Monthly Archives: August 2008

How an atheist came off looking worse than a little old hindu lady…

…in facing down Stephen Colbert! Over on Pharyngula, a bunch of atheists have got their panties in a bit of a twist over Stephen Colbert’s hilarious interview (see below the fold) of atheist spokesperson Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition as part of his “Better Know a Lobby” series this week. And I say that (about my fellow atheists) with affection – but c’mon guys, lighten up, and learn to laugh at yourselves the way you like to laugh at the theists too! Tackling Colbert in his blowhard pundit persona can’t be easy, and I should think you’ve done well if you help generate some good laughs (as in this interview) even if you come off red-faced. And the Secular Coalition gets that (see comment #21 on the Pharyngula thread). I have to say, however, that Lori Lipman Brown did worse than that little old lady from India who came on the Colbert Report several months ago to talk about Hinduism!

The highlight for me was actually the part in the beginning where he talks about atheists being excluded from the Democratic Convention in Denver last week! Now that is something I’d be a lot more upset about – and I thank Colbert for bringing that to air when no one else in the media mentioned it as far as I know. That is the real service he does in highlighting the hypocrisy of even the Obama people who like to talk about separation of church and state but apparently think it doesn’t apply to their own political gatherings. Here’s the interview with Lori Lipman Brown:

And if that makes your heathen cheeks warm with embarrassment, or upsets you, check out how much better this Hindu lady, who looks like she just walked out of RK Narayan’s Malgudi, and reminds me of my aunties, handled the Colbert blowhard:

Isn’t that a much better spirit to handle Colbert in? Or would you rather still accuse him of bias against atheists and in favor of any theist because he is a practicing Catholic? C’mon!!

Obama responds to Science Debate 2008 questions

You may have heard about Science Debate 2008, the effort by a large number of scientists and hundreds of academic and other organizations engaged in research and education (including my own university, whose president, John Welty, is a signatory) to have a public debate on science and technology issues during the current campaign for the US presidency. The campaign didn’t manage to get such a debate during the primary season, and I’m not sure we’ll get one during the main event over the next several months either. As part of the effort to get the candidates to address science & technology issues, the campaign collected 3400 questions from all over the country that could be asked of them if they ever agreed to the debate. Earlier this summer the campaign distilled the questions down to a concise list of 14 which it sent to both candidates, seeking at least written responses. Barack Obama, now the official Democratic nominee elected at the party’s Convention this week, has responded! To every one of the 14 questions, and fairly substantially, I must say. Oh how I would love to see him directly engage McCain (who is yet to respond to the questionnaire) in a face to face debate on television this election season! But I’m not holding my breath. At least we know what to expect from an Obama presidency, and on the whole, that outlook is really refreshing after the last 8 years when we were rolling back the Enlightenment and rushing headlong all the way back to the middle ages in this country.

You really must (especially if you have a vote in this election, but even otherwise, if you care about where the US is headed) read Obama’s response in its entirety. And I’m urging you to do this as someone who doesn’t actually get to vote in this one! But before you go (or maybe after you come back here) let me get you started here with some excerpts relevant to reconciliation ecology, annotated with some of my own immediate thoughts:

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. With the right incentives, I’m convinced that American ingenuity can do this, and in the process make American businesses more productive, create jobs, and make America’s buildings and vehicles safer and more attractive. This is a global problem. U.S. leadership is essential but solutions will require contributions from all parts of the world—particularly the rest of the world’s major emitters: China, Europe, and India.

Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.

I remain skeptical of “market-based” solutions, and would like to see more direct regulation, with stronger penalties for polluting industries. But I can understand if—despite the recent and massive failures of so many deregulated, free-market pillars of the US economy (need a list? how about starting with Enron, the California energy-trading fiascos, the Bush administrations weakening of many environmental regulations on grounds that the industry will self-regulate, and on through the recent spectacular collapse of the housing market?)—a Democratic candidate is still shy about mentioning the need for direct regulation of polluting industries. Surely the “free-market” carrots must be accompanied by some govt. stick if we are to meet the emission reduction targets he is accepting from us scientists, no? He must know that – I hope!

I will restore U.S. leadership in strategies for combating climate change and work closely with the international community. We will re-engage with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main international forum dedicated to addressing the climate change problem. In addition I will create a Global Energy Forum—based on the G8+5, which includes all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa—comprising the largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world. This forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues. I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change.

