Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Searching vs. discovering

Because my work often calls for me to be a curator of interesting stuff on particular topics, I spend a lot of time with search engines. They are kind of miraculous in a way; I’m often amazed at how easily I can come up with an exact image that I remember seeing ten years ago to illustrate a story, or how quickly I can come up just the right link, or photo, or piece of music or whatever to answer a query by a listener or a reporter.

Before such tools came along, I was also a regular denizen of the library, poking around the card catalog and the reference section, or with my head stuck to the screen of a microfilm reader. There was (and is) a pleasure in seeking out the particular in the amorphous mass of the general, and bringing home the nugget.

Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

But there is also a danger in only seeking out the things you want to know, whether you find them or not. How do you know what you want (or really need) to know? This is a path that can lead to learning “more and more about less and less until finally you know everything about nothing”–a definition of an expert that I ran across somewhere. You can no doubt find the original citation via a search engine.

Fortunately my search activities are often derailed by the other things that come to light adjacent to what I might be searching for. While finding the particular has its own pleasure, meandering down byways that lead you farther and farther from your original goal is in many ways the purer pleasure. The ramble is a more civilized activity than the hunt.

For example, while rambling through just one novel, I learned a little about how perfumes are designed, something about the culture of Atlantic fisherman, took a trip into the Canadian arctic, and learned a little about narwhal migration and the science of hypothermia. In another novel, I learned how trick riders are trained to ride standing up in the ring, and about the subculture of carnival sideshows.

I had no idea that I wanted to know any of that, but I have now discovered otherwise.

“Bright Nights” film festival: Feb 6-14

Aska (Ash) dir. Herbert Sveinbjörnsson Iceland, 2013

Aska (Ash) dir. Herbert Sveinbjörnsson
Iceland, 2013

Winter! Except for bad roads, it’s an ideal time to cocoon indoors and catch up on movies. Maybe even movies set in wintery places?

If armchair travel is your thing check out “Bright Nights: The 5th Baltic-Nordic Film Festival

In collaboration with the Embassies of the Baltic and Nordic nations, the Canadian Film Institute presents this annual festival of films from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Iceland, Lithuania, and Norway.

Offerings range from intense inter-personal dramas, to real events, like “Aska (Ash)” a 2013 film from Iceland, showing the festival’s final night, Feb 14th.

On April 14th 2010 the earth opened up for the second time in less than a month at Eyjafjallajökull in Southern Iceland. The volcanic eruption melted the ice cap, flooded the nearby farms, spewed 70 tons of ash into the stratosphere per second and disrupted air traffic throughout Northern Europe. It forced many flight cancellations and stranded thousands of passengers, capturing the world’s attention. When the airlines resumed their normal routes and headlines started to fade, the farmers under the volcano were fighting for their livestock and livelihood, as they still are today. ASH follows three farming families over the course of a year to see the effect of the ash on their lives. It is a startling, visually arresting, utterly engaging portrait of the aftermath of one of the world’s most spectacular, and devastating, volcanic eruptions.

ASH Official teaser trailer from Edisons Lifandi Ljosmyndir on Vimeo.

All the films are being shown at Carleton University’s River Building Theatre in Ottawa, with English sub-titles.

Mudpuppies – and mudpuppy nights in Oxford Mills

Necturus maculosus maculosus - Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Necturus maculosus maculosus – Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

The email from NCPR’s theater critic, Connie Meng, was headed: “mudpuppies”.

Any guesses as to what that is?

The name took me back to the signature desert of a restaurant where I once worked, the”mudpie“. (Which I would have liked more, had it not featured coffee ice cream.)

But apart from that decades-old memory, I hadn’t a clue.

It turns out Connie was sending me a heads-up for a local event featuring an amazing amphibian, Necturus maculosus, nicknamed waterdog, or mudpuppy.

And still I had no clue. What the heck was that?!

Internet to the rescue. To my unscientific eye, they look like small, round-cornered alligators, sort of. Definitely big enough to really notice, some are said to live as long as 30 years (!).

