Friday, May 27, 2005

Dangerous Things

One of the difficulties one has with wrapping one's head around the news from Iraq is the matter of perspective. Most people who try to stay informed have a general idea of how many US soldiers have been killed in Iraq (1653 when I pulled together my statistics, a few more now), and they may know the approximate number of troops in theater (somewhere around 140 thousand). With a bit of simple math they can work out the odds but, aside from the sense that Iraq is not altogether a safe place, they will lack the context to answer the question -- "How dangerous is that?"

To compare solidering with other professions we need to convert the statistics to the units that are usually used for such things: annual fatalities per hundred thousand full time workers. So let's do so. As I said, we will use 1653 as the total fatalities due to enemy action and accidents for the war so far. The war has been going on for 2.2 years which makes the annual fatality rate 751. Using a figure of 140 thousand for the average strength in theater we divide by 1.4 to get the fatalities per hundred thousand or 536 annual deaths per 100,000 soldiers. So, how dangerous is that, then?

Well let's see, the most dangerous job category in the US, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is "lumber cutter" with 117.8 annual deaths per hundred thousand full time workers. So, our calculation suggests that being a soldier in the Iraqi theater is 4.6 times as dangerous as being a lumberjack. Now that's pretty alarming if your kid is being sent to Iraq; cutting lumber sounds like a dangerous sort of job and soldiering is several times as bad. But then, most of us aren't in the timber cutting industry and few of our son's considered lumberjacking as an alternative before they decided to sign up. So we know that being a soldier is 4.6 times as dangerous as being a lumberjack but we still can't answer the question -- "So, how dangerous is that, then?"

Looking for an example a bit closer to home I thought about my son and the choices he and some of his friends made. He spent nine months in Iraq as a driver for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and was part of the 3rd Infantry's assault on Baghdad. He's an outdoorsy young man and might enjoy the life of a lumberjack -- but I don't remember timber cutting as a career path he considered. He decided to join the Army and some of his friends -- with similarly lackluster academic performances in high school -- decided to stay home and enroll in the local community college. Our question then: how does going to Iraq and being shot at most every day compare to living at home with your parents and going to the local community college?

As my measure of the risks of going to the local community college I will assume the student makes the commute on a small motorcycle and further assume that the ride is the only risk involved. The reality is that many students will choose a safer form of transportation but incur other risks that I am not addressing. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the motorcycle fatality rate in 2003 as 38.38 deaths per 100 million passenger miles. That doesn't sound too bad -- 100 million miles is to the moon and back 50 times. To equal the 751 deaths in Iraq you would need 1.96 billion motorcycle passenger miles.

... or about 14,000 miles per soldier per year. Map quest tells me that the main campus of our county's community college is 15 miles away. That's 30 miles round trip. Multiply that by five days a week and 50 weeks a year and you get 7,500 miles a year -- and twice that much if you come home for lunch every day. So now we can answer our question. How dangerous is it to be a soldier in Iraq? It is somewhat more dangerous than staying home and studying library science at the local community college -- but only if you take your lunch and eat on campus. If you go home for lunch it's safer to let the Iraqis shoot at you.

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Federal Highway Administration; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Spreading Manure on a Bush for Arbor Day

A recent news story caught my attention because it combines two interests of mine. These are the restoration of the American chestnut by developing a blight-resistant line, and the observation that the wire services will never give the president an even break. Below is a brief Associated Press story about an Arbor Day tree planting event on the White House lawn. It ran with exactly the same wording in several papers. I believe I am quoting the New York Post.

Borrowing the color scheme from the Red State/Blue State maps I have color coded the text as follows: Red text is information that is necessary to the reporting of the event. Blue text presents details that would not have been reported if President Clinton has planted the tree, and Gray text represents information that I believe to be incorrect or confusing.

The young American chestnut was already sitting in its hole in the ground and a fresh pile of dirt was waiting nearby when the president - wearing a business suit - strode out to throw on three shovelfuls and pronounce his Arbor Day commemoration complete.

"We don't want to get carried away," laughed President Bush.

Despite the brevity of what the White House called a "ceremonial planting" on Friday,
the presidential event was aimed at aiding a long effort to bring back the American chestnut. Once a dominant presence in the eastern United States, the graceful trees were virtually wiped out by blight starting at the turn of the 20th century. Now, after years of breeding, cloning and crossbreeding with other species, the Agriculture Department is ready to reintroduce disease-resistant chestnuts to eastern forests next year.

the White House picked an American chestnut for Bush to plant on the mansion's grounds to mark National Arbor Day.

"This is our little part to help it come back," Bush told reporters. "Our message is to our fellow citizens: plant trees - it's good for the economy and it's good for the environment."

