Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What I love about Messier 42

This is a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). The Orion Nebula is an example of a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Observations of the nebula have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation.

But what I really love so much about the Orion Nebula is how readily available it is to all of us in the northern Hemisphere. So many of the other jaw-dropping photos from the Hubble Space Telescope seem somehow disconnected from us here on the ground. For all we know they could just be mediocre video game simulations.

But not the Orion Nebula, it is different. It seems so REAL because you can see it for yourself through binoculars or even with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look (For the more astrologically inclined see this fictitious version then lose the superstition - please).

The Orion Nebula appears as a faint smudge of light around the middle star of Orion’s sword. It's 1,500 light-years away but here's the thing... there is nothing between you and it – NOTHING! With a long enough tongue, you could reach out and lick it. It is real and visible proof that stellar alchemy happens. That is where you came from and it's proof positive that science kicks-ass!

For a freaking fabulous tour of the Orion Nebula click here…and here is a cool visualization too.

Now get out there and taste that hydrogen!

10 orbits on

We've been 10 times around the sun without him.

Have you ever noticed that there are just some people who seemed to be especially "changed" by Carl Sagan? Those who go so “ga-ga” over him, that even ten years after his death, they still blog, gush, and talk nearly incessantly about him? And these are often the people least likely to otherwise worship, idolize, or even get excited about a professional athlete, celebrity, rock star, authority or politician.

I’m one of those people. My life-trajectory was tugged and defined by the gravity of Carl Sagan. He gave all of us reasons to cherish the pale blue dot and “all that ever was or is or ever will be.” He personified the Cosmos – literally. A gifted scientist, communicator, dad, and human being, he moved millions to see.

But what’s more incredible than how many he did move, is how many have somehow missed the message. Because make no mistake - and he would be the first to admit – his legacy is about the message not the man. As endearing as he was, this is not a cult of personality, but of the Cosmos.

Carl Sagan articulated poetic and accessible accounts of reality that were so beautiful and simple that once you understood what he was saying, you would never see the world the same way again. Everything was meaningful and awesome. So ask yourself if you understand what he was saying. Do you have any idea what you are missing? Please, take some time to get to know what Carl Sagan was telling us. So many smart, thoughtful, and loving people can't be wrong. I invite you to join the club.

I often wonder how much better our world be if he were still here to offer his insights and guidance. But he is gone. And the rest of us who did hear him can only forge ahead, doing what we can to open people’s eyes.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Scientist's Christmas

Last night I was walking through Harvard Square and noticed these awesome Christmas lights hanging above the street:

Here is a spiral galaxy, complete with blue "star-forming regions"

Here, a neutron star with its "cometary knots"

Ok, so maybe the cometary knots take a bit of imagination. But actually I see a lot more than that.

In those twinkling lights I see purely rational, purely natural reasons to love thy enemy, to do onto others, cherish life, teach peace, and practice compassion - you know, all those Christmassy ideas.

When I look up and see these lights I get a warm, fuzzy feeling... Because to me, these secular decorations are the expression of a community with something grander and more beautiful to celebrate than bronze-age myths. They recognize and respect that our origins are tied to cosmic events much longer ago and further away - but still very much ours.

I have to wonder, is this what the so-called culture warriors are worried about? That people like me will see these non-religious displays and...well and what? Are these lights, these ideas, the "War on Christmas?"

I see them as an acknowledgment that our natural heritage extends the story and values of Christmas with an additional 14 billion years of meaning. Meaning that even its namesake could not have appreciated given the knowledge of the day.

These decorations tell a story that still allows a covenant - a covenant with mystery. A scientist's Christmas has humility and dignity both. It is humble enough to admit that our knowledge of the sacred will always be incomplete, without the need to declare "war" on anything but ignorance. There is plenty of mystery to celebrate and plenty of ignorance to fear - Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

little Buddah

Maybe you've noticed that the term "weep" has been showing up a lot in my posts and thoughts over the past few days.

Saturday started typically. Up early, checking the surf reports and on-line cams. A low was pulling offshore and if I rushed, I thought I might catch the tail end of a swell.

When I got to my new "secret spot" it looked like I was too late. Just to cold to suit up for the "ankle biters" zipping along the shore. No worries though. I could just head into the town of Portsmouth, NH, settle into a coffee shop and chip away at a script I've been working on. It deals with all that's wrong in the world, and how we might make it right. Heavy stuff that's hard to find hope for.

