like the Sky Atlas 2000 and even the Uranometria don’t show faint enough stars to pinpoint objects like this, which is where custom charts really shine (if you’ll pardon the expression). Such observations are doubly fun because they can be made as easily from a backyard in the middle of the city as from a dark sky site in the country. And whereas a dark sky site trip requires hours of travel time, set up time, etc., making it all but impossible most nights, backyard observing can be easily done any clear night. It takes only minutes to set up an 8-inch Dob.

I went out around 9:30 PM, after Elly and I had a relaxed evening, fixing dinner together and watching a BBC mystery beforehand. I was back inside and going to bed by 10:30. In less than an hour of observing time, I saw not only this planetary, but another challenging planetary in Cassiopeia (IC 1747 near Epsilon Cassiopeia – more on that in my next astronomy post), comet 17P Holmes, Eta Persii (a fine double in Perseus), NGC 7789 and M52, open clusters in Cassiopeia, and the Dumbell Nebula, a planetary nebula in Perseus (M72), generally considered to be one of the more challenging Messier objects, but quite easy to observe compared with IC 5217.

IC 5217 is said to have a diameter of 15 arc-seconds in the Uranometria 2000 Deep Sky Field Guide by Cragin and Bonanno. This is obviously a mistake. The object I observed was much closer to the 6 or 7 arc seconds reported in other references.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Maple-Glazed Apple and Sweet Potato Gratin

We’re having a potluck at work tomorrow, called a “Turkey Bubble” because a dedicated crew of volunteers deep fries enough turkeys to feed the hundreds of people on our team. We have the event the week before Thanksgiving. The Nelson-Atkins Museum staff holds their Thanksgiving potluck the week before too. In addition to the turkey, supplied by management where I work, individuals sign up to bring various dishes. Elly and I decided to make Maple-Glazed Apple and Sweet Potato Gratin, dividing the dish into two pans so we could each bring it to work.

The recipe comes from The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Ideas to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition by Diane Morgan. The gratin recipe we used is on page 109. Elly has baked this for several years. It is simple to make and delicious, but she modified the cooking approach somewhat. Morgan suggests slicing the sweet potatoes and apples raw and layering them in a buttered baking dish. Elly found the potatoes required much longer to cook than the recipe suggested, so she parboils the sweet potatoes before pealing and slicing them. This shortens the cooking time and works much better.

My role in all this was to stop at Whole Foods on the way home to pick up needed ingredients. I also made the gratin sauce and sliced apples (albeit under close supervision from the master chef). I chose organic Granny Smith apples, sweet potatoes, and pure maple syrup. The only ingredients we used that were not organic were the brown sugar and butter (unsalted). The gratin sauce is made by melting four tablespoons of butter, mixing in three tablespoons of all purpose flower and cooking through (about one minute), then adding 1/4 cup of brown sugar, 3/4 cups of maple syrup, and a half teaspon of salt, and simmering this until all the ingredients are desolved and the sauce thickens (about six minutes).

The sliced apples and potatoes are arranged in a glass baking dish, the sauce is poured over them, and then the dishes are covered with aluminum foil and baked in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour. Since we want to serve them warm, we will pop them back in the oven tomorrow morning, uncovered, and bake them at 450 until they are heated through and slightly browned. Here is one of the two dishes after baking for an hour tonight.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thanksgiving Invitations

None of these fine birds seemed that interested in a Thanksgiving Day invitation. At least, they didn't hang around too long after Rob and I stopped on the road to take a few shots -- with Rob's digital SLR. I counted 18 birds. This group includes 11 of them. A second, smaller group to the left was already filing into the woods when we took this picture. And this group departed the scene moments later.

It was a lot of fun to see them, anyway. I was surprised by how big they actually are. Any of them would have made an enjoyable Thanksgiving Day guest...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Stalwart Observing Companion

Rob Esson (at left), one of my favorite observing companions, and I finally made it out for a night under the stars. I can't recall the last time we observed together. Rob travels in his job and is often out of the country. It has been several years at any rate. We went to the ASKC dark sky site near Butler, Missouri and had a pleasant evening even though the observing conditions were not the greatest.

Rob brought his bino chair and was working on the Astronomy League's deep sky binocular program. I set up the 22-inch dob and was looking at whatever came to mind. We had particularly memorable views of comet 17P Holmes, which Rob dubbed the "celestial jellyfish," aptly describing its odd, uncomet-like appearance. We also had fine views of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus and the Orion Nebula, both of which look fabu in the big scope. Oh, and we also looked at one of Rob's favorite Caldwell objects -- NGC 891, a faint but impressive edge-on spiral galaxy in Andromeda.

