Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts

Book Review: Meg Lowman's "The Arbornaut" Chronicles Her Pioneering Forest Canopy Research

Field biologist Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” describes her pioneering research amid the world's forest canopies in "The Arbornaut."


Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Photo by Dimossi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
BY SARAH BOON - September 24, 2021
This article was originally published in Undark
Read the original article
When you consider that “upward of half of all terrestrial creatures live about 100 feet or more above our heads,” as biologist Meg Lowman notes in “The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us,” it makes sense for scientists to go to where the action is. But it’s only been in recent decades that researchers have systematically explored the canopies of the world’s tropical and temperate forests, in large part due to the efforts of so-called arbornauts like Lowman.

It’s daunting work, and often dangerous. And while there have been others in the past who have used ropes and climbing gear to conduct scientific research, Lowman in 1979 pioneered a simple method of rigging a tree for climbing using a slingshot. Essentially, from the ground she shoots a weighted fishing line into the upper branches of the tree, then attaches that fishing line to a nylon cord and hauls it over the same pathway. She then ties a heavier climbing rope to the nylon cord and pulls it up and over the support branch.

“The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us” by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin, 368 pages)


Lowman and an Australian colleague also did groundbreaking work building canopy walkways. During a field trip with Earthwatch, an organization that matches citizen scientists with researchers around the world, one of the volunteers got her hair caught on the climbing rope. She had to cut her hair without cutting the rope to free herself — a dicey situation, especially for a volunteer. So Lowman and the owner of the lodge at which they were working discussed how they could bring climbers safely into the canopy via an aerial path. This would also be a boon for research, as many researchers could work in the canopy at the same time. The next year, the world’s first canopy walkway was constructed in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia. Lowman has also accessed the canopy using construction cranes and an inflatable raft attached to a dirigible.

The book traces her scientific career, from her study of plants and bird eggs as a child in upstate New York, to her undergraduate years studying tree growth and her master’s research studying tree phenology (spring leafing), and finally to her Ph.D. work, where she got into her specialty: the effects of plant-eating insects on the leaves of tropical trees. The field was understudied because most researchers didn’t access the canopy to measure it — and it’s that access that Lowman developed.

She repeatedly notes that there is a research bias when scientific findings are based on studies done just on the forest floor or in the lower parts of trees, excluding the canopy. She likens it to looking just at someone’s big toe to diagnose an illness.

One of Lowman’s recurring themes is the importance of the scientific process, which she expresses as a series of iterative questions; indeed, the longest section of the book describes her Ph.D. research and the additional sub-studies she did to rule out bias in her main study. The reader is bombarded with experiment after experiment that Lowman conducted to answer smaller questions that arose during the course of her research, like whether insects are drawn to eat the water-resistant ink she uses to label leaves; whether they can find their way back to their food source if they fall out of the canopy; and whether young or old leaves are more toxic to the creatures.



This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.





Book Review: "Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction"

In "Undoing Drugs", author Maia Szalavitz explores the increasing movement to protect people in the fight against addiction.












September 3, 2021 by TROY FARAH

T he war on drugs may profess to be waged against narcotics, but it overwhelmingly targets people — a view increasingly shared by experts on drug use. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, touched on this recently when she wrote about addiction stigma in STAT, noting that “societal norms surrounding drug use and addiction continue to be informed by myths and misconceptions.”

Starting in the 1980s, a rowdy group of individuals began advocating for a different approach to drug policy called harm reduction. These activists, researchers, social workers, attorneys, and others, from a myriad of different backgrounds, have focused on the harms of drug use — not the drugs alone.

Maia Szalavitz’s new book “Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction” is an in-depth history of a powerful idea, exploring many angles of drug policy, including prescription drug use, supervised consumption, and legalizing cannabis. Throughout, she also details the racial inequities and social justice tensions that have defined the drug war.

“Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction,” by Maia Szalavitz (Hachette Go, 384 pages)


Szalavitz, a science journalist, unwraps the many layers of harm reduction, a philosophy that has also been adopted in approaching sex work, restorative justice, Covid-19, and other areas. When it comes to illicit substances, harm reduction runs the gamut from sterile syringe access programs to supervised drug injection rooms to distributing the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone.

Depending on who you ask, harm reduction has many different definitions, including “radical empathy” which requires “meeting people where they’re at.” Szalavitz offers multiple interpretations, but writes that, simply: “Harm reduction applies the core of the Hippocratic oath — first, do no harm — to addiction treatment and drug policy. This takes the focus off of psychoactive drug use itself.”

Tracing the roots of the movement, Szalavitz introduces us to characters like the “Goddess of Harm Reduction” and the “Johnny Appleseed of Needles,” whose lives are dedicated to spreading evidence-based practices of harm reduction. Some advocates were arrested, ostracized by friends and family, or lost their lives to overdose.

