Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Rights and Arms-bearing

The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States was written in different versions. Did you know that fact? As passed by the Congress it reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
But the text that was ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, is a bit different:

          A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people 
          to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

As any qualified English teacher can attest, the first version is a syntactical abomination, while the second is a clearly expressed statement. Of course there is still plenty of room to argue whether the Amendment meant that arms were a right to militias, meaning military units--including the "civilian" units such as the National Guard--or any person who could, in principle, be on call as a militiaman. The question of just who has the legal right to bear arms (at present, just about anyone who can get a weapon) has been hotly debated for decades, and the debates will likely not abate and time soon. No debate abates.

But I ask a new question regarding the Second Amendment: Where, precisely, does it say that the right to bear firearms shall not be infringed? I mean, if I own knives (check) or a bat (nope) or a bow and arrows (nope) or a boomerang (check), then I also own arms, don't I? And if you add to that anything around the house that can be used as a weapon, then I own a bloody arsenal. Consider the mayhem and bodily harm that can be caused by a broomstick, forks, chlorine bleach, frying pans, and a bottle of fluid that is more than 3 fluid ounces! (I don't really know how that last could be used as a weapon, but the airport security folks say it is possible, and they ought to know.)

The really sad thing about any discussion on the subject of gun control (NOT confiscation) is that it doesn't happen. The pro-gun-ownership people trot out the Second Amendment, and everyone else melts back into a great sea of apathy. NO ONE has the guts to stand up long enough to present and defend any counter argument, least of all politicians.* Having even suggested that some sort of dialog take place probably assures my being listed now as an enemy of the state. Whatever.

But wouldn't it be something if just once someone with backbone came back with the argument that arms does NOT have to mean firearms? Why not? After all, the Constitution provides for freedom of speech but also draws the line at using it to do things such as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded and not-on-fire theatre. If you may speak freely but within limits, why can't the same principles apply to firearms? No one is allowed to own an operational tank, armed fighter jet, or nuclear weapon. So why does no one think guns are fair game for a bit more regulation?

Perhaps I just don't understand. After all, I long questioned where it was writ that "Thou shalt not kill, except by authorization of Congress".

* Politician, noun. 1. A vertebrate life form that possesses a skeleton so gelatinous in nature that they are often mistaken for invertebrates. 2. Any semi-intelligent humanoid that exists for the sole purposes of (a) getting elected to office and (b) getting re-elected as many times as possible.

Monday, 13 August 2012

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Right?

I am a herpetologist. I have been herpetologically inclined from the morning of 6 April 1958. That was a date that I shall always remember, but it is not my point now. As a person who has had a deep passion for reptiles for more than 50 years (my god, when did THAT happen? 50? ME??) I am very aware that many, possibly most other people either do not like reptiles or loathe them. Also, most cases of such loathing come from fear, a fear taught to youngsters when they are impressionable and not yet able to observe the beauty and usefulness of reptiles for themselves.

What happens when a person is in a position where she can meet a reptile? I've had many opportunities to be the facilitator at such meetings, and what is most gratifying is that the human usually enjoys the experience. More than once I have had to go chase the person to retrieve the reptile! Fear can be overcome. Fear is the enemy, not the reptile. Learn to at least control your fear and you can achieve heights you would not think possible.

So now I ask this: Why are people afraid of cemeteries?

People we knew and loved, or at least liked, are the residents of those neatly tailored lawns for the departed. People like my wonderful grandfather, whom we lost to kidney disease in 1963. He lived long enough for me to really know and remember him, but not nearly so long as I'd have liked. Am I to think that he, gentle soul that he was, now has zombies as neighbors? If so, I am also confident that he would, in his afterlife, be as much my defender as ever he was in life. No, I'm not afraid of zombies.

The good 19-year old family friend, the one who had been the local grocer's delivery boy. He volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war there, worked his way up to sergeant, and died on some numbered hill, fighting a rearguard action until all his men had made it to the evac choppers. When he was on leave, he went to Thailand and sent me several photos of the snakes he found at the markets. He passed on 1n 1965, but I never worried that his ghost would roam around some cemetery waiting to scare the liver out of some poor visitor.

My best friend died from a cerebral edema in 1973, and my favourite professor in 1977. There were many other good friends, teachers, and family who left this world, including my parents in 1994 and 1996. Not all our beloved need be human, either; my dear dog and very long-time companion passed away in 2009, and another this past February.

