The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Recent reading

Acting on a couple of tips (ok, reviews in New Scientist,) I have read or am still reading these two books: Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith; and Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, H. Gilbert Welch and two other doctors. Not, as you can probably imagine from the titles, feel-good content, but they appeal to my usual "things-are-worse-than-you-imagine" world view.

Stolen World, which I've finished, is a multi-decade chronicle of the sleaze balls, scum bags, jackasses, and self-absorbed twerps who smuggle rare reptiles (some of the people are smuggling in the past tense, some still at it today.) Some of them, virtually all men, are the kind of people who get bullied in their youth, others are the bullying kind. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground. The commonality is that they made or make a living by moving endangered species from their natural habitat into the developed world, where even more unlikable folks, the "collectors" of things like rare tortoises and snakes, buy them -- those that make it through the trip alive. That's a minority, by the way.

All of that I more or less knew before reading the book, but what I didn't know was that the old original customers were not pencil-necked reptile fanciers but the western nations' zoos -- zoos only got righteous and preachy about conservation and preservation when it became illegal not to be (CITES, the updated Lacey Act, and the Endangered Species Act are the lynchpins of illegal species trade regulation. Only the Lacey Act was in place prior to the 1970's.) Basically, the zoo keepers were just procurement managers, trying to replace dead animals and get the jump on their competition. The author even verges on a comparison to P.T. Barnum, at one point.

Eventually, the US Fish and Wildlife Service took an interest, some people got busted and a subset of them went to jail. There was even an international sting, involving an Asian dealer being tricked into connecting from Canada to Mexico through a US airport so he could be arrested. None of this did anything like shut down the trade in exotic lizards and so on; you still keep seeing "Man arrested with cobras in his shorts" headlines. But it has put something of a crimp in it, at least as far as we know.

What's sad about the book is that, despite a stance of deploring the whole thing, the author doesn't really seem as though she dislikes the perps all that much. She's been working on this for a long time -- ten years, I believe, although I can't find that assertion now that I look for it -- and I think she may have a bit of Stockholm Syndrome going. It focuses exclusively on the reptile trade, with just a diversion into lemur smuggling, while talking about Madagascar. Nor is there more than passing talk about the trade in animal parts for traditional medicine, arguably the worst aspect of the whole repellent picture.

But still, I read it cover to cover, hoping on each page for, "... and then, as he reached into the bag, he was bitten and died in agony shortly thereafter." Unfortunately, few of the smugglers were unskillful when it came to handling the product, and none of the principal characters seems to have received any fatal bites that made it into the book. All the names are real, says the author, except for three, evidently grumpy or litigious enough to warrant pseudonyms. Smith doesn't say why she let these people off the hook.

I'll update this post to cover the Overdiagnosed book when I've finished it; the basic thesis is that you shouldn't arbitrarily decide to lower the threshold of some biological metric (blood sugar, for example) by a large margin and then start talking about an "increase" in the number of people diagnosed with diabetes. There's a lot more to it than that, but that's a sampler.

No comments:

Post a Comment