Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chimpanzee Grief?

From national geographic
by Jeremy Berlin

The November issue of National Geographic magazine features a moving photograph of chimpanzees watching as one of their own is wheeled to her burial. Since it was published, the picture and story have gone viral, turning up on websites and TV shows and in newspapers around the world. For readers who’d like to know more, here’s what I learned as I interviewed the photographer, Monica Szczupider.
On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade.

After a hunter killed her mother, Dorothy was sold as a “mascot” to an amusement park in Cameroon. For the next 25 years she was tethered to the ground by a chain around her neck, taunted, teased, and taught to drink beer and smoke cigarettes for sport. In May 2000 Dorothy—obese from poor diet and lack of exercise—was rescued and relocated along with ten other primates. As her health improved, her deep kindness surfaced. She mothered an orphaned chimp named Bouboule and became a close friend to many others, including Jacky, the group’s alpha male, and Nama, another amusement-park refugee. Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy's chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures."
Sanaga-Yong was founded in 1999 by veterinarian Sheri Speede (pictured at right, cradling Dorothy’s head; at left is center employee Assou Felix). Operated by IDA-Africa, an NGO, it’s home to 62 chimps who reside in spacious, forested enclosures.
Szczupider submitted the photograph to Your Shot, a magazine feature that encourages readers to send in pictures they've taken. The best are published on the website and in the magazine.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beyond ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’: Why Conservation Needs a Rethink

From Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy
Written by Sanjayan

Of course this year’s Nobel Peace Prize got all the press — as that prize nearly always does. The Nobel Prize in economics, by contrast, went almost unnoticed.

That’s a double shame. First, because it was given to Dr. Elinor Ostrom of the Indiana University and Arizona State University — the first woman ever to win the economics prize.

And second, because Ostrom has devoted her career to demonstrating how a fundamental premise upon which most modern conservation strategies are built — the “tragedy of the commons” — is at times false.

More than 40 years ago, an ecologist from Texas named Garrett Hardin who had a gift for a well-turned phrase published an article called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” His central thesis was that any common resource — say an open pasture or woodlot — will be subject to ever increasing exploitation by individuals unwilling to organize or impose a cost to manage the system, eventually leading to accelerated erosion of the resource.

This premise has so influenced the conservation movement that conservationists have focused their strategies on either advocating government interventions (say, creating a national park or wilderness area) or using private enterprise (privately buying land, easements, etc.) to avert death by a thousand cuts.

But Ostrom’s work has shown that this “tragedy of the commons” does not always have to happen.

Her research finds that communities can and will impose substantial costs to themselves to sustainably manage a common resource if (a) the expected benefits of managing a resource are greater than the cost of investing in the rules to govern those benefits, (b) loss of short-term economic gains are offset, and (c) the potential of cheating is eliminated.

Reading her recent paper in Science magazine — “A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems” — was like a flashlight being turned on during a night dive: My whole world was immediately illuminated.

In the piece, Ostrom outlines 10 key conditions or factors under which a local community will self-organize and impose rules or costs on itself in order to sustainably manage a resource for the long term — factors such as moderate territorial size, shared moral or ethical standards in the community, and an influential leader. (The full list of 10 is at the end of this post.) While achieving all 10 might seem daunting, I would bet that a broad survey of The Nature Conservancy’s field efforts would support her findings.

And here’s why those findings are revolutionary: Because conservationists have always worried about the long-term sustainability of our work — especially in poor places with little government presence and where money to fund our efforts will eventually tail off (and it always tails off — that’s the nature of fundraising).

But when we accept the applicability of Ostrom’s work to ours, then our theory of change — our job, if you will — has to change. Instead of defaulting to government intervention or private enterprise, we must now find ways to ensure that the key conditions of resource self-management are present…and where they are absent, to step in temporarily to fill the gap.

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize validates an approach that depends on empowering local communities, under some very specific conditions, to manage and care for nature — the true test of sustainability. Without it, we will always be dependent on an ever-needier pipeline of funds to support far-flung efforts.

It is high time for the conservation movement to pay attention to a prize the rest of the world largely ignored.

Ostrom’s 10 conditions:

1. Moderate territorial size — so there is an optimum size for the resource. Too big and its tough to self-organize; too small and it won’t provide enough income.
2. Scarcity or need must be present.
3. System dynamics need to be sufficiently predictable (e.g., pastoralists may organize at a big scale but not a small one because of rain unpredictability).
4. Stationary units of resources — e.g. trees or oysters are easier to deal with than highly mobile resources like an unregulated river.
5. Size of the group or community has to be considered (optimum group size)
6. An influential leader, previous organizational skills, and education are all necessary.
7. Shared moral and ethical standards and thus norms of reciprocity.
8. Knowledge of the socio-economic system — a common knowledge about the resources helps understand how a resource may generate slowly while a population grows rapidly.
9. Users dependent on or who attach a high value to the sustainability of the resource.
10. Collective-choice rules.

