Bob Feller, 1918-2010

Bob Feller was an affable Iowa farmboy who happened to have a thunderbolt attached to his right arm. The passing years took away that thunderbolt, but did nothing to diminish Feller's genuine friendliness toward baseball fans who loved the same game he did.

Feller died of leukemia yesterday at the age of 92. When my old pal Alan Snel in Tampa sent me a link to the news story about his passing, I immediately thought of the moment when I met Feller briefly in Port St. Lucie, Florida when he signed an autograph for me in, I think, 1994.

I collect about anything that's related to baseball, and I have the cover from the April 19, 1937 edition of Time magazine that featured "Rapid Robert" on the cover. Feller, 19 years old and still fresh off the farm, had a lopsided, "aw shucks" grin as he fingered a baseball that he could reportedly throw at 104 mph.

Feller was signing autographs before the minor league St. Lucie Mets played a Florida State League game at Thomas J. White Stadium. Feller, a Hall of Famer, wasn't charging for his autograph, something that players routinely do today.

I put the Time cover in front of Feller and asked him to sign it. He seemed a bit surprised to see it, and picked it up to look at it a little more closely. After studying the photo of himself as a teenager, he said he remembered the photo, and also said something about breaking his father's ribs with a pitch.

I didn't quite understand what he said, but there was a long line of people waiting behind me and I didn't have time to quiz him about it. He signed his name on the cover and handed it to me and I stepped aside for the next person in line. Before I was out of earshot, however, I heard Feller finding something to say to each fan who stepped up to get his autograph. Again, that's an unusual courtesy by today's standards.

Later, I discovered that the April 19, 1937 edition of Time included an anecdote about Feller cracking three of his father's ribs with an errant curveball when he was 14.

In 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians from 1936 to 1956, he threw smoking fastballs past American League batters, compiling 2,581 career strikeouts and winning 266 games.

Feller undoubtedly would have surpassed 300 wins and probably added at least another 1,000 strikeouts to his total had he not spent four years in the Navy during World War II.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post is my memento from my brief meeting with Feller. The other photo of Feller was shot by Alan Snel at a ballpark in Florida and is used with his permission.


December 7, 1860: A Nation on the Verge of Exploding

As Christmas approached in 1860, the United States was a very edgy nation. After decades of debate and compromise and political equivocation about the morality of legalized slavery, the issue of institutional bondage was pulling the country apart.

Many Southerners were incensed at the election of Abraham Lincoln a month earlier, and passions were so hot in South Carolina that the state legislature was seriously talking about leaving the Union. And they weren't angry because Lincoln had pledged to end slavery. Lincoln, a pragmatist to the core, hadn't said anything about ending the "unique institution" that underpinned the South's agrarian economy. South Carolinians were furious because he'd said he simply was opposed to the expansion of slavery into territories that weren't even states at the time.

So on Friday, December 7, 1860, the United States was a nation that was about to burst apart even though Lincoln would not take office until March 1861. The newspapers of the day were filled with stories about "the crisis of the Union" and the "disunion question" and worries about whether South Carolina's inflammed passions would spread and prompt other Southern states to withdraw from the Union.

In the South, slaveowners were terrified of an insurrection by their slaves. On December 7, 1860, the New York Times published a letter from an unnamed woman in South Carolina to her uncle in New York City.

"The country here is all aglow with the fires of revolution, and such is the intensity of excitement that we can scarcely find time or inclination to talk or think of anything else than the political topics of the day, and the moral and social consequences directly pertaining to secession," she wrote. "I fear that secession and revolution are, with our people, foregone conclusions; that we have gone too far, retraction and recession are impossible, and that civil war with all its consequent horrors is already upon us."

In that same issue, the Times also published a letter from a young man in Tennessee to his father in which the Tennessee resident worried about the fragmenting of the country and the possibility that slaves would take up arms against Southern slaveowners.

"(T)he passions of the people (are) being aroused, in both sections of the country, and ambitious demagogues (are) urging them on," he wrote.

The letter-writer told his father he had no particular desire to defend slavery but would take up arms to defend his family. "What do you think, father, of going to California?" he wrote. "Not to avoid danger, or to desert any to whom we owe help, but to go, all of us, where we shall be at peace from this question, which is so much to be lamented on all accounts."

The worst fears of these and other Americans came to pass. The Civil War would erupt in April 1861 when South Carolina troops fired on federal troops manning Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

The war is still the bloodiest in the nation's history. And it still stirs passions and causes consternation 150 years later. For most of my adult life, I've been pondering my family's involvement in that war, and I'm still trying to make sense of it. As we observe the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I'm going to post some thoughts, comments and documented family history about that war. Please watch for those posts and comment on them where you think it's appropriate.

NOTE: The illustration at the top of this post is a political cartoon from 1860 commenting on how the election of Abraham Lincoln as president tore at the nation's political bonds.


Study Shows Gulf Coast Hurricanes Weaken Before Landfall

The U.S. Gulf Coast has been pounded by some fierce hurricanes in the past decade, but a recent study shows that cooler waters near the shore kept the storms from being much worse.

The study was conducted by the National Hurricane Center in Miami and Colorado State University.

Hurricanes draw their power from warm ocean water that has been heated to at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit to a depth of around 160 feet. During the summer, the water in the central and southern Gulf of Mexico often is much warmer than 80 degrees, and this water has fueled some of the most intense hurricanes in history.

In 2005, these warm waters allowed Hurricane Dennis to become one of the most powerful July hurricanes on record. On July 7, Dennis's winds reached 150 mph as it roared across the Gulf about 500 miles southeast of Mobile, Alabama. It looked like the eye of the powerful storm was going to go straight up Mobile Bay and into downtown Mobile as a devastating Category 4 hurricane.

But when Dennis got within about 150 miles of the coast, it encountered the cooler inshore water and that helped reduce its fearsome power. Still, the storm made landfall between Mobile and Pensacola as a Category 3 storm with winds of about 120 mph.

The cooler waters near shore also probably helped diminish two other very intense hurricanes just before they made landfall on the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005 -- Hurricane Katrina in August and Hurricane Rita in September.

"It's something special about the Gulf of Mexico," said Mark DeMaria, one of the co-authors of the study.

The study noted that when storms are over the central and southern Gulf of Mexico, they're over warm water from the tropics. On average, storms' winds intensify by about 8 mph for every 12 hours they're over this water, the study said.

But the water in the northern Gulf hasn't been influenced by this tropical warming, and so the warm water inshore isn't as deep.

"When hurricanes move over that water, (the storm's) high surface winds tend to mix cooler water up to the surface, which can lessen a storm's intensity," DeMaria said.

There are, of course, always exceptions. Sometimes, ocean currents bring warmer water closer to the coast, and that can cause devastating consequences if a hurricane reaches that water. In 1969, Hurricane Camille may have crossed one of those freak currents of very warm water as it approached the Gulf Coast. The storm lost little, if any, intensity as it neared landfall, and on August 17, Camille's eye came ashore at Pass Christian, Mississippi with winds of about 190 mph.

The study was published in a recent edition of the Journal of Weather and Forecasting. Viewing the full study requires a paid subscription, but an abstract can be viewed here.

NOTE: The NOAA photo above shows Hurricane Dennis just before it made landfall on July 11, 2005.


Spirit of '10?

We're in a war against some dangerous people who are willing to use any means they can come up with to kill as many people as possible. But it seems that we're thrusting our heads deeper and deeper into the sand to avoid confronting this reality.

The latest -- and maybe the most disturbing -- example of this refusal to acknowledge reality is being played out today in many airports where controversial new search techniques are being used by the Transportation Safety Administration to screen airline passengers before they board airplanes.

News reports say that the new security measures, which had been planned for some time, were implemented when an Al Qaida plot was uncovered last month to ship bombs aboard cargo airplanes and explode the bombs over the U.S. Airline passengers now have the option of either going through a new full-body scanner or being hand searched by a TSA officer.

