Friday, July 31, 2009

Meet the gulf fritillary

So, I've raised black swallowtails and I've raised monarchs. Now, thanks to some stowaways on some passionflower clippings Lori brought home from her aunt's house, I can add the gulf fritillary to my butterfly-rearing repertoire as well:
Fritillaries are fairly common in Houston, and they're quite striking, even as larvae. Here, a couple of brightly-colored, spiny fritillary caterpillars crawl along a passionflower vine:
The spines are not poisonous nor painful to the touch, but the caterpillars themselves are poisonous to birds and other predators. Neither the caterpillars nor the adults grow to be as large as other local butterflies such as the monarch, but they are nevertheless appealing to look at, even when their wings are folded:Here's one, in its full orange glory, resting on my butterfly net right before Kirby and I sent it outside and on its way into the world.Adults feed on typical butterfly attractors, such as lantana, but they are especially attracted to passionflower because that's the only thing their larvae eat. Hopefully Lori's passionflower cuttings will take root so that we'll see more of these guys fluttering around our yard in the future.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apologies and aggrepost

As my regular readers (all three of them) have probably noticed, I have not been very busy writing new blog entries over the past few weeks. Part of the reason is that we're simply stuck in the mid-summer doldrums and there's really not anything going on that I feel compelled to write about. This will probably remain the case until football season begins.

The other reason that posting activity has been light has to do with some pretty significant changes currently underway in my personal life. I am not going to go into details right now - everything will be revealed once things are resolved - but my attention right now is focused on these changes and not on keeping this blog current.

With that said, I did want to follow-up on some previous postings of mine:

FIU's cheerleading program might survive after all. Last month, it was reported that budget cuts at Florida International University had forced the elimination of its marching band as well as its award-winning cheerleading squad. FIU's cheerleaders, however, refused to go quietly into the night and used their, uh, assets in a bid to save their program:
Proving once again that there are very few problems in the world that a bikini car wash cannot fix, Florida International has announced that its cheerleading program has been brought back from the dead. The university had said that it was cutting the program — plus the marching band — in an attempt to shave $1 million from its operating budget. But the cheerleaders, and the general public, would not take this lying down.
Through fundraising efforts that included bikini car washes, blood drives and most probably a few large individual donations, it appears that our long national nightmare is at an end. According to [...] the Save FIU Cheerleading group Facebook page (via BUSTED COVERAGE), enough money has been raised to reinstate the program. Hooray!
Well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Good for them. Hopefully the persistence of the cheerleaders will inspire FIU's struggling football program to have a successful season this fall.

That didn't last long. Ultra-low-cost airline JetAmerica appears to have been grounded before it could even take its first flight:

JetAmerica officially will not get off the ground in August. The airline announced in a press release this afternoon that it is "suspending sales to all markets and that it would immediately begin to notify affected customers and process refunds to all customers who have booked on the public charter flights." A spokesman for the company says JetAmerica would refund more than $900,000 in ticket reservations for flights since Aug. 14, which was JetAmerica's latest project launch date.

The Associated Press picks up the story, saying the "fledgling discount airline that garnered attention with $9 promotional fares, has folded without ever getting off the ground. ... Service was originally supposed to begin July 13 to underserved markets in Toledo, Ohio; South Bend, Ind.; Melbourne, Fla.; and Lansing, Mich. Flights were also scheduled to larger airports in Minneapolis and Newark, N.J."

Apparently, the airline ran into difficulty in securing the landing slots it needed at Newark's heavily-congested Liberty International Airport. No word as to whether the realization that the creation of another airline, even an "ultra-low-fare" one, is not a sound business decision in this depressed economy played a factor in the decision.

JetAmerica's management is not giving up the ghost, however. They're still trying to convince people that this news simply represents a temporary setback and that the carrier will indeed take to the skies sometime this fall once they find a replacement airport for Newark Liberty. Color me unconvinced. Right now, the last thing the nation's struggling domestic aviation industry needs is another airline.

