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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Here is my usual Friday attempt at relaxation. This time, it’s butterflies.

An as of yet unidentified butterfly.

I was photographing some water lilies when I noticed an insect on one of the leaves. It appeared to be drinking from a droplet of water. Fortunately, I brought multiple lenses with me. This pretty butterfly is only about three or four centimeters long. (Update: Some helpful people on bugguide.net identified this as a Pearl Crescent.)

A tiger swallowtail in a cloudless sky framed by the leaves of a tree.

I looked upward and saw two tiger swallowtails high in the trees. I snapped a few photos and was surprised that one of them actually came out.

A tiger swallowtail with its long probiscus in a flower.

Tiger swallowtails have been incredibly numerous this summer. Click on the image to enlarge it and get a good look at the proboscis.

Spicebush swallowtails are probably the next most common. This is probably due to their chosen host plants which are common.

Spicebush swallowtails are probably the next most common. This is probably due to their chosen host plants which are common. The spicebush swallowtail lays its eggs on spicebushes.

Some sort of skipper butterfly on a leaf.

We have quite a few different varieties of skippers which look very similar.

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Two of the nearly ubiquitous silver spotted skippers. I took the photo because the butterfly on the bottom appeared to be clinging to the one on the top.

The day was dragging. The opening of the exhibition at the Acwacca Gallery had been timed to coincide with an open studios tour in this former industrial area of Newark, New Jersey. Most of the buildings had been built for small industries, which still occupied about half of them. The other half had, during the past decade or so, been turned into artist studios and galleries. Our official opening, the one with the munchies and cheap wine, had occurred earlier in the week. Now we were just participating in the open studio weekend, which amounted to sitting along side our work and talking to the occasional person who wandered inside.

The gallery space was large and there were six of us in the show, which was the culmination of a workshop sponsored by the gallery that had run for several months. Many of the paintings that I had done during the workshop were ultimately unsatisfying failures. The woman who had been conducting the workshop finally pointed to a slide of one of my older paintings. She let it be known in no uncertain terms that that painting was the reason I had been accepted into the workshop and she was disappointed that I hadn’t done more like that. In my own defense I said that I was trying to push myself to go beyond what I had done in the past. She politely, or perhaps not so politely, pointed out that I was pushing in the wrong direction. With only a week or two left in the workshop there wasn’t much left to do but kick out a couple of paintings in the style of the one the facilitator had liked. Although I was unsatisfied with not having made more progress during the workshop itself, I was relieved to get a couple of paintings done in time so I could actually be in the show.

An artist who was taking a break from his own open studio wandered in. While we were hanging out chatting his daughter came looking for him. He invited me to go back with him to look at his work. It was only a block away in the basement of another former industrial building. The building seemed to have been turned into several live/work spaces for about four artists and their families who shared the edifice. While I was looking at his work, one of his building mates stopped by. I then went on to his space to view his work. I wish I could remember some of the details of their work so that I could describe it. All I can remember is that I was having a very good time and it was with a bit of regret that I had to excuse myself. I had entirely lost track of how much time had passed, but I knew that the director of the Acwacca Gallery would be irritated if I was gone too long.

The moment I reentered the Acwacca Gallery, my sister accosted me. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I was just next door like I told everyone.”

“Well, I went over to get you and you weren’t there.”

“Oh. I’d gone upstairs to look at his neighbor’s work. I wasn’t gone that long. Why all the fuss?”

It turns out that someone had been waiting around to meet me. A tall, handsome man with an unusually toned physique visible beneath his dark blue knit polo shirt was standing near my paintings. The gallery director was visibly excited. “This is Cory Booker,” she exclaimed. “He’s going to be our first black president!” she predicted, incorrectly as it would turn out. I’m afraid Mr. Booker was born a decade too late. A football player at Stanford, a Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law, he seemed to be the sort of person of whom much has been expected since the day he was born.

Apparently, he had been taken by one of my paintings and was hoping to get a chance to speak to me. It was flattering that he had waited. Of course, he is a politician. A young woman who appeared to be some sort of supporter or assistant spoke up allowing Cory a modicum of modesty. “We’re more concerned about the upcoming election for mayor. I hope you’re all going to be voting for Cory!” Booker’s previous run for mayor became famously nasty. Three of the other six artists in the show were women and they soon joined the group surrounding Booker. With the assistant, the gallery director, my sister and the four artists, he was surrounded by a gaggle of gals. He turned the conversation back to the paintings.

