Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Future of our Republic

The future of our republic will be decided elsewhere. Utah's essentially single party status has made them irrelevant to national politics and merely play a role as defining the outer reaches of conservative and nativist extremism that's possible if the Republican noise machine succeeds nationally.

Places like Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Nevada and Pennsylvania will likely determine whether the Democrats continue to control the Senate, and a broader belt of midwestern and far-western states will determine whether they control the House. The Mormon belt and the Bible belt are now the solid red bastion of conservative extremism, and is it any wonder, that these areas are also those areas with the most devout followers of fundamentalist religious faiths? Correlation doesn't always equate with causation, but I have a hard time not linking these two.

My concern is long-term about the future of our country. Keyne's maxim that "in the long run, we're all dead" may be true, but I have children, nephews and neices and I care about future generations of our country. If we are to create creative solutions to the problems of today, and to our future, we will need to as a society have a great deal of attributes antithetical to religious or political dogmatism. We will need flexibility, creativity, accountability and transparency. Religious dogmatism is anti-thetical to all those things that we will need to create the best solutions to whatever problems we face in the future.

The feedback loop goes as such- people during periods of stress and uncertainty, look to ideologies that provide certainty. These ideologies result in poor solutions to pressing problems which results in greater stress and uncertainty, followed by more dogmatic adherence to certainties. This is what I fear for our country. Eight years of Bush created a disaster economically and morally for our country. Conservatives response to this has been that the problem was Bush's lack of adherence to "true" conservative principles. Conservative ideologies, like a drug to an addict, provide escape from reality but temporary comfort, but provide a scarcity of creative solutions to the problems we face as a country. And like an addict, when the addictive behavior creates more problems, the solution is more of the drug.

We face an intellectual and moral crisis in this country. Those who look backwards into the past for solutions to the present limit our options and bind us with inflexibility. This is the paradigm I see in Mike Lee and tea partiers. And I don't believe me and my little blog will make a difference in the intervention our country desperately needs if we the people, will take responsibility, and look to flexible solutions, not dogmatic myths about ourselves. The politicians are a symptom of a problem that goes much deeper. It lies in us, the American voter and people and our susceptibility to demagoguery and delusion.

The answers to our problems are rarely simple. Let's move forward looking for the best solutions, not to dogmas based on authority. Progress in our Republic is still possible, but I fear this election will stunt our growth and bind us for generations to come. I hope I am wrong.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Question for Republicans

I want real answers, not the usual Republican spin about “waste and inefficiency” that is in government. Republicans have controlled the executive branch of government for 20 out of the last 30 years. It was the Democratic President, Bill Clinton who finally brought the deficit under control, but let’s spare that debate for a second. Let’s look to the future. Republicans want to continue the W. Bush tax cuts. What specific expenditures are you willing to cut to pay for it? I WANT SPECIFICS (note, we liberals try not to use all CAPS when writing because it makes us look like angry conservatives, but I’m willing to meet them half way).

The vast majority of the federal budget is in the areas of social security, Medicaid, Medicare and National Defense. Once you get beyond these areas, any material cost savings (ask your Republican accountant friends what material means) will have to come from these areas if they are to really affect the deficit. Spending through earmarks barely show up as a factor compared to the obvious elephants in the room. So what is it? Do we cut the military? Social security? Medicare? Tell me. Keep in mind that baby boomers are now beginning to retire and the projected costs of social security and medicare are only going to increase, no matter what inefficiencies you business geniuses can find.

So what is it? As a car buyer, I’d like to know what is under the hood. Is it a four, six, eight cylinder, or lawn mower engine? Or is this just the typical Republican "cut taxes and borrow" engineless Lamborghini that looks so good in advertisements, but doesn’t exactly get me to work? My eyes are weary from watching posturing teapartiers and other clueless know-nothings yell at the top of their lungs that government needs to be reined in. Well here’s your chance. Chaffetz? Lee? Bishop? Rein it in. Specifically what are you going to cut? Is there any engine in this car you’re selling, or do we need to get Fred and Wilma to show us how it really works.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

More Bagging on Tea Partiers

Insanity is defined by some as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Terminal insanity is doing more of the same because the problem before was you didn’t take a pure enough form of the drug. Tea-party Republicans are like alcoholics, deciding that the pinot noir version of conservatism was insufficient, and we need to go to straight bourbon, or in the case of Sen. Inhofe, only vodka without a chaser.