I still miss them all, and I remember them and think about what I remember so those images stay with me until it's my time for a label, a jar, and a place on a museum shelf. But do I ever fear any of them? No. I cannot. I see a cemetery as a place where, sometime after their journey has ended, the souls of our friends, our family, and our pets have been laid with reverence and loving fondness. Sure, my dear lost ones are not in a single cemetery, nor even in the same state. But when I have to pass a cemetery, or visit one with someone I care about, I never thing about zombies and vampires and other horrors grown from our near-universal fear of death.

What do I see? Mainly, just a quiet place, where the scenery and location are peaceful, and we can remember and enjoy what memories are evoked. And if I don't get to see my grandfather or professor or parents or dogs, I tend to see those of someone else. So far, not one of them has tried to eat my brain, phlebotomize my jugular vein, or dismember me. Why, even the departed dogs have never peed on my foot!

Just something to think about as Halloween approaches. What if for once our costumes evoked pleasant images from good times with those no longer with us. Sure, you may still wear funny costumes and children may still extort treats from the neighbors. Maybe All Hallows Eve would be a nice time to remember those who were once near and dear to our hearts. And if you must go visit a cemetery, say "hello" to the locals on behalf of their loved ones who could not get there today.

Every time we learn how to destroy even a wee bit of fear, we get a wee bit closer to a world where people will have less to fight about and where our mental health as a species will be free of a little more stress. In my humble opinion, of course!

Link to herpetology books that I recommend.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Report from the Front with the Foul and Loathsome

Linnaeus, founder of the system of scientific naming of living things, sure didn't like reptiles or amphibians (back then, they were colectively just "Amphibia"), as he makes clear in his introduction to the group:

"Amphibia pleraque horrent Corpori frigido, Colore lurido,  Sceleto cartilagineo, Cute foeda, Facie torva, Obtuto meditabundo, Odore tetro, Sono rauco, Loco squalido, Veneno horrendo; non iraque in horum numerum sese jactavit eorum Auctor." *
"These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them."
- Carolus Linnaeus (1758)

Things sure have changed in the past 254 years. Like the War of American Independence, the French Revolution, elimination of the bustle, flying machines, voting women, Prohibition, Lucky Lindy made it, Casey at the bat didn't, the Beatles, and a few other things. Yes, even in the early 21st century a lot of people, maybe even the majority, still agree with Carolus (Carl to his buds!). Too many of our neighbors still find herpetofauna "foul and loathsome". ("Herpetofauna"; now there's a word Carl would have liked.) That attitude is a subject I'll cover another time.

Given that my opinion of herpetofauna is the polar opposite, yin-to-his-yang, of Linnaeus, it comes as a wonderful "so there!" to see that he was way off when he wrote, "their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them". His original list of both amphibians and reptiles covered a few score of taxa. But with the massive world exploration and exploitation that followed in the next two centuries, the numbers of both groups has risen considerably. For instance--

There are some 8- to 9,000 species of reptiles described (depending on what taxonomists eventually do about a bunch of 'subspecies'). That's closing in on the number of described birds (11,000-ish) and mammals (3,500). As late as the 1990s a student in a herpetology course would still be taught that amphibians were the smallest group of terrestrial vertebrates, numbering about 3,000 to 3,200. Even so, what Linnaeus called Amphibia had gone from a group that he believed contained few species to a pair of groups with over 12,000! Yes, I respect Carl and all he's done for biology, but I do not like his derisive comments about my favourite creatures.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. Yeah, the past 20 years have seen a blitz of exploration and reexamination of museum specimens, and added to the number of herpetological species at a possibly unprecedented rate. This next comment is aimed (respectfully) at Linnaeus:

Hey, Carl! Amphibians have cleared the--get this--SEVEN THOUSAND species mark! That's right, and you can read all about it here: (

The more carefully we look, the more we learn, and some of the discoveries are almost unbelievable. Like lots of amphibians do NOT go back to the water to reproduce. The earliest amphibian fossils (relax, Carl, I'll explain fossils to you later) had seven or nine fingers instead of four or five. Cave salamanders eat the dung of other troglodytes. The most noxious poisons produced naturally by living creatures comes from among the smallest frogs. We've discovered "sibling species", creatures that differ in mating calls, time of activity... but look so much alike that there is no physical way to distinguish between them. With 7,000 species, I can't get into all the news here, but there is an incredible world of newly discovered aliens living all around us.


* Want to read the whole Latin text for yourself... you know, go to the original source? Then go here:
Caroli Linnaei, Systema Naturae

So. THIS is the future?

