Monthly Archives: March 2014

Submerged Lines

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We humans are visual creatures. It’s in our nature to focus on what we can see, it’s in our nightmares to focus on the unseen and the hidden because we just aren’t very good at preparing ourselves for what isn’t readily visible. Even within our own bodies, some of the most dangerous illnesses are the ones with few symptoms – at least until they suddenly erupt. High blood pressure seems like no big deal until a stroke hits.

Somehow, we manage to have the same approach to pathways and passages which we ourselves have built. Like forgetful squirrels, we lay pipelines for oil and gas supplies, assume the supply will remain intact, and then put them out of our minds.

Pipelines to carry oil have been laid all around the world for a century. And like any pipe, at some point they show their signs of age. Pipes can break due to corrosion, excavation work, material and welding errors, natural force, external damage (such as anchors hitting underwater pipes), and faulty operation.

Mostly, though, it’s age and material failure that cause leaks like the recent Tioga leak in North Dakota, the largest U.S. onshore spill in history. A quick glance here will reveal an unsettling, ongoing litany of oil spills during any given month.

Lakehead System Source: Enbridge

Lakehead System
Source: Enbridge

In Michigan, two 50 cm (20 in.) pipes were laid down in 1953 as a part of the 3000 km (1900 m.) Lakehead System that runs from North Dakota down to points east and south. Most of the Lakehead system is underground, this segment, known as Line 5, runs underwater through the Straits of Mackinac between northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The pipes traverse the juncture between two Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. “While Line 5’s capacity has increased, neither regulatory scrutiny nor corporate transparency have followed suit. The Great Lakes, which contain 84% of North America’s and 20% of the planet’s surface freshwater, are at a greater risk than ever,” according to FLOW, a non-profit organization working to protect the Great Lakes.

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.  Source: NWF

This map produced by the National Wildlife Federation estimates the extent to which oil might flow from a pipeline rupture beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Source: NWF

Line 5 is owned and operated by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a company that insists the lines have been operating well for ‘decades’ and are perfectly intact. This is the same company whose lines burst and polluted the Kalamazoo River at a continuing clean-up cost of four years and over $1 billion.

Sometimes, the unseen around which we build our nightmares doesn’t merit closer examination; it’s just smoke and ephemera, the stuff of tall stories.

This probably isn’t one of those cases.

Straits of Mackinac Source: FLOW

Straits of Mackinac
Source: FLOW

Pantry Bubbly

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imagesThere are a few staples people always like to have around the house. Whether it’s rice, or eggs, or beer, or bread, if it’s not in the pantry, the pantry is lacking – even if full of other things.

It should come as no surprise that one of these items in our household is champagne (well, whisky, too, but today I’m talking about champagne). We moved to France almost twenty years ago, and I while I loved the drink long before we came here, it’s status as a pantry staple dates to our relocation here.

Our staple bubbly, the Brut Nicolas Feuillatte NV, isn’t overly fancy nor particularly expensive, it’s not necessarily the stuff of special occasions and celebrations or for a fine dinner with friends, and it’s not from a small producer, but it’s reliable and it’s tasty.

It’s dry and finely pearled, with a pale gold colour. I always associate it with a light straw aroma, with apple and pear notes. If you ask me, it goes with most things, including little more than good conversation, or a warm fire in the fireplace.

Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes are made from the mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes supplied by the Centre Vinicole – Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte (CV-CNF) cooperative. Established in the early 1970s, the union is now the largest in Champagne, representing 82 smaller cooperatives and 5000 wine growers. The brand is among the most successful champagne producers, the third largest in the world.

The Nicolas Feuillate facility in Epernay, France.

The Nicolas Feuillate facility in Epernay, France.

I wrote recently that many great Champagne houses once carried the names of widows who had successfully carried on the family business – unfortunately, due to old French property laws, the only way a woman could act as the head of a company was if she married the proprietor, and was subsequently widowed.

Considering how much women contributed to the growth of the industry, it’s a bit odd that Champagne production is once again primarily seen as a male domain. Even the Nicolas Feuillatte web presence has a page titled Our Values – The Men. Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that the current President of the CV-CNF, Véronique Blin, is a woman born into a family of Champagne producers.

At any rate, the cupboard here at ChampagneWhisky always needs a bottle or two of Nicolas Feuillatte to feel well and truly stocked for all occasions, even it it’s just the evening news.