The president had a fair amount of help, both before and after the brief event.

"Ready to go? Alright, let's do it," Bush said to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns
, also in dark suit.

Each man pitched spadefuls of dirt into the hole holding the green-leafed sapling -
Bush mock-grunting at the effort, presidential dog Miss Beazley underfoot and Johanns only nearly missing the president's pants leg at one point. Bush then quickly called it a day and headed back inside the White House.

Several National Park Services workers moved in to finish the job. And now, an American chestnut fills the corner of the White House's North Lawn occupied by a 100-year-old tulip poplar until severe storm damage required its removal four years ago.

Some may be tempted to call foul because I made the president's joke about "not getting carried away" blue. The thing is, if you read the transcript of the event, he made several jokes and the AP picked the least funny one because it fit their portrayal of the presidents participation as unenthusiastic, phony and perfunctory.

THE PRESIDENT: Glad you all are here. Ready, Mr. Secretary? SECRETARY JOHANNS: I'm ready.

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I'm honored -- we're honored to be here with the Secretary of Agriculture, as well as Marshal Case, who is head of the American Chestnut Foundation. We are planting an American chestnut tree here at the White House. This is the 133rd year of Arbor Day. Our message is to our fellow citizens, plant trees -- it's good for the economy and it's good for the environment.

As well, Marshal informs me that the American Chestnut Foundation has worked very closely with the Agriculture Department to coming up with a disease-resistant strain of the American chestnut. And he says we're making good progress, and that one day the American chestnut, which had been wiped out by blight, will be coming back. And this is our little part to help it come back.

So, Mr. Secretary, are you prepared? SECRETARY JOHANNS: I am ready. Let's -- THE PRESIDENT: A man known for shoveling a lot of things. (Laughter.) SECRETARY JOHANNS: Exactly. THE PRESIDENT: Ready to go? SECRETARY JOHANNS: Yes, I am ready. THE PRESIDENT: All right, let's do it.

"A man known for shoveling a lot of things... Exactly." Funnier, don't you think?

Actually, I was tempted to make the president's admonition to plant trees blue because it was rearranged and taken out of context. If you read it is the transcript, while it isn't exactly brilliant oratory, it is still a servicable part of a passable presidential Arbor Day speech. It is only when you pull it out of context that it sounds like a line from the Judge Dread.

Eat recycled Food! It's good for the environment -- and OK for you!

Hat Tip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit for bringing the Arbor Day event to my attention (although the crankiness about the AP slant is only mine. Reynolds posted a link to a much more evenhanded version of the story.)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Early Morning Birdsongs: Lesson One

One of the pleasures of living in central North Carolina is that, for much of the year, one can sleep quite comfortably with the window open. If you have a tree near your window the month of May provides an opportunity to brush up on recognizing early morning birdcalls. Today's lesson: The Northern Cardinal.

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps the easiest North American songbird to recognize because of his bright color and striking markings. With a little practice you can learn to recognize his distinctive song as well. The Cardinal is a strong singer with a loud, clear, repetitious whistle. The Cardinal sings throughout the day and into the evening but is especially easy to pick out in the morning -- about half an hour before your alarm clock goes off.

The song of the Cardinal consists of a number of phrases which range across the species but are selected, combined and repeated in varying ways to form local "dialects" that vary from region to region. In central North Carolina the typical call goes -- purTEE purTEE birDEE birDEE ... cheer ... cheer ... kill! kill! kill! kill! kill!. It's a very hearty, outdoorsy sort of song that tends to make half-asleep sportsmen think about their firearms.

A number of resources are available online that will help you familiarize yourself with the song of the Cardinal. This page on has some sound files you can play to hear a Cardinal and this page at NASA has excerpts from an audio field guide that provides even more information. Be sure to consult these resources to be sure you can identify the bird whose singing wakes you up in the morning. It would be a pity to shoot the wrong bird.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Stifling Fog that is America

The interesting thing about European cultural anti-Americanism is how unfocused it is. The America that oppresses the European intellectual is not a specific place or a particular people or a well understood set of attitudes. It is instead a miasma, an unsettling odor in the air. It surrounds them, pervades them, worries and troubles them. And, most of all, it reminds them of America.

Consider this excerpt about Danish filmmaker, Lars von Trier, from a Reuters story about this year's film festival at Cannes:
Von Trier, whose fear of flying has prevented him from visiting the United States, won thunderous cheers at the world premiere and a news conference, where he said he enjoyed bashing America on screen because it invades his life even in Denmark.

"We are all under the influence -- and it's a very bad influence -- from America," said the 49-year-old Dane. "In my country everything has to do with America. America is kind of sitting on the world.

