Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann, author of the fascinating 1491 (what Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were up to before Europeans arrived to trash these continents), explores what I think is the biggest issue of our age: can the human population continue to expand without (a) the Earth being transformed into an unpleasant habitat, and (b) humans themselves suffering a Malthusian reduction to a subsistence standard of living.

Mann frames the issue:

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give.

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Mann reminds us that the default scientific assumption is that Vogt is correct:

Biologists tell us that all species, if given the chance, overreach, overreproduce, overconsume. Inevitably, they encounter a wall, always to catastrophic effect, and usually sooner rather than later.

Yet, on the other hand, we’ve already apparently cheated what seemed like biological limits. World population has the proverbial Silicon Valley hockey stick growth and yet people are living better than ever, all around the world (except here in the U.S., according to my Facebook friends, since the Trumpenfuhrer arrived at the Reichstag!). Mann cites estimates that humans currently consume 25-50% of the Earth’s “primary production”

Convinced by politicians that STEM is the path to a glamorous and satisfying career? Here’s a description of Vogt’s 1938 job studying birds:

As a new employee of the Compañía Administradora del Guano, Vogt based his operations on the Chincha Islands, three granitic outposts thirteen miles off the southwest coast of Peru. Named, unexcitingly, North, South, and Central Chincha, they were each less than a mile across, ringed by hundred-foot cliffs, and completely covered in heaps of bird excrement—treeless, gray-white barrens of guano. Atop the guano, shrieking and flapping, were millions of Guanay cormorants, packed together three nests to the square yard, sharp beaks guarding eggs that sat in small guano craters lined by molted feathers. The birds’ wings rustled and thrummed; multiplied by the million, the sound was a vibration in the skull. Fleas, ticks, and biting flies were everywhere. So was the stench of guano. By noon the light was so bright that Vogt’s photographic light meter “often could not measure it.” Vogt’s head and neck were constantly sunburned; later his ears developed precancerous growths. Vogt worked, ate, and slept in the bird guardians’ barracks on North Chincha, remaining offshore for weeks on end (he was also given an apartment in the nearby shore town of Pisco). His quarters on the island were almost without furniture, covered with guano dust, alive with flies and roaches. Birds mated, fought, and raised their offspring on the roof overhead, leaving so much guano that the building had to be shoveled off periodically to avoid collapse.

Vogt’s opinion was that World War II in the Pacific could be explained by “population pressure” in Japan, and that both World Wars in Europe were explained by competition over resources. He was worried about population growth elsewhere:

Vogt, for instance, was loudly scornful of the “unchecked spawning” and “untrammeled copulation” of “backward populations”—people in India, he sneered, breed with “the irresponsibility of codfish.”

The book proves that every American has an idea for a movie (about soil!) and confirms the history in Real World Divorce:

Marjorie instead went home to California, where she apparently met Vogt, fourteen years her senior, who was futilely trying to convince Walt Disney to make an animated movie about soil. It seems evident that they began a relationship. Juana had spent much of the previous two years alone in Latin America, trolling the embassy circuit for Nazi gossip. In June 1945 the couple rendezvoused in California. The marriage collapsed. Two months later Juana went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain one of the city’s famous quick divorces. Early in 1946 Marjorie also went to Reno, and for the same reason. Marjorie filed for divorce from Devereux, appeared before the court, received her decree, and married Bill on the same day: April 4, 1946.

With the help of the new young wife, Vogt pushes Road to Survival in 1948, coinciding with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Thinking around environmentalism hasn’t significantly changed in the ensuing 70 years:

Vogt and Osborn were also the first to bring to a wide public a belief that would become a foundation of environmental thought: consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most of the world’s ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity will prevent a worldwide calamity.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Humans will breed until this carrying capacity is exceeded. Then wars and famine will break out.

Norman Borlaug also demonstrates what a comfortable career science can be…

Many years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, Norman Borlaug would look back on his first days in Mexico with incredulity. He was supposed to breed disease-resistant wheat in Mexico’s central highlands. Only after he arrived, in September 1944, did he grasp how unsuited he was for the task—almost as unqualified in his own way as Vogt had been when he set sail for Peru. He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research—since winning his Ph.D., he had spent his time testing chemicals and materials for industry. He had never been outside the United States and couldn’t speak Spanish. The work facilities were equally unprepossessing. Borlaug’s “laboratory” was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land on the campus of the Autonomous University of Chapingo. (“Autonomous” refers to the university’s legal authority to set its curriculum without government interference; Chapingo was the name of the village outside Mexico City where it was located.) And although Borlaug was sponsored by the wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, it could not provide him with scientific tools or machinery; during the Second World War, such equipment was reserved for the military.

Mann points out that being a science writer is a lot more fun than being a scientist: “A prerequisite for a successful scientific career is an enthusiastic willingness to pore through the minutiae of subjects that 99.9 percent of Earth’s population find screamingly dull.”

After decades of poverty and 80-hour work weeks, the Green Revolution ensues. Combine with the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia to use in fertilizer (Mann says that 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy goes for this) and we can have unlimited food, right?

Maybe not. “Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?” (Guardian, 2014):

“Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug’s new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

Not only did Borlaug’s ‘high-yielding’ seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers,” he wrote.

