Blogging advice?

From the wall of Havana café in Cheltenham (good coffee).


UK bullying

There’s currently a fuss about bullying in the UK parliament. Actually it’s pretty obvious that bullying is in the culture, you only have to look at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions and the ya boo interjections of backbenchers, encouraged by the way that the PM behaves.

The UK ‘public school’ (private schools really) culture in which many leading politicians are schooled is one obvious culprit – that demeaning of others, the put-downs, the macho posturing, the lack of empathy, that sense of entitlement and power all lead to bullying behaviour.

That this could lead to sexual harassment of many of the women in parliament, as also recently revealed, is not altogether surprising.

In my experience this sort of culture also extends into the higher levels of management of many UK companies. There are good managers and bad, and many of the bad are bullies, often those seen as the most successful. Failed companies were often later found to be run by bullies.

So what is to be done? Will parliament be able to sort itself out? Don’t hold your breath. The confrontational physical layout of the debating chamber does not help.

Actually, bullying depends on the fear of the bullied, because resistance will involve some sort of loss or retribution. So an institution needs an effective anti-bullying system.

Personally, individuals have a choice, although consequences may often be unpalatable. My first experience of being bullied was at age 11, by a boy a year older who was cultivating a ‘gang’. Being taller he stood over me demanding something. In response I just hit him and ran for my life, in fear of retribution. Unwise maybe, but he never bothered me again.

At the end of the day, bullying is just not acceptable.

Ibis, White and Green

I was not very familiar with ibises before our recent visit to Brazos Bend State Park. There were two varieties on display, the American White Ibis and the Green Ibis.

american white ibis
American White Ibis family

The key distinguishing feature of the ibis is the downward curved beak, as compared to say egret or heron which have straight beaks. The American White Ibis ranges through North and Central America.

green ibis 2
Green Ibis

The Green Ibis is more of a Central and Southern American bird, so Texas is a natural place where the two would meet.





Petrochemical dream or nightmare?

So we took the grandchildren to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which we’d much enjoyed in previous years, particularly to see the new Wiess Energy Hall.

What a spectacular set of exhibits this provides, summarising all you might know or wish to know about the oil and petrochemical industries. Many working models and explanations keep young and old engaged and interested for hours. What a monument to the wonderful creative spirit that has engaged humanity for a century and mostly created the modern world, with its variety of fuels, chemicals, plastics…

If you want to know about different types of oil rigs, the fracking revolution, oil pipelines, and much more, this is the place to go. Maps show the incredible scales of operations in the US.

There are even sections on nuclear power and renewable energy sources, albeit at a lower level than the obviously dominant petrochemicals.

Sadly, there are things it does not tell you, issues it does not address – like how this petrochemical dream is running into the buffers.

It does not tell you about the global warming and climate change that is being caused, nor of the suppression of knowledge of this by those who first knew – the oil industry.

It does not tell you how the land and sea are becoming increasingly polluted with all those plastics, not to mention the regular oil spillages, escaping methane, frack-caused earthquakes,…

It does not tell you how the very soil we grow our crops on is being denatured by those chemical fertilisers.

It does not tell how insects, birds, vegetation, mammals, fish are all being depleted, species destroyed at an alarming rate as the chemicals and plastics spread around the environment and the industrial scale enabled destroys the intimate spaces of nature.

It does not tell how human populations have been subjugated and their politics subverted by the imperative for this energy.

It does not tell how the earth cries out at this painfully rapid change, and is harnessing its resources for survival, ensured by its wonderful yet frightful variability – the heatwaves, coldwaves, biblical rainfalls and fires and floods, hurricanes, typhoons, thunders and lightnings…

In short, like most human endeavours, this industry’s continued prevalence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, which it resists to the death throes. But why would all those so-generous oil industry related sponsors of this exhibition in the oil capital wish to tell that story?

Featured image shows one of the exhibits: “Energy City,” a 2,500-square-foot 3-D landscape representing Houston, the surrounding Gulf coastal waters and the terrain of southeast and central Texas, aiming to bring to life the energy value chain.

