Plant Trees SF Events 2013 Archive: 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018

“The acquisition of any knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good. For nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood.” -Leonardo da Vinci

1.   Herbicide safety researcher loses funding/our self-defeating values
2.   Stress makes plants nutritious
3.   Using Facebook seems to make people more miserable
4.   Birds of a feather land together; how they avoid colliding
5.   Peekaboo - new mammal discovered, and it’s a charismatic megafauna, to boot
6.   Life on the Brink; Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation
7.   LTEs on population
8.   Businesspeople would be better off if they did less and thought more
9.   Perspective on the solar system; size of planets relative to Sun and each other
10. Air traffic controller humor

1.  Researcher Who Questioned Herbicide's Safety Loses Lab Financing

San Francisco Chronicle August 14, 2013 By Paul Basken

The University of California at Berkeley cut laboratory financing this week for a professor who has complained for years about corporate-led retaliation for his association of health risks with a widely used herbicide.  "We're dead in the water," Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor of integrative biology, said Tuesday after being told by his department chairman that the account containing his laboratory funds— needed to pay for basic functional operations, such as the care of test animals—had been frozen.

The chairman, John P. Huelsenbeck, confirmed that Mr. Hayes has had his research activities "paused," though he said he couldn't provide details, and a university spokesman said he was unaware of any formal punitive action.

The episode marks the latest chapter in a long-running saga dating back to 1999, when Mr. Hayes, working on a contract for Syngenta, found the company's herbicide atrazine might be inhibiting the sexual development of male frogs.  An article published in June by Environmental Health News cited
company documents as showing that Syngenta spent several years and millions of dollars on a campaign to discredit Mr. Hayes and other scientists involved in the matter. The article says the company's efforts included contacting Duke University, which shortly afterward withdrew a job offer to Mr. Hayes.  Mr. Hayes said he believes some Berkeley officials, including Graham R. Fleming, vice chancellor for research, may have joined in efforts to penalize him out of a desire to protect a $25-million, five-year research agreement between Berkeley and Novartis, a parent company of Syngenta.  Mr. Huelsenbeck referred questions about this week's action against Mr. Hayes to Mr. Fleming. Mr. Fleming declined a request to comment, referring questions to a university spokesman, Dan Mogulof, who denied any action by Berkeley to interfere with Mr. Hayes or his work.  "Nobody has taken any action against his lab," Mr. Mogulof said.

Dispute Over Fees and Frogs
The situation is complicated by the fact that, along with his controversies involving Syngenta and atrazine, Mr. Hayes has been a longstanding critic of Berkeley's fees for laboratory care. He said the university acted to force the effective closure of his lab just hours after he sent a letter on Monday to Mr. Fleming detailing his contention that he, in particular, is charged far too much for the care of his laboratory frogs.  Mr. Hayes said in the letter that his daily fee is more than 21 times larger than that paid by a Berkeley colleague, Richard M. Harland, a professor of genetics and development, who uses the same type of frog.

But Roger A. Van Andel, director of Berkeley's Office of Laboratory Animal Care, which provides the care and sets the fees, faulted the analysis and denied any discrimination against Mr. Hayes.  The fees are based on a variety of factors, including the size of the tank needed for the type of frog, Mr. Van Andel said. Mr. Harland does use some of the species, Xenopus laevis, used by Mr. Hayes, and in those cases he pays about 45 percent more, because of an
arrangement in which Mr. Hayes uses his students to care for the animals, Mr. Van Andel said.  As for the action against Mr. Hayes, Mr. Mogulof said Mr. Fleming has no idea of what might be causing a financial shutdown of Mr. Hayes's lab, but suggested the possibility that he simply ran out of money.
Mr. Hayes denied that, and said the crisis was threatening the health of thousands of his test animals, as well as his research into questions such as the variability of the effects of estrogen on different species of frogs. Those questions could help scientists answer important questions about how potential carcinogens could affect humans, and about the possibility of wide variations in effects depending on racial differences.