Degraded Borneo land to be restored to orangutans

 image from  

Article from the WWF facebook page (original article on ) 

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah: Almost 1000 hectares of degraded land in the area designated Heart of Borneo is to be restored as orangutan habitat, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between WWF-Malaysia and the State of Sabah yesterday.

The five year memorandum for the project - made possible with RM4.35 million ($US 1.27 million) grant from the ITOCHU Corporation of Japan - was signed during a regional forum on ‘Enhancing forest eco-systems and corridors within the Heart of Borneo

The 967 hectare area is in the North Ulu Segama landscape of Sabah, where some orang-utan populations had become isolated due to a combination of the natural barrier of the Ulu Segama River and logging and other activities.

Poor quality habitat is expected to lead to further organgutan population declines.

Opening the forum, Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman, said the State was very serious about conserving its forests and very committed to the Heart of Borneo, adding that 250,000 hectares of forest had already been set aside for conservation.

However, he said financing remained a crucial subject. To this end he thanked the Malaysian Federal government for its contribution of RM5 million ($US 1.47 million) to the Sabah Forestry Department to kick-start programme implementation - but indicated more help was needed.

“It is the hope of the Sabah state government that ‘friends’ from European countries and the USA can lend support to this endeavour,” he said.

WWF’s Heart of Borneo Initiative Leader, Adam Tomasek, congratulated the Sabah state government’s commitment to the Heart of Borneo and emphasised his gratitude to Japan’s ITOCHU Group for its generous contribution.

“These funds are vital for the restoration of a high priority landscape and long-term viability for orangutans. Healthy forest ecosystems are a priority for the three country Heart of Borneo initiative, and Sabah is providing a strong leadership example of working with the international community to realize this goal”

"ITOCHU's support is a clear sign of Japanese interest in the Heart of Borneo and as host of the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference we look forward to profiling this growing partnership between governments and private sector," Mr Tomasek said.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sex difference in facial contrast

This study demonstrates the existence of a sex difference in facial contrast. By measuring carefully controlled photographic images, female faces were shown to have greater luminance contrast between the eyes, lips, and the surrounding skin than did male faces. This sex difference in facial contrast was found to influence the perception of facial gender. An androgynous face can be made to appear female by increasing the facial contrast, or to appear male by decreasing the facial contrast. Application of cosmetics was found to consistently increase facial contrast. Female faces wearing cosmetics had greater facial contrast than the same faces not wearing cosmetics. Female facial beauty is known to be closely linked to sex differences, with femininity considered attractive. These results suggest that cosmetics may function in part by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute—facial contrast—to make the face appear more feminine and hence attractive.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Seriously Disturbing


Click on this link to see more photographs of albatross chicks that were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

From China: Entrepreneurs, Conservation and the Future of the World

From Cool Green Science the Conservation Blog of the Nature Conservancy
Written by Charles Bedford
 Charles Bedford, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, is living and working in China for the next year and will be writing about conservation issues there. Read all his posts.

Who’s going to lead the way for conservation in China? Local grass-roots groups? International NGOs? The government?

Here’s another thought: What about Chinese capitalists?

Wang Zhi speaks softly into the microphone and wears the traditional uniform of the Chinese worker — blue collarless jacket with large buttons, matching pants. He introduces the evening with a history of the organization which he chairs — Society-Entrepreneurs-Ecology (SEE). It is hard to discern in his manner, words or style that he is one of the wealthiest men in China. Over the last 20 years he amassed a fortune through savvy real estate dealings. Three years ago, concerned with China’s environmental conditions and the limits that the country’s polluted air and water, degraded soils and dammed rivers will place on its economy, he joined with over 100 other Chinese tycoons to take action on the environment here.

They created SEE, an unprecedented new form of civil society organization in China. Wang and his friends created this organization in a country in which civil society had been virtually subsumed in government for the last 50 years, where “membership” has long been a concept reserved jealously for the Communist Party. In three years, SEE has forged a new power movement, with non-profit/NGO rules and a personality unique to China.

SEE, quite simply, is a club of like-minded entrepreneurs with a commitment to support the government’s environmental agenda by funding local NGO’s that also embrace that agenda and that are committed to principles of “cooperation” and “win-win” solutions. They have raised and spent millions of dollars. They have grant cycles and annually give out over 70 prestigious (and monetary) awards for good works in the field that meet their criteria. SEE acts like a cross between a foundation and a country club — members pony up a certain amount every year and participate in the grant-making and awards decisions in what can only be describe as a very garrulous democracy.