Eight hours later I was distracted by some commotion outside and looked up from my computer to see the police putting up a baracade out front. The main street through town was being closed to make way for the annual Christmas Parade. It was cold outside and getting dark, and I was in a particularly somber mood, so I decided I'd stick around to watch. I'd just stroll around town to kill an hour or so.

In an uncharacteristic move, I ducked into a little curio gift shop called ganesh imports. It was mostly becuase it looked warm and interesting in there.

The first thing to catch my eye, was a little dish full of charms called "Weeping Buddahs".

When I picked one up, and looked at it closely, It hit me like a ton of bricks. I just knew exactly how that little guy was feeling. Look closely at it:

Maybe it's this script I'm working on. But that is how I felt. I bought one and left.

Walking around, i could not stop wondering why the little buddah was weeping. I went back to the store to ask. The girl behind the counter knew only that he was weeping for all that is wrong in the world. It made perfect sense.

So I bought another with the idea that i would give it to the first person who made me laugh.

As I watched the parade go by. I still felt very sad. That is until the antique car carrying Mrs. New Hampshire went by:

I'm not sure if you can tell by this cell phone photo, but snuggled up in the back seat of this car, Mrs. New Hampshire is waving to the crowd. but in the front seat, is a big boxer-type dog. I was laughing out loud as I took this photo (The yellow banner down below says "Mrs. New Hampshire".

Later that night, after the crowd had dispersed, I started to make my way back to my car. As I passed by the coffee shop, I noticed a boxer-type dog sitting on the sidewalk. I went up to say hello. As I looked up, there was Mrs. New Hampshire, inside sipping hot chocolate (along with a guy I assumed was Mr. New Hampshire). I went in to give her the little Buddah.

Mr. New Hampshire snapped this funny photo that still makes me laugh:

I never told her exactly why.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Carl Sagan Portal

Ann Druyan, is the peak of my pyramid of heroes.

Just noticed the newly-released Carl Sagan Portal page. Be prepared to read it and weep.

The Creepy Gene

In my last post, I used the last few seconds of a video clip to reveal what I thought to be the hidden motivations of a secular leader (Richard Dawkins).

Ok to be fair, I should probably do the same for a religious leader. This is a clip from a documentary shot a few months before the inner motivations of Ted Haggard became known.

Ted Haggard is (or was) a highly regarded preacher of the "New Life" mega-church in Colorado. To check out his latest exploits read the news or just Google Ted Haggard. I know, I know, an easy target - just couldn't resist.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Weepy Gene

What would it take to make an atheist weep?

Sometimes even the most hard-core, objective scientists slip up and show some soul. When they do, perhaps it is the little things they say that reveal their inner motivations.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary ethologist who wrote "The Selfish Gene" and many other landmark science books. His latest book, "The God Delusion" has garnered him considerable critisicm from the religious right.

Visit the Richard Dawkins Website for more information.

More to come on this fascinating conference from The Science Network.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Happy Bearthday

Maybe you didn't know this, but today is the Earth's birthday.

So how old is it?

Well, after a careful and thorough accounting of biblical "begats" in 1650, the Archbishop James Ussher calculated that our planet was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. - making it 6,010 years old. Holy smokes that's old!

If you hold a geocentric view, you limit your universe to the moon. The Earth is about 4.6 billion years old.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Nature never fails…

It is now the closing hours of an unseasonably warm October day and I just got back from another mountaintop epiphany.

As I laid there on my favorite curved rock, soaking up the easy breeze, soft light, and the warbler’s sweet tweet, I drifted into a very clear, very intense, thought experiment.

I imagined I could see the flow of time. From out in the space above the lake, I could see a future moment condense into a discrete thing, and flow toward me. I could feel it reside in me for a moment and then pass by into the future and dissolve, never to be experienced again. Where it came from and where it went I don’t know, but for that moment, when it was within me, I had complete and personal ownership.

With a little concentration, I found that I could tick each moment off as it went streaming by. This little daydream was fun… but it soon became just an exercise in counting the moments.

That’s when it hit me. It was that little moment of personal ownership that mattered. What made each moment special was what I chose to do with it. I could waste it, or value it.

I turned my attention to the grass beside me. Suddenly I felt a great wave of connection. I felt I could see overwhelming beauty in the simplest of things. Little furry corkscrew seeds, intricate patterns, rich warm tan, sweet-smelling, like the hay-bales of my childhood. Truth is, I spend a lot of moments this way.