They'll still find a way to screw you! Although the The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009, signed into law last May, prohibits the credit card industry from implementing some of its sleazier and more predatory practices, they'll still find a way to squeeze as much money as they can from their customers.

Case in point: the legislation prohibits credit card issuers from enacting sudden or retroactive interest rate increases. So what do the banks do? They simply change their fixed-rate credit cards to variable-rate credit cards, which are not subject to the same restrictions. A few weeks ago, I received notices that this change was happening to at least two of my cards. How nice.

More on shrinking cities: a few months ago, I wrote about the rising movement to "shrink" post-industrial cities, such as Flint, Michigan, by bulldozing entire dilapidated neighborhoods and returning the land to nature. There's been a lot of good discussion about the topic since then, with some critics arguing that large-scale demolition will not solve these cities' social and economic problems any more than the now-discredited postwar theory of "urban renewal" solved urban problems of its time, or that such bulldozing forecloses any opportunity to one day revitalize these cities and encourages further urban decentralization.

Perhaps the liquidation of entire neighborhoods is an extreme response, but, as one urban consultant writes, some sort of "planned shrinkage" through demolition is simply necessary for blighted post-industrial cities:
One consequence of persistent business loss and depopulation is the emergence of a growing number of unoccupied vacant residential and commercial buildings, many of which will remain vacant indefinitely. Some of the houses can be rehabilitated, and some of the former office and factory buildings can be redesigned as lofts, condominiums, art galleries, and restaurants. But many of these vacant buildings will have to be demolished. Last year, an administrator in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections told me that city housing inspectors were identifying an average of thirty "imminently dangerous" buildings each month, an average of one a day. These structures are not fixer-uppers—they’re about to collapse. Although a wholesale razing of neighborhoods would be foolhardy, some demolition activity will need to be ongoing in older cities in order to remove the most dangerous or most blighted buildings.
The author goes on to explain Flint's demolition process, undertaken by a specially-created Land Bank Authority, in detail. It's an interesting concept to remedy a very real problem, but I'm quite frankly glad we don't have to deal with it here in Houston.

Speaking of urban demolition: over a year ago, I wrote about the movement to replace or even eliminate urban freeways that have reached the end of their design lives. They're currently having this discussion about an aging elevated freeway in New Orleans:

Now, shifting national trends and looming maintenance expenses have experts talking about the possibility of removing the Claiborne Expressway from the Pontchartrain Expressway to Elysian Fields Avenue. Traffic would flow on surface streets or along Interstate 610.

Removal of the Claiborne Expressway was proposed by the two-year-old Unified New Orleans Plan and is a key recommendation in the city's draft master plan.

"I-10 is something that lots and lots of people complained about, especially in terms of its damage to Treme," said David Dixon, a principal with Goody Clancy, the firm that is creating the draft of the master plan.

Claiborne Avenue, with its wide neutral ground and routing that takes it close to the Big Easy's Central Business District, was a natural location for a freeway during the interstate building boom of the 1960s. But with the freeway structure now forty years old, is the Claiborne Expressway still necessary? Or can it be torn down and Claiborne Avenue returned to its original state?

What would be the traffic effects of such a decision? It's hard to say. Through traffic could continue to travel along the 610 bypass along the lakeside edge of the city (or along Interstate 12 on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain), and freeway access to the CBD, the Quarter and the Crescent City Connection would be maintained by the western portion of I-10 (Pontchartrain Expressway), which is not being proposed for demolition. The disposition of the traffic that currently uses the Claiborne Expressway to access the CBD from eastern New Orleans is a legitimate concern, but, as the article notes, the traffic nightmares that were feared when other cities tore down their urban freeways, such as the Westside Highway in Manhattan or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, never materialized. Drivers just found other ways to get to their destinations.

Freeway demolition isn't the biggest issue facing post-Katrina New Orleans, however, and he article points out that the dismantling of the Claiborne is not a priority of Nagin's administration. It's also far from certain, given the city's current demographic and economic predicament, that pulling down the elevated freeway will have much affect on the potential revitalization of the Treme. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if this goes anywhere.