I’m not sure the US ever was a leader in combating climate change. I mean, even within the US political scene, Al Gore’s was a most lonely voice for most of the past two decades crying about climate change. Yet even the Clinton-Gore administration did plenty to deregulate industry, allowing disasters like Enron to flourish on their watch. The last 8 years, of course, have been an unmitigated disaster, and the world is more than ready to have the US rejoin the fold of civilized nations willing to look the looming global challenge in the eye and engage in finding a collective solution. So these are welcome words, and I particularly like the idea of the Global Energy Forum. So, Go Obama!!

9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?

Oceans are crucial to the earth’s ecosystem and to all Americans because they drive global weather patterns, feed our people and are a major source of employment for fisheries and recreation. As president, I will commit my administration to develop the kind of strong, integrated, well-managed program of ocean stewardship that is essential to sustain a healthy marine environment.

Global climate change could have catastrophic effects on ocean ecologies. Protection of the oceans is one of the many reasons I have developed an ambitious plan to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 by 2050. We need to enhance our understanding of the effect of climate change on oceans and the effect of acidification on marine life through expanded research programs at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I will propel the U.S. into a leadership position in marine stewardship and climate change research. Stronger collaboration across U.S. scientific agencies and internationally is needed in basic research and for designing mitigation strategies to reverse or offset the damage being done to oceans and coastal areas.

The oceans are a global resource and a global responsibility for which the U.S. can and should take a more active role. I will work actively to ensure that the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention – an agreement supported by more than 150 countries that will protect our economic and security interests while providing an important international collaboration to protect the oceans and its resources. My administration will also strengthen regional and bilateral research and oceans preservation efforts with other Gulf Coast nations.

Again, I like that he is clear about the need for the US to engage with other countries in a collective effort – and, of course, the marine realm is one where this need is clearest. I would like to hear more about engaging directly with coastal communities – not just national governments – in developing longer-term collective governance policies and practices to really ensure the health of the oceans. That might be too much, too radical, to expect during a campaign, perhaps, but I do hope his policy team accommodates some truly out-of-the-box thinking on this – and on many of the other issues mentioned throughout this Q&A.

Our coastal areas and beaches are American treasures and are among our favorite places to live and visit. I will work to reauthorize the Coastal Zone Management Act in ways that strengthen the collaboration between federal agencies and state and local organizations. The National Marine Sanctuaries and the Oceans and Human Health Acts provide essential protection for ocean resources and support the research needed to implement a comprehensive ocean policy. These programs will be strengthened and reauthorized.

This is about the least one would expect from an Obama administration, but we really need a lot more!

10. Water. Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?

Solutions to this critical problem will require close collaboration between federal, state, and local governments and the people and businesses affected. First, prices and policies must be set in a ways that give everyone a clear incentive to use water efficiently and avoid waste. Regulations affecting water use in appliances and incentives to shift from irrigated lawns to “water smart” landscapes are examples. Second, information, training, and, in some cases, economic assistance should be provided to farms and businesses that will need to shift to more efficient water practices. Many communities are offering kits to help businesses and homeowners audit their water use and find ways to reduce use. These should be evaluated, with the most successful programs expanded to other states and regions. I will establish a national plan to help high-growth regions with the challenges of managing their water supplies.

In addition, it is also critical that we undertake a concerted program of research, development, and testing of new technologies that can reduce water use.

This is rather tepid, I have to say. It all sounds good – and definitely is better than praying for rain – but it still isn’t nearly enough to deal with this silent elephant waiting in the environmental crisis room! C’mon, Mr. Obama, – where’s the sense of urgency? And, again, where’s the response to corporate take-over of water resources both in the US and worldwide? At least he does mention “regulation” instead of “free-markets” in this one…

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

This question, I think, gets the strongest response from Obama – and its a good one.

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

About bloody time, right? But now you’ve got me curious about who’s on this team of science advisors, including the Nobel laureates. I hope we can find that on your campaign website, perhaps? Hmm… doesn’t look that easy to find stuff on there… and science isn’t listed separately under “issues” although technology is. But let’s get on with the point here.

In addition I will:

• Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;

• Establish the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;

• Strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and

• Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for “whistle blowers” who report abuses of these processes.

To all that, I can but say – Hear, Hear!!

13. Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

Ok, here we go – this is one that directly affects my own academic life and bottom-line!

Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature— from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems—has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future.


Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.

Again, very good, and well thought out. This is reassuring not only because he knows specifics like the funding rates of NSF/NIH (although it is actually below the one-in-ten proposal getting funded he cites, depending upon the research discipline), but that he recognizes the real dangers of intensifying competition for scarce grants, which can stifle truly innovative, high-risk-high-gain research, particularly in an ideologically charged funding climate like the past 8 years. It is rare and good to hear a politician offer such insight about scientific creativity – this is almost getting into fictional president territory! But what are you going to do about it, Mr. Obama?

This situation is unacceptable. As president, I will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.

Double over the next decade? Sounds good, but… is that in just current dollars, or inflation-adjusted ones? For surely, given where Bush has driven the overall economy, inflation will be a major chunk of any dollar increase in NSF/NIH funding. And how does it compare with where funding might have been if its growth hadn’t been curtailed in recent years? In other words, is this increased funding going to be more than just compensatory growth? I guess its too much to expect that kind of detail during a campaign, especially since so much of it depends upon what the US congress and senate let Obama get away with.

Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the “grand challenges” of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.

And isn’t that what the best of American science has been about since WWII (until recently)?

Do go read the answers (generally equally thoughtful ones) to all the other questions.

The ball’s now in McCain’s court – but I’ll be very, very surprised – nay, astonished – if any of his responses are better than Obama’s. And I’m not even talking about the more “controversial” questions 7 (genetics research) and 8 (stem cells)!

Holy magnetic cow!!

ResearchBlogging.orgFile this one under the “who woulda thunk it?”, or “why didn’t I think of this?” or simply “whaaa…?!” categories! Quick, can you tell which way is north in this picture?

Do you think of asking the cow for directions? Why not? For it seems that cow probably knows which way north is! Read on…

You know, these big dumb-seeming large mammals you pass by every day, these big walking, grazing cheese-producing happy cows dotting the picturesque landscapes of California’s grassy hillsdes, or their scrawnier but holier cousins clogging up traffic throughout India? Well, there is more to them than meets the eye – in fact this curious tidbit about their natural history seems to have escaped notice from even the keenest cowboy, cattle-herder, animal husband (I’m not sure if that’s what one calls someone practicing animal husbandry – is it?), or drunken late night cow-tipper, throughout history.

It took some creative but fairly straightforward analysis by German scientists of satellite imagery now available via Google Earth to discover that cows, while grazing or resting, chewing cud tend to orient their bodies along the magnetic north-south axis!! And its not just cows, deer also appear to do the same! How cool, and odd, and curious is that?! And what a clever application of Google Earth imagery? This team simply measured the orientation of 8510 cows in satellite images of 308 pastures across the globe, and found that over two-thirds of the animals orient themselves along a north-south axis!! Apart from simply asking the question (who woulda thunk?), the analysis was careful enough to account for local variation in magnetic fields, and shows that the animals orient according to the local field, not geographic north!

Which raises all kinds of interesting questions worth following up on, some of which you can read about in the original PNAS paper published in an early online edition this week, and in this Los Angeles Times article covering it. Here’s the abstract from PNAS:

Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer

Sabine Begall, Jaroslav Červený, Julia Neef, Oldřich Vojtčch, and Hynek Burda


We demonstrate by means of simple, noninvasive methods (analysis of satellite images, field observations, and measuring “deer beds” in snow) that domestic cattle (n = 8,510 in 308 pastures) across the globe, and grazing and resting red and roe deer (n = 2,974 at 241 localities), align their body axes in roughly a north–south direction. Direct observations of roe deer revealed that animals orient their heads northward when grazing or resting. Amazingly, this ubiquitous phenomenon does not seem to have been noticed by herdsmen, ranchers, or hunters. Because wind and light conditions could be excluded as a common denominator determining the body axis orientation, magnetic alignment is the most parsimonious explanation. To test the hypothesis that cattle orient their body axes along the field lines of the Earth’s magnetic field, we analyzed the body orientation of cattle from localities with high magnetic declination. Here, magnetic north was a better predictor than geographic north. This study reveals the magnetic alignment in large mammals based on statistically sufficient sample sizes. Our findings open horizons for the study of magnetoreception in general and are of potential significance for applied ethology (husbandry, animal welfare). They challenge neuroscientists and biophysics to explain the proximate mechanisms.