"America has to do with 60 percent of my brain and all things I experience in my life, and I'm not happy about that," von Trier said. I'd say 60 percent of my life is American so I am in fact an 'American' too. But I can't go there and vote or change anything there. That is why I make films about America.

Von Trier is a very capable filmmaker by all acounts. My daughter, whose taste and sensibility are impeccable*, is a huge fan, and his films, especially Dogville, are on my list to watch when time allows. She tells me that von Trier sets his films in the US and that his films explore some of the darker sides of human nature. Many people (von Trier included) think that this makes his films somehow anti-American, but there is nothing exclusively American, or even particularly American, about the vices he illuminates.

It is rather more likely that von Trier sets his films in America because he wants them to be about the the problems -- not about the setting. If a filmmaker does a film about corruption in the police force in Sophia, Bulgaria, then the film will be about Sophia, but the same film set in Chicago will be about corruption in the police. The international ubiquity of American films makes a midwestern American setting the least intrusive neutral background against which international filmmakers can tell their stories. At some level the filmmakers realize this and they resent it. Add to that the sense that all the annoyances of modern life somehow arise in America and you have the roots of an unthought anti-Americanism.

Of course the "America" that oppresses the average European does not really exist. If you take the typical citizen of France or Denmark and sit him down at a New York City lunch counter he will be genuinely surprised when he finishes his meal without alarms and gunfire at the bank across the street. The world watches our television shows and movies and, to a large extent (God help us) they believe them.

As the new millennium starts, America is the best-known country in the history of the planet, and a total mystery. Everybody knows all about it but most of what they "know" is wrong. What the world sees is the big-pile-o-crap stacked up by Hollywood and New York. Hidden behind it, and sometimes buried under it, is the other, the real America. Von Trier would be horrified to hear it but Denmark is, in a sense, a red state -- and that bad "American" odor in the air is good old, all-American blue state bullshit.

Of course, vaguely understood anti-Americanism is not limited to the intellegencia, nor to Europe. Consider this from another Reuters story about a lake in rural Russia swallowed by a sinkhole.

Officials in Nizhegorodskaya region, on the Volga river east of Moscow, said water in the lake might have been sucked down into an underground water-course or cave system, but some villagers had more sinister explanations.

"I am thinking, well, America has finally got to us," said one old woman, as she sat on the ground outside her house.

* Yes, doubter, she is really my daughter: she has my grandmother's eyes. The genes for good taste and sensibility merely skipped my generation. I'm, not sure where the genes for good spelling came from though, come to think of it.. I don't seem to remember a good speller in the family before...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Helpful Spoilers

At one minute after midnight tonight I will be sitting in a theater waiting for the new Star Wars film to start. I expect to enjoy it hugely and I would like to thank a number of conservative commentators who have posted reviews critical of the film that will help me enjoy it even more. In particular, Jason Apuzzo at Libertas and Joun Podhoretz at the Weekly Standard have both found things to be annoyed about in the film (to varying degrees – Podhoretz didn’t like it but Apuzzo did) . To them, especially, I offer thanks for almost certainly increasing my enjoyment. Confused? Perhaps I should explain.

Have you ever seen a film that annoys the crap out of you the first time you see it but improves markedly when you see it again? I’m not talking about surprise-ending films -- Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense or Momento – that are good the first time but better the second time since you can see how they misled you; I’m talking films that are real stinkeroos on the first viewing because they have huge flaws -- annoyances that take you longer to get over than the running time of the film. Sometimes, if you give those films a second chance – if you go back to the buffet knowing what the cat did in the potato salad – you can ignore the flaw and find that, on balance, the film is much better than you thought.

I will offer two examples: The first is the Coen brother’s Big Lebowski – one of the funniest films of all time – which has huge pacing problems in its beginning, and a framing device (the old cowboy bit) that makes the problem even worse. The first time you see it you spend the whole movie being cranky about how boring the first fifteen minutes is. If you watch it again the protective eye-glazing that protects you from commercials on TV will kick in during the tedious bits and you can enjoy the rest of the film.

The second example is closer to home for my topic; imagine how much more you might have enjoyed The Phantom Menace if someone had told you exactly how annoying JarJar Binks was going to be, before you went to the movie. You could have considered all of his scenes as some sort of advertisement for an ill-conceived action figure that was somehow edited into the film by mistake.

This is the great service offered by some film reviewers: they subject themselves to the tiresome bits in films so you begin the getting-over-it process well in advance. That way you don't need to see things twice. Given the price of a movie ticket these days, the see it again and then decide what you think process can be pretty expensive.

