February 6th, 2013

how fungi saved the world

There was apparently a time in our planet’s history when plants evolved into trees (in order to be able to grow taller while still supporting themselves structurally) but there was no type of fungi yet evolved that could break down the trees when they died. So for a long period trees just piled up. This interesting BBC documentary on decay explains the Carboniferous period. (via reddit)

June 7th, 2012

bacteria born boots

English designer Suzanne Lee is working with a biodegradable leather-like material she grows herself in a bathtub, using bacteria, yeast and green tea. BBC Video.

See her website biocouture.co.uk

February 5th, 2011

some girls are more important than other girls’ mothers

It’s nice to think that there are still people living in such mystery and wonder. And that there are other people so keen on preserving that.

Posted in Green, Video | No Comments »
January 17th, 2011

vulnerable planet

August 25th, 2010

popping e’s

One BBC reporter spent the day eating as many e-number filled (e-numerous?) foods as possible in order to make a point about the widespread fears attached to their consumption.

By the end of the day I felt like a balloon of slurry on the verge of bursting. I’d eaten 50 different E numbers, but have I eaten enough to poison myself?

No, said my GP, Dr Jonty Heaversedge, who explained that the basic toxicology principle for safe consumption was a 100-fold safety margin.

Scientists work out how much of any E number an animal can eat on a daily basis before having any ill effects, divide that by 10 (in case humans are more sensitive than animals) and then divide by 10 again, just to be safe.

He concluded that one shouldn’t discriminate against food that contains E-numbers:

Are these actually bad for you? Words like “preservative”, “emulsifier” and “stabiliser” sound bizarre and scary for something you put in your mouth. But lemon juice is an antioxidant preservative, also known as E330 (citric acid), egg yolk is emulsifier E322 (lecithin) when added to oil to make mayonnaise, and stabilisers include E460, or cellulose, which comes straight from plants.

One commenter on the BBC website notes:

And E300 is vitamin C! Most people think Es is a classification system for chemicals instead of a multi-language labelling scheme.

All the same, I understand why people are hesitant to eat food whose ingredients are obfuscated with code.

The Day I Ate As Many E-Numbers As Possible @ BBC News. (Photo by Flickr user RuneT)

August 10th, 2010


A poster by the city of Muenster in Germany presenting a visual argument for more efficient transport solutions (i.e. bus or bike vs. car). Click image to enlarge.

Via John Lunney‘s blog.

August 7th, 2010

challenge the dogma

Maverick scientist James Lovelock on his approach to science.

His wikipedia page has a summary of his rather compelling argument for pro-nuclear environmentalism. He is probably most famous for his Gaia hypothesis.

July 22nd, 2010

Rush hour, Utrecht.

There are more bikes, busses and trams than private automobiles! It’s almost balletic. (via paigeandmodern).

Posted in Green, Ha!, Video | No Comments »
May 1st, 2010

“big farma” and big ignorance

A. A. Gill @ The Times:

The industrial processes we complain about are what first attracted Victorian housewives. Packet food was sterile, controlled and predictable. The joy of branded ingredients was in their consistency and purity. You see that in all the early advertisements that emphasise the safety of ingredients, that they could be offered to infants and invalids.

Anyone who has travelled to India knows that vomiting, diarrhoea, fevers and worse are constant concerns. That’s what eating everywhere was like before processed food. The fact that we so completely trust the volume and ingredients in packets of food is a great thing; the fact that we can feed 60m people three times a day without poisoning them is an even greater thing and is the triumph of the past century.

Read the full article: School trips to the slaughterhouse.

March 25th, 2010

Holy recycling, Batman! Here come Hydrocyclone and the Ragger

I’ve sometimes wondered how recycling plants deal with unwanted materials (like staples in magazines, plastic windows in envelopes, etc) mixed up with the recyclables. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to wonder this; Slate magazine has an article explaining the rather ingenious processes involved in pulping paper for recyling.

When bales of sorted paper arrive at a mill, they’re fed into a huge, blenderlike contraption along with water and chemicals. The resulting pulp then goes through a number of purification steps. First, a long chain called a ragger is lowered into the swirling mixture; things like twine and wire wrap around the chain and get pulled out. A metal screen at the bottom of the pulper picks out more contaminants—this should be when your plastic window fragments are removed. Next, the slurry is spun around in a cone-shaped hydrocyclone—which separates out higher-density items like stones and bits of metal (like staples)—and then it’s screened again through a finer mesh. Finally, if the pulp is being made into high-quality product like white office paper, air bubbles and detergents are pumped in to wash away unwanted ink particles.

The answers to more “recycling stumpers” at Slate.

March 24th, 2010

veggie paper

A close-up of my colourful and fibrous veggie paper.

The inner edge of the apple card is dark because I had to moisten it
in order to fold it without breaking the paper.

Paper doesn’t have to be made out of wood fibres, and it doesn’t have to be bleached and smooth. I had fun making this fruit and vegetable fibre based paper (admittedly it’s quite coarse — like card) and printing on it with fruit and vegetables afterwards. I should have gone the full mile and made the paint out of fruits and vegetables, too!

For more photographs and an explanation of the process, read the full post.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 20th, 2010

when all else fails, tell a story…

From Margaret Atwood’s review of “Anthill” by E. O. Wilson in the New York Review of Books:

[E. O. Wilson] has written widely on human nature, on genes, on mind, on culture. Then, beginning in 1984 with Biophilia, he expanded his field of vision to position human beings within their own crucial ecosystem, the earth. It’s no accident that small children are riveted by other life forms: we humans emerged to consciousness in necessary converse with them. It’s only in the past fifty years or so that children have been brought up to think chickens come from the supermarket and Nature is a TV show. As with so many things, what we don’t know may kill us, and what we seem not to know right now is that without a functioning biosphere (clean air, clean water, clean earth, a variety of plant and animal life) we will starve, shrivel, and choke to death.

Wilson wrote one of my favourite books, The Diversity of Life and is renowned for his work studying and writing about insects, and ants in particular. His latest book is called Anthill, but this time it’s a novel, a fiction.

So, why has Wilson now turned to novel-writing? Those of us who’ve been at it for a while might have warned him off. Stick to what you know, we might have said. Rest on your considerable laurels. Don’t risk having the literati point and jeer; don’t give your opponents the opportunity to tear you down. What have you got to gain?

“A wider readership for urgent ecological messages” might be one answer. Many people have trouble grasping complex hypotheses and long strings of numbers, whereas narrative skills seem to be part of the basic human toolbox—an adaptation that gave those who could spin impressive yarns an evolutionary edge. Studies have shown that we identify with and remember stories, learning more easily from them than we do from more abstract presentations. (Hence the “stories” of such things as candles and pencils that we got in primary school. Are kids now being taught via Andy Atom and Ginny Gene? If not, maybe they should be.) Biologists—like doctors—are by their nature prone to storytelling: they study life forms, and a life form is nothing without its story, moving and changing as it does through time, through birth to growth to reproduction, then back into the ongoing food chain. Wilson may well have reasoned that he could get his warnings across more easily through a novel than through another “Nature” book.

What to make of Anthill ? Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life, part many-layered mid-century Alabama viewed in finely observed detail, part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth, part contribution to the growing genre of eco-lit: yes, all these. But hidden within Anthill is also a sort of instruction manual. Here’s an effective way of saving the planet, one anthill at a time, as it were—preserving this metaphorical Ithaca as an “island in a meaningless sea,” a place of “infinite knowledge and mystery.” The largeness of the task and the relative smallness of the accomplishment make Anthill a mournful elegy as well: this may be all that can be saved, we are led to understand. But we are also led to understand that it’s worth saving.

Full review @ nybooks.com

March 12th, 2010

earth upon earth

I happened upon this 1910 book, Early English Poems, at archive.org in its entirety and in several formats (plain text, jpg, pdf, kindle, etc). The selected poems are from the beginnings of English literature to up until Chaucer, Wyatt and Surrey.

In the book is a gem of a song called “Earth” (p 170), which seems to be all about man’s materialism. Ahead of its time, surely! I’d love to hear what it sounded like originally sung.

A note from the book:

That this singular and impressive little poem may be more readily understood, the word earth has been here printed with a capital wherever it is used to signify man, the creature made of the dust of the earth. This emphasizes the distinction between the different senses in which the word earth is used throughout the poem.

And (because I can’t copy and paste the correct formatting) here’s the song in image format:


I think “should” and “would” used to be “sholde” and “wolde”, and would therefore have rhymed with “mold” and “gold” in the fourth quatrain.

November 29th, 2009

a ham sandwich? how irresponsible

The Times:

Lord Stern, the author of the influential 2006 Stern Review on the cost of tackling global warming, said that a successful deal at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December would lead to soaring costs for meat and other foods that generate large quantities of greenhouse gases.

He predicted that people’s attitudes would evolve until meat eating became unacceptable. “I think it’s important that people think about what they are doing and that includes what they are eating,” he said. “I am 61 now and attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed radically since I was a student. People change their notion of what is responsible. They will increasingly ask about the carbon content of their food.”

The UN believes that meat consumption will double by the middle of the 21st century. Read more.

Related: Our outdated beliefs.

November 29th, 2009

(good) ideas for cities

Above: Kids and vegetables living in harmony?
Photo: L.C. Harmon, 1940. Nebraska, USA.

GOOD has a neat brainstorming series at the moment called “Ideas for Cities”. They’re ideas designed to make communities more efficient and progressive.

We’ll post a new idea each day until we run out, at which point we’re counting on you to come up with something smart.

I haven’t read all of the ideas posted so far, but two that I find very appealing/interesting already are Edible Schoolyard:

Cities should provide service opportunities and training for all ages to instill confidence, self-reliance, and pride. One of these programs could be an Edible Schoolyard that is cared for by students and led by professional farmers and volunteers. It would provide 100 percent of the school meals to the student body, and excess food would be delivered to the ill and elderly. In addition, schools would produce zero waste by composting all bio matter. The school could also compost neighborhood bio matter to fund its agricultural efforts.

and Google Analytics for Cities:

Cities could make the success of governance measurable and known. Rather than waiting for the next election to recognize and promote results (or lack thereof), cities could do it transparently. City stats, charts, and powerful infographics would provide a call-to-action for citizens.

See more at Ideas for Cities.

November 28th, 2009

101 cookbooks

Above: Heidi’s Giant Black Bean Salad

Heidi Swanson’s recipe blog 101 Cookbooks is glorious: All adventurous, healthy and yet covetable food, described intelligently and photographed beautifully.

The premise this site was built on is best summed up in two sentences: When you own over 100 cookbooks, it is time to stop buying, and start cooking. This site chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.

Meticulously organized, lovingly maintained: what a resource this site is!

November 22nd, 2009

there’s no ice cream on the moon

Alan Bean, of Apollo 12, on returning to Earth:

Since that time I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic. I’m glad there’s people around. One of the things I did when I got home, I went down to shopping centres, and I’d just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something and just watch the people go by, and think “Boy, we’re lucky to be here, why do people complain about the Earth?”. We are living in the garden of Eden!

I just saw the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) on TV. In my experience it’s rare to see the Apollo astronauts’ stories so personally and compellingly told as in this film. They, as talking heads, tell you the little details that in other contexts are crowded out in favour of cliché and sensationalism (ironically lessening the excitement), but whose inclusion here make the movie special.

The documentary also makes use of materials and footage that was unreleased for 30 years. There’s some cracking imagery.

The movie seems to be online in its entirety on YouTube.

October 17th, 2009

Great Big Tree

Via 3qd:

May I be a great big tree
so big I can’t see those taking shelter under me,
a deep green conical figure wrapped in serenity
Just as I dangle my bare feet in the water
may my roots joyfully draw
from an unknown subterranean current

May I be such a great big tree
that those who look at me
will naturally feel peace and repose

Yet may my luxuriating branches and leaves
whisper to a breeze like stray hair
May they awaken before anyone else in the rosy glow of morning
May their blue shadows be cast on earth
spreading like a trailing lace skirt
May my thoughts be kind
May my thoughts be refreshing
The tree will not move
The tree will not speak
yet may it be a ladder heavenly children ascend and descend

If someone comes and rests by me at the height of day
I will provide deep shadow and infinite comfort

On a stormy day
I will be even greater, more stalwart
I will firmly anchor my roots in the great earth and will not sway
Yet my sap will flow smoothly
even my incised wounds will issue forth a refreshing scent
Soon I will whisper a smiling song
When night arrives I will dissolve into darkness
unbeknownst to people
may the song alone become invisible ripples

by Kiyoko Nagase

translation: Takako Lento
from Ooi naru jyumoku; Publisher
Sakurai Shorten, Tokyo, 1947

I’d like a woodland burial when I die so I can be a great big tree, too. Or part of one, at least.

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