The next book… Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

I’ve started reading Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich. She’s an interesting writer. Years ago she pointed out that Playboy magazine was promoting what was at the time an essentially gay lifestyle: life in the city, avoid marriage, swap out sex partners on a regular basis, be able to spend one’s entire income, appreciate art, food, wine, etc. Therefore they needed to have pictures of naked women to remind readers that this wasn’t a lifestyle reserved for homosexual men.

Her latest book is timely for those of us who are closing on Medicare eligibility and/or who have aging parents. She’s unimpressed with the bargain that Americans have struck with the health care industry, i.e., hand over 18 percent of earnings for a marginal net improvement in health over the most basis system and for, arguably, worse health than what is achieved in countries such as Singapore (4.5 percent of GDP devoted to health). [See my health care reform article from 2009, in which I ask “Who Voted to Spend All of Our Money on Health Care?” and point out that we could have a mostly paid-for life if we didn’t shovel most of our cash to the medical industry.]

From the author’s intro:

Most of my educated, middle-class friends had begun to double down on their health-related efforts at the onset of middle age, if not earlier. They undertook exercise or yoga regimens; they filled their calendars with upcoming medical tests and exams; they boasted about their “good” and “bad” cholesterol counts, their heart rates and blood pressure. Mostly they understood the task of aging to be self-denial, especially in the realm of diet, where one medical fad, one study or another, condemned fat and meat, carbs, gluten, dairy, or all animal-derived products. In the health-conscious mind-set that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for about four decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue,

I had a different reaction to aging: I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die, … If we go by newspaper obituaries, however, we notice that there is an age at which death no longer requires much explanation.

Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise— not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.

As it is now, preventive medicine often extends to the end of life: Seventy-five-year-olds are encouraged to undergo mammography; people already in the grip of one terminal disease may be subjected to screenings for others. 4 At a medical meeting, someone reported that a hundred-year-old woman had just had her first mammogram, causing the audience to break into a “loud cheer.”  One reason for the compulsive urge to test and screen and monitor is profit, and this is especially true in the United States, with its heavily private and often for-profit health system. How is a doctor— or hospital or drug company— to make money from essentially healthy patients? By subjecting them to tests and examinations that, in sufficient quantity, are bound to detect something wrong or at least worthy of follow-up.

There are even sizable constituencies for discredited tests. When the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force decided to withdraw its recommendation of routine mammograms for women under fifty, even some feminist women’s health organizations, which I had expected to be more critical of conventional medical practices, spoke out in protest. A small band of women, identifying themselves as survivors of breast cancer, demonstrated on a highway outside the task force’s office, as if demanding that their breasts be squeezed. In 2008, the same task force gave PSA testing a grade of “D,” but advocates like Giuliani, who insisted that the test had saved his life, continued to press for it, as do most physicians. Many physicians justify tests of dubious value by the “peace of mind” they supposedly confer— except of course on those who receive false positive results.

Physicians see this all the time— witty people silenced by ventilators, the fastidious rendered incontinent— and some are determined not to let the same thing happen to themselves. They may refuse care, knowing that it is more likely to lead to disability than health, like the orthopedist who upon receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer immediately closed down his practice and went home to die in relative comfort and peace. 9 A few physicians are more decisively proactive, and have themselves tattooed “NO CODE” or “DNR,” meaning “do not resuscitate.” They reject the same drastic end-of-life measures that they routinely inflict on their patients.

Not only do I reject the torment of a medicalized death, but I refuse to accept a medicalized life, and my determination only deepens with age. As the time that remains to me shrinks, each month and day becomes too precious to spend in windowless waiting rooms and under the cold scrutiny of machines. Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.

Why is medicine so bad? White males are substantially to blame:

According to critical thinkers like Zola and Illich, one of the functions of medical ritual is social control. Medical encounters occur across what is often a profound gap in social status: Despite the last few decades’ surge in immigrant and female doctors, the physician is likely to be an educated and affluent white male, and the interaction requires the patient to exhibit submissive behavior— to undress, for example, and be open to penetration of his or her bodily cavities. These are the same sorts of procedures that are normally undertaken by the criminal justice system, with its compulsive strip searches, and they are not intended to bolster the recipient’s self-esteem. Whether consciously or not, the physician and patient are enacting a ritual of domination and submission, much like the kowtowing required in the presence of a Chinese emperor.

