mysterious hole

mysterious siberian hole 1

Helicopters flying in northern Russia recently spotted a giant hole in the Yamal peninsula—a part of Siberia called “the end of the world”—and speculation over what caused it made scientists and conspiracy theorists go wild for a few days with various theories which included meteors, UFOs, underground cities, and even the “hollow earth” theory.

Aerial video footage shows debris and apparent signs of an explosion or impact around a massive crater.

A team of geologists was set to investigate, and most experts are certain that the mysterious hole is actually the result of a tundra phenomenon called a “pingo.”

open-pingo-gifBecause the closest I have ever been to the tundra is southern Canada, I was unfamiliar with the term. But a pingo forms when a mass of ice embedded in the earth starts to get pushed towards the surface by rising ground water. This rising water level is caused by warming temperatures, especially in the Arctic where permafrost in the ground is beginning to melt. Once the ice mass reaches the surface, it can violently rupture from the Earth, creating a ring of disturbed soil that resembles a crater. When the mass finally melts, all that remains is a damp and very deep hole.

This pingo theory was confirmed by experts last week after investigating the hole for themselves. Investigators found a flowing lake of ice water at the bottom of the hole, which is more than 260 feet across and about 230 feet deep.

“For now we can say for sure that under the influence of internal processes there was an ejection in the permafrost,” said Andrey Plekhanov, senior researcher on site.  “I want to stress that it was not an explosion, but an ejection, so there was no heat released as it happened.”

The past two summers were unusually hot for Yamal, leading to increased permafrost melt, he added.

“Such kind of processes were taking place about 8,000 years ago. Perhaps they are repeating nowadays. If this theory is confirmed, we can say that we have witnessed a unique natural process that formed the unusual landscape of Yamal peninsula,” he said.

This is probably how the lakes in the region were formed.

Global warming may cause more pingos as the permafrost and other arctic ice formations melt. Because of global warming, there is much more activity in permafrost areas than has been seen in the historical past. Arctic areas are experiencing some of the highest rates of warming on Earth.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Outlaws performing “Waterhole”




I have had a running battle with packrats at my house. They are prodigious burrowers, and I am afraid they will eventually undermine the walls. I have tried everything before resorting to poison, which I hate having on the property. This morning a dead packrat was sprawled in the middle of the power house when I turned on the inverter. The packrats keep eating the bait, but they keep burrowing, too.

I guess there are always new generations of workers to keep up the assault.

Packrats, also known as woodrats and sometimes trade rats, belong to the genus Neotoma. The packrats in this immediate neighborhood are gray and, as the name suggests, rat-like in appearance. They have prominent eyes and large ears. They look like rats to me, but the only thing that keeps me from thinking I live on a rat-infested property is their name.

Packrats get their common name from the habit of collecting—whether it be bits of bone, plant material, or small objects and have hence made it into our slang for “hoarder” or “collector.” Their less-common name “trade rat” comes from their habit of dropping what they are carrying if they find something they like better (such as shiny things).

This collecting habit may be an annoyance to those of us who live with them, but it’s proven to be a boon for paleo-ecologists who use packrat middens or dens to learn about the past.

Unlike other desert rodents, packrats void copious amounts of urine and thus must rely on succulent plant material and protection from the sun to maintain their water balance. They seek shelter in caves and rock fissures, under mesquite trees, and in my house—and then improve these shelters with a loose mound of sticks, plant material, bones and mammal dung. Often these dens, or middens, are armored with a thick layer of prickly pear or cholla cactus, making them unappealing to predators that may have a packrat snack in mind.

Fossil middens (resembling blocks of asphalt with the consistency and mass of an unfired adobe brick), represent only part of an active den. Packrats will typically use a portion of their den as an outhouse, and unused and discarded plant fragments which accumulate in these areas become saturated in rat urine.

