Sunday, September 6, 2009

Urban bounty

It's amazing what you can find if you know what you can look for.

In the middle of August I went blackberry picking in the woods by our apartment. During that same trip I noticed some elder trees. Elderberries, however, don't ripen until...well, about now (September).

Today we went foraging for elderberries--the goal being to get enough to make a decent batch of jelly. And it is truly astounding, how common elders are, and how bountiful they are, if you know how to look for them.

They tend to grow in clusters--where you find one, you'll likely find another one or two. It can be a bit of a trek to find one, but once you find one, if it's a good one, you'll be pleasantly rewarded with handfuls upon handfuls of dark purplish berries, ideal for making jams, jellies, syrups. The fruits can lie beyond the reach of a mortal arm--however, the tree is quite flexible and, if you have a partner on hand, it is possible to bend it to your will. Literally.

We managed to collect about 2 kg of them, from perhaps a dozen bushes. And no, we didn't strip any of the bushes clean, either--I make it a point to leave behind what I call a "bird tithe", so that the birds can also partake--and propagate the plants. We left at least 1/2 of each bunch on the trees.

We also came upon plenty of rowan bushes, which are actually more commonplace than elder trees in this area. Although you can make rowan jelly, my boyfriend (who is actually the preserve-'spert between us) wasn't quite certain about the taste, and furthermore I wasn't quite certain of their ripeness. There were also three enormous chestnut trees, filled to nearly-bursting with unripened burrs, and I know of at least two walnut trees in the neighborhood.

This all makes me a bit sad, really--to live in the midst of all this bounty, and not see a single soul (other than my boyfriend) partaking of it, to realize how divorced people are from what food actually is: we met up with another couple who were curious as to what we were doing (admittedly, walking around with a bucket is kind of strange). You would have thought we were sharing the secrets of the dead when we explained that elder trees were everywhere in these woods. Which was, perhaps, somewhat of an exaggeration--but not by much.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ladies only

"Being in tune with your body" these days has the connotation of sending little scrubbing-bubble cartoons through your body and getting the inside and outside completely "clean". I won't deny that a few days' fasting or near-fasting makes you feel damn good, and hypes your brain up to almost-supernatural speeds (hey, you try writing a grant in a week), but frankly I think there's some point at which you're only deluding yourself. Alas, that point happens only after you've sent in your $39.95 for the acai/apple cider vinegar/green tea pills.

But apparently there is another type of "being in tune with your body" that actually works, unlike the promises of less-than-slick adverts in Parade. The Fertility Awareness Method of birth control requires that a women recognize the biological markers of fertility, and abstain or engage in sexual activity during and a few days after.

I've never really liked the idea of hormonal birth control, but that's mainly due to the fact that I am gifted (or cursed?) with a liver that might as well not exist, for all that it fails to metabolize. The pill is certainly one of the most reliable methods of birth control, but frankly the slight increase in strokes, which is minimal to begin with, makes me nervous about taking them (I am quite aware that the statistics say my chances are minimal--but still, this is a stroke we're talking about, something that could damage you for the rest of your life in a very real way, that I don't want the odds improving, as it were). Furthermore, seven days every four weeks seems rather excessive to me--I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I do not follow the average twenty-eight day cycle. I have yet to meet a woman who did, for that matter.

The main difference between FAM and the Family Planning method (sanctified by the Catholic Church) is that FAM doesn't require you to count days and divide by two and add three before subtracting...you get the picture. Besides, FPM assumes that you are absolutely regular, and that is something almost no woman is.

What FAM requires is that you know your body. Inside and out, literally: keeping track of the state of one's basal body temperature, vaginal secretions, and cervical position. All of these change when you are ovulating, and if you really, carefully, listen to your body, it is a simple matter to figure out when you are most likely to be ovulating.

All the same, I can't see it catching on. For starters, while "being in tune with your body" sounds great as a catchphrase for gluten-free diets, it gets robbed of the holistic-touchy-feely aspect once you start measuring basal body temperatures to the tenth of a degree. Yet this kind of scientific probing is, oddly, what enables things like perfectly natural birth control to be effective.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pet peeve of thrift stores

My boyfriend loves crystal glassware. Unfortunately, he doesn't love the price tag it usually comes with. So every time I hit town, I stop by the thrift stores to see if they have any lovely pieces that I can take home.

You've probably encountered this: a beautiful bowl/vase/plate/cup at the thrift store, just waiting for you to buy it. Snatch it up, pay for it, trundle it home--only to find that the stupid little price sticker is practically cemented on. You pick at it, trying to remove the gunk, and then you end up with a little rectangle of gunk, and what's worse, it can't be washed off without scratching your find.

Vegetable oil is your friend in this case--"Fear not! You will never again have to live with a little black patch of sticker-gunk again!". A little dribble directly on top of the sticker, then rub it in with your fingers. Peel back an edge, and from then on the sticker should come off easily, though slowly.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Keep your cats inside

The other day, my boyfriend and I were standing in our kitchen, which overlooks a grassy spread that people often use as a shortcut. We heard a most distressed eeping noise, and when we looked down, we saw that one of our neighbor's cats had caught a bird. It disappeared with the bird by the time we made it down the stairs, thank goodness, because otherwise my boyfriend would have been stuck with the task of snapping the bird's neck (something he knows how to do, but really would rather not do it).

In the Netherlands, there are no natural predators (minus birds). The last wolf was shot in the 1890s, and you have to go all the way to Maastricht before you start to encounter lynx. So hunting plays a huge role in maintaining stable and healthy populations of just about everything. One of my colleagues tells me that, unless you trap muskrats regularly, they'll tunnel through and damage the dikes. (Ironically enough, there is no real "gun culture" here, perhaps because gun laws are so strict.)

However, there are many, many different species of songbirds (and waterfowl, and birds of prey, and gulls), many of which nest on the ground--not to mention small animals like hare and rabbits. Needless to say, where it's normal to let your cat outside, there's a dearth in these animals.

"But it's only natural for the cat to go out!" some people say, as they defend letting their cat out. Look, I completely understand letting your cat out if you're on a farm and need mousers to keep the rats out of the barn. But no cat needs to be outside. My cats are happy as clams sitting on our balcony, sunning themselves and chewing on the cucumber vine.

Consider that, on average, a cat has the intelligence of a three-year-old child (and some have less, *cough* Shadow). You wouldn't let a three-year-old run around by himself, would you? Yes, they might be smart enough to avoid cars and dogs--but will they be smart enough to not eat mouse poop (which contains parasites), stay away from rat poison, not drink antifreeze (some human children will do this, for Chrissakes, never mind cats), differentiate between a dove and a hawk that can kill them, and not get lost? There's a reason why the average life of a feral cat is 5 years, while an indoor-only housecat lives three times that.

"But I can't keep my cat inside!" If you can't outsmart a cat and keep it inside, then you've got no business owning a cat.

"But if I don't let it out, he'll scratch/pee/poop all over!" It's called training. And believe it or not, it can be done with cats. My own cats are very well-behaved. They know their names. They know the signal that I want them to come to me. They sit still when it's time to clip their claws. And they don't scratch the antique furniture. I don't really know anything about training a cat, so if I can do it, you can figure it out, too.

The point is, letting cats run around outside is basically a sentence of genocide for all the wildlife that lives in your area--even if you don't see it (and believe me, that's kind of the point of most creatures, not to be seen)--and a death sentence for your cat. So please, keep your cats inside.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inconvenience Yourself

We're pretty self-sufficient, as much as you can be while living in an apartment. In fact, we do just about everything on this checklist that are supposed to save you a few bucks, except for the thing with the air conditioner. The additional benefit which is almost never touted is that most of these practices are pretty green, too.

And really, it's not all that inconvenient to make your own cleaners, cook your own meals, clean your own house--this has the added benefit of turning you into an anti-clutter freak and keeping hoards of stuff from building up--repair your own clothes, etc etc etc. I suppose you could consider the convenience of buying all of these goods and services worth it if the time saved amounted to enjoying your life more. But really, what are we doing with the time saved? Odds are, you're watching more TV (I've been sleeping this week).

I've never seen WALL-E, but it's extremely tempting to make a comparison between the space-blobs in the movie and the current helplessness of people in general: the degree of our dependence on technology has infantilized us to the point where we're completely divorced from our "natural state". The optimist in me says this can't possibly be for real, but I begin to despair when I consider that many people apparently don't know how to put a button back on.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My favorite weed

Around here, blackberry bushes run rampant. They're everywhere that's even remotely neglected: a little patch of grass next to the train tracks, and certainly all over the woods (which, despite this being the Netherlands, there are actually lots of, just in patches).

They've got a little ways to go, about three more weeks, before the berries will be ready for the picking. I've got my bucket already.

For those of us into natural food, or free food, it really doesn't get any better than this. Just walk into the woods with a bucket, and a few hours later, you've got enough jam to last you until the next season. Spring for a little winemaker's yeast, and you can easily pick enough to make enough wine to sip over Christmas.

