Rat Island

The Book of the Week is “Rat Island” by William Stolzenburg, published in 2011. This series of anecdotes described what frequently happens when some humans observe that a particular species is in danger, and with the best of intentions, attempt to counteract the perceived adverse effects of the situation.

Such campaigns have been repeated for centuries, always with unintended consequences and mixed results. For, the people involved have impure motives, and the manipulation of nature over the course of decades inevitably results in a “pox on everyone’s house.”

In the 1800’s, for instance, explorers introduced cats to eliminate an excess of rats in Oceania. Unsurprisingly, the food chain was disrupted, and the rabbit population increased. Rabbits killed the sheep in New Zealand, upsetting the people there. The latter took action by bringing in ferrets, weasels and stoats. The duck and parrot numbers were negatively affected.

Sometimes people are the predators. Other causes of the near-extinction of a species include statistically unusual weather, oil spills or disease. In New Zealand, people almost eliminated green parrots, poaching and smuggling them for their looks.

In another instance, the kakapo (another bird) was endangered by other animals. In the mid-1890’s, some sympathetic New Zealanders therefore sequestered the birds on an isolated island so they could multiply in peace. However, weasels found their way into the protected habitat, anyway.

Some tools of the trade among supposed “friends” of the environment who are only trying to prevent extinctions, include:  poison, guns, traps, hunting dogs, and ammunition shot from helicopters. And on at least one occasion:  hormonally-juiced Judas pigs that led to a spike in the number of eagles and drop in foxes on one island. Moreover, there are people who derive pleasure from cruelty to animals in the name of saving endangered species.

Read the book to learn of the checkered fortunes of the birds of the Aleutian Islands and Anacapa Island, the wildlife around Bering Island and other regions, and the constant tug-of-war among government agencies (such as Fish and Wildlife) responsible for those regions, conservationists and animal-rights activists.

Clinton and Me

The Book of the Week is “Clinton and Me, A Real Life Political Comedy” by Mark Katz, published in 2003. This is the engaging story of how an incurable wiseass used his comedic talent and skills in the political arena.

Born in 1963 in Brooklyn, the precocious author received a political education in his formative years, thanks to the Watergate hearings. He was a class clown in school, no doubt. Careerwise, he began as a low-level staffer for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Next he cut his teeth as an unpaid volunteer on the Mike Dukakis presidential campaign. “My year on the Dukakis campaign sensitized me to the outrageous, insidious and coded tactics…[of evil, mudslinging political consultants]” Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Katz then did a stint copywriting in general advertising prior to the advent of the World Wide Web.

Finally, the author parlayed this foundation into a relatively brief but rewarding set of adventures writing jokes contained in speeches for President Bill Clinton. Read the book to learn the lessons the author learned, in making a living for a politician soliciting laughs.

CATS, CHOCOLATE, CLOWNS

The Book of the Week is “CATS, CHOCOLATE, CLOWNS, and other amusing, interesting and useful subjects covered by newsletters.” (sic) edited by Greg Mitchell, published in 1982. This is a hodgepodge of trivia– highlights of newsletters on every conceivable subject in the universe. It might be recalled that newsletters– publications on niche topics– were all the rage in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

One interesting tidbit includes a quote from Kirkegaard: “People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought they avoid.” One of countless others is a brief description of cross-dominant eyesight. Baseball players who have it tend to be better hitters. It means that a right-hander sees better from the left eye, and vice versa. In 1980, 70% of Kansas City Royals players had cross-dominant eyesight, and thus the team had the best hitting record that season.

The cliche bears repeating ad infinitum:  There’s nothing new under the sun. At the book’s writing, John Leo, in Discover magazine commented that Americans were afraid of computers because “…computers destroy privacy, eliminate jobs, carry the TV generation even further from literacy… and allow WWIII to be launched entirely by technical error.”

Read the book to learn a vast quantity of other datums, the likes of the aforementioned gems.

Chocolate Nations

The Book of the Week is “Chocolate Nations, Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa” by Orla Ryan, published in 2011. This slim volume described the situations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the book’s writing, with regard to growing the crop that ultimately becomes chocolate. Both countries had command economies and a large number of farmers with small landholdings growing the cocoa-bean trees.

Ghana has grown cocoa at least since the late 1800’s. Even after it declared its independence from Great Britain in 1957, it had a series of tyrannical leaders, each replacing the next via coups. They kept the farmers poverty-stricken by setting the price the government paid for cocoa.  Some farmers illegally sold their harvests to Cote d’Ivoire for better prices. Around 2009, Ghana was producing approximately one fifth of the world’s cocoa; Cote d’Ivoire, about one third.

Even after independence in 1960, the latter’s former colonizer, France, invested in cocoa farming there. However, the dictator became well-liked by encouraging laborers from Burkina Faso and Mali to farm cocoa and coffee in his country. He gave land to those from the Baoule tribe who tilled it.  His excessive spending to support his lifestyle and that of his loyal servants, resulted in huge debts, which he tried to reduce by cutting wholesale prices paid to cocoa farmers.  The nation saw a bloody civil war from 2000 to 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hysteria ruled the airwaves in the United States over the accusation of abusive child labor on the cocoa farms. It was unclear whether the accusation was true, as data were anecdotal, ulterior motives abounded among the accusers (such as NGOs, tabloid reporters and even a politician), and the culture of the cocoa growers provided plausible denial that truant children were being enslaved. For, farming families tended to be large so that the kids’ assistance could help keep the family in business.

It appears that cocoa farming is unlikely to change significantly in the near future in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because “For smallholders, the cocoa market can seem little more than a plaything in the hands of a few large companies and speculators.”

Read the book to learn more details.