In dry climates such as ours, the urine crystallizes into a substance called “amberat” which has a number of useful properties. Most obviously, it binds the midden materials. It is self-sealing to an extent: it rehydrates under humid conditions and becomes sticky, so dust and dirt become trapped on the outside surfaces and prevent moisture from penetrating more deeply. Saturating plant material with amberat is comparable to packing it in salt, protecting it from decay.

Packrats are solitary animals, and individual middens are thought to represent a few years of activity. However, choice settings are reused over and over again, so large fossil middens spanning thousands of years can be produced. The foraging range of a packrat has a radius of about 100 to 160 ft (30 to 50 m), so their middens are local records.

Because packrat middens are often built in caves or rock fissures where they are protected from the weather, they can survive intact for tens of thousands of years. This is where a long-term midden deposit is quite useful: as conditions change and different plants become more or less abundant, the changes will be recorded by generations of rats.

packrat middensPackrat middens are excellent sources of pollen, plant fragments, body fossils of insects, spiders, millipedes, small vertebrates, and fossil rodent droppings. They span at least 40,000 to 50,000 years and are particularly well-represented in the deserts from western Texas to eastern California, areas that are lacking in other sources of paleoecological fossils like lakes and marshes. By far the most popular aspect of fossil middens has been their plant fossils. Researchers reconstruct changes in plant assemblages over time, which can be used as a proxy for climate.

The master at packrat midden story interpretation for the Chihuahuan Desert region is Dr. Thomas Van Devender, a research scientist with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He and his colleagues have analyzed hundreds of packrat middens throughout the Chihuahuan Desert.

Van  Devender and his colleagues have looked at 14 middens in the Maravillas Canyon in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, on the eastern side of Big Bend National Park from here. The oldest samples indicate that 28,000 years ago the canyon slopes were covered with a woodland of pinyon pine, shrub oak and junipers.

Two species of junipers were found in the samples: red-berry juniper and ash juniper. This is interesting because—while red-berry juniper is still the most common juniper in the Trans-Pecos—the ash juniper is fairly rare in this region now. With the climate change that marked the end of the Ice Age, ash junipers retreated eastward and are now most commonly found on the Edwards Plateau.

The presence of ash juniper is believed to be an indication that the climate was wetter during the distant past. Other indicators of nearby water include the remains of over 30 species of amphibians found in the Maravillas Canyon middens.

Other plants include Hinckley oaks—a small tree that rarely grows over three feet tall and is now considered an endangered species. But 24,000 years ago, the Hinckley oak was the dominant oak in a woodland scattered with lechuguilla, althorn and sotol—a combination of plants you’d be hard pressed to find today.

The Maravillas Canyon middens also revealed another surprise—the remains of a California Condor. These bones, and others found near Mule Ears Peak in Big Bend National Park, indicate that these majestic birds—having a wing span of more than nine feet—soared through the West Texas skies over 10,000 years ago.


Not bad for heaps of plant matter and other things cemented by rat pee. But what will happen over time to my house? I’d lay bets that the packrats will win.


Many thanks to Cathryn Hoyt of the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center for much of the content of this post.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Susan Trump performing “Pack Rat Blues”



If you are a traditionalist, you may not agree with my philosophy about raising dogs.

I don’t train them; I just live with them. Visitors to my home may object to their in-your-face methods of greeting, but they will agree my dogs seem to be happy animals, play constantly, and are not particularly threatening.

Now I will admit my approach works better with some animals than others. Maggie, a sleek black-and-tan mutt, is very smart and eager-to-please, and I have no complaints about her. Max, on the other hand, is not exactly retarded, but he’s not very bright, either.

A big white dog who is not yet even a year old, Max’s exuberance often gets the better of him. He chews. He collects unburned milk cartons and other trash from the fire pit. I am tempted to reward his antics with corporal punishment, but he is too fast for me to catch.

I can only hope he will grow out of it.

My friend Ronnie says says I just need to spend more one-on-one time with Max, but then he has taught his dog to obey hand signals (very impressive). Ronnie’s methods and mine differ, and I doubt that Ronnie will ever agree with the premise of my methods.

