On Ways The Past Is Another Country

Recently I have read some books about animals I happen to appreciate. It was striking to read, for example, that Pandas were still largely unknown in the west and in much of China as late as the 1930’s when various adventuresome types of people came into the remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau in order to find and capture the animal and bring it to the attention of curious people in the West. As late as the late 19th century the panda as well as the echidna were thought of as possibly mythical animals. And yet both animals are not only very real and somewhat mysterious even now, but are animals of major importance in the image of China and Australia, respectively. One does not have to go back very many decades before there are many things that one simply does not know about. When one thinks of the fondness of people for various animals as well as various foods, it is striking to think of the lack of knowledge that one has of these matters when one goes back only a few decades, or a couple of centuries at most. The people of the past, to be sure, had their own ways that are obscure to us, but it is worthwhile to know that the things we take for granted about our world are not always of long duration.

This is true in many ways. As someone who likes to go out to eat at restaurants, it is striking to ponder that the first restaurant existed in late ancien regime France, as a result of someone breaking guild laws that had prevented people from invading the realm of caterers whose job it was to prepare meat dishes and who jealously guarded that privilege from those outside of their guild. As someone who is deeply fond of eating salads with olive oil and vinegar-based salad dressings, it is deeply curious to realize that these salad dressings spring from the early 20th century when refrigeration became regular, and were apparently not heard of before these days because of the problems of storing and keeping such dressings beyond their initial use. It is the source of frequent humor to note that famed comedienne Betty White is in fact older than sliced bread. As late as World War I, Italian cuisine had not reached mainstream American eating habits, despite the fact that as of this date millions of Italians had been living in the United States since the late 19th century. It is also worth noting, while one is on the subject of Italian cuisine, that a great deal of what is so striking about that cuisine depends on food brought from other areas, not least of which are the tomatoes and maize corn that are used in pasta dishes and polenta, respectively. Even the chili peppers that one finds so often in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine in various curry dishes comes from the Americas and was apparently unknown to those areas before the sixteenth century when the Spanish and Portuguese first connected the world together in recognizable global trade ways by connecting the Americas to the existing trade networks that bound Europe, Africa, and Asia together.

There are various ways that the past is another country. Some of these are easy to conceive. Our contemporary fondness for video games, for example, only goes back a few decades, because it depends on technologies that did not exist until relatively recent times in personal computing, television and other screens, as well as the programming. Even very simple games like pong, for example, are not very old at all. Technology is not a difficult thing to recognize, as it was only less than two centuries ago that there were any means of communication or transportation that were faster than sailing ships and people on horseback to communicate news or to bring people from one place to another. In many ways, the spread of mass and fast communication and transportation has reduced freedom by making people who were once free to decide things on the spot subject to the oversight and rule by people in distant places that are still connected. Our celebration of the invention of various technologies allows us to recognize a world as alien without computers, container ships, television, radio, telephones, automobiles, railroads, and steamships, to give but a few examples.

It is also rather straightforward to recognize the way that the past is another country when it comes to cultural ways, given the massive amount of cultural change that has happened over the course of the last few decades. If any of us were to be transported a century ago, we would be alien peoples. Worse yet, for the pride of most of us, is that we would not only possess cultural ways that would lead us to be viewed as wicked in the extreme, but we would also lack a knowledge of the ways of the past in ways that would allow us to be respected as people of intellect and culture. We would lack the knowledge of vital prestige languages and our knowledge base would not be broad enough to fit in with a world where breadth of knowledge was viewed as being as important as depth of knowledge in particular specialties. One of the many things that keeps our contemporary society so divided as it is at present is the way in which our knowledge and interests are so narrow and provincial, even among cultural and political elites, in ways that are contrary to the greater and wider interest of people in more aspects of life. These are aspects of life that would make us aliens to those of the past and make the past alien to us in ways that we often do not pause to reflect on.

