Monthly Archives: October 2013

Butterfly House

Mission Blue Butterfly Source: California Academy of Sciences

Mission Blue Butterfly
Source: California Academy of Sciences

There’s a new building going up in San Francisco, just a block or so from where I used to live when I was right out of college.

It’s got all the bells and whistles of the kind of green, sustainable, fashionable and expensive development one might expect from that city, up to and including the rooftop biosphere and a habitat for endangered butterflies.

The building will have 81 apartments, with one-bedroom rental units listed at between $2950 – $4500/month. Amenities include a rooftop herb garden, an on-site car share program, living walls, rainwater harvesting and solar heating systems.

Okay, I admit that the presence on the ground floor of a Whole Foods store, the notoriously green but pricey organic supermarket, is a bit gratuitously over-the-top. And it looks like I, for one, would never have been able to afford living in this neighborhood when I was a recent graduate.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Source: Wikipedia

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly
Source: Wikipedia

The 38 Dolores complex has come in for some criticism – its combination of high prices and all-round green gentrification (and that downstairs Whole Foods market) make it look like an over-the-top enviro-indulgence for the wealthy.

It’s fair enough to say that particular building probably only appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic. And it’s true that this young, wealthy demographic is changing the nature of many San Francisco neighborhoods, especially the Mission.

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly
Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Where the media eye-rolling does actual harm, however, is in making it seem like the upscale nature of this development is reflected in its rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardens or solar heating systems. As if these building aspects are an indulgence alllowed only to the rich.

For modern urban buildings, it could be argued that it is the lack of good building water use, some form of renewable heating and/or power, or the potential for car sharing which should be considered an outdated indulgence.

And sometimes, it’s all in the marketing. Yes, an ‘urban butterfly habitat for endangered butterfly species’ sounds a bit precious. But when we know that a ‘butterfly habitat’ can be as easy as planting a few select flowers, it’s not really all that glamorous, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

I have a ‘butterfly and bee habitat’ in my garden. I call it lavender plants and bee balm flowers.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

My butterfly and bee habitat
Photo: PK Read

*All the endangered butterflies above are among those listed as protected by the 38 Dolores habitat.

Salt Road


Funny how natural resources rise and fall in our estimation.

There was a time when salt – plain old salt, the stuff we buy for pennies – was the cornerstone of empires, the arrow of conflict, the reason for Roman roads and the thorn that pricked societies to revolution.

Precious salt preserved food for long journeys, drew out illness, was strewn on farmlands to ruin economies, and only lastly lent spice to life.

Industrial progress changed all that, and now salt is so common and cheap that even the exotic varieties (black volcanic, spiced, Himalayan) are affordable.

Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

World’s largest salt flats at Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

The salt flats in southwest Bolivia are comprised of sodium chloride and traces of other elements. Notably, large amounts of lithium, which has recently become interesting as a key element for the batteries upon which modern life is built, i.e. those for consumer electronic devices.

Lithium makes up only 0.0007% of the earth’s crust, and is usually extracted through the electrolysis of lithium chloride (LiCl). Lithium is not found free in nature.

It’s the lightest metal element and can be alloyed with all manner of other metals and substances to make strong, light materials. Special light glass for telescope lenses, for example, or metal for aircraft.

According to TIME magazine, “For decades the salt flats have simply been a curiosity for adventure travelers (…), and a source of subsistence for impoverished salt gatherers who scrape mounds of salt and sell it as table salt. The production of lithum, which requires months of slow evaporation and weeks of refining in a lab, could transform the salt flats into the economic engine of Bolivia.”

I had started this post wanting to write about the decreasing value of salt as it became more common, and the possible increasing value of water as it becomes more scarce, but got completely sidetracked by this lithium story in Bolivia.
Sometimes curiosity takes us on the most unexpected side routes.
A good overview of salt history here.