Here’s more from National Geographic:

Mudpuppies, also called waterdogs, are one of only a few salamanders that make noise. They get their name from the somewhat embellished notion that their squeaky vocalizations sound like a dog’s bark.

Among the largest of the salamanders, mudpuppies can exceed 16 inches (41 centimeters) in length, although the average is more like 11 inches (28 centimeters). Their range runs from southern central Canada, through the midwestern United States, east to North Carolina and south to Georgia and Mississippi.

Mudpuppies live on the bottoms of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, and never leave the water. They hide themselves in vegetation and under rocks and logs, emerging at night to feed on whatever prey they can catch, including crayfish, worms, and snails.

And? So? What makes that a local event, for the depths of February?

Well, it turns mudpuppies are mostly nocturnal and there’s an excellent spot to count and study them in Kemptville Creek, near a small dam site in Oxford Mills, Ontario. Indeed, it’s such a good “come & see” location that there’s sort of a mudpuppy party on many Friday nights – yes, in the winter, when they are reportedly more active. (Another “?!”)

For those so inclined, mudpuppy night can even include dinner at the well-known Oxford Mills destination restaurant, Brigadoon.

This Friday night the Macnamara Field Naturalists Club (based in Arnprior) is making that outing a group activity, as they’ve done in past years. Here’s a really interesting YouTube video from 2013 in which “…members visit an icy stream in mid-winter to watch Necturus maculosus (Mudpuppies) go about their business unperturbed by the cold or the watchers.” The weekly event is put on by area naturalists, Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad. (Learn more about their work at

Here’s another video of observing mudpuppies in Oxford Mills, from this CBC news item, also from 2013.

There’s no need to tell readers it’s been pretty cold this week. I haven’t decided if I am going on Friday or not. But I’m writing about it now, should others be interested. (Note: Friday night looks warmer than earlier in the week, when I am writing this post.)

Quite apart from that Oxford Mills/citizen-scientist event, what’s your experience with mudpuppies?

Do you know them well? Or, as in my case, are they a whole new discovery?

About that groundhog (and his day)

The groundhog, a.k.a the woodchuck, or marmot, or whistle-pig, or weatherman? Photo: Cephas, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The groundhog, a.k.a the woodchuck, or marmot, or whistle-pig, or weatherman? Photo: Cephas, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Researchers are still puzzling over the age-old question, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood,” but I may have a solution. Re-brand the woodchuck.

Like the words skunk and moose, woodchuck is a Native American term, Algonquin in this case. I don’t know its English translation, but I’d guess it means “fat fur-ball that can inhale one’s garden faster than one can say ‘Punxsutawney Phil.’” Or something like that.

Too bad the name woodchuck implies they’re employed in the forest-products industry. Woodchucks haven’t the teeth for chewing wood, nor do they have much use for wood in their burrows. (We can only assume their dens aren’t paneled.)

Much as I respect the origin of ‘woodchuck,’ I’m in favor of sticking to one of its other names, groundhog, which is more descriptive. Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even swine call them hogs. Tellingly, another common name is ‘whistle-pig,’ referring both to groundhogs’ warning call and their voracious appetite.

Mature groundhogs in wild areas typically measure 15-25” long and weigh 5-9 lbs. With access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can grow to 30” long and weigh as much as 30 lbs. Now that’s a ground hog. Needless to say, vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.

Native to most of North America from southern Alaska to Georgia, groundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to ground squirrels out west, but in the northeast they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

They may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows up to 5’ deep and 40’ long, each having two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 35 cubic feet of soil excavating its burrow. (I’d like to know who measures these things.)

Alfalfa rustling is bad enough, but this hole-digging hobby really riles farmers. Groundhog holes and soil piles can injure livestock, weaken foundations and damage equipment. Many a farmer trying to mow hay has cursed the groundhog when the haybine ‘found’ a soil pile. Hard to appreciate groundhogs’ cuteness while you replace cutterbar knives for the tenth time.

