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


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.