Placing Value


There’s a well-known old American film called It’s A Wonderful Life. It stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a good and generous businessman who finds himself in deep financial trouble. A banker, the infamous cinematic villian named Mr. Potter, reminds a desperate George Bailey that as a last resort, Bailey has a life insurance policy. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” scoffs Mr. Potter, for whom the value of life can only be measured in its monetary amount.

And so to the Cape Pangolin.

Baby pangolin Photo: Christian Boix

Baby pangolin
Photo: Christian Boix

The young pangolin above is one of the first Cape Pangolins ever born in captivity. It is the result of the conservation efforts of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia. An adult pangolin had been bought by someone from a street vendor, and then turned over to the REST group. The adult was a pregnant female who gave birth at the REST facilities.

In terms of monetary value, this pinecone-scaled creature is in the negative area. It cost the person who rescued it from the street vendor an unknown amount, and is costing donation money and time with the REST team.

On the other hand, if this little pangolin were to enter the international illegal trade cycle by getting captured and shipped off to China, it would be worth a lot more, at least by the measurements we use to talk about ‘value’ . The most recent estimate I could find was $1000/kilo of fresh pangolin meat, with prices rising as the pangolin populations dwindle and disappear.

Pangolin soup Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin soup

Now, if that little pangolin were to make it alive to a certain kind of restaurant in Vietnam or China, catch the eye of a certain kind of consumer and get chosen to end up in a bowl of soup, it would be a very valuable pangolin indeed, if we are only using money as our measure. This bowl of pangolin soup could cost up to $700.

If the restaurant owner were to harvest and sell the scales – and at these prices, it would be a foolish owner who didn’t – the pangolin might be worth another $175/kilo of scales.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale

We don’t have a measurement for what a pangolin is worth in its natural environment, or what it’s worth to its natural environment.

For example, the loss of elephants to some forests is worth most of the large trees because the elephants aren’t there to carry and distribute large seed pods. And the loss of the large trees has a knock-on effect of loss in habitat, biodiversity, and habitat survival. But until that habitat has something humans value – by which I mean something we can monetize – then none of that tends to mean much.

For the time being, however, this young pangolin has landed in one of the few places of humans don’t value the (utterly fabricated) medicinal qualities of its meat and scales, or the sad boasting rights of being able to afford a nearly extinct animal on one’s plate.

But unless it stays under the protective wing of its rescuers, this pangolin will continue to be worth more dead than alive.

Project Pangolin

Greener Gaming


In an alternative approach to going green, there’s a computer game called Botanicula that is not only delightful to look at and listen to, but is also fun to play. It’s inspiring in a manner both quiet and thoughtful, very unusual for a video game.

There are countless educational games that have been created as instructional tools for specific environmental issues. A list of some of them here looks at everything from agricultural strategies in Scotland to playing the part of a wolf in Yellowstone Park. Many of them are very informative indeed. I learned, for example, that a beef cow consumes a football-field sized patch of grass every day, at least in northern Scotland.

Botanicula, created by Czech-based Amanita Design, can’t claim to be as educational in the factual sense of the word. What it does, however, is aim to inspire a sense of wonder and respect for life. The premise is simple: Five small creatures attempt to rescue their habitat – a magical tree – from invasive parasites.

Source: Amanita Design

Source: Amanita Design

The point-and-click game isn’t new by current standards – it first came out in early 2012. It’s gotten high praise from game review sites for design, sound, playability and inventiveness.

I liked that it had a variety of organic imagery like the puzzle image above, which has several critters that move about like microscopic life forms.

A 2009 study on gaming and behavior stated that “Although dozens of studies have documented a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behaviors, very little attention has been paid to potential effects of prosocial games.” and goes on to conclude that prosical games “in which game characters help and support each other in nonviolent ways” do seem to lead to more real world cooperation among players.

And at the root of it, a sense of wonder at life and a cooperative approach are perhaps just as likely to nudge a gamer towards a greener viewpoint as simple facts.

