Monthly Archives: April 2014

Comfort Zones

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

Research over many years has examined if and how the indigenous people of Siberia evolved to adapt to the extremely harsh winter climate there. Most evidence points to three major genetic adaptations that helped people survive and even thrive in average January temperatures of -25 °C (-13 °F).

The three genes – UCP1, ENPP7 and PRKG1 – influence bodily mechanisms that control, respectively, how body fat is metabolized into energy, how smooth muscles contract and blood vessels constrict with regards to shivering, and how the body metabolizes animal fat. The positive selection for these genes is evident at different levels in different segments of the indigenous Siberian population. Taken together, however, it’s clear that over 25,000 years of habitation in Siberia, humans there became better equipped to physically cope with the cold.

Which is to say, there is clear evidence that ‘modern’ humans have not stopped evolving.

In a somewhat related discussion, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature has a project that looks at how global warming will affect Siberia, and what that will mean in terms of human adaptation. Siberia comprises almost 10% of Earth’s land mass, and with the environment there undergoing rapid change and known ecosystems developing in unpredictable ways, researchers are asking how indigenous locals are managing in their traditional lifestyles.

So far, the answers point to a less dire assessment than perhaps expected – one study said that it was much harder to adapt to the isolation and retreat of government support and health care that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union than it has been to deal with increased flooding and declining permafrost.

My conclusion is this: We can physically adapt, more or less, to environmental challenges by altering our habits, and given enough time, our bodies are supported by evolution. Wherever possible, we are good at finding work-around solutions.

What we don’t do as well with, at least in the short to medium term, is sudden and extreme social upheaval.

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VI)

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand,
during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft.
Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Mix equal parts of the broad-leaf herbicides 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and you’ve got yourself a batch of what’s commonly known as Agent Orange, the defoliant made famous during the Vietnam War. Herbicidal warfare was used first in Malaysia in the 1950s against communist insurgents. Based on this earlier implementation, with the approval of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, the United States began using it in 1961 against communist insurgents there.

The use of various chemicals in warfare was first declared as outside the boundaries of acceptable conduct in 1925 under the Gas Protocol, then under the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) of 1978,  and again on April 29, 1993 under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to ensure that the closure of chemical agent production facilities is monitored, and that stockpiles are destroyed.

Chemical weapons are relatively cheap, easy to mix (if you don’t count the potential hazardous effects on those doing the mixing), quick and lethal to use. Still, many states have been compliant with the CWC. Some, of course, have not. Or at least, not until it suited them.

Syrian chemical weapons. Source:

Syrian chemical weapons

Even when the chemicals are no longer in use, though, they tend to leave a long legacy in the form of damage to the victims who survived any initial attacks, as well as those who come into contact with the chemicals at any stage of their implementation and (sometimes) their disposal.

In the case of Agent Orange, U.S. war veterans of the era still suffering the effects of exposure. Among Vietnamese victims, chemical warfare hasn’t abated, with effects still evident in the grandchildren of those exposed.

Much of the environment that was sprayed in Vietnam four decades ago still hasn’t recovered. Many areas remain barren, or much reduced in biodiversity and fertility. Reforestation projects are underway to redress some of the damage done, but invasive weeds, the loss of tree seeds to renew the original habitat, as well as the devastation of regional fauna make the task a challenging one.

April 29: It’s the annual Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare.

Spring Song


It’s raining out today, so I don’t feel overly guilty about not being out in the garden after a week of imposed bed rest.

I found these nifty images of lacewing eggs – something I’m hoping to find in our garden when I get back outside.

Green Lacewing eggs Source: GCMG

Green Lacewing eggs
Source: FSG

Lacewing larvae aren’t as pretty as their eggs, nor as their adult form, but they have the healthy appetite of most growing creatures and their favorite food is aphids. Lots of aphids. If lacewing larvae were teens, aphids would be their bowls of pasta and bags of chips.

Lacewing larvae hatching. Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewing larvae hatching.
Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewings belong to an order of net-winged insects known as Neuroptera, which contains around 6,000 species.

In the course of writing this blog, I came across the delightfully named Lacewing News. This might sound like the weekly journal of the characters in Wind in the Willows, but it is actually the newsletter of the International Association Neuropterology. Lacewings, of course.

