Llano, Texas

Llano is a good place to stop on the way to somewhere else in Texas. This small town was founded as a frontier trading centre on the Llano River in 1856. The river and the ‘old’ town provide the main focus of interest, plus one of the best BBQ restaurants around (delicious).

The bridge is rather functional and not particularly attractive, so I was quite surprised that my Panasonic ZX200 made it look quite attractive after nightfall (featured image).

More spectacular was the view of the evening sky from the bridge, over the weir.

llano sunset

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Osprey and Catfish

The osprey is quite rare in the UK, so it was great to see one of these great birds of prey  at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre. Signs by the lake implied that it contains quite large catfish, which was confirmed as the osprey flew overhead with a huge catfish in its talons. Even better, it then settled on a nearby telegraph pole to take a few bites. The only problem for photographs was that he was between the sun and us, so detail in the images is not great. But the silhouettes are impressive and really show the size of the fish taken by this huge bird.

 

Too Much Reality?

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World

I’ve had this book by Professor David Ray Griffin for some time, but hesitated to put it on top of the reading list. Having taken an interest in world affairs over the years, I sort of knew what it says. It’s still quite disturbing to see it all laid out in one place.

The neoconservative ideology, of which Dick Cheney was a major leader, had been around since the Reagan years, culminating in the articulation of the Project for the New American Century, aimed at maintaining American ‘full spectrum’ domination of world affairs. It seems that those ‘hanging chads’ in Florida in November 2000, and the resulting ‘stolen’ presidential election that brought George W Bush and Cheney to power allowed these ideas to have full effect. This had a profound impact on future decades, leading to the multiple crises we see today. Consider the contents of part I of this tome.

  • The failure to prevent 9/11
  • The nonsensical ‘war on terror’ and the Afghanistan war
  • The increase in military spending and policy of pre-emptive war and regime change (carried forward from the Reagan years)
  • The corruptly-justified Iraq war and incompetent dissolution of the Iraqi army that led to the formation of ISIS
  • The extreme Islamaphobia
  • The global chaos caused by America’s ‘war for the greater middle east’ – American supported insurrections in Libya, Syria, Yemen. (The policies were basically carried forward by Obama/Clinton/Kerry). The uncritical support of Israel’s unjust stasis. All this of course leading to Europe’s current refugee crisis.
  • The flouting of US and international law in drone killings and targeted assassinations, even of US citizens. A counter-productive policy that continues to this day.
  • Changing the US constitution that limited the ability of the Executive to make war, many violations of the first, fourth and fifth amendments, including warrantless searches, use of torture, capturing huge amounts of data as revealed by Edward Snowden.
  • Confrontation with Russia by moving Nato and weapons nearer to the Russian border, with the probable aim of regime change in Russia. Regime change in Ukraine that appears to have involved dirty tricks, as has the subsequent confrontation with Russia. Griffin suggests that similar confrontation with China led to the construction of the disputed islands in the China Sea. All this greatly increases the risk of nuclear holocaust.
  • Finally, the persistent denial and refusal to act on climate change and global warming has already closed the window on when the major problems could be averted. Continued refusal to act pushes us ever nearer climate breakdown (‘ecological holocaust’).

This first part of the book is profoundly depressing, and recalled the many occasions when I have personally recoiled at the grossness and lack of intelligence in the US’s policies.

You could just see this all as a grand conspiracy theory, but it seems that the cap fits. US exceptionalism and the thinking of Empire really is perhaps the greatest danger to today’s world.

But we do need to sometimes face the reality of the world as it is, in order to move towards a better world tomorrow. It should be clear to most thinking people that the US has been for two decades travelling up a long blind and self-defeating alley. Donald Trump just makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

Do they really want to be the Emperors of a dead world?

I thought this second Eliot quote might be appropriate, but I’m not so sure about the good intentions.

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

― T.S. Eliot

Maybe I’ll get to read part 2 of the book, on 9/11, when I’ve recovered.

Featured image of Bush and Cheney at 2003 State of the Union, from Wikimedia Commons

If Only They Didn’t Speak English

of onlyMy post on Competition and Co-operation touched on cultural differences between The UK and the US, so I was attracted to read Jon Sopel’s recent book ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, which explores the differences Jon has found during his long stint as the BBC’s North America correspondent.

