Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sing it, fellow Americans

kw: observations, patriotism, music

The gold medal hockey game ended a short while ago, and we stayed tuned to watch the medal ceremony. I noticed, as I've seen before, that nearly all the Canadian athletes can sing "O Canada", their national anthem. We have watched several medal ceremonies, particularly where Americans won the gold, and I've only seen one American singing.

What is wrong with everyone? The words aren't that hard. The tune is a bit more strenuous than most, but with some practice, most people can hit the notes. Here are the words of the first verse; please learn them:
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Whenever you are at a ball game or other event where the Anthem is played, Sing it! The U.S.A. is still the freest country on Earth. Most people these days behave like they don't value freedom any more. Use it or lose it. Let us not become the land of the coddled and the home of the craven!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My, my, a bit of a flurry

kw: observations, comments

Well! It seems that my review of Rescue Ink has generated quite a few comments. I published only one, so far; a few were simply open flames, and several one-liners that came, one per day, seem to be by the same person; I am not into publishing serial sideswipes.

The one comment I did publish states that Batso has left the group. That's the risk I took, profiling one guy out of ten. A group like Rescue Ink is simply going to be rather volatile. Three others have left also, as reported by Ohmidog!. There are six mini-biographies currently on display at the Rescue Ink web site.

So, dear Commenters, you may try again if you are willing to present facts. The single word "Scammers" will get you nowhere, for example. They may very well be in it just for themselves, but there is at least a trace of altruism going around.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Strategies for a shrinking planet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, memoirs

When I was born, world population was about 2.5 billion. It has since grown by a factor of about 2.6 to 6.6 billion. During those early years of "the good life", people in the West began to live as though planetary resources were unlimited, even though their parents, who'd lived through the Depressions of 1920-23 and 1929-39 tried to raise them to live frugally.

Conspicuous consumption became the rule, and along with it, planned obsolescence. Henry Ford is said to have sponsored a study in the 1920s, to discern how long each part of a Model T lasted. It was found that the "key" that held the front wheel to the axle never broke. "Make 'em smaller," Ford demanded. That kind of thinking eventually led to the Super 8 movie camera of the 1960s and '70s. They were designed to last twenty minutes of continuous use, and given a one-year guarantee. Kodak sales figures showed that more than 90% of movie camera owners purchase three or fewer rolls of movie film per year, and each roll takes five minutes of action. By making cameras that lasted four rolls before breaking, they nearly never had to make good on that guarantee.

Now, however, we are faced with a dilemma. Our stuff doesn't make us happy, so we work harder to get even more stuff, hoping maybe that will do the trick. But does it, ever? Once Colin Beavan thought this through, he decided, "No, probably not." And those mountains of worn-out movie cameras and other doodads we thought would make us happy? Just making them, using them, and discarding them used up mountains of natural resources, including water. Every industrial process consumes lots of water.

This four-year-old map (from a BBC article called State of the Planet) shows then-current water shortages. Water use is one issue Colin Beavan tackled in a one-year experiment in No Impact living, as he records in No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. I love the way the title takes up the whole front cover of the book, which was produced entirely from recycled paper and cardboard at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a Macmillan imprint.

Let's be clear on one count. The one-year experiment that the author and his wife and toddler undertook was not a full year of full-blown deprivation, but a step-by-step process through making No Impact in one area after another. They started with trash.

What do you need to do to produce no trash? Carry a jar and ask the Starbucks clerk to put your coffee in it; carry cloth bags to the produce market…and use only a market that lets you pick your stuff out of trays and bins, not just pick up pre-packaged goods (this is hard to find, even at the local Farmers' Market in Boothwyn). I guess he re-used egg cartons until they fell apart. And he mentions scrounging for plastic bags for picking up his dog's droppings.

The second stage was no-carbon travel. Bicycles and pedal-powered scooter, in New York City? Surprisingly, it worked. But what do you do when your Mom trumps your stance with a demand to see you for Christmas? She did have a point in saying, "The train will run whether you are on it or not." So Colin's family made fewer "fueled" trips, but could not eliminate them.

Step by step, the author found more and more understanding from his wife, who began all unwilling, almost a prisoner of the process. Amazingly, her first bargaining chip was the TV. Not to keep it, but to get rid of it! She didn't like how much time it consumed. With that gone, they could live almost without electricity (but you do need heat in a New York winter).

Couple the no-trash dictum with a local-food one (you can't know where the Deli's cuts come from), and Colin had to learn to cook. Theirs had been a no-cook lifestyle previously. This one thing is the biggest habit changer of all. The focus of the home shifts from the TV room to the kitchen/dining nook. The Beavans found that friends tended to visit more often and stay longer. Not because he was a good cook, but because the talk and the atmosphere were so congenial. They were learning that happiness comes not from stuff but from Community.

Then there's water. There is only so much you can do. All bathed in the same tubful. Launder less frequently (and learn that baking soda is a superior deodorant). Fill one cup before brushing teeth, and rinse with that; leave the tap off. And so forth. So in this area he began to volunteer with cleanup organizations, in an effort to offset his water use with positive actions such as removing garbage from the banks of the Hudson River. Just as learning to cook, this brought them more Community.

The author wrote a blog during the year, and continues to do so. He got enough attention that by late 2007, when the No Impact year ended, a NY Times reporter was following him around.

The key thing he learned? Individual actions are the only kind there are. The question of whether one person can make a difference is the wrong question. The right question is, "Are you the kind of person who wants to try?" No matter what your viewpoint, we can learn by paraphrasing something Ronald Reagan said in his 1980 campaign: If your car has gone into a ditch off one side of the road, the tow truck has to be on the other side of the road to pull it to the middle. Doing something worthwhile to the extreme is no sin, and it is instructive, primarily to the doer.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The skates of their lives

kw: sports, achievements

I have been watching figure skating for decades, and I still can't tell a Lutz from a toe-loop from a flip. Because the Axel starts forward and lands backward, I can sometimes tell that one. But I can tell when someone is having a good time, and tonight's women's long program showed plenty of that.

There was huge pressure on Kim Yu-Na of Korea to get gold, and she did. But mainly she didn't just exceed her fellow skaters, she exceeded herself. Of the last group of six skaters, she was one of four who skated a personal best. In her case, she also set an Olympic record with her score of 228.

