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21 Jul 21:17

Banding Snowy Owl Chicks With Researcher Denver Holt

by victoria

"Keep scanning the ground for something moving in the general vicinity of a nest and hope to see a small form tottering around the tundra like a little gray gnome."


Cornell Lab writer Pat Leonard is in Barrow, Alaska, with Snowy Owl researcher Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute. Holt’s organization, along with, were responsible for setting up the Snowy Owl cam featured on our Bird Cams project in summer 2014. Leonard visited Holt for some fieldwork in the damp, chilly summer of far northern Alaska. 

First: a quick lesson in shifting gears on an ATV—the ubiquitous mode of transport in Barrow when there’s no snow on the ground. Then field researcher Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute, barrels off in the lead, taking us about 10 miles out of town to nest #8. (Note to Bird Cams fans: this is not the same nest as is shown on the Snowy Owl cam, though Leonard hopes to visit that nest in a few days.)

It’s a cold day (about 35 degrees Fahrenheit) made colder by the wind and colder still by open-air transportation. Both of us are bundled to the eyes in multiple layers. Sometimes even that is not enough. But hiking provides more than a useful means of covering the terrain—it warms you up. We’re heading about a mile out from the dirt track, just specks of humanity in a vast landscape with few reference points as we circle a small freshwater lake to get to the nest.

The wide vista is sliced neatly in two:  gray overcast above, the flat tundra below in muted greens and browns. It’s spongy and soft when you walk on the drier parts; wet areas are not deep but the ridges and bumps could easily grab and twist the ankles of the inattentive.

Along the way, there’s much to see and a lot to learn in the company of a skilled guide. Holt is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the tundra. “Those are marsh daisies and buttercups,” he says, pointing to tiny pips of color, flowers that look so fragile and yet endure in one of the harshest environments. He can explain how the mounds have built up over thousands of years due to freezing and thawing of the upper layers of the tundra and the pressure exerted by subterranean ice ridges.

As we get closer to the unnamed lake we see Yellow-billed Loons, then a cluster of oh-so-lovely Pacific Loons with their sleek gray necks. Red Phalaropes are skittering around while a Glaucous Gull floats on the wind above and seems to be chuckling at the clumsy humans trudging below. But nearby are the remains of a gull that was taken by a Snowy Owl recently, according to Holt. It seems as if he knows every move they make. But is there a chick or chicks still around nest #8?

Snowy Owl chick

A Snowy Owl chick—about 25 days old—just before banding. Photo by Pat Leonard.

A flash of white. There’s the big female in the distance, watching us. Then Holt hears a sound that I miss beneath the white noise of the wind. There’s the male! “He’s barking at us, that’s a good sign that there might be a chick nearby,” says Holt.

We don’t know for sure where the chick or chicks will be. Snowy Owl chicks spend their first three weeks on the nest being brooded by their mother. After that period, while they’re still downy, gray, and flightless, they split up and wander away from the nest, possibly to make them less visible to predators. They won’t be able to fly for another three or four weeks. During this time, finding them on the endless, hummocky tundra is quite a challenge, even for an experienced researcher like Holt.

Then, crouched behind the nest mound, there’s the owlet—a small gray ball of fluff with golden eyes and the beginnings of wing feathers. (We really don’t know the chick’s gender but we seem to want to refer to it as “he.”)

Holt pulls out his banding materials and the record book for this nest. It holds all the data, such as egg measurements, number of chicks, etc. He’s been spending the “balmy” summer months in Barrow to collect this data for 23 years. This nest had seven eggs to start with, and seven chicks hatched. But as far as Holt can tell, this one undersized chick is the only survivor. The eggs in all 20 nests he’s monitoring this season hatched just fine, but it seems all the nests have had several chicks die. Holt isn’t sure why. The brown lemmings that Snowy Owls feed on and seem to require to trigger breeding, have been present in so-so numbers—not a boom, but not a bust either.

Our little chick clacks his bill and peeps as Holt looks him over and claps a silver band around his leg. He’ll be monitored again soon. Holt tries to visit every nest every three days to track the chicks’ progress. He feels this chick should be farther from the nest for his age. We both hope he will make it. Mom and Dad are still nearby watching carefully but not attacking. Some pairs are more aggressive and will dive at intruders with those wicked long claws flexed to do damage.

Except for when we banded the chick, we’re always on the move. Holt says that’s the way you find most of the chicks now that they are off the nest but can’t fly yet. Keep scanning the ground for something moving in the general vicinity of a nest and hope to see a small form tottering around the tundra like a little gray gnome.

This is part of a day in the life of a Snowy Owl field biologist, where success may be defined as locating a lone speck of fluff on the vast tundra, marking it with evidence of its encounter with humans. You hope one day to find it again and in doing so unravel another small piece of the Snowy Owl puzzle: why do they do what they do, and why do they go where they go?

Pat Leonard wrote about Snowy Owls in the spring 2014 Living Bird magazine, and about Project SNOWstorm during the great winter irruption of 2013–2014.

(Top image: Denver Holt records data on the Alaskan tundra, by Pat Leonard.)

29 Jul 17:48

Summertime in the United States of Hummingbirds

by victoria

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird Occurence map

Four species of hummers cover most of the continental U.S. What about the rest of the species? Click the image to explore the ranges of 10 North American species at our Citizen Science blog.

Hummingbirds are special—brilliant, tiny, precision-flying creatures that glitter like jewels in the sun and dazzle with their aerial acrobatics, flying fast then stopping instantly, hovering, and zipping up, down, or backwards with exquisite control.

They’re strictly a New World animal, and they fascinated the first Europeans who arrived in North America. Christopher Columbus wrote about them. Many naturalists at the time wondered if they were a cross between a bird and an insect (at one point being called “flybirds”).

