…is not just something that affects the poor in other countries: it is never far away. This LA Times editorial is a step in the direction of public awareness, but says some things that just aren’t so. (Who am I to say? Well, I came down with a bad case in Zimbabwe, got obsesssed with the subject, amassed a small library on various parasites, and even wrote a short account of my adventure for Men’s Journal).

The editorial writer makes some sensible connections between the disease and poverty. But then he states: “Unfortunately, there aren’t very many [ lessons] to be learned from the United States. American mosquitoes didn’t evolve to carry the malaria parasite, and they aren’t very efficient at it. In Africa, they are the perfect hosts; the hot African climate also accelerates the progress of the disease. Americans never faced a threat close to the one in Africa”.

The last statement is literally true; the rest is biological nonsense. Native malaria was a major impediment to the settling of the Ohio River Valley– Lewis and Clark encountered it there. It wasn’t wiped out in Staten Island until the Thirties! Hell, the disease was named in Rome, and prevalent even in colder Venice– it is not only a tropical affliction.

There are many native malarias. Most are bird- adapted– I lost a falcon to one when I boarded him on the Rio Grande. But falciparum, the deadliest malaria, jumped from bird to human, the way Avian flu may be poised to today.

It CAN happen here.

For a comprehensive (and often amazingly witty!) look at the biology and anthropology of malaria and other parasites I highly recommend the books of Robert Desowitz, a man who has fought in the trenches of public health.


Reid and Chas both sent me
fascinating link to Prariemary on the “recent” presence of condors on the Montana plains. They apparently hung on until the buffalo were gone, and might return again if introduced in the wake of big herds– see last post.

“When Claude Schaeffer, curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian, began to investigate birds in the lives of Blackft, he easily learned the names for the golden eagle (pitau), bald eagle (ksixkikini) and turkey vulture (pikoki) but the informants said there was another bird, a reeeeaaaaaally big bird: omcxsapitau or “big pitau.” Schaeffer became convinced this was “Gymnogyps californianus” or the California condor, the greatest of all flying birds of the north. This was unexpected for contemporary ornithologists and important in terms of understanding the ecology of the plains.

“It had already been established that condors participated in the eagle feast of salmon migration in the early quarter of the 19th century. One lone ornithologist named J. Fannin saw two “fine birds” just west of Calgary on September 10, 1896. The wingspread of these birds is eleven feet — no wonder many of the stories of strange doin’s include big birds.
“Dick Sanderville at age 82 reported that Raven, aka “Hairy Face” or “Big Crow,” was going along from Old Agency to Little Badger and saw a big creature in a coulee. It was immense, dark, and had a feathered ruff under a bald head. This was 1897 and the sighting became the year marker: “When Big Crow saw the Omaxsapitau”.

Another home for this Pleistocene relict would be welcome– the more sites (see previous again) the better. They are already suffering from a “new” plague down south.

Re- Wilding: Update

A lot of misinformed objections continue to arise from the proposal to repopulate the Great Plains with a “Revived Pleistocene”. Two letters to Nature, here and here , make points that have little to do with the project. The author of the first worries both that the introductions won’t work and that if they do they will decrease biodiversity on the Plains. He doesn’t seem to realize that the lack of success of the entirely domestic southern camel, the dromedary, in 19th Century Arizona, may have little to do with the introduction of northern Bactrians to the much more similar (to Asia) northern plains– and that these Asian camels are more like our lost American camels.

He also is apparently unaware of the studies that suggest that even random intros are statistically likely to increase biodiversity– and that the proposed ones are far from random and in fact have been picked to be identical species or nearly so to the lost ones

Finally, he speaks of the “new equilibria” of the Plains. What equilibrium– cow monoculture? Tim Flannery, scientist and green icon, suggests, for what it’s worth, that North America has NEVER had a stable ecology, at least since the Ice.

The other letter writer correctly states that there are new programs starting in Africa to conserve lions and cheetahs, and ones in Asia for snow leopards. Good things, really. But the snow leopard is irrelevant to the Plains plan, and the others presuppose that saving a species in one place precludes saving it in another. Apart from placing an awful lot of reliance on unstable African governments and ignoring possible population pressures, why not try both? Let a thousand flowers bloom!

I started thinking that Re- Wilding was a possible good in a hundred years. Although I still think that is a reasonable schedule, the feebleness of the objections is making me much more “pro”.

Computers Versus Recess?

