Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker
May 28th, 2011
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
It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with
a scarlet crest.
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.
“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
May 26th, 2011
Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time
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.
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
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. DictatorNews.com would be all dictators,
all the time. (Note: as of this writing both dictatornews.com and trashcanistan.com 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
May 23rd, 2011
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
. 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
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.
A South African Krugerrand holds one troy ounce of gold. But let’s not settle for
those ordinary, scratchy
old Krugerrands. The proof
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.
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?
May 19th, 2011
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
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
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.