As he and his companion exited the building, we all hung in the doorway like a bunch of starstruck teeny-boppers waving enthusiastically. “Sure, we’ll vote for you Cory!” one of us sang out.

After he was out of view we returned the main room of the gallery. “What party does he belong to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone know his positions on anything?”

“Gosh, no. I feel really silly now. He was just so charming.”

“Heck. I don’t even live in Newark.”

We had a pretty good laugh at ourselves.

(I remembered this episode after reading about how Cory Booker won the Democratic nomination for Senate.)

The test had elaborate drawings of wheels, cogs, levers, as if it had emerged from the fevered dreams of basement tinkerer. If one pulled a lever up, would the wheel rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise? There were dozens of questions like this. I finished the test and looked up and glanced about the room. Everyone else still had their head down, shoulders stooped as if this was a heavy burden. The occasional sigh and groan arose from a student. At the end of the test, I asked the teacher if there was any way to get books of puzzles like this because I enjoyed them so much. She looked at me for a moment as if I might be pulling her leg. After convincing herself of my sincerity, she said, “I don’t think so.” She looked at me a little bit strangely. “Why?”

“Because it was fun,” I said matter-of-factly.

She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and suddenly I felt like a total freak. It was one thing to be enjoying taking a test when everyone else seemed to be agonizing. It was altogether another thing to let people know. No longer a nerdy kid, I had friends, I behaved in a socially appropriate manner, boys seemed to like me, but it came at a price. That price was constantly being misunderstood and underestimated.

The test had been one of about half a dozen that were administered during the course of that week. These weren’t class tests. Although it came in a booklet with a sheet containing dots to be filled in so it could be graded electronically, it was not the usual battery of achievement tests that we took almost every other year. It was a test to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in preparation for career counseling. Consequently, in addition to the usual tests for reading comprehension and mathematical ability, there were also tests for clerical ability and mechanical ability, which is the one we had just finished.

A few weeks later, we were each called individually down to the guidance counselor’s office. We still didn’t have much of a choice in terms of our education, but as I understood it, choices would be coming. That’s what all of this was about. It was about careers and our educational program in preparation for those careers.

The guidance counselor was a genial older man, a good bit older than my parents and most of the teachers.

Sometimes, when you poke around on individual blogs and the comments sections of news sites, you can come across statements in which people want everyone to note their dramatic lack of sympathy for people who have had x, y or z education and training only to find that they are unemployed. “Well,” such a statement typically reads in response to someone’s child dying for lack of medical treatment, “what did they expect majoring in liberal arts!” What this statement ignores, besides basic human sympathy, is that good advice when one is thirteen may not hold true twenty years later.

One of my closest friends in college majored in physics. As she was finishing her doctorate, the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an influx of scientists from the former Soviet Union and the defense department stopped hiring. She had gone into the field for a love of physics, not for job security, still she was unprepared for the lack of jobs when she graduated. She worked in a dress shop and in a call center until the attacks on 9/11 got the defense department hiring again. Yes, some of those call center workers might have a Ph.D. in physics. “Well! What did they expect majoring in a theoretical field!”

I can console myself with the fact that she once told me that as a teenager she like to do mathematical proofs for fun. After all, there are freaks and there are freaks. What little girls do when no one is looking.

That we actually expect an individual with the ordinary perceptions of a mortal to give guidance is really quite a charade.

So I sat down in the student chair that was next to the guidance counselor’s desk on which sat a folder containing my school records. I never once had a reprimand or a detention, nor would I ever, and the folder was notable only for its thinness. The heavy weight paper containing the results of the skills tests sat on top. On the top of the paper was a graph shaped like a deep V with extended serifs. I saw the results of the mechanical score said 99. I asked the guidance counselor which question I had gotten wrong. He was slightly surprised by my question. I clarified that I was quite sure that I had gotten all the questions on the mechanical section correct. How was it that I didn’t have a 100. He explained to me what a percentile was and I was mollified. He explained that that still didn’t mean that I had gotten everything right, but deep down inside I knew I had. The bottom of the V was the score for clerical ability. As someone who couldn’t spell and couldn’t type, this was no surprise to me. I still can’t type or spell. If it weren’t for spell check, you would peg me as an illiterate.

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to do as a career?” he began by way of introduction.

