Category Archives: Science

The Cartographers for Social Equality

The other night, continuing to make my way through “The West Wing” (which I never saw when it was on) while working out each evening, I saw the one in which the Cartographers for Social Equality were allowed to make a presentation on Big Block of Cheese Day.

I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when I visited my friend Moss Blachman in his office, and saw his map of the Western Hemisphere with south at the top and north at the bottom. As someone who lived in South America as a kid and who has long thought my fellow gringos give Latin America short shrift, I got a kick out of it. Because, of course, the practice of putting north at the top and south at the bottom is totally arbitrary (an obvious fact that sort of blew C.J. Cregg’s mind).

I enjoy things like that which cause us to look at things in fresh ways.

Of course, the political conclusion that the cartographers draw from the way the Mercator distorts the world is rather silly. I’ve always known Africa is way bigger than Greenland, and that Africa is thousands of times more significant in world affairs. But I also know that Africa doesn’t derive its importance from being bigger; it derives it from the fact that there are multitudes of nations and cultures and geographic and biological diversity in Africa, and it is not mostly a frozen waste. Population of Greenland: 56,840. Population of Africa: 1.033 billion. Duh.

If I were stupid enough to think the significance of nations and continents were a function of size, I’d conclude that England has been of no account whatsoever in world history. Which I don’t. And I can’t think of anyone who does.

But I enjoyed the scene anyway, because it is good for the brain (and pleasurable as well) to flip things around and look at them from unaccustomed angles. And if there are people who did make foolish assumptions about the world based on the usual depiction, and their eyes are opened, then great. But I wouldn’t attach a lot of importance to that.


‘Our pollster’ making SC biotech connections for SC in Poland

I’m jealous of people who get to travel for their work. Yeah, I know people like Doug and Silence will talk about what a grind it is, but I’m envious nonetheless. My trip to England three years ago was my first time out of the country in many years. In my newspaper job I used to bop up to Washington occasionally, or to a conference somewhere else in the country now and then, but never abroad.

And I enjoy travel. It doesn’t just broaden the mind; it stimulates it, generating thoughts that wouldn’t occur running on the usual, everyday fuel.

So today I’m feeling jealous of my good friend Emerson Smith, who tells me from his berth on the Queen Mary II somewhere in the South China Sea (I think — there’s no telling where he is at a given moment) that next month he’ll be back in Poland — another place I’ve never been.


International Man of Mystery Emerson Smith

He’s one of two people who will be representing South Carolina at the BioForum 2014 ( in Lodz, Poland on May 28-29, 2014, Emerson and Brad Goodwin from CharlestonPharma, speaking on how biotech companies in central Europe can create joint ventures in the U.S. and South Carolina.

“South Carolina is well known for having international companies from Germany, Belgium, France, Japan, China and other countries,” writes Emerson via email. “Most of these companies are large manufacturers. What we need to attract, in addition, are small biotech companies from Europe, which includes western Europe as well as central Europe, which can grow in South Carolina. Central Europe is historically known for its scholarship and science. Copernicus is from Krakow, Poland. South Carolina’s SCRA and SC Launch are always looking for opportunities to attract biotech companies from abroad and provide seed funding as well as assistance in dealing with state and federal commercial laws.”

Emerson is CEO and president of Metromark Research here in Columbia. He is also a sociologist, as he used to point out to us when we called him “our pollster” in the newspaper, which bugged him. He used to do our South Carolina Poll back when I was governmental affairs editor at The State. We did quite a bit of polling in those days. And while he didn’t like being called a “pollster,” he was a good one. His horse-race polls — the only kind where you get a real-world check on your accuracy — were always dead-on. Even multi-candidate primaries, which were notoriously hard to call.

So now, our pollster is working to grow the biotech sector in SC. Good for him. Even if I’m jealous that he gets to be an International Man of Mystery while doing it.

Will life in the future be nasty, brutish and short? (Without effective antibiotics, it could be)

The last surviving CDC researcher shares the terrible secret with Rick.

The last surviving CDC researcher shares the terrible secret with Rick.

Just last night, I was rewatching a portion of the “Walking Dead” first-season episode in which our dwindling band of survivors reach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The news they find there is, to say the least, not good.

And now I see that the real-life CDC has been putting out warnings over the last couple of weeks about the dangerous overuse of antibiotics. And this statement out of the CDC, from the Daily Mail late last month, sounds almost as ominous as what that one surviving researcher on “Walking Dead” had to say:

A high-ranking official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared in an interview with PBS that the age of antibiotics has come to an end.

‘For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?”‘ said Dr Arjun Srinivasan. ‘Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”’…

Now, there seems to be a sort of contest to see who can raise the alarm in the most, well, alarming manner.

A piece at Bloomberg headlined, “Life Without Antibiotics Would Be Nasty, Brutish and Much Shorter” begins:

Sometimes I imagine how our descendants will look back on our world. Unless something is done about antibiotic resistance, I’m very much afraid that they’ll look upon us the way 19th-century science fiction writers viewed Atlantis: as a lost paradise of magical technology — in this case, one in which you could go to a child coughing her life out with pneumonia, stick a needle in her arm, and watch the disease melt away almost before your eyes. The first doctors who treated patients with antibiotics felt like they were witnessing miracles. Our grandchildren may feel much the same way about the ease with which we cured disease.

But, you say, we’ll just keep developing new antibiotics that microbes are not immune to. Yeah, maybe, but this math, in a piece headlined “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future,” is kind of scary:

Every inappropriate prescription and insufficient dose given in medicine would kill weak bacteria but let the strong survive. (As would the micro-dose “growth promoters” given in agriculture, which were invented a few years after Fleming spoke.) Bacteria can produce another generation in as little as twenty minutes; with tens of thousands of generations a year working out survival strategies, the organisms would soon overwhelm the potent new drugs.

Fleming’s prediction was correct. Penicillin-resistant staph emerged in 1940, while the drug was still being given to only a few patients. Tetracycline was introduced in 1950, and tetracycline-resistant Shigellaemerged in 1959; erythromycin came on the market in 1953, and erythromycin-resistant strep appeared in 1968. As antibiotics became more affordable and their use increased, bacteria developed defenses more quickly. Methicillin arrived in 1960 and methicillin resistance in 1962; levofloxacin in 1996 and the first resistant cases the same year; linezolid in 2000 and resistance to it in 2001; daptomycin in 2003 and the first signs of resistance in 2004.

