Monthly Archives: June 2013

Hashtags and Picklebacks

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The Tasting Samples and Set-Up Photo: PK Read

The Tasting Samples and Set-Up
Photo: PK Read

Hashtag: TweetTasting

Every so often Fortune smiles down upon me and hands me a treat. Last week, the treat came in the form of a tasting across the Internet via Twitter, courtesy of The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines.

With around twenty very game tasters, many of them quite knowledgeable, we cracked five sample drams of American whiskey and shared our thoughts. If I can’t by any stretch of the imagination count myself among the knowledgeable, I was at least as game as anyone else to try the products of my native country.

Like any tasting, sharing the same sample is no guarantee of sharing the same flavor. What’s fascinating about a live online tasting is the range of different subjective impressions, the overlap of impressions, and the complete lack of cues as to what anyone else is thinking until the tweets hit the feed.

Last week I felt very lucky to be able to participate in the #LiquidAmericana, a TweetTasting sponsored by The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines.

By way of example of how diverse the impressions can be, one fellow taster seemed to taste a hint of chocolate in just about everything, but also admitted to suffering from an acute chocolate craving. Another quoted the taste of candies or fruits which were likely spot-on in terms of description, but which tasters outside that country hadn’t ever experienced. One whisky inspired a characterization of strong tea flavours, which a couple of tasters didn’t find no matter how thoroughly they searched their palates.

Image: Luc St. Pierre via National Geographic

Image: Luc St. Pierre via National Geographic

Finally, with a virtual web drumroll, the sample drams were revealed:

Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon,

Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon,

Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey,

Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey

High West Double Rye Whiskey

You can visit the TwitterTasting to see what our impressions were of each sample. Personally, I liked the Bernheim Straight Wheat for its sweetness, and the High West Double Rye for its complexity – but the ranking of favorites was as diverse as the aromas and flavors tasted.

Many, many thanks to The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines for the opportunity to educate myself in faraway France as to the diversity that is American whisky, and to Steve Rush of the Whisky Wire for running a great tasting.

Pickebacks and a doomed Buffalo Trace double Photo: PK Read

Pickebacks and a doomed Buffalo Trace double
Photo: PK Read

Picklebacks

On a slightly related note (American whiskies, to be exact), we stopped by the Honky Tonk Bar in Chelsea, London last night and I saw something I’d never seen before at the rustic, rough-hewn bar on a very posh street: Tiny little jars, the kind used for single jam servings, filled with either brown or opaque liquid. Two cheerful drinkers at the bar (who had about twelve small jars, all empty, before them) told me these were Picklebacks.

Whisky in one jar, pickle juice in the other. “From dark to light, out of the darkness and into the light,” is what the friendly barkeep said as he served us our own round and showed us how it was done. Whisky first, pickle juice second, in quick succession.

This is not for sipping, this is for shooting. And it’s not a technique devised for fine whiskies – the pickle juice back cuts the taste of the whisky as well as (I imagine) imparting some of vinegar’s health benefits to the liver when under assault.

Image: Jughandles Fat Farm

Image: Jughandles Fat Farm

Now I’ve done my homework and found out that the Pickleback, also known as a Piskey, has been popular Stateside for a little while now, and the picklejuice can be just as finely tuned as a fine neat whisky – nectarine pickle juice, artisanal pickle juice, pickle juice served like a martini, etc. If it has to do with drinking, trust people to dress it up.

I can’t say its something I’ll be doing on the regular, but I can say it was fun. Also, I can say the Buffalo Trace neat that I’d ordered was completely lost on me because after that initial Pickleback, pretty much everything tasted like pickle juice.

International Law of the Anthropocene

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I found an interesting paper recently, International Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott, Professor in Law at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. In it, she discusses the role of international environmental law in dealing with the impact humans have on the planet.

She focuses her attention on one aspect, geoengineering, defined in her paper as defined as “the intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment”. She describes geoengineering both as a part of the “climate change mitigation tool box” as well as a serious challenge to environmental protection.

