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Friday, August 28, 2009


A Colorado pine forest is a peculiar thing. In the depths of one you have the sense that you are wandering through the land which inspired Grim's Fairy-Tales and most of the more earthy old gods. Pan peeks out at you from around the trunks of the majestic natural residents and you get a sense that the trees are all very, very old.

This is not, of course, generally the case.

While periodically, on the lower slopes, you do run into a pine of unusually grand stature and robust character, for the most part the trees rise to a certain point and then rise no farther. The reasons for this are as simple as they are complicated. The forests of Colorado, certainly around the area of the fourteeners, are marked by a particular cycle of life, death, and rebirth, a cycle they share both symbiotically and parasitically with the pine-borer beetles.

A tree that is damaged becomes particularly vulnerable to these little buggers, but they can and will bore straight through the bark of a healthy tree to lay their eggs underneath. When the eggs hatch, the larvae roam around eating the "live" part of the tree (xylem, phloem) in random directions, a process which ultimately causes large strokes of the bark to fall off, and which kills the tree.

The tree will then gradually dry out. A dry tree is a fire-hazard, and as the number of these fire-hazards in a given area grows, the likelihood that one of them will be struck by lightning also increases. When this happens, the tree in question ignites like a bomb, burning down itself and igniting neighboring dry trees. The inferno is generally broken by the live-trees at the edge of the infestation (pine-needle carpets discourage underbrush from taking hold, which in turn makes it harder for fires to spread through healthy, live trees... no kindling to speak of).

Pine-cones in the Colorado forests do not open and release their seeds until incited to do so by extreme heat. The ash from the dead trees lays down a thick carpet of fertilizer that allows the new trees to grow quickly through their vulnerable adolescence and to a point where they can, again, wipe out all local ground-cover.

And the pine-borers? The inferno kills the majority of the pine-borer beetles in the area, preventing a massive exponential outbreak.

For years, the forestry teams in Colorado (it isn't just their mistake, remember Smokey the Bear? Cute lil' animals a'la 'Bambi' fleeing the great flaming evil?) have been tamping down forest fires. Initially the idea was preservation of forest, but more recently the problem has changed, and the strategy, unfortunately, has remained (by necessity) largely the same. They have, however, begun to use controlled burns in an effort to bring the forest back under control (unless my information is inaccurate in this area, which it might be).

You see, because they tamped down the forest fires, the pine-borer beetles got out of hand. Now, as you drive through Colorado, you may notice that the "evergreen" forests are abnormally brown. Entire mountainsides of trees are dead, rotting husks of their former selves. Forest fires of the magnitude created by a mass of dead trees that large, without intervention, become legitimate dangers to human settlements in the area, and the rangers must now run around determining (as much as possible) the extent of each blaze that takes hold.

Well-meaning human intervention has created the necessity of well-meaning human intervention, you might say.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm not sure I like what it teaches.

(addendum 8/30/09)
Had the pleasure of a chat with RR on a long hike the other day, on which the subject of the borer beetles came up. RR is a recently-retired Colorado ranger, so he knows his stuff regarding those.

The major infestation at present is actually the result of a long string of warm winters. In the normal borer cycle, the larvae are largely killed off every few years by a winter which reaches temperatures below 35 degrees F. This temperature is necessary because at that stage in their lives, pine borer blood is literally (chemically) antifreeze. Thus, while such massive infestations as the one presently menacing Colorado are not common, they are possible without human interference.

In fact, the first fire of such magnitude happened in Yellowstone in 1910, and was in fact the reason rangers started engaging in fire-control.

Additional random tidbits I picked up from RR- pine borers attack Lodgepole pines in particular, and all pines in general, with a certain voracity, however Fir trees (and to a limited extent Spruce trees) are extremely resistant to attack. RR theorizes that differences in sap discourage infestation, and also that thinner bark provides insufficient shelter for the larvae.

The borer beetles attack the entire tree, from top to bottom, but where they attack it is more or less random. In cold winters, the beetles deep under the snow level are much more likely to survive than those above (insulation), and this allows many to survive all but the harshest of winters. No winter is cold enough to eliminate the entire population, of course, but the percentage that survives the cold is small.

Some lodge-pole pinecones open and drop seeds like normal pine cones, and some drop seed only in extreme heat. The reason for this, according to RR, is that some pine cones are covered by the lodge-pole's sap, which seals them up until the sap is melted away, a process that (usually) takes just long enough for the fire to move on to somewhere else before the seal weakens sufficiently that they pop open.

I realize that this additional information doesn't feed well into the article, but hey. I don't feed you inaccurate information if I can help it, and usually I can help it, even if it hurts my point.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Of Shoes and Ships, and Sealing Wax...

"By doubting we all come to truth." - Cicero

Lately, I have been experiencing nearly constant reminders of a phenomenon that has bothered me from as early as I can remember. When I was younger, probably around the age of 8, I asked my mother why we went to church, worshiped Jesus, and so on (I come from a Catholic family), and my mother told me that it was what we believed. When I asked her why we believed it, she told me, "Well, you have to believe in something." Of course, years later, I now know that she was absolutely right. Regardless of our view of the world, we all have a set of fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the world - that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the laws of physics apply equally at my desk and at yours, or that humanity was born out of cornmeal and the blood of a god.

The phenomenon I'm referring to is the oft repeated claim that Americans, by and large, are afraid of complexity, bored by nuance, and only receptive to new information that fits neatly into their existing model of the world - call it 'passive ignorance,' if you like. Naturally, this is not true of all Americans, nor is it true only of Americans; and yet the claim gets made. I like to think of myself as practicing that form of 'healthy skepticism' that tries to ask questions about important issues, but that doesn't really mind taking unfounded assertions as long as the source has a reputation for reliability - and yet I know that I often fail to live up to this ideal.

