Monthly Archives: February 2013

Evidential Bubbles

From: Information is BeautifulMcCandless & Perkins

From: Information is Beautiful
McCandless & Perkins

This isn’t a brand new illustration, but I really like it. This is a still shot of an interactive set of studies and search popularity of various nutritional supplements, ranked by how much scientific evidence there is to support the efficacy of each supplement for specific health issues. You can visit the interactive image here. The higher the bubble, the more concrete evidence has been found to support claims of health benefits in relation to a specific issue – the lower the bubble, the more evidence has been found to refute claims. Lower bubbles also show a lack of evidence. The larger the bubble, the more popular the supplement is in terms of Google search terms. The reddish circles indicate supplements with few available studies, but those studies have provided promising results.

Anything above the line towards the upper third – the Worth It level – is probably worth giving a try. Garlic for blood pressure is a big bubble way up high. Garlic for cancer, on the other hand, is floating down around the bottom. There don’t seem to be any bubbles parameters for the level of faith put into certain supplements regardless of study results one way or another.

I like that they are also interactive in terms of data addition. That is to say, if this map had some kind of open access for data entry, the position of the bubbles would change with each new study. The interactive image also has the bubbles bouncing slightly in a very pleasing way that kind of makes me wish I could make them pop and regenerate. Maybe for the next iteration.

Some of these pretty illustrations demand a bit of attention to fully grasp in terms of usability, but when we are presented with new ways of looking at information, especially if it is complex and intriguing scientific information, it forces us to flex our assumptions and curiosity just a little bit. I’d like to think that intellectual flexibility, if it were a supplement bubble on the chart above, would be one near the very top.

Information is Beautiful: Snake Oil? Scientific evidence for popular health supplements – David McCandless and Andy Perkins

Demining for all

Photo: Ewan Arnolda

Photo: Ewan Arnolda

There’s clock ticking here right now, an apt bomb reference because the clock is counting down the days left until registration closes for the Minesweepers first international competition for humanitarian demining. The competition will take place in Egypt over the course of summer, ending in September. Competitors can construct a remote-controlled or autnomous demining robot. From the site:

Detection and removal of antipersonnel landmines is, at the present time, a serious problem of political, economical, environmental and humanitarian dimension in many countries over the world. If demining efforts remain about the same as they are now, and no new mines are laid, it will still take 1100 years to get rid of all the world’s active land mines.  The conventional methods which are currently used make the procedure of removing this great numbers of landmines very slow, inefficient, dangerous and costly.  Robotics systems can provide efficient, reliable, adaptive and cost effective solution for the problem of the landmines and UXOs contamination.

Anyone who knows a bot-building talent might want to pass the information along.

Actual baselines of existing landmine numbers are not easy to come by, since the numbers of mines laid aren’t always carefully tallied, and landmines going all the way back to WWII are still buried in various countries. These metal mines are easier to detect than the plastics and alloys of modern mines. Some humanitarian de-miners speak of the landmine issue in terms of land area to be cleared for productive use rather than mine numbers, which might be a more accurate representation of the scope of the issue.

Under the Ottawa Treaty (1997) – the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention – 161 countries have agreed to ban the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of mines.  Thirty-four countries have not signed the treaty and one more has signed but did not ratify. The states that have not signed the treaty includes a majority of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: China, the United States and Russia. The United States is the sole non-signatory NATO member.

Many states have managed to clear mines and declare themselves ‘mine-free’. In the countries where demining is still in process, fields can go unplanted and even walking to school can be unsafe in mined areas. Or more dangerously, fields are planted anyway. Talking in terms of land-area would also convey the overall impact of landmines in a region, not just on humans, but on all creatures. How to graze animals in a region that has been mined? How do migratory birds and animals fare when they cross mined territory, or animals that cover a large territorial range on a regular basis?

De-mining is as much a conservation and environmental issue as it is a humanitarian issue.

Mine contamination as of October 2012Source: ICBL

Mine contamination as of October 2012
Source: ICBL

Minesweepers: Towards a Landmine-Free World – First international Competition for Humanitarian Demining

International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) website

United Nations Factsheet

Elver Harvest

Fyke Net

Fyke Net

Last year saw some of the highest prices ever recorded for glass eels, or elvers, the young version of the American eel. Over US $2000/pound by the end of the season. As I wrote here, the life cycle and environmental importance of the American eel is still a relative mystery, partially because of their complex migratory pattern. But with American stocks considered to be their lowest since the 1950s, European eels under strict protection and Asian Japonica stocks presumed unrecovered from overfishing and the impact of the 2011 tsunami, it’s likely that this will be another boom year for anyone with a fishing license for elvers along the American Eastern seaboard. As of last year, the elver fishing frenzy, combined with concerns about habitat and climate change challenges, prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing the eel nationwide as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I haven’t yet found any updates on that process.