[Based on my conversations with friends who are non-white non-male physicians and dentists, I’m not sure that the author would be happy with these immigrants or children of immigrants from India and China. Despite their double-victim status (immigrant/person-of-color plus female gender ID), these physicians do not seem to be any more respectful of the American masses than are my white male physician friends. In fact, they often use harsher and more direct language when discussing what they perceive to be the personal failings of their welfare-dependent patients and their less-than-brilliant or less-than-rational patients.]

Ehrenreich points out that it is we who should be calling doctors deficient, not vice versa. The “science is not settled” for a lot of the stuff into which we pour huge amounts of money, time, and suffering:

As for colonoscopies, they may detect potentially cancerous polyps, but they are excessively costly in the United States— up to $ 10,000— and have been found to be no more accurate than much cheaper, noninvasive tests such as examination of the feces for traces of blood.

There is an inherent problem with cancer screening: It has been based on the assumption that a tumor is like a living creature, growing from small to large and, at the same time, from innocent to malignant. Hence the emphasis on “staging” tumors, from zero to four, based on their size and whether there is evidence of any metastasis throughout the body. As it turns out, though, size is not a reliable indicator of the threat level. A small tumor may be highly aggressive, just as a large one may be “indolent,” meaning that a lot of people are being treated for tumors that will likely never pose any problem. One recent study found that almost half the men over sixty-six being treated for prostate cancer are unlikely to live long enough to die from the disease anyway.  They will, however, live long enough to suffer  from the adverse consequences of their treatment.

In 2014, the American College of Physicians announced that standard gyn exams were of no value for asymptomatic adult women and were certainly not worth the “discomfort, anxiety, pain and additional medical costs” they entailed. 16 As for the annual physical exams offered to both sexes, their evidentiary foundations had begun to crumble over forty years ago, to the point where a physician in 2015 could write that they were “basically worthless.” Both types of exams can lead to false positives, followed by unnecessary tests and even surgery, or to a false sense of reassurance, since a condition that was undetectable at the time of the exam could blossom into a potentially fatal cancer within a few months.

As in her previous works, Ehrenreich is good at finding big trends:

It was the existence of widespread health insurance that turned fitness into a moral imperative. Insurance involves risk sharing, with those in need of care being indirectly subsidized by those who are healthier, so that if you are sick, or overweight, or just guilty of insufficient attention to personal wellness, you are a drag on your company, if not your nation. As the famed physician and Rockefeller Foundation president John H. Knowles put it in 1977: “The cost of sloth, gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy, and smoking is now a national, and not an individual, responsibility.… One man’s freedom in health is another man’s shackle in taxes and insurance premiums.”

I’m hoping that some other folks here will pick up
Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer  and then we can have a real discussion about it!

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What it takes to welcome refugees and other immigrants

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows identifies the presence of refugees and immigrants as a sign of an American town’s success. What’s the price of success?

When the Sioux Falls public schools opened their doors in 2013, the biggest single group of these students, about one-third of the total (according to school district figures), were the 700 Spanish speakers, many of whom arrived in migrant worker families. As for the other two-thirds, when we visited, there were 259 Nepali speakers, 135 who spoke Arabic, 129 Swahili, 101 Somali, 93 Amharic, 84 Tigrinya (a Semitic language from the Horn of Africa), and 77 French. A very long tail of other languages included many I’ve never heard of, and I have been studying languages and linguistics all my life. Mai Mai had 27 speakers in the city, Nuer had 7, and then there were Grebo, Lingala—the list goes on.

The school programs start in the classroom and extend to tutoring, summer school, free lunches, and bus passes. They also look to whole-family success. Home-to-school liaisons do things like help schedule parent-teacher conferences and round up translators. Sometimes, translation involves the children’s game of telephone, where speakers pass on a message from one language to the next and the next, and then back again. Such details are fundamental to keeping the entire system working.

Where do you start acculturation with the ocean-deep discrepancies among the children? In refugee-rich Burlington, Vermont, one school’s population includes the daughter of the principal and a little boy whose life experience is so raw that he pees in the corner of the classroom because he can’t imagine a toilet in a restroom.