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.” The chief medical officer of the United Kingdom, Dame Sally Davies — who calls antibiotic resistance as serious a threat as terrorism — recentlypublished a book in which she imagines what might come next. She sketches a world where infection is so dangerous that anyone with even minor symptoms would be locked in confinement until they recover or die. It is a dark vision, meant to disturb. But it may actually underplay what the loss of antibiotics would mean.

Is there a cure? Not really; more of a delaying tactic — it’s to slow down unnecessary use of antibiotics, and develop new antibiotics faster. But there are psychological and cultural barriers to the former, and market forces working against the latter:

In countries such as as Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, government regulation of medical and agricultural antibiotic use has helped curb bacteria’s rapid evolution toward untreatability. But the U.S. has never been willing to institute such controls, and the free-market alternative of asking physicians and consumers to use antibiotics conservatively has been tried for decades without much success. As has the long effort to reduce farm antibiotic use; the FDA will soon issue new rules for agriculture, but they will be contained in a voluntary “guidance to industry,” not a regulation with the force of law.

What might hold off the apocalypse, for a while, is more antibiotics—but first pharmaceutical companies will have to be lured back into a marketplace they already deemed unrewarding. The need for new compounds could force the federal government to create drug-development incentives: patent extensions, for instance, or changes in the requirements for clinical trials. But whenever drug research revives, achieving a new compound takes at least 10 years from concept to drugstore shelf. There will be no new drug to solve the problem soon—and given the relentlessness of bacterial evolution, none that can solve the problem forever. In the meantime, the medical industry is reviving the old-fashioned solution of rigorous hospital cleaning, and also trying new ideas: building automatic scrutiny of prescriptions into computerized medical records, and developing rapid tests to ensure the drugs aren’t prescribed when they are not needed….

Anyway, have a happy Monday.


A big step forward in medical research in SC

We hear a lot about setbacks to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. So it’s nice to take note of actual progress in a cooperative effort intended to improve health outcomes here in South Carolina — one that puts SC out ahead of the rest of the nation:

Health Sciences South Carolina Launches Nation’s First Statewide Clinical Data

Warehouse Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, the University of South Carolina and major SC health care systems collaborate to track 3.2 million patients, 25 million health records

COLUMBIA, S.C. – A revolutionary information technology project launched by Health Sciences South Carolina (HSSC) could lead to major breakthroughs in improving the health of South Carolinians and attract millions of dollars of investment to the state’s economy, including the recruitment of biomedical clinical trials and the development of next-generation pharmaceuticals and medical devices—right here to South Carolina.

HSSC’s Clinical Data Warehouse (CDW) links and matches de-identified (anonymous) electronic patient records from South Carolina’s largest health care systems to enable providers and researchers to follow patient conditions in real-time. It also allows biomedical researchers to conduct patient-centered outcomes research and comparative effectiveness studies across a much broader and aggregated patient population base. This is the first system of its kind to bring together three major research universities and several large health care systems.

Bioinformatics for the system came from the Medical University of South Carolina, while the University of South Carolina developed the operations software. Clemson University hosts and provides patient privacy and security for the CDW. And all participating HSSC member hospitals share their data.

The project is a reality in large part thanks to The Duke Endowment, which has made major contributions of over $32 million to HSSC to fund the CDW and other health care initiatives. The South Carolina General Assembly also provided critical support through the creation of the South CarolinaSmartState Program.

Mary Piepenbring, Vice President of The Duke Endowment, said the foundation is proud of its longstanding commitment to Health Sciences South Carolina. “The Endowment’s support of the Clinical Data Warehouse initiative falls squarely within our mission to promote health in both Carolinas. This innovative health care tool has the potential to inform and improve health care outcomes in South Carolina and to serve as a model for information sharing.”

Earlier this year, HSSC began populating the database with historical data from Greenville Hospital System, the Medical University of South Carolina and Palmetto Health. The database currently contains more than 3.2 million medical records. Data from Spartanburg Regional Health System will be added in 2014. The CDW will eventually have data from all HSSC member health systems.

This is an unprecedented achievement for South Carolina,” said Dr. Jay Moskowitz, HSSC president.

“While the United Health Foundation ranks South Carolina among the lowest states in overall health status, we can now say with confidence that we rank among the highest places in the world with this level of collaboration and this kind of access to knowledge that will improve health for all South Carolinians.”

Moskowitz said the CDW will be invaluable to researchers studying rare conditions that affect underrepresented populations. For example, less than one percent of the population is diagnosed with Sickle Cell disease, and using data from a single South Carolina health system yields a very small patient population from which to build a potential research patient cohort. However, with the Clinical Data Warehouse, a researcher can triple or quadruple previous sample sizes, expanding queries to include more than 3 million patients across the state. Researchers in South Carolina now have a better chance of determining the potential success of a given research project and easier ways to build patient cohorts. Moskowitz also pointed to the potential for groundbreaking research on obesity and hypertension, conditions which affect many South Carolinians.

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides also noted this benefit of the CDW.

“Researchers need large pools of data to develop and test scientific theories. Until recently, they had no simple way to study broad patient populations and doing so in real-time was almost unthinkable,” Pastides said. “The CDW provides clinical researchers with an integrated learning tool where the statewide patient population can now be surveyed and tracked in real time.”

Charles Beaman, president and CEO of Palmetto Health, said the CDW is an example of a new sense of collaboration among universities and health care providers.

“We are sharing data in ways we never have before, because we all realize that we share the same goals and the same mission: to serve the people of South Carolina and help them improve their lives through better health,” Beaman said.

If you would like to learn more about HSSC, CDW and other research endeavors, visit

About Health Sciences South Carolina Health Sciences South Carolina (HSSC) was established in 2004 as the nation’s first statewide biomedical research collaborative. Today its members include six of the state’s largest health systems—Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center, Palmetto Health, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, McLeod Health, AnMed Health, and Self Regional Healthcare—and the state’s largest research-intensive universities—Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina. The collaborative was formed with the vision of transforming the state’s public health and economic wellbeing through research. It also is committed to educating and training the health care workforce.


