Friday, August 14, 2015

Excerpt from a work in progress: Africa Notes: Reflections of a Semi-educated Tourist

Excerpt from a work in progress: Africa Notes: Reflections of a Semi-educated Tourist

Out of all those 4135 digital images and 47 such video clips that I’d brought home from Botswana, this one giraffe taking a drink is my most memorable. Giraffes fighting, struggling in quicksand, mating, giving birth, making noise, getting massacred, drinking, supposedly making noises—all are available, like my video, globally, and instantly, on YouTube. Not all these movies are about real giraffes; some are cartoons. Most of the ones made from video actually taken in Africa are better than mine. Some of these clips, for example sequences from the television show Animal Planet, were obviously done by professionals; but none are more important or impressive to me than my own. I believe that same assertion could likely be made for any of the nearly 400 billion, yes billion, photographs estimated to now be taken annually. The scenes and images we choose to save connect with our minds in some unexplained way.
In the middle of the night, in the middle of America, whenever I want to be back in Botswana, mentally, I study this one minute and seventeen seconds of video over and over again. I hear Mocks talking, explaining what we’re seeing; I hear my vehicle companions, talking softly, in wonder. With every additional one minute and seventeen seconds, I see something new and different, and that same feeling, a deep sense of experience, that I had at the time returns. Soon there will be sundowners, vodka on ice. A giraffe is forever taking a drink, too, on that 32GB card inside that seven and a half ounce, four inch wide, two inches high, and one inch thick wonder that I carried across the Atlantic Ocean in a vest pocket. I truly do appreciate all that professional wildlife photography, all the skill, luck, and technical wizardry involved in bringing it to cable television or a local art gallery. But that one giraffe, quenching its thirst, is mine because of the emotional effect it has on me, an effect made possible only because I was there and took the pictures myself. It’ small wonder that the day after we returned from Botswana, I bought two new cameras—one for Karen and one for me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reposting of a popular post from earlier this year.


This proposal is based on the premise that it’s irrational to demand that a public health problem be solved but at the same time be adamantly opposed to the methods of solving it. The public health problem in this case is one we know how to solve, namely, unwanted pregnancy. The methods of solving it are readily available, safe, extensively tested, and found to be effective, at least at the individual level. It’s a well-known and widely-accepted fact that long-term effects of this particular public health problem fall unequally on the sexes, with the female being physically affected, subjected to potential medical complications, and traditionally burdened with nearly two decades of direct responsibility for the care, feeding, and education of another human being, whereas the male’s participation in this responsibility is largely voluntary or, when involuntary, limited to financial contribution. The main points are:
(1) Immediately enact a so-called “life tax” to provide for public funding of “life services,” defined as prenatal health care, treatment for medical conditions arising from pregnancy, and care, including medical care, clothing, food, shelter, and both education and special education as needed, for any infant born to a mother who would otherwise have chosen to abort it. Life services would continue until the child is 18 years old.
(2) Establish residency requirements, for access to such support, similar to those already established, for example, for tuition at post-secondary institutions.
(3) Require DNA testing of mother, infant, and father (when the father can be ascertained) when an infant is born to a mother who would otherwise have aborted it. Costs of such testing would be paid by life tax revenues. If necessary, use test results to identify the father. Require, by law, the father to contribute half of the costs incurred in providing life services to mother and infant, and provide for an 18-year lien on the father’s earnings if necessary, with an extension to such time as the state is re-paid half of the life services costs by the father. Include in this law a provision that the father’s parents are liable for this contribution if the father is a minor.
(4) Immediately establish sex-education programs in all public schools, the curriculum to include effective contraception. Withhold certification from private schools that do not institute such a curriculum.
(5) Immediately provide birth control services for all individuals who want them but are unable to afford them. Pay for these services through the life tax. Services would include oral contraceptives, Plan B, condoms, patches, injections, and all other forms of artificial birth control to individuals over the age of 14. These services would be available in school health centers.
(6) In the event that an infant born to a mother who would otherwise have obtained an abortion requires long-term care or services due to a congenital condition, then such care and services would be provided by the state and funded by life tax revenues.
(7) In the event that pregnancy results from rape or incest, the mother would receive a lifetime stipend for carrying the fetus to term and the state would fund all services resulting from this birth, including counseling, adoptive services, and treatment of any medical conditions, including mental or emotional ones, resulting from the conception and delivery of this infant. In the case of rape or incest, residency and means requirements do not apply.
(8) The overall impact of this program, including life tax and life services, will be reviewed every ten years by qualified consultants from outside the state. Life tax will be adjusted annually to ensure revenues adequate to support life services programs.
A rough estimate, based on the widely available information on costs of rearing children in the United States fall is about $500,000 per non-aborted fetus if you add in the overhead costs of administering the above program. For example, Wisconsin reported 7,640 abortions in 2011; at that rate we’re looking at somewhere in the vicinity of $3.8 billion over the next 18-20 years to provide life services as part of Walker’s plan to deal with the problem of unwanted pregnancy for a single year. Alternatively, of course, that $3.8 billion would be paid by those who would have had an elective abortion but could not because of the law or other de facto restrictions on reproductive services, and that’s assuming that the individuals involved actually had the resources to pay these bills.
We have, of course, not even started to consider the social costs of unwanted pregnancy brought to term, and I’m not sure there is any real way to calculate those costs so that the public in general, and male legislators in particular, appreciate their impact on society. We do know that social factors such as lack of education, poverty, and crime are linked at least to some degree, and that “quality of life” factors are important for the attraction of business to a particular region. So in essence, the $3.8 billion should probably be considered a conservative estimate of the overall impact of unwanted pregnancy on the State of Wisconsin. Obviously there are 49 other states with varying numbers of abortions performed annually, but I have not calculated the overall national cost. C’mon, GOP, man up. Pass this tax and unlike G. W. Bush and his Iraq war of choice, make the nation pay for your personal beliefs and sexual politics.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Excerpt from a work in progress (Africa Notes: Reflections of a Semi-Educated Tourist)

NOTE: The following narrative is an example of how I go about constructing the first draft of a chapter.

