Happy New Year?

Saying “Happy New Year” seems kind of odd when I’m anything but happy. But hey, I want other people to be happy right? And it would be nasty and rude to snap at other people when they give me a similar greeting.

Last year started out a lot happier. My husband was with me, and we went for a lovely hike after arriving back home after a great trip out of town with our kids. And although one of our daughters had been very ill in 2015, last year dawned with hope. She had finished a very strenuous medical regimen, and all indications were that she would get better and put aside the disease that had plagued her the whole year before.

Image (c) K.M. Kowalski.

Image (c) K.M. Kowalski.

As the year continued, our hope grew. Our daughter’s tests came back with good news in January, and she was stronger when I saw her in February.

That same month, my husband drove six hours while I was away at a conference so we could be together on Valentine’s Day. The following month, we were again with our daughters for Easter. And in April our daughters came to join us for Opening Day—although due to a game postponement we wound up going out for great Lebanese food instead.

Meanwhile, things were looking up for my husband and me. We were both more in love than ever. On Mother’s Day last year we went for a challenging hike, lunched at a winery, rested a bit at home and then had a romantic dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. We had planned a trip to Europe for late spring. And when I was out of town visiting my daughters in mid-May, the last words my husband said to me in a phone call were: “I love you. I’m looking forward to Europe.”

They were the last words I would ever hear from him. Just after my plane landed on my return trip, I learned that he had died while I was away.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, our daughter learned later in the summer that her disease had returned. More surgery and additional medical treatments would be needed. And now she, I and our whole family are praying that she’ll be okay.

So, no, I’m not in an especially gleeful mood. I’m not feeling particularly happy.

But I appreciated people who told me “Merry Christmas.” Christmas was indeed rough without the love of my life, and I was feeling anxious about lots of things. Yet there also were moments that were merry: my grandson asking “Again? Again?” when he wanted me to give the dreidel another spin or set the balls into continuous motion on his Pound and Roll Tower; having him curl up next to me as we read and hearing him say “more good book” at the end; wandering through a Christmas lights display at an arboretum; sharing fun with my daughters’ friends; going to church together; hiking through the woods; and more.

Christmas was different, but under the circumstances, it was as lovely as it could be.

This new year will be different too. And, under the circumstances, I hope it will be as happy as possible.

So, yes, I want people to wish me a happy new year. And I want their prayers for me and my family.

Happy new year, everyone!

Having a blue, blue Christmas

This has been a really rough year for me on a personal level, and the holidays are even tougher. For the first time in decades, I won’t hear my husband say “Merry Christmas” to me. I miss him. I still love him. And I wish he were still alive and well to celebrate with me and the rest of our family.

So, I went to a lovely “Blue Christmas” service last night for families who are having a tough time facing the holidays and found it really moving. For one part of the service, people were invited to bring up an ornament or memento of someone they’ve lost to place on a Christmas tree that will be displayed in a church alcove throughout the rest of the Christmas season.gracexmastree2016

My daughter’s photo doesn’t get the color quite right, but the item I hung is a glowing neon yellow and orange. I’d actually tried to find a baseball-themed ornament in the attic, but it was late at night and close to freezing in the attic that abuts the non-insulated roof. However, I did find the glowing neon yellow and orange item, which is kind of tired and worn and not at all the type of thing you’d ever find on a department-store tree. Yet every year Mike absolutely insisted that it had to go on the tree, along with another neon yellow and orange item. Hence, it does remind me of Mike, because it was kind of funny how he always defended the neon yellow and orange ornament, saying it had to go up.

But then I kind of lost it during the service. Here the priest was talking about how treasured all of the mementos are. And I look up there, and everyone else’s items are kind of white or silver or Christmas red. And then there’s the neon orange and yellow. And the memories of our laughing over Mike’s insistence that it go up, coupled with the priest’s comments, made me cry. I would give anything for Mike to still be with me, making the same jokes about having the neon orange and yellow item on the tree.

And that might have been okay. But then the irony of the whole thing and the inherent garishness of the item struck me as funny. So I’m trying not to laugh, because that would be inappropriate. I mean, I’m in church, right? At a service for families who are grieving, right?

But I definitely was losing the battle on the “don’t laugh” bit—so I’m covering it up by looking like I’m still crying. And then my daughters are really acting sweet and concerned. So I’m really, really trying to get the laughing under control.

At this point, I can’t help but think about Mike’s second-favorite sitcom episode. That’s the one from the Mary Tyler Moore show in which there’s a funeral for Chuckles the Clown.