Jay Moskowitz told me yesterday, at the data warehouse’s unveiling at the State House, that he expects that 3.2 million number (the number of medical records) to grow as other health systems contribute their data. At the same time, the database will be compared to death records to cull out patients who are no longer among us, eventually providing an up-to-date picture of virtually the entire state population.

For more see the front-page story in The State yesterday.

Nice timing there, global warming researchers

I like the touch with the melting Earth, don't you?

I like the touch with the melting Earth, don’t you?

I had to smile this morning when I saw this story on the front page of The State, under the headline, “Climate change research: Southeast will swelter:

Poisoned seafood, scorched forests, flooded homes and crumbling bridges are just some of the problems the Southeast can expect as the earth’s climate changes and temperatures heat up in future decades, according to a study released Tuesday.

The 341-page report, based on the expertise of more than 100 scientists and researchers, is considered the most comprehensive study to date of how global warming is affecting the South – and what Southerners can expect…

I don’t know about you, but I was rather startled to learn, about 10 last night, that it was snowing outside in my yard. As also reported today in The State, under the headline, “Unusual November snow falls on Columbia.” And this morning, I almost, but not quite, wore my coat that I got for a winter trip to England three years ago, which I’ve only worn about twice since then. And when I got outside, I regretted that I had decided not to wear it.

Yeah, I know, the study’s about long-term trends, etc. But still, not great timing. Earlier in the day, it had been what? 70 or so? And then there were all those high winds as I was driving home last night, and behind them — snow.

It’s like somebody up there really didn’t like these researchers…

Trees, both old and new, in South Carolina

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Heard a pretty cool story out of South Carolina on NPR this morning:

Like much of the United States, South Carolina was once covered in old-growth forests. By the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, either hauled away on trains or floated down rivers to be cut into lumber at saw mills.

But not all that timber made it to its destination. Some sank on its way down the river, where those old-growth logs have been preserved for about a century. Now, these precious leftovers can be worth up to several thousand dollars each.

But getting that treasure out is no easy task. First, anyone hoping to dredge the logs, known as sinker wood, must obtain a permit from the state. The logs weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. Once removed, the wood must be properly stored before milling to avoid cracking. And then, there are the alligators…

I learned several things from that piece, the most surprising of which was that wood that had been underwater for generations, even centuries, could still be useful, even valuable. I would have thought it would be ruined….

Anyway, I listened with particular interest because of an interesting project I’ve been working on. ADCO is doing some work for Hobcaw Barony. If you don’t know what or where that is, it would take a lot of words to tell you. But basically: It’s a 16,000 acre tract of land, essentially the southern end of Waccamaw Neck, just above Georgetown. It was originally a land grant to one of the Lords Proprietors, had been broken up into multiple rice plantations, and had been mostly reassembled around the time of the Recent Unpleasantness. After the end of slavery made it tough for SC planters to compete with cheaper rice from out west, the owners started using the mostly wild land for hunting clubs for rich Yankees. Bernard Baruch, the Camden native who had made an immense fortune on Wall Street and would become a close adviser to seven presidents (he’s the guy who put the term “Cold War” into circulation, in a speech to the SC Legislature), bought the tract and some additional land to more or less assemble the original royal grant. He used it as a winter home and hunting preserve.

His daughter, Belle, bought it from him in chunks, starting in the mid-30s. When she died in 1964, she left it to a foundation that was to preserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity, and open it to the state’s colleges and universities for educational and research purposes. Both USC and Clemson have operated institutes on the land since the late 60s — USC studying the estuary, Clemson the forest.

Anyway, one of the projects is to re-establish long-leaf pine, which was mostly cut down for naval stores in the age of sail. One challenge in doing this is the wild hogs on the land — descendants of swine left there by some early European settlers — which love tender young long-leaf pine roots.

OK, so it’s a thin connection, but since that’s what’s on my mind these days, that’s what caused me to be particularly interested in this NPR story…

The King's Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

The King’s Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

Here’s one argument for a liberal-arts education

A recent essay in The Wall Street Journal scoffed at those who bemoan the decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities.

Perhaps that writer was right. But you know, I think it would really help if some of those left-brain STEM types would take a couple of English classes.

Remember that story from yesterday’s VFP about experiments into whether warp-speed travel is possible?

Did you see this quote?

“Space has been expanding since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago,” said Dr. White, 43, who runs the research project. “And we know that when you look at some of the cosmology models, there were early periods of the universe where there was explosive inflation, where two points would’ve went receding away from each other at very rapid speeds.”…

Ow! He might be a heck of a rocket scientist, or whatever, but his abuse of the language is rather distressing.

Studies: smoking dope can lead to schizophrenia

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

What I had always heard, and even seen in real life, was that teenagers who smoke a lot of dope tend to have trouble maturing, that things that are going on in their undeveloped brains get derailed, with long-term cognitive effects. Hence the phenomenon of the 30-year-old stoner who seems in some ways like a 15-year-old.

But I don’t recall having read this before, even though the research results seem to have been out there for awhile:

There is a significant and consistent relationship between marijuana use and the development of schizophrenia and related disorders….

Though they receive little attention in the legalization debate, the scientific studies showing an association between marijuana use and schizophrenia and other disorders are alarming. A 2004 article in the highly respected British Journal of Psychiatry reviewed four large studies, all of which showed a significant and consistent association between consumption of marijuana (mostly during teenage years or early 20s) and the later development of schizophrenia. The review concluded that marijuana is a “causal component,” among others, in the development of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

A 2007 study in the Lancet, a British medical journal, concludes that using marijuana increases the risk of young people developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. This risk is greatest—up to a 200% increase—among those who use marijuana heavily and who start using at a younger age.

So I pass it on, for those who still think the stuff’s harmless, and Sheriff Lott was a Blue Meanie for busting the Olympic swimmer.

And yeah, for those who think it’s a terrific argument to say “Alcohol’s worse” — it may be indeed. But we tried outlawing that, and it didn’t work out, because it was too far ingrained in the culture. I’m not ready to give up on this ban. We have enough trouble with alcohol.

I give up — what’s that bright thing in the sky? (Oh. Sirius.)

Image from my app.

Image from my app.

Any astronomers out there? Because I’ve got a question that’s been bugging me.

Some time ago, I picked up one of those cards at Starbucks that provides a code that lets you download a free iPhone app. This one was called “Star Walk,” and it was very cool.

