Sunday, December 31

End of the Year Wrap-Up

So this has been quite the year.

Some time ago, I wrote about Melissa, our bad-tempered calico, who's got a cancerous tumor which has invaded her lymph nodes. At the time I wrote it, I didn't think she'd still be around by this point but, surprisingly, she's not only around, but she's still her usual self-- eating not as much as she used to and sleeping a lot, but still interested in food, and still interested in waking us up at 3am to get pet.

So, it continues, and we're exactly where we were a few months ago-- she may live another day, another week, another month or two, and the only thing to do is to enjoy the time we have left. So I'm doing my best to do this without breaking into tears from time to time, which of course I do every time I talk or write about this, but eventually I get past it and I figure everything is okay for now, which is pretty much the best any of us can hope for.

So it goes on, this day-to-day living with this ongoing illness. It's strange that I feel so much more strongly about this with respect to animals than I do about humans. I've known humans who were slowly dying, and I've had friends who have died suddenly and without explanation and I don't really cry for them the way I do about pets. I think there's something about being human that I know -understands- this. We all know we're going to die eventually and we all cope with that in our own way, I don't know whether or not animals understand this, and I just wish that I could know what they actually want. I've been through this with three different pets in my adult life where I have had to personally pay someone to kill them and while, intellectually, I know it's the right thing, emotionally, I still have trouble with it.

And so it continues. One more cat that's dying slowly but living comfortably for the moment, and I guess that whether or not I'm okay with that, there's nothing left to do but make sure she remains comfortable and happy and gets food she likes and has Sebastian (insane manic kittenish cat who, as I write this, wonders why he hasn't been fed yet (though that could apply to any moment, including the ten minutes it takes him to figure out that he -has- been fed) to keep her company when we're not around.

In the meantime, our winter resident red-tailed red-shouldered (I had this one misidentified for over a year--oops) hawk is a constant source of yard drama. Shown above is picture I took yesterday, as either I or the blue jays were pissing it off. You can find a larger version at:

I got to watch it fly from tree to tree as it screeched its -very- loud sound. (There's a blue-jay picture there, too).

I haven't been doing as much photography as of late (less time for birding, plus not as much variety in the winter-- it's always a slower season), so I've been experimenting with black and white renderings of older photographs-- I've posted some of those as well-- the thumbnails are shown below the picture.

The other day, I got a microphone attachment for my iPod which I'm thinking will be fun to use. It turns my iPod into a very small stereo field recorder. I tried using it to record a piece of music the other day and I came up with this very cool rendering of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. It's available for download at:

I like the way it sounds-- it's not what I would call top professional quality, but it works well for what it is, and will allow me to record concerts and jam sessions without having to bring my gigantic mixer along. I may also use it as a field recorder when out birding-- I've been thinking for awhile of mixing bird sounds into some of my own music so I may do some experiments with that down the line. I'd love to get the sound of the red-tail screeching and use it as a baseline for a piece of music. This may be a whole new area for me to explore.

I'm still thinking that even if I do record a whole album, I'm more likely to do it through digital distribution with a very small run of physical CDs, but I'm getting some nice ideas for pieces to perform. I'm thinking specifically of doing a run of pieces inspired by classical guitar music I used to play, like the Jesu piece I just referenced. I've been working on a Bethoven theme, and would love to do a version of Debussey's "Claire De Lune" which features banjo as its primary instrument, though it may be awhile.

In short, I'm in no rush to do anything new right now, but I'm thinking about it and exploring ideas, etc. Now that I have the iPod microphone, podcasts may become more frequent as well. We'll see where it all goes.

I'm going to mention two more things before I wrap up-- first, I just want to say how amazed I am by what we managed to accomplish in November with respect to rejecting the completely insane rightwing agenda that's controlled our legislature for the last few years and I can only say "more, more, more." Honestly, this group makes me miss the days when Republicans were primarily about screwing the poor and waging war. Goldwater, by today's standards, looks almost leftwing compared to this group of religious zealots.

