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pau-brasil-d9959a0ef9eb32668ba2364f97cfac06-1024-1024

Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

Planta_da_Restituição_da_BAHIA,_por_João_Teixeira_Albernaz

The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

picmonkey-collage_brazilwood

Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

amazon-rainforest-home-compressor

Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

bee

Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders:  our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world.  One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems.  A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers.  There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees.  Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish.  By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.

Eco what?  Yeah, that's great now run along.

Eco what? Yeah, that’s great now run along.

Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn.  The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees.  The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees.   You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.

Thanks, bees!

Thanks, bees!

The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species.  This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct).  All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind.  The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.

Hmm...

Hmm…

What?  Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book?  Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions.  Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops?  What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up?  What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated?  Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish.  Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.

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In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations.  The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid.  The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate.  But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?

turbo-movie-poster

It’s movie time here at Ferrebeekeeper! Tonight we are reviewing the DreamWorks animated children’s film “Turbo” which concerns Theo, a humble snail who lives in a garden in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the fact that snails are renowned for being slow and cautious, Theo dreams of blazing speed and obsessively follows Indy Car racing (particularly idolizing the French Canadian champion, Guy Gagné, whose legendary racing prowess is matched by an oversized personality).

 

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

The humdrum reality of Theo’s slow-paced life as a lowly “worker” in a vegetable garden seems to preclude him from following his dreams of speedway glory…but after he is cast out of snail society he undergoes a fateful magical (?) transformation and is reborn as Turbo, a supercharged snail capable of blazing speed. Will Turbo be able to find a way into the human world of high speed car racing? Can he make it to Indianapolis and compete in the big race? Could he even maybe win? People who have ever seen a children’s movie may somehow anticipate the answers to these burning questions (and guess that the French Canadian Gagné is less likable than he first seems), but I will try not to spoil the movie for the one person who is somehow both reader of my blog and looking forward to watching a children’s movie which came out last July.

 

(Dreamworks)

(Dreamworks)

In fact devoted readers may be somewhat surprised to find this blog reviewing a children’s movie–or indeed any movie—since the cinematic art has barely been featured here at all; yet Ferrebeekeeper is deeply concerned with mollusks, and Theo/Turbo is unique in being the mollusk hero of a major Hollywood motion picture (and a spinoff television show on Netflix). Additionally, although I found the movie to be a typical work of rags-to-riches whimsy for children, I enjoyed its message about the narrow and chancy ladders to fame and riches which exist for the little guy. Turbo finds a Chicano taco-shop worker who helps the snail find social media fame (which in turn allows him to pursue further ambitions). The crazy world of internet celebrity is the real turbo-boost which elevates the tiny abject creature to the rarified realms of status and importance. It seems significant that when Theo transforms to Turbo he is shown bouncing through the terrifying and incomprehensible labyrinth of a high tech machine he does not understand at all.

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah...

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah…

The movie is most touching when it features the sundry immigrant shopkeepers who inhabit a run down strip mall where they dream simply of having customers. The filmmakers add some colorful urban Angelino snails (tricked out with customized shells) to give the movie some hip-hop “cred”, but it is obviously a movie about trying to compete in a world where the real contenders are playing in a vastly different league. The only aspect of mollusk existence which seemed true to life was the ever-present fear of being crushed or gobbled up (since Turbo and his snail friends are continuously and realistically threatened with being smashed by monopolistic giants and high speed machines).

Aaaaagh!

Aaaaagh!

I love animated movies and so I am giving Turbo a (very generous) rating of 3.5 shells out of a possible 5. Although the movie was colorful, well animated, and fun, it was much less involved with the bizarre and amazing world of mollusks than it might have been. It was almost as though the snail was a whimsical stand-in for omnipresent economic concerns about globalization. Also the 3D stuff did not work at all. Hollywood, stop featuring 3D! It is a horrible horrible feature which everyone hates!

turbo

A Chalet in Davos

A Chalet in Davos

The World Economic Forum at Davos (where the planet’s richest and most powerful people meet to hobnob about the affairs of humankind) has come and gone.  Somehow Ferrebeekeeper’s invitation got lost in the mail–so I missed this year’s conference, but all of the talking heads from the media seem to agree that the event was notable for its extremely dramatic and noticeable LACK of new ideas.  Let’s take a page from upper management and “bulletpoint” the important structural analytics coming out of this year’s Davos Forum:  then we can see if we can take these broad trends and come up with some actual ideas to move humankind forward from the great recession and the vast economic hollowing out which followed.