More than a dozen species of hummingbirds regularly summer in the United States, including these four that are most commonly seen at backyard feeders:

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart for Central America in early fall, with many crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. To accomplish this incredible migratory feat, they feast on nectar and insects and double their body mass, from 3 grams to 6 grams (or from the weight of a penny to the weight of a nickel). Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have the largest breeding range of any North American hummer.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird &, Black-chinned Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (left) by Laura Erickson, Black-chinned Hummingbird (right) by Brian Sullivan.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds are the most adaptable of all North American hummingbirds, found from deserts to mountain forests and from urban areas to pristine natural areas. The Black-chinned Hummingbird’s tongue has two grooves that suck up nectar like a sponge. Then the bird retracts the tongue and squeezes the nectar into its mouth.

Anna’s Hummingbirds are dazzling with iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats. Nineteenth-century French naturalist René Primevère Lesson was mesmerized by “the bright sparkle of a red cap of the richest amethyst” on the male’s head and named it after the French duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Masséna. These hummingbirds live along the Pacific Coast and in many areas are present year-round.

Anna’s Hummingbird & Rufous Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird (left) by Nancy Starczyk, Rufous Hummingbird (right) by Chris Wood.

Rufous Hummingbirds are small but feisty. They chase off larger hummingbirds at flowers and feeders, and they’ve even been seen chasing away chipmunks. Rufous Hummingbirds have the northernmost breeding range of any hummingbird, yet in fall they migrate about 4,000 miles south to Mexico—in what is possibly the longest migration relative to body size of any bird.

More about hummingbirds:


(Image at top: Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Kevin Click via Birdshare)

29 Apr 13:57

Identity Crisis

by nedroid

Pete is out of town, and I think this is already happening to me.

Identity Crisis

29 Jul 15:45

The mystery of the Wu-Tang name generator

by Tim Carmody

Just call me Sullen Choirboy from now on.

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

You probably know that Donald Glover (actor on Community, writer on 30 Rock) also has a rap career under the stage name Childish Gambino. You may not know that the name "Childish Gambino" comes from a Wu-Tang Name Generator.

That's half of the reason I'm here - I'm dead serious. Like I met RZA and he was like, "you're a cool dude, man - and your name is perfect for you! It's like that computer had a brain!" But yeah, I put my name in a Wu-Tang name generator and it spit out Childish Gambino, and for some reason I just thought that fit.

Now here's where things get a little weird. There are multiple, competing Wu-Tang name generators. (Of course there are.) Most of them seem to work the same way -- they run a script matching your name's characters with a decent-sized database of Wu-sounding words, kind of like a hash. But little differences in the scripts or in the database give you different results.

For instance, at, the "Original Wu Name Generator" (tagline "WE CAN WU YOU!") spits back "Erratic Assassin" (for "Timothy Carmody"), while "Tim Carmody" yields "Well-Liked Assman." These names are both awesome.

But the "Wu-Tang Name Generator" at ("Become a real Wu warrior, entah ur full name 'n smack da ol' dirty button"), which proprietor Pieter Dom says was made in 2002, is totally different. There, "Timothy Carmody" and "Tim Carmody" return "Shriekin' Wizard" and "Gentlemen Overlord," respectively. Now, while these definitely sound like Wu names, they are definitely The W to the other site's Enter the 36 Chambers.

Here's the weird part: both of these Wu-Tang name generators return the same name for "Donald Glover." It is, of course, "Childish Gambino."

Is it just a quirk that whatever difference crept in affects most names, but not Donald Glover's? Did one of the sites hard-code that result in, to boost its credibility with people who heard the Childish Gambino story? Or is Donald Glover somehow necessarily Childish Gambino, across all possible Wu-accessible worlds, in the same way that "Clifford Smith" is always and only "Method Man," even when he pretends to be an actor?

I don't think we can ever know. But just as Russell Jones was Ol' Dirty Bastard, ODB, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, and Ason Unique as well as Osirus, I am content to be known by many names under the Wu.

(Dedicated to "Sarkastik Beggar" and "Lesbian Pimp." Via @hoverbird.)

Tags: perl   Wu-Tang Clan
27 Jul 04:00

The Dailies (No Comments)

by Dakota

Still would make me feel better.

The Dailies

25 Jul 17:47

Werner the Herzog

by Jason Kottke

presented without comment.

24 Jul 19:14

How a Town in Maine Is Blocking an Exxon Tar-Sands Pipeline

by Roger Drouin

This is such good news! Maine!

This story originally appeared on Grist and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue "Clear Skies" shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

"It's been a long fight," said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city's port.

The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city's waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.

After an intensely debated, year-and-a-half battle, the South Portland City Council on Monday sided with residents like Jones who don't want their city to end up as a new "international hub" for the export of tar-sands oil.

city council meeting
Proponents of the Clear Skies ordinance, wearing blue, packed a South Portland city council meeting on July 9. Dan Wood

"The message to the tar sands industry is: 'Don't be counting your chickens yet,'" said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "There is a pattern of communities saying 'no' to the threat of tar-sands oil."

A clear signal

The ordinance could have global implications. The Canadian government expects the nation's oil industry to be producing 4 million to 6 million barrels of tar-sands bitumen a day within a few years, and it's pinning its hopes on somehow getting all that oil to coastal ports, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Washington-based pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. Indeed, a recent report from the International Energy Agency found that the industry needs export pipelines in order for its boom to continue.

South Portland's move is just the latest setback for plans to pipe the bitumen out to international markets. Another big hurdle is the long delay over the Keystone XL pipeline. And in Canada, pipeline plans have met with opposition from indigenous peoples (known as First Nations), who are taking the lead to stop projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway tar-sands pipeline through British Columbia.

Now, there is a clear signal that communities along the U.S. East Coast will fight tar-sands expansion too.

"Do not underestimate the power of a local government," said Kuprewicz.

