Monday, September 21, 2020

Complacency Kills

    I was 18 when I learned to ride a souped up and leaned down Harley motorcycle with a tank shift and a suicide left foot clutch (you couldn’t put that foot down with the bike in gear when stopping). My self-taught lesson was on busy Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and yes, despite the immortal attitude of the young and the lack of a fully formed brain, as with all teenagers, I was scared enough to use a modicum of common-sense caution. But over the next several months as I gained confidence the caution ebbed and I became bolder. The inevitable happened. One day in Coral Gables I went down, luckily in a woman’s soft front lawn, so there was no damage to the bike or me save for a few bruises on my body and my misplaced ego. I returned to riding with caution.

    I was lucky. I knew other riders who, after shedding their natural initial caution, suffered severe injuries because of complacency.   

    A similar thing happened when many years later I became a private pilot. Initial apprehensions. Initial prudent cautions. Then, years later, complacency and lax attention to the basics. And two very close calls that I and my passengers survived only with as much luck as skill.

   Fellow pilots I knew over the years died along with several passengers. One was a surgeon who had repaired a torn ligament in my left knee. Shortly after earning his instrument rating and with the confidence boost thus gained, he took off with his wife and another couple for the mountains in weather he was not yet experienced enough to handle. All four died. (A similar fate met JFK Junior and his passengers one dark foggy night in New England.) Another friend crashed his ultralight he’d flown many times before but should not have flown that hot dusty day. Yet another was exuberantly pushing his new airplane to it limits with two other pilot friends aboard. All three died in a simple low-altitude stall. Killed by overconfidence and complacency.

    Some 40,000 Americans die annually on our highways. In many cases killed by simple complacency after years of taking risks like texting, speeding, and aggressive lane shifting and getting away with it.   

    After 9/11 our nation pulled together in defiance of terrorist enemies and in generous support of survivors and in lamentation for the dead. For a time, there was not an American flag to be had left in stores or online.

    We’re facing another deadly common enemy now, except it’s microscopic. Our only ways to control its spread are masking and social distancing. We know these measures work because we have shining examples as proof. In both Japan and New Zealand, per capita infection and death rates are a tiny fraction of ours because the populace in both countries observed strict lock-downs from the start and have practiced near total masking and distancing and can now open their economies with safe precautions. In dark contrast, our chaotic response coupled with mass refusal to wear masks or to social distance has resulted in thousands upon thousands of needless infections and deaths.

    And now I fear complacency and lax attention to safe practices are going to kill thousands more. Months into the continuing pandemic, I’ve seen increasing numbers of people taking risks they would not have taken several months ago, when apprehension dictated caution. A family on our street recently hosted a gathering of at least forty people. No masking. No social distancing. The lady of the house is a nurse who should know better.

    I know older people who eat out, go to crowded bars, and shop routinely rather than use curbside pickup. Don’t wear masks. Don’t social distance. As the death toll climbs past 200,000 Americans with no end in sight.

    Please do not let your guard down. We have many months to go before this pandemic can be beaten back. Together we can overcome this monster that continues to threaten our way of life and is sickening and killing far too many of us. We know how to fight it.

    But will we?


If you could use a few hours of pandemic distraction, try the North Carolina suspense series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon or through my website. People seem to like the yarns. Money back if you don’t.


Monday, September 14, 2020

An Omen of Hope

    For more than a week now, brilliant yellow butterflies have been tumbling across my yard close by the river. They seem to be metamorphosing from their caterpillar forms into their flight versions in a thick hedge that borders my property. 

    They flutter past singly or in groups of two or three. All heading unerringly northwest toward some mysterious destination. How the devil are they navigating so precisely? Their sophisticated antennae can sense a variety of odors, which helps them find favorite flora, but they can’t be following a scent trail because the breeze has been nearly constant off the water out of the northeast, a direct crosswind for them. It would blow any scents away.  

    A little digging revealed they’re called Cloudless Sulfur butterflies, with a wingspan between two and three inches. In the fall they migrate hundreds of miles south to Florida and the northern Bahamas. It’s nearly time to begin their Big Trip, but the direction they’re all going is directly opposite their migration direction.

