Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Different Color


The mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicas) is an odd creature, brightly coloured as a 1970s psychedelic pantsuit, that sees the world in a different way from all other creatures.

Its two satellite-like eyes, which can move independently of one another, have twelve colour receptors, far more than the human eye.

Mantis shrimp eyes. Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Mantis shrimp eyes.
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

One might assume that it sees a far wider range of colours. But according to a new study out in Science, it’s not so much that the mantis shrimp sees more colour, because it doesn’t. Colour seems to work on the mantis shrimp in a completely alternative manner. More, perhaps, like sound or temperature for us.

In fact, the mantis shrimp’s visual perception is so different from our own that it’s hard to even conceptualise the reality in which it lives from the point of view of the shrimp itself.

Trying to imagine our surroundings from an utterly unique and alternate perspective isn’t merely an intriguing thought exercise – it can bring the world as we perceive it into clearer focus.

Speaking of different perspectives: Over the weekend I had the good fortune to attend a talk given by the current mayor of Iceland’s Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr. A humorist and artist, Jón Gnarr came into office at the head of the Best Party, which he describes as less of an actual political party and more of an ‘anarcho-surrealist art project’ using politics as a medium.

Juvenile mantis shrimp Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Juvenile mantis shrimp
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

According to Gnarr, he and his associates are only ‘anarchists’ in the sense that they think there’s no one ‘right’ political party or ideology – there are only solutions for challenges or questions, and the way to deal with them is to take each one as they come up, on their own merits.

Gnarr said he sees the art project as an boundary-crossing intervention in a political system that, following the 2008 financial collapse in Iceland, was mired in recriminations and political volatility. With a term now running into its fourth year, he’s been in office longer than his three predecessors combined.

According to him, it seems to be working – the parties are communicating, the system has stabilised, the economy is gaining traction.

Will he run again? Absolutely not: he is firm in remaining an ‘amateur politician’. Were he to run again, he’d be a professional, and thus only able to work inside the system.

I had the feeling that the world looks very different for Gnarr than it does for most people, especially most politicians.

Not that I’m saying he’s anything like the odd mantis shrimp, but having the chance to glimpse the world through Gnarr’s eyes for an evening was an enlightening peek into a different reality being played out against the backdrop of the familiar, and a look that might change expected outcomes.

Almost like feeling the vibrations of color rather than seeing different hues.

Eye of the mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicus). Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Eye of the mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicus).
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

The Hot Koala


Last week, the image of a heat-struck koala in parched Australia inspired a tweet:

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

And @Curt_Ames noted that ‘hot koala’ sounded like a good name for a cocktail.

I agree. So I made a Hot Koala. My first version, without the Tabasco sauce or fresh mint, suffered from both a lack of heat and cool.

But I’m happy with this second attempt. It’s got heat, it’s got soft brown-grey colors, it gets doused, and I hope it refreshes.

The Hot Koala

2 parts tequila 1 part Kahlua
1 part single malt whisky (I used Glenfarclas Heritage, because I just would – but bourbon would be fine, too)
1 part cream
Several dashes Tabasco sauce (the heat, obviously)

Shake all above ingredients together with ice, strain into glasses over ice.

Ground cayenne (again, heat)
A sprig of fresh mint to garnish (the douse)
Ground black chocolate on top (the koala nose)

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It turned out pretty well – sweet, with heat and a bite (because I’ve heard that koalas aren’t really as cuddly as they look, especially when they are suffering from the heat).

And voila – my first invented cocktail.

Have a great weekend, and stay cool, or warm, as the case may be.

And apologies for this ridiculous song, but not only is this a koala post, but I’m a Paula, and my family really is from Walla Walla. I couldn’t resist.

Paper Parks

Paper lion - an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)

Paper lion – an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)

A team of researchers spent six years tracking populations of West African lions (Panthera leo), a breed genetically distinct from other lions on the continent. Twenty-one parks exist for their protection, but according to a study out in PLOS ONE, lions were actually found in only four of these parks.

Lions are protected throughout Africa, with millions of dollars spent in conservation efforts – just not in West Africa. The lion population – estimated to be at under 400 individuals – has been divided, encroached upon, hunted. Habitat destruction due to farming, and the large bushmeat market that competes with the lions for prey, have done most of the harm.

The research team and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) are calling for immediate investment in protection of this species, but considering that West Africa is among the poorest regions on the planet, this will be an uphill march.

Dr. Philipp Henschel, survey coordinator for Panthera, the non-profit wild cat conservation organization that sponsored the survey, led a team that examined lions across 17 countries. I heard Dr. Henschel interviewed on the BBC.

In addition to the plight of these animals, one image of his particularly struck me: He and his colleagues devoted years to the survey before ever laying on a living West African lion, symbol and emblem of West Africa. They went from park to designated park, only to find the lions had disappeared.

