Monday, June 29, 2015

The President has become a king

Students of American history will recall the many grievances against King George III that were called out in the Declaration of Independence. Among them were the following:

“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

…imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”

“…depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury”

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws”

I cite those indictments because they represent just a few that still affect us to this day.

But, rather than a monarch being the source of such unconscionable anguish, it is our very own President who has been guilty of such crimes against our people.

It was never intended to be this way.

In the years that followed the signing of that sacred document on July 4, 1776, the Founding Fathers utilized their newfound independence to fashion a government that was beholden to the people (rather than a people that were beholden to the government). Knowing full well the flaws that come with Kings, they created a republic, and for it a Constitution that clearly called out the limited powers and responsibilities of our federal government. In just over 1,000 words they defined the role of the Executive – the President – someone who theoretically replaced the role of the King, but unlike a King, had almost no powers. The President could not make laws, create taxes and fees, and declare war – all powers that Kings took for granted. A President’s duties were very few: He was to be the face of our nation, the Commander in Chief of our armed forces, the appointer of judges and ambassadors, and he was to execute the laws created by Congress.

Although the ultimate law of the land – the Constitution – clearly and concisely identifies the legal role of the President, we’ve seen the office stray from those limitations.  And, despite protestations by the Grand Old Party, this is nothing new to the office since President Barack Obama came into power. Every President of our lifetimes has been as despotic as kings, including alleged small government types like Ronald Reagan. They do as they shouldn’t and do as they want, even if the end result is not the peoples’ will.

This addiction to centralized, unconstitutional power has become the norm and dates back to the days of Lincoln, a man who had no consideration for the Constitution and was painted as a hero for it. Lincoln opened the floodgates that led to the modern and popular interpretation of the presidency that allows Presidents to declare war (our last Constitutional war and occupation was World War II), suspend trial by jury and exert indefinite detention, and use their administrative offices to make regulations (which are laws), impose taxes (fees and fines), and infringe upon the rights of the people and the sound operations of the free markets. They have grown beyond the boundaries of their duties and have assumed the powers that were once - and are elsewhere – bequeathed to monarchies, doing everything, unchecked, that a Congress should, thus taking all power away from the people and keeping it for themselves.

The people fail to see that the ultimate power should be in their hands, through our representative form of government. The nation was founded so that the Congress was the most powerful branch of government. The general belief is that all branches share equal power; this is not so -- the Executive Branch should only be a check and a balance to an overreaching Congress, as are our courts to both. Our nation was founded this way so that the masses were equally represented and the development of laws and budgets came from a governing body directly accessible to the common man and which could actually be comprised of the common man. The rights and consent of the governed were paramount.

Yet, sadly, that is not what the people seem to want anymore. Carefully observe how the voters act in this election cycle. They want to know what the presidential candidates will do for them. They expect them to fix the economy, regulate industry, exert social mores upon the masses, assume war powers, make laws, control the Congress, create tax policy, intervene in foreign affairs, and suppress liberty in the name of security. They think the President is -- and they clamor for -- a singular power, a central essence, a king.

 From the 29 June 2015 Lockport Union-Sun and Journal

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A declaration of dependence

Next week, we will be observing the quintessential American holiday — our Independence Day. From coast to coast, people will celebrate with their usual vigor the greatness that is these United States. Sadly, much of that patriotism will not be based on true Americanism. Instead, for a majority of our citizens, the vision of what America has been, is, and will be is but a mutation of what our nation is supposed to represent.

In its simplest terms July 4 celebrates the independence that our Founding Fathers achieved from the British in 1776. But it’s much deeper than that. When they cut ties with the motherland, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence were also cutting ties with — then and for the future — onerous forms of government. They were founding a nation, perchance a heaven on Earth, based on the basic yet so magnificent premise that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Founding Fathers believed that we as individuals were just as independent from control and oversight as our embryonic nation was from the grip of Great Britain. Our singular destinies were based in self-determination and we — not the government — were to decide how we lived our lives. That new form of self-rule that they devised at the time (which was so eloquently defined by the Constitution 11 years later) ensured that the federal government was a subject of and by the people (not the other way around) and was there only to provide for an environment that guaranteed the protection of our natural rights and ensured that no one, not even the government itself, could infringe upon those rights and prevent anyone from pursuing his life’s dreams.

The times have changed, however.