Although the authors are unreservedly positive about the benefits that low-skill immigration bring to Americans, the facts that they relate do not seem to support this perspective. Many of the “immigrant-rich” or “children-of-immigrant-rich” cities that they write about are remarkable for their poverty and lack of economic growth. For example:

The city’s population had long been more “majority minority” than the entire state’s—San Bernardino is now about 60 percent Hispanic, versus about 40 percent for California—and significantly poorer. The median household income in the city is under $40,000, versus over $60,000 for the state and over $50,000 for the country. San Bernardino is the poorest city of more than village size in California. When things went wrong for the country as a whole in 2008, they went worse for San Bernardino. Because its population was so poor to begin with and had lost so many previous sources of income, the debt levels on its real estate shot up during the subprime bubble of the mid-2000s and then home values fell extra hard, making the city one of the foreclosure centers of the country. Its unemployment rate neared 20 percent at the worst, and even as it improved it remained nearly twice the national level. In 2014, a WalletHub ranking put it dead last on a ranking of job prospects in 150 metro areas.

“We have one of the poorest communities in the nation, fifty-four percent of the population on some kind of public assistance. And our public school system is requiring that our taxpayers further invest dollars that they don’t have, for students just to barely get an entrance requirement for community college. That’s tragic. I couldn’t take that anymore. You’ve got to fix it.”

(The chapter on San Bernardino does not mention its most famous immigrant, Tashfeen Malik, or  child of immigrant, Rizwan Farook, or the most famous recent event in San Bernardino, i.e., the 2015 shooting.)

Don’t feel bad for everyone in San Bernardino, though: “This city with a per capita income of $35,000 ended up paying its public safety workers total compensation of about $160,000 apiece, or about $40,000 more than the statewide average.”

Allentown, Pennsylvania is described as having gone from mostly white to “more than 40 percent Latino” and simultaneously to “a bombed-out-looking, high-crime shell of what had been until the 1980s an architecturally attractive and commercially successful downtown area.” Ultimately the city is restored to some extent with huge tax breaks that have drawn in development dollars and projects from other cities and towns in Pennsylvania. The FBI got interested in why certain developers happened to be favored in this public-private partnership and six local officials pled guilty to corruption. In October 2018, the mayor was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

How dramatic has the change in American demography been?

The history of the student population is very different from that of the staff. Since the late 1980s, the demographic composition of Dodge City’s [Kansas] students has dramatically changed. According to one estimate we heard from city officials, the Hispanic population in grades K–12 would have been about 20 percent in the 1980s, and is nearly 80 percent today. First Mexicans, then waves of others from Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Dodge City is, in effect, a “port of entry,” says Robert Vinton, the director of the Dodge City Migrant Education program, even though it is nearly seven hundred miles north of the border. The high school is about 70 percent Hispanic, with another 7 percent designated as “other,” which includes African and Asian immigrant populations; the rest are Anglo. In the high school, 36 percent of students are English-language learners.

Each August, some twenty or thirty new immigrant students are likely to show up. They continue to dribble in through May. The latest wave came from Guatemala, many of whom—even at the high school level—were entering a classroom for the first time and were illiterate. At home, conditions are often poor, and many families arrive with a rough history.

Among the social services I saw: counseling for students who are pregnant, who are already moms, who have incarcerated parents;

More than 50 percent of the students (not all of them migrants) in the DCPS are enrolled in well-established English-Language Learner (ELL) programs. The recently arrived Guatemalans have brought a new linguistic twist. While Guatemala is officially a Spanish-speaking country, roughly twenty-four indigenous languages are spoken there as well. For some who arrive in Dodge City, an indigenous language is their sole language. This forces the same kind of telephone-game translation system I saw applied in Sioux Falls, where a series of interpreters hot-potato a conversation from English to two or three other languages and back again.

In Dodge City, there are some illiterate teenage children arriving who “don’t know how to hold a pencil,” Vinton told me.

Deborah Fallows rides with “Sister Roserita Weber and Sister Janice Thome, nuns of the Dominican Order of Peace” as they serve the immigrants and children of immigrants in Dodge City, Kansas. There are “single moms” with up to six children. There are women trying to get Green Cards based on having been domestic violence victims (see “Au pair to green card” for how this works when done right). There is a family that needs a free ride from “a school’s summer free-lunch program to their trailer.”

