Monthly Archives: May 2008

Spring watch

The weather was perfect for a long walk — cool, a stiff breeze blowing fog up off the harbor. I decided to walk to Fairhaven via Coggeshall St., returning via our usual walk along U.S. 6. When you walk in the city, you usually see lots of people, but not today.

I walked north, roughly following the old railroad siding at first. On the other side of the railroad yard I could see that the parking lot for the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry had lots of cars. It felt empty on my side of the railroad yard. There were a few trucks parked outside the Wharf Tavern, but all the other parking lots were mostly empty. One man rode his bicycle past on the other side of the road; he looked like he might have been one of the Mayans who work in the fish processing plants.

Off one corner of the old mill building at the corner of N. Front St. and Kilburn St., someone has fenced in a small yard; you can barely see a couple of picnic tables through the stockade fencing, and some green weeds growing around the bottom of the fence. As I walked by (at about five o’clock on a Saturday), I heard what sounded like twenty or so women talking in that little yard, and I could smell the cigarette smoke.

I walked under Interstate 195, and turned right onto Coggeshall St. A man walked towards me, swinging his arms across his body as he walked. He looked down as he passed me. I dodged my way across the entrance ramps from Coggeshall to the interstate, and then over the bridge across the Acushnet River (that far up, you can’t really call it New Bedford Harbor). A dozen boys on bikes, all about ten years old, rode up the sidewalk and the side of the road on the the other side of the bridge. They stopped to look down in the choppy waters of the river.

Once in Fairhaven, I cut down Beach St., and under the interstate via River St. Down one street, I saw a boy riding around in circles on his bike, but aside from that I saw no one. I climbed over the stone wall around Riverside Cemetery. Through the trees I saw a man walking his dog; and a couple of people tending a grave, the hatchback of their car open as they took something out.

From Riverside Cemetery, I walked down Main St. The only person I saw was a man standing on his front porch with a power blower, blowing dust into the bushes. Cars whizzed by on the road, but I had the sidewalk to myself.

The swing span bridge on U.S. 6 started swinging open to allow a deep-sea clam boat to enter the inner harbor. There were two young men waiting on the other side of the opening, and on the north side of U.S. 6 from me. As the bridge swung counterclockwise back into position, the two young men jumped onto the bridge’s south sidewalk as it swung past them, walked briskly across, and jumped off where I was standing as the bridge eased back into position. They were obviously proud of their daring, and talked boisterously, and drew deeply on their cigarettes.

Four or five people were fishing on the wharf on the New Bedford side, next to the ice company, wearing warm jackets against the stiff breeze. One young woman sat in the car and talked to the young men, maybe in Spanish or Kriolu.

They were the last people I saw until I got home. Not many people think cool, windy, foggy weather is perfect weather to be outdoors in.

City singers

Readers of this blog may know Charles Hartshorne as that process theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), and used terms like “panentheism” (I first heard about him as one of the editors of the complete works of Charles Saunders Peirce, but then I was a philosophy major). But Hartshorne also was a serious amateur ornithologist who published a number of papers in the field, and wrote Born To Sing: An Interpretation and Survey of World Bird Song (1973).

In Born To Sing, Hartshorne begins by dismissing strict behaviorism as “inadequate, at least in the study of human beings; moreover, in view of the evolutionary continuity of life, and the ideal of a unitary explanation of nature as a whole, it seem unsatisfactory dualism to make man [sic] a mere exception.” Hartshorne does not believe that we can attribute human motives to non-human animals, but he does feel that animals can find aesthetic enjoyment in their own ways. This leads him to a serious consideration of the aesthetic elements of bird songs.

As part of his argument, he establishes criteria for determining highly developed or “superior” bird song, and based on these criteria he develops a list of 194 species of superior songsters. Less than twenty of these species are indigenous to North America, and only eight of those species breed in our immediate area.

On a walk today, from urban New Bedford over to densely suburban Fairhaven, we heard three of these eight species: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, and Song Sparrow (links go to USGS site with recordings of their songs). And I heard at least one other of these species, the Carolina Wren, near our apartment earlier this spring. Suburbanites dismiss cities as bleak, forbidding places, but if you’re willing to look, it’s possible to find incredible natural beauty.

Keeping sockpuppets at bay

Linda, the secretary at the New Bedford church, read the recent article in the New Bedford Standard-Times that reported on how both the Fairhaven (Mass.) and New Bedford Unitarian Universalist churches recently each asked a certain Level 3 sex offender to not attend worship services at our churches. Linda has a child, so she is entirely sympathetic with churches who consider carefully before deciding whether a given sex offender should be part of their community.

We agreed that the article didn’t say much, but that it wasn’t terrible.

“But,” she said, “did you see what people are saying in the comments?” The Standard-Times allows anyone to comment on any article, with absolutely no moderation or editing in place, except that you can flag a comment if you feel it is “inappropriate.”

