You Know It’s Spring When…


So, every Spring for the last ten years I’ve witnessed the return of this beautiful bird, as I did driving back from Madison today-

An Audubon Society Photo

An Audubon Society Photo

And every time I’ve witnessed its return, I’ve idly wondered what sort of bird it is. I’ve asked local friends, but they’ve never given me an answer. Of course, it looked like some sort of blackbird (duh!). But how to describe its colorful markings? It’s not a red and yellow wing-tip. It’s more of a red and yellow wing-shoulder… But I’ve always been reluctant to describe it that way, since it’s certainly not in any anatomical sense a shoulder. Tonight I finally googled “red-winged blackbird” just to see if that inaccurate, misleading description might narrow down the choices. It did: surprisingly, this bird is generally called (in English) a “red-winged blackbird“. Officially, it’s called agelaius phoeniceus. This is its mating territory, and in a month or so it will be literally everywhere you look; wisely, it winters down in Baja California and northwest Mexico.

More aptly, its French name is “Carouge à épaulettes”. ‘Épaulettes’ means “shoulder pads” (which is at least more accurate here than ‘shoulder’ would be), but ‘carouge’ does not show up in any of the French dictionaries I’ve checked. It does contain the word ‘rouge’, which means ‘red’. Apparently, there is a single village in Europe named Carouge, and in an interesting twist of fate, it’s on the outskirts of Geneva, only a mile or so from where I stayed for a week last summer. Carouge has been called the “Greenwich Village” of Switzerland. I’ll be returning to the area next Fall to do some research at the Université de Genève, and will be sure to visit. Stay tuned for further reports on this bizarre coincidence.

In the meantime, welcome back, red-winged blackbirds! Happy breeding! You’ve been missed.

Religious Psychedelia


If you’re interested religious psychedelia (or even just awesome interior design), check out this Huffington Post article on the Nasir al-Mulk “Pink Mosque” in Shiraz, Iran. Here’s a sample, and by no means the most jaw-dropping one-


This photo, “Spiritual Colors No.3”, is by Amirhossein Karimzadeh Fard, more of whose work can be found here.

Five Years A Blog


Five years, as of today… that’s how long I’ve been posting items of personal interest to this online scrapbook. I’ve been engaging in this exercise mostly just for myself and friends, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many posts have been of interest to total strangers. Google Analytics informs me that there have been, on a monthly average, around 266 page views by 154 unique visitors; hardly more than a blip in the universe of internet statistics, but enough to make me think that there is something here of value to someone other than myself. If you’re a returning visitor (around 20% of the total), odds are I know you from elsewhere, and I hope you’ll keep in touch by other means as well. If I don’t know you and you’ve stumbled upon something amusing or interesting here, I’m glad.

I know that the odds are against it, but I sometimes imagine that 10,000 years from now, an internet archeologist might dig up one of my fossilized posts, and it will help to confirm or disconfirm some obscure hypothesis about life at the start of the 21st century. We now leave digital traces of ourselves, much like cave dwellers left a few palm prints on the walls. Let’s hope that the walls of our digital caves turn out to be as solid as their stone ones.

Fun With Frax


If you own an iPhone or an iPad and have ever had the urge to release your inner graphic artist… the one you’ve kept hidden since you were 5 years old and discovered you couldn’t draw worth s#*t… then you absolutely must shell out a whopping $2 and download a copy of Frax, the amazing little iOS app that allows you to create an infinite variety of fractal images using gestures, tilt, and a few simple controls. Once created, you can save your masterpieces to your photo library, or upload them to the Frax Cloud and have them rendered in ultra-high, poster-sized resolution.

Here’s an image I created in about five minutes, just trying to learn how to use the app (which has very helpful instructions embedded into it). To see what people who actually know what they’re doing with the app can come up with, check out the gallery at the Frax site.

First Try With Frax

Happy Fourth of July


You know, I sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” countless times in elementary school, but I’m quite sure we never sang the last three verses. On this Independence Day, as many state politicians seek to sell off public property, discourage public education, and generally devalue the very notion of a public sector, here’s the whole gall-darn beautiful song-

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Happy National Day Of Reason


Apparently there has been an (unofficial) National Day Of Reason every May 2nd since 2003, clearly intended by its Secular Humanist founders to counterbalance the National Day Of Prayer, governmentally sponsored since 1952. Personally, I would have preferred the National Day Of Reason to come on some day other than the National Day Of Prayer, since holding the two on the same day sets up a quite unnecessary competition, at least if ‘prayer’ is interpreted to include ‘meditation’. But, given that the government has decided to favor prayer over reason, and it certainly could decide to officially designate some other day the National Day Of Reason, I suppose that the Humanists have a point.

So, if you missed the National Day Of Reason on May 2nd, I urge you to celebrate it on any other day you like, as often as possible, simply by being reasonable. It would take a truly unreasonable person to be against that.