The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose ‘green revolution’ wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Mann does not cover these criticisms of Borlaug’s work. Even with Mann’s 100-percent positive perspective on the frankengrains, he admits that the only way to feed an increased human population with the latest tech comes at the cost of destroying animals in the ocean:

Hard on the heels of the gains were the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone—23,000 square miles—was mapped in the Bay of Bengal.

How about organics? Maybe that is the answer:

[Organic farming promoter Jerome] Rodale died in 1971—bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering the host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

The Gates Foundation will enable the Earth to support 50 billion people by engineering rice that accomplishes C4 photosynthesis:

Barely 3 percent of the flowering plants are C4, but they are responsible for about a quarter of all the photosynthesis on land. The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. The same is true for wheat and maize. Plant them on the same day in the same place and soon the maize will overshadow the wheat—maize is C4, wheat is not. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.

One of these in-between species is maize: its main leaves are C4, whereas the leaves around the cob are a mix of C4 and ordinary photosynthesis. If two forms of photosynthesis can be encoded from the same genome, they cannot be that far apart. Which in turn implies that people equipped with the tools of molecular biology might be able to transform one into another. In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, an international consortium of almost a hundred agricultural scientists is working to convert rice into a C4 plant—a rice that could grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, withstand higher temperatures, and produce more grain. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda

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Kate Atkinson on modern romance and marriage

Indulging in a mystery for this cruise… From Big Sky by Kate Atkinson:

She was good at what she did—acrylics, gels, shellac, nail art—and was proud of the attention she gave to her job, even if trade was sparse. It was the first thing she’d ever done that didn’t involve selling her body in one way or another. Marriage to Tommy was a financial transaction too, of course, but to Crystal’s way of thinking, you could be lap dancing for the fat sweaty patron of a so-called gentlemen’s club or you could be greeting Tommy Holroyd with a peck on the cheek and hanging his jacket up before laying his dinner before him. It was all part of the same spectrum as far as Crystal was concerned, but she knew which end of it she preferred. And, to quote Tina Turner, what does love have to do with it? Fig all, that was what. There was no shame in marrying for money—money meant security. Women had been doing it since time began. You saw it on all the nature programs on TV—build me the best nest, do the most impressive dance for me, bring me shells and shiny things. And Tommy was more than happy with the arrangement—she cooked for him, she had sex with him, she kept house for him. And in return she woke up every morning and felt one step further away from her old self. History, in Crystal’s opinion, was something that was best left behind where it belonged.

Modern physical appearance?

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction, made from artificial materials—the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blond hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

A man whose daughter has just finished high school…

He was grinding toward fifty and for the last three months he had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli—he’d been on a short-lived health kick—and said, “Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?,” leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry. Ashley had just set off on her gap year, backpacking around Southeast Asia with her surfer boyfriend. As far as Vince could tell, “gap year” meant the lull between him funding her expensive private school and funding her expensive university, a remission that was nonetheless still costing him her airfares and a monthly allowance.

As soon as Ashley had fledged, on an Emirates flight to Hanoi, Wendy reported to Vince that their marriage was dead. Its corpse wasn’t even cold before she was internet dating like a rabbit on speed, leaving him to dine off fish and chips most nights and wonder where it all went wrong. (Tenerife, three years ago, apparently.) “I got you some cardboard boxes from Costcutter to put your stuff in,” she said as he stared uncomprehendingly at her. “Don’t forget to clear out your dirty clothes from the basket in the utility room. I’m not doing any more laundry for you, Vince. Twenty-one years a slave. It’s enough.” This, then, was the return on sacrifice. You worked all the hours God gave, driving hundreds of miles a week in your company car, hardly any time for yourself, so your daughter could take endless selfies in Angkor Wat or wherever and your wife could report that for the last year she had been sneaking around with a local café owner who was also one of the lifeboat crew, which seemed to sanction the liaison in her eyes. (“Craig risks his life every time he goes out on a shout. Do you, Vince?” Yes, in his own way.) It clipped at your soul, clip, clip, clip.

He had trudged through his life for his wife and daughter, more heroically than they could imagine, and this was the thanks he received. Couldn’t be a coincidence that “trudge” rhymed with “drudge.” He had presumed that there was a goal to be reached at the end of all the trudging, but it turned out that there was nothing—just more trudging.

Despite being 67, Atkinson is familiar with Internet app culture:

Craig, the lifeboat man, had been jettisoned apparently in favor of the smorgasbord of Tinder.

The book is consistent with the Real World Divorce section on England:

“If only I’d listened to my poor mother,” Wendy said as she itemized the belongings he was allowed to take with him. Wendy who was getting so much money in the settlement that Vince barely had enough left for his golf-club fees. “Best I can do, Vince,” Steve Mellors said, shaking his head sadly. “Matrimonial law, it’s a minefield.” Steve was handling Vince’s divorce for him for free, as a favor, for which Vince was more than grateful. Steve was a corporate lawyer over in Leeds, and didn’t usually “dabble in divorce.” Neither do I, Vince thought, neither do I.

Now that regular novels are mostly about LGBTQIA characters and people with glamorous urban jobs, maybe mystery novels will end up being the best record of cisgender heterosexual working class life in the 21st century? Certainly they have always covered people in social classes ignored by writers of typical literary novels.

More: Read Big Sky (or start with the first book in the series, Case Histories)


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The great storm of 1950

Some miscellaneous items learned from reading On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides.

Impressed by hysterical headlines regarding today’s weather?

The same day the Chinese delegation arrived in New York, an unusually powerful storm system began to form across the eastern third of the United States, one that would temporarily divert the attention of the Truman administration from the looming conflict with China. The storm started with an Arctic cold front that fingered down through Ohio and eastern Kentucky. Across Appalachia, the mercury dropped from the fifties to the teens within a few hours. By the next day, as the cold air mass barreled toward the east, a vast pocket of warm, wet Atlantic air from the Carolinas began to wrap underneath it. The storm had become an “extratropical cyclone.” Huge amounts of snow began to fall across Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. In one town, deep in the hollows of West Virginia, fifty-seven inches of snow fell in just over a day. On the east side of the front, gale-force winds began to buffet New York and New England, cutting electricity from more than a million households. Manhattan recorded a peak gust of nearly a hundred miles per hour, and surging seas breached the dikes at LaGuardia Airport, flooding the runways. The nasty weather forced the Chinese delegates to stay inside their Waldorf-Astoria rooms for two days. The event, which continued to rage through Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, would affect twenty-two states and would kill 353 people. On some of the worst-hit highways, National Guardsmen were brought in to remove snow with tanks and flamethrowers. Newspapers called it the Storm of the Century. Whatever it was, the cyclone was an anomaly that would be studied for decades. “The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950,” as it would officially become known, was the costliest and most destructive storm then recorded in U.S. history—a wintry vortex that few saw coming, and few understood even after it had arrived.

We nearly blew up Canada:

The following day, November 10, [1950] an even weightier event took place that would again disturb Truman’s concentration. That night, a Boeing B-50 Superfortress took off from Goose Bay Air Base, in Labrador, Canada. Flying over the St. Lawrence River, the heavy bomber ran into trouble. First one and then another of its four engines failed. Protocol required that the pilot immediately jettison his cargo—and so he did, right over the river, not far from the city of Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, 250 miles northeast of Montreal. The cargo in question happened to be a Mark IV atomic bomb, a revised version of the “Fat Boy” that had obliterated Nagasaki five years earlier. The crew set the squat, five-and-a-half-ton device to detonate at an altitude of 2,500 feet. Mercifully, the bomb was missing its plutonium core, so no nuclear reaction occurred. But the resulting explosion was massive nevertheless, and it rained more than a hundred pounds of moderately radioactive uranium over a wide arc of the Quebec countryside.

American and Canadian officials immediately moved to cover up the accident, telling reporters that what residents had heard was merely a five-hundred-pound “practice” bomb—conventional, not atomic—that had been intentionally and safely detonated. Not until the 1980s would the United States Air Force acknowledge that this was a case of a lost nuclear bomb—there would be several during the Cold War—an incident category known in military parlance as a “broken arrow.”

The Chinese and Russians subscribed to their own version of our Domino theory:

At the Zhongnanhai, the former imperial palace in Beijing, Mao Zedong was in secret deliberations with his advisers about the Korea situation. Mao was eager to enter the war. “Another nation is in a crisis,” he reportedly said. “We’d feel bad if we stood idly by.” His foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, having recently returned from a series of meetings with Stalin at his dacha on the Black Sea and gaining his tacit support, concurred. Mao decided to assign the command of China’s armies to Peng Dehuai, a veteran officer of the civil war and an old comrade from the days of the Long March. Peng accepted. “The U.S. occupation of Korea, separated from China by only a river, would threaten Northeast China,” he argued. “The U.S. could find a pretext at any time to launch a war of aggression against China. The tiger wanted to eat human beings; when it would do so would depend on its appetite. No concession could stop it.” In characterizing the prospect of an American presence on the Yalu, some of the Chinese commanders employed a hypothetical analogy: The United States would not countenance a scenario in which the Chinese invaded Mexico and marched right up to the Rio Grande and the Texas border. That, in reverse, was precisely the situation here. Peng and Mao agreed on a strategy to entrap the Americans—an enemy that, they fully realized, had far greater firepower. Peng wrote, “We would employ the tactic of purposely showing ourselves to be weak, increasing the arrogance of the enemy, luring him deep into our areas.” Then Peng’s far more numerous armies would “sweep into the enemy ranks with the strength of an avalanche” and engage at close quarters. This strategy, Peng thought, would render “the superior firepower of the enemy useless.”

From Mao’s perspective, this was a confrontation decades in the making. American imperialism, which the Chairman viewed as merely an extension of the old imperialism of the European colonial powers, had been thwarting China’s progress and intervening in her internal affairs for more than a century. He viewed American meddling as a pernicious force, going back as far as the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the disruptive role of American missionaries deep in China’s hinterlands. The United States had actively and openly subverted Mao’s revolution, supplying arms and assistance to Chiang Kai-shek. Now, from their base in occupied Japan, the Americans appeared to be expanding their sphere of influence throughout Asia. When the defeated Chiang decamped to Taiwan and Mao threatened to attack him there, President Truman had sent the Seventh Fleet to guard the Strait of Taiwan—an action Mao viewed as an affront.

When trying to persuade Stalin to join him in ejecting the United States from Korea, Mao had warned the Soviet dictator that “if the Americans conquer all of Korea, both China and the Soviet Union will be threatened—like teeth getting chilled through broken lips.”

Being in the Chinese military was not a status symbol:

Most of Mao’s soldiers were powerless and desperately poor young men. They came from the lower echelons of an ancient society that did not particularly value the individual and had traditionally viewed warriors as an expendable class. (“As you do not use good metal for nails,” went an old Chinese proverb, “so you do not use good men for soldiers.”)

Mao and Harvey Weinstein had some things in common, including the bathrobe:

The fifty-six-year-old paramount leader of the newly minted People’s Republic of China, having triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek the previous year, was anxious to consolidate his power and flex his muscles on the world stage. Ruthless, paranoid, a devotee of the ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu, and a cunning strategist himself, he was a powerfully charismatic man with odd habits and obsessions. To the alarm of his security police, he was infatuated with the idea of swimming in all of China’s major rivers, including the mighty Yangtze, as a way to imbibe the spirit of China. Otherwise, Mao rarely showed himself to the public and conducted much of his state business by his pool, deep inside the palace complex, often wearing a terry-cloth robe and slippers. … Mao refused to pay attention to schedules or conventional expectations about time. He followed no rhythm, circadian or otherwise, and his staff was perpetually perplexed by his erratic habits and spasmodic bursts of energy. Mao also had an apparently unslakable sexual appetite and believed that orgasms directly halted the aging process. To ward off impotency, he received frequent injections of an extract made from pulverized deer antlers. Although he was married, he had his staff secure him beautiful young women to sleep with—sometimes as many as a dozen liaisons in a single day. He had hideous teeth, rendered dingy brown from chain-smoking and his refusal to practice the most rudimentary oral hygiene—he would only rinse his mouth, once a day, with dark tea.

There was an assassination attempt on Truman:

Collazo and Torresola were Puerto Rican Nationalists, tied to cells that were attempting to foment a violent insurrection and assert independence for the island. The two men believed that only a sensational act would bring attention to their movement. They were also angry about the Korean War, and the contradictions they saw in the fact that so many Puerto Rican soldiers had joined the U.N. effort to fight for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy on their home island. … It was the largest gunfight in the history of the Secret Service. Two men lay dead or dying, and three others were wounded. Twenty-seven shots had been fired in less than two minutes.

More: Read On Desperate Ground

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Mothers acquiring cells from babies

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer:

In 1996, Lee Nelson proposed that microchimerism might make some mothers sick. With half their genetic material coming from their father, fetal cells might be a confusing mix of the foreign and the familiar. Nelson speculated that being exposed to fetal cells for years on end could lead a woman’s immune system to attack her own tissues. That confusion might be the reason that women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and scleroderma. To test this possibility, Nelson and Bianchi collaborated on an experiment. They picked out thrity-three mothers of sons, sixteen of whom were healthy and seventeen of whom suffered from scleroderma. Nelson and Bianchi found that the women with scleroderma had far more fetal cells from their sons than did the healthy women.

But maybe this can be good?

It’s also possible that being a chimera can be good for your health. Bianchi’s first clue that chimerism might have an upside came in the late 1990s, when she was searching for fetal cells in various organs. She discovered a mother’s thyroid gland packed with fetal cells carrying Y chromosomes. Her gland was badly damaged by goiter, and yet it still managed to secrete normal levels of thyroid hormones. The evidence pointed to a startling conclusion: A fetal cell from her son had wended its way through her body to her diseased thyroid gland. It had sensed the damage there and responded by multiplying into new thyroid cells, regenerating the gland.

What about getting genes from a baby that is not genetically one’s own?

As chimerism rises out of the freak category, it also raises unexpected ethical questions. Somewhere around a thousand children a year are born to surrogate mothers in the United States alone. As Ruth Fischbach and John Loike, two bioethicists at Columbia University, have observed, the rules for surrogacy are based on an old-fashioned notion of pregnancy. They treat people as bundles of genes. As a society, we are comfortable with a woman nourishing another couple’s embryo and then parting ways with it, because she does not share the hereditary bond that a biological mother would. If the pregnancy goes smoothly, the surrogate mother is supposed to leave the experience no different than before the procedure. But Fischbach and Loike observed that a surrogate mother and a baby may end up connected in the most profound way possible. Cells from the fetus may embed themselves throughout her body, perhaps for life. And she may bequeath some of her cells to the child. This is not merely a thought experiment. In 2009, researchers at Harvard did a study on eleven surrogate mothers who carried boys but who never had sons of their own. After the women gave birth, the scientists found Y chromosomes in the bloodstreams of five of them.

More: Read She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity


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Human Chimeras

Some more interesting stuff from She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer… It turns out that Biology 101 contains a lot of simplifications (lies!).

Wikipedia: “A genetic chimerism or chimera … is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes. In animals, this means an individual derived from two or more zygotes, …

How can this happen to a human and how does that interact with our “science is settled” attitude regarding DNA tests? Zimmer gives some examples:

In 2001, a thirty-year-old woman in Germany discovered she was a chimera while she was trying to get pregnant. For the previous five years, she and her husband had been trying to have a baby. They were fairly certain the problem didn’t lie with her biology, because she had gotten pregnant when she was seventeen and had had regular menstrual cycles ever since. A fertility test revealed that her husband had a low level of viable sperm, and so they made plans for IVF. As a routine check, the woman’s doctors took blood samples from her and her husband. They looked at the chromosomes in the couple’s cells, to make sure neither would-be parent had an abnormality that would torpedo the IVF procedure. The woman’s chromosomes looked normal—if she were a man. In every white blood cell they inspected, they found a Y chromosome. Given that she had given birth, this was a weird result. And a careful exam revealed that all her reproductive organs were normal. To get a broader picture of the woman’s cellular makeup, her doctors took samples of her muscle, ovaries, and skin. Unlike her immune cells, none of the cells from these other tissues had a Y chromosome in them. The researchers then carried out a DNA fingerprinting test on the different tissues, looking at the women’s microsatellites—the repeating sequences that can distinguish people from one another. They found that her immune cells belonged to a different person than her other tissues. It turned out that the woman had had a twin brother who died only four days after birth. Although he was unable to survive on his own, his cells took over his sister’s blood and lived on within her.

In 2003, a woman in Washington State named Lydia Fairchild had to get a DNA test. Fairchild, who was then twenty-seven, was pregnant with her fourth child, unemployed, and single. To get welfare benefits, state law required that she prove that her children were genetically related both to herself and to their father, Jamie. One day, Fairchild got a call from the Department of Social Services to come in immediately. A DNA test had confirmed that Jamie was the father of the three children. But Fairchild was not their mother.

When Fairchild was rushed to a hospital to deliver her fourth child, a court officer was there to witness the birth. The officer also oversaw a blood draw for a DNA test. The results came back two weeks later. Once again, Fairchild’s DNA didn’t match her child’s. Even though the court officer had witnessed the child’s birth, the court still refused to consider any evidence beyond DNA.

In Boston, a woman named Karen Keegan had developed kidney disease and needed a transplant. To see if her husband or three sons were a match, her doctors drew blood from the whole family in order to examine a set of immune-system genes called HLA. A nurse called Keegan with the results. Not only were her sons not suitable as organ donors, but the HLA genes from two of them didn’t match hers at all. It was impossible for them to be her children. The hospital went so far as to raise the possibility she had stolen her two sons as babies. Since Keegan’s children were now grown men, she didn’t have to face the terrifying prospect of losing her children as Fairchild did. But Keegan’s doctors were determined to figure out what was going on. Tests on her husband confirmed he was the father of the boys. Her doctors took blood samples from Keegan’s mother and brothers, and collected samples from Keegan’s other tissues, including hair and skin. Years earlier, Keegan had had a nodule removed from her thyroid gland, and it turned out that the hospital had saved it ever since. Her doctors also got hold of a bladder biopsy. Examining all these tissues, Keegan’s doctors found that she was made up of two distinct groups of cells. They could trace her body’s origins along a pair of pedigrees—not to a single ancestral cell but to a pair. They realized Keegan was a tetragametic chimera, the product of two female fraternal twins. The cells of one twin gave rise to all her blood. They also helped give rise to other tissues, as well as to some of her eggs. One of her sons developed from an egg that belonged to the same cell lineage as her blood. Her other two children developed from eggs belonging to the lineage that arose from the other twin. When Lydia Fairchild’s lawyer heard about the Keegan case, he immediately demanded that his client get the same test. At first, it looked as if things were going to go against Fairchild yet again. The DNA in her skin, hair, and saliva failed to match her children’s. But then researchers looked at a sample taken from a cervical smear she had gotten years before. It matched, proving she was a chimera after all.

More: Read She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

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Don’t bite tumors off other folks’ faces

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer:

Tough as they might be, though, Tasmanian devils were in trouble. A singular epidemic was sweeping across the island, not quite like anything veterinarians had seen before. A devil would develop a fleshy growth in or around its mouth. In a matter of weeks, the growth would balloon, and within a few months, the animal would starve or suffocate. These growths were first observed in 1996 in the northeast corner of Tasmania, and over the next few years they spread over most of the island, killing off tens of thousands of devils. By the early 2000s, the species looked like it might become extinct in a matter of decades, killed by a disease scientists didn’t understand. It would take them years to realize that these devils were chimeras, and that their cancers descended from the cells of a long-dead animal.

The DNA fingerprint from tumor cells didn’t match the healthy cells from the same devil’s body. Instead, they matched cancer cells from devils who died dozens of miles away. It was as if all the sick devils had gotten a cancer transplant from a single tumor.

At some point in the early 1990s, [Elizabeth] Murchison’s research showed, a single Tasmanian devil in the northeast corner of the island got cancer. The mutations may have initially arisen in a Schwann cell. The descendants of that original cancer cell grew into a tumor. During a fight, another devil bit off the tumor. The cancer cells did not end up digested in the attacker’s stomach. Instead, they likely lingered in the devil’s mouth, where they were able to burrow into the cheek lining and work their way metastatically into the other tissues in the devil’s head. The cancer cells continued dividing and mutating, until they broke through the skin of the second devil’s face. At some point, that new victim also got bit, and its own attacker took in the cells from the original cancer. A single carrier could pass the cancer on to several other devils if it was especially aggressive, and thus help accelerate its spread. Passing through host after host, the tumor cells gained about twenty thousand new mutations.

Consider this fair warning!

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Remembering the Marines who fought in Korea

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides is a sobering Memorial Day read.

The book tells the story, from the American point of view, of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

As with the World War II history that I recently read, the author is not a fan of Douglas MacArthur. He sets an arbitrary date for recapturing Seoul even if it means destroying the city in order to “liberate” it:

As the Marines began to probe the outlying precincts of the city, the human cost of MacArthur’s deadline became more apparent to [Major General Oliver Prince] Smith. He felt the September 25 date was contrived—little more than a political gimmick designed to win headlines. Smith reckoned that his Marines could probably take Seoul by the twenty-fifth, but only by laying waste to large sections of the city, pounding it with artillery, bombing it to cinders. Seoul would be badly scarred, and the civilian death toll could be terrible. Smith knew that there were other, less destructive ways to take the city. Alpha Bowser insisted that the Marines could capture Seoul “with hardly a brick out of place.” They could encircle it, cut the enemy’s supply lines, and methodically ferret out the defenders, block by block. But this kind of fighting would take more time than MacArthur was willing to tolerate. So the big guns were brought forward, and the ritual of “softening up” targets across the city began. This, of course, was but a euphemism for a devastating bombardment that could only strike terror in the hearts of Seoul’s residents. General Almond was pleased to note that the enemy would be pounded to pieces. That a city might be razed in the process appeared not to trouble him.

After destroying a city, MacArthur destroys an American army by ignoring intelligence regarding hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers who’d crossed over into North Korea and falling right into a trap set by Mao.

The new plan was for most of Smith’s division to hasten forty miles up the coast, then turn toward the northwest, across the plains and into the Taebaek Mountains—the extensive range that forms Korea’s spine, the so-called dragon’s back. They would move up a narrow road that twisted for more than seventy miles into the highlands, toward a large man-made lake that, according to the old Japanese maps the Americans were working from, was called the Chosin Reservoir. Upon reaching its shores, Smith’s men were to keep marching for the Yalu, which was another hundred miles to the north by way of a patchwork of roads. [MacArthur’s deputy Edward] Almond called for maximum speed, much as he had during the battle for Seoul. From the start, Smith was suspicious of Almond’s plan. Among other things, it meant that his division would be strung along a narrow mountain road for nearly one hundred miles, in a long train of men and vehicles. They would move along this single artery, relying on a supply chain that the enemy could sever at any point. In this desolate country, there were no airstrips, no functioning rail lines, no other ways to receive reinforcements or evacuate casualties. They had only one road in, and, should anything happen, only one road out. The more they progressed, the more they would stretch themselves—and the more their survival would depend upon this fragile umbilical cord.

Upon reaching the village of Sudong, about twenty miles inland at the base of the mountains, one of these patrols met a unit of South Korean troops and found them positively rattled. They reported that they had just engaged in a firefight with the Red Chinese—more commonly referred to, among American commanders, as Communist Chinese Forces, or CCF. When asked how large a force they had encountered, the South Koreans would say only that there were “many, many.” But the South Koreans had captured sixteen prisoners and, upon interrogating them, had learned that they were from the 370th Regiment of the 124th Division of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—Mao’s army. They claimed they had crossed the Yalu River in mid-October. These Red soldiers were surprisingly forthcoming with information; they seemed to have nothing to hide. It was almost as though they wanted the U.N. troops to know who they were and where they had come from. They freely indicated that they were part of a much larger Chinese force, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

[MacArthur’s intelligence chief, General Charles] Willoughby quickly concluded that the Chinese prisoners at Sudong were merely “volunteers,” part of a token force of zealous Communists, probably from Manchuria, who had picked up their weapons and, in piecemeal fashion, streamed down of their own free will to help the North Koreans.

It was a fiction that MacArthur seemed entirely willing to believe, one that provided sufficient cover for him to continue advancing toward the Yalu. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had given him carte blanche to keep on going—unless and until he saw evidence that the Chinese had officially entered the war. And here it was, evidence as clear as one could ever expect to find. MacArthur’s response was to accept Beijing’s propaganda at face value.

At least one American politician appreciated the risks:

young senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy, … he accused Truman of being in league with known Communists and charged that the Democratic-held White House had presided over “twenty years of treason.” McCarthy would say of Truman: “The son of a bitch should be impeached.” McCarthy inveighed against the Truman administration’s creation of a “Korean death trap,” saying that “we can lay [it] at the doors of the Kremlin and those who sabotaged rearming, including Acheson and the President.”

The late fall temperatures in the mountains (about 4,000′ high) of North Korea fell to -25F and were accompanied by high winds. It was time for General Song Shi-lun to implement Mao’s published strategy:

The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.

I don’t want to ruin the suspense, but here are a few high points:

  • the Chinese beat us despite our overwhelming superiority in weapons and equipment
  • aviation was critical to avoiding a complete disaster; General Smith had made building a mountain runway big enough for the DC-3 a top priority
  • the Marines fought tenaciously despite frostbite and every kind of wound

Tempted to despair over today’s headlines?

According to the Pentagon, 33,651 Americans had died fighting in the war, as did 180,000 Chinese. An estimated 2.5 million Korean civilians lost their lives.

I recommend this book as a way to remember the sacrifices of American soldiers in conditions that are unimaginable to a modern-day civilian.

More: Read On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

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Whites in the American West were settlers or migrants?

Here’s a book cover that shocked me at the San Diego airport:

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West bears a subtitle that makes me wonder how many Native Americans would agree that the white-skinned folks from the East were “settlers” (the land wasn’t already settled? Shouldn’t they be called “migrants”, “invaders”, or “immigrants”?) and/or were bringing “the American ideal” (but maybe the “ideal” included killing and displacing the natives?).

How did this one get through a major publishing house?

Who has read this book? I’m a huge fan of this author’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.

Separately, here’s the first photo that I took after arriving in California:

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Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

If you enjoy computer nerdism and Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me is the novel for you.

McEwan imagines a world in which British science and engineering did not become irrelevant after World War II. Nikola Tesla, instead of dying in obscure poverty in New York City, moved to England in 1906 and created silicon transistors in the 1920s. Electronic computers soon ensued. Alan Turing, instead of dying in 1954, lived at least into the 1980s and developed machine learning as well as a solution to the P versus NP problem. Awesome humanoid robots and self-driving cars ensued (but folks still used landlines because all of this tech couldn’t produce the mobile phone, apparently!).

McEwan thinks along the same lines as I do, apparently. The British Navy is destroyed during their Falklands adventure by smart missiles (see Maggie Thatcher goes down to defeat by a Labor government promising more handouts.

Partly thanks to Turing, the age of celebrating homosexuality was in full bloom by the mid-1980s: “The greatest living Englishman, noble and free in his love for another man” (regarding sighting Alan Turing in a restaurant with his fictitious similar-age Nobel-winning physicist husband; the historical Turing was, according to Wikipedia, having sex with “Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old unemployed man”). Also the age of #MeToo. Part of the drama involves a woman who brings a half bottle of vodka to a young man’s apartment, spends the night, and later reports him to the police as a rapist. McEwan decides that a good modern Turing test is whether this woman enjoys having sex with the (male-shaped) robot. McEwan also is at pains to remind readers that the only truly flawless human beings in Britain are Muslim immigrants. The only child in the book, a young boy, turns out to have transgender tendencies (he dreams of growing up to be a “princess” and enjoys wearing dresses, in which adults encourage him).

The robots spark a debate regarding universal basic income: “To the wealthier, who stood to lose, the universal wage looked like a call for higher taxes to fund an idle crowd of addicts, drunks, and mediocrities. … But with our generous state incomes, we the masses would face the luxurious problem that had preoccupied the rich for centuries: how to fill the time. Endless leisure pursuits had never much troubled the aristocracy.” (see also

The robot is awesome at day trading, as you’d expect. He also immediately develops an interest in minimizing tax liability. He has some trouble with human contradictions, e.g., people who say that they want to help others but in fact spend nearly all of their income on themselves rather than donating anything over what is needed to achieve a basically comfortable lifestyle.

More: Read Machines Like Me.

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City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

Catching up on 2017 must-reads for Bostonians, I recently enjoyed The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon.

The main story is familiar, but worth retelling.

All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” usually oxygen. How destructive an explosive is depends largely on how quickly those two combine. With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder, it’s necessary to add oxygen to ignite them and keep them burning. If a fire runs out of oxygen, it dies. Another factor is speed. The rate of the chemical reaction, or decomposition, of low explosives is less than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule, making each one a self-contained bomb, with everything it needs to create the explosion. To ignite, a high explosive usually requires only extreme heat or a solid bump. Once started, the dominoes fall very quickly, ripping through the explosive material faster than the speed of sound.

“She had a devil’s brew aboard,” Raddall states of the Mont-Blanc, a perfect combination of catalysts, fuel, and firepower. The ship’s manifest included 62 tons of gun cotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of picric acid, the least understood of the chemicals on board, but the most dangerous.

After the shipwrights had so carefully built the magazines, hermetically sealing each compartment, and the stevedores had packed it all systematically, the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay received a last-minute order from his superiors in France to pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline.” The stevedores followed orders, swinging 494 barrels containing 246 tons of the highly combustible accelerant into a few unused spaces belowdecks, on the foredeck, and at the stern, where they stacked the fuel three and four barrels high and lashed it with canvas straps, a somewhat slapdash approach compared to the thoroughness with which the shipwrights had built the magazines. When the crew walked past the drums on deck, they could smell the unmistakable reek of the benzol. With the final addition of the benzol, Mont Blanc now carried an impressive array of the most dangerous chemicals known to man at that time. While benzol can’t match the pure power of gun cotton, TNT, or picric acid—all high explosives—what the stevedores probably didn’t know when they stacked the barrels of benzol on deck was that the airplane fuel needed only a spark to ignite, while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and TNT does not detonate until it reaches 1,000 degrees. But by making the last-minute decision to store most of the fuel on the deck and the TNT and picric acid below, the crew had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb, with the easy-to-light fuse on top, and the most explosive materials trapped in the hold below.

Canada had a much larger stake in the war than did the U.S.:

Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population. It seemed almost every home had sent a brother, a husband, a father, or a son. The Great War drained the town of its able-bodied young men and left behind women, boys, girls, and men too old or infirm to fight.

One question worth pondering is why more people didn’t chicken out and escape to the U.S. They knew what the trenches were going to be like:

When fresh recruits got to Halifax, they frequently made a beeline for any place that sold alcohol, where they met soldiers who had been recently discharged, were on leave, or were about to head back to the trenches. They told the recruits stories so horrifying that they might have been tempted to think they were exaggerating. The experienced soldiers knew the average infantryman lasted only three months before getting wounded or killed, so they were determined to make the most of their time on the safe side of the Atlantic. Their hard-earned fatalism fostered a devil-may-care disposition and all the elements that came with it, including scores of prostitutes from across Canada and bootleggers so fearless that they set up shop in the downtown YMCA—which was probably not what the YMCA’s benefactor, Titanic victim George Wright, had had in mind when he wrote his will. During the war years, Halifax experienced a spike in venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births. Local orphanages had to expand.

The Mont-Blanc makes it from New York to Halifax without incident, but before the sailors can go to the YMCA for a drink, there is a low-speed collision with another ship. The author describes the impact that resulted in the explosion as entirely the fault of the Imo‘s captain and pilot (see Wikipedia for a quick summary, but I highly recommend this part of the book). More than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The book covers this staggering tragedy, but this post is about the physical destruction and the estimated cost of rebuilding:

The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more, leaving some 25,000, almost half the population of Halifax-Dartmouth, without adequate housing and dangerously exposed to the elements.

After the fires had been extinguished and the wounded tended to, Colonel Robert S. Low assembled an army of carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the city, which had incurred more than $35 million in damages in 1917 U.S. dollars, or $728 million today.

It cost only $728 million to rebuild a whole section of a city. Our town will soon spend $110 million to renovate/rebuild a school that can hold only about 600 students. I talked with a guy recently who is involved in a $1.5 billion project to create 2,700 “affordable” apartments here in the Charlestown section of Boston (story). That’s $555,555 per apartment (less than 1,000 square feet on average) on land provided for free (city already has a housing project on the same footprint). Presumably these will be higher quality than whatever was built in Halifax in 1918.

[Note: poor people who are selected by the housing ministry to move into one of these apartments would actually be rich almost anywhere else in the world if they could only get their hands on the $555,555 capital cost as a direct grant instead of as an in-kind service! If they could also get their hands on the monthly operating cost and combine that with interest on the $555,555 they would be able to enjoy, without working, a middle class or better lifestyle in many of the world’s beach destinations.

How about folks who work at the median wage? That’s about $23/hour in Massachusetts (BLS) or $46,000 per year. NerdWallet says that someone earning this much in MA can afford a $258,500 house if he or she has saved $60,000 for a down payment, has a top credit score, and spends $0/month on food and other non-housing expenses. Zillow says $274,416 on a nationwide basis. So a dual-income couple in which both partners earn the median wage wouldn’t be able to afford one of these units without a taxpayer subsidy, even if landed were free and the unit were sold at zero-profit construction cost. The U.S. has apparently become a society in which Americans can’t afford to live like Americans!]

Maybe costs are lower up in Canada? Yes, but only a little:

Instead of drifting back into another long sleepwalk, Halifax has been accelerating, spending $11.5 million in 1955 to build its first bridge across the channel, another $31 million to build the second, right over the Narrows, and another $207 million in 2015 to raise the first bridge a few meters so container ships could get all the way to a dock in Bedford Basin. The city has spent $350 million to build a boardwalk along the bay and $57 million for a shiny new library downtown, an architectural centerpiece CNN judged to be the ninth most beautiful library in the world.

How about some other costs? A survivor of the explosion gets “$100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919”. That’s $1,500 in today’s money, less than 1/30th of current tuition. He marries an American (same word “marriage” used, but really a different activity in those days before no-fault divorce):

Shortly after that invitation, Barss asked Helen to marry him. She said yes, but asked him to keep it between them until February, “so that if either of us wanted to get out of the deal, no one would be hurt.” Further, if Barss’s professors found out he was getting married, which med school students were forbidden to do, he could be expelled. “My father liked Joe & asked if he were a Republican or a Democrat,” Helen wrote. “He said he was a Canadian and voted for the man—Father said ‘If you ever live here and have anything or hope to have anything, you’ll be a Republican in self defense.’

Maybe it is good that this guy died before Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed their latest tax plans!

I found the numbers in the book sobering. If we wear down the infrastructure that we have or if perhaps it is destroyed for some reason, it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

More: Read The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism


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