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.The Eternal American Battle - Humans V Money

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

ADDICTED

I was surprised to learn that the tobacco plant did not evolve until after the last ice age, just 8,000 years ago. Its innovative strategy for survival against the surge of new insects and herbivores the warmer weather had created was the elevated production of an insecticide, nicotine, to sicken bugs and mammals which might try munching on it.But this strategy for defense played right into the human trait of becoming addicted to things that are bad for us. By 2,000 years ago the Mayans were using tobacco to get a rush, but their favored method of delivery – as an enema – limited the distribution of the drug, not to mention the mobilty of the users. Still, the way these two life forms meshed together, like gears in a machine - a plant which produced a poison to protect itself and a creature which tended to become addicted to poisons – may be the ultimate proof that humans bring out God's sense of humor. In 1492 Columbus arrived in the new world and the natives presented him with a canoe filled with fruit and “dried leaves”, probably hoping he would take the hint and set the canoe on fire while smoking the leaves. The Spaniards ate the fruit and threw the leaves away; no word on what they did with the canoe. However a later Spanish explorer, Rodrigo de Jerez, while in Cuba, tried “drinking” the smoke from the burning leaves and was immediately addicted. When he brought his new addiction back to Spain, he was arrested and thrown into a dungeon. When he was finally released 7 years later the streets of Seville were crowded with addicts merrily puffing away in public. By 1577 English physicians were recommending tobacco as a treatment for toothache, worms, lockjaw and oddly enough, cancer. In 1603 they petitioned the king to make tobacco a controlled substance, not because it was unhealthy but because they were not getting their cut. And in 1610 Sir Francis Bacon made a note that he really wanted to quit smoking but was finding it really hard to do. It would take another three hundred fifty years before the American Medical Association would come to the conclusion that nicotine is addictive. In 1612 John Rolf harvested Virginia’s first crop of tobacco, and three years later his first shipment hit the streets of London. The result was similar to the introduction of crack in the 1980’s. By 1618 there were “…7,000 shops, in and about London, that doth vent tobacco”, according to Mr. Barnaby Rich, a tobacco addict. As the weed spread around the globe many rulers set a zero tolerance level. Sultan Murad IV executed 18 smokers a day for ten years. Czar Alexis sent first time smokers to Siberia with their noses slit. Second time smokers were executed. In China if you were caught carrying tobacco with the intent to distribute the penalty for a first offense was decapitation. There is no record of any second time offenders, and yet the weed thrived as an amusement even in China. Lung cancer was first described in 1761 by, appropriately enough, Giovanni Morgagni, the inventor of pathology. He described it as a rare affliction, and even a century later, the disease accounted for only 1% of all cancers. However, less than a century after that (1927), as cigarette smoking became more common, lung cancer was reported in 14% of all autopsies. Dr. Fritz Lickint made the first statistical link between smoking and lung cancer in 1928. Five years later the prestigious “Journal of the American Medical Association” began carrying advertising for cigarettes in their own publication. The addictive quality of tobacco should have been obvious from the actual advertising campaigns used to sell cigarettes. “Not a cough in a (rail) car load”, “More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette”, “L&M cigarettes. Just what the doctor ordered”... "Making smoking 'safe' for smokers”, “We're tobacco men ... not medicine men”, “When smokers changed to Philip Morris, every case of nose or throat irritation--due to smoking--either cleared up completely or definitely improved”, “That must be why my mother started smoking Pall Mall's when she was 15”, and the confusing yet logical, “39,468 dentists say, "Smoke Viceroy Cigarettes.” If those catch phrases didn’t drive people away from tobacco, nothing could. Consider the particular brand of cigarettes called “Marlboro”. It was first introduced in 1924 and marketed as an upscale cigarette for women (“Mild as May”). It struggled as an “also-ran” until Phillip Morris reintroduced it as a filtered cigarette. The new advertising campaign featured a craggy faced cowboy working the range, with the theme music from “The Magnificent Seven” swelling underneath. By 1957 Marlboro was the best selling cigarette in the world. The only problem was that the original “Marlboro Man”, Carl Bradley, actually smoked a different brand of cigarettes (“Kools”). Luckily for Phillip Morris, Carl was thrown off a horse into a pond and drowned before anybody found that out.Of