Thursday, April 17, 2014

Blogging is slogging

This blog, my first and only, came into existence on Christmas Eve, 2006. That first post was an unannotated replay of someone else's work, but I had been so taken with that piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Intelligent Design and why scientists should not be so mystified by its persistence that I wanted to make a record of it for my own reference, if nothing else. Subsequent posts, the majority about my original thoughts and experiences, followed so quickly  that I managed four before 2006 ended. I've averaged about 45 posts a year since then. Some are brief observations or links to interesting material elsewhere on the web, but I also treat some subjects in such detail that they have to be serialized. In addition it's very important to me to illustrate my posts with photos, mine or borrowed as need be. It's a form of public diary, and I do greatly appreciate it when I know others have read and enjoyed a post. Or, when others read and feel strongly that a post barks up the wrong tree. I've had only one troll, named Fiddledeedee, who objected so strongly to my post recommending that foot-binding in historic China not be celebrated, that he or she left comment after comment (several of which have been deleted, because they were obnoxiously repetitive) shaming me because of my unwillingness to allow cultural relativism to outweigh my objection to the celebration of that highly harmful, crippling tradition in the name of feminine beauty. In fact I enjoyed remaining calm as Fiddledeedee sweated harder and harder to make the case not only that my message was wrong but that I was a terrible person, especially for deleting some of their vitriol. I was not unsettled by his/her conclusions about my character, nor did I give up my stance on the issue.

Speaking of visitors to Amusing Musings, readers will doubtless note a little badge just above my photo on the left called SiteMeter. This fun little device tells me a little bit about who's come calling. Well more than 98% of visitors are Google and other search engines updating the searchable content on my blog. That's fine, because sometimes I get visitors who search on a particular subject I've written about, and I am rewarded they find what they seek. Once in a very great while someone will leave an interesting comment, and even more rarely engage in direct correspondence with me. That's really rewarding when it occurs, because they bring information to me that I lacked, or sometimes I can provide something meaningful to them.

But very oddly, the specific search term that most often leads people to my blog is "dollar bill." They come to my post of October 31, 2012, about the mystery of an old one dollar bill I found in my mother's things with "October 31, 1945" hand-written on it in ink in two places. And sometimes there are hits on searches for "October 31, 1945." When I found the bill, I too searched on that date but turned up nothing distinctive or that would have obvious significance for my mother, or her mother, whose writing I think it is. While I can imagine why people might be interested in finding an image of a dollar bill on the Web, why they too search that date is another mystery that I may never solve.

I also look for blogs of others that are interesting, intellectually entertaining, instructive, funny, wry, or just charmingly written even if the topics aren't earth-shaking (after all, how many of my musings are of global importance?). There are indeed some appealing blogs for the finding out there, and I'm always heartened to come across one, often only to realize that the most recent post is a year, or two, or three old. Blogging is slogging, and even chatty people with lively intellects and interests that intersect with my own are liable to abandon ship after a while.

But here I am, more than seven years later, still at it, perhaps a little less devotedly, but with ideas and stories and plans and photos and adventures still to share.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bald Eagle Watch, an indoor sport

Our trip to Starved Rock State Park at the end of January was occasioned by Bald Eagle Watch: A Celebration of Nature, sponsored by the Illinois Audubon Society and several other august organizations. In particular, the Raptor Awareness Program offered by the World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis, MO, was a real treat.  Raptors are birds of prey, including the eagle, hawk, falcon, osprey, and owl families, and carrion-eaters like vultures and condors. Demonstrations of North American varieties are always interesting but are relatively easy to come by. Events featuring raptors from around the world are rarer opportunities. The World Bird Sanctuary's program was held indoors in a basketball court-sized room in Starved Rock Lodge; the birds are in captivity only because, for a wide variety of reasons, if released they would not be able to survive in the wild. The following wonder-birds were featured:

American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) "Patriot"
Patriot weighs 12 lbs. and is clearly big enough to grab and carry large fish and other prey such as rabbits and small children.
Long-crested eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) "Zeus"
The long-crested eagle is a South African bird, more petite than the bald eagle, but still a large bird, and sporting a particularly nice top-knot.
Tawny owl (Strix aluco) "Buzz"
Tawnies are small owls, widespread inEurope, Britain to Scandinavia, North Africa and North and West Asia.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) "Minerva"
Barn owls are utterly silent fliers. One handler went to back of the room and held up her hand. Minerva flew to  her fist on cue. The audience was told to close their eyes and listen. When we opened our eyes, Minerva was back at the front of the room on the hander's fist, but there was no sound of wingbeats what-so-ever. It was a funny mind-trick.
American kestrel (American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). I didn't get his/her name, but let's hear it for the little guy!
These colorful little falcons are also known as sparrow hawks for one of their favorite meals. I've been fortunate to watch them hunt, and also once in a blue moon they land on my window sill at home where I can observe their glorious gray and copper coloration. If the cat doesn't notice them first!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Parkitecture: Starved Rock Lodge

