Sunday, February 18, 2018

Breathing Highways and Sponge Cities

"We could do worse than to go back to the way nature manages rainfall."

During the 20th Century, the rate of global warming was twice as fast in Taiwan (1.7°C) as for the world as a whole (0.74°C). Partly as a result, the number of days with rainfall decreased dramatically and typhoons gained strength. In 2009, Typhoon Morakot dropped over 1,000 mm (39.4 inches) in a single day and caused the loss of 699 lives. A massive mudslide wiped out Xiaolin Village and 474 people were buried alive. In 2015, Typhoon Soudelor left similar damage. It took months to repair the roads.

Then Taiwan and East China were struck by Dujuan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Jenny, a killer storm and the thirteenth typhoon of the 2015 Pacific typhoon season. Eight months later, Nepartak became the third most intense tropical cyclone on record with 114 deaths and more than $1.5 billion damage in Taiwan and East China. September brought Meranti, a super typhoon and the strongest ever to make landfall in China in more than 1000 years of records. Meranti’s peak sustained winds tied the record set by Haiyan in 2013, 195 mph (315 km/h), comparable to a tornado, or a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. In Taiwan, nearly 1 million households lost power and 720,000 lost water supplies. Flooding in Zhejiang took 902 homes and affected 1.5 million people.

Between those punctuations, the erratic weather brought long droughts. New Taipei City had to enforce water restrictions when the Shihmen reservoir went dry in April. All cities along coasts or rivers have engineered means to remove excess water and to prevent flooding. Few have the means to sustain themselves in severe droughts.

As a city develops, the soil is slowly covered by hardscape. There is less and less water infiltrating through to reach soil. Typically cities build a drainage system that directs water out. During times of typhoons or heavy rainfall the level of external water in rivers may rise, so floodgates are closed to prevent external water from gushing in. Pumping stations swing into action to take the excess water out. If the level of rainfall exceeds the pumping stations’ capacity, the city floods, like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or New York during Superstorm Sandy.

We could do worse than to go back to the way nature manages rainfall. That was the inspiration of a Taiwanese road construction engineer, Jui-Wen Chen. His idea is to build a “permeable city” that allows internal water to infiltrate into the soil and return the natural water cycle.

In conventional road-building there are two kinds of suitable materials to allow a hard surface to drain: porous asphalt and porous concrete. Between the two, porous asphalt is more commonly used and has the longest history. It uses larger-graded aggregates in the asphalt mixture to increase the porosity, which allows water to infiltrate into the soil through the gaps. The other type is interlocking blocks that join together, forming small gaps between and allowing water to infiltrate. A wide variety of materials can be used as interlocking blocks, such as rocks, concrete bricks, permeable bricks, grass bricks, and others.

Jui-Wen Chen said that he was not a scholar, did not study a lot and could not understand the research on this topic written in other languages. As a boy he gave up on schooling and only graduated from junior high school. Although he had extensive experience of road construction in Taiwan, he had no knowledge of the current popular trends elsewhere in the world.

He considered that a good thing. When we met at the UN climate conference in Paris, and later at COP-22 in Morocco, he told us through a translator he was not limited by others’ ideas and was able to invent his own. He explored what interested him, thought creatively and acquired whatever skills and materials he needed to experiment.

When Jui-Wen Chen was a child he had allergies, but he could control them if he stayed away from places where pollen and dust were high. Then his own child developed a more severe condition than his and needed to go to the hospital regularly to receive treatments.

Over the years, Mr. Chen noticed there were more and more children suffering from similar allergies. The doctor told him it was mainly due to the increased levels of pollution. The doctor pointed to the road construction outside and explained that, with all the digging and paving, road construction could be one of the causes. Jui-Wen Chen was shocked to hear that his successful career may actually have contributed to his son’s suffering.

Realizing this, Chen became more sensitive to the impact of air pollution on human health. He also learned how his roads were having negative effects on marine life from the street runoff that ran into rivers and the ocean.

