October 31 anniversaries: Remember the Reuben James

October 31, 2010

Tell me, what were their names?  Tell me what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

An encore post from 2008, mostly:

October 31 hosts several famous anniversaries. It is the anniversary of Nevada’s statehood (an October surprise by Lincoln for the 1864 campaign?). It is the anniversary of the cleaving of western, catholic Christianity, as the anniversary of Martin Luther’s tacking his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany in 1517, the formal start of the Reformation. Maybe the original Christian trick or treat.

U.S.S. Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941 - National Archives photo

U.S.S. Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941 - National Archives photo

October 31 is also the anniversary of the sinking of the World War I era Clemson-class, four-stack destroyer, U.S.S. Reuben James (DD-245), by a German U-boat. Woody Guthrie memorialized the sad event in the song, Reuben James, recorded by the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger (see also here, and here), and later a hit for the Kingston Trio. The Reuben James was sunk on October 31, 1941 — over a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Details via Wikipedia (just to make you school librarians nervous):

USS Reuben James (DD-245), a post-World War I four-stack Clemson-class destroyer, was the first United States Navy ship sunk by hostile action in World War II and the first named for Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James (c.1776–1838), who distinguished himself fighting in the Barbary Wars.

This history figures into the current presidential campaign in a small way: One of the internet hoax letters complaining about Barack Obama claims that the U.S. entered World War II against Germany although the Germans had not fired a single round against the U.S. The 115 dead from the crew of 160 aboard the James testify to the inaccuracy of that claim, wholly apart from the treaty of mutual defense Germany and Japan were parties to, which required encouraged Germany to declare war upon any nation that went to war with Japan (see comments from Rocky, below). After the U.S. declaration of war on Japan, Germany declared war on the U.S., creating a state of war with Germany.

This history also reminds us that many Americans were loathe to enter World War II at all. By October 1941, Japan had been occupying parts of China for ten years, and the Rape of Nanking was four years old. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing, and the Battle of Britain was a year in the past, after a year of almost-nightly bombardment of England by Germany. Despite these assaults on friends and allies of the U.S., and the losses of U.S. ships and merchant marines, the U.S. had remained officially neutral.

Many Americans on the left thought the sinking of the Reuben James to be the sort of wake-up call that would push Germany-favoring Americans to reconsider, and people undecided to side with Britain. The political use of the incident didn’t have much time to work. Five weeks later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and by the end of 1941, the U.S. was at war with the Axis Powers.

Letter to the U.S. Navy asking the fate of friends aboard the U.S.S. Reuben James, November, 1941

Letter to the U.S. Navy asking the fate of friends aboard the U.S.S. Reuben James, November, 1941

Telegram informing his family of the death of Gene Guy Evans, of Norfolk, Virginia, lost in the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Reuben James

Telegram informing his family of the death of Gene Guy Evans, of Norfolk, Virginia, lost in the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Reuben James

The Kingston Trio sings, as the names of the dead scroll:

More, and Resources:

New paradigm for education

October 31, 2010

Not sure where this guy, Sir Ken Robinson,  is going — nor especially how it would relate to education in the U.S. (this group is from Britian — hear the accent?).

The animation is great — I’d love to have someone who could do this for quick history lessons to correspond with what we’re supposed to be doing on the curriculum calendar.

Plus, of course, he’s right.  We need less standardization, and more personalization.  Firing teachers frustrates both ends of that equation. He’s right — the schools are headed in the wrong direction.

I’ll wager Arne Duncan has never seen this.  Any of our old friends at Education know?  I’ll wager this speech and film drop into the abyss, regardless the credentials of Sir Ken Robinson and the good intentions of RSA.

RSA is the acronym for the clumsily-named Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.  “RSA” is a deft recovery from such a nomenclaturical handicap.

This RSA Animate thing has some potential — a lot like some of the animation schemes used by network news.


New blog: Bill of Rights Institute

October 30, 2010

Have you found the blog of the Bill of Rights Institute yet?

Teachers especially, bookmark A More Perfect Blog.