And finally, more Dubai-bashing! From - where else? - The Times, which has firmly established itself as the vanguard of the western media's hatred of the Emirate. Here's a sample of their latest sneering missive:

“Why did you leave Britain?” I ask him, slung well below sea level in the bucket seat as we cruise the baked streets past the filthy, crumbling apartment blocks where the Bangladeshi slave labourers live or die, 10 or 12 to a room, and then into the hideous bling of downtown Dubai, a vast architectural experiment conducted by, seemingly, Albert Speer and Victoria Beckham. One skyscraper appears to be gilded in gold leaf, another looks like the birthday cake of a spoilt five-year-old brat — and all of them trying desperately to be taller, flashier, more grotesque than the one next door.

“Well, you know,” he says, in a soft Scottish burr, “I think it was the immigration more than anything else.”

“But Andrew, you’re an immigrant now…”

He looks astonished at this, as if the notion had never occurred, then says: “Yes! Ironic, I suppose. But the difference is, I’m a wanted immigrant.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Up to a point. In truth, needed more than wanted. As one local put it: “We are fed up of westerners who come here thinking they deserve an easy meal ticket. You were nothing in the West, so you came here for the houses and cars you could never get back home, you stole through taking out excessive finance that is not justified by you [sic] salaries. Then when you cannot pay you run, this is theft born out of greed and arrogance.

“Anyway despite all of this you still disrespect our cultural and religious values with your behaviour, dress and conduct in our malls and on our beaches and comments about us our race and our religion. You spend all your time critizising [sic] our laws, society and systems. Yet, you could never have the lifestyle you have here back in your system. You people are no longer welcome, please go and pollute somewhere else.”

That was the message posted by a disgruntled Emirati on an expat website recently, and, as a description of the British, South African, Australian and eastern-European workers now living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it has a certain truth about it. The Emiratis are a minority within their own country, the UAE, and an even smaller minority within Dubai, the most populous city of the UAE, where they number about 20% of the population.

On the other hand, it seems a bit rich coming from an Emirati, the inhabitant of a country that lucked into oil money about 43 years ago and is now utterly dependent on foreign labour for its current, unsustainable prosperity — the ranks of the skilled and talented working class from Europe, who come here and run their absurd, extravagant and now faltering construction projects, and the traders and the dealers.

The British expats I spoke to believed, without exception, that the Emiratis are utterly useless, corrupt and indolent, and, according to several, some British managers are leaving rather than abide by a new law that requires them to employ a certain percentage of Arabs on every job. They’re simply not up to it, they say. As it is, the locals make up less than one-fifth of the total UAE population, the westerners roughly half that amount. The majority population in Dubai is the criminally low-paid, enchained, abused, dispossessed peasantry from south Asia.

Let's see: snide remarks about Dubai's "hideous" architecture? Check. Prominent mention of the "enslaved" (or, in this case, "enchained") construction laborers? Check. Anti-western vitriol from some anonymous Emirati? Check. Description of Emiratis as lazy, spoiled and arrogant? Check. Looks like this author followed the Dubai-bashing template to the letter. You'd think that, after so many months' worth of articles saying the same negative things about Dubai and the UAE, these writers would come up with some new material. But I guess not.

Seabee's take is here.

That's all I have for now. You may now resume your summertime monotony.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cursive is dead, but I'm not mourning