Then I tried tuning my thoughts toward love and meaning. And there they were, moments full of love and meaning. The best part is, I decided each moment could last for a second, a minute, an hour, or a lifetime.

Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” I think I may finally understand what this means. Moment by moment, each of us makes the Universe. So if your thoughts are devoid of meaning, the universe has no meaning. If you hate, the universe hates. But if you have compassion, the universe is full of love. If you see beauty, the universe is beautiful. It's an empowering idea.

I guess the big question is, what will you choose to do with your moments? What universe will you make?

Note: No drug or religion was used in the making of this post - just fresh air, autumn light, and an open mind.

Monday, September 25, 2006

things that go scribble in the night

My mind meanders manic - especially during the night. So I keep a pencil and little pad of paper within reach to jot down my big ideas and little dreams.

This morning I woke up to this:

Any idea what the heck this says?

Sunday, September 24, 2006


This week’s wanderings landed me at the world famous Newton Free Library where I had the chance to meet noted author and Professor emeritus of astronomy and physics, Chet Raymo.

T’was a bit more than chance though.

1. I recently finished reading a book called Coming of age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. It’s an eloquent 1988 account of how our species came to discover its place in the universe.

2. Last week I met the founder-director of the Center for Naturalism in Boston. After sharing my philosophy and interests with him, he suggested a website and blog called Science Musings.

3. On the blog, one passage really stood out… It was a Timothy Ferris quote that read:

"Our ignorance, of course, has always been with us, and always will be. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks our coming of age as a species."

This just happens to be one of the quotes I had already circled for future reference of my own.

4. I also notice somewhere else on the blog that Professor Raymo made reference to the “gall wasps.” This is significant because for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to hatch wasp larvae from galls for an upcoming blog entry of my own.

5. And lastly, I noticed he happened to be giving a talk at the Newton Free Library. So just had to go and check it out.

I’m currently reading Chet Raymo’s Walking Zero. It’s an excellent stroll through cosmic evolution.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ask and ye shall receive...

...well sort of.

In a previous post I "lamented" the wholesale spending of a gazillion billion on AIDS research. Well it appears that Bill Clinton and Richard Branson have been reading my blog.

In reality, Branson has pledged $3 billion in estimated profits from the Virgin Transportation Group toward environmental causes via Bill Clintons "Global Initiative" (A bit ironic but still good news).

No sooner did I learn about this that I overheard MSNBC's Tucker Carlson criticize the deal by saying something like "that money would be better spent on cancer and AIDS research" he went on to justify it by reasoning that Global Warming is a problem that probably can't be solved...Probably cant be solved! Get with the program TC - how about some long term vision. If global warming isn't solved, and the planet becomes uninhabitable, then certainly cancer and AIDS are no longer a problem. Doh! Am I the only one that thinks like this?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A thick pitching lip

As Hurricane Florence exits the scene, I'm feeling sore...and lucky. Over the last few days she had churned her way up through the N. Atlantic, delivering some epic surf to the coast of Maine.
It's been a while since we've seen it this big - and I mean BIG - so most of us were a little rusty. As I drove up the coast on 1A, the place was a zoo. All the usual spots were crowded with all sorts of surfers so I kept looking. I found a new spot and paddled out to where there were just a few dudes - mostly on longboards. I can't tell you where this place is, but I can tell you it was going off! The guys out there were super friendly and we all felt encouraged by the hootin and hollerin.

But as the tide dropped, the wave got steeper, hollower, rockier, bigger, and meaner. It transformed from a friendly wall of fun into one of those waves that suck up the water from in front of it, pitch out a thick lip, and explode onto an exposed pile of rocks.

It was a scene kind of like this but quite a bit bigger:
So to make a long story short, I dropped in a little late on what felt like a monster. I probably should not have gone but with all the hootin and hollerin I felt invincible.

That's when I got reacquainted with the awesome and brutal power of the ocean.

I remember seeing seaweed covered rocks, free-falling, barely making a bottom turn, and hearing this hollow roar behind me. Next thing I knew, I was skipping effortlessly, gracefully down the face of the wave - on my back. I had gotten lipped in the face, hard and high. I then got swept back up the face and sucked over the falls. It was curtain-call extraordinaire. The impact in the pit sent me ragdolling along the bottom. The roar was replaced by a strange and scary sound I had never heard before. It sounded like a rock-slide except deeper and...thunkier, like a car crash. With my chest firmly pinned to a big rock, I realized I was getting hit by boulders all swirling around me. This was the sound I was hearing. I opened my eyes for a second - bad idea - then hunkered down, protected my face, and hoped for a minimal pummel.