Several reviewers, including the ones I mentioned, have warned that the latest Star Wars film contains a number of digs at the President and the War in Iraq, both of which I support. These are minor items in the film –- a line or two here and there -- that Lucas put in for his liberal Hollywood pals. There is no reason that he shouldn’t put a few lefty Easter eggs in his film if he wants to – he’s too good a filmmaker to let them really interfere with the story –- but I am grateful to know that they are there so I don’t bite down on them, confused by their color and assuming they are chocolate.


As predicted, I loved the movie. It's good that I knew about the Bush-bashing Easter eggs ahead of time. I probably would have caught a few of them -- not because I am politically thin-skinned, but because of some statements that Lucas made at Cannes. I understand why he felt the need, of course. It's the compulsion of the language. When one is in Italy, if one knows a bit of Italian one must say something in Italian. When in France, if one knows French, one must speak some French so they know you are trying. And when one is interviewed by Reuter's at Cannes, one must say something idiotic, just to be polite.

I have made a few more comments on ROTS (sorry, those are the initials) on a friend's LiveJournal page here (my comment is down a bit.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Commonist Press

A recent posting on The Belmont Club uses the Tragedy of the Commons as an analogy to discuss the press in general, and the recent Koran-flushing scandal in particular. I thought it particularly apt and I posted a comment. Belmont Club has a pretty good readership but I was something like comment number 40 so you can figure that only a small number of people will see it -- say a thousand. Since I spent a bit too much of my lunch hour writing the comment I decided to post it here, too. That way it will reach 1003 readers.

Here it is:

The Tragedy of the Commons analogy is amazingly apt here. In its original form it referred to a grazing area close to town that everyone could use occasionally to graze livestock when it was brought to market to be sold. It was generally understood that everyone would be better off if the commons was sensibly managed so that the grass was not destroyed by overgrazing. On the other hand, if the expectation was that other users could not be trusted -- if the destruction of the grass was inevitable -- then each farmer was left with the decision whether it would be his livestock that was fatter and closer to town or someone else's.

The various players in the media all draw on a common pool of prestige and influence. There is a general understanding that their industry would be better off if news stories were more thououghly vetted, with more consideration given to their effects and less obvious partisan bias. There is considerable evidence that this pool of public esteem has been drawn down alarmingly. A recent poll showed that four out of ten people agreed with a statement that "The Press is too free." Sadly, the members of the press seem to share this low opinion of their colleagues. As they see it, the question is not whether politically motivated leaks will go public, that is believed to be inevitable once the leaker starts shopping the story around -- the damage to the reputation of the US is already done; the people who will be killed in the riots in Afghanistan are as good as dead already; those already sickened by the whoredom of the press had best look for another restroom -- someone will run with the story. The only question was whether Newsweek will get the "scoop" or if it will go to someone else.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Blue Plate Special in Mayberry

People who are into television trivia will generally tend to know that Mount Airy, North Carolina, is the home town of Andy Griffith and that Mayberry, the setting of the Andy Griffith Show, is a lightly fictionalized version of Mount Airy. What most people don't know is that Mt Airy has another odd distinction. It appears to be the only place on Earth where you can get a "Ground Steak Sandwich" of the sort they serve there.

Every time I am in Mount Airy I have to eat a Ground Steak Sandwich. I don't particularly like them, mind you, they're not actually very good, but they are so damned peculiar that I simply can't resist. A "Ground Steak" sandwich sounds like it would be just like a hamburger, only made with a better cut of beef, but that's not it at all. It is made with with loose-browned ground beef like a Sloppy Joe except that the tangy tomato sauce is replaced with a thick white sauce. Or, to borrow a military term, it is S.O.S. on a burger bun with a bit of slaw and a slice of tomato.

I had lunch in Mount Airy yesterday and I took a picture of my lunch [!] for my blog. I asked both my waitress and the young man who took my money whether they were aware of any place on earth where you could buy a Ground Steak Sandwich more than twenty miles from the center of downtown Mount Airy. They both said they had heard of a restaurant in Cherokee that serves them (200 miles) but added that the owner was originally from Mt Airy.

I should add that Mount Airy is a pleasant place to visit if you are in the area. It is a small North Carolina town in the foothills of the Appalacian mountains which gets a bit of a boost from Andy Griffith tourism but not enough to lose its soul. [Yes, I am thinking of Gatlinburgland, the themepark built on the hollowed out shell of Gatlinburg, Tennessee -- a nice little town destroyed by tourism.] Mount Airy's Bluebird Diner on Main Street is an excellent place for lunch. Their food, except as noted here, is quite good and their onion rings are world class. If you are with a group you might want to order one Ground Steak Sandwich (detail) for the table. That way everyone can see it but nobody has to eat it.

[No, a Ground Steak Sandwich is not on The R Factor Diet!]

