Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Tale of Two Parks

Over two days. And both within minutes from our home. Yesterday evening we dropped by the Lettuce Lake Park for a change of scenery during a different time of the day (the previous visit was at noon). Mark was nowhere to be seen, but armed with our newly acquired knowledge, thanks to Mark, we set out on our own.

We had better luck this time though, spotting a young gator lazing on a small log. We would have missed it if not for a couple training their eyes in a certain direction, the male through a long-lens camera. So instinct told me that it had to be something unique. I was able to locate the alligator while wify needed some guidance before the outline of the alligator was reflected into her retina which the brain then interpreted, after scourging through the stored images including those of Alberto and Alberta (the UF mascots), as a close cousin of the crocodile, with a different shape of the snout.

Then there was the blue heron (or was it the snowy egret? We could not be sure as we could not see its legs clearly). However, the evening scenery was as panoramic as the noon's.

The observation tower in the distance, framed within the branches draped all over by spanish moss.

The young gator, motionless, oblivious to the attention it had attracted. When we doubled back about half an hour later, it was in about the same posture. Talk about the ability to maintain stillness, the very best candidate for a meditation stance. The slightly blurred image is the result of extending the optical zoom (3X) on our Nikon Colorpix L6, so I reasoned.

The first time we spotted the blue heron, roosting on a shallow shoal.

The same blue heron from a different part of the walkway. Look at the near perfect reflection of the blue sky above, and the reflected image of the head of the blue heron, as if it had just emerged from the tree canopy.

The eagle has landed. No, it's the same blue heron, exercising its ability to fly, perched on a branch amidst the leaves, and playing hide and seek with me.

Today, we decided to drop by USF, just across the street from us. The place we visited faces the Psychology Building, where we know there is a lake from our prior visit to the campus. The time was evening too. However, instead of a multitude of wildlife like in Lettuce Lake Park, this lake setting is dominated by monoculture: ducks. There were everywhere, in the lake, in the air (ducks do fly), on the bank, up on the pavement, and even on a bridge railing. Also, they get close to the human species, of which there were many then, people like us yearning for some quiet solace in an urban setting.

We sauntered twice over the looped paved walkway, enjoying the cool breeze brushing by, the sun setting in the distance. Further afield at the Music Building, several people were seen hurrying toward it, each lugging a piece of musical instrument. We also heard several musical notes emitting from the Building, disrupting the stillness, the otherwise quiet save for the birds squawking. “A musical performance may be slotted for the night,” wify commented.

At first, we thought this could just be a nameless place of quiet refuge for USF students to seek communion with nature, giving the mind a well-earned rest from the seemingly incessant book cramming in order to stay afloat in the academic setting. Then we passed by a monument, declaring this to be the Simmons Park, dedicated to the memory of Ellsworth G. Simmons, a Tampa civic leader.

Hence, a tale of two parks, at close proximity but different in all other aspects. It's our good fortune that we live close to them, by design of sort but gradually discovering the locational advantage of our chosen residence, a time-lapsed unveiling process that guarantees more pleasant surprises to come.

A panaromic view of the USF lake, colonized by ducks only.

The denizens of the lake, one of which was standing on the bank nearby as if on sentinel duty, giving me a "Don't mess with me" look when I approached.

Wify standing on one of the two bridge crossings, with the fountain as the backdrop.

A duck on a railing, a proof that this duck flies. It obviously can't climb with its webbed feet.

Wify standing next to the Maple tree, a bit of deduction on my part from its distintive leaf shape. Scroll down for the next image for a closeup.

The sharp pointed leaves characteristic of maple leaves, as seen here, the branches seemingly ensnarling a jumbo, a photographic trick applied just in time by yours truly, after mentally calculating the relative position of the plane, allowing for its forward speed, with respect to my ground position vis-a-vis the stationary tree on the fly ... Just kidding.

An urban sunset, the sun as if escaping from the out-stretched booms of the two tower cranes while the ducks seemingly scuttling away from its reflection on the lake resulting in tiny wave crests rippling across the lake surface.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

And Finally, there is one ...

Just like March 8 would go down in the history of Malaysia as a watershed year marked by a swift change in the political landscape described as tsunami-like, March 22 holds a similar significance for the people of Taiwan too. In the local parlance, the blue sky has prevailed, blue being the official color of the Nationalist (KuoMing) Party, which would assume the helm of the island state after a hiatus of eight years in the political wilderness, so to speak.

It was a decidedly clear victory, epitomizing the power of the people to collectively decide their political future, democracy at work.