Then came the spate of super-typhoons and Chen noticed that, even with a higher embankment protecting the city, it would still flood because water was not able to discharge. The city kept building more pumping stations, but it cannot cope with a storm that can dump more than one meter per day.

Jui-Wen Chen started to think that maybe he could invent a new type of roadway to solve all these problems. He slowly formed the idea of making roads a part of the city’s drainage system.
He asked himself many questions. Can permeable pavement actually allow water to get to the soil? Would building a hard roadbed lead to more runoff? If the roadbed were soft, would it cause soil liquefaction when an earthquake hits? Would a soft pavement be able to withstand the weight of the road, or would it break during high traffic volumes?

From his construction experience, Chen knew that using reinforced concrete with embedded steel bars would be the most structurally stable and durable. A reinforced concrete structure does not need to compact soil below, like asphalt does, but only requires a layer of leveled gravel for support. To make pavement with high permeability, Chen came up with the idea of changing the steel reinforcing bars into steel pipes so that whenever it rains, the water could drain into the pipes and infiltrate through the loose gravel and then into the soil. His concept of an air-circulating aqueduct assembly was born.

The system Jui-Wen Chen invented is called an “aqueduct grate.” It is neither permeable porous pavement nor permeable interlocking pavement.

Steel pipe posed more problems, however. Pavement needs to withstand the test of time. Steel bars are susceptible to rust. Once the rust starts, the bars rupture and expand, resulting in cracks in the pavement and weakening its integrity. In his search for the perfect material, Jui-Wen Chen tried and failed with many. One after another — iron, aluminum, copper and more. And then he tried carbon.

Specifically he tried polypropylene — (C3H6)n.

Carbon was first made into a crystalline isotactic polymer in 1954. After polyethylene, polypropylene is the most important plastic, with revenues expected to exceed $145 billion by 2019. The sales of this material are forecast to grow at a rate of 5.8 percent per year until 2021. In isotactic polypropylene, the methyl (H) groups are oriented on one side of the carbon backbone. This arrangement creates a greater degree of crystallinity and results in a stiffer material, tough, flexible, and with good resistance to fatigue. It can resist both acidic and alkaline chemicals; it is structurally strong; and it can withstand heat as high as 140°C and cold as low as -40°C.
Chen resolved to make his aqueduct grate system from recycled plastics.The structural mechanics of the pavement would allow the weight to be evenly distributed, even for a load as heavy as a tractor-trailer truck hauling stone.

Jui-Wen Chen later added, “I didn’t expect to see such a perfect match of these two distinct materials, concrete and plastic, in road construction.” The carbon did not corrode the way steel does, nor did it expand and contract with temperature change. The concrete was more stable with carbon than steel, and would remain that way for a longer time.

 Jui-Wen Chen shopped around the city for women’s shoes to test his design. He designed pipe openings small enough to be safe for most high heels. To prevent silt buildup that might block the pipes, he designed the pipe ends as a cone — wide down below and narrow at the top. When cleaning the street, a pressurized water jet can easily and quickly wash the dirt down to the gravel layer.

To maximize the level of air-circulation in his Aqueduct Grate, Chen alternated narrow pipes and wide pipes. The narrow pipes allow water drainage into the gravel and soil where it will help create a suitable environment for microorganisms that clean the city air. Then, using the Bernoulli principle, the clean air and moisture move back to the atmosphere through the wide pipes. Chen thinks his design will play a significant role in reducing urban air pollution.

To the gravel layer under the pavement Mr. Chen added “water retention balls,” each about the size of a ping-pong ball. These are hollow, recycled plastic balls with perforations around their circumference. Chen asked us not to underestimate the look and design of these water retention balls — they have an astonishing impact.

At 0.5m height, the averaged level of CO2
over the JW pavement is about 84% lower than
that over the non-JW pavement.
The water retention balls are added into the gravel layer, about 30 percent by volume to the gravel. Rainwater can make its way into the balls through the perforations and that increases the amount of water that can be stored underneath the surface of the pavement. Microorganisms thrive in the hollow spaces, cleaning both air and water.