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Helping the Tree -- Not Hugging it,

Part Two in a series. Part one is here.

In some of the stories about Earth Day I have heard commentators describing the whole week as Earth Week, apparently feeling that Earth Day isn't enough. As I implied in a previous posting I think one day is plenty. Interestingly, right after Earth Day I had an opportunity to see environmental action first hand -- action of a sort of which I altogether approve. Over the weekend I attended the Spring 2005 meeting of Carolinas Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), an organization dedicated to restoring the blighted American Chestnut to the forests of the eastern United States.

Together with my siblings I own some property in the mountains of North Carolina and I became curious about American Chestnuts when my forester pointed out some Chestnut sprouts to me. He said they make excellent walking sticks because they grow to about the right size and then die of the blight. I did a bit of research and found that there is an effort underway to restore the Chestnut and, more to the point, it is a largely private effort where individuals can participate and actually help. The more I learned, the more I realized that I want to restore these trees to my property in the mountains (and, if I can talk them into it, to my neighbor's properties) because Chestnuts grew there once and they ought to be there again.

I don't live on the mountain property [yet -- I may build a house there when I retire ] and it will be somewhat difficult to offer any direct help with the breeding effort. [And there is my black thumb to consider, too.] But I do hope to be able to provide a small amount of financial support and to spread the word -- as I am doing now.

The meeting I attended two weeks ago was held on the campus of Clemson University. Presentations were made by researchers -- a geneticist employed by TACF, a professor at the University and graduate students -- and by volunteers helping with the breeding effort. It was a wonderfully non-political event. One of the graduate students stumbled a bit over one of his PowerPoint slides; he was discussing drought resistance and he didn't want to touch on climate change -- a politically charged side-issue that he didn't want to get into.

I don't want to give the impression that this was some sort of right-libertarian lovefest. The professors from Clemson were state government employees and TACF is not averse to a bit of taxpayer money from time to time if they can wrangle it. But the meeting was all about action and not at all about activism. It was a collection of people working to solve a problem -- not a collection of people demanding that it be solved, or more typically, demanding that some action be forbidden because of a problem it might theoretically cause.

Most (all?) of the scientists there had started their careers working on the genetics of corn. They had moved on to other areas because, as one of them said, "There are plenty of people working on corn" and they felt that other areas might need them more. It was refreshing to see environmental concern and effort that was so divorced from the reflexive anti-corporate, and anti-technology biases so often characterizes "environmentalist" events. These guys had no problem with using biotechnology to grow bigger, better, faster growing crops. The money is good working in corn but the field is crowded. If you can make enough money to support yourself working with fruit trees -- even though it doesn't pay as well -- that's fine too. And if you have some extra time you can devote to working pro bono, or mostly pro bono with the American Chestnut -- even better.

As I said, one of the things that I liked about the meeting was that it wasn't at all political. That graduate student -- shifting and fidgeting because the historical trends in rainfall in the Appalachians might sound like climate change -- probably has opinions about the issue he was avoiding, but he was right to avoid making those opinions known. That wasn't what his presentation was about.

In keeping with that spirit I have separated my posting into two parts. In this part I have allowed myself the luxury of socio-political commentary. In the other part -- The American Chestnut - History and Hope -- I tried not to do so. My hope is that people who do not share my political viewpoint may still find the other part useful.

9/11 and the Bossa Nova

The Daily Kos has posted an article laying out a rather tenuous argument that Ronald Regan Caused 9/11. In response Little Green Footballs posted a link to it and considerable comment has been made there. Hundreds of comments have been posted and only a few of them are worth reading. It gets pretty silly in these threads after a while. As evidence I offer my latest comment (with which I am trying to stop).


No, BabbaZee has a point. The Bossa Nova is clearly implicated in 9/11.

Bassa Nova is Portugese for "New Wave". In France La Nouvelle Vague refers to a movement in the film industry in the 1950s and 1960s associated with the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and film-makers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, among others.

The French New Wave drew heavily on the philosophy of Existentialism which resonated with the French people who were deeply conflicted about their roles in the Nazi occupation. Godard was the leading theorist of the group and his breathtakingly-odd film, Alfaville was a clear inspiration to Hollywood when they were looking for inspiration for the next generation of the Star Trek series.

The creators of Star Trek TNG clearly took three things from Alfaville: a science fictional setting, the name of the captain/director [Jean-Luc Godard/Picard], and the word "Vague" (from Nouvelle Vague although they seem to have taken the English usage sense of it).

