Monday, October 28, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Flyover State

It's one of the enduring insults the state of Kansas has had to endure in its long and somewhat weird history - always one of the flat, square states, like Nebraska or Oklahoma, that you have to fly over to get to Anywhere (which usually means one of the coasts, or the Mormon Tabernacle). Admittedly Kansas didn't mitigate the joke on itself until it finally eased restrictions on the consumption of alcohol in its sanctified airspace, but still, it's been a harsh legacy.

I think he said 'Benfer - are we close to Benfer yet?'

There hasn't been a hard frost here in southwestern Kansas - in fact, I encountered a rattlesnake yesterday, a nearly colorless, ill-tempered little fellow busily shaking the two buttons on its tail and fully capable of wreaking havoc in any mammal's orderly circulation. And another warm day has brought the flies back by the billionfold (a plague I've already mentioned elsewhere). So techically it's no longer summer in Kansas, but on occasion it's still summery.

[Household Hint: I have learned, presently lacking a proper flyswatter, that my rolled copies of out-of-date London Review of Books, when wielded properly with the requisite manly wrist, can be a deadly instrument if you're a fly, which, if you're reading this, I presume you are not.]

Today marks the official end of summer in the Flyover State, being the first day of the year I've seen the sandhill cranes flying over.

You always hear the cranes before you see them, that timeless, throaty, hollow-bone rattle like a paleolithic swamp sound. And there they sail in long unfurling ribbons, converging and expanding a thousand feet up, a thousand cranes at a time, flapping and gliding and flapping in one another's slipstream, as though only the vagaries of air govern their wide, strungout mass.

Cranes are born for the air. When they died the ancient Chinese made flutes of their wing bones as a kind of aerial testimonial and commemoration, what was once airborne made to bear air, a softer memorial to the live voice of the bird.

I'd guess I saw a couple thousand cranes fly over today. It's officially autumn in Kansas.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Presumption

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure. ”
                                                                                                   ― Mark Twain

As a definition of presumption this is probably as good as any. And it's one reliable feature of human nature to suppose that, since one has enjoyed a modicum of success or expertise in one narrow endeavor, such wisdom will translate across any number of other fields quite as well. So Reagan, the B-grade actor, becomes Mr. President and Leader of the Free World; Richard Dawkins, a superlative evolutionary biologist, becomes a strident, tiresome anti-theologian; the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson make foolish pronunciamentos on climate change; Dennis Rodman becomes the American envoy to North Korea.

"Yo! You freakin' better be Michael Jordan."

So it goes. Mostly people get away with this mix of confidence and ignorance. Sometimes it's comical, sometimes its tragical, sometimes it's downright toxic, like when Michelle Bachmann, a genius at fundraising, puts on her sex therapist hat. Sometimes it can be exploited to the success and profit of a third party.

It happened that the Belgian government was seeking to apprehend a notorious and remarkably wealthy Somali pirate for the 2009 maritime hijacking and a successful ransom request for the ship's crew of roughly $3 million, which he naturally banked, however one banks a wad of cash in Somalia. Maybe Switzerland. Anyway, a wad of money gone down the global piracy drain and no pirate in the slammer. The Belgians were unhappy, although it's never entirely clear whether a Belgian is unhappy or merely costive. Or just another Swiss banker on a business trip to Brussels.

The pirate, Mohamed Abdi Hassan — whose nickname, Afweyne, means "Big Mouth" — was charged with hijacking the Belgian dredger Pompei and kidnapping its nine-member crew in 2009.The Pompei's crew was released after 10 weeks in captivity, when the ship's owner paid that juicy ransom.

Mr. B. Mouth

The Belgians, who were never to my knowledge noted for their celerity of thought nor for a devious imagination, lured Afweyne to Brussels along with a piratical accomplice, on the flimsiest of pretexts - a consultancy. They cooked up a fake movie project, a documentary of the infamous pirate's works and days, and invited him to come to Brussels as a consultant and assistant in the making of his own biopic. Apparently giving the Belgians about as much credit as I just did for having any sense of irony, Afweyne took the bait and was arrested on the Brussels tarmac with his aide-de-camp.

It would be a pointless and unfair bit of piling on to draw any further moral from this tale.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Feedyard Fly

My neighbor Zeno, who tends to be an agnostic on nearly every question concerning human nature and practice, on all questions theological, political, psychological, astrological and oeconomical, still manages to surprise me. His constitutional skepticism makes him an affable and congenial conversationalist at the occasional neighborly confrerie, when, properly fueled on absinthe or white armagnac, he expresses grave doubts on any received opinion, from telekinesis to predestination.(The initial letter of his given name, arriving as it does at the tag end of our alphabet, has also prompted him to eschew lists and in particular alphabetized lists.)

My neighbor Zeno

So admittedly it came as a surprise when, as I was expounding to him the thesis that the Kansas feedyard fly is the complete, final and tormenting proof of the success of natural selection and (should the theory require any further proof based on sheer numerical density), an incontrovertible coup de grace to any explanation other than Darwinian evolutionary biology, I met with tacit dissent from Zeno on this point. I had rather expected I would find a sympathetic ear in a friend who claims to have spent his boyhood summers in the great Midwestern sirloin of America.

He merely smiled indulgently, raised his balon of armagnac, and wagged a finger at me with exaggerated patience. That I cannot accept, he said finally. I was befuddled by this, but he persisted in his calm refusal of my thesis. Wait, I spluttered, surely you endorse the evolution of our own kind from some distant genetic link we share with all large primates?

Of course, he assured me. Our ready use of the gun is sufficient proof of that. But all that is mere evolutionary child's play. Likewise I accept the gradual development, from their own kind, of any other creature we choose to consider more or less sinister than ourselves - the varieties of sharks, of large cats, venemous serpents, dangerous arachnids - all perfectly accounted for by genetic evolution. Just as the dog springs from the wolf.

Why this exception? I asked, with what I thought a forgiveable note of triumphal condescension. Ah, it is a very simple answer, my friend, Zeno smiled. Zeno generally reserves the phrase 'my friend' for chess matches in which he smiles often and holds the clear advantage. But first, tell me why you think this insect is a product of some process of natural selection?

I sensed a trap but, failing to imagine what quicksand might lie ahead, I floundered on. Well, I said, it's pretty clear to me. First of all, they are abundant beyond number, beyond any hope of evolutionary competition from any other species. I include cockroaches in that.

Secondly, they feed on anything and thrive everywhere, whether or not there is a feedlot within twenty miles. They live on discarded plastic, their appetite is never abated by heat, their fevered procreation continues in the coldest weather, they bite savagely. 

Finally, they are opportunistic in the extreme, intruding themselves into your home or personal conveyance by clinging to your buttons or shoelaces. They assault one, singly or in numbers, whether frontally, dorsally or laterally. They drive out every other living form. When they are finally and lethally swatted they merely flatten themselves into the thickness of a few microns, then buzz off again, perfectly unscathed, when the swatter is lifted. Quod erat demonstrandum, I concluded. If I didn't know better I'd say they were the devil's own work.

Satan (by Fonzo)

But you are too hasty, my friend, purred Zeno. They evidently don't drive away the cattle. Only, I replied, because it's Kansas. Cows are everywhere already, they nearly outnumber the flies, at least in sheer biomass. But tell me, I asked him, what your own thesis might be on the persistence, prevalence and permanence of the feedyard fly. 

He took a sip of armagnac, paused, set his snifter on the little stand beside his wicker chair, looked into the autumn foliage and smiled. It's really quite simple, my friend. There is, to put it succinctly, a creator. Or, if you wish, a Creator.

"I'll make 'em too small to hit but big enough to cuss."

Pray tell, I said. You interest me strangely. I, for one, cannot believe my ears. You of all agnostic souls?

Well, simply put, Zeno continued, you are doubtless aware of some of the rather shabby arguments employed by the intelligent design contingent. The usual chestnut is the so-called argument from "irreducible complexity" - certain biological structures are too complex and appeared suddenly in the biological continuum without any apparent structural antecedents. So it must have been some designing mind at work. A creator, in brief.

But surely, I squeaked, just short of expostulation. You can't believe that?

No, no, old chap, Zeno chuckled. I may have my secrets, but surely that belief is not among them. All in all it's very weak as an argument, easily discredited on the evidence. But I do subscribe to a variation of the argument. Call this lame version the Argument from Irreducible Complexity - some physiological thingummy is composed of well-matched, interacting parts, all contributing to some basic function such that the removal of any one of these parts must cause the said appurtenance to effectively cease functioning. Rubbish as biology goes, ditto for theology. But consider the Argument from Inexplicable Malignancy.

Say more, I implore you. Limn it for my impoverished intellect.

Only that the creature you have described and with which I am distantly acquainted, this musca bovinensis domestica, cannot have been the result of any natural process, but could only be the creation of a malicious and utterly humorless creator. The malevolence of such a being, creator and creature both, towards the sentient universe is completely unaccountable, yet pure and unswerving. How else account for them? I rest my case.

So you really do believe there must necessarily be a God? I mused aloud.

Ah, he said, I spy a drop remaining in that flask at your elbow.