MSNBC describes the search as an "open-palmed pat-down that many travelers, and even some security officers, feel is too personally invasive." Passengers can avoid the search by going through the full-body scanner. The scanner displays a nearly nude image of a passenger to a TSA officer who is out of the public view.

So, one way or the other, airline passengers are being required to submit to something that is seriously discomforting. Still, the Los Angeles Times reported recently that the TSA said that 28 million people boarded passenger planes during the first two weeks of the new security procedure, and only one percent of those passengers declined to go through the scanner and had to undergo the hands-on body search.

The Times reported that TSA said it received fewer than 700 complaints about the hands-on searches. That's a tiny proportion of the millions of people who had to undergo security checks before boarding airplanes.

It's easy to understand the annoyance of passengers who have to undergo these new search procedures. It is unsettling and humiliating to have your privates groped or displayed on a screen. But there is this war going on, and we are continually reminded of how fiercely our enemies hate us and how intensely they want to kill us, preferably in large, spectacular numbers. They would love nothing better than to explode a passenger airplane crammed with Americans over a large city so that chunks of flaming wreckage and body parts rained down on horrified witnesses who would then blame the government for not preventing this tragedy.

So it's hard for me to understand the mentality of those who are the loudest in protesting the increased scrutiny. And it's also baffling to me that the complaints of such a small group could explode into the broiling scandal that has erupted in the past few days.

In the December issue of Vanity Fair, editor Graydon Carter notes that Americans seem to be "full of inchoate rage, and . . . constantly throwing fits and tantrums". Carter published his comments weeks before the latest outrage. And our enemies are playing this anger like an instrument.

I've long been fascinated by the history of World War II. As I've gotten older, I've realized how propaganda was used to shape public opinion and persuade people to get with the program. And propaganda always makes me uneasy because it's used to emphasize one point of view and diminish or conceal other points of view. So when I see a poster like the one above that I've altered for this post, I also realize that the same techniques were being used by the Allies and their enemies.

I can't help but compare that era to today. However misleading the propaganda images from that time may have been, it's clear that people were willing to put up with much more danger and inconvenience than we are now. For example, beginning in September 1940 and continuing for months, Nazi Germany bombed London and other British cities every night. By May 1941, about 43,000 civillians had been killed in the attacks that came to be known as the Blitz. That means that far more people were killed every month during the Blitz than were killed in the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001.

But as Carter noted in his Vanity Fair column, a poll taken at the time showed that the British were more upset by food rationing than they were by the constant bombing. They simply were determined to carry on in the face of Hitler's savage onslaught.

What we're being asked to put up with isn't even on the same scale as what Londoners endured during the Blitz. But my god, how we're complaining. And how gratifying this must be to the thugs who are determined to kill us.


Recalling an Infamous Home Run

I've been down with the flu for several days and it's disrupted all the normal routines. It's a pretty nasty bug. I'm at the stage now where it's a low-grade fever and general aching malaise interrupted by occasional fits of violent and rather painful coughing. And there are powerful sneezes as well.

So I've spent most of the past few days in the guest bedroom. We have a stereo in that room that has a cassette tape deck, and I've dug out old tapes that I haven't played in years, tapes that in some cases I'd forgotten I have. And I've passed much of the time by drifting in and out of sleep as I listen to, among other things, Garrison Keillor monologues.

I've also spent the last several nights in that room so Jane can sleep without being awakened by my sudden noisy coughing and weary groans of exasperation. Around 3:30 this morning I woke up coughing and couldn't go back to sleep. So I sifted through the old tapes looking for something to put on the stereo.

One of the tapes I'd forgotten I have is a copy of the radio broadcast of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates. So I put that one into the player.

I was 10 years old when that game was played, and I remember it very well -- at least the final few innings. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but that World Series game and the 1960 Major League baseball season was the end of an era. In 1960, there were still only 16 Major League teams -- eight in each league -- and the teams played a schedule of 154 games.

In 1961, Major League baseball would begin an expansion that would eventually swell the number of teams to 30, increase the regular season schedule to 162 games, and lead to a post-season playoff that stretches into November.

When New York met Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series, I was at the peak of my passion for the Yankees. I'm not sure how a hick kid from a tiny rural town in the South became a Yankees fan, but I think it must have had something to do with Mickey Mantle. I'd learn later that Mantle was about as tragically flawed a man as has ever lived, but in 1960 he was a god walking among mortals.

I lay there in the dark listening to broadcaster Chuck Thompson's account of the game, which was played on October 13, 1960. At some point I realized that the 50th anniverary of that memorable game is only a few days away. The fact that I'm getting old enough to recall events 50 years ago is a little unsettling. I remember all of the fanfare surrounding the 50th anniverary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which occurred years before I was born, and so that anniversary celebrated an event that, for me at least, was safely in the distant past and wasn't a reflection of my own aging.

But now, I'm old enough to remember things that happened half a century ago. Time passes.

The game itself was a wild, high-scoring, see-sawing affair. After two innings, Pittsburgh led 4-0. But the Yankees rallied, and by the sixth innning they held a 5-4 lead.

In 1960, World Series games were played during the day, and October 13, 1960 was a Thursday. So that meant that I wasn't able to turn on the game until after I'd gotten home from school. But I got home in time to see the end of the game.

In the top of the eighth inning, the Yankees extended their lead to 7-4, and it looked like it was all over. But in the bottom of the eighth, a fluke occurred that changed the course of the game. With Gino Cimoli on first, Bill Virdon hit a bouncing ground ball to Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek. It should have been an easy double-play, but the ball hit a pebble, took a wicked erratic hop, and hit Kubek in the Adam's apple. Everyone was safe, Kubek had to leave the game, and before the inning ended the Pirates had taken a 9-7 lead.

Still, the Yankees came back in the top of the ninth inning to tie the score at 9-9, and I was confident that the Yankees would hold the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth and win it in extra innings, especially since the bottom of the Pirates' lineup was coming to bat in their half of the inning.

Listening to the tape last night, of course, I knew what would happen. Bill Mazeroski would lead off for the Pirates against Ralph Terry. He'd take Terry's first pitch for a called ball. Then he'd hit Terry's second pitch over the left field wall, the Pirates would win, 10-9, Pittsburgh would go berserk, and I'd trudge quietly upstairs to my room with tears of disappointment running down my cheeks.

Listening to the game in the dark through a feverish haze 50 years later, I didn't start crying. But I still shook my head in disbelief that Terry gave Mazeroski a pitch that he could knock out of the damn ballpark.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post was shot by George Silk for Life magazine. It shows University of Pittsburgh students watching from the tower of the Cathedral of Learning and cheering Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the 1960 World Series.


Jane Returns with Irish Whiskey

So Jane got back a few hours ago from her trip with her mom to Ireland, and she brought many presents -- including a bottle of Irish whiskey that supposedly isn't available in the U.S.

So we sat on the front porch and listened to the stack of Irish folk music CDs she brought, and I sipped Irish and Jane drank wine and we watched the rain that's been falling all week. I read that

we've had more rain in the past two days than we had during the infamous Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which put most of the area around Plymouth under eight or 10 feet of water. But since the wetlands around the Roanoke River here haven't been developed, we stayed dry.

Anyway, Jane brought me a bottle of Green Spot Irish whiskey. I've been drinking scotch for years. The Irish whiskey is sweeter than scotch, but not as sweet as bourbon, which I've never cared for.

She also brought me a mini-bottle of Irish potcheen, or moonshine, as it's known in these parts. Note that the label says it's "Now Legal" in Ireland. Haven't opened that yet.

And, oh yeah, while in Ireland she went to some restaurants and visited an old castle, and some writer's thing in Dublin.


OK, OK, I'm Finally on Facebook . . .

. . . but I'm a tad uneasy about it. And the story by David Carr in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section about the new movie, "The Social Network," didn't do anything to diminish my uneasiness about plugging in to this giant online virtual-socializing and snooping enterprise.

The movie is based on the story of the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg, a socially clumsy young man at Harvard who, in a sense, executed the uber-geek's ultimate ironic twist. He channeled his frustrations, social ineptitude and exceptional intelligence into creating what the Times calls "the largest engine of social interaction in the history of mankind."

