In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


1.   California Least Terns need your help in Alameda
2.   And you can defeat the Central Subway
3.   California Native Grasslands workshops - revision
4.   Feedback:  Sierra Club/F&G Comm president/frog problems/the joy of pi
5.   Sutro Stewards change of date
6.   Golden Gate Naturefest April 14-15
7.   Evolutionary Ecology of Three Local Serpentine Endemics Fri 16, Los Altos
8.   Why GG Audubon is still worried about America's Cup
9.   SF Parks Alliance offers botanical illustration classes
10. Sunday Streets Mission Street experiment - meeting Mar 19
11.  The word today:  reductio ad absurdum
12.  Banking against Doomsday - preserve crop biodiversity
13.  Wry observations on government and history
14.  Are we getting dumber?
15.  Americo-centric world that has already passed away
16.  Marketplace: Illegal immigration hurts the economy/death illegal in one Italian town
17.  Notes & Queries: Is there a land of the free and a home of the brave? If so, where?

The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.
    Rabindranath Tagore

Remember Molly Ivins’s needle-witted quip about a Texas Congressman: “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day”?

1.  An 18-year-long conflict over a key Alameda breeding site for California Least Terns is close to a positive solution -- but we need your help to ensure that it isn't derailed!

Background: The former naval base on the island of Alameda is home to one of the most important breeding colonies of endangered California Least Terns.  Over the past decade, the future of the colony has been threatened by plans to build a Veterans Administration medical complex at Alameda Point.

Recently, federal and local agencies have come together to draft a win-win agreement that will protect the terns:
Creation of a wildlife refuge that will provide permanent protection for the terns, operated by the East Bay Regional Park District
The V.A. would build its facility a safe distance away from the refuge, at the north end of Alameda Point
Alameda residents would gain added park and open space land near the V.A.
This agreement relies on the willingness of the City of Alameda to lease the refuge land to the park district for a nominal sum such as $1 per year. This makes sense since the city acquired  the land for free, and the park district will have to shoulder the ongoing costs of maintaining both the refuge and the recreational park areas.

But some city officials appear determined to extract payments from the park district -- which would kill the deal.

The future of Alameda Point, the terns and other wildlife is at a critical juncture right now. The City Council will meet in closed session about the future of this proposal on March 20th.

Please call or email Alameda city officials and tell them to approve this win-win opportunity at their meeting on March 20th!

Golden Gate Audubon volunteers and staff have been working to protect the Alameda tern colony for more than 30 years! It is thanks to the dedicated efforts of our volunteers with Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge that the tern colony has seen a resurgence in the past decade.
Contact information:

Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore -
Vice Mayor Rob Bonta  -
Council Member Doug deHaan --
Council Member Beverly Johnson --
Council Member Lena Tam --
Or call them at (510) 747-4800.

Everyone should re-scrutinize the Central Subway---in light of growing Muni deficits and cutbacks.  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) hasn’t granted final approvals.  And Congress has a mandated 60-day review period.  Instead, let’s shift hundreds of millions of dollars into citywide Muni.


Well-organized citizens         The Central Subway can be       Freeway protesters in
can fend off boondoggles.     stopped like the Embarca-        front of City Hall---
                                                  dero Freeway                              changing history

The Central Subway means more Muni service cuts and fare/ fee increases.
The Central Subway Project has drained over $500 million of state and local funding from the citywide Muni system.  Facing a $19.6 million deficit in 2012 and $33.6 million in 2013, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) threatens more service cuts and fare/ fee increases---after cuts/ increases in 2009 and 2010.  SFMTA projects $1.6 billion in budget deficits and $25.4 billion of capital needs over the next twenty years.  While Muni infrastructure crumbles, Muni’s $1.9 billion in deferred maintenance is a ticking nuclear bomb.

Muni wouldn’t have budget deficits---if scarce dollars were used wisely.
The Central Subway Project has usurped over $500 million of state/ local funds from system-wide Muni needs---exacerbating system meltdowns and rider discontentment.  Service cuts, fare increases, parking/ meter rate hikes, painful traffic citations and frustrated Muni riders have subsidized the Central Subway Project.  No degree of service cuts and fare/fee increases will offset Muni’s mismanagement of assets and existing funds.

PROP K 2003 has higher, legally-mandated citywide Muni priorities. 
Instead of the tiny 1.7 mile Central Subway, hundreds of miles of Transit Preferential Streets can be created with the Central Subway’s existing state/ local funds---benefiting all Muni riders, taxpayers and neighborhoods.
With its uniqueness, character, Mediterranean-scale, geographic beauty and topographic splendor, San Francisco’s northeast quadrant is a natural pedestrian realm.  The distance from Downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf is 1-½ miles.  Columbus Avenue is 1 mile long.  Washington Square is 1 mile from the Powell BART/Metro Station.  Chinatown is ½ mile from Market Street.  As seen in cities throughout the world, these are distances opportune for a pulsating street life.
From an urban planning perspective, robust pedestrian and surface transit assures wider economic vitality---with very efficient costs and more immediate jobs.

The Central Subway’s own reports depict an abysmal project.  .

CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) cites pervasive Muni safety Issues.
In the 3-6-12 SFMTA Board Agenda:  “Conference with Legal Counsel:  Existing Litigation---Investigation into the Operations, Practices and Conduct of the SFMTA Regarding Ongoing Public Safety Issues, California Public Utilities Commission, I. 11-02-017, Issued on 2/24/2011.”

“The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) today began penalty considerations based on CPUC staff allegations of pervasive safety concerns regarding the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's (SFMTA or Muni) light rail system. This action was taken after CPUC safety inspectors found numerous safety violations on Muni's light rail system in San Francisco. In their report to the CPUC, the inspectors have alleged that SFMTA has been chronically unresponsive to alleged violations and other findings.”

“If you’re a regular Muni rider, you know that delays are common on weekday commutes to and from work. You might not know, however, that San Francisco’s transportation agency has routinely fallen short on safety inspections for the past year and a half, according to a report released this week by the California Public Utilities Commission.”

If the Central Subway were truly a sound transportation project, than politicians, public officials and lobbyists wouldn’t be needed to twist the arms of the public and decision-makers.  Instead, a multi-million dollar media campaign has pitched the Central Subway like snake oil and subprime derivatives, using Muni funds to lobby Muni’s own customers, governing bodies and officials.

CITIREPORT:  “Lobbyists Turn Millions into Billions”: 
“Money Follows Controversy
The top ten clients who promised payments for lobbying surfaces some of the most controversial issues at City Hall.
California Pacific Medical Center promised the most in payments for lobbying, at $750,985. Aecom, which is leading the Central Subway and other projects, ranked second at $360,000. Third was Millennium Partners, also at $360,000.”

NEW YORK TIMES:  “Out Of Office, but Not Out of Things to Say”:  
“His [former Mayor Willie Brown] law firm represents prominent clients, among them Aecom, an engineering firm involved in San Francisco’s central subway project, and the California Online Poker Association.”

EPOCH TIMES:  “San Francisco Mayoral Debate gives Glimpse of Chinatown Politics”:
“CCDC [Chinatown Community Development Center} also gets a juicy subcontract related to the Central Subway project, including $30,000 a month to spend on ‘community outreach’.”

WALL STREET JOURNAL:  “The Billion-Dollar-A-Mile Subway Makes Perfect Sense”:
NOTE:  Even while the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is evaluating the Central Subway project, the FTA Administrator defended the project in the Wall Street Journal---responding to an Editorial that blasted the Subway Boondoggle. The conflict of interest is worsened by transit data that shows the Central Subway decreasing transit service levels and travel times for tens of thousands of riders.

Instead of Muni service cutbacks, fare/ fee increases and crumbling infrastructure, imagine how the Central Subway's hundreds of millions of dollars in existing state/ local funds could revitalize the citywide Muni System.  Political leaders do pay heed to well-reasoned arguments of their constituents.
Join with in lobbying Washington and Sacramento.


3.  Thank you for posting the California Native Grasslands workshop info.  If you have a chance, would you please mention that Andrea Williams will not be instructing, even though she helped develop the course material?  Other work commitments…

If possible, you might also mention a couple other trainings coming up:
1)      Saturday March 24th at Tilden’s EB Regional Parks Botanical Garden =
2)      Saturday March 31st at Friends of the Chico Herbarium =


4.  Feedback

On Mar 13, 2012, at 2:12 PM, BeckyE wrote:
Jake -  a little light on the formation of the Sierra Club (in response to the anonymous Loma Prieta Chapter member).  The Sierra Club was founded in 1892; its first conservation battle was to get Yosemite Valley (which was then poorly managed by the State of California) into the national park.  The Hetch Hetchy battle was a decade later. 

As to the population question:  it was a heated battle with hotheads on both sides but to fault any one individual ignores scores of advocates on both sides.  I believe that the Sierra Club continues to advocate women's' issue in its international efforts. 

Red legged frogs and the San Francisco Garter Snake - the San Francisco Bay Chapter continues to work for the protection of these species at Sharp Park in Pacifica (Loma Prieta Chapter territory) and believes that the City and its RecPark Department are guilty of killing frogs despite admonition from the environmental community and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. 

