Towards an end to the killing

A leader from The Economist, noting the close vote in New Hampshire on renouncing capital punishment, and some surprisingly stern words arguing for its hasty demise.

…in a secular democracy a law of such gravity must have some compelling rational justification, which the death penalty does not.

* * *
…New Mexico, Oregon, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado and Washington stopped or suspended it. New Hampshire will try again. State by state, abolitionists will prevail. America is a nation founded on the principle that governments should not be trusted with too much power; that should include the power to strap people to a gurney and poison them.

Posted in Public Policy and Politics, Yeah Yeah Yeah
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Two Trains Running

Timothy Douglas’s cast brings home a strong, balanced production of August Wilson’s play set in 1969 Pittsburgh. Tony Cisek’s generously-proportioned set design, a rundown restaurant where the overhead fixtures haven’t been cleaned in a long time, gives the characters the opportunity to step forward to tell a story or to recede into the background as needed. There’s a rich texture to the lives of these people, as they go about their days, refilling salt shakers, playing solitaire dominoes to pass the time, or just eating a much-needed meal of beans and corn muffins.

Shannon Dorsey’s gimlet-eyed Risa rejects the appeals of the men around her, even as she knows she will end up tied to the charismatic Sterling (Ricardo Frederick Evans), a would-be revolutionary destined to serve petty sentences for petty crimes. Frank Britton gives comic relief Hambone a gravel voice and a ruined dignity. A great scene in a corner booth between the cranky old man Holloway (lanky Michael Anthony Williams with an expressive wingspan) and the louche numbers runner Wolf (stocky, stylin’ KenYatta Rogers in a red hat) crackles with energy.

  • Two Trains Running, by August Wilson, directed by Timothy Douglas, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.
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Some links: 70

A roundup of conservation and natural history links:

  • A team at Towson University has launched a microsite and apps (for Android and iOS) for tracking the spread of the highly invasive Wavy-leaf Basketgrass (Oplismenus hirtellus spp. undulatifolius).
  • Janet Fang summarizes a paper by Railsback and Johnson: simulations of coffee plantation activity indicate that 5% land coverage in trees maximizes coffee yields. The overstory of trees reduces the amount of space for coffee shrubs, but it invites birds, who forage on destructive borer beetles.
  • Nancy L. Brill describes the survey that a team of entomologists made of invertebrate life in 50 ordinary Raleigh, N.C. homes. The typical house was host to 100 different species of arthropod.

    Several families were found in more than 90 percent of homes: gall midges (Cecidomyiidae), ants (Formicidae) and carpet beetles (Dermestidae), along with cobweb spiders (Theridiidae), dark-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae), cellar spiders (Pholcidae), scuttle flies (Phoridae) and book lice (Liposcelididae). Most houses also had dust mites (Pyroglyphidae).

    Pics and interpretation at Arthropods of Our Homes.

  • Tovar Cerulli argues that hunters and non-hunters have more in common than they might think.

    When clashes occur, it is all too easy to fall back on reductive notions about liberal, elite environmentalists and conservative, redneck hunters—the “greens” versus “the hook-and-bullet crowd.” With partisans on both sides invoking stereotypes and the media portraying hunters and environmentalists as opponents, it is tempting to imagine stark lines between the two.

    But such divisions are too simplistic.

  • An American Bird Conservancy post makes the connection between coffee farming… and hummingbirds!
  • The Birding Wire picked up my profile (for Friends of the Migratory Bird [Duck] Stamp) of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
  • A leader in Nature highlights a paper by Joshua J. Tewksbury et al., which calls for a revival in the practice of natural history. (I have the Tewksbury paper bookmarked but haven’t read it yet.)

    As natural history has been de-emphasized, molecular biology, genetics, experimental biology and ecological modelling have flourished. But here is the problem: many of those fields ultimately rely on data and specimens from natural history….

    No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms and learning basic techniques for observing and recording data about them.


Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity and Species Preservation, Birds and Birding, Citizen Science, Habitat Conservation, Natural Sciences
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Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet

An efficiently-told 57-minute version of the Tchaikovsky ballet, executed with a sort of “street puppetry” aesthetic in the confines of Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab. The puppets Aurora, her suitor Florimund, the king and queen, and the two key fairies of the story are manipulated bunraku-style; the cast of eight doubles as live actors who fill in the roles of courtiers and the like.

If Aurora finds more than one pirouette to be a challenge, she does show remarkable hang time on her jumps. The transformation of the evil fairy Carabosse (she looks like a furry insect) into a dragon is quite fearsome.

The piece makes a good introduction to non-verbal storytelling for younger audiences; there were a few rapt youngsters with us on Saturday afternoon. A comic pair of courtiers break up the action with mischief and remind us that needles of any kind are not permitted in Princess Aurora’s home.

Arrive early to secure a front-row seat for the little ones; sight lines in this tiny black box are a challenge.

  • Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet, directed by Matt Reckeweg, Pointless Theatre, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Washington
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Spread——— out———

Jenny Rogers gives a name and a face to everyone’s favorite Metro driver, Lamour Rogers.