"A lot of perseverance"

In early 2013, residents formed Protect South Portland to try to stop the Portland-Montreal Pipeline reversal. They put an initiative on the November 2013 ballot to block the project, but it lost narrowly at the polls.

So the city council took up the cause. In December of last year, the council voted to impose a six-month moratorium on shipping tar-sands oil out through its port. Then a council-appointed committee crafted the Clear Skies Ordinance to permanently block tar-sands shipments, which is what the council officially approved this week. The law also changes zoning rules to block the construction of twin smokestacks that would be needed to burn off bitumen-thinning chemicals before the oil could be shipped out.

Over the past few months, concerned residents met in homes and Protect South Portland grew. Meanwhile, the group Energy Citizens, backed by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's largest trade group, ran ads that said "It's just oil. From Canada." The oil companies hired a number of lawyers and brought public relations firms on board.

Protect South Portland spokeswoman MJ Ferrier estimates that the grassroots group was outspent by at least 6 to 1.

So how did residents win over Big Oil? "A lot of perseverance and a lot of community engagement," Voorhees said.

After the vote, supporters of the ordinance went to a local bar, and "we raised our glasses," Jones told Grist.

Cautious celebration

But while local activists are celebrating this week's win, they know "this is not the end," said Jones.

South Portland Councilor Tom Blake, who's been a champion of the effort to protect the city from tar sands, said a legal challenge seems imminent, by either Portland Pipe Line Corp., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, or by the Canadian government. Blake had this message for the oil company and Canadian officials Monday evening: "This ordinance is the will of the people," he said. "Do not spend millions of dollars and force the city of South Portland to do the same."

But the oil interests are unlikely to heed his warning.

Tom Hardison, vice president of Portland Pipe Line, told reporters that the city had made a rush decision and bowed to environmental "off-oil extremists." He added that the zoning changes amounted to a "job-killing ordinance" that prevents the city's port from adapting to meet the energy needs of North America.

Matthew Manahan, attorney for Portland Pipe Line, told the city council before the vote that its ordinance is "illegal" and "would clearly be preempted by federal and state law."

"The council is ignoring the law" and "ignoring science," the lawyer added.

Air and water worries

Like the process of extracting tar-sands oil, the process of transporting it takes a huge toll on the environment. Before the heavy, almost-solid bitumen can be sent through pipelines, it has to be thinned with a concoction of liquid natural gas and other hydrocarbons. And then before it can be loaded onto ships, that concoction has to be burned off. ExxonMobil currently holds permits to build two smokestacks on South Portland's waterfront that would do the burning.

Ferrier, a retired psychologist and a nun, joined Protect South Portland largely out of concern for what the oil companies' plans would do to air quality in an area that has already received a "C" for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. The proposed smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). "We know there is benzene in it, a known carcinogen," said Ferrier.

Resident Andrew Parker had similar concerns. "Tonight is about children," he said at Monday's city council meeting. "The oil company will put poison in the air, that is a fact."

For Mayor Gerard Jalbert, who also sits on the city council and voted in support of the ordinance, it came down to concerns about water quality. The risk of water contamination in the case of a spill far outweighed the nebulous claims about job creation.

"When I look at the economic benefit, which no seems to be able to detail, the risk seems to outweigh the benefit," Jalbert told Grist.

The easternmost 236-mile stretch of pipeline crosses some of the most sensitive ecosystems in Maine, including the Androscoggin River, the pristine Crooked River, and Sebago Lake, which supplies drinking water for 15 percent of the state's population.

Blake, the council member, is worried that using old pipes to transport heavy bitumen could lead to a spill like the one that happened in Mayflower, Ark., in March 2013, when an ExxonMobil pipeline built in the 1940s ruptured and spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar-sands oil.

Saying "no" to tar sands is part of a bigger shift to a greener future in South Portland, Blake added. "Being a community that has been heavily dependent on petroleum, this turns a tide," the councilor said.

He pointed to a new electric-car charging station at the city's community center and potential plans to build a solar farm on an old landfill as steps toward a sustainable future. "I think we are starting to walk the talk," Blake said.

03 Feb 00:00

2014 February Flower


Maybe I want to study ikebana.


Recommended image :  Spring pastel

24 Jul 15:25

Botanical space flight

by Jason Kottke

The bonsai isn't even the best one!

Bonsai! In! Spaaaaaaaace!!

Bonsai in space

This image is from Exobiotanica, a project that sent various plants about 100,000 feet into the sky.

24 Jul 13:39

Don't Fly Drones Here

by Jason Kottke

Drones Nofly Map

From Mapbox, a map of places in the US where it is unsafe or illegal to fly drones. Forbidden areas include near airports and in National Parks. (via @tcarmody)

Tags: drones   maps
23 Jul 17:20

The molecular structure of cities

by Jason Kottke

"New York resembles a highly ordered crystal."

MIT's Franz-Josef Ulm has taken to analyzing the structure of cities as if they were molecular materials like glass or crystal.

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you'd analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building's center of mass, and how they're ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston's structure, for example, looks a lot like an "amorphous liquid." Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

I love this. It's like Jane Jacobs + the materials science research I did in college.

So far, Ulm says, the work has two potential applications. First, it could help predict and mitigate urban heat island effects, the fact that cities tend to be several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas-a phenomenon that has a major impact on energy use. (His research on how this relates to structure is currently undergoing peer review.) Second, he says that cities' molecular order (or disorder) may also affect their vulnerability to the kinds of catastrophic weather events that are becoming more frequent thanks to climate change.

(via 5 intriguing things)

Tags: cities   Franz-Josef Ulm   physics   science
23 Jul 02:05

Stranded on a whale

by Jason Kottke

AKA the greatest day of their lives.

A couple in a kayak gets too close to a whale and then the whale raises them right out of the water. And not just for a moment either.