5. Wetlands
The evil chief and his son fled for safety into the underworld and became earthworms, the lowest of the creator’s creatures. They became food for the fish.
—David Lee Smith (Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe, 1997)
Gnu, a blue and white, Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, owned by Wilderness Air, sits a quarter of a mile down the tarmac at Maun; Leo, the sister plane, taxis toward us, stops fifty yards away, and turns; its turboprop engines shut down. Standing outside the small, bare, terminal, we squint into the afternoon sun. I put my camera away, having taken all the pictures needed of Botswanan baskets displayed on the walls inside. We get our assignments. Karen should have been in Leo, I think, given her astrological sign and her lifelong dreams, but we end up assigned to Gnu instead. Both planes are modified from the basic Caravan 208B by having cargo pods installed below the passenger compartment. We watch our bags being crammed through the small doors; limits on luggage size, weight, and design—soft, forty-four pounds maximum weight—now make sense. We wave goodbye to our traveling companions as they walk toward the small plane and make their way up the fold-down steps, tossing back packs into the rear open space before finding a seat. The young African co-pilot, smiles and closes the door then walks under the wing to his own steps, grabbing the cable hand rail, getting into the cockpit, and pulling the steps up after him. Engines start, then rev, before Leo turns, taxis down runway, turns again, and takes off back into the wind. We’ve just been shown our mode of transportation between camps for the next two weeks—Cessna Grand Caravans moving about over a vast open country as casually as we would get out on the Interstate back home.
Gnu taxis up and turns in the spot previously occupied by Leo. Engines shut down; pilot and co-pilot open their doors, step down on to the runway, and wave us on board. This drill will become routine over the next few days, the only variation being where we try to sit, decisions being made mostly on the basis of photo opportunity. On a regular airline, I always try to get an aisle seat, and Karen usually gives up hers willingly if she gets one and I don’t, mainly to minimize my fidgeting. On Gnu, I take a window; again, she’s patient and knows why. Over the next hour, I will take picture after picture from 7,000 feet. I’m thinking ahead of how these African photographs will be used: various PowerPoint shows, videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter posts. I have no idea who will be looking at them, or who even cares about my decisions on the instants and images to capture. In my mind, I’m simply building an extended narrative because that’s what I’ve done every week, three times a week, for the past fifty years, namely, building fifty-minute lectures on biology, each of which is actually the equivalent of a fifty-page essay, accompanied by pictures. Old mental habits die hard.
From earlier in the day, my notes as we left Johannesburg on at ATR 72 Air Botswana plane for Maun, looking down on the city fringes and outlying settlements, were something to the effect that “this looks like rural Oklahoma.” Red dirt; housing you might not want to occupy on a blistering hot day—corrugated metal roofs, concrete block walls, unpaved streets—all seemed quite familiar from a childhood spent in former Indian Territory. THIS PARAGRAPH NEEDS A TRANSITION, TWO SENTENCES. BREAK IT UP WITH SOME ACTION, OR CONVERSATION, MAYBE AIRPLANE ENGINE NOISE, SOMETHING TO INTRO REAL TIME NARRATIVE AND A HINT OF ACTION TO COME.
Weeks later, looking at the maps, I discover that north of Johannesburg the land is largely of Permian origin, thus laced with iron. This mental association between color and chemical content of soil, and a geological epoch, is a product of growing up in Oklahoma. Because my father was a petroleum geologist, names of those late Paleozoic eras—Mississippian, Pennsylvanian, and Permian—were part of our household conversation. Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are referred to collectively as the “Carboniferous” because the vast wetlands and forests produced during those times were eventually converted into coal by planetary forces—folding and burial of rock layers, pressure, heat, and time. The carbon atom you just breathed out, as carbon dioxide, could easily have been part of a giant amphibian’s eye, three hundred million years ago. That’s the kind of scenario that moves, uninvited, through the mind of a semi-educated tourist looking down at red dirt from the window of a small plane.
Below Gnu, the Okavango Delta fans out into the Kalahari Desert. Karen has gracefully given me the window seat. I’m seeing crocodiles, I know, and hippos, but thinking of damselflies and digital cameras. As a biological scientist, my students and I published numerous papers on the parasites of damselflies. This engagement with a single group of species—the host insects—functions almost like a set of high tech, virtual image, goggles. You see a habitat anywhere in the world, a habitat like that into which you’ve waded, swinging an insect net, and your mind supplies the inhabitants. And what is the digital camera’s place in this scenario? The answer is simple: upon a single chip, 15mm x 9mm x 2mm, I can capture several thousand images.