Thursday, July 04, 2019

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: A (Very) Brief Review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is wildly popular by the standards of nonfiction books. Probably because it fully reinforces the ideologies of ruthless competition and "might makes right" at the core of modern capitalism, giving readers a comfortable sense of erudition in thinking about weighty matters, but without actually challenging them at all.

Harari is so entrenched in a domination mindset that I couldn't make it past 20 pages, especially since it's mostly a broad overview of stuff with which I'm already familiar. Not worth the frustration. During those 20 pages (17 pages worth of actual text), I had probably 3 dozen moments of "wait, what?" in response to captions like "Map 1. Homo sapiens conquers the globe." and epitomized by this passage:

Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It's hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can't win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll. Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling.


The book is suffused with this attitude, and I don't believe Harari is even aware that he has this set of assumptions which affect how he interprets and synthesizes everything. He's not making a case for pure competition and domination as the driver of evolution vs some combination of competition & cooperation; he just takes it for granted and presents these beliefs as a given.

As I was giving up on the book and flipping through it, the book fell open to "Afterword: The Animal that Became a God." I'm guessing he doesn't mean bacteria or plants or fungi or earthworms or the others fundamental to creation, who make life possible for countless other species.

For those who do read this, I recommend balancing it with Derrick Jensen's The Myth of Human Supremacy for a much-needed perspective on the role of cooperation in the grand scheme of human and non-human life.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Not a creepy search term, honestly...

Today I found myself DuckDuckGo'ing for "make detached head master" which I swear makes sense in the context of git repository management. I really don't have mad scientist aspirations...

Monday, May 13, 2019

Elaeagnus in Hawai'i—philippensis, pungens, and x ebbingei

When I lived in Portland, I loved Elaeagnus for inclusion in food forests: nitrogen-fixing shrubs in their own family (allowing diversification of this important function rather than relying solely on Fabaceae), producing tasty berries following abundant flowers which feed pollinators. When I visited Hawai'i in 2010, I was excited to see a small nursery selling Elaeagnus philippensis at Maku'u Market. According to the entry for synonym E. triflora, in A Tropical Garden Flora by George Staples & Derral Herbst, its common names are "Lingaro" and "Gumi." That suggests a similarity to the "Goumi," E. multiflora, which made delicious fruits in Portland. And in fact the book says that E. triflora has long been misidentified as E. multiflora. All signs point to a goumi-similar Elaeagnus for the tropics!

Disappointingly, after moving to Hawai'i I never saw the species again at Maku'u Market, nor could I find it with web searches...until I searched again a few months ago and finally found the same nursery! It turns out they also sell E. pungens and E. x ebbingei, who I also planted in Portland! (They went by the common names of "Hybrid Silverberry" and "Golden Silverberry" at One Green World.) The nursery is at about 100' elevation, and the owner says the E. phillipensis does not fruit there. He guesses perhaps above 700' would be cool enough for fruiting? The others do fruit at his location.

I visited the nursery two weeks ago. I wasn't convinced their sad looking E. x ebbingei 'Gilt Edge' cuttings were actually rooted, since I've had cuttings keep their leaves in a pot for a year before finally dying off. So I passed on that variety, but bought one each of:

Elaeagnus philippensis

Lingaro Berry. Description from the nursery:

An evergreen shrub or small tree to about ten feet with a great arching habit with silvery leaves. Delicious shimmering red berries in the fall are small but in large clusters. The darkest red are the sweetest, but still have a tartness and a great after taste. If not ripe they are astringent. Excellent eaten fresh, in a sauce or dessert, great on ice cream. Small seeds can be eaten, but some prefer to spit them out. Full sun, easy to grow, drought tolerant, a big bird draw. A great source of lycopene, a cancer fighter. It has 19 times the level in tomatoes. From the higher areas of the Philippines, produces the most fruit in areas with cooler nights. Produces fruit on two year old wood.

