An unprovoked invasion of a neighboring sovereign nation, bombing civilian areas, summary executions, and torture tell us that the Russians will have to answer for a host of horrific war crimes when their invasion of Ukraine has come to an end. But forcing a soldier to listen to ABBA music 24 hours a day reflects a special kind of cruelty that makes you wonder whether Russia should ever again be welcomed into the family of civilized nations.
Sometimes people make good decisions, sometimes they make bad decisions, and sometimes they make decisions that are so catastrophically ill-conceived it’s hard to imagine they were the product of rational thought. It’s been looking for some time now like Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine falls into the last category, and the consequences of his bad judgment seem to be getting worse and worse–for him personally, and for Russia.
It’s safe to say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn’t go as Putin thought it would. The Ukrainians fought valiantly in defense of their country, and the invasion was universally condemned by other nations. Even worse, as the Russian forces quickly became bogged down and began suffering devastating casualties, it also became clear that the vaunted Russian military wasn’t performing as anticipated due to planning, logistics, operational, and soldier morale issues. If American sports fans had been watching the Russian army’s performance in a stadium, you would undoubtedly have heard the “over-rated” chant.
After being mired in a fighting stalemate for months, things got worse for Russia recently, when a Ukrainian offensive caught the Russians off guard, drove Russian forces back, and captured huge amounts of Russian armaments and supplies. The Russian retreat created a decision point for Putin–and yesterday, he decided to double down, calling for a “partial mobilization” and even raising the chilling prospect of using nuclear weapons if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be at stake. It is the first mobilization order in Russia since World War II. The order means that 300,000 Russians in the reserve or with military experience could be subject to conscription and sent to fight in the Ukraine, where thousands of Russian soldiers have already been killed, wounded, or captured.
Putting aside the reaction of the Russian people, it’s hard to see how throwing more hastily conscripted soldiers into the fight with Ukraine is going to turn the tide, when the trained professional soldiers Russia initially used in its invasion weren’t successful. And rounding up more soldiers doesn’t solve the tactical, logistical, and morale issues that have dogged the Russian forces since the invasion began.
Unlike most people, Vladimir Putin apparently can’t own up to making a mistake. Time will tell, but his mobilization decision may ultimately be seen as moving an initial error farther along the spectrum toward ultimate disaster.
How many ants are there in the world? It’s the kind of dreamy question you might have briefly asked yourself as a kid on a lazy summer day as you were checking out an anthill that was teeming with the busy little creatures, just in one corner of your backyard. Sometimes, though, the subject of a child’s idle wonder becomes a scientist’s challenge–and Nature has published an article that tries to answer that question.
The first step in the challenge is trying to come up with a mechanism that would allow you to approximate the number of ants on Earth, because you obviously couldn’t count them, one by one, even if all of those notoriously active insects would oblige you by holding still. To give you a sense of scale, there are 15,700 named species and subspecies of ants. They are found in and on virtually every piece of dry land in the world and in the widest possible range of habitats, including cities, deserts, woodlands, grasslands, and especially rain forests. The National Wildlife Federation website states that the only land areas that don’t have ants are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, and a handful of islands.
So how can the Nature researchers hope to count them? By piecing together the findings of 489 independent studies that have attempted to count ant populations on every continent and in every habitats where they are found, using standard ant-counting methods. By extrapolating from this direct data, the researchers estimate that there are 20 quadrillion–that’s 20,000,000,000,000,000–ants in the world. That’s a lot of ants. But that finding admittedly doesn’t give a complete picture, because there are no studies of how many ants live underground or in trees. 20 quadrillion therefore could easily be an undercount.
But the Nature researchers didn’t stop there. They wondered how much all of those ants would weigh, did the math, and concluded that the 20 quadrillion ants would have a biomass of 12 million tons of carbon, which is more than all of the world’s birds and animals combined. (Carbon accounts for about half the weight of ants.) And, as the researchers point out, we should be glad there are so many ants around, because they play a crucial role in the ecosystem in multiple ways, including serving as food for many species.
Ants are also kind of fascinating to watch on a lazy summer afternoon, too.
Something pretty extraordinary–by modern standards, at least–is happening in the U.K. Thousands of Brits, from sports stars like David Beckham to the common folk, are lining up to wait for hours to file past the casket of Queen Elizabeth as she lies in state.
The lines are so tremendous that the BBC is writing articles about them, and the British government has established a live “queue tracker” on YouTube so that people can keep tabs on the line as it snakes past landmarks like the Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Hall. The maximum length of the line is 10 miles, and the government is warning people who would join the line that they will have to wait, and stand, for hours, without a chance to sit down. People are flocking to join the line, anyway.