Tonight, I’m in attendance at this year’s awards meeting, along with China Central Television and reporters from all the national papers — who will later describe the event in glowing terms. Deeper into the evening, Wang Zhi is questioning one of the finalists for this year’s awards when an argument erupts about whether the ballots should be anonymous and who should be in charge of the vote tallying. The room explodes in spirited but smiling argument. After 20 minutes and seven voice- and hand-raising votes and recounts, unanimity appears to have broken out that the ballots will not be counted unless they have the judge’s name and phone number — proto-democracy at work in civil society.

Wang resumes his questioning, which becomes a debate between he and the finalist about whether the methods they used can be characterized as “cooperative” or should be thought of as “independent.” The unspoken subtext is — what should be the appropriate level of engagement with the powers-that-be…namely, the government.

Some of the questioning takes on the character of a venture philanthropy audition. The next contestant gets grilled by the sharp finance minds in the room about the cost/benefits of pollution control equipment in a monosodium glutamate (MSG) factory on the Huai River. After asserting that the benefits of this water-quality-monitoring project far exceed the costs, the potential awardee also claims that his project had only a one-year payback, reduced emissions to 10% of the previous year’s levels, and also literally “saved” the MSG industry in the country by driving the technology changes necessary to bring the industry into compliance.

The claim is verified by a SEE entrepreneur who has visited the site and gotten involved intellectually and financially with the local organization. The entrepreneurs erupt in shouts of approval mixed with disbelief. Mr. Wu, whose diversified holdings include provincial vineyards, leads the questioning about the organization’s financial backing and structure. You can almost hear the checkbooks being pulled out.

SEE has evolved over the years from trying to implement its own projects — such as planting trees in the desert — toward acting as a foundation and discussion group for grassroots conservation. Its governance has evolved as well, from a “vote your amount of contribution” model to more stable processes of decision-making. The group also reached out to The Nature Conservancy to bolster its engagement and fundraising systems as well as partnering to create this extraordinary media event, highlighting the power of grassroots organizing on the environment.

Contrast all this with the way that the Chinese government deals and has dealt with issues such as Falun Gong, Uighur or Tibetan separatist groups or the 1989 student movements and the impression you get is of a set of party elders working behind the scenes on the massive hot water boiler that is modern China, making adjustments to this valve or to that pipe, directing pressure towards social goals and away from disharmonious activities. The management of the economic system seems to happen in this way as well, having allowed the wealthy young entrepreneurs in the room to, as Deng Xiaoping said, “get rich is glorious.”

The evening continues to roll along, changing from pep rally to venture capital pitch-meeting and back to discussions of scoring. The prevailing attitudes are hope, optimism and humour, which serves these entrepreneurs well in this incredible Chinese context — a country with the worst pollution on earth, the world’s most-populated country, its wealthiest country, its poorest country, its fastest-developing country, and mega-biodiverse on top of all that.

The view in the room is of the future, the future of the world, which is happening fast. And these are the new leaders of this world, perhaps the only ones that can save the rest of us.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley

Monkeys fall into "Uncanny Valley" just like humans
by Brandon Keim

Monkeys are freaked out by almost-but-not-quite-real depictions of themselves. That tendency is well documented in humans, but has never before been seen in another species.

To test their preference, researchers showed macaque monkeys real pictures, digital caricatures and realistic reconstructions of other monkey faces. To the latter, the macaques repeatedly averted their eyes.
“The visual behavior of the monkeys falls into the uncanny valley just the same as human visual behavior,” wrote Princeton University evolutionary biologists Shawn Steckinfinger and Asif Ghazanfar in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The “uncanny valley” was identified in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahito Mori, who noticed that people presented with likenesses of increasing realism respond with increasing empathy, right up to the point where the likenesses are almost real. At that point, people are repulsed. The sudden dip in graphs describing their response gave the phenomenon its name.
Many explanations have been suggested for the uncanny valley, which has also been blamed for the box-office failure of movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy. Perhaps almost-real humans look a bit too much like corpses for our comfort; perhaps they’re so real that they engage our brains’ mate-recognition or disease-avoidance systems, which promptly identify poor partners or sick individuals.
The PNAS results don’t favor any one of these explanations, but do suggest that the uncanny valley has evolutionary origins deep in the primate psyche.
It remains to be seen how the monkeys would react to a simian version of The Polar Express.

Images: PNAS

Chimps ARE helpful

Chimps happy to help – you just have to ask
October 2009 by Ewen Callaway

If you're looking for help from a chimp, don't forget to say please. Captive chimpanzees readily help others obtain an out-of-reach snack, but only if they beg for it, a new study shows.