Unfortunately, there are negative effects of a world where change and novelty for the sake of change and novelty that are also not often reflected on. It is not hard, in a world where things have remained as they have been for decades and centuries and millennia, to recognize the unchanging value of moral standards, however difficult it is to obey them. The superficial ubiquity of change, in ways that we have discussed of technology and personal habits and tastes in food and other matters, tends to obscure the general consistency that exists in terms of the moral nature of mankind. Human nature changes far less readily than human habit, and yet we judge those things that speak to the darkness in human nature as if they were as easily obsolete and out of fashion as those aspects of life that deal with human habit. We tend to view divine law or even commonsensical and prudential standards of tact and etiquette and restraint as being as easily out of fashion as last season’s fashion and art monstrosities, to replaced at will by something that captures our own shallow and ignorant interest more. And that is a great shame, as it prevents us from understanding ourselves, understanding others, and understanding where we all came from and where we are going, while being self-deceived in the belief that we are wise and progressive beyond the ancients and beyond those who are not enlightened as we are.

Posted in History, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Lady And The Panda

The Lady And The Panda: The True Adventures Of The First American Explorer To Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal, by Vicki Constantine Croke

This book is an interesting one, because it occurs at a vitally important time, in the 1930’s, when live pandas first entered the Western world from China. The woman responsible for bringing a live panda to the West for the first time was a widow named Ruth Harkness who, on her first trip to China, managed to take in a baby panda and keep it alive through some sort of frustrated maternal instincts, and, at least according to the author, manage to use these instincts and insights to know more about how to keep pandas alive in captivity than contemporary zookeepers who insisted on feeding pandas with cooked vegetables rather than giving them crunchy foods to chew on. By and large, this book is an interesting one, though it is at the same time a deeply puzzling read in that the author seeks to frame the book as a nonfiction novel by avoiding the sort of sourcing that many readers will expect in order to maintain a fluid narrative of the life of his subject as well as the context of that all too short life in the dramatic period before and during World War II.

This book is about three hundred pages long and it is divided into fourteen chapters. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements section that are effusive in their praise of others, disarmingly so. After that comes a shocking beginning of the death in Shanghai of Ruth Harknesses’ husband Bill, who had incurable tumors and had failed in his quest for the panda in two years of exploration in China (1). After that the author discusses Ruth Harkness’ inheritance of this expedition (2) and how she gained the whip hand in her dealings with others who were contemptuous of her (3). After that comes a narrative of her trip to Chengdu (4), a tale of her rivalries as well as her romance with Quentin Young (5), and her successful find of a live baby panda for her o take care of (6). A discussion of the poisonous rivalry between Smith and Harkness as well as Harknesses trouble in getting the baby panda out of China (7) precedes a narrative of the panda she brought as the animal of the century (8). This is then followed by a discussion of Harkness’ return to a Shanghai in war in 1937 (9), her attempt to skirt around the conflict by going from Saigon to Chengdu (10), and her struggle to deal with a lonely high-altitude hell for months waiting for the chance to find a panda (11). This is followed by the thrill of her return (12) again to the states and then a brief discussion of her return to China one last time (13), as well as the call to return a panda to the wild that would have been unhappy in captivity (14), and a discussion of the sad wreck of Harkness’ remaining years before an early death from the effects of her alcoholism in an epilogue, after which there are notes and an index.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this book is the way that the author manages to include a great deal of speculation on the psychological life of the book’s subject. It seems quite likely that this book, although the author claims everything to be true, is really a book that includes a large amount of intuition and guessing and surmising of what is plausible or likely rather than strictly being limited to that which is certainly true. Nonfiction novels as this one tend to struggle with the question of what is certainly true as a genre, and this book shares that general tendency. Fortunately, the book is easy enough to appreciate even if it the author is clearly a partisan of the subject and the book does not quite read in the way one would expect a book of this type to read. One gets the feeling, though, that this is intentionally done, and it is by no means a bad thing even if it is sometimes to be regretted that the author does not clearly separate that which is true from that which was only reported to be true by Harkness or someone else in letters or other text, and that which the author surmises and interprets and guesses to be true. If these problems make this book a bit less than ideal as a historical or nonfictional source, they do not detract from its pleasant narrative style.

