Tag Archives: Nature

Hostage Drama

Today’s post comes from Dr. Larry Kyle of Genway, the supermarket for genetically engineered foods.

Let’s talk about Bamboo!

I don’t like it. Once it grows beyond the “shoots” stage, it’s impossible to eat. Most people I know don’t care for it as curtains for flooring either. So I could get through a typical day without thinking very much about bamboo, except for one thing. Bamboo is a major, major food for pandas. And we just heard yesterday that climate change could destroy bamboo forests and leave the already endangered pandas with nothing to eat.

That’s why desperate authorities begged me to take their money to apply Genway’s unique but strangely successful approach of random and unsupervised experimentation to the potential panda problem by creating a bamboo variation that can grow at any temperature.

Yes, they begged me to save these charming creatures from the ravages of climate change and starvation.

But I refused!

I did it for three reasons.

  1. ¬†Pandas have no money and can’t shop at Genway, so creating a new food for them is a waste of my time.
  2. We don’t do unsupervised experimentation using other people’s money, because it quickly becomes un-unsupervised.
  3.  Fixing bamboo so it can grow in spite of climate change will not solve the problem.

Americans need to do less driving. That’s the quickest way to reduce greenhouse gasses. But changing that habit will be very difficult, and I’m afraid science can solve it as quickly as intimidation can. That’s why I would like to suggest that food companies and political leaders join together to take another food hostage until climate change is stopped and the pandas are saved in a proper and sustainable way.

My suggestion – French Fries.

Yes, I know it’s a cold-hearted approach. But only when there is a terrifying personal cost will we even begin to consider not taking the car. Something dear has to hang in the balance. Think about it. The complete loss of French Fries would be emotionally devastating. And it would be a great step forward in the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

In other words, win-win, except for the political penalty to whomever proposed it and became its champion.

President Obama, are you listening? You’ve just been re-elected and you can’t run again. There is political capital in the bank and you’re looking for something significant to cement your legacy. You’ve already done the politically impossible by passing “Obamacare”. You’ve done something visceral by getting Bin Laden. Why not finish with something emotional and sweet.

How does “He Saved The Pandas (and the Earth)” sound as a legacy?

It’s simple. Take French Fries hostage. As the bamboo forests decline, ration the fried potatoes. Forge a connection between our favorite food, and their favorite food. Force America to change its ways and the pandas will live!

This is certainly a departure for Dr. Kyle, who would normally avoid politics and stick to science. But perhaps he has a point – some problems can’t be solved in the lab.

Driving or French Fries. Which is more important, and why?

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John Barleycorn Must DNA

Barley made the news yesterday, in part thanks to a Minnesota scientist. Professor Gary Muehlbauer of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota and a cadre of international researchers managed to sequence the genome for barley, said to be “one of the world’s most important and genetically complex cereal crops“. Results were published in the journal Nature. Apparently this work could lead to higher barley yields, better resistance to pests, and enhanced nutritional value. It may also help barley adapt to the stresses of climate change.

You know what that means – we can trash the environment and still have beer!

Congratulations to the researchers. A round for all my genome sequencing friends! It made me think of this old song about barley and its role in the beer and whiskey making process. Sung here by Martin Carthy.

The scientists have done their best
employing all their means
They found out, using every test,
John Barleycorn has genes!

They chopped him up so very small
and put him on display.
Tore him apart to see it all
and mapped his DNA.

If you were him by now you’d know
the sum of all your parts.
What makes you wilt. What helps you grow.
The compounds in your farts.

The sequence tells us who he is,
of what he is composed.
His elements, his spark, his fizz.
John Barleycorn, exposed.

Would you want to have a map of your DNA?

Riding the Manatee

Fans of animal protection are hoping a Florida woman will be punished for manatee harassment. Just because a passing animal is big and slow, you are not automatically entitled to climb on. That’s a good thing to keep in mind next time you’re ambling around the State Fair.

The protected status of manatees is well known in Florida, where the Manatee Sanctuary Acts says: “It is unlawful for any person at any time, by any means, or in any manner intentionally or negligently to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb or attempt to molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.”

Legal scholars – what’s the difference between “annoy” and the other three infractions – “molest”, “harass” and “disturb”? Is it true that attempted annoyance is not illegal? Where is that fine line between attempting to annoy the manatee, and actually annoying her?

Perhaps it all comes down to the look the creature gives you as you take your ukulele out of its case.

Photo: Pinellas County Sheriff

Enforcement seems to be a problem, though. Too many people and manatees in the same areas lead to plentiful interactions, though few, if any, are initiated by the manatee. I guess they’re just not that turned on by being seen with us. It is a serious problem that can only truly be solved when people change their attitudes and expectations regarding wildlife.

The woman in the picture, Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez, age 52, turned herself in to authorities after a series of images of the incident made the rounds on the Internet. She could face 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. That would be expensive and unpleasant and almost as bad as having your unflattering bathing suit photo distributed worldwide through countless blogs and news sources.

That said, it can be fun and life-enhancing to appropriately connect with animals, large and small.

Tell us an animal interaction story.

Colorful Neighbors

The sudden drop in temperature and uptick in wind speed around the Twin Cities area means this golden colored maple tree right outside our living room window is about to lose all its festive autumn plumage. Too bad, that. On recent gray afternoons, it has kept some cheerful brightness going – very nearly a compact, backyard version of the Sun with it’s ability to bring some welcome energy into the house.

I’m guessing within a few days we’ll have nothing but bare sticks outside the window.

Still, there’s some compensation for the emptiness of the winter months in all the raucous color we’re getting today. In much in the same way, the Real Sun will someday (5 billion years) burn up all its hydrogen and turn into a colorful dying thing very much like the creepy cat-like space eyeball photographed this week by NASA. This image represents what remains of a star very much like our own, after the thrill is gone. It’s a troubling cosmic routine with a brilliant conclusion. Too bad we won’t be able to appreciate it fully.

Cheerful thoughts, eh? Sounds like somebody’s been feeling the weight of years on his birthday! But all of this full-of-life to bleak-landscape change is entirely predictable and impossible to stop, so why not quit moping and enjoy the show while it’s still going on?

Where do you go to enjoy fall color?

A Look Behind the Curtain

My father has always been the kind of guy who wants to know how things work. When I was growing up I recognized the basement as a place where weird tools were kept and mysterious electronic boxes hummed in the dark. The corners were packed with various gadgets and implements that my mother called “junk”. Whatever purpose had caused them to be brought into the house, it was long forgotten. The best policy for a kid was not to touch things unless directed to do so. But if you wanted to kill a few hours, all you had to do was ask “what’s that”? Explanations were free and complete.

Through that question-and-suffer process I discovered I don’t have the necessary patience to know very much about anything. That’s why I went into the uninformed commentary business – we bloggers and pundits only have to figure out a plausible angle to get our work done.

And really, it doesn’t have to be all that plausible.

Thank goodness there are scientific researchers who are willing to pay closer attention to stuff, especially the debris collecting in the margins. Just yesterday a series of papers were published that upended what we’ve thought for years about how human traits are controlled.

To quote the New York Times story:

“The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as ‘junk’ but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave.”

And by “behave,” we mean “badly”. Complex diseases appear to be influenced by the throwing of hundreds of these gene switches. All that remains is to figure out which levers cause which things to happen. Not a simple task by any measure, but this work by hundreds of researchers in dozens of labs around the globe will have amazing and long lasting scientific and medical effects.

All because they had the patience to investigate the junk in the corner.

When has a closer look paid dividends?

Quicksand Alert!

This weekend’s post comes from Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty.

At ease, civillians!

Being at ease is one of your best lines of defense against trouble of every sort.
But another important characteristic is being constantly aware of your surroundings. You may think you are standing on solid ground, but appearances can be deceptive. I was quite alarmed to see this warning from experts along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the areas hardest hit by the relentless drought and low water levels.


I thought quicksand only happened in Hollywood movies that take place in a jungle or any place wet and dark. But no! Quicksand is real and it can happen along a great midwestern river. There is much advice available about how to react when you’re in quicksand, but you’d better not wait until then to look it up. The sensation of slowly sinking into a mushy combination of dirt and flowing water tends to dull even the best research skills.

My favorite bit of advice starts with this simple strategy:

Avoid quicksand.

That’s easier said than done. Quicksand is so sneaky, you’re caught before you realize it. And though (in the movies) there are always other people nearby, they will not help you because they are either being chased by cannibals or they secretly wish you dead, or both.

That clip illustrates another very important reason to avoid getting caught in quicksand – you can become quite unattractive very quickly when you are being drawn into a bottomless pool of unforgiving muck.

The topic itself is quite dangerous. I discovered at least one person on You Tube who started watching and collecting quicksand videos and got sucked in! About the time you get to video number 28 you realize you are helpless and are going to sit there watching these things until you are dead.

Since Mississippi River sandbars can look solid while they hide a disastrous molten sub-strata, the most obvious way to insure your safety is to never, ever, walk on sand of any kind. I realize this means you must give up the beach, but some pleasures are worth the sacrifice if it means you will never have to call out to your companions that you have blundered into QUICKSAND!

Ever feel stuck?

The Song of Hotter Water

Lake Superior, the coldest of the Great Lakes, is warmer right now than many old timers can remember at the end of July. And it may set a record for high surface temperature yet this year.

Which turns tradition on its head.

But one thing remains the same. Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” is still the easiest poem on Earth to parody.

By the shores of Gitchee Gummi
By the boiling big sea water
Wrapped in towels there stood the bathers
Wrapped so not to moon the neighbors

There to feel the heat of sauna
There to feel the water bubble
In the Summer of the hotness
Came they there to sweat together

Watched they as the waves came crashing
Crashing on the rocks of Tofte
Black rocks baking in the sunlight
Water turns to steam at contact

Clouds of steam like in a sauna
Ancient steamy wood enclosure
by the lake it sits, neglected
With an A/C in the window

Father Nature pours his waters
on the rocks and steam arises
Now the Lake itself so hot
that bathers cannot breathe beside it

Now they’ve cooked themselves completely
Now they look for cooling waters
Waters right for skinny dipping
What the Lake once gave them freely

Gitchee Gummi, boiling cauldron
is the sauna now, a devil!
So the bathers run instead
inside where it is air conditioned

Shrieking as their skin is shocked
by air from Kenmore in the window
Shrieking as they did before
when jumping in the lake of yore.

Will this be the hottest summer ever?