Anything good about Brexit?

It has for some time been suggested to me that I should write a post on what is good about Brexit. I’ve struggled with this, as there appear to be few advantages compared to the enormous disadvantages. Yes Brussels is a large bureaucracy, with all the disadvantages that entails, but getting out of the club never seemed a sensible option to me, rather than working to reform it from within.

Most important is the reason that the EU was invented – to bring together the European countries and avert for future generations the possibility of further wars such as those that disfigured preceding centuries right up to the World War. The worst conservative government in my memory has, by their own incompetence, put all this in jeopardy, dividing the country in the process and endangering the European enterprise.

In today’s speech former UK Prime Minister John Major has expressed it all very well. His speech is well worth reading, and a salutary reminder of what is at stake and the importance of the UK government taking parliament and the people along in this supremely hazardous enterprise. Major is certainly an elder statesman worth listening to.

There are no positives that counterbalance this monumental mess.


American Bittern

We had a superb view of this American Bittern at Brazos Bend Texas State Park. The remarkable markings on this wading bird serve as excellent camouflage in the swamp.


For several minutes we watched him trying to manoeuvre what appeared to be a catfish into position to swallow. Eventually it disappeared and he resumed that alert upright state.

The Houston area is in this bittern’s winter range; they travel north to breed in the spring.

Loggerhead Shrike

A pair of smallish birds that turned out to be loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, were sitting atop branches of the bare bushes as we walked around Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park in Houston. They seemed quite happy to be photographed.

Their hooked bill provides for disabling of prey, which they are also said to skewer on thorns or barbed wire.

Populations of this common American bird have been in steep decline since around the time of the introduction of chemical pesticides in the US.


The money-go-round

Let’s get this straight.

  • Most money is created by banks as debt, i.e. ‘out of thin air’.
  • Banks ensure they keep plenty for themselves, the grandest buildings, the biggest salaries, huge bonuses.
  • Eventually they always lend too much, confidence declines, some bank(s) get(s) into trouble because there is a run on the bank, because the money doesn’t really exist.
  • So a bank or two fails, but is usually bailed out by governments.
  • So governments need to borrow a bit more from… banks.
  • And/or they take it from the people by ‘austerity’, reduced public services or additional taxation.
  • And they say there was too much debt, another way of saying it was the banks wot did it.
  • And the most egregious banking behaviour appears to be but lightly punished – the rewards appear to greatly outweigh the risks.

You couldn’t make it up!

There must be a better system. At least someone’s proposing solutions. See eg Positive Money.



waxwingsWalking by the bayou in Houston we often come across gangs of tens of small birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the bright sky, even on a cloudy day. The initial reaction is that they’re impossible to successfully photograph with just a travel zoom (Panasonic TZ80). However, it’s amazing what you can do with maximum zoom, followed by a bit of image editing afterwards, mostly to crop and brighten up.

These are clearly waxwings, with characteristic crest and yellow-tipped tail – a very colourful perching bird, although you do not get much of an impression of that colour from the ground.

I even managed to get a reasonable crop of an individual bird showing more detail.


Waxwings are also found in northern Europe, but not much in the UK.

Licence to Operate?

We see so many instances of large corporations acting against the public interest – tobacco, sugar, pesticides, pollution, Enron, subprime bank lending, plastics, enabling interference with elections, cartels, monopoly restriction of competition, and on and on.

Is it not time to require a licence for any corporation above a certain size to operate in a particular country, renewable say every five years, based on a transparent licensing process that is under democratic supervision?

Large businesses have privileges such as limited liability, generous bankruptcy laws and the ability to act trans-nationally and shift profits between countries; it is only reasonable to require them to not act against the interest of the societies in which they operate.

This provides a way for democratic politicians to take back control of forces that are, frankly, acting purely to make as much money as they can regardless of the impact on everyone else.

[US readers note licence = license.]