I nodded. “I would like to be an engineer.”

He pressed his lips together as someone who has heard an incorrect response but wants to be sensitive in the way he corrects it. “I was under the impression that you were something of an artist.” I believe I had seen this man very briefly once about a year earlier. That he would have any impression of me at all came as something of a surprise. Indeed, a few years earlier I might have said “engineer or artist,” however as I was getting older artist was beginning to hold less and less appeal. Certainly, I would not have chosen at that young age an educational path that would deemphasize math and science.

“Art is a much nicer field for women.” There really wasn’t anything subtle about this conversation.

“But it’s very risky. A lot of artists can’t support themselves.” I countered.

“That won’t be a problem for you. You’re very pretty. You will probably get married.”

Years later, I would repeat this conversation to my mother. It’s stayed in my mind because it surprised me at the time. This was the late seventies. Second wave feminism had been well underway for over a decade. My mother worked. Most of my friends’ mothers worked. It would only be much later that I would find out that it wasn’t only feminism, but a changing economy, that would end the short-lived era of lower middle class women staying at home.

My mother said, “But he liked you.” That was exactly what was so insidious about it. He did like me, and not in a creepy, ignoring professional boundaries sort of way. I have met female artists with professional husbands. They have real careers. Their work is exhibited and reviewed. But at the lower level art pays so badly that even with a decent career they would never be able to pay their rent and put food on the table if they were unmarried. It’s not a common situation anymore, but the guidance counselor was older. I understand the life he saw for me. It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether or not I wanted that life for myself. Yes, I was smart and pretty, but it wasn’t in my character to use those characteristics to seek out a young man with good prospects. There have been days in my life when I’ve wondered if that wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do. But I don’t think it could have happened except by accident. As a career plan, it was frankly stupid. Yet this short, superficial conversation would come to symbolize the many ways I was pressured towards interests considered suitable for women. Most of the time, it would be more subtle and hard to be certain why I felt pressure. At least the guidance counselor told me in so many words that engineering wasn’t “nice” for women and art was.

Over the past several days, I’ve written ridiculously long comments on someone else’s blog that I feel almost could have been a post in its own right. Yet, without the context I’m not sure how to turn it into one.

It started with me getting my nose out of joint, as usual, over the subject of Americans being a bunch of terrible, uncouth louts. I tried explaining why this was emotionally triggering to me. In response I got something to the effect of, “But you are a bunch of uncouth louts.” I guess. But few people grow up in “The United States.” We grow up in specific environments, particular towns. One of the reasons I started writing is because I feel like my particular point of view is not represented publicly anywhere I look. I feel invisible on several levels. Sexuality is a big one, as is my particular moderate liberal political orientation. One level where I feel invisible is the cultural environment in which I grew up. On the one hand, it was very much part of the mainstream. On another hand, it feels very underrepresented in the media. The more I write about my adolescence, the more I would like to introduce that world to other people. It certainly has its flaws, but all in all it wasn’t so bad.

I grew up in an ethnically diverse, religiously diverse, comparatively tolerant environment that, to my mind, has no less reason to be considered “American” than anyplace else in this country. Will someone tell me who gave the Deep South and Appalachia the trademark on the word American? Where I grew up may not be “typically American,” but, at the same time, it’s very American in so far as it couldn’t have been anything else. I have just as much right to this country as anyone else here, dammit.

I’m not going to excuse myself for getting emotionally involved and perseverating (Yes, WordPress, it’s a word.) over a particular topic. Artistically and intellectually it’s been a surprisingly productive trait, although my friends and family can find it tiresome and it can be emotionally draining sometimes. So rather than avoid the topic, I’ve decided to delve further into it and I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject of regional differences in North America and the United States.

Many years ago, I read the book Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. Although I think he overstates his case in many ways, it was eye-opening to me. For years, I always wondered why the “America” I see portrayed in the media bore so little resemblance to the world I knew. Fischer describes how the core settlements in different regions of North America, which would eventually become parts of the U.S., were originally settled by people from different areas of the British Isles, primarily England, who brought with them different regional cultures. It was eye-opening because I finally understood not simply that different areas of the country had different subcultures, but why.

