Syrian Government Wastes Water in Drought:         “No Money, No Job, No Hope”

SyrianRefugeesDrought2010-11-14.jpg “Refugees have left their farmlands and are living in tents in Ar Raqqah, Syria, because of a drought.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) AR RAQQAH, Syria — The farmlands spreading north and east of this Euphrates River town were once the breadbasket of the region, a vast expanse of golden wheat fields and bucolic sheep herds.

Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.
“I had 400 acres of wheat, and now it’s all desert,” said Ahmed Abdullah, 48, a farmer who is living in a ragged burlap and plastic tent here with his wife and 12 children alongside many other migrants. “We were forced to flee. Now we are at less than zero — no money, no job, no hope.”
. . .
(p. A17) The drought has become a delicate subject for the Syrian government, which does not give foreign journalists official permission to write about it or grant access to officials in the Agriculture Ministry. On the road running south from Damascus, displaced farmers and herders can be seen living in tents, but the entrances are closely watched by Syrian security agents, who do not allow journalists in.
Droughts have always taken place here, but “the regional climate is changing in ways that are clearly observable,” said Jeannie Sowers, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written on Middle East climate issues. “Whether you call it human-induced climate change or not, much of the region is getting hotter and dryer, combined with more intense, erratic rainfall and flooding in some areas. You will have people migrating as a result, and governments are ill prepared.”
The Syrian government has begun to acknowledge the scale of the problem and has developed a national drought plan, though it has not yet been put in place, analysts say. Poor planning helped create the problem in the first place: Syria spent $15 billion on misguided irrigation projects between 1988 and 2000 with little result, said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. Syria continues to grow cotton and wheat in areas that lack sufficient water — making them more vulnerable to drought — because the government views the ability to produce those crops as part of its identity and a bulwark against foreign dependence, analysts say.

For the full story, see:
ROBERT F. WORTH. “Parched Earth Where Syrian Farms Thrived.” The New York Times (Thurs., October 14, 2010): A1 & A17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 13, 2010 and has the title “Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived.”)

SyriaMaps2010-11-14.jpg

Source of maps: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

School Choice “Makes Parents and Students Happier with Their Schools”

Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman'” movie has brought renewed attention to the case for school choice. New York Times commentator Ross Douthat reasonably discusses that case:

(p. A21) Guggenheim’s movie, which follows five families through the brutal charter school lotteries that determine whether their kids will escape from public “dropout factories,” stirs an entirely justified outrage at the system’s unfairnesses and cruelties. This outrage needs to be supplemented, though, with a dose of realism about what education reformers can reasonably hope to accomplish, and what real choice and competition would ultimately involve.

With that in mind, I have a modest proposal: Copies of Frederick Hess’s recent National Affairs essay, “Does School Choice ‘Work’?” should be handed out at every “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” showing, as a sober-minded complement to Guggenheim’s cinematic call to arms.
. . .
A real marketplace in education, he suggests, probably wouldn’t fund schools directly at all. It would only fund students, tying a school’s budget to the number of children seeking to enroll. If there are 150 applicants for a charter school, they should all bring their funding with them — and take it away from the failing schools they’re trying to escape.
This is a radical idea, guaranteed to meet intense resistance from just about every educational interest group. But Hess makes a compelling case that it needs to be the school choice movement’s long-term goal, if reformers hope to do more than just tinker around the edges of the system.
In the shorter term, meanwhile, he suggests that school choice advocates need to make a case for greater competition that doesn’t depend on test scores alone. Maybe charter schools, merit pay and vouchers won’t instantly turn every American child into a test-acing dynamo. But if they “only” create a more cost-effective system that makes parents and students happier with their schools — well, that would be no small feat, and well worth fighting for.

For the full commentary, see:
ROSS DOUTHAT. “Grading School Choice.” The New York Times (Mon., October 11, 2010): A21.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated October 10, 2010.)

The Hess article is:
Hess, Frederick M. “Does School Choice “Work”?” National Affairs, Issue 5, FALL 2010.

Whittle “Struggled for Years to Get Funding and Time to Pursue His Idea”

DeHavilandComet2010-11-14.jpg“When Britain Ruled The Skies: A De Havilland Comet under construction in Belfast in 1954.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. C8) Frank Whittle, the brilliant British military pilot and engineer who began patenting jet designs in 1930, struggled for years to get funding and time to pursue his idea. Even after World War II, when a competing Nazi design showed what fighter jets could achieve in battle, U.S. airlines were slow to see jets’ potential for passenger travel.

It took another Brit, airplane designer Geoffrey de Havilland, to awaken postwar America’s aviation behemoths. While Lockheed and Douglas were still churning out rumbling, low-flying propeller planes, De Havilland’s jet-powered Comet began breaking records in 1952. Only after seeing Comets scorch the stratosphere at 500 miles an hour did Howard Hughes want jetliners for TWA and Juan Trippe get interested for Pan Am.
Among American plane makers, it was a military contractor that had struggled in the prewar passenger-plane market–Boeing–that first took up the jetliner challenge. In retrospect, the outcome seems obvious. The Boeing 707 inspired the term “jet set.” Boeing’s iconic 747 “Jumbo Jet” opened jet-setting to the masses.
But in 1952, that outcome was far from obvious. Mr. Verhovek zeroes in on the mid-1950s, when Comets first seemed to own the world and then started plunging from the sky in pieces. The Comet’s fatal design flaw–the result of an insufficient appreciation of the danger of metal fatigue–holds resonance today as both Boeing and Airbus struggle to master the next generation of jetliner materials, composites of carbon fiber and plastic.
. . .
Although “Jet Age” inevitably centers on technology, Mr. Verhovek wisely focuses as well on the outsize personalities behind world-changing innovations. There’s Mr. De Havilland, a manic depressive who was so dedicated to aviation that he kept going after two of his three sons died testing his planes. Mr. Whittle, we learn, sniffed Benzedrine to stay awake, popped tranquilizers to sleep and shriveled to just 127 pounds while developing the jet engine. And Boeing chief executive Bill Allen, a meticulous lawyer, bet the company on passenger jets when not a single U.S. airline wanted one.