Tags: video
20 Jun 14:18

Maybe Birds Can Have It All: Dazzling Colors and Pretty Songs, Too

by victoria

colorful tanagers

By Hugh Powell

A study of one of the world’s largest and most colorful bird families has dispelled a long-held notion, first proposed by Charles Darwin, that animals are limited in their options to evolve showiness. The study—the largest of its kind yet attempted—was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The natural world is full of showstoppers—birds with brilliant colors, exaggerated crests and tails, intricate dance routines, or virtuosic singing. But it’s long been thought that these abilities are the result of trade-offs. For a species to excel in one area, it must give up its edge in another. For example, male Northern Cardinals are a dazzling scarlet but sing a fairly simple whistle, whereas the dull brown House Wren sings one of the most complicated songs in nature.


Naturalists have long noticed that bright, showy birds like the Northern Cardinal often sing simple songs, while plainer birds like the House Wren often sing complex songs. Photos by Judy Howle/Cornell Lab (cardinal) and Gary Mueller/Cornell Lab (wren).

Compare the two songs:
Northern Cardinal:

House Wren:

Animals have limited resources, and they have to spend those in order to develop showy plumage or precision singing that help them attract mates and defend territories,” said Nick Mason, the paper’s lead author.  “So it seems to make sense that you can’t have both. But our study took a more detailed look and suggests that actually, some species can.” Mason did the research as a master’s student at San Diego State University. He is now a Ph.D. student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Mason and his colleagues tested the idea of trade-offs by looking at a very large family of songbirds from Central and South America, the tanagers. This group consists of 371 species—nearly 10 percent of all songbirds. It includes some of the most spectacularly colorful birds in the world (such as the Paradise Tanager) as well as more drab birds (like the Black-bellied Seedeater). The group also includes both accomplished and weak songsters alike.


The study compared plumage and song complexity in the tanager family, which has showy species like the Paradise Tanager and more drab birds like the Black-bellied Seedeater. Photos by Joao Quental.

Compare the two songs:
Paradise Tanager:
Black-bellied Seedeater:

The research team examined museum specimens of 303 tanager species, using a spectrophotometer to measure nine aspects of plumage coloration, such as brilliance and contrast. They took a similar approach to the birds’ songs, analyzing more than 2,700 recordings to measure 20 song variables including length, bandwidth, and number of syllables. (By the end of the project, Mason had earned the distinction of being the largest-ever single user of the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library sound archives.) Finally, the team compared how plumage and song complexity varied at each of the branches along a recently completed evolutionary tree of the tanager family.

“If there were going to be any group of birds at all that would show this trade-off, the tanagers would be a very good candidate, because there’s all this variation in song and plumage complexity,” Mason said, noting that the group’s large size lends confidence to the statistical analysis. “But when we dive into it and do some rigorous statistics, it turns out that there is no overall trend. Tanagers can be drab and plain-sounding, or colorful and musical, or anything in between.”


The Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager was ranked #4 in plumage complexity. But it and its close relatives also have complicated songs, contributing to the study’s finding that there is no evolutionary trade-off between plumage and song complexity. Photo by Keith Bowers.

Hear the song:

As a byproduct of the analyses, Mason was able to put together top-10 lists of tanagers with the most colorful plumage and the most complex songs. Those lists help illustrate the overall lack of a trade-off between singing and plumage. For example, a single genus of mountain-tanagers had members on both lists. The Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager ranked #8 among the most complex songs, while the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager had the fourth most complex plumage of all 303 species examined.

The study puts a significant dent in the idea of evolutionary trade-offs between plumage and song. It’s still possible that trade-offs take place at the level of genus, Mason said, or that they influence species relatively fleetingly as evolutionary pressures appear and disappear. But as a broad effect on an entire family of birds, a voice–plumage trade-off doesn’t seem to exist. One possibility is that the resources needed to develop fancy plumage are different from the ones required for complex songs, freeing tanagers to invest in both forms of showiness simultaneously.

In addition to Mason, the study’s authors include Allison Shultz and Kevin Burns, both of San Diego State University. The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

(Sounds via Macaulay Library: Northern Cardinal by Gerrit Vyn; House Wren by Geoffrey Keller and Thomas Sander; Paradise Tanager and Black-bellied Seedeater by Theodore Parker III, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager by Mark Robbins. Top images via Neotropical Birds. Clockwise from upper left: Golden Tanager by Peter W. Wendelken, Swallow Tanager by Frank Shufelt, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager by Keith Bowers, Red-necked Tanager by Vivek Tiwari, Beryl-spangled Tanager by Priscilla Burcher.)

13 Jun 16:27

San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War

by zephoria

Fuck San Francisco.

In 2003, I was living in San Francisco and working at a startup when I overheard a colleague of mine — a self-identified libertarian — spout off about “the homeless problem.” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’m sure it fit into a well-trodden frame about no-good lazy leeches. I marched right over to him and asked if he’d ever talked to someone who was homeless. He looked at me with shock and his cheeks flushed, so I said, “Let’s go!” Unwilling to admit discomfort, he followed.

>We drove down to 6th Street, and I nodded to a group of men sitting on the sidewalk and told him to ask them about their lives. Then I watched as he nervously approached one guy and stumbled through a conversation. I was pleasantly surprised that he ended up talking for longer than I expected before coming back to me.

“He’s a vet.”
“And he said the government got him addicted and he can’t shake the habit.”
“And he doesn’t know what he should do to get a job because no one will ever talk to him.”
“I didn’t think…. He’s not doing so well…”

I let him trail off as we got back into the car and drove back to the office in silence.