Posted in Local News and Views
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O rocks

In Provo Canyon, Utah, Scott Carrier gives a master class in writing to a young Afghan:

“Look down at the river,” I said. “Do you see any places where you could jump from rock to rock and make it across to the other side?”

“No,” he said, “there is too much water.”

“Well, imagine there is a place like that. I want you to think about writing as jumping from rock to rock. Can you swim?”

“Not very well.”

“Good. If you fall, you’ll drown. In order to jump to a rock you must answer my question honestly in your own voice, not the voice of someone else. If you try to answer in someone else’s voice, you’ll fall into the river and drown.”

Prisoner of Zion, “Najibullah in America”
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A brief introduction to Elevator Repair Service’s aesthetic: performance of a found text, in this instance oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. The case was argued in 1991, and concerned an Indiana statute that regulated go-go dancers in nightclubs and the like: a dancer was required to wear pasties and a g-string. Two South Bend clubs and three of their dancers brought suit, claiming the right to perform completely nude, citing First Amendment protections.

Whether you stand with the State or with the nightclubs on this issue, either before seeing this performance or after, hardly matters. The first two-thirds of the play is a whirlwind of citations and closely reasoned legal points, beyond the ken of a layman. It is precisely executed, retaining every harrumph, um, and disfluency (a lawyer’s fumbled “communicamating” is a happy accident). Ben Williams, in a distinctly unflattering wig, makes us sympathetic for the nerdy prosecutor from Indiana, Mr. Uhl.

Gradually, the play leaves realistic portrayal behind, commencing with a ballet for rolling desk chairs and culminating in a fantastical, graphic display (one could call it gratuitous, but what does that mean, in this context?). The battling lawyers do raise an interesting ontological question, certainly underscored by ERS’s performance: what is the difference between a depiction of conduct and the live performance of that conduct?

The justices display razor-sharp imagination: one of them speculates about an “adults-only car wash.” Justice Antonin Scalia gets off some of the best one-liners, among them a reference to the “Good Taste Clause” of the Constitution.

  • Arguendo, by Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Zero Cost House

What kind of play is this? Well, it’s a good one, yet one that’s difficult to capture in complete sentences. My notes mostly consist of single words or phrases, among them “quiet,” “rich with time,” “waving back and forth,” and “arrogant? elegant?” But we can describe it as an autobiographical attempt by the writer Toshiki Okada to engage in a dialogue with his own younger self by 15 years, as he braids together his response to Thoreau’s Walden, the survivalist visions of the Japanese architect Kyohei Sakaguchi in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and Björk’s second album, Post.

The ensemble of five takes turns portraying the playwright himself (as well as a cranky Thoreau and a loosely-screwed-down Sakaguchi), but it is Dito van Reigersberg who perhaps best catches the essence of Okada as a diffident, Japanese Bob Newhart (simile thanks to OTC). With a gesture that suggests either the scrawl from Tristram Shandy or the last flight of Challenger, van Reigersberg indicates the “trajectory” of Okada’s career. Rachel Christopher spends a good chunk of her stage time simply reading Walden and taking notes, but her expressive eyes tell an eloquent story nonetheless. Ephemeral.

  • Zero Cost House, by Pig Iron Theatre Company and Toshiki Okada, directed by Dan Rothenberg, Clarice Smith Center Kogod Theatre, College Park, Md.
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Spring wildflowers at Fraser Preserve

Margaret Chatham led a wildflower walk at the Nature Conservancy’s Fraser Preserve for VNPS. Spring Beauty was plenteous, but (as you would expect, given the everlasting winter we had) many bloomers were weeks behind schedule. Margaret showed us one example of Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) (very difficult to image properly); Purple Cress (Cardamine douglassii) was in various states of opening into flower; some Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) in a sheltered wet spot were in flower. But the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) really hadn’t gotten started yet.

Down along the pipeline easement, the Poison Hemlock was nothing but basal leaves, nothing at all like the towering plant I saw just 49 weeks ago.

early later this yearWe found some early flying Spring Azure and Mourning Cloak butterflies. I was happy because we found three single Bloodroot blooms (Sanguinaria canadensis), widely scattered—this has been sort of a nemesis plant for me.

Posted in In the Field
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At the park: 67

From our report for the last two weeks of monitoring nest boxes:

We now have 3 nests incubating, one Wood Duck and two Hooded Merganser. We have eggs in at least three more boxes, and evidence that birds have visited other boxes.

We had a full team on the 23rd; this morning, Paul and I checked the upper half of the boxes before we were chased by bad feet and cold rain. If someone were to check the other boxes (#68 through #60 — we can skip #67 as it’s incubating) during the week, that would be great. Otherwise, we’ll just get them next Sunday.

Sunday the 6th will be our April work day, and then we will give the birds a rest until May (probably 4 May).

Water gauge for 23 March: 1.44

Birds of interest for 23 March: Pied-billed Grebe, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Belted Kingfisher, numerous Tree Swallows

Posted in In the Field
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Enroute: 8

rare sightAn increasingly rare sight in downtown D.C.: a conventional exterior fire escape. (It only offers escape from the third floor to the street. Trapped on an upper floor? Too bad for you, I guess.) This one is mounted on the E Street side of the Hotel Harrington. The hotel has achieved its centenary, but how much longer will this safety device last?