Indoor activities at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, IL, are to be had within this wonderful Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-built lodge designed by Joseph F. Booten. It is slightly atypical as the exterior is not stone but it most certainly qualifies as significant parkitecture, not only because of it's historic value but because of its size and continuing high volume of year-round activity.
Though rustic, the exterior is a bit pedestrian (to my eye). However, on closer inspection, it abounds with fine 1930's Craftsman detail, as can be seen on the large ironwork hinges on the main doors from the outside,
with further features of the era on the inside:
A major principle of CCC works was the use of local materials, as in the massive limestone fireplace, still wood-burning and wonderfully fragrant and cozy (especially in Polar Vortex times), in the center of the lounge:
The chimney is similarly impressive. However, the moose is revisionist history, as Illinois summers are too hot for moose (and for me too, a lot of the time), and they have never been found in the state.  The chandelier, however, is fully in keeping with the parkitectural theme.
The furnishings in the restaurant and lounge were built to match, and to last.
While the lodge's original decor and accoutrements wonderfully transport one to an earlier time there are also successful contemporary references to the region's past, such as Linda Lowe's "Starved Rock Cartograph" pentaptych installation in the registration area:
And Michael Jones's "Starved Rock Totem" on the grounds:
And these clever, if not especially artistic, chain-saw productions arising from rooted tree stumps around the lodge:
What a great celebration of an unmatched period in public architecture Starved Rock Lodge is.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hiking the Polar Vortex

The story of "Starved Rock" has its genesis in the late 18th century skirmish between the Ottawa and Illiniwek Indians. Following the murder of Ottawa Chief Pontiac by an Illiniwek, the story goes, the Ottawa pursued, encircling the fleeing Illiniwek who attempted to find sanctuary on the flat top of a large sandstone rock formation on the south side of the Illinois River. The Ottawa simply waited below the rock until the stranded Illiniwek died of hunger, thus exacting revenge without shedding a drop of blood. The story is apocryphal, but the name, however it came to be, lives on. That's the eponymous rock (really an eroded bluff) rising 200 feet above the trees there in Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Illinois.
The geologic history is better documented; the St. Peter sandstone formations that by happy cataclysmic accident survived the flattening glaciers that steam-rolled the rest of northern Illinois are what make for the park's interesting scenery and our sweet little winter hike to the origin of Ottawa "Canyon" one sunny, frigid January day.
The trail starts across the road from the river. It doesn't look too fun or safe...
Oddly, the otherwise nearly comprehensive the sign doesn't warn about dressing properly for conditions. 
But in fact, properly attired, it's a (mostly*) easy, lovely walk even in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, the naked trees admitting the slanting winter light. Must be equally beautiful in every season, each in its own way.
Before long we came to the first landmark, Council Overhang, described as a natural amphitheater. It's quite spectacular, decorated as it is with veins of dark yellow rock. I'm guessing the ceiling may have been blackened by fires -- man-made --- under its sheltering roof.
The cliffs of the canyon -- the very soft yellow-banded St. Peter limestone -- arise steeply only to the west.
To the east, that it is a canyon is only suggested by gentle tree-covered rises.
There were others hiking that day as well.
We never saw the red foxes that left their footprints to tantalize us.
An eighth of a mile beyond the Overhang we reached the end of the little trail marked by a most dramatic frozen waterfall.
I don't know how high it is, but given that KLK (to the left, on the bank of the creek) is 6 feet tall, it looks to be about 40 or 45 feet top to bottom. The shallow creek fed by the falls was frozen so we could easily walk under it.
Looking out from the canyon, with the falls at our back, was beautiful in the winter light, too.
*While this little walk on the snowy trail and frozen creek was quite safe overall, on the way back from the falls, on a short, steep rise leading back to Council Overhang, we found our boots absolutely could not gain purchase on the frozen trail. Nor were there bushes or trees, nothing but the sheer limestone wall on one side, to grab to pull ourselves up. It was really quite ridiculous (and probably hilarious to anyone watching our little drama) but there was no way to ascend. Happily an outdoorsman came along the trail above us and when he saw our predicament, smartly got down on all fours and extended an arm for each of us in turn to grab onto. All's well that ends well, we made it back to blog about!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Spring is on the way. Alas.