The Stubbornness Of Reality


Here’s a literary quote for a late Saturday night…

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

-From “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later“, a speech given by Philip K. Dick in 1978

This Is Not A Motion Picture


Let your eyes wonder freely over the image below. Do you see it moving? Click on the image to see a larger, more effective version-

There is nothing moving in this image, as you can see when you stare fixedly at any given portion. For many more revealing illustrations of the visual system’s usually hidden complexity, visit

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet…


…that IS the question, these days. And although I’m not one to partake of the latest internet fad (just search this blog for my posts on Facebook), I’ve taken to announcing my Blog Here Now posts on Twitter. May the Gods of unabbreviated writing have mercy on my semi-literate soul…

Follow me @herzberglarry.

Happy New Year!


In 2012, may we inch away from becoming an endangered species (and, whatever we do, may we inch closer to gaining as much raw talent as Esperanza Spalding, shown below playing and singing Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” on a recent Austin City Limits)-

R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died a few days ago. He was one those rarest of birds, especially among Anglo-American “public intellectuals”: an acerbic social critic who was provocative not entirely because he loved being so, but rather because he was ruthlessly honest with both himself and others. His independence was shown by his ongoing support for the Iraq invasion – which, coincidentally, officially ended today – when most others of his milieu remained vociferously against it. I couldn’t support the Iraq invasion because I abhorred the principle of “preventive war” on which it was based, but I very much respected Hitchens’ desire to defend the Kurds from a genocidal maniac, and his writing on the issue helped to temper my opposition to the Bush administration’s “adventure”.

Hitchens’ long history of smoking and drinking made it likely that his death would precede that of many others of his generation, of which I’m a slightly younger member. In his last article, published in the January issue of Vanity Fair, he left some typically honest reflections on Nietzche’s too-often uncritically quoted phrase, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”-

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

Of Sex, Death, And Deer-Car Crashes


The Oshkosh Northwestern, bless it’s heart, reports local police activity in both Oshkosh and Omro, the megalopolis down the road a bit. An item in today’s police blotter, wedged between the harrowing reports of citations for harassing phone calls, delinquent dog-owners allowing their pets to relieve themselves on a pedestrian walkway, overflowing garbage cans, underage drinking and the like, came this riveting story-

Responded to a car versus deer accident Friday at Whispering Way and Willow Street. The car sustained minor damage.

That was it. The whole ball of wax. I found myself wondering, of course, just how much damage the poor deer sustained.

This is not a good time for local deer. As if the forthcoming hunting season weren’t enough to worry about, those horny bucks – I mean the deer, not the hunters – are apparently so distracted by the foxy does (and other bucks itchin’ for a fight) that they have a tendency to ignore oncoming traffic when crossing our bucolic highways. The sub-header underneath the headline on the very next page, “Deer-car crashes rise in fall”, said it all: “Mating season in late October to early November can be fatal.”

Ain’t it the truth. Just another heartbreaking fact of life dredged from the police blotters of Northeast Wisconsin.

The Steve Jobs I Knew…


The Steve Jobs I knew at Reed College, 1972-1974, was not anyone I would have guessed was destined to become Steve Jobs, Titan Of Industry. He was just a long-haried, sometimes barefoot, somewhat disheveled hippie with a fondness for taking saunas. Nothing about him suggested that he had any sort of drive to be materially successful. In fact, he exuded the sort of flaky, devil-may-care attitude that characterized our whole generation in those days. But even then there was a quiet, charismatic intensity about him, a sort of self-confidence beyond his years. It made you perk up your ears and listen to him when he spoke, despite his apparent aimlessness.

He once told me something I’ll never forget. It was a sort of offhand piece of advice that, as it turned out, stood me in very good stead many, many years later.

I was sitting under one of the shade trees in front of Eliot Hall, the oldest red-brick building on campus, and he came and sat down beside me, just to strike up a conversation. I believe it was our sophomore year; he may have already officially dropped out, although I knew he was still sitting in on classes (including, I believe, the calligraphy class that would change the world). I don’t remember whether I was playing my guitar – as I often did when I sat on the lawn – or not, but I do recall that it was my musicianship that had caused him to take notice of me in first place – really, it was the only noticeable thing about me. I remember envying what seemed to be his cavalier attitude toward formal education, because at this time I wanted nothing more than to finish what I considered primarily an obligation to my parents, get my B.A. as a philosophy major, and follow my heart into the jazz-fusion music business. When I expressed my frustration to him, he said the one and only thing that I think had any chance of setting my mind at ease at that moment… a very simple thing that made me see him in a whole new light as well: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with being an educated musician.” Partly because that little nugget of wisdom stuck with me, I returned to Reed after taking the next year off, finished my B.A., and left open a door to graduate school – and a second life as a professor – that I wouldn’t walk through for another 17 years.

I’m pretty sure that that was the last conversation we ever had. We were, at most, casual acquaintances, and I lost track of him entirely… until, some ten years later, I saw his face staring back at me on the cover of Time magazine.

Thanks again for the advice, Steve. And rest in peace.

Image of a young Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, a few years after our acquaintance.