Sometimes it seems that immigrants themselves are a resource to be mined by an otherwise failing town. The Rust Belt’s Rust Belt town of Erie, Pennsylvania, for example, is now 10 percent refugee:

I went to visit the starting point for Erie’s continuing flow of new arrivals: the field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). It was already beginning to bustle before 9:00 a.m. on a hot August morning. A woman wearing a bright African cloth wrapped at the waist, with two little children beside her, was sitting on the concrete step in front of the building, waiting for something or someone. Clusters of others, mostly talking quietly in Arabic, were waiting inside in the stuffy reception area. A few of the staffers behind the reception windows were greeting everyone who came in. Along the narrow halls, there were day-care rooms, and there was a play area outside. Beyond some parked strollers and water dispensers, a language lesson was in progress; the instructor was juggling a meld of English grammar and culture for a dozen or more men and women seated at long tables.

Part of that summer bulge was the Zkrit family, who arrived in Erie early in June. In 2012, Mohammad Zkrit was living in Aleppo, Syria, with his young wife, Yasmine, and their two small daughters, and was working in a fabric factory. Then one day, his neighborhood was bombed by the forces of Bashar al-Assad. His house was destroyed, and he was injured.

After three years in Jordan, they were offered the chance to resettle in the United States. Zkrit, thirty-six, and his wife, twenty-six, and their growing family of four young children boarded a plane in Amman bound for Chicago and, ultimately, Erie.

The Fallowses visited in 2016, which means that Mr. Zkrit had been in the U.S. for about one year. How was a guy with experience in “a fabric factory” going to fare in the labor market of a state with no fabric factories? It turned out that he was unemployed, unable to command even the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Also, he did not speak English. Through an interpreter, however, he told the authors how happy he was in Erie and the U.S.: “America is my dream country.”

[Mr. Zkrit, with his lack of English, is not the most challenging refugee in Erie from a job placement perspective. The authors also write about “at least twenty-four deaf refugees from Nepal who live in Erie now.”]

How can a town survive with 10 percent of its population being unskilled unemployed refugees with four kids each? I wonder if the answer is harvesting federal subsidies. Our poorest cities often have sparkling new hospitals, built by mining elderly citizens for Medicare dollars. Could it be that Erie is mining refugees for the Federal Welfare that attaches to them? Each refugee is entitled to housing, health care, and food, all of which will be funded nationally, but purchased in the local economy.

The authors are negative on Donald Trump and imply that anyone who votes for him would be doing so out of “resentment,” “fear,” or “grievance.” They’re especially dismayed by Trump’s opposition to low-skill immigration. Yet their book shows that only a crazy rich country could possibly afford to run both low-skill immigration and a comprehensive welfare state.

More: Read Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America

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Arabia Felix: The Middle East in 1761-1767

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 moves at a slow (18th century?) pace, but provides some interesting looks at how people were living back then. The expedition from Egypt through to present-day Yemen was motivated by an interest in Biblical times:

Michaelis fancied that the investigators could also study the Arabs’ daily habits and customs, and their architecture. His idea here was that as there were only a few places left on earth where so conservative a people as the Arabs could still be found, there was a good chance of finding in Arabia cultural forms similar to those of ancient Israel—better even than in Palestine itself, which in the intervening centuries had been exposed to numerous foreign influences.

Academia was the place for anyone who wanted to work at a slow pace:

In Rome, too, innumerable difficulties seemed to have conspired against him. On an earlier occasion, Professor Michaelis had emphasised the pointlessness of going to the Italian capital for instruction in Arabic, since nobody there knew the dialect spoken in Arabia Felix. Instead, von Haven’s instructions supposed that he was “to gain practice in the reading and copying of Oriental manuscripts.” Naturally, this could be done only in the Vatican library. But three months after his arrival in Rome he wrote to Bernstorff that he was receiving instruction in Arabic from a Syrian priest every morning and afternoon. Not until four months later did he report that he had been given a letter of recommendation to the Vatican library; and not until five months after that, thanks to the French Ambassador, had this letter of recommendation become a ticket of admission. Six months after arriving in Rome and eighteen months after leaving Denmark, the scholar was more or less able to begin his studies. Then once again fate took a hand. He wrote on 22nd March to Bernstorff that the Vatican library was unfortunately open only from nine until noon. “But,” von Haven continued, “in matters of discussion and learning I prefer the living to the dead; and as I can meet my Syrian priest only in the mornings, I am afraid there is nothing I can do but let others copy the manuscripts at the library.”