There's an interesting article in this week's issue of Time about the slow death of cursive:
Cursive started to lose its clout back in the 1920s, when educators theorized that because children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way. By World War II, manuscript, or print writing, was in standard use across the U.S. Today schoolchildren typically learn print in kindergarten, cursive in third grade. But they don't master either one. Over the decades, daily handwriting lessons have decreased from an average of 30 minutes to 15.
While it would be easy to blame the death of handwriting on the increasing prevalence of technology - text messaging and e-mail have allowed us to conduct virtually all our business by keyboard, rather than by pen - that's not the entire story.
Technology is only part of the reason. A study published in the February issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology found that just 9% of American high school students use an in-class computer more than once a week. The cause of the decline in handwriting may lie not so much in computers as in standardized testing. The Federal Government's landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, on the dismal state of public education, ushered in a new era of standardized assessment that has intensified since the passage in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act. "In schools today, they're teaching to the tests," says Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor and the author of a history of American handwriting. "If something isn't on a test, it's viewed as a luxury." [Elementary school teacher Linda] Garcia agrees. "It's getting harder and harder to balance what's on the test with the rest of what children need to know," she says. "Reading is on there, but handwriting isn't, so it's not as important." In other words, schools don't care how a child holds her pencil as long as she can read.
I still have memories of third grade, when our teacher introduced us to cursive and explained to us its supposed advantages over print. She claimed, for example, that it was quicker than writing in print, although that never seemed to be the case for me. She also told us that the connected writing style reduced the amount of pen lifting, thereby reducing the number of potential ink smudges. I'm sure that was a big advantage back in the days of quills and inkwells, but probably wasn't quite as much as an issue with the ball point pens we used.

Problem was, my relationship with cursive was tainted from the get-go by my horrendous penmanship. Bad handwriting runs in the family. My father's handwriting is bad. My grandfather's was poor as well. I personally think there is a genetic component to fine motor coordination skill that simply makes some people, such as myself, predisposed to bad handwriting.

So no matter how much instruction I received ("take it slowly," one teacher would tell me; "don't press your pen to the page so hard," advised another), no matter much I practiced my letters, no matter how often my teachers scolded me for my "atrocious" and "illegible" scrawl, my handwriting never really improved. From third through fifth grade, every report card I received came with that obligatory "D" in handwriting. I hated being graded on something I really couldn't "learn." And I resented those gifted kids in class whose immaculate handwriting set the standard by which scribblers like me were evaluated.

It wasn't long afterward - sometime in middle school, I believe - that I abandoned cursive completely and reverted to writing in print. My penmanship still wasn't particularly good, but at least I was more comfortable with my writing and my work was somewhat easier on my teachers' eyes. Today, I don't think I could write a complete sentence in cursive if I tried. It's a skill that I've simply forgotten.
Is that such a bad thing? Except for physicians — whose illegible handwriting on charts and prescription pads causes thousands of deaths a year — penmanship has almost no bearing on job performance. And aside from the occasional grocery list or Post-it note, most adults write very little by hand. The Emily Post Institute recommends sending a handwritten thank-you but says it doesn't matter whether the note is in cursive or print, as long as it looks tidy. But with the declining emphasis in schools, neatness is becoming a rarity.
There's certainly something to be said for neatness, and to be sure, the article discusses the sorry state of the ability of today's youth to print as well as write. There's also something truly lamentable about the entire "teach to the test" philosophy that permeates today's school system and debases the value of "non-essential" skills such as neat handwriting.

But the fact remains: cursive, although elegant, is an outdated artifact of the days before computers or typewriters when most business and correspondence was conducted by hand, using quill and ink. It's a skill that has increasingly less relevance in today's world. That, along with the fact that it is something I was never any good at, means that I'm not really mourning its demise.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Audubon Insectarium