Jon’s book confirms that the US is a very different country, quite alien in many ways to a European perspective – resulting of course from a very different history and geography. A list of the subjects covered by chapter gives an idea of its scope:

  • the anger felt by many Americans, the ‘losers’ in the globalising project
  • the pervasive influence of race and discrimination
  • the evident patriotism
  • the system of government, and the current neglect of public infrastructure
  • the continued major influence of religion and God
  • the issue of guns and the right to bear arms
  • the easily aroused anxiety felt by many Americans
  • the ‘special’ role that Americans feel they have with the world, and the supposed ‘special’ relationship with UK
  • the increasing loss of contact with truth in the political arena
  • the descent into chaos with the Trump administration.

There is much insight here, although interestingly he does not focus on issues of competition vs co-operation. The book provides a stimulating read. And Jon warns that we should not expect major change or realignment; these are real differences. We really are confused by a common language, to suppose that the differences are not as great as they appear – they are.

At the end of the day, although Britain aspires to provide a bridge between Europe and America, our culture is much more European than American. Attempts to move us in an American direction must be seen in this light. Americans think we’re socialists, and most Brits don’t really want to change the current settlement and, for example, lose our NHS. Brexit puts this all in jeopardy, engineered as it was on a misleading and false prospectus of supporting the NHS.

 

Competition and Co-operation

Having watched Rich Hall’s recent excellent BBC4 programme, ‘Working for the American Dream’ on the development of the USA, and coming across the United Nations focus on sustainable development, led me to this reflection.

The USA was built on conquering supposed virgin lands, and people making loads of money by exploiting those lands, their resources, indigenous peoples, and the people who actually did the work. The system was essentially competitive, and at the top the US system still is. It appears to be still dominated by those with money and power, and there is an apparent aversion to co-operative ideals – hence the bizarre denigration of ‘socialism’ as in some way bad, and the refusal to countenance universal health care.

Due to the size of the USA and its economy, this system has to some degree been exported across the world, but significantly resisted by more co-operative or collaborative approaches, notably in Europe, where provision of social and health care are regarded as important. US disdain of this has become clear, in the shape of the Trump administration, which even appears to seek to undermine the great collaboration of the EU.

Meanwhile, the UN wrestles with the issue of sustainability in a world of incredible challenges on climate, biodiversity, resource depletions and all their consequences. What is clear is that there are now no virgin lands to be colonised, and indeed we must create some to give nature adequate sanctuaries. It is also clear that the world’s problems can only be resolved by co-operative approaches.

Of course, in psychological terms the adolescent stage of development of ego is characterised by differentiation and competition. As we develop and grow psychologically we naturally open up more to love, empathy and co-operation. A similar process operates at a ‘nation state’ level.

The world cannot wait for the USA to ‘grow up’, but if only it would.

Featured image shows tug of war at 1904 Olympic Games, St. Louis,
by Charles Lucas via Wikimedia Commons

 

Saving Capitalism

Readers of liberal media know the story. Inequality is getting worse, banks, corporations and rich individuals distort ‘the system’ to their own advantage. Communities are being gradually destroyed, as is the ability of the mass of people to support public services. In short, modern capitalism has become unfair and unsustainable. And then on top of that, increasing automation is destroying ever more jobs, just as education is creating ever more people capable of doing them.

saving capitalismRobert Reich is a professor on public policy at Berkeley and well known author. His book ‘Saving Capitalism’ explains it all, particularly in the context of the US. His subtitle ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ expresses well where he is coming from.

Reich points out that typical public debate between right and left between ‘free markets’ and ‘more government’ actually obscures the real issue. Governments are responsible for designing, organising and enforcing markets, and this is where the focus should be. Particularly in the US, moneyed interests have successfully subverted the process in their own favour. The resulting increased inequality is there for all to see.

As Reich explains, this direction has been supported by both Republican and Democratic establishments from the era of Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, Obama. The countervailing powers to the extremes of capitalism have been gradually eroded, organised labour largely destroyed, ever-reduced and ineffective regulation, lack of control on monopolies, lax bankruptcy laws for big companies, shareholders given preference over other stakeholders, legislation influenced ever more by big money, revolving doors between corporations and government, obscene rewards to chief executives… All of course came to a head with the financial crash of 2008, after which banks were deemed ‘too big to fail’, were bailed out and the American people paid the price.

As Reich points out, this sort of thing has all happened in the US before, and the system has eventually righted itself, notably when ‘big oil’ was dismantled, when Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ came along, when AT&T was dismantled and so on.

The challenge today is to restore suitable countervailing power to the political-economic system, so that the system can again flourish, and democracy itself be renewed. And this in a climate where technology increasingly means that the old ways of mass employment will no longer work.

The ‘rules of the market’ need to be designed anew, and the corporation ‘reinvented’. Reich is confident that this can be done. But to do it people need to begin to care and maybe re-establish some of the grassroots movements that provide necessary countervailing power. The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements begin to show that the impetus is there among younger people, in both UK and US. Indeed on the other side of the spectrum the Tea Party showed similar characteristics.

The populism currently sweeping the world is not the answer, rule by over-blown egos is ultimately non-democratic. Reich highlights the problem and the needed direction with a clarity that is commendable. We all need to be listening and using what influence we might have.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks are quite large, rather ugly, and somewhat ungainly ducks. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but have established themselves also in parts of the US, notably Texas where we they are quite common.

This one in Hermann Park, Houston shows an attractive iridescence in the feathers.

muscovy duck hermann park

The most remarkable feature of these ducks is the blackish or red knob seen at the bill base, with the bare skin of the face a similar colour.

muscovy duck head

Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.

Touring Trumpland

In March we took a road trip through some of the Deep South US States. A few images stick in my mind.

Exploring the Louisiana flatlands down towards the Gulf, south of Lake Charles – Lafayette. This is clearly hurricane alley. There is evident poverty. Many plots of land have an aged RV next to the shack, ready for quick getaway. Some just comprise an RV in a shelter.

In Birmingham, Alabama the great industrial centre built by blacks for white money is no more, just a few museums, like the Sloss steel mill.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the famous choo choo runs no more and its very fine station is closed.

FT._PAYNE_OPERA_HOUSE
Fort Payne Opera house

Fort Payne in Alabama was built in the 1830s to intern and relocate Cherokee Indians. In the 1880s, due to the railroad, it was a booming iron and steel town until the minerals ran out. The opera house is still there. In the early 1900s a hosiery industry started and by the 1990s Fort Payne was ‘sock capital of the world’. Globalisation put an end to that, and the place now feels like it is struggling.

winona station
Winona station

Winona in Mississippi is another a town which owes its existence to the railroad. It now seems more dead than alive, with many shuttered buildings.

Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of a major battle of the Civil War in 1863, and grew on the back of the trading boats plying the River Mississippi. Vicksburg has a history of suppression of first Indians and then blacks.

vicksburg mansion
Vicksburg mansion

It is now a tourist town, with an apparently prosperous posh residential area. But Main Street looks faded, with many closed shops. Drunks or druggies patrol the edges of the civilised area.

I see all these as symptoms that the great American Dream is not working. Struggling towns and communities, due to jobs destroyed or moved elsewhere, particularly due to globalisation. Donald Trump offered change from this failed system, which has been engineered by both Republicans and Democrats. It is not surprising that people voted for him despite reservations on his character.

There is no evidence yet that politicians other than the Bernie Sanders left wing Democrats offer any solutions.

Featured image is the now-static Chattanooga Choochoo.
Picture of Fort Payne Opera House courtesy Jerry & Roy Klotz, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whistling Duck on Green

Sometimes you ‘see’ an image that is just a perfect colour combination. These black bellied whistling ducks were serenely progressing through the green covering on a lake in Terry Hershey Park, Houston, and almost immediately disappeared beneath the overhanging vegetation. I just managed to grab a couple of shots that weren’t too bad.

I particularly like this one, cropped, that I’ve included at higher resolution.

whistling duck on green

US Trade Deal Risks

I’ve never understood the Brexiteers’ obsession with the UK doing our own trade deals. I’m sure someone could enlighten me on areas where we can gain some advantages where our needs are different from the European average. But Brexit surely wasn’t all about trade deals?

What really scares me is the possible prospect of a trade deal being done with the US without proper democratic scrutiny, which appears to be the intention of the extreme Brexiteers. It seems we must all get to understand the risks better. The Soil Association has produced a magnificent document Top 10 Food Safety Risks Posed By A Future Transatlantic Trade Deal, which needs more widespread understanding.