Source: Amanita Design

Source: Amanita Design

On a side note, the game is downloadable, which reduces waste. According to the infographic below, downloading all games rather than manufacturing hard copy versions would save 2.4 billion gallons (7.5 bn liters)  of crude oil.

Source: / Big Fish Games

Source: / Big Fish Games

Seasonal Calendar


On an evening run last night, the sky was blazing while the meadows and paths held strange flying carpets of white. 13100060

Autumn is creeping in, leaving the first tentative misty patches at ground level before the great fogs of winter settle over the Lake Geneva basin. 13100056

Time to prepare for the upcoming season. And so I ordered my Whisky Advent Calendar 2013 for this year. There are two versions, ‘regular’ and ‘premium’. the-whisky-advent-calendar

Yes, I cheated and took a peek at the the contents of the ‘regular’ set of 24 little bottles, and was satisfied enough that I ordered that rather than the more expensive ‘premium’. After all, I’d like to try drams of whiskies I could conceivably afford to buy should I take a fancy to one. A friend ordered the ‘premium’, and I look forward to her detailed reports and recommendations.

But mostly, I look forward to sharing the 24 Advent drams with my husband over the course of a December that will hopefully be filled with more blazing skies than thick layers of fog.

I ordered my calendar here.  There is also a Gin Advent Calendar, as well.

A little autumn music for the season:

Amassed Lights


This NASA satellite image shows large clusters of moving lights far away from any human settlement, and far away from any land. Out in the middle of the ocean, where one might assume there shouldn’t be large gatherings of human-generated light. Most of the articles I found were playful: What could possibly be out there – submarine gatherings, aliens, Atlantis, military testing?

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.  Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.
Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

The answer, provided by NASA, is easy. Fishing fleets, of course. Fishing fleets out harvesting Illex argentinus, a species of short-finned squid. I’ve written about them here.

But how massive must these fleets be to form entire metropolises of light? How many fish could they possibly be harvesting?

And for that, I refer to another article out this month, the one about Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. An experienced sailor, he recently sailed from Melbourne to Osaka, a trip he had taken ten years earlier.

The differences between the two trips were stark. Where his boat had been followed by flocks of birds the first time, the second time there were none. On the first trip he’d only had to dip a line into the water to catch a fish for dinner, the second time he was only able to catch two fish in 3000 miles (4800 km). On the second trip he had to navigate his boat through a silent sea of large debris and garbage patches.

Image: NOAA

And then he met up with a large fishing trawler.

The friendly fishermen offered him bags and bags of by-catch fish, the stuff that got caught in their nets but wasn’t the tuna they were harvesting. They said they simply throw away anything not on their shopping list – in this case, massive numbers of any and all creatures in their fishing zone.

So, back to the NASA images. One look at the comment section of one article shows that a large number of readers don’t believe the fishing fleet story. They would rather believe that the lights are evidence of underwater volcanoes, or alien forces amassing offshore with destructive intentions – because how could there be so many fishing boats?

And I guess from the point of view of the marine animals, an alien invasion would seem a pretty plausible explanation.Image credit: anterovium / 123RF Banque d'images

The problem with both perspectives – that of the silent sea, and that of preferring the explanation of aliens or Atlantis over massive fishing fleets – is that they can have the potential to paralyze us into fear and inaction.

And as an antidote to that, I propose this excellent article by Carlos Duarte, Director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. He suggests that it isn’t the oceans which are dead (not yet, anyway), but that consumer behavior is broken and must be altered on a fundamental level.

And if these images and the story of Ivan Macfadyan’s sobering voyage have any effect, then I hope it is to inspire action rather than resignation.

Precedent Setting


Update below.

At its 2014 convention, the Dallas Safari Club will be auctioning off the rare chance to kill an adult rhinoceros in Namibia and the even rarer chance to bring the trophy parts back home. The organizers say they can expect up to $750,000 dollars, and that every penny will go to the ‘Conservation Trust Fund for Namibia’’s Black Rhino’.