And he made a gigantic amount of money in the process.

Here's how the Times described both the movie and the phenomenon of Facebook: "Social media -- with the technology that allows people instantly to inform dozens or hundreds of thousands of people about where they've been and what they've done, in pictures and in words -- become a kind of self-replicating organism in the film, feeding and consuming all who mouse over it."

So Facebook ranks up there with the invention of the printing press and the telephone in terms of ideas that have altered our world. Many innovations have claimed to make the world smaller, but Facebook has used the Internet and the proliferation of personal computers to reduce the world to the size of a telephone booth, if anybody still remembers how small a telephone booth is.

And, like a cranky hermit living in a cave high in the mountains, I've deliberately avoided Facebook until it seems like I'm the last person in the civilized world to join the fun. Even people whom I thought had jumped off the grid long ago have Facebook pages. The New York Times says there are 500 million people with Facebook accounts. So, clearly, the rest of the world doesn't have the reservations about Facebook that I have.

Why have I avoided it? Partly just simple orneriness. The older I get, the less comfortable I am with cutting-edge technology. And there's also the fact that I'm lazy, and maintaining a Facebook page is a form of work.

But mostly, I've avoided Facebook because I'm afraid of it. I read George Orwell's novel, 1984, a long time ago, and it affected me. 1984 describes a world in which an oppressive, authoritarian government knows everything about you and can observe your every move.

Facebook is a massive central data base into which one deposits detailed acounts of one's likes and dislikes, comings and goings, political and religious beliefs, sexual preferences, favorite colors and football teams, and recent purchases. That's an awful lot of info for someone somewhere -- or anyone, anywhere -- to have access to at the click of a mouse button. It's like Big Brother with a smile, to borrow a phrase I picked up somewhere, probably while browsing the Web. And I worry about what some people might do with that info.

Still, it's fascinating and absorbing to be able to tell the world about your favorite movies, your favorite books and quotes, and post favorite pictures of your cats or your friends in unguarded moments. And I'm enjoying it.

And if you're wondering why I finally decided to jump into Facebook, you'll have to go to my page to find the answer. I'm going there now to add 1984 to my list of favorite books and add a personal news update that I've posted a new entry on "Drye Goods." 


Hurricane Karl Floods Mexico

Hurricane Karl made landfall earlier today near Veracruz, Mexico. Here's a link to a story I did today about Hurricane Karl for National Geographic News.

Meanwhile, a weakening Hurricane Igor is expected to diminish to a Category 2 storm (winds of 96 mph to 110 mph) as it passes just east of Bermuda late Saturday. If Igor follows the forecast, Bermuda will be on the weak side of the storm.


Monster Igor Won't Bother Us

Hurricane Igor has become the most powerful hurricane of the 2010 season, but it's not going to threaten the U.S. So it's OK to breathe a sigh of relief and milk an obvious laugh from the fact that this year's monster storm carries the name of one of Hollywood's funniest characters -- the misshapen, bug-eyed lab assistant Igor played hilariously by Marty Feldman in the movie "Young Frankenstein." In the movie, Feldman's character insisted that his name be pronounced "Eye-gor."

Hurricane Igor's strongest winds reached 150 mph earlier today, an intensity that put it on the verge of becoming a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. But it looks like that intensity may have been Igor's peak because as of 11 p.m., the storm's strongest winds had diminished to 140 mph.

Here's a link to a story I did earlier today for National Geographic News about why Hurricane Igor is expected to stay well offshore.

NOTE: The photo illustration at the top of this post is a composite of a graphic from the website Weather Underground and Marty Feldman as "Igor" in the movie "Young Frankenstein."


Igor is Out There

Tropical Storm Igor has formed from a tropical wave that rolled off the west coast of Africa a few days ago. The storm is expected to become Hurricane Igor by Saturday and strengthen as it rolls across the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami are saying that predicting the intensity of Igor during the next few days is "tricky." But it's a different story when you look at Igor's prospects for strengthening 10 days or so from now.

"There is plenty of warm water and light shear forecast in the path of Igor, which would promote development of a large and powerful hurricane," the latest NHC forecast says.

If Igor does become a powerful hurricane, it would be in keeping with many of the storms that have received the "I" name since 1995, when we entered a pattern of more active hurricane seasons.

Only in 1997 was the season not active enough to produce the nine storms needed to reach that year's "I" name. And three times in the past seven years, the "I" storm became a memorable monster hurricane.

In 2003, Hurricane Isabel formed from a tropical wave on September 6. Isabel reached its peak intensity as a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 165 mph. Thankfully, the storm weakened before it made landfall at Cape Lookout, North Carolina. But it still did massive damage and blasted us back into the 19th century for a couple of weeks when its eye passed over us here in Plymouth.

Hurricane Ivan, which formed September 2, 2004, became one of the worst hurricanes on record when it devastated the Caymen Islands as a Category 5 storm (see here for a 2007 post about the awful power of Hurricane Ivan).

After smashing the Caymens, Ivan entered the Gulf of Mexico and struck Pensacola, Florida as a Category 3 hurricane with winds exceeding 120 mph.

Hurricane Ike formed September 1, 2008 and peaked as a Category 4 storm with 145 mph winds. Ike lost most of its fury as it crossed the length of Cuba, but still caused major damage when it struck Galveston, Texas a few days later.

There's no way of knowing for certain what this storm will do, but given the severity of its infamous "I" predecessors, it's a little unpleasant to contemplate a Hurricane Igor -- especially with a name that is straight out of Hollywood monster movies.


Maybe It's Time for Butch Davis to Go

North Carolina nearly pulled off an amazing win over Louisiana State this weekend, losing to the Tigers 30-24 when a Tar Heel receiver dropped what would have been the game-winning pass in the end zone as time expired. Replays showed that a Tiger defender probably should have been called for pass interference on the play.

Chaz Misenheimer and I watched the LSU-UNC football game Saturday night at his home in Richfield. It was the kind of game that should have had us on our feet and screaming, especially when UNC staged a remarkable second-half comeback that put them within a questionable officiating call of winning the game.

At halftime, it looked like UNC was going to get blown out by LSU, a Southeastern Conference powerhouse that won a national championship just two years ago. Carolina trailed 30-10, and was playing like a clumsy, poorly coached high school team. Two or three times, the center and quarterback couldn't even execute the snap, resulting in a fumble that was recovered by LSU. And on one play when quarterback T.J. Yates was standing in a shotgun formation in his own end zone, the center snapped the ball past his ear and out of the end zone when Yates wasn't expecting it.

Yet the Tar Heels still made a game of it. Despite Carolina's remarkable second-half performance, however, I watched the game quietly, but it wasn't because I was indifferent to the outcome. I was subdued because what I feared would happen when UNC hired Butch Davis as head football coach in 2007 apparently has come to pass. The NCAA is investigating the Tar Heel football team for possible rules violations. Carolina's near-miraculous comeback against LSU is even more amazing when you consider that more than a dozen players -- including most of their starting defensive team -- were held out of the game because of the investigation.

Three years ago, I made a blog post titled "Go Tar Heels -- I Think," At that time, Davis was in the news because he was expected to bring a "new culture" to Carolina's football program. Presumably, that new culture involved putting the football program on an equal footing with its stellar basketball program. Tar Heel basketball teams have won six national championships without even a hint of NCAA violations.

In that 2007 post, I wondered whether Davis -- who had a 71-38 record and three Big East championships at the University of Miami -- could steer clear of NCAA violations and build a national powerhouse football team at a university that takes academic standards seriously. Among the possible violations being investigated by the NCAA is an allegation that an academic tutor may have improperly helped some football players write term papers.

To their credit, UNC officials prohibited the players being investigated by the NCAA from playing in the LSU game. They probably forfeited a huge win by doing that, because if those players had been in the game, they probably would not have made the mistakes their inexperienced substitutes made that gave LSU at least 16 points.

