Napowrimo: consider yourself warned

If you started reading this blog in the past 11 months, you may not know about Napowrimo. Napowrimo is modelled on Nanowrimo—National novel-writing month—a scheme which encourages people to try to write a novel (or at least 50,000 words) in the month of November. Napowrimo is national poetry-writing month, and the target is a poem a day for 30 days; in April because April is National Poetry Month in the US. And yes, the ‘national’ part of the name is a bit of a misnomer; blame whichever short-sighted person came up with the name for nanowrimo. I’m occasionally tempted to refer to it as wopowrimo or glopowrimo, but I think the name has pretty much stuck now.

Which means that this blog is going to be taken over with poems for a month. I can tell you now that many of them will be truly awful. Sorry about that. I’ll probably write the occasional non-poem post as well, but if you really can’t stand slapdash amateur poetry, you might want to avert your gaze until May.

There’s no convenient central napowrimo website as there is for nanowrimo. The idea was invented by Reen, who was the first ever napowrimo-er back in 2002. I introduced the idea to PFFA in 2005, so this will be my third year. I reckon in 2005 I produced some quite good poems, like this one, this one and this one. Last year I was much less pleased with my output and I didn’t manage the 30 poems anyway. So my target is to improve on last year. In the meantime, here’s a picture of a fluffy kitten:

Max, originally uploaded by Tante Bluhme’s.

Wish me luck.



Epistem [ornith] ology

I went for a walk in the local woods a couple of days ago, and forgot to take my binoculars because in my head I wasn’t birding, I was just going out to enjoy the spring sunshine. That’s silly, of course; its not something you can turn off. Even if I’m in central London, there’s a little bit of my brain ticking over in the background in readiness, just in case something more interesting than a pigeon should fly past. And walking through the woods on a sunny day in late March, with all the birds gearing up for the breeding season and not too many pesky leaves on the trees, it inevitably became a birdwatching walk.

I saw Woodpigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Wren, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, and Starling. Nothing very surprising, but reasonable enough for London. And actually I quite enjoyed doing some naked-eye birding; just watching the birds, unmediated by binoculars.

But I was thinking how frustrating I would have found the same walk if I wasn’t familiar with the local birds. By the nature of the thing, most of the birds were some distance away, or partially obscured, or in shadow, and the only reason I could generally identify them quickly and easily was that I knew them well. The same sightings of unfamiliar species would have seemed like glimpses.

It’s an odd experience when you see new species for the first time. It’s almost like you don’t actually see a bird, you see an unstable collection of impressions. Everything can be misleading, depending on the lighting and angle; even the most basic things like size and colour are elusive and untrustworthy. You can catch a flash of white on the head and not know whether it’s the throat or an eyestripe, or see some pale colour on the wings and not know whether it’s white or grey or yellow. You can lose sight of it for a moment and find it again and not be completely sure whether it’s the same bird.

And then there’s a moment, when you’ve seen it enough times, when it abruptly switches from being a inchoate mess of birdiness to a type, a species. And the next time you see one you just recognise it. Since this moment of coalescence is often associated with finding it in a field guide, it sometimes feels as though by naming it, you have given it form.

And if you tick off a new bird without having internalised it in that way, no matter how sure you are of the identification, it’s never quite as satisfying.


In your face, folk wisdom!

A green woodpecker has been calling all day, and the sky is clear and blue. There’s a slight haze, but I think that’s all pollen and exhaust fumes rather than cloud.

So that’s one data point against the ‘rain bird’ theory.


Monkey Girl and teaching evolution in the US

I’ve just finished Monkey Girl by Edward Humes, an account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case about the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design in biology lessons. I was slightly underwhelmed by the book—you can read my review here—but the subject is interesting. How do you manage science education in a country where so many believe that the mainstream scientific orthodoxy is not just false but offensive and morally suspect?

If you have to resort to the court system and the separation of church and state to keep evolution in the classroom, and creationism out, you’ve already lost. It seems clear that teaching religious beliefs in state-run schools is unconstitutional, and that principle is worth defending; but evolution should be taught in biology lessons not because it’s the secular option, but because it’s what working biologists believe to be true. Teaching anything else isn’t just a victory for religion over secularism, it represents a complete collapse of respect for education and scholarship.

And although keeping religion out of the classroom is vital, it sounds like the equally important battle to keep evolution being taught is nearly lost. Even in places where evolution is specified on the curriculum, it sounds like many or most biology teachers teach as little evolution as possible and glide over the most potentially controversial areas of speciation and human origins; not necessarily because they themselves doubt evolution but because they know it will create too much awkwardness with the parents.

Since I am occasionally fairly forceful about my atheism, I imagine this post might come across as part of that, but really it’s not. It’s as an enthusiast for natural history that I find this most troubling. Children should be exposed to the ideas of natural selection and evolution because they are beautiful, surprising and have enormous explanatory power even about the most directly observable life around you. Of all the great theories of science, natural selection is the most approachable by an interested amateur. It can be explained without reference to mathematics. The subject matter—birds, fish, people—can be seen without the aid of a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. Of course the study of modern biology gets you on to statistics, biochemistry, genetics, radiometric dating and other more technical disciplines, but an enormous amount of the study of evolution was done, and is still being done, by direct observation of easily approachable things: digging up fossils, dissecting animals, breeding pea-plants, watching finches.

Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

This book is about the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to put Intelligent Design into the biology curriculum and the ensuing trial that ruled it a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

It’s interesting enough, but not particularly special. Perhaps they were keen to get to press quickly and the book is less finished than it could be. Specifically I think it lacks a clear focus or narrative; it spends too much time going over the history of legal conflicts over teaching creationism, and makes that background rather dry. It doesn’t really get any momentum until it gets on to the trial itself in the second half of the book, which is quite well done.

In terms of the balance these kinds of books have to strike between lively reporting and melodrama, I felt too often it was telling me things were dramatic rather than communicating what must have been the real human drama of the situation.

I also didn’t feel I was in the hands of someone who really had a bone-deep understanding of the issues at stake. Humes is clearly on the side of the scientists, although I think he tries to avoid being flamboyantly partisan, and I felt that some of the of the anti-ID arguments were being reproduced in a rather uncritical and undigested form. This is a trivial example of the kind of thing that sets off my alarm bells: Humes is taking Ann Coulter apart (not difficult) and says that in a three sentence, 69 word passage, there are ‘five lies and one ludicrous error’. He says this, about the phrase ‘Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution…’:

It is a lie to characterize the modern science of evolution as “Darwin’s theory,” as it now encompasses genetics, DNA analysis, microbiology, embryology, artificial life experiments, and a host of other findings, methods and scientific disciplines that Darwin (and apparently Coulter) never heard of.

It’s true, of course, that biology and the understanding of evolution has moved on a lot since Darwin’s time. Coulter’s phrasing is simplistic and reductive, and may well be calculated to create a misleading impression that the idea of natural selection is outmoded or based on a personality cult. But even so, as a five word description used in brief for the theoretical underpinnings of biology, ‘Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is surely not outrageous. And it certainly isn’t a ‘lie’ in the sense I understand that word.

It’s not like you have to stretch very far to find Coulter talking crap—the next sentence is a doozy—and it doesn’t do his credibilty any good to be imprecise when he attacks her.

I’m about as naturally sympathetic an audience as this book could hope to find, so if I find myself feeling it could usefully be more even-handed, there might be a problem. It’s only nuances, though.


there’s only one Ronaldo

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know who he is, this is Christiano Ronaldo, who is, this season, a contender for the best footballer in the world:

George Boateng, captain of Middlesbrough FC, talking about a particularly unsubtle tackle by one of his teammates on Ronaldo:

“I’m not saying Morrison wanted to spoil his career or I’d ever do anything like that.

“But one day somebody will do it — whether in an international or in the Premier League. People don’t like it.

“People have pride in the game. No one likes to have the mickey taken out of them. One day, someone will hurt him properly and he’ll be out for a long time.

“When you’re playing Sunday football with your mates, it’s great.

“But at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them. As professionals, we know he can do it. But if you want to do it, do it when it’s 0-0 or it’s important. Don’t do it when you’re winning 1-0 and there’s only two minutes to go.”

The reaction people have to Ronaldo really amuses me. He seems to outrage some deep streak of puritanism in the English football fan. It’s as though he was some kind of decadent affection on the part of Manchester United, a bit of imperial bling they brandish around just because they can.

I can see why he would irritate some people even without all the step-overs; he seems to have a blissfully unwavering sense of his own wonderfulness. But I think that Boateng is essentially right in his analysis: Ronaldo is in fact taking the mickey. He is showing a lack of respect. I think he knows that ‘at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them’ and does it anyway. He’s rubbing their noses in the difference between playing at the top level and being one of the best in the world.

The mistake is to confuse a lack of respect for his opponents with a lack of seriousness, and to think that he’s failing to take the English league as the very serious business it likes to imagine it is. He wouldn’t have scored 20 goals this season if he was just goofing around. On the contrary, I think he embodies the confrontational nature of sport just as much as someone like Roy Keane. All his tricks and flicks are the equivalent of Keane’s tooth-rattling tackles, designed to impose himself on his opponents; the fact that people keep muttering about how much they’d like to kick him is a clear sign it’s working.

And if they really want to take him down a peg or two, the solution is simple enough: just cleanly and legally take the ball from him whenever he comes near. How hard can it be, right?

Birding the dictionary 3

Today we start with the word ‘plover’.

plover (‘plʌvə(r)). [ME. and AF. plover = OF. plovier, later L. *plovārius belonging to rain, f. L. pluvia rain; in mod.L. pluvārius pluviārius; cf. Sp. pluvial plover, ad. L. pluviālis rainy, also Ger. regenpfeifer, lit. rain-piper, and Eng. rain-bird.]