San Francisco is in the middle of a class war. It’s not the first or last city to have heart-wrenching inequality tear at its fabric, challenge its values, test its support structures. But what’s jaw-dropping to me is how openly, defensively, and critically technology folks demean those who are struggling. The tech industry has a sickening obsession with meritocracy. Far too many geeks and entrepreneurs worship at the altar of zeros and ones, believing that outputs can be boiled down to a simple equation based on inputs. In a modern-day version of the Protestant ethic, there’s a sense that success is a guaranteed outcome of hard work, skills, and intelligence. Thus, anyone who is struggling can be blamed for their own circumstances.

This attitude is front and center when it comes to people who are visibly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, a mere fraction of the total homeless population in that city.

I wish that more people working in the tech sector would take a moment to talk to these men and women. Listening to their stories is humbling. Vets who fought for our country, under the banner of “freedom,” only to be cognitively imprisoned by addiction and mental illness. Abused runaways trying to find someone who will treat them with respect. People who were working hard and getting by until an accident struck and they lost their job and ended up in medical debt. Immigrants who came looking for the American Dream only to find themselves trapped. These aren’t no-good lazy leeches. They’re people. People whose lives have been a hell of a lot harder than most of us can even fathom. People who struggle on a daily basis to find food and shelter. People who we’ve systematically disenfranchised and failed to support. People who the bulk of tech workers ignore, shun, resent, and demonize.

A city without a safety net cannot be a healthy society. And nothing exacerbates this worse than condescension, resentment, and dismissal. We can talk about the tech buses and the lack of affordable housing, but it all starts with appreciating those who are struggling. Only a mere fraction of San Francisco’s homeless population are visible, but those who are reveal the starkness of what’s unfolding. And, as with many things, there’s more of a desire to make the visible invisible than there is to grapple with dynamics of poverty, mental illness, addiction, abuse, and misfortune. Too many people think that they’re invincible.

If you’re living in the Bay Area and working in tech, take a moment to do what I asked my colleague to do a decade ago. Walk around the Tenderloin and talk with someone whose poverty is written on their body. Respectfully ask about their life. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Where do they want to go? Ask about their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Get a sense for their story. Connect as people. Then think about what meritocracy in tech really means.

(Photo by Darryl Harris.)

Two great local organizations: Delancey Street Foundation and Homeless Children’s Network.

(This entry was first posted on May 13, 2014 at Medium under the title “San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War” as part of The Message.)

05 Jun 15:23

Will my grandchildren learn to drive? I expect not

by zephoria

After over 10 years without one, I'm about to become a car owner again, reluctantly. This sentence breaks my heart: "And since our government is incapable of working together to invest in infrastructural investments, thereby undermining any hopes of public transit in huge parts of the country, what we’re effectively doing is laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles." I don't wanna give up the dream of functional public transit! Not yet!

I rarely drive these days, and when I do, it’s bloody terrifying. Even though I grew up driving and drove every day for fifteen years, my lack of practice is palpable as I grip the steering wheel. Every time I get behind the wheel, in order to silence my own fears about all of the ways in which I might crash, I ruminate over the anxieties that people have about teenagers and driving. I try not to get distracted in my own driving by looking to see if other drivers are texting while driving, but I can’t help but muse about these things. And while I was driving down the 101 in California last week, it hit me: driving is about to become obsolete.

The history of cars in America is tied up with what it means to be American in the first place. American history —with its ups and downs — can be understood through the automobile industry. In fact, it can be summed up with one word: Detroit. Once a booming metropolis, this one-industry town iconically highlights the issues that surround globalization, class inequality, and labor identities. But entwined with the very real economic factors surrounding the automobile industry is an American obsession with freedom.

It used to be that getting access to a car was the ultimate marker of freedom. As a teenager in the nineties, I longed for my sixteenth birthday and all that was represented by a driver’s license. Today, this sentiment is not echoed by the teens that I meet. Some still desperately want a car, but it doesn’t have the same symbolic feeling that it once did. When I ask teens about driving, what they share with me reveals the burdens imposed by this supposed tool of freedom. They talk about the costs — especially the cost of gas. They talk about the rules — especially the rules that limit them from driving with other teens in the car. And they talk about the risks — regurgitating back countless PSAs on drinking or texting while driving. While plenty of teens still drive, the very notion of driving doesn’t prompt the twinkle in their eyes that I knew from my classmates.

Driving used to be hard work. Before there was power steering and automatic transmission, maneuvering a car took effort. Driving used to be a gateway for learning. Before there were computers in every part of a car, curious youth could easily tear apart their cars and tinker with their innards. Learning to drive and manipulate a car used to be admired. Driving also used to be fun. Although speed limits and safety belts have saved many lives, I still remember the ways in which we would experiment with the boundaries of a car by testing its limits in parking lots on winter days. And I will never forget my first cross-country road trip, when I embraced the openness of the road and pushed my car to the limits and felt the wind on my face. Freedom, I felt freedom.

Today, what I feel is boredom, if not misery. The actual mechanisms of driving are easy, fooling me into a lull when I get into a car. Even with stimuli all around me, all I get to do is pump the gas, hit the brakes, and steer the wheel no more than ten degrees. My body is bored and my brain turns off. By contrast, I totally get the allure of the phone—or anything that would be more interesting than trying to navigate the road while changing the radio station to avoid the incessant chatter from not-very-entertaining DJs.

It’s rare that I hear many adults talk about driving with much joy. Some still get giddy about their cars; I hear this most often from my privileged friends when they get access to a car that changes their relationship to driving, such as an electric car or a hybrid or a Tesla. But even in those cases, I hear enthusiasm for a month before people go back to moaning about traffic and parking and surveillance. Outside of my friends, I hear people lament gas prices and tolls and this, that, or the other regulation. And when I listen to parents, they’re always complaining about having to drive their kids here, there, and everywhere. Not surprisingly, the teens that I meet rarely hear people talk joyously about cars. They hear it as a hassle.

