No Evidence that Parents Were Ever Indifferent to the Well-Being of Their Children

(p. 404) No one expressed parental loss better (as no one expressed most things better) than William Shakespeare. These lines are from King John, written soon after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

(p. 405) These are not the words of someone for whom children are a product, and there is no reason to suppose – no evidence anywhere, including that of common sense – that parents were ever, at any point in the past, commonly indifferent to the happiness and well-being of their children. One clue lies in the name of the room in which we are now. ‘Nursery’ is first recorded in English in 1330 and has been in continuous use ever since. A room exclusively dedicated to the needs and comforts of children would hardly seem consistent with the belief that children were of no consequence within the household. No less significant is the word ‘childhood’ itself. It has existed in English for over a thousand years (the first recorded use is in the Lindisfarne Gospels circa AD 950), so whatever it may have meant emotionally to people, as a state of being, a condition of separate existence, it is indubitably ancient. To suggest that children were objects of indifference or barely existed as separate beings would appear to be a simplification at best.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

The Costs of Altruism


Source of book image:

(p. D1) On entering the patient’s room with spinal tap tray portentously agleam, Dr. Burton encountered the patient’s family members. They begged him not to proceed. The frail, bedridden patient begged him not to proceed. Dr. Burton conveyed their pleas to the oncologist, but the oncologist continued to lobby for a spinal tap, and the exhausted family finally gave in.
. . .
(p. D2) . . . , Dr. Burton is a contributor to a scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume called “Pathological Altruism,” to be published this fall by Oxford University Press. . . .
As the new book makes clear, pathological altruism is not limited to showcase acts of self-sacrifice, like donating a kidney or a part of one’s liver to a total stranger. The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behavior is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.
. . .
David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilizing. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. . . .
Barbara Oakley, an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and an editor of the new volume, said in an interview that when she first began talking about its theme at medical or social science conferences, “people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns. They said, ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological.’ ”
To Dr. Oakley, the resistance was telling. “It epitomized the idea ‘I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological,’ ” she said.
. . .
Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”

For the full story, see:
NATALIE ANGIER. “BASICS; The Pathological Altruist Gives Till Someone Hurts.” The New York Times (Tues.,October 4, 2011): D1 & D2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 3, 2011.)

Increase in Cholera Not Caused by Global Warming

(p. D6) Cholera outbreaks seem to be on the increase, but a new study has found they cannot be explained by global warming.
A bigger factor may be the cycle of droughts and floods along big rivers, according to Tufts University scientists who published a study in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene this month.

For the full story, see:
DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. “GLOBAL UPDATE; Cholera: Climate Change Isn’t a Culprit in Increasing Outbreaks, Study Finds.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D6.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)

For-Profit Entrepreneur Brings Good Things to Bangladesh

PolakPaulEntrepreneur2011-11-09.jpg“INVENTOR Paul Polak creates cheap and effective devices to help the poor.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D4) If necessity is the mother of invention, Paul Polak is one of its fathers.

For 30 years Dr. Polak, a 78-year-old former psychiatrist, has focused on creating devices that will improve the lives of 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day. But, he insists, they must be so cheap and effective that the poor will actually buy them, since charity disappears when donors find new causes.
Inventing a new device is only the beginning, he says; the harder part is finding dependable manufacturers and creating profitable distributorships. The “appropriate technology” field, he argues, is “dominated by tinkerers and short of entrepreneurs.”
His greatest success has been a treadle pump that lets farmers raise groundwater in the dry season, when crops fetch more money. He has sold more than two million, he said.
. . .
Q. What got you interested in poverty?
. . .
Q. And in third-world poverty?
A. My wife’s a Mennonite, and they had programs in Bangladesh. It had hit me between the eyes that homeless people in Denver were living on $500 a month, but there were people overseas living on $30 a month. So I took a trip to Bangladesh.
Some farmers were using hand pumps, but biomechanically, that’s a lousy way to raise water. A Mennonite guy had invented a rower pump that would pull up enough to water a half-acre of vegetables. They had installed 2,000 over five years, and those farmers seemed to be making a lot of money, so I said, “Why don’t we do a project, with an objective of selling 25,000 a year?”
We hit that pretty quickly. One or two Mennonites objected — they considered the idea of selling something to poor people immoral. But we kept at it, and then we found the treadle pump. It was brilliantly simple, it could be manufactured by local workshops, and a local driller could dig a 40-foot well and install it for $25. Studies showed that farmers made $100 in one season on that investment.
We talked to 75 little welding shops where they make things like bedsprings, and jawboned them into making treadle pumps. We went to people who sold things like toilet bowls, and cut a deal with them to be dealers. We trained 3,000 tinkerers to be well-drillers. We hired troubadours to write songs about treadle pumps, and we’d pass out leaflets when they performed. We even produced a 90-minute Bollywood movie.
. . .
Q. What’s the biggest mistake aid agencies make?
A. As we were developing our pump, the World Bank was subsidizing deep-well diesel pumps that could cover 40 acres. The theory was that you’d get a macroeconomic benefit, but it was also very destructive to social justice. The big pumps were handed out by government agents; the government agent was bribeable. The pump would go to the biggest landholder, and he’d become a waterlord.