Any transition is always tough, let alone a political one where political patronage sometimes outweighs the caliber of the political appointees in putting national interests ahead of personal gains, a reward system that has yet to be replaced, only the imbalance diminished.

Sometimes a new guy at the helm may be overzealous in finding faults of the previous administration rather than embarking on planning anew. After all burying the hatchet and letting bygone be bygone are easier said than done. But a forward looking stance they must embrace, for that's what they venture into the political arena for (I might be guilty of naivete here), to carve out a bright future for their countryfolks.

I just learned that the winner of the presidential race in Taiwan will take his office on May 20, exactly three months after the election. In the meantime, the incumbent, Mr. Chen, is still addressed as the President. However, in Malaysia, the transition of the political helm takes immediate effect. But the actual handing over will likely stretch over several days.

Consequently, there were reports of the winning parties guarding the government offices lest the losers cart away important sensitive documents that would ostensibly implicate the previous administration of any wrongdoing. In Penang where the ruling parties lost, the Chief Minister was seen packing his things on the very day, thus effecting a smooth transition to the incoming Chief Minister.

That leaves US in my trilogy of Elections 2008. The democrats are still mired in a long-drawn tussle to nominate their presidential candidate. I read of another possibility to the projection that the Republicans, having settled on their candidate, can turn to the important task of winning the race and gaining a vital headstart over the Democrats in the race that counts. That is, so much attention has been focused on the daily exchanges between the two Democrats camps that the Republicans are forced to watch at the sideline, unable to attract the news media who thrive on antagonism that sustains the feeding frenzy of the public at large.

The latest development seems to swing toward Obama, after garnering pledges of support from several super-delegates, despite the furor over the fiery speeches from his priest-cum-mentor. Increasingly strident calls for Hillary to throw in the tower have also surfaced. Some have even claimed she was merely clinging to her fast dwindling hope out of pride.

Such is life in the political arena, which is akin to Jiang Wu, a Chinese street-wise term used in martial arts novels and movies to mean the jungle out there where only the fittest survive, as opposed to the neatly circumscribed world of the government sector that features another rule of survival dictated by tradition laden hierarchy. I was reminded of the term when I was watching a rerun of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee (the movie image is taken from here). (A worthy note here is that the heroine was played by Michelle Yeoh, a former Miss Malaysia-turned-kungfu actress from Malaysia). The hero wanted to wash his hands of the worldly affairs, to hang up his sword as a symbol of quitting Jiang Wu as the saying goes. But the Jiang Wu just would not let him. Hence, the refrain: Once in Jiang Wu, your movement is no more yours to decide.
Isn't that an apt description of a politician?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Body and Mind Workout Day at the Park

Lettuce Lake Park, that is. Wify has been clamoring to take a long overdue walk in that park as part of our exercise routine. In fact, that is the only one for me, other than the morning lifting-the-sky exercise taught by WJ. Yesterday was a total washout. But today was your typical day after the deluge: crisp with azure sky. So we drove to the park around noon, half expecting that it might be close for the Easter Holiday, a prognostication based on our last experience on last Christmas eve. But it was open, many visitors capitalizing on the balmy weather to hold family picnics. (The top image was a drawing of an osprey done by wify just for this occasion, based on an image taken from here).

As usual, we took the boardwalk that skirts along the lake, wify walking briskly in front, me trailing, our Nikon ColorPix L6 in hand, ready to capture and shoot the teeming life there, digitally. And boy did I have a field day, my only miss was the young water duck that did a Houdini on me, diving and swimming away under the green carpet (you'll soon see what I mean from the images below) while I was fumbling with my camera to get the right setting.

We greeted everyone who came our way, and the favors returned, as enthusiastically. We ascended onto the top of the tower (the right image is scanned from the brochure Lettuce Lake Boardwalk Guide, which is shot from the lake side and is much more than I can do humanly, being not ready to dive into the lake) and met (by chance of course) our designated bird guide of the day, whom we shall address as Mark here. Mark had a telescope set up with tripod and all with the lens pointing at the tree line across the lake. He motioned to wify to look through the lens. At what? Apparently, it was an osprey's nest, nestled high up on the tree. He offered the telescopic view to any visitor who came by, at the same time fielding questions from them. I too succumbed to the looks of amazement on those who had seen the light, so to speak. Through the lens, at about 40X (that's magnification) according to Mark, I could see the mother's head swiveling and bobbing up and down at the nest line. The Dad was perched on a tree branch in the vicinity, like a sentinel scanning for threats.

Just like a human family too, the male and the female adults playing their respective roles in a household, separately in charge of matters without and within the home. Nowadays this rigid familial role compartmentalization has largely blurred as evidenced by the moniker, stay-home dad. [At home, I suddenly realized what I had heard here that the Chinese character for peace and safety is a combination of a roof over a female. How uncanny!]

