Sing a New Song

A white-crowned sparrow in Sacramento, California, in January 2017. Photo by ADJ82.

Researchers studying white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in the San Francisco area this past spring during California’s coronavirus shutdown found that the males had changed their song, presumably because it was easier for them to make themselves heard on account of the drop in human-caused noise. The birds no longer had to trill high and loud to pierce through the cacophony. The researchers noted that the calmer, quieter environment allowed the males to use a wider range of sounds in their calls, increasing their chances of mating success since the females find the wider range, with more low frequency notes, more appealing. The white-crowned sparrows in the Bay Area benefited from the reduction in human activity, and there have been similar stories from around the world this past year of animals enjoying a world less in conflict with people.

A video from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology of a male white-crowned sparrow singing.

Eaux Claires is a social activist group in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that also hosts an annual music festival. This video of the singer, Feist, covering the Yusuf/Cat Stevens song “Trouble”, was filmed on November 1, 2020, as part of the group’s efforts to encourage people – particularly young people – to vote in the November 3rd election.

The political events of the past week in the United States herald a calmer, quieter environment to come, one in which everyone can be heard, not just those who tweet the loudest in ALL CAPS on social media, sowing hatred and tumult. Through the majority of their votes, Americans elected to step back from the brink of authoritarianism. While a disturbing number of their fellow citizens voted their support for climate destruction, white supremacy, and a sneering contempt for the rights of women and minorities, thankfully a greater number turned out to vote in favor of progress down the road of reason and empathy, not continuing on a death march. Those voters, many of them young people voting for the first time, have given all of us another chance to sing a new song.

“Oh Very Young”, a 1974 song by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. The haunting backup vocal was performed by Suzanne Lynch.

Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens performs “Oh Very Young” in December 2008.

— Izzy

Song of the white-crowned sparrow as recorded by Jonathan Jongsma for the Xeno-canto Foundation in April 2012 in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, California.



The Generation Gap


“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
— Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Some sociologists have disproved the widely held notion that people become more conservative as they get older, and while that may be the case, and therefore old does not necessarily equal conservative, statistics verify there is still a generation gap between the percentages of older and younger people who vote. Old people turn out to vote in a higher percentage for their age group than young people do in their age group. Old for our purpose here is over 50, which encompasses Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation. Young is under 50, which includes Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.


The two largest demographic groups of voting age are Baby Boomers and Millennials. In this year, Millennials will surpass Baby Boomers in numbers as Baby Boomers continue dying out. For all that, the voice of Baby Boomers at voting time remains louder than that of Millennials, because the percentage of Baby Boomers who vote remains higher than the percentage of Millennials who vote. Baby Boomers remain in control of the leadership and apparatus of both major political parties, and that led to the debacle of the 2016 presidential election.

March for Our Lives Fox News
The March for Our Lives protest took place on 24 March 2018 in Washington, D.C., and other cities, when hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common sense gun control in the wake of deadly school shootings in the United States. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili.

In the Democratic Party, leadership foisted Hillary Clinton on everyone, and she turned out to be a candidate with little appeal to voters outside of the Coasts and the big cities, a fact that polling consistently pointed out heading into the election, but which the Democratic leadership chose to ignore. For the Republican Party, the crowded field of candidates in the early primaries allowed the demagogue who eventually overtook the field to win with vote percentages only in the teens and twenties, and with that he was able to pick off his rivals one by one, aided by high amounts of free media coverage for his outrageous comments and behavior.

In the end, we got the president we deserved, we meaning all of us, voters and non-voters alike. A dismal statement, but one we need to come to terms with by election day in November 2020. It seems we have all overestimated the liberal leanings of Baby Boomers as a group, and perhaps popular culture is responsible. News coverage of Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and ’70s, the enormous changes in fashion and entertainment, the weekly confrontations on television’s All in the Family between Baby Boomer Mike “Meathead” Stivic and his Greatest Generation father-in-law, Archie Bunker, all may have contributed to a perception of Baby Boomers as liberal overall.

Looking at national Democratic Party leadership since Baby Boomers took over with the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992, it’s difficult to deny they are in most ways more conservative than their predecessors of the Greatest Generation and particularly going back to Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) a generation earlier. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were certainly more liberal than Bill Clinton. FDR’s policies would be considered dangerous socialism today, which is why candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose policy proposals are in line with what FDR might have done, are considered too far left by Democratic Party leadership, and therefore unelectable.

Enumerating goals can be difficult, as demonstrated here in a television skit by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In the Republican Party, attitudes have shifted so far right since Baby Boomers took over with leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney that even Richard Nixon, in whose administration Mr. Cheney first took part, might not have a chance to be elected president these days as a Republican. Too liberal! Dwight Eisenhower, in whose administration Mr. Nixon served as Vice President in the 1950s, would be considered by today’s Republican Party leadership, and assuredly by the MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), despite the era he presided over being the one they pine for.