It's probably a good thing I was pinned against the rock. If not I would have been swept along, helplessly bouncing around with the rocks until one hit me in the head. I just conserved my breath and tried to stay calm until the violence subsided. My leash broke and I eventually washed ashore disrespected, exhausted, and completely humbled. It was awesome.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The plan

Of all the stories ever told, it is my belief that the most interesting, most inspiring, and most personal, is the one told by science. It also happens to be the one that equips humanity to cope with circumstance, act with compassion, and reach full potential. I believe a life without this story is barely lived, because one just can’t appreciate what is at stake or even what is missed.

I think Brian Swimme tunes in pretty well here:

So I enrolled in a graduate program called “Science and the Public.” Over the next two years I will work to refine and communicate the story told by science… wish me luck.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Where's Walden?

The weekend began at 8PM on Friday. I had been craving social interaction and was reminded of a recent acquaintance’s pond-side party down in Western Mass. So I set off for an hour-long drive trending south and west.

Take a look at any map of NH and one thing you won’t see, are roads that trend south and west. Four dark, winding, bumpy, hours later, I arrived at her house, only to find that everyone had already gone home. Because I don’t really know the hostess, I turned away with my case of Coronas un-cracked and my need for people unmet. At this point, I just wanted to put the day to bed and start anew in the morning. I needed to find a place to crash.

Just outside the town of Athol, I found what looked like an abandoned driveway. I plunged the Eurovan through overgrowth and crept down the little tunnel of shrubs. At the end I came to a big derelict house. Besides the creepiness of the building, the yard was perfectly quiet. It looked out over a quaint stream that flowed under the arc of an old stone bridge.

After a quick reconnaissance, I sat for a while listening to the babbling water and staring into the night sky. Then I brushed my teeth, nestled into bed with Copernicus, and drifted into tomorrow.

I woke up early to bright new surroundings. Across the bridge I found an expanse of wild riparian land to explore. After greeting several birds and chasing away a housecat, I came across this GIGANTIC wasp sitting on a boulder. She seemed pretty chill and allowed me to pick her up long enough to snap this cell phone video. As she crawled up my arm you can see her obscenely long ovipositor.

This was going to be a good day!

For breakfast, I headed into the town of Athol and found what could be the grungiest diner north of that one “Waffle House” in Alabama. It was tiny, and cramped with locals. I chose the only stool left at the counter.

I love to study in places like this, so pulled out an assigned reading. This one was an analysis of the Chernobyl accident. Soon an old guy came in and sat down on my left. He started to chat across me with another not-so-old guy on my right. There was not six inches between us so I could not help but be a part of the conversation. Guy-to-my-right was the owner of the biggest business in Athol (some kind of electronics) and Guy-to-my-left was the Executive Director of the Quabbin Regional Chamber of Commerce. Apparently Wal-Mart is coming.

In casual conversation, I expressed how much I enjoyed the country-feel of the region and made clear my preference for family-owned business and small-town Americana. I walked away feeling like I may have actually had a positive impact on these two guys on either side of me.

Guy-to-my-left professed to be an avid “outdoorsman,” So I asked for some leads on good hiking trails. He told me about Gate 29. The next little adventure brought me deep into the woods of the Quabbin Reservoir where I found this little shack.

Next stop was Atkin’s Farm Stand where I discovered the locally-grown peach. I was completely unprepared - like I pulled the pin on a fruit-grenade. It reminded me of a Mango I once found on the side of the road in Tortola that left me sticky for days.

After a thorough fresh water rinse, I saw the words “Dinosaur Tracks” on my Rand-McNally road atlas. From my days as a student of geology, I could not recall how the volcanic and tectonic history of the Connecticut River Valley could have sustained roaming dinosaurs. I could not resist setting my knowledge straight and ended up getting into a long nostalgic talk with the ranger at the Dinosaur Tracks exhibit. He reminded me that the accretion of terrains occurred during the Paleozoic era about, 500 mya while the dinosaurs inhabited the area during the Mesozoic from 165-65 mya. A mere oversight of 400 mya.

When he saw how excited I got at the mention of a basalt/conglomerate nonconformity, he revealed a secret outcrop high on Mt. Taylor. With a hand-drawn map, I trekked up to see and it met all of my expectations. It was a gorgeous hike. Those rocks told me ancient stories and the birds sang to me personally.