Posted in Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Panda Nation

Panda Nation: The Construction And Conservation Of China’s Modern Icon, by E Elena Songster

How and when did the panda become so important to China, and what has been done by China to preserve the vulnerable animal and to understand it better? These are questions with surprising answers, and the author does a good job at shining a light on the surprising history of the panda and its place within Chinese history. One thing to note, even if it is a bit uncharitable, is that while the panda is viewed as a symbol of modern China, the panda’s worth to Chinese people seems to have come about as a result of the panda becoming interesting and important to outsiders. As is often the case, the panda was taken for granted and neglected and not well understood for many centuries and it was the growing interest of the West in pandas and the result of that interest on the survival of the animal that seem to have prompted a nationalistic Chinese response to the panda being killed for pelts and taken out of the country by Western explorers. To be sure, any nation would and should feel upset about its treasures being despoiled by other countries, but all the same, the striking lack of interest and knowledge in the panda before it became of interest to the West does not speak well of China’s ability to recognize what is a treasure before it was treasured by outsiders. This is, alas, all too common of a failing.

This book is a bit more than 150 pages and it is made up of eight chapters that deal with different aspects of the panda and its relationship with China. After acknowledgements and an introduction, the author begins with a discussion of the long and strange history of how it is that panda moved from myth and obscurity in early Chinese texts to its status as an oddity and then as an icon in the last century or so (1). This is followed by a discussion of the nature of Communist Chinese conservation of panda areas in a manner similar to that of the West (2), despite China’s unwillingness to accept these similarities in approach. After that there is a discussion of the creation of the panda reserve in Wanglang and the difficult process of its creation (3). After that comes a discussion of the cultural revolutionary rise of the panda as a symbol and brand for China and its government (4). A chapter on panda diplomacy then follows wit ha look at the panda as an animal ambassador for China (5), as well as how the panda is to be rescued from reforming China (6). This is followed by a discussion of the role of minority peoples in China in preserving the pandas through ecotourism (7), as well as a look at the science behind soft diplomacy and the fear of the Trojan panda (8), after which the book ends with a conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index.

It should be noted that this book does not take as its main subject of interest why the panda itself has been found of interest by either Chinese or foreigners. What it does is take a look at the historical context and political importance of that interest in pandas and show that the People’s Republic of China has been more than a little bit heavy-handed in its use of pandas as a tool of diplomacy. Indeed, I happen to have found the highs and lows of panda diplomacy to be among the most cynical but also (not likely unrelated) the most interesting part of this book in discussing the symbolic importance of the panda to China. The widespread popularity of the panda around the world, and the fact that pandas are only found in the wild in China and are a rare and timid animal, has given China considerable leverage in dealing with other countries in providing something that is sought after with some strings attached. And one should not think that China has been slow in seeking to exploit this for its own benefit as a country, as well it should.

Posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Panda

Book Review: Panda: An Intimate Portrait Of One Of The World’s Most Elusive Animals, by Heather Angel

Pandas are elusive animals, and with good reason, because they happen to have attracted the interest of humanity and this interest came with a great deal of violence directed at pandas in order to make their pelts attractive museum pieces. This particular book does not focus on the history of the panda and its understanding (or lack thereof) by Chinese and Western scientists and people. What this book does, though, is provide for readers that which a great many people do want and appreciate, and that is an understanding of the panda in its natural habitat as much as can be seen by those who are not able to travel to remote parts of China or be fortunate enough to find the elusive and shy animal when they are near it. The panda has many reasons to hide from violent men with guns, but hopefully can recognize the difference that it makes to be pursued with a high-quality camera rather than with weaponry. For the shy animal, it may not make a huge difference, but it is easy to concede the superiority of informing people of panda habits through people with cameras and able typing skills than it is to unleash large amounts of tourists on the fragments of panda sanctuary land that remain or to hunt pandas to near extinction to bring them to Western zoos.

This book is almost 150 pages and it consists of a large variety of gorgeous photos of pandas in their natural environment as well as text that discusses this shy and hidden animal, for all of its fame worldwide. The book is divided into various chapters, beginning with an introduction that discusses the author’s own fondness for pandas and a desire to get to know them better. After that there is a chapter that deals with panda places, which include trees, fields, and rivers, all of which show loping pandas enjoying themselves, mostly. There is a chapter that discusses the panda’s fondness for a bamboo diet, chomping on the bamboo readily. This is followed by a chapter that deals with panda movement, which is loping and a bit awkward, it must be admitted. Then there is a chapter on playful pandas, which shows mostly young pandas frolicking happily. A chapter on pandas in winter shows the animal in the stark winter snow of its remote highland home. This is followed by a chapter on red pandas that shows the author interested in the more obscure cousin of the great pandas. After this comes a discussion about having a passion for pandas as well as acknowledgements and further information.