That is what I find satisfying about seeing championship performances: when someone does the best they've ever done, at the right moment. Sure, there may be someone who does even better and gets the top prize, but to exceed yourself is the greatest achievement. That's what this is all about.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Have newborns been too large?

kw: observations, news

In the local newspapers and a radio program or two it was reported today that babies have been getting smaller since about 1990. The present average newborn weight in 2005, nationally, was 7 lbs 7.5 oz, down 2 oz over fifteen years. That actually compares well with the average weight of my generation at birth: 7 lbs 6.3 oz (I was born in 1947. Our own son, who is now 21, weighed 7 lbs 10 oz, and came out "naturally").

I actually read in one article that a doctor thinks "optimum" birth weight is nearly nine pounds! Very few women can have a baby that large vaginally. Again, when I was born, weights between seven and eight pounds were considered normal. Nine pounds was a much-talked-about rarity.

I finger as the primary cause a major trend that became prominent in the 1980s: Scheduled birth by Caesarian section. By definition, such a procedure is performed before the baby is ready to be born, so the baby is always pre-term. The tendency to set the schedule earlier and earlier, and the tendency for a growing proportion of all births to be scheduled, work together to produce smaller babies.

A secondary trend is the ability to save earlier and earlier preemies. I can't be sure from what I have read whether the genuinely premature births were included in the averages, but consider this, if they were: in 1950 it was rare for a baby lighter than 4.5 pounds to survive, but now it is considered routine for babies born weighing one pound or less to survive. Think how a large number of such births will skew an average! Much of this trend toward saving the very early occurred since 1980.

The statistic I want to see is the average weights, in several key years (1950, 1980, 1990, 2005 at the very least), of babies born vaginally who suffered no complications and needed no special interventions at birth. I suspect there will be very little difference over the years.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Canada bows to reality

kw: observations, statistics, sports

Late yesterday Chris Rudge, of the Canadian Olympic Committee, acknowledged that Canada's "Own the Podium" ambition had been unrealistic. While it is a bit of a surprise that the U.S. is the podium's current owner, it is no surprise that they are ahead of Canada. A little story illustrates why.

A young man of our acquaintance had high hopes upon entering college, of continuing his sports career. He was, in high school, the fastest half-miler and quarter-miler in Delaware. He joined the NCAA and contacted the coaching staff of his chosen college campus in New Jersey. They were lukewarm. He told me, "Just at that school, they have three guys faster than I am, in both events." The population of New Jersey is ten times that of Delaware.

The land area of U.S. and Canada is similar, and there are equal amounts of great winter sports areas. What Canada lacks is people. The population of the U.S. is nearly ten times that of Canada.

Then, you might say, Norway has more Olympic medals than Canada, but has only 1/7th the population. True, but Norway is nearly all world-class mountain terrain. I've been there in Winter, and you need to be an athlete just to get around. Also, the first ten days of Olympic competition have favored the Norwegian athletes. They have longer traditions of the alpine sports. In the next five days, I expect Norway to gain at most one or two more medals, while Canada could well catch up to them.

The real surprise to me is that Russia has so few medals: half the US's total. When Russia constituted half of the USSR, they dominated winter sports. My best guess is that it reflects the great numbers of great athletes that once came from SSR's that are now independent. New countries like Kazakhstan, Latvia and Estonia are winning medals (just a few, true) for themselves now.

The relative poverty of China has kept their pool of world-class athletes rather small, particularly for winter sports. Their Summer Olympic medal count closely matched that of the U.S. This will change as their prosperity increases. In future Olympic competitions, China is the country to watch. I reckon it will be a while before India is any force in the Olympics, for their sports traditions tend toward Cricket and other sports that are not seen there (yet).

Another side thought: I hope American football never becomes an Olympic sport. It just doesn't fit the venue. I still don't see how basketball fits in. Oh, well. I know I'm in the minority on both counts.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Living the story

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, storytelling

Don Miller wrote a book, mainly about his own experiences, which was well written and was published. Some time later he heard from two guys, Steve and Ben, who wanted to make a movie based on the book. Once Don had been induced to collaborate, the three began to write the screenplay. Don was surprised to learn that his life was actually boring, and needed quite a bit of "punching up" to make a movie people would want to see. He began to learn about Story. An early turning point was the day he realized, "My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams." (p 77)

So what is the trouble with daydreams? Nobody can see them. They cannot be filmed. Though dream sequences have made it into celluloid, a whole film of dream sequences simply won't sell. The impresarios convinced Don that the story line of his book needed a lot of work to become a Story. Don began his pursuit of understanding, what is Story?

Along the way, he realized how boring and pointless his life was. He was living a bad story. How to live a good story? He began to live with more intentionality. As he edited his memoir to make a better story, he began to edit his life. The process makes up the meat of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. In the book's five parts, he moves from being a non-character in a non-story to A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict to Get It. That phrase embodies Story.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? At the root, there are only four stories: the character succeeding and liking the result; the character succeeding and not liking the result; the character failing but growing up; and the character failing and going into oblivion. What underlies all of them, like the turtle under the four elephants of Hindu cosmology, is the transformation of the character. Without that transformation, there is no Story. The big "conflict" for Don was riding a bicycle with 15 companions from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but that is not his full Story, it is but one story making up a part of the whole.

Two things changed for Donald Miller, in a big way, as he was transformed by living new stories in his pursuit of Story. Firstly, his habits changed and he became someone he liked better than the "himself" he had been before. Secondly, his relationship with God grew closer and more profound. He realized we really do need to take God's way, that God has wisdom we don't have. But not like God is some dictator; rather, he writes, "God is saying, Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help." (author's emphasis; p 247)

Ah, there was the rub. He hadn't been very good in the "take somebody with you" department. One of his trial stories involved pursuing a woman he'd come to like. Though the effort finally failed, he learned something about relationships. And he sums it up in the experience of a couple he got to know, "Neither needed the other to make everything okay. They were simply content to have good company through life's conflicts." (p 205) It is the purely human side of the prior statement.

Naturally, such a book causes a bit of introspection. What of my own story? I realized that, after a couple of false starts, I haven't done badly. The editing of my own life is exemplified in my choices of life companions. Early on, I went for excitement and self-gratification. That flamed out within thirty months. After more than thirty months of recovery and reflection, I chose someone based on faithfulness and steadiness, and now, 35 years later, I am well pleased with the result. My wife and I both count ourselves lucky, even blessed. I could elaborate more, but the foundation of all else is our faithfulness to one another and to God.