Another peach and another freshwater rinse later, I headed up the road to Northampton. Northhampton is one of those places that everyone tells me I should live (along with Eugene, Oregon?). So I had to check it out. It was nice, very liberal, but soon to be hippie-critical. It highlights to me how I am often misunderstood. Although I share many of the values of deadheads, I care deeply about the planet and it’s people and I’m driven to making a positive impact. I struggle everyday to communicate an idea which I'm not yet qualified to do, but I’ve not given up yet.

As I strolled through town, I passed a haircutting place. On impulse, I decided to get a haircut. I was a little concerned because the place was blasting club-thumping techno music. But the girl did a good job, and it was worth the fifteen bucks just to have her wash my hair.

In a small bookstore, I bought a book of the letters of Thoreau at half-price. I then caught a movie “Little Miss Sunshine” (very good), had some sushi (wicked good), and settled in for the night up the road in a Clarion Hotel parking lot. In the back of my 2001 Eurovan, under the blue LED light of my Petzel mini-headlamp, I read Thoreau for the first time in my life.

The next morning was cold and rainy. So I was proud of myself for remembering to bring an umbrella. But when I opened it, I realized that not only was it tiny, but it had a scalloped edge – almost frilly. A little embarrassed by this girly thing, I ducked into the first café I could find. I sat there for several hours, my nosed pressed into my new book. “The heavens are as deep, as our aspirations are high “ wrote Thoreau. I was stunned. I decided to make a little pilgrimage.

I jumped on the Turnpike and headed east toward Walden Pond. With the words “Simplicity, simplicity” ringing in my ears, I stopped for a quick visit with my brother, to check out his humongous new, wide-screen, Hi-Def, digital surround sound, TV (which was cool).

The tenuous island of woods surrounding Walden Pond is now a National Historic Site run by the State. On this cold and rainy day the place was vacant. I found a bronze statue of Thoreau positioned near his cabin - as if he had just set out to go exploring. He has a determined stride and a familiar intense look on his face. His hand is held up, as if studying a piece of fruit.

Since no one was around, and Henry was distracted, I poked my head into the cabin. Inside, was marvelously stark. A slanted desk, three chairs at a three-legged table, a woodstove, and a small lumpy bed with a wool blanket. I could not resist. The door creaked open and I sat down at his desk. I daydreamed for several minutes and then found myself lying on the little bed listening to the rain. The last things I remember were the soft song of a robin, imagining the smell of wood smoke, and feeling the residual warmth from the long extinguished stove.

I was woken up by a wet Japanese family peering into the cabin. The father was nice enough to snap this photo on me and the old bugger (he’s a lot shorter than I imagined).

Of the many must-do things in a lifetime, two of them come to mind now (and no, peeing on the Plymouth Rock isn’t one). One is swimming in a tropical “bait-ball” – see earlier post, and two is sneaking a nap in Thoreau’s empty bed.

I have just begun to explore…

Saturday, July 22, 2006

a little FYI...

When you talk to MySpace, you talk to Rupert Murdoch.

MySpace is owned by News Corporation (AKA FOX News). Need I say more except, that's lame.

Try these instead:

Live Journal

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Philanthropic Blues

The other day, Warren Buffet announced his handing over about 31 billion dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The second richest man in the world, handing over the bulk of his fortune (to the number one richest) in exchange for the new title of most generous philanthropist ever. This is great news for world health and technology education which are the missions of the BMG. This makes the BMG Foundation now the largest private foundation in the world - five times larger than the second largest, the Ford Foundation which is another human centered charity.

Don't get me wrong, I love people and I'm stoked for humanity... but I'm wondering if some of that couldn't have gone toward the non-human slice of life on the planet - just a little?

And I've been listening to what these folks have been saying in the news. Much of it is their airing their concerns about "making an impact." My question is, if the BMG Foundation is concerned about making an impact with over $60 billion in assets, what hope does a guy like me have? It's really quite disheartening.

I may just give up.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Who are these guys?

An interesting little video airing on Current TV (Al Gore's venture to democratize Television).

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pelicans and Silversides

One summer gig I always enjoyed was as a teaching/sail-charter captain down in the British Virgin Islands. The 3-month job was to sail a 50-foot catamaran loaded up with high school kids, who had signed up for a summer of sailing, diving, marine biology and fun. So I went to the program’s website to get in the mood.