The hunt would be carried out with the permission of both the Namibian government and of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import parts of the black rhino. These animal parts are otherwise highly controlled and illegal, as there are only an estimated 5000 black rhinos left in the world and they are both protected under the Endangered Species Act, and heavily poached for their horns.

The DSC 2014 convention banner

The DSC 2014 convention banner

This notion of high profile hunting as a means of conservation is nothing new, and hunters have often been aligned with conservationists when it comes to protecting land and species.

However, not one article I have read on this has mentioned the background to the strange approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Earlier this year, the USFWS set a precedent by issuing a permit allowing the import of a black rhino trophy. The permit was the first USFWS permit ever allowing parts of an endangered species hunted abroad to be brought into the United States.

It was approved  following an import application filed by the hunter himself, with the assistance of lawyer John J. Jackson III, who runs Conservation Force, a Louisiana-based conservation non-profit organization.

David K. Reinke poses with the black rhino he shot in 2009. The work of Conservation Force means he was able to bring the horn back to the U.S. Photo: Thormählen & Cochran Safaris

David K. Reinke poses with the black rhino he shot in 2009.
The advocacy work of Conservation Force helped him bring the horn back to the U.S.
Photo: Thormählen & Cochran Safaris

For insight into the Conservation Force strategy, reading the group’s Updates and Alerts page is enlightening.

Most entries deal with overturning the endangered status of various listed species (lions, polar bears, etc.); legal attempts to reduce or eliminate restrictions on the importation of restricted animal parts; and finally, an update on the Dallas Safari Club’s award to John and Chrissie Jackson of Conservation Force for their “tireless advocacy of hunting as an integral part of wildlife conservation.”

Through a variety of strategies including tourism and rural development, Namibia has been very successful – far more so than its neighbor South Africa – in preventing poaching and promoting the recovery of the black rhino population without the assistance and funds of high end foreign hunters. So I am not sure what kind of value this new trend (if two cases can be called a trend) is supposed to add to conservation.


Credit: Planet Save

Credit: Planet Save

I am not fully versed in the value of hunting individual animals from a small genetic pool of an endangered species like the black rhino (Diceros bicornis); perhaps it’s a useful method.

I also don’t know much about the ‘Conservation Trust Fund for Namibia’’s Black Rhino’, the fund to which the Dallas Safari Club intends to donate the auction amount from the black rhino hunt – I was unable to find any listings online which mentioned this trust fund, but for all I know it could be part of one of Namibia’s many long-standing legitimate conservation groups.

I can’t claim agreement with the argument that promoting the hunting of endangered species, putting a high monetary value the hunt and on the very parts for which these animals are being poached into extinction, is a viable path towards saving these animals – not only for our future generations, but for theirs.

What I do know is that the Conservation Force’s determined efforts over many years to establish an endangered species import precedent succeeded this year with the USFWS permit.

I am also quite sure that this first trophy hunt auction, which would not have been possible without that precedent, will almost certainly not be the last of its kind.


UPDATE: 21 May 2015. The rhino auctioned for hunting was shot dead on 20 May 2015 by Corey Knowlton, the Texas hunter who won the auction bid.

From the AFP: Knowlton stated, “I think people have a problem just with the fact that I like to hunt… I want to see the black rhino as abundant as it can be. I believe in the survival of the species.”

Since 2012, Namibia has sold five licences each year to kill individual rhinos, saying the money is essential to fund conservation projects and anti-poaching protection. The only rhinos selected for the hunts are old ones that no longer breed and that pose a threat to younger rhinos.

Sorry, I just don’t agree. This is no different from countries selling off illegal rhino horn or elephant ivory seized from traders.

As long as the animals are worth more dead than they are alive, for any reason, poaching and the trade in illegal animal parts will be encouraged.