The one thing you do want to be aware of when you're picking your own produce from the wild is where you're picking from. The side of the road? Probably not so hot. And certainly, by all means, stay as far away from golf courses as you can get. You want to step around places that are heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, or exposed to industrial waste.

It used to be that foraging for good eats was our main source of food. These days, we're lucky enough to be able to go to stores and pick out what we want. It always surprises me that, whenever I do go out berry-picking, I never see anybody else picking them--given what blackberries cost and the notorious Dutch stinginess (which I've yet to encounter), surprises me. It makes me wonder how it is that we're so far divorced from what real food looks like that we can't recognize it when it's growing in front of us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why the little things matter, or the paradox of green

Who hasn't bought a cup of coffee on their way to somewhere, only to feel a little twinge of guilt when it comes time to toss the cup? Of course, some people do bring their own coffee mugs--but I don't buy coffee nearly often enough to justify lugging a thermos around. It's a rare morning that I need an extra boost.

OK, so it's one little cup. Big deal. Right?

One little cup.

It matters because nobody makes one little cup at a time. Companies buy huge stacks of (hopefully recycled) paper and roll, glue, and print hundreds of thousands of these at a time. You'd have to swear off paper cups for the rest of your life in order to make any sort of dent in their profits--and they probably wouldn't even notice.

This is why everybody has to do something to help the cause, whatever that may be. One vegetarian meal a week. Bringing your own mug to Starbucks--if there's still one around. Buying something organic once a week.

But the paradox is--the easier you make it for people to go green, the harder it is for society as a whole to become green. Someone may decide that once a week, they'll have a vegetarian meal. Which is a great start--I'm not questioning that. But what if they decide, too, that that's the end?

We make a big deal of little changes--it's hard for people to change dramatically, if you make them feel guilty about it they'll just turn away. This is true. But we also have to realize that when it comes to environmental impact, scale matters. One person committing himself to an lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle removes meat from fourteen meals a week (assuming that two meals a day have some kind of dead animal tissue in it). It would take fourteen people to commit themselves to one vegetarian meal a week to make that same impact. Has anybody done the math to see just how many partial-vegetarians it would take to equal the effect of one vegetarian? Because I'm almost certain that the number is higher than we would like to think it is...

Little things matter, but do they also make it more difficult for society as a whole to become more green? We'd have to slash emssions by 80% to keep the atmosphere below 450 ppb CO2. I'm sorry, but you're not slashing emissions 80% by turning your lights off, or even by hypermiling your car (unless you're insanely good at it). Yet we keep hearing that such things are enough, that if enough people could do just that one thing, it'll be okay.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Simple, Green, Food

Don't eat factory-farmed meat. Wait--free-range food isn't what it's cracked up to be, either. Buy organic--or not. Local is greener. Except when it isn't.

To green, or not to green, that is the question--and how. Take any statement that sounds good and someone somewhere will prove it false (like I do, with GMOs). The fact that nobody has a clear environmental agenda only adds to this dilemma. It doesn't help that sometimes what's clear from an environmental point of view clashes with the morals of the matter. For instance, organically raised beef is better for the environment--at least, until you consider the massive increase in acreage involved.

But fear not, gentle readers! I offer you one key to all of your greening dilemmas--at least, when it comes to food:

Don't eat what you wouldn't kill.

In my mind, it essentially amounts to cowardice to do otherwise. Of course, most of us don't raise our own meat. So most of us don't know what it's like to kill something. For most of us, the idea never even crosses our minds, unless we get it vicariously from watching crime shows.

But ask yourself, what would you happily kill for dinner? I'm not talking about survival situations, where you're stuck in a deathscape with no chance of life unless you kill Fluffy (actually, if it gets to that point, Fluffy's probably killed you first). I'm talking about your everyday meals. Could you catch a chicken and lop off its head for lunch on Sunday? Would you butcher a pig so that you can enjoy a hot dog?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer lovin'

It's finally gotten hot in the Netherlands, by which I mean, "I occasionally break a sweat when running around while wearing jeans." Summers in the Netherlands are mild, generally, and so the full power of the following drink is probably lost here. Nevertheless, it is delicious, refreshing, and you can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you'd like.

Basil Lemonade

~ 1 C of basil leaves, chopped fine
Sugar (at least 1/2 C is recommended)
3-4 lemons
Cold water
Sieve
Pitcher
A refrigerator
A few hours

Mix the chopped basil leaves with the sugar, bruising the leaves.

Squeeze the juice out of the lemons. If you're using one of those citrus juicers that can cut into the rind, make sure you don't cut into the pith.

Mix the sugar/basil mix with the lemon juice. Let it sit for ~10 minutes. This allows the essence of the basil to be captured by the acid of the lemon juice. It goes without saying that you should not let this sit in an aluminum bowl. Use glass or ceramic. A cereal bowl works really well.

Seive the sugar/lemon juice/basil mix into the pitcher. Pour water through the sieve to fill up the pitcher. Chill. Drink.

Makes ~1 qt.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Meet Virginia

Some time ago I heard the astounding statistic that every DAY in Brazil, an area the size of Virginia was being cleared of trees. Virginia is not Texas, to be sure, but it's still an entire state and of course I was outraged and probably wrote a letter to the mayor or something (it was that long ago).

Of course, what I failed to appreciate at that time was that Brazil is big. Very big. You could probably cram two thousand Virginias into it. Although it doesn't ameliorate the budding panic I feel every time I think of a massive tree getting sawn down (I don't mean to be overly sentimental, but it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that if you're cutting down huge trees much faster than they can grow soon you won't have any huge trees, or any trees at all--just ask the Easter Islanders) for the sake of making a cabinet, or someone's slash-and-burn field, it does make the cavalier attitude about the rain forest a little easier to understand: if you're in the jungle, it's massive. During the right seasons, you can stand on one bank of the Amazon, and not see the other side. We see the rainforest as a precious resource. To the folks who live there, it's something that gets in the way of making a living.

Two factors mitigate the difficulty of preservation efforts. First is a vacuum of land use laws concerning the jungle, and second is poverty. According to the latest issue of The Economist, the jungle is taken over on a first-come, first-served basis. Stake your claim, shoot those who contest it, and when you've finished with it, sell to the highest bidder.

The solution seems simple--a bigger carrot. Commercialization of products derived from the rain forest, eco-tourism, and flat-out bribery (technically it's known as "subsidization for not cutting down trees") are all incentives to leave the forest be.

Well, maybe not. Eco-tourism, for instance, requires you to go into the forest with your group of tourists, show them around a bit, and then get them back out. Getting, say, exotic nuts or plants from the forest requires the same thing. Bribery--well, that works. The first two require roads. But it's been shown that roadways into the jungle are potentially more devastating than just cutting down a swath of trees.

But none of this will matter without Brazilian law extending its reach. Carrots are all very well and good, but without a suitable stick, there won't be enough incentive for people to change. Free market theory suggests that this will never work. The government, corrupt as it is (or will be, once enough money is involved) will somehow endeavor to screw it up.

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the best way to go about fixing the economy is necessarily to give people a stake in keeping the environment intact. People are notoriously bad at making decisions that involve delayed gratification (witness the credit crunch) and investment, and that is doubly true when there's no obvious benefit--for them--to keep the trees alive.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ed-ja-ma-whuh?



This photograph was taken off the coast of North Berwick, a little seaside town in Scotland that boasts the Scottish Seabird Center which was (apparently) built at the behest of HRH the Prince of Wales. The gannets in this photograph are fairly common. The colony on Bass Rock numbers 120,000, and it only stands to reason that other improbably large colonies are scattered elsewhere on impossibly small rocks in the North Atlantic. So, you might wonder, why the hell did I have to go all the way to Scotland to see them?

One of the long-running themes of the Science-Based Medicine blog (on which I sometimes comment) is the despair at how seemingly intelligent people fall for things like homeopathy (which =/= herbal medicines, and that's a whole 'nuther game entirely) and the Anti-Vaccination Conspiracy. The writers on that blog especially bemoan the influence of idiots like Jenny McCarthy for their refusal to believe that vaccines are safe (barring rare genetic conditions), do not cause autism--and their refusal to shut the f*ck up already.

There's a connection between these two. I promise.

The McCarthy campaign* was fed by the rise in autism cases, an "epidemic", as the fear mongers like to call it. I have no idea how they picked vaccines to blame it on, since it's become apparent that it's genetics--but anyway: the point is that autism is only reliably diagnosed at around age 2, the age that coincides quite happily with the recommended age of administration of the MMR vaccine. For your average parent, who doesn't have access to neuroscience textbooks and Piaget's work, it's a simple cause-and-effect. If enough parents--just one other one will do--have similar experiences, you start to wonder if you've missed something. And if someone fakes research telling you that your experiences have been scientifically validated, well, there you have it! Proof that vaccines cause autism!