UNC is one of the best public universities in the nation, and a degree from UNC is a source of pride among its graduates. If the investigation reveals even questionable conduct by Davis in supervising his players, he should be fired. Anything less would cheapen the value of a UNC degree.


Blogging Hurricane Earl

Monday, September 6: Here's a link to my National Geographic News story explaining why Hurricane Earl weakened as it approached the Outer Banks.

Also, got an email today from Arlene Vadum in Worchester, Massachusetts that included a brief comment on Hurricane Earl's visit to New England a couple days ago. Worcester is well inland from Cape Cod, where Earl was expected to pass near or over Saturday afternoon as a Category 1 hurricane. But Earl weakened to a tropical storm and was pushed a little farther out to sea by that Canadian front, and so the blow to the Cape and the Northeast was much less than had been feared.

Arlene writes: "We got the rain, pretty hard for a time, and virtually no wind. People didn't do anything special in Worcester because we were told that Earl wouldn't affect us. I saw on the news that people were not going to the Cape and the islands because of Earl, but in the end the news seemed to say that there was 'much ado about nothing,'"

Thing is, you can't decide what to do during the next hurricane warning based on what you did during the previous storm because the next hurricane might make a last-minute turn in your direction and be far worse than expected. But anyone who's lived on Cape Cod any length of time knows that.

9:15 a.m. Friday: We're getting light but steady rain here in Plymouth as Hurricane Earl moves away from us. The storm made its closest approach toward us a few hours ago. I stood on our side porch a few minutes ago and took a quick look around the neighborhood, and I didn't see anything that looked like damage. Didn't even see any limbs in my back yard from the huge pecan trees that usually drop limbs even during a light breeze.

We sat around last night with our neighbors, Jennifer and Ben, and watched some of the local coverage of Hurricane Earl. Almost felt sorry for some of the local TV news reporters. They had been prepared to do the Jim Cantore-style standup-in-the-storm spots, and nothing was happening -- no driving horizontal rain, no fiercely gusting winds to shove them around, no loud crashing waves or wind-driven debris in the background.

I don't mean to make fun of Hurricane Earl's visit, however. We were lucky. The storm weakened some and turned slightly away from the Outer Banks, and so things were not nearly as bad as they could have been.

But we may not be so lucky for the rest of the month. Tropical waves are rolling off the west coast of Africa, and conditions are still ripe for hurricane formation. And this is the time of year when the so-called Cape Verde hurricanes form. These are storms that begin as tropical waves and quickly become tropical storms as they pass the Cape Verde islands. These are the breeding grounds for monster hurricanes such as Hurricane Ivan of 2004.

There's a tropical wave that recently rolled into the Atlantic that's likely to become Hurricane Hermine. There probably also will be a storm that gets the "I" name that the monster Ivan got six years ago. The name for that storm this year is Igor. If a hurricane does get the "I" name, it could become a very bad storm. And contemplating the possibility of a monster storm named Hurricane Igor makes me a little uneasy.

11:30 p.m.: Light steady rain started about an hour and 15 minutes ago and you can tell the streets are wet when cars pass because they make that "skish" noise that tires make on wet pavement. My barometer has dropped in the past few hours, but the winds are light and essentially it's a damp, breezy and very muggy evening. Reminds me of Key West this time of year.

As of 11 p.m. Earl had weakened to a Category 2, which means that its peak winds are 96 mph to 110 mph. Judging from the radar images, the storm is no longer moving westward and is starting a turn to the north well before it approaches Cape Hatteras, which means that it's probably not going to come as close to the Outer Banks as was predicted earlier.

10:15 P.M.: We had brief intermittant showers here about an hour ago, but for the most part it's been a pleasant evening to sit on our neighbors' porch and drink beer and enjoy the breeze. I'll update later.

7:31 p.m.
: Hurricanes are just fiendishly unpredictable, even in this era of weather satellites and sophisticated computer software designed to make them more predictable.

The latest update for Hurricane Earl has it weakening considerably before it blows past North Carolina. Earl is now a Category 3 storm with peak winds of about 115 mph, and it's expected to diminish to Category 2 before it approaches Cape Hatteras. That means its peak winds will be no more than 110 mph.

Earlier forecasts had it maintaining at least Category 3 strength as it passed the Cape. Had it stayed that strong, its peak winds could be approaching 130 mph.

This is why being a hurricane forecast specialist is such a difficult job. When you put out a warning that a hurricane is approaching, you have to convey to the people on the coast that they're in a dangerous area. You don't want to overstate the danger, but the consequences of understating the danger are so dire that you can't afford to be responsible for giving thousands of people an excuse to stay put instead of getting out of harm's way. There's always a good chance that the hurricane will be worse than expected, and those people who got complacent because of your understated warning suddenly are facing a deadly situation.

There are some subtle signs of Earl's approach here in Plymouth. Jane and I sat on our enclosed front porch for about 90 minutes and had drinks and watched the weather. The very tall trees on our neighbors' lots across the street are swaying the way they do only when a major storm is approaching. So Earl's approach is subtle but noticeable.

Stay tuned.

5:45 p.m. My story about Hurricane Earl has been posted at National Geographic News. See this link:

5 p.m. Barometer down slightly, from 1013 mb at 2 p.m. to 1011 mb at 5 p.m. I did a story about Hurricane Earl for National Geographic News that will be posted shortly. I'll post a link here when it's up.

The satellite image shows Earl as of 5 p.m. EDT. More of eastern North Carolina is now covered by the edges.

2:53 p.m: As of 2 p.m., Hurricane Earl is offshore from Charleston and has weakened a little since the 5 a.m. update. But Earl's strongest winds are still around 125 mph, and it's expected to strengthen a little and have winds exceeding 130 mph as it aproaches the North Carolina coast tonight. Earl is expected to make its closest approach around 2 a.m. Friday, when it'll be offshore from Cape Hatteras.

As you can see from the above satellite image, we're starting to see the edges of Hurricane Earl here in Plymouth, which is about 100 miles south of Norfolk and about 80 miles west of Cape Hatteras. If the storm maintains its projected path, we're not likely to see any fierce winds tonight. But hurricanes are unpredictable, and I spent part of the morning clearing small objects out of our yard, fueling up my pickup truck, and making sure the gas-powered generator was working.

My barometers are slowing starting to fall, an indication that there's a bad storm out there somewhere.

I'll have another update around 4:30 p.m.

Powerful Hurricane Earl Headed Our Way

Hurricane Earl is expected to be an intense Category 4 hurricane when it makes its closest approach to the North Carolina coast early tomorrow morning. The current forecast predicts that Earl's strongest winds will exceed 140 mph around 2 a.m. Friday when the storm's eye is about 40 miles east-southeast of Buxton, a village at Cape Hatteras. At that point, Hurricane Earl will be about 115 miles east-southeast of Plymouth, North Carolina, where Jane and I live.

If Earl maintains this intensity, it'll be among the strongest hurricanes north of the 35th parallel, which falls roughly halfway between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Hurricanes draw their strength from warm ocean waters, and the water temperatures usually aren't warm enough to sustain the storms this far north. But ocean temperatures off the coast of the Southeast are well above normal this year, and there's plenty of fuel to keep Earl stoked as it moves northward.

As I'm writing this, I just got an email alert saying that a hurricane watch has been issued for portions of the Massachusetts coast. A hurricane watch means that hurricane-force winds -- that is, winds of at least 74 mph -- are possible within the watch area.

By contrast, a hurricane warning has been issued for the North Carolina coast. A hurricane warning means that hurricane-force winds are expected within the warning area.

I'm going to try an experiment in live-blogging as Hurricane Earl approaches North Carolina. The storm is expected to be offshore and due east of Savannah, Georgia around 2 p.m. today. I'll start a new post then and make updates as Earl gets closer. Please check back.

NOTE: The graphic at the top of this post is from the website Weather Underground.


The Cat Days of Summer

It's been a godawful hot summer here in eastern North Carolina. As I'm writing this, the thermometer on our side porch, which is in the shade, is touching 98, and the humidity makes it feel like a sauna. And more of the same is expected tomorrow.