Hidden Paths


We were up in northern Germany over the weekend, near the Elbe River. The river sees major shipping traffic, massive container ships chug in and out all day long, but I caught a quiet and oddly empty morning. Ships don’t work on Sunday, perhaps?

Elbe River Photo: PK Read

Elbe River
Photo: PK Read

I was on an early morning run, which was soft and quiet because the ground was so padded with fallen leaves. This included the hidden path itself, which wasn’t easy to find.

Forest path with paths hidden by autumn leaves. Photo: PK Read

Forest path with paths hidden by autumn leaves.
Photo: PK Read

I found an idle lighthouse. Or maybe it was working, but I couldn’t see the light.

Elbe lighthouse. Photo: PK Read

Elbe lighthouse.
Photo: PK Read

A fork in the road took me up a road of pastures, gardens, and horse meadows.

A fork in the path. Photo: PK Read

A fork in the path.
Photo: PK Read

Until I ran past this odd menagerie out in a field.

A tree trunk on a pedestal with a carved wood hand and a cross. Photo: PK Read

A tree trunk on a pedestal with a carved wood hand and a cross.
Photo: PK Read

Giant forest striders Photo: PK Read

Giant forest striders
Photo: PK Read

Full size stag, plastic, with a cross. Photo: PK Read

Full size stag, plastic, with a cross.
Photo: PK Read

It turned out the collection belonged to a Pferdespital, a horse hospital.

There were many other pieces, but the collection made no more or less sense than those above. Trunks with hands, carousing wood giants, crowned stags. For me, it was a path of hidden symbols, a lighthouse of meaning that shines a light I can’t see.

But the sun had come out, a rare enough occurrence on the grey banks of the Elbe, so I ran on.



Skyward Run


The day started like this.

Sunrise over the Alps & Lake Geneva Photo: PK Read

Sunrise over the Alps & Lake Geneva
Photo: PK Read

By evening, the clouds had cleared, so at one point the run looked like this in one direction.

Sunset over the Jura range. Photo: PK Read

Sunset over the Jura range.
Photo: PK Read

Like this in the other.

Sunset and Mont Blanc. Photo: PK Read

Sunset and Mont Blanc.
Photo: PK Read

And like this straight ahead.

Sunset and the Jura/Rhône Valley Photo: PK Read

Sunset and the Jura/Rhône Valley
Photo: PK Read

Then I looked over my shoulder, and this fine fellow popped up over a cloud.

Moonrise over a cloud. Photo: PK Read

Moonrise over a cloud.
Photo: PK Read

It was a pretty good day, sky-wise.


Southern Swirl

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851 Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.

Over on the ever-mesmerizing UXBlog, I found these hypnotic examples of historical cartography – a backward glance at a century of hurricanes. These maps are oriented with the Antarctic at the center, and show both the trajectory and intensity of each storm for which data was available.

According to John Nelson, who created the maps, ” The fine folks at NOAA (*National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) keep an archive of storm paths with wind speed, storm name, date, among other attributes, and are always updating and refining information for past events based on historical evidence and educated hunches.”

Of course, with the introduction of satellites, big data collection and heck, even the telephone, for communicating storm information, we know more about storms now than we did 160 years ago. Also, during the course of working out these maps, Nelson realized that “we only really started logging the East and South hemisphere versions of these things around 1978” – by ‘we’, I’m assuming he is referring to the US-based NOAA.

And this wouldn’t come as a surprise to me – it is only with the spread of globe-spanning communication and data technology that many have lifted their gaze from their own immediate surroundings and extended it to the rest of planet to see wider interactions.

Just as interesting is Nelson’s description of how he created these maps and how he arrived at this particular ‘bottoms-up’ perspective. The circle that looks like an iris around the pupil of the Antarctic is the equator – notice that the storms all swirl away from it in either direction.

Here’s an animated version of the map that displays all storm seasons dating back to 1978.

Hurricanes & storms by season, 1978-2010
Credit: John Nelson/IDVSolutions
Click on the image to go to the full-size version.