Depending on the needs of each area, there are five different types of water retention balls:
  • Red balls: completely hollow balls for increased water storage.
  • Green balls: filled with absorptive carbon — ashed rice hulls — to provide nutrients and a suitable environment for microorganisms.
  • Blue balls: filled with sponges to retain water for long dry periods.
  • Black balls: filled with biochar to detoxify water and air from heavy metals and other pollutants, and to encourage microbial diversity.
  • White balls: filled with the topsoil taken up from that pavement site, to return the ecosystem and microbial life to its original health.
Jui-Wen Chen formed a company called JW Eco-Technology and started to market his “Structural Pervious Pavement” with several features that predecessor eco-pavement products had not been able to accomplish — heavy load bearing, low-maintenance, long term durability and ecological habitat. His pavement is a sandwiched system of multiple layers serving complementary functions. The top layer is concrete reinforced with the Aqueduct Grate to withstand high traffic volumes while drawing down water. Surface texture and color can be selected or changed as desired.

The gravel layer with water retention balls provides space for microorganisms and for both air and water to circulate. The pavement can become an air-conditioner using the moisture beneath the pavement to chill summer heat or melt snow in the winter. Finally, using the water it stores and the fertilizers the organisms create, the system builds healthy soils directly beneath the road.

Jui-Wen Chen’s urban planning passion has now advanced to what he calls his “Sponge City,” with terraced retaining walls, waterways, porous pavements, lakes and urban aquaculture irrigating urban farmland. By using his porous roads and tracks around the city, the land will become a reservoir all by itself. Farmers will have a constant supply of water and no need to deplete limited supplies in times of drought.

Mr. Chen’s work reminds us that it is only by finding a way to live peacefully with the natural world can we resolve the crisis caused by global warming and other negative effects of cities.
Jui-Wen Chen is a talented inventor pushing out the frontier of the carbon revolution. His work reflects his concern for people and planet, and he constantly tries to find the best way for humans and the natural world to return to living peacefully together.

The next step to cascade Mr. Chen’s pavement might be for each city to produce its own biochar. The city of Stockholm, Sweden is likely the first large city piloting an urban pyrolysis-based biorefinery. The Stockholm Biochar Project, one of 5 winners of the 2014 Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge and recipient of $ 1 million in prize money, is carbonizing the city’s green waste and making the biochar available to city residents and for municipal landscaping.

Bjorn Embrén, Stockholm’s Tree Officer, has been using biochar successfully for nearly 10 years to improve urban forest survival rates and enhance growth. Looking to source more locally produced biochar, Embrén and a colleague, Jonas Dahlof, who heads up planning and development for the city’s waste disposal, developed a plan for converting park waste into biochar and using the excess heat to feed into the city’s district heating system.

Stockholm also significantly improved its stormwater management, demonstrating what Mr. Chen has been saying. Stockholm’s stormwater, like Taipai’s, is contaminated with total suspended solids, nutrients, heavy metals, PAHs, E.coli and other substances. Stockholm found it could mitigate many of these problems by installing biochar beds along roads and drainages. It found that different types of char are more effective at filtering different types of contaminants and that it can also increase hydropic conductivity — infiltration of water into soil.

Particle size and pore size distribution matter, and both are boosted with higher temperature kilns. Finer sizes may be better for sandy soils, while courser particles may be better for soils with high clay content. Higher temperatures can also produce biochars which are less hydrophobic.

In 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invited the Stockholm team to Washington D.C. to explain how carbon-structured soils has saved their city money and cut pollution.

Stormwater can be captured and treated in catch basins, French drains, porous sidewalks, rain and roof gardens, swales, storm drain channels and wetlands. Researchers at the University of Delaware are designing ways to incorporate carbon catchment into the greenways along highways. That will reduce the need for state and local governments to buy additional land for stormwater treatment right-of-ways, potentially saving millions of tax dollars and rescuing coastal cities from the nightmare storms climate change still has in store for the 21st century.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Junk Food for Salmon

"For the geoengineering set, all this news provides an opening for more advanced biotech ."