Basically, you hold your phone up to the sky, and it gives you a labeled diagram of what you’re looking at. For that matter, you can use it inside, and it will tell you exactly where the planets and the constellations and major satellites are in relation to where you’re standing. You can even hold it toward the ground and see where the heavenly bodies are when they’re not in the visible sky, on the other side of our planet.

I appreciate it because I’ve always felt particularly ignorant because I know so little about what’s out there. I read those novels I love about Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, and Jack is always so dumbfounded by how little his friend the doctor knows about the planets and stars or anything else having to do with seamanship. And I’m not genius with languages like the doctor, so I feel particularly stupid.

Before the app, if I saw a particularly bright object in the sky, I assumed it was Venus, unless it had a reddish tint, in which case I assumed it was Mars. But I really had no idea.

I’m not that much brighter now, but I’ve picked up a couple of things. I can look up right away and say, “There’s Jupiter.” And at this time of night, I can pick out Orion pretty clearly.

But there’s something that’s been perplexing me in recent weeks.

Jupiter is off to the right of Orion. Fine, I can see that. But there’s something a roughly equal distance off to the left of Orion, at about the same elevation, that’s just about as bright as Jupiter. And what with light pollution from streetlamps and such, that object is the only thing bright enough to see in that part of the sky.

There’s nothing on Star Walk’s celestial map to indicate that there’s anything that really stands out in that part of the sky. There’s Sirius, and…

You know what? I just looked up Canis Major, which I know to be to the left of Orion, and according to Wikipedia Sirius is the brightest star in that constellation by far. In fact, I see elsewhere that it’s the brightest star in the sky other than our own Sol. So, you know. Duh.

(Yes, all of you who know something about astronomy; I am abysmally ignorant. No way would they let me be master and commander of any vessel in Nelson’s Navy.)

Don’t know why my app didn’t indicate that. (It makes it look like Murzim and Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Rigel are all just as bright, which they’re not.) But hey, it’s a free app. And what it does do is pretty cool.

It’s got to be Sirius. So never mind. Unless you know I’m wrong, in which case please tell me…

So take THAT, all you deductive reasoning types!

As one who reaches conclusions intuitively, I’ve taken a lot of grief from some of you who are more the mathematical-proof types.

So, I appreciated this piece in the WSJ over the weekend, headlined “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math.” The thrust was that it’s a shame that so many people turn away from a career in the sciences because they aren’t good at math. An excerpt:

Fortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.

Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.

Yeah, baby! That’s what this INTP is talking about: Intuitive reasoning!

Not that I’m bad at math or lack skills in that regard. I was always in the 99th percentile on standardized tests of mathematical aptitude in school. I’ve just never been overly fond of it.

I lack the patience for the methodology. Here’s what I mean: In geometry class, I’d be asked to prove that triangle A was congruent to triangle B, or some such (I’ve forgotten most of the basic concepts now, which shows what you can accomplish when you really apply your mind to forgetting). I would say, well, it is congruent, and that’s obvious. I didn’t mean that it looked congruent. I meant that I knew all the theorems and such, and in glancing at the triangles, I could tell that all the tests were met. Because I perceived it holistically. Having to go through all the infant-school steps, one at a time, made me want to bang my head against a wall. I hated it. And as I went on, I didn’t like algebra II, or analytical geometry, or calculus, either. I just took all those courses because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do in school. (And yeah, I suppose that proofs have more relevance when you get beyond such simple stuff as congruent triangles, but I didn’t have the patience to pursue it that far.)

I had a calculus professor in college who was very enthusiastic about what the Brits are pleased to call “maths.” He drove me crazy. One day he came in all excited because someone had taken pi out to a million decimal places. I raised my hand and asked, “Why?” He said because it showed the numbers never repeat, even that far out. I asked what possible purpose knowing that could serve. He said it taught us things about the principles governing randomness. I said randomness had no principles governing it, because it was random. I basically was saying anything I could to damp his enthusiasm, because it irritated me. I was unsuccessful; he was a natural enthusiast.

I wasn’t the kind of kid you wanted in your class.

Of course, I would have run into the same problem in science as in math, since there’s all that mind-numbing step-by-step methodology. (The piece in the WSJ later says, “Eureka moments require hard work. And focus.” And not the fun kind of work, either.)

But I was pleased to see the plug for intuition.

So there’s something we can DO about asteroids?


Last week, we saw quite an array of celestial events. First, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica only hours after the Pope shocked the world by announcing his retirement, suggesting that Someone preferred to keep such decisions to Himself.

Then, on the same day that we smugly expected an asteroid that we knew would come closer than some man-made satellites, but miss us, a smaller one that we weren’t anticipating didn’t. Miss us, I mean. It put on a light show and did spectacular damage in Siberia, injuring more than a thousand people. (Apparently, meteors hate Siberia more than tornadoes hate trailer parks.)

It’s like the heavens were mocking us and our belief that we have a handle on things.

Speaking of which, I thought I’d pass on this interesting piece that I saw in The Guardian from ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart. He said that we need to know more about these smaller asteroids, and that we can, if we invest in new telescope technology. But the most surprising thing he said was that if we spot these rogue rocks early enough, we can actually do something to keep them from hitting us. Excerpts:

Spaceship Earth just took two celestial shots across its bow as, first, a meteor struck Russia, showering the Chelyabinsk region with fragments and reportedly injuring several hundred people, and second, as Asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past on 15 February. Traditionally, a torpedo across the bow is fired as a warning to change one’s behavior – and this coincidence of events should be a warning to humanity that meteors are not always as benign as “shooting stars” and that the next asteroid might not miss! Will we, the crew of SS Earth heed this warning?…

Nevertheless, the Earth is hit by one of these relatively small DA14-sized asteroids about once every 300 years, on average. And “small” is far, far from insignificant. The DA14-like asteroid that hit Earth in 1908 did so in a remote region of Siberia, where the explosion (the equivalent of about 250 Hiroshima nuclear bombs going off at one time) destroyed over 800 square miles of the countryside. This disaster zone, superimposed on any city in the world, would have wiped it and all its residents from the face of the Earth. I refer you, as a graphic reminder of the power of such explosions, to the post-facto Hiroshima bomb pictures readily found online.

