Last days

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Motion.”

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Spawning salmon at Whittaker Creek

The air was still and cold when we took this photo, and there was only one fish holding in a ragged pattern below the surface of the water.

Salmon are a keystone species, that is, their effect on the immediate environment is disproportionate to size or numbers. They return  to their natal site to spawn before they die. Salmon runs push nutrients from the ocean far upstream, endowing richness and diversity, feeding aquatic plants, insects, soil and forest.  We’ve visited this site over the years, and seen the number of fish who return diminish steadily. All are in motion: water, fish, the times.

Where is that finch?

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Early Bird.”

Heard but not seen.

Note the narrow image. Makes it pretty hard to find the finch when you practically need a microscope.

It took me four days to figure out how to edit, transfer to iMovie, upload to YouTube and embed in WordPress, so this is as far Scribbler is going on this week’s photo challenge — but in the future it’s full screen or bust. The key? Check out this prepubescent techie’s solution to skinny videos.

Protect your junk, and your identity. Do these two things:

Have you ever been hacked? Ever had your I.D. used by someone else?

A couple years ago, a friend tried to file her tax return, and was shocked by a rejection from the IRS. Someone else had already collected a refund, using her personal information. This spring, same thing happened to one of my husband’s partners, and last week, to another friend.

All anyone needs to file a tax return is a name, birthdate and Social Security number, and as more company databases get hacked, that information becomes available to more thieves. This year, the IRS anticipates a potential $20 billion dollar loss to refund fraud.

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Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres, via Flickr.com

The problem stems from many sources, including under-funded enforcement, and timing which allows refunds to be paid before employers have forwarded updated information.

Just because it happens a lot, doesn’t mean it’s any easier to straighten things out. Re-establishing your identity is a pain.

Take these two steps to protect yourself:

1. Don’t give your Social Security number to anyone other than the I.R.S. For most of us, that cat’s already out of the bag. In the good old days, many of us gave our SSN out all over the place. My college for instance, used to require it for identification at registration. What’s done is done, but from here on out, protect your SSN.

All kinds of businesses ask for Social Security numbers, including department store credit card companies, doctors and dentists. If your doctor gives you a form that asks for yours, leave the space blank. He or she will still take you as a patient. When applying for a job, only reveal the last four digits of your SSN, unless you are dealing directly with the I.R.S.

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A Social Security number is not general I.D. It’s for you and the IRS, and no one else.

2.Juice up your password system.

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Courtesy of fixed gear, via Flickr.com

Password laxity is stunningly common. Don’t be lazy.

  • Choose good passwords (see my previous blog post on the best passwords ever).
  • Keep track of yours, and establish a safe place to keep them.
  • Do not use the same password, or a close variant, to access a dozen different websites.

A password app can make management much easier. These encrypt and store all of your data, are easily searchable and blind copy/paste i.d. and passwords to websites, so you don’t have to worry about painstakingly typing in those maddening cap/smallcap/symbol/numerals. All you have to remember is the master password — which you need to change regularly.

A couple apps to try (I’m not on their payroll, but tried and liked both):

KeePass, stores everything on your computer, is free, basic, pretty easy to use and set up, and while designed for Microsoft Windows, has a version that works on Mac OSX.

Dashlane, is a fancier storage service, for those who really don’t like messing with passwords. It’s also free, and not only stores and generates, but also can change all of your passwords in one go. It saves receipts and automatically signs you in when you visit a website. It’s pretty nice. All is encrypted. The only way for you, a Dashlane staffer, or a hacker, to get at it, is via your master password — so make it a good one.

Here are more suggestions from PC Magazine.

Can password manager apps be hacked?

Yep, everything is hackable — but these guys are in the business of staying ahead of crooks, unlike most of the rest of us, who just want to do our thing and tend to get sloppy. It’s a good idea to keep your most important passwords, like bank accounts, separate from those stored with a manager, preferably off your computer.

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Someday your iris may be your one and only password, but we aren’t there yet. In the meantime, don’t give in to the temptation to let your password system slide — and keep that Social Security number to yourself.

How is your password system? Any tips for making private information secure?

Citizens United and the Holy Ghost

What’s your take on the Citizens United case? 

My 87-year-old dad and his friends are continuing their weekly political discussions. At last check-in, the topic was labeling GMO foods.

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Not my dad or his friend. They sensibly request that their identities be protected. Photo credit: Raul Lieberwirth, courtesy of Flickr.com

This time it’s the Supreme Court case allowing unlimited contributions to political campaigns.

For perspective: English politicians are limited to £30,000 per seat in parliament (around $45,000).