Um...looks fun?

Um…looks fun?

OK, so according to “The Economist”, the watchwords of the conference were “economic inequality”.  The world economy as a whole actually seems to be growing quite nicely, but generally speaking, only the people in charge are realizing these gains while the vast majority of humankind is unemployed or stuck with stagnant wages.  It is ironic that the political and financial elites are worried about this, since they are the ones making it happen (and are reaping the direct benefits) but large scale changes are sometimes hard to perceive—and even harder to affect.   The answers as to why the world is splitting into a hyper-wealthy elite and a poor…um…everyone else seem to boil down to:

  • Computers and automation are becoming exponentially more powerful and useful
  • Technology is also becoming cheaper
  • A second wave of industrialization is seeing middle class jobs replaced by robots and software (working class manufacturing jobs are already largely gone and only the most servile “entry-level” jobs remain)
  • Capital is becoming even more important—labor is becoming even more irrelevant
  • People with capital own the newly efficient means of production with which they make even more capital. Repeat the cycle….

The elites at Davos noted these changes, but had only superficial answers (like slightly raising the minimum wage).  Privately, economists and bankers worried that regulatory backlash might threaten some of the gross economic gains, but since, the political elite are allied with the interests of the so-called 1% this is a limited problem.  That seems to be about as far as anyone got in analyzing the world’s economy.

income-inequality

OK, we have summarized the conclusions coming out of Davos, what now?  Frankly, I tend to think the rich/powerful people are kidding themselves if they think they are immune to the true impact of these sweeping changes.  Assembling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and issuing inhuman orders are things which I am extremely, extremely bad at…so maybe I am in no position to talk…but it seems like computers would be even better than Russian oligarchs, government bureaucrats, or Wall Street titans at managing the world.  During the first wave of industrialization, the landed aristocracy looked down their lorgnettes at factories, joint-stock companies, and the changing social dynamic. Anyone watching Downton Abbey knows how this worked out (spoiler: only the very savviest and luckiest aristocrats could stay important and solvent for long during the tumultuous market and political changes).  Today Carlos Slim may own everyone in Mexico, but his great granddaughters might well be humble dental hygenists like everyone else.  Indeed, some people are already talking about creating computer software to run companies with true efficiency.  These deathless hyper-effective algorithms would initially serve the elite, but I suspect that we would all quickly become their servants (assuming that we are not already).

The Future?

The Future?

Some people believe that we will soon move toward a world where individual and obviously human-crafted objects will take on a new importance: the future will all be about personalized nannies and Etsy (a website where you can buy exquisitely hand-crafted objects).  I’m extremely good at making things, and I don’t think this will happen at all.  The majority of people are worse than ever at ascertaining what is beautiful and worthwhile (just look at the abominable derivative garbage which makes up the fine art market).  Plus do we really want supecomputers to run the world while we make quilts, fancy cakes, wooden gnomes, and lovely saltshakers for each other?  I don’t even want that and I can make amazing cakes, gnomes, and saltshakers….

The Future?

The Future?

My answer, as always, lies above.  Earth seems like everything to us, but it is microscopic in the vastness of space.  Only beyond our atmosphere can humankind find the necessary raw materials, the boundless wells of energy, and, well, the space to spread our wings (not to mention the fact that, if we stay here, we will kill ourselves with our collective appetite—assuming the bozos at Davos don’t kill us all off first).

The Future!

The Future!

In conclusion we should be working much harder at aerospace, nuclear engineering, materials, and bio-innovation. What our leaders and betters should be working on is a way to make the wealth of all the world useful for discovering effective new atomic energy sources, building new materials necessary for space elevators and space habitats (like my cherished Venus colony). New incentives and new regulations will be necessary.  It worries me that none of the talk from Davos centers on how technology can truly help humankind (instead it seemed like rich people were worried about the envy of the poor). Maybe somebody can help me write a computer algorithm about space pioneering?

The Curiosity Lander as Photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars!  The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.

Artist’s Conception of Curiosity Approaching Mars

The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle.  A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction.  The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer.  It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster!  If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).

Artist’s Conception of the Curiosity Rover Investigating a Rock Surface

The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely:  now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.

Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment.  Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal.  Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research).  To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.

Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals.  Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not.  That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils).  Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars.  The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries.  China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).

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