Ospreys have these talons on their feet which they catch their prey, meaning fish, with in a swooping motion. Then swish, it's out of the water. Eh, do they eat other smaller birds or maybe rodents? That's me asking the seemingly dumb questions. No, as a rule, no, unless they are hungry and there happens to be a bird or rodent, frozen into inaction nearby (OK, I get the drift). That's why there are also known as fish hawks. Oh, I see (only after the fact). And no, they are not wintering birds that migrate over great distances but stay pretty much within about 100 sq. miles.

In the midst of the ornithological Q&A, Mark was seeking help as to the English word that means characterizing the animal behavior in human terms. He qualified by saying that being a math grad, he was not expected to know (sound like a cope out to me). I ventured “personify”, but he just shook his head. The couple next to us tried to help, but the word just escaped them (yeah right). At the end, they settled that by agreeing that mutually they knew what each other meant, and that's that.

As a parting shot, I said I would google it. But Mark was quite lukewarm to my sudden flash of ingenuity. Being a man of my word, I googled it dutifully, the first thing I did upon reaching home, and it only returned “humanizing”. I doubted that's the right word as it would apply to inanimate objects as well, not just animals. Then a flash went through my head. I typed in “humanizing animal behavior” and Voila, the very first return read “Naturalizing Anthropomorphism: Behavioral Prompts to Our ...”. On opening the document, right there staring into my face was the very first sentence in the Abstract: Anthropomorphism is the use of human characteristics to describe or explain nonhuman animals.

When I announced to the family that Dad has done it again, CE chipped in by saying that that was what she was looking for. Too late, pal, the glory is all mine. Just kidding. What happened was I posed the question to our resident English expert, CE (the other itinerary one is way across the continental divide and unavailable at such short notice).

She countered with the term, animorphism, that she has found on the Net. But apparently it has something to do with computer software (animation?). Undaunted, my google trip (my first quest using my favourite online dictionary did not list this as a word) led to this statement: animorphism, or people projecting their wants and needs onto animals. See how my family tackles things together. Nothing is too small to invoke the mighty Lee famly resources.

Anyway, back to the Park. Mark also serves as the resource guide in the Audubon Resource Center at the Park's Visitors Center (we located it later) and has been birding for quite a long while. He said there are more than 120 bird species in the Park, on a year round basis. He can identify the birds by their calls like Oh, that's the limpkin (we later found out what it is on a display board erected on another part of the boardwalk, see image below).

The second bird from the right on the top row is a limpkin. No osprey here since it is not a wading bird.

As we were doubling back from one end of the Boardwalk to head the other way, Mark had descended too and pointed out some others bird species for our benefit. The white bird there is the Blue Heron, even though it's white in color. The Snowy Egret resembles it too, except that the Egret has yellow-colored feet. Oh, the green carpet-like stuff on the water surface? They are the lettuces (huh? Maybe I did not get the spelling right. Then, Oh Oh, there's where the name comes from. And I was wondering where is the lettuce. You know, the one we see in Publix. That's another belated realization but at home).

Yes, they are floating plants, just like lilypads and water hyacinth (At this point I wanted to jump in and shared my knowledge of water hyacinth in Malaysia, specifically on the Muar River, that moves up and down the river with tide like a huge green barge. Too much of one-sided exchange is not too good for anyone's intellect. But I can't seem to be able to interject during his continuous delivery). But sometimes, the water hyacinth anchor themselves on the bottom too. You know, further east of here there is the Flatwoods Park with a loop trail (or was it boardwalk? I found out later that it's a 7-mile paved trail) several miles long winding through the park. A certain lady would cycle round the trail to keep a record of these small wooden tree houses affixed to the tree trunks sporadically (or maybe not) ever so often and then send the records to the Florida Chapter which in turn will forward it to the National Headquarters ... Like a bird census, you know? (The last part was mine). I once encountered a 300 strong colony of Robins at the Everglades and at another time I was the only one who spotted a Robin in another bird count down in Miami (or did I get the places reversed?).

We could only nod in unison, marveling at his recall of information at will, at least as far as birds are concerned. And we thought math and bird don't mix.

When we returned to the car park, it was almost an hour later. So we had a good workout (despite the constant walking and stopping to capture the Kodak moments, I did sweat, or rather feel the sweating). So did our brain, thanks to Mark, whoever you are. (As it turned out, I googled some of his "claims" and they checked out.)