Becky Evans (Sierra Club member since 1969)
Thank you for the comments and corrections, Becky.  Most of your correcting comments were directed to my errors, not my correspondent.

I knew full well that the Club started in 1892, but somehow was fixated on the damming of Hetchy and I was too hasty in typing.

Eric Mills:
Thanks for running Miles Young's piece.  He's pretty astute about all of this, I think.

As for the chorus frogs and the chytrid issue, I'm worried that the DFG will use these little guys as a scapegoat (scapefrog?), an excuse not to do anything about the American bullfrog imports for the live markets.  And I wonder, too, if the chorus frogs were infected by the released market bullfrogs?  Or maybe the African clawed frogs in Lily Pond in GG Park?

Rachel Kesel:
Jake, You said, "environmentalists often don't know who their friends are."

Too true.
If you get more interesting stuff on this, do share. The intersection of hunting, environmentalism and animal rights kinda blows my mind.

From a professional herpetologist (name withheld):
"When I read the article I didn't really place judgement on the chorus frog.  True, the article used the Typhoid Mary reference.  But I attribute that to the usual sort of sensationalism that papers seem to require to stay in business in this crazy world.  To me, the facts are the facts.  If chorus frogs do tend to spread the fungus around, so be it.  It doesn't mean we should get rid of them, or stop introducing them where there are red-legged frogs.

Here is a way of looking at the issue that might help put all of this into perspective.  Amphibian chytrid fungus (ACF) likely moved through lowland California decades ago, causing massive die-offs of many frog and toad species, most of which had a few resistant survivors who lived to re-establish populations.  So it's likely that all frog populations in the Bay Area are over it, so to speak.  It doesn't really matter whether chorus frogs spread fungal spores around, because they are already there, and the red-legged frogs can deal with them.  At one of my study sites south of the Bay, 96% of captured red-legged frogs were infected with ACF and they seemed to be doing just fine. 

The article was mainly referring to the Sierra Nevada, where ACF seems to have only recently invaded, nearly wiping out the Sierra/Mountain yellow-legged frogs there.  It may well be true that chorus frogs have been instrumental in acting as a disease reservoir there.  But who cares.  The fungus might have moved through the yellow-legged frog populations even without chorus frogs present.  It probably would have taken longer and maybe it would have been substantially different, but my hunch is that if both scenarios were played out 100 years into the future, the outcomes would not be significantly different from each other.  In either case, either the yellow-legged frogs will be gone or they won't.  And if they're still around, they'll be resistant to ACF.

So please, please, please keep working to help out chorus frogs in the City!  Chorus frog habitat is habitat for many other species, including humans!  Without all that to rejuvenate our souls, we're done for."

Alane Bowling:
Loved the Pi section, Jake. Thank you!!
I wondered whether anyone read it.  At least one did.  Thanks, Alane.
Lots of people probably read it and thoroughly enjoyed it but just didn't think to let you know. I also love the quotes and poetry you include. Wonderful and very well done.

Bob Nelson:
Dear Jake:  Thanks for the explanation of the bright planets Jupiter & Venus!
My woman friend and I were watching for the international space station a couple of weeks ago, and saw similar bright "stars" in the
sky...  I tried to peruade her that the red one was Mars, the Red Planet, but she wasn't buying it!  (It WAS Mars!!)
I enjoyed reading through ALL of your information about Pi, and wish to add one more item:  Euler's Identity:'s_identity
Hooboy, Bob, you're a better man than I.  I am attracted by mathematics and sense its truth and beauty.  Attracted to it I may be, but it is not attracted to me--it repulses me. 

I take a number of audio CD or DVD courses from The Teaching Company.  (I highly recommend them to anyone.)  Over time I bought three courses in aspects of mathematics, but I finished only one, and even then I stopped trying to comprehend some lectures--just waited until they got back to something I could understand.  Euler's Identity was one of those that caused my mind to slam closed, like steel doors.  I don't have the brain power.

I'm glad you liked the pi items.  I wanted to post everything that was in The Joy of Pi.  It's a wonderful little book that I keep beside my easy chair and read snippets of from time to time.  I get little insights into the world.

P.S.  One thing the book includes--and I'm sure this will grab you--is that it actually prints a million decimal points of pi.  It is a soft background to every page, so it is not intrusive.


5.  Sutro Stewards
We have changed the date due to predicted rain, high winds and thundershowers. Apologies for duplicate notices, we are mailing to all lists.

Time: March 24, 2012 from 10am to 2pm
Location: Sutro Nursery, UCSF, at top of Aldea San Miguel Student Housing area
Organized By: Craig Dawson

Event Description:
Join us at the Sutro Nursery and learn first hand how to propagate plants from seed and cuttings. We'll have our propagation expert on hand for instruction and to answer your questions.
WE MEET AT THE NURSERY SITE, 195 Behr Ave., Nursery is below parking area. Parking is very limited so carpool if possible.