In February 2013, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR)  held the lottery it introduced in 2006 to limit eel fishing. Only license holders from the previous year may apply for one of the 400 annual licenses, and newcomers are chosen by lottery only when a previous license holder permanently gives up a permit. Eel fishing has been a regular facet of life in America since humans have been fishing there. Eel, rather than turkey, was probably the main dish at Colonial Thanksgiving feasts (alongside the now-extinct passenger pigeon).

Approximately 235 permits are also issued by the Passamaquoddy Tribe, although the state government would like to reduce this number to a total of 8, setting up a conflict of a cultural and historical nature in addition to the ongoing conservation concerns. In South Carolina, 10 permits were issued.

Since last year saw widespread poaching – mostly newcomers who then sold their harvest to middlemen – a Byzantine set of regulations has been put into force. Only a certain number of nets, of specified type, placed a certain distance apart, on specific days, with size restrictions on the elvers. Newly introduced fines for transgression are high, but the potential for profit is likely to be higher if prices are anything like they were in 2012.

Elver fishing is done mostly at night, DMR doesn’t have the staff to be everywhere at the same time, so poaching will probably be rampant. This is especially true if the elver run looks more plentiful to the eye of the fisherman than it does to the conservationist. As one fisherman was quoted as saying last year, “I’ve never seen so many elvers. There’s no shortage here.”

Four newly available permits were up for grabs at the DMR lottery two weeks ago. 5000 people applied. It seems a little unlikely that all 4996 people who went away empty-handed will refrain from elver fishing this year.

Elver - approx. 7 cm/3 inches longImage:

Elver – approx. 7 cm/3 inches long


Reuters article – A gold rush for Maine’s baby eel fishermen

DMR Eel Factsheet

Transboundary challenges – the bear M13

Image: UNECEUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Image: UNECE
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

I’ve talked before about the challenges of transboundary parks  in relation to southern Africa and Yellowstone Park. Wildlife conservation and reintroduction programs  introduced on one side of a shared territorial line can’t always control what happens just across the often invisible lines that we call international or regional borders.

A new case in point is that of the bear reintroduction program that has been working since 1999 in the Trentino region of northern Italy. Between 1999-2002, ten adult bears were captured in Slovenia – which has a healthy bear population – and introduced into the mountain region south of the Swiss border. Over the past decade, these ten individuals have produced around over a dozen bear cubs. Native bears had not been sighted in Switzerland in almost a hundred years. A handful of the Italian cubs, once they had become independent, left Italian territory and wandered into Switzerland. Most of them wandered back into Italy at some point.

Switzerland is a signatory to both the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention. The  Bern Convention regulates species conservation by imposing restrictions on taking species from the wild and on exploitation. It constitutes a commitment to protect species’ habitats. Particular emphasis is given to endangered and vulnerable species.

The Alpine Convention is an international treaty between the Alpine countries and the EU, aimed at promoting sustainable development in the Alpine area. The aim of this Convention is the long-term protection of the natural ecosystem of the Alps and sustainable development in the area. This aim includes the protection of residents’ economic interests. A guiding principle of the Convention is trans-border cooperation.

Following the culling of bear M13, an offspring of the Trentino bears that wandered into Switzerland in 2011 and then stayed, one of Italy’s largest environmental organizations, the Legambiente has filed formal charges against Switzerland with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for systematic violation of these international treaties with regards to the bear conservation program – which Switzerland itself agreed to support. Letters have also been sent to the offices of the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention (Innsbruck) demanding sanctions be placed upon Switzerland for not adhering to strict regulations when it comes to the bear program. “The bear reintroduction program is financed by the European Union, and it is not acceptable for a bear from this program to simply be killed (by unilateral decision),” according to Legambiente spokesperson Antonio Nicolette.

The leadership and communication challenges facing international treaties is well illustrated by the fact that the Swiss Graubünden region – the border region in which M13 was killed by authorities – had to block local attempts to have the entire area officially declared a bear-free zone back in 2007. By default, this goal was achieved with the destruction of M13, but it is probably only a matter of time before another protected bear crosses the border. The culling has received almost universal condemnation in the press.

The goals of the national and international treaties may be clear, but the implementation is faltering at the local and regional level, which is where the bears actually live. And these challenges are shared by many conservation projects around the world.

The Life Ursus Project website.

