strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘Business Behaviors’ Category

Your Car Needs a 10-Acre Farm To Run For a Year: Biofuel Lunacy 3

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2015

The biggest loser: Monarch butterflies, now endangered. (Photo: Chip Taylor)

The biggest loser: Monarch butterflies, now endangered. (Photo: Chip Taylor)

Continued from part 2. As indicated previously, this is a reprise of a story I wrote in 2007.  The CRP numbers, and pretty much everything else described below, have just gotten worse:

Switching to biofuels means getting our energy only from what we can grow in the present day, and that’s not much. In the course of a year, an acre of corn yields as little as 60 gallons of ethanol, after you subtract the fossil fuels used to cultivate, harvest and refine the crop.

So let’s flash forward five years. Twice a month you swing by the biofuels station to fill the 25-gallon tank in your sporty flex-fuel econo-car. (Pretend you’ve kissed the SUV goodbye.) Even this modest level of energy consumption will require a ten-acre farm to keep you on the highway for a year.

That might not sound too bad. But there are more than 200 million cars and light trucks on American roads, meaning they would require two billion acres’ worth of corn a year (if they actually used only 50 gallons a month). The country has only about 800 million acres of potential farmland.

What if we managed to break out of the corn ethanol trap and instead

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Legal Rhino Horn Trade? Both Sides Say Save Rhinos in Wild First

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2015

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

At a recent mediation session in Cape Town, activists for and against legalized trade in rhino horns met to find common ground on saving rhinos in the wild.  Both were mainly worried by the rising toll of animals being poached in South Africa, up to 1215 last year, from almost none in 2007.  Here’s an excerpt from the report in South Africa’s Daily Maverick:

All participants agreed that, in the light of likely voting patterns when CITES members next meet in Cape Town (in March 2016), it is unrealistic to expect any changes to the legislation for the trade in rhino products. Indeed, it appears that even if successfully motivated, legalisation in the trade of rhino products would not happen within the next decade, at which point, based on current poaching statistics, rhinos in the wild could well

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Intelligence Is About Making Friends, Not Tools

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2014


My latest, for the Yale Alumni Magazine:

One day in the late 1990s, Nicholas Christakis was on the South Side of Chicago visiting a woman who had Alzheimer’s disease. Christakis was then a young physician and social scientist at the University of Chicago, taking care of terminally ill patients and also studying the widower effect—in which the death of one spouse dramatically worsens the likelihood of death for the other.

That day’s patient was gradually dwindling away, attended by her daughter. “The daughter was exhausted from caring for her mother,” Christakis recalls. The daughter’s husband was also sick from his wife’s exhaustion. Then Christakis got a phone call from one of the husband’s pals, “depressed by what was happening to his friend.”

It dawned on Christakis that the widower effect was not just about husbands and wives, or even pairs of people like the mother and her daughter. It rippled outward across networks of family, friends, and coworkers. Most surprisingly, given the narrow focus of his own work up to that point, it wasn’t just about death. “So I started to see the world in a completely new way,” Christakis recalled, in a 2010 TED talk, “and I became obsessed with how it might be that we’re embedded in these social networks, and how they affect our lives.”

Questions about the nature of networks have dominated his research ever since, first at Chicago, then during a 12-year stint at Harvard, where his growing interest in networks and biosocial science ultimately led him to give up his medical practice, and now at Yale, to which Christakis returned in summer 2013 as a professor of both sociology and medicine. (His full title is the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science.)

Over the past few years, his work illuminating the nature of social networks has won Christakis recognition not just within the scholarly world, but on Time magazine’s 2009 list of 100 “people who affect the world,” and on Foreign Policy’s 2009 and 2010 lists of top global thinkers. His 2009 book, Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, has appeared in nearly 20 languages. He wrote it, appropriately, with his best friend and longtime research collaborator James H. Fowler ’97MA, now at the University of California, San Diego. Their work demonstrating the contagious nature of everything from obesity to altruism has stirred up considerable debate in the research world. It has also suggested powerful new ways to intervene in networks—for instance, to speed the switch to generic drugs, or to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

What Christakis and Fowler are proposing amounts to a strikingly different way of looking at our own lives, adding a new “n’ to the familiar dichotomy of nurture and nature: we are also Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, The Primate File | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Getting Ranchers to Tolerate Wolves–Before It’s Too Late

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 1, 2014

(Photo: Ken Canning / Getty Images)

(Photo: Ken Canning / Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart:

Ever since the 1995 reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, ranchers in the region have loudly complained that their herds end up paying a heavy cost. Lately, as a result, they’ve taken to trapping and shooting wolves at every opportunity.