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

There is usually a gang of about 50 or so whistling ducks hanging around in Terry Hershey Park when we visit Houston. They are quite notable for their whistling habit.

This particular variant is called the black bellied whistling duck, for obvious reasons, found all year round in South East Texas.

whistling ducks
Geronimo! Whistling duck landing to join the gang.

Wikipedia lists 8 variants of whistling duck, or tree duck, and suggests that they are not actually true ducks but “a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family”. They do look sort of intermediate between duck and goose.

American Robin

american robinIt must have been the unaccustomed cold February weather in Houston, 4°C with a strong windchill. This American Robin just stayed still as we walked by, allowing an easy photograph.

American_Robin-rangemapFrom the distribution map at the above reference, Houston is at the northerly end of this migratory bird’s winter range – so it may well have been struggling with the cold.

Like everything in the US, the American Robin is larger than the robins we have in the UK (European Robin). Although its red breast is remarkably similar, this American bird is actually not a robin in the European sense, but a member of the thrush family.

Distribution map by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons

Isaac Newton, Mystic

Isaac Newton is generally seen as a key founder of modern science, via his major work Principia Mathematica and theory of gravity – which led on to the theory of the ‘clockwork universe’ and much of the modern materialist/atheistic world view.

Newton was indeed a great polymath. What is less known is that his work was inspired by his studies of religion and mysticism, which were at least as important to him as the natural sciences. The idea of a clockwork universe would have been anathema to Newton, as would the idea of atheism.

This is all explained in Edi Bilimoria’s well-researched article ‘Newton’ in the current issue of Paradigm Explorer, magazine of the Scientific and Medical Network.

Interestingly, Newton’s gravity and its attraction were ‘a purely mathematical concept involving no consideration of real and primary physical or mechanical causes’ – which is why his book is about ‘mathematics’ and not ‘mechanics’.

As Edi explains, Newton’s religious ideas were well developed and have little in common with the Christianity of the time, being more related to the view that God is everywhere immanent and transcendent. Quoting Newton himself:

[God] endures forever , and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. In him are all things contained and moved…

Of course, many modern scientists have come to a similar viewpoint on the importance of religion. For example, that more modern polymath Albert Einstein:

“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Edi’s article is well worth reading.

Impressionist Peregrine

peregrine falcon 3

One of he highlights of our visit to WWT Slimbridge – a peregrine falcon landed to consume a bird (lapwing?) that it had just taken in flight. It was just visible to the naked eye and showed up reasonably in portable 8x binoculars, even better in the ‘scope someone had focused on it.

The best my Panasonic TZ80 travel zoom could do resulted in the rather pleasing (to my eye) impressionistic image above. There clearly aren’t enough pixels to give a decent photograph.

Some birders have answers to this. Some carry SLR cameras with huge telephoto lenses, others have a fair sized spotting telescope, possibly with a ‘digiscoping’ attachment to take photographs on their mobile/cell – both have to also cart around a tripod. Three big issues – cost, bulk and weight.

We all have to make our own compromises. Maybe I’ll stick to impressionistic photography. Or what about those bridge cameras…

Svalbard Barnacle Goose

svalbard geeseThere was a suggestion of haughtiness about these Svalbard Barnacle Geese, sitting apart from the other wildfowl and well away from the human visitors at WWT Slimbridge. Like many black-white birds their plumage is nevertheless striking.

These birds have been a focus of WWT since the 1950s, when their worldwide population had declined to 300, an alarming level. Peter Scott began an activity that became one of the world’s longest running migratory studies, and WWT has provided winter refuge for these birds, most notably at WWT Caerlaverock in the Solway Firth. In summer they live in the Svalbard Islands (includes Spitzbergen) between Norway and the Arctic. By 2010 there were 35,000 of these birds – a remarkable success story. (Other populations of barnacle geese migrate between Novaya Zemlya/Baltic states and Netherlands, and between Greenland and Scotland/Ireland.)