What about seeding the oceans with iron in the deficient parts — the places that are deficient in iron and they have a lot of the other nutrients — a little bit of iron, we get a phytoplankton bloom, it pulls out huge amounts of CO2, it stimulates marine growth, all the way up the food chain? 
You know, most of the oceans are vast deserts. There is an idea of using buoyant flakes. If you google climate envisionation, William Clarke, he’s an Australian inventor, buoyant flakes. You have something like rice husks, something that floats, and you lace it with nutrients that are deficient in the ocean and these things just float around. They will float for about a year and then they will die and sink. They are releasing nutrients wherever they go and they can stimulate phytoplankton growth. Something like that can absorb enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Something like that has a lot more realism than the IPCC favorite horse, which is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage — BECCS — we just don’t have enough land for that. And that is part of the RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) 2.6 of the IPCC report, which can only be reached if we remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
— Paul Beckwith, Radio Ecoshock: Weather Bomb (February 7, 2018)

One of the straws being grasped by desperate industrial addicts in the throws of climate panic is the chimera of ocean fertilization. The idea is that iron spread upon the waters could fertilize plankton blooms. That could increase the removal of CO2, as the plankton draw carbon to build their cells and then die and sink, interring their carbon on the muddy ocean floor.

Scientific review bodies, such as the Royal Society of the UK or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, have thrown cold water on this idea. Most of this uptake is transient; long-term sequestration is difficult to assess; there are doubtless unintended consequences at scale and some of those may be far removed in space and time; and there is no regulatory framework in place, let alone a scientific protocol. 

That hasn’t stopped rogue geoengineers from taking the matter into their own hands. In July 2012, two hundred thousand pounds of iron sulphate were dumped into North Pacific Ocean by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, under the direction of Russell George, founder of the San Francisco based firm Planktos Inc. which claims to “restore ecosystems and slow climate change.” 

The dumping violated the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention on the Dumping of Wastes at Sea which include moratoria on geoengineering experiments. Search warrants were executed by Environment Canada’s enforcement branch on George’s office after the Haida nation ended George’s employment, but no further legal action was taken.

Then in 2013, the west coast of North America experienced its largest salmon return and subsequently its largest commercial salmon harvest in history, from 50 million to 226 million fish. Commercial fisheries were opened in areas that had not seen a commercial trade since the 1960s. In 2014 the Fraser River experienced its second largest sockeye salmon return in history while the Columbia River recorded its largest salmon run of all time. The Haida were ecstatic.

We don’t know whether those salmon were a result of Russell George’s experiment or not, but there is another question that should be asked. How nutritious were those salmon? A Nordic science study reported:
Farmed salmon meat is naturally gray-white in color, and so to achieve the desired red salmon color, astaxanthin is added as a feed ingredient. In addition to being a vibrant pigment, astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant found in algae and marine animals, and is also essential for the health of farmed aquatic animals.
Aud Skrudland is a veterinarian and special inspector at the Norwegian Food Safety Authority in the field of fish health and welfare.
She points to the main conclusion regarding fish health in the Food Safety Authority’s annual report, which states that “[t]he fish health situation is worrying. The aquaculture industry is still struggling with salmon lice problems, diseases, high mortality and inadequate emergency preparedness. The problems are hindering growth targets.”
In the past, more contaminants were found in farmed salmon than in wild fish, because the salmon feed was based on fish protein and fish oil, which added contaminants to the farmed fish diet. Today, salmon receive feed that is about 70% plant based, which has resulted in farmed salmon having a lower contaminant level than wild salmon.
Farmed salmon have a less favorable omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid ratio than is found in wild salmon. But they still have some ability, especially early in life, to convert omega-3 from plants to the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Skåre says that there is no nutritional difference between farmed salmon and wild salmon in terms of proteins, vitamin B12 and iodine.
However, farmed salmon contains a little less selenium, copper, zinc and iron.
If you order “wild salmon” in a restaurant, that may not be what ends up on your plate — especially during the out-of-season winter months.
A new report from the advocacy group Oceana found that 43% of “wild salmon” samples collected between December and March were mislabeled. And in restaurants during that period, this figure jumps to 67%. When fish imports make their way to the US, less than 1% of it is inspected to see if it’s mislabeled