Some of the things Don Miller has done are comparatively great, such as the Mentoring Project he founded. As a result, he is on a Presidential task force (Fatherhood and Healthy Families). May his talents always match his challenges.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The rough edge of animal rescue

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animal rights, rescue

It is not your everyday scenario. The man being visited has been seen kicking and shouting at his dog. Everyone knows it. People say, "Something ought to be done." Someone does: the visitor is big, even massive. But the dog owner has five friends with him, and they cuss and slam the door. A couple days pass. A dozen Harleys roar up and soon a dozen big, big men are on the porch. They are quiet, and in seconds, so is the homeowner. He agrees to let the dog be taken to a better home. The visitors call it "Peace through superior firepower." If you are strong enough, you don't need to fight.

So who are all these big guys who love animals? In that instance, Anthony Missano simply called together a bunch of his friends, motorcycle-riding buddies. But a few years later, he met Robert Misseri, also a cycle aficionado, also an animal lover, and the core of Rescue Ink began to come together. Today there are ten members, all street-wise, mostly tattooed, prone to wearing muscle shirts, and there is plenty of muscle to show off.

In the book Rescue Ink: How Ten Guys Saved Countless Dogs and Cats, Twelve Horses, Five Pigs, One Duck, and a Few Turtles, writer Denise Flaim has brought together the men's stories (and that of Mary, a "den mother" to the group). The book's chapters highlight mini-biographies of the members, and feature stories of their triumphs and some of their frustrations.

Because of their commitment to work within the bounds of the law—member Angel Nieves is a former police detective—they cannot brashly impose their will on animal abusers and hoarders. Their sheer power ensures they are usually treated with respect and listened to, but they rely on the power of persuasion and reason to get their point across. Their mission is primarily education. Intractable cases are referred to police.

Batso is not entirely typical, even for this atypical group. He's close to twice as old as most of them, and he has a longer rap sheet, much longer. But he's also a favorite of the youngsters they visit at schools and other events. What he does exemplify is the power of time and experience, and learning, to turn a life around. Animals often need help getting free of a damaging life. But then, so do people, and Batso and the others see beyond the abusers to people in need of their own better opportunities. Sometimes helping a guy build a doghouse can turn both dog and owner's life around.

While I suspect that the real story isn't so simple, I have dug around and found that there is nearly no negative publicity about Rescue Ink. They are not a bunch of punk kids ripping off animals in some short-fuse glory grab. They are mature; they grown past the impulsive stage. They have diligently built up a network of "no kill" shelters and other organizations that they can work with to help rescued animals find better homes. They also work with TNR (trap-neuter-release) groups to reduce the fertility of groups of feral cats and dogs. They see it as the only humane way to reduce the feral population.

Many people who see animals abused do nothing, for fear that the abuser will be equally abusive to them. They are usually right. Rescue Ink has shown what can happen when that fear is removed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Siren of Unionville

kw: local events, music

A friend and I went to the Darlington Arts Center coffee shop to hear a colleague of mine, Geri Smith, perform with her favorite ensemble.

From left, Geri on guitar, Guenevere Calabrese Finlay, Marilee Calabrese (Gwen's mother), Jimmy Daughton on Dobro, and Phil Calabrese (Gwen's father, and a long-time friend of Geri) on bass. The Calabreses are a musical family who, as Gwen told us, sang in the car because there was no radio; and they sang everywhere else also. Still do.

I'd call the genre "soft pop" mixed with folk, with some old-time gospel rhythms thrown in. There is also a strong element of the kind of singing you'll hear by Celtic Woman. All the songs but one were Geri's compositions. She has a guitar technique and style that just makes me marvel.

Geri performed piano bar music at Harry's a grill in Delaware for a number of years. She performs everywhere (she refers you to her MySpace page for schedule information). The Darlington coffee shop, on a few Fridays per year, is a hidden treasure of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A mini-exposition

kw: biblical interpretation

One set of Bible passages that cause endless discussion among Christians relate to the Sabbath. Do we need to keep it, do we NOT need to, what? The main clue is what Jesus said about it, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." It was a provision to afford a break in one's schedule, which makes for better health.

Two other important passages then come to mind. After healing someone, in a synagogue, on the Sabbath, Jesus asked, "Which of you, having an ox or a donkey that falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, will not pull it out?" And in one place in Leviticus and one in Numbers, we find the prohibition of "servile work" on the Sabbath (KJV terminology). When I put these two together, I judge thus: pulling your ox out of a ditch could be harder labor than your day job. But it is your day job that is called "servile work", in other words, the work of a servant, work by which you make your living.

So if you must do some labor on a Sabbath day, not related to your occupation, you don't break the Sabbath, but if you hire someone to do the work for you, that person breaks the Sabbath! This doesn't even get into the matter of whether Christians are bound by Sabbath regulations in the first place.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bees - the global horseshoe nail

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, social insects

I have an apple tree in my yard. For most of the fifteen years we've lived here, I've observed it full of honeybees when it blossomed in March or April. In the past two or three years, the number of honeybees has dropped quite a lot; last spring (2009) there were hardly any. Instead, it has been pollinated by quite a variety of wild bees. Fortunately, they are doing as good a job as the honeybees did, and the tree sets lots of fruit. Many commercial farming operations are not so lucky.

Every year in February about half the beehives in the U.S. are sent by truck or train to central California and, in a elaborate ballet, distributed at a rate of two hives per acre over a huge area devoted to Almond orchards. Whatever honey they may make is incidental to the pollination service they provide, for which the orchards' owners pay about $150 per hive.

There is little immediate hope for recruiting native bees to replace the honeybees' efforts. The almonds bloom for only a couple of weeks. The pollinators have to find other sources of nectar and pollen for the other 50 weeks of the year. A huge monoculture, essentially about 1,000 square miles of almond trees on bare dirt, is a bee's desert for those 50 weeks. While honeybees will fly a mile or so, most don't, and native bees will fly only a hundred yards or so. The middle of that huge orchard is perhaps ten miles from the nearest "native-bee-friendly" terrain. That may have to change.

A dreadful phenomenon has been reported just over the past four years, which is currently termed CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. A beekeeper will find a hive without occupants…or several hives, or many. There are no nearby dead bees. There is honey in the hive, and strangely enough, no other bees have come to rob the unguarded cache. A World Without Bees by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum is the latest of a number of books that describe and attempt to diagnose CCD. These authors go further with a prognosis for human society that is already adapting to fewer honeybees, and may have to adapt to none at all. For example, the Chinese pear crop is now hand-pollinated, at least in Szechuan.

This little critter isn't a honeybee, but a leafcutter bee, of the genus Megachile. It is one kind of bee that works harder than a honeybee; while it takes 30,000 honeybees to pollinate an acre of almonds, 300 wild bees are sufficient. But wild bees are not manageable like honeybees. They are mostly solitary, and they start a new nest every year. This makes them resistant to parasites, but you can't make them go where you want. You have to attract them.