The second way to view DA14 is to realize that, until just about a year ago, it was one of about 1 million similarly sized, near-Earth asteroids, which we know are out there, statistically, but that we haven’t yet seen. Consequently, until we find them in our telescopes, we are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery with nothing more than luck to prevent a disaster. Regrettably, the Earth-based telescopes we’ve been using to discover and track these objects have, practically speaking, reached their limitations for finding the vast majority of these cosmic torpedoes.

Why do we care about finding them if there’s nothing we can do about it? Because, unknown to most people, is that if we have adequate early warning, our current space technology is sufficiently advanced to deflect these asteroids. For smaller impacts, even a last-minute warning of several days could enable a local evacuation and save many lives.

Deflection, however, will generally require several decades of warning. Fortunately, due to the relatively pure nature of space dynamics, forecasting an asteroid impact 100 years in advance is possible once its orbit is well known. The sine qua non, therefore, is finding them…

He goes on to make a pitch for the Sentinel telescope. He’s involved with a nonprofit that wants to build this thing and save the planet. Which is good of him.

What he does not to, to my frustration, is explain his claim that we can deflect these things. However, Stuart Clark, also writing in The Guardian, answers my question:

“There are three ways to deflect a dangerous asteroid: the gently pull, the swift kick and nuking it,” says Fitzsimmons. Which method is best depends on the asteroid’s size, composition, orbit, and crucially, how much warning we get. Typically, warning times of a decade or so would be required.

With plenty of warning, the gentle pull may be all that is needed. In this scenario, you send the heaviest spacecraft you can launch to “hover” close to the dangerous asteroid. The tiny gravitational pull that the spacecraft produces on the asteroid then adds up over many years to shift it off collision course. It’s a concept known as the gravity tractor.

The swift kick actually involves a collision. You hit the asteroid with a heavy spacecraft that instantaneously changes its orbit. The more warning you have, the smaller the kick you need to give it. Observations can quickly show whether the method has worked or whether another kick is needed.

Finally, if things are desperate, nuke it. This can provide the biggest kick of all. But don’t shatter the asteroid. The last thing you want to do is break it up. That turns a cannonball into buck shot without significantly changing its orbit.

Instead, a nearby nuclear explosion would evaporate the surface layers of the asteroid. As the vaporised rock jets into space, the asteroid would be pushed in the opposite direction.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in order for us to do any of that, our space program needs to be more advanced than it is now. The gentle pull, anyway. To be able to intercept an asteroid decades away from us in time to gradually pull it off course sounds to me well beyond our current technology. Seems that we might want to step up our game a bit. As Clark quotes Larry Niven as saying, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme.”

Here’s hoping the scientists did their sums right

2012 DA14

A portion of the graphic in today’s WSJ.

I’d hate to find out they were a bit off, in the wrong direction.

There was a graphic this morning in The Wall Street Journal blithely informing me that an asteroid is going to pass very close to the Earth on Feb. 15. How close? Like, way, way closer than the moon (less than 10 percent of that distance). In fact, closer than some of our geosynchronous satellites. In fact, it may even take out a satellite or two.

Oh, and get this — this 45-meter-wide, 130,000-metric-ton chunk of trouble passes by the Earth about once a year. And… it’s passing close enough to us this time that its path is likely to be changed significantly by our gravity. Which means, who knows how close or how far it will be in the future.

If it did hit us someday, it would mean a collision packing the energy of 120 Hiroshima bombs. Of course, a bigger asteroid would be worse. 2012 DA14 is actually one of the “smallest of known asteroids,” according to the graphic in the paper this morning.

I think it’s really time we got serious again about manned space flight, don’t you?

SC politician uses ‘communitarian’ in a sentence!

A friend brought to my attention this interview with Bob Inglis, who will be in Columbia next week to speak at the SC Clean Energy Summit. An excerpt:

Q. So you think the main thing driving the current conservative attitude toward climate science is economic anger?

A. I think that’s where the explanation starts. Yesterday, in my class [Inglis is a Visiting Energy Fellow at the Nicolas School of the Environment at Duke University], I assigned J.M. Bernstein’s great piece “The Very Angry Tea Party.” It starts with economic dislocation, but his point is, at a very deep emotional level, it shows that our self-concept as autonomous beings is inconsistent with our reality of interdependence, and to some extent dependence, on a social network of support from Medicare, Social Security, and other ways that we have formed community.

The thing where I’m obviously out of step is, I think it’s possible to be a conservative who wants to build community. That it is consistent with the ethical teachings of Jesus — to be a communitarian, to care for the sick. But right now what we have is anger and rejectionism. On energy and climate, there’s an element that just rejects action, rejects the science, rejects anything and anybody with a PhD.

I think you should respect people who have given their lives to learning about climate systems and listen to them carefully. They know a lot more than I do. But this is not where we are right now.

If you look at the history of this country, there was something called the Boston Commons. Savannah, Ga., was a planned city and has beautiful parks; Charleston has some beautiful public spaces. The idea being, we can build a community here. We’re going to care for one another. Now, there’s a big difference of opinion about how far that goes in terms of the role of the state. But you start with the notion that we’re going to build community.

Another reason for rejectionism has to do with an assumption of technological progress, that they, whoever they is, will come up with something. It’s not a strategy as far as I’m concerned. The unnamed they will come up with something faster if we set the economics right.

And some of the rejectionism is based on a sort of recoiling from the apocalyptic vision of some advocates of action on climate change. That apocalyptic vision actually hurts us because it drives the sense that, well, we’re all toast anyway. We may as well eat, drink, and be merry. If I believe that I’ve got some control over my destiny, I might rise up and exercise responsibility. But if I think it’s all predetermined and I’ve got no hope, denial is a pretty good coping mechanism.

If I accept the science, and that leads to the conclusion that something’s up, and I’m a responsible moral actor, I should change my behavior. But if I’m not willing to change my behavior, it’s better for me, not to admit that I’m selfish, but to attack the science. Attacking the science is an easier way to dispense with the question.

And here you can see, of course, why the Tea Party essentially rode the congressman out of office on a rail in 2010: He thinks too much.

Related to that is the main reason this was brought to my attention: This may mark the first time in the history of our state that a present or former South Carolina officeholder actually used the word “communitarian.” And even used it in a way that indicated he identified the concept with himself!