Both of these illustrations point to the importance of education through experience. In the first case, until I saw the birds for myself, I was inclined to think that these were rare. The second case demonstrates how even nominally intelligent people allow personal experiences to trump their better judgment (although the truly intelligent know when to back down in the face of irrefutable evidence). It's very hard to unlearn something that has a deep emotional significance (i.e., validation that your whack-job theory was right)--the corollary is, it's very easy to learn something that does.

So my interest in environmentalism arose largely because when I was 7, one of my mother's friends gave me, as a Christmas present, a little suction-cup-on-the-window bird feeder that came with a little book showing all the pretty birds I could see. It may surprise you to know that I never saw anything more interesting than a crow, but for some reason I got hooked on birdwatching. I'm the person who will stand and scan every last Canada goose in a flock in the hopes of seeing something different--something new. And I did, often enough to make me realize that birds were interesting creatures which in turn sparked even more interest in how to keep them around.

This is probably the main reason why most people just don't care about the environment to the extent that Greens do. In the suburbs of carefully tended lawns and decor-only plants, they don't hear the awesome chirping of a thousand frogs (or one massive bullfrog). The artificial environs mean that most of the smaller songbirds have to find homes elsewhere, so "wildlife" means robins and the occasional fight with the raccoon over the garbage. To enjoy the "outdoors", you drive to a park, where the wildest thing you'll encounter is a fairly tame mallard. If this is the sum of your wildlife experience, of course you won't feel it's worth protecting.

It's all very well and good to point to rising lines on graphs, but to paraphrase the Governator, we have to make Green connect with people like Coke and Pepsi have done with their legions of fans, and you cannot make a solid connection with guilt. Nobody ever got addicted to guilt. They get hooked by "cool!"

Next: Behavioral modification

*Isn't it ironic that Joseph McCarthy did the same thing in the 1950s? Coincidence? If Jenny McCarthy (their names both begin with "J"!) can ask us to believe that vaccines cause autism, then surely my indulging in some little fantasy connecting her, the Communist Party, and eventual world takeover by China is harmless. Right?

Other factors (part 3 of 3)

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do as an owner of a cat with renal failure is not to get too invested in the Numbers (Blood Urea Nitrogen, Creatinine, Phosphorous). The Numbers are an indicator of renal function--i.e., lower is better, because lower means that the kidneys are taking the stuff out--and, as such, it is often recommended that they be tested frequently. The Tweeb has an appointment with the much-dreaded vet about 3 times a year (evidenced by the pee stain on our couch), but depending on the severity of the case it can be as often as once a month.

But going strictly by the Numbers ignores the cat. The fact that the BUN and Creatinine have gone down slightly from the last visit sounds like a cause for relief, if not celebration. But if the cat is so miserable from the change in food and starts wasting away because it won't eat--well, that could also contribute to the decrease in BUN and creatinine, and it's probably not nearly so worthwhile.

I won't presume to make an assertion as to what's worse: starve the cat to death, or let it eat itself to death. Every cat is different, and every owner likewise. The point is that there is still a lot we don't know about cats, and even more we don't know about renal failure, and to treat by the Numbers alone is to ignore the overall status of the cat: is it still reasonably healthy? Does she still play? Has her personality changed? The gestalt often tells a more complete tale of how the therapy is working than just the Numbers.

We've recently started the Tweeb on a prescription diet (Science Diet), as her Numbers have been elevated for two tests in a row. Fortunately, she seems to love the stuff more than life itself (as does Shadow, who most emphatically does not have renal failure) and it seems to agree with her, though her coat is somewhat more scruffy than it had been. We've agreed to take her in about four months later to see how she's doing.

Four months is a long time. I've had the Tweeb for two years now--that makes almost two and a half years as a CRF kitty for her. They don't call it "chronic" for nothing, and that's the thing. It may seem like a hopeless fight--after all, it starts badly and can only get worse--but keep in mind that if it is indeed the chronic, idiopathic kind of renal failure, proper care can keep a cat going for years. The moment of diagnosis is not the moment to consider euthanasia, but a moment to seriously re-evaluate your commitment to your cat--the whole Cat.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Great Protein Debate (Part 2 of 3)

The usual treatment for renal failure is a low-protein diet. This makes sense: proteins are the main source of nitrogen (vitamins contribute a negligible amount), and there is no urea or creatinine without nitrogen, so on a low-protein diet the levels of of these two compounds go down, meaning that (hopefully) the body is not poisoning itself as much. Even in a diet completely devoid of protein (not recommended), though, there will always be some protein breakdown as a part of "business as usual".

Unless you're a cat. If you're a cat, your metabolism, unlike those of your human slave-monkeys, is so attuned to the life of a carnivore that its preferred fuel source is not carbohydrates, but proteins. This means that for cats, protein is not just something that builds muscles and makes them strong--protein is also their main source of energy. To a cat, substituting protein with carbohydrates is like trying to run a diesel truck on jet fuel. It'll go--most likely with an explosive bang.

I realize that this doesn't really make sense--cats need to break down protein in order to build up carbohydrates so that their bodies can be properly fueled. Note the word "properly". Because cats are also extremely efficient at utilizing carbohydrates. Too efficient--the energy they cull from carbohydrates, if it's not burned off, is usually stored as fat. Even skinny cats may have a larger percentage of body fat than is strictly good for them.

For a cat with renal failure, then, protein is not the bane it is in the human counterpart of the disease. Protein is the fuel on which their bodies run most efficiently, meaning that there's less waste for the kidneys to filter, and giving them more energy to fight the disease. A diet high in carbohydrates, on the other hand, jacks everything up to hi-speed, too high--generating lots of waste and putting lots of stress on the kidneys.

So goes the theory, anyway. The reality is: it's complicated.

It's complicated because kidneys are complicated, and kidney failure even more so. It's not just the loss of filtering ability or concentrating urine. Kidneys generate erythropoietin, which stimulate the production of red blood cells. They regulate blood pressure--25% of the body's blood volume passes through the kidneys every minute. They regulate blood pH, calcium levels, sodium and potassium. Since renal failure isn't obvious until 70% of kidney function is lost, maintaining whatever kidney function is left becomes critical.

And it could very well be that decreasing azotemia at any cost may be the best course of action for this. I theorize that it has to do with the stage of the disease. If you caught it early--as I did (so early that the vet had to do a urinalysis to be sure)--then perhaps a diet of high-quality protein might buy you more time. As the disease progresses, perhaps low quantities of protein will be more important.

I'm not a vet. What I write is based entirely on my understanding of metabolism and biochemistry from my few years in medical school. Your vet will most likely think that my advocating a raw diet--which is not actually a high-protein diet, as meat is only about 20% protein--is heresy to begin with, and doubly so for a sick cat.

Yet the Tweeb is doing well. Questioning dogma is something I do regularly anyway, not necessarily with concrete evidence. To have a living, breathing, healthy counterpoint to accepted practice merely enforces what some might consider a bad habit.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sick cat, raw food (part 1 of 3)



When I adopted the Tweeb as a companion to Shadow (my other black cat), there was no reason to think that she had renal failure--a slowly progressive disease that is fairly common amongst elderly cats. Now, I knew she was old, as she'd been in "foster care" for six years. But she was healthy, for all her physical shortcomings--she has had no less than five broken bones in her little tough life, and most of them healed at odd angles, giving her the appearance of a Cubists' cat.

I'd been feeding Shadow a raw diet. Shadow was doing incredibly well on it, growing in leaps and bounds, and miraculously not getting fat despite my studio apartment being barely big enough for the two of us. The Tweeb took to raw instantly, too, much to my relief, chowing down enthusiastically on her bloody morass of ground chicken and organ meat.

But she was still drinking water.

That was the key: had she remained on her kibble diet, I would have thought nothing of the Tweeb drinking water, and would never have brought her in for the tests. Had she remained on kibble, I would not have realized that something was wrong until much, much later--possibly too late, when the sole choice remaining to me was not if euthanasia, but when.

Now, two years post-diagnosis, the Tweeb is doing quite well. She is energetic--perhaps even more so than Shadow, trotting after us when we go to the kitchen in hopes of begging a morsel out of us, and skittering through the apartment in a bout of the cat-crazies--and her appetite is undiminished. Far from losing weight, she's actually gained a significant amount of muscle and fat (not so much as to be anywhere near obese, but she's no longer the skin-and-bone kitty she used to be). She's quite personable, too, loving nothing better than to curl up on me when I sleep. You'd be hard-pressed to believe that she has renal failure, unless you were at the vet's with us.

I do not attribute this entirely to the raw food. Renal failure progresses differently in every cat, and it could simply be that she had the fortune to get the long-term variety. At the same time, though, it's hard not to believe that a diet of easily-synthesized protein, minimal carbohydrates, and plenty of water (in the form of meat and canned food) has nothing to do with her good health. I realize that the disease is progressive--that eventually we will have to give her more intensive care, along the lines of subcutaneous fluids and medications, and may even have to make that hardest of decisions concerning a rainbow bridge--but for now her renal failure seems to have been beaten into a sort of remission.