Although I am not necessarily a fan of Orion magazine’s reflexive “Left Green” politics, they often have something to say against “progress” for the sake of progress. Recently, I was struck by this article about how computers are getting between children and the real world.

“Computers not only divert students from recess and other unstructured experiences, but also replace those authentic experiences with virtual ones. According to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others, school-age children spend, on average, around five hours a day in front of screens for recreational purposes. All that screen time is supplemented by the hundreds of impressive computer projects now taking place in schools. Yet these projects—the steady diet of virtual trips to the Antarctic, virtual climbs to the summit of Mount Everest, and trips into cyber-orbit that represent one technological high after another—generate only vicarious thrills. The student doesn’t actually soar above the Earth, doesn’t trek across icy terrain, doesn’t climb a mountain. Increasingly, she isn’t even allowed to climb to the top of the jungle gym.

“During the decade that I spent teaching a course called Advanced Computer Technology, I repeatedly found that after engaging in Internet projects, students came back down to the Earth of their immediate surroundings with boredom and disinterest—and a desire to get back online. Having watched Discovery Channel and worked with computer simulations that severely compress both time and space, children are typically disappointed when they first approach a pond or stream: the fish aren’t jumping, the frogs aren’t croaking, the deer aren’t drinking, the otters aren’t playing, and the raccoons (not to mention bears) aren’t fishing. Their electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their part. The result is that the child becomes less animated and less capable of appreciating what it means to be alive, what it means to belong in the world as a biological, social being”.

I am OUT of here!

For fun

A “Federal Agency” you have never heard of. (Jonathan Hanson explains how he found it “working”: “I wanted to refer to Mungo Park, the famous desert explorer, in my Sunset story on touring Arizona deserts, so I Googled him to fact-check. There was a rumor he was killed by a village of zombies, so when I Googled that . . .”

And a parasite you might not want to.

Who gets to have guns?

The rich, of course. According to this NYT story:

“Mr. Compass, the police superintendent, said that after a week of near anarchy in the city, no civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns, or other firearms of any kind. “Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons,” he said.

“That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of security guards whom businesses and some wealthy individuals have hired to protect their property. The guards, who are civilians working for private security firms like Blackwater, are openly carrying M-16s and other assault rifles.

“Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons”.

In a “state of nature” it is morally necessary to be able to protect ones’ self. Steve Sailer references Kipling’s dark poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:

“And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”

Let me ask you– if I couldn’t take my pets, and the police had QUIT, and I knew rich folks could protect themselves– should I just meekly surrender my belongings or life?

Kipling 2– On Writing

The essay to read is Clara Claiborne Park’s “How Kipling Taught Me to Write”, from the American Scholar. Since you have to pay to get the whole text, I’ll extract my favorites from the advice she selects– but really you should Read The Whole Thing. (Thanks to Reid for pointing me there).

First, the inscription over the fireplace in the ill- starred Vermont house, carved by his father John Lockwood Kipling: “Work while it is day, for the night cometh when no man come work”. Or, in my more Italianate way when I taught: “WRITE!– ya can’t write when you’re dead!” (Or as Kipling put it in a poem, more subtly: “Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made/ By singing:- “Oh how beautiful!”- and sitting in the shade”).

On “easy” writing: “I cannot write with ease or fluency, worse luck, and the fluenter the thing looks from the outside the more worriment and sweat it is for me to evolve”.

And my favorite, on compression– two metaphors: “… a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect… Read your final draft and consider carefully every paragraph, every sentence, and word, hacking out where requisite”.

And: “Let it lie by to drain as long as possible At the end of that time, re- read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening”.

I suspect when I can get this book I will have more to say– or rather, Kipling will.

The Matter of China– and a bit on Derbyshire

China fascinates me. I have spent very little time there– only stops on passage to and from Central Asia; cannot speak the language, and know far more about its neighbors to the north and west. Nevertheless I think a knowledge of China is more important for those who would make decisions than, ultimately, knowledge about any other country. Our current enemies will pass away, and China will be there.

I do NOT mean that China is our enemy– it is more complex than that. I have been accused of being anti- Chinese. On the contrary– I have a mingled awe, respect, frustration, and fury over different aspects of Chinese culture. I read their poetry constantly, am fascinated by their rising skills in biotech (yes, a little scared too), and I am furious at their environmental record and their avid consumption of endangered species as “medicine”. Militarily I fear that they are becoming adventurous, and are watching our reactions to everything carefully– do we talk loudly, then retreat?