In Vermont, we actually got even -more- Republicans booted out and a recent statewide recount switched our auditor results from the Republican to the Democrat. I met Randy Brock (the Republican who just lost) and I don't think I've ever met anyone else whose entire demeanor better suggested "middle management at a used car dealership." There's something about him I found inherently untrustworthy, so I'm glad to see him go for that, and a variety of other more specifically political reasons: his office blew me off on an audit request until someone asked about it in one of the political debates and suddenly he was all interested in it, but still delayed any report until after the election. I don't know how much of that was just slowness of process and how much was evasion of the issue, but either way, an audit request in early September shouldn't take until mid-December to resolve when it's an extremely simple piece of information I'm looking for. So yeah, one less Republican in control of an important state office pleases me.

The last thing I'll mention is that this "winter" we're having is scaring me, in a serious way. It's been unseasonably warm here, which happens sometimes, but the behavior of the animals is just really different and suggests, to me, not just local unusual weather, but something more global. Migration patterns seem to have shifted considerably this year-- a lot of birds still around that are constantly surprising me and, scariest of all, bears not -hibernating-.

So one of my goals for this year is to figure out new ways to affect my energy usage and waste and keep it lower than it's been. Having bought a Prius is good. Composting all our food waste is good. If I could carpool with people, I would, but I don't see it working given the sort of driving I do (commuting 200+ miles on various days from week to week don't make for good carpool companions). But I can, at least, try to work something out with my students, or other people teaching that night, this Spring-- see if I can can arrange a carpool with three of them for the consistent ride to teach, and encourage them to do the same. Anyway, this whole thing wants me to figure out how to change how I use energy-- investigate solar panels to supplement the power-- I can't imagine a windmill working on our small amount of land, but the solar panels make perfect sense, and there are plenty of other options.

It's just got me thinking-- I don't see how we'll fix this without finding creative ways to approach things.

That's it-- much longer than I expected. Be well, everybody and have a good new year.

Friday, December 29

Friday Bird Bloging: Snowy Egret

The snowy egret is a bird I've seen rarely in Vermont, but frequently down at Parker River Wildlife Refuge. It's about half the size of a great egret and a lot more mobile and it's distinguished by its black beak and yellow feet (I think of them as akin to clown shoes just because of the garish color).

Watching one of these creatures hunt is an entertaining experience. Instead of casually standing still, being very quiet and blending in until it spots prey, it aggressively goes after its prey, but does so with an odd, diagonal, pattern. You can see it stand for a bit then suddenly just dart about five or more feet to grab something out of the water.

This particular picture is from Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Plum Island, MA, but my first sighting of a snowy was in coastal Maine, on a dark and wet day, when we spotted a small group of them on some rocks in a nearby river. At the time, it was true excitement to spot and photograph a new bird for me, but even years later, I love watching them move, dart, weave and bob about.

As usual, the image links to larger pictures or a list of thumbnails.

Thursday, December 28

A New Experiment

I've been working on various arrangements of Bach Pieces for solo flatpick guitar-- the most recent one is my rendition of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." I just posted it at

How the Brain Tunes Out Background Noise

Crossposted from my psychology blog:

Last year, Live Science published a nice little summary article (How the Brain Tunes Out Background Noise) about our mental process and how our perceptual process will tend to phase out the aspects of our surroundings which are routine or predictable:
The "novelty detector neurons," as researchers call them, quickly stop firing if a sound or sound pattern is repeated. They will briefly resume firing if some aspect of the sound changes. The neurons can detect changes in pitch, loudness or duration of a single sound and can also note shifts in the pattern of a complex series of sounds.

"It is probably a good thing to have this ability because it allows us to tune out background noises like the humming of a car's motor while we are driving or the regular tick-tock of a clock," said study team member Ellen Covey, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. "But at the same time, these neurons would instantly draw a person's attention if their car's motor suddenly made a strange noise or if their cell phone rang."

I'm interested in how this applies to driving-- there's a lot we need to attend to, as drivers, and a lot we don't even notice on a conscious level. How much of what we do when driving is necessary and how much of it is background? Do some people tend to have more trouble with the distractions than others? Do some of us have the ability to better distinguish background noise from necessary information?

As I am known to do from time to time, I will use birding as an example. When I'm looking for birds, I pay a lot of attention to the sounds and calls of birds, but I suspect that, after a short while, I do not pay any attention at all to familiar birds. Once I know that there are American Robins around, do my ears pay attention to them any longer, or do I just mentally dismiss them?