Take your pick of any of the major news stories, and you'll see this: the current 'health care reform' maelstrom, the global recession, or my personal favorite, the swine flu pandemic. From the Synthesis blog, 'Apparently Swine Flu is Back' discusses a Fox News piece which, among other things, worries that the federal government might use swine flu as a way to impose martial law, and continue the transformation of the US into a totalitarian police state. To be fair, the Fox piece sticks to the facts of the case, describing the actions various national governments have taken, and leaves the discussion of various doomsday scenarios to quotes by various outside sources.

The coverage of this issue, and the popular reaction to it - at least from what I've seen - is basically what you'd expect: 'far-right' conservatives/republicans/libertarians see swine flu as an excuse for the federal government, using what may or may not actually be a legitimate issue, to further the implementation an ideologically-motivated welfare state; 'far-left' liberals/democrats/progressives see this response as the racially-motivated paranoid fantasies of a group so detached from reality that they would oppose any ideas coming out of this government, even at the expense of the safety and securing of the populace.

I don't think that either of the above descriptions is really appropriate, but I do think that most of of us, seeing this coverage, would pretty quickly dismiss at least one side's concerns as being somewhat nonsensical - and here is where 'passive ignorance' rears its ugly head. In truth, both sides do have legitimate concerns, and there are issues here upon which reasonable people might disagree. In dismissing either side, we deprive ourselves of the chance to study an interesting problem, engage in healthy debate, and be a little better for it.

First at issue is whether the fundamental problem - swine flu - is in fact a problem. If, as the Fox article mentions, the current swine flu strain results in a pandemic like the 1918 'Spanish flu' epidemic, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50 to 100 million people (see this article, references 1-5, specifically), including my own great-grandmother, then there is almost certainly a legitimate cause for concern, even taking into account the enormous strides medicine has made since then. Furthermore, even if swine flu doesn't cause such a pandemic (or epidemic), building the capability to defend against such an event is probably worth considering.

Next is the very real question of whether measures such as quarantine and forced vaccination ethical and/or legal. One argument for such measures is that by not being vaccinated during an epidemic, a person risks becoming infected and thus constitutes a direct danger to the safety and health - and thus the fundamental liberties - of those around him. On the other hand, as with all medical care, vaccination does carry risks, and the government's decision that such risks are outweighed by the interests of the state must have a defensible basis. Of course, we could avoid this by the use of quarantines, although this simply shifts the burden on individual liberties from those of life and health to those of the freedom of movement and due process.

Finally, the claim most likely to be dismissed by the 'liberals' among us is that of whether such practices constitute the advancement of ideology in the guise of public necessity; but the concern here is, at least in my (admittedly non-professional) opinion, a valid one. The Fox article mentions the Posse Comitatus Act, which, in general terms, prohibits the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement. The law was originally passed to end the use of the military as a quasi-police force, upholding and enforcing unpopular laws in the post-Civil War era South. In its current state, prohibits the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines as well as the National Guard when acting under the command of the president from being used to enforce civilian law, except in certain specific situations; this prohibition does not extend to the Coast Guard, nor to the National Guard of a state when acting under the direction of the state's governor. According to the Fox piece, the Department of Defense is considering a proposal which would allow the creation of military units permanently stationed in the US to assist local civilian authorities in dealing with an epidemic incident. (Note: the Fox article implies that the proposal describes setting up units specifically to deal with the potential swine flu epidemic, as seems to be confirmed by
this CNN article, rather than as a permanent force. Note also that this particular CNN article does not mention the potential legal issues, and searches for 'military swine flu posse comitatus' and 'swine flu posse comitatus' on return no results.)

Is the potentiality of military police prohibiting suspected carriers of swine flu from leaving their houses looming on the horizon? Probably not. But still, there are legal limitations on what the military can and cannot do in such a situation, and these limitations must be respected; or, if the limitations aren't a good idea, then perhaps Congress should repeal them.

Personally, I like thinking about complex issues. I enjoy nuance, and, in most situations, I find ideas that don't easily fit into my current world-view more interesting than those that do. Which is why I have so much trouble understanding things such as this article,
'What Media Bias? Part 152.' The author quotes an article (I believe it's this Reuters article, but I can't be sure) saying that "U.S. consumer confidence took an unexpectedly steep slide in June," and accusing the media of presenting a biased view of the economy, asking, and I quote:

By whom? How much of a liberal pinhead do you have to be to not expect a massive slide in consumer confidence when unemployment is going heck for leather towards 10%?" (emphasis in the original)

Of course, the article (at least, the Reuters article that I believe he's discussing) goes on to say that the consumer confidence index dropped from 54.8 in May to 49.3 in June, as compared to the 55.0 expectation of 'economists polled by Reuters.' Other indices and figures come from Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller, the National Association of Purchasing Management-New York, and others. Now, I know the article doesn't give the names and employers of the 'polled economists,' but I generally tend to trust Reuters, and most of the economists I know would certainly not qualify as 'liberal pinheads.' Of course, I'm in training to be one myself (not a macroeconomist, but still...), so I'm certainly biased, but I still think its good to know that they were talking to economists as opposed to random people of the street.

I'll conclude, before I start ranting about the misunderstood 'dismal science.' In the words of Aaron Sorkin, et al. (via C.J. Cregg of The West Wing), "complexity isn't a vice."

- Tiro