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”  Wallace Stegner


6.  Wild Nature of San Francisco
Golden Gate Naturefest!

Come celebrate the natural wonders of San Francisco (and the end of tax season!) at the Golden Gate Naturefest! A group of experienced naturalists will be leading field trips, hikes bike tours, pond building, and other activities throughout San Francisco and San Bruno Mountain on the weekend of April 14th & 15th, 2012! This is an amazing opportunity for you and your family to learn about the flora and fauna that surrounds you every day!
Below is general information about the Golden Gate Naturefest, followed by a listing of each naturalist, and the activities they will be offering. If you have questions about specific activities, email the naturalist who is leading it. We have activities to suit all interests, ages, and experience levels, so check 'em out, register through Tree Frog Treks' registration page and get ready to explore, learn, and have a grand old time!
What should I bring? Standard outdoor equipment is fine! Good shoes, , clothes you don't mind getting dirty, a water bottle (reusable if possible!), sunscreen, food, and a camera. Dress in layers (and maybe a rain jacket) as San Francisco weather can change from moment to moment. Some naturalists will have binoculars or spotting scopes, but bring your own if you've got one.
How do I Sign Up? Click on any of the "Register Online Now" links and that will bring you to the Tree Frog Treks Registration Page.  Because this page is designed for children attending Tree Frog Treks programs, it asks for a lot of information, most of which is not applicable to the Golden Gate Naturefest. Golden Gate Naturefest really just needs your name, contact information, and fee (either through Tree Frog Treks or at the activity itself). 
Any field with a red asterisk next to it needs to be filled or you can't register, so putting "NA" for "not applicable" to other fields should suffice, aside from the birthdate field, which needs a mm/dd/yyyy format. For more detailed instructions, see below.


The Evolutionary Ecology of Three Local Serpentine Endemics
Speaker: Justen Whittall, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology, Santa Clara University

Friday, March 16, 7:30 PM
Los Altos Library Program Room
13 So. San Antonio Road, Los Altos

Please join us for a program describing the evolutionary ecology of three local serpentine endemics.  Dr. Whittall will share tales of plant evolution including pollinator observations of some local plants such as the serpentine endemicMetcalf Canyon jewelflower, the serpentine columbine and the San Benito evening primrose.  In this talk, he will share results from parallel studies of these species that combine pollinator observations with ecological studies of soil adaptation and analyses of genetic diversity.

Justen Whittall is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Santa ClaraUniversity, where he has been teaching since 2007.  His current research is focused on understanding adaptation and speciation in plants; from the polychromatic mustards of Arctic Alaska to the Torrey Pines of southern California, he isfascinated with plant diversity.

Directions: >From Foothill Expressway, travel 1⁄2 mile on San Antonio Road towards the Bay, cross Hillview and turn right into the driveway; the library is on the left.  From El Camino Real, travel towards the hills on San Antonio Road, cross Edith and turn left into the unmarked driveway just before Hillview.  The sign on San Antonio Rd. reads “Civic Center, Library and History Museum.” Enter through the lobby of the main entrance.

CNPS general meetings are free and open to the public. For more information, leave a message on our Chapter phone at (408) 260-3450 and someone will return yourcall, or send an email to


8.  Comments by Golden Gate Audubon Society

America's Cup - Why We're Still Worried

Last week's collapse of the real estate deal between America's Cup organizers and San Francisco city officials left critics of the race cheering and backers shaking their heads.

But demise of the controversial deal didn't change the reasons that we're worried by the America's Cup -- which have to do with those residents of our beautiful Bay Area who don't have the wherewithal to negotiate development deals or even lobby City Hall.

Yes, I'm talking about wildlife. And in particular, birds.

Despite a 2,200-page-long environmental impact report, San Francisco city officials haven't taken a hard, honest look at how the race could harm the local environment, including populations of birds such as Brandt's cormorants, pigeon guillemots or the threatened snowy plover.

A world-renowned yacht race might seem at first glance like a benign environmental event. The America's Cup isn't a race among oil tankers, after all. And the race itself will last only about 40 days in 2013.

But we need to look at the America's Cup -- and other projects affecting our Bay Area environment -- in context. Eighty to ninety percent of the wetlands that existed around San Francisco Bay in 1850 are now gone. Forty percent of the bay's open water has also vanished -- taken over by landfill, salt ponds, bridges and other development.

Many Bay Area birds are already living under stress due to urban encroachments on their habitat. Pelagic cormorants, which nested on Alcatraz a decade ago, have completely stopped breeding there in the past few years. Pigeon guillemots -- a black and white seabird with astonishing red feet -- have only one breeding colony in the entire bay, on Alcatraz, and it totals only about 30 nests.