Many of the same Americans who will celebrate our formative document and its philosophies on July 4 have willingly decided to abandon those tenets. They clamor for a form of government that our nation won its freedom from. Slowly but surely, even subconsciously, they have declared their dependence.

They want a ruling body that will do more than create and execute the rule of law. They want and need a ruling body that will provide for their everyday comforts — from income to food to housing to cell phones to health care to retirement. They want a federal government that, in defiance of the Declaration of Independence, will not allow the pursuit of Happiness but will instead outright issue Happiness, or at least a sickeningly limited version of it, while snuffing out the Happiness of those souls from whom it pilfers its resources.

Looking at what our citizens have come to expect over the years -- and what they are now demanding amidst the continued throes of the economy’s struggle to regain good footing -- it’s obvious that the majority don’t value independence anymore. On July 4 they should lock their doors and stay away from any and all of the festivities. Celebrating as they normally do would be but a display of total hypocrisy.

If they truly believed in what the day stands for, they should demand that the government get out of the business of providing a cradle-to-grave existence and, instead, put an end to the taxes and freedoms it extracts from productive sectors of the economy and the free nature of good people in an effort to make functional its corrupt – and, yes, totally un-American -- system of social and corporate entitlements, alleged security and the resultant bastardization of freedom.

Ending the federal government’s destructive actions and getting back to our roots would allow every one of us to pursue our own version of Happiness….the very thing that America and independence are all about.

From the 22 June 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What are those bugs in your swimming pool?

This is the time of the year when homeowners become frustrated with insect life proliferating in their swimming pools. Two common insects that appear in almost every swimming pool and seem almost impossible to control are water boatmen and backswimmers.

These insects are true bugs – that is they can be actually and scientifically called “bugs” (whereas beetles and flies can’t) as they are members of the hemiptera order, the same insect class as stink bugs, boxelder bugs, and assassin bugs. Like those other bugs, these little swimmers (especially the backswimmer) can be problematic.

The water boatman

The water boatman is a small insect that is ¼ to ½ inches long. They have elongated, oval bodies that many people say are torpedo shaped. When you see them swimming in your pool, their very long back legs are perpendicular to their body, like little oars.  You can tell them apart from backswimmers because they swim in an upright position with their back towards the sky.

They are excellent swimmers, but that skill set is not used as a means to chase prey. Unlike the backswimmer, the water boatman eats plant material. It likes algae and will be seen eating the slime off of your pool wall.

They are incredibly abundant and only dabble in pools. You can see them in every pond, lake, puddle, and birdbath in the area – anyplace where there’s standing water and algae.

The backswimmer

The backswimmer can stay submerged for up to six hours. 
The backswimmer looks almost identical to the water boatman but that is where it ends.

Like the name says, they swim on their back. And, they are far more accomplished at swimming than water boatmen and, therefore, can be found in almost any body of water, including streams. They can pause at any depth of water and control their buoyancy quite well. They can stay submerged for up to six hours because they keep air bubbles trapped in their abdominal pockets and folds.

Unlike water boatmen, backswimmers are predaceous and feed on small insects and other small aquatic animals, including tadpoles. They will go after creatures that are stuck in the surface film of water. They have a piercing mouth that they impale their prey with. They then use that mouthpart to squirt digestive agents into the prey and then suck out its insides as liquefied food.

Do not handle them!

While you could pick up a water boatman with absolutely no issue, the backswimmer is a different story.

When cleaning your pool, do not pick them up with your bare hands and encourage your guests to stay away from them.

They are commonly called “water bees” for a very good reason. If they bite you, it hurts as much as a bee sting or wasp bite. That’s because of both the aforementioned mouthpart and that digestive chemical that comes out of it.

They are so nasty that occasionally they will, unprovoked, bite down on exposed skin underwater and really catch you by surprise. I can remember a couple of bites from these nasty bugs in my high school years.

How to keep them out of your pool 

It’s nearly impossible to keep water boatmen and backswimmers out of your swimming pool, but you can substantially cut back on their numbers.

These bugs are attracted to swimming pools at night by lights that are around the pools. Some folks in the pool industry suggest covering the pool every night or replacing standard light bulbs with orange or yellow bulbs.

Also, keep a small net handy on the top seat of the pool to scoop up backswimmers whenever you see them. Nothing can so quickly ruin a pool party than a little kid being bitten by one of those nasty bugs.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s glad backswimmers aren’t the size of alligators. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 25 June 2015 East Niagara Post

Thursday, June 18, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The unappreciated tulip tree

When homeowners plant a tree in their yard they want one that’s showy, quick-growing, flowering, tall, and resistant to disease.