They got 43 paragraphs of instructions from the Danish king. Samples:

You will traverse the interior of Arabia as well as journey along the coast. As you are accompanied by a physician, it is expected that this will allow you an opportunity of visiting a number of places where deadly diseases are prevalent without exposing your lives to danger.

The members of the expedition will behave very circumspectly towards the Mohammedans, will respect their religion, and will not behave towards their women with European freedom.

Moreover, you will pay particular attention to the ebb and flow of the Red Sea, to the relations between the living and the dead, to the influence of polygamy on the increase or decline of the people, to the relationship between the sexes, and to the number of women in the towns and in the country.

These folks would not have complained about a Ryanair seat:

The wind freshened once more, and on 26th January the Greenland skimmed north through the Kattegat before a fresh south-westerly breeze. They had passed Skagen and were in hopes of reaching the open sea when the wind veered west and increased to near-hurricane force. In his diary Carsten Niebuhr endeavoured to keep his composure: “All day on 2nd February it was so stormy that we could not even light a fire on board. However, we did not worry too much on that account, for when one is at sea one must learn to disregard such inconveniences. We suffered the loss of only one sailor, who fell from the yard-arm into the sea during the gale and could not be rescued because of the darkness and the tremendous seas.”

It took about six months to reach modern-day Turkey, from which the expedition officially launched.

By 8th September, 1761 all the preparations for the journey were complete. Now the real adventure began. Dressed in their new Oriental clothes, the learned gentlemen took leave of their host von Gähler and went aboard the boat which was to take them to Alexandria. On this ship, a little Turkish vessel from the Adriatic port of Dulcigno, the expedition encountered quite another world from the one they had been accustomed to on the Greenland. The purpose of the ship’s journey was quite simply to take a cargo of young slave girls to the Egyptian markets. It is apparent right from the start how this curious cargo captured the interest of our travellers. Peter Forsskål forgot his jelly-fish and marine plants for a while and noted in his diary: “We find ourselves in the company of a merchant who is going to Cairo with a cargo that would be highly unusual in European ports, namely women. He has taken all the safeguards of jealousy: a special cabin, which lies above our own, has been reserved for the young women, and he alone takes them their food. In addition, he has fastened a blanket inside the door so that the women cannot be seen when he lets himself in and out.” It would appear from this description that Forsskål had lost nothing of his power of exact scholarly observation; and Niebuhr too seems to have made a conscientious study. The young women, he says in his diary,“are generally very well treated, because when they are to be sold in Egypt it is very important for their owners that they should arrive at the market healthy and cheerful.”

There were worse things than Internet/Facebook mobs:

During their stay in Alexandria the members of the expedition lived in the house of the French Consul; and when one late afternoon they went up to the flat roof to enjoy the cool of the evening as the sun sank over the roofs and minarets of the town, they suddenly witnessed a distressing scene in the street below them. A number of Bedouin robbers who had made their way into the town from the desert were discovered by the populace, and those of them who did not succeed in escaping were surrounded in front of the consul’s house and beaten to death by the angry crowd.

Trade was extensive, if not globalized:

Other evenings he visited the caravan that came up from Sennar, deep in the Sudan, which was called the djellabe and was led by coal-black men with yellow, violet or scarlet shawls over their shoulders under their short curly hair. They halted their animals in front of ogelet-ed-djellabe, the inn of the djellabe, and came to fetch coral and amber for jewellery, beads and mirrors, sabres and guns. With them from Africa they brought slaves and slave girls; young boys of about eight who cost only 25 mahbub; young men from twenty to thirty who could be got for between 35 and 40 mahbub; eunuchs that cost up to 110 mahbub; young women costing up to 40 mahbub for virgins, for those who were not virgins up to 30 mahbub, and for those who knew how to prepare food up to 60 mahbub.

Life before photography was slow and sometimes awkward…

Niebuhr came very close in these months to answering the complex questions which the German professor had put concerning the practice of circumcision among the Arabs. This he did partly by talking to Arab scholars, but also by experiences of a more direct nature. One visit to a distinguished Arab which Niebuhr paid together with Forsskål and Baurenfeind became a memorable experience. We may allow Niebuhr himself to report: “Whilst we were one day visiting a rather distinguished Arab of Cairo at his country estate, six or seven miles outside the town, Herr Forsskål and Herr Baurenfeind expressed the wish to see and to draw a young girl who had been circumcised. Our host immediately gave orders that a young peasant girl of eighteen years old should be brought in, and he allowed them to see everything that they wanted to see. In the presence of various Turkish servants, our artists drew the whole thing from nature, but with a trembling hand because he feared unpleasant repercussions from the Mohammedans. But as the master of the house was our friend, none of them dared make any objection.”