So what’s the underlying mechanism cows use to sense the magnetic field? Do they also have magnetic particles in their brains like many better studied migratory species known to orient magnetically? Why do they do this? Domestic cows are not, of course, migratory any more (at least not on their own), so what might they gain by orienting magnetically? Or is this simply a vestige of their evolutionary history, from ancestors who actually put that magnet to use? And do they prefer to point their heads north or their behinds? The satellite photos are not sharp enough to tell apparently, so answering that may require some ground-truthing! Opens up a whole new line of research, doesn’t it?

And as for why so many humans who have spent much time with cows failed to notice this uncanny magnetism, here’s a priceless quote from the LA Times, from a dairy farmer right here in the Central Valley, no less:

Asked whether he had ever observed such behavior in cows, dairy farmer Rob Fletcher of Tulare, Calif., said, “Absolutely not.” But, he added, “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about stuff like that.”

I suspect, however, that the last laugh belongs to the cows, as only Gary Larson could have guessed! Remember this from his insightful pen?


That’s why it took satellite to notice this particular behavior! What else have the cows been up to then?


Begall, S., Cerveny, J., Neef, J., Vojtcch, O., Burda, H. (2008). Magnetic alignment in grazing and resting cattle and deer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803650105

Sinking, slowly, into a plastic soup

A couple of interesting stories about plastics in the news today that are worth pondering!

First, on my drive back home from our college assembly a short while ago, I caught NPR’s story about Seattle’s attempt to regulate plastic bag use in grocery stores:

All Things Considered, August 21, 2008 · The Seattle City Council has voted to start requiring grocery stores to charge a 20 cent “user fee” for every plastic bag. But many people call the council’s actions heavy-handed and the food industry is trying to repeal the measure.

Go listen to it.

And tonight, ABC’s Nightline promises to recycle a story that might help you find that basketball, or other plastic toy or lawn ornament or whatever, that’s probably gone missing from your yard at some point – its probably floating out in the middle of the Pacific ocean:

If by chance you are missing a basketball, you may be glad to know that it has been found in the Pacific Ocean.

It was there along with giant tangles of rope, sunken snack-food bags, a plastic six-pack ring and thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, billowing under the ocean surface like jellyfish.

And that’s not all.

There is a floating garbage dump about the size of Africa created by Pacific currents now carrying refuse from North America, Asia and the islands, concentrating it into a swirl of flotsam estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of junk, 80 percent of which is plastic.

If you haven’t already heard about this floating garbage dump or sea of plastic soup (why haven’t you? CNN had another story about it just last week), or missed this report when it first aired (last march, I think), here’s your chance to catch it again; or you can read about it on the Nightline website. Better yet, visit the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to learn more about what all the flotsam of our globalized plastic lives is doing to the ocean. As the Nightline article continues:

Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, is an independently wealthy man who decided to spend his life studying the ocean. Ten years ago he was credited with discovering The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the oceanic dump of the Pacific Rim.

His organization is dedicated to restoring the marine environment. Among the many items he has pulled out of the water include: melted milk crates, a suitcase, fistfuls of toothbrushes, golf balls, glue sticks and brightly colored plastic umbrella handles.

“They are throwaway products,” Moore said. “They are cheap now. An umbrella used to be something you might keep for a lifetime. Now an umbrella is for one storm.”

Moore has focused his study on an area of the garbage patch that is twice the size of Texas, about a thousand miles from North America near the Hawaiian islands.

Plastic Soup

Sailing his research catamaran named the Alguita, Moore and a small crew drag a trawling device through the garbage patch to study the content of ocean water.

They find what he describes as a “plastic soup.” In some cases there is more plastic in the waters than plankton, the basic food organism of the ocean.

“It has some zooplankton. But overwhelmingly what we’re seeing here are plastic particles,” Moore said. “The ocean has become a plastic soup. This is the soup.”

The problem with plastic in particular is that it doesn’t quite float, and doesn’t sink either. Sunlight and salt water slowly break it down until bags become shreds, and hard plastic breaks down into multi-colored chips.

“This is the new beach sand that we’ve seeing throughout the pacific islands,” Moore said. “It’s a sand made of plastic.”

Mixed in with the plastic sand is a tiny bit of sand of volcanic origin and coral.