Q. There have been some well-known failures in this field, like One Laptop Per Child and the Playpump. Can you say why?
A. The laptop was a middle-class device that doesn’t communicate with people who don’t read and write. It cost $100, plus it used the charity model — buy two, give one away. The Playpump, which was a children’s merry-go-round that pumps water, cost $11,000. Women in Africa walk for hours to a well, and then jiggle the pump handle for 60 seconds. This replaces the jiggling. How important is that? And they break. For $11,000, you could dig five wells and eliminate the walk.

Q. What are your principles for success?
A. In 1981, I said, “I’m going to interview 100 $1-a-day families every year, come rain or shine, and learn from them first.”
Over 28 years, I’ve interviewed over 3,000 families. I spend about six hours with each one — walking with them through their fields, asking what they had for breakfast, how far their kids walk to school, what they feed their dog, what all their sources of income are. This is not rocket science. Any businessman knows this: You’ve got to talk to your customers.

For the full story, see:
DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. “A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL R. POLAK; An Entrepreneur Creating Chances at a Better Life.” The New York Times (Tues.,September 27, 2011): D4.
(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 26, 2011.)

“The World Before the Modern Era Was Overwhelmingly a Place of Tiny Coffins”

(p. 404) There is no doubt that children once died in great numbers and that parents had to adjust their expectations accordingly. The world before the modern era was overwhelmingly a place of tiny coffins. The figures usually cited are that one-third of children died in their first year of life and half failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Even in the best homes death was a regular visitor. Stephen Inwood notes that the future historian Edward Gibbon, growing up rich in healthy Putney, lost all six of his siblings in early childhood. But that isn’t to say that parents were any less devastated by a loss than we would be today. The diarist John Evelyn and his wife had eight children and lost six of them in childhood, and were clearly heartbroken each time. ‘Here ends the joy of my life,’ Evelyn wrote simply after his oldest child died three days after his fifth birthday in 1658. The writer William Brownlow lost a child each year for four years, a chain of misfortune that ‘hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces’, he wrote, but in fact he and his wife had still more to endure: the tragic pattern of annual deaths continued for three years more until they had no children left to yield.

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

Black Death Microbe Same as in Middle Ages But Now Does Much Less Harm


Source of map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

If the Black Death microbe is the same today as in the Middle Ages, maybe the difference in effects is partly due to our better nutrition, health, hygiene, and housing?

(p. D4) The agent of the Black Death is assumed to be Yersinia pestis, the microbe that causes bubonic plague today. But the epidemiology was strikingly different from that of modern outbreaks. Modern plague is carried by fleas and spreads no faster than the rats that carry them can travel. The Black Death seems to have spread directly from one person to another.

Victims sometimes emitted a deathly stench, which is not true of plague victims today. And the Black Death felled at least 30 percent of those it inflicted, whereas a modern plague in India that struck Bombay in 1904, before the advent of antibiotics, killed only 3 percent of its victims.
. . .
If Yersinia pestis was indeed the cause of the Black Death, why were the microbe’s effects so different in medieval times? Its DNA sequence may hold the answer. Dr. Poinar’s team has managed to reconstruct a part of the microbe’s genetic endowment. Yersinia pestis has a single chromosome, containing the bulk of its genes, and three small circles of DNA known as plasmids.
The team has determined the full DNA sequence of the plasmid known as pPCP1 from the East Smithfield cemetery. But, disappointingly, it turns out to be identical to the modern-day plasmid, so it explains none of the differences in the microbe’s effects.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS WADE. “Hunting for a Mass Killer in Medieval Graveyards.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)

Huge Variance in Estimates of Number of Species

(p. D3) Scientists have named and cataloged 1.3 million species. How many more species there are left to discover is a question that has hovered like a cloud over the heads of taxonomists for two centuries.
“It’s astounding that we don’t know the most basic thing about life,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.
. . .
In recent decades, scientists have looked for better ways to determine how many species are left to find. In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.
Other estimates have ranged from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. Dr. Mora and his colleagues believed that all of these estimates were flawed in one way or another. Most seriously, there was no way to validate the methods used, to be sure they were reliable.

For the full story, see:
CARL ZIMMER. “How Many Species? A Study Says 8.7 Million, but It’s Tricky.” The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23 (sic), 2011.)