My brief summary:

  1. Chicken washed in chlorine to remove bacteria caused by poor animal welfare.
    (And did you know that eggs in US must be kept in fridge, as natural protection has been washed off for similar reasons.)
  2. Hormone treated beef.
  3. Ractopamine in pork, which can cause animal disability.
  4. Chicken litter used as animal feed. (Remember mad cow disease.)
  5. Common use of herbicide Atrazine, claimed to be endocrine disupter.
  6. GMOs in 88% of corn, 54% of sugar beets.
  7. Brominated vegetable oil used in citrus drinks, believed to cause health problems.
  8. Potassium bromate in baked goods, possible carcinogen.
  9. Azodicarbonamide in baking, possible carcinogen.
  10. Food colourants that are not allowed in UK.

And this list doesn’t include anything about animal welfare – see previous post.

From my own experience of periods staying in the US, I can say that much US food is excellent, but when you get to the cheap and heavily processed stuff it is quite disgusting junk. And they mostly don’t know how to bake bread.

Rather than worry, support the Soil Association to help them fight the battles, and tell your MP about your concerns.

Featured image shows a cattle feedlot in Weld County, Colorado.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Animal sentience

Animals clearly have an inner life, feelings, emotions, and so on. You only have to observe them. Start with a pet.

So why the great animal sentience debate? Because somewhere along the line some people started treating animals as objects whose sole purpose was to be eaten, shot at, exploited. Great factory farms became necessary to give cheap food (in the US, Soil Association estimates 99% of chickens, 90% of pigs, 78% of cows are ‘produced’ in concentrated animal feeding operations – CAFOs – animal factories). Farms in UK are gradually increasing in size to stay economically viable. Great swathes of land in the UK are managed to produce birds to be shot at, which is indeed a common sport across many countries. How long is this barbarism to continue?

Fortunately scientists have decided that animals are sentient. Thank God they’ve confirmed the bleeding obvious!

Hurrah for organisations like the Soil Association, whose ambition for animal welfare is for all farm animals to live ‘a good life’ within 10 years.

It seems that EU is moving in the right direction of recognising animal sentience, as is the UK. But this is clearly going to be a major issue in any future post-Brexit trade deal with the US, when they will want us to buy their barbarically produced cheap food as part of the deal.

The root problem is abstracting human affairs from inner values and morality, leaving the money monster in control. We really do need to reclaim our humanity, our inner compass, our conscience.

Common Grackle

Contrary to the pair in the featured image studiously ignoring each other, common grackles are gregarious birds, commonly seen in gangs scavenging at supermarket car parks and traffic lights in Houston and elsewhere. Much as are jackdaws in the UK, but more ubiquitous.

Much more apparent are the larger all-black males. However, the female is arguably the more attractive bird, such as in the following photos.

Both male and female coats show an iridescence in the right light.

American White Pelican

On previous visits to Texas, we’ve often seen pelicans when by the sea, for example at Galveston and Corpus Christi. This February we were surprised to come across a large number of American White Pelicans at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre.

There was quite a large number of these birds, mostly congregated together on a relatively tiny island in the large lake (featured image), along with a few cormorants. These pelicans are migratory, and the population on that small island was much reduced just a few weeks later.

In the solitary specimen below you can just see the black feathers underneath the wing, that only become really apparent when they are in flight.

pelican

This magnificent bird is second only (in the US) to the Californian Condor in terms of wingspan, so floats effortlessly over the water despite that large bill. My efforts to capture this were pretty unsuccessful.

pelican flying

Set the dogs on them

Yes, the civil rights journey is ongoing. Did we relax when Obama became president and think it was won? That event maybe actually proved a setback as it inflamed the bigots and racists.

Eyes in the back of my Head

P1050182

This terrifying sculpture is in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Its power lies in the fact that the path passes between these raging dogs, and by walking along it you have to pass between these ferocious but inanimate canines.

Now just imagine they are real.

On May 2nd, 1963, more than 1,000 African American teenagers assembled at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across the road, and prepared to march to Birmingham’s City Hall in support of the civil rights movement. The following day, “Bull” Connor, Commissioner for Public Safety, ordered police, dog handlers and firemen to the park.

When the protestors entered the park and refused to leave, water cannons were turned on them, knocking them to the ground. German shepherd dogs were directed towards the crowd, their handlers commanding them to attack. This, and the police brutality towards these teenage protesters, shocked America and the world.

This is…

View original post 80 more words

Hawks

We had a good sighting of two birds of prey during our US trip, each conveniently sitting in a nearby tree for several minutes.