General guide for mazes, crowds: Always turn left

Did you know this? I didn’t, until Andrew Sullivan told me:

Corn mazes are designed to trick participants, and studies have shown that most humans will naturally, when confronted with a fork in the road, turn right; the hour I spent last night testing this on satellite images of corn and hedge mazes absolutely proves that clever maze-makers love to play on your instincts. (Side note: I’ve heard that that turning-left tip is also a good strategy for avoiding long lines at amusement parks.)

Here’s a passage from the second link he refers to above:

Ok, MrMoonPie, here’s the one, time-tested, don’t-ever-forget-it rule regarding success at Disney World: every time you are presented with a choice, GO TO THE LEFT. I’m serious. Any time a line splits, or you have a choice of entrances, or you’re deciding which part of the park to explore next, GO TO THE LEFT. Many have scoffed, but many more have proven that this trick – simple as it is – actually works.

(I remember reading somewhere that this is due partially to Americans driving on the right side of the road and partially to a preponderance of people being right-handed. I have no idea why this works, but I have been to Disney World literally dozens of times, and I swear to you it does.)

It almost makes me want to go to Disney World again, to try it out.

Here’s some more info on the phenomenon.

By the way, I don’t think there’s a political message here. Certainly not coming from Sullivan.

Rattler in my yard=dead snake, if I can help it

Two or three weeks ago, my wife saw, from our deck, a fat snake with a triangular head gliding over a pile of brush in our backyard. I resolved, with a shudder, to do something about the pile of brush — which would require actually working in the yard, which for me is a big price to pay, but some things ya gotta do. (Where’s George W. Bush when you need him? He loves to clear brush.)

Based on her description, I Googled “copperhead” and showed her the picture. Yep, that was it, she said.

So last weekend, after she mentioned her intention of letting the grandchildren play behind our house at some point in the near future, I backed up my truck to the pile, and attacked it with a pitchfork. Yeah, it’s easier to pick up with your hands, but I’m not crazy. No snakes were encountered, which will explain why I got through the weekend without experiencing myocardial infarction. The brush is gone. Which, I remind myself, means the snake is likely somewhere in the vast, poison ivy-choked, “natural” parts of my yard (where we won’t let children go), which is located one block from the Saluda River.

(Dang. I just remembered I forgot to get any pictures of me manfully wrestling that potentially snake-infested debris into my pickup. I could have used that in future political campaigns. Oh, well…)

Anyway, with that memory fresh, I was less than thrilled to read this news today:

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a venomous reptile with a nasty bite, is under consideration to become a federally protected endangered species in South Carolina and neighboring states.

Look, I love the bald eagle. I’m for protecting the snail darter. I can even see some value in protecting wolves, sort of. And seeing as how I live nowhere near the Arctic, I’m for sticking up for the polar bear, even though it’s the only kind of bear that hunts people for food.

But a rattlesnake? Sorry, but the usual catchall of “biological diversity,” great as it is, isn’t quite enough to override the negatives in this instance.

The obligatory explanation is to be found in this story:

Eastern diamondbacks are important because they kill rodents and small mammals that could otherwise overpopulate the countryside.

“If this goes missing, it could have effects we’re not even thinking about today,” Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Harold Mitchell said. “It has a role to play. The less pieces there are in the ecosystem, the less functional that ecosystem becomes until it breaks.”

Sorry, but that’s not enough. It’s too vague and general. I could have given that justification without your help. You’re going to have to go farther than that. The idea that diversity in the ecosystem is in and of itself a justification doesn’t go far enough here. I need to know which rodents are controlled by this species and this species only. Are you saying rat snakes and king snakes and the like are picky, and won’t kill the ones that this kind of rattler goes after? If so, say so. Make the case.

(If your faith in biodiversity is of the religious sort, then it’s all about faith that why you may not know exactly why this species is essential to the balance of life, it is in some way you can’t know, and therefor you must preserve it. In other words, it’s a mystery; have faith. Sorry. Most of the time, I’m from South Carolina. But when it comes to rattlers, I’m from Missouri.)

I’m listening. But in the meantime, if I see one of these monsters in my yard, I’m going to do what I can to hasten its extinction.

On the one hand Jupiter, on the other Venus

Rick Stilwell, a.k.a. @RickCaffeinated, shared this last evening:

Explanation: It was visible around the world. The sunset conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was visible last week almost no matter where you lived on Earth. Anyone on the planet with a clear western horizon at sunset could see them. This week the two are still notable, even though Jupiter has sunk below the brighter Venus. And if you look higher in the sky you can see Mars as well. Pictured above, a creative photographer traveled away from the town lights of SzubinPoland to image a near closest approach of the two planets almost a week ago. The bright planets were separated only by three degrees and his daughter striking a humorous pose. A faint red sunset still glowed in the background. Although this conjunction is drawing to a close, another conjunction between Venus and Jupiter will occur next May.

That’s Jupiter on the left, Venus on the right.

Very cool.

So THAT’s why I don’t feel as smart as I used to

This is an interesting piece brought to my attention by Stan Dubinsky:

SPEAKING two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles….

Set aside the fact that this NYT piece is written by one Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who probably speaks at least two languages, since this is written in English. It fits with what I’ve read and heard elsewhere — aside from the fact that it stands to reason.

It also gives me a clue as to why I used to feel so much smarter when I was a kid than I do now. When I was a kid, I spoke Spanish as easily and smoothly as English. I thought in Spanish, I dreamed in Spanish. I learned the language at what was probably the last possible moment for learning it as easily as I did — when I was 9.

I learned it the best way, in a sense — from being forced to speak it. From the time my family arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, most of the people I encountered spoke no English. I did take Spanish as a course in school, but that had little effect, as I recall. Probably a bigger factor was that I took half of my courses in Spanish — including history, geography and science. That was at the Colegio Americano. I was in the Clase Especial, which didn’t quite mean what it means here. There, it meant I was in the one class in my grade that was for native English speakers, and that the classes I took in Spanish were actually a grade-level behind my English classes. Near as I could tell, that didn’t put me behind my peers when I got back to the states. And I certainly knew a lot more than the other kids back home about Latin American history. Not that anybody up here cares about that.