In 2015, The Atlantic published a story claiming that 33 percent of fish the US market were mislabeled. The commercial fish industry came down hard on the magazine, forcing this retraction:
This piece originally stated that 33 percent of all seafood is mislabeled. In fact, 33 percent of the seafood Oceana tested was mislabeled, but their sample was not necessarily representative of the entire industry. We regret the error.
The Atlantic, however, let stand this statement:
Ninety percent of our fish is imported from countries with loose aquaculture laws, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Canada, China, Ecuador, and Vietnam. Some seafood from these countries may come mislabeled from unregulated fish farms.
In the salmon runs of British Columbia the regulators are overwhelmed: 
Having a dual mandate of both looking after the wild salmon as well as promoting fish farming, the government agencies in BC turn a blind eye to the real threat that open-net salmon farms pose for the wild salmon stocks. Sea lice — parasites that bloom in the open-net cages — rain down on the passing wild Pacific salmon smelt, as they swim by on the way to the ocean. The salmon feedlots also are incubators for infectious diseases, such as piscine reovirus (PRV), Heart and Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), and others that can reach epidemic proportions quickly and at any time in such monocultural environments. This happened in Chile in 2007, when a 3-year long outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA — a type of influenza) led to millions of farmed salmon being killed, thousands of jobs lost and major financial problems for the fish farming industry. In addition to the diseases and parasite infestation, there is also the need for predator control, with over 7,000 seals and sea lions shot and killed between 1990–2010 in BC, to stop them from taking salmon from the open-nets.
Still, there are more fundamental ecological issues to be considered in farming a predatory fish like salmon, which is high on the food chain and thus an inefficient protein source. Depending on the source of information, it takes between 1.2 and 10 pounds of fish feed and fish oil to produce one pound of salmon. Converting protein and nutrients derived from fish stocks being depleted in one part of the world into a supermarket-ready slab of artificially-colored pink flesh “salmon” is economically — never mind ecologically — indefensible.
In a stunning investigative report by Helena Bottemiller Evich, a senior food and agriculture reporter for Politico on September 13, research from Arizona State University where zooplankton were given more light to speed growth provides some strong evidence that rather than boosting food supply — both for humans and the marine food web — ocean fertilization may actually hurt it. Evich described the ASU findings:
  • Increased food (light) made surface algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving. The same effect moved up the food chain.
  • Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae — junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients is out of whack — then it seems logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. This could already be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?
  • As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc.
  • Within the category of plants known as “C3”―which includes approximately 95 percent of plant species on earth, including ones we eat like wheat, rice, barley and potatoes―elevated CO2 has been shown to drive down important minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc and iron. The data we have, which look at how plants would respond to the kind of CO2 concentrations we may see in our lifetimes, show these important minerals drop by 8 percent, on average. The same conditions have been shown to drive down the protein content of C3 crops, in some cases significantly, with wheat and rice dropping 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
Among those testing the ASU findings was Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the Agricultural Research Service headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland. Using samples of goldenrod collected by the Smithsonian Institution since 1842, Ziska found that the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution — a change that closely parallels the rise in atmospheric CO2 (and the decline of salmon and bears).

In 2014, led by Harvard climate researcher Samuel Myers, a team of scientists published a large, data-rich study in the journal Nature that looked at key crops grown at several sites in Japan, Australia and the United States. They found rising CO2 correlated to a drop in protein, iron and zinc.
For the geoengineering set, all this news provides an opening for more advanced biotech — why not simply engineer new varieties of wheat, rice, barley and potatoes that don’t lose nutrient density with higher CO2 exposures? Fortunately there is a much simpler, less costly, and far less risky approach. Let Mother Nature fix the problem.