We’re used to seeing people leave flowers and notes at places when a well-known person dies, but this situation is different. The people waiting in this colossal line are spending their precious time and voluntarily inconveniencing themselves to pay their personal respects to the Queen. Those of us who don’t quite get the British monarchy have to admit that, in the modern era of frequent self-absorption, this demonstration of devotion sends a powerful message. The British people are voting with their feet, with their hearts, and with their time. It’s an impressive testament to their love for someone who sat on the throne for 70 years.
It makes you wonder: would the death of any American figure provoke this kind of showing? I can’t think of one, can you?
The classic real estate saying is “location, location, location.” The 2022 supplement to that adage might be “timing, timing, timing.”
For the last few years, we’ve been hearing about how hot the housing market has been in many places. Now there are many signs that the hot markets across the globe are abruptly cooling off, according to a Bloomberg article. It reports that increasing costs of borrowing, with central banks raising interest rates sharply to try to deal with inflationary pressures, are causing potential borrowers to think twice about paying big bucks for houses. As a result, houses in the formerly hot markets are looking at double-digit percentage declines in asking prices, and economists are forecasting a significant housing market downturn in 2023 and 2024. That’s a real problem for those people who have a significant chunk of their assets tied up in their houses–especially if they’ve paid “hot market” prices for them.
Yesterday’s consumer price index report in the U.S., which showed inflation is still far above targets, won’t help matters. The higher-than-forecast inflation numbers, notwithstanding recent declines in fuel prices, not only caused the stock indexes to tumble dramatically, it also is expected to convince the Federal Reserve to ratchet up interest rates again next week to try to wring the inflation out of the economy. That move would increase borrowing costs still farther and put even more pressure on potential buyers who would need to finance any home purchase. As interest rates rise, those potential buyers become more and more likely to stay put in their current housing and stay out of the housing market.
History teaches us that hot sellers’ markets don’t stay hot forever, and yet when such hot markets are here, some people expect them to continue indefinitely. It doesn’t take much for a sellers’ market to turn into a buyers’ market–especially if you are a buyer with ready cash who doesn’t need to take out a mortgage to make a purchase. It looks like that is the process that is underway right now, and as long as inflation remains high, that shift is likely to accelerate.
Many of us have spent significant chunks of time this summer dabbing and smearing lotion on ourselves and our family members. It used to be called suntan lotion; now it’s called sunscreen or even sunblock. Some worried people search constantly for ever-higher SPF numbers due to fear of sunburns and dermatologist cautions about sun-related skin cancers.
The sunscreen issue is interesting when you think about it. Our ancient ancestors obviously spent a lot of time outdoors, hunting and gathering, and they didn’t have ready access to drugstores that provided rows of 50 SPF lotions. So how did they deal with the sun?
I ran across an interesting article by an anthropologist that tries to answer that question. He notes that the early humans didn’t fear the sun, thanks to their skin–specifically, the crucial protection provided by the epidermis, the outer layer of skin that adds new cells and thickens with increasing exposure to sunshine in the spring and summer, and eumelanin, a molecule that absorbs visible light and ultraviolet light and causes skin to darken due to sunshine. Because early humans didn’t radically shift their sun exposure by, say, hopping on a jet to Costa Rica in the dead of winter, their skin could adjust to their local conditions and provide all the sun protection they needed. In effect, their skin became well adapted to providing the protection needed in their local area. (Of course, they may have looked a bit leathery by modern standards, but they weren’t worried about such things in their desperate bid for survival in an unpredictable and unforgiving world.)
The article posits that the change in the relationship between humans, skin, and sunshine occurred about 10,000 years ago, when home sapiens began to develop more of an indoor life and exposure to the sun began to distinguish the lower class from the upper class. People became more mobile, too. The disconnect was exacerbated when people started to take vacations to warmer climates that abruptly changed sun conditions without a ramp-up period allowing their skin to adapt. In short, the trappings of civilization and class removed the previous balance between skin and local conditions and deprived our skin of the time needed to adjust to gradually increasing sunshine.
Does that mean you should try to recreate the former balance by staying in the same place, spending as much time as possible outdoors, and accepting the wrinkles and leathery look that are the likely result? The article says no, because your skin probably isn’t matched to your current location, and your indoor time is going to interfere with the process. That means we all need to keep dabbing and smearing to prevent sunburns and skin damage.
Incidentally, the highest-level sunscreen that is available now is 100 SPF, which is supposed to block 99 percent of ultraviolet rays. The ancients would shake their heads in wonder,
One of the most tantalizing aspects of human history is how little we know about our ancient forebears. Once you go back more than 5,000 or 10,000 years, to the period before written records and the age of surviving structures like the Sphinx and the pyramids of Egypt, there is little specific evidence of what humans did or how they lived. And the great length of that unknown period of human prehistory, stretching back tens of thousands of years, dwarfs the length of the historical record.