Next: the Great Protein Debate

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can't miss what you never had


"What have you given up due to the recession?"

That was the question posed by MSN's Smart Spending blog--an interesting smorgasbord of tips and tricks to help you pinch pennies, and one that I read for handy how-tos like cleaning your windows with newspaper (most of the tips and tricks are also green).

And oh, the litanies of responses--soda, manicures, dinners out! Paper towels! Watering the juice! No more season tickets! No more *gasp* cable TV! Brand names!

When I read lists like that, I tend to fluctuate between "smug" and "disbelief". Smug because I would never consider a manicure a necessity, much less something I'd have to give up. Disbelief that there are people who do.

And, after a while, a little sadness--sadness for everybody who is so out of touch with their wants and needs that they have soda to give up. Giving up something implies that economic necessity has driven you to stop doing something you'd normally do. And it surprises me how many people drink soda regularly enough to say that they've given it up.

It's not so much that I'm anti-consumerist--even I buy an occasional half-liter of Diet Coke for those aspartame cravings--but that such levels of consumerism obscure the meaning of living well, providing an artificial measure of happiness that can be measured by the numbers of labels plastered all over one's pantry.

No two people are made happy by the same thing. My boyfriend and I are a case in point--we love each other, but I can't persuade him to come birdwatching with me, and he can't stoke my interest in brewing mead (though he does pick my brain about keeping yeast happy). Finding your own internal happiness and using that as a guide for one's purchases, rather than the other way around, is the key to living well. And maybe it does involve a ton of stuff, but it usually doesn't.

And in the end, that's what living naturally is all about. We're all different, we've all got different lifestyles, different environments, but we all want to be happy. But we've forgotten, or never thought to ask, what it is that makes us happy. If you keep that in mind, you'll never have to give up soda, because it'll never be around.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Semantic Pedantic



The problem with "green" is that nobody really knows what it means to "be green". Sure, you drink fair-trade organic coffee. But shipping it from Nicaragua to New York isn't exactly environmentally friendly. Or what's it mean when a food product claims to use "all-natural flavoring"? Last I checked, flavoring isn't exactly a natural thing--it doesn't grow on trees.

This means that lots of companies can make claims to be green, which are only true in the most expansive sense of the word "true". Faking it is a bad idea no matter where you do it--on labels, in bed...

We should have, rather than "green", a letter grade (which can also be green, to match the ethos), sort of how appliances have letter grades for energy efficiency. I therefore propose a universal set of criteria, clearly defined, to determine just how "green" a product is. A lawnchair made of bamboo would be greener than the plastic counterpart, but not nearly so green as one that you build yourself out of scavenged lumber, for instance.

To lay out the criteria:

Sustainability: Is the product something that can be, with proper resource allocation, perpetuated for a lifetime? This covers things made from recycled goods that can be recycled, as well as materials that are grown. If your product, on the other hand, is mined (say, that granite sink) or comes from a forest that's not managed (say, some teak furniture), then it's not sustainable.

Distance: One of the biggest contributors to pollution is getting stuff from point A to point B. Obviously, the more local, the better. But a local artist who uses materials flown in from the ass-end of the world is, in this context, less green than buying grapes from California. It should not be the final product that takes primary consideration in terms of distance traveled, but the materials used.

Biodegradable/Recyclable: Self-explanatory. Except that it doesn't matter how recyclable a product is if there's nowhere to recycle it. A case in point: cans. I don't know of a single place that takes cans where I live. For most people, it's the plastics conundrum, where they live in a place that only takes 1 or 2 plastics.

Toxicity: Does this compound release substances that are known to have toxic effects?

Corporate commitment: Does the company implement strategies to reduce waste and consumption of resources? By what percentage?

If there are any other categories you can think of, let me know. Next post will be the points that are assigned to each of these categories for the grade--and that should be interesting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taxes, Housing, Global Warming, and a Handbag

Indulge me for a moment: about six months ago I saw the PERFECT handbag in a store (ironically it's not on the website anymore). It was also €140. Definitely not an impulse buy--not that I make many of those. For six months, I dithered--spend the money and get a perfect bag, or just put up with schlepping my L.L. Bean backpack everywhere? Don't get me wrong, I love my L.L. Bean backpack. But there are only so many times you can terrify yourself into thinking that you've forgotten your wallet only to find it sitting smugly in the next pocket, or swear that the pen you just put in has to be there, before you start thinking that there has got to be a better way to manage your stuff.

I finally did get the bag. And like all good purchases, I wish I'd bought it sooner.

I'm not in any position to make any of these types of home changes, but they are all things I'd consider doing. Alas, none of these are as simple as making a draft-catcher or lowering your thermostat before you go to bed every night. Most of these choices for lowering your energy bill require a hefty investment, but if done right, they can dramatically lower utility bills--and for now, they come with tax incentives.

So it might seem like a no-brainer to install a turbine, or get that damn leak in the roof fixed. But let's be honest--it's a lot of money. If you've so far managed to escape the recession, you've probably hunkered down and aren't inclined to spend a ton of money on anything, much less installing a new water heating system. Fair enough, in my mind--it took me six months to decide whether or not to get my bag, so I can understand debating whether to sink the cost of a new car into a heating system.

You'll notice, throughout the slide show, that the cost of the technology is coupled alongside the amount you'll save, usually expressed as a percentage of which bills get slashed. Obviously, this means that in order to break even on a $2000 tax break on a geothermal heating system that costs $8000 to install, you'll have to stay in your home for as long as it takes to run up $6000 in heating bills (if you use heating for six months of the year, and each heating bill is $200--a tad high--that means at least five years).

Obama is currently proposing a similar investment in green tech--his budget proposal includes $59 billions alotted to the development of renewable energy. It's a huge amount of money, but the potential for savings--dramatically cutting back on imported oil (even if most of it does come from Canada), no longer having to buy the lives of coal miners, possibly revitalizing the economy--are equally huge.

Which is great, but at distinct odds with the ultimate goals of the housing plan: to enable (some) homebuyers to stay in their homes. This wouldn't really be an issue if most of the homes that are victim to foreclosures were in well-planned developments, but most of these homes are in that dreaded no-man's land called suburbia. Or worse, ex-urbia (who the hell comes up with these names?). You know what I mean: the types of neighborhoods populated by McMansions, where it's a 10-minute drive to anything, where playgrounds are deserted because kids are sitting on their rapidly-expanding fat asses playing Super Mario on their Wii and thinking they're getting a workout. These are the types of homes which are worthless, and not just because of economic factors that burst the housing bubble. They're worthless for the very same reasons that New York City real estate continues to remain high-priced: functionality. Or, in their case, lack thereof.

What I call "functionality" is best described as a well-planned neighborhood, where everything is conveniently located and where you don't have to drive to get everything. Big Box stores (i.e., Walmart or Costco) require huge parking lots, and thus tend to be far removed from any residential locale, as they're ugly. If they're far removed, then you have to drive to get there. If you're driving, then there's no such thing as a "quick trip" to pick up some milk that results in just milk (something I actually do on a regular basis--milk is heavy when you're on a bike). It becomes a trip that begins in milk and ends with "Well, as long as I'm here, I might as well pick up..." So you end up buying a ton more crap that you probably didn't really need, in order to fill up the trunk of a car that's too big because you don't feel safe traveling down the freeway in anything smaller than an Explorer (oh, remember the days when SUVs were cool?).

In other words, we have a case of schizophrenic goals: one is to save the environment, the second, to save a lifestyle that is one of the most environmentally unfriendly that I can think of. Cars are one of the biggest polluters around (as anybody unlucky enough to be caught sucking tailpipe can attest to) and while they may be handy for getting you to and from that big box store, they are one of the major reasons why the US hasn't gotten around to slashing CO2 emissions to where they need to be.

And where do they need to be? That depends on who you ask. I don't think we'll ever get around to pre-Industrial age levels, nor do I particularly cherish the idea of living in the eighteenth century. But it's safe to say that we'll need extraordinary measures to keep CO2 levels below critical. As the world's population grows, as developing countries move from the present participle to the past tense, their power needs will grow, too. So while we might very well be able to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by cutting back, that's not going to do a whole lot compared to a 40% increase by those who've just discovered the joys of the Tata Nano. ("Fuel efficiency" is one of those insidious phrases that make you feel good while continuing to contribute to a problem that wouldn't exist if you didn't buy the damn car to begin with, and if you're buying a car that small you might as well ride a bike)

We can't get somewhere without figuring out where we want to go, first. Obama made his presidency on the promise of being able to make those hard choices--let's see if he can.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Y'know? Part 3 of a series on Energy

Supporting organic farming is great--or is it?