 

 

 

Transboundary Pulse

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It’s a strange notion, the cutting off of water across an invisible territorial boundary. There are few actions we can take as humans – both for communities and for the environment – that are more baldly assertive than diverting rivers and water flow.

The Colorado River delta sits at the very end of the 2330 km-long (1450 m.) Colorado River, which winds southward from Colorado to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. An object of human geo-engineering for hundreds of years, it’s only in the last century that the Colorado River became one of the most controlled, divided and litigated rivers in the world.

Over the past fifty years, so much water has been used in the United States that the river hasn’t reached the delta or the Sea of Cortez at all, turning what was once a lush system of lakes and marshes into a parched desert.

Collage of historical descriptions of the delta and an image of the dry delta of recent years. "The river enters the sea by a mouth four leagues wide...The Rio Colorado bathes (the land) like the Nile bathes Egypt, giving it great fertility." Source: Jordan Wirfs-Brock/

Collage of historical descriptions of the delta and an image of the dry delta of recent years. “The river enters the sea by a mouth four leagues wide…The Rio Colorado bathes (the land) like the Nile bathes Egypt, giving it great fertility.”
Source: Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Univ. of Colorado Boulder

But this week, for the first time in five decades and timed to coincide with World Water Day, water from the Colorado River flowed at more than a trickle on the southern side of the border in Mexico.

In 2012, the 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty on river use was amended with an addition known as Minute 319, which aims to support reclamation of the delta through controlled ‘pulse flows’, large surges of water that then trickle off in an imitation of the pre-dam, pre-diversion river that flowed heavily with the snow melt in spring and tapered off through later months.

The surges created by this pilot project should help spread tree and plant seeds across the delta, while the tapering off should provide irrigation for plants to thrive. It’s hoped the influx of water and the re-establishment of plant life will also support the delta’s dwindling wildlife, including many species of migratory birds.

It’s an unusual cross-border project in that the water release isn’t specifically for commercial purposes, but to support environmental restoration.

Cross-border water cooperation and sharing to support ecosystem recovery: I suppose these days, that’s a strange notion, as well.

Colorado River Dry Delta, terminus of the Colorado River in the Sonoran Desert of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, ending about 5 miles north of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). Photo: Peter McBride USGS / Wikipedia

Colorado River Dry Delta, terminus of the Colorado River in the Sonoran Desert of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, ending about 5 miles north of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California).
Photo: Peter McBride USGS / Wikipedia

Think of it as a surge of water. It’s what happens when there’s a big rainfall or the snow melts into a river. The flow increases for a few days or weeks, and then it goes back to normal. Rather than weather, this environmental experiment will be a release of water from a reservoir. It is designed to mimic the kind of natural pulse flows that help keep rivers healthy by spreading native plant seeds and creating conditions for those seedlings to grow and thrive. – See more at: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/areas/coloradoriver/colorado-river-pulse-flow-qa-with-eloise-kendy.xml#sthash.2WwHpQtj.dpuf
Think of it as a surge of water. It’s what happens when there’s a big rainfall or the snow melts into a river. The flow increases for a few days or weeks, and then it goes back to normal. Rather than weather, this environmental experiment will be a release of water from a reservoir. It is designed to mimic the kind of natural pulse flows that help keep rivers healthy by spreading native plant seeds and creating conditions for those seedlings to grow and thrive. – See more at: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/areas/coloradoriver/colorado-river-pulse-flow-qa-with-eloise-kendy.xml#sthash.2WwHpQtj.dpuf
Think of it as a surge of water. It’s what happens when there’s a big rainfall or the snow melts into a river. The flow increases for a few days or weeks, and then it goes back to normal. Rather than weather, this environmental experiment will be a release of water from a reservoir. It is designed to mimic the kind of natural pulse flows that help keep rivers healthy by spreading native plant seeds and creating conditions for those seedlings to grow and thrive. – See more at: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/areas/coloradoriver/colorado-river-pulse-flow-qa-with-eloise-kendy.xml#sthash.2WwHpQtj.dpuf

Serendipitous Find

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Turtle eggs. Photo: Palm Beach Post

Loggerhead turtle eggs.
Photo: Palm Beach Post

It’s one of those stories which, if it were written in a story, would be labeled implausible.