For years, the U.S. government rejected harm reduction services, even going so far as to ban federal funding for needle exchange programs. But now there are jobs, conferences, and nonprofit organizations committed to harm reduction. And in President Joe Biden’s budget for the 2022 fiscal year, $30 million has been earmarked for services like syringe access, the first time Congress has appropriated funds specifically for harm reduction, according to The New York Times.

Szalavitz follows the evolution of the movement, beginning with her own story in New York in the 1980s. Addicted to opioids during the height of the U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic, the young writer had no clue that sharing syringes could spread the deadly new virus that was already killing so many. Yet between 55 and 60 percent of people who use intravenous drugs at the time were positive with the virus.

Ideally, of course, people who inject drugs should never share syringes. Doing so can spread bloodborne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis C. But ideal situations don’t always exist in the world of street narcotics. So some public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began recommending a middle ground: If you must reuse a syringe, properly disinfect it using bleach and clean water, which by some estimations can greatly reduce the chances of contracting HIV (though certain sources say otherwise).

Before that knowledge became more widely known, a friend’s girlfriend taught Szalavitz this trick to lower her risk of infection, setting her life on a completely different course. She credits this fortuitous acquaintance with saving her life.

Szalavitz became enraged that no one had given her this simple advice. Why had she not encountered a public health campaign blasting this information to all who needed to hear it? But back then, Szalavitz says, few in government seemed to care about people who use drugs. “It didn’t seem fair or right to see anyone as being that worthless,” Szalavitz writes. “I needed to know,” she adds, “how to keep others from suffering the fate I’d only narrowly avoided.”


“Harm reduction applies the core of the Hippocratic oath — first, do no harm — to addiction treatment and drug policy. This takes the focus off of psychoactive drug use itself.”

Thus began a three-decade reporting career on harm reduction, drug policy, and crucially, science, that has spanned, as she likes to put it, “from High Times to The New York Times” (and includes Undark). In this book, she interviewed hundreds of people to catalog the first- and second-hand accounts of people who have helped bring harm reduction into the public consciousness.

The book takes us from Vancouver, Canada and San Francisco, California, to Liverpool, England. Throughout are gossipy details about regular people: their broken relationships and personal dramas, their allegiances and falling outs. This isn’t the book’s main focus, but is a reminder that every movement involves a decent share of infighting and argument, tiny tests that demonstrate the resiliency of an idea.

To make harm reduction work, its progenitors needed to rely on strong research. In 1987 several drug activists in Liverpool started The Mersey Drugs Journal, where they documented local efforts and helped put the term “harm reduction” on the map. Because their ideas reached beyond the borders of Merseyside County, the publication was renamed The International Journal of Drug Policy. Currently issued by Dutch publishing monolith Elsevier, the peer-reviewed journal has an impact factor of 5.0 (meaning it is often cited by other researchers) and is indexed in 11 international databases.

By “emphasizing conducting research on its efforts, harm reduction created an enormous intellectual obstacle for its opponents,” Szalavitz writes. “After all, if studies show that a policy doesn’t reduce harm, it can’t be part of harm reduction. And how can you oppose a policy that works?”

Szalavitz has often been witness to harm reduction history, including an important 1991 court case that paved the way for legalizing syringe access in New York. It began in March of that year with the arrest of eight demonstrators from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, commonly known as ACT UP, a grassroots political group that fought to end the HIV/AIDS crisis through civil disobedience. They were about to hand out sterile syringes on a Lower East Side intersection when the police swarmed the crowd and handcuffed the activists, charging them with needle possession.

Reporting for local outlets, Szalavitz witnessed the arrests and much of the trial, with opposing sides offering evidence for and against syringe access. Testifying for the defense was the city’s former health commissioner, Stephen Joseph, who had notably clashed with ACT UP on numerous occasions. But this time he agreed with them, describing their actions as “courageous,” and drew a parallel to 19th-century British physician John Snow, who traced a cholera outbreak to a single London water pump, similar to how ACT UP activists traced HIV to unsterile injection needles and sought to eliminate the source of infection.

The defense also presented evidence that syringe access programs reduce the transmission of infectious disease and encourage people who use drugs to enter treatment. One witness “noted that the U.S. was nearly alone in the developed world in rejecting needle exchange,” and pointed to supportive data from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Australia. As Szalavitz writes, there was “no scientific evidence that needle exchange caused harm — all of the existing data showed the opposite.”

Without refuting evidence, the prosecution lost their case and the door opened for needle exchange programs to be legalized in New York. Decades later, the data is even stronger for syringe access, a practice that has been championed by the CDC, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization.