As I said, I think he overstates his case in many ways. First of all, I don’t accept this entirely culturally driven model. That’s not a small area of disagreement and that requires a lengthy explanation. Hopefully, I will be able to get to it eventually. Secondly, Fischer insists, repeatedly, that these four English subcultures are the main drivers of American culture and downplays the influence of other groups. As someone from New Jersey, specifically from the region that had previously been the colony of East Jersey, I couldn’t place my own culture within his framework. Reading the book, I mentally went back and forth between his description of the culture of East Anglia (Yankees) and that of the Midlands (The City of Brotherly Love/West Jersey). Both were familiar, especially the culture of the Midlands as described by Fischer, but neither felt right.

Fischer’s book, despite it’s drawbacks, was widely influential and it’ s frequently quote. I find myself citing it frequently too.

Then a few years ago, I came across another book, The Island at the Center of the World. Perhaps it’s because I found the book in a store near Hunter College on Lexington Avenue, but looking at the title I knew immediately what island Shorto meant. Now, if you don’t know where the Center of the World is, allow me to humbly, modestly inform you that it is New York City. Shorto describes the original Dutch colony. One important aspect of the colony of New Netherlands is that, during the Dutch golden age, they had difficulty finding colonists and the original colonists came from a variety of places. New York has been multicultural from the day it was founded. Reading his book, I thought to myself, now this place is familiar.

So now I’m reading a book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. He fills in some of the gaps I felt while reading Fischer’s book. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I get further into it.

I’m not on twitter, so I can’t tweet, but if I were a twit I would tweet this tweet: All the graduates of publicly funded schools in London have fewer Nobel prizes than the graduates of New York City Public Schools.

There, I said it. I even put it in bold. I am braced for the accusations of cultural imperialism and racism that are sure to follow. On the accusation of racism let me defend myself by pointing out that all graduates of publicly funded schools in London are not the same race. Although London is associated in the world-wide popular mind with the indigenous island race popularly called Britons, itself a dubious admixture of Celts, Germans, Normans and an itty bitty bit of Roman, and probably a few other things they’d rather not talk about like those “little people”, it should be pointed out that residency in London is not, and really never has been, the exclusive property of Britons. Secondly, I have been told that my family has more than a drop of British blood, or at least it is presumed due to the surfeit of surnames that read like a seventeenth century career guide: Farmer, Cooper, Fletcher, Weaver, Smith and others. Just because I am not exclusively of British descent does not make me a “self-hating Briton.” In my entirely objective and unbiased evaluation of myself, I am entirely fair-minded and even-handed in my treatment of Britons. I treat them just like human beings, which I should point out they are.

But the lack of Noble Prizes among the graduates of the publicly funded schools in London is just a fact. Surely it is only in the interest of Londoners themselves to ask how and why their culture is failing them. The indigenous people of the British Isles once had a great culture. They hauled big rocks and put them in a circle, or something like that.

Richard Dawkins pointed out the other day, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Writing in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik said, “To wearily engage with his logic briefly: yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of “Muslims”, and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world’s Chinese, all the world’s Indians, all the world’s lefthanded people, all the world’s cyclists.”

So I did. Or more accurately I tried to try it. I wondered how my people, the people of New Jersey, fared. I suspected with Princeton and the former Bell Labs and the highest average level of education in the U.S. we would fare very well on a world-wide scale. So I took to the internet in search of information. If you are from New Jersey, it will not surprise you that everywhere I looked I saw references to New York City, New York City, New York City. I abandoned my people and decided to settle on New York City Public High School graduates as my arbitrarily chosen group of people. I failed Nesrine Malik’s test. When substituting “New York City Public High School graduates” for “Muslims” I came up with an untrue statement. Forty (40) graduates of the New York City Public High School system have won Nobel Prizes. So take that Trinity.

Then I thought, that’s not fair. New York City public high schools (For British readers, U.S. public schools are public, unlike British public schools which are private. In other words, they are funded by the public and open to the public.) probably contain more people than Trinity college. So, let’s compare like to like. What about the graduates of publicly funded high schools in London? How many Nobel prize winners are there. I couldn’t find a complete list, but so far it doesn’t look good. Furthermore, all of the New York City Nobel Laureates didn’t attend Bronx Science. Richard Feynman went to Far Rockaway. Far Rockaway, folks! The six people listed who received their secondary education in London did not attend publicly funded schools.

It is high time the British people did some serious soul-searching. All residents of the islands, not least of all the indigenous Britons, would benefit.