She says, “The traditional distinction between humankind and nature and the characterization of the latter as something outside of, or other than, the human sphere no longer accurately reflects the relationship between humankind and the environment in the Anthropocene.”

And even if there is still some dispute over whether to call our current epoch the Anthropocene, Scott’s paper makes some intriguing arguments.

Environmental Projections Projections being what they are, this might not actually be the picture in 90 years – but that doesn’t mean we can’t act as if it might be. Source: EarthandEconomy.com via Visual.ly

In relation to using geoengineering as a tool to steer climate change, Scott says, “Geoengineering is qualitatively different from other mechanisms intended to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Geoengineering technologies and techniques are designed to lower surface temperatures or deliberately alter the carbon cycle on a global scale; all states and all peoples are likely to be affected. Image credit: andreykuzmin / 123RF Banque d'images
However, unlike emissions reductions and adaptation, which inherently require collective action in order to succeed, geoengineering technologies can potentially be deployed by a small number of states or even unilaterally by one powerful state acting in what it perceives to be the best interests of all states.”

“Without an appropriate forum to consider these options collectively, in the context of mitigation and adaptation more generally, the international community risks unleashing a twenty-first century version of the Legend of Phaethon.”

Scott proposes new measures for dealing with geoengineering within international environmental law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If the issues we face are global in nature (both literally and figuratively), then a global approach of this kind offers a promising framework, both for positive action and transparent regulation.

More:

Michigan Journal of International Law articleInternational Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott

Carbon Non-Neutrality

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Balancing rocks Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Zone

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

U.S. President Obama, 25 June 2013

It was good to hear the U.S President make a broad speech on climate change and how he sees the role of the United States vis-a-vis climate change challenges.

It was also good to hear him speak directly to the ongoing controversy regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States.

What was disappointing was the mention of the Keystone XL in conjunction with any notion of carbon neutrality. Even if every single aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline itself were able to meet some definition of being ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. by “achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference“*, and even if the extraction of the oil from the tar sands wasn’t included in the calculation, the fact of the matter is that this pipeline is just one more way of delivering our energy drug of choice – oil – into the U.S. energy cycle.

Rapeseed field

Rapeseed field

Way back when, before 2008, people were still talking about ‘peak oil’ and subsidies abounded for renewable alternatives. If there was one good aspect to the notion of running out of oil, it was the acknowledgement that most alternatives released less CO2 into the atmosphere over the long term.

Then came the financial meltdowns, and the miraculous discoveries of new oil reserves. And now we find ourselves talking more about adaptation and resignation to fossil-fuel use as the main path towards energy independence.

Overall, the President’s speech was promising and left little doubt that under Barack Obama, climate change issues are being taken seriously. It is a welcome call to action from one of the world’s largest economies, and one of its most influential polluters.

Yet there’s still that support of oil as a main source of American energy independence.

I am not neutral when it comes to the use of fossil fuels: ‘Carbon neutral’ refers to a balance that is hard to achieve in the best of circumstances, and impossible when talking about the traditional fossil fuel economy.

Every major federal investment made into the exploitation of this fuel source is an investment that wasn’t made into a better, cleaner, renewable solution.

It’s an investment into the past, not the future.

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

*Definition from Wikipedia. There are many variations of what ‘carbon neutral’ actually means in various contexts, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Transcript of the full speech here.

Getting There From Here (1)

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The on and off of Beijing air pollution.
For an interactive look at what major cities would look like with the level of pollution that Beijing experienced during the 2012-13 winter, go to the source of this image: Marketplace.org

China’s cabinet recently released the outline of a strategy to deal with its ‘airpocalypse’, the devastating air pollution levels in many of its major cities. The main goal is to reduce industrial emissions by 30% by the end of 2017.

In a ten-point plan, the State Council proposes making sure that construction projects pass environmental evaluations before permission to build is granted; emergency response plans for high-pollution periods (including traffic reduction and industry emission limits); stricter controls on the expansion of heavily polluting industries. The industries set to face special emission limits include iron and steel, cement, and petrochemicals.