the approximately one dozen men who replaced him in print and television ads over the next forty years, three of the "Marlboro Men" died of lung cancer (Wayne McLaren, David McLean & Dick Hammer). By the 1970’s the brand was unofficially known as “Cowboy Killers”. But it didn't seem to hurt sales. I used to smoke them myself. Today, with 1/3rd of the world’s population still smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco or inserting tobacco enemas, 4,000 Americans die each year (5.4 million world-wide) from tobacco caused cancer, strokes, or house fires caused by smoking. The number of fires caused by tobacco enemas is thought to be insignificant, but I remain suspicious of this meathod of nicotine delivery. Under heat Cigarettes (or little cigars) convert the nicotine fortified tobacco contained in modern cigarettes into 60 various carcinogens, and 96% of all lung cancer patients each year describe themselves as moderate to heavy smokers. These figures mean that smoking tobacco has killed far more people than smoking marijuana, and yet every day we send people to prison for selling the “gateway drug” while the only tobacco related criminals in jail are those caught avoiding state cigarette taxes. Yea, God must be having a real laugh over his experiment with tobacco.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE STORM

I would describe 1775 as a year of significant events; Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill; in Germany the last woman was hanged as a witch; and then there was the hurricane. One random afternoon that summer, over the bone dry high pressure incubator that is the 3 ½ million square miles of the Sahara Desert, where the summertime temperature can reach 135 F (57.7 C), a monster was conceived. Of course the Sahara alone, for all its hot breath, cannot produce a monster. It also requires a midwife - in the case of great Atlantic hurricanes , the Sahel, an Arabic word meaning “shoreline”. This is where the sands of the great desert meet the shrub and trees of the savanna. Every April to September, at about 16 degrees north latitude, (the Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone) the hot dry easterly Jet off the Sahara meets the rainy season humidity spining westward over the Sahel, and waves of thunderstorms burst forth from thin air, one after another, with a new wave forming every three to four days. Most of the storms that form over the great Niger River Bend, over Mauritania, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote Diviore, fade and are forgotten like drops of water in a dry riverbed. But a few cumulus towers collide with the cold air above 42,000 feet, forming anvil topped thunderheads. The anvils form because as the air rises the temperature and its ability to hold moisture drops. The flat lid marks the boundary between the humid troposphere and the arid stratosphere. And eventually, once the thunderstorms grow large enough and last long enough, their squall line of angry air passes yet another Sahal, this one the border between Africa and the tropical Atlantic Ocean.Some 300 miles off the African coast, what was at first an easterly wave of thunder storms, sailes past the Cape Verde Islands like a stately fleet of wooden ships of the line. And now it is persistence that choses which storm will earn fame. Over time the friction between the troposphere below and the jet stream above convert the vertical heat engine of the thunderstorms into a horizontal sweep, gathering thogether squals and driving them in a counter-clockwise spin. Sometime in mid-August of 1775, as one storm set sail for the new world, it became a nameless tropical depression in the open sea.When Christopher Columbus first invaded the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century he found people across the region who revered a capricious god of storms known as “Hunrakan”, “Hurakan”, or “Aracan”. Having never heard of the Sahara or the Sahel, the residents of the Windward Islands of Martinique and Dominica, could not have imagined the source of the violence that assaulted them almost without warning on Friday, August 25, 1775. So, of course, the ascibed it to the mysterious work of a god, Hurricane. A report from St. Croix described how ships at anchor desperately slipped their cables, seeking the relative safety of the open sea. It was as likely as not that such gambles resulted in an enigmatic death. Fifty years later the British Admiralty would estimate that each year 5% of all ships in the Caribbean were lost to such storms, taking as many as a thousand sailors each year to watery graves.One such sailor, Captain John Tollemache of HMS Scorpion, fought this particular storm of 1775 as he crossed down the coast from British occupied Boston to Bermuda. A week later, on Saturday, September 2nd, the storm brushed across the outer banks of North Carolina, causing extensive property damage, taking 163 lives in the port of New Bern and destroying the corn crops of Parasquotank County. The Williamsburg “Virginia Gazette” mourned that, “…most of the mill dams are