They’re suitable for school, but they are not ducking issues — see the post on the First Amendment and NPR’s firing of Juan Williams.  See the post on Juan Williams talking about what it means to be an American.

Mast for Bill of Rights Institute Blog

Lancet special issue on malaria eradication: No call for more DDT

October 30, 2010

Lancet is one of the premiere research journals in the world for all of science, but especially for issues of health and medicine.

Image from Lancet illustrating malaria story

Image from Lancet –
Mother and child under a mosquito bite-preventing bednet.

On October 29, 2010, Lancet published a special report, “Malaria Elimination.”  Much science.  Much history.  No call for more DDT.

A plan for research is laid out.  Plans to eradicate malaria from more than 90 nations are laid out, explained and debated.  Calls for more research are made.  Calls for disciplined action from nations and health care organizations, and donor organizations.

But no call for more DDT.

Go take a look at the issue.  Several of the articles are available for no charge, out from behind the usual Lancet paywall.

Get the real science, real history, real policy.  Environmentalists are not evil villains there.  malaria is the villain in that story, and serious health care researchers and deliverers discuss serious methods to beat the disease.  Consequently, DDT has only a bit part.


Bill White for Governor of Texas

October 30, 2010

Even the conservative, often stuck-in-the-mud Dallas Morning News endorsed Bill White to take the governor’s chair.  Texas needs people to be smart about this race.

Bill White with Texas guys

Bill White with Texas guys - KVRX photo

According to the DMN editorial on October 16:

Record of pragmatism

Democrat Bill White is better-suited to steer this ship of state through the challenges ahead.

The former mayor of Houston is a fiscal conservative with a progressive bent. He’s more pragmatic than partisan. He’s proven himself competent in business and in public office. Indeed, he’s a bit of a throwback – in the best Texas tradition of the businessman governor.

We don’t make this recommendation lightly. This newspaper has a long history of recommending Rick Perry for office against Democrats ­ from agriculture commissioner to the governor’s office. But Texas requires a different kind of leadership at this important juncture.

Bill White is an entrepreneur and an energy expert who succeeded in the private sector before branching out into public service. White, 56, has no use for Perry’s swashbuckling, coyote-shooting style. The Democratic candidate is meticulous and analytical, hesitant to overpromise but determined to solve Texas’ most pressing problems.

As Houston’s mayor, White proved himself to be adept at balancing budgets, managing to cut property tax rates repeatedly. He drew national acclaim for his leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And White laid waste to the idea that environmentally friendly policies inevitably were bad for business – a myth that Perry perpetuates as he fights to maintain Texas’ right to pollute with impunity. In Houston, White struck a careful balance, proving that a city could go green and still be open for business.

As governor, White would be well-positioned to deliver in areas where Perry has fallen short.

For example, Texas’ transportation infrastructure needs are daunting and urgent. Yet Perry seems to be stumped when it comes to offering workable funding options for building roads. The governor’s go-to move is to blame Washington – and he does, for not sending more money. That’s a fine lament, but it won’t pay for any new lane miles.

White recognizes the need for new revenue sources and supports allowing counties to call elections to raise funds for transportation projects. This local-option approach has the support of North Texas transportation leaders but would stand a better chance in the Legislature with the backing of the governor.

The editorial took nearly a half-page of the newspaper — read the whole thing.

Texans, mark your ballot for Bill White (if you haven’t already).

Washington, by Ron Chernow – great scholarship, a good read, significant light

October 28, 2010

Welcome, Book Tourists!  This is the last stop on a virtual book tour for Ron Chernow’s biography, Washington.

Virtual cocktails afterward, I hope.  Then sit down and read the book.