Hmmm. This is one more area in which human hubris must make way for humility. We are headed for a new situation: we won't be able to just take our bees hither and thither. We'll have to woo the insects we hope will help us by pollinating our fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

But what has brought us to this point? There are several factors, and the scientific study of CCD and similar collapse disorders (the records of various kinds of "absent bee" problems go back 150 years) is still primitive. Science works best when you can determine a single, overriding factor that controls a phenomenon. We are much more poorly equipped to deal with multivariate problems. Multivariate analysis has been one area I have studied for decades, and take it from me, it is always hard, and often intractable.

We evolved to find, and if possible fix, a single cause: Saber-tooth Smilodon ate my first child. Kill Smilodon. Now it is safer to have another kid. If, instead, there is some combination of poor nutrition, this winter's flu, a festering sore here and there, so the child goes off her feed and dies of pneumonia, there is no single cause, and a desperate parent can do little but hold a dying hand. That was life for a quarter million years. Now, we have antibiotics (though they are of waning efficacy), which will stave off the pneumonia while the child's immune system deals with other threats. We think of the antibiotic as "the cure", when in reality it dealt with but one factor in a multivariate situation.

Pesticides are the antibiotics of agriculture. Economic entomology has largely been devoted to finding chemicals that will kill insects we don't like. For three generations, we've mostly ignored their effects on insects that we do like, or ought to. They are probably one factor in the decline of honeybees. A couple chapters of the book are devoted to recent "pesticide wars", primarily in Europe, where certain classes of pesticides are now banned and others are under scrutiny.

Other possible factors, each of which has a chapter, include pests such as parasitic mites (several kinds), parasitic fungi, bacterial and virus diseases, an impoverished environment because of monocropping (the 50-week-desert phenomenon I noted earlier), and the "management" (i.e. shipping) of beehives. In one place it was stated that there are about a dozen bee viruses of interest. Reflecting on human and veterinary medicine, it must be said that there are a dozen that we know about. There are 100 or more yet to be discovered or studied.

Put all the factors together, and what do you get? A puzzle we may be a long way from solving. But there is a root cause underneath all this: hubris. Human management of honeybees has become pervasive mismanagement. The "rise" of civilization, with cities and their crowded conditions, resulted in pandemics that just don't become a problem among more scattered peoples. The "bee cities" that result from common bee management practices foster the rapid spread of both diseases and parasites. We have created the conditions for bee pandemics.

Secondly, bees have been the victims of time management. Honey is their provision to insure against winters of variable length and severity. They also resume foraging each spring according to natural signals, such as temperature at sunrise or changes in humidity. Beekeepers want them to start working the same day each year, or to work year-round if possible. Beekeepers want the same (large) amount of honey per hive every year. The result is the difference you might see between the Platte River, with its meanders and slowly changing banks and diverse riparian habitat, and the Los Angeles River, with its straight run for the ocean between concrete walls. The narrowed schedule has resulted in reduced genetic variability, and bees that are less resilient when conditions get out of the beekeepers' control, as they often do.

Bees are not machines. People are not machines. Books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair once decried the mechanization of humanity; movies like Metropolis publicized the same ills. This book is less of a polemic than those, but is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, there are a few things a body can do.
  • Support the Xerces Society, which promotes reversing habitat loss, and planting of native-bee-friendly vegetation. Or look among the links on their web site for societies to support.
  • Register with The Great Sunflower Project, grow sunflowers (Annual Lemon Queen only), and send in your reports of bee visits. They need a database of where bees of all kinds are, and are not, active.
  • The NRDC also has a section on making your own garden bee safe.
Here is my solution for almond growers. It'll make the price of almonds higher, but it will save both the almonds and the honeybees. Remove 1/5 of the trees and plant shelter belt type vegetation that includes many different kinds of wildflowers. Do this in a criss-cross pattern so native bees will colonize the belts. The belts need to be at most 200 yards apart. As the wild bees move in, reduce the use of honeybees. This will give the un-trucked bees a chance to recuperate.

There is a chance, maybe even a good one, that honeybees won't become extinct. Our shortsightedness works against our best interests, and theirs. Beekeepers will soon know, and some may already know, what percentage of their hives survived the winter of 2009-2010. You know that saying, "That government governs best, that governs least"? That also goes for management, particularly "management" of insect livestock.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A gratifying conclusion

kw: observations, sports, olympics, figure skating

The only time my wife and I watch TV heavily is during Olympics season, now every two years. So of course we watched NBC last evening until we were both falling asleep. Over my lunch break I just went back—now fully awake—and watched the online video of the amazing performance by Shen and Zhao, finally winning a gold medal in this, their last Olympic performance.

We are no experts, but I guess we have picked up something over the years. As other art forms, "We know what we like." We could both tell that this couple's level of artistry was far ahead of the others'. Even though there were a few minor errors, the overall impression was, just, "Wow!" Nobody else there left us with such a satisfied feeling.

While popular sentiment has been strongly behind Shen and Zhao, it was no sentiment that earned them their medal. It was their hard work and that ineffable quality of sheer artistry that so few ever attain. Much of what they did, technically speaking, is learned by many talented skaters; it is what they project, somehow sharing their heart with the audience, that makes them special.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A future more plausible than some

kw: book reviews, science fiction, political fiction

Orson Scott Card would make a superb teacher of political science. In his "Empire" series he has gotten past having heroes who are so pathologically altruistic they almost can't function. The transfer of the Starship Cape at the end of the "Homecoming" series, I believe, signaled a transfer of this orientation within him, a maturation if you will.

It is hard to discern a single hero in Hidden Empire. Is it the soldier Cole (Coleman), an effective field leader; is it Cecily Malich, widow of Reuben Malich, a hero of the prior book in the series and advisor to the President; is it the President himself, Averell Torrent, modeled by the author on a Platonic philosopher-king? The conundrum of the philosopher-king is how a power-averse philosopher (it's almost a requirement for the profession) can gain the power to put philosophy into practice.

Half of that dilemma was a major subject of Empire; the other half is found in Hidden Empire. Having attained not just the Presidency but the de facto leadership of both American political parties, Torrent is handed an opportunity on a silver platter by an epidemic viral disease that erupts in Africa. While the action taking place in Africa focuses on Mrs. Malich and her son and foster son, and on the exploits of Cole and his special ops cadre, the larger picture is the redrawing of the African map upon linguistic principles, and a readying of the world for dealing with the pandemic.