Overall, this book does what it sets out to do, and that is to provide a look at the panda as an animal in the wild. From the looks of these photos, it would appear as if the panda behaves in the wild similarly to the way that pandas behave in zoos. This would indicate, for what it’s worth, that the panda shows its true nature in captivity, and that there is a lot of variability in terms of how pandas act. As animals, they have personality, and their general look does tend to attract the nurturing and caring instincts that some of us have as people. That is probably for the best, as herbivorous bears might tend to be seen as having the worst of both worlds, a frightening visage that augurs violence and a lack of bloodthirstiness in terms of its behavior. That said, pandas do appear to be able to defend themselves somewhat with sharp teeth for eating bamboo and sharp claws, even if few land or air species can effectively defend themselves against bullets, it must be admitted.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

On The Ports Of The Red Sea

Sometimes I have an interest in odd things, and one of those things is ports. Ports are cities that are on bodies of water that provide access to the inexpensive transportation of people and goods through ships. The Red Sea happens to be a vital sea connecting three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa, through the Suez canal that provides access into the Mediterranean Sea. One might imagine, therefore, that the ports of the Red Sea are of considerable importance, and so they are. In multiple cases (Jordan, Sudan), the Red Sea marks the only access to the sea that these nations have, and thus provides vital importance to the economies of these nations. In other cases, the Red Sea provides one of two coasts that the nation has access to and thus a still important window to the outside world. Wikipedia lists 21 contemporary cities that are ports on the Red Sea. Let us briefly look at these cities, discussing their population as well as their importance to the nation in question, looking country by country.


Hurghada: Starting around a century ago as a small fishing port, Hurghadah has since grown to a large coastal resort city of more than 250,000 people. The place is especially popular with European tourists on package deals as well as Egyptian tourists, given the beautiful beaches and calm seas of the area. Although much of the growth of the city has been recent, the area was long a gateway into Egypt from the Red Sea with historical sites going back to Pharaonic times.

Sharm El Sheikh: This port city of around 73,000 people is at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and is an important city for tourism as well as foreign conferences, and it also serves as the capital for the Sinai governorate of Egypt. Once a small fishing port, the area became increasingly important during the 20th century and became a major naval base for Egypt that has been fought over several times over the course of the last century, including having been occupied on multiple occasions by Israel.

Suez: With a population of nearly 750,000, Suez is a city of high importance to Egypt at the southern entrance to the eponymous Suez canal that serves as a vitally important global transportation route connecting the Red Sea and thus the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and thus Europe and the Levant’s thriving trade centers. The city’s importance to Egypt is difficult to exaggerate, given that the revenues from the Suez canal make up almost 4% of Egypt’s entire GDP, and Suez has a long history as a vital port for trade from Egypt to the outside world that continues to this day.


Eilat: This city, the only port of Israel on the Gulf of Aqaba, has a population of a bit more than 50,000 people. Somewhat remote from most of the rest of Israel, the area around Eilat has long been known for its copper mining, and Israel is attempting to develop the region to expand its population to around 150,000 through the building of infrastructure including a new airport as well as high-speed rail with connections to the core of Israel at Beersheva and Tel-Aviv, as well as a large amount of new housing.


Aqaba: The only one of these cities I have yet to personally visit myself, Aqaba has a population of around 150,000 people and is the only seaport for Jordan and thus one of the most important cities in the country as a whole. The city has a long history as a vital port in the region and was key in the Arab Revolt of World War I in providing for the eventual independence of Jordan from Ottoman rule. The city is a beautiful one with a lot of history as well as a pleasant climate and friendly people with a strong approach to tourism.

Saudi Arabia:

Al Lith: This port is rather obscure to outside sources, but with a population of only 72,000, it is still the fifth-largest city in the Mecca Province of Saudi Arabia, and one of the ports in that region. Although the city is somewhat small now, it was once a vital transshipment port where goods came from Yemen and Africa and were then shipped on to Jeddah and Mecca.

