Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sky, Painted or Clear

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I don’t have much to say today. It’s been a week of uplifting news, it’s been a week of bad news.

Like most weeks, I guess.

We are settling into our first major heat wave of summer here.

Moonrise (fuzzy!), France All photos: PKR

Moonrise (fuzzy!), France
All photos: PKR

Temperatures pushed the planned evening walk later and later until we only left once the sun had set and it had cooled a bit. Farmers were out in force, cutting the early wheat under watercolor skies and moonlight.photo 2(1)

The air and land was alive with insect life, most of it noisy, but it was too dark to take any decent shots of our traveling companions.photo 3(1)

Except for this big guy, who was in a fighting mood.photo 1(2)

I went for a morning run today – too late, as it turned out, to beat the heat – and found a cloudless sky, quiet and scorching over ordered fields.

Mount Blanc in the distance.

Mount Blanc in the distance.

 

Adding It Up

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Not so very long ago, processing large amounts of data was a tedious business, riddled with human error, machine failings and limited reach.

These days, information availability can feel like a tsunami. There’s so much of it, all the time, all around. It’s become easier than ever to share information and images, sometimes involuntarily.

The sheer abundance of facts available all the time can mask what’s missing, namely, synthesis and understanding of the facts at hand.

The constant flow of information can also mask that we don’t really have all the information necessary to assess specific environments or track changes.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

The rise of citizen science projects has sought to harness both the ability to share information and the need for more facts on the ground.

A positive example of this is the Capture the Coast project getting underway in the United Kingdom. Financed by lottery funds to the tune of £1.7 million ($2.7 million), several universities and non-governmental organizations are collaborating to train 3000 volunteers to gather data on species up and down the UK coastline.

This data will be collected and analyzed by the various institutions to better track and understand climate change.

A somewhat less positive example of data sharing can be found in Wyoming, which recently passed a law that makes it illegal to gather and transmit data from open land (including photos or sample results) to the state or federal government.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

In effect, this means that you can be arrested if you are a concerned citizen or scientist who is documenting a particular issue. And the issue at hand here is mainly the documentation of high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams due to poor ranching habits and bad herd management.

But once a law like this has been passed, it can be applied to anyone who is collecting data that could make someone else uncomfortable.

According to this Slate article, while other states have similar laws that protect the powerful agricultural industries from a concerned citizenry, Wyoming’s law is the first to actually criminalize taking a photo on public land.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Rather than embrace collaboration that connects and supports a better understanding of the environment, these moves seem to be an attempt to turn back time, to go back to an era when information could be stashed in a filing cabinet somewhere in the basement, or simply shredded.

But these days, it’s like trying to hold back the tide. Will this kind of obstructionism slow understanding that points the way to better solutions? Probably. There might be gaps here and there, but the data will still flow.

It’s a shame that some people would rather service the gears and methods of outdated structures and habits.

It doesn’t add up now, and it never will.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Summer’s Begun

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I always greet this day with a bit of wistfulness. It’s the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year, and it also rings in the season of days that grow ever shorter.

It seems like a good day from which to look at the year thus far, and the rest of the year ahead.

Happy solstice!

The solstice running path.

 

Cold Case

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Melting ice cores. Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

Melting ice cores.
Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

It might seem like the project to take ice to Antarctica is the very definition of redundancy. Like taking coal to Newcastle or turning on the lawn sprinkler while it’s raining.

But this ice endeavor is more like trying to archive some of the world’s most ancient books even as the ink rapidly vanishes from all the pages.

Ice from the world’s glaciers contains a wealth of information about the planet’s history.

Samples taken from glaciers around the world can be used to create computer models of past climates and how the climate has changed over time. Many samples have been taken at sites in Antarctica and Greenland – but far fewer have been analyzed at the various glaciers around the world.

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear. Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear.
Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

Comparing polar ice, which can be hundreds of the thousands of years old, to glacial ice from mountains can reveal the impact of human activity.

CO2, human-generated pollutants, pollen: Whether it’s on the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas, whatever was in the air and water when a glacial layer formed is trapped and frozen in place – at least, until the ice melts.