Each chapter begins with a homily that I soon realized was either an excerpt from a speech by the President, or his own rumination (perhaps a journal entry?). The most powerful is this, one of the shortest:
War will exist as long as any community desires to impose its will on another community more than it desires peace.

Coercive men see only slaves and rivals in the world.

If the meek refuse war to defend themselves against coercion, then they deserve to be slaves.

Peace-lovers can only have what they love by being better at what they hate than those who love war.

There is no road to peace that does not pass through war.
This summarizes the thinking behind a saying of mine, "True peace means having no living enemies."

Among the political dialogues and discussions in the book, I almost learned a few things about political philosophy. I say "almost" because political thinking simply doesn't fit into my head. I'd be a lousy leader; if I lead a horse to water and it won't drink, I tend to drown the horse.

So let us turn to some of the more technical ideas. A major substory is the HULC-type exoskeletons used by the special ops soldiers, including Cole. The present technology is impressive, and Card imagines significant improvements, particularly in the "smartness" of the processors, and in the density of the power supply. The soldiers then can leap short buildings at a single bound; tall buildings have to come later. Opposed to these is the EMP, or Electro-Magnetic Pulse weapon, which I've come to know as the HERF, or High-Energy Radio Frequency cannon. I won't put any links to that one here; YouTube abounds with DIY projects.

The EMP/HERF is easier to produce than the author imagines (or as portrayed in the novel). Most of the parts needed are found in a microwave oven. Large fast-discharge capacitors are pretty cheap. The battery from a laptop could power several pulses, though recharge time might be a few minutes (you'd need a smart charging circuit to avoid melting the battery as it charges the capacitors). I expect that one of the next hurdles faced by HULC's developers will be hardening against HERF pulses.

Compared to the author's vision, it is likely that the transition of the developed world to a post-petroleum economy will be very damaging. It is a sad scenario we've prepared for our grandchildren. Could a brilliant political philosopher attain sufficient genuine power to produce the changes needed, which shortsighted democratic institutions cannot effect? Such a one would be opposed by Christians as the Antichrist.

But another major element of the book is a much more sympathetic view of Christian faith and practice than I usually find in SciFi. It is based on a historical fact from the decline of the Roman Empire: during the two plague episodes that hastened the breakup of the empire, fearless Christians cared, not only for one another, but for their pagan neighbors. Those cared for were much more likely to survive the plague. Over time, this led to a favorable climate for Christian spread (It is a pity that a major result of this is politically corrupt Christendom. Fortunately there has arisen plenty of room for more benign Christian institutions). A replay of such a scenario threads through much of the book.

Now I need to go back and read the prior book; I missed it the first time 'round.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The most mathematical mind

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, mathematicians

For one to live mathematics, there are certain consequences. Human life is, as Spock frequently said, "Quite Illogical". If ever there was a true Vulcan among us, his name was Grigory Perelman. Further, he is one of the luckiest persons ever; without a series of powerful protectors, he'd never have attained a situation in which he could hear about the Poincaré Conjecture, let alone become the one to prove it.

In the declining days of the U.S.S.R., mathematics became a favored enclave for some very eccentric Russians. Favored because the Party powers could not understand it, and its practitioners were clearly apolitical. Even so, some celebrated mathematicians were disgraced when any whiff of political interest was imputed to them. But many were protected by their very inscrutability, and by the sudden realization, over sixty years ago, that their labors were crucial to the arms race with the West.

The peculiar development of mathematics in Russia is outlined in loving detail by one if its beneficiaries, Masha Gessen, in her biography of another, Grigory (Grisha) Perelman, Perfect Rigor: A Genius + The Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. This is not just an unauthorized biography; it is one that its subject would almost certainly object to. Perelman lives in his head so deeply that, if something doesn't interest him (and there is very little that does interest him), then it ought not be done, not by him, not by anybody. He has so far lived apart from the world, and now lives in opposition to it. Everything the author learned about him she learned from his acquaintances.

Perelman won several awards and prizes for his breakthroughs in mathematics. The first, many years ago, he declined to receive because he hadn't completed a solution, merely showed how a solution could be achieved. This was a portent. There was one which he did receive, and which led to extended visits to the West, primarily France and America. It was to be the last.

On 12 November 2002, Perelman posted a paper on arXiv and sent a covering email message to a handful of mathematicians whom he deemed competent to judge his work. This paper, accompanied at intervals by two others, completed the proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, a problam posed a century earlier, about whether a sphere of any dimensionality is truly the simplest topological object. He had spent about eight years producing his proof. It took his colleagues a further four to completely confirm it.

In the end, he was offered the Fields Medal and the $1Million Clay Millennium Prize, both of which he turned down. First, considering them politically tainted (he hated politics with the visceral disgust most people reserve for vipers), he refused them with strained politeness. Then, as various persons, including his closest colleagues (it is hard to say if he considered any to be friends) implored him, and tried to arrange a compromise, he reacted with increasing stridency, and finally aggressive vulgarity, and cut himself off from all former associations. His rigid rules include that nobody ought to force friendship, or favor, on another. He is now 44. One wonders what will become of him.

Considering the unique status of mathematics in mid-cold-war Russia, it is likely that, had his talents lain elsewhere—physics or music or writing, for example—he'd have gone nowhere and probably ended up dying in a Gulag. Only someone deeply hidden in the protective bubble of Russian mathematics could survive while at the same time living by rigid internal rules than none other could comprehend. He was more stiffly logical than any Pharisee (as Pharisees are portrayed in the Christian Gospels). Having the added handicap of being a Jew in officially anti-Semitic Russia, it is amazing how favored a life he lived, prior to recent days at least.

In a late chapter, Ms Gessen explores the notion that Perelman may be Aspergian, one "afflicted" with Asperger's Syndrome, also called "high-functioning Autism". He certainly fits the description, to which I can only say, it is unlikely that anyone could have solved the Conjecture who is not Aspergian. One Aspergian, John E. Robison, offers a clue: Learning about and conforming to social niceties takes a certain amount of brain power, probably quite a lot. If one never bothers to do so, whatever the reason, there is more brain power available for intellectual work. This squares with the experience of Aspergians I know. The high incidence of Aspergian tendencies among the most celebrated mathematicians attests to the same notion.

However Perelman came by his formidable mathematical intelligence, his last communication indicates he has decided to develop a different skill set. He simply said he was pursuing new interests. If he can hold out for a few years, and most people forget what he looks like so he doesn't get accosted in the street, he may again emerge, but in what form, only he knows. I wish him well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Still digging out

kw: photographs, weather

Today the company was still closed, which gave us time for more digging out. We also had a bit of leisure to look at the sights around our yard (that we could reach).