There is no evidence to suggest Millennials are overall more liberal than Baby Boomers, but unlike Baby Boomers they do appear willing to act on the most pressing concerns for humanity, starting with climate change. Unless we take action on climate change now, nothing else matters. Next is growing wealth inequity, because that leads to many other problems, among them being affordability of health care for all. Population growth also needs to be addressed, because Earth’s resources are not infinite, much as delusional capitalist economic modelers like to pretend otherwise.

A satirical public service announcement from the Knock the Vote project. Warning: foul language.


Down the list but hanging over every creature on Earth is the bugaboo of all generations alive since 1945 – nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are down the list because while they are obviously capable of ending everything quickly, they may be the hardest nut to crack on account of their continued proliferation being due to human nature. Addressing these problems requires becoming informed, and voting as well as activism, and it is up to Millennials to rise to the challenges their forebears have been reluctant to grasp. It’s time for Baby Boomers to let go of power if they cannot or will not contribute to battling the world’s most pressing problems, though we know it’s human nature to cling to power, and usually the grave provides the only means of separation.
— Ed.



There but for the Grace of God


Roadside memorials for traffic accident fatalities have been appearing more frequently over the past 20 years, a period when the numbers of deaths per capita or per mile driven had been dropping until the last two years, when they have risen again. Since the increase in memorials has not been tied to overall traffic fatalities, there must be another reason. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a reason other than the increase in memorials being due to a snowballing cultural phenomenon. People become aware of the memorials, and then when a loved one dies in an automobile wreck, they feel moved to erect a memorial near that spot, and so the phenomenon builds on itself, this being its moment.


One force that could be feeding the movement is the amount of young people who are dying in traffic accidents, many of them on account of their own negligence due to distracted driving. Young people have always been overrepresented in the traffic fatality statistics due to their willingness to take foolish risks, but now add in their addiction to cell phones and they have become an even more dangerous element on the roads. Insurance companies, who put dollars and cents numbers on risky behavior, understand this and accordingly attach high premiums to policies for drivers under 30 years old. Having a relative taken away by death in a violent accident at a very young age is of course a more traumatic event than having one taken away by natural causes at an advanced age, and may be a factor in the urge of friends and relatives to build a roadside memorial.

Angel teddy bear memorial
Statuettes at a roadside memorial in 2006.

None of this is by way of claiming that most roadside memorials are erected by traumatized relatives on behalf of teenaged drivers and drivers in their twenties who were irresponsibly texting when they ran their car off the road and flipped it over in a ditch. There are scant statistics available to support such a claim, though a deep dive into state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) websites may turn up a breakdown of accident causes or contributing factors. Mainly it is speculation to suppose distracted driving may have been a primary cause of any accident marked by a roadside memorial. While texting is a phenomenon of the past 20 years, and as such coincides with the increase in roadside memorials, there is nevertheless a logical fallacy described in Latin as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, meaning “after this, therefore because of this”. Still, the coincidence bears consideration.

As a matter of personal experience, however, anyone who has been driving the past 20 years cannot help noticing the increase in distracted driving around them. Sitting at a red light behind a driver who is mesmerized by his or her phone means waiting extra seconds before accelerating after the light turns green, or even having to honk the horn to rouse that driver from smartphone induced hypnosis. Driving on a road behind or next to a texting driver means being alert to his or her sudden and unexpected accelerations and decelerations of their vehicle and jerking it from side to side, behavior that is exactly the same as a drunk driver. Getting out in front of a texting driver is not entirely safe either, as is obvious by glancing in the rear view mirror at the texting driver looking down toward his or her lap rather than up toward the road and the back of the car, your car, that they are dangerously closing in on.

A 2012 experiment in Belgium to demonstrate the dangerous foolishness of people who believe they can drive competently while texting. For additional views on the casualties of texting and driving, see the 2013 Werner Herzog documentary From One Second to the Next.
As they drive past a roadside memorial bedecked in flowers and balloon hearts and teddy bears, motorists reflecting on its meaning have no idea whether the memorial is for an irresponsible driver or the innocent victim of that driver, any more than a person walking through a cemetery knows the particulars behind the deaths of the people marked by the tombstones over their graves. If the driver thinks for a few seconds about how quickly life can be snuffed out, whether by foolishness or merely by bad luck, and checks their vehicle speedometer and puts their phone away in the glove compartment, then maybe the roadside memorial has served a good purpose after all. Taking it easy and laying off the accelerator and the constant jonesing to communicate, even though it be about nothing of note, maybe the driver reflects upon seeing the roadside memorial and thinks “There but for the grace of God go I”, and gets home safely.
— Ed.