While it’s a tremendous step forward to have the government of China – currently the world’s foremost source of greenhouse gas emissions – acknowledge the urgent need for a strategy in emissions reduction, it’s also a little hard to see how that will dovetail with massive economic expansion based in large part upon the very industries which are set to face strict emissions limits or any kind of business-as-usual approach.

One way might be the outsourcing of emissions within China, i.e. locating some industries to less populous provinces to reduce pollution in the larger cities. Carbon outsourcing accounts for 50-80% of emissions in Shanghai and Beijing.

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.  Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.
Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

For me, this isn’t really a solution so much as a delay and repositioning of the same problem – just because pollution isn’t on your front doorstep doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

According to Steven Davis, the University of California professor at Irvine who led a study on emissions outsourcing in China, the country is taking a short-term solution that comes at the cost of genuine improvements through the modernization of the highly polluting coal-based industrial production still common in the provinces.

“The tragedy of this is that the easiest and cheapest cuts in emissions are in these provinces in the interior where the technologies are antiquated and with even slight improvements could be much, much cleaner,” Davis said. The net effect of the outsourcing is to make it far less likely China would reach its climate targets.

In this case, out of sight doesn’t equal out of mind.

More:

Guardian articleChina launches new measures to tackle air pollution by Jennifer Duggan

Guardian articleChina’s rich provinces outsource emissions to less developed areas by Suzanne Goldenberg

PNAS.org studyOutsourcing CO2 within China by Kuishuang Feng, Steven J. Davis, Laixiang Sun, Xin Li, Dabo Guan, Weidong Liu, Zhu Liu,Klaus Hubacek

Unraveled Threads

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Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry Source: The Tapestry House

Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry
Source: The Tapestry House

Ecosystems that have evolved over millennia are bound to be as complex as the most intricate tapestry, with interrelationships and connections that might not be readily apparent amidst all the color and noise of the larger pattern. As with a tapestry, pulling on one thread, or even two or twenty, might harm a small part of the picture but the tapestry itself would remain intact.

As it turns out, some ecosystems might be more akin to a fragile piece of lace.

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.  Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.
Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

In a study published in Science, researchers examined 9000 seed samples taken from 22 palm plant populations in Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Palm plants seeds are large and tough – the bigger the seed, the more likely the resulting palm plant will be robust. The only creatures able to carry and distribute these large seeds are the large indigenous birds like the toucan.

And with the decline of these birds due to habitat disappearance and hunting, the palm plant populations are changing. Trees that are growing now produce smaller seeds, smaller trees, which in turn produce smaller seeds.

The smaller palm plants that result from smaller seeds might, in the long term, be unable to help sustain the tapestry of life which depend upon their presence in the forest.

This relationship between large seed distributors, large seeds and the forests that depend on them has been studied in other regions, notably with elephants in Congo rainforest.

There will undoubtedly be some kind of forest remaining even without large birds and palm plants, much as there is still a tapestry even if several threads have been unraveled. My question is, which thread is the Brazilian Atlantic forest in the overall Earth tapestry, and what unravels if we lose it?

More:

Science studyFunctional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size by M. Galetti, R. Guevara, M.C. Côrtes, R. Fadini, S. Von Matter, A.B. Leite, F. Labecca, T. Ribeiro, C.S. Carvalho, R.G. Collevatti, M.M. Pires, P.R. Guimarães Jr., P.H. Brancalion, M.C. Ribeiro, P. Jordano

Smithsonian Magazine articleWhen Large Birds Disappear, Rainforests Suffer by Rachel Nuwer

#LiquidAmericana

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Liquid+Americana+TTBack in January, I felt very lucky to get a taste of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old whiskey. I grew up drinking bourbon, but I can’t say I really discovered whisky until I visited Scotland. And although the Pappy 23 was a revelation, I haven’t sampled all that many different American-made whiskies. Yet.

The popularity of North American artisan whiskey has been growing for a while now, but many of the smaller distilleries aren’t heavily represented over here in Europe. Yet.

From a good article on the history of whiskey in North America:

“The (American) Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed.”

Farmers on Virginia’s frontier began making whiskey with corn instead of rye in 1789, but what made it distinctive was aging. The Virginians discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels gave their matured whiskey a superior flavor and dark, rich color.”

