Posted tagged ‘ecology’

Pantry Sniffing

July 4, 2014

With a h/t to a valuable science-Twitterer and all-round good guy/researcher, Jonathan Eisen, here’s something for the curious among us to aspire to when next you contemplate cleaning out your larder:

Kew mycologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Martinez-Suz have discovered three species of mushrooms that are new to science in a commercial packet of dried Chinese porcini purchased from a shop in London.


Who knows what species lurks in the bowels of cupboards?

The mushroom-hunters know!

With that, I’ll announce my very scattered return from my  off-grid mountain fastness. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been looking at to the exclusion of paying attention to anything any right wing asshole has to say:

Shasta from Inspiration Point June 29 2014 edited, small

That’s Mt. Shasta from Inspiration Point in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

You won’t, alas, see much difference from my total absence to my likely near-complete silence going forward:  I’m desperate to get a big project done before the next equinox and I find if I try to organize my thoughts around the midden that is our politics right now, I lose whole days to rage.  But I’ll try to show up, and even more, to offer the occasional chewy post.  For now, though — random bits of the delightful weirdness of the world are all my style.

Happy Fourth, all.

Image: Jan Flyt, Mushrooms, first half of the 17th century.


Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater —Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.


Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”


Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.


The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

Self Aggrandizement Alert + Some Kitchen Goodness In Aid Of A Friend

December 18, 2012

First — a head’s up to another one of my internet-radio conversations.  Tomorrow at 6 p.m EST I’ll be talking (live!) to David George Haskell.  David is a biologist teaching at the University of the South.  He blogs here, but the proximate reason for the interview is the publication of his book, The Forest Unseen.

The Forest Unseen is simply one of the best natural history cum science books I’ve read in years.  David’s concept — in less adept hands it would have been a conceit — was to take a single meter-in-diameter patch of old growth forest and visit it over the course of a year.


From those visits to what he called “the mandala” he drew essay after essay, pretty much all of them built on the idea of making a practice out of observation.  Most of the chapters in the book begin with a single point of entry into the life of the mandala, and then Haskell’s writing flows and leaps as he finds his veins of connection.  Along the way, quite gently, he leads his readers into an increasingly sophisticated understanding both of natural history side of things:  what’s there, what’s happening in that patch of forest (and through that one little scrap of land into the beyond, of course); and of the science involved, ideas from biology and ecology.  You learn a lot — I did — and it’s not until much later that you (I) realize just what a rich lode of fact and concept we’ve just taken on.

In all, a really worthwhile book — not a bad choice, if  I dare say it, to stick in somebody’s stocking in a few days.  (BTW — for more on the project, check out Jim Gorman’s article from October, published in the Grey Lady.)

Now to the kitchen goodness.  Fair warning:  what follows is a plug for something a good friend of mine is trying to do.  If you aren’t into knives, kitchens, or cooking, and/or don’t want to read about what is at bottom (and top, actually) an attempt at business, then please, get off the bus now.


So, back at the dawn of time, my friend Adam — Adam Simha — graduated from MIT rather at loose ends.   He found himself more interested in craft than formal science or engineering.  He bounced around some kitchens in town, and then found himself really looking at the tools chefs use, and then figuring out that he might have some skills and knowledge and sheer desire to see what he could do in that arena.

The result has been a number of years developing himself into an exceptional knife maker.  You can see what he does here — check out the custom knives he’s made for chef-clients, and see also the ready-made line for the rest of us.  After some years of nerving myself up to it, I finally bought one of the latter — the 10″ chefs’ knife with the black rubber (Pedro) handle.  It is, simply, the best knife I’ve ever owned, by far.

How better?  It starts sharper than the decent knives I’ve used for decades; it holds its edge longer; it sharpens more easily, and being made of better steel than any other knife I own (a Wursthof and a Sabatier for chef’s knives), it is thinner, harder, and is easier in my hands to manipulate than any big knife has a right to be.

And yeah, it costs a fair amount.  Not an utterly crazy number for something that, properly cared for, should outlast me  — Adam’s prices for his ready-mades fall in the middle of what a yuppie cooking store charges for its cutlery.  And hell, I’ve been promising myself a really good knife since we first elected Obama, and finally I just decided that this purchase was going to be my victory cigar for the re-election celebration.