Self-destruction is often the result of self-deception. How true this is of today’s xenophobic, conspiracy mongering, Beck worshipping, followers of nonsense peddled from the Marketing Firm of Piddle, Pooh and Woo (aka Fox News). The age of enlightenment had a brief and tenuous re-birth, only to awaken the demons and demagogues who may have faced a temporary set-back, but have not changed their goals and aspirations.

This being said, I acknowledge that the tea partiers come in different stripes and many in the corporate elite are worried. There is a populist element to this uprising that should worry them. For years, your corporate Republicans have worked hard to sell middle-class Caucasians of voting against their own economic interests in favor of corporate interests by diverting their attention with social issues and by fostering cultural wars. Their success has now created a monster that may devour them as well. TARP, was as Republican as a flag lapel pin, and many Liptonites don’t subscribe to that brand of Republicanism. Where will all this sort out in the backrooms of Republican-ville, I can’t tell at this point.

During September of 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting with Sen. Bob Bennett and listened to him tell our group that his election was assured, and that it was going to be a Republican year. He rather smugly indicated that social issues were going to doom the Democrats this year. I thought it rather arrogant at the time that he considered his re-election a matter of fact with two months to go in the campaign. Even so, Bennett was an effective Republican senator who represented corporate interests as well as any good conservative could. He was pragmatic enough to work with others to make sure Utah got its share of funding projects for things like roads and public transit. Replacing him will be an ideologue who has more passion than wisdom, whose devotion to irrational dogma is not out of political opportunism, but out of deep-held belief. This new brand of Republican believed Reagan’s rhetoric, never seeing that the rhetoric was purely a political strategy rather than a recipe for good governance. And he will represent one vote in fifty in our Republic. And there are enough like-minded individuals who could join his ranks, that those of us devoted to enlightenment ideals should be very concerned.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taking the Country Back?

As I’ve watched movements in public opinion, I’ve been struck by how many angry Caucasians are railing about “taking their country back.” What do they mean? Is it a Republican President they want? A Republican Congress? Do we need to remind them of how great it was having that dream team dominating our government? Just how far back do people want to take us?

Conservatives by definition are opposed to change, and perhaps a President with too much melanin is more than they can handle. In listening to so many people who’ve had their hemorrhoids patriotically inflamed by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, a lot of them focus on a concern about “socialism” as if they know what that is. How many of them if pressed might think of socialism as any government program that they don’t think will benefit them? Services that do benefit them must surely be exempt from the socialist paradigm.

Mostly what I’ve seen in this country, is that the monster that Republicans have created coming back to devour not only Democrats but their own. The conservatives of the past didn’t fail because conservatism doesn’t work, it failed because conservatives weren't conservative enough. If only a more pure brand of conservatism would be employed, surely our country will return to some mythical past that is more a creation of conservative minds than of careful and reasoned scrutiny.

Restorationism certainly is appealing in the hornet’s nest, as the predominant religion teaches itself as a restoration of “true Christianity” in contrast to the fallen away versions that dot the landscape. Restoring a non-historical myth is as Mormon as funeral potatoes and jello salad. It doesn’t surprise me the appeal this has to the faithful here. The question I haven’t figured out, is what kind of landscape do these people really see as their ideal future. How much of the twentieth century do they want to abandon? Civil rights? Deposit insurance? Social Security? Regulations on clean air and water? Until I hear specifics from those who garb themselves in a drink they don’t drink, I don’t know what to think of these people.

If you want to take America back, let me know where you want America to go back to. Or as Sen. Bennett hinted, there is much more heat than light in this movement, and though the water is boiling, the teabags have yet to be immersed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Gardening Blog

I Obi wan liberali, being of somewhat sound mind, have decided to add to my blogging repertoire. Since some of my latest posts over at the "hornet's nest" have been more about gardening and nature than strictly in the world of politics, I have decided to create a new blog for that purpose. This will free me to take on fellow gardeners who may be deranged enough to be tea partying morons during the weekdays but shovel wielding gardeners on the weekend.

