Andrea Bianco

Zhong He's map, 1418

Zhong He’s map, 1418

I’ve always been interested in maps, and that interest has grown rather than diminished as I began to learn about them as rhetorical devices. Mark Monmonier discusses this in his How to Lie with Maps.

As faithful representations of reality, maps are endlessly fascinating and useful as tools for many purposes, not just finding one’s way. But as constructed artifacts, they embody a mix of physical reality and human passion––becoming devices for power, greed, delusion, hope, art, and more.

Recently, I read The Mapmaker: A Novel of a Great Navigator who sailed Fifty Years Before Columbus by Frank G. Slaughter. It’s a fictionalized account of Bianco’s life, but one done with an attempt to represent accurately what is known about Bianco, while filling in the gaps with a plausible story.

Portugal’s ruler Prince Henry the Navigator, sent various expeditions into the western Atlantic and along the African coast, beginning in 1418. These voyages were secret. There was a real interest in adding to the knowledge of the world, but that was coupled with a desire to use that knowledge for private gain. Not all of the discoveries were shown on published maps, and some were designed to mislead commercial rivals by concealing the existence of new lands and resources.

Antilles within the Caribbean

Antilles within the Caribbean

The Portuguese had probably reached the Antilles archilpelago at the Eastern edge of the Caribbean by 1430. Between 1436 and 1448, Andrea Bianco made, but did not publish, maps showing the locations of Newfoundland, Florida, and Brazil. Later Portuguese maps, published in 1459 and 1489, show Asia with something like Florida, conveniently omit South America.

Bianco developed the “Tondo e Quadro” (“circle and square”) method for seeing and measuring a return course. This was invaluable for repeat voyages to secure foreign resources. He collaborated with Fra Mauro, who made other detailed world maps and estimated the world’s circumference within 10% of modern figures. See The Ancient Americas: Migrations, Contacts, and Atlantis, by David Pratt.

Prior to the Portuguese voyages, the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He (a Muslim) had circumnavigated the earth. A world map was published in China during the Ming dynasty in 1418. It shows that the Ming navy had a rough knowledge of Baja California, the west coast of South America, as well as Labrador, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Chinese maps probably contributed to the Europeans’ knowledge.

The Europeans also learned from Arab science and technology. Arabs put south at the top of maps. When you face the sun in the morning, south is on the right, and right has positive associations. Also, with the sea to the south their land was then on the top of the map. Europeans flipped the map to put north and themselves on top.

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

These points are supported by other historical accounts, which in sum show that 15 C Europeans knew that the world was a sphere roughly 24,000 miles in circumference and that there were large land masses between Europe and East Asia. The issue was not to “discover” America nor to prove the word was round, but to map the details and determine who should control it.

To me, this all suggests that what I had learned about voyages of discovery was mostly wrong, and much less interesting than the fuller, more objective accounts available today. School textbooks tended to minimize or omit entirely any non-European contribution. That left out crucial parts of the story, including the cultural aspects of geography.

The textbooks also represented the discovery era as one of courageous, individualized pursuit of knowledge. Instead, the voyages were an essential aspect of empire building based on already extensive knowledge. Rather than enlightening an ignorant world, they were used to acquire knowledge, then deliberately mislead competitors.

Extreme energy nightmares

Has your sleep returned to normal after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster? If so, it may be time to think about why this was not an aberration, why we’re likely to see more and even larger disasters in the near future.

Michael Klare lays out some plausible scenarios in a recent Mother Jones article, BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come.

The only question is: What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)? The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities. None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.

The only thing that seems implausible is that we can continue to extract energy at the rate we do now without ever greater environmental, political, and economic costs.

Turtles in China and Australia

During our sabbatical in Beijing and Brisbane, we had a surprising common theme: turtles.

I’ve always liked turtles, so perhaps it was natural that I saw them everywhere we turned. It started when we asked Caroline, a ten-year-old friend from Canada, about her classes at the Bei Da elementary school. She described a strange typing class, which involved typing expressions such as “FD 100 RT 120 FD 100 RT 120”. Although she didn’t realize it at first, this was not typing class, but computer programming using the Logo language. The commands were eventually to be used to command a robotic turtle, or one on a computer screen. In this example, the turtle would be commanded to draw an equilateral triangle, 100 pixels on a side.

We decided that turtle talk was a nice, limited domain in which to practice our feeble Chinese. Wang Dongyi, a Chinese friend, was helping us with that, and we were helping him with his English. Before long we had a bustling turtle circus going in our apartment at Shao Yuan on the Bei Da campus. Caroline, Emily, and Stephen played the turtles, with occasional help from certain childlike adults. We’d issue Logo commands in Chinese or English, and learn from the consequences of the turtles’ behaviors. In this way, we were all practicing both language and programming skills. We of course had to learn the Chinese word for sea turtle, Hai Gui (海归), so that we could say Turtle Emily, forward 30, or its equivalent in Chinese.

These navigational commands happened to be useful for us visitors, as we were continually seeking of giving directions. We began to refer to taxis as Hai Gui, since they needed to execute programs such as forward ten blocks, left, then forward three more.

Hai Gui, from Woodblock Dreams

We saw images and sculptures of turtles. We even ate Hai Gui, probably more than we realized, since we couldn’t always identify or obtain a name for what we were eating. We then learned that the “Hai Gui” or “sea turtles” of China are the returning professionals who contribute to the growth of the Chinese economy. These are the students who were sent abroad, like baby sea turtles, to get advanced degrees and Western experiences, then return to lay their eggs in their homeland.