Enjoy the fruits of my shootout (you know, shooting, outside, get it?)! If these images seem amateurish to you (my only defense is that the camera's resolution is only 6.0 megapiexels. Not the reason? OK, I'm just a point and shoot guy, satisfied?), read here, with lots of closeups.

The breathtaking vista that greets a visitor on any given day, especially today.

An osprey's hunting for food in action. We were too far to actually know whether that was a fruitful attempt. But it continued to circle above the water and made several subsequent forays.

Our friend with a bushy tail, a squirrel. Squirrels are ubiquitous here. Everyday while on the way to work, I have yet to fail to chance upon a high wire act by these furry critters, darting between telephone poles with nary a halt.

A turtle poking its head through the water to savor the spring in the air. Those white streaks at the top are the ripples of waves called wakes generated by their swimming.

A majestic cypress tree rising above the rest to take its place amidst the azure sky, the boardwalk seemingly going through it.

The carpet-like meadow making its way into ... Gotcha. These are the mats of tiny lettuces covering the water surface.

A blue heron on a food drive. It turns white when it reaches the adult stage, but still a blue heron nonetheless.

The casual wear of wify, spotting sunglasses, bears testimony to the glorious weather.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Then there are two ...

Because the Malaysian people have spoken. And boy, did they ever speak. Through the best “weapon” in a democracy, one's vote, when all things seemed to have failed. The wind of change that swept the political landscape has been likened to a tsunami. While the tragic 2004 South Asian Tsunami only wrought havoc on the northwest part of Peninsular Malaysia, the political version bore right into the heartland, wrestling the control of another four states (out of a total of 13) from the ruling party, thus becoming a veritable opposition to be reckoned with.

The two bloggers whom I have mentioned here won their contests, symbolizing the rise of the champions of netizens. A significant victory for the opposition is denying the two-thirds majority in the Parliament, paving the way for more rational and comprehensive debate before a bill can be bulldozed through.

Of note is the prevailing of cool heads. No excessive celebration on the part of the winners, taking the new mandate in humility. At the same time, the vanquished has taken the defeat in stride, planning to hunker down for the next four years in order to return more forcefully.

Next up is the presidential election in Taiwan, after the last face-off in a public debate between the two contestants before D-day, which is next week.

As for the US Democrats presidential nomination, the race is still an entrenched one. On the Republican side, with his party nomination assured, John McCain is getting down to the business of selecting a running mate. Will the attrition war at the Democrats camp hurt its nominee come the Primary in November? Or will the luxury of being able to focus on the foe outside early on favor the Republicans? Only time will tell, to borrow a cliché.

On a happy note, my colleagues at the office help celebrate my Birthday on the day before last, serving my favorite carrot cake. And a nicely picked birthday card to boot. Thanks, guys.

The inside of the card spotted all the lovely hand-written greetings from my colleagues, ranging from the dutiful Happy B-day to to the more creative variety such as "Just remember, once you're over the Hill you begin to pick up speed." How sobering! The momentum will just take care of itself.

And the fish image at the top has a special relevance too. My zodiac sign is Pisces.

And today is Pi day, it being March 14, or 3.14. For those of you who are not mathematically or scientifically inclined, it is also the birthday of Albert Einstein. He would have been 129 years young!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Election Fever

A hallmark of a democracy is universal suffrage, that means the right to vote in political elections, one person one vote. Of course there are pre-requisites before a person is eligible to vote. Citizenship is one thing. And achieving a minimum age, presupposing that independent thought would mature at a certain age. Not to forget registration. One has to express interest in voting, and hence having a say in the affair of the country, or at least under the illusion, by taking the first step to register as a voter.

This year, I have been following the developments leading up to three political elections in three countries, albeit from afar. Actually only two out of the three are sovereign nations while the third seems to be aspiring, but against great odds. And two of them would take place this month while the third is at the party nomination stage, but is a political election nonetheless.

The first is the General Election in Malaysia, which took place today (March 8 Malaysian Time). Following the British tradition where Malaysia (or rather Malaya then) was once a colony of the British Crown, this is a parliamentary election involving the entire country, which is divided into individual parliament areas. An elected representative from a parliament area would then sit in the federal parliament to represent his/her constituency. A smaller version exists for the states whose representatives then sit in the State Legislative Assembly to deliberate on matters within the state purview.

But unlike the British Government that is ruled by either the Labor or the Conservative Party, the government of the day in Malaysia has always been formed by a coalition of parties, used to be called the Alliance but is now called the National Front. Other than the three major race-based parties (Malay, Chinese, and Indian), the National Front also features several smaller parties that are more multi-racial in outlook. On the other hand, the opposition side tends to be individual parties that may form a loose compact during election dictated by expediency more than ideological congruence.