Lacewing lifecycle Source: Lydekker, R. (1879) via Wikipedia

Lacewing lifecycle
Source: Lydekker (1879) via Wikipedia

When we first moved here many years ago, I found that our garden had a real problem with aphids. They were on everything. The garden is quite an old one, and a succession of owners had been planting randomly over at least thirty years. We found an assortment of pesticides in the garage when we moved in, and most of our neighbors are happy to spray several times a year.

We didn’t use pesticides, and for a long time, I felt like our little corner was a happy haven for bugs fleeing the spray all around, whether the bugs were good ones or not.

I’ve been re-doing the small garden over the past few years, no pesticides, simplifying the ramshackle flower beds, and over the past couple of years I’ve noticed that we had very few pests. Almost without me noticing.

Strange how we notice the presence of a nuisance but rarely its absence.

Adult green lacewing Source: LIR

Adult green lacewing
Source: LIR

Fingers crossed that this year continues the positive trend.

One last thing: Lacewings species have their own mating songs. Subtle and simple, but still, mating songs. I can’t let this rainy Monday pass without including them. You can listen to a wide variety of songs here, or click the image below.

Images of lacewing songs. Source: PBS

Images of lacewing songs patterns.
Source: PBS



I’ve been laid low by a pernicious cold this week, and am not yet back up to the fighting stamina it takes to make a proper post. It’s bed rest and hot water with lemon juice for me.

3D image of a rhinovirus Source: Bio21 Institute

3D image of a rhinovirus.
Source: Bio21 Institute

It offers some aesthetic comfort that the inside of a rhinovirus looks more or less like the inside of my respiratory passages feel, indicating a neat dovetailing of form and function.

As tempting as it is to attack illness with the habitual howitzers of modern medicine, I’m a firm believer in only using antibiotics only where they actually have a chance of working – which is not on my head cold.

I would note that as well-intentioned as Batman might be, violence in the pursuit of education and awareness is not to be condoned any more than antibiotic misuse.

And now, I’m off in search of more lemons.

The Green Spot (2)


We were in western Ireland last week, and I was out on a run when I passed this beautiful piece of re-purposed farm machinery. A geared wheel as a fence.IMG_0348The fence in question was to a large pasture near Cong, on Lough Corrib.IMG_0349

The sheep are marked here, as they are across Ireland, with big splotches of color.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

These particular sheep were Green Spots, appropriately enough for me, since the Irish whiskey I liked best (from the three that I tried) was, indeed, Green Spot. The whiskey name comes from the same origin – the different ageing barrels used to be marked with color splotches, just like the sheep.

Only a few of the lambs were marked with their own fresh green spot. Not sure that bodes well for the unmarked lambs…but they were very friendly.IMG_0346

Let’s Play Big Data

Turbulence - artwork based on algorithms and hand-drawn systems to create computational and natural system visualisations. Artist: Owen Schuh via DataIsNature

Turbulence – artwork based on algorithms and hand-drawn systems to create computational and natural system visualisations.
Artist: Owen Schuh via DataIsNature

The other day I overheard a student next to me on a flight say, “I can remember the words to almost every song I’ve ever heard more than once or twice – if only the legal cases I need to learn were set to music, I could remember them all.”

Optimistic, I know, but maybe not so far off.

Appeal to the brain’s pleasure center and learning becomes as easy as humming a well-known tune.

Along the same lines, researchers have been turning to crowdsourced data processing to work through big data conundrums. Offer a means of pleasurable participation for data entry, such as a game platform, and citizen scientist gamers will come.

Cancer Research UK worked together with game developers to create a smartphone game that would help them outsource a large backlog of genetic micro-array data garnered from thousands of breast cancer patients over the years. The result was Play to Cure: Genes in Space, which is basically a space shooter game in which the player finds the best path through an obstacle course, shooting asteroids and mapping successful escape routes.

A sample of genetic micro-array data. The analysis involves identifying the areas where the dots are at their most dense. Source: Gamasutra

A sample of genetic micro-array data. The analysis involves identifying the areas where the dots are at their most dense.
Source: Gamasutra

The possible paths, however, are actually maps of genetic micro-arrays, and the players game solutions are uploaded to the Cancer Research UK database for processing. After one month of use, gamers worked through data that it would have taken researchers six months to process without assistance.