Soil scientist Elaine Ingham says plants just need more cookies and cake.

Plant roots are putting out exudates all the time. These attract bacteria or fungi that can use those exudates and return to the plant whatever the plant needs. Ingham says
An exudate is something the plant is dumping out into the soil. It is mostly sugar, a little protein and a little carbohydrate. What does that sound like? Mmmm, cookies and cake.
Think of all these different kinds of cakes and cookies that the plant is giving away to attact soil microbes. They each will support a particular bacteria that can bring to the plant the needed nutrients from the inorganic material around them.
Whenever any of the first level predators — protozoa, “good guy” nematodes, microarthropods — eat bacteria or fungi, they release nutrients right there at the roots of the plants. These nutrients are then in soluble form, ready to be taken up by the roots of the plants. Chelated calcium ions stuck to proteins. Sulfur as sulfates. Nitrogen as ammonium. This is why those predators are essential.
The principal causes of the decline of wild Pacific salmon is land use change in the Pacific Northwest (from overpopulation) and climate change. Clear-cutting for centuries has led to the erosion of the riverbanks. Wood debris dammed up whatever streams had not already been dammed for hydropower and flood control. Choked by sediment and unable to get upstream, salmon lost their way and lost their breeding grounds. The nutrient density of inland plants suffered the loss of the salmon-bear-bird nutrition migration pathway.

But we know, dear readers of this space since 2006, that one of the best ways to build and protect that healthy soil food web is with biochar. We can’t offer that solution to those poor salmon the Haida caught, but we can easily give it to the plants people grow on land.

Those plants will be packed with nutrient density even as CO2 concentrations continue to march upwards. And that’s the more natural way, over the long term, to bring CO2 back down and salmon and bears back up.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Follow the Money, Mr. Mueller

"“Ivanka got her father to bomb Syria by adroitly pushing his buttons. ‘Ivanka had long ago figured out how to make successful pitches to her father,’ Wolff writes. ‘He liked big names. He liked the big picture — he liked literal big pictures. He liked to see it. He liked ‘impact.’” —Variety"

 It is difficult to remember very many times when the national reporting lagged so far behind the awareness of the people as to the greater significance of events. Vietnam after My Lai and Tet, Civil Rights after the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the writing on the wall was being read by everyone in the country except the editors of newspapers and those who loaded teleprompters for talking heads.

Fire and Fury is a curious title for Michael Wolff’s inside look at the Trump politischemaschine. Of course, there is some of that fury going on, from the temper tantrums of The Donald and his übermensch, Steve Bannon, also no shortage of firings, but the real commotion is outside, where the country reels in shock after waking up to what it has just done.

Let’s be clear where our own sentiments lie. While no fan of the GOP’s clown show, we cover our nose at daughter Chelsea’s money laundering pyramid at the Clinton Foundation.

We were not keen to go to back to cold war with Russia, nor to continue the drone wars of terror from Palestine to the Northern Territories, nor for that matter, the seven-theater wars of aggression waged against peon states that were the meat and potatoes of Clinton/Obama imperial foreign policy.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House Paperback
With extraordinary access to the Trump White House, Michael Wolff tells the inside story of the most controversial…

We know DT was legitimately elected by people who, too easily deceived, believed he would stop those wars, pull us back from an insane foreign policy of strategic regional disruptions, expedite the path to citizenship for DACA children, restore fiscal sanity, provide a middle-class tax cut, repair the broken Veterans Administration, or any of the myriad other 7-day wonders he promised on the campaign. Even though glyphosate intoxicated masses are more easily fooled in the Age of Disintermediation, taking a chance on a beltway outsider made better sense than going with the known known of a sabre-rattling puppet of Wall Street elites and four more years of ruinous neoliberalism.