So where does this end up? Data from both the CDC and AAA suggests that fewer and fewer American teens are bothering to even get their driver’s license. There’s so much handwringing about driving dangers, so much effort towards passing new laws and restrictions targeting teens in particular, and so much anxiety about distracted driving. Not surprisingly, more and more teens are throwing their hands in the air and giving up, demanding their parents drive them because there’s no other way. This, in turn, means that parents hate driving even more. And since our government is incapable of working together to invest in infrastructural investments, thereby undermining any hopes of public transit in huge parts of the country, what we’re effectively doing is laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles. It’s been 75 years since General Motors exhibited an autonomous car at the 1939 World’s Fair, but we’ve now created the cultural conditions for this innovation to fit into American society.

We’re going to see a decade of people flipping out over fear that autonomous vehicles are dangerous, even though I expect them to be a lot less dangerous that sleepy drivers, drunken drivers, distracted drivers, and inexperienced drivers. Older populations that still associate driving with freedom are going to be resistant to the very idea of autonomous vehicles, but both parents and teenagers will start to see them as more freeing than driving. We’re still a long way from autonomous vehicles being meaningfully accessible to the general population. But we’re going to get there. We’ve spent the last thirty years ratcheting up fears and safety measures around cars, and we’ve successfully undermined the cultural appeal of driving. This is what will open the doors to a new form of transportation. And the opportunities for innovation here are only just beginning.

(This entry was first posted on May 5, 2014 at Medium under the title “Will my grandchildren learn to drive? I expect not” as part of The Message.)

17 Jul 21:39

The Forest Man of India

by Jason Kottke

I guess not all humans are terrible.

Since 1979, Jadav Payeng has planted every single tree in a forest that covers some 1360 acres of an island in the Jorhat district of India. The forest helps prevent the erosion of the island and is now home to elephants, rhinos, tigers, and other animals. Forest Man is a short documentary film on how this forest came to be.

(via @AdmiralTwombly)

Tags: Jadav Payeng   video
03 Jul 10:00

DS128.4 (alternate 1)

by Josh M.

Library activism is so hard core.

Josh MacPhee DS128.4 (alternate 1) $30 This is an variation on a print I created for the Librarians and Archivists with Palestine Box Set produced with Booklyn (more info HERE). From the notes of that project:
The librarians at Birzeit University use the Library of Congress classification system even though it does not always appropriately or adequately express subjects in Palestinian history, geography, or culture—because there is no viable alternative. The librarians discussed the struggle to challenge LOC conventions when they petitioned to create a new call number, DS128.4, for the First Intifada, which would represent this period in history. In spite of their efforts, the Library of Congress in the U.S. started using a different call number than the one used at Birzeit. The background pattern is one of many MacPhee drew while on the delegation, inspired by the textures and ornamentation found across Palestine.
For a larger image, click HERE. Printed by Kevin Caplicki at Bushwick Print Lab. 2 color screenprint offwhite acid free stock signed and numbered edition of 5 04ds128A_400.jpg
04 Jun 17:53

Maya Lin Unveils Newest Sculpture in Her Last Memorial

by victoria

I like everything about this except that so many animals are extinct or endangered.


By Pat Leonard

If an in-person visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, is on your itinerary this summer, be sure to swivel your eyes to the right as you walk into the observatory from the main entrance. You’ll see a large graceful oval made of American walnut reclining against the wall, as if left there temporarily. But there’s more to this simple sculpture than meets the eye. The Lab’s new “Sound Ring” is a unique speaker system created by world-renowned artist Maya Lin. The Ring is the latest installment in Lin’s What Is Missing? memorial to extinct, endangered, or threatened species and habitats, designed as a gift to the Lab for its conservation efforts around the world.

“Viewers are drawn closer by the intriguing echoes of a huge singing ring,” said John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Woodcocks twitter as they fly from east to west, Common Nighthawks ‘peent’ from overhead, and Olive-sided Flycatchers ring out ‘quick, three-beers!’ from distant limbs off to the south. Haunting wails of a lonely loon carry us to a moonlit Adirondack lake. Then, hearing a chorus of clarinet-like notes overhead, we are standing beneath a family group of Indri lemurs in a Madagascar rainforest. The sounds surround us with stories of beauty, fragility, vulnerability, and loss. They cry to us for help, lest they disappear forever.”

“To me, memorials represent a stepping-off point,” said Lin during the May 30 unveiling of the Sound Ring. “We can’t do anything about what has already been lost, but can we learn enough from the past to rethink a different and better future?”

The Sound Ring

Hidden speakers in the Sound Ring project the sounds of extinct and endangered species and habitats. It is made of sustainably harvested American walnut. Photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University Photography.

The Sound Ring joins other sculptures and videos by Maya Lin plus permanent and traveling exhibits that are part of the “What is Missing?” memorial— the last memorial Lin says she will create. Binding it all together is the What Is Missing? website which highlights loss, connects to conservation groups around the world working to protect species and habitats (including the Lab of Ornithology), and will envision how we could live sustainably with the planet. The website engages individuals to help build a global memorial to the planet. You can visit What Is Missing? to add a memory about something you have witnessed diminish or disappear from the natural world or add a story about conservation or recovery.

“As an artist, I want to get people to think outside the box and give them hope that there is something they can do as individuals,” explained Lin. “The loss of species and habitats is all about land use and resource consumption. We have to make species protection through habitat conservation a huge priority because what we’re doing right now is spending our kids’ and our grandkids’ future.”

The Lab’s Macaulay Library archive played an important role in Lin’s creation, providing the recordings used in the Sound Ring to reproduce habitat soundscapes, including the North American forest, the Indian Ocean, and an Amazon rainforest. Individual species include everything from frogs to gibbons, Humpback whales to jaguars—and of course, birds. Additional sounds and soundscapes will be added over time, controlled by an iPad in the visitor center. There’s no one “sweet spot” for visitors to stand—the sounds have a depth and range that works no matter where you’re positioned in relation to the Sound Ring. Lin says her intent was to create a “spatial acoustic experience.”