Researchers have long debated whether chimpanzees act altruistically. In the wild, the great apes exchange grooming duties, and occasionally food such as meat, but whether these transactions fit the definition of altruism is controversial.

"It is difficult to evaluate the cost and benefit of behaviours in the wild and actually impossible to control the situations, and therefore it is disputable to say that it is altruistic behaviour," says Shinya Yamamoto, a primatologist at the Kyoto University in Japan, who led the new study.

Studies of captive chimps, meanwhile, found little consistent evidence for altruism, though one report showed that chimpanzees will lend humans a helping hand.

One problem with many of these studies is that they rely on sharing food – – something chimps do with reluctance.

To get around this, Yamamoto's team designed a special chamber with two booths, connected by a small, open window. In one test, one booth contained a large stick, the other an out-of-reach carton of juice. In another, one booth held a straw, the other a carton of juice with a tiny opening. The only way to obtain the juice was to use the tool from the other booth.

In dozens of trials involving six pairs of chimpanzees, one of the chimps consistently offered the tool to the other. But help often came only after the chimp in need reached out its hands or made a ruckus.

The relationship between the pairs also made a difference. Three mother-offspring pairs helped each other more frequently than unrelated pairs did – even when the favour was not reciprocated in future trials. Among three pairs of unrelated chimps, the dominant chimpanzee was most likely to request and receive the tool.

Such requests may be necessary because chimpanzees don't fully understand the desires of others, Yamamoto says.

"This is a great illustration of helping behaviour in chimpanzees," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. "Until now most research in this area was guided by the question whether the behaviour is selfish or altruistic, but a more interesting question is when is help provided and how intentional does it seem."

Journal reference:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beluga whales blowing air doughnuts

For more images visit the

Recipients of 2009 Right Livelihood Award: David Suzuki, René Ngongo, Alyn Ware, Catherine Hamlin

2009 Right Livelihood Awards: Wake-up calls to secure our common future
The Right Livelihood Award Jury gave the following motivation for its choice of laureates:

"Despite the scientific warnings about the imminent threat and disastrous impacts of climate change and despite our knowledge about solutions, the global response to this crisis is still painfully slow and largely inadequate. At the same time, the threat from nuclear weapons has by no means diminished, and the treatable diseases of poverty shame our common humanity.
The 2009 Right Livelihood Award Recipients demonstrate concretely what has to be done in order to tackle climate change, rid the world of nuclear weapons, and provide crucial medical treatment to the poor and marginalised." 

David Suzuki (Honorary Award, Canada) "for his lifetime advocacy of the socially responsible use of science, and for his massive contribution to raising awareness about the perils of climate change and building public support for policies to address it". 

René Ngongo (Democratic Republic of Congo) is honoured "for his courage in confronting the forces that are destroying the Congo's rainforests and building political support for their conservation and sustainable use". 

Alyn Ware (New Zealand) is recognised "for his effective and creative advocacy and initiatives over two decades to further peace education and to rid the world of nuclear weapons". 

Catherine Hamlin (Ethiopia) is awarded "for her fifty years dedicated to treating obstetric fistula patients, thereby restoring the health, hope and dignity of thousands of Africa's poorest women". 

For more information visit

From the NYTimes - The Case for Vegetariansim

Great Article today on about one writer's story on how he and his family chose to go vegetarian. The arguments are rather compelling, take 10 minutes and please read it :)

Against Meat
When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. On my way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one of her fire-smothering hugs. And on the way out, Sunday afternoon, I was again taken into the air. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was weighing me.
My grandmother survived World War II barefoot, scavenging Eastern Europe for other people’s inedibles: rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits that clung to bones and pits. So she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes. I remember hotel buffets: while the rest of us erected Golden Calves of breakfast, she would make sandwich upon sandwich to swaddle in napkins and stash in her bag for lunch. It was my grandmother who taught me that one tea bag makes as many cups of tea as you’re serving, and that every part of the apple is edible.
Her obsession with food wasn’t an obsession with money. (Many of those coupons I clipped were for foods she would never buy.)
Her obsession wasn’t with health. (She would beg me to drink Coke.)
My grandmother never set a place for herself at family dinners. Even when there was nothing more to be done — no soup bowls to be topped off, no pots to be stirred or ovens checked — she stayed in the kitchen, like a vigilant guard (or prisoner) in a tower. As far as I could tell, the sustenance she got from the food she made didn’t require her to eat it.
We thought she was the greatest chef who ever lived. My brothers and I would tell her as much several times a meal. And yet we were worldly enough kids to know that the greatest chef who ever lived would probably have more than one recipe (chicken with carrots), and that most great recipes involved more than two ingredients.
And why didn’t we question her when she told us that dark food is inherently more healthful than light food, or that the bulk of the nutrients are found in the peel or crust? (The sandwiches of those weekend stays were made with the saved ends of pumpernickel loaves.) She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which aren’t animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies and sodas. No foods are bad for you. Sugars are great. Fats are tremendous. The fatter a child is, the fitter it is — especially if it’s a boy. Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11, 12:30 and 3. You are always starving.
In fact, her chicken with carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God.
More stories could be told about my grandmother than about anyone else I’ve ever met — her otherwordly childhood, the hairline margin of her survival, the totality of her loss, her immigration and further loss, the triumph and tragedy of her assimilation — and while I will one day try to tell them to my children, we almost never told them to one another. Nor did we call her by any of the obvious and earned titles. We called her the Greatest Chef.
The story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joy, humiliation, religion, history and, of course, love. It was as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.