The first was at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham Alabama. It looks like a young buzzard in UK parlance, but according to Wikipedia such birds are hawks in the US. And there are a lot of types of hawk. So this is maybe a roadside hawk or a broad winged hawk? Apparently one book says it’s a buzzard!

 

The second was in the botanical gardens in Memphis Tennessee, and appears to be a red tailed hawk.

 

It will be apparent that my knowledge and experience of these raptors is minimal. They are usually just small bird-shaped blobs high in the sky!

** See comment by kingbirdgraphica, which gives the correct identification.

Blue Herons

During our recent visit to southern US, we saw quite a few great blue herons, as ubiquitous as are grey herons in the UK.

These American birds are among the largest herons, being twice as large as a great egret, and larger than the European grey heron.

We were also fortunate this little blue heron stood just by us at Brazos Bend Texas State Park. This is only relatively little, being still of a medium size, similar to a nearby ibis.

Note the blue dominance of the beak, compared to the yellow in that of the great blue.

Apparently, the little blue is white during its first year. Maybe there were more around than I thought!

 

UK Driver Attitude Problem?

Coming back to the UK after a spell in Houston, Texas, I am once again struck by the different attitudes of drivers in the UK and US, when it comes to pedestrians.

The contrast could not be more vivid. In US residential areas you only have to think about crossing the road and drivers will slow down and wait to see if you cross. In the UK such courtesy is rare. More often, drivers insist on their right of way and force the pedestrian to wait, even when it is raining.

And it seems to be getting worse, particularly at the supposed safe haven of the zebra crossing. Many drivers accelerate as they approach the crossing, daring the pedestrian to step onto it, and only stop if they do so. Timid pedestrians are just left waiting as the car gleefully flashes by.

Similarly, at the entry to a garage forecourt where cars have to cross the public pavement, driver courtesy is sometimes strangely lacking as they thrust forward in that relatively invulnerable tin box. I was once loudly tooted at for walking too slowly across such a pavement in the rain.

At the end of the day, two-way courtesy is what makes society work, particularly on a small island such as Britain. We’ve all been there – in a hurry, late for an appointment, busy day… – the temptation is there, but the present is what matters, and that pedestrian is a person of real flesh and blood, someone’s child, mother, grandma… Inconsiderate drivers need to wake up.

Who’d have thought Americans would be giving lessons to Brits on good manners?

Memphis

Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, led me to reflect on our recent brief visit to that city, as part of a road trip taking in some of the Deep South states.

It was clear from the places we’d visited along the way that the local economies are not working well in these states, and the anti-discriminatory process accelerated by King in the 1960s is by no means yet finished (just listen to some of those speeches from Memphis last Wednesday). Both were probably factors in the election of President Trump.

Yet Memphis is a good place to visit, with music in its soul, exemplified by swinging Beale Street, exuding a similar atmosphere to the French Quarter in New Orleans. We loved taking in a drink and meal at BB King’s bar, with sound levels almost tolerable to sensitive ears.

bb kings

 

We found plenty of attractions suitable for children, including an excellent Fire Museum, which kept children and adults alike engaged with informative and entertaining exhibits.

Of course, Memphis exists because of the great old lady Mississippi (featured image shows bridge, taken from the top of the Memphis Pyramid, now a megastore). The city was frequently visited by Mark Twain during his period as a pilot on the Mississippi, documented in his book Life on the Mississippi.

There’s also a guy called Elvis associated with Memphis. We got taken to his birthplace but somehow managed to avoid Graceland.

 

Blue bonnets

blue bonnets
Blue bonnets by the bayou in Terry Hershey Park

You really know that spring is sprung in Houston when the blue bonnets appear, as they recently have. This is the state flower of Texas, frequently seen alongside country highways, especially since this was encouraged by ex-first-lady Lady Bird Johnson. Families are often seen out parked by the roadside, taking photographs to a backdrop of blue bonnets.

American Purple Gallinule

Another memorable and beautiful bird from last month’s visit to Brazos Bend Texas State Park was the Purple Gallinule, a member of the rail family. In my experience, the most commonly seen rails, in both US and UK, are the ubiquitous coots and moorhens. But these American gallinules, less often seen, are much more colourful – a superb gradation of shading from white to grey through greens and blues to the deepest shades, completed by the red-yellow beak and yellow legs.

purple gallinule

As you can see from the top featured image, they have enormous feet (blurred) that enable standing  on water plants and in mud.