Here in the USA, the Koch brothers have budgeted $889 million for 2016. A super pac has piled up tens of millions for Jeb Bush. Hillary Clinton’s head fundraiser was tasked with raising $1 billion. The Las Vegas Sands has given $70 million to Republicans, Soros Fund Management $45 million to Democrats.

My dad (a practicing Catholic) writes to his correspondent:

You asked me why five Catholic Supreme Court Judges would reach an absurd decision that Corporations, which are creatures of legislation, are Constitutionally privileged “persons.” These characters were raised with a concept of a “Body Of Christ”: a group organism like a school of fish. It is a small step from fish on Friday to fishing for campaign money.

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Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., courtesy of Flickr.com

How do you think things will shake out with all this money flowing to campaign coffers?

It’s Here! The 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign!

Are you celebrating this Sunday? Easter? Passover? Ostara? Seventeenth day of spring (or winter, depending on your hemisphere)? How about the kickoff of the 2016 US Presidential elections?

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Photo credit: Imprimages, courtesy of Flickr.com

Oh come on. You’re not one of those election-dreading party poopers? This will be fun. Let the speculation, scandal mongering, mud-slinging, perseverating, back-pedaling, secret taping, pontificating, and chest beating begin. Think of the swathes of time we won’t have to spend watching the news. Pollsters and pundits will saturate the airwaves, repeating the same gossip you read on Reddit with your first cup of tea. We will hear more, much more, about Bengazi, and deleted e-mails, and none of it will be new. For the next twenty months, it will take five minutes to read the papers.

Think of the entertainment ahead, although it might be hard to top 2012. Remember candidates with binders full of women? Threats to kill Big Bird? Conversations with empty chairs?

We’re off to a good start. Already, we’ve been treated to snarky comments of a few Liberty University students posted on the social media app Yik Yak, during Ted Cruz’s announcement speech.

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No drama ahead about birth certificates, since everyone with a chance of making it is white and born in the U.S. Wait! Ted Cruz was born in Canada!

If the finals come down to Clinton and Bush, maybe we can save taxpayer money by re-using ballots.

Let’s spice things up and take bets on how much will be spent by whom, and then follow up in 2017 to see who gets what.

Confused by all the players? Don’t miss this CNN spoof on the “Too Many Cooks” spoof. Unlike me, it’s equally mean to all candidates.

Happy Easter, Passover, or whatever you celebrate, especially now that we can turn off our electronic devices without missing anything, and carouse the old fashioned way.

Cheers —

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What’s your take on our lengthy Presidential election process? Have any favorite 2012 election moments?

John Browne’s Resurrection and Climate Change

Ever heard of Lord John Browne, Baron Browne of Madringly?

In May, 2007, Lord Browne abruptly resigned as CEO of the oil company BP, after he was outed by a tabloid newspaper. With tales of a greedy lover juicing up the media, he decided to throw in the towel. It cost him $30 million in stock options and retirement benefits.

Up to that point, John Browne had been a company man, a lifer, who joined BP in 1966 as an apprentice and worked his way to the top. He was there when British Petroleum became BP, and turned the company into the fourth largest corporation in the world. He stayed out of the limelight, partly to hide the fact that he was gay.

Although professionally respected, Browne was privately the butt of jokes and speculation. He was small in stature, and employees who didn’t like him nicknamed him “elf,” short for evil little f_____.

He was also ridiculed by peers — for embracing climate change.

“Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next.” John Browne, 2002.

At a time when other executives called global warming a hoax, he rebranded BP as “Beyond Petroleum,” supported the Kyoto climate treaty, vowed to cut BP’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, and invested $500 million in solar power.

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Lord John Browne, behind the podium to the right of Tony Blair, 2006 Climate Change conference organized by The Climate Group, hosted by BP. Photo Credit: The Climate Group, courtesy of Flickr.com


Environmentalists were skeptical, saying BP’s green makeover was a cover for an unflattering environmental track record. The $500 million dedicated to solar power, for instance, was dwarfed by the $8.4 billion spent in 2004 for oil exploration and production. The company joined those who lobbied hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com

Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com

Instead of pretending to go green, said others, Browne should have been paying more attention to maintenance.

Above, 2005 explosion at a BP Texas refinery, killing 15 and injuring 170. Also under Browne’s watch: 2006 pipeline failure Prudhoe Bay, which spilled millions of gallons of oil.

BP’s stock value sank. John Browne was exposed, and eased out.

Oil executives were by then acknowledging that the cheap and easy oil was gone, but they weren’t interested in wind and solar. The consensus was that demand would rise ad infinitum, and that the smartest thing to do was invest heavily in the oil that is difficult, dangerous and dirty to extract. Browne’s successor at BP, Tony Hayward, doubled down on fracking, tar sands extraction and deep water drilling.