The America's Cup will place even more stress on local bird populations by:

Bringing heavy boat and air traffic close to bird colonies on Alcatraz, where breeding season for cormorants, gulls and pigeon guillemots runs from February through August. Many colonies are sensitive to even minor disruptions during breeding: In one 2008 incident documented by scientists, a single kayak within 100 feet of the island flushed approximately 600 birds from their nests or roosting spots.
Disturbing birds that are "rafting" on open water. Birds like cormorants, grebes, and scaup often float together in large groups for protection or foraging. The heaviest rafting season on the bay is late autumn and winter, after most of the America's Cup events will be over. But those birds that rely on the bay in the summer and early fall will certainly be disrupted by the addition not just of the racing yachts but of as many as 1,800 spectator boats coming and going across the bay to view the race.
Drawing large crowds to Crissy Field, a key site for threatened snowy plovers that have already lost almost all their suitable habitat in San Francisco.
These threats to birds come alongside other ecological concerns, such as impacts on air and water quality, disturbance of marine life, and introduction of invasive species that may be carried in by spectator boats.
While none of these challenges is insurmountable, the America's Cup organizers and city officials have appeared more interested in fast-tracking the environmental review process and proclaiming victory than in minimizing the race's impact on local wildlife.

For instance, neither race organizers nor city officials have committed to pay for resource monitors to ensure that visitors stay a safe distance away from bird colonies. Without specific commitments for funding and for personnel, promises of protective signs or fencing are just token gestures.

Nor have organizers and officials taken responsibility for potential damage to "secondary" viewing areas, natural areas along the shoreline that are not official race-viewing sites but will still draw crowds.

And they haven't offered any meaningful plan to offset the trash, food, waste and toxics that will inevitably be dumped into the bay by spectators. Nor have they committed funding to fix ecological damage caused by the race or spectators.

The good news is that there's still time for the City of San Francisco and America's Cup organizers to address these issues. They need to work with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, and environmental groups such as ours to ensure adequate mitigation measures that are fully funded as part of the event's budget -- not as additional burdens on already overextended agencies.

San Francisco likes to tout itself as a "green city," but it consistently fails to prioritize wildlife and habitats in development or city planning.

It's ironic: The natural beauty of San Francisco Bay is part of what drew the America's Cup here. Yet organizers seem unwilling to provide meaningful accommodations for the wildlife and ecosystems that make the Bay such an amazing place -- even while spending tens of millions of dollars on development, viewing facilities, and lavish parties.

We can and should do better.



Art can change your life...Experience the joy art can bring to your life today, even if you've never drawn before!

The Mary L. Harden School of Botanical Art is pleased to offer classes under the auspices of San Francisco Parks Alliance. These well known classes offer the "first timer" with no art experience the opportunity to draw accurately from nature in a short time using pencil and pen and ink. Those who want more can continue on through a stepped curriculum in watercolor leading to mastery, exhibitions, and a Certificate in Botanical Illustration.

Click here to sign up or to learn more.

COLORED PENCIL TECHNIQUES for Botanical Illustration
April 9 - June 4, 2012

April 10 - May 29, 2012
(completion of beginner classes required)

MASTER CLASS in Botanical Illustration
April 11 - May 30, 2012
(completion of beginner classes required)

Sunday Streets Mission Community Meeting
Monday, March 19, 2012, 6:30 pm
Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street @York

Sunday Streets co-presenting agencies, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Livable City invite you to participate in a discussion about Sunday Streets 4-series pilot project in the Mission. The Mission Sunday Streets Pilot features four consecutive events the first Sundays in May, June, July and August (5/6, 6/3, 7/1, 8/5) on the popular Mission route - Valencia from 14th-24th and 24th Street from Valencia to Hampshire.

The purpose of this pilot is to explore the feasibility of holding more frequent Sunday Streets events on an established route. Our first step is to hold one Sunday Streets per month in the Mission on a regular schedule for consistency - the 1st Sunday of each month - to see what the challenges are and how it works for the community. SFMTA and Livable City are working with SFSU Professor Susan Zieff, PhD to conduct an Economic Analysis among businesses along the route, and gathering input from residents, business owners, local employees, religious institutions to gauge the impacts and support for the idea of having a regular Sunday Streets route in the Mission (or in other areas of the City if it does not work out here).

Sunday Streets staff will be present to answer questions, address concerns and take input from the those in attendance. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss this program with the community on Monday, March 19th.