Spiegel article (2005, in English) on European bear reintroduction programs.

Game of tag


Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 9.47.38 AMShopping for something else entirely in the food section of Geneva’s swanky Globus department store, this girly box of champagne truffles caught my eye. The pink box is a delight, and is sealed with two clear stickers embellished with golden crowns. The six fat truffles inside have a scent of light champagne, with a breath of vanilla. Heavenly. The chocolate covering seems to be a pink-tinted white chocolate, the filling is milk chocoalte and sweet. And yes, they taste of champagne, sans the bubbles, of course. Are they the best truffles I’ve ever had? Hm, maybe not quite. But lovely for a post-breakfast, pre-lunch Sunday treat. And they go nicely with a glass of the real bubbly.

I was thinking about this kicky song here when I woke up this morning – a French/Japanese acid jazz tune from about 20 years ago, a bit of dance, a bit of jazz, a bit of social activism. Very ‘Early 1990s’.

My friend Daniela Norris asked me to participate in a writer’s game of tag, The Next Big Thing. A promise is a promise – but I will be posting my answers to TNBT questions over on Twitter (@paula_read)  if you care to take a look. Thanks to Daniela for tagging me, and I encourage a visit to her blog.

Stick to the tried and true


imagesWhen I was a little girl, the grandmother of a neighborhood playmate became dismayed when I turned down her offer of boiled spinach with the words, “No, thank you, ma’am”. “A proper and polite refusal always begins with ‘thank you’, followed by ‘no’,” she instructed. I had to eat the spinach anyway because she was that kind of granny.

I remember a couple of years ago, I bought whisky-filled chocolates as a gift for my husband. So I went in search of those chocolates recently, thinking I’d give him a non-birthday, non-holiday surprise. Godiva used to sell whisky-filled chocolates, but not only did they discontinue those products in their Geneva store (the city closest to us), they also discontinued the Geneva store itself. Too bad, but there are plenty of other chocolate makers and suppliers in Geneva.

So far, however, I’ve come up almost empty-handed. There are truffles with whisky, but that’s not the object of my desire. I am looking for dark chocolate bars or cubes, each with a pocket of whisky inside.There must be some sort of bottleneck in the whisky-for-chocolate supply chain, because the whisky version of various chocolate manufacturers is the only version not in current alcohol-filled chocolate lines. If I wanted cognac, eau-de-vie, schnapps, absinthe, vodka or even Red Bull (not alcohol, I know, but I saw it on a shelf yesterday), I’d be dazzled by my options.

As it was, I bought the Jack Daniels bar shown here. And I am very sorry to report that it did not get very positive reviews. The chocolate was a bit bland, the whisk(e)y raw and runny, the texture a bit waxy.

For the time being, we’ll be sticking to the tried and true method of eating a piece of excellent chocolate alongside a glass of excellent whisky.

As for the rest of the Jack Daniels chocolate bar: Thank you, no.

The Flower Electric


Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 9.38.35 AMCommunication comes in so many forms, and for the most part, we humans focus on the verbal and physically visible. But how about interspecies electrical communication?

A newly published study in an upcoming issue of Science provides some evidence that flowers, in addition to using color and nectar to attract pollinator bees and bumblebees, may also be using cues of electrical current to advertise their bounty. From the press release:

Plants are usually charged negatively and emit weak electric fields.  On their side, bees acquire a positive charge as they fly through the air.  No spark is produced as a charged bee approaches a charged flower, but a small electric force builds up that can potentially convey information.

By placing electrodes in the stems of petunias, the researchers showed that when a bee lands, the flower’s potential changes and remains so for several minutes.  Could this be a way by which flowers tell bees another bee has recently been visiting?  To their surprise, the researchers discovered that bumblebees can detect and distinguish between different floral electric fields. Also, the researchers found that when bees were given a learning test, they were faster at learning the difference between two colours when electric signals were also available.

How then do bees detect electric fields?  This is not yet known, although the researchers speculate that hairy bumblebees bristle up under the electrostatic force, just like one’s hair in front of an old television screen.

The discovery of such electric detection has opened up a whole new understanding of insect perception and flower communication.”


I wonder whether a species such as our own have found this information utterly self-explanatory if we ourselves had always communicated directly with our surroundings via electrical charge in addition to our current palate of verbal and visual methods. How many other forms of communication elude us simply because they are outside our own daily parameters of perception?