Hunters have already exterminated more than a third of the 1,600 wolves that were thought to live in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho in 2012, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended endangered species protection for gray wolves there. Environmentalists now worry about the danger of a new regional extinction. Ranchers and some state wildlife officials meanwhile seem to be ardently working to achieve it.

The wolves are no longer safe even within a protected federal wilderness: Just last week, facing a lawsuit by environmental groups, the State of Idaho recalled a hunter it had sent into the Frank Church-River of No Return National Wilderness Area to kill wolves there. Environmentalists claimed a small victory. But state officials said the hunter had already killed nine wolves and presumably eliminated the two wolf packs thought to inhabit the wilderness.

In this combative context, a new study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics reports the disturbing conclusion that the ranchers are right about at least one thing: The cost.

Together with his co-authors, Joseph P. Ramler, a graduate student in economics at the University of Montana, examined detailed livestock records over 15 years for 18 ranches in western Montana. Ranchers there typically graze cattle for part of the season on their own pastures, and then, for much of the summer, turn them out onto federal forests and grasslands. Ten of the ranches had lost calves to wolf attacks, and eight hadn’t.

Calculating the loss from an attack is relatively easy, and states have programs to compensate ranchers for the direct loss. But ranchers also complain, according to Ramler and his co-authors, that “wolves decrease the average weight of calves by stressing mother cattle, increasing movement rates, or encouraging inefficient foraging behavior.” That is, the cattle have to spend a lot more time looking around for danger, and a lot less with their heads down in the grass. The study set out to determine if ranchers are simply crying wolf, “or is there evidence that wolves have indirect effects on calf weight?”

First the good news: When the study mapped both the location of cattle and the movement of wolf packs, it found that simply having wolves in the vicinity Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Passing of a Great Editor

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 16, 2013

Don MoserDon Moser, the editor of Smithsonian Magazine from 1980 to 2001, died Thursday at the age of 81.

A lot of editors these days think a writer should jump through hoops for an assignment. Don trusted me to write what interested me, in the belief that it would also interest his readers.

In the mid-1990s, I was writing a lot of insect stories, and he once protested to Jim Doherty, my editor: “Can’t you get him to write about something bigger than a breadbox?” (More recently, the editor of a general interest magazine told me that writing about ANY kind of wildlife is uninteresting and “not cool.”) But Don made the assignment. It won the National Magazine and led to my book Spineless Wonders.

Don Moser was a prince.

Here’s a piece senior editor Jack Wylie wrote when Don retired from the magazine:

Don Moser is putting down his pencil and picking up a fly rod. After taking over from the founding editor, Edward K. Thompson, in 1980, Don ran the magazine in the independent tradition of H. L. Mencken at the American Mercury and Harold Ross at the New Yorker: his subjective judgment, and his alone, determined what would run. No committees, no voting. Judging by the results—two million subscribers, a National Magazine Award and a stack of other prizes—it was a formula for success.
Before coming to Smithsonian, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Gross National Delusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2013

A professor at Yale read this aloud to me today and, if I am not mistaken, there was an emotional hitch in his voice, around the line about “the strength of our marriages.”

It’s Bobby Kennedy (I met him once) on the false values of GNP:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Read the rest of this entry »

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The Fraud Hunter

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2013

(Photo: Julie Brown)

(Photo: Julie Brown)

I’m back in the territory of my book, The Natural History of the Rich, for this story.  It’s my profile of Jim Chanos, the most successful short-seller in the world, and a Sherlock Holmes of corporate bad behavior.

Here’s an excerpt:

You would think that by now financial types would stop to listen when Chanos says “Uh-oh.” He has been raising the red flag on companies—from the merely troubled to the outright fraudulent—for more than 30 years, often while corporate executives and Wall Street analysts were still eagerly flogging those companies to gullible buyers. “He’s been pretty much right about everything,” says Nell Minow, a leading advocate for responsible corporate governance. “He’s a smart guy.” The investments he has shorted constitute a nearly complete chronicle of bad business behavior in our time. The most famous among them landed Chanos on the cover of Barron’s in 2002 as “The Guy Who Called Enron.” But the list of his targets stretches from Michael Milken’s junk bond empire through the real estate boom of the late 1980s, the telecom bubble of the late 1990s, Dennis Kozlowski’s Tyco and Bernie Ebbers’s WorldCom at the turn of the century, subprime mortgage lenders and homebuilders in 2007, and most recently an entire nation. (China, he says, is “on an economic treadmill to hell.”)