Al Qunfudah: This port city of 300,000 residents is the fourth-largest city in the Mecca province, and is a port of considerable importance to the south of Al Lith. Besides being an important port for Saudi Arabia in terms of the convoy route for the hajj, the town also has universities as well as banks and some airport construction is going on the area, testimony to its growing importance.

Jeddah: With a population of around 4,000,000 people, Jeddah is the largest city in the Mecca Province and the second-largest city in all of Saudi Arabia after the capital of Riyadh. Jeddah’s importance to Saudi Arabi is extremely high, as it is a popular resort city, a major city in fishing, the second-busiest port in the entire Middle East, and the principal port in the hajj in bringing Muslim pilgrims to the nearby city of Mecca. Although close to Mecca, Jeddah is known for being a considerably more liberal city than its religious neighbor, and its extreme importance to Mecca has made it a place that has long been fought over by those who wished to control access to Muslim holy sites.

Jizan: With a population of a bit more than 100,000 people, Jizan is a major port on the northern side of Saudi Arabia’s border with Saudi Arabia. Although the area of Jizan has long been known as a rare area of agriculture for Saudi Arabia in the production of high-quality tropical fruits (including, alas, mangoes), the area is also the source of a great deal of industrial development in aluminum smelting, oil refining, as well as further agricultural development.

Yanbu: With a population of a bit less than 200,000 people in the city itself and more in the surrounding area, Yanbu is the main port for the second-most holy city of Isalm, Al Madinah. The city has, unsurprisingly, been important for a long time and the area is known for its industry related to three pipelines that end in the port as well as some beautiful reefs that encourage a growing tourist industry. The port mainly deals with oil but also takes in pilgrims as well and has been the site of terrorist attacks against Westerners in 2004.


Port Sudan: With a population of around 500,000 people, Port Sudan is the main port for Sudan (perhaps unsurprisingly), with a large container port, ferry access across the Red Sea to Jeddah, a thriving university, and a diverse religious population that contains Muslims and Christians. The area also has considerable infrastructure connecting it to Sudan’s capital at Khartoum, allowing the port to serve as Sudan’s main window to the world at large.

Suakin: Once a historically important port for Sudan, this city of a bit more than 40,000 people has been granted in a 99-year lease to Turkey, who is in the process of rebuilding the Ottoman port. The area has an interesting history going back to ancient times and was once part of a thriving Christian community that was swamped by Muslim immigration and domination, and there are ferries from this port to Jeddah.


Assab: With a population of only about 20,000, Assab is a city known for its pleasant beaches and nightlife and for its importance as a port for the nation of Eritrea. Unfortunately, the border disputes between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti have made this particular port far less populated than it was at its heyday when it was an Italian and then a Soviet naval base in the region.

Massawa: With a population of just over 50,000 people, Massawa is nonetheless a very important port, with large docks and a naval base of considerable historical importance. The area has Ottoman architecture and has been a vital port in the region for centuries, although its population has suffered in recent decades because of conflicts with Ethiopia that have severed the port from its previous hinterland that extended into the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The area was once the capital of Italian Eritrea and was also the main naval base for the Ethiopian naval base before Eritrea won its independence in 1991.


Aden: Aden, with a population of more than 850,000 in 2017, is not technically on the Red Sea, but it is a port very near the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and it is a vital port in controlling the gate of the Red Sea at its base, and as such was long controlled by Great Britain and also was for some decades the capital of the nation of South Yemen. The city has long been a vital hub of tourism and transportation, even if it has in recent decades been periodically threatened by various political conflicts within Yemen, including a recent civil war.

Al Dahama: In stark contrast to Aden, Al Dahama is a small village with a population of only about 250 people. It is on the Gulf of Aden, quite a bit far from the Red Sea proper.

Al Hudaydah: This port on the Red Sea is not well-known compared to some other ports, but at more than 400,000 inhabitants, it is the fourth-largest city in Yemen and is a vital port in the logistics of food transportation into Yemen. As a result, the city was fought over highly in the recent Yemeni Civil War, and for several years the port was closed through the conflict, though it has apparently been open since 2018. The city has some fame in historical sources that view the city as a place where khat was chewed by the local population and was also a port that played a role in the hajj to Saudi Arabia, and the city has been fought over by Saudi Arabia and Yemen on several occasions.