Production had its ups and downs – particularly during the Civil War and the Prohibition – but over the last few years, a wide variety of American whiskey has been created that branch out from the standard bourbon I grew up with. A lot of the newer stuff is rye whiskey. Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51 percent rye (a legal requirement), and is described as more peppery and complex by some than bourbon, which is at least 51 percent corn and has a sweeter, smoother taste.

So, as an American living in France, I am very pleased to have been selected as one of the tasters for the upcoming tweet tasting sponsored by The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines, #LiquidAmericana.

For me, the benefits are twofold: I get to see what’s going on in the whiskey world Stateside, a touch of home, and I get to discover some great (I hope) whiskies among fellow whisky lovers.

I’ve already received my five numbered sample dram bottles in the mail. One of the bottle caps was slightly loose, so the postal service got a tiny share of Number 3 and I got a nice whiff of what’s to come on Wednesday, June 26. I tightened the cap, and lined up the five bottles on a shelf. The rest remain a mystery – I haven’t opened them. Yet.

Here’s a nifty American whiskey map:

U.S. Whiskey Map Source: SloshSpot via Visual.ly

U.S. Whiskey Map
Source: SloshSpot via Visual.ly

Harvest of Hail

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Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I went running yesterday morning, and my favorite meadow – a field that is left to grow wildflowers and wild grasses – had been harvested. Lucky are the cows that get the harvest from this small meadow. I don’t have a recent photo of the meadow pre-harvest, but there must be dozens of wild flower species growing there during any given spring.

I went to a late lunch up in Nyon, Switzerland, and sat at an outdoor cafe on the shores of Lake Geneva. It was hot, muggy, still. As we left, the wind whipped up and we saw a wall of black on the southwest end of the lake. Within minutes, golf-ball sized hailstones were raining down. Fortunately, I was in my car, and parked – and the windshield didn’t break.

The storm passed within a few minutes, followed by torrential rain. I decided to try and drive home in spite of all the felled branches and trees, as well as flooded streets.

This was what the A1 freeway looked like just after the storm had passed.

Like driving on a frozen lawn in a wind tunnel. Photo: PK Read

Like driving on a frozen lawn in a wind tunnel.
Photo: PK Read

Cars askew along the side of the road, several vineyards and orchards covered in heavy white – but I didn’t want to slow down and take any proper pictures, I just wanted to get home. I haven’t been in a really big storm for a long time, it’s easy to forget how frightening they are.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The flowers here had all just started blooming after a very late spring – a friend in Geneva said the gutters are red with the petals of all the roses.

There have been violent storms all across France. And we are wondering, beyond the massive material and agricultural damage, what the bees are going to be using for pollen while the flowers recover.

On a side note, happy Summer Solstice!

Lake of Superlatives

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Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove Image: Magic Baikal

Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove
Image: Magic Baikal

Deepest, largest, oldest – Lake Baikal in Siberia is unique. Formed an estimated 25 million years ago in an ancient rift valley, it holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater, more than all the North American Great Lakes combined. At 5,371 ft (1,637 m) deep, it is the deepest. It is 395.2 miles (636 km) long and home to 1700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which don’t exist anywhere else. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Lake Baikal Map via thomasfrank.org

Lake Baikal
Map via thomasfrank.org

Lake Baikal has much to offer. One thing it will no longer have, however, is the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill.

Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill Image: unity.lv

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has stated that the environmental concerns of the lake outweigh those of the paper mill, which was opened in the industrial heydey of the the mid 1960s. It is estimated that the process of shutting down the plant will take two years – the liquidation of plant waste will take 4-6 years. Future plans include developing the area for tourism.

Medvedev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.”It’s time to muster up the courage and make responsible decisions.”