And if you can’t make it to the Cornell Lab, listen to these sample clips from the Sound Ring. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in the sounds. Then visit the What Is Missing? project website to explore how your personal actions can make a difference for endangered wildlife and threatened landscapes.

Here’s a few species included in the Sound Ring:

Common Loon

Humpback whale

Weddell seal


The Sound Ring was designed by the Maya Lin Studio and fabricated at the Walla Walla Foundry in Missouri out of sustainably harvested American walnut. Arup Associates created the sound design.

Read more about Maya Lin and her collaboration with the Cornell Lab:

(Photos by Jason Koski, Cornell University Photography)

16 Jul 14:14

The polar flip

by Jason Kottke

Woah. "Still, there is no evidence that a weakened magnetic field would result in a doomsday for Earth. During past polarity flips there were no mass extinctions or evidence of radiation damage. Researchers think power grids and communication systems would be most at risk." Yeah, no problem. We don't need those things.

Earth Magnetic Field

According to data collected by a European satellite array, the Earth's magnetic field is shifting and weakening at a greater pace than previously thought. One of the reasons for the shift might be that the magnetic North and South poles are swapping positions.

Scientists already know that magnetic north shifts. Once every few hundred thousand years the magnetic poles flip so that a compass would point south instead of north. While changes in magnetic field strength are part of this normal flipping cycle, data from Swarm have shown the field is starting to weaken faster than in the past. Previously, researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but the new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought. As such, rather than the full flip occurring in about 2,000 years, as was predicted, the new data suggest it could happen sooner.

You can read up on geomagnetic reversals on Wikipedia. A short sampling:

These periods [of polarity] are called chrons. The time spans of chrons are randomly distributed with most being between 0.1 and 1 million years with an average of 450,000 years. Most reversals are estimated to take between 1,000 and 10,000 years. The latest one, the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago. A brief complete reversal, known as the Laschamp event, occurred only 41,000 years ago during the last glacial period. That reversal lasted only about 440 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years. During this change the strength of the magnetic field dropped to 5% of its present strength.

Tags: Earth   physics   science
15 Jul 18:26

A Disappearing Planet

by Jason Kottke


From ProPublica, an alarming series of graphs and charts on animal extinction: A Disappearing Planet.

Animal species are going extinct anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times the rates that would be expected under natural conditions. According to Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and other recent studies, the increase results from a variety of human-caused effects including climate change, habitat destruction, and species displacement. Today's extinction rates rival those during the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

(via @SrikarDR)

Tags: biology
14 Jul 14:12

Mobility on demand

by Jason Kottke

Sometimes I wish Finland would do something really heinous so I would love it less and feel less jealous that I don't live there.

Helsinki has announced plans to integrate all transportation within the Finnish city into a single system with a single payment structure and run it as a public utility.

Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here.

As the Helsinki Times' headline reads, the future resident of Helsinki will not own a car.

Tags: Finland
12 Jul 18:12

EZ Swatching

by materialsciknits

I basically *only* knit hats because I'm so lazy about swatching.

Like most knitters (I think), I don’t especially love to swatch. When I start a new project, I always go back and forth as to whether I really *need* to swatch, and if I do, how small of a swatch can I get away with.

And on nearly every skimpy-swatching occassion, I end up with a garment that doesn’t fit very well. Argh.

So, I’m starting a new sweater project (a KAL with the lovely Espino) and here I go again debating if and how much I should swatch. The Devil on my shoulder says, “oh just make a little square, back and forth, it’s close enough.” The Angel on the other shoulder says “you better make your swatch in the round or you *know* it won’t be accurate!” And then Elizabeth Zimmerman walks up behind me, swats the Devil/Angel off my shoulders, and says “why not knit a swatch cap?” Oh you wise and wonderful woman.

I’m not sure why – but the swatch cap doesn’t *feel* like a swatch. It’s a hat! I’m not knitting for calibration (which really isn’t a bad reason to be knitting), I’m knitting a future finished object that will have a practical-wearing use. And, I’ve also learned the hard way, if you don’t block your swatch, then why on earth did you even bother knitting a swatch?? The swatch cap is a perfect little blocking garment too (dries fast).

So, I’m half way through my Merle/BT Loft swatch cap and I’m so glad I listened to EZ. Granted, I’m going to take a little longer to get to the sweater (sorry, Espino, I’m knitting as fast as I can), but I’m confident that this sweater is going to fit me (and not the poor person I gift it to because I can’t bear to see this beautiful sweater just sitting in my closet).


08 Jul 14:32

Urban Giants

by Jason Kottke

Oh, I'm definitely watching this later.

In the early 1930s, Western Union and AT&T built two new buildings in lower Manhattan to house their telecommunications infrastructure. Here's a short film about their construction and ongoing use as hubs for contemporary telecom and internet communications.

Amazing that those buildings are still being used for the same use all these years later...they just run newer and newer technology through the same old conduits.

Tags: architecture   NYC   video
07 Jul 15:18

Animals as the Answer to Recycling Food waste

by kris de decker


Mountains of food scraps end up in landfills every day. While northern countries glorify attempts to facilitate this trash-to-treasure process using state-of-the-art technologies, Bobbili, a town in Northeast India, adopts a tech-free solution – a park using animals for solid waste management.

animals recycling food waste

Livestock at waste management park in Bobbili, India

Lowly as it may seem, Bobbili prides itself on its zero-waste zone with a comprehensive recycling system that ensures nothing goes to the landfill. Their unique solution involves door-to-door collection of household waste strictly separated as dry and wet, and the 2010 ban on plastic. The spotlight of the scheme is the Municipal Solid Waste Park – a 8.5-acre site comprising a bio-compost yard handling 2.5 to 3 tonnes of organic waste a day. The most innovative part is the utilisation of livestock.