The skies were murky off and on during the night and became increasingly so after 11:30 PM. The seeing wasn't terrific either. I made a brief, abortive attempt to look at the Horsehead Nebula, an object I have not observed before. The seeing conditions simply weren't good enough. Earlier in the evening, however, I did observe the Cocoon Nebula, a famously elusive object which I have only seen once before and that time rated it an extremely difficult observation. With the 22-inch and a UHC filter it is easy to see even under less than ideal conditions. It reportedly responds well to a Hydrogen Beta filter, an item on my astronomy accesory shortlist.

We knocked off around 2:30 AM, got up at 8:00 AM, packed up, and left the DSS around 10. On our way toward Butler, we saw a flock of 18 wild turkeys, the most either of us have seen before. Some of them were surprisingly large. We shot a number of pictures with Rob's digital SLR. I'll post a few on my blog when he sends them to me. We stopped for breakfast at a diner in Butler on our way back to Kansas City.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Comet 17P/Holmes

David Hudgins sent out an email on Wednesday mentioning that an extremely faint comet, 17P/Holmes, had suddenly increased in brightness from around 17th magnitude (too faint for most amateur telescopes) to around 2.5 magnitudes -- about a million times brighter. The comet, in Perseus, could now be seen with the naked eye despite the nearly full moon. This is an extraordinary change.

I set up my 8-inch Orion XT Dob that evening and had a terrific view of the comet. I made the following sketch in my journal.

Here is a retouched version I made with Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0. I inversed the image and made some color and level adjustments. I also replaced the original field ring with a better circle. Jeremy Perez has an excellent digitzing tutorial for adjusting eyepiece sketches on his Belt of Venus blog. And he has also co-authored a cool book published by Springer titled Astronomical Sketching.

Here is a plot I made of the same field using MegaStar. When I sketch objects I mark down all the brighter stars in the field -- say down to 9th magnitude. I try to capture any distinctive star patterns that will help me locate and orient the field in MegaStar. I also mark a few faint stars at the limit of averted vision. My key for this is F (faint but not hard to see), VF (very faint in averted), and VVF (challenging in averted -- only seen part of the time).

The MegaStar chart shows many more 11th magnitude stars than the few I included. I set the magnitude filter in MegaStar to 11.2 after determining that the effective limiting magnitude for this observation was just under 11. Fainter stars can be seen with an 8-inch scope, even from an urban sky. But the moon was nearly full. Also, this was a low power view. Fainter stars can be seen at higher magnification. See the detail at upper right of the journal entry, which was seen with a 7mm Nagler Type 6 at around 200x. All three 11 magnitude stars near the comet were easily visible.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

More About Cowbirds

Elly and I were watching the cowbirds yesterday morning, when she commented they must not be sexually dimorphic (which means that the sexes look different) because all the birds we saw looked the same. I said I thought they are dimorphic, so we checked Sibley which confirmed that they are. We took a closer look at the crown on the driveway. I counted over two dozen males and only three females.

I got out our Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, to read up on cowbirds, which are part of the icterid family. The icterids also include Orioles and Blackbirds among others. Sibley devotes a lot of space to cowbird brood parasitism -- the fact that they don't make their own nests but rely entirely on laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. I didn't read the entire entry. Later in the day I called Mark McKellar at the Backyard Bird Center to ask him about why we saw so many male cowbirds and so few females. Mark is our "ultimate" birding authority when we can't figure out a birding question. A lot of other people's too. Anyway, Mark explained that male and female cowbirds migrate separately. The males generally migrate first, followed later by the females. I guess that is common among the icterids.

I took the above picture of a gorgeous buckeye butterfly yesterday afternoon. It was feeding on some beautiful purple flowers in our neighbor's front yard. I'm going to have to ask what sort of flowers they are. Along with the buckeye, dozens and dozens of bees were collecting pollen from them.

I also met my sister Karen at Browne's Irish Market for lunch yesterday. We have lived a few blocks from Browne's (a Kansas City landmark and institution) for 19 years and I had never visited it! They have all sorts of Irish-related merchandise and a deli. I had a BLT on whole wheat that was absolutely delicious. Karen and I have decided to make it our hangout when she visits KC.

She gave me a novel she had bought (The Art Thief by Noah Charney), saying it was one of the worst books she had ever started reading, she was furious with herself for wasting money on it, and just wanted it out of the house. I opened to the first page and read "It was almost as if she were waiting, hanging there, in the painted darkness" and burst out laughing. "Karen, the opening sentence is an indefinite-it construction!" (Sort of a major no-no in the writing business.) I promised to dispose of it properly. I plan to take it to Propsero's Books and ask them to burn it. Prospero's made international news (the London Times sent a reporter) when they started burning books customers wouldn't buy and charities wouldn't even take for free. You can read more about that on their website. They are only a few blocks from our neighborhood, too.

Here is one more picture of those purple flowers.