Or, on the other hand, we can think about music: when I am listening to a fairly common and unoriginal melody, I may not notice it at all on the surface, but I may notice unusual harmonies or arrangements of that same melody. Or, alternatively, unless I specifically attend to it, I may not even notice the chord progression of a tune, once it's gone through once or twice. Unless the music does something interesting, it may fade entirely into the background-- how often have you not even realized what song was playing on an intercom until someone pointed it out to you?

Monday, December 25


Crossposted from my psychology blog:

This picture is an ambigram, an image which can be viewed in more than one way depending on how you perceive it.

The thing about this sort of image, in particular, is that it manages to convince you visually that you're looking at two completely contradictory views at the exact same time.

What does this tell you about perception, and the way our brain processes conflicting stimuli? Can you see it as both images simultaneously, or merely as one, then the other, alternating based on how you squint or tip your head?

Thursday, December 21

Friday Bird Bloging: Northern Harrier

There is something about this particular view which makes me glad I'm not a mouse.

The Northern Harrier is one of my favorite hawks to watch. It hunts low to the ground and will do so with careful deliberation. This particular shot is one of my favorites, and helped sell me on how great digital photography can be-- this was one of over a hundred pictures I took in a very short period, and very few of them were anywhere near this quality. With nature photography especially, there's really something to being able to get off as many shots as are humanly possible in a very short period in the hopes that just a few will be the quality you're looking for.

Friday, December 15

Friday Bird Blogging: The Belted Kingfisher

For years, I tried to get good pictures of kingfishers, but with very little luck. They will stand still for long periods, but not always where they're easy to spot, and when in motion they fly -very- quickly. This particular shot is a favorite of mine, not for the quality of the images, but for the fact that I managed to get a series of shots which capture a specific moment. When the kingfisher sees prey in the water, it will fly directly above the prey and simply hover, flapping quickly while it prepares for a dive. Then it drops directly down into the water and, if all goes as planned, plucks a fish out and flies out with its meal. What you see here is the "before" picture. My next plan is to get a picture of the kingfisher the moment -after- it gets is prey, with fish in hand (or, technically, beak).

Wednesday, December 13

My not-so Dumb-Ass Election Predictions

Shortly before the election, I posted this:
In national news, I expect the House to break with 233 Democrats and
202 Republicans. I'd like to see the Republicans drop below 200 in
the house, but I don't expect it. As far as nearby races go, I
expect Paul Hodes to win in NH, which was unheard of three weeks ago.

I expect the close Senate races to reflect a six-seat gain for
Democrats, picking up Missouri Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode
Island and Virginia. Ford and Pederson will both lose and Menendez
will hold his seat.
Now that all the results are in (at least on the official level), it actually looks like I got the numbers right after all.

How the hell did that happen?

Friday, December 8

Friday Bird Blogging: The Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is a great little feeder bird. It's not as striking as its larger counterpart, the hairy woodpecker but it's the sort of bird that will, if you're careful, let you get incredibly close looks at it while it's feeding on suet, giving you wonderful opportunity for some amazing detailed looks, such as this one.

Tuesday, December 5

2007 Calendar: Wildlife Photography

So I decided to collect together some of my photography into a nifty 2007 Calendar. It's some of my favorite pictures from this year-- pictures from Parker River Wildlife Refuge, the Connecticut Lakes Region of New Hampshire, Southeastern Vermont and Lighthouse Point.

If you're interested, you can find the calendar, as well as several other items I put together (such as a wall clock, a poster and a set of postcards) at

Sunday, December 3

Scott Adams on Music

Scott wonders Why is Music Legal?. My favorite line:
Music is clearly unsafe. Suppose you’re in a perfectly good mood and a depressing song comes on. That could make you sad and break down your body’s natural defenses. You could get sick and die. Thank you very much Tori Amos.

Friday, December 1

Friday Bird Blogging: The Northern Mockingbird

Any number of times, I've heard an interesting sound while out looking for birds, only to discover that it came from a mockingbird. Even so, I'm rarely disappointed; these are striking birds, with a true elegance to their appearance.