That’s when I saw a photo of a pelican and started to daydream roughly as follows:

I remember on one of these jobs a few years back, watching pelicans feed while anchored near Guana Island. I noticed - actually it’s hard not to - that they had a very specific and cyclic pattern. Sitting on the deck of “Gone Native” I observed (and filmed), squadrons of pelicans, flying in perfect formation. Groups of 2 to 20 would circle around in an undeniable “follow the leader” pattern. The lead bird was doing most of the hunting. It would frequently hesitate in mid flap, as if lining up prey. The rest would mirror the leader exactly, right down to the wing beat. Only when the timing was perfect would the leader commit to the classic pelican dive bomb, hitting the water at about 80 mph. Each successive bird mimicked the motions faithfully with the sole difference being that it would impact a fraction of a second later, and almost EXACTLY 2 feet away from the one just before it. The effect was like watching machine gun bullets fired from the deck of a warship as they aimed for a low-flying kamikaze.

See Pelican Video:

I’ve watched a lot of birds. And I’ve watched pelicans feed in different parts of the world. But this is the only place I’ve ever seen this habit practiced with such predictable precision. In Florida for example, I've watched pelicans fly in formation, but have only ever observed them to hunt/dive bomb independently.

Curiosity kicked in. Why do BVI Pelicans exhibit this peculiar behavior?

I’m sure there is a marine biologist or ornithologist out there who has studied the cooperative feeding behavior of pelicans. If you are (or know one) please let me know. But to me this is a completely original idea.

I think it has to less to do with geography and more with prey.

In the Caribbean there is an abundance of small fish called silversides. These little minnow-sized fish roam the shallows, in gigantic dense schools.

At some of the more remote anchorages, “bait balls” form and can dominate entire cove. A bait ball is a special event that happens when huge schools of silversides converge. From above it’s an insanely noisy scene with birds squawking and fish splashing all about (the last clip of the pelican movie). Pelicans and other seabirds such as gannets, gulls, and boobies, make diving assaults. Underneath, massive predatory fish like tarpon dart around with jaws agape, sending the fish boiling up to the surface. When not in an active bait ball things are a bit more calm but still disorienting.
See Silversides Video:

One time, while diving below a school of silversides, I looked up and noticed that the only space clear of fish, was a vertical tube in the path of my exhaled bubbles. Apparently the silversides don’t like bubbles. Maybe they think it’s a predator and are scattering to get away.

It was this radial scattering behavior that got me thinking about pelican feeding behavior. To do a little nonscientific experiment, I devised a simple “Rock Drop Test.”

See Rock Test Video:

I think Pelicans have learned that they can get more silversides per dive if they time and space themselves to the impact of a lead bird.

See diagrams.

Get It?

It could be a wonderful example of how complex, seemingly “intelligent” behaviors can evolve. How things evolve is a topic for another day.

And all it took was a little bird watching, daydreaming, and science.

PS. I had an opportunity to dive into an intensely active bait ball once and the experience blew my mind (unfortunately I did not have a camera). From below it is even more dramatic than above. Clouds of black, swirl around in the inches squeezed between the reef and the surface. At times you are enveloped in a vortex of fish not knowing which way is up. Vertigo sets in and you feel like you are tumbling through space because of the chaotic swarms of fish. Every few minutes the motion becomes even more panicked. Tarpon jaws flash by your face and these big fish actually bump into you. It feels like a brother’s punch.

If you ever get the opportunity to dive or even snorkel into one you should jump right it. It’s amazing. Check out this video.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Tree

In 1964 Shell Silverstein wrote “The Giving Tree” - a tender story about a tree that unconditionally loves a little boy. It’s a moving parable about love and the “serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return” so says the sleeve.

Synopsis: As a child, the boy plays in the tree. As an adult, he harvests its apples for profit. Later in life, he chops the tree down to build a house and boat. Then finally, as an old man, he returns to the stump and sits on it.

As a work of fiction, I know this is not to be taken literally of course. But like any literary scripture, it’s open for interpretation, and I'm hard-wired to do it. So please, allow me to overanalyze.

First, I’m not so sure any activity that involves and axe can be considered “serene”.

Second, as touching as it is, this story never quite sat right with me. Honestly, I think there is a persistent ignorance in there that itself, needs to be felled.

I think this page from the book sums up my point:

The text says "And the tree was happy...but not really"

Ever since I started building surfboards out of wood, I also began to really appreciate the raw material. Now that I'm a professional consumer of lumber, I feel a sense of responsibility to replenish it.

This has been the driving force behind the Grain Surfboards policy to plant ten cedar trees for every board built.