Just a word about the name of the blog. I got back into gardening over the past few years for several reasons. One has been financial. Times have been tough at the Obi residence and raising food to eat has been one method of surviving in the wreckage left by W. and his neocons. Second,I found myself heavier than I wanted to be and my doctor told me to lose weight or die. I have turned to a vegetable centered diet, and combined with regular workouts has resulted in a weight loss of fifty pounds so far. Third, environmental considerations have led me to want to produce food locally to not only feed myself, but family and friends. Giving others the bounty of your collaboration with nature is deeply rewarding. Also, I garden with the intention of not only feeding humans, but critters as well. Whether it's hummingbirds, robins, spiders or one of many species, I try to be somewhat accomodating, even though I lose some food to nature. The rewards however, are more butterflies, hummers and other birds, and other creatures that add biodiversity to my residence.

For me, gardening isn't about a victory over nature, it is a collaboration with nature for mutual benefit. There are limits to my collaboration, as squash bugs are not tolerated because they don't just eat the juices from squash plants, they infect the vines with a virus that kills the plants. So there are exceptions.

I hope in this blog to discuss gardening concepts and share ideas with others about what has worked for me and what has not. I may also recommend certain plants and their uses and warn people of invasive plants that are bad choices to foster in your garden.

So, if you are interested in gardening and nature, read along and we can hopefully learn from each other.

So here it is. Come pull some weeds with me.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Celebrating Earth's Biodiversity

With Earth Day's passing yesterday, I would like to talk a bit about biodiversity. We really do live on a remarkable planet. Just driving down the road, you can see a wide variety of plants and animals. On our dinner table, you see the same thing, plants, and animals that eat plants, all consumed with little thought to their origin or their makeup. As someone plagued by what Edward O. Wilson calls "biophilia", one of my favorite things to do is just pittle around in my yard and watch the wildlife. And I plant as many different types of plants as possible, knowing full well, that a diversity of plants will bring a diversity of animals.

One hobby I have that also enables this biophilia is hiking. Recently, I was in St. George for a golf tournament. I arrived a day early, in order to get a day of hiking in. The St. George area is a marvelous place to hike with an interesting assortment of flora and fauna. At the northern edge of the Mojave desert, you have many species of plants unique to the mojave interspersed with plants that thrive in the colder, slightly moister great basin desert. Joshua trees, a signature plant of the mojave mix with stansbury cliffrose and other common great basin regulars. Turbinella oak, an evergreen oak with holly-like leaves replace the gambel oak of the great basin, but sage brush (artemisia species) and rabbitbrush (chrysothamnus) are found in both desert environs.

I enjoy taking a pad of paper with me and documenting what plants and animals I see, any interesting tracks I get a good look at as well as make notes about any interesting geologic formations and rocks that I see. Seeing basalt overlaying sedimentary navajo sandstone created an interesting contrast between two different types of rocks, one old and rapidly eroding, and one younger, but heavier and denser and less prone to erosion.

The point I would like to make in this post, is to look around and observe the great beauty and diversity we have the good fortune of surrounding ourselves with. Enjoy this diversity, even if we get a bee sting once in while, or poked by a cactus. We also have to remember that though the earth's biodiversity is resilient, it isn't omnipotent. God did not create this, and God will not protect it, that job is left to us.

And with that, I wish everyone a happy earth month.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Earth Day Shout-out to the All-American Penstemon

With Earth Day only a week away, it is time to talk about our local environment again. In my previous post, I gave some thoughts on the use of native plants. One family of plants I’d like to highlight is the wonderful flowers known as penstemons. Penstemons are truly American plants, having evolved on this continent. There is some debate as to which botanical family to place them in. Most references put them in the family Scrophulariacaea, but Wikepedia has them in the family Plantaginaceae. I’m not a trained botanist, so I’ll leave the debate to them, but I generally consider them in Scrophulariaceae for what it is worth.