University of Bristol – Floral Signs Go Electric

ABC Science – Flowers Buzz Bees With Electricity

Science: Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by BumblebeesD. Clarke, H. Whitney, G. Sutton, D. Robert

New Windows

Red-throated skinkImage: Dustin Welbourne

Red-throated skink
Image: Dustin Welbourne

Here’s a good thought project for next time there’s nothing on the TV: Designing new ways of observing things you would like to see. What do you do to study creatures that don’t travel in packs or flocks, don’t use calls or song to communicate, and which can be very susceptible to rapid injury or death if trapped? You build a better observation method.

“A camera trap is a remotely activated camera that is equipped with a motion sensor or an infrared sensor, or uses a light beam as a trigger. Camera trapping is a method for capturing wild animals on film when researchers are not present, and has been used in ecological research for decades.” (Wikipedia)

I came across a project the other day, the development of new camera trap techniques by Dustin Welbourne in New South Wales. He’s trying to find a way to observe reptiles in their own habitat without disturbing them – apparently, many camera trap triggers aren’t entirely appropriate for the kind of work he does because cold-blooded animals don’t trigger the infrared sensors of many traps. So he is designing new ones.

With the development of new technologies for a specific task, you never know what you might end up seeing, or what other unexpected uses those technologies might serve.

As Mr. Welbourne eloquently quotes in his post, “Every time we open a new window on the universe we are surprised.” (Lawrence Kraus)

That’s my own goal for today – I’m going to think about new windows on the world.

The Conversation – New gadgets are opening windows on reptiles

M13 – There will be bear


bearWe had out-of-town visitors with us over the weekend. One of them is a designer/builder, and he brought his two snow-deprived teenagers with him. They did some skiing, and then they used all the snow in our garden to build a 4-person igloo worthy of providing actual shelter. The garden is not the pristine sheet of white it was last week, but we have an igloo. If you let energetic snow-deprived designer/builder families loose in your snow-filled garden, an igloo is practically inevitable.

Apparently, if you have a single bear in areas unused to bears, conflict is inevitable, even if the bear is just being a bear. I was driving home last night when I heard an interview on one of our local English language radio stations. A bear expert from WWF, Joanna Schönenberger, was talking about M13, currently Switzerland’s only bear, having woken up from his winter sleep. Schönenberger commented on the atmosphere of fear being created by local media around the bear. So, I went and looked up an article, and indeed, the words used (at least in the English translation) are meant to instill a sense of panic and fear. An excerpt:

“The notorious brown bear known as M13 has woken up from his winter sleep but his New Year resolutions evidently do not include keeping away from human beings, and his behaviour means he may not be allowed to live to sleep through another. A couple out walking in the eastern canton of Graubünden on Saturday afternoon were alarmed to find the three-year-old bear following them…he then alarmed a 14-year-old girl who saw him standing on the other side of the bridge. She was treated in hospital for shock. The report by Il Grigione Italiano said the measures taken to discourage M13 from approaching human beings had not worked, and that he had “gone too far”. He should be classified as dangerous and be shot, it said.”

As the WWF speaker saw it, there are two levels of how to deal with a bear. One is based on how a bear actually behaves, the other is what kind of bear behavior people are willing to tolerate. Local officials are setting the bar at people’s fearful level of tolerance, not at how bears really behave. If this keeps up, the bear is doomed. There were several suggestions on how to deal with regular, non-aggressive bear behavior – which according to WWF, is what M13 demonstrates. Learn to make loud noises to warn bears away, keep all trash safely stowed, etc. The measures taken in many places around the world where bears are commonplace.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of realistic future a bear population of 1 has, but this seems to be a good example of how local politics and media can lead or doom larger policy.

Update: Just as I was finishing this post, I got the news* that M13 was shot dead. RIP M13. I’m wondering if the Graubünden cantonal offices – the region in which the bear was located – felt they were avoiding both potential bear-human interaction as well as another season of conflict in the media as well as with federal authorities and environmental agencies. From

“The WWF issued a statement saying that it was “deeply disappointed” by the fact that the bear had been killed. “It is clear that the shooting came too soon – it would have been much better to have stepped up and continued with the deterrent measures,” said Joanna Schönenberger, bear expert at the nature protection organisation. Initial feedback on Swiss newspaper websites was overwhelmingly hostile to the shooting.”

The thing about this kind of destruction, whether it’s of a bear or any other species under protection, is that it’s final. For those who saw the bear as a ‘problem’ animal, the problem is now solved.

Feel like complaining about what happened to M13? Send a note to the Graubünden Office of Forestry and Hunting at

*Contrary to what the article states, M13 was not one of a few bears in the country, he was the only bear. Bears do occasionally wander up from Italy. Currently, however, there are no other known bears on Swiss territory.