Archive for May, 2006

A Shark’s Slaughter, a Human’s Hubris

Posted on May 31st, 2006 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

While I was gone, Captain Bucky Dennis, a Florida fisherman, caught what appears to be the largest hammerhead shark ever caught on rod and reel. (Thanks to those who sent me this story, by the way.) The 14.5 foot-long shark weighed 1,280 pounds. Why the hammerhead? “I was just trying to find a record that was feasible to break,” Dennis explained.

I gather that Mr. Dennis was all over the media, and is pretty happy with himself. His ambition now is to catch a bigger one as soon as possible.

To which I ask, why? And why do we tolerate such pointless slaughter?

Hammerhead sharks are astonishing creatures, a marvel of evolution. When they are alive, they are hypnotically beautiful. When they’re dead, they’re pretty ugly. (They don’t attack humans, by the way, although even if they did, that wouldn’t be a reason to kill them for pleasure.) I spent about four hours underwater in the Galapagos trying to see one. (Unsuccessfully, alas.) Near the northernmost Galapagos islands of Darwin and Wolf, which our boat did not get to, the hammerheads swim in schools of hundreds, for reasons no one entirely understands. (It may have to do with mating.) Just to see this on video is an amazing and humbling sight. Someday I’ll get back to those islands and experience it firsthand.

Mr. Dennis ought to be ashamed of himself, and the rest of us ought to do our part do shame him.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against fishing—unless you have no intention of eating what you’ve caught. Because that’s not fishing, that’s just killing, and we’re at a period in human history where we can’t afford to do that any more. The planet won’t sustain it. Humans have to be better than that, or we’re in real trouble.

Dennis tried to assuage his conscience by donating the shark to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, which is kind of like the Japanese saying that they hunt whales for science. John Tyminski, a biologist at the lab, said that the shark was 20-40 years old and pregnant, which makes Dennis’s killing of it even sadder. Tyminski struck the right note about Dennis’s bloodlust.

“We would give credit to the fisherman for donating, but we are not happy about killing a shark for no reason,” he told the Times.


One of these animals hunts to survive,
and one kills for no reason.

A Million Moments of Zen

Posted on May 31st, 2006 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I am back from the Galapagos, although, truth to tell, I wish I weren’t; a week in such a magical place is hardly enough. But life and work beckon, and sometimes we have no choice but to answer. (But if I were 21 again….)

The trip was remarkable. These islands are a sacred trust: One can see clearly how a scientist could discern in them the denial of God, but one could also see the Galapagos inspiring faith.

I’ll write more about the Galapagos shortly, but for now let me just say that my fountain of Zen has been refreshed. The above is a sea lion at sunset on the island of Espanola, by the way. (Click on it to enlarge it.)

See You June 1

Posted on May 20th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Even bloggers need vacations, and it’s been months—literally, months—since my last. So, along with some family members and some friends, I’m headed to the Galapagos Islands. We fly to Quito today, then out to the islands tomorrow, and get on a boat

…and I must say, I’m delighted. Visiting the Galapagos, the islands that inspired Darwin to write The Origin of Species, has been a lifelong dream of mine, and in recent months I’ve been boning up on them—reading E.O. Wilson, Darwin, and Jonathan Weiner’s excellent The Beak of the Finch, going to the Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, watching Deep Sea 3-D at the Imax theater—twice. (Yes, you have to wear the glasses. Click on this link to see the trailer, which is too short but pretty great. )

Most of all, I’m looking forward to the diving, which is considered by some to be the best in the world. If we’re lucky, we’ll see manta rays, hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, and whale sharks—not to mention an incredible diversity of smaller fish life. (But I’ll admit, it’s the hammerheads I really want to see; occasionally in the Galapagos, divers find them swimming in schools…of hundreds. How great is that?)

The point is, all this will provide many new Moments of Zen.

The downside is that I will be far, far away from any Internet connection, and so this blog will lie fallow for about a week. I’ll be back and writing again June 1, so…mark your calendars. And if there’s something you’d like me to know about in the meantime, please either post it below or e-mail it to me. (Just click on Contact to the left.) I promise, I’ll read it first thing.

Have a wonderful week, everyone. See you soon.

In Defense of Human-Eating Alligators

Posted on May 18th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Floridians have gone ballistic over the fact that, in recent days, three of them have been eaten by alligators, and yesterday an alligator tried to make a meal of someone’s golden retriever. Thank God the woman had a shotgun close at hand!

My sincerest condolences go out to the loved ones of the consumed…but otherwise, cry me a river. Alligators wouldn’t be eating anyone if humans hadn’t swallowed up so much of the gators’ natural habitat that we’re now living closer together than we’re supposed to.

In the Washington Post, Louisianan Ken Ringle brings some sense to the subject.