Mark your calendar for the April 15th Sunday Streets in Golden Gate Park and on the Great Highway! (NOTE new route through GG Park-Middle Drive to MLK)


11.  A Word A Day
reductio ad absurdum

noun: Demonstration of the falsity of a premise by showing an absurdity to which it would logically lead.

From Latin reductio ad absurdum (reduction to the absurd), from reductio (reduction) + ad (to) + Latin absurdum (absurdity). Earliest documented use: 1659.

"Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn's Mrch?"
Matt Richtel; Blogs vs. Term Papers; The New York Times; Jan 20, 2012.

"I'm sorry, but all these 'life begins at conception' arguments are sheer nonsense. Killing a cluster of cells that has the potential of becoming human life is not the same as killing a human being. Here is a reductio ad absurdum argument for all the extreme pro-lifers. With modern cloning technology, a simple skin cell is a potential baby. Where do pro-life people stand on removing a wart or a mole? Are dermatologists the latest in the long list of baby killers?"
Dialogue is Needed on Abortion; St. Petersburg Times (Florida); May 20, 2009.

Agricultural biodiversity

Banking against Doomsday

Gene banks represent an overdue push to preserve crop biodiversity. It also needs conserving on farms

Mar 10th 2012 The Economist

WITH a heavy clunk, the steel outer doors of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault closed on February 28th, shutting out a howling Arctic gale and entombing a tonne of new arrivals: 25,000 seed samples from America, Colombia, Costa Rica, Tajikistan, Armenia and Syria. For Cary Fowler, the vault’s American architect, the Syrian chickpeas and fava beans were especially welcome.

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity. To illustrate the need for it, the Philippines’ national seed bank was destroyed by fire in January, six years after it was damaged by flooding. Those of Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed in recent wars. Should the conflict in Syria reach that country’s richest store, in Aleppo, the damage would now be less. Some 110,000 Syrian seed samples are now in the Svalbard vault, out of around 750,000 samples in all. “When I see this,” says Mr Fowler, looking lovingly at his latest consignment, “I just think, ‘thank goodness, they’re safe.’”

The Svalbard vault is protected by two airlocks, at the end of a tunnel sunk 160 metres into the permafrost of Norway’s Arctic archipelago, outside the village of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northerly habitations. It is maintained at a constant temperature of -18°C. This is serious disaster preparedness: if its electricity were cut, Mr Fowler reckons the vault would take two centuries to warm to freezing point. He also enthusiastically points to its concave tunnel-head, designed to deflect the force of a missile strike. Such precautions have spawned the facility’s nickname: the Doomsday Vault.

Mr Fowler, who manages it on behalf of Norway’s government, an association of Nordic gene banks and an international body, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, reckons the vault contains samples of around two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. To augment this, he will also soon embark on a project, funded with $50m from Norway, to collect the seeds of many crops’ wild ancestors.

A seedy business

Most seed banks were created in the 1970s and 1980s, towards the end of a global surge in crop yields, wrought largely through the adoption of hybridised seed varieties, known as the Green Revolution. The idea was born of a realisation that a vast amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost, as farmers abandoned old seeds, often locally developed over centuries, for the new hybrids.

The extent of the loss, which continues today, is poorly documented. The extinction of non-human species is generally better studied than the loss of the genetic material that sustains humanity. Yet, largely on the basis of named crop varieties that are no longer extant, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields. India is reckoned to have had over 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago; it now has only a few thousand. America once had around 5,000 apple varieties, and now has a few hundred. Such measures probably underestimate the scale of the losses, because a single traditional seed variety often contains a lot of genetic diversity.

It is hard to quantify how much this matters; but the long-term risks are potentially huge. Agricultural biodiversity is the best hedge against future blights, including pests, diseases and climate change. That is why plant breeders, from poor smallholders to the world’s biggest biotech firms, masters of the genetically modified organism (GMO), continuously update their genetic stock, often from obscure sources.

“If we ignore genetic diversity while we develop GMO products, we risk a disease or pest emerging that will wipe those types out,” says John Soper, head of crop genetics research at Pioneer Hi-Bred, the seed division of DuPont, a chemicals giant. He says the firm has drawn genetic material from its stock of wild American sunflower seeds three or four times in the past decade, in a bid to make its commercial varieties resistant to broomrape, a parasitic blight of southern Europe. It also has plans to cope with climate change, having recently opened a research outfit in chilly western Canada. It is trying to develop local varieties of maize (corn) and soyabean, which are not grown there commercially, but may be as the temperature climbs.

Yet biotech firms cannot be relied upon to look after crop biodiversity. Their gene banks are too small and too concentrated on a handful of commercial crops. Their urge to make profits is not necessarily aligned with the wider cause of feeding mankind. Hence a recent push to boost national gene banks, of which the Svalbard vault is a product.