There is one tree native to Eastern Niagara County that covers all of those bases and more, yet remains almost untouched and unloved by gardeners and landscapers. That unappreciated tree would be the tulip tree.

A piece of ancient history

The tulip tree — so named for its tulip-like flowers — has been around for
You might also know it by one of its popular names of yellow poplar, but the tulip tree is not a poplar. It is more closely related to the magnolias, impressive trees you will be familiar with if you’ve ever been in the South or toured the Appalachian Mountains.

A giant from a bygone era, the tulip tree remains almost the same as it did 50 million years ago.

Although since the dawn of man this tree has been native only to the Eastern United States, it was found throughout the northern hemisphere in warmer eras when giant beasts wandered what was a very warm arctic. Fossil records show impressive stands of these trees having grown in Greenland.

As the north cooled, the tulip trees retreated south and western New York is now at the northernmost edge of the trees’ range. They can’t be found in the Adirondacks and could be considered rare in good portions of the Allegheny Plateau of southwestern New York and northern Pennsylvania due to the cold weather at the higher elevations.

But the protective warmth of the Niagara Escarpment and the Lake Plains that allows grapes and stone fruits to grow mightily in Niagara County affords tulip trees the same chance at success, both in size and numbers. They can be found in lawns, parks, and forests throughout the area.

Why is it called a tulip tree?

The tulip tree gets its name from the attractive tulip-like flowers that appear on local trees in early June. They are wide and cup shaped, with 6 rounded green or yellowish petals that have an orange tint near the base. Inside the cup are numerous small “fingers” reaching to the sun.

These beautiful flowers, which certainly hearken back to a prehistoric era, won’t appear until the tree is 15 years old, so if you plant one, don’t be heartbroken if you don’t see them soon.

In a couple of months those flowers will fully transform into the fruit, which is almost like a cone in appearance. The fruits are three inches long and made of many overlapping nutlets which each hold one or two seeds in them.

Its beauty comes from more than just the flower

Tulip tree leaves are commonly referred to as "unusual," largely due to the
fact that there's no better word to describe them.
The appeal of tulip trees doesn’t end at the flowers. Take the leaves for example. They could be considered strange, and once again, something you might see growing at Jurassic Park. They are almost impossible to describe to the layman (various field guides use the word “unusual” in their description) which is why a photo joins this report. Those leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall, hence the name yellow poplar.

The tulip tree is the tallest deciduous tree in North America, and down south they can reach heights in excess of 150 feet. Local trees aren’t slouches either – it’s not uncommon to find trees in the 80 to 100 feet range. One in my yard stands next to and towers over my Victorian farm house.

When Europeans first set foot on the continent, tulip trees with implausibly-massive trunks exceeded 200 feet in height. Pioneers and Native Americans used to hollow out single logs to make long, lightweight canoes.

The nice thing with tulip trees is that given the right conditions, they grow quickly. If you cut an old tree and looked at the annual growth rings, many would be close to a half-inch wide, which is very impressive. A 15 year old tulip tree in Niagara County will exceed 20 feet in height.

Tulip trees also grow very straight (even freakishly straight) and maintain narrow crowns. As the tree ages, you won’t have leaves or branches close to the ground and the crown doesn’t create much shade, which might account for its lack of popularity despite everything else going for it.

Growing your own

You’re probably not going to find any tulip trees at local nurseries. To grow them in your lawn, find someone with one in theirs. Tulip trees can often be quite fertile and their seeds will spread throughout that homeowner’s lawn. Look for small tulip trees this time of year popping up at places where the wind would have completely stopped the seeds…at the bases of other trees or alongside a house. More often than not, tulip tree saplings become the victims of Round-Up and weed whackers because of this affinity to grow where they shouldn’t.

When you transplant the seedling, make sure it has full sun and well drained (but still moist) and cool soil. You don’t want them too wet or too dry. The soil has to be deep, too, it can’t be just a few inches of
topsoil over bad clay because the initial roots are fleshy and delicate.

Given the right conditions, they will grow quickly and will be a part of your yard for as long as you live: They don’t succumb to disease and they have no parasites to speak of. That’s why the species have survived for so many millions of years.