I think it is also wise to remember that culturally and even racially the Han Chinese consider themselves our superiors, and that even non- communist Chinese consider they have an absolute right to control the destinies of Turkestan and Tibet (which they occupy) and Taiwan and Mongolia (which they don’t– yet). They also have eyes on, and increasing population in, the Russian Far East.

If you want to understand China, one of our best contemporary commentators is John Derbyshire, best known (at least outside of mathematics) as a commentator for the conservative magazine National Review (online version here.) “Derb”, as he is known to his fans– I am unabashedly one– is a polymath with a formidable range of talents. He writes critically successful novels, books on math (above), translates Chinese poetry, and writes knowledgeably about science, music (opera AND Hank Williams) and building tree houses. But he is also funny, mercilessly politically incorrect, and has the rare trait of saying what he actually believes. He offended the journalist Andrew Sullivan, who believes him to be a homophobe– a bit on that below– but he also regularly ticks off conservatives for his rejection of “Intelligent Design” and his fascnation with evo- bio, never mind his at best lukewarm support for many administration policies.

On China he has some unique perspectives. As a vaguely leftish young man he went to China and ended up marrying a young Chinese woman (who has recently become a US citizen). He speaks fluent Chinese, and continues to visit. He has lived in Hong Kong as well, in a more capitalist incarnation, and was an extra in a Bruce Lee movie!

Derbyshire’s website is here. On it you can find essays on many matters Chinese, as well as good ones of particular interest to Central Asia amateurs like me, on the issues of “Xinjiang” and Turkestan. Just go to “Print Journalism” or “Web Journalism” and scroll down.

But today I am more interested in his Print- On – Demand novel Fire From the Sun. Derbyshire seems almost pathologically modest about it– in his “promotional” column he says:

“Is the book any good?  That I can’t tell you.  The two professionals and two friends who read through it offered wildly different opinions (they always do), so nothing can be deduced from their readings (nothing ever can).  You can read about Fire from the Sun on my web site and also on the publisher’s site.  I will only say this:  it was not intended as a literary novel.  I am not, to tell the truth, a very literary person.  I am not very well-read, not in the literature of the last hundred years anyway, a fact that is brought crushingly home to me when I go partying with seriously literary people.  My attitude to fiction is close to Benjamin Disraeli’s:  “When I want to read a novel, I write one.”  I do not read much current Lit. Fic., except when paid to.  My impression is that not much of it is any good, though since I read so little, that is no doubt an unfair judgment”.

He is perhaps pulling our legs a little— he reminds me of my friend Peter Bowen, who insists his quirky Montana mysteries are mere “potboilers” when in fact they beat most pretentious “literature” from that state hands down. In fact, his further description may give you an idea about what is wrong with a good bit of Lit- Fic (though he actually likes space aliens in context):

“I can’t see much that is Lit. Fic. about Fire from the Sun.  The narrative proceeds from the past to the future.  There’s a pretty equal balance of dialogue and récit.  None of the characters is an angel, a space alien, or a coprophagic dwarf.  Nobody lives to be 200, turns into a faun, or becomes intimately involved with a rutabaga.  (Magic realism?  I shall die happy if I can believe I have got real realism right.)  Most to the point, nobody is me — not even approximately.  I made it all up.  That’s what fiction writers are supposed to do”.

Fire is the story of two Chinese immigrants (eventually) to the US. William Leung and Margaret Han suffer a star- crossed childhood amidst the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The three volumes lead them through many other travails and triumphs, ending in each attaining at least a certain kind of success in Manhattan. Every component of the current Chinese experience seems to be suffered by one or the other of the protagonists– internal exile, emigration to Hong Kong, involvement with Tibetan and Turkic “Nationalities” (ie, people)– as well as love, sex, art, death, and loss. The books culminate with the events in Tienanmen square and in Margaret’s subsequent triumph singing “Norma” in New York– for many reasons a bittersweet acheivment.

The “minor” characters are as varied as in a Dickens novel– Margaret’s Red Army brother, more politician than soldier; her Tibetan lover; her gay dancer friend and her voice coach, also gay; her unfaithful but charming Jewish songwriter husband (whom we last see going on a Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas!): her sometime mentor, an uproarious tenor who obviously shares more than a profession with Pavarotti; William’s friends from his childhood, most of whom die; his rescuer and seducer, a roguish, crooked Hong Kong cop; even his first female lover, who returns to help him in his hour of need.