In a piece of great fortune for me, six years ago I spent a week at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia, through the good graces of the Bill of Rights Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities, studying George Washington’s role in the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Cover of Ron Chernow's book, Washington

Washington, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press, 2010; 906 pages, $40.00

My academic interest leaned more toward James Madison’s role.  I thought then, and I still think, that Madison deserves a good, popular biography to complement the great recent work of others on the American Revolution and post-revolutionary organization of the nation.  We’ve had recent books by Edmund Morris, Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacs  and others on Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, the “founding brothers,” Hamilton and Washington.   But for Garry Wills’ short and crabby assessment of Madison’s presidency, I am unaware of a good, popularly-readable Madison book.    As a professional journalist, as a civil libertarian, as a lawyer and occasional investigator, my studies of the era favored Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.  George Washington took the center stage, in my conception of events, while those working around him and in the wings frantically worked to put on the production that made America and allowed Washington to play the role of a hero, the face of the “Father of His Country” role — while the truth was that such success really did have many fathers.

For most history purposes in elementary and secondary schools, for most of the past 200 years, Washington is the easy center of attention, and I suspected a different story.  Jefferson wrote better, and more thoughtfully, did he not?  Madison’s legislative work in Virginia alone shone above Washington’s.  Washington had military experience, and he managed to cling on through the revolution — but his role as president was often more as a referee between the great creative forces driven by Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson.

What I hoped to find at the Mount Vernon meetings were sources to reveal the true role of James Madison — maybe I could get the story together and write it myself.

Simply put, I was not prepared to confront the genius of Washington, nor did I appreciate the depth of his involvement in so many areas where our common understanding of history simply gave Washington the title of hero, but without telling much of the backstory.

I looked for the evidence of Madison’s genius.  What I found was the overwhelming evidence of Washington’s genius, too.

Washington’s economic genius now displays proudly at Mount Vernon, with the reconstruction of his 16-sided barn for wheat thrashing, and with the reconstruction of the distillery which made the man who put down the Whiskey Rebellion, ironically, the leading distiller of whiskey in America shortly before his death.  I learned that Washington got out of tobacco a decade before the revolution, because he didn’t like the economics of sending a crop to agents he did not fully trust in London, for sales in markets whose prices he could not track, for sales to purchasers he could not see.  Instead, he took his business into wheat, a commodity much in demand since most other farmers locally grew tobacco.  Washington became a leading wheat producer, and grew richer as a result of that and other similar decisions of clear-thinking economics.  By the end of his life, he was producing a surplus of wheat — which excited his Scotland-born farm foreman, who had a recipe for whiskey.

Washington was not merely the frontman for the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  It became clear to me that he was a driving force, introducing Madison to Hamilton, and mentoring both in their work to get the convention approved, and then to get the Constitution written and ratified.   Washington had financial interests in seeing a great, united nation out of the 13 colonies:  He had land in the Ohio River Valley to sell, to get rich, if only there were an authority to made transportation into the valley hospitable to settlers, and transportation out to let those settler farmers get rich from their produce.   Washington’s vision, I learned, was much greater than I had understood.

Ron Chernow’s thick biography of Alexander Hamilton excited historians in 2004.  As studies of Jefferson lead to studies of Madison, and vice-versa, so do studies of Hamilton inevitably lead to studies of Washington.  We are fortunate that Chernow wrote the thick biography of Washington, the first great study of the man for the 21st century.

Chernow’s Washington, A Life (2010, Penguin Press, 906 pages) is every bit the great study of Washington we need and can use.  My bias as a teacher of high school students leans toward usefulness in the classroom — a higher standard than most imagine, since, for a high school classroom, a book must be eminently readable as well as accurate and clear.

Chernow had me at the Prelude.  In a brisk five pages he tells the story of Gilbert Stuart, an often-economically-bereft artist who saw fortune in Washington’s election.  Stuart arranged to get the great man to sit for a portrait — Washington did not like it — but Stuart never finished Washington’s commission in Washington’s life.  Instead, Stuart used the portrait to copy, for others.    Stuart’s fortune came not from Washington, but from the vast throng of Washington admirers who would pay handsomely for an image of the man.  It’s a well-told story, and a great introduction to the lionizing of Washington and his image, the reality of the man who sat for the portrait, and the way history has treated the man and the myth.  [Courtesy of the New York Times, you may read the Prelude, here.]