When I was 2, the heroes of all my bedtime books were animals. The first thing I can remember learning in school was how to pet a guinea pig without accidentally killing it. One summer my family fostered a cousin’s dog. I kicked it. My father told me we don’t kick animals. When I was 7, I mourned the death of a goldfish I’d won the previous weekend. I discovered that my father had flushed it down the toilet. I told my father — using other, less familial language — we don’t flush animals down the toilet. When I was 9, I had a baby sitter who didn’t want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn’t having chicken with my older brother and me.
“Hurt anything?” I asked.
“You know that chicken is chicken, right?”
Frank shot me a look: Mom and Dad entrusted this stupid woman with their precious babies?
Her intention might or might not have been to convert us, but being a kid herself, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full telling of this particular story. Without drama or rhetoric, skipping over or euphemizing, she shared what she knew.
My brother and I looked at each other, our mouths full of hurt chickens, and had simultaneous how-in-the-world-could-I-have-never-thought-of-that-before-and-why-on-earth-didn’t-someone-tell-me? moments. I put down my fork. Frank finished the meal and is probably eating a chicken as I type these words.
What our baby sitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed so self-evidently true, but also because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me. We don’t hurt family members. We don’t hurt friends or strangers. We don’t even hurt upholstered furniture. My not having thought to include farmed animals in that list didn’t make them the exceptions to it. It just made me a child, ignorant of the world’s workings. Until I wasn’t. At which point I had to change my life.
Until I didn’t. My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyielding in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered and quietly died. I never thought of a response to our baby sitter’s code but found ways to smudge, diminish and ignore it. Generally speaking, I didn’t cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough. Pass the chicken, I’m starving.
Mark Twain said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things you can do; he did it all the time. I would add vegetarianism to the list of easy things. In high school I became vegetarian more times than I can now remember, most often as an effort to claim a bit of identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I wanted a slogan to distinguish my mom’s Volvo’s bumper, a bake-sale cause to fill the self-conscious half-hour of school break, an occasion to get closer to the breasts of activist women. (And I continued to think it was wrong to hurt animals.) Which isn’t to say that I refrained from eating meat. Only that I refrained in public. Many dinners of those years began with my father asking, “Any dietary restrictions I need to know about tonight?”
When I went to college, I started eating meat more earnestly. Not “believing in it” — whatever that would mean — but willfully pushing the questions out of my mind. It might well have been the prevalence of vegetarianism on campus that discouraged my own — I find myself less likely to give money to a street musician whose case is overflowing with bills.
But when, at the end of my sophomore year, I became a philosophy major and started doing my first seriously pretentious thinking, I became a vegetarian again. The kind of active forgetting that I was sure meat eating required felt too paradoxical to the intellectual life I was trying to shape. I didn’t know the details of factory farming, but like most everyone, I knew the gist: it is miserable for animals, the environment, farmers, public health, biodiversity, rural communities, global poverty and so on. I thought life could, should and must conform to the mold of reason, period. You can imagine how annoying this made me.
When I graduated, I ate meat — lots of every kind of meat — for about two years. Why? Because it tasted good. And because more important than reason in shaping habits are the stories we tell ourselves and one another. And I told a forgiving story about myself to myself: I was only human.
Then I was set up on a blind date with the woman who would become my wife. And only a few weeks later we found ourselves talking about two surprising topics: marriage and vegetarianism.
Her history with meat was remarkably similar to mine: there were things she believed while lying in bed at night, and there were choices made at the breakfast table the next morning. There was a gnawing (if only occasional and short-lived) dread that she was participating in something deeply wrong, and there was the acceptance of complexity and fallibility. Like me, she had intuitions that were very strong, but apparently not strong enough.
People marry for many different reasons, but one that animated our decision to take that step was the prospect of explicitly marking a new beginning. Jewish ritual and symbolism strongly encourage this notion of demarcating a sharp division with what came before — the most well-known example being the smashing of the glass at the end of the wedding ceremony. Things were as they were, but they will be different now. Things will be better. We will be better.
Sounds and feels great, but better how? I could think of endless ways to make myself better (I could learn foreign languages, be more patient, work harder), but I’d already made too many such vows to trust them anymore. I could also think of ways to make “us” better, but the meaningful things we can agree on and change in a relationship are few.
Eating animals, a concern we’d both had and had both forgotten, seemed like a place to start. So much intersects there, and so much could flow from it. In the same week, we became engaged and vegetarian.
Of course our wedding wasn’t vegetarian, because we persuaded ourselves that it was only fair to offer animal protein to our guests, some of whom traveled from great distances to share our joy. (Find that logic hard to follow?) And we ate fish on our honeymoon, but we were in Japan, and when in Japan. . . . And back in our new home, we did occasionally eat burgers and chicken soup and smoked salmon and tuna steaks. But only whenever we felt like it.
And that, I thought, was that. And I thought that was just fine. I assumed we’d maintain a diet of conscientious inconsistency. Why should eating be different from any of the other ethical realms of our lives? We were honest people who occasionally told lies, careful friends who sometimes acted clumsily. We were vegetarians who from time to time ate meat.
But then we decided to have a child, and that was a different story that would necessitate a different story.
About half an hour after my son was born, I went into the waiting room to tell the gathered family the good news.
“You said ‘he’! So it’s a boy?”
“What’s his name?”
“Who does he look like?”
“Tell us everything!”
I answered their questions as quickly as I could, then went to the corner and turned on my cellphone.
“Grandma,” I said. “We have a baby.”
Her only phone is in the kitchen. She picked up halfway into the first ring. It was just after midnight. Had she been clipping coupons? Preparing chicken with carrots to freeze for someone else to eat at some future meal? I’d never once seen or heard her cry, but tears pushed through her words as she asked, “How much does it weigh?”
A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to a friend, including a photo of my son and some first impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, “Everything is possible again.” It was the perfect thing to write, because that was exactly how it felt. The world itself had another chance.