    So where are they going and how are they navigating there?

    Any investigation of butterflies turns up the incredible migration of the large Monarch, with its stunning orange-and black-wings that resemble an exquisite work of miniature stained-glass art. It carries out one of the most incredible migrations on the planet. It, too, moves southward each fall, fluttering up to 3,000 miles from northern America and southern Canada all the way to the fir-tree-clad mountains of Mexico, taking advantage of air currents and thermals wherever possible along the way.

    How the Monarch (and presumably its Cloudless Sulfur cousin) navigates has only been partially discovered. Scientists think it senses sun angle and time of day precisely using its compound eyes and delicate antennae. Its tiny brain (cerebral ganglia) processes this information continuously, translating it into a “sun compass” that gives it a correct course to follow. In the fall, it’s compelled to make the entire journey from northern breeding grounds to Mexico. But the return spring journey can require up to four generations of successors.

    So how do those intermediate generations know what to do, having never seen either the breeding grounds or the Mexican mountains? And how does a third- or fourth-generation team member summering in Canada know it must travel south to the same place its ancestors did before it turns cold? I’m pretty sure there is no tiny butterfly training manual.

    Butterflies favor milkweed for dining, but they also love a variety of nectar plants, and thus, like bees, they perform an important pollinating role in nature’s complex scheme.    

    In Native American culture, the bright yellow Cloudless Sulfur creatures, standing out cheerful and brave against blue skies or dark storm clouds, were an omen of hope and spiritual guidance. Something we sorely need in these troubled times.

    No matter how they find their way in this natural realm we share, the little yellow passersby have been lifting my heart for days. Each one I see evokes an inner smile.


If you could use a few hours of pandemic distraction, try the North Carolina suspense series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon or through my website. People seem to like the yarns. Money back if you don’t.



Monday, September 7, 2020

Strange Astronomical Perceptions

    Our faithful star and moon seem a lot larger as they rise or set, and we have a lingering perception embedded in our memories that both are always big and bright, fostered by all the stunning telephoto shots of them looming over landmarks around our planet and by depictions of them in art and graphics.

    But the perception of them being larger near the horizon is only a mental illusion. They remain their visual sizes throughout their entire apparent motions across the sky. Apparent because of course it’s the earth that provides that 24-hour motion deception by rotating on its axis. The sun appears to move its own diameter every two minutes as the earth is rotating to the east. Depending on how close you happen to be to the equator, you’re moving at up to 1,100 miles per hour just because of that rotation. We don’t sense it because we only feel acceleration or deceleration, not constant velocity. (Think about sitting in a car on a smooth road doing a constant seventy; you don’t feel it, and you only know you’re moving by the scenery rushing by. Close your eyes and you could be sitting still.)

    We also have the idea that the sun appears much larger than the moon. In truth, they appear the same size. The sun is indeed 400 times larger than the moon, but it’s also 400 times father away from us. That’s the reason the moon can sometimes completely eclipse the sun briefly.

    Believe it or not, the moon (or the sun) is only the same perceived size as a quarter as viewed from nine feet away. Yet if you have 20/20 vision you can pick out amazing detail on the moon including some cratering and the darker maria (so named because they resembled seas to early observers). The moon seems so bright, yet it really is the color of asphalt. It only appears to be bright against the utter blackness of space.

     To me the most mind-bending astronomical perception of all is the apparent static state of our Milky Way stars and the many other galaxies strewn across the universe. In truth, nothing is static out there. Everything is in motion, rotating or orbiting or rushing through space, as our entire solar system is doing collectively. As our entire Milky Way galaxy is doing as well.

     We’re speeding sixty-seven thousand miles an hour right now just in our annual journey around our own star yet, again, we feel it not at all because that velocity is constant.
     The dazzling collection of starlight that enters our eyes tonight is not the universe we perceive it to be. It can only ever be an ancient rendition. It is starlight that’s just now arriving from tens and dozens and hundreds and thousands and millions of our years in the past.

