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In the 1980s NASA challenged architects to invent a way of constructing buildings on the moon or Mars where traditional building materials would not be available.  An Iranian American architect named Nader Khalili came up with a simple & ingenious concept which involved minimum material and time.  Khalili’s idea was to fill long plastic tubes with moon dust or space rock and then build dome-shaped buildings from these sandbags (judiciously braced with metal wires).  Although NASA has not yet used the idea to build any space bases, the architectural and building style which Khalili invented has taken off here on Earth, where it can be used to quickly make highly stable, inexpensive structures.

The style of crafting domes out of plastic bags filled with local earthen material is known as super adobe.  Khalili initially thought that his buildings would be used as temporary structures for refugees or disaster victims who had lost their homes, however, when plaster or cement is added to the buildings they can become surprisingly permanent and elegant. Super adobe architecture results in beehive shaped structures filled with arches, domes, and vaults.  Windows and doors can be created by putting inserts into the bags and then building sandbag arches around them, or arch-shaped holes can be sawed into the finished plastered domes. Superadobe domes can be beautifully finished with tiles, glass shards, or other decoration or they can be smoothly plastered.  Khalil created a finish which he called “reptile” where the domes were covered with softball sized balls of concrete and earth.  Reptile finish prevented cracking by creating paths for the structural stress caused as the building settling and by heating/cooling expansion and contraction.

"Reptile" Finish

Superadobe architecture is best suited for the dry hot southwest, but can be used elsewhere (especially if the builder adds a layer of insulation) and can employ a variety of available fill materials.  If the builder uses earth and gravel to create small domes the buildings are surprisingly resistant to earthquakes, floods, and gunfire.  Additionally earthbag buildings are cheap and easily constructed by unskilled builders.  The fact that wood is not required has made the style a focus of environmentalists and green builders.  I am a huge fan of domes, but they are rarely seen outside of huge expensive buildings like churches, legislative houses, and mansions for rich eccentrics.  This paucity of domes could be corrected with more superadobe architecture. Imagine if you could live in an elegant little superadobe dome house with circular woven carpets and little round hearths!  The organic shape of the small houses makes them blend in perfectly with succulent gardens informal flowers and unkempt fruit trees.  Some builders even go a step farther and cover the entire building with grass and plants. I would like to see more such structures built here on Earth and hopefully someday farther afield.

Caput Mortuum Violet

One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think.  Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it.  Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context.  Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows:  many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450, oil on panel)

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450)

Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it.  In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting).  Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum.  These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!

Portrait of a Female Donor (Jan Provost, 1505)

Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses.  In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction.  Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color.  Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.

Caput Mortuum Alchemy Symbol

However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head.  The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour-Glass (Phillip de Champaigne, c. 1671)

Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

Three days ago, on August 1st, 2010, a great mass of plasma was ejected from the sun.  The cloud of protons and electrons reached earth last night where it collided with the planet’s magnetic field to produce a series of spectacular aurora lights.  Because of the strength of the coronal flare, the dancing streamers of red and green fire were visible across much of the temperate part of earth and not just near the poles.  A second coronal mass ejection is due to arrive tonight.  These are the first big coronal flares which have headed towards earth for quite a while so, unless you are a jaded Inuit or world-weary arctic explorer, you should keep an eye towards the nearest pole.

An animation of Aurora Australis sweeping over the South Pole.

The sun is entering an active portion of its eleven/twelve year sunspot activity.  The peak year is projected to be in 2013.  Solar activity was mild throughout the twentieth century, but our star has not always been so quiescent.  At 11:18 AM on September 1st, 1859, a British astronomer, Richard Carrington, was observing a projection of the sun on a yellow glass and illustrating the sunspots he saw.  Suddenly, in the midst of a great boiling mass of spots, two kidney shaped points of light formed and grew intensely bright.  Here, halfway down the page,  is Carrington’s hilariously Victorian description of the event taken from NASA’s website.

Carrington was the first to directly witness a coronal mass ejection, when the sun’s opposing magnetic fields rip great hunks of plasma into space. After traveling 93 million miles, the particles from the 1859 ejection created spectacular aurora lights visible as far south as the Caribbean.  Blood colored light shone across the night skies of the world. The solar storm played havoc with telegraph wires and the telecommunication system of the day was rendered completely unusable.  Parts of the system burst into flame.  Keep in mind this was 1859 so telecommunications consisted of ponies, men with semaphores, and a handful of telegraph wires.  If a storm of such magnitude struck today, it would fry our communication satellites like chicken livers and do horrible, horrible unspeakable things to our electric and fiber optics grids. From beryllium deposits in polar ice cores we know that solar storms of the magnitude of 1859 are rare.  They usually occur once every five centuries or so.  However the sun is famously unpredictable.

A 2002 Solar Flare

These days we do not have an Englishman sitting in a study looking at a bright circle on a straw-colored sheet (or maybe we do, but he is unimportant and rather silly). Humankind now has a fleet of spacecraft which continuously monitor the sun (perhaps you might take a moment to reflect on how remarkable that sentence is).  Here is movie taken by the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) of a coronal mass ejection which occurred in 2001.  The sun is behind the opaque dot in the middle. Notice how the exotic radiation from the flare’s peak addles the craft’s movie making ability.

TRACE is a mission of the Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research, and part of the NASA Small Explorer program

Earth's Most Endangered Parrot, the Kakapo

Sigh, well, it is Earth Day again.  I love this planet with its nitrogen skies, mighty oceans, super volcanoes, araucaria forests, and self-inflating parrots–to name a smattering of Earth’s numberless glories.  However this particular holiday always vexes me.  From the egregious murderer who claims to have co-invented it (and acted as MC at the countercultural first Earth Day in 1970), to the oodles of smug, media-friendly pseudo advice, to the “greenwash” which huge companies churn out to appear ecologically sensitive, the whole earth day movement seems a parody of humanity’s excess and hypocrisy rather than a real attempt to curb the same.

Nevertheless (if any readers are still with me) I have an earnest Earth Day post in the form of an apology to the poor dead whale whose garbage-filled carcass drifted up onto a Seattle beach two days ago.  The 37 foot long gray whale had 50 gallons of sludge in his stomach including plastic garbage like six-pack rings, sweat pants, and grocery bags. The whale was not killed by the waste in his system, but he was stressed, emaciated, alone, and had gashes on his head from being struck by boat propellers.

I’m a plastics manufacturer, a capitalist, and a consumer (although I am only really successful at consuming) and I feel like this is probably my fault as much as it is anyone’s.  I import vinyl China-goods from across the Pacific on container ships and ship them across the continent via petrol truck.  Additionally, I purchase all sorts of plastic things and trade goods from overseas.  I’m a carnivore who eats from factory farms.  It goes without saying that I eat as many anchovies, squid, crab and tasty sea creatures as I can fit in my stomach.  Likewise, I gorge myself on out-of-season fruits and vegetables (which must be shipped).  I like America’s big crazy military and I’m a technophile to boot.  I think that the solutions to our problems can only be found through learning more and building better stuff.

Can I defend these positions?  Yes: although I cast them in a stark light in that last paragraph, I think they are defensible and mostly logical—probably the best positions currently available given global realities.  Furthermore, reader, even if you say you are eco-friendly, your own actual positions are probably fairly similar: you may not like the military or own a toy company but you pay taxes and buy plastic junk. [I exempt vegetarians—you guys really are different and I rather admire you for it.]

But are my life and my outlook a problem for the earth’s ecosystem?  Yes, I think so.  We are eating the oceans empty and filling them with rubbish.  Frogs are dying off worldwide and crazy blights are everywhere killing bats and trees and bees (and whales).  Clearly something is wrong.

I am sorry, whale, for your death.  Like all good hearted people, I love cetaceans and it makes me sad that you are gone.  I accept my blame.  But I like people too: how many of our teaming billions must go unfed or unemployed if we really try to reign in capitalism?  How much will it truly help the whales (and the wee shrimpkins on which they feed) to be a locavore or wear a hemp mumu or create layer after layer of eco authority? I don’t know, and I don’t believe the people who claim to know.  From now on,  I’ll try harder to find out which ideas are workable solutions to our environmental ills and distinguish them from those which are only more subtle forms of greenwash.

Gray Whales are curious about people.

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