An aside:  I’m not a great person with my hands, but I purely love the knowledge and history built into any good tool — plus the fact that better tools make the jobs they’re designed for easier to do.


I learned this first when I started working with good camera-people when I was just getting going as a documentary film-maker.  One of those DPs, an older guy (Bob Elfstrom,* for those of you in the business), took me aside and made sure I understood how and why he used each of the bits and pieces he needed to make his images.  Great training!  Throughout he drummed into me the necessity, the almost religious obligation, to use the best tools to do a job one could possibly acquire.  And he was right, at least in my experience.  It’s because of him that I would hire or buy really good optics when I needed to —  leaving me fewer options on location than I would have liked, sometimes, but better, in ways I could see on screen.  And as I started to cook I found I didn’t like gadgets very much, but I truly valued a good knife.  Those of you who cook (and that’s most of us, I guess) know what it’s like when you get one that fits and balances and that takes and holds an edge without fighting you for it.  That’s the context in which I’ve come to Adam’s knives, and that’s why I am posting this to try and help him realize an ambition.

What Adam’s doing now is to take what he’s developed as he’s built knives for his custom clients to come up with versionss for a larger audience.  There are a fair number of costs that go with that ambition, mostly for a build out of his shop, and he’s launched an Indigogo campaign to try to raise the necessary.  He’s got a video up there that explains what he’s trying to do better than I can.

I’m a little diffident about putting this up.  A buddy of mine is trying to get a new business off the ground, and I’m using this community platform to spread the word.  But I guess the usual answer applies. Don’t bother with all this stuff if you aren’t interested.

But even if you have no time to cook, no money for what is indeed a luxury, or just own every last bit of kitchen gear you, your kids and their kids will ever use, still, if you’d like to get just a sense of what a wonderful obsessive does when unleashed on metal-working shop, check the stuff out; if nothing else it’s fine kitchen porn.

*Among much else, Elfstrom directed and appeared as Jesus in Johnny Cash’s rarely-seen feature film Gospel Road, and he was one of the Maysles brothers’ cameramen at Altamont.  Hell of a guy to take out on the road for one’s very first film.  I’m deeply grateful to him and to John Else (my other first-cameraman) for the generosity with which they made sure I didn’t do anything irrecoverably stupid — all the while teaching me a whole lot of stuff they don’t necessarily cover in film school.  I will say, though that even some jobs later it still came as something of a shock when Al Maysles showed up (unannounced) at the end of a day’s shooting in New York.  It had been a long day, and something of a fraught one, and it was literally the last set up on the final shoot for that particular film.  I was seriously ready for the bar.  But there he was, Mr. Maysles — who, it must be said, understood exactly the state I was in (had been there once or twice himself, I reckon). In the event, he was gentle, encouraging and blessedly brief in his hellos.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, before 1890.

Totoya Hokkei, Still Life with Fish, Scallions and Large Knife, c. 1830

Does Climate Change Matter: Steven Postrel Edition

April 29, 2008

Last week I blogged at length (too much! sayeth the mythical average reader) about McCain’s gas tax holiday and the evil consequences for hopes to rein in carbon pollution/climate change.

In doing so I linked, approvingly, to Steven Postrel’s analysis of the relative policy and economic consequences of a carbon tax vs. a carbon cap-and-trade system to limit and/or roll back carbon emissions in the US. At the same time I snarked a couple of times (reasonably politely, I thought) about this bit of Postrel:

Let’s suppose you’ve been swept up in the recent frenzy and decided that it actually makes sense to apply coercive regulations to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s further suppose that you’ve caught up to the 21st century and know that imposing specific technology standards on particular sources of emissions is a sign of policy incompetence: You know that market-ish mechanisms can do a much better job than technology standards of allocating clean-up tasks to the lowest-cost producers; you know that market-ish mechanisms provide incentives for private innovation in emissions control while technology standards stifle better ideas.

Congratulations! You are now about where the public policy debate has fallen these days — naive about the quality of the natural science involved but possessing a sound insight about the smartest way to do a foolish thing. (Italics added — TL)

The essence of my snark was that Postrel was out of his competence — and wrong — by suggesting that the science of carbon pollution and climate change was poor.

In the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense of his claim, along with a slightly more irascible re-response to another commenter (and old friend of mine) who took issue with some of what he said in his first micro-essay.

Postrel’s comments are worth reading, as they are clear, internally coherent, and provide as sound a brief precis of the arguments for the do-nothing approach as anything I’ve read.

And what makes them important, IMHO, is that they thus succinctly express several of the most significant errors of that approach.

So — as Werner Wolf fans may remember, Lets Go To The Videotape!

By way of adjusting the frame of his argument, Postrel begins his first comment with a slight but significant shift. He says that climate scientists’ “judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.”

Well that’s open to debate — and I’ll take a crack at that below. But note the tricky little sidestep there. In his own post on taxes v. cap and trade, he clearly indicts “the quality of the natural science.” Here, called to the mat on that, he says, in effect, no– not really — it’s just when climate scientists apply their knowledge to domains beyond the reach of their pretty little heads that we get into trouble.

OK — he didn’t say that; but the implication is clear, and its clearly not what he said in his initial post, so my snark still stands.

But so what? Rhetorical sleight of hand is always nice to expose, but Postrel goes on from this claim, to argue the implications of his assertion that climate scientists — along with those who believe what the vast majority of them are telling us — are foolish naifs, and it is here, I think that his more serious errors become apparent.

Postrel’s first argument in favor of doing nothing rests on what he calls thought experiments. (They aren’t really — in the shameless self promotion department, see my account of thought experiments in the hands of someone who knew how to create a hypothetical that actually penetrated to the heart of an issue.)

Postrel asks “if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly.”

There are several problems with this, and with the parallel straw man question on natural warming. First, the rhetoric: Postrel asserts, absent evidence beyond his own assessment of human nature/political process, that humans would not attempt to control nature to their own advantage. “Because I said so” (a loose translation of “when pigs fly”) is neither persuasive nor accurate in this case.

(By the way — Postrel took my old friend and trenchant blogger Lovable Liberal to task for an alleged confusion of the distinction between rhetoric and argument. I’d say the phrase “When pigs fly” settles the case in LL’s favor — though I’m happy to allow my friend to wield the blade of his Harvard philosophy degree to discipline Dr. Postrel on this matter in his own time and space.)

But beyond the fact that Postrel advances as argument a mere ex cathdra claim, the problem here is that he is clearly wrong on the facts. Human beings have routinely intervened in large ways and small to alter climate/environmental conditions to their benefit in the context of natural, cyclical change. See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature for some classic writing on the subject — but examples are legion, and stretch back at least to Sumerian attempts to irrigate their corner of the fertile crescent.

More broadly — and more to the larger issues with Postrel’s case — there is both a moral and a practical argument to be made that the “experiments” Postrel proposes are in fact arguments of either ignorance or bad faith.

Bad faith first: It seems reasonable to test the assumption behind the question. Postrel asserts by implication that reasonable observers should see no difference between a “natural” and an intentionally, consciously chosen act. Is that so? Ask yourself whether you feel or reason a difference between a natural process that alters ecological conditions and actions undertaken by humans now fully aware of the fact that their acts have consequences for people and ecosystems who/that derive no benefit from the original action.

I think that it is obvious that there is such a difference, and I think the recognition of that distinction is deeply ingrained in our law, customs, cultures, systems of belief and so on.

(For an example in the realm of both law and belief consider the Talmudic discussions of responsibility and compensation required when an ox causes damage depending on what knowledge the owner had of the propensity of his animal to cause injury.)

Hence my use of the term “straw man” for what Postrel would rather label more grandly a “thought experiment.” It fails to achieve that status both because, at least in Postrel’s hands, it becomes a question that assumes its answer (airborne pork and so on) — and because it rests on a false assumption of the equivalence of the question with the situation to be explored.

Now to the issue of ignorance. Why might it be a good idea to intervene now, when it would not have been, say 70,000 years ago, (when, we have just been informed, homo sapiens may have flirted with extinction brought on to poor adaptation to an undeniably natural climate change)?

Because, (more relentless self promotion alert) as I discussed here, before Jared Diamond and John McPhee did the same to much greater effect, the current anthropogenic climate change has one crucial difference from all the natural variation humans have endured throughout their evolutionary history.