The front walk, with its enclosing walls of snow.

The trees behind the house, with sunlight glinting off the ice that forms as snow melts and refreezes on the twigs and branches.

Icicles nearly three feet (0.9 m) long by a patio door. After I took the picture, I broke them down so increased weight wouldn't damage the gutter or eave. I put the pieces in a couple buckets to melt into water for house plants.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Getting around a Picasa limitation

kw: observations, experiences, software

Those of us who use Picasa from Google to manage our photos got a recent upgrade, which some folks have been none to pleased about. About ten days ago I also had an anomaly with it, but I found a way around it.

If Picasa is already managing thousands of photos, and you upgrade to version 3.5 or 3.6, which has the new face recognition feature, it does not complete its face indexing task. In my case, it trundled along for about twelve hours, got to the point where it was 54% done, by its own estimation, stating that it had indexed more than 9700 faces and had 8800 or so to go, and it stalled. All the counters stopped moving, hard disk activity slowed and stopped. I had been putting names to faces for a few hours as it worked, and I kept doing so. But it didn't work through any of the remaining faces.

I let it sit there for the next twelve hours in that condition (I just let it run all night). No change. At that point, I closed the program, shut down the computer, and went to work. When I started Picasa up that evening, it was waiting for me to continue to identify faces. I spent several hours finishing the ones it had found, and that was that. I could tell it had missed quite a few.

A few days later, the big snowstorm came (Feb 6), and I was snowed in for two days. I took the chance to copy my whole photo archive to a newer computer. There were just a few photos on this one, and Picasa 3.6 had already scanned for faces, and I'd identified them. I got the DVD's out with my photo collection, and loaded a year at a time. I would load a year, then Picasa would gather the photos, scanning for faces. The first year, it left 55 faces untouched, even after I had put names to all the others. I just loaded the next year, to see what would happen. This time, it cross-checked them all, and thereafter, it always completed its face checking. I did the name tagging year-by-year.

So when I was done, I had every face either name-tagged or Ignored. The process took all of one day and a little of the next. This is the work-around then: move your photos to data DVD's first, then upgrade Picasa. Put them back a thousand pix or so at a time. Organizing by years makes that a simple process. You'll need a couple hours to tag each year's photos (if you are as active a photographer as I am).

I must say, other than this limitation, I like how this feature works. Picasa's face-matching routines let it present you with a face that often represents a group of similar views of the same person. By tagging the one you see, you tag the whole group. The more faces you tag, the more accurate its picks become. Of course, you still need to go through each Face Album later to find mis-tagged faces and re-tag them. This is a one-thumb-up upgrade.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Faster, for what?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, technology, addictions

When my son discovered texting, the first month he sent nearly two thousand text messages. That is only about sixty per day; it is a good thing he was in school all day and had four extracurricular activities! I wonder how he'll do if he ever gets a smart phone or Blackberry. But he is really a talker. He got his own phone plan last year, with unlimited talk. He needs it!

It was more than twenty years ago that I first saw this scenario: two colleagues happen to meet in the hallway. One says, "Oh! I was just going to send you a message," immediately runs back to the office and sends the message. Am I right to feel proud that I've never done that, that I still prefer to do business face-to-face? I know in this era I am the unusual one.

In his new book The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, John Freeman presents a historical and social sketch followed by a manifesto. While he doesn't make this claim, I suspect there are adults now living who have never sent a snail mail letter, the kind written on paper and sent with an envelope and a stamp.

I am still traditional enough to value paper letters. I have recently finished the basic curation of my parents' letters to each other as an engaged couple during World War II. Hundreds of them; they wrote nearly daily. I also have a couple binders of curated letters from the years prior to World War I, among my grandparents' generation. Though both my grandmothers were great storytellers, there are details in these letters that they never mentioned.

How will our grandchildren learn the homely details of our lives, the lives of the early 21st Century? Will they screen through thousands of emails? (I don't hyphenate "email" any more). But author Freeman's message is more about the present than about past or future. While he ably presents the development of the mails from clay-tablet times to the present, he is clearly concerned about how we, with our stone-age brains, are adapting to the age of instantaneous communications.

The fact is, we are adapting poorly. The diseases of sedentary living that afflicted our pre-computer ancestors are hitting the X and Y generations (and many Boomers such as myself) with a vengeance. Stress is greater than ever. Many people start and end the day using their Blackberry in bed (whatever happened to a little cuddle from your spouse?). When you get an email from your boss at 4AM, do you feel compelled to answer within the hour?

The manifesto is based on three premises: Speed Matters (and not the way you think); the Physical World Matters; and Context Matters. While he develops these ideas into ten recommendations, three strike me as essential:

(3) Check it Twice a Day. With rare exceptions, our work tasks benefit from block time. Even the most frenetic jobs can usually be done best if the email is checked no more than hourly. While I use Lotus Notes at work, and it is always running, I ignore the Bings and check in only when I have finished the task at hand.

(6) Read the Entire Incoming E-mail Before Replying. I've done it; you've done it: answer the question in the first paragraph without reading further. Huge misunderstandings and even flame wars can result. Read (all), think, think again, then answer.

(10) Schedule Media-free Time Every Day. I am a knowledge worker, so I am faced by a screen all day long. Many days, I decline to turn on any of the computers at home in the evening. Sometimes I'll go the whole weekend without running a computer (which is why I blog less often on weekends). It is also why I haven't bought a Kindle or similar device. I read paper books, nearly every evening. You can be sure that every book I've reviewed in this space (~600 to date) was a paper edition.

Things to do when not emailing:
  • Take a walk with a friend, and talk about what you see as you stride along.
  • Cook a better meal than usual.
  • Engage in a hobby (my main ones are photography and various collections).
  • Read a book or magazine.
  • Sit and talk.
  • Play a card game or board game (non-electronic).
  • Learn a musical instrument, or if you know one, play your own music for yourself.
That'll get a body started on a lower-stress life.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Something for them to do

kw: observations, peerage

Last evening, my wife persuaded me to view the final installment of Jane Austen's Emma on PBS with her. It is a comic tale of well-intentioned meddling gone awry, but with the almost obligatory happy ending.

What I found interesting is the window into the lives of the "leisure class" of Georgian-Regency England. Other than a few servants, the characters are all filthy rich, living on named estates and having little to do but plan marriages for one another and enjoy various outings. They are rich enough to get away with being useless.