I learned a lot of my Spanish at home as well. My Dad at the time was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, which made us modestly middle class at home. But there, we had two maids, one of whom lived with us 24 hours a day. And no, it wasn’t like Downton Abbey. But the maids had no English, and I interacted with them constantly — I had to, to get through the day. The first word I remember learning from them by way of context happened the first couple of days we were in the country. One of the maids started working for us while we were still staying in the Humboldt Hotel on the waterfront. She took us for walk one day along the quay  (with me probably fuming because, at 9, I felt no need for a babysitter), holding my little brother’s hand. He was only 3, and of course he wanted to touch everything. She would pull him away, saying in an urgent, admonitory tone, “Sucio!” It wasn’t hard to figure out that that meant “dirty.”

Anyway, when we came back to the states two-and-a-half years later, I had this ability that I was seldom called upon to use. I only took Spanish once in school subsequently, and of course aced the course — even though my grammar going in wasn’t so hot (the result of having learned the language naturalistically, and sometimes from people whose own language skills weren’t the best). When I went to college, my skills were still good enough for me to test out of having to take any foreign language at all.

But since then… it’s been slipping away from me.

About a decade or so ago, we started having masses in Spanish at St. Peter’s. I became one of those who would read the Gospel in Spanish at mass. To do this, I read it aloud multiple times before I leave home, just to warm up the necessary muscles in my tongue and mouth — otherwise, I can’t do the accent. My accent still isn’t perfect when I get up there and read (to my critical ear), but it’s better than that of people who learned as adults. It’s good enough that folks who have no English come up to me after Mass and ask me questions, which only embarrasses me and causes me to say, “Lo siento, pero necesitas hablar con María…” and refer them to our Hispanic Minister.

Because the thing is, I can hardly understand a word they’re saying to me. When I do speak the language (and I only fully understand what I’m reading if I look up some of the words), it’s very halting. And to my mortification, whether speaking or listening, I have to translate the words or idiomatic phrases in my head — which would never have been necessary when I was a kid.

So I think being bilingual made me smarter — I remember the couple of years after I came back as a time when everything, from school subjects to popular culture, gave me a fantastic rush in my brain as I soaked it all up.

But I don’t think I’m that smart any more.

I purely despise Daylight Saving Time, and I don’t think we should put up with it any more

"Make it noon."

I’m beginning this post at 11:19 a.m. on the Ides of March. That is, it’s 11:19 in real time, sun time. According to every time-keeping device within reach of me, including this laptop, it’s 12:19 p.m. (OK, 12:21 now, as I stopped to look something up.) But that’s because every time-keeping device in my vicinity lies. They are required to do so by law.

The law is the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which extended the lying practice of observing Daylight Saving Time for four weeks more out of the year. You know why? Because Senator Michael Enzi and Michigan Representative Fred Upton thought it would be a fine idea to move the end of it later in the fall so that kids could go trick-or-treating in daylight. Really. (As if any self-respecting spook would venture forth before darkness has fallen.) I don’t know the excuse for moving the start from April to before the middle of March, but I’m sure it is also a doozy.

Lobbying for this change were “the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and the National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation Fighting Blindness.” Lobbying against, unsuccessfully, were “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the National Parent-Teacher Association, the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Air Transport Association.

I had no idea that my church’s bishops were against it, but of course that makes perfect sense, as all right and moral people would be.

There are few measurements of time that are based in the natural world. There is the day, and the year, which both make sense as long as one is earthbound. Divorced from the cycles of the moon, months are nonsensical — just arbitrary devices we’ve agreed to pretend are real. The hours of the day make sense in only one way — if noon occurs at the height of the sun. In the days of sail, in the Royal Navy at least, noon was the occasion of some ceremony — the official beginning of the naval day. The captain would assemble his midshipmen on the quarterdeck and they would all shoot the sun with their sextants, and when there was agreement that indeed it was noon, the captain would say to the quartermaster, “Make it noon,” and a marine would strike the bell, and the foremast jacks would be piped to their dinner. Noon was real, it was grounded, and it provided a reference point for giving every other hour of the day meaning.

Now, the time of day is arbitrary, and I see little reason to respect it. Particularly when it robs me of an hour of sleep on my weekend, then causes me to rise before the sun every day for most of the year. Then — and this is the thing that bugs me more — it completely eliminates any enjoyment of the evening. I don’t know about you, but I am completely uninterested in eating my last meal of the day while the sun still shines. I’m a busy guy, and I continue being busy until the setting of the sun tugs at my attention. (This is rooted, I suppose, in all those years of newspaper work, when the climax of the long working day occurred in the evening.)

So the sun goes down, and we eat supper, and… it’s time to go to bed. No relaxing evening. No downtime. It’s all over. And I know I’ll have to get up an hour early in the morning. Which I resent.

I’m feeling this with particular force this week because I recently started working out everyday (I have a new elliptical trainer at home), and this week was when I started trying extra hard to do my workout in the morning rather than at night. I get that initial boost of energy from the workout, then I eat breakfast and about mid-morning I crash, and feel tired the rest of the day. I blame this on having to do my workout before the sun is up.

Some say it’s just an adjustment. Even people who don’t hate DST say the first few days are hard. I say stuff to that. I’ll hate it until the first week in November arrives.

You know, it’s not inevitable. Since DST is a false construct of man, it can be undone by man (arrogant man, who thinks he can revoke the movement of the spheres). They don’t put up with this tyranny in Arizona:

Arizona observed DST in 1967 under the Uniform Time Act because the state legislature did not enact an exemption statute that year. In March 1968, the DST exemption statute was enacted and the state of Arizona has not observed DST since 1967. This is in large part due to energy conservation: Phoenix and Tucson are hotter than any other large U.S. metropolitan area during the summer, resulting in more power usage from air conditioning units and evaporative coolers in homes and businesses.[citation needed][disputed – discuss] An extra hour of sunlight while people are active would cause people to run their cooling systems longer, thereby using more energy.[8] Local residents[who?] remember the summer of 1967, the one year DST was observed. The State Senate Majority leader at the time[citation needed] owned drive-in movie theaters and was nearly bankrupted by the practice. Movies could not start until 10:00 PM (2200) at the height of summer: well past normal hours for most Arizona residents. There has never been any serious consideration of reversing the exemption.