When we reached Australia, we spent a lot of time outdoors, taking advantage of the beautiful countryside in Queensland. We saw many turtles in lakes and in the ocean, and even swam with adult loggerheads. One highlight, near Bundaberg, was Mon Repos Beach, one of the two largest Loggerhead turtle rookeries in the South Pacific Ocean. Successful breeding there aids survival of this endangered species. The research program conducts animal surveys of nesting turtles, studies of reproduction, migration, behavior, incubation, and genetics.

Visitors can watch the turtles, and if they’re lucky, see the adults lay eggs (from mid November to February) or even better, see the hatchlings emerge and crawl to the sea (from January until the end of March). We couldn’t miss that. The night we went was magical. We saw baby turtles hatch and then crawl to the sea. Emily and Stephen took on the role of turtle guides, standing with legs spread and using a flashlight to guide the way. The turtles would follow the light until they neared the ocean edge and then could follow the moonlight.

Susan and I would not have done well as turtle guides since watching Emily and Stephen do this was too wonderful on its own. As Susan wrote in an email at the time, “The theme of any future message will be turtles; we did see the hatchlings and Stephen and I swam with a huge loggerhead on the [Great Barrier] Reef, a few seconds that were worth the total airfare.”

In that year, we were Hai Gui ourselves, emerging from our safe nest with little understanding of the world we were about to encounter.

The bottom line in health care

healthIn my previous post on Single-payer health care: Why not?, I talked about our family’s experiences with health care in France, UK, Ireland, Italy, China, Australia, and other places in comparison to that in the US. This included health care for children and the elderly, and both minor (blood donation, physicals, skin growth removal) and major (broken hip, eye infection) procedures.

Thinking a bit more about this I realized that there were four essential facts that emerged from this wide variety of experiences. In every industrialized country except the US,

  1. Equitable: Everyone has the right to health care.
  2. Effective: People live longer, healthier lives.
  3. Economical: They spend less on health care, as much as 50% less.
  4. Efficient: There is much less bureaucracy, fewer forms, less running around, less waiting.

dollarI might add a fifth point, too: The scare stories that we hear (“you have to wait forever!” “you can’t choose your doctor!”) are simply false, or they index issues that are the same or worse in the US. The information we get about health care promotes profit, not health.

There are many issues–changing demographics, new technologies, new medical knowledge, changing standards, globalization, and more–which affect health care. But the fundamental difference in the current US situation is that health care is driven by the bottom line. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, hospitals and clinics, doctors and other health care professionals, and all others involved in health care operate in a system in which rewards bear little relation to the overall quality of care or efficient use of resources.

One can debate each of the points above, but the evidence from OECD, UN, WHO, WTO, and other international organizations is overwhelming in support of them. Other systems offer health care that is more equitable, more effective, more economical, and more efficient.

So, why is single-payer, or national health care not even worth discussing? Why does the Obama plan dismiss it? Why does even public broadcasting ignore it?

Single-payer health care: Why not?

180px-Roma_-_FatebenefratelliI’ve been fortunate to have traveled many places, and to have lived for extended periods in China, Australia, France, and Ireland. During those travels, my family has received health care on many occasions, including for our small children in China and Asutralia, my wife in Scotland, and my 87-year-old mother in Ireland.

This health care has come in a variety of forms, including treatment for my ten-year-old daughter’s eyes at the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or Fatebenefratelli (see left), located on San Bartolomeo, the only island in the Tiber River in Rome. That hospital was built in 1584 on the site of the Aesculapius temple.

clontarfWe also faced emergency surgery for my mother’s hip at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and subsequent rehab at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland in Clontarf (right). In China, we were served in medical facilities with separate queues for Western medicine (our choice) and traditional Chinese medicine (below left). I donated blood many times at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, founded in 651 on the Ile de la Cité (below right). I’ve also observed, though not had to depend upon, health care in Russia and even in economically oppressed places such as Haiti.

beida_hospitalOn the whole, I’ve received excellent care in a variety of conditions. Individual health providers have been courteous, knowledgeable, and dedicated to their professions. For myself and my family, the experience of care did not depend on the setting or language, but rather on the ailment or the specific people providing care.

And yet, one thing stands out: Among the industrialized nations, the United States is the only one without universal health care. All of the others provide health care for all. They also do it primarily through single-payer systems.

The United States operates instead through a complex bureaucracy of insurance policies, doughnut hole prescription drug coverage, forms and regulations galore, massive administration, unnecessary and excessive procedures, complex and confusing tax codes, leading to escalating costs and unfair coverage. The inequity of care actually costs all of us more in the end, because of lack of preventative care, inefficient delivery (e.g., emergency rooms), and lost productivity. Our system costs much more, even double that found in other countries.

hotel_dieuIf we were to find that spending a few dollars more gave us better care, there might be little room for argument. But in comparable economies, people spend much less, yet have longer, healthier lives (American Health Care: A System to Die For: Health Care for All). Why then, is the system that works in Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, etc., not even under consideration here?

The answer is unfortunately all too obvious: Americans, unlike citizens in other countries, have ceded control of their own health care to profit-making insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and other entities. The best we can do is an occasional feeble cheer when someone asks why our government can’t even consider a single-payer system. Then we listen to an answer that mostly obfuscates and lays the blame for it back on our own timidity:

Beijing and Brisbane, 1996-97

family Xiao Guor
Liqian Stephen in 6th grade in Bardon, Brisbane
Sabbatical with major stays in Beijing, China and Brisbane, Australia and stops in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Italy, and Wales along the way, 1996-1997.


While in Queensland, Emily and Stephen attended Rainworth State School in Bardon, Brisbane.