It is a heartening display of international co-operation. In the vault’s frozen sanctum, North Korean seeds, in neat brown wooden boxes, sit alongside stocks from South Korea—and from Congo, Bangladesh and Peru. In many such developing countries, gene banks are impoverished and badly managed, which is another threat to their stocks. Pondering one of the risks, Mr Fowler warns “a millennium of agricultural activity can disappear one night in a bowl of porridge.”

Let them wither on the vine

Yet seed banks are not the only answer to saving crop biodiversity: it also needs conserving in fields. This is because seed banks rarely store varieties of crop that do not produce seeds, including cassava, bananas and many other fruits and berries. They also rarely record local knowledge of their deposits, which can be almost as important as the seeds themselves. Unlike seed banks, moreover, nature is anything but ossified: it is gloriously adaptable. Over the past 15 years in West Africa, for example, populations of traditional sorghum varieties have been observed shortening their growth cycle by two weeks in response to a curtailed rainy season. The best way to harness this adaptability is simply to let nature get on with it.

Farmers’ eagerness to jettison their wily old landraces is understandable. Improved varieties of seed are estimated to have boosted yields by 21-43%, independently of fertilisers and other inputs. To conserve crop biodiversity amid the inevitable rush for hybrids, seed banks have an important role. But another solution—as to many climate-related problems—is to make drastic improvements in land-use planning, and then encourage strategically placed farmers to dedicate a small area to traditional crops. Ways of doing this include developing niche markets for their endearingly old-school vegetables and grains or even, as in Nepal, with the national equivalent of a harvest festival. Its government regularly dishes out prizes to those farmers with the most biodiverse land.

Such measures are less glamorous and more troublesome than depositing seeds in an Arctic bunker kindly paid for by Norwegian taxpayers. That is why they are too rarely taken, which is a great shame. If the world did a better job of tending crop biodiversity in its fields, the feared Doomsday after which the vault is nicknamed would be even less likely to come.

LTE, The Economist

Sir = Your leader regarding Argentina's dodgy inflation figures asked us to imagine a world without statistics ("Don't lie to me, Argentina").  In such an imaginary world, "governments would fumble in the dark, investors would waste money and electorates would struggle to hold their political leaders to account".  Please tell me:  how exactly would that be different from the real world?

Paolo Bellomo
Scarsdale, New York


“Historians are often mocked for seeing an inevitability in events that felt like messy happenstance when they actually occurred.  The opposite intellectual error is to describe as surprising an outcome that was actually fairly predictable.”  The Economist October 2010


14.  On Mar 10, 2012, at 7:57 AM, Mike Wood wrote:
Jake, while the blurb in the Chron ( was the sort of trivial tripe that paper has come to embody, the description of the Dunning-Kruger effect in Wikipedia is telling and poignant, especially during the current GOP circus and the state of mind of an ever growing segment the American citizenry.

An excerpt:  Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward in 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger have quoted Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge")[3] and Bertrand Russell ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision")[4] as authors who have recognised the phenomenon.–Kruger_effect

Hardly news.  But relevant, methinks.
Mike:  Democracy has never thrived, except perhaps in Athens, where it was invented.  Even then it was problematic, and out of 30,000+ citizens (ie, male, non-slave, non-foreigner), only about 5000 would show up to debate on any given day, and how many of them could be within hearing distance?  People were constantly complaining of being unable to make out what was being said.  Juries, mind you, were often as many as 1500--this was not representative democracy, it was direct democracy.  Even then, there was unfairness and sometimes travesties.  There were good reasons why democracy was not in good repute, even then.  Plato and Socrates disdained democracy.

Yes, we have microphones and amplifiers, but they come with Rush Limbaughs attached.  You could say that we're dumber than formerly, but I doubt it.  We're more polarized and able to shut out people we don't like to listen to, and tune in to those who confirm our beliefs and opinions.  And we can shout louder now.  In fact, the less we know the louder we shout.

We're a cantankerous lot.  And another thing:  I used to say 'them'.  More and more I say 'we'.  I'm glad I didn't become dictator.  What a mess I'd make!


15.  Requiem for an old argument

Marking the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance, by Noam Chomsky

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.  We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."  Reported in October 2004, this statement from a senior advisor to President George W Bush - often attributed to Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff until his resignation in 2007 - forms the epigraph to Noam Chomsky's latest collection of articles.  Though the context is not explained, the statement was made in the summer of 2002 in an interview with the Pulitzer prize-winning author Ron Suskind, in which the Bush aide mocked the writer and others like him for belonging in "what we call the reality-based community", a group composed of people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality".