Elaeagnus pungens 'Maculata'

Variegated, perhaps the same as One Green World's 'Aureo-maculata' golden silverberry? Description from the nursery:

Mottled Elaeagnus. An easy to grow drought tolerant evergreen shrub with showy variegation, blending multiple shades of green and yellow throughout leaf. Can grow 5’ or more, can be grown in the full sun or part, but grows tighter in hot sun. Any soil, tolerates abuse well. I love this plant, and it was hard to find for a long time. It was grown by my mentor Sinjen, so it has always has a special place in my heart. 'Gilt Edge' is the more commonly available selection, but I like the multi-hued variegation of this one better. They both grow about the same size and share the same habit. It can be a little gangly when young, but prunes well and can be trained to grow in many situations. Great on a hillside, or even espaliered on a hot wall.

Elaeagnus pungens 'Hosoba Fukurin'

Description from the nursery:

Variegated Elaeagnus. An easy to grow drought tolerant evergreen shrub with grayish broad leathery foliage. This selection has a light golden edged variegation. Can grow 5’ or more, full sun or part, but grows tighter in hot sun. Any soil, tolerates abuse well. Has a small fragrant flower, a reddish berry attractive to wildlife. Can be thorny. The plant came to me unlabeled, but I think the name is correct, if anyone knows differently, please let me know.

I planted the three in a row about 12' long, with about 6' between them. They'll each get about half a day of mid-day sun. (For my own reference: E. phillipensis is southmost, 'Maculata' in the middle, and 'Hosoba Fukurin' northmost.) I look forward to propagating them once the plants establish, both from cuttings and eventually from seed!

If anyone has silverberries (E. pungens or E. x ebbingei) established and wants to send me cuttings, please get in touch!

Monday, May 06, 2019

Acornucopia & Nutty Buddy Collective

Worth checking out, especially for those in the Eastern US: two sites with visions of community-supported perennial agriculture:

They're working towards more planting and use of resilient, low-maintenance nut trees such as oaks, walnuts, and chestnuts. Establishing and learning to utilize such staples is critical in a future of unreliable industrial agriculture, so read their sites, subscribe to their updates, get involved with their work, and/or take inspiration to encourage staple perennial polycultures wherever you are!

Warning: lots of silliness and puns throughout the pages. Nuts seem to encourage that for some reason.

See also my post on Pacific Northwest nuts: Nuts about acorns...

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Paradise or hell?—Hawaiian future depends on little fire ant biocontrol

The Scourge

Those who haven't lived with little fire ants (LFAs, Wasmannia auropunctata) may not be able to imagine the hell they bring when unchecked. Their stings burn like fire for up to hours, leaving angry welts which can itch and irritate for days. The ants readily sting when trapped against flesh, making sitting on a couch or rolling over in bed perilous in an infested home. Painlessly climbing trees for fruit or fun requires an armor of clothing carefully secured so as not to press exposed skin against ant-coated bark.

The ants don't cling to surfaces well. Anything which shakes branches, including a strong wind, harvesting fruit, or pruning or cutting a tree, brings down a barrage of confused six-legged pressure-trigger venom grenades. Though not aggressive—they're content to just crawl around once they land—if they get caught in the fold of an elbow, or in an armpit, or where a collar or bra or waistband or sock meets flesh, the stinging and the pain begin. In a tropical environment, bundling up in a full layer of tightly cinched clothes is its own mini-hell; your choice when working infested land is between the frying pan and the fire.

Blinded cat
When LFA's get trapped in eyes, their stings can permanently damage corneas of non-humans and sometimes of humans. These corneal lesions, also known as tropical keratopathy, impair vision and can even cause blindness.

LFAs are a "tramp species," readily colonizing new tropical and subtropical territory with the aid of human transportation. Native to South America, they're now found in Central America into Mexico, in Africa, on many Pacific and other tropical islands, and in Florida and Texas. Global warming will likely increase their range.

Here in Hawai'i, they displace all other ant species and form an infernal monoculture, densely covering the ground and nearly every plant surface. I have a disability and often fall down; in doing so, I frequently receive a dozen bites at once.

The "Little" is perhaps an understatement; at 1.5mm (1/16") long, they could just as well be named Tiny Fire Ants. Reproductive colonies can live in a single macadamia nut shell, and have been found between the threads of a mason jar with the lid on. It's all too easy to inadvertently seed a new infestation by moving coconuts, mulch, and potted plants—or canning jars which appear sealed. Even without human aid, the LFA front expands up to hundreds of meters per year.