The core problem with organic farming is that its yields are lower. I've seen numbers run the gamut from a mere 20% to 50% and sometimes more, depending on where the study was done and which crop was assessed, but the fact remains that, in order to produce the same amount of food as conventional methods of farming, you have to plant more food. If you're growing non-GMO foods, you must also contend with the possibility of a crop that's significantly weakened by non-optimal growth conditions (drought, heat, cold).

Growing food takes energy--moving water, machinery, fertilizer, etc. Therefore, organic farming takes more energy, and therefore lies in direct conflict with our earlier premise of using less energy/water.

Aside: I support organic farming, but that's because most of our organic produce comes from a small-scale local farmer. On that scale, the benefits of not poisoning the environment outweigh (at least, I think so) the detriments of additional energy expenditure. But the point of that little rant about organic is not to say that it's bad, but rather to make people realize that it's not all good.

This micro-dilemma illustrates one of the problems with our environmental policy: we don't know what we want. Actually, for the most part, we don't know that we don't know what we want. And that's a problem, because it makes successful policies impossible to implement.

Do you want to save water? Then stop supporting farming in the deserts of California--even if they are organic. Do you want to cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Support a carbon tax, or sign up for more nuclear power stations (and in the meantime increase research funding for better breeder reactors).

You'll notice I don't mention anything like turning off the tap when you're not using it. They help, but not nearly on the scale that shutting down--or starting up--an entire industry would (beef comes to mind). And when it comes to conservation measures, scale matters. One paper cup of coffee doesn't strike anybody as the difference between life and death, but scale that up by a few million, and it's no wonder doomsday conservationists love to point out how we're drowning in our own sh*t.

"Industry" is the scale that the federal government operates on, and so to effectively change policy, that's the scale environmentalists are going to have to start thinking on, too. And there's the rub: on an industrial scale, most of the best environmental policies are the worst PR--heh, it's a good thing Greenpeace doesn't read this blog, advocating nuclear power as the most environmentally sound and all that jazz.

The other stickler is the knowing-that-we-don't-know bit that I discussed earlier. This will present the biggest issues to any serious attempt at changing federal policies for how we want to safeguard our resources. It's easy to say, "Energy independence," but hard to acknowledge that this may mean paving over deserts with solar collectors and actually using Yucca Mountain for the purpose for which the $13 billion project was intended. "Resource conservation" sounds good--until you realize that it means stopping the subsidies being sent to grow millions of dollars' worth of produce in the desert.

Right now we don't know what we want to achieve, so deciding whether any of these sacrifices are worth it is difficult at best, and political suicide at the most probable. Here's hoping that we'll figure that out, and soon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The End of Days

According to NEWSWEEK, Christianity is declining in America. Depending on where you stand on the spectrum of religiosity (devout believer vs. atheist), and which axis (monotheism vs. polytheism), this could be a great thing or a terrible thing, or a piece of non-news, some bit of fluff that takes up your bandwidth that you don't particularly care for.

I thought I was in the last category. To me, religion has always been a non-issue--I'm a scientist by training, and science and religion, while not mutually incompatible, have their differences, and I'll freely confess my bias towards a rational system of thinking. Religion doesn't interest me (except where it interferes with science), so I tend to ignore it, even though it is apparently very important to a lot of other people.

How important to how many? Well, I don't know, and more to the point, I don't care enough to go Google the answer. The point I'm about to make doesn't need exact numbers:

Could it be that this drop in religiosity is the turning point in people's relationship with the natural world?

Let's not underestimate the importance of this Jewish book in our lives (the Bible's Old Testament is the Jewish Torah, and the New Testament--well, Jesus was a Jew). To this day Creationism's bogeymen are still lobbying to have their "point of view" taught as a science (I don't mind if you teach creationism as literature, philosophy, or as part of a theology course, but it's not a science). The Bible is still being misused as the main point of denying gays the right to marry--nowhere does the Bible actually state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman (and you have to wonder what exactly transpired between Moses and Aaron, Peter and Paul). The Good Book was instrumental in shaping the American West, what with Manifest Destiny driving good Christian soldiers onwards in the wilderness, and the taming of the "savages" and the landscape.

I doubt that we will ever be rid of every Judeo-Christian presence in our lives--and I don't think that's a laudable goal, either. Man needs religion, as a psychological crutch if nothing else, and if you take away the Bible you'll end up with something else. Worse, probably.

The Christian point of view: the world is there for humans to use as they see fit, God granted dominion to Man, animals are dumb beasts that don't have souls. Hardly edifying, if you ask me. Yes, Ecclesiastes asks us to be humble and realize that we are all stardust, but by and large the Christian Bible asks us to see the world as a gift of God--and relieves us of our responsibility to the environment.

Granted, this "responsibility" is a social construct. We don't really have a responsibility to keep the world in shape. God knows, if walruses were the dominant species, we'd have been f*cked a long time ago. As it is, humans are the dominant species (in terms of effects on the planet, I know we are woefully outnumbered by six-legged creepy crawlies), and for better or worse, we are the ones calling the shots about where water goes, what gets built on which land, what trees get cut down, what animals get shot and eaten, what plants get put where, and so on.

There's nothing new about that--we've been modifying our environment for ages. But what's changed is our awareness of how our modifications affect the environment around us, and eventually, us, again. Evidence is mounting against the Christian view that "God made the world so we could use it", and for the view that we are the stewards of our own future.

The optimist in me likes to think that the decline in religion marks a new type of environmentalism, one that has nothing to do with "living in harmony" and all that hooey, but rather one based on the fact that we're all stuck on this floating rock together, and the Big Guy in the Sky isn't going to hand us a shovel when we dig ourselves in over our heads in our own sh*t. Admittedly, a ten-percent decline in the number of self-proclaimed Christians isn't going to make a hoot of difference in the grand scheme of things, but then again, every little bit helps.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ugly dogs, Dutch tulips, Heirloom tomatoes

I'm sorry if I offend any pug/bulldog/squish-faced dog lovers out there, but my personal opinion on dogs with squished faces is that they're ugly. Even more so than poodles, whose coats (when not cut ridiculously and floofed into enormous afros) are at least functional. And ditto for cats. I don't doubt that such dogs are just as loveable and lovely as my parents' Doberman (adopted from the animal shelter), but I don't think I'd ever willingly acquire one. I'd never be able to deal with all the respiratory and skin issues--if you aske me, a breed that needs a c-section to give birth simply has no business existing.

Now, most dogs are the product of either human need or human vanity, but few are such an extreme case of vanity as the bulldog. Originally bred for the bloody business of bullbaiting and dogfighting (those who think it's some kind of ghetto thing and gangsta-cool need to read up on the history of this atrocity), and then later prized for its tenacity and guarding nature, the breed, like many others, fell victim to the whims of kennel clubs which heaped praise on the very features that make the dogs inherently unhealthy.

Why do we prize diseased flowers and sickly tomatoes? Why do we breed cats that can't move (in a way that my cats would call "moving"), and goats that "faint"?

There is no purpose to any of the modifications these creatures have undergone, except to give us pleasure. We choose to keep these traits around simply because we like them. They are often detrimental to the survival of the individual; indeed, one must wonder, if it weren't for humans, would there be any bulldogs left? In this context, one must question how splicing a fish gene into a tomato plant so that it can survive a frost could possibly be "inherently evil".

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hard choices: part 2 of a series of posts on Energy

It says a lot about how young (or old, to some) I am that I can't recollect a single time when a politician has asked for a sacrifice by the American people. Obama has asked for patience while his administration sorts out just how hard a line they can take with the autoworkers while remaining politically likable, but that's hardly the same as asking people to cut back on gasoline consumption to thwart terrorists (something which Bush might have pulled off to great effect post-9/11, had he tried).

When we think of hard choices in terms of the environment, it usually comes down to human versus planetary interests: logging, or saving the spotted owl? Save the farmers, or the save the elephants? Big, safer, SUV, or dinky little Prius? There usually is a middle ground in most of these issues, if we care to look for it.

But when it comes to human versus human interests, things get a lot stickier: pro-life or pro-choice? Respect for individual cultural beliefs, or imposing a standard that's known to work? Or, the point of this post: energy, or water?

We need energy to move water. We need water to create energy--most electricty is generated by steam turbines, in which a wire is turned between two magnets. And we are fast using up both (80% of the electricity in the US is generated by coal-burning plants). The link above is to an excellent article, one well worth the read.

The additional complexity is that individually, reducing our water consumption doesn't really help matters, except in semi-desert/desert areas such as the California coast, or Phoenix. Reducing water use only has an impact if it's done collectively. But even collectively, conserving water doesn't necessarily safeguard the future either, since water flows and evaporates, and not always dependably, either. Droughts and floods happen in the best of times, though they're often helped by the insipid ideas of mankind.