A few weeks ago, Kirby, my brother-in-law Danny, my parents and I made our annual trip to New Orleans. Every year we see more signs of post-Katrina recovery in terms of the numbers of tourists and conventioneers out and about, as well as the number of new and reopened businesses, and this last trip was no different. People are returning to the Big Easy: for the second year in a row, New Orleans tops the Census Bureau's annual report of fastest-growing cities. Another sign of recovery is the return of the red Canal Street streetcars, which were flooded by the hurricane:
Canal Street, speaking of which, is home to one of the city's newest attractions, the Audubon Insectarium. We missed its opening by about a week last year and were looking forward to visiting it this year.
The Insectarium is a lot larger than it might appear from the outside of the 1881 Customs House; its designers did a great job maximizing the available space while at the same time preserving the architectural character of the historic structure. After you enter, you walk down a long hallway filled with different bug exhibits: Once you reach the end of the hallway, you double back to the front through a series of rooms, galleries and theaters, each of which is dedicated to a specific insect theme (although the exhibits are not limited to insects; there are exhibits dedicated to spiders, scorpions, centipedes and other arthropods as well). The "Hall of Fame Gallery," for example, has an impressive collection of preserved insects on display:The last room before the exit is a Japanese-themed butterfly garden, where several exotic and colorful species of butterflies flutter about. It's not as big as the Cockrell Butterfly Center here in Houston, but it is a nevertheless pleasant experience:One of the more unique aspects of the Insectarium is the "Bug App├ętit" kitchen, where you can sample foods made with insects. On the day we visited, dishes included cinnamon- and barbecue-flavored crickets, a waxworm chutney and a mealworm salsa, shown here:
In western culture, entomophagy is generally taboo; we consider eating insects to be disgusting (even though we have no problems eating their crustacean relatives, such as crabs and shrimp). However, many other cultures around the world rely on insects as a significant source of protein. The purpose of the bug kitchen is to challange Insectarium visitors to rethink their biases regarding insects as food, so I accepted the challenge and chomped into this mealworm:
It had a mild, nutty taste. Not bad at all, to be honest. When you eat them in the salsa, you really couldn't taste them at all. Same thing with the cinnamon- and barbecue-flavored crickets; you really couldn't taste the cricket itself.

Insects constitute about 80% percent of all living organisms. At any given time, there are approximately 1.5 million insects crawling around on this earth for each human. They pollinate our crops, till our soils, recycle decayed biological materials, provide us with food, and produce for us materials such as honey and silk. They are vital to our survival, but we rarely give them much thought. The Audubon Insectarium seeks to help us explore this important yet misunderstood class of animals, and I think it does a good job.

Next time you're in New Orleans, be sure to check it out.

Reconsidering the three-day weekend

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting observation about this holiday weekend:
Let me say that I’ve really enjoyed this rare Friday-off three day weekend. I think it’s been a lot more fun than your traditional Monday-off three dayer. I think it’s the difference between a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Saturdays and a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Sundays. But whatever the reason, I think we should formalize the switch, eliminate our “observed on Monday” national holidays and shift them to Fridays.
I think there is some logic to this. There is a reason why people who work short weeks - those with 9/80 schedules, for example - get Fridays off, rather than Mondays. Whether there will ever be the political will to move holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day from the beginning of the week to the end, however, is another story.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

It really is that hot

Not that I''ll have to convince anybody here in Houston who has experienced the heat for themselves, but the June that just ended was the second-warmest on record. KTRK's Tim Heller explains:
With an average temperature of 85.6°, June 2009 was the second warmest on record at Bush Intercontinental Airport. It was warmer than June 1980 when the average temp was 85.1° and June 1998 when the average temp was 85.5°. By the way, the "average temperature" is a combination of the highs AND the lows. The average high temperature was 96.7°.
It's worth noting, as Heller indicates, that Houston's official temperature is recorded at an airport twenty miles north of downtown Houston. It's been that way since IAH opened in 1969, and that means that comparisons between official temperatures recorded before that year (when Houston's official weather data was recorded downtown) and temperatures recorded on or after 1969 are not exactly apples-to-oranges. Not that it matters in this case; we can all agree that it's been ridiculously hot and dry, even by June standards:

We topped 104° twice, June 24 and 26, which was the hottest temperature ever recorded in Houston during the month of June. Altogether, we had seven consecutive triple digit days, another new record.

Rainfall totaled .27" at Bush IAH, which was -5.08" below normal. June 2009 was the 4th driest on record.

But wait! Here's the best part:
Historically, when the summer starts off warm it usually stays warm. That doesn't mean we won't have some cool-ish days. But you should expect temperatures to average warmer than normal in July and August as well.
That's just great. Especially since July and August are the hottest months of the year in Houston.