The head of the government is not elected publicly, but rather the premiership is assumed by the leader of the dominant party in the National Front, which has yet to be humbled in any general election since independence (1957), and who is assented to by the Ceremonial Head of State, the Supreme King, in accordance with the Constitution (but some would argue this as a perfunctory role of His Royal Highness).

Right now I'm following the election results online. This election marks the first time that several well-known local bloggers are on the ticket, notably Jeff Ooi and Tony Pua, as opposition against the ruling party. While they do not enjoy the huge election machinery (mass media, financial incentives of government allocations, etc.) that the ruling incumbents wield, they have the entire cyberspace, touted as the proverbial leveling field, to roam, to canvass, to expose and sharpen their criticisms of the perceived wrongs besetting the country. This is evident from the many politically motivated emails, electronic articles, sound and video bytes that are in circulation. Strangely enough this digital propaganda is all decidedly pro-opposition. But they do face seemingly insurmountable disadvantage in making themselves, or rather their lucid blueprint to lift the country out of the doldrums, both economically and socially, heard by the rural populace. Therefore, their performance could be used as a barometer to gage whether political activism, the digital way, has come of age in Malaysia.

A friend emailed me urging me to cast a postal vote, thereby fulfilling the basic duty of a citizen and exercising a right granted under the Constitution. But I found out that the eligibility to do so is not a blanket one applicable to all Malaysians domiciled overseas. Only those who are overseas in the government employ such as in the diplomatic missions and peace keeping forces and full-time students are given the privilege. Others who are outside the country for any other reason, including employment related, have to return to vote. When told of the restriction, the same friend commented wryly that perhaps these people drawn overseas by the allure of the greener pastures are by default a disenfranchised lot and thus considered good riddance by the government of the day. But these are my own words, suitably embellished to transmit his cynicism.

Next off is Taiwan, this time the presidential election slated for March 22. Now Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and has only diplomatic relations with a few countries, notably from the Third World. However, Taiwan has been an economic phenomenon and maintains trade links with most countries, including Malaysia.

Personally, I have no interest in Taiwanese politics, save for the fact that I'm ethnic Chinese and thus may feel some kinship with the folks there. Rather, I'm intrigued by the style of politics waged in this island between the so-called in-province and out-of-province people, the former being reserved for those who are actually born and bred in Taiwan itself, and more recently, the emergence of the call for independence as a political platform.

A secondary reason is perhaps our circle of friends here are of Taiwanese origin coupled with the plethora of local newspapers that cover all things Taiwanese. Inevitably, sometimes a conversation gets steered, either consciously or otherwise, to the presidential election in Taiwan. However, I must admit that my experience with the Taiwanese brand of politics, which has earned some notoriety for featuring scuffles in the august hall of the parliament and unabashed abuse of power (then again the latter is rife elsewhere too), is vicarious. As with most things, any opinion formed on third person anecdotes and accounts likely remains uncritical and is never a sound basis for informed discourse. Thus my views on Taiwanese politics would seem bordering on the naivete, propped by self righteousness, and hence shall remain private.

While intrigue is the word as far as the case of Taiwan is concerned, intricacy would be the most germane for the US election, the last in the trio. But this is not the presidential election or the Primary, which is slated for November. What is ongoing now is electoral contest for the party nomination. Like Britain, US has a two-party system, the Republicans (GOP) and the Democrats. Each has held the helm in various times, the present one belonging to the Republicans.

In the runup to the Primary, each party is to elect its own candidate for the ultimate face-off. And the nomination contest is by states, each being assigned certain number of electoral votes based on size, and the winner takes all. Nor is the state election concurrent and the whole exercise could stretch over several months. This is the system of the electoral college and the candidate with the highest number of electoral votes wins the nomination. So it's not uncommon for some candidates to test the water who then fizzle out later as they learn of their flimsy political support as polling results continue to roll out. Such is the case for the Republican party, which nows has a nominee by the name of John McCain.

On the other hand, a protracted tussle that may extend to the very end is not a rarity either. And the Democrat nomination contest is shaping up to be just that, no clear winner at this point in time. The two front runners, in fact the last two standing, are a woman and a black man. Whoever wins is going to be the first in US history.

Each day, newspapers and TV news are full of analysis of the candidates' views, plans, and just about any audacious hope that would right the country's litany of woes. Every other day would also witness the outpouring of support from celebrities, each buttressed by his/her personal take why he or she is the deserving one.

So three elections, each generating its own fever among the concerned. Such is the human drama unfolding on the world stage, or country stage as the case may be.