Wednesday, August 27, 2008

of hedgehogs and foxes

Isaiah Berlin warned against sweeping generalizations. He inoculated whole populations of readers against abuse of the golden rule of historians and journalists: "simplify and then exaggerate." But the temptation concoct a coherent but somewhat fictitious story out of a body of messy facts is a powerful one. I'm one thus afflicted. I love history on a grand scale, the stories that answer big questions, and resent intrusion of nuancing details that detract from the push of narrative. For example I want to know about Hitlerism -- how it came about, why it succeeded so long as it did, how a modern state could become and sustain itself as a killing machine, why it was that a coalition dominated by another tyranny finally overcame it -- and though I want good answers, I suspect that none are as simple as I'd like.

And so,...

It intrigued me that two authors cite Berlin in essays which are

1. broad and sweeping, close to excessive in their simplifying and exaggerating
2. on topics that really matter
3. pleasingly scattered with paradoxical facts
4. bold in asserting their main points.

And which, as essays should, work through the simplifications and exaggerations to conclusions that are more thought provoking than imperative. What's more, they're both by Yale professors who teach modern history with an emphasis on the Second World and Cold Wars.

Ending Tyranny , by John Lewis Gaddis in The American Interest, subtitled Jefferson’s eternal hostility to tyranny should be our guiding light today. On reading this I thought back to my high school years when I took pride in the idealism of American foreign policy (e.g., the Monroe Doctrine), and then to my college years when I came to realize that the facts didn't quite fit this comforting view (e.g., Manifest Destiny, gun boat diplomacy, and the Spanish-American War). Now, I think first that Gaddis both warns against single-mindedness in forming policies and urges a single-minded attack on tyrannical regimes. And I think second, that economic policies matter at least as much as diplomatic ones; a fact he glosses over.

Nazism's dialectic of death, by Timothy Snyder in the Times (UK), subtitled How Hitler tried to form an empire by killing rather than converting. This essay left me perplexed. He seems to be saying that as Hitler's idealism (kill all Jews and -- one way or another -- eliminate everyone else in conquered territories to the East) gave way to pragmatism (make slaves out of conquered people) when his plan quickly to carve out a huge new German state in the East began to fall apart. He says he expected the West to go along with his plan (Britain and the US accepting -- practically welcoming -- an Central and Eastern Europe ruled by Germany. But it's my understanding that Hitler wasn't nearly so consistent in his thinking. He certainly viewed Churchill as the devil, no way a potential ally. And, as I recall, he didn't really know where to stop once he sent the German armies East. Snyder's imaging of Hitler a (20th-century anti-) Napoleon doesn't seem to fit the facts. It also seems to make victims of the Eastern populations (including those that welcomed Germans as Russian killers) in the way that the Jewish populations were victims. Not so, I think.


Regarding my subject line, see Bill Keller's blog post in the NYT Sunday Book Review Reading Room: Ich Bin Ein Berliner.

Image source: Project Gutenberg

Saturday, August 16, 2008

pig food

We encountered lots of algae on Petenwell Lake while vacationing in central Wisconsin this summer. The guy who handled our boat rental had just come from a meeting in which people whose livelihoods depend on the health of the lake were pitted against the powerful agricultural commmunity, source of much harmful runoff.

The sea of green reminded us of China's problems with the same. An account in the International Herald Tribune summarizes:
Olympic nightmare: A red tide in the Yellow Sea

By Jim Yardley
Published: June 30, 2008

source: IHT, caption: Residents clearing the coastline of Qingdao, Shandong province on Monday. (Stringer/Reuters)


Many coastal Chinese cities dump untreated sewage into the sea. At the same time, rivers and tributaries emptying into coastal waters are often contaminated with high levels of nitrates from agricultural and industrial runoff. These nitrates contribute to the red tides of algae that often bloom along sections of China's coastline.

But officials in Qingdao said pollution and poor water quality did not have a "substantial link" to the current outbreak. Instead, scientists blamed the bloom on increased rainfall and warmer waters in the Yellow Sea. Algae are now blooming over more than 12,900 square kilometers, or 5,000 square miles, of the sea, according to Xinhua.

State media reported that 100,000 tons of the algae had already been taken out of the water. Much of it was being transported to farms as feed for pigs and other animals, according to news reports.
Today, there's an AFP report on the problem:

Ocean 'dead zones' expanding worldwide: study
by Virginie Montet Fri Aug 15, 4:33 PM ET


"The formation of dead zones has been exacerbated by the increase in (pollution) ... fueled by riverine runoff of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels," the study said.

The phenomenon, called eutrophication, is caused by industrial pollution as well as runoff of water containing phosphates and nitrates into the oceans.

Oceans react to the boost in pollution by growing more algae and vegetation in coastal areas.

When the algae dies and sinks to the bottom, it decreases the amount of oxygen available in the bottom waters, a process called hypoxia, eventually wiping out fish and crustaceans that live there, as well as the foods they eat.

Dead zones tend to creep up in calm waters that see lower water exchange, but have more recently been affecting major fishery areas in the Baltic, Kattegat, and Black Seas as well as the Gulf of Mexico and East China Sea, the study said.