It's so hot, I'm recalling the heat jokes I heard years ago when I lived in Macon, Georgia. How hot is it in Macon? So hot that they keep the charcoal in the refrigerator. So hot that in the summer, Satan rents out hell and lives in Macon.

We're deep into the so-called "dog days of summer," which run approximately from early July through mid-August. The dog days got their name from the ancient Romans, who attributed the heat at this time of year to Sirius, the dog star.

The heat affects every living thing. In his 1815 book, Clavis Calendaria, Or A Compendious Analysis Of The Calendar, John Brady noted that this is the time of year "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies."

Cats personify the "languid" effect of the heat. Felines are more prone to sleep on their backs during extremely hot weather. I'm assuming it's somehow cooler.

The picture at the top of this post shows Ike, our rather large (14+ pounds), two-year-old tuxedo tomcat, snoozing on his back on the bed during the hottest part of the day.

I've seen Ike sleep like this often this summer. I snapped the above photo a couple days ago, when I spotted him snoozing in his favorite basket atop our bedroom closet. Those are Ike's paws visible above the rim of the basket.


So We're Back . . .

Jane and I got back a few days ago from our July 4th trip to Baltimore, where (1) We watched our nephew, John Morrow, play in a lacrosse tournament; (2) We had lots of crab cakes and beer; (3) Visited the house where Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1832 to 1835, and (4) I was sick in bed in the hotel for a day with some kind of flu-like illness (and no, it wasn't related to the crab cakes and beer).

So it's been hot and I'm lazy. I'm working on a few ideas for new postings. In the meantime, here's what the view looked like earlier today when Jane, Beaucat and I went out to the front porch for Sundowners. And by the way, I usually drink my vodka martinis with a slice of Vidalia onion, but we were out. So I was forced to substitute an olive.

Anyway, more to come soon . . .


Very Busy, Please Stand By

I've got deadlines approaching for several projects and will have to focus on those for the rest of the month. Please check back by Drye Goods in a couple weeks for new postings.


How I Slid Into an Appreciation of Chinese Culture

There's a big fuss out in Hacienda Heights, California because elementary school kids there are being taught the Chinese language and something about Chinese culture, and the instruction is being paid for in part by the government of China.

Some people think the whole thing is another in a series of sinister plots to undermine our sacred American values. They think it poses a serious threat to our very way of life. What better way to overthrow the government of a country and instill communism, they reason, than to brainwash the children who will one day take the reins of that government?

In their view, anyone who studies anything about China is a potential traitor. So I guess it's time for me to confess something -- a long time ago, in that bastion of undisciplined and dangerous free-thinking that is Chapel Hill, I studied ancient Chinese culture. And God help me, I enjoyed it and haven't been the same since.

But the Chinese government had nothing to do with coercing me into taking this subversive course, nor was I bent on fomenting revolution. I swear that the only reason I took it was because I was desperate to get a decent grade in summer school. I signed up for the course -- known at the time as Chinese 50 in the University of North Carolina curriculum catalog -- because it was famous for being, in the student slang of that era, a "slide."

A slide was a class in which you could get a decent grade in exchange for showing up for class and doing work that didn't require you to be a genius or a workaholic scholar. The names of such courses are circulated among the students on the campuses of colleges such as UNC, where you always seem to find yourself in classes with students who are a whole lot smarter than you and who ruin the grading curve for everyone else.

So during that summer session I took a seat in one of the largest auditoriums on campus, joining academically sluggish football players, party-hearty frat boys and other less-than-focused semi-scholars who knew their college careers depended on a QPA-boosting grade in this course.

I wish I could remember the name of the professor who taught Chinese 50, but that's long gone from my memory. But I do clearly remember his appearance and mannerisms. He was a small, wispy, slightly nervous American Caucasian, probably late 30s-early 40s, with a scraggly beard and graying hair. In those days you could still smoke in UNC classrooms, and he chain-smoked throughout his lectures.

In short, he was not a very imposing figure. But he was deeply in love with the culture and history of China, and he intensely wanted to communicate that love to his students -- even though he knew his class was a sort of summer purgatory for those who'd discovered that academics was only one of many pastimes in Chapel Hill, and probably not the most interesting of all the things you could do there.

On the first day of class, he laid his cards on the table. If you show up for all the classes and do all of the assigned work, you'll get a 'C,' he told us. If you do a little more than the assigned work, you'll get a 'B,' and if you do still more work you'll get an 'A,' he said.

But I'm not doing this so you can kick your mind into neutral and coast through summer school, he said. I'm doing this because I think the ancient Chinese built one of the greatest civilizations in world history, and I'm hoping you'll pick up just a little bit of that from this class.

And then he proceeded, during those muggy North Carolina summer mornings, to tell us a fascinating story of a long-ago people who were sublimely civilized. Like any group of humans, there were scoundrels, wastrels, thugs and thieves among them, but their culture was focused on moderation and self-discipline.

The ancient Chinese recognized the deep flaws of human nature, and took that into account in making their laws. They recognized that no human is as powerful as the forces of nature, and structured their lives to be in harmony with their surroundings. They recognized the ceaseless interplay between simplicity and complexity in all aspects of human existence, and wrote poetry and essays to express that.

They even devised a written language that was not intended to be spoken, but was designed to communicate an idea or a passion by creating a series of images in the minds of readers. It was a language that existed only in the mind, sort of like telepathy.

I also learned about Lao Tzu, the ancient philosopher who supposedly scolded Confucius for his pride and vanity and wrote the Tao Te Ching before disappearing forever.

I got a B+ for the course, but more importantly I came away from that class with a lingering fascination for a civilization and a system of thought that was based on reasoning and intellect instead of emotion and acquisitiveness.

It's been decades since I took Chinese 50, but a week hasn't gone by that I haven't thought of that class in some context. And now the story emerges about the frightened people in Hacienda Heights who have freaked out because kids there are learning something about China.

So the adults are upset because the children may become wiser than their elders. I think Lao Tzu would delight in that irony.

NOTE: The symbols at the top of this post are Chinese for "change."


Baseball's "Human Element" Throws Monkey Wrench Into the Game

The phrase "human element" has been used a lot during the past couple of days when people talk about Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga losing a perfect game because an umpire missed a call that would have put Galarraga into the record books.

Umpire Jim Joyce admitted that he'd missed the call on a play at first base that would have ended the game and preserved Galarraga's pitching gem. He even apologized to Galarraga after the game. But MLB commissioner Bud Selig refused to overturn Joyce's blown call and declare that Galarraga had indeed pitched a perfect game, sparking outrage among many fans.

Baseball purists such as I love to talk about the "human element" of baseball. Invoking the human element means that even though baseball has rules that theoretically prevent any sort of advantage for either team, we purists recognize that human frailties often decide the outcomes of games. And we supposedly accept that as part of the game, just as we have to accept that a pebble in the infield can suddenly change the path of a ground ball and alter the game.

Calling it the human element sounds more noble than saying that an umpire blew a call. And there's a long history of Major League baseball games that have been affected by that particular human element -- including several perfect and near-perfect games.

New York Yankees' pitcher Don Larsen pitched the most famous perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. But Larsen probably had a little help from plate umpire Babe Pinelli. With two outs in the ninth inning, Pinelli called Brooklyn Dodger pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell out on a third strike that many witnesses thought was well out of the strike zone. Pinelli, the human element in this game, apparently decided that Larsen deserved the perfect game and ended it before Mitchell could spoil the masterpiece.

In May 1959, Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Harvey Haddix pitched above and beyond the boundaries of normal perfection when he didn't allow a runner to reach base for 12 innings. Facing one of the toughest lineups in baseball at the time, Haddix retired 36 consecutive Milwaukee Braves batters.

It was an unprecedented performance, and I doubt that anyone will ever accomplish it again. But Haddix and the Pirates lost the game in the 13th inning. Since he'd pitched nine perfect innings before losing, he was credited with a perfect game -- until MLB changed the scoring rules in 1991 and wiped Haddix's perfect game from the record books.