An amateur fossil collector is walking along the banks of a river when he sees a strange-looking stone sticking out of the mud. He bends down to have a closer look, and realises that the stone is, in fact, a bone. Thinking it might be a dinosaur fossil, he takes it to a museum.

The curator at that museum also happens to be someone who has seen another fossil that looked similar at another museum, a fossil that had been found 163 years earlier, origin unknown. He thought it might be interesting to compare the two.

And as it turned out, the two fossils did indeed have something in common: They were two halves of the very same bone.

More evidence that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Ancient sea turtle bones found 163 years apart are a perfect match.  Photo: Drexel University

Ancient sea turtle bones found 163 years apart are a perfect match.
Photo: Drexel University

The fossil half that was found in 2012 by Gregory Harpel on the banks of a brook in New Jersey and donated to the New Jersey State Museum and which was matched to the fossil half found in 1849 and kept in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University did more than surprise by its mere discovery.

The location of the original fossil find hadn’t been recorded – now paleontologists know its origin. Monmouth County, New Jersey.

The bone that was broken millions of years ago, and the discovery of the second matching half, proved bones and fossils can stay intact when exposed to air for much longer than expected.

It helped researchers further describe the giant sea turtle, Atlantochelys mortoni, that swam the seas in 70 million to 75 million years ago during the Pleistocene or Holocene eras. The sea turtle most resembled the loggerhead turtle, which is currently considered endangered.

However, A. mortoni was the largest known turtle in history, measuring over three meters (10 feet). Much larger than the loggerhead, and at least as impressive in size as the wild tale of two matching fossil halves found over a century-and-a-half apart.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (C. caretta) Photo: Jorge Candan

Loggerhead sea turtle (C. caretta)
Photo: Jorge Candan

Future Investment

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Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

This year marks the first time that all Monsanto Roundup Ready genetically-modified seeds will be off-patent. This means that any company can start making ‘generic’ versions of the GM soybeans, corn and so on – unless, of course, their use and the use of the companion Roundup-based herbicide has been banned*.

The path ahead is complex. Up until now, the source of these particular GM seeds was Monsanto, together with companies to which Monsanto had licensed the use of the these products. As of 2010, this accounted for a staggering 98% of soybean seed and 79% corn seed sales  in the world.

A double-edged sword: On the one hand, Monsanto vigorously guarded the use of its product, taking even farmers who had never planted Roundup Ready seeds to court because open pollination had left them with traces of GM crops in their fields. But it also meant that farmers who might like to ‘go GM’ didn’t due to contractual or pricing concerns. Well, those concerns may fade now, and GM use may spread.

It’s always interesting to take a look at this issue from a different perspective, and sometimes I do that by reading the investment news on seed and chemical companies.

Last year, an article on MSN Money took a look at the Big Three seed companies: Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. In choosing which seed company was the best investment, author Jim J. Jubak factored in the loss of patent control, as well as how much of each company’s revenue was actually seed-based (high margin), how much was based on chemical crop protection (‘volatile’), and how much was in other sectors.

Seeds (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

In brief, Jubak recommended DuPont. Why? Because the company had none of Monsanto’s patent problems, was shedding its non-seed businesses and buying up seed companies, and was the most focused of the three on the core: Creating and selling seeds.

Why should investors want seed companies in their portfolio? As Jubak said, “By 2050 the world will have a population of 9 billion (very scary) and the world’s farmers will need to double grain production in the face of losses of farmland to urbanization, desertification, drought and pollution.

“That means getting more calories from the world’s food plants by improving yields, by increasing resistance to disease and pests, and by expanding farm production to land that is now marginal because of climate or rainfall (while at the same time resisting attacks on global food production from changes in climate and an increasing incidence of drought.”

For what it’s worth, Jubak was mostly right: Since the article was written in July 2013, Dupont‘s stock has gone up by 16.6 %, Monsant0‘s by 12.59%, and Syngenta‘s has gone down by 6.08%. If Monsanto was going to suffer from the loss of its patents, it hasn’t come through in its stock price.

Now, what’s the point of looking at seeds from an investor’s perspective?

Genetic Code Revisited  Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Genetic Code Revisited
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Because that’s what seeds are. You can see them as an investment in the baldest sense of financial gain, without the baggage of other concerns except as a motivating investment factor.

You can also see them as an investment in the future in terms of feeding the planet, maintaining and promoting biodiversity (both plant and animal), enriching lives and soil, and as a continuation of what we as humans have been doing for millennia.

The two views don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for the moment, it seems that they are.

 

*Current bans on use of glyphosate products are in force in Denmark, El Salvador and Sri Lanka.

Small Fold, Big Surprise

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Last week I posted a story about Big Origami.

This week, it’s Small Origami.

Namely, an origami microscope.

Source: Foldscope Team

Source: Foldscope Team

 

The Foldscope website says it as concisely as I possibly could, perhaps due to their experience with efficient use of space:

“Foldscope is an origami-based print-and-fold optical microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper.

“Although it costs less than a dollar in parts, it can provide over 2,000X magnification with sub-micron resolution (800nm), weighs less than two nickels (8.8 g), is small enough to fit in a pocket (70 × 20 × 2 mm3), requires no external power, and can survive being dropped from a 3-story building or stepped on by a person.

“Its minimalistic, scalable design is inherently application-specific instead of general-purpose gearing towards applications in global health, field based citizen science and K12-science education.”

Source: Foldscope Team

Source: Foldscope Team

An invention of the Stanford University Department of Bioengineering, the body of the microscope can be printed out on card stock; add a lens, an LED light and a button battery. The Foldscope group would like to give away 10,000 microscope sets for testing. You can request your own DIY kit here, and watch the TED talk on the microscope here.

Image: Foldscope Team

Image: Foldscope Team

All that’s needed for the microscope slide is clear adhesive tape, and the device can be configured for different magnifications depending on the type of lens used.

The idea is that an inexpensive tool like this can be widely distributed to areas where a standard microscope would be inaccessible due to price or distribution. A variety  of diseases, from malaria to African sleeping sickness, could be screened using the tool. But the microscope can also be used in classrooms or for field research. And if it gets torn or broken, it is easily replaced.

Foldscope images Source: Foldscope Team

Foldscope images
Source: Foldscope Team

I never expected to be using the words ‘origami’ and ‘microscope’ to describe the same object, but there it is. Today’s pleasant surprise.

 

Unexpected Sights

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Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

We were out on an evening walk when we saw this very strange sight: On the edge of a golf course, an intact (but dead) fish located right below an electric fence. There’s a small pond on the course, a few long strides away from where the fish lay. The fish wasn’t clawed or damaged as one might expect if it had been caught by a cat, or one of the eagle hawks that fly around here. It was just a fish out of water, not where it was supposed to be.

Very strange.

It’s long been known that many animals avoid electrical pylons, even changing their migratory routes and breeding grounds to avoid the long stretches of power lines that criss-cross the planet. There was speculation that this behavior might be due to the open space of the pylon swathes, or the noise of the electrical pops.

Now, new research has shown another possible reason: Unlike humans, most animals’ vision spectrum extends into the ultraviolet range. What we see as electrical lines, they see as a source of bright, random and disturbing light flashes like the ones below, taken with a UV-sensitive camera.

This discovery could go some way in explaining why animals around the world avoid power lines, rendering power lines just as important as major roads when it comes to habitat impact.

None of this explains why we found a fish that had apparently been making a run for it across a golf course, especially since the fish seemed to be moving toward an electrical line, rather than away from it.

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Fountainhead Reflections

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There are several old public fountains in the villages that surround mine, and I pass them on my runs. Our village dismantled its fountain many years ago for reasons unknown to me – I do know, however, that the former mayor uses the former stone fountain trough in his garden as decoration.photo 2

Be that as it may, all the fountains around here have a sign above them that says ‘Eau non potable’ – Non potable water.

I’ve often wondered why the water is labeled unsuitable for consumption, since we live along a river that is, in fact, used as the area’s main water source. The water here is excellent, for the most part, and tasty.

Photo:  Olivier Le Queinec

Photo: Olivier Le Queinec

I found a French forum that discussed just this topic. I learned that there are a variety of reasons the water may be labeled non potable. It might be untreated, the village might not have the funds to have it regularly tested (I suspect this is the case in our area), or it might be polluted (sometimes the case further down the Rhône River).