The researchers said the expansion of dead zones in these areas threatens commercial fishing and shrimping near the coastlines.

The phenomenon was first noted along the Adriatic Coast in the 1950s.

Seasonal dead zones affect the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Scandinavian waters.
Here are some photos I took on Lake Petenwell:

The lake is clear at its north end, where the Wisconsin River flows into it.

At that point, you can fish, swim, and idle an afternoon away drifting on clear waters.

On the eastern shore things are very different. The surface is green.

In protected areas of the eastern shore, like the marina where we rented the boat, the problem is acute. The smell is ugly.

The surface is so deeply green that in places it's blue.

And lies thick enough on the surface to support a cast-off soda bottle.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

seal stories

I was intrigued by the following story in Agence France Presse. It interested me that elephant seals swim under the Antarctic ice floes and I appreciated the immaginative use of this behavior pattern. I was also surprised they didn't include a photo of these huge animals. Looking for a photo, I found another story, also cited below. I wasn't surprised that the current story didn't reference the earlier one, but wouldn't it be a good thing for reporters to do a little research so as to provide some additional background, and not just re-write what they're given in press releases?
Seals give scientists unique glimpse under Antarctic ice, by Lawrence Bartlett Tue Aug 12, 10:35 AM ET


SYDNEY (AFP) - Huge elephant seals have been recruited to help scientists break through a critical blind spot and chart climate change under the Antarctic sea ice in winter, researchers said Tuesday.

The seals, which can weigh up to three tonnes, are fitted with sensors that transmit previously unavailable data to satellites when they surface to breathe.

The seals measure temperature, salinity and depth as they dive up to nearly two kilometres (1.25 miles) and cover distances of up to 65 kilometres a day.

They have provided a 30-fold increase in data over conventional methods.

The polar regions play an important role in the Earth's climate system and are changing more rapidly than any other part of the world, with the potential to accelerate the rate of change elsewhere, scientists say.

The sensors, about the size of a mobile phone, are fitted when the seals return to sub-Antarctic islands to breed and to moult during the summer.

Once they have grown the next season's fur, the sensors are glued to the fur on the back of the animal's head, so when it surfaces to breathe the sensor is out of the water and the antennae can transmit the data to satellite.

Though the seals are not particularly concerned about humans and scientists can approach them quite close, the animals are sedated with a syringe on the end of a pole to ensure the sensors can be attached safely.

The sensors stay on through the winter season and fall off when the seals return to the islands and shed their fur for the summer.
A quick search of Google Images turned up a large number of good photos. The most interesting was part of a NASA release which tells the story from a different viewpoint:
Mission News Satellites and Sea Lions: Working Together to Improve Ocean Models, by Rosemary Sullivant, 02.06.07


The best oceanographers in the world never studied at a university. Yet they know how to navigate expertly along oceanic fronts, the invisible boundaries between waters of different temperatures and densities. These ocean experts can find rich fishing in places and at depths that others would assume are barren. They regularly visit the most interesting and dynamic parts of the sea.

Sea lions, seals, sharks, tuna and other top ocean predators share some of their experiences with human researchers, thanks to electronic tags. Besides tracking the animals, these sensors also collect oceanographic data, such as temperature and salinity. Scientists are beginning to incorporate this rich store of information into ocean models providing new insights into the inner workings of the ocean and the lives of its creatures.

"Our goal is to produce a three-dimensional model of the ocean," says JPL oceanographer Dr. Yi Chao. Chao uses data from satellites, ships, buoys and floats to map the currents, heat content and different water densities beneath the ocean surface.

"Satellites provide a two-dimensional view of the ocean," says Chao. "Animals give us a slice of the ocean. They're like weather balloons in reverse."

"We are at the forefront of knowing how animals use the ocean," says [Chao's collaborator] Costa. "But we want to understand the environment better. We still see the ocean primarily as deep or shallow or near-shore or offshore. But just as there are different habitats on land, the ocean has fine-scale features that are very important to animals," he explains. "We want to be able to look at the ocean and say the equivalent of "this is a grassland" or "this is a forest."

In late January, Costa and his research group headed up the California coast to begin tagging elephant seals and collecting tags that were deployed last spring. The work is strictly regulated to ensure that the animals are protected from harm, and it requires a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Marine scientists have been tracking marine animals for years," says Chao. "It's an interesting challenge, though, to use the data. There are all sorts-- from tuna, sharks, seals--you name it. Some of these data sets have small errors, others much larger errors. Figuring out how to put these in our system is a challenge, "he says. "But five years from now, we should be able to see the ocean the way a turtle sees it."

What is most important about using marine animals as ocean sensors is that the work benefits the animals, Costa explains. "Collaborations between biologists and physical oceanographers are critical for understanding why the animals go where they go," he says, "as we need to know and understand the ocean physics and its relationship to climate processes. Further, the ability to understand how climate change is affecting the world oceans is not only of benefit to humans, but is vital for trying figure out what is going to happen to habitat of marine animals."
Here are a couple of images from the NASA site:

The field team attaches a tag to the fur of a sedated male elephant seal. Special permits are required for this work to ensure the animal's protection. Image credit: Daniel Costa

A male sea lion shares his intimate knowledge of the ocean with researchers via an electronic tag. Image credit: Mike Weise

And here are a couple more from Cathy Webster on her own web site.