For the full review, see:
DANIEL MICHAELS. “Shrinking the World; How jetliners commercialized air travel–stewardesses and all.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 9, 2010): C8.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The book under review is:
Verhovek, Sam Howe. Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. New York: Avery, 2010.

Coke’s Patent Law Motivated by Belief that Creative Craftsmen Were Source of Britain’s Prosperity

William Rosen discusses the genesis and significance of the world’s first patent law:

(p. 52) The Statute became law in 1624. The immediate impact was barely noticeable, like a pebble rolling down a gradual slope at the top of a snow-covered mountain. For decades, fewer than six patents were awarded annually, though still more in Britain than anywhere else. It was seventy-five years after the Statute was first drafted, on Monday, July 25, 1698, before an anonymous clerk in the employ of the Great Seal Patent Office on Southampton Row, three blocks from the present–day site of the British Museum, granted patent number 356: Thomas Savery’s “new Invention for Raiseing of Water and occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the lmpellent Force of Fire.”

Both the case law and the legislation under which the application was granted had been written by Edward Coke. Both were imperfect, as indeed was Savery’s own engine. The law was vague enough (and Savery’s grant wide-ranging enough; it essentially covered all ways for “Raiseing of Water” by fire) that Thomas Newcomen was compelled to form a partnership with a man whose machine scarcely resembled his own. But it is not too much to claim that Coke’s pen had as decisive an impact on the evolution of steam power as any of Newcomen’s tools. Though he spent most of his life as something of a sycophant to Elizabeth and James, Coke’s philosophical and temperamental affinity for ordinary Englishmen, particularly the nation’s artisans, compelled him to act, time and again, in their interests even when, as with his advocacy of the 1628 Petition of Right (an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights) it landed him in the King’s prisons. He became the greatest advocate for England’s craftsmen, secure in the belief that they, not her landed gentry or her merchants, were the nation’s source of prosperity. By understanding that it was England’s duty, and–perhaps even more important–in England’s interest, to promote the creative labors of her creative laborers, he anticipated an economic philosophy far more modern than he probably understood, and if he grew rich in the service of the nation, he also, with his creation of the world’s first durable patent law, returned the favor.

Source:
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

First Writing Grew from Commerce

CunneiformSumerianClayTablet3200BC.jpg

“A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. is inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C5) CHICAGO — One of the stars of the Oriental Institute’s new show, “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond,” is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.
In fact “it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far,” according to the institute’s director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world’s oldest cultures.
The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists’ knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.
The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations — the Chinese and Mayans — also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.
. . .
The Oriental Institute, which opened in 1919, was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist.
. . .
Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute’s exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.

For the full story, see:
GERALDINE FABRIKANT. “Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History.” The New York Times (Weds., October 20, 2010): C5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 19, 2010.)

Neurosurgeons Treating Dogs is Mutually Beneficial to Dogs and Humans

(p. D3) An operation commonly performed to remove brain tumors from the pituitary glands of humans is now available to dogs, thanks to a collaboration between a neurosurgeon and some veterinarians in Los Angeles. And that is turning out to be good for humans.

So far, nine dogs and one cat that otherwise would have died have been treated successfully.
. . .
What Dr. Mamelak has gained from teaching the procedure to veterinarians is access to tissue samples from the treated dogs. That’s significant because Cushing’s afflicts only one in a million humans, making it a difficult disease to study. By contrast, it afflicts about 100,000 dogs a year in the United States. The canine tissue samples are enabling him and his colleagues to develop drugs to one day treat Cushing’s disease in both humans and dogs.
“We have a full loop,” he said. “We’re using a human procedure in animals, and using their tissue to study the disease.”

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “Observatory; They Fetch, They Roll Over, They Aid Tumor Research.” The New York Times, Science Times Section (Tues., October 26, 2010): D3.
(Note: ellipsIs added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 22 (sic), 2010.)

“It Can Be Hard to Tell a Crank from an Unfamiliar Gear”

VanValenLeigh2010-11-13.jpg

“Leigh Van Valen.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 33) His beard, it was said, was longer than God’s but not as long as Charles Darwin’s. Thousands of books teetered perilously in his office, and a motion-sensitive door startled visitors with cricket chirps. He took notes on his own thoughts while conversing with others.

The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen’s eccentricities were legend far beyond the University of Chicago, where brilliant and idiosyncratic professors rule. He named 20 fossil mammals he had discovered after characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction, and his most famous hypothesis — among the most cited in the literature of evolution — was named for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”
That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes. It did not explain why Professor Van Valen gave better grades to students who disagreed with him — provoking an instant evolutionary adaptation in the tone of student essays — much less why he wrote songs about the sex lives of dinosaurs and paramecia.
. . .
After his Red Queen paper was initially, and repeatedly, rejected, Dr. Van Valen started his own journal, Evolutionary Theory, to publish it. As its longtime editor, he treated all submissions seriously. “It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear,” he wrote.

For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. “Leigh Van Valen, a Revolutionary in the Study of Evolution, Dies at 76.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 33.

(Note: ellipsIs added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title “Leigh Van Valen, Evolution Revolutionary, Dies at 76.”)