“Formerly we got sand by breaking down rock and coral. Now we’re getting sand by breaking down plastic,” he said.

Finally, to get a more hands on perspective of exploration through this plastic soup, follow the trail of JUNK, the institute’s little raft built on 15,000 plastic bottles currently on its way from California to Hawaii, with its two-man crew, and messages in a plastic bottle! Here’s a little video about this cool voyage:


That little raft is now days away from arriving in Hawaii, and, naturally, you can catch up with their adventures via the raft crew’s blog!

Oh to blog from the middle of the Pacific ocean while floating on a raft of plastic bottles, secure in the knowledge that they won’t dissolve before journey’s end… and contemplate the many different ways we are changing this little planet of ours…

Destroying the earth in equivocal, inaccurate, vague, self-serving ways… and having a laugh about it too!


This cartoon won the 2008 Science Idol: Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest, organized annually by the Union of Concerned Scientists. I forgot to link to the contest while it was on, but you can still see all the finalist cartoons and read about their creators on the UCS website. And now, you can even bid on the original watercolor version of Jason Bilicki’s above cartoon, with proceeds benefiting the UCS. What a great funny-unfunny note to begin yet another semester teaching science on campus, eh?

Modernism doesn’t belong to the West alone

Even as one gets tired of arguing that science and the scientific method do not belong to the West, however much they may have flourished there lately, it is refreshing to get someone from the West acknowledge that even in the world of Art, the West cannot claim to hold any monopoly on significant movements such as modernism! How I wish I had been able to go see this exhibition of Nandalal Bose’s art in person (when it was in San Diego last spring), which apparently “delivers the significant news that…”

…modernism wasn’t a purely Western product sent out like so many CARE packages to a hungry and waiting world. It was a phenomenon that unfolded everywhere, in different forms, at different speeds, for different reasons, under different pressures, but always under pressure. As cool and above-it-all as modern may sound, it was a response to emergency.

He [Nandalal Bose] spoke of the sketches as a form of seeing. His long-nurtured habit of carrying paper and pens wherever he went suggests a form of yoga. With their formal deftness and avidity of detail, the drawings are his most engaging and personal body of work.

The Philadelphia show, which will travel to India, immerses us, wonderfully, in both that life and that time. And it reminds us that every Museum of Modern Art in the United States and Europe should be required, in the spirit of truth in advertising, to change its name to Museum of Western Modernism until it has earned the right to do otherwise.

[From Indian Modernism Via an Eclectic, Elusive Artist]

And if you are able to go, make sure to also catch another smaller exhibit there on “Multiple Modernities: India, 1905-2005“.

Long live the One Straw Revolutionary

I learnt the sad news this morning (yet to be picked up by US media, and even Google News) that Masanobu Fukuoka, the pioneer of no-till agriculture, passed away on August 16, at the ripe old age of 95. His “One Straw Revolution”, a manifesto on natural farming, is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read on how humanity might live – and well – by learning how nature works, and working with nature rather than against it. As this article notes, Fukuoka arrived at very similar solutions to what later became popular as permaculture, but from a very different perspective:

It is remarkable that Fukuoka and Bill Mollison, working independently, on two different continents with entirely different environmental conditions should come up with such similar solutions to the question, “How can people on live this planet sustainably and in harmony with nature.” Both claim that the principles of their system can be adapted to any climatic area.

Mollison and Fukuoka took entirely different routes to get to essentially the same place. Permaculture is a design system which aims to maximize the functional connection of its elements. It integrates raising crops and animals with careful water management. Homes and other structures are designed for maximum energy efficiency. Everything is made to work together and evolve over time to blend harmoniously into a complete and sustainable agricultural system.

The key word here is design. Permaculture is a consciously designed system. The designer carefully uses his/her knowledge, skill and sensitivity to make a plan, then implement it. Fukuoka created natural farming from a completely different perspective.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that that notion of conscious design, and thus control over the system, has made permaculture more popular here in the west, while Fukuoka’s one-straw revolution, which I think was more deeply revolutionary because it asked us to do less rather than more, reverberated more strongly in India as elsewhere the east: he was awarded top regional honors in the form of the Ramon Magsasay Award (a regional equivalent of the Nobel prize) from the Philippines and the Deshikottam Award from Rabindranath Tagore‘s Visvabharati University.