But then, ugh, now I’m both crying and laughing. That’s because I remember how much Mike liked that episode and would always laugh whenever he talked about it.

So, bottom line: The service brought back memories and was cathartic—but not really in the way I’d imagined going in.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all some good nights and great memories.

“The damage is done”


So, the 2016 presidential election is over. Both the U.S. House and Senate have Republican majorities that have pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reverse actions intended to combat climate change, and move backwards on civil rights protections for multiple groups in society. And enough fervent supporters got out to the polls yesterday to elect a demagogue for president.

Donald Trump has shown contempt for women and been accused of raping a child. He has been accused of fraud, refused to disclose financial information from his tax returns, and apparently reneged on contracts and other promises. He has insulted Hispanics, Muslims and other religious and ethnic groups. He has shown a willingness to use the court system and other vindictive measures against anyone who dares to challenge him. To add insult to injury, his judgment and self-control are such that his campaign managers allegedly took over managing his Twitter account in the days before the election.

The damage can be very widespread. Thousands of bankruptcies would result if families lose their insurance or the protection of no more denials for preexisting conditions or lifetime limits on healthcare expenditures for serious illnesses. The country and world could see a serious economic depression as a result of trade wars. Civil rights could suffer, and people who have fought hard for basic rights and liberties could see them wiped out. The country could find itself in a worse situation than before the days of Brown vs. Board of Education. And the world could find itself at war if its leader fails to show good judgment.

But, as Trump’s campaign manager said after her boss repeated accusations that were shown to be false: “The damage is done.”

Some damage is done, but we can try to stop further harm.

I just wrote to my congressmen, asking them not to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Without it, lifetime limits on expenditures could return, which would further complicate the nightmare for families like mine and those of friends where a loved one has been struck by cancer or another life-threatening illness.

We do not have to–nor should we–sit idly by on this issue or on any other policy issue that affects us and those whom we love.

Start speaking out now, and let elected officials know what we need and what we expect them to do about it. After all, the next congressional elections are in just two years.

In the meantime, I expect Congress and Trump to ram through policies that a packed Court would ultimately uphold. Before the Supreme Court would uphold those laws, however, they can be challenged in the lower courts, and those cases will take time to work themselves through. By then–or shortly after–a different majority in Congress might be able to take other action.

Outside of official channels, speak up when you see something that’s wrong. Don’t let loudmouths badmouth and bully people of other colors, ethnic groups, religions, or sexes or gender preferences. Don’t accept violence and intimidation.

Good people can’t stop all the bad consequences that could follow as a result of this year’s election. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up trying to do what’s right.

Whatever happens, we can’t sit idly by.


Standing up for voting rights

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

A Supreme Court decision earlier this week held states may set their legislative districts on the basis of total population, rather than just the number of registered voters. Constitutional commentators properly hailed the decision as a major affirmation of the principle of “one person, one vote.”

But all is not as rosy on the voting rights front as those news reports suggest.

First, there’s the fact that plaintiffs sued in Evenwel v. Abbott and pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger weren’t folks who were refused a right to vote. Nor were they crammed into a district with way more people than other districts. Instead, they argued that the state acted wrongly by drawing state legislative district lines based on the total number of people, versus the number of registered voters. Because rural areas tend to have higher percentages of registered voters, the plaintiffs argued that their votes were somehow diluted.

Put aside the fact that urban areas also tend to have higher proportions of minorities. Don’t think about the fact that minorities are often underrepresented on the lists of voters. And forget the fact that there has been a history of discrimination against minority voters in the United States. Nope, these plaintiffs claimed that they were the ones who somehow had their voting rights infringed.

The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected that claim and held that the state had acted properly in using total population as the basis for setting its voting districts. In her opinion for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion even quoted Alexander Hamilton—subject of Broadway’s top musical hit right now:

There can be no truer principle than this—that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.

Significantly, however, the Supreme Court did not decide whether a state could decide to use the total number of registered voters instead of population. That leaves the door open in case a state legislature decides to try that approach.

Unfortunately, some state officials apparently still take actions that limit voting rights, and that’s easier to do after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder.

In fact, Texas — the same state where the Evenwel case was brought — seems to have a particularly poor record when it comes to protecting the voting rights of minority groups. This point was hammered home last week at a voting rights training program for lawyers presented by the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Speaking to a group of about 70 lawyers, attorney Gerry Herbert outlined a particularly egregious case in Texas that deals with photo ID requirements for voters. Significantly, the state law excludes things like state university photo IDs, but allows driver’s licenses and gun permits — even though one doesn’t need to be a citizen to get a gun permit in Texas. And while a state photo ID could be obtained free of charge, people would need to pay money and might have to travel long distances to get documents required to apply for that photo ID. Perhaps most damning were comments made by various state officials, applauding their departments for periods when they went without having to issue any of those “free” photo IDs.