True hibernators, groundhogs usually den up in October, their winter body temperature dropping to 50F and their heart slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February in Pennsylvania, but up north you won’t find one blearily sniffing around for a mate that early. I’ve seen a burrow entrance in March with a halo of dirt scattered on the snow from where the critter had recently burst out, a squint-eyed dust mop looking for love.

The notion that sun on February 2 means a late spring began in ancient Europe. That date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Imbolc was supplanted by Candelmas as Christianity spread, but both traditions reference the “sunny equals more winter; cloudy equals spring” idea.

Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among Pennsylvania Germans in the mid-1800s. Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others like Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario; Jimmy the Groundhog in Sun Prairie, WI and General Beauregard Lee of Lilburn, GA followed.

We know how much ground a groundhog can hog: a lot, especially if beans and peas are growing on it. I say we pull those researchers off the wood-chucking quantification project and have them find  how to make Groundhog Day overcast so we can get a break from the deep-freeze.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

Wicked cold

A smellkald (cracking cold) day on Todd Moe's Norwegian thermometer. Photo: Todd Moe

A smellkald (cracking cold) day on Todd Moe’s Norwegian thermometer. Photo: Todd Moe

The forecast just reads “wicked cold” as far out as it runs; it could be permanent for all I know. I expect when the groundhog peeks out on Monday, his eyeballs will freeze solid, hypothermia will stop his heart and he will topple back into his burrow, dead.

According to traditional lore, I believe that means 12 more weeks of winter. R.I.P. Punxsutawney Phil.

I am not a fan of this. This is weather that 2000-piece jigsaw puzzles are made for. And while I won’t actually stick my nose outside the door long enough to need it for warming purposes, I may drink some hot chocolate, in sympathy with those who venture forth like intrepid astronauts onto unearthly terrain. I’ll enjoy reading about their adventures from a chair next to the heat vent.

More power to all of you who delight in skiing and skating, ice climbing, snowmobiling and polar bear swimming, etc. That’s what emergency services are there for.

I’ll be right here–and that’s right–still in my bathrobe, squinting at the glare outside the window. I may read a little; I may even nap a little. The pantry is full and so is the fuel oil tank. It’ll be OK.

Is it really a SUPER Bowl?

Super Bowl Sunday is now second only to Thanksgiving for the amount of food consumed by Americans. Photo: Mike Mozart, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

Super Bowl Sunday is now second only to Thanksgiving for the amount of food consumed by Americans. Photo: Mike Mozart, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

If you ask around, my colleagues would probably tell you I’m the de facto sports guy here at NCPR (sorry, Sommerstein) and, normally I am more than happy with that title, but it’s a challenge to feel proud of the “sports guy” role with one of the biggest sporting  events of the year leaving so much to be desired.

Where shall I begin the list of problems? Okay, let’s start with the teams.

The Seahawks players are fine, but coach Pete Carroll is, well, sleazy. As a college coach at the University of Southern California, he paid his players, which is completely outside of the decades-old NCAA rules. I agree that players, not just the coaches and athletic directors (who often make millions) should make some money, but everyone has to play and recruit under the same guidelines, and those guidelines are clear: no paying college players. Then, just before USC was hit with the NCAA sanctions brought on by Carroll’s alleged practices, he left to take millions more coaching the Seahawks. Tacky, man, tacky.

So, can I root for  their  Super Bowl rival, the New England Patriots? Problems on this side of the continent, too.

  1. Coach Bill Belichick is annoyingly overrated by the major sports media outlets and as my theory from this  October 2014 post will prove, coaches are in general overrated. Following up on that post, the Miami Heat, as of this writing, are currently 20-25, losing a key player (LeBron James) has had more impact on performance than the name of the coach. (By the way, last year the Heat only lost 28 games all season.)
  2. The Patriots are cheaters! “Spygate,” which is a lot of mumbo-jumbo and lots of teams did and/or do it, is still cheating, and they were caught doing it—for other teams it’s just supposition.  Now, there is “Deflategate,” which yes, is as stupid as it sounds.
  3. Their star running back throws sucker punches.