Make it a point to plant a tulip tree sapling this year – they are unappreciated trees with a rich ancient history and the potential to really brighten up your yard.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he counts the tulip tree as his favorite deciduous tree. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 18 June 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, June 15, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The eyed click beetle – a sight to see

With the summer upon us, a lot of creepy-crawlies will be coming out of the word work and garnering a lot of attention from surprised locals. One of those insects, the eyed click beetle (sometimes called the eyed elator), is a real attention-grabber – every year at least one of my Facebook friends posts a picture of the beetle on their page and asks “what is this thing?!”

Such is to be expected; they are certainly a sight to see. They are not little beetles, they are 1” to 1 ¾” long, which is pretty big for a beetle in Niagara County. Their black body mottled with white is contrasted by two large eye-like spots on their thorax. Those eyes are likely a defense mechanism to frighten away its predators like blue jays and small mammals.

Eyed click beetles are fairly common in the area, but they are rarely seen as they spend most of their time on trees, under loose bark or in rotting timber. The adults eat very little but the maggot-like larvae known as wireworms have voracious appetites. The larvae can be found in soil or in rotting logs and they will feed on plant material but are more likely to consume small insects and other arthropods that they encounter in their travels. It should be noted that other species of click beetles (there are more than 800 of them in North America) are less predaceous and feed almost exclusively on plant roots – they can be especially damaging to crops like corn, cabbage and potatoes.

Click beetles are named as such because they have a secret power. If they fall onto their back or a predator flips them over, they have the ability to right themselves. What they do is arch their back and a fingerlike spine on their thorax nestles into a groove under the mesothorax. This makes a click noise that you can easily hear and the action catapults the beetle as much as 2 or 3 inches into the air and it will land upright on its feet. Smaller click beetles are more effective at doing that, so if you flipped over a larger click beetle, like the eyed elater, it might take him a few tries.

It’s a fun trick to watch and I encourage you to show it to kids. But be careful, all click beetles have pretty strong jaws and can bite. It’s not as painful or lingering as a bee or hornet sting, buts it’s still surprising nonetheless, especially for children. As you’ll see though in the photo, I’m holding one, so it’s not that bad.

Over the summer this column will look at more insects that, like the eyed click beetle, attract attention and can be a little unnerving to many people. As for all of these large and interesting insects -- don’t squish them. Appreciate them for what they are, an interesting part of the nature scene on the Niagara Frontier.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he harasses click beetles by flipping them over. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 11 June 2015 East Niagara Post

How to keep the young in Western New York

The vibrancy and future of a region are directly determined by how many young adults have staked a claim on the area, choosing it as a home and a workplace that fits into their personal and professional plans. The metropolises that attract and keep the most people aged mid-20s to early-40s end up being the greatest economic engines in both the short term and the long term.

It’s obvious that Western New York is not among those places. A couple of years ago Forbes ranked Buffalo as third in the country for the cities that are going grey the fastest. That’s because we don’t have the jobs that would keep kids here nor do we have the economic system that would put them at ease regarding the future realization of their full potential. It’s because of that malaise that our youngest residents flee the region en masse: Whereas the US population grew by 3.3% from 2010 to 2014, the Niagara County population shrank by 1.4% over that same period.

They weren’t the only young folk who left us; consider their peers from around the globe come to WNY for a world-class education. The region is a hotbed for high-quality academics, the far western counties being home to 25 colleges and universities with total enrollment in excess of 75,000. Despite the attractiveness of that intellectual environment there’s little to keep them here once their studies are done.

In order to change WNY for the better we must reverse those trends. We must make this a life-long home for those who were raised here and those who educated here. If we could keep them engaged and interested then we can assure the vitality of the region.

This can only be done in baby steps. There’s no magic cure, no silver bullet that will change this situation overnight. It will take a deliberate effort and little victories to begin a slow but consistent path to an ultimately younger community. By giving incentives to and utilizing the resources of the current crop of youth we can open the door for future generations.

First and foremost in this cause should be the emphasis of college communities as the epicenter for economic development. Some of the greatest minds in the world come to area colleges – especially the University at Buffalo – and it would be nice if they could have a chance to apply what they’ve learned locally (rather than Dallas or New Delhi) to make the next best consumer product or achievement in medical technology.