This experience trying to germinate cedars has taught me a lot about forestry and tree horticulture. In my research of forestry and logging, I also began to realize that it’s going to take more – much more.

On a hike through the woods the other day, I came upon yet another “development project”. Instead of agonizing as I usually do, I decided to act and put my “expertise” and enthusiasm for trees to work. Today I’m developing an expanded "Tree Giving" program to be launched soon.

The story is a parable all right.

When we were young, nature gave us everything. We're still chopping it down.

PS – I’m sorry if I beat up on a cherished childhood book. I still love it too. I just wish Mr. Silverstein’s boy could have planted some of those apple seeds. If he had, think how different the world would be today.

The Lorax I think got it right .

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


There is a scene in the movie “The Matrix” where the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves), is brought mentally up to speed on reality after being a life-long fetus. They plug a cord into the back of his head that downloads 1000 years worth of information, plus a boatload of physical agility. He squirms and grunts during the process (apparently they skipped the acting talent module).

Anyway, I only remember this scene so vividly because I always wondered what that would be like. How would that really feel to suddenly have so much wisdom, insight, and perspective, flooding into your psyche?

Stop for a second and really think about that…

Now, to your newly downloaded worldview, add a couple modules of tolerance and compassion for your fellow human beings…. Got it?

That’s how I’ve been feeling the past few weeks – minus the martial arts.

E-N-F-P; the first time I heard these four letters in sequence was just after my 40th birthday a few weeks ago.

I can say without hesitation that those four letters have precipitated some of the most rewarding weeks of my life. Like Neo, I feel like I was born just yesterday. And keep in mind, it’s not like I haven’t already lived a rewarding life, I mean I’ve been way off the umbilical for a while.

Those four letters represent my Myers-Briggs temperament, character, and intelligence. Without going into the details, they say I am an Extroverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiver. And I say they are absolutely right.

This is not astrology or celebrity pseudo-science psychic baloney. This is real science, albeit a bit squishy, based on hundreds of years of empirical psychological observation. So there is an overwhelming amount of data to explore.

Granted, I was turned onto this stuff at a time when I was struggling to figure out what the hell went wrong with a “relationship.” So I had some pretty strong motivation to study (not to mention that my particular type is prone to assigning "deep ethical significance" to ideas like this). But no matter your type, the payoff is bound to be extraordinarily fruitful - if you get yourself plugged in.

I don’t suggest books often but here is one: "Please Understand Me II" by David Kiersey (there is a website too but the book has much more detailed insights). I find his writing exceptionally clear and concise.

The real value here is not what the letters tell me about me (most of it I already knew), but what they say about others AND me. This knowledge equips a person with a keenly revised sense of tolerance. No longer do I see other’s faults, but I see their qualities. Sure in the face of true human complexity, this stuff has it's limitations (thank god) But it's impossible to overstate the value of a little tolerance and compassion - two things the world needs now more than ever.

Try it.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A tug of wonder

On the road to the coast, which I drive frequently, there is an expanse of wetland that has always intrigued me. A little creek meanders its way on shoulders of swamp that stretch off to the mountains. For me it’s a mystical landscape because where there is water, there is life – and in a habitat like this, usually lots of it.

Normally, as I zip over the small bridge that spans the creek, I catch a glimpse of a pond in the distance. In the middle is an island just big enough for two towering white pines to compete. Then for about a mile or so more, I fantasize about the little coves, inlets, birds and animals that call that place home. It’s one of those little pockets of nature I cherish. I always tell myself that someday, I’m going to launch a kayak from that bridge and go exploring.

Today was the day, I succumb to the tug of wonder.

I had only two hours, so set my sights on the island. If I paddled with conviction, I estimated I could get there in time for one of my favorite rituals; a catnap in the sun.

From the bridge I made my way inland. As I paddled through the shallows, I could tell that if I had come here in July or August, the place would be wildly different - steamy, green, and buggy. But this unseasonably warm day seemed to have snuck up on the place. The water was still cold and crystal clear as the breezy sky. I could see small-mouth bass chilling in the shadows. The shoreline was a tangle of striped, tan-colored, defeated reeds - still slumped over where they had surrendered to fall the year before. The bottom was a stinky brown, organic mud. It had all the fixins for the flush of spring life.

The creek zigzagged its way along, offering a little protected cove at each turn. At one glassy spot, I stopped to spy on a couple of courting mergansers. That’s when something different caught my eye.