Seconds after being born, my son was breast-feeding. I watched him with an awe that had no precedent in my life. Without explanation or experience, he knew what to do. Millions of years of evolution had wound the knowledge into him, as it had encoded beating into his tiny heart and expansion and contraction into his newly dry lungs.
Almost four years later, he is a big brother and a remarkably sophisticated little conversationalist. Increasingly the food he eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my children is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (their physical health matters, the pleasure they take in eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter.
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of sushi “lunch dates” with my mom, and eating my dad’s turkey burgers with mustard and grilled onions at backyard celebrations, and of course my grandmother’s chicken with carrots. Those occasions simply wouldn’t have been the same without those foods — and that is important. To give up the taste of sushi, turkey or chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.
My wife and I have chosen to bring up our children as vegetarians. In another time or place, we might have made a different decision. But the realities of our present moment compelled us to make that choice. According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.
Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter.
Meat and seafood are in no way necessary for my family — unlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety of other foods. And we are healthier without it. So our choices aren’t constrained.
While the cultural uses of meat can be replaced — my mother and I now eat Italian, my father grills veggie burgers, my grandmother invented her own “vegetarian chopped liver” — there is still the question of pleasure. A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn’t honestly argue, as many vegetarians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don’t love them without limit.
This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
Children confront us with our paradoxes and dishonesty, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why — Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that? — and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood — which is a good shame — is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration.
And then, one day, they will choose for themselves. I don’t know what my reaction will be if they decide to eat meat. (I don’t know what my reaction will be if they decide to renounce their Judaism, root for the Red Sox or register Republican.) I’m not as worried about what they will choose as much as my ability to make them conscious of the choices before them. I won’t measure my success as a parent by whether my children share my values, but by whether they act according to their own.
In the meantime, my choice on their behalf means they will never eat their great-grandmother’s singular dish. They will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the greatest chef who ever lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.
Or will it? It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans. I’m thinking of those Saturday afternoons at her kitchen table, just the two of us — black bread in the glowing toaster, a humming refrigerator that couldn’t be seen through its veil of family photographs. Over pumpernickel ends and Coke, she would tell me about her escape from Europe, the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn’t. It was the story of her life — “Listen to me,” she would plead — and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was. I know, now, what it was.

“We weren’t rich, but we always had enough. Thursday we baked bread, and challah and rolls, and they lasted the whole week. Friday we had pancakes. Shabbat we always had a chicken, and soup with noodles. You would go to the butcher and ask for a little more fat. The fattiest piece was the best piece. It wasn’t like now. We didn’t have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese. We didn’t have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough. The things that you have here and take for granted. . . . But we were happy. We didn’t know any better. And we took what we had for granted, too.
“Then it all changed. During the war it was hell on earth, and I had nothing. I left my family, you know. I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate the parts others wouldn’t eat. If you helped yourself, you could survive. I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about.
“Even at the worst times, there were good people, too. Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal. I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. Someone gave me a little rice, once, and I traveled two days to a market and traded it for some soap, and then traveled to another market and traded the soap for some beans. You had to have luck and intuition.
“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist. This article is adapted from his coming book, “Eating Animals,” which will be published in November

Original Article at:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Art for Conservation

Artist David G. Derrick Jr. has been selling his pieces to support conservation and the year of the gorilla. Please visit his site and consider buying one of his gorgeous statues or sketches.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bad Science Journalism?

Image from smbc

Prof. L.A. Moran discusses bad science journalism and if the blame lies on journalists, scientists (or both) on his Sandwalk blog.

In light of the recent media coverage on "Ardi" Dr. Moran shows how scientists are also responsible for propagating misinformation to the general public and that accusing journalists of misquoting them is not always a valid argument.

Please visit the Sandwalk blog and read the post in full.

(Thanks to Cory Robertson for drawing my attention to both the Sandwalk blog and smbc comics )

Polar bear cub hitches a ride

from BBC Earth NEWS
By Jody Bourton
Arctic waters are at best chilly and at worst close to freezing. Which may explain why a polar bear cub has recently been seen riding on the back of its mother as the bears swim across parts of the Arctic Ocean. The cub then briefly rode her back as she clambered out of the icy water, a unique event photographed by a tourist. Experts have rarely seen the behaviour, and they say the latest find suggests it may be a more common practice than previously thought.

Dr Jon Aars from the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso describes what happened in the journal Polar Biology. On the 21 July 2006, Mrs Angela Plumb, a tourist from the UK, was aboard a ship in the mouth of a fjord in the Svalbard archipelago.

Holidaying in the wildlife hotspot of Duvefjorden, Nordaustlandet, Mrs Plumb spotted the mother bear with a seven-month-old cub hitching a ride on her back.

"The cub was on the back of the polar bear when it was in the water, then it got out of the water and stayed on its mother's back a little, then she shook it off," Mrs Plumb explains.

For large parts of the year, polar bears ( Ursus maritimus ) live among the sea ice, feeding mainly on seals. The challenge for the bears is to navigate the many areas of open water between the islands of floating ice.

Seeing the bear had a radio collar, Mrs Plumb got in touch with Dr Aars to report her sighting and asked if this was a common behaviour. "I hadn't seen this behaviour before or heard about it so I asked other researchers and found out it is something that has been observed but not frequently at all," Dr Aars says.

Out of the cold

Cubs are known to ride their mother's back when moving through deep snow as they leave their den areas. Cubs of other bear species such as the sloth bear also ride on their parents. However, the the extent to which polar bear cubs hitch a ride on swimming adults in open water is unknown. Dr Aars was especially interested if this behaviour might have some adaptive value for the bears. "This could be potentially important because it means that the cubs get exposed to less water. If they are in the water they would have to swim and very small cubs are very badly insulated in water," he says.

Adults are well adapted to swimming in the cold water with insulating subcutaneous fat and and large body mass. However, young bears have very little insulating fat, as they do not develop brown fat stores until adulthood. Their fur coat also loses most of its insulating properties if immersed in ice water. Dr Aars suggests staying out of the water could be vital for the cub's ability to survive in habitats where sea ice is scattered across open ocean.

Speedy transport

Another reason for the behaviour could be that it aids the mother's mobility in the water. "I would imagine a big benefit is the ride is faster, an adult female polar bear is a strong swimmer, cubs of this size are much slower and time in water is time lost hunting," suggests Professor Andrew Derocher from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. "The mother would rather put her time into gaining more food by reaching good habitat rather than swimming and using energy," he explains.

The scientists are interested to find out if this behaviour might be a regular occurrence within the polar bear population. "It's important to remember the vast areas it may happen in. It has not been observed that much, but it could be more common than we think," says Dr Aars.

Prof Derocher also wonders if the people who share the bears' habitat might be able to help unravel this behaviour.

"It would be interesting to hear if Inuit have seen this behaviour, I'm always very impressed that our observations match what local people have seen before, but they don't tell you about them unless you ask."

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/10/02 09:52:54 GMT

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jiko stoves can save gorilla lives!


Stoves for Survival ( from the world challenge website)

The endangered Mountain Gorilla population is getting a helping hand from a fuel-efficient ‘Jiko’ stove.