We tend to assume that our prehistoric ancestors were crude, ignorant people who hunted, ate, reproduced, and lived short, dangerous, violent lives. Every once in a while, however, scientists uncover something that challenges that assumption. The latest evidence that the ancients were more knowledgeable and more capable than we might have thought comes from a cave in Borneo, where scientists unearthed a 31,000-year-old skeleton of a young adult. The remarkable feature of the skeleton was that the bones revealed a successful amputation of the individual’s ankle–and that the patient then lived for years afterward.
Successful amputations require significant medical knowledge. Practitioners must know about the structure of bones, blood vessels, and muscle tissue, where and how to cut to remove the ruined bone and flesh, the need to leave flaps of skin to cover the remaining exposed bone, and how to close the wound, stop the bleeding, and avoid infection. Before this recent discovery, the oldest known evidence of an amputation dated to 7,000 years ago in France. The Borneo discovery pushes that medical knowledge back to a point more than 20,000 years earlier, and indicates that, in at least some areas, ancient humans were much more medically sophisticated that we believed. It makes you wonder: if Borneo communities had knowledgeable doctors 31,000 years ago, what other medical knowledge did they possess, and for that matter how sophisticated were their scientific, religious, philosophical, and political beliefs?
There is another, equally compelling conclusion to be drawn from the Borneo discovery. The wound healed, and the patient, who scientists believed was a child when the injury occurred, lived for years afterward. Given the rugged local terrain, like that shown in the photo above, surviving with only one working leg would have been impossible without the help of caregivers–and in all likelihood the entire tribe or local community. That necessary reality confirms that our ancestors weren’t thoughtless savages, but were decent, generous people who took care of each other. That conclusion also makes me feel better about our species.
I was saddened to read of the death of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. A young woman when she ascended the throne in 1952, she reigned for 70 years, presiding over her country from the dawn of the Cold War, in the aftermath of World War II, to the internet age. Her astonishing longevity was historic and is best reflected (for Americans, at least) in the realization that Harry Truman was President when Queen Elizabeth took the throne–one of 14 Presidents who served during her reign. As Queen, she worked with countless British Prime Ministers, including notable historical figures like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. And along the way, the Beatles wrote and performed a catchy little song about her. Obviously, Elizabeth was a monarch who left her mark.
I’m no fan of the British royal family, and I don’t understand why some Americans are fixated on their weddings, christenings, dalliances, and disputes. Nevertheless, I admired Queen Elizabeth. She did her job diligently, with class and attention to her duties as queen. I always thought her stiff-upper-lip, do-your-duty, get-the-job-done attitude aptly reflected the character of her country. She accepted her role and honored it with her efforts, her discretion, and her innate understanding of what it meant to be queen.
You never had to worry about Queen Elizabeth writing a tell-all book, engaging in public shenanigans, or doing anything remotely disreputable–but unfortunately for her, you couldn’t say the same thing about her family. In addition to her royal duties, she had to deal with an often fractious clan and tried to keep some of its members from embarrassing themselves and the country. It had to create more than its share of heartache and personal pain for her, but I’m quite sure that many Britons applauded her efforts in that regard.
Monarchies are an anachronism in this day and age, and it must have been difficult and exhausting to keep that anachronism afloat during ever-changing, turbulent times. Elizabeth II was a steady hand at the helm and piloted the institution well. It will be interesting to see whether King Charles, who ascends the throne at the ripe age of 73, will exhibit the same kind of tact and sensitivity.
By all accounts, the good people of the United Kingdom may be in for a rough winter. It will be even worse if the economic conditions cause some of the country’s excellent pubs to close–including a pub that is reputed to be the oldest continuously operating pub in the U.K.
The pub is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans, and its problem is the cost of energy. The pub says it has been serving thirsty customers their pints and pies for 1,200 years, but now its energy costs have doubled. And, being a public place, a pub can’t conserve energy by turning off the lights in certain areas during business hours, as a British home could. The cost increases, and the fact that winter tends to be the slow season for pubs, raises the possibility that some pubs will close–which would make the bleak mid-winter even bleaker.