My dogs do what they damned well please.

I am happy with that. Being happy is the most important aspect for which you manage a household.

Max, however, had gotten me to question my approach when a reader sent me this article about child-rearing, which is in so many ways similar to raising dogs. The latest research suggests that spanking children can result in physical consequences for brain development.

When I think about spanking Max, I realize that the practice could ultimately be self-defeating. He has no gray matter to spare.



Spanking the gray matter out of our kids

by Sarah Kovac, Special to CNN
July 23, 2014
  • Spanking or other forms of corporal punishment can alter children’s brains, research shows
  • Kids who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in prefrontal cortexes, studies say
  • These areas of the brain have been linked to depression, addiction

How to discipline the next generation is a hotly debated topic. In 2012, a national survey showed more than half of women and three-quarters of men in the United States believe a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.”

Science tells a different story. Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain — not only in an “I’m traumatized” kind of way but also in an “I literally have less gray matter in my brain” kind of way.

“Exposing children to HCP (harsh corporal punishment) may have detrimental effects on trajectories of brain development,” one 2009 study concluded.

Harsh corporal punishment in the study was defined as at least one spanking a month for more than three years, frequently done with objects such as a belt or paddle. Researchers found children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders, the study authors say.

The researchers also found “significant correlations” between the amount of gray matter in these brain regions and the children’s performance on an IQ test.

Several other studies support these findings. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that frequent — more than twice in the previous month — spanking when a child was 3 was linked to an increased risk for higher levels of child aggression when the child was 5.

Another, from the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, found that corporal punishment doled out from the mother was independently related to a decrease in cognitive ability relative to other children. Corporal punishment had the largest effect on children 5 to 9.

Behind all this science-speak is the sobering fact that corporal punishment is damaging to children. That gray matter we’ve been spanking out of them? It’s the key to the brain’s ability to learn self-control.

“The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences,” write the authors of a 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The sad irony is that the more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less they have. They learn how to be controlled by external forces (parents, teachers, bosses), but when the boss isn’t looking, then what?

Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying corporal punishment for 15 years, and is known as the leading researcher on spanking in the United States today. Over the years, Gershoff has done a systematic review of the hundreds of studies on the effects of corporal punishment.

“There’s no study that I’ve ever done that’s found a positive consequence of spanking,” Gershoff said. “Most of us will stop what we’re doing if somebody hits us, but that doesn’t mean we’ve learned why somebody hit us, or what we should be doing instead, which is the real motive behind discipline.”

Initially it was believed that spanking, at the very least, was associated with immediate compliance in children, and that parental warmth would buffer any harmful effects.

But the finding that spanking produced compliance “was overly influenced by one study,” Gershoff said; it turns out spanking “doesn’t make your kids better behaved. You think it does. … It doesn’t.”

What is spanking associated with? Aggression. Delinquency. Mental health problems. And something called “hostile attribution bias,” which causes children, essentially, to expect people to be mean to them.

This bias makes the world feel especially hostile. In turn, children are on edge and ready to be hostile back. Over time, across cultures and ethnicities, the findings are consistent: Spanking is doing real, measurable damage to the brains of our children.

And yet in 19 states, Gershoff notes, it is still legal for schools to paddle children.

For those thinking, “I was spanked, and I turned out fine,” or, “I spank my kids and they’re great!” consider that you don’t know who you would be or how your children would behave in a world without spanking.

It could be that your children are thriving not because you spank, but in spite of it.


Sarah Kovac is a motivational speaker and author of In Capable Arms: Living a Life Embraced by Grace.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Ames Brothers performing “It Only Hurts For A Little While”


PS: Ronnie says he believes in spanking, but never hit his girls in all the years they were growing up. I say a man is judged more by his deeds than his words.


kickstarter kickoff

Estrella Vista & Corazon Peak

I’ve decided to try something new. I’m reaching out to a wider (or at least new) audience and asking for its support for Estrella Vista (as distinct from direct services to kids). I have prepared a Kickstarter proposal, which you can see here. It was launched just last night.