Did you read that? They’ve figured out in Arizona that it costs more money, because it makes you run air-conditioning longer. Well, duh. DST might, just might, make some sense if you live in Minnesota. Or back in 1918, before air-conditioning.

But it makes no kind of sense now, in South Carolina. Where are all these neo-Confederates who want to nullify every sensible act of the Congress when it comes to a useless act such as DST? How dare those damnyankees tell us to build our entire days upon a lie against God’s creation? Why, it offends all decent sensibilities.

People just accept things, as though they were sheep. Are there no men among us anymore?

I don’t know, but I wish somebody would do something. I would, but I’m too blamed tired

Anyone have anything to say about the Ports thing?

Perhaps I’ve been remiss by not commenting on hearings the Senate Medical Affairs Committee has been having regarding the recent DHEC decision to allow the state of Georgia to dredge.

It’s just that I haven’t been sure what to say about it.

The panel itself has absolved the governor and her staff of having exerted undue influence in the decision:

A panel of state senators cleared Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff Thursday of charges that they exerted undue influence in a controversial decision to allow the expansion of a Georgia port.

By a 7-3 vote, the senators, who are investigating the port decision, agreed no evidence exists the that governor’s office unfairly influenced the process….

But frankly, I was never convinced that the panel was asking the right question.

The governor’s political opponents have seemed very concerned with trying to find a smoking gun — some specific instance in which the governor, or someone on her staff, said to the DHEC board, “Do this.”

And as far as most of the Democrats on the panel are concerned, they found it. “Boom! That was it,” says Joel Lourie of an Oct. 4 meeting at which the governor promised her Georgia counterpart a rehearing. “That lit the fire.”

Haley staffer Ted Pitts confirmed that the conversation with Gov. Nathan Deal took place. The governor subsequently “called Allen Amsler, the DHEC chairman, into her office and asked him to grant the hearing.”

But Pitts says there was no promise of an approval the second time around.

So put whatever spin on that you like. Vincent Sheheen is so convinced that this inculpates the governor that he’s including the Post and Courier story in its entirety in fund-raising emails, saying “I urge you to read the article below so that you can tell your friends what a travesty is occurring in Columbia.  We need your help to keep fighting to expose the dishonesty and self interest that has infected our state at the highest levels. Our state’s future is at stake!”

But here’s the thing for me: I don’t need to know who said what to whom on what date. The governor appointed this board. This board made this decision. The governor says she supports the decision. None of this is in dispute.

No voter needs to know more than that in order to hold Nikki Haley responsible for the decision. The rest — hearings and such — is political theater.

There’s no question that it is fair and right to identify Nikki Haley with this decision. That’s not in dispute. The reason why I’m not as up in arms about it as Sheheen and Lourie and others, including such Republicans as Larry Grooms, are is that I don’t know enough to know whether it was a bad decision.

Maybe I’ve missed it in the coverage I’ve seen, but I’ve not encountered a clear answer to this question: Was the board — which is entirely Nikki Haley’s creation — overruling the considered judgment of DHEC staff? At first, I assumed that was the case, and was duly outraged. But I haven’t seen that stated overtly anywhere. If staff concurred in this reassessment, that puts everything in a different light.

So what I’d like to see a Senate panel dig into — if it is indeed inclined to dig — is the extent to which staff and board diverged. That would help me know what to think.

Staff people aren’t going to come forward and dispute their political masters on this. Are you kidding? But perhaps the Legislature could compel testimony not otherwise available…

Happy real Columbus Day

OK, I need to run to a meeting, but I can’t let today pass without acknowledging Columbus Day. Partly to defy political correctness… earlier this week, Kathryn said “Celebrating Columbus is a bit like flying the Confederate flag,” and martin sort of disputed her, and I responded:

Indeed. It’s foolish to get mad at Columbus. If he hadn’t been the one, it would have been the next doofus who thought the world was that much smaller than it was (or perhaps, some Portuguese captain who got blown off course on the way down the coast of Africa, which, if you’re out far enough to start with, can easily carry you to the coast of Brazil)…

Somebody was going to make the voyage that changed the world more profoundly than any other voyage in the history of the world. The one that started the continuous travel between Europe and America, as opposed to the Vikings and St. Brendan and the like. It just happened to be Columbus, because he was so stubborn about his wrong idea, and managed to persuade Isabela to part with some dough.

But there’s another reason. I’m very much looking forward to reading 1493, by Charles C. Mann. I got it for my birthday. And though I have not read it yet, I’m familiar with his thesis, because he summed it up in this remarkable piece in the WSJ recently. An excerpt:

Some 250 million years ago, the Earth contained a single landmass known as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, forever splitting Eurasia and the Americas. Over time the two halves of Pangaea developed wildly different suites of plants and animals.

Before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, only a few venturesome land creatures, mostly insects and birds, had crossed the oceans and established themselves. Otherwise, the world was sliced into separate ecological domains. Columbus’s signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of the historian Alfred W. Crosby, to reknit the seams of Pangaea.

And he means that culturally, certainly. And politically, a concept we’re all familiar with. But also horticulturally, zoologically, economically, genetically, and just about any other way you want to look at it, with the exception of geologically.

Before Columbus, the world was one way. After, it was another way, in realm after realm of human, animal and plant life. The more you dig into it, the more astounding it is.

So… it doesn’t matter whether Columbus was a nice guy, or beastly to the native peoples, or a lousy geographer, or whatever. At least, no matter which of those things is true, the achievement is singular and world-shaking. That one voyage changed the world more than any other voyage, ever. Certainly infinitely more than the previous aborted connections between the continents, by Vikings, and possibly Polynesians, Africans, and Chinese. Because the connection he made was not severed, but followed up on — by quite a host of rather appalling opportunists in many cases, but as I say, this is not about the moral judgments.

It’s about what a big deal this was. And worth marking every year. (Although maybe not worth the Post Office getting a day off when I don’t.)

By the way, Mann is not about shortchanging the Indians. I’m now reading his prequel, 1491, which is about the millennia before Columbus came here. In short, it’s about all the recent research that tells us that there were many more people here than we supposed for most of our history, that they were here far longer, and that their societies were more sophisticated than even the greatest denouncers of eurocentrism would suppose. And other fascinating stuff.

A passage that sort of illustrates the paradigm-busting approach of this book (and, I assume, the new one):

Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

Worth reading.