The pub businesses in the U.K. have warned that the crushing costs for electricity, heating, and other pub supplies might cause widespread closures, and resulting job losses. They say that pubs have faced an average 150% increase in energy costs, and the impact of the costs is causing “irreversible damage.” Some pubs say they are dealing with a 400 percent increase in the cost of a one-year gas supply contract, and some say they can’t get a contract at all. (Pubs are not alone in suffering, incidentally, the average household faces an 80 percent increase in energy costs.) The costs increases are attributed to the Russians exercising periodic shutdown control over natural gas supplies, which has caused fears that supplies might be cut off entirely in the winter to increase Russia’s political leverage in its war against Ukraine. The fact that the U.K. doesn’t have extensive gas storage facilities doesn’t help the price volatility, either.
Times have been tough for the pubs over the last few years; they were forced to close during the COVID pandemic, and they are dealing with changing drinking habits in their communities. But it’s impossible to absorb increased costs of the kind pubs are facing without also dramatically increasing prices to customers- which would cause further deterioration in pub business.
I’m hoping that the pubs somehow make it through, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks gets a chance to give visitors a warm, friendly place to quaff a pint or two for another 1,200 years. I can’t imagine a trip to England without spending at least time in its iconic pubs. Pubs are one of the things that make England England.
Defenestration is one of those words that–fortunately for those of use who don’t want to be hurled out of windows–can almost never be used in its literal sense. But, because it is a cool word that people like the Long-Haired Red Sox Fan really like to say, it has sometimes been applied beyond its literal sense to describe the swift dismissal of someone from a position of importance.
Now that the hapless demise of a Russian businessman has opened the door (get it?) to the use of “defenestration” in its strict sense in everyday conversation, we’ll have to look for chances to use other big words that are almost never apt. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to use “acersecomicke” (meaning someone whose hair has never been cut) or “empleomania” (meaning someone with a mania for holding public office).
The death yesterday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has caused a lot of comment about his role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s worth a few moments to think about those events that occurred more than 30 years ago and how they are perceived now.
The Washington Post obituary presents Gorbachev as the agent of change; it states that he “embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse.” He was a “towering figure” who engaged in “improvised tactics,” took “increasingly bold risks,” and “pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.” The Post views Mr. Gorbachev as the indispensable figure in the end of the Cold War drama, stating flatly: “None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev.” That view is reflected in the fact that Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Others disagree with that assessment. They see Gorbachev as the reactor, not the actor; in their view, the true change agent was Ronald Reagan. This evaluation of the 1980s focuses on President Reagan’s decision to ratchet up the social, economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union and Gorbachev with events like his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. As a result, they contend, Gorbachev was left with few options and really didn’t have much choice as he took steps that responded to the Reagan initiatives and the outbreaks of resistance and freedom initiatives that began to appear in Eastern Europe. The Post obituary indirectly acknowledges this with its references to “improvised tactics” and “increasingly bold risks”: the person who sets the tone doesn’t need to improvise.
Which view of Gorbachev is right? I think the honest answer lies somewhere in between, recognizing that President Reagan’s approach helped to create and nourish the pro-freedom movement that narrowed the options and forced increasingly difficult decisions by the Soviet Union, but also that Gorbachev did always have a choice: he could have unleashed the Soviet army, applied the extreme and brutal repressive tactics that the U.S.S.R. had historically applied, or taken things to the brink of nuclear war–but he didn’t. We’ll probably never know precisely how essential Gorbachev was to those decisions, and how much support, or opposition, he had among members of the Politburo in refraining from calling out the troops or pushing the button, but it all happened on his watch. If a more bloodthirsty, reckless leader had been in charge of the Soviet Union at that time, things might have gone down very differently.
Mikhail Gorbachev may not deserve the over-the-top accolades he is receiving in some quarters, but he clearly was an important historical figure who played a key role. Mr. Gorbachev may not have torn down the wall, but he ultimately didn’t interfere with those freedom-loving Germans who did, and the world should remember him for that.
I ran across this article in Conde Nast Traveller identifying what the writer considered to be the 29 best beaches in the world. It’s an interesting list that might make some Americans mad, because no beaches in California or Florida make the cut, whereas beaches from Scotland (which has two in the top five), Ireland, Iceland, and Canada–not normally associated with beaches–are represented. The only American beaches to be featured are Honopu Beach in Kauai, Hawaii, which looks gorgeous and comes in at number 11, and the only beach on the list that I’ve been to: the vast, sprawling beach in Okracoke, North Carolina, with its signature grass-topped dunes, which comes in at number 27.
What makes the best beach? It’s obviously a subjective determination that is influenced by personal preference. For me, it’s a combination of things, like the qualify of the sand, the color and condition of the water (I’m not a surfer and don’t need huge, crashing waves), and whether it’s so crowded with people you can’t really notice the beach for all of the people on it (which is probably why no beaches from California or Florida make the list). Ideally, I also like a beach you can walk, and a beach with some natural beauty nearby–like hidden beach in Palawan, the Philippines, shown in the photo above, which is number 19 on the list.