Herbert outlined some of Texas’s other efforts to prevent so-called “voter fraud.” Forget the fact that there isn’t evidence of any widespread voter fraud. Among other things, the Texas state government wants its bureaucrats to be especially vigilant and watch for tell-tale signs. One criterion listed was suspicious or exotic-looking stamps. And an actual example from a state official’s actual presentation was a U.S. stamp highlighting awareness of sickle-cell anemia — a devastating disease that especially afflicts black people.

Plaintiffs actually won a challenge to the Texas photo ID law, but the case is currently on appeal. In the meantime, the law remains in effect. “Texas has been allowed to use this law even though it was found racially discriminatory,” Herbert said.

Other worrisome cases include the debacle in Arizona last month, where Arizona’s Maricopa County drastically reduced the number of voting places. While people across all groups had long waits, those in minority groups would have felt a disproportionate burden, speakers at the ACS training program noted. That’s because those voters were more likely to have had to get back to work.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case, the government would have had to get pre-approval for the change in the number of voting places. And it would have had to show the absence of a disproportionate effect.

Now most changes probably won’t be reviewed until after the fact — and that’s a problem. It calls for diligence on the part of state and local governments and the electorate. And it calls for attorneys and society at-large to support efforts to enforce voting rights.

Find out what’s going on in your community. And do your part to encourage everyone to register and then get out to vote. Consider supporting efforts by groups such as the American Constitution Society as well.

We may not always agree with what other voters do at the polls. But if we let government curtail the legitimate rights of any voters, we all will ultimately suffer for it.

French wines could come out ahead among winners and losers from climate change

Climate change creates both winners and losers in ecosystems. It could be disastrous for some species, shrinking their range or leading to the end of some isolated populations of plants or animals. But one upside could be better French wines.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

In a study published last week, Elizabeth Wolkovich at Harvard University and Benjamin Cook at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies examined long-term records on French winegrape harvests. “I’m mostly a climate scientist and Lizzie is primarily an ecologist studying plants,” says Cook. “So this particular study was a great way to combine our two disciplines into a really interesting study.”

“I personally became interested in winegrapes since I study phenology,” says Wolkovich. That area of science deals with “the timing of plant and animal events that recur each year, such as leafout or flowering,” she explains. A grape isn’t just a grape, either. “Different varieties (e.g., Pinot Noir versus Cabernet Sauvignon) have incredibly different phenologies and winegrapes have tremendously long records — so both these features drew me to studying winegrapes.”

Those tremendously long records go back more than 300 years, to the 1600s. Those records provided the researchers with lots of data. Also, because climate change takes place over time, the records let the team see how the harvests meshed with different climate trends.

As a general rule, the earlier the harvest was in a particular year, the better the wine would be. For the most part, those early harvests tended to happen in years that were both warm and dry.

Until recently.

Warming trends seem to have broken that link between warmth and low rainfall as a condition for early harvests, the researchers found. That finding was a surprise.

“We are seeing a change in the way drought affects the harvest,” Cook explains. ”Before 1981, you need a hot dry summer to get an early harvest. After, thanks to global warming, you can get hot enough for an early harvest even without a drought.” The team published their research online on March 21 in Nature Climate Change.

So far, the change seems to be good for producing fine French wines. However, there’s no guarantee that the trend will continue. At some point, for example, too much moisture could conceivably affect the vines or the quality of their grapes. Similarly, even if climate change seems to be good for wine grapes in one region, a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that other wine regions could well suffer as the ecological balance of their area shifts.

Nor does the study mean that climate change is not a problem. Hosts of other studies forecast widespread ecological harm, health consequences and other impacts.

Nonetheless, we can all appreciate and toast good science. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of fine wine.

“For white, I’m partial to a nice dry riesling,” Cook says. “For red, I like a peppery cabernet franc.”

“Dry rieslings are great!” says Wolkovich. “I also like red blends, especially ones with interesting varieties.”

A new study published on April 1, 2016, found that climate change could also boost wine production across the English Channel in the United Kingdom, BUT–and you know there would be a BUT, right–there would likely be more susceptibility to weather shocks.
In other words, grape production could grow, but there would also be significant threats from increases in extreme weather events, such as frosts after bud-burst or extra heavy rainfall.
The team at the University of East Anglia writes about its work in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research.