Okay, full disclosure: I am a disgruntled New York Jets fan, arch-rival of the Pats. But I’m still right.

There are a few other things about this game that make it … stupid … silly … lame … annoying … pick an adjective.

Historically speaking, the game is also more boring than any major, money-sink sports contest can justify being. In 30 of the previous 48 games played, the winner has won by 10 or more points.  In those 30 games, 23 have been decided by two touchdowns (14 points) or more. It is incredible to think that 62.5% of the games that have been played have resulted in double-digit spreads, and 76.7% of those have been bona fide blowouts. For non-football fans, the point here is that a close game makes for much more entertaining spectacle.

Here’s another crazy thing that you hear about each year: the cost of commercials. Apparently this year NBC is getting around $4.5 million per thirty second commercial spot, which is BONKERS! I’d love to see a study of how much revenue those bring back for the companies that make the investment. That money could be spent in a much more useful way … schools, infrastructure, medical research … funding NCPR (shameless plug).

Finally, there’s the nonsense of all those pesky criminals running up and down the NFL fields. Unless you have been without a connection to any media in the last year (and here you are at so that can’t be), then you know about former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious in an elevator. You probably also know of star running back Adrian Peterson beating his kid with a switch. Besides those two idiots, there are a whole bunch of NFL stars that have done equally awful things. Like who? you ask.

Ben Roethlisberger (twice accused rapist, seen here posing all buddy-buddy with the first officer to arrive on scene of the second incident); Michael Vick (dog murderer); Ray McDonald (arrested before this season started for domestic abuse, but not charged until after the season ended);  or ANYONE on this list which was put together by USA Today. Also, “alleged,” serial murderer and former Patriot (happy coincidence), Aaron Hernandez.

This year, I’m not watching. My wife and I invited friends over for dinner and plan on a delicious meal of Saag Paneer, Butter Chicken, Saffron Rice and other goodies.  What are you doing Sunday night? Going to a super bowl party for the commercials? Spending the evening in? Seeing a movie? Let us know.

As the station’s sports hound, all I can say is, there’s always next year.

Here are some links that may be of interest to you, mostly substantiating the case I’ve made for abstaining from viewing.

List of Super Bowl results via (where I found the data on point spreads and other facts cited in this post):

Overrated coaches blog:

NBC ad request:


Lagarrette Blount punch:


Ben Roethlisberger:

NFL Arrests:

Aaron Hernandez

No joke: ukuleles amaze and inspire

Jake Shimabukuro in performance in 2010. Photo:Joe Bielawa, Creative Commons

Jake Shimabukuro in performance in 2010. Photo: Joe Bielawa, Creative Commons

Earlier this month, the call went out for ukulele players to come play “O Canada” at the start of an Ottawa 67s hockey game.

That did happen. You can hear a rehearsal here, or CBC coverage of the actual event.

An all-smiles performance, to be sure.

So what is it about the ukulele? From a joke prop for Tiny Tim, to new standing as a Hendrix-like lead instrument, this is one versatile musical vehicle.

Some years ago, the uke gained worldwide exposure in this evocative rendering of “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

When Bruddah Iz, as he was known, died in his native Hawaii in 1997, he was given what amounted to a state funeral.

There are many, many other fine uke players on the world recording scene. The instrument’s best-known ambassador for the past few years is probably another Hawaii boy, Jake Shimabukuro.

Jake Shimabukuro says the ukulele an easy thing to pick up, as he shows in this introductory video:

If you want the deep back-story of how one person takes an instrument to whole new levels, I recommend an award-winning 2012 documentary, “Life on Four Strings“. (Available on DVD and through some Internet providers.) This deleted scene from that documentary goes a long way to explain one of Shimabukuro’s “secrets”, he’s applying drum techniques. See for yourself:

Veteran Hawaii journalist Leslie Wilcox interviewed Shimabukuro on her PBS Hawaii program “Long Story Short” in 2013, which need not be ordered, you can watch that right here.