...Though it still has an awesome military capability, America's capacity to impose its will in any enduring fashion has been diminished irreversibly.  A condition of perpetual warfare has left the US more or less bankrupt, a state of affairs that can be sustained only as long as China chooses to fund the federal debt.  Stagnant for a generation, the standard of living of the majority is falling and the country's infrastructure rotting away.

...During the last 20 years America has been unhinged by ideological hubris - a disorder that Chomsky cannot analyse or even properly comprehend, since he embodies it himself.  As an unsparing critic of American policies, he has at times been useful, but like the neocons, he belongs in an Americo-centric world that has already passed away.

Excerpts from book review by John Gray in Guardian Weekly, 02.03.12


16.  From Marketplace

       by Nancy Parker
Marketplace for Thursday, March 15, 2012
Tess Vigeland: This week as part of our election coverage, The Real Economy, we've been hearing from people across the country about the issues that matter most to them. 

Today, San Diego resident Nancy Parker argues illegal immigration hurts the economy -- more than helps it.

Nancy Parker: It's time we did something about illegal immigration in the United States.
I always hear talk about the economic benefits of illegal immigration -- cheap labor and all -- but it also has economic costs nobody seems to mention.

Many who work here illegally don't keep the money they earn in this country. Instead, they send it off to relatives in their home countries. It's a drain of resources that doesn't do anything for economic growth here.
A lot of the work they do is off the books, so many aren't even paying taxes. Yet they're still using free health care, food stamps and other services meant for low-income and senior citizens.

I am not anti-immigrant. I understand why people would risk their lives to come to this country. But we need to have compassion for our own people who are being denied services that are going to illegals.

And it's not just services, it's jobs also. I'm always hearing illegal immigrants are doing work nobody else wants to do. Try telling that to someone who's been out of work for three years. I know a lot of Americans who'd be just fine working in the construction industry.

Lately, we're hearing a lot about the income gap. Well, maybe one of the reasons poor Americans aren't making as much is because illegals in this country are willing to work for even less.

And what about the direct cost of illegal immigration: all the law enforcement, detention and deportation has to add up to something. Just think of where else we could be using that money.

At the end of the day, illegal immigration is just plain wrong. Make all the excuses you want, they've broken the law. If we went to their countries without immigrating through proper channels, we'd be tossed out on our ear immediately.

Nancy Parker is a retiree living in San Diego.

....and don't try to migrate to the afterlife.... at least not in Italy

If nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes, then the mayor of a town north of Naples, Italy, had better ban taxes -- because he's already banned death.

Giulio Cesare Fava resides over a hamlet of 4,000 citizens, and told them about a week and a half ago that it is "Forbidden for residents to go beyond the boundaries of earthly life and to go into to the afterlife because the cemetery is running out of room." An expansion had been planned but, to again quote the mayor, "There are no more riches available."

So far two residents have defied the order, to no legal consequence.


17.  Notes & Queries, Guardian Weekly

The love of liberty begins early

The National Rifle Association's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, attracted over 40,000 visitors, including 11-year-old Chris Ambrose of Gilbert, South Carolina.

Is there a "Land of the Free and a Home of the Brave"? If so, where is it?

The national anthem of the US would like you to believe it is this country. However, since it is chained to large corporations, and since many of its citizens need to be armed to the hilt with one of those assault rifles that can kill the first 50 intruders through your front door in 15 seconds, I say, "Keep looking."
Doreen Forney, Pownal, Vermont, US

• It purports to be south of here.
Lawrence Fotheringham, Chatham, Ontario, Canada

• It was where the US is now.
David Tucker, Halle, Germany

• "Land of the Free" is the name of a rough real ale pub in the UK, and its motto is "Home of the Brave".
Roger Morrell, Perth, Western Australia

• It is in the state of Utopia, where it shares a border with the Land of Milk & Honey.
Dennis Roddy, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

• Australia, of course! Where else?
Ursula Nixon, Bodalla, NSW, Australia

• Somewhere over the rainbow?
Joan Dawson, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

• Heaven knows where.
Paul Broady, Christchurch, New Zealand

• If it still exists, it is a small isolated part of the Amazonian rainforest where a tribe of native hunters live who have been lucky enough not to have been discovered by the civilised world.
Alan Williams-Key, Madrid, Spain

Find the right questions
Why are there more answers than questions?

Answers are easy. Ask any know-it-all. Real advances in understanding come from working out the better questions.
David Hegarty, Tübingen, Germany

• Because there are more fools than philosophers.
Susan Douglas, Hazelton, British Columbia, Canada

Any answers?
Will there be a time when thinkers, writers and poets are again revered, rather than tech wizards?

Barbara Goodwin, Ensenada, Mexico

When was a currency last floated and why?
E Slack, L'Isle Jourdain, France

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