There was a tremendous amount of petty theft, grifting by vendors, and official corruption at every stop from Egypt through Yemen. Extra cash was turned into extra wives:

“In that corner of the Faran valley [Suez] there were eight tents full of wives and children. Only the very poorest Arabs had only one wife. The wealthier sheiks had two or three. Two of our guides had two wives each, and the third only one. But they all wanted more money, or at least enough to buy several wives.

Income inequality was an issue back then…

Only four days after the return of von Haven and Niebuhr from the Sinai peninsula the great caravan arrived at Suez with pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Like a swarm of outsize grasshoppers they settled on the little harbour town and overnight made it more densely populated than Cairo itself. Men, women and children were there in confusion; the poor with their bundles and beggars’ crutches, the rich with their servants and heavily armed mercenaries to protect them during the journey; and great numbers of traders, neither rich nor poor, who had learned to use this chance of getting themselves and their goods in safety to Mecca while doing a little business en route. Wherever rich and poor meet you will soon find a trader, so that the rich may become richer and the poor poorer.

The trip to Jeddah was slow:

In the middle of this hectic bustle Forsskål had had to step in. In time he had become well-known among the people in the harbour quarter, and he managed to reserve the topmost cabin in the biggest of the four ships now preparing to sail with all this turmoil to Djidda.

The best cabins were occupied by rich Turks on their way to Mecca with their entire harem; the women were accommodated immediately under the expedition’s cabin,

Finally, each of the four ships had up to three or four smaller vessels in tow. In most of these were horses, goats and sheep; when the animals were to be fed, a sack of straw was thrown overboard and allowed to drift astern to the boat in tow, where the herdsman fished it up with a boathook. With one of the other boats in tow there was a lively traffic of a different kind. It was filled with prostitutes, the so-called Hadsjs of Mecca, who worked hard during their pilgrimage to the Holy City to earn their keep.

While this floating caravan was making its way south, Forsskål and Niebuhr checked their course; and both of them remark in their diaries, with a shake of the head, how because of his fear of losing landmarks the captain always followed the line of the coast among the dangerous coral islands and skerries, where a European skipper would have made for the open sea as quickly as possible. Every evening at sunset they had to heave to, because the captain dared not continue this hazardous coastal journey in the dark. One afternoon Niebuhr found a partial explanation of this when, shaken to the core, he asked permission to remove two enormous lumps of iron which the helmsman had placed under the ship’s compass in the belief that its presence would strengthen the magnetic needle.

They are at the mercy of the winds:

and their stay there eventually lasted over six weeks, rather longer than they had anticipated. The reason was the constant northerly wind; the coffee ships, which were to take them the last stretch southwards along the coast, had been delayed by head-winds on their

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Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

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Obama comes to Boston to help our small business

Just got the word from the FAA that President Obama is coming to Boston on Tuesday to help out our small business (NOTAM). As part of Obama’s fundraising visit, flight training operations at suburban Boston airports, including KBED and KOWD, where our flight school operates, are prohibited. So despite the forecast on Tuesday being perfect for flight training (light winds, no rain), our capital investment in 30 aircraft will yield a return of $0, our employees, who are paid by the hour, will earn nothing and pay no payroll taxes, and we’ll still get to pay rent on the office and hangars. As the event costs $5,000 per person, I’m not sure that any of our CFIs will be attending, but Obama  and Nancy Pelosi are giving us private-sector workers an unpaid holiday while the unionized public-sector workers in Boston, e.g., police, get paid double-time for working extra shifts (example cost) and the taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

[Separately, with the federal government set to shut down on March 18th if Congress and Obama don’t agree on how to spend all of the money that they are borrowing from future taxpayers, does it make sense for Obama to spend an entire day traveling to a provincial backwater like Boston? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Obama to work at his desk during the day and send Air Force One up to Logan Airport, pick up the $5,000 fat-cats, and fly them down to the White House for dinner? The cost to the taxpayers would be considerably reduced, since the White House is already adequately secured and no police overtime would be required. Also, taxpaying businesses in Boston could continue to operate normally.]

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