Abandoning his western agricultural science training and, at age 25, giving up his job as a crop scientist, Fukuoka-sensei returned to his father’s farm, taking a different path to eventually arrive, as Larry Corn notes, at his simple, minimalist farming philosophy:

The idea for natural farming came to Fukuoka when he was about twenty five years old. One morning, as he sat at sunrise on a bluff overlooking Yokohama Bay, a flash of inspiration occurred. He saw that nature was perfect just as it is. Problems arise when people try to improve upon nature and use nature strictly for human benefit. He tried to explain this understanding to others, but when they could not understand he made a decision to return to his family farm. He decided to create a concrete example of his understanding by applying it to agriculture.

But where to begin? Fukuoka had no model to go by. “‘How about trying this? How about trying that?’ That is the usual way of developing agricultural technique. My way was different. ‘How about not doing this, and How about not doing that?’ – this was the path I followed. Now my rice growing is simply sowing seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me more than thirty years to reach this simplicity.”

The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the fall when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he has tilted the balance slightly in favor of his crops Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

Thus, in the end, he arrived at the same place as Mollison, his western (well Australian, but philosophically more western than eastern) counterpart pioneer of permaculture, who wrote:

Perhaps Fukuoka, in his book The One Straw Revolution, has best stated the basic philosophy of permaculture. In brief, it is philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.

Only from such philosophical convergences can we hope to find a truly sustainable future for our species on this planet. A planet which, sadly, is bereft today of the one-straw revolutionary.

On the road, off the blog, and in the local news?!

I go off the blog to work on a symposium talk, present it at the AOU meeting (where we were lucky enough to catch an amazing plenary talk by Rosemary Grant), do a bit of a family road trip back through lovely Oregon, and the morning after returning home, find this story right on top of the front page of the Fresno Bee [Update: since the story may disappear behind the Bee’s pay-per-view firewall, I’ve included the text below the fold] , accompanied by this picture splashed half across the back page:


That lovely young lady holding the microphone in the picture happens to be my grad student, Heather Hanlin! (And yes, we’ve already given her a hard time about her choice of fancy field clothing! Her excuse – well, what else is an urban ecologist supposed to wear to blend into the habitat?) And then my voicemail fills up, as does my inbox with all kinds of interesting little stories about birds singing at night – all thanks to the reporter sharing my contact information in a box with the story! I just have to find the time, amid finishing a paper and a grant before getting ready for the next bunch of eager young (well, one can hope…) students taking my class, to respond to the calls and emails and start compiling some of the information about urban birdsong which might prove useful for our research. Let me, for now, make it clear that I did not write the story as some of the respondents have assumed!! It was Diana Marcum of the Bee! And much as I appreciate her efforts, I can’t say I agree with every hypothesis in the report (umm… cats making birds sing more?), although we are investigating some of them. But more on that in a later post, perhaps when we have some actual results to share!

Who knew that a story about birds would generate such a response around here?

Here’s the Bee’s story:

Night warblers puzzle listeners; Even a study is looking at why birds keep singing after sundown.

Diana Marcum, The Fresno Bee

14 August 2008

Copyright 2008. The Fresno Bee. All Rights Reserved.

Why do the birds go on singing — at night?

The common expectation (right up there with the sun rising in the east, leaves dropping in the fall and the cat wanting back in as soon as someone has let it out) is that birds sing in the sunshine.

They’re supposed to be early birds, right?

But across Fresno, more-than-casual observers have noticed birds singing long after dark this summer.

“Isn’t it weird that the birds are singing at night?” Susan Daughty’s teen daughter asked when her mother came home from a dinner shift waiting tables.

“I listened and then I thought, ‘Well, that is strange,’ ” says Daughty, who lives in central Fresno. “It was after 9 p.m. and they were singing away. But I didn’t know if it was new or if I just hadn’t listened before.”

Therein lies the mystery.

Were the birds singing at night all along and people just now noticed?

Could mockingbirds — those raucous late-night partiers of the bird world — be mocking the sound of songbirds? (Mockingbirds are such good mimics that a customer at a bird supply store in northeast Fresno recently complained about a mockingbird imitating all four cycles of her dishwasher, so she couldn’t remember whether she’d washed her dishes already.)

Could a cat with hunting prowess have moved into the neighborhood, keeping the birds awake at night?