“Some may question whether so much of the [energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels, … but here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality …  we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.” Tony Hayward at MIT, 2009.
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Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Photo credit: DVIDSHUB, via Flickr.com. After the 2010 Deep Water Horizon spill, BP was banned from bidding on new leases in the Gulf of Mexico for four years.

Meanwhile, John Browne moved on with the same vigor he’d demonstrated at BP. He encouraged gay entrepreneurs and published a book, The Glass Closet. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, installed as President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He kept his hand in the oil business too.

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T.V. coverage of protests over fracking by Cuadrilla Resources, of which Browne is Chairman. Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams, courtesy of Flickr.com

Fast forward to 2015.

The bet on dirty oil was wildly successful. World oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, and profits were, for awhile, staggering.

But — surprise. Prices today are half what they were a year ago, and may not rise again anytime soon. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) predicts “slower demand will continue for the next decade.” One of the reasons? People everywhere are waking up to the threat posed by climate change.

Oil companies have laid off workers. Shell dropped plans for a petrochemical plant in Qatar. Chevron set aside a proposal to to drill in the Arctic seas. Norway’s Statoil changed its mind about drilling in Greenland.

Of course, this could all change if prices climb again. Still, we have a pause, a breather in the mad dash for oil.

And Lord Browne? Whether or not he was serious in 1999, he’s still sounding the alarm about global warming. Climate science is settled, he recently declared, but “this conclusion is not accepted by many in our industry, because they do not want to acknowledge an existential threat to their business.”

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“Resource extraction” in Texas. Photo Source: Amy Youngs, courtesy of Flickr.com

The battles continue. Old school oil executives vilify Browne, as do environmentalists, but my, how things have changed.

Eight years ago, one of the most powerful executives on the planet was trying to hide his sexual orientation, and climate change was mostly relegated to the back section of the papers. Now executives, congressmen and sports stars are proudly coming out; and climate change has moved from the back to the front pages. The world oil market is flooded, partly because — who would have guessed? — demand has slowed.

Is John Browne courageous or opportunistic? Does it matter? More important: Are we finally ready to begin the painful process of weaning ourselves from oil?

Dreaming of Vanuatu

While we in the Pacific Northwest are starting a winter-less spring, and the Northeast is awaiting yet another snowstorm, it doesn’t seem to have hit many Americans’ radar that there are four tropical storms in the South Pacific.

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Photosource: weather.com Four cyclones at once have only been recorded once before.

The biggest, Pam 15, is passing today almost directly over Port Vila, Vanuatu, a category 5 hurricane with winds over 150 miles per hour.

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Photo credit: Grace Whitmore

Six months ago, Vanuatu wasn’t on my radar. We’d never heard of it, not until our daughter, who volunteered for the Peace Corps, received an assignment there. Now, I often dream of Vanuatu — big, colorful, vivid dreams.

It’s hard to let go of your children, and really hard when they decide to go far away, even when it’s an amazing, courageous and wonderful thing to do.

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It might be harder though to adjust to the idea that the world she’s just started to get to know, the new friends, the culture and the wonderful people, are all under threat.

The 80-plus islands of Vanuatu are northeast of Australia, and until the 1980’s known to westerners by the colonial name, New Hebrides. It’s the birthplace of bungee jumping, and home to live volcanos. A 2004 “Survivor” series was set in Vanuatu. Ambae, the island where our daughter would live and work as an IT specialist, was the inspiration for James Mitchell’s “Songs of the South Pacific.”

Vanuatu was featured last month in the Bill Weir’s TV series “The Wonder List”, which highlights countries that are just about to be forever changed by westerners.  He described it as Hawaii without hotels.

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Some of Grace’s new friends. Photo credit: Grace Whitmore

Some of the islands are hilly, with villagers protected from rising seas, but many are low-lying and vulnerable.

And all are vulnerable to storms.

It’s impossible to pin any one storm on climate change, but scientists assure us that more storms, and more violent storms are on the way.

The Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated and are waiting to hear about the fate of the people they have come to know and love.

Above: our daughter’s “little brother” runs away with her kite.

Have you, or has anyone you know volunteered for the Peace Corps? Where? Has that country been affected by climate change? 

A a custom URL? Google Plus, you shouldn’t have

Seen this on your Google Plus profile page?

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We’ve preapproved some custom URLs for your profile”

My “custom” URL, for instance:

google.com/+JuliaWhitmore   youtube.com/c/JuliaWhitmore

Should we take them up on it?