The game version of the original data, with possible paths marked through the denser areas. Source: Gamasutra

The Genes in Space game version of the original data, with possible paths marked through the denser areas.
Source: Gamasutra

Another game, Geo-Wiki, deals with processing data on cropland cover and land use. From the Geo-Wiki site: “Volunteers review hotspot maps of global land cover disagreement and determine, based on what they actually see in Google Earth and their local knowledge, if the land cover maps are correct or incorrect. Their input is recorded in a database, along with uploaded photos, to be used in the future for the creation of a new and improved global land cover map.”

The ‘game’ is a quick image/response competition. The platform can be expanded to include further agricultural and land-use data from users, which is then reflected in other projects that support better environmental monitoring.

The power of crowdsourcing is phenomenal, and I think we are just at the beginning of putting these tools to use outside of purely commercial marketing strategies. Having tried out both games, and having tried out the Geo-Wiki game, I think what’s still missing is that the games have to work on their own, as stand-alone games, for them to be truly addictive – and useful on a larger scale.EEHEoewC6vWEb-amrgU3OK2e5CXIY8I4aP6I52KHpuNcsBoUB8wD45If6sZhHuqhooIF=h900


Fragile Horizons

Source: The Portolan

Source: The Portolan

Created in the first decade of the 1500s, the globe above is made of the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs, and was engraved by someone who was either influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, or worked directly in the workshop of the Renaissance genius. The globe  is the earliest known attempt to depict the Americas, Japan, Brazil and Arabia. It was based on the most cutting-edge knowledge of its time, information gathered from the explorers of the era.

According to The Portolan, the map journal that published a paper on the globe in late 2013, “The globe contains ships of different types, monsters, intertwining waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and  71 place names, and one sentence , “HIC SVNT DRACONES” (Here are the Dragons).

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) Source: Spamula

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)
Source: Spamula


Only 7 of the names are in the Western Hemisphere. No names are shown for North America, which is represented as a group of scattered islands; three names are shown in South America.”

This would have represented the height of knowledge about our world, at least from a European perspective. The Dragons represent the very limit of scientific horizons, with tantalizing new unknowns just beyond, waiting to be found.

Our view of the the contours of our world has been changing, in flux from the time we first began exploring our surroundings and then trying to describe and understand them. Our Dragons now lay deeper, farther, higher than ever before, with a great expanse of knowledge still beyond.

Earth Day 2014: My hope is that we keep pushing forward to the horizon, and that the knowledge we gain will include the understanding that for all its complexity, beauty and mystery, our world also shares something else with the ostrich-egg globe of historical wisdom: Fragility.images




Rethinking Country Mouse, City Mouse

Excerpt from Long Scroll, pencil and ink on paper Artist: Bruce Pollack

Excerpt from Long Scroll, pencil and ink on paper
Artist: Bruce Pollack

There was a period of my youth when my family lived ‘off-grid’ for the most part, in wood cabins on the forested coast of northern California. There were parts of that experience I didn’t like – hauling water by hand was certainly low on my list of preferences – but one aspect I liked very much was the lack of pressure to wear shoes.

I went barefoot as much as possible. Shoes were for the City. And the City, for me, was defined by any place that required shoes. It was an easy equation, with my own personal metrics.

There has always been a division between the City and the Country, but the two were once much closer. But as the world has moved to cities and food production has become globalised, it’s easy enough to live a life in a city these days without ever seeing a place that creates the food in the store.

A recent paper, City Regions as Landscapes for People, Food and Nature, is part of an ongoing discussion about how to reintegrate the City with the Country.

“There is a need to deepen our understanding of particular challenges to bringing rural and urban together in order to develop more resilient city region food systems across the urban rural continuum. The urban planner and policymaker need to think outside the urban box and think about their rural colleagues in terms other than just as a supply of goods and services including labor for urban markets. The rural planner may or may not be aware that their communities’ welfare is going to be increasingly interrelated to urbanization and the rural world has much more to gain and more to offer than merely the flows of people, goods and services.”

Urban agriculture is part of this thinking, but the picture is larger than that. At some point, maybe the thought transition between urban and rural can again be as natural as slipping a pair of shoes on and off.

Green Square, oil on linen Image: Bruce Pollack

Green Square, oil on linen
Image: Bruce Pollack

The Green Spot

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Not knowing much about Irish whiskies, I took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring during our trip to Ireland last week. The first dram recommended to me by the friendly bartender at the Porterhouse Temple Bar in Dublin turned out to be my favourite.