That change?

We’ve built a whole lot of stuff in the way since the last Ice Age ended.

Over the last several hundred years we have constructed critical infrastructure on the assumption that the climate regime is going to stay more or less constant over time. We’ve done that all over the world, of course, and while there are some technological fixes available to the rich (see the Dutch engineering of their sub-sea level coastal fortifications), more broadly, we’ve got a lot of life, wealth and property invested in the notion that the ocean will stay more or less where it is.

And of course, it isn’t just coastlines we need to worry about. Global warming is not just an issue of sea level rise; it presents, as Postrel does accept, a much broader range of possible consequences.

Climate change affects rainfall, storm severity, longer term patterns of drought and damp and so on. Global agriculture on industrial scales are built on climate assumptions. Land use and distribution reflect generations of dispute and resolution on the question of access to climate resources and so on. Radical change in the climate regime — an expansion of drought areas, shift of rainfall patterns and so on — might not, as Postrel and others have argued, produce a net loss of ecosystem capacity world wide. But such shifts do devastate human constructions built on a set of beliefs about the climate that are no longer true.

Put this another way: Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. Rather, it was a natural event — category 3 or 4 hurricanes are going to hit in the western gulf with a certain frequency; that’s just the way that part of the system goes.

What made Katrina a human disaster was the fact that since the last major hurricane came that way, New Orleans in all its modern glory and inadequately engineered levees had grown up in the way. Take that and spread it all over the globe, and you have the reason why modern anthropogenic climate change is scarier than the Little Ice Age was. The broad argument we should do nothing because the climate has always varied fails to take into account this change from then to now.

This has gone on long enough. Just a couple more errors to pick at, and then I’ll stop, not having exhausted the problems with Dr. Postrel’s much more elegantly brief original comment.

His argument on the difficulty of agreeing on a temperature (“hubands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms!”) is another straw man. The question is whether we should slow or reverse the forcing agent of climate change. The target, if any, is an atmospheric concentration of CO2, not a temperature. The straw man gets even more hay-like when you consider the issue is not even purely about hitting some admittedly at least partly arbitrary target: it is about at least slowing the pace of change to make possible what Postrel says he wants.

What’s that?

Adaptation to climate change.

Here, Postrel shows a glimmer of the real risks involved, the fact that so much of human built society depends on ecosystem assumptions that carbon pollution calls into question. But his call for engineered solutions to the effects of climate change, rather than approaches to alter the underlying driver of the shift another way of saying that rich nations, the source of most carbon pollution to date, will ride out whatever storms there may be while the poorer ones suffer.

That may be a depressingly realistic assessment of the likely outcome (particularly under the current administration) — but it’s ugly, and I suspect, poor policy as well.

Poor people rendered desperate move. Such motion causes conflict. Conflict is not always, but is often vastly more costly even for very distant, and seemingly uninvolved parties than resolving the causes of conflict before the shooting starts. I’m sure acute readers can think of other costs ecosystem change impose on the rich.

Postrel closes with the hope that we would look for other technological solutions to climate change besides simply reducing carbon emissions — mentioning a scheme to reduce the earth’s albedo (reflectivity) by injecting particles into the upper atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I read that as he being willing to experiment with the global ecosystem properties to ameliorate the consequences of another, larger, less controlled experiment the human species is currently conducting. I’m not against technological approaches to climate change, where appropriate but I can’t see why Postrel favors one experiment over another here. (I know — presumed cost — but his claim that changing the earth’s albedo is inevitably cheap seems to undervalue the risk involved in such a what-the-hell tech fix.)

I haven’t exhausted all I’d say about Postrel’s comment, but given that this response is already several times longer than his original thoughts, I’ll rumble to a halt here.

We do agree on one thing: creating policy that does the least harm with the greatest possibility of good is exceptionally difficult. But he has inferred from that difficulty that the principle of least harm thus leads us to no or minimal policy response to our ongoing, uncontrolled experiment with not only our own lives, but those of everyone and everything else on earth.

With all due respect, I think that this is, strictly speaking, nuts.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow,” 1569. (One of my favorite works of art and an iconic image from the Europe of the Little Ice Age). Source: Wikimedia Commons.