Mr. Huelsenbeck said he could not comment on the possibility of retaliation involving Syngenta and atrazine, but expressed sympathy for Mr. Hayes and his concerns about the costs of animal care at Berkeley.  "The situation is complicated," he said. "Personally, I feel it is a tragedy that his program is paused."  (available to SF Chronicle subscribers only)


Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants by Nicholas Harberd

If we were asked to work out how a computer works, most of us would make very little progress in 1,000 years. Yet even the simplest living creatures are at least 1,000 times more complicated than any computer, and they come without instruction manuals. Biology, the art of finding out how living creatures function, is very, very hard indeed. The wisest scientists are the humblest and are first to acknowledge, as Socrates did, that the more we know the more the mystery increases. 

Nicholas Harberd is of the wise kind.... helping to work out how plants control their growth and reproduction in the face of life's vicissitudes. ...What matters is not the detail but the principle: how even the biggest ideas of science are really inferences, based on tiny observations that no one but a scientist would make; and those ideas in turn are then tested by very simple experiments (such as raising a lot of plants, seriously assaulting them, and then seeing how many are short or tall). Yet the simplicity is only conceptual: the practicalities of experiment are endlessly exacting. In the end, if the work is successful, mechanisms are revealed that on the one hand tend to be enormously complicated but are also exquisite: if they were any simpler, they would not work. Thus, study of the humblest organisms humbles us; or at least, humility is the only sensible response. 

...Making better crops is a necessary and noble pursuit - and as the climate changes, we will need a lot more, often novel, kinds, and quickly. But in these vile times the best ambitions are corrupted so that now nothing is deemed worthwhile unless it makes rich people richer and powerful governments* more powerful. Thus, even here, in the study of wayside weeds, we see both the power and the ambivalence of science. 

Review in Guardian Weekly 21 April 2006 

*And, I would add, powerful universities.  JS								


2.  Stress makes plants nutritious

Antioxidant vitamins, flavonoids and many other beneficial trace nutrients in fruits and veggies help defend plants from pests—and sometimes even the botanical equivalent of sunburn.

…(a research team) reported that plants’ varying capacity to generate these compounds may explain why certain varieties of nectarines, tomatoes and spinach offer diners a richer source of micronutrients.

The team’s data also suggest an explanation for why organically farmed produce tends to make substantially more of these nutritious compounds than conventionally farmed produce.  Relying on potent fertilizers and pest-control measures provides conventionally grown produce a relatively cushy life, diminishing the need to waste energy on defenses.

Selecting produce that is especially rich in stress-triggered micronutrients, including organics in some cases, might improve the nutrition of people who don’t get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day—which is most people.

Science News extract 14 March 2009

Facebook is bad for you

Get a life!

Using the social network seems to make people more miserable

Aug 17th 2013 The Economist

THOSE who have resisted the urge to join Facebook will surely feel vindicated when they read the latest research. A study just published by the Public Library of Science, conducted by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Philippe Verduyn of Leuven University in Belgium, has shown that the more someone uses Facebook, the less satisfied he is with life.

Past investigations have found that using Facebook is associated with jealousy, social tension, isolation and depression. But these studies have all been “cross-sectional”—in other words, snapshots in time. As such, they risk confusing correlation with causation: perhaps those who spend more time on social media are more prone to negative emotions in the first place. The study conducted by Dr Kross and Dr Verduyn is the first to follow Facebook users for an extended period, to track how their emotions change.

The researchers recruited 82 Facebookers for their study. These volunteers, in their late teens or early 20s, agreed to have their Facebook activity observed for two weeks and to report, five times a day, on their state of mind and their direct social contacts (phone calls and meetings in person with other people). These reports were prompted by text messages, sent between 10am and midnight, asking them to complete a short questionnaire.

When the researchers analysed the results, they found that the more a volunteer used Facebook in the period between two questionnaires, the worse he reported feeling the next time he filled in a questionnaire. Volunteers were also asked to rate their satisfaction with life at the start and the end of the study. Those who used Facebook a lot were more likely to report a decline in satisfaction than those who visited the site infrequently. In contrast, there was a positive association between the amount of direct social contact a volunteer had and how positive he felt. In other words, the more volunteers socialised in the real world, the more positive they reported feeling the next time they filled in the questionnaire.

A volunteer’s sex had no influence on these findings; nor did the size of his (or her) social network, his stated motivation for using Facebook, his level of loneliness or depression or his self-esteem. Dr Kross and Dr Verduyn therefore conclude that, rather than enhancing well-being, Facebook undermines it.

Their study does not tease out why socialising on Facebook has a different effect from socialising in person. But an earlier investigation, conducted by social scientists at Humboldt University and Darmstadt’s Technical University, both in Germany, may have found the root cause. These researchers, who presented their findings at a conference in Leipzig in February, surveyed 584 users of Facebook aged mostly in their 20s. They found that the most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy. Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed. Real-life encounters, by contrast, are more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).

What neither study proves is whether all this is true only for younger users of Facebook. Older ones may be more mellow, and thus less begrudging of their friends’ successes, counterfeit or real. Maybe.

Birds of a feather land together

How flocking birds avoid colliding when they touch down

Aug 17th 2013 The Economist

LANDINGS are the most perilous parts of flying. Airline pilots have to practise hundreds before they can carry passengers. Even then, they have co-pilots, air-traffic controllers and all sorts of gadgetry to help them. And they do it one plane at a time, on clearly marked runways. Now imagine swarms of aircraft all trying to land together on a small stretch of water with no assistance and no gizmos. The result would surely be disastrous. Waterfowl, however, frequently land in groups on featureless bodies of water, yet they rarely collide. So how do they manage it?

To find out, Hynek Burda, of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, and his team of 11 zoologists armed themselves with maps, binoculars, compasses and anemometers. With these they observed the landings of nearly 15,000 birds of 14 species belonging to 3,338 flocks scattered across eight countries over the course of a year. The upshot of this ornithological marathon, published in Frontiers in Zoology, was a discovery remarkable in its simplicity: no matter from which direction a flock of birds approaches a body of standing water, its members usually land on it in alignment with the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field.

That birds have a magnetic sense is well known. It is, for example, one of the tools that allows long-distance migration. And Dr Burda’s suspicion that this sense may be involved in collision-avoidance explains why the team carried compasses. So the result was not a total surprise. But besides confirming their hypothesis, he and his colleagues also wanted to know exactly how birds do it.

The latest research suggests that birds detect magnetic fields in two ways. One relies on small pieces of magnetite (a magnetic iron oxide) lodged in their beaks, or inner ears, or both. The other employs a magnetism-sensitive chemical reaction in their eyes, allowing them to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field, probably as bright and dark spots superimposed on their visual fields, rather like the head-up display viewed by a fighter pilot. As a bird moves its head, the spots would shift position, allowing it to steer due north or south. More subtly, they might provide a reference independent of the local terrain from which to calibrate the optimal angle of descent. For this reason, Dr Burda suspected, the eyes would have it over the beak or the ears as the magnetic sense of choice during landing. He and his colleagues therefore looked at sequential photographs of 91 mallard ducks landing, and measured the angles of the birds’ heads relative to the horizon.

If collision-avoidance were based on normal visual cues, they reasoned, the ducks would sometimes look around to see where their neighbours were. Instead, every bird kept gazing forwards in exactly the same direction (due magnetic north or south), during all four phases of a landing: approaching with wings up; approaching with wings down to act as air-brakes; gearing (ornithologist-speak for popping out their landing gear, ie, their feet); and touchdown. But the ducks also held their heads at a constant angle to the horizon, which would not be necessary if they were merely using the spots to steer ahead. It would be important, though, if the spots also regulated their angle of approach.

The immobility of a mallard’s head when it is landing does not prove it is using its magnetic vision to steer, but it is certainly consistent with the idea. At the least, the birds’ agreement to land facing north or south makes collisions unlikely. If their magnetic sense also helps them all descend at the same angle, that would make the chance of them bumping into each other almost zero. How that angle is agreed on has yet to be determined. But even when it is, the most intrepid of human pilots are still unlikely to give it a try.

A new mammal


Aug 17th 2013 The Economist

Nomenclature can be misleading. Taxonomically, the olinguito, a mammal new to science that lives in the forests of South America, belongs to the Carnivora. But like that more famous non-carnivorous carnivore, the giant panda, it eats plants. It was discovered by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, led by Kristofer Helgen, who were prompted to search the forests of Ecuador for it on the basis of some mislabelled museum specimens of a group called the olingos, which seemed in fact to come from no known species. The olinguito, formally reported this week in ZooKeys, weighs a kilogram, is nocturnal, lives mainly on fruit, and is, as the picture shows, almost terminally cute.


6.  Life on the Brink; Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation
	ed. by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist

"Like population and consumption, equity issues and environmental issues are conjoined twins.  So we hope you'll read Life on the Brink to help sort out these matters."  From forward by Paul and Anne Ehrlich

Some of the leading voices in the American environmental movement show how population growth is a major force behind our most serious ecological problems, including global climate change, food and water shortages, and the mass extinction of Earth's species.  Contributors honestly explore difficult moral and political issues, including abortion, immigration, and limits to growth, arguing that we must humanely reduce human numbers in order to preserve wild nature and build a vibrant human future.


7.  Letters to the Editor - From the April 12, 2010 issue of High Country News 

It's the population, stupid -- part I

Thanks for Charles Bowden's grim but clear-eyed view of events along the border and Jonathan Thompson's editorial relating them to too many people and too much consumption (HCN, 3/1/10). There's no doubt that our addiction to consumption creates social and environmental costs, but I have a quibble regarding Thompson's statement that it is "the most important variable" behind environmental impacts. Both individual consumption and the number of consumers matter, a lot. In fact, the "beautiful, and sometimes deadly, precision" that characterizes the arithmetic of population growth tells us exactly how long it will take for population growth to erase any increased efficiency that we gain by living more lightly on the land. Population growth, like compound interest, feeds on itself; if the growth (or interest) rate is N percent per year, it takes 0.7/N years for the number of population units to double. Put another way: The U.S. population is now doubling in size in about 40 years, so if every one of us miraculously and instantly changes our lifestyle to halve our use of fuel, electricity, food and land, those gains will be erased by population growth by 2050.

Peter Waser
Lafayette, Indiana

It's the population, stupid -- part II

I am sorry that Charles Bowden, in "The War Next Door," does not mention Mexico's population growth among the causes of Mexican migration into the United States). It is, he says, "a natural shift of a species."  Perhaps, but it is also a case of the mushrooming of a people. Since I was born in 1932, the population of Mexico has multiplied by more than six times, from 17 million to an estimated 111 million last year. In recent decades, the fertility rate of Mexican women has sharply declined, and the country's population may stop growing by the middle of this century. Meanwhile, though, the population explosion in recent decades and the failure of the Mexican economy to provide enough jobs has caused millions to seek a better life on this side of the border. The factors Bowden mentions, like the destruction of peasant agriculture and the corruption of the Mexican state, are secondary to -- and to some extent may, in my view, result from -- the country's huge increase in population.

Peter Bridges
Arlington, Virginia

The harsh truths of Bowden

Charles Bowden is a wonderful, as well as provocative, writer. He has a way of serving up the truth so it slaps you in the face. I'm not sure any magazine but High Country News would have the guts to print this story as is.

Maybe you would be willing to reprint something else Bowden wrote, which nobody else seems to be able to do.

Bowden often writes soaring words in praise of the Southwest's natural beauty, but he doesn't mince words when it comes to explaining how the Colorado Plateau was largely emptied of wildlife 160 years ago. As a freelance author of several magazine articles on visiting remote areas in Utah and Arizona, I have tried to include a historic excerpt from his Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau in each, only to see it removed each time. It concerns actions supervised by the prominent Mormon John D. Lee, and I'm not talking about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Sometimes truth is ugly:

"In 1848, almost a decade before (Lee's) actions at Mountain Meadows, he supervises a hunt suggested by Brigham Young to rid the area of wolves, wild cats, skunks, minks, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, eagles, crows, ravens, and hawks. Two teams of about one hundred men each set out to slaughter with a point system agreed upon to determine the champion. Between fourteen and fifteen thousand animals are killed with Lee himself accounting for 2,043 'skelps.' "

Looking back, although repulsed, I understand why these settlers behaved as they did. Attempting to stay alive in a harsh landscape, they didn't want to have to deal with any predators. They also wanted to quickly populate and claim their land, so polygamy, large families, and planned settlements were the most efficient ways to do that. Something about Bowden's writing, though, cuts through it all and lets you see it as it is -- same with this article on Mexico.

Crista Worthy
Los Angeles, California

LTE, Science News 11/7/09
Population issues
Many kudos to David Attenborough (“Scientific Observations,” SN: 11/7/09, p. 4) for speaking out about the overpopulation crisis, which is far more dangerous, threatening and immediate than global warming or which nation has nuclear weapons. No world leader has it as an urgent priority, as far as I know. We are like people with a wild elephant in the living room that we choose not to notice.
Ken McMillan, St. Augustine, Fla.

In praise of laziness

Businesspeople would be better off if they did less and thought more

Aug 17th 2013 The Economist

THERE is a never-ending supply of business gurus telling us how we can, and must, do more. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “Lean In” if they want to get ahead. John Bernard offers breathless advice on conducting “Business at the Speed of Now”. Michael Port tells salesmen how to “Book Yourself Solid”. And in case you thought you might be able to grab a few moments to yourself, Keith Ferrazzi warns that you must “Never Eat Alone”.
Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much—too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.

This activity is making it harder to focus on real work as opposed to make-work. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when they are confronted with a flurry of unpredictable demands. In 2012 Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and two colleagues deprived 13 people in the IT business of e-mail for five days and studied them intensively. They found that people without it concentrated on tasks for longer and experienced less stress.

It is high time that we tried a different strategy—not “leaning in” but “leaning back”. There is a distinguished history of leadership thinking in the lean-back tradition. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of “masterful inactivity”. Herbert Asquith embraced a policy of “wait and see” when he had the job. Ronald Reagan also believed in not overdoing things: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody,” he said, “but I figure, why take the chance?”. This tradition has been buried in a morass of meetings and messages. We need to revive it before we schedule ourselves to death.

The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers—the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy. In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.” Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.

Managers themselves could benefit. Those at the top are best employed thinking about strategy rather than operations—about whether the company is doing the right thing rather than whether it is sticking to its plans. When he was boss of General Electric, Jack Welch used to spend an hour a day in what he called “looking out of the window time”. When he was in charge of Microsoft Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage. Jim Collins, of “Good to Great” fame, advises all bosses to keep a “stop doing list”. Is there a meeting you can cancel? Or a dinner you can avoid?

Less is more—more or less

Junior managers would do well to follow the same advice. In “Do Nothing”, one of the few business books to grapple with the problem of over-management, Keith Murnighan of the Kellogg School of Management argues that the best managers focus their attention on establishing the right rules—recruiting the right people and establishing the right incentives—and then get out of the way. He quotes a story about Eastman Kodak in its glory days. A corporate reorganisation left a small division out in the cold—without a leader or a reporting line to headquarters. The head office only rediscovered the division when it received a note from a customer congratulating the unit on its work.

Doing nothing may be going too far. Managers play an important role in co-ordinating complicated activities and disciplining slackers. And some creative people would never finish anything if they were left to their own devices. But there is certainly a case for doing a lot less—for rationing e-mail, cutting back on meetings and getting rid of a few overzealous bosses. Leaning in has been producing negative returns for some time now. It is time to try the far more radical strategy of leaning back.


9.  Perspective on the solar system

On Aug 18, 2013, at 12:44 PM, Ted Kipping wrote:

JS - Ted:  This puts into pictures the statistic that Jupiter and Saturn comprise 92% of the solar system (excluding the Sun).

 O'Hare Approach Control to a 747: "United 329 heavy, your traffic is a Fokker, one o'clock, three miles, Eastbound."
 United 329: "Approach, I've always wanted to say this...I've got the little Fokker in sight."


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