For all its mild aroma of soft grain and vanilla, Green Spot Single Pot Still was strong – it had a note of mint and oak, and managed to remain smooth and warm. An excellent introduction to the world of Irish whiskey. green-spot-single-pot-still-whiskey

Irish whiskey is unique in that it is almost always triple-distilled, as opposed to the usual double-distillation process of most single malt Scotch whiskies and bourbons. Another distinctive trait is the Irish use of unmalted barley in addition to the malted barley used in single malt Scotch. Unmalted barley contains less sugar, thus adding less sweetness to the final product.

The ‘Single Pot Still‘ style of whiskey, which originates from a single distillery, is defined by these two elements of triple distillation and the barley mix. Whiskey makers began cutting malted barley with green barley in response to high taxes placed on malt during the 18th century, and the practice held over into the 20th century, even as Irish whiskey’s popularity was overshadowed by blended Scotch whiskies.

Because spirits like single malt Scotch, Irish whiskey and American bourbon are so closely with their place of origin,  I’m always interested in where distillers source their grains and just how ‘local’ the overall production really is.

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland Photo: Artflakes

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland
Photo: Artflakes

In the case of Irish whiskey, at least according to Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 90% of the malting barley used in the country is locally produced through a local division of Boortmalt, a large European malting company that is a subsidiary of French agricultural cooperative Axereal.

These days, the tasting experience of a local product that feels entirely bound to a specific place – in my case, the delicious Green Spot I had on a warm spring evening, to the sounds of excellent live local music in a Dublin pub – is often the result of a larger network of industry that extends far beyond national borders.

Green Spot is produced for Mitchell & Son of Dublin, by Irish Distillers at the Midleton DistilleryCorkIreland. As far as I can tell, almost all Irish whiskey is produced in three main distilleries: Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley‘s. However, there are plans to open (or re-open) up to sixteen new distilleries in Ireland over the next few years – Irish whiskey is on the rise.

There’s a nice little video on how Green Spot got made here. My favorite quote? Green Spot “isn’t just a whiskey that you throw around and drink at midday…” Indeed.


Fields near Lough Corrib, Ireland
Photo: PK Read


Snake Compass

Python skeleton Source: Worrapol Koranuntachai /123rf

Python skeleton
Source: Worrapol Koranuntachai /123rf

Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are a successful invasive species in Florida that have been profiting from local wildlife and few natural predators. Native to Southeast Asia and listed by the IUCN as vulnerable or endangered in their original habitats, abandoned or escaped pythons have been thriving in the Florida Everglades, to the dismay of conservationists trying to protect indigenous species there. Not much is known about how the snakes move or take up a new residence.

As it turns out, pythons have a distinct sense of  direction and territory when it comes to their habitat. A recent study published by the Royal Society journal Biology Letters suggests that pythons use a homing instinct to venture out from their usual territory and then find their way back.

A research team tracked several pythons – some of them trapped and removed miles away from their territories, some left in their adopted areas – to see whether the snakes that had been removed would be able to find their way home.

Source: Deimos in Flames / Deviantart

Source: Deimos in Flames / Deviantart

And indeed, all the relocated snakes demonstrated great determination to return to where they’d been captured in the first place. Most of them succeeded in finding their way back. The snakes which had been tagged and released without relocation moved around within a much more limited area, usually returning to their own territory.

The snakes clearly have both a ‘map sense’, which tells them where they are in relation to ‘home’, and a ‘compass sense’, which tells them in which direction to guide their movement. And it’s likely that this ability isn’t limited to the Burmese python – snake navigational abilities just haven’t yet been widely studied across many species.

According to this article, researchers say the internal python map “could be magnetic, like sea turtles, while the compass could be guided by the stars, olfactory (smell) cues, or by polarised sunlight – all of which have been shown to be used by reptiles.” Gaining knowledge of how snakes travel and navigate should prove useful in controlling their spread.

What I find interesting is how well the Burmese python has adjusted its internal compass to an entirely new corner of the planet from where it evolved. Having said that, another study published late last year suggests that Burmese pythons are among the most rapidly evolving vertebrates in the world.

How did the Burmese python learn to redefine home so quickly?

Source: gortan123/123rf

Source: gortan123/123rf