It shows that the worldwide efforts of conservation organisations can be vital in averting possible extinction of highly visible species. But the pressures are increasing, the number of threatened species inexorably rising, so ever more efforts are needed to maintain nature’s diversity in the face of the relentless onslaught of modern human life.

And what about the smaller organisms where there is no such highly visible focus? Amazingly, it is requiring almost superhuman efforts to even protect the vital bees from ‘the system’. We really do need a step change in our attitude to the natural world. We and it are one interrelated ecosystem – there is no backup.

The eye of the needle

The recent issue of Positive News contains an article on ‘The multimillionaire who gave his fortune away’. Daniel Garner was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but one day he realized that he was obese and unhappy. He gave away his money, moving from the ‘top of the top 1%’ to the ‘bottom 1%’, lost weight became part of a community and environment, and gained contentment. Some of his quotes are worth repeating:

“My life is [now] so much richer in every single way because I’m connected to life itself: to the people and to the environment around me… I’m truly alive.”

“It’s not just dollars that define wealth: it’s also power, linkages and the ability to make much more money. You end up forming a cohort of other extremely wealthy people and become tremendously disconnected from society.”

“When I was incredibly rich, my heart was completely closed to everyone around me. How can you maintain wealth when you see someone who’s starving and eating out of a garbage can…”

Yes there are so many stories we hear of rich and powerful people who exploit others and care little for those around them. Yet also, some extremely rich people find solace and connection through philanthropy that channels their riches to benefit others.

Eye of the Needle, South Dakota, US

No, I’m not writing this post to knock the rich, just to highlight that large amounts of money do not bring fulfilment, but do bring incredible responsibility for wise use of that money. After all, most of us in the West are rich by the standards of most developing countries. Are we using that richness wisely, and are we truly fulfilled?

Jesus once said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24, King James). He wasn’t joking.

Featured image courtesy Ron Clausen via Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Attention and Mindfulness

A 3-year-old is contented playing with a toy. This all-absorbing activity goes on for a minute or two, and then attention moves onto something else, which may or may not then provide contentment.

An 8-year-old loves Lego and craft projects, also getting totally absorbed. Yet at times she may have a frown on her face, as some thought crosses her mind during the activity. It may be the worry monster. Monkey mind has usurped her attention, disturbing her contentment. Do we not all have this battle with monkey mind?

At age very much more, I absent-mindedly carry a cup of coffee up the stairs to my study, just as most days. One day, my slipper catches a step and a few drops are spilled onto the stair carpet, followed by panic, wetting, rubbing and blotting to try to avoid consequent stains. Since then, I strive to always carry cups of drink in full mindfulness, when there is no chance of spillage.

So mindfulness can be very beneficial. But then comes the beautiful sunny day when I congratulate myself on just how mindful I am being, and immediately trip on the pavement. It’s not easy.

When driving a car, we adults are very much like grandson absorbed in the act, yet we are required to perform the seemingly superhuman task of holding full mindful attention for an hour or two until the next break. If the worry monster finds space our driving is probably impaired. But there is that wonderful feature of humans called auto-pilot, where ‘I’ continue driving the car while speaking to a passenger, worrying or pondering on some problem – just as I carried the coffee upstairs while thinking of other things.

The scary thing is when you ‘wake up’ and realise that you’ve been absorbed in thought for the last mile or so of motorway, while ‘you’ were driving the car on auto-pilot. Who the hell was in charge? And did it matter?

If you really want to know more about, and develop, your powers of attention, try B. Alan Wallace’s book ‘The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind’, which could take you all the way to Shamatha of the Buddhist tradition.

Featured image from Truck clipart.



I loved watching these beautiful avocets, with their upturned beaks, at WWT Slimbridge the other day. This group tended to move together, creating constantly changing striking patterns, such as that above.

Avocets represent another UK bird conservation success story. These waders were on the verge of extinction in 19th century UK, as the wetlands that formed their habitat had mostly been drained. Since WW2 they have recovered significantly, much helped by the conservation efforts of organisations such as RSPB and WWT. Indeed this attractive bird was adopted as an emblem by the RSPB.