Readers of McCullough’s 1776 know of some of Washington’s genius at war, and some of his attention to details of making things work right — whether it be the way latrines were dug so an army could relieve itself and avoid disease, or the the exact tints of the color of green paint applied to the massive dining room he had added to the house at Mount Vernon.  McCullough’s book is a taste, a sampling of the work Chernow has.  One may compare Chernow’s story-telling ability to McCullough’s, and Chernow may suffer a bit.  For Washington, the drama is so often in the details, however — and details we have, galore.

Is it too much detail?  For the life of another, it may be.  Not for Washington.  Chernow is able to make readable even the details.  One may open this book at any page, start with a paragraph, and learn something about Washington — most often, learning something one did not know precisely before.  Chernow relied on the massive project at the University of Virginia to publish all the papers of Washington, collected from various sources.  Washington had not been quite so assiduous as Jefferson in making copies of everything he wrote for posterity, though much he was an assiduous diarist and taker of notes.  No biographer before had the advantage of the catalogueing done at Virginia, nor perhaps of the scope of the material there.

For this reason alone, this book should be read.

Chernow’s portrait is painstaking.  What emerges in the end is a George Washington whose vanity would be quirky and irksome in others, but necessary to the building of the image history graces to him, as the standard-bearer for the founders of the nation, truly the Father of His Country.  The vanities quickly become clear as careful consideration by a man who understood, especially as president, that each move he made would be a precedent for those who would follow, he hoped.   One example:  Washington’s work on the bank bill of 1791, made possible as we know by the dinner at Jefferson’s where Hamilton and Madison struck the bargain that sited the District of Columbia on the Potomac, and set up the finances that would make the nation successful in business and international relations over the next 200 years.

Though he had sat through every session of the Constitutional Convention, Washington did not pretend to expertise in constitutional nuances — he nce wrote that he had ‘had as little to do with lawyers as any man of my age” — and engaged in much hand-wringing over the bank bill.  He would be forced to issue a black and white opinion that would alienate some, gratify others, and irrevocably shape the future government.  He called in Madison, supremely well versed in the Constitution, for a series of quiet, confidential talks.  “The constitutionality of the nation bank was a question on which his mind was greatly perplexed,” Madison would recall, noting that Washington was already biased in favor of a national bank and “a liberal construction of the national powers.”  On the other hand, Washington was shaken by uncompromising verdicts from Randolph and Jefferson and asked Madison, as a precaution, to draft a veto message for the bank bill.

When Washington turned to Hamilton, he made plain that, unless he could vanquish the arguments of Randolph and Jefferson, he planned to veto the bank bill, telling him that he wished to “be fully possessed of the arguments for and against the measure before I express any opinion of my own.”  By this point Washington knew the vigor of Hamilton’s mind and his extraordinary knack for legal argument.  In little more than a week, Hamilton, in a superhuman burst of energy, produced more than thirteen thousand words that buried his opponents beneath an avalanche of arguments.  His exegesis of the “necessary and proper” clause not only made way for a central bank but would enable the federal government to respond to emergencies throughout American history.  Hamilton interpreted the “necessary and proper” clause to mean that “every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign and includes, by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the ends of such power.”  In other words, the Constitution gave the federal government not only the powers explicitly enumerated but also a series of unstated or “implied powers” indispensable to attain those ends.  (circa page 649)

Two paragraphs, easily read without seriously taxing the vocabulary of an SAT-studying high school junior.  They clearly detail Washington’s care in analyzing all sides of an issue.  They reveal Washington’s ability to harness the good work of men of greatly differing viewpoints, to the enlightenment of Washington and benefit of the nation — which benefit likely would not have occurred had another man been in Washington’s place (can you imagine anyone else mediating Madison and Hamilton — and keeping them both as friends?).  Chernow gracefully slips from telling a good story to providing scholarly details (I have omitted footnotes here), but not in an eye-glazing fashion — weaving the scholarship into a story fantastic enough that it would not sell for fiction, as Twain warned because it does not stick to the probabilities.