Yet the fight for harm reduction is far from over. In mid-July, the Atlantic City Council voted to shut down New Jersey’s largest needle exchange program, ignoring the objections of the city’s health director and many other healthcare professionals. A similar scenario played out this year in Scott County, Indiana, which was the epicenter of a devastating HIV outbreak in 2015. Experts say a syringe program helped put a lid on the outbreak. Yet in June, Scott County commissioners voted to end the program.

And in July, President Biden tapped former West Virginia health commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta to be director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But some have criticized Gupta’s failure while commissioner to protect syringe access in West Virginia, which has consistently had the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S. in recent years, according to the CDC. The state severely restricted syringe exchange earlier this year, amid an HIV outbreak the CDC described as the “most concerning” in the country.

June 17, 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Drugs, in which President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Yet last year was by far the most deadly period in American history for drug overdoses. More than 92,000 people lost their lives, according to preliminary data from the CDC. This in spite of more than $1 trillion spent over four decades by the United States to enforce its drug policy.

The harm reduction movement offers a vastly different approach. It has also acknowledged, Szalavitz notes, that the drug war is historically documented to be deeply rooted in racism, not science, and has been disproportionately waged against people of color. “The essence of harm reduction,” Szalavitz, writes, “is compassion and respect for the inherent dignity and value of human life.”

“A philosophy and strategy developed by drug users and researchers for drug users, however improbably,” she continues, has “gone global — and proved to be a gift to public health.”


Troy Farah is an independent journalist from Southwest California. His reporting on science, drug policy, and public health has appeared in Wired, The Guardian, Discover Magazine, Vice, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy podcast Narcotica. Follow him on Twitter @filth_filler.




This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

BOOK REVIEW — “Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” by Emma Marris

Emma Marris' "Wild Souls" delves into the value of individual animals and species, as well as humanity's responsibilities to them.











AUGUST 27, 2021 by RACHEL NUWER

I WAS ONCE challenged by a friend to explain why it matters if species go extinct. Flustered, I launched into a rambling monologue about the intrinsic value of life and the importance of biodiversity for creating functioning ecosystems that ultimately prop up human economies. I don’t remember what my friend said; he certainly didn’t declare himself a born-again conservationist on the spot. But I do remember feeling frustrated that, in my inability to articulate a specific reason, I had somehow let down not only myself, but the entire planet.

The conversation would have gone very differently had I already read environmental journalist Emma Marris’s “Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” a razor-sharp exploration of the worth of wild animals and the species they belong to, and the responsibility we have toward them. “I wanted to know whether the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligation to animals,” Marris writes. “Our emotions about animals have always been strong, but are our intuitions about how — and whether — to interact with them still correct?”

“Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” by Emma Marris (Bloomsbury Publishing, 352 pages)

 

As Marris details throughout the book, while there are good reasons to value animals as individuals, there is in fact no unassailable single reason to protect species. However, that realization does not mean we shouldn’t do so, only that we should go about it in a more thoughtful way, with an eye also toward individuals. Ultimately, Marris argues that it’s time to renegotiate our approach to wild animals and conservation to better match the realities of our human-dominated world.

At the heart of “Wild Souls” is the tension that often exists between acting in the best interest of an individual wild animal and acting in the best interest of their overall species or environment. These things do not always line up, practically or morally. “That tension hinges on trying to compare two very different things,” Marris writes. “In some ways, this is the toughest problem of all.”

Arguing for the worth of individual creatures, Marris points to a mounting body of scientific evidence showing that many nonhuman animals are “smart, emotional, and even kind,” with rich inner lives. These animals are sentient beings, she writes — selves. Given this, ethical arguments can be made for individual animals’ rights to flourish and to live autonomous lives. This applies whether the life is that of a tiger or a mouse. “We are used to common things being cheap and rare things being valuable,” Marris writes. “But selfhood is both common and priceless.”

On the other hand, the same ethical arguments cannot be made for the obligation to ensure species thrive, especially if this comes at a cost to individuals. While “many of us have a deeply felt intuition that causing a species to go extinct is wrong,” Marris writes, “‘species’ is an abstract concept” that simply encompasses a basket of animals that share a certain set of traits at a given time. “The basket itself is not sentient, cannot suffer or feel pleasure, and is not alive,” she writes.

Evolution — the process that wove the species basket — is likewise not inherently “good,” Marris continues, but rather “is just time and sex and death and mutation and chance.” While arguments can be made for why a particular species is important to humans, she concludes, it’s more difficult to find a rational justification for why a species or ecosystem has any intrinsic or objective final value beyond the individual animals it comprises.


“We are used to common things being cheap and rare things being valuable,” Marris writes. “But selfhood is both common and priceless.”