A 2012 report by India’s Regional Centre for Urban and Environmental Studies states that “animals are the part of the solution, not the problem. The livestock’s potential contribution in solving environmental problems is equally large. The livestock contribute to tackle our environmental degradation by a variety of ways.”

By 2012 the park kept 4 chickens, 21 ducks, 6 pigs and other animals for different functions. Chickens are benefited from the insects in the waste, whilst pigs would gulp the food waste collected from hotels. Ducks take care of the leftovers collected from the fish market. Dogs are in charge of domestic leftovers. The ‘park farm’ is probably the first in the world to implement animal feed on a municipal level.

solid waste management park

Solid Waste Management Park in Bobbili, India

The animal farm takes its inspiration from the history of feeding animals with organic waste. Dogs, especially domesticated ones, are effective in taking care of meat scraps. As a common practice in traditional pig farming, pigs often consume the leftovers, rather than energy and cost-intensive crops. Ducks and chickens respectively favour kitchen scraps and milling by-products. Given the extraordinary effectiveness of earthworms to decompose vegetable and food wastes, vermicompost is another key of this living waste management system.

ren wanBesides the fact that landfill relief means avoided methane emission, animal waste can be a sustainable source of natural fertiliser whose cost and carbon footprint are way lower than artificial ones. More importantly, because the system doesn’t involve complex technologies, it can be easilly implemented – though in a smaller scale – on household levels. Just by keeping dogs and resuming the tradition of backyard chicken, we can easily reduce kitchen scraps and contribute to a significant cut in food waste.

This is a guest post by Ren Wan, a writer and sustainability advocate who is based in Hong Kong. She runs JupYeah, an online swapping platform, is a managing editor for WestEast Magazine, and blogs at Loccomama. Ren previously wrote about Furoshiki, a square cloth that with different wrapping techniques can basically transport anything.

02 Jul 14:10

Better living through motivational passwords

by Jason Kottke

When faced with a mandatory monthly password change, Mauricio Estrella decided to use it as an opportunity to improve his life.

My password became the indicator. My password reminded me that I shouldn't let myself be victim of my recent break up, and that I'm strong enough to do something about it.

My password became: "Forgive@h3r"

I had to type this statement several times a day. Each time my computer would lock. Each time my screensaver with her photo would appear. Each time I would come back from eating lunch alone.

In my mind, I went with the mantra that I didn't type a password. In my mind, I wrote "Forgive her" everyday, for one month.

I think this strategy might even work with the world's worst password requirements.

Tags: Mauricio Estrella   security
23 Jun 04:00

The Dailies (No Comments)

by Dakota

The Dailies

26 Jun 16:25

Paper to pixels

by Jason Kottke


Nice little video essay on information theory and Claude Shannon, "the most important man you've probably never heard of".

Tags: Claude Shannon   video
25 Jun 18:49

21 years a family

by Jason Kottke

I love the mom's outfits in this one. The Goldberg family portraits are also great:

Beginning in 1991, Zed Nelson took a photo of the same family (father, mother, and son) in front of the same backdrop every year for 21 years. Here's the first photo:

Zed Nelson Family 01

And the most recent one:

Zed Nelson Family 02

There are many more such projects, including the Goldberg family's annual portraits, Nicholas Nixon's annual portraits of The Brown Sisters, and Noah Kalina's Everyday.

Tags: photography   time   Zed Nelson
24 Jun 22:34

Extreme caving

by Jason Kottke

I cannot bring myself to read the full article, I'm just sharing to nominate this one for the NIGHTMARE FOLDER BECAUSE OMG.

Burkhard Bilger writes for the New Yorker about extreme cavers and their effort to explore what may be the deepest cave in the world.

When the call to base camp was over, Gala hiked to the edge of the pool with his partner, the British cave diver Phil Short, and they put on their scuba rebreathers, masks, and fins. They'd spent the past two days on a platform suspended above another sump, rebuilding their gear. Many of the parts had been cracked or contaminated on the way down, so the two men took their time, cleaning each piece and cannibalizing components from an extra kit, knowing that they'd soon have no time to spare. The water here was between fifty and sixty degrees -- cold enough to chill you within minutes -- and Gala had no idea where the pool would lead. It might offer swift passage to the next shaft or lead into an endless, mud-dimmed labyrinth.

The rebreathers were good for four hours underwater, longer in a pinch. They removed carbon dioxide from a diver's breath by passing it through cannisters of soda lime, then recirculating it back to the mouthpiece with a fresh puff of oxygen. Gala and Short were expert at managing dive time, but in the background another clock was always ticking. The team had arrived in February, three months before the rainy season. It was only mid-March now, but the weather wasn't always predictable. In 2009, a flash flood had trapped two of Gala's teammates in these tunnels for five days, unsure if the water would ever recede.

Gala had seen traces of its passage on the way down: old ropes shredded to fibre, phone lines stripped of insulation. When the heavy rain began to fall, it would flood this cave completely, trickling down from all over the mountain, gathering in ever-widening branches, dislodging boulders and carving new tunnels till it poured from the mountain into the Santo Domingo River. "You don't want to be there when that happens," Stone said. "There is no rescue, period." To climb straight back to the surface, without stopping to rig ropes and phone wire, would take them four days. It took three days to get back from the moon.

Bilger writes about this sort of thing so well...glad I didn't miss this one.

Tags: Burkhard Bilger   caving   sports
18 Jun 15:45

Cheese charts

by Jason Kottke

Takeaway: Everything delicious is round and sliced into triangles.

Camembert chart

In France, pie charts are called "le camembert" after the cheese. Or sometimes "un diagramme en fromage" (cheese diagram). In Brazil, they are pizza charts. (via numberphile & reddit)

Tags: cheese   food   France   language   mathematics