Wednesday, March 26, 2008

That's Not Politics, Lady

I walked into my neighborhood pharmacy this afternoon to collect a prescription. Standing ahead of me, picking up a prescription of her own, was a woman and her young son. The woman had red hair in quantity and she was dressed in a manner that made me think of her as middle- or upper-middle class, which wouldn't be uncommon in the area. Her son was, perhaps, five years old. The pharmacist behind the counter was asking her for a signature. The woman paused just long enough that the pharmacist began to explain, but the woman cut her off, saying "I understand; it's so I won't use it like crack cocaine." The woman laughed loudly at her own humor.

I stood there reflecting to myself that the woman had no idea what she was talking about, and that the sudden, specific reference to crack cocaine was odd, in any case. Apparently, however, the reference was familiar to her son, who promptly began speaking animatedly: "Yes, Mommy wants McCain. Mommy doesn't want that other one. That sea-monkey. Do you, Mommy?"

The woman, now angry, told her son: "Not now! I am not going to discuss politics in a pharmacy."

I can only assume from the context that "sea-monkey" was a reference to Senator Obama specifically, and to black people in general. I stood there lost for words, but convinced that when such a viewpoint was expressed in front of me, I had some obligation to stand up and say that it was wrong, lest my silence be taken for some level of sympathy with the viewpoint, thereby bolstering it. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a single useful thing to say. The best I managed was a glare at her when she turned to leave.

As is usually the case, the right words came to me shortly after they were of no use to me – while I was walking through the parking lot. Since they weren't said when they were needed, I'll at least say them here: "That's not politics, lady, that's racism."

That woman makes me fear for my state and nation of today. Her son makes me fear for their future. Though started-off in the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of racism, in the long run the boy has the potential, and the responsibility (shared by us all), to think his way through the errors of our personal and collective past. Good luck, kid. The great state of Texas and our United States are depending on people like you to further their redemption.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Squirrel Eviction

The squirrels have left the screech owl nest box, and thereby cleared the way for the screech owls, if they still want it.

Sunday morning between and 4 and 5 AM, I prepared an alternate nest box for the squirrel family, set it up for rapid mounting near the screech owl nest box, and, with considerable care for my shoulders, brought down the screech owl nest box. (Enough people had offered their help that I naturally felt that I had to do it myself. There's a logic—admittedly warped—to that if you look for it long enough. Really.)

I hoped to capture the entire family of squirrels (mom and three big, but still-nursing pups) under a towel, slip a sheet of cardboard under the bedding material, and then a gloved hand beneath the cardboard, and lift out the whole family as a unit, to be dropped gently, but with haste, into the waiting spare nest box. That box would then be closed-up, hauled up a ladder, and lashed to the tree. I'd then clean-up the screech owl nest box, check some wiring if time permitted, and restore it to the tree for the owls' consideration.

What actually happened was that I got as far draping the towel over the family, and was trying to push the sheet of cardboard beneath the bedding material when the cardboard hung-up on something halfway in and, as I repositioned the towel to work it under the perch inside the nest box, so that I could make a more credible effort to pick-up the family without the aid of the cardboard foundation, mom leapt for freedom. I caught her with one hand in mid-air, but she slipped through my grip effortlessly and bounded away into the night. That left me with the worst case scenario I'd been dreading all along: three stressed pups with no mother.

The best thing I could do for the pups was to leave them in the screech owl nest box and return it to its place in the tree, and then hope that mom would come back to determine their fate later. So that's what I did.

And then I waited and watched and felt like a complete bastard for making such harmless, contended creatures feel first terrified and then too miserable even to close their eyes and sleep.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Somewhere around 7:30 AM, mom leapt to the owlet rail on the front of the box and all three overjoyed pups rushed out to see her. She alternated between sitting on the owlet rail with them, and sitting in the tree just behind and above the box. It seemed she had no intention of going back into the nest box again. The pups were so excited to have her back that they attempted to climb from the nest box to the tree to be with her. The first one to attempt it failed and plummeted into the yard below, but returned to the tree trunk unfazed, to find mom waiting there to guide he/she back up the tree, and from there she didn't stop guiding until she'd led the pup all the way to another tree, and her old nest in its outer branches. The pup matched mom's path branch for branch and leap for leap, as though it was already an old hand at tree traversal. It was great to see.

When mom returned to the nest box, another pup tried to reach her and plummeted to the ground as well. Once again she was there to guide it back up the tree, into the next tree and to her nest there. Then she returned for the third pup, who managed to climb from the box to her without falling out of the tree, and guided it to their new home.

So, the screech owl nest box is empty, but, in deference to the uncertain state of my shoulders, I haven't brought it back down for cleaning or maintenance, yet. If the owls move in before I can do that, the picture quality will be less than ideal. So far, however, there's no indication that anything has been inside the box since the squirrels left, which suggests that the screech owls may have found an alternate nest site this year. Only time will tell.