Al Luhayyah: This small port is to the north of Al Hudaydah, and has a population of around 3,000 people. Its small and protected port was long fought over between Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well as the Ottoman Empire, and was once vital in the coffee trade, but its trade has since between eclipsed by its larger neighboring port to the south, in whose region this small town resides.

Mocha: A small port of around 16,000 people, Mocha was once (unsurprisingly, given its name) a vital port in Yemen’s coffee trade. The city once had a thriving Jewish population and was once the main port for Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The port has since been eclipsed, however, by Aden and Al Hudaydah. The city’s importance, such as it is, at present is in fishing and a small number of tourists, and the city has been fought over during Yemen’s recent civil war.

Salaq: A small port in the far north of Yemen near the boundary with Saudi Arabia, this village has a population of around 200 people.

Salbah: Another small port in the far north of Yemen near the boundary with Saudi Arabia, this village has a population of a bit less than 1,000 people.

Posted in History, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma

The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma, by Dr. Peggy Rismiller

As is often the case in books like this, this volume is not only about the echidna and what an odd animal it happens to be, but also about the author, because people who write a book like this feel it necessary to make at least part of the book about them and are not willing to give all of their attention to the subject at hand. So it is that this book begins not with a study of the echidna itself but rather with the author’s own fascination with the animal and the way that it led her out of Germany to study in Australia and to spend decades seeking to better understand an animal about which little is known. The author, moreover, feels it necessary at many points throughout this book to defend her credentials as a scientist by being able, however belatedly, to follow the evidence where it lays rather than letting theory get in the way of scientific knowledge. None of this is strictly necessary to making the book a compelling one, which it would be if its focus was truly on the echidna and not on the author, who is considerably less interesting and compelling, but people write books for personal reasons and the intrusiveness of the writing occasionally reminds us that it is indeed a person who wrote this book for very personal reasons.

This book is a bit more than 100 pages and is full of some very interesting pictures of echidnas in their natural habitat that are striking and rare and well worth reading for those who are fans of the odd animal. In addition to this, the author provides some occasionally winning text as well divided into several chapters. The author begins by setting the scene about her studies of the echidna by focusing on her own research history as well as the location of her research on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After this the author spends some time chronicling the knowledge of the animal in the writings and myths and studies of others. After this comes a chapter where the author celebrates the oddness and extremeness of the echidna as an egg-laying monotreme. After this comes a look at the life of the echidna in the bush, in its natural habitat. The is followed by some look at some moments in the lives of echidnas as monotremes as well as a look at the diverse environments that the echidna can live in. These man chapters are then followed by a list of myths and facts about the echidna, a glossary, echidnas outside Australia, a bibliography, footnotes, and an index.

Echidnas are, in fact, very enigmatic creatures, and there are good reasons why this is the case. The author, when she is not talking about her own research and that of others by trying to make her and other scientists out to be rather heroic figures, manages on a few occasions to bring out the difficulty of knowing and finding out things about the echidna because they are solitary animals that are quite shy around human beings, whom they are rightly afraid of, besides blending into the creation around them well and also having behavior and habits that defy easy categorization and assumption. It is indeed all the more telling that many of the author’s own insights about the echidna come from her observation of the animal on a small island off the southern coast of Australia, and that in this confined habitat certain assumptions and extrapolations have been made for the population of animals in the rest of Australia, where conditions are not as easy for the understanding of echidna ways, seeing as echidnas are animals which like to roam and which have many secrets kept diligently because they are an elusive and odd animal.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Echidnas (World’s Weirdest Animals)

Echidnas (World’s Weirdest Animals), by Marcia Zappa

One of the things that is not well understood is that weirdness is generally a sign of the oddness of creators, as opposed to the dull uniformity that comes from emergent processes lacking in design elements. Be that as it may, echidnas are certainly proper subjects of a series on odd and weird animals as they are certainly weird animals. For one, they are monotremes, egg-laying mammals, one of only three species (two of which are echidnas, the other being the platypus). In addition to having the egg laying which makes them odd, there are other aspects which make the echidna odd animals as well, including the look of their beaks (and the fact that it is made up of bone and is an integral part of its skeletal structure). And then there is the fact that echidnas are themselves animals whose identity is not known well and which is frequently confused with other species, such as the hedgehog or porcupine, and all of these things combined tends to make the echidna a natural animal when it comes to being an odd or strange one.