Some people think I'm a nutcase (KLK's exact words), but I in fact love winter, and with at least two distinct Polar vortexes this winter, Chicago, from late December until the end of last week, had its first real winter in years. It's been a quarter century or more, since we had sustained temperatures below freezing, day on day, week on week. We also had significant snow fall, which of course repeatedly messed up transportation -- bus schedules were simply abandoned in face of hopelessly piled snow and cars parked willy-nilly along the city streets -- and it made a total mess out of my car, which looks like a giant chunk of bacalao.  I thought all this crazy stuff fun.
It's all waning now,  with longer days signalling the earth's gradual tilt to spring. At least KLK and I found a most entertaining way to take advantage of the cold weather while it lasted. All along the upper Mississippi and many of its larger tributaries, instead of migrating, American bald eagles wait out the lean months below locks and dams, which keep the water from freezing over so they can continue to feed on fish. In late January, at the Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam at Utica, and across the Illinois River at Starved Rock State Park, the Illinois Audubon Society hosted Bald Eagle Watch. This view is from above the lock and dam. Impressive ice coverage!
Below the dam is a different story, at least for a few hundred yards downstream. This is where the eagles soar:
Unfortunately for the photographer (me), the width of the river made it difficult to get good pictures, just because of the distance to most of the action. But here's zoom in on an eagle with a good-sized fish in its talons:
Looks like a satisfying meal for a 10 or 12 lb bird, but alas, it's a good thing my camera was on continuous shooting, because a wing beat or two later this happened:
Life's hard in the winter, even around the dams. Maybe not so much for the gull, who was apparently anticipating this possibility. Who knows whether the fish lived another day.
But I did catch one magnificent bird on the wing from the vantage of a high bluff over the river:
The trees on Plum Island, an Audubon island sanctuary in the middle of the river, were amazingly full of roosting eagles. Because of the distance and angle of the light coming through the trees, I have no good photos to share, but these Canada geese also availed themselves of the safe harbor, resting on the ice in numbers.
And this great blue heron also enjoyed the sustenance of the open river.
Littler birds, like this dark-eyed junco provided entertainment at suet and seed feeders in the state park:
 And this very cute tufted titmouse:
And the white-breasted nuthatch at the suet:
And the female down woodpecker, also working the suet:
Here's a nice bald eagle caught by the waning sunshine as it flies past Starved Rock.
The story of our weekend adventures is to be continued...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Unhappy Valentine's Day

1. Background
Red Hots! Cinnamon candy, I've always associated them with Valentine's Day.
Red Hots! Shiny-red, pretty, sweet, and 7/16ths of an inch across!
Tylenol! Shiny-red, pretty, sweet*, and and 7/16ths of an inch across!

2. The Problem
How is a little kid to discern the difference? Like Red Hots, the adult-strength pain pills don't come in a strongly child-proof container, just line up the arrows and flip off the cap:
Awfully easy for a curious, dexterous child to investigate.
Could they be easier to confuse?

Given how toxic the slightest overdose of Tylenol (or in this particular case, its generic acetaminophen [fully intentional] look-alike) is, especially to a small child, and how ubiquitous Red Hots candy is, I believe the appearance and weak packaging of the pain medication is highly irresponsible. Red Hots got there first, it's the responsibility of McNeil-PPC, Inc., makers of Tylenol (and the makers of its numerous generic knock-offs) to find a distinct, and not nearly so charming, look for its popular pills. I'm not the first one to notice the similarity: packaging Red Hots in the guise of a gag "prescription for love" is an appalling misjudgement.
Gag Valentine gift image from
It's billed as a "lighthearted prescription." There will be no light hearts in a home in which a child comes to the conclusion that the pretty red pills in the Tylenol bottle in the medicine cabinet are candy.

3. The Solution (six actually)

Simple, most likely very cheap and easy to deploy, effective for distinguishing a Red Hot from a pain pill, and possibly life-saving.

For much more, utterly unsettling information about the history of irresponsible marketing, and irresponsible FDA oversight of acetaminophen, I strongly recommend the episode, "Use Only as Directed" from This American Life, originally aired on public radio.

 *Of its candy coating I'm sure; I put one on my tongue to test it out and although it's not a red hot, it's definitely sweet and entirely palatable