It occurred to me that England has possibly been able to survive rather unfortunate levels of political upheaval precisely because they found something for their otherwise useless Peers to do. Until certain reform acts of the past 100 years, the aristocrats (the men, that is) were all members of the House of Lords (now only 92 of nearly 700 Lords are hereditary). Any time one wished, he could travel to London for a few days or months, attend Parliament, enter into debate (including fisticuffs) as much as he could stand, and generally make a show of making legislative mischief, without really doing much good or harm. The quorum being set at 40 allows lots of leeway.

The general inertia of such a body results in a huge amount of de facto conservatism, regardless of the political leanings of individual Peers. I have long held that a government governs best when it governs least, and particularly so when it is hobbled by a combination of divided sympathies and encrusting tradition. The US Congress swings to-and-fro between lethargy and only modest alacrity. Slower is better.

The US does best when the Senate, in particular, is at its slowest. Many urgent matters tend to solve themselves if simply left alone. The US could learn something from England. We need not worry about term limits and such if we recognize that to be in the Washington is to be out-of-touch, and the best remedy for most of the nation's ills is for the politicians to fight one another, making a good show for us peons, and quite by accident give us a great many ideas as to how to get ourselves out of our dilemmas.

"If any two people agree on everything, one of them is redundant."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Making a mountain

kw: weather

The official total in my yard is 21 inches (53 cm).

I shoveled three times. First, beginning just about midnight this morning, when six inches (15 cm) had fallen. I didn't clear the area where the cars were parked. What I did do took 45 minutes. I slept well.

Just after arising, I began to shovel snow about 7am. Another 10" (25 cm) had fallen. The wind was blowing fiercely, and making drifts where I'd piled snow before. Even with my wife helping, we spent nearly two hours clearing the area I'd cleared the night before. Then we went in for a big breakfast.

After taking some ibuprofen, I turned in for some more sleep, and got about three hours! About 3pm we noticed the snow was slackening, and by 4pm it had stopped. I went back out and cleared the final five inches (13 cm) in about 45 minutes. Then we tackled the car park, which took us another two hours! The drifts, sweeping off the cars, carrying snow to increasingly remote places…by the time we were done, there was not just one big hill, but a ridge of six-foot (1.8 m) mini-mountains all along the driveway, and a couple more between the cars and the back fence.

Just before starting the 4pm shoveling session, I took this picture of the snow on our trash container in the back yard.

In the past, I've used the bird bath as a snow gauge. It was so nearly totally buried, I figured this one is better this time.

After taking that picture, passing through the kitchen I took this one also. All the lower windows of the house have snow stuck in the screens.

Although it looks like snow drifted up to the mid-window level, from outside it is actually seen to be a narrow pile on the window ledge. The weather bureau rates this the second largest snowfall on record for this area. The first was in the blizzard of 1996, which was just a few months after we moved here. I hope the record holds for a long, long time!

More ibuprofen, and more sleep, for me!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Elbow deep yet again

kw: observations, weather

If the weather reports are to be believed, this will be me tomorrow evening or the next morning. For the Philadelphia area and points south, "at least 12 inches…" The rest of the winter belt, and some places that see snow once a decade, have had their turn recently; now it is ours.

I am getting too old for this. The year we moved here there was a nor-easter that dropped two+ feet overnight. I went out every couple hours and shoveled another 6-8 inches. But I was a mere child of 48 then. Got a few new creaky joints now.

Although its winters are twenty degrees colder than here, I liked South Dakota winters better. Yeah, we occasionally got a 6- to 10-inch snowfall in April or even November, but most winters it would snow about an inch, very powdery snow, and then blow it about for a couple of weeks before a short thaw made it vanish. Three of those was a winter, because at -10°F (-23°C) or colder it was too cold to snow much. Snow in the Dakotas is a sediment; you pack it down and drive or walk on it.

By contrast, my grade school years in Utah, when it snowed, we often got buried. Two feet was ordinary, and four not unusual. The storms were always windy, so drifts to the eaves were common. We didn't bother to roll up snowmen. We just picked a likely-sized drift and carved out a snowman - or a dinosaur.

We also tried out making rolling plows like this from boards and parts of old wagons. I can tell you with confidence, it is very tricky to plow with one of these. If you let the blade drag more than a tiny bit, it catches on a seam in the concrete, and you wind up doubled-up over the handle with the air knocked out of you (of course we ran; the less time spent plowing, the more time spent sledding. We lived alongside a hill).

So for tomorrow's snowfall, I'm packing in the Advil and a tureen of hot cider.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


kw: book reviews, science fiction, social trends

Cory Doctorow pulls no punches. He has a garden path down which he will lead you. Makers: A Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come compelled me to ruminate on the trends on which it is based. Will small, robot butlers one day be as disposable as the $5 keyboard? Heck, for me, computers are almost as disposable as that: my sixth computer is just a year old, and I am actually a slowpoke. Only six since 1981, when I first got a TI-Pro? My son already has three computers plus an X-Box 360.

Makers features several protagonists, all of whom are rich or get rich. But they are surrounded by those who don't. The author sees no end to "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer." There is a little bit of "rising tide lifting all boats," but not enough.

It is also a love story, or three love stories. Perry and Lester, the über-makers who get everything rolling, each get their girl, but the primary love story is the two of them, two techno-weenies who just want to make cool stuff, like if Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were frat brothers, bouncing ideas back-n-forth. Success eventually drives them apart, and the perspective of middle age brings them back together. Like many a married couple, who might say, "Can't live with him/her, but can't live without him/her."

In between, they enjoy quite a ride, and I do mean Ride. Their initial foray into world-changing is almost an accident; funded by a corporate merger become venture capitalist, they invent "New Work", in which the coolest things may be disposable, but also become indispensable. It is all based on 3D printing technology. Buy cheap "brain" chips from anyone who makes them, and print the rest, from a self-loading toaster to a collective of five cute robots that can drive your car, all the while chirping to one another to maintain coordination. The Open Software movement of today becomes the Open Hardware movement of tomorrow (the setting is the 20-teens). Tons of inventors and small teams make profits at incredible multipliers.

Then it all goes bust, but one relic remains: a ride invented by Perry and Lester, like a theme park ride but self-reconfiguring, has become the most popular experience on the planet. Because people are story-tellers (and story-thinkers), the Ride becomes a Story, with a cult following. Riders can participate in its reconfiguration, by bringing artifacts or downloading idea files. But guess what? Copyright and trademark violations creep in, then flood in, and the lawsuits begin. Most of the book's action is amid this legal (and not-so-legal) wrangling, even as clones of the Ride multiply. Disney is the big bad guy here, but there is a denouement, a twist that left me spinning.