Intractable doom?

The East Hawai'i Master Gardener Program advises, pessimistically but realistically:

Unfortunately, once your property is infested with Little Fire Ants, you will probably never successfully eradicate them. The best you can do is to avoid bringing them onto your property in the first place and, if your property or home is infested, to manage their numbers.

That "management" depends entirely on commercial pesticide. Though many in my hippie region of Puna have trialed alternative, natural LFA deterrents and killers, nothing has worked reliably. Until I began living with LFAs, I unequivocally opposed chemical herbicides and pesticides, but I now make this one exception. Land work and daily life are just too miserable if the LFAs are allowed to spread unchecked.

But this chemical warfare is only a stopgap. When the ships inevitably stop bringing us products reliant on an unsustainable—meaning it won't be sustained—global system, then techniques dependent on imports will break down. Chemical suppression of fire ant populations is salve applied to ongoing burn damage from an unquenched fire. But upon winning relief from the immediate onslaught of LFAs, busy landowners, understandably, accept the chemical treadmill and are less motivated to seek out a long-term solution.

The best cure by far is prevention. Those living in clean areas at risk of infestation should take all necessary precautions to block introduction. I realize that hypothetical threats of never-experienced misery are only lukewarm motivators. If you're insufficiently impelled by LFA's status as one of the world's worst invasive species and by the horror stories of others, contact me about my "LFA tourist" package. (I'll send you to an infested property where you can roll around in the grass and imagine that as your future LFA-coated bed.)

With vigilance, it's not difficult to avoid introducing LFAs to your property. If neighbors are infested, disciplined poisoning of your borders and trimming of vegetative "bridges" will keep you clean. However, if you suffer a year or two of ill health and can't maintain your borders, or if a hurricane blows colonies across your land, you'll quickly find yourself defending only core living structures. Once the poisons become unavailable, you won't be able to defend even those.

Systemic problems never yield to personal solutions. Quarantining one's private patch of ground will only hold off the ants for so long. Their range in continental areas will ultimately depend on whether climate or other barriers block them from migrating. But uninfested islands can and should implement rigorous education campaigns and inspection routines to keep the LFAs out until the collapse of inter-island commerce minimizes the risk of introduction. If small infestations are discovered, they should be diligently and thoroughly eradicated.

That doesn't help those of us who've lost the chance for permanent exclusion. The good news is that, naturally, LFAs don't form a monoculture in their native range. They're presumably kept in balance by natural enemies. Even in their non-native Florida, they aren't huge pests once resident fauna strikes a balance following their initial invasion. The long-term solution for areas where LFAs remain serious problems is biological control.


I used to feel gloomy about the post-collapse Hawai'i future being one of welt-covered, cowering humans drawing straws for who has to harvest food each day. But I gained hope from "The Little Fire Ant, Wasmannia auropunctata: Distribution, Impact and Control" by James K. Wetterer & Sanford D. Porter. They estimate "based on experience with finding, screening, and releasing phorid flies as biocontrol agents for Solenopsis fire ants" that a comprehensive biological control program for little fire ants would cost a mere "several hundred thousand dollars per year for 5-10 years."

Relevant paper excerpts:

Classical biocontrol agents may be the only hope for controlling exotic populations of W. auropunctata in areas where it is firmly established. A classical biocontrol agent is one that expands naturally and becomes permanently established without the need for further releases. The advantage of using classical biocontrol agents is that their benefits are widespread, permanent, and without cost after the agent becomes established.

One parasite of W. auropunctata has been identified, the eucharitid wasp Orasema minutissima (Mann 1918). Johnson (1988) and Heraty (1994) recommended further evaluation of Orasema wasps as potential biocontrol agents of pest ants. Several pselaphid beetles (Mann 1921, Park 1942) and a staphilinid beetle (Silvestri 1946) have been identified as symbionts in Wasmannia colonies.

In an attempt to discover additional natural enemies of Wasmannia, we recruited colleagues to inspect W. auropunctata colonies in Trinidad, Costa Rica, and Brazil (Porter & Wetterer, unpublished). From a total of 95 W. auropunctata colonies, a wide variety of organisms were extracted. Although no known parasites of W. auropunctata, such as eucharitid wasps, were identified, some associated organisms deserve additional attention, including gamasid mites and several unidentified fly larvae and microhymenoptera. Among the fungi, most were probably saprophytic, though Verticillium is possibly pathogenic. Determining the exact relationships of the organisms found in the nests will require much further study.

The fascinating paper "Specialized predation on Wasmannia auropunctata by the army ant Neivamyrmex compressinodis" explores an intriguing biocontrol possibility. It's unlikely to be deployed in Hawai'i, as people might be understandably reticent to introduce an army ant, but perhaps where other army ant species already live...?

Back to Wetterer and Porter, who sketch out a biocontrol research program:

  1. Native populations of W. auropunctata should be carefully compared to exotic populations to determine if native populations are really less dense than exotic populations and what are the likely causes of any differences.
  2. In order to find biotypes of natural enemies that are best adapted to attack exotic populations of W. auropunctata, researchers need to identify the original range of W. auropunctata auropunctata. Exotic populations of W. auropunctata auropunctata may be originally derived from only one population or from multiple populations. Ideally, DNA analysis of exotic and native populations should be used to identify specific source populations.
  3. A thorough search for natural enemies would probably require several weeks to several months of efforts in each of several different areas. Furthermore, this search would likely require scientists with expertise in parasites and others with expertise in pathogens.
  4. Several months to a year or more are often necessary to obtain permits to export and then more permits are needed to import the presumptive control agent for study in quarantine.
  5. Once candidate agents are found, researchers would need to find ways to rear enough agents.
  6. Conduct host specificity tests to determine whether the organisms were environmentally safe for field release.
  7. Then, if results justified it, more permits and reviews are needed for field release.
  8. Finally, researchers would need to release prospective biocontrol agents and monitor their survival, expansion, and impacts on W. auropunctata populations.

In short, a comprehensive biocontrol effort for W. auropunctata would probably require significant cooperative agreements between governments, conservation groups and scientific organizations concerned with the problem. Though difficult and expensive, classical biocontrol is the only likely long-term solution to the ecological ravages of exotic populations of W. auropunctata on tropical and subtropical islands.

Project leader needed

If Wetterer and Porter are correct in their financial estimate, it might only cost $5 million to fund a full biocontrol research program. That's insignificant next to the economic damage LFAs threaten to Hawai'i agriculture, tourism, and real estate. Many other governments also have a vested interest in controlling LFAs, so the money needn't even come solely from Hawai'i. I'm too busy stopping fossil fuels to lead a campaign for government funding of a biocontrol research program, but it should be relatively uncontroversial and straightforward:

  • Contact the Hawai'i Ant Lab to discuss all this.
  • Figure out where funding might come from for such a research project and who allocates the funds. This will guide the rest of the campaign, since all pressure should ultimately be directed towards these decision makers.
  • Educate citizens about the the feasibility of a long-term biocontrol solution. Target areas already affected by LFAs.
    • Gather petition signatures to demonstrate popular support to decision makers.
    • Grassroots campaign to write and call decision makers in support of a biocontrol program.
  • Contact environmental orgs, especially invasive species councils.
  • Contact business associations and influential players potentially motivated to reduce threats to tourism, ag, nursery business, and real estate.
  • Explore collaboration with groups and governments outside of Hawai'i which might contribute to biocontrol research.
  • Work with sympathetic politicians where advantageous.
  • If all else fails, infest the homes of unsympathetic politicians with little fire ants to give them incentive to find a solution.

It will take a lot of work to see this through, but success is entirely feasible. The sooner this push is started the better, since energy supply (and thus funding) will only get tighter in the future. This needs to happen while there's still available money and political & societal focus to pull it off.

If anyone is seriously interested in taking this on, I can provide some support, and probably muster some others willing to help if someone provides solid project leadership. Comment below or email me.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book review: Every Living Thing by Rob Dunn

I discovered Rob Dunn while researching the Stop Fossil Fuels biological annihilation page. I greatly enjoyed his article on the perhaps foolhardy attempt to estimate the number of global species. His humorous yet informative approach convinced me to read Every Living Thing. The subtitle—Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, From Nanobacteria to New Monkeys—only superficially summarizes the scope.

The book does indeed portray the work—and, frequently, in laugh-out-loud moments, the quirks—of scientists from Carl Linnaeus to Carl Sagan, with dozens in between. (Including, disproportionately, at least three more "Carls.") But the underlying theme is awe of and love for biological life, in all its frequently unbelievable, unimaginable, and incomprehensible richness.

Dunn zooms from the mostly visible...

There are more species that live with ants; more species in this one obscure relationship than there are bird species. There are hundreds of lifestyles, as strange or stranger than living with ants, that are more common than being a bird, hundreds that are more common than being a vertebrate, for that matter. [...] There are tens of thousands of species of beetles, silverfish, mites, and other invertebrates, not to mention microbes and the occasional ant-following snake that lives with, and only with, ants.


What Carl and Marian [Rettenmeyer] have discovered, in their years of studying army ants, is not some “big new world of life.” They did not discover microbes or a new kingdom. What they did discover was the intimacy of the interactions of one group of species, the army ants, with others. They discovered these intricate possibilities in the slow way that the morning sun discovers leaves and birds and then finally the forest floor and its interstices. the tiny...

Leeuwenhoek did not know it yet, but this would be the first of hundreds of microscopes he would build and the first of thousands of days he spent looking through them. At night, he would go to sleep seeing microscopic creatures on the backs of his eyelids. He would dream of fleas, ants, and smaller things. His lenses, combined with his abilities to observe and to experiment, were about to open up an entire world of life.


All along, the biological story had seemed to be about humans, but Leeuwenhoek would show that we were enormous and oversized—the Big Gulps of life. Linnaeus would much later show that there were more big species than had been imagined. But it was Leeuwenhoek who showed that most life was many times smaller than us.

...and ranges more than a mile below the ocean surface, to the deep sea floor in the aftermath of the eruption of a submarine volcano...

As the [submersible] Alvin rounded the hill, the tube worms, crabs, and other life seen in the photos of the site were gone. In their place was a blizzard of white forms, a blizzard, somehow, like the Milky Way. As far into the distance as they could see, the sea was speckled white and the specks were being blasted up in the moving water. [...] [T]he white flocs of the deep sea were produced by bacteria. The blizzard was, in fact, a ninety-foot-tall cloud of bacteria and bacteria excretions. This flowering of life and its products had come out of the cracks and caves in the crust of the Earth through which the magma moved as it had escaped. Life had been coughed in a dense cloud out of the realm of the world once thought lifeless.

...and to outer space. This segment interested me the least, especially phrased as it is with the question (no less insane in its commonness) of "Are humans alone in the universe? Are we the only intelligent life?" This anthropocentrism in a book otherwise enamored with the beings all around us is an ironic, painful juxtaposition. Similarly, some passages are difficult to read as they blithely describe torturous or murderous experiments on living beings, e.g. Terry Erwin's "canopy fogging," a euphemism for applying pesticides to massive tropical trees to wholesale kill and collect tens of thousands of insects. [Part II is, perhaps intentionally, appropriately named for what this culture is doing to the world—"Fogging (The Tree of Life)."]

But besides those occasional glimpses into the sociopathology of the strains of science funded within capitalism, the book is a pleasure to read. I recommend it for anyone biophilic or simply curious about the diverse species with whom we share the earth. Even for those without such interest, the book offers a fascinating dose of humility, an antidote to the ingrained misconception that humans have more-or-less mastered knowledge and control of the planet. We really only know just enough to be dangerous.

On a personal note, this gem may have the longest lasting impact on the story of my own life, as a strong contender for my gravestone epitaph: "Imagine how much less he would have done had he brushed his hair more often."

Table of Contents

    Part I: Beginnings

  1. What we All Used to Know
  2. Common Names
  3. The Invisible World

    Part II: Fogging (The Tree of Life)

  4. The Apostles
  5. Finding Everything
  6. Finding an Ant-Riding Beetle

    Part III: Roots

  7. Diving the Cell
  8. Grafting the Tree of Life
  9. Symbiotic Cells on the Seafloor
  10. Origin Stories

    Part IV: Other Worlds

  11. Looking Out
  12. To Squeeze Life from a Stone
  13. The Wrong Elephant?
  14. What Remains

Rob Dunn has several other titles which promise a similar mix of interesting topics and enjoyable writing:

  • Never home alone: from microbes to millipedes, camel crickets, and honeybees, the natural history of where we live
  • Never out of season: how having the food we want when we want it threatens our food supply and our future
  • The man who touched his own heart: true tales of science, surgery, and mystery
  • The wild life of our bodies: predators, parasites, and partners that shape who we are today

Saturday, October 13, 2018

How many cats to catch 100 rats? Not what you think.

Anthony Doerr's World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See poses the following question in the notebook of Werner Pfennig, a mathematically gifted German boy. Take a couple of minutes to answer the riddle, then expand to read my take.

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats are required to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

My intuition initially jumped to an answer of "one hundred cats." It feels like a simple scaling: 5 x 5 x 5 to 100 x 100 x 100.

My next instinct was that the answer couldn't be that easy, or there'd be no reason to pose the question. So I applied logical analysis and mathematics to yield an answer of "five cats." Most answers to similar questions on internet sites take the same approach.

However, this conjecture is only accurate if the cats are killing machines, malevolent cousins of the Energizer Bunny, methodically catching rat after rat until their batteries run down. But real cats are individuals with motivations and needs and desires.

So, why do these hypothetical cats want to catch rats?

Cats often stalk and play with mice for practice or for fun, but rats are significantly larger than mice, relatively dangerous prey armed with sharp teeth and claws. Cats usually only take risks with rats in hopes of a substantial meal. In my experience with a sample size of one rat hunter (hi Pookie!), a hungry cat can eat an entire rat in one sitting, then might catch a second rat in the same night, to partially eat or stash for later. I'd guess it rare for a cat to risk catching more than two rats in one hundred minutes.

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats with wills of their own are required to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

Taking into account what I think I know about cats and their motivations, my answer is "about seventy or eighty cats."

* * *

Our culture turns everyone into numbers, manipulated as variables in equations to maximize profit. Trees older than any human, soaring skyward and spreading a vast canopy sheltering countless individuals of hundreds of species, become board feet. Hens, evolved to scratch and eat seeds and insects while gossiping and squabbling and teaching their chicks to forage, become "layers," their worth measured in eggs deposited from battery cages.

Humans evolved to be nurtured by and in turn contribute back to an intimate community. Human communities evolved to be nurtured by and in turn contribute back to their land bases. In such environments, people fully express their personalities, develop their interests and strengths, and build lives of purpose and responsibility and meaning. In contrast, our culture reduces us to taxpayer IDs, statistics and quotas, interchangeable employees of global systems of extraction and exploitation.

In Nazi Germany, the Jewish men, women, and children in cattle cars were the quintessential abstraction of living beings into numbers, forcibly computed into a final solution. In Doerr's book, even Aryan Germans are valued not as individuals, but because "what the f├╝hrer really requires is boys. Great rows of them walking to the conveyor belt" as war fodder, "this final harvest of the nation's youth rushing out in a last spasm of futility."

Werner Pfennig, trapped within the Nazi war machine, is repeatedly told "It's only numbers, cadet. Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way." But as the story unfolds, abstract numbers wielded in the real world impact real people in devastating, even deadly ways.

Our minds are evolved to form and maintain relationships with a few thousand humans and nonhumans, lifelong family and friends and acquaintances. We can only conceive in abstractions of the 7.6 billion humans and trillions of nonhumans with whom we share the earth. We can't possibly feel the reality of 40.3 million human slaves, 6 million annual deaths from fossil fuel pollution and climate change, 2.4 million children dead from malnutrition, half an acre of natural forest lost every second. In a world globally linked by technology, abstractions are often necessary to grapple with the ethical choices of our time.

But we must never forget that there are lives behind the abstractions. It's not only numbers.