Maybe it will succeed, maybe not. It’s worth a try.

As soon as the project launched, I received several emails from organizations that want me to provide up-front money to promote the project to Kickstarter supporters, media outlets, etc. that they say they can reach more successfully than I can. Forgive me for being skeptical, but they give me the impression that their primary way of making money is by feeding off the dreams and credulity of project creators who think their idea is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I am prepared to be wrong. Maybe there is something to this “crowd-funding” after all. Maybe the crowd is capable of achieving something beyond just registering “likes” for novel ideas with the potential for lessening human suffering.

Click. There, I’ve done something. Big deal.

I have faith in you. You’ve never let me down. You’ve never been satisfied with just providing lip service for juvenile justice. Working together, we have achieved substantive results for our kids and their families.

Will you please do me a favor? Go to my Kickstarter Page and then tell me what you think. While you’re there, you can leave a pledge and get the ball rolling. You won’t be charged unless we reach the goal. Think of it as a “like” for now. Thank you.

But I for one am prepared to be surprised. When I started this blog, there were no guarantees of success. People can and do astound me with their generosity and kindness. It could happen again.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Crosby, Sills, Nash & Young performing “Our House”


compassion redux

One of my readers had directed me to the case of a cute kid in Utah who had participated in an armed home invasion and reached a plea bargain with the prosecutor, only to have it overturned by the judge and replaced with a severe term in adult prison.

I think my reader’s intent was to get me wound up about the judge, who had done a very unfair thing. That worked alright, but my main reaction at the story was how a boy, obviously from a good family, could be so uncompassionate  that he would terrorize someone in their own home with a gun?

I had decided to react to my reader’s input by writing another essay on compassion, but I didn’t know what to say. I had just begun researching the word “compassion” on Wikipedia, hoping it would stimulate some ideas, when a wonderful story about compassion came on the radio.

It was a coincidence that was too good to ignore: a report about a 12-year-old program called the Saint Joseph of Armathea Pallbearer Ministry, at the all-male Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland OH.

Saint Joseph of Armathea Pallbearer Ministry, at Saint Ignatius High School 3

The pallbearers group consists of 440 boys, and the activity of the group appears to have made a deep, life-changing impression on the young men. It serves at funerals for deceased people who were homeless, financially insecure, or without family to give them a dignified burial. It is the largest activity at Saint Ignatius.

The students are requested by the family of the dead to serve as pallbearers. The boys, each dressed in a blue blazer, khaki slacks, shirts and ties, follow the funeral director’s quiet orders, moving the casket to where it should be placed for the service. After the service, the body of the deceased is returned to the hearse for the trip to the burial spot, and it is the boys who lift the casket again. At the cemetery, they stand in a group offering their own silent prayers for the grieving family.

Saint Joseph of Armathea Pallbearer Ministry, at Saint Ignatius High SchoolThe ministry is busy, answering the requests of many families that have no one to serve as pallbearers for the funeral of a loved one. Sometimes the deceased had been a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and his family had requested St. Ignatius students carry him to his burial site. But more often, the deceased is old, poor, or both. Even during the days when there is no school, the pallbearer teenagers are there, ready to help.

“The great teaching of our faith is to care for the individual and to value human life from the womb to the tomb,” said Dan Baron, a theology teacher at St. Ignatius and one of the advisors to the pallbearer group. He and fellow theology teacher James Sker provide guidance to the group.

“The ministry was designed to not only give students an opportunity to perform the work of mercy, but also to help them see the real meaning of service,” said pallbearer Charlie Casa.

“When you’re out on a funeral, you kind of feel close to the families although you don’t even know them,” said St. Ignatius student Danny Dreiling.

Saint Joseph of Armathea Pallbearer Ministry, at Saint Ignatius High School 2“I’ve learned to cherish my life as it is and to cherish my friends and my family,” said student pallbearer Chris Bunder. “It really kinds of puts everything in perspective,” he added.