In real life, once lawyers get involved, nobody has a good day. That which was broken cannot be fixed, and monetary settlements are poor satisfaction. A crucial element is an end-run around Disney's legal powerhouse. Unlikely, but fun to read. The book is like semi-sweet chocolate. A mostly happy ending, with a bite.

Will we really become such a disposable society that we dispose of society? That is the value of such fiction. Maybe we will, but by thinking about it beforehand, perhaps we'll find a different path, and a better one. I think Orwell's 1984 did a lot to prevent the world becoming a Stalinist dystopia. Perhaps Makers will help avert the dystopian parts of its own vision.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

When we had time to quilt

kw: musings, culture, pastimes

I've never observed a quilting bee, but my grandmother was a great fan of them. With the help of a gaggle of friends, she made quilts for all my brothers and me (we have no sisters), in this double-wedding-ring design, but with a white rather than green background. This image came from a Google Products ad.

Born in 1899, she was 55 before she ever saw a television set. When a woman had leisure time, she was expected to occupy herself with handicrafts, usually sewing. Such tasks, and indeed any tasks that did not require one to be home-bound, were turned into social occasions. The quilting bee was (and for many it still is) the cream of one's social life.

Piecing a top can be a solitary activity, but it doesn't have to be. My wife was in a quilting group when we lived in Oklahoma. She and several others would sit in a loose group, each piecing together their sections (usually squares). In my grandmother's day, it was all hand stitching. More recently, machine piecing and assembling is more common, but it still lends itself to cameraderie; they just have to talk louder over the sounds of the sewing machines. As I understand it, piecing is putting together the tiny pieces into larger units, which are then assembled to make the quilt top.

Once the top is assembled, the quilting step is the greatest fun. The assembled top is attached to padding and a sheet backing, mounted on a quilting frame, then the quilting patterns are stitched in. While machine quilting has become more common, the intricate patterns of traditional quilts are still best produced by hand, by a half-dozen or so skilled women, stitching, gossiping, and enjoying one another's presence. (To be fair, I understand there are men who participate in quilting bees, and all-male quilting bees. I'd enjoy that if I had any hand control at all. No way can I make twelve stitches per inch!).

As this close-up shows, a traditional quilting pattern is lovely. It's function is to hold the quilt to the batting and backing; without it the batting will wad up.

It also shows that one cannot produce the double-wedding-ring pattern based on pieced squares. I can think of two ways to put it together, one using alternating circles and smaller white squares, plus dual-arc edge sections; another using congruent shapes with two in-arcs and two out-arcs each, plus a set which are full circles, to be put along two edges. Either way, this is a more challenging pattern than almost any other.

I love quilts. I grew up sleeping under antique quilts. Most quilts are rather thin. When we lived in South Dakota, my wife and I made a thick comforter with a quilted top (much less elaborate than nearly any other quilt, as you might imagine). It is overly warm in this area.

I've obtained dozens of photos of quilts, which I use in my "photo show" screen saver. The endless imagination of quilters everywhere amazes me. It it the premier folk art form.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Ask any zookeeper

kw: musings, health, vitamins

I heard an infomercial Sunday in which were made the following points, all true:
  • All mammals make their own Vitamin C except primates and guinea pigs.
  • An enzyme needed for Vitamin C synthesis was deactivated in the ancestors of these animals.
  • A medium-sized dog makes 4,000 mg of Vitamin C daily.
  • Animals in the wild don't die of heart attacks or cancer.
The promoter/barker then drew the conclusion: Vitamin C prevents heart disease and cancer. At which point I turned off the radio. The program had an agenda, so the question was not asked, "What do wild animals die from?"

The short answer is, in the wild, they don't get old enough to die from the diseases of aging, heart disease and cancer in particular, but the actual mode of death differs: There are two classes of beasts, carnivores (including omnivores) and herbivores. One could also say, predators and prey. Taking them separately, prey first: They don't get very old, since once a prey animal begins to slow down, a predator kills it. For domestic herbivores, that predator is human, either a hunter or a worker in a slaughterhouse.

My first summer in South Dakota, I worked in a slaughterhouse. The first day I was given a tour. In the coolers where the carcasses hung before being cut up or sold, many had pieces gouged out and purple-ink stamps next to those places. I was told those were inspectors' marks, where they had found somatic cancer. These animals were not corn-fed monstrosities, but supposedly healthy, grass-fed cattle that had walked a few miles every day of their lives! A significant portion of them had cancer already, which would have killed them in a few more years. But beef cattle are killed prior to age two. If you leave any cancer alone, it usually takes more than two years to be the actual cause of death (I had cancer for close to five years before it was discovered and, thankfully, removed).

In the wild, big cats live no more than 10-12 years. Once they slow down, they have a harder and harder time catching prey until they simply starve. In zoos, lions and tigers can live 20-25 years. There, they are at no risk of starving. These cats can give birth shortly after age two, and most lionesses have given birth by age 4. They mature quickly. A twenty-year-old lioness is getting pretty decrepit, but a twelve-year-old? She's slowing down, about like a fifty-year-old person. Not many of those who run the mile in under six minutes as a teen, can run even a ten-minute mile at fifty. In a zoo, they don't have to. Pre-killed beef (or goat) is tossed to them on schedule. So how do zoo lions die? Ask any zookeeper: of heart disease or cancer! Even in those zoos with large, naturalistic enclosures where they have lots of roaming room.

And what about herbivores that are too big for lions: rhinos and elephants? I know elephants best. Even an old elephant, male or female, is too formidable for lions, which won't even try. But about age sixty, their teeth wear out and they starve. It would be an interesting exercise to put crowns (a couple inches thick) on the teeth of an aging elephant to see how long one would live if the teeth lasted longer! Upon autopsy, an elephant will often be found to have died with cancer and arterial plaque, both. But not of it; that isn't what killed them. Yet they make Vitamin C by the pound.

I make it a point to remember infomercial sponsors and avoid their products. If they are paying for 30-to-60-minute radio and TV shows, they are, perforce, charging more for their product to cover those expenses. I don't mind half-minute or one-minute ads. They are a reasonable expense.

How much Vitamin C do we need, then? 60 mg daily is enough for most of us to avoid scurvy. 500 mg or more is enough to cause mild diarrhea (or keep you loose if you're usually constipated). 250 mg seems to be a "sweet spot", an optimum dose, and the vitamin supplement I take contains 200 mg. I am sure I get at least 40 mg in my foods. That seems a sane course.