Things to “wine” about—and some beer

 new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

A new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

Two items in the news today should be noted by beer and wine drinkers everywhere. One is a cool upcoming talk at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the other is a new science report reminiscent of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

First, if you’re anywhere in the Cleveland area Friday night and are not already planning to go see the Red Sox take on the Indians, head over to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for the next installment of their Explorer Series, “Uncorking the Past: Re-Discovering and Re-creating Ancient Fermented Beverages

Patrick McGowan, an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, will describe how our human ancestors made an astounding array of fermented beverages from honey, grapes, barley, rice, sorghum and perhaps even chocolate. Light appetizers and a cash bar precede the 7 p.m. talk, so what’s not to like?

Then there’s a new study on wine out from the University of Washington, and this one has 64 things not to like. In particular, researchers found levels of arsenic above the safe drinking water standards in 64 out of 65 samples of U.S. wines.

“Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet,” U-W researcher Denise Wilson noted in the press release accompanying the report.

“But consumers need to look at their diets as a whole,” Wilson continued. “If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice — all those heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning — you should be concerned, especially pregnant women, kids and the elderly.”

Ironically, arsenic was one of the poisons added by two spinster aunts to the elderberry wine they used to kill boarders in the classic comedy play and movie, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Definitely watch the old Cary Grant flick if you’ve somehow missed it. And if you’re up for a fun, more modern spoof, check out Parnell Hall’s cozy 2013 mystery, “Arsenic and Old Puzzles.”

I don’t know yet whether any of the wines tested by the U-W researchers were elderberry wine. The full report appears in the October issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

For the Love of LEGO

LEGObookphotoThere are days when the theme song from last year’s The Lego Movie still keeps running through my head. And it never annoys me. That’s more than I can say for many of the tune that the Academy Award folks nominated for an Oscar last year or in most years. I’ll bet this is true with lots of people too. Thus, even if the artists who composed and produced “Everything is Awesome” didn’t get the recognition they deserve, their creation continues to inspire and resonate.

This is very much true of LEGOs themselves, which made possible and inspired Mike Doyle’s latest book, Beautiful LEGO: Wild! When I saw the press release for the book from No Starch Press, the cover immediately made me want to review a copy. First, it features LEGOs, which were one of our kids’ favorite toys as they were growing up.

My son, in particular, loved designing buildings and a variety of other creations with LEGOs—not just as a little kid, but into junior high and high school. He’d develop detailed plans for structures with all of the basic blocks, as well as a variety of specialized pieces, including the larger bases. My son has always loved parrots too, and the cover photo of Beautiful LEGO: Wild! includes the ~750 piece sculpture “Rainbow Lorikeet” by Gabriel Thomson.

Doyle himself is a LEGO artist and graphic designer, and the book is a lovely collection of a variety of artistic works—plants, pets, marine animals, wild animals, and more. There’s even a “Grumpy Monkey” and “Boxing Panda” (both by Tyler Clites). Photos are in full color, and brief descriptions identify the artist and approximate number of pieces. The book would be fun for folks to just look through.

Perhaps more than many other art books, this one can also serve as a source of inspiration for others to try their hands at awesome LEGO art. After all, basic LEGOs are at most toy stores, and it’s much easier these days to get specialized pieces than when my son was little. Just order them online.

But while the book can provide inspiration, don’t expect it to provide how-to information. The preface points out that many of the sculptures feature a piece known as Plant Leaves 6 x 5. But I would have preferred some more information on other specialized pieces that helped artists make particular designs. I also would have liked to see some information for people who wanted to learn more about the how-to side of things.

I realize one doesn’t page through an art book on the Impressionists or M.C. Escher and expect to see how-to information there either. But since No Starch Press bills itself as a publisher of “the finest in geek entertainment,” I would hope future titles in the series have a bibliography in the back with this sort of thing.

On the other hand, I would not want to see anything nearly as detailed as the very specific instructions that LEGO includes in its robotics kits. After all, part of the fun of this book and most other LEGO art is that it takes off in directions that other people may never think of.

Speaking of the LEGO robotics field, though, those kits and groups have inspired some of their own awesome designs in the technology world. The LEGO robotics field is especially popular with a lot of middle, junior and senior high school students, who might start out making a kit but then go on to design their own incredible machines and devices with Arduino boards, laptops, Bluetooth, and other components. And if you have any doubt about some of the incredible things kids are designing, check out the titles of the technology projects for the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS finalists, who were announced earlier this week.

Put some basic tools in the hands of artists, designers and engineers of all ages, and you can wind up with some really wonderful creations. Everything is awesome!