Just as Existentialism was the philosophical basis for the French New Wave, a "Vague" Liberalism was the creed of Jean-Luc Picard's Enterprise. Sensing that a foil was needed to make so vapid and indistinct a philosophy visible, the writers at Paramont introduced the Klingon Empire. Unlike the endlessly tiresome Vulcans the Klingons never overcame their warlike natures, instead they had an uprising and killed all their barbers -- this led to an the endless sequence of bad-hair days which they used to become black-leather clad intergalactic biker-warriors with deplorable table manners.

Osama Bin Laden appears to have clearly felt a kinship with the more-authoritarian Klingon Empire and it infuriated him that they were unable to crush the Federation Infidels. It cannot have escaped him that the words "petrolium" (rock oil) and "dilithium" (two stone element) were similar in construction and that the country of his birth (Saudi Arabia) provided much of the dilithium used by the hated Federation.

An episode that featured Lt. Commander Worf trying to dance was the last straw. He called together the key players in al Qaeda (loosely modeled on Television Actors Equity) and told them about his insights gained from the Great Satan's SF TV show and how this episode had offended him. It's impossible to know exactly what was said in the conversation between Bin Laden and his planners but we can take a clue from the prophetic song of Eydie Gorme.

(Now was it the moon?)
No, no, the bossa nova
(Or the stars above?)
No, no, the bossa nova
(Now was it the tune? )
Yeah, yeah, the bossa nova
(The dance of Jihad)


I'm still trying to stop -- or at least to cut back. I was unable to resist commenting on a response by a user who calls himself "Gee Wiz"

WTF are you talking about? You make no sense to me. To compare the current world political climate to a TV series, makes me think your conclusions are foolish. Even if, a connection could be established(a big IF), how could you even begin to think that it applies to our current world political problem?

Gee Whiz, Gee Wiz,

I am amazed that, in one short paragraph, you manage both to perceive my point perfectly and to miss it altogether.

Based on his odd diction, his problems with commas and his blindness to irony, I have two theories about Mr. Wiz. Theory 1: English is not his first language and he comes from a part of the world where, like the Thorn Bird's Song, each individual only gets to perceive irony once in his life, for a few seconds just before the lights go out forever. Theory 2: Gee Wiz is 12.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The American Chestnut -- History and Hope

When the first European settlers arrived in the new world, the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was the dominant tree species in the area that would later be the eastern United States. Ranging from the panhandle area of Florida to the forests of Maine, the American Chestnut accounted for one in four trees in the forests it inhabited. Tall, fast growing, and resistant to drought and shade, the Chestnut competed very successfully with the other trees, such as Oaks, that shared its range. With a precolumbian population of 4.5 billion trees, (my estimate) many of them over 100 feet tall with a diameter of up to seven feet, the nut-bearing American Chestnut was a critical part of the ecology of the eastern Unites States. Chestnuts bear nuts reliably -- unlike Oaks which only bear acorns abundantly when the weather is suitable -- and, in their day, Chestnuts were the primary food source for a wide variety of wildlife species.

Strong, light, fine-grained and straight, the American Chestnut was used for everything the early settlers made out of wood. It was especially prized for use as masts for ships and, since the wood is highly rot-resistant, it was used for all applications where wood was in contact with the ground, such as fence-posts and foundation timbers. The nuts were eaten, used to fatten livestock, and were a significant export product for the colonies. Tannin from the wood and bark was used to make leather. The Chestnut was as central to the economy of the colonists as it was to the ecology of the area.

The first blight to hit the American Chestnut was the introduction of Phytophthora cinnamomi, an organism that causes root rot, originally from the far east. Phytophthora cinnamomi affects an large number of plant species, among them the American Chestnut. (In the Chestnut it is also called Ink Disease because of the discoloration it causes to the roots.) It is impossible to know exactly when or how it was introduced, but it probably came with a shipment of goods or ornamental plants, and a good guess of when would be around the time of George Washington's presidency. By 1825, when the problem of root rot in agricultural planting began to be discussed, the infestation was widespread.

Phytophthora cinnamomi is most damaging in warm, moist areas at lower elevations and it attacked Chestnuts in the lowlands of Georgia and the Piedmont area of the Carolinas and Virginia. Phytophthora attacks the roots of the tree and the whole tree dies. By the time of the Civil War the Chestnut was largely extinct in the low lying areas of the southern states but it continued to thrive in the mountains and the northern states where the altitude or the cooler weather offered protection. At the turn of the twentieth century it was still the dominant tree of the Eastern Unites States but its range had been reduced at the southern end and its population had dropped to a mere 3.5 billion trees.

The second blight hit a century after the first. In 1904 a second fungus affecting Chestnuts was discovered in the Bronx Zoo of New York City. Cryphonectria parasitica, also an import from Asia, spread quickly, carried by wind and animals, and over the next 40 years American Chestnuts across the entire range of the species were infected with the blight and died back to the roots. The spread of the Chestnut blight fungus to the US was one of the greatest environmental disasters in recorded history. Its impact to the ecology of the area cannot be overstated.