Belon, 1555, said the birds were so called because most easily taken in rainy weather, which modern observation contradicts.

I’ve never tried to take a plover myself, so I couldn’t judge. I’d like to believe that the OED have a crack avian behavioral research squad who were sent up into the Peak District in rainy weather with strict orders not to come back until they checked this. But probably not. It carries on with more suggestions:

…because they arrive in flocks in the rainy season… because of the restlessness of the bird when rain is approaching… Others have attributed it to the appearance of the upper plumage, as if spotted with rain-drops.

The most appealing of these, the last one, strikes me as the least likely. But judge for yourself:

Pacific golden plover, originally uploaded by Doug Greenberg.

As the caption says, that’s actually a Pacific Golden Plover, whereas the original plover was presumably either the European Golden Plover or the Grey Plover (what Americans call Black-bellied Plover). But the appearance is very similar.

Plovers aren’t the only birds to be associated with rain, of course. In Britain, the obvious one is the Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis, known as the rain-bird because its call is supposed to mark the approach of rain. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this to be true myself. The call is one of the classic sounds of the English countryside; you can hear it here. It’s often described as laughter, although if you heard a person laughing like that you’d be a bit worried. Their other common name—yaffle—is derived from the call. This is typical yaffle behaviour; hunting for ants in someone’s garden lawn:

Yaffle II, originally uploaded by vlad259.

The dictionary has two other entries for ‘rain-bird’. The first is a bit vague: ‘A Jamaican cuckoo’. A little detective work narrows it down to the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Saurothera vetula. I don’t know what the connection is with lizards, but I can tell you that it’s also known as Old Woman Bird because of its cackling laugh.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Langooney.

Finally, the OED also mentions a couple of Australian usages. This is one of them, the Grey Butcherbird, Cracticus torquatus:

Grey butcherbird, originally uploaded by pierre pouliquin.

The other is the Channel-billed Cuckoo. In fact, though, Google turns up another Rainbird in Australia, the Asian Koel, also known as Stormbird; ‘Stormbird’ in turn can also refer to the Pheasant Coucal. For some information about the Stormbird’s place as an aboriginal storytime character, go here.

I know it might seem like I’m being too thorough here, but bear with me. Under the entry for rain, we also learn about the ‘rain crow’. Which isn’t actually a crow:

Dry Tortugas April 2006 Yellow Billed Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Jay Bass.

To quote Meriwether Lewis’s journal entry for 16th July 1806 from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which is one of the dictionary citations)

I saw both yesterday and today the Cookkoo or as it is sometimes called the rain-craw.

And yes, it does appear to be ‘craw’ unless there’s a typo in the dictionary, though all the other citations are for ‘rain-crow’. I guess you don’t employ explorers for their spelling.

As I said earlier, I am sceptical about the claim that the woodpecker’s call is an accurate predictor of rain. Some people have a disproportionate respect for traditional wisdom; in my experience it’s rather hit and miss, and weather lore is exactly the kind of area that’s likely to attract a lot of dubious theories. However, it’s very striking that of the seven birds I’ve mentioned, no less than five are cuckoos or their relatives: koels and coucals are both members of the Cuculidae. And in separate parts of the world people have, presumably independently, decided that they call more before the rain. It seems like more than a coincidence. If anyone reading this lives in one of the places where these birds live, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Returning to plovers; the dictionary lists no less than 60 from ‘bastard plover’ to ‘yellow-legged plover’. A few of them—Crab Plover, Ringed Plover—are still standard species names, but most are old or local names for waders we now know as something else. It really makes you appreciate standardised naming. There are ten names for ‘Golden Plover’, and eleven for ‘Grey Plover’; a few can mean either. Least helpful of all is ‘stone plover’ which can apparently mean Stone Curlew, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dotterel, ‘any shore plover of the genus Aesacus‘, Bar-tailed Godwit, or Whimbrel.

One last thing before I finally put an end to what was originally intended to be a short post. One of the dictionary’s citations for plover is this:

1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj b, A Falle of Woodecockis. A Congregacion of Pleuers.

The Book of St. Albans, by Dame Juliana Berners, is a book about hawking, hunting, and ‘fysshynge wyth an angle’, and is presumably one of the sources for all those irritating lists of collective nouns: a murder of crows, a heckle of alligators, a flashback of policemen. I don’t care if it does go back to the fifteenth century, I just don’t believe that anyone has ever actually called a flock of plovers anything other than a flock. All it proves is that whimsical linguistic pedantry is a 500 year old English tradition.

Today’s top tip

If your shaving gel doesn’t seem to be foaming up much, consider the possibility that you’re trying to shave with hair gel.


pelted with cast off shoon

What wrong with this picture?

snow in March

Answer: the time of year it was taken. Snow is all very well in its way, but I’m about ready for Spring now, thank you.

just a thought

Sometimes, when I’m struggling to get something to work, or find a piece of information, or something just seems a lot less simple than it ought to be, I have to remind myself just what a young medium the internet is, and how far we’ve gone already.

screenshot of Pine email software


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