If the owls return, so will the live nest box cam'.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Scimitar-Horned Oryx

The Scimitar-Horned Oryx is a species of large antelope that once occupied the dry grasslands south of the Sahara desert. Its scimitar-like horns are said to have allowed it to kill lions, presumably by positioning those horns directly in the path of a lion's final charge and impaling the massive cat before it can react. That sounds like it would be an exceedingly dangerous manner of defense, preferable only to having no defense at all. Sadly, this tough and elegant species has been extinct in the wild for some years. Remarkably, I recently had the privilege of photographing one of the herds that are the final repositories of this species' genetic diversity, and therefore the key to its future, if it is to have one.

This herd lives not far from Johnson City, Texas, on a square mile of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve that has been carefully fenced, planted in African Klein grass, and reserved for the exclusive use of the Oryx. In this Species Survival Program (SSP), the Preserve donates the land, labor, and financial resources that sustain the herd, while the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) oversees the program, including the crucial task of determining which males and females will be mated each year in order to maintain the maximum possible genetic diversity within the herd. Margaret Bamberger has provided more information about the Oryx and the SSP in a recent posting on her blog. If Margaret's version of the facts differs from mine, believe Margaret.

All that aside, David Bamberger asked me some time ago to try to get him some glamour shots of the Oryx, and it didn't take a moment's thought to accept his offer. Unfortunately, only a few weeks ago did my first opportunity to attempt that photography arrive. There are several problems with David's request, not the least of which is that I have no experience in getting glamour shots of anything, except, possibly, landscapes. Fortunately, basic competence, stubbornness, and patience can make up for a fair piece of missing experience, given enough time. Another problem is that while the square mile occupied by the Oryx sounds like a lot of space, more often than not, there's still a fence, or other human artifact, somewhere in the background. (The fact that the males have to be kept separate from the females and juveniles so that their breeding partners can be controlled by the AZA means that the area has to be subdivided into several pastures. Thus there are more fences than you might expect.) Yet another problem is that the Oryx, though accustomed to having people around, don't want to be around people. I credit them for their good sense, but looking and smelling nothing like an Oryx, I found it a challenge to get close enough to take good photos, even with the equivalent of a 640mm lens. (If only my old mirror lens were autofocus....) Finally, my recent shoulder problems severely constrained my ability to crawl through the knee-high grass to make my final approach toward the herd. On the plus side, though, what little awkward crawling through the grass that I did manage may have helped with the not-smelling-like-an-Oryx problem, because there's no shortage of Oryx poop fertilizing all that grass, no matter where you go. I also became acquainted with the literal meaning of the old metaphor "ants in your pants". Fire ants, naturally.

Earnest efforts notwithstanding, this first outing with the antelope did not produce David's glamour shot, but, circumstances permitting, I'll keep trying. In the meantime, allow me to share some of the more interesting failures.

If you look closely at this photo, you can read the numbers on the ear tags of three of the Oryx. From left to right, they are 162, 134 and 142. Margaret has been kind enough to do some research on those animals, so I can pass along a few biographical details. First, all of them were born on the Preserve, and all are females (no surprise there, given the necessary separation of the sexes). No. 162's birthday was 25 May, 1994. No. 134's was 29 April, 1992, and 142 was born on 25 May, 1992. If Margaret has the time, she may yet tell me who's related to who (if they happen to be related in any recent sense), and their family histories. Those histories go back many generations and were the basis for the AZA's selection of the initial members of the herd (they needed animals that were unrelated as far back as records existed, or, failing that, as distantly related as possible), and their ongoing selection of mates.

Oryx heading away at a leisurely pace.

Oryx heading away at a good pace, but, I'm confident, at a small fraction of their top speed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Owl Cam' Problems

Ordinarily, my Januaries and Februaries are made hectic by the need to prepare the screech owl cam' for another season's nesting. At a minimum, that means bringing down the box; cleaning it out; pulling out the camera modules and making whatever changes to the electronics that seem appropriate (or downright necessary) based on the previous year's performance and my ambitions for the coming season; chasing out the inevitable fox squirrel; and potentially a great deal more. I always wish I'd started sooner, but even when I do (usually to make big upgrades to the hardware), it always manages to be a rush in the end.

This year's January and February were different, however. Shoulder/arm/hand problems manifested out of nowhere and made it impossible, much of the time, even to use a keyboard and mouse. These days, that could be a serious problem for anyone, but it's a show-stopper if you earn your living writing computer software, as I do. Fortunately, with the attention of doctors and time-off from work, things have improved. [Unfortunately, my colleagues at The University kept throwing emergency work at me even when I needed to be resting, and I was too much the dutiful professional to turn it away. Foolish me. And were my painful efforts appreciated? Quite the opposite. But I digress.] Needless to say, hauling the owl box up and down from the tree to perform the yearly maintenance, and squirrel eviction, has been out of the question. Or it should be. Actually, I've been tempted routinely, but there's no way of knowing what that work would do to my shoulders, and I can't afford to do anything but let them get better.