Chanos has inevitably also been wrong about some companies—or right, but Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, The Natural History of the Rich | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Arrests in Killing of Sea Turtle Conservationist

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 31, 2013

Pre-dawn raid (Photo: Lindsay Fendt)

Pre-dawn raid (Photo: Lindsay Fendt)

Two months ago, I reported on the brutal killing of a sea turtle conservationist in Costa Rica.  This morning police began making arrests in the case.  Here’s the report from the Tico Times:

MOÍN, Limón – Shortly after 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning, agents from Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided several locations near Moín port and the city of Limón, both on the Caribbean coast, and arrested several suspects believed to be involved in the May 31 murder of turtle conservationist Jairo Mora, as well as other crimes, including robbery and turtle egg poaching.

OIJ spokeswoman Marisel Rodríguez said the number of suspects arrested is eight, and police are still searching for six others. Agents raided homes in La Managuita, Los Cocos, Pacuare and Guápiles, including two small houses down a muddy road in a forested area near Moín port – near where Mora was killed – where a Tico Times reporter witnessed at least one man placed under arrest and loaded into the back of an OIJ van.

Among the evidence police confiscated is Mora’s cellphone, Rodríguez said.

Initial reports from the Prosecutor’s Office indicate that investigators believe robbery was the motive for the brutal murder, which took place on an isolated beach where Mora worked to protect nesting sea turtles. Investigators said the suspects belong to a criminal gang dedicated to committing robberies and assaults in the area, not international drug trafficking, as was widely believed, based on Mora’s previous run-ins with poachers and the prevalence of cocaine and marijuana trafficking in the area.

Rodríguez said several of the suspects have prior arrests for robbery and assault.  (To read the full story click here.)

Posted in Business Behaviors | 1 Comment »

Best News Ever in Agriculture? Or Utter Bullshit?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 27, 2013

Here’s how The Telegraph (UK) pitches the big news yesterday from the University of Nottingham:

You may never need to put fertiliser on your plants again.

Scientists have invented a technology that allows plants to fertilise themselves by obtaining nitrogen from the air.

Almost all plants rely on nitrogen from the soil to grow, but few are able to use it directly from the air and so rely upon manure or synthetic fertiliser.

However, biologists at the University of Nottingham have discovered a form of bacteria found in sugar cane juice that traps this nitrogen by itself.  (To read the rest of the Telegraph article click here. )

And here’s the tirade blogger and University of California at Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen launched after I passed the press release along to him yesterday morning:

Well, this is one heck of a science-by-press release case.

Was pointed to this press release: World-Changing Technology Enables Crops to Take Nitrogen from the Air which comes to us from the University of Nottingham.  It makes some really bold claims like Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Hello, DreamWorks? King Julien Calling.

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 23, 2013

King Julien and Friend

King Julien and Friend

I spent some time with lemurs in Madagascar a few years ago, and the idea that they may disappear from the Earth has gotten stuck in my head this morning.  So let’s take another look at those numbers.

Saving the northern sportive lemur will cost just $25,000 a year, to put full-times guards in the field. Overall, the IUCN figures that the program to get all 104 lemur species through the next three years will cost $7.6 million.

To put that number in perspective, the three “Madagascar” animated movies released by DreamWorks Animation since 2005 have so far earned about $1.9 billion worldwide, with another sequel now in development.

Also by way of perspective, DreamWorks founders Stephen Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen recently donated $90 million … to support elderly members of the entertainment industry.

It is of course a wonderful thing to help those who helped get you where you are. And this reminds me of King Julien, the colorful lemur on whose charm DreamWorks has developed one of the most lucrative franchises in the history of entertainment.

If readers agree with me that DreamWorks, together with Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen (who is no longer associated with the company), could together go a long way toward saving the colorful tribe of lemur species, why don’t we let them know right now.

You can contact the DreamWorks board at this address. Or go to Twitter and post this message: Save King Julien and his tribe of lemur species #dreamworks #savethelemurs

Stephen? Jeffrey? David? King Julien wants to know: Isn’t it time the lemurs got a little payback, too?

Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »