In the mid 2000s, a rumor circulated that an unnamed politician in Vietnam had been cured of cancer by consuming powdered rhino horn. Fast forward 17 years, and rhino horn is now worth around $25,000/pound on the black market. That rhino that was shot by poachers and had its horn removed with a chainsaw in the middle of the night at the French zoo a few months ago? Its horn was like a quarter-million-dollar pile of gold sitting out in the open.
Not only is there NO science on the anti-carcinogenic properties of the keratin in rhino horn (chemically the same as your own fingernails), the belief isn’t even derived from ancient Chinese health literature. All of this literally stems from one rumor gone viral, combined with public willingness to buy into rumor as truth. Rhino species are going extinct rapidly, and poaching is a huge part of the reason why.
The Skeptoid podcast is one of our national treasures, as far as I’m concerned. This episode is particularly good.
Just returned from nine days in Iceland – two days of work and seven days of pure exploration. It was winter, so days were short, and it was gray/stormy the whole time, so no Northern Lights for me, but the trip still managed to blow my mind. Misc notes and photos below. For lots more photos, check out my
Iceland driving tip: While it might be tempting to tune in to the Icelandic death metal station while wending your way through miles of snow- and moss-covered lava rock, one notch up on the dial is the “public culture” station, where the only words you can decipher from the lilting Elvish language are “Yoko Ono,” “Steve Reich,” and “John Cage” (and then they play them).
That station works way better with the landscape. No sleep in 36 hours, but made it to the Blue Lagoon, where 464-degree superheated geothermal water from half a mile down in the earth brings up white silica powder which meets cold sea water, creating these gorgeous warm swimming holes; the color of sky refracts off the silica in the water, making it intensely blue in the right conditions (it was more greenish today). Allegedly great for psoriasis sufferers. Exhausted but blissed.
It’s overly simplistic to say that liberals believe in anthropogenic climate change while conservatives don’t. Not true! Large numbers of Republicans are fiscally or socially conservative, but are still willing to let scientists (who are THE experts and professionals in the field) do their jobs. Lately, those experts are ringing very loud alarms. With Democrats holding a House minority, the only hope we have of making critical climate progress over the next four years is in reaching across the aisle and aligning with climate-agreeable conservatives.
Toward that goal, I’ve signed on with Rodney Salvador Reyes to build the web component of Cross the Aisle for Climate, a non-partisan group working to identify climate-related issues that liberals and conservatives can agree on, and work toward bi-partisan decision-making in those areas.
We’ve just launched the first version of the site, which is mostly about outlining the vision – we’re just getting started. For now, please check out the site’s Be Heard tool, which lets users contact their reps via email based on zip code. Lots more to come.
Decided to take a mountain bike out to one of my favorite hiking trails in the Marin Headlands yesterday – the Coastal Trail from Alexander Drive down to the Headlands Center for the Arts. Recorded the trip with a helmet-mount GoPro and edited it down to 9 minutes (probably still too long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter. Hopefully catches a bit of the feeling of being out there on a perfect November afternoon.
Took the day off work to chaperone school trip to Knoll Organic Farm with sixth graders. All about biodiversity. First image shows apricots, figs, rosemary, barley and 20 others all growing in the same space – they get more than 3x more yield per acre than conventional farms by growing like nature does, where everything is entangled with everything else. Second image shows biodynamic soup – rainwater, molasses, figs, whatever else, left to stew until almost kombucha, then trickled into the irrigation system like homeopathy for soil. Third image: half-walnut as pig-nose.
Amazing: “When we have snails, someone from Chez Panisse drives out here to pick them up.”
You learned in grade school that a caterpillar metamorphoses into a moth or butterfly. But what would you find if you were to cut open a chrysalis during that transformational stage? Would you find a half-caterpillar/half-butterfly hybrid? It’s a black box — you don’t know. Caterpillar goes in, butterfly comes out. We don’t ask what happens in between.
But we should.
What you would actually find would be little more than snot – a milky white mucous, with a few dark specs floating in it. The caterpillar dissolves itself into goo, and the cells of the goo reconstitute themselves into a moth or butterfly.
So what happens to the “personhood” of the being inside? Does one creature die while another is reborn, growing out of the mulch of its former self? Does the butterfly have any “memory” of the caterpillar it was? Here’s the really mind-blowing part: Scientists have figured out how to train a caterpillar (via subtle electric shocks) to turn and walk the opposite direction when a certain smell is introduced into their environment. When they later tested for the same learned ability in metamorphosed butterflies and moths, they found a 70% memory retention rate, which had lasted right through the goo phase. Turns out those little specks in the goo are clusters of brain cells, which save memories and then reproduce in the new being.
The biological weirdness continues: If we peel off the skin of a dead caterpillar, we find proto wings, laying in wait. They never emerge on the caterpillar itself, but when the rest of the insect dissolves to goo, the proto-wings cling to the walls of the chrysalis, and then attach themselves to the newly formed butterfly and continue their evolution. The caterpillar starts them, the butterfly finishes them.
The whole process is as spiritual as it is philosophical as it is scientific. Is there anything stranger or more magical in nature? (rhetorical question). Over dinner, as our family discussed this process, we wondered why it isn’t taught in grade school. Why do we just get the black box (input –> output) version? Always look behind the curtain.
I have gone back and forth between polar extremes on this question over the past decade. On the one hand, nuclear accidents and waste disposal problems pose risks so great we shouldn’t even contemplate them, not even for a moment. On the other hand, continuing to burn fossils sets us on a course toward continued environmental destruction and unchecked climate change.
Recently a group of environmental scientists delivered a public letter encouraging environmentalists to start taking nuclear seriously.
The reality is that renewables (wind and solar) can’t begin to scale to match the amount of energy we are using / will need in the future. And:
“Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.”
Fukushima freaks us out, as it should. But Fukushima also represents a completely antiquated mode of nuke plant construction. Future plants will operate very differently, with a native tendency to shut down, not melt down.
So Miles just spent four days with his class at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo – camping out in 30-degree weather (at night), milking cows at the break of dawn, shoveling poop and plowing the earth and sorting vegetables. No electronics, no toys, no media – just kids experiencing life at its messy, organic best. During the breaks, they swam in the river and put on talent shows for each other. The kids worked hard but had a great time – all returned exhausted but recharged.
The farm gets its name from the fact they try, where possible, not to use powered machinery – everything is powered by animal and human effort. Blood, sweat and tears… and the rewards that come from that. Of course, everyone jokes about how it’s powered by child labor, but that’s not fair – the kids are there not as indentured servants but because their grownups see the work done on the farm as character building and healthy — everyone needs to spend time in and around real live dirt, and everyone needs to have milked a real live cow at least once in their lives.
I often lament that it seems to be so hard to provide kids with anything like the environment I (we) grew up in. The combination of our technology-heavy environment and the fact that kids don’t just “go play outside” anymore means something crucial is being lost. I do my best to get him out into nature as often as possible, but big picture, it’s a drop in the bucket. So grateful he was able to get a real taste of dirt this week.
He took a ton of photos on the trip, and I helped him to select a few of the best and create his first web slideshow – check it out.