Brendan Wagner said the ministry has helped him in his growing and maturing process. “It’s one of the best things we provide here at St. Ignatius,” he said.

All the boys said they better understood the fragility of life because of their participation in the ministry.

It has made them more compassionate.

The boys provide their services under the guidance of funeral homes that participate in the St. Ignatius project.

“They’re not only pallbearers,” said Lou Ripepi, owner of Ripepi Funeral Home. “They pray with the families, sit through the services, funeral masses, graveside services, and present a card to the family. These are young men that really care.”

The school ministry is named after St. Joseph of Aramathea, who appears in all four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Christ. Joseph of Aramathea is said to have donated his new tomb outside Jerusalem to receive the body of Jesus.

The boys all said their work is more than a service. They view it as a mission.

To listen to the radio broadcast, click here.


Groove of the Day

Listen to “Nearer My God To Thee” from the soundtrack of Titanic




With per capita water use in the US between 560 and 700 gallons per week, my use of 17 gallons a week must seem pretty unbelievable. But it’s true, and it presents no hardship beyond going into town to take a weekly shower.

For several years, all my water needs have been met by the rainwater which falls in this desert environment. A large roof, combined with gutters and a water catchment system which includes a 1,250-gallon storage tank, provides for all my needs. The last time I had to haul in water was about 3 or 4 years ago, when a leak in my catchment and storage system resulted in hundreds of gallons of this precious commodity flowing into the ground. But this experience is becoming a distant memory. It rained a couple days ago, and my storage tank overflowed.

So when I hear stories about the drought and water catastrophe facing places like California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Northern Texas, and when I hear that farmers and other citizens are responding to the crisis by drilling wells and depleting their groundwater reserves, I can only shake my head.

Reservoirs, creeks, and rivers usually supply a large portion of California’s water for drinking and irrigation. Because of the drought, groundwater is now furnishing close to 70% of the state’s water, up from 40% in a typical year. A report released in May shows that groundwater levels in California have hit record lows since 2008.

“The severity of the drought has been compounded by poor planning, poor management, and population growth putting pressure on already overcommitted resources,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that conducts interdisciplinary research on water issues. “It is the third year of the drought, and we did not act in the first two years as though anything was abnormal.”

Places like Sacramento, where 60% of residential water use goes to the watering of lawns, have instituted lawn-watering bans and restrictions. Such a reaction appears to make sense, but it relies on enforcement to work, and California is notoriously short-staffed with enforcers (read that as water police).  A system-wide solution is required.

Despite its enforcement approach, water use in California has gone up. A simple philosophy should be instituted that is applied to all citizens and businesses without exception.

Some jurisdictions have taken to the incredibly counter-productive practice of outlawing or taxing the use of water which falls from the sky. Other jurisdictions fail to charge money for water that is drawn from the ground. What is wrong with this picture?

I say that water which falls from the sky should be free, and water which depletes our groundwater and aquifers should cost users money. This principle would incentivize the creation of rain catchment systems such as mine, and would discourage the depletion of the groundwater upon which our civilization depends.

It is not the business of government to regulate whether people have swimming pools, reflecting ponds and fountains, water their lawns and gardens, or wash their cars. How people can afford these uses should be up to them.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Stone Roses performing “Waterfall”


reincarnation revisited


When I wrote a post about reincarnation and made some personal disclosures a couple years ago (“My Second Chance”), I was deafened by the silence which ensued.

Maybe this is because, in Western culture, reincarnation has been considered an oddball belief ever since 325 AD when the leaders of the Catholic Church convened the Council of Nicea and declared reincarnation (versus resurrection) an heretical belief. Maybe it is because reincarnation is popularly associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern (and—according to certain supremacists—inferior) cultures. Or maybe it’s because it cannot be proved conclusively enough to replace the teachings and superstitions of our childhoods about an eternity spent in heaven.

It doesn’t matter. All theories are speculation and, in the end, come down to selecting the One True Belief that feels right to you.