Have you ever seen a kite boarder? Usually a guy, strapped to board, holding a line, attached to a big kite, skimming across the water. A relatively new human invention - or so it only seems, because a different species had already figured it out. In this case, a quarter-sized spider.

I watched as it skipped along the rippled surface. The only things missing were the board and the kite. The silk string streamed out ahead, pulling him at about half a knot - downwind and in my direction.

Maybe this is a good point to explain my relationship of hypocrisy with spiders. As living things, I love them with an enthusiasm rivaled only by my irrational fear of them. Just writing about them makes me nauseas with the jeebies. Please, never try to scare me with a spider. If you do, I’m apparently willing to punch you (after which I will have to apologize profusely) and the spider will probably pay the ultimate price. Please do yourself, me, and the spider favor - let it be.

As he sailed closer and closer, I felt a twinge of panic. Even so I reached for my camera phone, excited to document this never-before-seen spiderly behavior. But before I could snap a shot, the spider got stuck in the doldrums of the cove. With a sense of relief and disappointment, I watched his string deflate, and drift down onto the glassy surface. He was dead in the water about 20 feet away.

A familiar dilemma arose. Do I just consider my self lucky to have witnessed this and go back to the mergansers in love, or do I paddle over to admire him, and fascinate myself. Of course, the tug of wonder won once again.

As I glided closer I readied my camera. Within a few feet I began to see the details of his striped, tan-colored body. This got me thinking about the shoreline of reeds and how many of him must be lurking in there as exquisitely hidden predators. The thought was enough to get my adrenalin and fears pumping. But although I was in a heightened state of fear, the spider seemed calm enough. Especially given the vulnerability of his situation. There he was out in the open, comiting the mortal evolutionary mistake of contrasting with his environment. And with only a layer of surface tension between him and his predators (the bass), he had much more to worry about than I. His stillness calmed me and we called a truce.

Lost in the moment, and concentrating on taking this photo, I overlooked that my momentum was carrying me right on top of him. At some point I must have invaded his arachnid space, and he my personal, because he jumped. The truce was off.

The effect was catastrophic. All of my suppressed and irrational fears released at a single point in time. When I lost sight of him, my adrenalin exploded. I thrust my hands down on the surface, but the water just pushed aside. My center of gravity rose, my weight pulled me down. This time the it was the tug of gravity that won. Cold water filled the kayak. My hand sank into the mud. I was suddenly face to face with spidey and I FREAKED OUT. I could not get out of there fast enough and splashed around frantically. It must have been a pathetic, hysterical, sight. The mergansers flew away apaulled at the display.

I pulled myself ashore, wet, muddy, embarrassed, and laughing.

I did make it out to the island that day, and the catnap did happen. I lay there drying off in the warm sun with a grin, thinking about writing this story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spring... finally here.

I know because I spent the entire day in flip-flops and sat for several minutes, listening to Red Winged blackbirds squabble over territory.

Listen to the mp3

So nice to connect with things less heavy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Spooky and me

When I was a little boy, about the age when one would start wondering about the logistics of God, I remember sitting on the porch with my puppy Spooky. I also remember that very same day, asking my mom where exactly God was. Maybe for lack of a little boy answer, or maybe merciful foresight, she told me simply, that “God is everywhere.”

My mom's God at the time, WAS everywhere. He was watching everything she did. That’s what her mom told her... but she added, to account for sins. Sins? Give me a break. So by some real miracle, MY mom neglected to tell me that part of the story. And that has made all the difference.

But this post is about perspectives, including those of and from little boys. A backdrop to illustrate; in the midsts of recent events, I temporarily lost my perspective. I’m told I’m prone to agonizing and I was living up to my reputation - I had to sit down at times...

I was sitting in a parking lot when my cell phone rang. It was my 12 year-old nephew. He wanted to know what Natural Selection was. I regained my composure enough to tell him how evolution works. It was a wonderful conversation and he was with me word for word.

“Kyle, it’s very important that you REALLY understand how evolution works. It is a unique, and honest way of seeing the world – a gift you will carry around for the rest of your life. In every tree, every frog, every paramecium, and especially, in every human being, you will see beauty that many people miss – an intrinsic beauty, clear and real, from a place high above the words and myths of men. If there is a "God", she speaks through natural selection and you can see it....everywhere"

That's when it hit me. My mom was right, "God" really is everywhere, Spooky and I were best friends for 14 years, broken hearts hurt, I agonize, life is beautiful, perspective just hits you, and somehow I have yet to figure out, all of this is connected.