You would think from the gator-mania on CNN and Fox this week that alligators are some sort of grotesque mutation of the natural world stalking urban man. The obvious truth is that alligators in Florida are just hungry and confused and doing what comes naturally.

(CNN, that once-credible cable news network…)

Of course, Ringle has some unusual experience with alligators. One of his grandfather’s cousins once wrote a treatise on them. How can you not love this quote?

As a boy, he writes in the book’s preface, he and his cousins used to swim in the bayou that surrounds Avery Island, and “always took great pleasure and not a little excitement in seeing how many gators we could call around us during our swim. We would attract them by imitating the barks and cries of dogs and by making loud popping noises with our lips. . . . We had no fear of them and would swim around the big fellows, dive under them and sometimes treat them with great disrespect. . . . Sometimes when the tide was low we would surround on three sides a big one that might be lying on a mud flat. . . . He would stand a certain amount of pelting with mud. . . . Then it was, ‘Boys, get out of his way, he’s going to the water.’ On one of these occasions, I was mired past my knees in the soft mud . . . and the old gator who was blinded with mud ran over me as I fell backward, and I still have the marks of his claws on my stomach where . . . he slid over my naked body.

Ringle himself received an alligator as a pet when he was seven. Croxy was an ill-tempered little beast, and returned all my love with repeated attempts at digital amputation

And Ringle reminds us of something that is true of every animal we fear: We humans kill countless more of them than they do of us.

A lovely piece of writing, whether or not you care about alligators….

Department of Bad Reviews, Part II

Posted on May 18th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I didn’t much like Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, “Prep.” I found Sittenfeld’s protagonist tedious and self-involved and humorless and devoid of growth through three hundred-plus pages. But thousands and thousands of people disagreed with me, connecting, I suppose, with the sense of alienation felt by Lee Fiora, an outsider at a prep school for rich kids. I’m glad for Sittenfeld, whom I know slightly, that her book did so well…but I couldn’t quite understand why.

Which is why I kind of enjoyed this Times review of Sittenfeld’s new book, “The Man of My Dreams”—because what Janet Maslin writes about this book pretty much what I thought of Prep. (Always nice to have your opinions validated.)

Let me quote:

Ms. Sittenfeld’s embrace of the unremarkable is even clingier the second time around. In “The Man of My Dreams” her drab heroine is made special mainly by endless reserves of myopia and self-pity. An amazing number of episodes involve pizza, despite the limited range of pizza as a literary device.

Nothing is too dull to be scrutinized by Hannah, whose passive-aggressive blahs are at the book’s mopey heart. Does Hannah think a manicure will lift her gloom? “She does have a fingernail clipper — that’s not festive, but it’s something. She returns to her desk chair, pulls the trash can in front of her, and sticks the tip of a nail into the jaw of the clipper. This doesn’t take long.” Oh no? It feels like forever.

I’m sure that somewhere the karma train will come back to run me over on this subject. (Though I’ve certainly had my share of bad reviews…or so I’m told. I try not to read them.)

But Prep seemed so dour and joyless…prose for the angry, sulky misfit wallowing in self-pity. I’d love to see Sittenfeld apply her considerable talent to something more ambitious.

And You Think You Got Bad Reviews

Posted on May 17th, 2006 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Anyone who has ever received a bad book review will be strangely comforted by this evisceration of historian Doug Brinkley and his new book, “The Great Deluge,” about Hurricane Katrina.

The link may be subscriber-only, so I will quote:

[Brinkley’s] bestknown writings seem to have three things in common.

First and foremost is their relentless mediocrity. I cannot think of a historian or public intellectual who has managed to make himself so prominent in American public life without having put forward a single memorable idea, a single original analysis, or a single lapidary phrase – let alone without publishing a book that has had any discernable impact. Mr. Brinkley is, to use Daniel Boorstin’s famous words, a historian famous for being well-known.

Writing in the New York Sun, historian Wilfred McClay has written one of those reviews that is simultaneously delicious reading and leaves those of us who write books with just one thought: Thank God it isn’t me…..

Oh, heck, let’s enjoy the schadenfreude just a little longer. Here’s another quote….

All of this would be forgivable if Mr. Brinkley had written a book that was lively and evocative. But “The Great Deluge” turns out to be a book worthy of its title. It just goes on and on and on, a veritable Mississippi of sludgy, sophomoric, rebarbative prose, with gimmicky human-interest stories, transcriptions of press releases, gratuitous quotations from great writers about hurricanes, and potted history.

For those of us who needed to look it up, “rebarbative” means “tending to irritate; repellent.”

It may be time to start subscribing to the New York Sun…..

Another Voice in the Conversation

Posted on May 17th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

I continue to think that Richard Brodhead has the potential to emerge from the Duke scandal as one of the truly important figures in American education. His baccalaureate address is eloquent and inspiring…and deals with the rape scandal in an indirect but instructive way.