A few years ago a student offered what I considered a great insight.  We were comparing the American Revolution to the French Revolution; naturally, considering the Reign of Terror and the rise of the dictatorial Emperor Napoleon, students wondered where the French went wrong, and where the Americans got luck and went right.  Israel Pena summed it up neatly:  “The French didn’t have George Washington.  Americans came out of their revolution with George Washington; France came out of their revolution with Napoleon.”

Napoleon would have done well to have studied George Washington.

It is reported that when King George III learned that Gen. George Washington had, at the end of the American Revolution and the peace treaty negotiations, resigned his commission to the Continental Congress, the news was met with disbelief.  Washington improbably held together a ragamuffin mob of an army, disciplined them into a fighting force, and through evasion tactics, inspiration and sheer luck, and great aid from the King of France and the French Navy, defeated Great Britain in a war where no one, probably  including Washington had thought it possible to do so.  Many Europeans expected Washington would assume the crown of America and have himself declared king.

Instead, following the story of his Roman hero, Cincinnatus, Washington declined the power, deferring to civilian and more democratic rule, sublimating military might and prowess to the greater powers of reason.  (Washington, following Cincinnatus again, bowed out after two terms in the presidency — the power of story and early education over the fate of a nation.)

King George said he didn’t believe the news.  “But if it is true, [Washington] is the greatest man who ever lived.”

Without unnecessary shine, Ron Chernow has written more than 800 pages of the brief for the case proving King George’s judgment.  In these times, when people claim to wish to follow Washington and the Constitution, we would do well to study what Washington said, wrote and did, and how he came to create the Constitution and the nation it frames.

Note: My review copy did not include an index. The book, Washington covers the man as an encyclopedia.  For the sake of high school teachers and researchers, I hope an index comes with the published text.

More, and resources; other reviews:

Other stops on the virtual book tour:

DDT hoaxsters predictably spinning India/malaria deaths story — wrongly

October 28, 2010

People so wedded to a hoax, or just wrong, view of events cannot be swayed away from their convictions easily.

Elizabeth Whelan’s hoax science policy group, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), put out a press release taking note of the study published in Lancet that calls into question the count of malaria deaths in India promulgated by the World Health Organization (WHO).  You remember, the study suggests the malaria death toll among adults in India may be as high as 200,000 annually, compared to the 15,000 estimated by WHO.

ACSH can’t resist the spin.  Implicit the debunking may be, but the study thoroughly debunks ACSH’s claim that more DDT will help defeat malaria.  India is the world’s greatest user of DDT, using more than all the rest of the world together.  Clearly a surplus usage of DDT has not created the miracle end to malaria that ACSH and other hoaxsters claim it would.

Still, ACSH sticks to their views, even when those views are grossly wrong.  ACSH said, “ACSH has called for resumed use of indoor residual spraying of small amounts of DDT to prevent mosquito bites, repel mosquitoes, and reduce malaria deaths.”

No word from India on whether it will dramatically reduce DDT use to meet ACSH’s call for “small amounts.”

ACSH’s press release calls attention to a Wall Street Journal Blog article describing WHO’s response to the Lancet-published study of India malaria deaths — WHO questions the “verbal autopsy” methodology, and says it stands by its estimates of malaria deaths in the nation:

“The new study uses verbal autopsy method which is suitable only for diseases with distinctive symptoms and not for malaria,” WHO’s India representative Nata Menabde said in an email statement Thursday.

The WHO says it takes into account only confirmed cases of malaria and surveys those using healthcare facilities.

Malaria symptoms include fever, flu-like illness and muscle aches. Malaria is endemic to parts of India, where many people live in mosquito-infested areas. Confirming the presence of malaria requires tests like the “Peripheral Smear for Malarial Parasite” and “Rapid Malaria Antigen”.

Lancet said the determinations made by its field researchers were reviewed by two of 130 trained doctors for all the 6,671 districts who determined whether or not the person had died from malaria.

The data concluded that 205,000 deaths before the age of 70, mainly in rural areas, were caused by malaria each year – 55,000 in early childhood, 30,000 among children ages five to 14 and 120,000 people 15 and older.

The WHO called for further review of the study.