And as everyone knows by now, the ice is melting.

“In some of the warmer areas of the world the surface water is starting to melt. It then trickles all the way through the ice, taking with it the information from the surface so it’s smearing out any record that we might be able to take from the past,” Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explained to the BBC.

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.  Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.
Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

The first ice cores will come from the Col du Dome, a glacier research site that sits at 4350 m (14,200 ft), just below the summit of Mont Blanc in France. The French National Centre for Scientific Research, part of the new ice storage project, measured temperatures inside the Col du Dome glacier in 1994 and again in 2005, and found a rise of 1.5°C.

Commercial freezer storage would be an interim option, but in the long-term, could be prohibitive in terms of cost as well as the potential for disastrous power failures.

The new Antarctic archive for glacial cores is set to be established at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian base that is manned year-round.

The archive itself will consist of ice cores sealed in bags, and stored in a giant frozen trench 10 m below the surface at a steady temperature of -50°C.

The hope is that this will keep the archive safe for future research over the course of the next decades and perhaps even centuries.

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample. Source: USGS

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample.
Source: USGS

Of course, the main challenge to the project – besides warming glaciers – is funding. The glacier archiving project, by definition, will not be yielding the kind of short-term results so popular among funding agencies and governments.

In a way, it’s fitting that the focus on short-term results and benefits is the main hurdle to keeping the glacier ice cores cold – after all, a focus on short-term benefits and profits is part of why the glaciers are rapidly melting in the first place.

 

 

A Whisky Woman and a Spring Cordial

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I finally bottled a batch of elderflower cordial yesterday, after letting the brew steep for a couple of days and then rest in the fridge until I got around to cooking it up.

One of the bottles I used – I’d actually saved it for use as a cordial bottle – reminded me of a whisky woman I’ve been meaning to mention for a long time.

Anyone who knows Japanese whisky has at least heard of Jessie Roberta Cowan, better known as Rita Taketsuru (1896-1961), or as the Mother of Japanese Whisky.

Born in Scotland, Miss Cowan met a young Japanese man named Masataka Taketsuru who had come to Glasgow to study chemistry and Scottish whisky-making. They married, and she went with him to Japan, where he dreamed of creating a real Japanese-made whisky.

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru Source: K&L Wine

Jessie Roberta Cowan and Masataka Taketsuru
Source: K&L Wine

To make a long story short, they succeeded after overcoming many obstacles on the long road to achieving their goal, from prejudice in both their native countries against an interracial and international marriage to the task of establishing a whisky empire. The Nikka distillery in Yoichi, Japan was founded in 1934, and continues today as one of the world’s top whisky producers.

I’ve written previously about the kind of determination it must have taken for Masataka Taketsuru to leave Japan and study in Scotland, and to use traditional Scottish methods in Japan to make whisky.

But as a long-term expat myself, and as one who once worked in Japan in a town that boasted only one other foreigner at the time, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been for a young Scotswoman in the 1920s, when foreigners were a genuine rarity.

Rita Taketsuru Source: Japanese Whisky

Rita Taketsuru
Source: Japanese Whisky

The cultural divide must have been daunting, to say the least, especially once World War II was underway. However, the war had the effect of increasing domestic whisky business in the face of an import ban.

Rita helped keep the household afloat by teaching English and piano lessons, and some of her clients ended up becoming investors in the distillery.

There is a new Japanese television series about her life, and I wonder how much that series manages to convey the challenges and rewards of living in another culture over the course of decades.

The 'Mother of Japanese Whisky' Source: Matome

The ‘Mother of Japanese Whisky’
Source: Matome

One of the things I’ve learned during my long time as a foreigner in rural France, at least, is an appreciation of the seasonal joys of homemade jams and cordials. Sure, my grandmother was master of the art in Washington State, but I grew up in the supermarket Sixties and Seventies. I had to relearn everything for myself.

And so to the elderflower cordial.

It’s an easy enough process. Pick some fresh flower heads, shake out any bugs or debris and give them a quick rinse.