Penstemons are snapdragon like flowers of which many are stunningly beautiful. They have co-evolved with insects and other pollinators of North America. Many penstemons are red, and clearly co-evolved with that unique American bird, the hummingbird. As a hummingbird lover, I’ve planted plenty of wonderful red penstemons such as P. rostriflorus, P. barbatus, P. eatonii, P. cardinalis, P. pinifolius, and P. subulatus. Pink varieties such as P. pseudospectabilis and P. parryi are also good hummingbird magnets.

Many penstemons utilize insects for pollination, and many of them are the most strikingly beautiful penstemons. P. cyananthus (Wasatch penstemon), P. palmeri, P. strictus, P. angustifolius and P. grandiflorus are among the pantheon of beautiful insect pollinated species. Bumblebees in particular like several of these species. P. palmeri, with it’s big pink snapdragon like flowers fit a bumblebee just perfectly. I’ve seen many small butterflies take a real liking to diminutive penstemons such as P. rydberghi, P. procerus and P. virens.

Because penstemons evolved on this continent, their co-evolvers in the animal kingdom utilize these flowers liberally and they are wonderful plants to add to your garden if your intent is to attract different types of wildlife to your yard. I’ve also seen birds eat penstemon seeds, particularly during the cold winter months, so leave some penstemons standing through the snowy winter months.

Some considerations regarding penstemons that you should know. First, they can be difficult to germinate depending on the species. Many need cold treatment for a month or two in order to break the seeds out of dormancy. Also, most penstemons don’t like getting too much water. Penstemons and petunias tend not to make good bed fellows. Soil needs to be fairly well-drained. It also takes some patience with penstemons, because many don’t bloom their first year. They also aren’t as available as other flowers, primarily because they take more effort to grow. But for those willing to make the effort, it is truly worth it.

So you want to be a real American? Grow American. Try some penstemons. The critters will thank you, as will your eyes.

(Photo Notes)
Top Photo- Penstemon cyananthus (Wasatch Penstemon)
Bottom Photo- Penstemon rostriflorus among roses, the hummingbird's favorite flower in my yard.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some Thoughts on Planting Native Plants

When I ask people about flowers or shrubs in their yard, I sometimes ask them, “are they native?” Invariably, the answer is that they don’t have a clue, with one exception, quaking aspen. Why does it matter? First let me address this issue in a couple of ways.

First of all, there seems to be a culture here in Utah where the ideal is to recreate a British countryside look. Lots of grass, well manicured bushes and shrubs, meticulously spaced seems to be the desired look for most Utahns. It is almost a status symbol to have a large lawn that is green and weed free. Some homeowners associations demand it and some city ordinances enforce the maintaining of green zones of grass. The second ideal people look for is a bug-free yard. Companies make a fortune killing the few remaining bugs that dare access such a sterile landscape. What is left is a monoculture of lawns, boxwoods and Norway Maples, with weed barriers, sterile mulches and sparse plantings of understory bushes and flowering plants.

Some ambitious Utahns may put in some Dutch bulbs for the spring, or some annuals for the summer. Petunias, marigolds and perhaps impatiens is the limit of plant diversity in many yards with a few irises thrown in for good measure. Admittedly, for most people, they want their yard to look as good as possible with the least amount of work. And the results are an abundance of non-native, often invasive plants that aren’t bothered by “pests”. And the result is predictable. Few species of animals living among us that are adapted to only a few types of plants.

As we approach the planting season for our yards, I’m going to make a plea to my fellow Utahns. Let’s be a little tolerant of our little bug friends. Let’s help them out. If you want to keep them out of your house and want to call the Orkin man, that is fine, but bugs are what makes our overall ecosystem work for most species, including our own. The same pesticides that kill unwanted bugs, also kill honeybees, native bumblebees, butterflies and their larvae, as well as a host of crawling things that actually make the world an interesting place to live in.