Lake Baikal in winter Source: satorifoto via ILTWMT

More:

UPI.com article – Russia will spend $437.4 million closing down Baikal paper mill

AP article – Russia to close paper mill on Lake Baikal

 

 

 

Animal Aesthetics

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A male bowerbird's gesso. Photo: L.A. Kelley/Science

A male bowerbird’s gesso. Photo: L.A. Kelley/Science

Who hasn’t marvelled over an intricate spider’s web at one point or another, admiring the beauty of its filigree almost-uniformity? Or wondered how birds know just exactly how to construct a nest that will make efficient use of available materials, withstand the elements, and be able to hold both eggs and then squirmy young?

Still, when it comes to aesthetics, I would venture to say most of us assume that humans stand alone – after all, animals are just running on instinct. Right? And if art appreciation is one of those things that make us uniquely human, then it might also be one of those things that makes us feel separate to and apart from other living beings.

Maybe it has to do with intent. There are many who say that art must exist solely for the purpose of itself – otherwise it’s not art.

Humans appreciate and create art for a variety of reasons – communication of ideas, ritual practice, amusement, commerce.

As far as we can tell, animals create what looks like art mainly for shelter and reproductive purposes – attracting a mate, constructing a safe place to mate. I’m not talking about the painting elephants or the chimp who takes photographs – I’m talking animals doing their own animal work, with their own tools.

The top image, for example, is a gesso, a ‘bower’ nest built by a male bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchidae family, native to Australia/Papua New Guinea) to attract a female. The nests, built of vertical sticks, can be decorated in a variety of ways. I personally find this one pleasing, but a female bowerbird probably has other selection criteria.

Underwater structure, Anami Oshima, Japan. Approx. 6 ft. (2m) in diameter. Photo: Yoji Ookata

Underwater structure, Anami Oshima, Japan. Approx. 6 ft. (2m) in diameter.
Photo: Yoji Ookata

The second image, a nest built by a male puffer fish (Tetraodontidae family) to attract a female, is constructed by the fish beating its fin in the sand. Males often line the inner circle with bits of shell. Females tend to be more drawn in by nests that have the most intricate set of grooves. The pattern in the middle, where eggs are laid, apparently also serves a function of protecting the eggs from currents, while the shell decorations degrade and provide nutrition to the eggs and spawn.

It may be true that  animals are aesthetic only by instinct, but surely there are vast differences between the creations within a population of individuals, with some nests being more pleasing than others.

And what else would we call attention to detail, personal preference and design choices but ‘aesthetics’?

Male puffer fish at work Photo: Yoji Ookata

Male puffer fish at work
Photo: Yoji Ookata

More:

Wired.com articleAnimal-Made ‘Art’ Challenges Human Monopoly on Creativity by Brandon Keim

Spoon & Tamago articleThe Deep Sea Mystery Circle – a love story by Johnny

Communicative and Integrative Biology articleBowerbirds, art and aesthetics by John A. Endler

 

Water Middlemen

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Rock formation Roth Kroonkop Photo: Simone Brunton, Univ. of Cape Town

Rock formation Roth Kroonkop
Photo: Simone Brunton, Univ. of Cape Town

It’s only been three days since the heat of summer started in earnest here after a cold, wet spring and a long winter. And yet, I’m already scanning the skies for a welcome downpour.

When water is present, we either take it for granted or (as during this past soggy spring) we wish the skies would kindly stop dispensing. When it’s not there, it’s all we think about.

An ancient rain control tower known as Ratho Kroonkop (RKK) found in South Africa shows another facet of water anxiety. Farmers employed shamans from the San, an indigenous hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa, and the chiefs of the farmers groups would have been tasked with maintaining good relations with shamans in order to ensure rainfall.

Using tunnels accessible only to select shamans, water rituals and animal sacrifice were carried out atop the 1000-foot-high (300m) rock formations. The remains of over 30,000 animals were found at the base of the RKK site, which is located in a semi-arid region near Botswana and Zimbabwe.

It seems that when it comes to water, it’s not easy to avoid the necessity of the middleman, whether water company or shaman.

Rock paintings made by the San people in the Drakensberg mountains. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP

Rock paintings made by the San people in the Drakensberg mountains. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP

 

More:

LiveScience article – Shaman ‘Rainmaking’ Center Discovered in South Africa by Owen Jarus