Really, I cannot say enough about Shimabukuro’s musicianship and how it advances that small, highly portable instrument. He’s funny and humble too, as revealed in this conversation with Joel Hurd in 2009 and Todd Moe in 2010.

The first time I heard of Shimabukuro he was playing with a popular group back in Hawaii called Pure Heart. Although that trio only produced two albums before moving into separate endeavors, they were welcomed as real talent. Pure Heart had an enthusiastically embraced reunion concert in Honolulu this past December.

Shimabukuro has five tour stops in Ontario in March, including a couple in our greater listening area: at the Grand Theatre in Kingston Ontario (3/7), and at the Neat Coffee Shop in Burnstown ON (3/8). (Update: As of this writing the Burnstown date was sold out.)

Don’t miss this opportunity, if you have any interest at all in that kind of musical exploration and expression.

And if you’re looking for some first or additional instrument to pick up and try, consider the “uke”! There’s probably a way to take classes or join an ukulele chorus somewhere near you. For an example of ukulele as a group instrument, here’s more from the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

Crown of creation

Most of the time being a human is a pretty sweet gig. We are, after all,  the crown of creation, the big-domed critter that has pretty much taken over the planet. We go where we want, do what we want, and the rest of the animal kingdom pretty much stays away, or else stooges around awaiting our pleasure and largesse. We are the inventors of such useful complexities as the cronut, the X-box and the Doctrine of the Trinity.  I could go on, but why brag?

Cruel overlord. Photo: Arno Meintjes, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cruel overlord. Photo: Arno Meintjes, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

While we are pretty nifty and plenipotent, we are not quite omnipotent, as had been brought home to me in recent days. We are colonial organisms–a well organized gang of cells with shared genetic material. But even within our own skins, we comprise a minority government–outnumbered by trillions of bacterial cells of different breeds, and little bitty fungi, and even bittier viruses. From their perspective, our bodies are no different than the hut that Neolithic mammoth hunters built out of tusks and skins. They have no appreciation for our finer qualities.

Usually we can ignore these rival gangs. They squabble amongst themselves and rarely get much done. The trouble only comes when one faction gains dominance and goes forth and multiplies to the extent that it can take on the management. Such a rebellion has brewed within me all week and whole provinces of my body are now under insurgent control. Central Command may ordain that “Today I shall construct a poem of charming observations and mild pathos.” But the rebel commander countermands, saying, “No. Today you shall make phlegm.”

It is only a matter of time before I oust the upstart regime. But until then, I manufacture rival species under the lash of a cruel overlord, who like a lion surveying the beauties of the savannah, observes nothing but its next meal.

Seeing Selma with Margaret

SelmaposterWe know it takes the eyes of a newcomer or a child to see the familiar differently, freshly. Maybe it’s the Main Street in your town, a visitor looks up and sees the elaborate stone carving you never noticed. Maybe it’s your young daughter, looking closely at the dandelion gone to seed, saying, “This is my favorite flower.”

The opposite is true, too, of course. Those who know a place or a piece of art or a community better than we do can take us deeper into the meaning of the thing.

For decades, I’ve been the “wheel her in” civil rights activist because of my participation on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and with civil rights groups in Harlem, where I went to college. I’ve talked to college and high school classes, to community groups, and offered commentaries on the air. I was a teenager when I walked that highway in Alabama; most memories of those days faded and colored by fear.

There are single moments I remember clearly—buying a frosty Coke from a chest cooler in front of a black-owned country store; being tear-gassed in the yard of the black school we were relegated to by a white sheriff; talking with Stokely Carmichael, who had gone to high school in NYC; standing for a few moments near Dr. King and being surprised that he was shorter than me. But no continuous narrative remains. It was brief: I took a bus south, I spent three days on the march, I headed to Mobile to work on a civil rights newspaper. I was back in school a month or two later. Fifty years ago.

I knew from the first moment it was released that I would, of course, go to see the movie “Selma.” I wanted to see how Ava DuVernay, the young African-American woman who directed the film, saw those times. I asked my friend Margaret Bass, a SLU professor who is black and grew up in the Deep South, to go see it with me.