“Malaria has symptoms common with many other diseases and cannot be correctly identified by the local population,” Dr. Menabde said, adding: “The findings of the study cannot be accepted without further validation.”

High school juniors: Consider a college that will change your life

October 27, 2010

Here’s what I told my U.S. history students on the class blog; a few other people may find my views informative:

Okay, juniors!  You should be thinking hard about what you want to do, what you should do, and what you can do, after you graduate.


Choosing a college can bring on all sorts of angst.

You worry about choosing the right college — the one that will advance you toward your dreams, the one where you’ll fit in (yeah, we all worry about that), the one that you and your family can afford, the one where you can cut it, and the one where you can shine.

I urge you to consider a group of colleges known collectively as Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL).

Several years an education guru, Loren Pope, wrote a book profiling 40 colleges that have reputations of making much better people out of the already good students they take in.  You’ve probably heard of some of these schools:  Reed College, in Portland, Oregon; St. Olaf’s College, especially for choir-minded people who don’t mind Minnesota weather; Austin College, in Sherman, Texas; Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas; and a lot of others.  The book was titled Colleges That Change Lives.

The colleges had the good sense to see that they were in league with each other, as well as in competition with each other — and so they banded together to create a one-application process (though each has slightly different essay requirements).

Go to their website and take a look.  See especially whether they are having an open-house sort of get-together somewhere in Texas (we had to drive to Austin for our younger son — it was a great trip, and it helped him pick a school he hadn’t thought of before — we urged them to come back to Dallas).  (Oh — I checked.   They held these events in August — plan to be there next August; note that these events were before school started, so you’ll have to keep your own calendar over the summer to get there on time.)

These colleges mostly present just great places to get a good education, regardless the field you want to pursue (our son, James, did end up in one of the nation’s top physics programs, something he had previously thought he’d have to go to a giant university to get; there are happy endings, you know).  Which one is right for you?

I’ll wager that you’d be happy at more than a dozen of these schools. By the time you graduate from one, you’ll be convinced that you could not have made a better choice anywhere.

You’re not too late to start the process of college consideration; but you do need to get going soon.  College application deadlines for early decision come quickly when you’re a senior, and the schools want your apps before December 1 (or November, or October!).  Plus, next summer would be a great time to visit some of these schools.

I did not attend any of these schools, though I was heavily recruited by Lawrence University (then College), in Appleton, Wisconsin, where our younger son is now (they offered me a chance to play football, in a Division II school, which was awfully attractive).  I also would be happy to discuss my undergraduate school, the University of Utah, with you, or my graduate schools and their undergraduate programs, the University of Arizona and George Washington University.

I’ll be happy to tell you what I know about other schools I know a little about, too — the University of Texas-Dallas, where our older son graduated, or Georgetown, or American,  or Howard, in Washington, D.C., or what little I know of the ivies, or California schools like the Claremont Colleges — all excellent places to study, and get a great life from.

Take a look at the CTCL program.

It’s time you started thinking about what’s out there in the world, and how you’re going to prepare to live a great life.

Changing Glenn Beck

October 26, 2010

Who created this?

Glenn Beck, in a Fairey mode

The Fairey-esque Glenn Beck

Tip of the old scrub brush to Kenny and the Great Firewall of China.

Quote of the moment: Lewis Carroll on Republican politics, climate skeptics, DDT advocates and creationism

October 26, 2010

Alice and the Red Queen

Alice and the Red Queen – illustration by Sir John Tenniel

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, writing under the name Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland, 1866

[Yes, the illustration is from Through the Looking Glass, 1871]

How to tell the textbook approval process is broken: Virginia’s voodoo history

October 25, 2010

4th graders in Virginia could learn from their history texts that thousands of African Americans formed battalions in the Confederate Army and fought to save the South, during the Civil War — entire battalions under Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

That’s what the book claims, anyway.  It’s fiction.  The author fell victim to a hoax.

Kevin Sieff exposed the book in The Washington Post last week.  Virginia education officials quickly moved to discourage teachers from teaching the erroneous passages.  Some education authorities pulled the books.  The incident exposes problems in the textbook approval processes popular in southern states.