Google Plus never made the grade as a competitor for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Heaven knows they tried. For awhile anyone with a Google account (gmail, YouTube, Zagat restaurant review, etc.) was required to create a Google Plus profile and account. Suddenly a user who wrote a restaurant review, for instance, might find that review linked to their Google Plus page, without their knowledge or permission.

This idea bombed for obvious reasons, and eventually Google stopped requiring that their customers have Google Plus accounts. Maybe discovering that enrollees only visited for about 3 minutes a month (compared to Facebook’s seven hours), contributed to the decision to loosen up.

Google Plus also got into trouble by requiring user’s real names. This was supposed to hold people accountable for online behavior. Facebook, who also has a real name policy, could have warned them otherwise. Anyway, GooglePlus customers who used pseudonyms were deactivated, including people like the Iranian activist Vahid Online, who’d been keeping his identity secret to keep from getting arrested. This led to much controversy and debate over people’s rights to control their online identity. Eventually the real name requirement was dropped, and hopes rose for a better reception. Not to be had. People did increase time spent — to about 7 minutes a month. A New York Times writer called it a Ghost Town.

Google Plus did not die, however. It has morphed into something called an Identity Service. It helps Google figure out who you are and what you like by merging the identities you create on, say Blogspot, YouTube and other services offered by Google. Forget helping you connect with others, this is purely a way to connect you with things to buy, and a way to boost Google’s revenues.

Creepy? No creepier than any of the other social media services. Remember Facebook’s secret experiments in manipulating people’s emotions?

So, what about the custom URL? The URL (Uniform Resource Locator), the name/info/address you use to connect to a website, helps anyone searching for your Google+ stuff or YouTube videos, if you post videos.

Check out Terms of Service. Google reserves the right to:

(1) take back your custom URL, and

(2) might start charging you for it in the future.

There you have it. Another (desperate?) move to woo us to Google Plus, but with little effort to hide the bait and switch. Should you take advantage of a Google Plus custom URL? Only if you don’t mind that it isn’t really yours, isn’t really custom, can be taken away at Google’s whim, and that you’ll probably be asked to pay for it in the future.

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Am I wrong? Are you using a Custom Google+ URL? If you’re signed up for Google Plus, what do you think?

Water and Trash on the Sea of Cortez

Do you check out the messy side of the places you visit?

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When we travel, tidy arrangements for visitors are much appreciated on my end, but it doesn’t seem right to go away without lifting the carpet. When we went to Disneyland, it was all I could do not to open the “employees only” doors, to peek behind the scenes. In New Orleans, we took side trips to quiet neighborhoods where people live and work, despite tourist-book warnings about safety.

Life is both glorious and grubby. When a man-made place looks perfect, it means the people who constructed and maintain it are hiding something. Maybe it’s a good something. Maybe not. To uncover the secrets of a place, I generally try to find out (1) where the water comes from and (2) where the trash goes.

In Singapore, surely one of the tidiest countries on earth, we learned there are almost no native sources of water. That’s pretty amazing for a country with 5 million people squeezed into an area about half the size of Los Angeles. How do they do it?

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Botanical gardens, Singapore

Singaporeans are largely dependent on Malaysia for water. They supplement with catchment basins for rain, water recycling, desalination and set aside estuaries for water storage, but for the most part the water has been, at various times, shipped and piped in.

And trash? Very complicated. There is one landfill, on an artificial island.

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Photo source: Singapore NEA

Household recycling is voluntary and complex, since most people live in high rises.

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There are a lot of construction cranes in Singapore.

Some industrial waste is repurposed. Waste that can be burned is sent to incinerators, which generate energy; also pollution, but apparently not very much. The ash is transported to the landfill. Their goal is a 60% recycling rate, which is phenomenal given how most of the rest of the world deals with trash.

But enough about Singapore.

This week we visited a small outpost on the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular. Remote.

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Trash? Most of it dumped, covered with palm fronds, just out of sight of the resort.

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Water comes from the mountains, which also supply Cabo San Lucas, about 4 hours from where we were.

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It is filtered for drinking, and post-use, processed in a septic field. Or so we hope.

Efforts in Mexico are underway to capture trash for recycling, but as anyone who walks along storm tossed beaches can see, that battle is only beginning. In an hour of trash-collecting on the uninhabited island of Cerralvo, we gathered a full bag of plastic: water and soda bottles, tooth brushes, shampoo bottles, shoe soles, umbrella handle, twine, tubing, and many dozens of bottle caps.

If you are traveling to the La Paz area and are interested in minimizing the impact of the trash you leave behind, check out this post by Fives on the Fly.

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What’s going on in your neighborhood in the water and trash departments?