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Born today in 1896: General James Doolittle


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Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker

The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.

It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.

ivory-billed woodpecker
Ivory-billed woodpecker by Theodore Jasper (1888)
Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.

As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.

The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.

This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.

Trailer from Treasure of Sierra Madre
“Screw the gold. Let’s just go find us some o’ them gaudy woodpeckers.”
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.

Cereal rescuers and hardcopy acres

Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time to time.

Cruise snoozer

This would be a loosely fitting shroud made of a black gauze that would allow you to see out but prevent others from seeing in. When you’re on a plane, train, or bus you would drape this over your head when you want to doze off. Of course since it renders your face invisible you could also use it to pretend to sleep when you want to, say, catch up on some surreptitious ogling or gracefully terminate that tedious and largely one-sided discourse with that stranger next to you. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Cereal rescuer

No one enjoys finishing out a cereal box and having to pour all those powdery dregs into their bowl along with the good stuff. Add milk, and... yuck. But at the same time it would be a shame to give up and throw that entire remainder away. Working much like a pasta colander, the cereal rescuer would consist of a round screened hoop about ten inches wide with a single handle and a mild spout-like dip 90 degrees clockwise from that handle. The screen would be coarse enough to retain only those flakes larger than some acceptable threshold — three-eights of an inch, maybe. You’d just give it a few gentle shakes over the sink or a wastebasket and then tilt what’s left into your bowl.

Who can keep track of all the world’s despots as they rise and fall, play shell games with their ill-gotten lucre among various no-tell foreign banks, revise and re-revise their constitutions to perpetuate their terms, issue their ever loonier decrees, and jail more and more of their opponents? Not I. would be all dictators, all the time. (Note: as of this writing both and are parked, so I suppose you could make their owners an offer.)

New unit: The hardcopy acre or HCA

If you print out data in text form, a standard typing paper-sized page (93.5 square inches) will hold about 44 kilobytes. If we assume an acre measures 43,560 square feet or 6,560,640 square inches, this means that hardcopy plastered across an acre of land would display about 3 gigabytes. If your machine has about 300 gigabytes of hard disc storage available, for example, that would amount to 100 HCAs. All the material* in the Library of Congress? About a million HCAs.

* Assuming 3 petabytes (3 x 1015 bytes) for all its printed text, photographs, maps, movies, and sound recordings. Since that estimate was published a decade ago, you could probably add a bit more.

Newt Gingrich’s secular delights

I have a feeling this entry will be lucky to enjoy the shelf life of a banana, but here goes.

LATE UPDATE (July 18): I stand corrected.

As a bit of background for our non-US visitors and others disinclined to pay much heed to Sunday morning talk shows or political scuttlebutt in general, the following has recently been disclosed: Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, whose career nowadays mainly consists of promoting himself and periodically threatening to run for president, has at one time or another carried an approximate $500,000 balance on his revolving account with the swank jewelry retailer Tiffany & Company. Not to mention, at times, up to $50,000 on his American Express card.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in principle with living large if one is fortunate enough to aspire to such things. Heck, we’d all like to. But the embarrassment for Gingrich in particular is how remarkably these sybaritic hankerings contradict his longstanding diatribes against “the elites” and against all things secular, his general sanctimony about out-of-control spending, and his professed 24/7 dedication to the common workaday folk.

Now if the Gingriches should eventually tire of Tiffany’s offerings — or barring that, should we spontaneously warp into a parallel though still similarly Gingrich-bedeviled universe — here are some attractive alternatives for their half-million-dollar discretionary budget:

Gingrich Champagne
For one thing, maybe he and Callista could use some Champagne. Let’s suggest a Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 1990, Millennium 2000. At roughly $18,000 for a 6-liter Methuselah bottle, $500,000 would buy* 28 of those.

Gingrich Krugerrands
A South African Krugerrand holds one troy ounce of gold. But let’s not settle for those ordinary, scratchy old Krugerrands. The proof editions are individually struck with impeccable mirror-like surfaces and reeding (that set of closely spaced notches around the edge) that’s twice as fine, scrutinized for flaws, and handled only with gloved hands. Darn, they practically glow in the dark. As of this writing, his for around $2000 each; half a million gets him 250.

Gingrich Coffee
As a third choice, no late-night strategy sessions with Ralph Reed and Randy Evans would be complete without the very best coffee. That would be have to be Kopi Luwak — famous for its intimate but most essential pre-roast association with the Asian Palm Civet.

I understand the University of Florida has invented a way to cut the furry helpers out of the process, but nothing can be as good as the real thing. At about $320 per pound for one of the more interestingly named brands of Kopi Luwak, Newt’s $500,000 would stock his pantry with about 1500 of them.

* At least theoretically, since in reality they’re only auctioned off one at a time.

An Ambien®-proof CAPTCHA?

You know those wonky alphanumeric bitmaps that websites challenge you with to assure themselves you’re not an automated email-harvester, spambot, or some other soulless cyber-riffraff?

Well, for certain applications maybe someone could carry this concept a bit further so that you can protect yourself from emailing, twittering, or Facebook-updating anything you might regret later owing to any inhibition-numbing substances you might have consumed. Alcohol and/or cannabis, of course, but far more insidiously that sleep-inducing wonder pill Ambien [Zolpidem].

Go Fish

It’s just amazing what sorts of creative somnambulant misadventures people can get into after a little Ambien if they don’t hit the hay immediately afterwords, and — due to something called retrograde amnesia — how little they remember about it the next day.

Go Fish

These wouldn’t be impossible to solve, just troubling enough to require a touch of reasonably nimble web surfing. Better safe than sorry? I luuuuuv ya, man.