So you might be thinking what's the point to taking shorter showers? Increasing the likelihood that water will be there when we need it. The United States is blessed by the Great Lakes, and Europe has an abundance of rivers, but neither are guaranteed in the face of incessant use. Saving money might be another, if water prices actually reflected the trouble it takes to move it. (Eight cents a gallon? No wonder nobody realizes how much a dripping faucet can waste)

And we might have to accept that the choices we make today might not actually make a hoot of difference in the future. For all I know, in 2020, aliens could spirit the Great Lakes away to Mars. But it was humans who put farms over former desert land in California, and golf courses in the desert outside Las Vegas. We've grown to accept these notions as part of the fabric of our national identity, but can we give them up if we have to? Sometimes putting off a hard choice like that is really the best we can do.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

One Question

Yesterday I was in the thrift store, looking for a sugar bowl--which we actually use, because my boyfriend likes sugar in his coffee in the mornings and the normal bowls we had been using were breeding grounds for lint and baby-dust-bunnies--not the kind of stuff you want in your morning cuppa. The lid to ours had broken, and I sure as all hell was not going to pay a good 6 euros for a piece of crockery that cost less than half that at the thrift store (provided I could find it).

I didn't find it, but I did come upon a BEEEYOUTEEFULL crystal bowl, the sort of simple, elegant LOVE item that I really wouldn't mind dropping 15 euros on.

And then I asked myself: "What would we do with this?"

It was too big to be used as a sugar bowl (sigh), too small for a service bowl, much too large for cereal, much too small for something to let my bread rise in. It was a beautiful bowl, but there was no...point. It couldn't hold it's own, aesthetically, in our apartment (unlike the pitcher-basin set), so I couldn't even pretend it was decent decor.

I get the feeling that, if everybody asked this one question of whatever it was they were going to buy, we'd all be buying a lot less stuff. Cluttering up our lives, and our landfills, with far less stuff.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pollution: part 1 of a series on energy



The creepy thing about pollution isn't so much that we make it, but that it seems to get into everything. Air pollution from the US, Europe, and China floats up to the Arctic, phthalates from our plastics end up in our organic veggies, and soot from smokestacks blackens white marble buildings. "Creepy" really is the only word to describe a plastic bottle that's navigated all five oceans--twice, once inisde a whale--and turns up on the very shore where it was tossed in, completely unharmed.

The old reason for not polluting was that it's bad for the earth--and it is, to have so much crap lying around, breeding bacteria and being eaten by turtles which go on to starve to death. The new reason: this shit really does come back to bite us in the ass. Nobody likes to think that they're getting schizophrenic meds from their trout, or that their "boys" are shriveling because of the plastics in their new carpet (the latter is still a matter of debate; I would err on the side of caution and reduce one's use of plastics). To hell with global warming--what is in the air these days, and how can it possibly be good for us?

Coal power plants are amongst the worst polluters. The problem begins with coal itself; mining techniques are generally not kind to the land, and the groundwater can become heavily contaminated with heavy metals. Burning coal unleashes floods of sulfuric and nitric compounds, contributing to acid rain and air pollution, rendering lakes sterile and damaging marble buildings--and possibly killing people.

The technology to "scrub" the smoke from coal power plants exists, but so far only 40% of the power plants in the US have them installed, despite the fact that scrubbers have been around since 1977. The main contention with scrubbers is what to do with "sludge"; there have been proposals to make something out of it, while regulations call for it to be buried. Either way, the power plants end up ponying up for the disposal--is it any wonder that most of them don't care to have these?

But what if I told you that there was a way to supply electricity in such a way that would have almost zero pollution? And on the scale that could power whole cities? Dependable electricity, the kind that doesn't depend on weather, can be made just about anywhere? Where the waste that's generated actually stays where you put it? Where, unlike coal, the regulations of the fuel are in place, and extremely strict?

You might be wondering what science fiction book I'm reading (Pandora's Star, by Peter F. Hamilton). But the truth is, this kind of power already exists: nuclear power.

Now, I realize that advocating nuclear power is, in the minds of most, like being an animal rights' activist (I hate PETA, by the way) who wears fur. And really, once you start looking at mining uranium and the enrichment process, it's actually not as green as many nuclear advocates would have you believe. Mining is usually open-pit mining, where it's basically a huge hole in the ground. Then the metal has to be leached from the soil, and that involves trickling a weak acid or alkaline liquid through the slag and catching it and the uranium, a process that can be "leaky". The enrichment process consumes massive amounts of electricity, though it's hard to say whether it's more or less than refining gasoline from crude.

But all of the pollution produced can be contained and dealt with. The technology and regulations already exist to ensure that uranium can be mined safely (as safely as mining anything can be done). Incidents that result in pollution stem more from the lack of oversight and individual incompetence rather than flaws in the methods that are used, problems which could be mitigated by giving the EPA some real teeth and letting it shut problem plants down. Theoretically, radioactive substances are tracked with an insidiousness that makes it almost impossible to lose any to pollution (in my lab, like most, we have to log every microliter we use)--it's more a matter of convincing individuals that it is, in fact, worth their while to play by the rules.

Containing pollution is, in my book, half the battle. If we can contain it--if we know where it is--then we can also know how much there is, and see if methods to reduce it actually work, as opposed to guesstimating if the methods make a difference.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Great tits*



The perfect day, for me, would be to get up just before the sun rises, have a cup of tea and feed the cats, pack my optical gear and bird guide, and go somewhere. Anywhere. Just as long as it's out of the range of your average outdoor house cat. There's a reason why small birds are seldom seen in cities, and it's not because of the air pollution.

The Millingerward nature area lies about 11 miles from where I live--a reasonable pedal for some of the best wildlife around. I've seen deer (dameharten), hare, storks, wildfowl, and songbirds there. It's truly amazing, the number of species that can coexist in such a small area--for it is a small area:

As a tributary of the Waal, Millingerward comprises of 2 large ponds/small lakes, and several wooded areas that are either woody or boggy, depending on the state of the Waal. Parts of the preserve are above the water line, even the high water line, and are open fields pocked with tussocks. The vegetation is kept in line by herds of cows and horses that roam "wild" over the ground (and are indeed seen all over the Ooijpolder**). The grazing habits of these beasts are critical for maintaining the health of the plants, which in turn affect the health of the wetland environment.

It is a prime example of wise ecological management. The Dutch are renowned for their water management (1953 says it all) but it was only in recent years--during the building of the Delta Water Project--that they realized that another dike isn't always the answer. Rather than focus on keeping water out, it became "redirecting the water" to where it could be useful. In this case, maintaining the wetland environment.

Wetlands have critical ecological functions, most of which benefit human activity as well. Primarily, they act as filters for nitrogen and phosphorous, the primary ingredients that lead to algae blooms (although it is true that only phosphorous is required for blooms). Because they have such a large capacity for holding fresh water (being wetland, after all), they are able to store huge quantities of fresh water--limiting the damage by flooding, and keeping streams and the ground water flowing when weather conditions might dictate otherwise. Furthermore, by slowing the flow of water out of the river, they decrease soil erosion.

Water control is not only a Dutch issue. The Mississippi River Valley is prone to issues of flood, drought, erosion, with expensive consequences--and never mind the continually-expanding Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which has basically rendered the ocean sterile for 60-100 miles beyond the Mississippi Delta. What's the big deal about the Mississippi River? Only the breadbasket of the United States. Most of the farmlands in the world are concentrated around major rivers, the health of which depends on these "bogs".

Conservation efforts like the one in place along the Ooijpolder are not conceptually any better than, say, protecting the elephants. But a smelly bit of bog isn't nearly as cute as polar bear cubs, and let's be honest--the Konik horses aren't much to look at. It's sad, really, that conservation has to be linked to something cute in order to convince people that it's worthwhile. Most often those animals aren't even the ones that are that critical to the health of the environment. And fixating on the numbers of a particular animal in existence detracts immensely from the real issues at hand: hanging on to the lands that we still have.

*The bird photographed is actually a long-tailed tit, at least, as far as I can tell.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fecal content warning



I swear I'm not a shill for Invitrogen, the source of this (in my opinion) very cute picture. The company which sells these lists this particular specimen as Shigella dysenteriae, as in "the bug that gives you dysentery" (where you bleed out of your...er).

There's a fine line between a healthy respect for the organisms that, until this past century, have kept the human population at bay (well, that, and our propensity for killing each other) for millenia past, and outright paranoia, and many people, it would seem, verge on outright paranoia. Those little alcohol-gels (don't blame me if you don't like what you read at this link)? There's a reason they sell so well.

We feel threatened by "airborne bacteria", so we spritz our bathrooms with Lysol, even though the "aroma" of our offering to the porcelain god is due to mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, and trace quantities of other gases that can't be killed and the perfumes leave us (me) gagging. We are terrified of the germs that could be infesting the average seat on a public bus, yet we'll happily put together a salad from an open salad bar. And what is up with triclosan in everything? I'm not one to buy the conspiracy-theorist-like claims that triclosan causes cancer (and supercancer and chronic fatigue and Lyme disease and it's mother), but soap by itself is actually pretty damn antibacterial, and adding triclosan doesn't do anything--plus we don't know yet whether it actually does harm the environment or provide the boot camp that turns regular strep into MRSA.

