The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

The almanac I used to research my previous post is a 1999 New York Times Alamanac. Like any almanac, it has a section listing information about the fifty states. The format is a few paragraphs on the history of the state and its outstanding features, followed by a list of major cities and some statistics. Here is the description of North Dakota:

The first prominent settlers in North Dakota were Scots-Canadians who settled at Pembina on the Red River near the Canadian border, and who traded primarily with Winnipeg and St. Paul. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1872 created a surge of huge farms, many of which were wiped out by drought and harsh winters in the 1880s. There followed a huge influx of Norwegians and Germans whose influence is still very apparent today. North Dakota's economy is heavily agricultural and leads the nation in production of wheat. Farming is centered in the fertile Red River of the North valley, with livestock throughout the rest of the state.

This is a good, concise history and description. Now what do you think the entry for California would look like? If I were writing it I would start with the Spanish and Mexican colonial history, describe the gold rush, then close with a few cliched references to beautiful weather, beaches, earthquakes, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley.

But this is the New York Times Almanac, remember, with its own peculiar prejudices. Here is the actual entry for California:

Before the arrival of Europeans, no area of comparable size in North America was home to a greater variety of languages and cultures than what is now California, and today the state's population is more diverse than that of any other. Some demographers expect that within 50 years more than 40 percent of California's population will be of Hispanic origin, a larger proportion than at any time since before the Gold Rush of 1849. But the trend toward a two-tiered society is also increasing, with Caucasians and Asians on top and African-Americans and Hispanics on the bottom.

The largest state by population since the 1960's, California gained seven additional representatives in Congress as a result of the 1990 census, for a total of 52. By some estimates, California is the sixth largest economic power in the world.

Despite these attractions, and the state's rugged terrain and dramatic vistas, California has problems. The state's position as a leader of agriculture masks an alarming lack of water. It alreader draws off 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado river, mostly for irrigating the Imperial Valley -- a desert when settlers crossed it 150 years ago. Almost the entire flow of the San Joaquin River is similarly diverted for the Central Valley. This inefficient use of water leaves less and less for consumption by people, whose numbers have leaped from 15 million in 1960 to over 32 million today.

Of more immediate concern is the threat of earthquakes. California has already suffered eight major earthquakes in this century. The 1906 quake destroyed San Francisco, and the Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989 -- one of the most powerful quakes in U.S. history -- killed 67 people, left 48,000 people homeless and resulted in $10 billion of property damage. Like surfers waiting for the perfect wave, scientists are still bracing for the "big one".

Hello? Movies, beaches, computers? Hello?



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