If you had hoped textbook craziness was confined to Texas, you know better now.


Called this one right: DDT advocates think poison is always the answer

October 25, 2010

This is a story about the persistence of bad information, and about the flow of news and other new information.

At about the same time I was writing about the Lancet study on potential undercounting of malaria deaths in India, Debora McKenzie at New Scientist pored over the same article (maybe the same Bloomberg News piece), and reported it in greater detail than I did here.  McKenzie’s piece is worthy of a read.

Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit

Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit picked up on McKenzie’s piece — but reflecting his pro-poison and anti-humanitarianism bias, he tacked on a gratuitous slap at health workers, scientists and governments who tried to eradicate malaria in the 20th century:


Malaria has always been one of humanity’s biggest killers, but it may be far bigger than we realised. An unprecedented survey of the disease suggests that it kills between 125,000 and 277,000 people per year in India alone. In contrast, the World Health Organization puts India’s toll at just 16,000.

Other countries using similar accounting methods, such as Indonesia, may also be underestimating deaths from malaria. That means it could be killing many more than the WHO’s official estimate of nearly 1 million people a year worldwide, suggesting more money should be spent to fight it.

It’s too bad the malaria eradication efforts were allowed to fail.

“Allowed” to fail?  Reynolds assumes someone wanted the program to fail?  Reynolds assumes someone could have stopped the failure, other than the pro-DDT forces who overused the stuff and drove mosquitoes to evolve resistance, or other than the governments of Subsaharan Africa who could not mount massive health care campaigns due to the instability of their governments?  It’s too bad the program failed — it was mighty ambitious.  “Allowed to fail” is an undeserved slap at malaria fighters like Fred Soper.

This slip to finger-pointing is what I warned about in my post:  Though India is the world’s greatest manufacturer of DDT, and though more DDT is used in India today than the rest of the world combined, someone will look at the undercount story, blame the imaginary ban on DDT, blame Rachel Carson (who never advocated a ban on DDT), and make some smug political snark.

Reynolds was pulled away from the snark, fortunately.  Reader Kevin O’Brien wrote to Reynolds about  the difficulties of beating any disease, using smallpox as his launching point.  Beating smallpox was a massive effort, made easier by the fact that the pox resided only in humans, as opposed to the malaria parasite’s two-species life cycle.  O’Brien’s missive to Reynolds, a few errors included, is the best commentary Reynolds has had on DDT and disease in some time.

One frequently-obnoxious blogger pulled back from the brink is not enough, though.

Andrew Bolt

Andrew Bolt

Andrew Bolt jumped the shark at his blog for the Melbourne (Australia) Daily Sun.  The headline for his post is inflammatory and wrong, and warns us that most of what Bolt writes will be wrong:

How many children did Carson’s green lies kill?

Foolish hope that DDT could be a magic bullet against malaria, like Bolt’s,  helps frustrate workable plans to fight the disease.  Policy makers being convinced that some political conspiracy keeps DDT from working to beat malaria, in effect kills children.  Fighting malaria requires long, hard work, to bolster health care systems in entire nations, to accurately and quickly diagnose malaria, and to provide complete treatment to cure human victims.  That work is hampered by policy makers and popular opinion who hold that DDT would be cheaper and quicker, and effective.  Bolt takes any source, no matter how scurrilous, in his unholy condemnation of conservationists and scientists, especially Rachel Carson.  His sole source to condemn Carson is a publication from the far, far-fringe.

How many children will Bolt’s brown lies kill? one could ask.

I warned earlier:

Watch.  Advocates of poisoning Africa and Asia will claim scientists and environmental activists are somehow to blame for any underreporting, and they will call for more DDT use, claiming a ban has made India a refuge for malaria.  Those reports will fail to mention India’s heavy DDT use already, nor will they suggest an ineffectiveness of the nearly-sacred powder.

Andrew Bolt, you’ve made me a prophet — a saddened and disappointed prophet.  It’s good to see Glenn Reynolds step back from the brink of hysteria.  It’s too bad Bolt took the plunge.  Others will probably follow Bolt.