     At 186,000 miles per second, it takes four and a half years for just the light from the nearest star other than our sun to make that incredible journey of twenty-six thousand billion miles.


Check out the North Carolina suspense series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon or through my website for some distracting pandemic reading that will take you away from our current troubles into the fascinating universe of fiction

Monday, August 31, 2020

Unusual American words and phrases

    Last post, I talked about language learning during the pandemic and how difficult learning English must be.
    Yet another confusing aspect to English, even for Americans, is regional slang.

    I grew up in New England, where we had our own jargon. Some examples:
    Grinder is Yankee for a sub sandwich. (It’s ‘hoagie’ in Pennsylvania.)
    Jimmies are called sprinkles most everywhere else.
    A tag sale in New England is a yard sale in NC where I live now.
    A rotary is Yankee for a highway roundabout.
    A milkshake in Massachusetts is just that, milk and syrup blended into a frothy confection. If you add ice cream it becomes a frappe (pronounced frap). And around Boston, soda is pop.
    When the ground thaws in Yankee land it creates a mud season, and many a farmhouse has a mud room to keep entrants from tracking up the whole house.
     In the fall, roads like the Mohawk Trail and Route Nine through the Western Massachusetts hill towns are filled with leaf peepers, folks who come from afar to view the traditionally spectacular foliage displays.
     Wicked is an adjective used as an intensifier for anything. Powder snow makes for wicked good skiing and snowmobiling. Cheeseburgers in the old-fashioned diners that remain are wicked delicious.

     When I moved south, I had to learn a whole new regional phraseology.
     Y’all, and hankerin’, and down yonder, and pitch a hissy fit, and bless your heart, and well, I’ll be.
     And you don’t just say could in Dixie because that’s too committal. Better to say might could to hedge it a bit. Then you’re covered if'n you can’t.
     Y’all be safe and well now, hear?

No matter where you’re from, check out the North Carolina suspense series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon or through my website for some distracting pandemic reading that will take you away from our current troubles. People seem to like the yarns.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Language Learning in the Pandemic

    To get something positive out of virus hibernation, I decided to learn a second language. But which one? Of the world’s roughly 6,500 languages, the most common by far throughout the Western Hemisphere is Spanish. I figure it’s the most likely to prove useful, especially considering our many immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America. It’s also the fourth most common language on the planet behind English, Mandarin, and Hindi in that order. I also like the sound of Spanish and I love the music and food.
    I’m learning on the Duolingo site. It’s going well, except the sentence examples are spoken so fast it’s hard to sort out words. Spanish is second only to Japanese as the fastest spoken tongue. French is third, then Italian, and English is fifth fastest, though as a pilot I think busy air traffic controllers near our big cities ought to get the Blue Streak Award. English, by the way, is the universal ATC language, so pilots the world over must learn it, although a limited aviation vocabulary is all that’s necessary (no pilot needs to order food or dicker for a new car or make a date or engage in a political debate in English to do the job). In my pilot training I had a young Norwegian instructor, and because he was still learning clear pronunciation of English he had me do most of the radio conversing with ATC.

    I find it odd so many Spanish words are genderized. The Politically Correct reformers have not yet tackled that issue as sexist, I guess.

    So far, Spanish seems fairly easy to assimilate, but it strikes me that English must be exceedingly difficult to learn as a second language. Think of all those words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, for example. There are at least 150 of these homographs, including club, bay, drill, file, tap, date, season, and kid. Then there’s a subcategory of homographs called heteronyms, at least 75 common words that have the same spelling but more than one meaning and different pronunciations, like lead, bow, bass, wind, row, and present. Many can be used as nouns or verbs or even adjectives. Then you have hundreds of slang words scattered throughout English. It gets complicated.

    There are roughly 100,000 words in common Spanish use, compared to 200,000 commonly used English words. This is not to say Spanish is any less expressive, because they have ways to be quite passionate and persuasive and erudite in communicating.

    For rudimentary use of either English or Spanish, 800 to 1,000 necessary core words lets you understand up to 75% of the language as it’s commonly spoken, which would serve at least minimally in travels to a foreign land. But to understand movies or TV would require some 3,000 words, and to read a novel in either language you’d need 8,000 or more.