This book is a short book of 32 pages. It begins appropriately enough with a picture that shows the echidna as wildly weird, in part for its bald and prominent snout. After that comes a look at the bold bodies of the echidna with four legs splayed about and spines spiking through their fur that can be individually controlled by the echidna through muscles. This is followed by a look at the habitat of the echidna in Australia and New Guinea. Then comes a look at the life of the echidna as well as how it maintains safety against its few natural predators. The author then includes a look at the favorite foods, namely worms and insects, of the echidna, as well as the weird phenomenon of echidna trains by which a mating female is followed by as many as ten male echidnas who follow it around for days waiting for the chance to mate, which goes to the first in line at the end. This is followed by a discussion of echidna eggs, which are about the size of a dime coin, and the life cycle of echidnas, which include a lot of time spent as a puggle in a temporary pouch and then in a well-hidden burrow where the baby puggle eats for a couple hours every five days while the mother forages until the animal gets big enough to go out on its own at about seven months of life or so. This is followed by discussions about echidnas as being threatened animals, as many of them die as roadkill, a glossary, websites, and an index.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Echidnas

Echidnas, by Lola M. Schaefer

This book about echidnas is part of a series about tiny-spiny animals. And if an animal belonged in the category of tiny and spiny, it was certainly the obscure echidna, which is my second favorite animal. This book is an interesting one mainly because the echidna, also known as the spiny anteater, is such a compelling and unusual animal. And admittedly while this book is perfectly serviceable, it is the echidna that is the star of the show. And that is precisely as it should be. This book is aimed at young readers, presumably elementary school ones, who have an interest in odd animals, possibly because they have been assigned to read and study about it. If that is the case, this book will perfectly serve those purposes. As someone who has always had a fondness for odd animals, this book was pleasant even if somewhat basic. As is the case with this sort of book, there are a lot of lovely photos of echidnas ambling about and licking up insects and trying to hide from would-be predators (or people), and that is pretty much what anyone would want out of a book like this, so it is definitely a success.

This book is a short one at 24 pages, and it is divided into unnumbered chapters that answer various basic questions about the echidna. These questions include: What are echidnas? Where do echidnas live? What do echidnas look like? What do echidnas feel like? How do echidnas use their spines? How big are echidnas? How do echidnas move? What do echidnas eat? Where do new echidnas come from? The answers to these questions are pretty straightforward, but I will not spoil them. After the questions there is a quiz, a picture glossary, a note to parents and teachers, answers to the quiz, and an index, which indicates again that this book is intended for the educational market of books about odd animals to help children appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

When A Continent Rides The Struggle Bus

While I was looking for books on another subject, I noticed that four different accounts of the proceedings of the House Committee on International Relations over the past two decades featured the word struggle in them. All four were connected to African countries: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Nigeria (all countries with strong Islamic aspects to their culture as well, it must be noted). I read three of the proceedings [1]. It struck me as interesting, and perhaps even a bit troubling, that the word uniting these accounts of foreign problems in Africa should be the word struggle. It is not terribly surprising that in the eyes of the House Committee on International Relations, all of these struggles are connected with some common elements. What is most striking, at least to this critical observer, is that Congress thought that their example of elected leadership was a beacon to the world at large, instead of being an embarrassment that one would not want to talk about too loudly out of shame.

It is fair to ask how much of a struggle is going on in the three African countries whose testimony I read about (I chose not to read about Tunisia, though I may do so in the future). Now, it is clear that Algeria is struggling against terrorism, but that terrorism is deeply connected with the popularity of Islamist parties within the country, an unwelcome development to any nation. One of the conundrums about the politics of much of the world is that parties which are hostile to republican norms of civil political discourse and the avoidance of violence and respect for minority rights and the encouragement of a broad range of non-political institutions that perform a lot of what is necessary for civil society end up being broadly popular with people. Simply because the people want something does not mean that what they want is good or wise or in their best interests, but there remains a powerful desire simply to proclaim vox populi, vox dei, even though that is not the case. And yet it is hard to say as one human being to another that what others want is not in their best interests although that is frequently the case. One can do so justly only from a point of view that is above the human.