In May 1972, Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas retired 26 straight San Diego Padres' batters. Then, one out and one strike away from perfection, Pappas threw two pitches that were close enough to be called third strikes. But plate umpire Bruce Froemming -- that ornery human element -- apparently didn't have the same respect for perfection that Babe Pinelli had in 1956. Froemming called both pitches balls, and Pappas's perfection was lost to human imperfection.

I had mixed feelings when I heard that Bud Selig was going to consider whether to reverse Joyce's call and declare that Galarraga had pitched a perfect game. That umpire-as-human-element thing came to mind, and I thought that maybe Joyce's blown call should not be reversed.

Then Selig made his ruling, and I was angry, and I know why. I just don't like Selig. He could say publicly that his mother loves him, and my instinctive reaction would be to snort and call him a liar. My old friend Chaz Misenheimer has a description of Selig that sums up the opinion of many fans, including me. Chaz says Selig is "a smiling, spineless, gutless jellyfish of a bureaucrat who couldn't pick up Barney Fife's whistle."

Milt Pappas -- still sore that he lost his bid for perfection 38 years ago because of the human element -- was more succinct in his description of Selig's decision. He called the commissioner "Mr. No-Guts."

At the same time Selig announced that he is going to convene a committee, confer with the players unions, yada yada yada, and figure out some way to prevent this from happening again.

I'll admit that I'd probably have complained regardless of what Selig decided. But his wimpy, bureaucratic effort to please everyone and avoid controversy reminded me of why I dislike him. He's breaking his back to avoid having to make a tough decision himself.

NOTE: The screen-grab photo at the top clearly shows that pitcher Armando Galarraga's foot is touching first base ahead of Cleveland Indians' runner Jason Donald. The play should have been the final out of Galarraga's perfect game.


CSU forecasters predict "very active" hurricane season

There seems little doubt that we're in for a stormy summer. Earlier today, Colorado State University forecasters Phil Klotzbach and William Gray released a statement predicting that the 2010 Atlantic Basin hurricane season -- which started yesterday -- will be "very active." The CSU meteorologists think that 18 named tropical storms will form before the end of the season on November 30. They think 10 of those storms will strengthen into hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph. Five of those hurricanes could develop into major hurricanes with winds exceeding 110 mph.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that 14 to 23 named storms could form in the Atlantic, with 8 to 14 of those storms becoming hurricanes. NOAA also said that three to seven major hurricanes could form.

The news from the CSU forecasters is even worse for the Caribbean Sea. Klotzbach and Gray think this year could be similar to the awful summers of 2004 and 2005, two of the most active seasons on record. Monster hurricanes such as Ivan, Katrina, Rita and Wilma formed in the Caribbean during those summers, and 2005 became the most active single season on record with 28 named storms.

Several factors are expected to contribute to this year's exceptional hurricane activity.

The El Nino weather phenomenon that kept the lid on last summer's hurricane activity is dissipating. El Nino events occur sporadically and are caused by an unusual warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of South America. When an El Nino occurs, it creates strong upper-level winds over the Atlantic, and these winds disrupt hurricane formation.

Largely because of last summer's El Nino, only nine name storms formed in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

Waters in the tropical Atlantic also are unusually warm this year. Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean water, so this could provide plenty of fuel for the storms.

Klotzbach said that an active hurricane season could affect efforts to contain and clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "If the storm tracks to the west of the oil, there is the potential that the counter-clockwise circulation of the hurricane could drive some of the oil further towards the U.S. Gulf Coast," he said. "We do not expect that the oil slick will have much of an impact on any tropical storm or hurricane that passes over the area."

NOTE: I shot the photo at the top of this post here in Plymouth during the eye of Hurricane Isabel, which struck North Carolina in September 2003.


"I lament that there are those who can learn no lesson of humanity ..."

It's Memorial Day 2010, and we're entangled in a couple of wars that seem to have no end. But as Harper's Weekly noted in its issue of August 17, 1861, war is pretty much the perpetual state of the human race.

"War is among the oldest historical facts," Harper's editors wrote. "The world has always been fighting more or less. It is the final appeal when ignorant men quarrel or when grave men differ. It is not necessary to hate your enemy, but it may be necessary to kill him. If a man sincerely thinks that he ought to cut your throat, he can not complain if you think with equal sincerity that he ought not."

Harper's published those words less than a month after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War which had been an unmitigated disaster for Union forces.

For 234 years, young men and women have been sent to fight in America's name. Sometimes they've been put in harm's way for reasons that were questionable at best. Other times, they unquestionably preserved our way of life.

But regardless of the reasons, young lives were cut short. So here are some photos of the Americans who have gone off to fight since the Civil War.

The photo above, from the Library of Congress, shows unidentified Confederate soldiers who were captured during the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863. More than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War, which provided a horrifying example of the carnage of war in the Industrial Age.

The photo at right, from the website FamilyOldPhotos.com, shows Davis Wilson Wolfcale, a corporal in the Indiana National Guard. Wolfcale was around 21 years old when this photo was made during his service in the Spanish-American War of 1898. That war was touched off by the mysterious explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana, Cuba in February 1898.

It was the golden age of Yellow Journalism, and Americans' passions were inflamed by sensationalistic and wildly inaccurate stories published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were locked in a fierce battle for newspaper circulation in New York.

Wolfcale survived that war and died in Michigan on October 13, 1941, about six weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.

The United States was reluctant to enter World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Americans were enraged when a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915. Still, American troops didn't join the Allies fighting Germany until 1917. The fresh American troops turned the tide of the war, and Germany surrendered in 1918.

The above photo, from the website WorldWar1Gallery.com, shows unidentified American soldiers during World War I, which was called the Great War because no one imagined there could be another conflict of the scale of that war. They were wrong, of course.

The United States was still a segregated society when it entered World War II in 1941, but black soldiers and sailors played a vital role in that conflict. This photo shows an African-American soldier working on a truck engine at Fort Knox, Kentucky in June 1942. The photo is from the National Archives and was made by Alfred T. Palmer.

The war that erupted on the Korean peninsula in June 1950 wasn't even given the designation of "war" at first. It was officially referred to as a "police action." But the fighting against Korean and Chinese communist forces was as bloody and deadly as any war the United States was ever involved in. And it was a war of uncertain purpose. When a cease-fire was finally signed in July 1953, Communist forces still occupied North Korea and controlled the North Korean government.

This photo shows an American soldier of the 19th Infantry defending a position in Korea during the grim fighting of July 1950. It's from the website The Korean War, produced by B.L. Kortegaard.

The Vietnam War was another well-intended but confusing effort to stop the spread of communism in Asia. The war provoked a determined anti-war movement in the United States and opened cultural and social fissures that still haven't been closed 35 years after the war ended in 1975.

The above National Geographic photo shows a young American soldier warily relaxing in Vietnam.

The latest major commitment of American troops reflects some profound changes that have occurred in our society since the end of the Vietnam War. Women are now serving in combat. This U.S. Army photo shows Specialist Jennie Baez serving in Iraq. American forces have been in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The last photo shows Navy Chief Petty Officer Adam L. Brown of Hot

Springs, Arkansas. Brown, a decorated Navy SEAL, was killed a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan. He left behind a wife and two children. The photo is from the website ArkansasOnline.com.

I have no doubt that the enemy Brown was fighting in Afghanistan means to do us harm and has to be fought. But his death calls to mind another quote from that Harper's Weekly issue of August 17, 1861. The quote is from the 19th-century English poet Walter Savage Landor: "I lament that there are those who can learn no lesson of humanity, unless we write it broadly with the point of the sword."

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It was shot by Myron Davis for Life magazine in 1942.


Boycott BP, continued

As crude oil gushes from British Petroleum's blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and anger at the uncontrolled spill increased, BP essentially is deploying truckloads of lawyers to mitigate the damages to their corporate bottom line. Not long ago, BP began an effort to cap their financial liability for the spill at $27 million.