And how do we help our bug friends? Plant many different types of plants, weighing heavily towards native plants that have evolved on our continent concurrently with the bugs that utilize them. You may see some eaten leaves in the process, but you can’t have butterflies, if you don’t have caterpillars. And most birds depend upon protein rich insects as food for their brood, even many seed and fruit eating species. During the next months, I’m going to post about some of the wonderful native plants that I have had success with and encourage people to use them in place of grass and non-native ornamentals. The critters that will thank you include butterflies, moths, bees, spiders, robins, kingbirds, hummingbirds, finches and juncos. If you have small children, introduce them to the different species you see and encourage an interest in them.

For the record, I have my fair share of lawn. I have small children and a well kept lawn is a valuable play area for small children. But I also have large tracts that I use for vegetable and fruit gardening as well as wildlife forage. And yes, I consider wildlife to be anything not domesticated. I don’t treat all wildlife equally. Mice that come inside are exterminated. Squash bugs that take a nab at my butternut bushes will not survive the summer. But I try to be as tolerant as possible of wildlife in my yard and relish the fact that I’ve seen some rather unique species come to my yard. I’ve heard my share of whisperings from the neighbors about all the darn bees that come to my yard. Well, I haven’t been stung once in my yard, though one of my daughters was once. Considering how much time we spend in the yard, that isn’t a big concern unless you have allergy problems.

One more note before I end this post. Some plants are better than others at attracting critters, particularly the right kinds of critters you want in your yard. So many people plant aspen trees in areas that are not suited for them, that I recommend you stay away from them. Insects, disease and wind will really take a toll on weakened plants such as an aspen in the wrong location. There are many better choices. Also, some closely related plants native to the area are great choices. For example, gambel oak, a white oak, which usually grows as a bush is a good native plant to have in your yard, however, it grows best as a bush. However, a closely related white oak, “bur oak” grows tall and majestic and provides the local wildlife with the same type of forage they would get from a gambel oak, but in a more tree-like form. I will address issues like this in more detail in future posts.

So let’s let the critters have a break. We’ve taken so much of their territory from them, let’s share some of our space with them. And I promise, you'll see more butterflies, moths and birds as a result.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Enlightening and Interesting Defense of Darwinism

With the 150 year anniversary of the Origin of Species, we have been deeply rewarded with a couple of first class books in defense of the biological sciences which has Darwin’s elegant theory as the base of those sciences. It is unfortunate that books of these types are needed, but to those of us who find biology interesting at a novice’s level, we get to be rewarded as excellent writing scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne grace us with an interesting and passionate exposition of the evidence for evolution and the profound power it has in explaining so much of the natural world in which we live.

Richard Dawkins in his book, "The Greatest Show on Earth", starts off comparing deniers of evolution to hypothetical deniers of ancient roman society or to the less hypothetical deniers of the holocaust. Dawkins points out that those who deny evidence do so for ideological reasons and are unlikely to be swayed by his book. It is the author’s intent to give enough ammunition to those not snared by superstitious or nonsensical ideologies that they can confidently oppose such ideas in the public contest for the hearts and minds of the public as a whole.

Like Darwin, Dawkins starts with a lot of evidence from the world of artificial selection to show what can be done through different selection pressures and does a good job of connecting artificial selection to natural selection and explaining what selective pressures occur in the natural world from both “natural selection” and its subset “sexual selection.”

Likening it to uncovering a crime, Dawkins goes through the evidence bit by bit and shows that the evidence is overwhelming except to those who have been blinded by dogma or disinterest. Dawkins gives some great examples to show how Darwin’s theory has been used to direct new findings in the study of genetics, paleontology, etc. Such examples as bipedal African apes, or four limbed “Titkaalik” fish, show the power of understanding Darwin’s theory, and how you can look for evidence and find exactly what you hypothesized you would find.

For those of us who already accept the reality of evolution, the book provides additional interesting insights that Dawkins’ previous books such as “The Selfish Gene” and “The Ancestor’s Tale” got our minds salivating for. Though it is unfortunate that a defense of Darwin’s elegant theory is necessary in a world where tribal bronze-age dogmas die hard, for those of us enamored by the incredible wonder and beauty of the natural world, such a defense is deeply rewarding and awe-inspiring.