    Which means true fluency in a foreign tongue—up to the level of the native users—is difficult to ever achieve without having been raised in that language from infancy.

    I’ll be happy just to impress Naomi by ordering in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant.

    If we ever go out to one again.
    Hasta luego.

For some good pandemic reading, check out my seven published books on Amazon, or order easily through my website. Money back if you don’t like your choice.

Please mask up and social distance. Together we can beat this virus.

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Presidential Do

Hey, I can relate.

I haven’t had my usual cut since early March.
I look like Einstein in the morning although, sadly, don’t feel any smarter.

But I do feel somewhat presidential. Especially in a breeze.

I’ve decided that to protest females getting all the hairdo attention over the generations, I won’t shave or get a haircut until at least spring.

There are benefits. Soon I’ll be able to weave it into an effective mask. It’s already long enough to serve as a soup strainer. Half a can of hair spray and it can become a nifty cycling helmet. I’ll have Naomi braid it for those special ceremonies, and when I want to read a book, I’ll simply part my bangs. I can maybe even get a job as a Neanderthal model for National Geographic.

Yes, showering is becoming an issue, as we’ve seen with Mister T, but a dab of liquid car wash and the garden hose will make me shine.

Only problem is mother birds have been eyeing me.
I suspect that’s why they seem to hang around the Rose Garden tweeting, as well.

It takes me an hour each day to get every hair in place just so until I can consider my do done, which puts a dent in my time on the links, but whenever I look in a mirror it’s quite gratifying.

A real Trumpian tonsorial triumph.

Phil Bowie
New Bern, NC

For some distracting pandemic reading, try the North Carolina suspense series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon or through my website. People seem to like the stories.


Monday, August 10, 2020

The (female) Brave Ones who fight for the elephants

    Wednesday, 12 August 2020 is World Elephant Day, established in 2011 and observed by 65 world wildlife conservation organizations to raise awareness of threatened elephants, the largest creatures that walk this planet. Despite bans on ivory trade in most countries, a persistent lucrative black-market demand for it goads poachers to kill 20,000 African elephants each year. An elephant dies under poachers’ guns—often in great agony—every 21 minutes on average, a much faster rate than they can possibly sustain with their long-gestation single-baby births. Herds have declined 70 percent over the past 40 years. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature projects that without aggressive action they could go extinct by 2040. There are several organizations fighting for the noble beasts in their dwindling habitat, but the cumulative effort is sadly still not enough to stop the decline.

    There are two African cadres that are especially interesting—and successful. And they’re exclusively female. The Akashinga (“The Brave Ones” in Shona) are often from impoverished backgrounds, some orphaned by AIDS or violence. They undergo rigorous special-forces-type training and are charged with protecting an area where thousands of elephants have been killed over the past 20 years in the Zambezi River Valley of Zimbabwe. Founder of the nonprofit organization, Damien Mander, an anti-poaching trainer, says women are protective by nature and are far less likely to take bribes than male rangers. The Akashinga are fiercely proud, well-armed, and unafraid to fight it out with poachers. They’re fast gaining wide respect.

    The other group is the Black Mambas, three dozen unarmed women who patrol South Africa’s Limpopo Province in their neat camouflage uniforms by foot and Jeep, reporting poaching activity to trained special forces rangers who then deal with it. They’ve been credited with cutting poaching in the areas they patrol by 76 percent.

    The world is of course preoccupied with the continuing virus threat, but let’s not forget we share this planet with a wonderful variety of wildlife that needs our concern and protection to survive. You can help with a donation to any of the legitimate organizations or by simply spreading the word among friends. (By sharing this message, for example.)

    I researched and wrote the novel Killing Ground to help raise awareness of vicious ongoing African ivory poaching. Proceeds go to elephant protection. Check it out on Amazon in print or Kindle, or you can order easily through my website.


Please mask up and keep at least six feet from others in public. These simple measures can save thousands of American lives over the coming months if enough of us can just be persuaded to do it.