broke, and corn laid almost level with the ground…many ships…drove ashore and damaged at Norfolk, Hampton and York”. The Britsh warship H.M.S. Mercury was forced from her blockade of Norfolk, “…and driven aground in shoal water.” Patriots picked her bones and liberated her cargo, a gift of the gale.With its center still off shore this unnamed hurricane swept up Chesapeake Bay. Philadelphia, under a heavy constant rain at 8am on the morning of September 3rd, saw the wind from the Southeast and a pressure drop to 29.5 inches of mercury. By three that afternoon the wind had shifted to the Southwest, and records speak of the “highest tide ever known.” At Newport, Rhode Island, the wind shifted from the Northeast to Southeast between 10am and 2:30pm. As September 3rd ended and the 4th began, the storm turned northwestward, and headed out to sea. There was only one landmass in the new world remaining between the hurricane and its ultimate fate over the cold waters of the Labrador Current; Newfoundland.There were thousands of fishermen on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. September was the peak season for the long finned squid (Logilo pealiei), used as bait for Cod fishing. And fishermen from all around the Atlantic basin came here every fall to take their share of the bounty. But this season the squid had made no appearance until late in the afternoon of Saturday, September 9, when they suddenly descended on the jigging hooks in an ominous blizzard. The squid were even attacking each other while writhing on the hooks. What was driving these cephalopods to such as frenzy? As the fishermen happily pulled in their abundance they noticed that the dieing sun was blazing in an odd orange tint, and that the wind was freshening and gathering. As darkness enveloped the fishing fleets the more cautious captains made for Salvage Point or Ochre Pit Cove. But none of these anchorages felt protected enough.That night the sea and the air conspired to murder men and their works. Ships which had thought they were safe were battered onto rocky shores. In Northern Bay cove three hundred sailors and fishermen drowned by morning, their bleached and bloated bodies strewn across the rocks like beached dolphins. They now lie in a mass grave in the Provincial Park. Human bones would continue to wash ashore on this beach for years to come. At Harbor Grace, 30 miles to the south, 300 boats and all their crews were lost while at anchor. In Placentia, dawn found the most substantial community in Newfoundland at the time, with almost 2,000 souls, awash in a six foot storm surge. Those who survived did so by climbing into the rafters of their attics. A fishing schooner was thrown up on the beach overnight. The only surviving crew member was a boy, lashed to the wheel. Off the Avalon Peninsula two navy schooners were sunk and dozens of fishing ships demasted and left adrift. At St. Johns, on the west coast, the storm surge was 30 feet, and seven hundred boats, large and small in the narrow harbor were submerged and smashed to bits against each other and the rocks. Fishermen from St; Johns, pulling in their nets on Tuesday, the 12th of September, found between 20 and 30 human bodies tangled in them.After it was all over a review of the losses listed by Lloyds would produce the startling figure of 4,000 dead, mostly Irish and English, in the fishing fleets off Newfoundland. Rear Admiral Robert Duff, Governor of Newfoundland, attempted to detail the disaster for his superiors back in London; “I am sorry to inform your Lordship that…the fishing works in those places…were in a great measure defaced…I cannot give your Lordship a very correct estimate of the damages sustained by this storm; but (you) should image…that the amount of it in shipping, boats, fishing works etc. cannot be less than thirty thousand pounds…” (about $4 million in 2007). There was barely a house left on Newfoundland with an intact roof or chimney, even if they had not been flooded out. The hurricane of September 1775 remains, more than two hundred years later, Canada’s deadliest natural disaster. For decades afterward the survivors on Conception Bay claimed to still hear the desperate cries of the lost souls in the cold surf. As for the storm itself, conceived over the hot Sahara and born of the warm equatorial waters, it could not simply die. Once over the colder currents of the North Atlantic the storm converted from a warm core to a cold one, drawing a diminished power not merely from air pressure variations but also from temperature divisions, becoming just another in the unending string of common “baroclinic” cyclones that march across Europe. But I like to think that this was the particular storm that passed over Carrickfergus castle, outside of Belfast, Ireland in 1775, and which brought with it such violent and continuous lightening and thunder that it was said the Scotch and Irish fairies were doing battle in the heavens above. That would be a significant enough ending for a significant storm in such a significant year.
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