“Charcoal is a commodity that everybody needs, especially poor households, because there’s nothing else, and unfortunately 90% of Charcoal being used in Goma and Rwanda comes from Virunga National Park” Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park

There are only 380 the Mountain Gorillas left in Central Africa, and their habitat is shrinking fast: one of their last refuges is Virunga National Park, but the Park and surrounding areas are rapidly losing their forest cover. The wood is used to supply towns like Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- swelled by a refugee population -- with charcoal for cooking. To lessen the demand for charcoal, fuel efficient stoves are being manufactured locally and given to the people. It’s all part of a new approach to conservation which aims to show that conservation can benefit the poor as much as wildlife.


'Ardi,' Oldest Human Ancestor, Unveiled

video from the journal Science

Article by Jennifer Viegas from Discovery

Oct. 1, 2009 -- The world's oldest and most complete skeleton of a potential human ancestor -- named "Ardi," short for Ardipithecus ramidus -- has been unveiled by an international team of 47 researchers.
Their unprecedented, 17-year investigation of Ardi is detailed in a special issue of the journal Science.
The 4.4 million-year-old hominid opens up a new chapter on human evolution because "it is as close as we have ever come to finding the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans," project co-director Tim White told Discovery News.
"This is not an ordinary fossil," added White, a paleontologist in the University of California at Berkeley's Human Evolution Research Center. "It's not a chimp. It's not a human."
Instead, he said, "It shows us what we used to be."

Placement on the Human History Timeline
The actual last common ancestor of chimps and humans probably lived between five and 10 million years ago, based on genetic and other estimates, so Ardi falls somewhere between this still unknown species and "Lucy," the famous 3.2 million-year-old "ape-man" hominid, also found in Ethiopia, belonging to the genus Australopithecus.
"If you dig up in younger time horizons at the site where Ardipithecus was found you have Australopithecus, so we feel that we are in a position to say that Ardipithecus may have given rise to Australopithecus, which in turn gave rise to Homo (sapiens)," White said.
Ardi, who was a female, may or may not have had any direct descendants. Her species may have given rise to Lucy's species, Australopithecus.

Bones Reveal Appearance and Behavior
Gen Suwa, one of the project's paleoanthropologists, spotted the very first Ardipithecus fossil in 1992 while conducting a foot survey in the Afar Rift in northeastern Ethiopia. Since that time, a total of 110 specimens representing a minimum of 36 different individuals of Ardi's species have been found within a sediment layer at the site that was precisely dated using multiple established techniques.
Ardi is the most complete of these individuals, as the skeleton includes her skull, teeth, arms, hands, pelvis, legs and feet. Based on these findings, the researchers know that she and others in her species were both tree- and land-dwelling omnivores. They had a relatively small, chimp-sized brain, long arms and short legs.
The scientists suspect Ardi used simple tools, such as twigs and leaves, but no stone tools were found at the dig site.
"Believe me, we've looked for them," said White, who added that the earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago.

The First Key Differences Between Hominids and Apes
Ardi could climb trees, using lengthy fingers and big toes for grasping, but she could also walk on the ground on two feet. Detecting that latter ability was critical for the scientists, as it appears two key features distinguished the very first hominid from other apes: walking with two feet on the ground and a reduction in the size of the canine teeth.
Both of these characteristics provide clues as to what might have caused the last common ancestor to diverge from other apes.

The Making of Families, Not War
"We now believe that social, instead of environmental, change, led to the species division," White explained. "Natural selection involves reproductive success, so Professor Owen Lovejoy of the project suspects that Ardipithecus males were probably pair-bonded to specific females, and may have aided them by gathering and carrying foods."
Such provisioning by males would have favored those males who could best walk on two feet, according to the researchers, allowing them free hands for carrying food. Provisioned females could have "intensified their parenting" and carried their infants, which is easier to do in woodland environments when the forelimbs are free.
The reduction in canine teeth, which Lovejoy called "weapons of aggression," further suggests that Ardipithecus males were not as physically hostile with each other as larger-canined chimpanzees are today.

Myth Busted: Humans Never Evolved From Chimpanzees
Although chimpanzees remain our closest living primate relatives, there is now no evidence that Homo sapiens somehow evolved from chimpanzee-like individuals, losing chimp characteristics over time. Instead, after the chimp/hominid split, the two groups appear to have gone their separate evolutionary ways, developing the unique traits seen in each today.
Alan Walker, a professor of biological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University who did not work on the project, said that the Ardipithecus fossils "tell us that the anatomy of closely related living species cannot predict the anatomy of their ancestors very accurately."
Walker said, "It now seems, from the analyses carried out by the discoverers and their colleagues, that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans was much less chimpanzee-like than previously thought."
He concluded that the unveiling of the new hominid "is certain to cause considerable rethinking of not only our evolutionary past, but also that of our living relatives the great apes."

"Discovering Ardi," a world premiere exclusive, airs Sunday, Oct. 11 at 9 PM (ET/PT), only on the Discovery Channel.