Believe it or not, $27 million is not a lot of money these days. Let me put a little perspective on that figure.

If someone wins the Powerball lottery drawing on Saturday, they'll have the option of accepting a prize of about $114 million if they take a lump-sum payout. If they opt for an annuity, they'll get a total of about $220 million in annual payments spread out over 30 years.

So a Powerball winner would be pocketing more than four to eight times more than what BP wants to pay in liabilities for the negligence that led to one of the worst environmental disasters in our time. In other words, BP wants to limit their liability to the amount a winner receives in a mediocre lottery payout.

Here's a little more perspective. Nicholas Graham, writing today for the Huffington Post, reports that the spill is costing BP about $16 million a day. But there's no reason to worry about BP's solvency. In the first quarter of 2010, BP made a profit of about $66 million per day, Graham reported. And for 2009, BP's profits were $14 billion.

If you take that figure of $66 million per day in profits and divide it by 24, the result is $2.75 million. So if BP succeeds in capping their liability at $27 million, their penalty for a catastrophe that will cause untold billions of dollars in damages that someone will still be tabulating years from now will cost them less 10 hours worth of profit.

It would be the equivalent of someone dropping a dollar bill in the grocery store. BP is not even going to notice a $27 million fine.

So, as I said yesterday, boycott these people. They don't need any more of your money.


Boycott BP

I'm usually very deliberate about what I post on this blog. Even when I'm upset about something, I don't sit down and bang out some kind of hasty screed and slap it up here. I do sometimes pester friends with e-mail rants about something that's annoyed me, but I'm very careful about posting anything publicly.

But the disaster that's taking place in the Gulf of Mexico as I write this is so disheartening and so infuriating that, for the moment at least, I don't want to be all deliberative and careful and even-handed about what I say. I'm very angry and deeply frustrated. And my emotion is aggravated because I visited the Louisiana wetlands a few months ago, shortly before the British Petroleum oil rig blew out and started dumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. So I'm wondering what those beautiful, pristine wetlands that I saw a few months ago look like at the moment.

I learned to appreciate coastal wetlands when Jane and I lived in South Florida. My perception of wetlands evolved during the time we were there. Before I lived in Florida, I regarded wetlands as dreary, dangerous and disgusting swamps. They were soggy snake-infested wastelands. Ick.

But that was before we made a few visits to the Florida Everglades, and visited many of Florida's wonderful state parks. After a few years, I realized that wetlands are amazing. They are the fountain of life and a barometer of environmental health.

It's a pretty simple equation: If the wetlands are healthy -- if the alligators are basking in the sun, and the turtles are sunning themselves on a log, and the herons are carefully stalking through the shallow water, and the otters are floating on their backs and cracking clams on their stomachs -- everything else, even if it's a thousand miles away, probably is healthy.

So in late February, while en route to Texas, some friends and I stopped for a few minutes at what I guess was a state park along the Creole Nature Trail in Louisiana. To be honest, I didn't pay that much attention to where we were and I can't tell you the name. It was a pleasant 15 minutes to get out of the car and walk around. There was a boardwalk over the wetlands. I shot a few snapshots. It reminded me of Florida.

And then we were on our way. I took what I saw for granted. Now, of course, I'm wondering what's going on in the wetlands where we stopped.

Accidents happen. I realize that. And risks must be taken. When I was much younger, I spent many years working hard-hat jobs where carelessness could get you seriously hurt or killed in the blink of an eye. Because of bad luck or my own inattention to detail, I could have been killed a couple of times. But the money was good, brushes with death are funny when you're 25 years old, and I'm still here. The money helped me pay my way through school, and the only thing I can figure about why I'm still alive is that it just wasn't my time to go.

So my point is that I realize that heavy industry -- the kind of industry that carries big risks but pays rewards, big paychecks, and big benefits to our nation -- is part of our system. I certainly wouldn't change that.

But it's becoming pretty clear that the British Petroleum Company did a lousy job of running at least one oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. And it wasn't carelessness, or bad luck, or a so-called act of God that caused that oil rig to blow up, kill 11 people, and cause what's probably going to be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

BP gamed the system, apparently to cut expenses. They avoided having to install and maintain safeguards that could have prevented this catastrophe. Now, no one knows for sure how we're going to prevent the Gulf of Mexico from becoming a giant lake of oil.

So, for whatever it's worth, my tiny little response to this is to declare that I'm through with BP. I'll never spend another nickel at a BP station unless my gasoline gauge is slam against the "E" and I need a gallon or two of gas to get me to the next station.

Yes, it's silly symbolism in a way. But my suggestion for everyone is to boycott BP. Don't spend any more money with these people. All they're concerned about is their own bottom line, and the only way they're going to realize the magnitude of their failure is to see that bottom line suffer.

So, boycott BP.

Photo: Wetlands near Cameron, Louisiana, late February 2010.


N.C.'s Former Golden Boy Now Trying to Stay Out of Prison

John Edwards, the disgraced former candidate for vice-president and one-time golden boy of North Carolina politics, is back in the news. There are reports out that he's trying to cop a plea-bargain deal with the FBI and the IRS to avoid going to jail for misusing campaign funds to buy the silence of his former mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Say it ain't so, John-boy.

When Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, I was delighted. Finally, after decades of having North Carolina associated with the thick-skinned, hell-no politics of the late Jesse Helms, here was someone who I thought represented the state's true political heart. Edwards reminded me -- and apparently a lot of other people -- of the late Terry Sanford, a progressive Southern Democrat who served as North Carolina's governor in the early 1960s and later won a seat in the U.S. Senate and served as president of Duke University.

Edwards seemed to have stepped straight from the streets of Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town that has been immortalized in "The Andy Griffith Show." In Mayberry, people disagree with each other but their disputes inevitably are resolved by the application of some good old down-home common sense, usually applied by the town's joshing, good-natured, smarter-than-he-looks sheriff, Andy Taylor.

Edwards cultivated an image that made you think he'd grown up as the best friend of Sheriff Taylor's son, Opie. "I believe I can be a champion for regular people," Edwards said back when he was crafting that image. "My own life experience allows me to see things through their eyes. They are the people I grew up with, the people who worked with my father in the mill, the people I fought for as a lawyer."

It sounded so good. When Edwards was elected to the Senate in 1998, it seemed the first step in a political career that could very well take him to the White House. But something changed when Edwards set up shop in Washington, D.C. Or maybe he didn't really change, he just shifted gears to pursue his true ambition of becoming president. He seemed to instantly forget the good old folks in the mill towns back home and set his sights on the White House the moment he arrived in the District of Columbia.

I'll admit I was fooled at first by Edwards's charm and political skills. But in my own defense, I also was among a few people who started having serious doubts about Edwards's sincerity soon after he took office and years before his hypocrisy was brought to light.

Around 2000, an issue surfaced in North Carolina politics that should have been tailor-made for Edwards's populist promise to represent the interests of the "regular people" he grew up with. The U.S. Navy began a ham-handed and ultimately futile effort to force Washington County, North Carolina to accept an unwanted training airfield for carrier-based jet fighters from nearby Norfolk, Virginia.

Since the jets using the training field -- known as an outlying landing field, or OLF -- would not be based in Washington County, there would be no economic benefit to the county for having the airfield. And the constant coming and going of the noisy, low-flying jets would be a serious disruption of residents' daily lives.

Despite protests from local political leaders and the vast majority of Washington County's 12,500 residents, the Navy pushed ahead with its plans.

Washington County is one of the state's poorest counties. Around 52 percent of its population is African-American. The county has little political clout. So the Navy thought it could force the OLF on the county because no one would come to its defense and the political costs to politicians for not opposing the OLF would be minimal.

Long story short, the Navy's plans to build the OLF in Washington County were halted thanks to a determined effort by local residents, the generosity and legal skill of the Charlotte law firm of Kennedy Covington, and the eventual opposition of most of the state's political leaders.