South Georgia, St. Andrew's Bay, adult male elephant seal

South Georgia, St. Andrew's Bay, me talking to a young elephant seal

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

opinionated women

I used to think that journalism was somewhat behind other writing professions in attaining gender balance, but I'm having a rethink about that. Today I just happened to notice that many of the best columnists are women and their articles are hardly restricted to issues that are traditionally considered to be feminine. Take for example:

(1) Washington Post writer, Anne Applebaum, writes about a weighty study that is being widely read in its Chinese original but not (yet anyway) available in English.
When China Starved, by Anne Applebaum, Tuesday, August 12, 2008; Page A13.


"Tombstone" -- in two volumes and 1,100 pages -- establishes beyond any doubt that China's misguided charge toward industrialization -- Mao's "Great Leap Forward" -- was an utter disaster.

[The author] is not a dissident but a longtime Communist Party member. For more than three decades, he was a reporter for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. As a result, he had access to party documents that no one else has ever had.

Like the communist legacy, the famine exists in a kind of limbo: undiscussed in public, unacknowledged by the state, yet a vivid part of popular memory. Because China is no longer a totalitarian country, merely an authoritarian one, a journalist like Yang could spend 10 years working on the history of the famine, openly soliciting interviews and documents. But because the Chinese Communist Party neither openly embraces nor rejects the legacy of Mao, there is no public discussion or debate.

Why does a nominally Marxist party, one whose economic theories proved utterly bankrupt in the past, still preside over an explosively capitalist society?
(2) Or Chrystia Freeland in the Financial Times:
The new age of authoritarianism, by Chrystia Freeland, Published: August 11 2008 19:48

{image credit: FT}


Today, in much of the world, the spread of freedom is being checked by an authoritarian revanche. That shift has been most obvious in the petro-states, where oil is casting its usual curse. From Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, the black-gold bonanza has given authoritarian regimes the currency to buy off or to repress their subjects. In Russia, oil has fuelled an economic boom that prime minister Vladimir Putin, and some of his foreign admirers, mistakenly attribute to his careful demolition of the chaotic democracy of the 1990s.

The Chinese Communist Party studied the collapse of Soviet communism with great care. And rather than seeing it as proof of the inevitable, global triumph of western liberalism, the Chinese comrades treated the Russian example as a textbook case of what a ruling Communist party ought not to do.

The west has been remarkably sanguine about this resurgence of authoritarianism, and one reason is that, this time, the comrades have money. Even as the Kremlin repeatedly confiscates the assets not just of its own businesspeople, but of foreign ones, too, investment bankers, and plain old investors, are flocking to a Moscow flush with petro-roubles. The same is true of the Gulf states. China, on a path to become the world’s largest economy, is the most attractive of all.

Russia’s expert taunting of the hotheads in Georgia, followed by immediate and massive retaliation the moment Tbilisi took the bait, is the latest evidence that, for the Kremlin, neo-imperialism is an essential bulwark of neo-authoritarianism. Bringing down the walls really did make the world safer. Now that so many leaders are building them back up again, figuring out how to contain the 21st century’s monied authoritarians is our most pressing foreign policy dilemma.
(3) Or the Post's Ruth Marcus, on a topic that might once have seemed appropriate for the Style Section (which evolved from the old women's pages), but is now Politics with a capital P:
A Tad Short Of 99%, by Ruth Marcus, Tuesday, August 12, 2008; Page A13


There are two especially creepy aspects to [the Edwards infidelity] story. The first is the reverential, almost messianic way Elizabeth Edwards spoke about "this fine man" during the interview with Couric. This was disconcerting at the time; excruciating, in retrospect.

Even creepier part is John Edwards's resort to the exculpatory language of pop psychology to explain his behavior. "I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want."

Right. The adulation made him do it.

He was the one who told us that character counted. As in these remarks about Bill Clinton in 1999: "I think this president has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

a girl and her father

While vacationing in Madison I spent a quarter to buy a copy of Neil Gaiman's Coraline at Saint Vinnie's on Willy Street. As the book comes to a close the title character heroically takes on a final Herculean challenge and in doing so uses trickery worthy of Odysseus himself to rid the world of the witch's disembodied hand which pursues her. She has learned about bravery from her sweet-natured, absent-minded dad and she thinks of him while she tries to keep up her nerve. Gaiman writes:
She tried to whistle, but nothing happened, so she sang out loud instead, a song her father had made up for her when she was a little baby and which had always made her laugh. It went,
Oh --- my twitchy witchy girl
I think you are so nice,
I give you bowls of porridge
And I give you bowls of ice
I give you lots of kisses,
And I give you lots of hugs,
But I never give you sandwiches
With bugs
That was what she sang as she sauntered through the woods, and her voice hardly trembled at all. (pp. 156-57)