How far will the bad claims spread?

Optical illusions, and “Bloody Mary” images

October 24, 2010

Take a look at this.  Focus on the “+” in the middle, and describe what you see.

Troxler Effect, the purple chaser

Troxler Effect image

No, the purple dots don’t disappear, though that’s probably what you “see.”  Worse, there’s no green dot.  Your brain sees green when the purple disappears — and even when your brain refuses to let you know the purple dots are still there, it will tell you you see a green dot when the purple dots you can’t see, disappear.

So, is it so hard to understand that people might see weird things in the mirror, if they stare at their own faces for a while?

Cortical Hemming and Hawing has the full story, with a history of the Bloody Mary story.  Go see.

Texas State Fair long past

October 24, 2010

Texas State Fair 1912 - LOC panoramic photo - 6a28033r

Texas State Fair, 1908 - Library of Congress panoramic photo

Click on the photo to see a much larger version.

From the astonishingly vast vaults of the Library of Congress, a panoramic photograph of the main entrance of the Texas State Fair, in 1908.  This is almost certainly Dallas, and this is probably the same entrance where today the short-rail mass transit trains pass by — a century later, and Dallas has once again got mass transit.

This photo contrasts starkly with Fair Park in Dallas today, a week after the closing of the 2010 Texas State Fair.

Details from the Library of Congress:

Item Title

Texas State Fair, Main Entrance.
Created/Published  c1908.

Copyright deposit; H. Clogenson; December 8, 1908; DLC/PP-1908:43634.
Copyright claimant’s address: Dallas, Texas
Medium:  1 photographic print : gelatin silver ; 9.5 x 43 in.

Call Number:  PAN SUBJECT – Events no. 31
REPRODUCTION NUMBER:  LC-USZ62-125457 DLC (b&w film copy neg.)

Who was H. Clogenson?  What other treasures did he leave around?

Butterflies are free, to move about the country

October 24, 2010

Great mysteries of science, history and spirit call to us:  How do the monarch butterflies do it?

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fly north from their enclave in Mexico every spring, stopping to lay eggs on milkweed plants.  After a migration of several hundred miles, that first group that left Mexico dies off.  Their offspring hatch in a few days, devour the milkweed, make a chrysalis, metamorphose into butterflies, then fly farther north, where they repeat their parents’ behavior:  Lay some eggs, and die.  Within three generations, they’ve spread north into Canada.

Kathryn's butterfly plantings, October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell

Inviting the monarchs in: You can see how Kathryn worked to attract butterflies. In this photo, you can see the butterfly weed (a milkweed), red Turk's cap, and blue ageratum especially for the monarchs.

Then the fourth generation does something so strange and wonderful people can’t stop talking about it:  They fly back to Mexico, to the same trees their great-great-great grandparents left.  There they sip some nectar, get some water, and spend a lot of time hanging in great globs, huddling over the winter, to start life for generations of monarch butterflies the next spring.

Sometimes in Texas in October, we can see clouds of monarch butterflies winging south.  If we’re lucky, they stop to visit our backyards and gardens, and we might provide some water and nectar to urge them homeward.  Kathryn, of course, plants the stuff the monarchs like, to help them, and to give us a chance to see them.

Monarch habitat in Mexico is under severe stress and threat.  Late storms and early freezes decimated monarch populations over the last decade [yes, that’s the proper use of “decimated;” look it up].  Human plantings are more critical to the monarch butterflies than ever before.

Two years ago Kathryn and I spent a September morning outside the library at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, watching monarchs sip nectar from local flowers for their journey.  Those same butterflies — we hope — passed through Texas a couple of weeks later.

Two weeks ago . . . well, see for yourself:

Monarch butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, TX October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5343

A monarch butterfly feeds on blue porterweed in Kathryn's garden, October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell

Monarch butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, October 20101 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5347

. . . we're here with the camera, little guy, just open up those wings, please . . .

Monarch  butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, Texas October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5345

That's it! Beautiful! Have a safe trip, and come back next spring, will you?

Resources, more:

Conoclinium coelestinum

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