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Saturday
Sep282013

Griselda Blanco and her Frenemies. 

I'd never written a straight crime story, much less a drug story, until Will Blythe, an old friend and one of the editors of Byliner, contacted me in the fall of 2012 to see if I was interested in writing about the death of Griselda Blanco. Blanco had just been murdered in a butcher shop after eight years of living peacefully among friends and family in Medellin. I was living in Colombia then, and it made sense to try, though I didn't think I'd get far. I actually got pretty far -- far enough to say unequivocally that her murder was not the revenge it was widely thought to be. While this is a departure for me in terms of subject, I think I was able to learn a good deal about this frequently written about but largely unknown woman. Did the notoriously bloodthirsty Griselda die for for being, of all things, too nice? I think so. This e-book is available with a subscription to Byliner and for $2 as a Kindle Single on Amazon. It is worth a read.  

Friday
Aug022013

Bill Hamilton

 Though he died, in 2000, one of the most decorated evolutionary biologists in the world, thanks to inclusive fitness and his later work on sex ratios and the evolution of sexual reproduction, Hamilton was “a classic case of misunderstood genius,” his biographer writes. Of course if Hamilton were misunderstood, it was probably to his advantage -- especially in his last years, when his youthful enthusiasm for eugenics resurfaced as a bullheaded conviction that the human genome was deteriorating rapidly as a result of modern medical interventions. And he had just the program for fixing it: selective breeding of the kindest, brightest, and healthiest, matched with active infanticide for the “defective.” 

Tuesday
Apr232013

The Colombian Darién

 In March I had the welcome opportunity to travel to the Colombian department of Chocó, which runs the border with Panama, to write on the storied Darién Gap, or Tapón del Darién, for The New Yorker. The gap (and much of Chocó) is functionally roadless – there are cowpaths that you can get a motorcycle down, but that’s about it, and the complex topography and hydrology of the region make transport very fickle. Probably in some measure because of this, the Gap has become home to guerillas and paramilitaries, as well as adventurous and often ideologically-driven settlers bent on achieving the Colombian equivalent of going off the grid. The article, which appeared in the April 22 "Journeys" issue of TNY, sits behind a paywall and I don't know how to upload the PDF of it that I have. I traveled with Sergio Tamayo, a Colombian trekking guide intent on introducing others to this mysterious region, whose rainforest ecology is poorly known as a result of its miserable reputation. 

 

 

Wednesday
Feb062013

Causes of Rarity

The issue of rarity in nature is an interesting one, as there are many reasons species are rare, some of them obscure. You can be rare because you are a big cat and require a vast territory of small animals to hunt, all to yourself. You can be rare because you're stuck on an island alone, genetically isolated from your cousins on the mainland; you're rare because you're overhunted; you can be rare for no obvious reason. In the Wall Street Journal last week I looked at a new book by Eric Dinerstein, the chief scientist for the World Wildlife Federation, who's spent many years thinking about rarity and identifying the rarest and -- the hard part -- attempting to predict which rare species will become ultra-rare, like this maned wolf of Brazil, whose savannahs are being quickly converted to soy fields. I am wondering whether the photo used with the review, below, depicts a live animal or some particularly well maintained taxidermic specimen posed in a museum diorama. If it's the latter I doubt it was intentional, but I like the irony of it. 

image

Thursday
Dec062012

Hidden treasures of Stockholm

I was invited to Stockholm at the end of November by the IK foundation, which was celebrating, with a day-long seminar, the launch of the digital editions of the important Linnaeus Apostles series. This means that the 5,000-odd pages of the Apostles' journals, which I wrote about in February 2012, are finally serachable and accessible to researchers and the public for free. It was a nice event held in the Swedish Parliament; Sweden is such a sensible nation that you barely have to pass through any security to get into the Parliament; it's just expected that you'll behave yourself.

I gave a half-hour talk about my own experience with the Linnaeus Apostles --- the rest of the talks were in Swedish, and though many sounded great I could only nod dumbly. Swedes speak excellent English, so some guests generously filled me in during the lunch break as to what was actually being said. 


The day before the talk, I visited the Swedish Museum of Natural History. If it were in the center of town, it would probably be a highly profitable tourist enterprise with gift shops on every floor like so many natural history museums on good real estate. Instead it's on the outskirts, part of the university campus, which perhaps gives it less pressure to get with the times.  

And it's filled, as you might expect, with some interesting exhibits, which the highly decorated botanist Bertil Nordenstam (look for "B.Nord" on plant species to find him -- he is immortal) 

 

was kind enough to show me. Glass cabinets, egg collections, awkward 18th century taxidermy are in abundance, and thankfully. More recent collections were contributed by a professional elephant hunter later killed by an elephant.

One of the most interesting collections of all is not on display -- it's Sweden's share (not the lion's share) of the Linnaean herbaria, most of which ended up in London after being sold by Linnaus' widow, and around which the Linnean society was formed. But Sweden still has at least one fire safe's worth of Linnaean specimens, just kind of sitting there in the hallway of the botany building. Now, having seen the Joseph Banks herbaria at London's Natural History Museum, portions of which are unveiled coquettishly to the public on two tours daily, this presentation seemed jarringly modest. Nordenstam had to fiddle with the key a bit. 

 

and there it was.


 

The individual plant specimens in the collection -- some of them types -- have all been electronically imaged and catalogued now, but it's thrilling to see them on their papers, at times preserved dry and at times with a mysterious glue that Linnaeus processed from fish. It has held up well over the centuries; you can see it as traces of white surrounding the leaves.  

 

Dr. Nordenstam is able to distinguish the handwriting on each specimen, some of which have been heavily marked and annotated, starting with Linnaeus, or his son Carl, any number of their students. 

This specimen was part of a wealthy collector's private herbarium that Linnaeus was helping curate, I think with the aim to have each illustrated and turned into a book -- at any rate the collector preferred his specimens in little decorative pots.

And this is why 18th century natural history is so much more fun than 21st century natural history.