They had thought they would be counting lions, but they spent most of the survey counting paper parks – parks in name only, the subjects of protection already long gone.

Mud Pie

Map of Australia & World Source:

Map of Australia & World

There was an encouraging study released in early January that describes how denuded reefs off the coast of Sydney Australia have been partially restored through seaweed transplants. Crayweed (Phyllospora comosa) is an ecosystem cornerstone in some reef system, providing a habitat for fish and crustaceans.

In 2008, researchers found it had disappeared from a 70 km (43 mile) stretch of coastline, likely due to the direct dumping of Sydney’s sewage into the water over the course of decades. Although the sewage lines were moved into deeper waters in the 1990s, the damage had been done. (On a side note, Sydney’s water treatment seems not only to have a troubled past regarding pollution, but a troubled present as well. A story for another day.)

Crayweed transplants Photo: UNSW

Crayweed transplants
Photo: UNSW

Once the seaweed-free reefs had been identified, scientists undertook a project of transplanting crayweed to two barren areas in the hope of re-establishing the seaweed itself as well as the damaged marine environment. The good news is, it seems to be working, the seaweed is taking hold, and with time, other marine life might be back as well.

Enjoy the glow of this feel-good story for a moment before reading on to something happening up the coast from Sydney in Queensland.

I could try and be balanced about the following news, and to present it in an objective light, looking at the history of the area and the arguments for and against. But in this particular case, I just can’t.

The Great Barrier Reef is the longest coral reef on the planet, and is the largest single structure made by living creatures. Source: New7Wonders

The Great Barrier Reef is the longest coral reef on the planet, and is the largest single structure made by living creatures.
Source: WorldNew7Wonders

The new Australian government under Tony Abbott has approved a dredging and dumping project that would allow 3.5 million cubic meters of sludge to be deposited on underwater areas within the Great Barrier Reef protected zone.  The dredging is to facilitate expansion of coal export operations into one of the largest coal ports in the world, shipping Australian coal to China and India.

I guess it’s been determined that waiting around for the Great Barrier Reef to just give up and die due to the effects of greenhouse gases, climate change, industrial and agricultural pollution and shipping would take too long.

Having the fossil-fuel extraction industry just make direct attacks on the World Heritage site will get the job done quicker.

The flooding and flow of sediment into the Coral Sea at Gladstone, Australia, blamed by many on dredging. Dredging at Gladstone Harbour is under investigation for causing mass marine life death. Image: Cmd. Chris Hadfield  via Twitter

The flooding and flow of sediment into the Coral Sea at Gladstone, Australia, blamed by many on dredging. Dredging at Gladstone Harbour is under investigation for causing mass marine life death.
Image: Cmd. Chris Hadfield via Twitter

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has final approval rights. Their decision is due by 31 January 2014. You can add comment on the GBRMPA website, or if so inclined, sign an online petition against this project to turn parts of the reef into mud pie here, or e-mail the Australian Environment Minister’s office here. Or, perhaps more effective, give the GBRMPA a call.

Study: Towards Restoration of Missing Underwater Forests (PLOS ONE Jan. 2014) – AH Campbell, EM Marzinelli, A. Vergés, MA Coleman, PD Steinberg

Winter Buds


We had a bitterly cold December, but according to local lore, the polar vortex over North America has given us a balmy January. Temperatures that barely count as winter, low levels of rain and snow only on much higher ground, disappointed skiers and confused garden plants.

I put in bulbs in a tiny patch of land behind our kitchen. The house is over 500 years old, the property divisions are inexplicable and bizarre. There is an old rose which thrives against the shady wall – in summer, of course, not now. We never know when some of these plants were first put in – one vine was planted in 1947.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

In springtime, the little sliver of shaded kitchen garden territory looks like this, more or less. This is an old picture from when I first put in the garden patch – the plants are all much larger now and we’ve installed a woven fence.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I planted a few bulbs in a pot back in September. They seem to think it’s already time to come out.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

As does the misguided peony.

Photo: PK Read

The tiny red slivers are the new peony buds. I use the old stalks to create a protective nest above them for overwintering.
Photo: PK Read

And the hydrangea, which I bind into a tipi form that is usually snow-topped around now, is sending out fresh buds against the flowerheads from last year.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read


The crazy rosemary on the other side of the house, a huge and unruly bush that I started cutting back in autumn, is budding up. It was planted right after WWII and really needs to be completely renovated.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I know snow will come and cover all of this. Sooner or later. I guess I’ll just have to see which plants have the strength for a second attempt come spring.

Leaping Forward


The diminutive planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) is the only creature we know of besides ourselves that uses intermeshed gears for heavy, synchronized lifting. The gears, which look like a comic book model of miniature technology, form the ratchet joint between the planthopper’s back legs.

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

They create a smooth response where the insect’s developing system is still incapable of carrying through the complex coordination required when the hopper wants to make one of its signature great leaps from one point to another. The tiny planthopper can jump a meter (3 feet) in a single bound.

The gears are only present while the animal is immature, for while the planthopper’s body is learning to leap forward, it puts such a strain on the joint that the tiny gear teeth tend to break off completely. No worry, the insect is still growing, and with each new molt it emerges with shiny, intact gears, regenerated for further leaps.

Once adult, the hopper develops a system altogether more mature and reliable, without all the breakables.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a final report this week stating that if humans can’t manage to collectively confront the issue of climate change immediately and on a massive scale, we may find ourselves in need of an as-yet-to-be-invented sucking technology to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and put them – where? Underground where we got them? Into outer space?

Abandoned coal mine gear. Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Abandoned coal mine gear.
Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Meanwhile, technologies for better ways to frack natural gas, extract oil from shale, dig deeper to find hidden oil reserves are developing apace.

We’re still in a developmental phases of our progress, still breaking the gear teeth when we want to make great leaps from one point to another.

Maybe the next sloughing phase will see us shed this immature skin, refine and improve our gears and coordination, and take a longer leap forward to where we put our collective minds towards solutions that won’t leave us without a safe place to land.

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Nest Egg Protection


It’s been fifty years since a watershed report was released in the United States, the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the effect of tobacco and smoking on health.

A recent study estimated that as a result of this 1964 report, 50 million lives were saved worldwide that would have otherwise been lost to tobacco-related disease. The number of adults who smoke has been reduced by half – from 40% to 20% – between the 1960s and now.

With the publication of the report, the U.S. and other countries began to implement a broad variety of measures to counter widespread addiction to cigarettes.

What was the reaction of the powerful tobacco industry?

Protecting the nest egg Photo: Brian Klaus

Protecting the nest egg
Photo: Brian Klaus

From before the report was published, and well into the 1990s, the industry countered with independent research that questioned the direct links drawn between using tobacco products and various diseases; new markets with fewer impending regulations were opened; new restrictions were met with litigation and arguments about consumer rights and choices; new forms of cigarettes were presented as less harmful.

Books and studies have dissected the tactics used by a large-scale, highly profitable and powerful industry to save itself. One very thorough book, The Cigarette Papers, quotes press statements released by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee over the course of decades. A sampling:

The tobacco industry recognizes that it has a special responsibility to help find the true facts about tobacco and health. Since 1954, it has been supporting a program of independent research through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC)…images

The TIRC emphasizes that many clinical and experimental factors still need to be identified, investigated, and evaluated regarding the origin of lung cancer and other diseases. Actually, the number of suspects under study in lung cancer has broadened and now includes viruses, previous lung ailments, air pollutants, heredity, stress and strain, and other factors.

While these [TIRC-funded] research studies have increased our factual knowledge, they have at the same time continued to make clear and to emphasize the great and critical gaps in that knowledge.

We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.

As the book’s authors state, the goal here wasn’t to discover facts, it was to perpetuate controversy about the adverse effects of tobacco, and in the interim, continue to remain an economic force.

And in all fairness, the industry can’t be blamed for trying to protect its interests, nor can those supporters who saw the tobacco industry in terms of employment, industry and taxes.images-1

The fact remains that smoking is harmful for anyone except the tobacco industry itself.

None of this, really, is news except for the part about how many lives were saved due to the Surgeon General’s report and its aftermath.

What I wondered, while I was reading all this and revisiting the ads proclaiming a ‘safer cigarette’ was this:

There have been countless reports on the effects of fossil-fuel consumption on health, the environment, and the climate. The oil industry has reacted in much the same way as the tobacco industry – to the point that numerous financial companies draw parallels between the plight of the two industries for investment purposes.

When it comes to damaging products and industries, it might take time, but regulation, awareness campaigns and alternatives work.

So, when will we have our watershed moment when the majority of us learn to kick the habit?Shell2

Heroes and Villains


Update below.

You know a cause has achieved cult status when it makes it into the comic books.

Marvel Comics has come out with a double pack of comic books featuring the popular character of Wolverine and the issue of the illegal trade in endangered animal parts. Written and illustrated by the great Phil Jimenez, the comics couldn’t be more timely.

The Dallas Safari Club auctioned off a chance to hunt an endangered rhino for $350,000 last week, over widespread protests and petitions.

Savage Wolverine #12 Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Savage Wolverine #12
Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Ostensibly, the money will go towards conservation efforts in Namibia. The hunt has been sanctioned by the government.

I can understand the need to cull non-breeding, older male rhinos from a herd to promote younger, healthier males that might otherwise be attacked or intimidated. I can understand the Namibian government wanting to earn hard cash for a cull that would otherwise only cost them time and money.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Paying a vast sum of money for the thrill and privilege of hunting an endangered animal, even in the name of conservation, does little more than glorify the illicit status of that animal’s value to humans, and add value to the illegally traded body parts of poached animals.

This auction comes the same week that saw an Irish native, Michael Slattery Jr., convicted and sentenced to almost two years in prison for coming to the United States to buy mounted rhino horns, which he sold on to Asian buyers for an estimated $30,000 per pound.

Horns of endangered black rhinos. According to the prosecutors in the Slattery case, the horns he sold were resold twice and tripled in price before leaving the U.S. Photo: US Attorney's Office - Eastern District of New York

Endangered black rhino horn.
Photo: US Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of New York

Mr. Slattery claimed he was just doing business  and saw no connection between his actions and its effect on endangered species. According to the prosecutors in the Slattery case, the horns he sold were resold twice and tripled in price before leaving the U.S. Slattery argued that he was just a salesman, turning a dollar on something already there.

As Judge John Gleeson of United States District Court, who presided over the trial, is quoted as saying by way of comparison to Slattery’s defense, “‘I didn’t make these drugs, all I did was distribute them; I didn’t create this child pornography, I just distribute it.’”

The hunters and poachers in Savage Wolverine don’t fare well at the hands (well, claws) of Wolverine, but he reserves just as much anger for those who trade in the endangered animal business.

I wonder where Wolverine would stand on the trophy hunt auction of endangered animals.

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.

Savage Wolverine #13 Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Savage Wolverine #13
Art: Jimenez/Marvel

The Real Thing


Scotch whisky will soon have something else in common with Champagne besides being one of my favorite beverages: It will have protected geographical status.

Like many other coveted products, Scotch whisky is often counterfeited. Fake Scotch whisky is estimated to cost the industry £500 million annually, approximately ten percent of  overall sales.

Old Map of Scotland 1650 Source: Virtual Hebrides

Old Map of Scotland 1650
Source: Virtual Hebrides

A new Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme will require “all businesses involved in any stage of the production of Scotch Whisky to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by listing all their relevant sites within and outside Scotland, including distilleries, maturation facilities, blending and bottling plants. Bottlers of Scotch Whisky abroad will also be subject to controls.” (The Scotsman)

For the time being, this verification will only be required for Scotch whisky sold in the European Union, but will be extended to other unique UK beverages with a geographical origin, such as Somerset Cider Brandy and Irish Whiskey produced in Northern Ireland. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the certified Scotch label spread further.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in this case, it would be nice to know that you’re getting the real thing.

And to warm the end of this weekend like a dram of fine single malt Scotch, The Real Thing. Don’t watch if you can’t appreciate the rhythm and glamour that was the mid-1970s.

With thanks to Rachel MacNeill for alerting me to this story!

Social Climbers


Emperor Penguin colony. The adults are the size of a large dog.
Credit: Zibordi / Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA

The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is big, as birds go, and as graceful underwater as it is ungainly on land. Its native habitat is Antarctica, and until recently, the bird has been considered ‘sea-ice obligate’, meaning it breeds and forages from sea-ice platforms.

The species hasn’t been considered under threat for time being, but given the changes that are occurring in its one and only habitat and the increasing instability of sea ice platforms, most long-term predictions are less than optimistic.

The Emperor likes to nest at the same sites year after year, and those sites do not always oblige any more by appearing in a timely manner.

However, the Emperor Penguin’s strong preference for keeping a regular breeding address might be matched by an unexpected adaptability in another area: its previously unknown climbing skills and its willingness to try something new.

Emperor Penguins on the edge of the Larsen Ice Shelf near the Jason Peninsula late in the breeding season. Note the ice cliff which is probably an insurmountable barrier to the adult emperor penguins. No evident route to the colony was determined from the images. Caption/Photo: Fretwell et al. / Ian Potten

Emperor Penguins on the edge of the Larsen Ice Shelf near the Jason Peninsula late in the breeding season. Note the ice cliff which is probably an insurmountable barrier to the adult emperor penguins. No evident route to the colony was determined from the images.
Caption/Photo: Fretwell et al. / Ian Potten

A new study has shown that there are colonies of Emperor Penguins that have reacted to the unreliability of sea ice in their usual spots by relocating to a higher elevation on a permanent ice shelf. It seems that thousands of penguins, rather than look for new sea ice platforms, instead trekked up sloping ice creeks and gullies to safer locations.

This doesn’t mean the species isn’t threatened by climate change in the long run.

Rather, it’s a surprising and positive illustration of adaptation to rapidly changing conditions.


Fretwell PT, Trathan PN, Wienecke B, Kooyman GL (2014) Emperor Penguins Breeding on Iceshelves. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085285