I'm quite aware that germs can be quite nasty: the flu, while for many of us is merely an inconvenience, is occasionally deadly, and there's nothing quite like a bird flu "pandemic" to remind us that we are but one hop, skip, and jump away--mutagenically speaking--from another Spanish Flu. E. coli, particularly the nastier strains, hospitalizes and even kills--and yet, it is a ubiquitous member of our bodily fauna. But I'm not convinced that religiously bleaching the toilet is going to do anything other than make the cats high and give me a headache.

Nor am I convinced that you kill germs any more effectively with a harsh cleaner than you do with plain old soap and water. Germs, after all, are basically goo encased in biological membranes, which are highly soluble in soaps. Once you pop the bubble, so to speak, the germ is dead.

At least until the next one comes along. And that's the other thing to keep in mind: we've only been here for an evolutionary fraction of a second. It's really the bugs' world; we just live in it. They were there when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, and they'll be there when our species crashes and burns the planet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My environmental pet peeves

I wasn't going to post so soon, as I'm busy hammering out the details of a series of posts that I'll be making shortly, but this article on Crazy Sexy Life basically contains every last pet peeve I have against the Green movement.

I'm not anti-green. We recycle. We conserve (saves on our utilities bills). We bike everywhere, use public transit, make homemade cleaners, and I'm working on getting a bunch of newspaper to try for a batch of homemade kitty litter. I believe in doing what we can, but I also believe in common sense and science--not in any religious way, but as a guide to point us towards what is possible and why.

Alas, science and common sense are lost amidst the moralizing grandstanding of the morons who write articles like the one at Crazy Sexy Life. Even if the guy is absolutely correct on all of his scientific points--that genes bleeding into the environment could be catastrophic (something I've not seen reported anywhere)--there is still one major reason why research on GMOs and using them can NOT be allowed to stop: 6.1 billion people, and the shrinking acreage of arable land. If you forbid the usage of GMOs (assuming, of course, that you can even define them), you essentially condemn farmers to pre-Industrial Age technology and breeding methods--and the poorer parts of the world to death by starvation. And that is a true moral travesty.

I also abhor the shoddy reasoning concerning his ideas on evolution: on the one hand, he suggests that old-fashioned selective breeding is best, since it allows life to exist along it's "evolutionary reality" (I shit you not, this is a phrase he uses). On the other, he bemoans the mutations that are arising in heirloom crops, which he blames on GMOs (even though he doesn't give a source for it). Surely, he didn't think that evolution could occur without mutation?

Science is not a system of morals, and I understand that. Common sense is not a system of morals, either. Science builds us a gun, but it can't tell us not to bust a cap in our neighbor's ass, that sort of thing. But "bad" and "good" are not reasons to be against GMOs. The reason why the Green movement against GMOs will lose (and it will) has nothing to do with money, power, or politics. The reason why the Green movement will lose this fight is because they insist that GMOs are bad, rather than giving reasons for why they are so bad.

Y'know, just for fun, one of these days I'll come up with an post or two with real reasons to be against GMOs. Ones that are actually backed up with evidence (and not wishful thinking).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What do you spend money on?

Every other week or so, I stop by the windmill (yes, the typical Dutch windmill) and spend way too much money on some way-too-good whole wheat flour. Unlike your average whole-wheat flours, which are uniform, the stuff has little flecks of bran and a taste that we both love.

With the recession weighing upon everybody's minds (the newspapers here are all gloom-and-doom), tactics on saving a few bucks abound on most personal-finance sites. I find them interesting/helpful, though I tend to fixate on the DIY parts because I like doing things myself. But I think what's even more fascinating is reading about what people are spending money on. Hint: it's not porn.

There are some articles pointing to a slight increase in personal spending, but most of the finance news is, again, about how people are cutting back.

So I would ask you: what are you still spending money on? I still buy olive oil soap, which is a bit costly, but one I'm willing to put up with in order to not be up half the night scratching myself out of my skin. We still feed our cats a raw diet. We still buy boxes of candles, though we only light them when we have guests (still, 30+ candles going at once can put a serious dent in your wallet).

This exercise is not meant to be a bragging session about what we can still afford. It's more about realizing what we still have. It's so easy to be miserable when you can't eat out or go bar-hopping at the drop of a hat. But it's much easier to realize just how rich you truly are when you realize just how much the things you still keep in your lives, recession be damned, make you happy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

On education

One of the things I wish my parents had done when I was little was take us out to the state parks, or some dark corner of the 'burbs where we lived, and point out the stars. The one time I've even come close to seeing the vast expanse of the galaxy we live in was on a night-time road trip to Virginia for a fencing meet, but I have never forgotten how the stars glittered in the sky--and, more to the point, how many there were.

I've always maintained a passing interest in stargazing and astronomy, but my abilities with calculus precluded me majoring in the deep spaces. Still, the night sky is not without its wonders--it's a pretty cool experience to realize that you can see Venus, that Beetlgeuse (Beatle Juice) really is red, and watch a lunar eclipse occur right before your eyes. But it was not until this weekend, when I finally bought what birdwatchers call a "spotting scope" and pointed it at the moon, that I realized, "Gee, I've got a lot of childhood to catch up on." (And no, I did not pay top-dollar for mine)

My parents, like most parents, placed a lot of value on getting good grades in school. I can't help but think that they got gypped into the belief that having an education means that you've learned a lot. I mean, I have learned a lot--but not on the things I was educated in. I've learned about proper soil composition for growing things, the names of all the major waterfowl in the Netherlands, how to feed a species-appropriate diet to cats, and which herbs to use in a tomato sauce. Amongst others. Don't get me wrong, I've also gained a lot through my education--I got my job solely because I was educated in pharmacology--but if you were to ask me which set of knowledge gives me more satisfaction in possessing, it's not the one that involves curves and data points (unless the data points are individual birds, and the curves are Gaussian distributions).

I don't claim to know the "best" way to educate kids. But I don't see how starting with their own interests could lead you too far astray. I sometimes wonder if I could have been an ornithologist, or an ecologist--given my dismal attempt to give a crap about molecular pharmacology, I wonder if I'd start feeling the same way about ecology. I don't think I would have gotten funding. I don't think I would have gotten a job. I don't think I'd be any better at writing papers. But I do think I would have learned a lot more for all my education.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Stuff of life



"Bread" and "dough" are the stuff of life in more ways than one. We eat one, our society runs on the other. That both are critical to our well-being speaks volumes about the metaphorical power of leavened dough.

We make our own bread, mostly. It's not to save money, though we do: each loaf costs us around 1.5 euros, including the electricity to run the bread machine. Now, while 1.5 euros can buy you a decent loaf of fluffy stuff, odds are it won't have the delicious little yummies I usually add to our loaves, things like olive oil and flaxseeds.

We make a lot of things ourselves: my boyfriend is brewing his own mead, and in the summer, I'll pick blackberries so we can have blackberry wine. Our laundry detergent is homemade--but only because neither of us can understand the sense in paying a company extra money to leave out perfumes and coloring, which I'm allergic to. I make our own tomato sauce. He makes our jams and jellies. I make clothes (mostly mine, but I finally have a pattern for a man's shirt, so we'll have to see how that goes), he makes furniture.

Doing these things doesn't necessarily save us a lot of dough, though we usually do come out ahead, especially when blackberries are involved (I will never understand how a nation reputed to be as stingy as the Dutch pass up free fruit). It's questionable whether it's worth the money to make a perfectly-fitted pair of pants, when you can find a reasonably good pair for 15 euros, though. We do them because we enjoy crafting things--the process of bringing an idea into fruition is a rather addictive one. One begins to understand why God was not content to stop with creating the heavens.

I would argue that the stuff of life is not the bread itself, but the process of creating the bread. You can call it "mindfulness" or "engagement" or whatever New-Agey term tosses your cookie, but the fact is, when you make stuff, you can't just sit back and expect it to happen the way you do when you consume stuff. I.e., consider Starbucks, the penultimate symbol of consumerism gone rampant. You go to Starbucks, pay your money, and a frappumochacinolatte is set in front of you to guzzle. You don't know (and probably don't want to know) how it's made, what goes into it, whether you can make it better. You just enjoy it. Kind of.

Making your own things, be it food or clothing or other consumables, forces you to become aware of the processes involved in the creation of said thing. You know what went into your brownies, you know how they're made, and you can think on how to improve the flavor (a little Armagnac goes a long way in chocolates). You become involved, and when you finally get to enjoy it, you really enjoy it.

Living = being involved in life.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Seeds!

One of my New Year's Resolutions was to start a balcony garden. That was in January.

Of course, a balcony garden doesn't just come together. It takes a lot of prep work, and that's something that's kept me busy this past month--too busy, in fact, to make those pants I've been wanting to make. Because our space is so limited, starting a balcony garden isn't as simple as putting a seed into a pot and hoping something grows. If you want to try something similar, take a look at what I've done so far.