But John Edwards was nowhere to be seen in the fight against the OLF that dragged on for several years. As a self-proclaimed champion of "regular people," he should have been a leader in the opposition to the Navy's plan. But he ducked it. And since the fight against the OLF never really gained attention outside of North Carolina and Virginia, no one called him on his refusal to represent the people he'd promised to defend. The most effective opposition to the OLF came from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Republican.

All of this was playing out back home while Edwards was a rising star in the national Democratic Party. The OLF issue was still being hotly contested in 2004, when Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry picked Edwards as his running mate for vice-president. Edwards's personal charm, boyish good looks, and soothing Southern accent seemed to make him the perfect running mate and regional counterbalance for the New England native Kerry.

The Kerry-Edwards ticket lost. Not long after the ticket's defeat in the 2004 election, reports surfaced that Kerry deeply regretted picking Edwards as his running mate. And then in late 2007 the National Enquirer -- a supermarket tabloid scorned by so-called serious political journalists -- nailed Edwards in an affair with Rielle Hunter. And now the guy who could have been Opie's pal and perhaps President of the United States is negotiating with the feds to try to avoid a prison term.

You fooled us, John. Frankly, I hope you go to jail, even if it's only for a few months. In case you've forgotten your small-town North Carolina roots, hypocrisy has never been popular among the "regular folks."


An Evening of Nostalgia at Durham Athletic Park

In the summer of 1989, a couple on their second or third date had the following approximate conversation during a Durham Bulls baseball game at Durham Athletic Park:

Girl: So my mom went to high school with some guy who broke some kind of baseball record.

Guy: What was his name?

Girl: I don't remember.

Guy: What team did he play for?

Girl: I don't know.

Guy: Hmm. Where did your mom go to high school?

Girl: Fargo, North Dakota.

(A brief pause, while the guy searches his memory for hometowns of famous baseball players.)

Guy (astonished): Roger Maris? Your mom knew Roger Maris?

Girl: Did he break some kind of record?

Guy: Yes. In 1961 he broke Babe Ruth's record for home runs.

Girl: Maris. Yeah. Maris. That name sounds right.

The guy was me, and for almost 20 years I've been married to the girl whose mom occasionally saw Roger Maris in the halls of Fargo Central High School before he transferred to Shanley High.

Maris was five years old in 1939 when the Bulls played their first game at the then-new Durham Athletic Park. If 1939 seems like a simpler time, it was at least partly because simplicity was cheap and people couldn't afford extravagance during the Great Depression. Durham Athletic Park was a WPA project that was built for around $100,000.

Thousands of baseball games have been played at the DAP in the past 71 years, and there's no way to calculate the memories that are associated with the old ballpark. And when you sit in the DAP in the complicated and tiresome present and review your memories of long-ago games you saw there, the past always seems infinitely simpler and thus more appealing than the moment in which you're living.

That's what nostalgia is. And last night I was awash in nostalgia when I attended a special Bulls' game at the DAP. It was fun. And it was a bit strange.

I have no idea how many games I attended at the DAP from 1980 to 1993, when the Bulls were a Class A minor league team in the Carolina League. But it was the backdrop of my summers in those days. At one game, I heard a 12-year-old boy perfectly describe the visual appeal of Durham Athletic Park. "It's like everything is just the right size," he said.

Hollywood spotted that small-town charm, however, and the DAP became a co-star in the movie "Bull Durham" that starred Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

The movie made a national brand of the Durham Bulls. But it also profoundly changed the ambiance at the DAP. The usually large crowds at Bulls games were swelled to overflowing by tourists who came not to see baseball, but to be seen at the DAP. At one game, I heard a woman ask her friend, "Which one is first base?"

The Bulls moved into a glitzy new retro-chic ballpark on the other side of town and soon became a Class AAA team, one rung below the Major Leagues. The DAP fell into disrepair and was looking positively shabby by the late 1990s.

But it had become a major landmark for the city, which has spent about $5 million to renovate the ballpark and has an agreement with Minor League Baseball to use the park to train grounds-keeping crews. There's also plans to build a museum of minor league baseball at the DAP, and the ballpark is being used by area amateur teams.

So with irony that only an ancient Chinese philosopher could understand, the cause of the DAP's demise -- that damned movie -- has also become its salvation, because the movie made it too valuable to lose.

The Bulls played the Toledo Mud Hens in the DAP last night to celebrate the renovation of the old ballpark. My wife couldn't make the game, but I wasn't about to miss it. For the record, Toledo defeated Durham, 6-2, before 3,911 fans.

The playing field was immaculate, but the bleachers that used to be along the foul lines have been removed. So I sat on the grass behind the left-field fence with Ben Misenheimer, who is the son of a guy I grew up with back in Stanly County.

We had a few beers. We talked about baseball, and what a great coach Ben's late grandfather was, and I told Ben how much I enjoyed playing for his grandfather. I told the story about my mother-in-law and Roger Maris, and the guy sitting next to us on the grass overheard it and laughed. Ben plays for a semi-pro baseball team in nearby Raleigh that plays some of its games in the DAP, and he talked about what it's like playing in the old landmark.

So it was a typical night at the DAP, and 20 years from now in a time that is more complex and complicated than today, Ben and I will be talking about the good old days when we saw a game together at Durham Athletic Park.

Photo and film clip: The photo at the top of this post shows early arrivals going into Durham Athletic Park before the Bulls' game against the Toledo Mud Hens.

The film clip shows Durham Bulls first basemen Chris Richard flying out for the second out in the bottom of the ninth inning. If the film clip appears as a black rectangle, it should still play if you click the "Play" button.


"Kamikaze Bugs" are the World's Most Aggressive Biting Insect

When Jane and I lived in South Florida, I thought the small coal-black mosquitoes that swarmed around us in clouds when we went into the Everglades were the world's most annoying and aggressive biting insects. But now that we've lived in eastern North Carolina for a while, I'm convinced that the deer flies that emerge here every year around this time make the Glades mosquito look timid and withdrawing by comparison.

And after battling these crazed insects while working for a few hours this morning in a neighbor's yard, using a .44-caliber magnum pistol to kill them seems perfectly reasonable to me.

It takes me 15 or 20 seconds to walk to an outbuilding at the back of our property. When I make that walk this time of year, I'm likely to feel five or six deer flies bounce off my head.

I started calling these beastly insects "kamikaze bugs" the first time I encountered them. There is nothing subtle about how they approach a target. They just come at you full tilt and don't stop until they slam into you. And if they bounce off, they slam into you again. And when I feel one hit me, I slap angrily and reflexively, and I often feel something disgustingly wet and squishy but also primitively satisfying beneath my hand. Hence my nickname for them.

But the most annoying thing about deer flies is their bite. It's not nearly as painful as a bee or yellow-jacket sting, but it is a tiny, sharp and annoying nip on your exposed skin -- and at this time of year here in the South, people are exposing more skin every day.

I grew up about 250 miles southwest of here in the North Carolina Piedmont. I spent an awful lot of time outdoors, especially in the spring and summer. I remember several biting insects that were a warm-weather annoyance -- giant horseflies, small bee-like insects we called "sweat bees," and the ubiquitous mosquitoes -- but I don't remember being bedeviled by deer flies.

Deer flies emerge here in late April or early May, and live until around early August. That's not a long time for them to accomplish whatever task the Creator assigned them in the Grand Scheme of Things. But whatever their purpose is -- and it clearly involves sucking blood -- they pursue it with a frenzied gusto during the few months that they have.

A website produced by the Illinois Department of Public Health (apparently they also have them up there) says deer flies are attracted to their targets by the carbon dioxide and moisture that is exhaled during breathing. Their bite is painful because of their tiny, scissors-like jaws. The bite draws blood, and the bugs are happy -- at least until they're reduced to a bloody pulp by an enraged swat from their victim.

So it's early May here in North Carolina and these tiny nemeses have become part of the backdrop of the emerging season, along with the herring run on the Roanoke River, fading azalea flowers and magnolia blossoms that will open in a few weeks. And if our neighbors hear sporadic gunfire from our property during the next few months, they'll know I'm working in the yard.
Photo by R.C. Axtell, North Carolina State University