In the other two examples, it does not appear as if a genuine struggle is going on. One of the papers dealt with proceedings on a struggle in Nigeria against corruption, but there remains little evidence that the corrupt political elites of Nigeria are indeed struggling against corruption in any meaningful sense. They are reveling in corruption, profiting from corruption, but not struggling against it. Nor does it appear particularly obvious that the U.S. Congress, a body of people who has no little experience nor profit from corruption itself, has any moral credibility to condemn the corruption of other political elites who are engaged in the common elite sport of plundering wealth that ought to go to the general public in terms of wages and development and infrastructure spending. Nor does it appear, for example, very likely that Egypt is struggling towards a civil society that respects minority rights for beleaguered Copts or will allow broad freedom of activity to corrupt jornos and Non-Governmental Organizations that which to act in ways that may jeopardize the stability of governments. Struggle does not seem like the right word to discuss situations where the calculus of events weighs heavily against struggling, much less achieving, something that the Congress would (often hypocritically) find to be desirable.

Why should it be Africa’s place to struggle? To be sure, the continent of Africa is one where struggling of one kind or another is quite a common issue, yet struggling is a common facet of human life as a whole. It may be said, for example, that contemporary political elites all over the world struggle to attain legitimacy in the face of corruption and cynicism and a lack of identity between rulers and ruled. This is by no means a new struggle, but it is a struggle that extends far beyond Africa. A great many people around the world struggle for dignity, struggle for political power, struggle to be treated with respect and honor and to have the opportunities that they believe they deserve. People struggle for love and intimacy, struggle for freedom, struggle to avoid burdensome responsibilities, and any number of things. People struggle to feed themselves and their families and put roofs over their head. And all of these struggles, wherever they occur, are worthy of the name, even if not all struggle is good or noble or successful. It does, however, require making diligent effort in the face of resistance towards some sought goal, sought for oneself and not chosen by others.

[1] See, for example:




Posted in Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Struggle For Civil Society In Egypt

The Struggle For Civil Society In Egypt, by the U.S. Congress

In 2014, in the aftermath of the supposed Arab Spring, the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations spent some time talking about the struggle for civil society in Egypt. Included in the discussion was some discussion by a non-governmental organization that received money from Congress about the perils and pitfalls of being part of an American-supported and unrecognized NGO in Egypt, with threats including forced expulsion from the country on very little notice (a problem, it should be noted, I have some empathy about), as well as threats for jail time for engaging in activity that threatens the unity of Egypt. So when we are talking about the struggle for civil society, we are not talking necessarily about the sort of civil society that would make life in Egypt tolerable for Copts, who find themselves horrifically threatened by democratic reforms that would favor Islamist parties, but rather the sort of civil society that would be tolerable for cosmopolitan political elites who wish to push representative democracy on Egypt despite the lack of cultural norms that would encourage the stability and well-being of a democratic regime, and despite the fact that our own struggling republic is less and less able to provide a fit example for the world on how democratic societies are supposed to operate well.

This particular book is a bit less than 100 pages long and it is divided into three sections that deal with various witnesses of journos and well-connected NGO’s complaining about Egypt’s political state before a sympathetic audience in Congress, the written testimony of the witnesses presented before the committee, and appendices dealing with minutes and responses to questions. In reading these statements, it is striking to see just how heavy there is an assumption that the problems of the world would be solved with more democracy, or more freedom for frequently corrupt journalists. Given the fact that few American journalist are any good at fighting corruption and defending the well-being of the people here, how are we to expect that things will go any better in foreign countries without the lengthy tradition of free institutions? Yet there is an assumption underlying the testimony of the various participants that we are a fit example for the rest of the world and that we do offer a model of republican virtue that provides for minority rights as well as a well-functioning press, without realizing that the biases of our press may actively discourage nations which value stability and order from encouraging their journalists to behave as our corrupt and wicked ones do. Alas, moral blindness appears all too frequent in political matters.

Posted in Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , | 1 Comment