Here’s a quote:

Last and very quickly, if we have been through some hard things here together, that need not prove the negative it might appear. For building a better world, humans need access to that special form of intelligence called wisdom, and the way to wisdom has never been through school exercises or the formal curriculum. Like it or not, this form of knowledge comes the hard way, through trial, through conflict, through failure and error, and through suffering and loss. I would gladly have spared you every hard thing we have been through since I arrived-last year’s controversy over issues of free speech, our more recent conflicts over the presumption of innocence and the social values that will govern this community, the death of friends and classmates who did not complete your journey. But I know that, just to the extent that you have lived the emotional complexities of these incidents, you leave here with a deepened understanding of the terms of human life. In the measure that you have not protected yourself from difficulties but opened yourself to their sometimes painful human meanings, you have got an education, one that will make you a more thoughtful contributor to your times.


The Strange Relationship of Larry Summers and Harry Lewis

Posted on May 17th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

In Harvard Rules, I wrote that “it was inevitable that Harry Lewis and Larry Summers would clash. In some ways, both men were surprisingly similar—opinionated, stubborn, strong leaders. But their similarities only highlighted their points of contention.”

I am reminded of that now, reading today’s Crimson, with its description of Summers’ farewell to the faculty and Lewis’ reading of Excellence Without a Soul at the Coop.

As Anton Troianovski reports, Summers said, “There is only one important question on which history will judge us. Did we do all we could to blaze new paths for higher education and change the world through our teaching and research? Or did we continue to do traditional things in traditional ways, enjoying the greater comfort that increased resources provide?”

Harry Lewis, who of course was forced out as dean of the college by Bill Kirby/Larry Summers, has a different take.

According to Yin Wang, Lewis said, “We’re not doing much to help students identify purpose in their lives…and to help them become the mature and responsible people on which society will depend.” On the subject of leadership from the top, Lewis added that “changing direction requires…leadership that views the university idealistically, as something more than a business and something more than a slave to the logic of economic competition.”

The differences are interesting. Summers spoke of changing the world; Lewis talked of students and their obligation to society. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that Summers tends to focus on the individual and Lewis contextualizes the individual within a community. Summers’ remarks are suggestive of individual glory; Lewis is slightly more modest in his goals.

And Lewis is clearly more critical of the rush to merge the university with the worlds of Washington and international business than is Summers.

Nonetheless, the quotes above are mere snapshots of the two men’s views, which are more nuanced than those snapshots suggest. And what is interesting is how there is real overlap between these two opponents. Both believe in the importance of Harvard to the world, and both are seriously concerned about the direction in which the university is headed. Both are concerned about how undergraduates are taught, and what they are taught.

I can’t help but think that Summers made an enormous mistake in ousting Lewis—one of his largest mistakes. Between the two of them, they could have generated truly provocative conversation about the changes that are coming/need to be made at Harvard.

At the time, though, Larry Summers wasn’t particularly interested in starting a conversation; his style was more that of the monologuist. A shame. If they could have lived with each other, Larry Summers and Harry Lewis might have done some interesting things at Harvard.

Nonetheless, the conversation they are starting now—even if they are not in the same room at the time—is one the next president and deans of the College and FAS should continue.

Presidents on the Hot Seat

Posted on May 16th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

The Washington Post runs an AP story listing five university presidents who resigned or were fired during the last academic year.

For some reason, the headline identifies them as “college presidents,” when in fact they are all university presidents…

Mike Nifong is Losing It

Posted on May 16th, 2006 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Out-of-control district attorney Mike Nifong has charged a third player with rape in the Duke lacrosse scandal. The player, David Evans, the team captain, promptly held a press conference in which he dubbed the charges “fantastic lies” and said, “I look forward to watching them unravel in the weeks to come.”

According to defense attorney Joseph Cheshire, the alleged victim told police that she’d be 100 sure that Evans was the guy…if only he had a mustache.

Evans has never had a mustache.

And, one wonders, has anyone on the Duke lacrosse team ever had a mustache? (Somehow I just don’t see a lot of Duke lacrosse players looking like Tom Selleck.)

Moreover, according to Evans, he offered to take a lie detector test, but Nifong declined the offer. Evans then took one himself and passed.

So let’s see…the alleged victim has a past history of alleging that she was raped by three men…her fellow dancer claims she saw nothing, but wants to profit from the story…there is no DNA match, despite the fact that the alleged victim claims to have been raped in three orifices…one of the accused has witnesses to his location during the events in question that would make it almost impossible for him to have been present at any alleged rape…the third accused person would look more like the alleged rapist if he had a mustache that he’s never had…the alleged victim was never shown any photos of people other members of the lacrosse team, meaning that she had to pick *someone* out….

It’s possible that the alleged victim could be telling the truth…but it’s also possible that Barry Bonds never took steroids. Almost anything is possible, really.