(Full disclosure: I once had a boyfriend from Rockaway Beach who graduated from Far Rockaway High School.)

Well, for at least the past twenty-four hours, and probably more like forty-eight, I’ve been unable to access my email. I was hoping it would be simply a technical difficulty and from time to time I checked the Lavabit.com website to see if it was backup. As time wore on, I was getting a sinking feeling. I had a hunch, and my hunch was right.

As luck would have it, I was sharing an email provider with Edward Snowden.

Earlier today, this screen went up:

lavabitFew people that I know through this blog use my normal email address at Lavabit. It will probably take me a few days to regroup. In the meantime, if anyone wants to get in touch with me, you’ll have to leave a message in the comments.

It’s especially a drag since I wasn’t even using for the secrecy and encryption or anything like that. I just didn’t feel like giving my entire life over to Google more or less on the principle of the matter. I guess resistance really is futile.

By the way, has anyone tried setting up their own email server?

Update: There’s some more information now from Forbes.

Texas-based Lavabit came into being in 2004 as an alternative to Google’s Gmail, as an email provider that wouldn’t scan users’ email for keywords. Being identified as the provider of choice for the country’s most famous NSA whistleblower led to a flurry of attention for Lavabit, from journalists. and also, apparently, from government investigators. Lavabit founder Ladar Levison announced today that he’s shutting the service down rather than providing information to the government.

Further down, Forbes reporter Kashmir Hill says:

Levison says that he’s under a gag order and thus can’t discuss the government request for information that he has been fighting over the last six weeks. Gag orders like that often come with information requests in national security investigations.

Hill’s assumption is the same as mine. Although her speculation that the government wants Snowden’s emails sounds like a good guess on the surface, it is still simply an assumption. Frankly, my own guess is that they wanted more than that. At this stage, there would be no reason to be secretive about wanting Snowden’s email. Of course, that’s just speculation on my part as well.

If Levison has been fighting this for six weeks as Hill reports, he could have let users know that there was a potential for a shutdown. As it is, he’s given users who don’t have any special reason to use encrypted or private email reason to distrust smaller providers.

Update II: Yet another reason to not completely trust cloud computing. I’ve been using the Thunderbird email client and storing most of my emails on my local computer hard drive. It could have been worse if I hadn’t been doing that.

I’ve mentioned in various places that I was raised without a religion. I’ve described my father as an atheist and my mother as an agnostic, although she sometimes uses the word atheist as well. When I read blogs written by people who call themselves atheist, it seems that almost everyone has a post describing how and why he or she became an atheist, everyone except me. So I’m feeling a little left out of the party. Furthermore, it seems that there are fewer atheists in the United States than I would have thought, so I thought it might be worthwhile to describe for everyone how my parents became atheists. This is the story as it was related to me.

It might surprise everyone to know that my sister and I were both baptised, however I have no recollection of this event. I understand that’s typical. One Sunday morning some years after the aforementioned baptisms, my parents were lying in bed sound asleep. The alarm went off. My father, a light sleeper, awoke immediately and shut off the alarm. Now he had the difficult task of waking my mother. “Sweetie,” he said nudging her, “Wake up. It’s time to go to church.”

“Ugh,” my mother groaned, “but I don’t even believe in God.”

“Well,” my father said, “I don’t believe in God either.”

“Does that mean we can sleep?”

“I guess so.”

“Good,” my mother replied.

Now that I’ve recounted this, it seems rather anticlimactic. Everyone else has these deep posts about science, doubt, morality and a path or journey towards rejecting religion. I have a sleepy mother.

Also, I’ve seen other posts where people have talked about how to raise children if you’re an atheist. I don’t think my parents really thought much about it. They just did. We continued to go to school and not much was made of it one way or another. There were a lot of other things to do and to think about and, except when someone else brought it up, it simply wasn’t there and I barely noticed. I went through a phase in my late teens and early twenties of being curious about religion. Almost every religion I investigated seem silly after a certain point.

My mother might have felt slightly self-conscious about not imparting a religiously tinged morality. From time to time she would make odd statements. When the kid up the street blew his hand off making a pipe bomb, my mother said, “See, going to church every week didn’t do anything for his sense of right and wrong.”

My sister won’t even countenance the subject of religion. “When I hear an adult talking about God,” she told me one day, “it’s like hearing an adult discuss the existence of the Easter Bunny. I just can’t take it seriously.”