The leaders in the public and private sectors of the locales that realize this benefit (California quickly comes to mind) do their best to give those youth the backing in resources and finances that they need. It would behoove WNY’s academic leadership to bring in businessmen of deep pockets who are willing to serve as the angel investors or venture capitalists for their graduates, giving them the start-up funds necessary for their enterprises. WNY really isn’t home to such individuals (Erie and Niagara Counties have only 663 millionaires) but some slick marketing to millionaires in Manhattan (who exceed 16,000) or similar wealth centers could easily find generous souls interested in the financial and social return on investing in fresh-faced geniuses.

At the same time we need the private sector to share more than just seed money (voluntary and involuntary). Every taxpayer – corporate or individual – "invests" thousands of dollars every year in elementary and high schools, community colleges, and SUNY campuses through their property and income taxes, yet very few taxpayers take what you would call a vested interest in the final product. We need everyone – especially businessmen and women - to share their intellect and experiences and dedicate themselves to the development of our youth (and therefore our region). If more companies opened their doors to internships or more business owners mentored students or spoke to classes on a regular basis we could make them better students (and better workers) and maybe permanent residents of WNY. Who knows, the attentive businessman might find that key employee and bright idea he’s always been looking for. This endeavor would best be achieved if Chambers of Commerce and other business groups joined forces with local colleges to create a clearinghouse or partnership that would team schools and professors with the industrialists and retailers who could help them reach their educational goals.

There are countless other tasks that could be undertaken – such as low-cost, state-provided student loans that offer lower rates for those who stay in NY – but these are a start. Basically, the leadership of this region really needs to focus on connecting area students with employers and investors in hopes of tempering the migration of the young minds which should represent our greatest asset.

From the 08 June 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Monday, June 1, 2015

The thrill is not gone

I can still remember the first time I was exposed to the blues in the purest form, having heard Robert Cray’s dark “Smoking Gun” and Albert King’s magnificent live version of “Blues Power” just days apart. Those songs were my veritable gateway drugs to this most American and most personal of music styles; from there I became addicted to the blues, and the “dealer” whom I went to the most and who fueled my interest in the music was none another than BB King. I have dozens of his CDs and was lucky enough to see him in concert almost a dozen times over the years, including twice from the front row.  

BB’s showmanship, keen songwriting, impassioned guitar playing and equally power vocals led me to explore other blues artists like Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and the blues became my music of choice, and for more than half of my life now I have listened almost exclusively to that genre.

So, you might say that last week’s laying to rest of BB King was my Presley/Lennon/Cash/Jackson moment. While the fans of those late musicians felt a void at their passing, that’s what I experienced at BB’s. Family and friends knew that BB was so important to me that they genuinely said they were sorry, as if I had lost an uncle.

People so easily identify with – and are so easily identified with - their favorite performers because of the modern portability and accessibility of music, which lends it to creating a soundtrack to their lives; it’s with them at all times and all events, from the mundane to the magnificent. BB’s soulful tunes are played in my office and home daily, they’ve been blared when driving with the windows down on the precious sunny days of Western New York’s short summers, and they were playing in the truck when I took my daughter home for the first time. He’s always been there in spirit.   

Although BB’s passing was certainly not welcome or unexpected – he was 89 after all – he’s the type of artist who never really dies. His legacy will live on forever, like those of Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Vincent Van Gogh.

That legacy is, like those of the aforementioned greats, felt directly and indirectly. His art will always be available in some recorded format. It will also show in the artistry of others – his mastery of the electric guitar influenced and will influence generations of musicians, across all genres, and was responsible for the fretwork that we hear in classic rock, modern rock, and country. Without BB the world of music would sound a whole lot different. Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many more all named him as a critical influence.

Millions more with lesser-known names than those rock stars (we regular folk) were introduced to the power of the blues because of the King of the Blues. When you think that he for most of the past 60-plus years played well over 250 concerts and club dates every single year, you know he soothed countless ears and hearts and opened a plethora of eyes to the brand of music that he was the greatest ambassador for not only here in the states but around the world as well -- he played in 90 countries and before the Pope and various heads of state.

Although it’s still considered fringe music, very healthy blues bars, festivals, radio stations and subcultures exist in cities the world over. It’s doubtful they would if BB had not brought the music to the masses. The blues could have gone the way of the field hollers that spawned the music.

While BB King -- the person -- may be gone from this world, he has not left us. The thrill is not gone, not nor will it ever be.

Rest in peace, Riley B. King.

From the 01 June 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers