Saturday, July 30, 2005

Scientists Warn Fewer Kinds of Fish Are Swimming the Oceans

A curiosity in the new report on a decline by half since 1950 in fish species diversity in the world's oceans ---Scientists Warn Fewer Kinds of Fish Are Swimming the Oceans - New York Times--is that one of five "hotspots" bucking the trend is said to lie off Florida's populous and long over-fished east coast. These hotspots aren't closely identified in the original article in Science Express, but this one lies in and around the deep, warm waters of the Gulf Stream, flowing not that far off the peninsula's shores. Boris Worm and his co-authors used deepwater predators, tuna and billfish, as models and attemped to identify what factors helped determine the location of hotspots, the density and diversity of species. They identified such factors as oxygen in the water, oceanographic dynamics--for example, the interplay between the waters of the Gulf Stream and bordering ocean--the amount of zooplankton, and the climate. The idea is to preserve these areas in the hope of replenishing stock, not calling the attention of fishermen to them.

Previous surveys have shown that protecting fish from humans for enough years for populations to recover actually makes for better fishing in the long run. A model for this, albeit one that is near shore rather than out to sea, is the area around Merritt Island, Florida, protected because of the Kennedy Space Flight Center at Cape Canaveral. The tidal lagoons are relatively lush with fish, as a result.

Habitat destruction and overhunting or overfishing are the primary causes for the sharp decline in species, especially large mammals, birds, and game fish. If the habitat of a specialized animal is destroyed, so is that animal, of course. Thus, the continued, rapid conversion of Florida scrub into sprawling ex-urban residental developments threatens the gopher tortoise, indigo snake, and several other species, while also screwing up replinishment of the freshwater aquifers underlying the peninsula. Those are major problems that require strict habitat protection.

But in many other cases, people simply need to give the animals a break--to stop killing them and learn to share with them. The late Dr. Bill Robertson, for decades the resident wildlife biology guru at Everglades National Park, liked to say that if we stopped the killing of any animal, including large predators, it usually learned to live with us quite well. Too often, it's the humans who can't make the accommodation.

It's past time we leave the bulk of the world's remaining fish alone. Seafood Watch provides a catalog of marine life worldwide and ranks it according to whether it can responsibly be eaten--that is whether it is in good supply or is overfished, raised in environmentally disastrous aquaculture, or made toxic by pollutants. Visitors to their website can download printable guides that fold up to fit in your pocket. There are some delicious fish on the avoid list, including all snapper, but if we don't stop catching and eating them now, they won't be around for anyone.

Storm gathering, the dogs are being obnoxious. It's their play time, and so they're antsy to go, but they don't like the thunder.

Dare We Call It Torture

Preliminary hearings began last week in the court-martial of two Army dog handlers, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona and Sgt. Michael J. Smith, who used their unmuzzled dogs to terrify, intimidate, and attack defenseless prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Among other things, they are accused of using their dogs in a macabre game to see who could make the most prisoners defecate and urinate on themselves. The L. A. Times and Washington Post have solid coverage, with the Post observing that the use of dogs to intimidate and terrify prisoners originated, like other abuses with which Abu Ghraib has become synonymous, at Guantanamo, the notorious non-Gulag, non-combatant prison camp on Cuba where, according to Vice President Dick Cheney, "bad guys" are kept and according the Bushies torture doesn't occur.

I have talked before and written about the long and sordid history of using dogs against people. Here, I'll just repeat that it is violation of the dog-human bond because it asks the animal that serves us so well, that evolved with us as a guardian, companion and helper, to turn against the very creatures--humans--it asked is supposed to assist. Dogs will say, "no," on occasion, but in doing so they often pay a steep price. At Abu Ghraib some handlers and their dogs said, "no," while others apparently did not, and it those who assented who now find themselves on trial, while once more the people who ordered the abuse escape even mild censure.

Jane Mayer presents evidence in The New Yorker of July 11 and 18, 2005, that scientists and doctors on the military's Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, originally created to help American soldiers resist interrogation and torture, are involved in advising American interrogators on the best ways to break down their prisoners. By most objective accounts, these "harsh" techniques are, if not outright torture, at least violations of the Geneva Conventions and every human rights protocol around, not to mention, for doctors, the Hippocratic oath--"do no harm." But, as everyone should know by now, President George W. Bush has declared that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to these captives and his administration said that for something to rise to the level of torture it must cause pain on the order of magnitude of organ failure, permanent "'impairment of bodily function,'" or death. Mayer cites chapter and verse in her piece.

The military's top legal experts objected to the Bush policy on interrogations, arguing that it violated the law and put American service men and women at risk, were they to be captured, the New York Times reports today. But they were ignored, as are dissenters still to this non-reality based president.

Still, the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo tortures could not be concealed or ignored forever. Now, Bush has disavowed torture, as he defines it, yet his administration actively opposes any Congressional move to mandate decent treatment for prisoners, modest though those efforts may be. It appears that the Bushies really want to cover over what they are doing--or at least obscure it from view.

This morally rigid, antediluvian, anti-Modernist--anti-Enlightenment, I should say-- president and his advisers and supporters, who regularly mock literary theories that question the the ways we read and understand texts and became apoplectic over Bill Clinton's linguistic gymnastics, not to mention his sexual adventures, are the most extreme moral and intellectual relativists and twisters of text around. They redefine everything.

With their improper naming, they prove the wisdom of Confucius, which I cited in the previous blog, "Seeing Is Believing." Confucius wrote in Analects: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." The result is such a breakdown in order that ultimately "the people do not know how to move hand or foot."

Forget ethics and the law, which can be parsed a hundred ways to hell: What the Bushies are doing in the name of the "war on terror" fails the simple "me and mine test." It's easy to take: Would I want to be treated that way were I to be taken prisoner? Would I want my son or daughter or brother or sister or mother or father or significant other, if captured on a battlefield, held as a person to whom the Geneva Conventions do not apply? It's similar to the question I put to people who stick a shock collar on their dog: Are you willing to put that thing around your own neck?

Seeing Is Believing

To much fanfare, Science magazine announced in its on-line edition of April 28, 2005, that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird believed extinct--at least on the North American mainland; some might still be found in Cuba--had been spotted in the Big Woods region of east Arkansas in 2004 and early 2005. A blurred 4 second film strip was presented as evidence. Now, Andrew C. Revkin reports in the New York Times, other ornithologists have begun to question the sightings, in large measure because no one has seen the bird or birds since then and they find the video unconvincing. James Gorman writing for the New York Times on July 24, just three days after his colleague--the Times seems oddly obsessed with this story--attempts to flesh out the controversy over the ivory-bill. He shows that several of the critics believe that the people who reported seeing the big woodpecker firmly believe they saw it. More to the point here, Gorman makes clear that the birders who went into the swamp were primed to see an ivory-billed woodpecker.

A skeptic by nature, I doubted the initial reports, although I'm willing to grant that there might be a few ivory-billed woodpeckers in the swamps of Arkansas or Louisiana or in Cuba. But I'm interested in this case because it focuses attention on the larger questions not only of how we identify positively what we see but also how we tend to see what we are prepared at a deep unconscious level to see. It's not just a question of faulty identification either because the people involved often know the difference between, say, a pileated woodpecker and an ivory-billed woodpecker, a coyote and a wolf, a grizzly and a black bear. Sometimes the alternatives are less apparent. Thus, there are persistent, periodic reports in Florida of a black cat, slightly smaller than a panther and usually taken to be a jaguarundi or a black panther. None has been captured, and the sightings are often dismissed out of hand by wildlife biologists--not an appropriate response to what are clearly not hallucinations. Over the years only one has offered what seems a plausible explanation: otters. "Sometimes a river otter can look like a cat, and it's about the size of a jaguarundi" Sonny Bass, a wildlife biologist at Everglades National Park, once told me.

I've watched dog trainers treat dogs according to their expectations of how a Labrador retriever or malinois, for example, should behave. Based on preconceptions reinforced by experience, the expectations are met frequently enough that become for the trainer articles of faith--the truth about that breed. Presented with a mutt or a dog of a breed they don't know, they tend to waver. The best trainers, like the best teachers, learn how to judge and motivate the individual dog or person, but that takes time and the ability to step outside of often deeply ingrained biases to look at that individual.

Correct identification of something or someone is really what Ezra Pound, citing Confucius, called proper naming. In the Analects, Confucius himself said: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." The result is such a breakdown in order that ultimately "the people do not know how to move hand or foot."

In human affairs the result of improper naming can be disastrous. Just look at the killing by plains clothes anti-terrorist police of Jean Charles de Menezes in London. He was ethnic and wearing a "bulky top" and came out of a building under surveillance and ran, and for that he got shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder, as a life threatening terrorists. We can guess the police were primed to see a badass. Menezes's cousin told the Guardian newspaper that his cousin wore a heavy top year 'round because, being a Brazilian, he found London cold. Being a person of color in a neighborhood beset by hate crimes, he understandably would view a gang of thugs with suspicion, even if they identified themselves as police.

Fear ruled, making correct analysis and naming impossible. Unfortunately, that's not just true of London.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Mark Derr with Katie and Harley (camera shy) Posted by Picasa

Bare Bones

The try out blog, to test the program, like an experiment in evolution and even more like the first mark in clay or on paper. There must be a beginning. In the print world, the first mutterings usually get cut because once the piece is under way, not to mention complete, it has gone somewhere else, like life itself--to beat up a metaphor. The best is not designed before hand, except in the loosest sense--there are grammatical, rhetorical, logical, factual, temporal rules to follow or violate--but writing ain't painting by numbers. It's not winging it either--for most of us, not only because of those rules but also because writing is so hard, there's no point to starting without a reason.

This blog is intended to present connections and, I hope, insights that might not otherwise see the light of day but that have merit. I post it now to get going, so I can design the site.