Or is it another sign of city life changing the natural world?

In England, researchers found that the British robin was forced to sing at night because daytime traffic was drowning out his mating serenades.

The study by Richard A. Fuller and colleagues at the University of Sheffield, published in 2007, measured noise levels and singing at 67 sites around their city. They found that birds sang only during the day at 49 sites, and day and night at 18 sites. Daytime noise levels at those 18 sites were significantly higher than at the others.

Madhusudan Katti, an assistant professor of vertebrate ecology in the biology department at Fresno State, thinks it’s “very possible” that birds in Fresno are being forced to sing at night because of higher noise levels in the daytime.

Katti is already overseeing one study on the effect of ambient noise on the singing behavior of house finches — pretty, red-chested birds common in the area.

Heather Hanlin, a first-year graduate student at Fresno State, collected audio of the house finch at more than 30 locations across Fresno County.

“We’re just now beginning to compile the data,” says Katti, whose research focuses on biodiversity in urban settings. “There’s not enough information to know why birds sing when they do, how noise affects bird song; that’s why we’re doing the study.”

Hanlin did her recordings in the daytime, some by highway overpasses, some on quiet streets.

Somewhere along the way, Hanlin noticed the birds were singing after dark. “I heard them. But this summer was my first time recording. So I didn’t know if the birds had just started singing at night. Or if I was just so tuned into bird song that I was hearing it for the first time.”

For Katti and Hanlin, the questions immediately begin to arise when they ponder birds singing at night.

What kind of birds? What kind of songs? Which neighborhoods?

“I’d be very interested to talk to people who’ve heard birds singing at night,” says Katti, who may expand his study. “We could learn something.”

A journalistic, unscientific survey around the city found people who said they heard after-hours warbling.

Makielah Vandervelde, 8, who lives in north Fresno, says she lies awake at night listening to the birds.

“I was really surprised, because usually birds go to sleep at night,” she said.

Anidelle Flint, 79, who lives in Fig Garden, says the birds have been chirping and singing at night in her neighborhood this summer.

“No, the birds haven’t been singing after dark,” said her husband, George Flint, 78. “Oh wait, maybe they do. I take my hearing aid out at night. But if they do sing at night, I would like that. I like birds singing anytime.”

Michael Ruffino, owner of the Wild Bird Center, the bird supply store, says he has heard birds singing at night.

But he says he’s doubtful there are any far-reaching theories on the reasons why.

“I like the obvious answers,” he says. “If the birds are singing in your neighborhood at night and they weren’t singing last summer, it’s probably because a tom cat that’s a really good birder moved into the neighborhood.

“Throw a cat up a tree and the birds will make some noise,” he said. “Throw a cat up a tree and those birds will sing all night.”

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6375.


Heard any good songs lately?

Have you heard birds singing at night in your neighborhood?

Contact Madhusudan Katti, Department of Biology, M/S SB73, 2555 E. San Ramon Ave., California State University, Fresno, Fresno, CA 93740-8034; (559) 278-2460;


FRESNO BEE FILE | DARRELL WONG/THE FRESNO BEE | Heather Hanlin, a first-year graduate student at Fresno State, is studying the effect of ambient noise on house finch song and singing behavior. Hanlin has collected audio of the house finch at more than 30 locations across Fresno County. She noticed birds were singing after dark.

Photo essay: a junco and a bear among the giant sequioas

We just spent a couple of too-short, yet rejuvenating days in Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks just east of Fresno, where I managed to capture some decent images. I’ll upload a full album to my gallery when I get a chance one of these days, but here are some vignettes from the Giant Forest – I hope you like them!

In the spirit of the lazy summer afternoon, this wee little dark-eyed junco was preening itself in a giant’s shade (that red streak in the background, a young Sequoia trunk) when it paused to regard me with this sidelong glance,


before hopping off the trunk,


and resuming its hunt for a tea-time snack in the undergrowth.


A little while later, a not-so-wee black bear rummaged through the same forest, it too a dwarf among the giants!


Meanwhile, in the nearby meadow


bees buzzed drunkenly amid lupines


and an Indian paintbrush leaned against a trunk as if resting from the labors of coloring the giants’ red wood.


Aahhh… ’twas a pity we had to turn our backs on them all and head back to the urban jungle!


Its back to the grind now… until next time, hopefully soon!