We agreed that it was interesting to see what the young director chose to include and leave out of the movie. Paraphrasing Margaret, “It’s all important, because young people don’t know. Telling any part of it is important.” The revelation of seeing “Selma” with Margaret was her visceral reaction. Paraphrasing again, “People don’t know how bad it was. It was bad. It was very bad.” She shook her head back and forth as she said these words and I knew she was back in the fear and violence and repression of the segregated South.

Regardless of how it tells the story, this movie, made by a woman who was born at least a decade after the event, reminds us of how hard it was to achieve what we now take for granted. Margaret reminded me that we aren’t there yet—drawing a line between Selma and the shooting in Ferguson.

Across the Pettus Bridge, first attempt to leave Selma for Montgomery.

Across the Pettus Bridge, first attempt to leave Selma for Montgomery. From the Selma history project.

The movie underscored the determination and courage of those who led the movement—those in the strategy sessions in church basements, and those who put their bodies in harm’s way. I think this would have been the key takeaway for me had I seen the movie without Margaret.

Instead, with all the talk about Selma because of the movie, what I hear and feel is Margaret saying, “It was bad, it was very very bad. People just don’t know.”

Don’t worry about Academy Awards and media talk around the movie. Just see it. This is our history, history lived and made by real people, from Dr. King to Margaret Bass.  The bullets were real, the stakes made a difference to millions of Americans. The people in this movie–and all those who walked or stood their ground, nameless and unknown–are among our greatest national heroes. They led all of us from what we took for granted towards what is possible.

Alabama State Troopers guard the capitol building as marchers arrive in Montgomery.

Alabama State Troopers guard the capitol building as marchers arrive in Montgomery. Selma history project.










Wanna chill out? Igloofest starts tonight in Montréal

Third year of Igloofest in January 2009 in Montreal, Canada. / 3e édition du Igloofest en janvier 2009 à Montréal, Canada.  Image: Francis Bourgouin, Creatove Commons

Third year of Igloofest in January 2009 in Montreal, Canada. / 3e édition du Igloofest en janvier 2009 à Montréal, Canada. Image: Francis Bourgouin, Creatove Commons

OK, I’ll admit it. I never even heard of Igloofest until today. And I won’t go either, because it’s in Montréal, it’s at night when it’s super cold and it features music I can’t get excited over.

But that’s just me. And even though I’m not going, it’s something I’m glad to know about under the category of “cultural quirks”. You know: what crazy people in super cold parts of the world do for fun.

Obviously, others do find it worthwhile, as in this from Erik Leijon, in a special for the Montréal Gazette, who spoke with event program director Michel Quintal:

“We’ll have DJs from California who think we’re nuts for coming out when it’s minus 25 to see them,” says Quintal, adding that the DJ booth is a comparatively balmy 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. “More and more we have artists come to us and say they want to play because they heard about it from a colleague who was here.”

If Igloofest presents an opportunity for electronic music artists to break the monotony of the club touring circuit, then for festival-goers, it’s a defiant act against the depressing winter doldrums. It’s held annually at Jacques Cartier Pier in the Old Port, and last year’s 12-day edition was attended by more than 85,000. Some nights do better than others, but Quintal says the festival, held across four weekends, isn’t at the mercy of weather forecasts.

“It amazes me that on the coldest nights we’ll still get dedicated audiences that show up and are more into it than on regular nights,” he says. “From their perspective, it’s part of dealing with a winter that lasts five months out of the year. Nobody wants to stay inside for five months.”

I embrace winter by cross-country skiing, preferably on a sunny day when it’s not so cold my hands freeze inside my mitts. But whatever gets you through to summer, I guess! And plenty of people (usually far younger than me) do like that sort of scene.

So find your bliss, be it your own community’s winter carnival, or beating the season with thousands of fellow electric music lovers.

Igloofest runs Fri-Sat now through Feb 8th.