The elderflower heads.  All cordial photos: PK Read

The elderflower heads.
All cordial photos: PK Read

Put them into a bowl with lemon zest and orange rind. photo 2-1

Cover the lot in boiling water, and let it sit around for a few hours or a couple of days (in the fridge, ideally). Strain through a cheesecloth.photo 4

Bring it to a gentle simmer with sugar and lemon juice, and funnel it into sterilised bottles or jars, cap them and store them cool.

I used brown sugar, which is why the cordial turned out a bit dark and hazy instead of a nice flowery yellow. If I make another batch this year, it’ll be with white sugar.photo 3-1

A couple of bottles to keep, a couple of bottles to give away.

Perfect in cold sparkling water with a sprig of fresh mint, or in a prosecco cocktail. Ready for summer.

It’s no whisky empire, but it’s not bad.

A Little Goose Chase

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We visited the county of Derbyshire, UK, a few weeks ago, travelling through an area that I suppose in the United States would be considered a fly-over zone. That is, most people from the more popular regions would fly over this region rather than pick it as a destination.

We were there with friends, one of whom had studied at the University of Sheffield. And not only were we lucky when it came to walking between raindrops, but these knowledgeable friends had booked us into the disarmingly attractive Devonshire Arms hotel in Beeley.

The mystery bronze. Photo: PK Read

The mystery bronze.
Photo: PK Read

It was in the pub of this 18th century inn that I found the bronze object above, perched on a stone ledge. The manager told me it had been given to the inn some decades earlier by Chatsworth House, and had been on the stone ledge since anyone could remember.

For me, it was clear what it was intended to represent, and also, what it actually represented.

Not far from Beeley is the Chatsworth House estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. If you’ve ever seen the 2008 movie The Duchess, you’ve seen some of this incredible place. A vast collection of artwork, magnificent gardens, and a telephone recording that features the current Duke politely requesting your patience until the next operator is available.

The crest of the Cavendish family, that is to say of the Duke of Devonshire, is a snake. And this motif can be seen throughout Chatsworth House. The same crest is a recurring image at the Devonshire Arms.

The Cavendish family serpent crest. Source: Britain Express

The Cavendish family serpent crest.
Source: Britain Express

So it follows that the entwined, scaled bronze from the pub was taken to be a snake.

But I don’t think that’s what it is.

So I called the Collection department at Chatsworth House, described the bronze and its location, and a very friendly person told me that the object was listed as a “Bronze of the British Modern school, 20th century, snake.” But the Chatsworth collection files had no image of the bronze itself. Nor did they have listings whatsoever of any pangolins in their collection, which they checked once I explained what a pangolin is.

I told her that I didn’t think the bronze was of a snake. I am pretty sure the object is meant to be a curled pangolin.

The thick tail, the triangular scales, the large body in relation to the tail, all looks very pangolin-ish. Unfortunately, the sculpture is lacking an identifying head or any feet – turned on its back, there is a second tail curled to the middle. So, really, the bronze is of the tail ends of two pangolins.

I plugged the photo of the bronze which I had taken into Google Image search. Here are a few of my results:

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France. Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France.
Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment. Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment.
Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Ariens snowblower tires and rims. Source: Ebay

Ariens snowblower tires and rims.
Source: Ebay

There are many interesting and rather random images, but neither pangolin nor snake appeared. I can’t be entirely sure, at this point, whether the pub bronze is a snake or a pangolin.

Here’s a more modern bronze of a pangolin.

Bronze pangolin sculpture. Artist: Nick Mackman

Bronze pangolin sculpture.
Artist: Nick Mackman

And here’s an actual pangolin curled into defensive position.

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis)
Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Why do I care?

Simple: I’m intrigued by these odd, rapidly disappearing mammals, and when I see what looks like a representation of one in an unexpected location, it piques my curiosity.

Like the various photos that came up when I searched for the bronze, we can see any number of things when we look at a certain image, depending on our perspective.

Be that as it may: Pangolins are one of the strangest mammals on the planet, they are the only scaled mammals, and they are being poached into extinction before most people will have ever heard of them.

Perhaps as important, I deeply enjoy the occasional wild goose chase. Or in this case, pangolin chase.

Pangolin Source: Our Beautiful World

Pangolin
Source: Our Beautiful World