Posted in Local News and Views
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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A carpenter’s workshop, and not one too tidy or sturdy, reveals a broadly played, stirring production of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved romantic comedies. One might call the production “mixed media,” in the the Athenians are played by live actors, while the fairies are larger- or smaller-than-life puppets—or at least actors with some measure of mechanical augmentation. Oberon is realized with no more than an outsized head and arm; Titania sports a peacock’s tail of wooden planks manipulated by the ensemble. The shape-shifting Puck, managed and voiced by three actors, is an assemblage of spare parts: an arm basket, some hard tools, and a garden sprayer.

It turns out that the devices of puppetry and the magic of fairyland work well together. It’s easy to disappear from the sight of men when you want to: just lower your fairy accoutrements to the side. Those planks get a workout: played as a xylophone they can summon a rain-kissed lullaby; held upright, they can become an impenetrable forest; and when lowered again, they can effect an astoundingly instantaneous transition into act III, scene i. And “O Bottom, thou art chang’d!” swoops in with a cheeky steampunk contrivance that is quite indescribable. Some of the effects don’t sit that well in the Ike’s wide expanses: those of us sitting house left had sightlines sometimes obscured by a workshop ladder.

How does Shakespeare fare in all this? Rather well, if the company does feel the need for ad libs to make sure that we get all the jokes. Colin Michael Carmichael is the bossiest, most abusive Peter Quince that I’ve seen. Miltos Yerolemou, when he’s not covering Bottom, does well with the thankless role of blustering Egeus (also known as Exposition Dad). Naomi Cranston gives us an engaging, high-energy Helena. The fight between Helena and Hermia is successful; the mechanicals’ play in act V runs a little long (but that’s the case in almost all productions).

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company, directed by Tom Morris, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington
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Penny Plain

A fine showcase for the talents of Ronnie Burkett, the piece presents interlinked stories that center on a rooming house at the end of the world. For the most part told with marionettes, with a brief excursion into hand puppets, the stories’ central figure is Penny Plain, an elderly blind woman who has seen it all and is ready for what comes next. The work is by turns broadly satirical, darkly gothic (echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and stereotype-pushing farcical. There are three, maybe four, talking dogs: Hickory Sanchez, a chihuahua with an outsized ego and a sex drive to match, is a particular guilty pleasure.

Burkett’s puppets do things that you don’t expect marionettes to do, like walk with a Zimmer frame, or slouch unladylike in a chair, or engage in the gallows humor of cracking jokes about dog meat. Burkett keeps his two- and three-character scenes snapping with rapid cue pickups, so rapid that sometimes his voice characterizations are a bit blurred. His voice does him better service in monologues, as when we meet a milquetoast of a bank teller who breaks the rules and advises his favorite customer to withdraw all of her money, NOW.

The device of the rooming house, which enables all sorts of eccentrics to drop in (or barge in) wears a bit thin. But on the whole, it’s an enjoyable experience. Don’t bring the kids.

  • Penny Plain, produced by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, created and produced by Ronnie Burkett, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington
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Whiter shade of pale

Happy birthday to today’s Google Doodle honoree, Agnes Martin.

Posted in Art and Architecture, Happy Birthday
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More shoebox emptying

In 1999, I had a consulting gig that took me to New York frequently. On my last trip up there (which turned out to be the week of Hurricane Floyd [have I told you the story about the clueless D.C. cab driver?]), a music festival had hoovered up all the hotel rooms in Manhattan, so I found myself in a place called the Pan American in Queens. The matchbook cover that I saved touts it as New York City’s Most Convenient Hotel. Uh, no.

namesakeGorsline streetscapeBut it turns out that this patch of Queens, still known as Newtown, must have been the place where great-ancestor Josse had his farm in the very early 1700s. Gorsline Street runs one block, from 51st Avenue to Kneeland Avenue. As you can see, it’s beautifully kept Archie Bunker territory; it could easily stand in for Hauser Street.

Another hurricane story. The night that Isabel came through town in 2003 (downgraded to a tropical storm by then, but you could have fooled me), the Norway maple that shaded the ground between my house and my neighbor’s thrashed and flailed and generally sounded as if it wanted to crawl in my bedroom window for shelter. Finally, a shattering crack rang out, and I think I heard somebody yell, “Holy cow, look at that!”

Isabel maple doorwayIsabel maple splitIn the morning, I saw what had happened. A good third of the tree was lying in my front yard. It crushed a lamppost and generally made for difficult navigation.

Isabel maple cleanupA cleanup crew promptly showed up and reduced the entire thing to a stump and chips. My townhouse cluster never has replaced the tree. The Morrissettian irony is that I had just given up on trying to grow flowers that liked sun under the maple, and had just planted a little shrub that liked shade.

Pedro y AlbertaIn 1998, I drove Alberta to Florida for some birding. On the way back, I stopped at South of the Border so that she could meet Pedro.

Posted in Like Life
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