Rationality aside, though, Marris, admits that she is deeply drawn to biodiversity — that “there’s something precious in what we call ‘nature,’ in the flow of energy, in the will to survive, in the way a lupine leaf holds a perfect sphere of rain.” She allows that overwhelming, logic-based justifications for protecting species are perhaps not necessary. Human passion alone can be reason enough to value the well-being of a rare species, even if it takes precedence over individual lives of members of that species or others.

On their own, these tensions can sound abstract. Marris gets around this by grounding the reader in real-world case studies on a number of topics, including keeping animals in zoos for educational purposes; supplemental feeding to sustain imperiled wild animals; captive breeding to bolster threatened populations or to secure genetic life rafts; and the practice of hunting as an ecological tool. As Marris explains, “I tried to look at these activities through the eyes of the individual animals as well as the framework of protecting species.”

Captive breeding, for example, usually benefits the species to the detriment of individuals, which must undergo the stress of capture and captivity — and sometimes wind up inadvertently losing their lives along with their freedom. “It’s an exercise in total domination, undertaken as part of a larger cultural project of stopping extinctions, which is arguably an attempt to reverse or reduce human domination over Earth,” Marris writes. While captive breeding does sometimes work, “does saving the kind justify restricting the autonomy of the individual?” she asks.

In the case of the California condor, the answer seems to be yes. In 1987, scientists captured the last of the world’s remaining wild condors for a captive breeding program that consisted of just 27 birds at the time. Although they were forced to forfeit their freedom, the birds likely would not have survived in the wild for much longer on their own, given the high mortality rates caused by the prevalence of lead shot in animal carcasses they were feeding on. Additionally, the species, which now numbers more than 300 in the wild, almost definitely would not have survived without intervention. So in this case, the program’s success, paired with the value of condors to humans, does seem to justify “any suffering and loss of autonomy experienced by the captured birds, especially since the levels of suffering seem quite low in this case,” Marris writes.

Marris suggests, though, that there should be limits to how far we go to protect biodiversity. This becomes particularly true, she writes, in instances when “we value ‘naturalness’ so highly that we become willing to hurt and kill animals to protect it.” Humans kill hundreds of thousands of invasive species each year, Marris estimates, and the ethics of lethal control can be weighed in a number of ways. In some cases, this method can be warranted: for example, in protecting an endangered species that humans are passionate about and that lives (or grows) on an island that is small enough for eradication of the invasive species to be done humanely. In other cases, though, killing invasive species solely on the basis of being invasive means depriving rats, feral cats, rabbits, possums, pythons, and other creatures — none of which maliciously chose to be born in a spot they did not evolve to occupy — years of life, without obvious justification.

Invasive species eradication also raises questions of where to draw the line on how we define natural. Over time, invasive species adapt to their environment and even evolve into new species, setting a new definition of natural. Climate change is also shifting many species poleward, causing “the idea that everything ‘should’ stay in its native range” to become “increasingly untenable,” Marris writes. As grizzly bears move north, for example, they are beginning to hybridize with polar bears, challenging “our cultural notions of discrete species and stable ecosystems.” Should the hybrid bears be shot, Marris asks, or “left alone to mate how they please, to respect their sovereignty?”

Perhaps the best way to save the polar bear from climate change’s deleterious impacts, she adds, is simply to “let it access the gene pool of its more flexible terrestrial cousin.”

Marris readily admits that she does not have all the answers, and that, in many cases, an answer that will simultaneously serve individual animals as well as species and ecosystems probably does not exist. What she does provide, though, is a useful set of guidelines that readers and society at large can adopt to more rigorously evaluate our attitudes toward wild animals, species, and the natural world.

As Marris argued in her 2013 book, “Rambunctious Garden,” and continues to build on in “Wild Souls,” the outdated notions of naturalness, wildness, purity, and ecological and genetic integrity — as often defined by a lack of anthropogenic influence pinned to some pre-colonial, frozen period of time — are not valuable or useful lenses through which to view environmental questions and decision-making. A more helpful and realistic set of considerations, she writes, would include the flourishing of sentient creatures, human compassion, and humility, the flow of matter and energy between living things, and biological diversity.

“Taken together, I believe these values suggest that in a humanized world, we owe nonhuman animals respect and compassion, plenty of space, a climate that is not changing too quickly, and — in some cases — intervention to help them deal with environmental challenges caused by humanity,” Marris writes. And while our “reverence for the web and flow of life” may sometimes lead us to hurting or killing animals to protect a species or ecosystem, “we must not take life lightly.”



This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

Science Fiction Book Review




Written by Paul - May 16, 2019
Original story first published at Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.
It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.
Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.
The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherryh’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.



 Originally published, here, by Paul under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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