The blight fungus cannot live in contact with the soil and does not attack the roots. Today, the American Chestnut is still quite common in easterm forests where it is an understory species that sprouts from the roots of trees that were killed three quarters of a century ago. The sprouts grow for a year or two and then are killed by the blight. There are a very few flowering adult American Chestnut trees that, through luck or some slight resistance to the blight, grow large enough to produce nuts. These surviving "mother" trees are the key to the efforts to reintroduce the species.

Selective Breeding of these surviving American Chestnuts is one approach to to restoration. The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation (ACCF) is an organization dedicated to restoring the American Chestnut by selectively breeding resistant, pure-American trees. Since their founding twenty years ago they have made some progress in developing methods to keep the trees alive using a combination of selection for resistance, physical management of the trees and biological management of the blight (which will be discussed later). They remain hopeful but are far from having a tree that can be used to restore the wild population. Sadly, there is little reason to hope that the genes for substantial resistance can be found in the pure-American gene pool.

Cross-breeding with more resistant species is another approach to restoration. The American Chestnut has a number of relatives with which it is interfertile and several of them are highly resistant to the blight. In the 1940s and 1950s the federal government sponsored a program to produce a blight-resistant hybrid of the American and Chinese Chestnuts that would have the blight resistance of the Chinese and the vigorous and straight growth characteristics of the American. This program was, by and large, a failure; Strong blight resistance requires the combined effects of several genes and most of the trees with enough Chineese genes to resist the blight also shared other Chinese characteristics such as crooked growth and short life.

About the time it was becoming apparent that the cross-breeding approach was more difficult than previously hoped, another possibility presented itself: A virus was discovered that infected the blight fungus, rendering it less damaging. This virus, called hypovirulent because of its tendancy to reduce the damage done by the fungus, was shown in many cases to allow blighted Chestnut trees to heal the lesions caused by the fungus. Given the poor results of the hybridization efforts and the promise offered by combatting the blight with the virus, the federal cross-breeding program was abandoned and the government effort was focused on the use of the virus.

The work on controlling the blight using hypovirulence continues today, as does a degree of federal sponsorship. The ACCF and researchers at Virginia Tech are working to control the blight with hypovirulence. In Europe the slightly more blight-resistant European Chestnut is showing some recovery, in large part because of the spread of hypovirulence. In the United States the results to date have been less encouraging. Researchers have shown that, by inocculating trees with a combination of several strains of hypovirulence, individual trees can be made somewhat resistant to the blight but the resistance does not seem to spread to adjoining stands, as it does to a greater extent in Europe. You can read more about hypovirulence, including considerable information that I have simplified or omitted, in a master's thesis that I found online: (Nancy Robbins, VPI 1997) PDF.

The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is a private organization that was formed in 1983 to pick up the cross-breeding effort, more or less where the government program left off. Looking at the results of the initial effort they re-evaluated the genetics of blight resistance. From the lower than expected number of blight resistant offspring in the American/Chinese hybrids they concluded that blight resistance requires the combined effect of more than one gene, probably three, and that the resistance was "partially dominant." Partial dominance means that a tree that received all three resistance genes from one parent, but none from the other, would exhibit some resistance to the blight but much less than the fully blight-resistant (Chinese) ancestor.

Armed with this new understanding of the genetics they developed a multi-generational back-cross method that would result in a tree that was indistinguishable from its American ancestors except that it was highly resistant to the blight. To accomplish this multiple generations of hybrids are produced with one of the parents in each generation being American.

The first generation is half Chinese. These trees are infected with the blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) and the ones that live (about one in eight) will be the ones that received all of the resistance genes from the Chinese parent. These trees are then crossed back to pure American stock giving offspring that are one quarter Chinese. Again they are infected with the blight and only those trees with the genes for blight resistance will live. This process is repeated twice more giving trees that are fifteen sixteenths American but still have the resistance genes from their Chinese great-great-grandparents.

These trees should have very American characteristics but will only be partially blight-resistant since the resistance is only partially dominant, and one parent did not have the genes. These trees are then crossed with other trees from their generation. Some of their offspring will get resistance genes from both parents and should be as resistant to the blight as their Chinese great-great-great grandparents. This intercross is repeated one more time, selecting for trees with strong blight resistance and the fewest Chinese characteristics, and the resulting trees should be true-breeding, highly resistant, American Chestnut trees, for all practical purposes.