Some fountains, rather than having a ‘Eau non potable’ sign, have instead a sign which reads ‘Eau non surveillé’ – unsupervised water. Which means, more or less, that nobody is saying the water is good or bad. Drink at your own risk.

One of the commenters on the French water forum said (loosely translated): “Our water should be alive, light, wild and untamed, impossible to have under surveillance and, on occasion, capricious. Thus, ‘unsupervised water’ is exactly what water should be.”

There is speculation that there are vast amounts of water in places hitherto unsuspected. A massive aquifer was recently discovered under an ice sheet in Greenland. There are untold oceans far beneath the earth’s surface. The water might not be fresh water, water that is potable. It floats our tectonic plates, it impacts volcanic activity. But it is, at least for now, more or less unsupervised.

An iceberg melts in Greenland. Photo: John McConnico/AP

An iceberg melts in Greenland.
Photo: John McConnico/AP

I like this idea of unsupervised water finding its own way.

But the fact is, only 2% amount of the water on the surface of the planet is fresh water, water we can drink. Even less is water we can access – and what we can access, we don’t seem to care for in the way we should, considering its intrinsic necessity to our survival.

Probably need to have this water under more supervision, or at least, more careful supervision, rather than less.

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Today is World Water Day. The theme for 2014 is the utilization of water to generate energy around the world.

Branched Embrace

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Branched Embrace

I spent a large part of my youth living deep in a forest that was relatively untamed, a temperate rainforest of bay laurel and Coastal live oak on the Inverness Ridge in California, part of the Point Reyes Peninsula north of San Francisco.

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

There are large stands of Bishop pine and Douglas fir on the same peninsula, much of which is a national park. I was spoilt for trees.

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like some forests better than others, but in the end, any forest is a place of life.

Today is the International Day of Forests. Still under siege, still under threat of deforestation, still the single largest refuge for biodiversity on land.

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Bear Valley Park, Pt. Reyes Peninsula

Forests feel like home to those who grew up in them.

We are fortunate to live just a short walk from a forest of pine, oak and walnut trees here in France. There’s nothing quite like the sound of trees being amongst themselves, the creaks of branch against branch, the rustle of wind in the leaves. Between the forest and the sea, these sounds are home for me. They have embraced me for much of my life, a backdrop against which days are lived.

Forestry_infografic_800

All photos P.K. Read

Generative Art, Rootworm Evolution

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A 'sheep' created by Electric Sheep. Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

A ‘sheep’ created by Electric Sheep.
Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

What do we call evolution that plays with the toys we provide, jumps the obstacles we set, which meets us on the field of our own choosing, and then bests us?

In the case of the shared technology created by Scott Draves for creating ever-changing, computer-human collaborations of software art known as Electric Sheep, we call each new creation a ‘sheep’.

In the case of Bt corn, we call it the ‘rootworm’. This little fellow has evolved both immunity to and an appetite for the very corn that was genetically modified to be resistant to the rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera).

Actually, Bacillus thuringiensis corn, or Bt corn, was genetically engineered to produce insecticidal toxins derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in order to kill pest insects and reduce the use of conventional insecticides.

Mature corn rootworm beetles. Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

Mature corn rootworm beetles.
Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

How did the rootworm turn the nifty trick of learning to love the plant created to kill it? It didn’t do it alone – it needed our help. If environmental recommendations had been followed, which is to say, if the GM corn fields had been interspersed with non-GM corn fields at given intervals (50% was the original recommendation, pushed down to 5 – 20% by seed companies and the Environmental Protection Agency, the rootworm might have stuck to the tasty, non-resistant corn, thus leaving intact the resistant corn’s viability.

But apparently, these recommendations were not followed. Or maybe they were, and the insect’s genetic evolution is just that creative. At any rate, now the pest feeds on both kinds of corn. And a second GM type of corn as well.

I should mention that for the short glory period of ten years during which Bt resistant corn was introduced by Monsanto and remained rootworm-resistant, the GM corn became the leading corn crop in the United States. It now makes up three-quarters of all corn grown there.

The Electric Sheep project has been ongoing since 1999 and comes up with ever new iterations of ‘sheep’, lovely swirls of ever changing software DNA, pleasing to the eye and in constant motion.

The evolutionary project of the rootworm has been going on for over four million years, and apparently, it’s also still in constant motion.

Happy Vernal Equinox!