Based on my personal interests, I think the best beaches I’ve been to are the snug little beach at the foot of the long flights of wooden stairs at the Ti Kaye resort on St. Lucia, which is surrounded by jungle and rugged hillside, and the sweeping crescent beach at Nueva Vallarta in Mexico, where you can walk for miles. My guess is that everyone who likes a beach vacation now and then will have their own personal list of favorites.
The Conde Nast Traveller article did teach me one, thing, however: if you’re going to Scotland, be sure to take your beach towel and flip-flops.
China and its economy are notoriously difficult to analyze and evaluate. With its mix of government control and closely held data, China’s true economic performance is a closed book, making third-party analysis often seem like little more than guesswork. Reports on issues in China therefore should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
With that caveat, Bloomberg recently published an interesting story about unpaid mortgages in China that could have significant consequences akin to the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. that triggered the Great Recession. The real estate sector is one of the prime drivers of the Chinese economy, with construction projects and home sales being responsible for about a quarter of China’s gross domestic product, so anything that affects that sector is worthy of note.
Lately, the Chinese real estate segment has struggled in the face of a combination of issues. Developers have produced only about 60 percent of the homes they have presold to homebuyers, continuing COVID issues have caused a decline in demand for new projects, property prices in some areas have plunged, and some debt-ridden real estate developers have been unable to complete projects and have begun to default on their debts. Some homebuyers are now refusing to pay on their mortgages, either because developers have not completed the projects, or because the mortgages are for amounts greater than current property values in view of the recent decline in prices, or both. The numbers involved so far aren’t enormous, but the underlying issue is whether such a development is the first sign of a more significant trend.
China watchers are always carefully scrutinizing the meager available data about what is really happening in the world’s most populated country, and this will be an area that commands attention going forward. Our own painful experience from the 2007-2009 time period teaches what can happen when mortgages go unpaid, the real estate market craters, and what banks had considered to be assets turn out not to be assets at all. If that happens in a huge economy like China, it’s going to leave a mark on the world economy, too.
When the COVID pandemic struck in earnest in March 2020 and lockdown orders began to be issued by governments around the world, the impact on human beings was immediate and obvious. Most people stopped traveling by air or by car, tourism abruptly dropped, and many travel destinations closed for months as people huddled in their homes. More than two years later, we’re still dealing with the economic fallout from the shutdowns and assessing the positive and negative impacts on homo sapiens.
But because the COVID shutdowns effectively stopped a lot of human movement, it also affected the natural world–and there, too, scientists are trying to sift through the data and determine the impact. Scientists and environmentalists have dubbed the COVID shutdown period the “anthropause”–“anthro” being the prefix for humans–and are in the process of evaluating information about what it meant for various ecosystems. Their preliminary conclusion, according to an interesting article in the New York Times, basically is: “it’s complicated.” The cessation of a significant chunk of human activity clearly had some positive effects, but it had some negative effects as well.
The positive effects are, perhaps, easier to understand. Because humans weren’t going to certain places, making noise, stirring things up, and interacting with the flora and fauna, the natural world had a brief chance to revert to a non-human equilibrium. For example, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Hawaii, where the photo above was taken, is a popular snorkeling spot. It was closed to all visitors for nine months during the COVID shutdown, which resulted in significantly improved water clarity (without snorkelers kicking up lots of sediment) and increased fish density and diversity (without snorkelers causing a ruckus and causing fish to swim elsewhere). Similar positive effects were seen in other places.
But there were negative effects as well, because in many places humans either are affirmatively acting as protectors of habitats or species, or because human activity has the effect of discouraging predator species. The Times article cites an island off the coast of Sweden that is a popular bird-watching destination, where scientists have found that the reduction in human visitors emboldened eagles whose activities affected the hatching activities of still other birds, causing a 26 percent drop in the breeding activity of that species. In addition, many environmental conservation and monitoring programs were impacted, and in some areas illegal poaching spiked.
In short, because the totality of human interaction with the environment is immensely complex, trying to assess the full impact of the cessation of human interaction also is a difficult question. There are a lot of falling dominoes to evaluate and causal chains to consider, and the ultimate results of the analysis may not be known for years, if at all. What does seem clear is that areas where limitations on human activity had an obvious positive impact are likely to take steps to make sure that some form of limitations remain in place. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, for example, has imposed new limitations on the number of snorkelers who are permitted and is totally closed two days a week.
It would be nice to think that we could learn something positive, and ultimately helpful to the environment, from the COVID shutdown period.