Home computers are remarkable things. It seems that several times each day someone around us remarks about them. That goes for me, too. After all, I'm not a four-letter-word kind of fellow, except of course under the most angry mind-states. To that end, I must credit my home PCs, without which I'd never have learned to cuss like a longshoreman. And that says a lot, because my first full-time paying job ever was (ta da!) longshoreman, and the docks never gave me a scintilla of the sheer cussing vocabulary that my PCs have.

That includes ALL personal computers, by the way, including the near-sacred Macs.

At some time in everyone's life, assuming they are living in the First or Second World, the computer upon which so much depends will freeze, lose a file, erase an important document, send the wrong email ("Sorry, boss!"), secretly download pornographic sites, secretly upload important personal information, engage in a data-searching Mobius loop, release wisps of white smoke from the tower, accidentally (and, thank's to Murphy, at the absolutely worst possible time) send live video camera images to someone on your Skype, or, best of all, crash. I no longer doubt that whatever the source of the chips inside, some must be potato chips, and others programmed by a black-box outfit called Kamikaze Electronics.

This isn't a subject I intended to include on my blog, but I've been having  wrestling match with my PC. Even after running four programmes that condense files, toss duplicate files, and otherwise "streamline and speed up" the processing, my time from click to result is still slower than my grandmother running uphill backwards--and she passed away in 1986!

So there it is. My rant. Now please excuse me, my PC has informed me it's time to learn some new cuss words. Today, we cover the letter "P".

You can order a copy of my new book, GIANT LIZARDS, 2nd EDITION (2009) by clicking here!

Friday, 10 August 2012

So proud of being so dumb

WHAT happened to the once esteemed idea that each generation wanted its offspring to be better than they? My parents, and theirs, and theirs, all wanted the children to be better educated, live better lives, have better opportunities. And then something odd happened; Americans began to see educated Americans as a threat, as if having actual knowledge was a danger to Life, Liberty, and the American Way. This isn't just odd, it's tragic.

I remember back when Bill Clinton was running against George Bush, the Elder, for president. As one of many "filler" stories, the press wanted to know about favourite cookie recipes of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton. Mrs Bush complied with cutesy press coverage and smiling youngsters. Ms Clinton, however, responded that she didn't make time for baking, that she had a (law) career that took much of her time. The result was a remarkable barrage of insulting responses to Ms Clinton, who had dared pronounce against motherhood, baking, children, and the sanctity of a woman;s place in the kitchen! Egad!

And as I watched the scene play out, I wondered: Who, among the many parents of daughters, would NOT be proud to have them attend a prestigious university, become scholars of note, attain law degrees, and procure a career and income that would pretty much guarantee that they would have a better, n more rewarding life than themselves? Who would tell a daughter who had been accepted to Harvard or Princeton that, no, they really should stay home and learn to crochet and bake cookies?

Ah, but Ms Clinton is not THEIR daughter. Bill Clinton is not THEIR kin. He's just one of the annoying, demented, Eastern Ivy-League Ivory-Tower Know-It-Alls. One of those people who think that because he's had access to the experience and tutelage of some of the finest and most educated people alive, he is somehow determined to undermine everything American for his own glory. Or so it seemed then.

Now, the GOP is still belittling the Ivory-Tower types, and the ones doing so ARE Ivory-Tower types! Bush I and II, and Mitt Romney are all products of those dreaded, communist towers of erudition, Harvard and Yale. It is an intellectual atrocity that they slander the almae matri that provided them the switch from silver spoons to golden ladles, but to then rile the electorate and have them believe that the pols were NOT part of that Academic Elite is almost unbelievable! Or at least it should be unbelievable; but the decades of fervent anti-intellectualism has taken its toll. Americans are getting... well, I'll just say they are not keeping up intellectually with much of the rest of the world. On the one hand, Americans decry the movement of jobs abroad, while they simultaneously lie prostrate across the road to the progress that they demand. 

"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge," wrote the late scientists and prolific author Isaac Asimov. It is sad that this attitude, that ANY opinion is as valid as one based on facts, is growing like a fungus among us, and I am not sure that enough people with the same concern will do anything to reverse it. 

"All it takes," wrote Edmund Burke, "for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing." Equally true, it seems, is that all it takes for ignorance to flourish is for educated men -- and women -- to do nothing. Judging by the puny resistance ignorance faces today, it would seem that we have plenty of good people happy to do nothing.

So, you see, there is SOMETHING that, in this recession, we have in plenty. Too bad. 

(To read my related article, visit:
Dr. Robert Sprackland. 2005 A Nation Left Behind Or A Nation Placing Itself Last. EzineArticles (December, 08),