One thing I MUST note given the amount of ill- informed abuse Derb has suffered over alleged “gay bashing”– do you see something there? One of the protagonists, William Leung, is an (eventually) HIV- positive homosexual male. (And he got it —the disease– out of ignorance, not “evil”.) Of the minor characters above, the three gay ones are respectively heroic, good, and equivocal but likable. There is only one nasty gay character, an amoral Wall Street hedonist, in the book, and you get the feeling his type exists equally among heterosexuals. I suspect Derbyshire just wants people to be left alone.

Which doesn’t have a lot to do with China. But the book does. if you read it, you will not only enjoy a great read– you will know a lot about contemporary China, not to mention Bel Canto singing.

While I am on the subject of China I want to recommend one more book: The Retreat of the Elephants: an Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin. This is not a book for the mildly- interested; rather, a massive (564 page) volume by a Chinese- speaking historian of staggering erudition that combines classic sources– plenty of poetry– and painstaking scholarship to show how Chinese civlization has systematically pushed back every aspect of the wild. They might write good poetry, but their “Nature” is A Diminished Thing.

Wind Energy and Environmental Ambivalence

Electric generation by wind turbines is one of those progressive environmental measures that everyone likes in theory, but that most have second thoughts on once the issue of how many and where to put them comes up. My musings on this are prompted by an LA Times article today describing objections that locals have to placing a wind farm near the California State Poppy Reserve in the Antelope Valley, California.

I lived in Tehachapi, California from 1994 – 2000, one of the centers of wind energy in the US, with approximately 4500 turbines placed on local hillsides. The picture above was taken there. So I have lived around wind farms and developed opinions and a fund of knowledge about them. Like most environmental issues, there are good things and bad things things involved, and occasionally some ugly ones, too. As a result, many environmentalists have mixed emotions about wind energy.

Free – the source of energy is essentially “free” once your facilities are in place. And there are LOTS of windy places in the country to put them. However, with the cost of the facilities and mechanical efficiency, the rates for this generation still have to be subsidized.

Non-polluting – no argument here as the turbines do not emit pollutants

Visibility – modern turbines are big. They obstruct views and are placed in large groups. When wind energy first got going in the late 70s, towers for turbines were about 30 ft high. Now, most are over 300 ft in height. The photo above shows the contrast between a new GE model 1.5 mW turbine with a 70.5m rotor and some older ones. There are large fields in the Tehachapi area where rows of the obsolete towers have been tipped over on the ground. The people in the LA Times article are objecting to the large towers affect on seasonally spectacular views such as this:

And this:
So you have to admit there are some legitimate concerns there.

Bird Strikes – there are ongoing issues with birds being killed when flying into the rotors. I am not a biologist but have been led to understand that the larger turbines with slower rotor speed are easier for birds to deal with. I also saw this on bat strikes the other day, which was an issue I had not seen before.

Noisy – these things make a fair amount of noise, something that doesn’t get mentioned much. I have been in wind farms on gusty days and been astonished at the noise.

Land Use Issues – some locals in the Tehachapi area for example have problems with the fact that the BLM leases out large tracts of land for wind farms and locals are excluded for hunting and other recreational use.

Unpredictable – though placed in windy areas, essentially their generating periods are unpredictable. This makes it an issue to balance their input into the overall power grid.

Timing – in Southern California, peak electrical usage is during summer daylight hours. Temperatures are high, air-conditioners are running and commercial/industrial usage is highest. Summer days are generally calm wind periods, with breezes finally kicking up at dusk. The power isn’t there when you need it. This is the opposite of solar power timing, which is being looked on more favorably.

Well, what I think is the ugly of wind energy is the rampant NIMBYism of high profile environmentalist such as Robert Kennedy Jr., who is all in favor of wind energy, as long as he doesn’t have to look at the turbines.

ID Smackdown

This, as the previous Kipling post, is the forerunner to a long one. I hope to write soon on John Derbyshire’s wonderful, insightful, and overlooked China trilogy Fire From the Sun , as well as on China, the Chinese environment, a book on that subject– yes, I know, ambitious, especially with deadlines, Libby down with broken ribs, and me with a sinus infection.

But meanwhile, go and read his vigorous dismissal of “Intelligent” design. This essay should put the whole subject to rest for the rational and informed, be they religious, agnostic, or atheist.

It won’t, though.