Since each generation takes slightly less than six years, and since the entire plan requires six generations, the expected time to complete the plan from the start is approximately 35 years. The good news is that the initial breeding effort produced trees that could be used for the second (one-quarter-chinese) generation so when TACF started in 1983 they could skip the first twelve years. If you do the math, that suggests they should have nuts ready to start reintroduction very soon now. They appear to be on schedule and they hope to have nuts for seed to start the reintroduction in the next few years. The last intermediate generation is being planted now.

But, we may not have to wait... A number of researchers are working on the American Chestnut problem using a more modern, “genetic engineering” approach. From the results obtained in the classical genetics breeding effort they know that the resistance to the blight requires three genes. A number of researchers are trying to map their locations on the chromosomes. Once the exact genes that confer blight-resistance are known a number of things become possible. The most obvious step is to speed up the hybridization effort already underway. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to raise trees to the age where they can be screened for blight resistance by inoculating them with the blight fungus. With genetic screening a much larger number of offspring could be evaluated in a much shorter time. Time and effort would not need to be wasted on trees that would die when inoculated with the blight.

Another approach –- one that is more difficult but potentially offers a better result -- is to create a transgenic American Chestnut that contains only those Chinese genes needed to confer resistance. A tree so produced would be 99.999% American -- as opposed to the TACF hybrids that are targeted at about 94%. TACF hopes that their 6% Chinese trees will be indistinguishable from their American ancestors but that is not guaranteed. The transgenic trees would be almost certain to have an entirely American phenotype.

Yet another approach does not depend on identifying the three elusive genes that confer resistance in the Chinese Chestnut. Many genes tend to perform the same function in different species, and the genes that confer resistance in one species will often work in another. A great deal of research has been done on the genetics of food crops (corn, wheat, fruit trees, etc.) because the return on investment in such research tends to be large and immediate. A number of the genes in the "toolbox" that genetic-engineers use for working with other species come from this research on food crops. Researchers at the State Univeristy of New York are working on an American Chestnut that contains OXY, a gene from wheat that encodes oxalate oxidase. Oxalate oxidase breaks down oxalic acid, the compound exuded by Cryphonectria parasitica to kill cells. They hope to begin test plantings this fall. There is good reason to be hopeful about the SUNY effort because on Arbor Day last year they planted two transgenic Elm trees that they hope will be resistant to Dutch Elm disease.

With the TACF's blight-resistant near-American trees entering the last generation and SUNY's even-more-American transgenic trees to be planted in the fall we can reasonably expect to begin reintroduction of the American Chestnut in the next decade -- not long at all for breeders of trees.

Victory is at hand, except... There were two different blights, remember? The efforts we have examined so far only address the more recent (and more serious) blight. These new blight-resistant trees will still not grow in parts of the original range. In most of Georgia and in the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia they will be killed by Phytophthora cinnamomi, root rot disease -- the first blight.

The Carolinas Chapter of TACF is working to solve that problem, too, but a bit more time will be needed. One of the more active members of the chapter was eager, a number of years ago, to participate in the TACF breeding effort. He has a 200+ acre farm near Clemson South Carolina that he wanted to use to help with the effort. The problem was that most of the trees he planted would die of the root rot before they grew large enough to be tested for blight resistance. He could grow Chinese and Japanese Chestnuts but Americans would die. He consulted with some geneticists and experts on plant diseases and discovered that the problem was a Phytophthora infestation.

Resistance to Phytophthora cinnamomi is also present in the Chinese Chestnut -- another two or three genes -- not the same genes that confer blight resistance. Working with a genericist at Clemson he came up with a method for screening for Phytophthora resistance. He has six big tubs out in front of his house and he plants hundreds of carefully labeled nuts in each one. He plants Pure Americans and nuts from a number of different TACF hybrids. When all the nuts have sprouted and seedlings are coming up he infects the tubs with Phytophthora cinnamomi, looking for resistant individuals.

He has not yet found any resistance in the latest generation of TACF trees. Since they are only one fifteenth Chinese and their ancestors were not selected for Phytophthora resistance it is highly unlikely that they would have the needed genes, and indeed they don't -- they all die. But he has identified a number of individual trees from a few generations back that do have good resistance to Phytophthora as well as to the blight.

In the same way that the TACF was able to use the work of the federal breeding effort to skip a generation, the Carolinas Chapter is hoping to use the national TACF effort to skip a few more generations in the effort to produce an American Chestnut that resists both Cryphonectria and Phytophthora. This requires selecting for a larger number of genes which means that a much smaller percentage of each generation will qualify but, since the Phytophthora screening can be done in bulk with seedlings just out of the nut it should be feasible. But it will take a while -- figure 2025 for true-breeding trees with resistance to both blights and a strongly American phenotype -- unless the generic engineers can find a gene for root rot, too.