So, loyal Owl Cam' viewers, that's the bad news: I don't think I can make it happen this year. The owls are probably ready and willing to nest in the box. (As usual, they're keeping a low profile, but I can guess.) The box is not much worse-off than it was at the end of the nesting season last year—the camera windows need cleaning, and there was an intermittent connection somewhere in the side camera compartment's illuminator wiring—but the cam' could work well enough even with those problems.

Unfortunately, that still leaves the issue of the squirrels. Specifically, a female fox squirrel and her three nursing pups. They're fine critters and I don't blame the female at all for deciding to nest in the box – she'd've been dumb to pass-up the opportunity. (And I wouldn't want dumb squirrels in my yard – I'd be a laughing stock, if word got out.) But, as long as the squirrels remain in residence, the owls can't move in. The female squirrel might decide to move the family to another nest at any time. I've seen it happen in past years, and speculate that it might be a means of leaving behind nest site parasite populations. But so far, she and the pups are happy where they are, and, even if I could bring down the box to remove them, I wouldn't be willing to do it in a way that might separate mom from her pups. My friend Sallie, the raptor rehabilitator, has helpfully offered to take care of the pups in such a case, but by "take care of" she means that she'd be happy to feed them to the raptors she's currently repairing. That's an offer I've forcefully declined. When the local red-tailed hawks stop by now and again to eat one of my squirrels, that's fine. It's a perfectly ordinary and proper competition between native predators and their would-be prey. But I'm not going to intervene and deprive the squirrels (or the red-tails) of their usual fighting chance.

Anyway, the problem of moving a family of fox squirrels is an academic one until my shoulders have made a full recovery, or at least until I better understand what I can and can't do with them in their current condition. I muse about squirrel moving only because of the lingering temptation to risk some injury to prepare the nest box for the owls. I'll miss the owls, if they're unable to move in this year. And the thought of disappointing so many loyal viewers is a very sad one. On other hand, I must admit that a part of me would welcome a break from those months of non-stop work, just this once.

So go my ponderings, but all of those matters are really neither here nor there. At the moment, the situation is out of my hands. If the squirrels decide to leave, and the owls choose to move-in, I'll bring-up the Owl Cam'. If not, well, maybe I'll bring it up anyway. I can't be the only one who enjoys a bit of squirrel watching.

In either case, loyal viewers, take care of yourselves, and have a good 2008.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Primary Voting

I voted in the Texas primaries yesterday evening, using the early voting location in the lobby of the Flawn Academic Center (or whatever we're calling that building these days), on the U.T. Austin campus. I arrived at 6 PM, but didn't get to vote until 6:30 PM, due to a line of people about 150 feet long. I've seen voting lines there before, but this was the first time I've encountered one that long. Impressive turnout.

It's just a shame that none of us voters has any way of knowing that our votes will be recorded, reported and tallied correctly, because, as has been the case for a number of years, we had no choice but to use an electronic voting system. The foundation of our democratic republic has been entrusted to devices (computers) whose defining purpose is the manipulation of data. My mind still boggles at this.

Just in case anyone wants the opinion of someone who has been programming computers for about 30 years, this is idiocy. There is no way to make pure electronic voting (which is what we use here) secure, or even accountable. And as a member of the open source software development community, let me add that electronic voting based on open source software won't help, no matter how popular that idea may be in some quarters. You can review the source code 'till the cows come home, and there still won't be any way for a voter, or an election official, to know that the code running in any given piece of e-voting equipment was produced from the meticulously reviewed and validated source code. And even if that problem magically went away, there'd be no way of knowing that there was no other code (from software to firmware to logic wired into the hardware) involved in the process of recording, reporting and tallying the votes. So, pure electronic voting should never have happened, and open-sourcing and/or reviewing the underlying code, though a good idea, cannot make it trustworthy.

It must be said that the problems cited above are not limited to the pure electronic voting systems currently in use. The system of electronically counted paper ballots that it replaced had most of the same problems - just pushed back one layer. But that one layer - the recording of the votes - was important. It made hand recounts, and other forms of validation, possible. By its very nature, pure electronic voting—to state the obvious—makes recounts, and all other forms of validation, either impossible or meaningless. That any portion of the democratic functions of our nation has come to "rely" on such systems is indicative of profound negligence, or worse. Both, I suspect.

Was vote tampering impossible in the absence of pure electronic voting systems? Certainly not. Vote tampering is a potential problem in any voting system. We all know that from the many cases of tampering that have been documented over the years. But that's actually the good news: Vote tampering could be, and was, caught before the advent of pure electronic voting systems. With the arrival of such systems, we can do little more than infer the act of tampering (and recounts have been rendered impossible). The advocates of these systems would have us believe that the resultant ignorance of tampering is equivalent to the absence of tampering. And that is indicative of profound ignorance, or worse. Both, I suspect.