I settled on reincarnation because I have observed that everything else in the Universe experiences cycles in its existence, and if you believe in the survival of one’s soul after death, why shouldn’t that recycle, as well? (But then cycles, especially business cycles, are described as “theoretical” by those who profit from them, want to maintain popular ignorance and skepticism, and hence, a competitive advantage.)

Anyway, last night I did some research into the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine and was known as the world’s foremost scientific researcher into reincarnation. He spent over 40 years traveling the world to meticulously investigate over 3,000 cases of small children who appeared to recall previous lives. His life’s work was funded by a bequest from Chester Carlson, the inventor of Xerography. To Dr. Stevenson and his many admirers, his detailed case studies provided more than ample room for, as he liked to put it, “a rational person, if he wants, to believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence.”

Unconvinced by the Freudian view that personality is fixed in early childhood, Dr.  Stevenson began to explore other theories for the origin of individual characteristics and the development of personality. He became interested in accounts gleaned from newspapers and journals about children who claimed to have memories of previous lives.

Dense with statistical data, his studies avoided any theoretical speculation on Eastern philosophical theories about the transmigration of souls. In fact, “soul” was a word Stevenson was always keen to avoid. He preferred the term “personality”, and was always careful to state that the mountain of evidence accumulated in his research “permitted”, rather than compelled, a belief in reincarnation.

In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Dr. Stevenson’s work. In the issue, psychiatrist Harold Lief described Dr. Stevenson as “a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side.” He also wrote: “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known as ‘the Galileo of the 20th century.’ “

The evidence he did provide came not from past-life readings or hypnotic regressions but from using the techniques of a detective or investigative reporter to evaluate claims that a young child, often just beginning to talk, had spontaneously started to speak of the details of another life. In a fairly typical case, a boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic’s sisters, parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with—all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy’s family.

Some of Dr. Stevenson’s most important findings were that more boys than girls expressed such spontaneous past life memories, that children started recounting these stories were between the ages of 2 and 5 (yet seemed to have forgotten them by age 8 or 9), and that 60% of them described sudden, violent deaths. He also found that many of these children had birth marks which corresponded in location and shape to wounds suffered by the subjects who had previously died.

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Stevenson accepted that his long-stated goal of getting mainstream science “to seriously consider reincarnation as a possibility” was not going to be realized in his lifetime. One scientist—typical of the mainstream—wrote: “Why, in their past lives, was everybody a princess or mighty warrior? Didn’t anybody dig ditches in the ancient world? Who took out the garbage? Who fed the elephants?”

He obviously didn’t acknowledge that most, if not all, of Dr. Stevenson’s cases were ordinary people with unexceptional lives. He was not taking into account the possibility that knowledge of, and belief in, reincarnation can lead to benefits beyond the mere curiosity of it.

I am attracted to reincarnation because I like the idea of getting a second (or third or thousandth) chance to do it right or better than before. It is the idea of Continuous Improvement on a cosmic scale.

But I am also fascinated by another idea.

I believe that the purpose of life is to mature into an integrated personality, to learn from all of the experiences and mistakes of the past, and become a truly wise and good person. What if that past includes not only one’s present lifetime, but as many past lives as one can remember?

If this vision of the continuity of lives is true, it could bring a new meaning to the notion of a truly enlightened being. It could bring a transcendent quality to “the meaning of life.”

I have only a vague idea of my last former life. I don’t remember being a prince, a rich man, or famous man. It is more likely I was a nobody, an unremarkable person who died betrayed and disillusioned, whose life never had a chance to develop to its potential. Yet I got a chance at a better life this time around. A chance to redeem not only my early self from this life, but my past self as well.

I don’t know how else to put it, but that is living a life with meaning. A chance to experience immortality in the here-and-now. If it is wishful thinking, a fantasy, or self-aggrandisement, so be it. Leave me to my illusions.

They work for me.


Groove of the Day

Listen to the Forseter Sisters performing “(I’d Choose) You Again”



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