Seeds: I drew up a quick 'n dirty map of our little balcony, and decided which plants would go where. Needless to say, a lot of our initial plant ideas (eggplants, bell peppers) had to get the axe as I prioritized which veggies I wanted and which ones we'd actually eat. Once I knew what I wanted to plant where, it was just a matter of picking out the seeds. I know most of the plants, especially the herbs, are available as plants, but I can't help it if I like the challenge, though--and besides, once the days start getting shorter again, in October, the plants all die. This way, I could conceivably get two or even three years' worth of plants out of one packet of seeds.

Space: Because we live in an apartment, we don't have much space for plants, not to mention that some plants, especially tomatoes, are rather stinky as they grow. Fortunately, we do have a (small) balcony, and fortunately, I'm pretty handy with power tools:



The top shelf will be for the tomatoes, and the bottom shelf for zucchinis and cucumbers. I'd also built a little raised platform for holding the carrots, and the strawberries will go into a planter that will hang on the balcony. The herbs will be kept inside--the cats seem to enjoy them, and they do make the apartment smell nice.

Fertilizer: I've always wanted to try composting. Alas, I'm finding out that composting doesn't work so hot when you start in the middle of February--it goes, but slowly. But the weather is warming up, so hopefully by the time the hypothetical seedlings are ready to go into their real homes, we should have some nice, rich dirt. There are some excellent sites out there that explain balcony composting. Also check out Simple Makes on my blog roll.

Starting up the seeds: I made a bunch of newspaper seedling cups, and managed to fill about 2/3 of them before I ran out of potting soil. Then I set them in the windowsill, and now it's just a matter of waiting. I'll get another sack of dirt next week, and seed the rest of the plants--a week won't matter that much.



There are some conflicting opinions as to whether you should take off the newspaper. I will, because I'll be using pots and not actual ground--I'm pretty sure that, in the ground, the worms and all those other fun things will chomp up the newspaper pretty darn quickly, but I've discovered that even in the compost heap, newspaper lasts a surprisingly long time.

So there you have it: four afternoons' worth of work to prepare for a whole summer of harvest. It's not really that much work. I chose to spread it out during the whole month because I have other things to do, amongst them spoiling my cats.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Pedal power



You can't get much cheaper transportation than a bike. Or a more natural one, either--ah, muscle power! In the Netherlands, the national mode of transport is the bicycle. Not surprisingly: the cities are flat (where I live is considered "exceptionally hilly"), the streets are small, and the taxes for gasoline are painful. But I've been using a bike long before I became an ex-pat. My main mode of transportation in Philadelphia was also a bike, and public transit for meteorologically terrible days. I've since drawn some conclusions about bicycling in general, and hope to pass on some words of advice:

Conclusion #1: Jackasses are everywhere. You know who I'm talking about--the guy who rides on the wrong side of the street. Or the jerk who shoots through red lights like they don't exist. Don't be a jackass--ride on the right (unless you're in England) and at least pause to make sure there's no oncoming traffic before you ride into an intersection.

Conclusion #2: Parking your bike in front of doorways is a guaranteed way of getting it removed. Most cities in the Netherlands have regulations stipulating where you can park your bike, how long you can leave it there, what lock you should use, and when those parking hours are available. The rules are in place to prevent bike mobs from taking over sidewalks and entrances, and are enforced without mercy. In Philadelphia, which has no such rules, bikes which are left blocking the entrance of doors would just be shoved aside, but also sometimes taken, if the perpetrator were stupid enough not to have taken the hint. Please don't be a jerk and park your bike in front of a door. Any door.

Conclusion #3: Drivers are jackasses, too. If you assume every driver will be a road-hogging menace to bicyclists, you can't go wrong. I've met drivers who, in reverse, simply chose not to see me. Drivers who, in spite of there being three extra lanes with which they could use to pass me, chose to brush by with just the barest of space. Drivers who simply don't look before they make a turn (I was actually hit by one of these, fortunately it was a jam-packed street and I wasn't hurt beyond a scraped elbow). In other words, never assume the driver that's pulling up to the intersection will yield. Assume that he won't, and you'll stay alive.

Conclusion #4: Hand signals actually work. Hand signals are mostly dismissed by cyclists on both sides of the pond, but they actually work pretty well, provided you start using them before you make the indicated turn. This is especially critical for left turns on a two-way street, as the opposing traffic will usually slow down to enable you to make the turn.

Conclusion #5: Blind spots are bigger; or, just turn your head and look! This may seem strange, but the truth is when you're on a bike and you have to check behind you, you MUST turn your head. Especially when it's dark--most of the time, I can get away with a quick glance to the left and count on my peripheral vision to see the car, but when it's dark, I have to look over my shoulder. I can't tell you how many times I've been surprised by a car I could've sworn wasn't there when I looked.

Conclusion #6: Mom was wrong. When we were little my mom used to tell us to hug the curb, so that cars wouldn't hit us and we wouldn't obstruct traffic. When I started riding in Philadelphia, I quickly learned not to: people don't look when they open their doors. Not only that, riding as close to the curb as you can actually decreases your visibility to cars, and it forces you to take a snaky, windy, runaround around parked cars. A driver might lose sight of you, figure you've parked, only to be completely surprised when you pop out from behind a parked car (and in no position to stop in time). When you're on a bike, visibility counts most for your safety. Stay visible. Riding in front of a pissed off driver is better than popping up like a whack-a-bike in front of a nice one.

Conclusion #7: Helmets won't save you from yourself. I'm a bit on the short side, and this is doubly so in the country where women are regularly 5'9" and my 6' boyfriend is considered "short". Most of the bikes here are therefore made for significantly taller people, which means I have "issues" staying on mine when it's stopped (therefore I try not to stop). Helmets may save you from a crash with a car, but they probably won't do much if you're a klutz.

Conclusion #8: Headphones + Bike = Darwin Just. Don't.

Conclusion #9: Proper air pressure is a much bigger issue when you're the one doing the pushing. I know people who can't be bothered to check their tire pressure at all, unless the tire is visibly flat. I'm pretty sure they would do it religiously if they were the ones providing the energy, though--properly inflated tires make life a hell of a lot easier on wheels.

Conclusion #10: You don't always get what you pay for. It's generally true that a more expensive bike will be better than a cheap one--except in the secondhand bike market. You do have to sift through a lot of crap, but there's a lot of good stuff out there and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. My best bike was found in the trash room of my apartment building--I paid $35 to have the flywheel fixed.

Genetically modified, part 2

The fact is, we know that pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (even natural ones) are poisonous to the environment. We know that fertilizers cause algal blooms which decimate aquatic fauna. We know that arsenic is a deadly environmental toxin. We know that herbicides have unintended side effects when they spread beyond the neatly-defined borders of farmland.

What we don't know is what the genes of genetically modified organisms do once they're out there. Bacteria readily take up "excess" genetic material and happily swap plasmids with each other, but that doesn't mean they have to actually use the genes. Genes, after all, take energy to maintain, so if there's no need for a bacteria to possess a gene against rice fungi, it'll probably discard it eventually. Even if the gene does persist in the bacterial pool, the mere presence of it is not enough to do anything; a gene that remains quiescent for all eternity may as well not be there, as far as we're concerned. To put it another way: cars are noisy, dirty, pollutants of city streets. But if it just sits there in your driveway, it's not being noisy, dirty, or polluting (I'm not going to go into the idiocy surrounding the "carbon footprint" question). In fact, from the environment's point of view, a car that just sits in your driveway may as well not exist.

We also don't know how these rogue bits of genetic material will affect the surrounding wildlife--indeed, whether or not they will have any effect at all. They could render some plants inedible to wildlife, or increase their abundance to the point where there's a population explosion of herbivores. They could enable a plant to spread far beyond its native territory, and become an invasive species elsewhere, or they could drive it to extinction.

But we just don't know. The Law of Unintended Consequences has made quite clear that overlooking the smallest detail can lead to the biggest f*ck-ups; the corollary to that law is that the detail that's overlooked is the one that nobody knows about until it's too late.

On the other hand, what we do know is that using chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticides, and herbicides is a) bad for us, b) bad for wildlife, and c) uses unsustainable technologies and produces tons upon tons of chemical waste. You can't have your cake and eat it too: either have farmers use conventional methods to farm but poison themselves and the world, or increase their capacity for going organic by allowing the unbridled sale of GMOs.

It is my belief that life can handle a few new genes being tossed around. Life is, after all, 3.5 billion years old. It's handled mass extinctions, to levels we can't even begin to fathom, the build-up and breakdown of millions of species, over millions of years. We're not going to inadvertently cause the next mass extinction by the accidental release of a few plasmids.

As Sherlock said to Watson, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." But if one has data and chooses not to act on it, isn't that even worse?