“Yeah, I did,” I said. “Do you know what sockpuppets are?” She did not, so I explained that unscrupulous Web surfers will create fake online identities for themselves, so-called sockpuppets, so they can promote a certain point of view without admitting their real identities. “Near as I can tell,” I went on, “most of those comments are made by sockpuppets of one or two people who just want to promote their point of view.”

Are they really sockpuppets? You can judge for yourself: here’s the article, and the comments.

The real point is that allowing unmoderated comments degrades a newspaper’s Web site. The Standard-Times would not allow unmoderated letters to appear on their editorial pages; it doesn’t make sense for them to allow unmoderated comments on their Web site. It looks to me as though the Standard-Times doesn’t understand the Web, and doesn’t really care about the quality of their Web site. They should try to remember that newspapers provide us with two things: decent writing, and good editing. When it comes to the Web, the editing should be most important, for while there is plenty of good writing out there on the Web, there isn’t much in the way of good editing.

Newspaper editors need to realize that their Web sites need to have the same careful editing they devote to their dead tree editions. They also have to realize that Web sites require different kinds of editing, such as comment moderation; and that comment moderators need to have a different skill set than traditional newspaper editors — comment moderators have to be able to promote online community, keep the conversation moving, not let people feed the trolls, identify and remove sockpuppets, etc. This is why I think most newspapers will fail to make the transition to the Web — they will not be willing or able to figure out how the Web works.


A cold front was supposed to move through New Bedford today. In the early afternoon, the sun came out, the air got cooler and drier, my mood lightened and got cheerful: maybe the cold front had come through. But a couple of hours later I suddenly became aware that my mood had darkened; I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that the gray clouds moved back in, there was some light rain, the air was heavy and thick. The vacillations of a cold front over our region changed my mood significantly. The effect on my mood was aggravated because all my joints ached from the pressure changes; it was annoying enough that I took some acetemenophen. This is one example of weather having a direct and immediate influence on emotional state. i would say that the expressions “my mood lightened” or “my mood darkened” are more than mere analogies between emotional states and fair or overcast weather conditions; these expressions also represent observations that the passage of a weather front can have a direct effect on the physical body which can in turn lead to a mood change.

Now the weather forecast says the cold front is due to pass over our area at about ten at night, which is just about now. Time to take another acetemenophen tablet.

Utah Phillips is dead

Bruce “Utah” Phillips died on on Friday. Commenter Dan Schatz tells us:

Sadly, we lost Utah on Friday. He died peacefully in his sleep next to his wife. Utah had been a founding member of his [Unitarian Universalist] fellowship in Nevada City, CA, and though he often made light of his UUism, it was extremely important to him. He was sometimes known as “U. Utah Phillips” (a take-off on the country singer T. Texas Tyler); a few weeks ago I joked with him that it stood for “Unitarian.” “Well, you figured it out,” he said.

The various benefit concerts and other projects that were planned for Utah are still going ahead, as a memorial and a way to make sure Utah’s family remains well supported. If one of the concerts is in your area, I advise you to go to it. If you see a Utah Phillips CD, pick it up — the songs will astound you with their beauty.

Thanks for letting us all know, Dan. On the the Utah Phillips Web site, his son Duncan reports:

Utah’s wish was to not be embalmed and laid to rest in a plain, hand made wooden coffin to expedite his return to the earth, which we will honor. He will be laid to rest in the cemetery down the road from his home in Nevada City.

Ecologically sensible, just as you’d expect — what a good last act of a profoundly caring life. As soon as I finish typing this, I think I’ll go find a Utah Phillips CD and listen to it. Obituaries and press notices after the jump… Continue reading

Cleaning house

What could be better than house cleaning? You answer: just about anything. But I think you’re wrong.

Yes, house cleaning is drudgery. Yes, cleaning house can be overwhelming, especially I would think for families with young children where the adult or adults have to work full time. Yes, house cleaning is associated with the worst excesses of sexism. Yes, all these things are true.

Thich Nhat Hanh says: “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” This is true as far as it goes: any task, no matter how mundane — perhaps even, no matter how degrading — any task can be turned into an act of mindfulness. But I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh goes far enough.

This winter, I got bronchitis. I wasn’t that sick — I didn’t have to go to the hospital — but I was sick enough that about all I had energy to do was to go to work, and to come home and sleep. This went on for months. At the same time, Carol’s work overwhelmed her life, and between the two of us we didn’t have much or any time to devote to house cleaning. Dirty dishes piled up in our sink, and — well, you don’t need to hear the details.

Finally this week I have been feeling more energetic, and I have been house cleaning. I have not been house cleaning in order to house-clean; I have been house cleaning in order to have a clean house. Thich Nhat Hanh has his perspective, and I have mine: he is full of mindfulness and he is far more spiritual than I; I’m happy just having a clean house.