No, we are not being male chauvinist. We voted for Jill. Next time we hope to vote for Tulsi.
We knew instinctively that the Russiagate hoax was b.s. but it was good to see that reaffirmed by careful investigations of Cozy Bear hackers, the supposed smoking gun with Putin’s fingerprints on its ivory handle that, as Real News Max Blumenthal observed, is not a network of hackers but “a Russian-sounding name the for-profit firm Crowdstrike assigned to an APT to market its findings to gullible reporters desperate for Russiagate scoops.” [Thanks Caitlin Johnstone and Suzie Dawson for those trails!]

Johnstone writes:
Why does this keep happening? Why does the public keep getting sold a mountain of suspicion with zero substance? Over and over and over again these “bombshell” stories come out about Trump and Russia, Russia and Trump, only to be debunked, retracted, or erased from the spotlight after people start actually reading the allegations and thinking critically about them and see they’re not the shocking bombshells they purport to be? These allegations are all premised upon claims made by the US intelligence community, which has an extensive and well-documented history of lying to advance its agendas, as well as porous claims made by an extremely shady and insanely profitable private cyber security company, and yet all we’re ever shown is smoke and mirrors with no actual fire.
The entire NSA narrative of Russian hackers hangs on a thin thread of pre-election reports from Dutch Intelligence. Dutch Intelligence? Seriously? Let’s not forget this is a nation that after stealing Manhattan Island for the ridiculous price of 60 guilders (the Lenape must have walked away laughing, saying “This stupid colonist thinks you can own the earth, wait ’til he sees the bridge we can sell him) traded it away 21 years later for nutmeg. Nutmeg! What were the Dutch smoking? 

That’s the fire and fury part — more like smoke and mirrors. The DNC, Rachel Maddow, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wolf Blitzer are all consumed by this nutty, discredited narrative of “the Russians ate my election” to avoid having to grapple with the harder truth, laid out by Donna Brazile among others, that they lost the election because Debbie Wasserman Schultz sabotaged Bernie Sanders’ grassroots tsunami that could have easily swept the dems to victory.

That Put Donald Trump in the White House
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER "Explosive... A blistering tell-all."---Washington Post "People should sit up, take notes and…

Wolff’s comedic high was election night, when no one in Trump Tower other than perhaps Bannon could believe what was happening. Suddenly Bannon was Merlin. The RNC, which had been angling to take back its party from the crazies after a Trump debacle, was thrown back on its heels, dizzy from the punch, grabbing the ring rope to steady itself.
What is already clear is that, as Mr. Trump’s aides and family members tried over 48 hours to manage one of the most consequential crises of the young administration, the situation quickly degenerated into something of a circular firing squad. They protected their own interests, shifted blame and potentially left themselves — and the president — legally vulnerable. — The New York Times, January 31, 2018
Flash forward to where we are more than a year later and we see the narrative in the mainstream media little changed from the day after the election. Whether ABC, Newsweek or Fox, the only way to explain where we are now is the Wizard of Oz theory, a.k.a. Vladimir Putin. Therefore the Special Counsel investigation into election hacking can only reaffirm what our intelligence agencies have already told us. Both Republicans and Democrats patiently await that judgment.
The memo is their latest salvo. Led by Mr. Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee is pivoting from examining Russia’s election meddling to instead investigating F.B.I. and Justice Department officials connected to the inquiry, putting them — with Mr. Ryan’s clear blessing — at the forefront of the broader pushback.— The New York Times, January 30, 2018
The people now know better.

Wolff subtly weaves a thread through his nefarious clown troupe that leads, nearly inexorably, to Trump’s indictment for money laundering and tax fraud. We say “nearly,” because who can say whether the fix is in? In a world in which Robert Mueller is Eliot Ness what happens next is just as Wolff has laid out for his readers: take 30 or 40 years of tax returns and the long reach of assistant special prosecutor Andrew Weissmann and you unravel the Trump-Manafort-Kushner web of off-shore banks and secret deals with foreign governments, organized crime, and Russian oligarchs.
“You’ve got the LeBron James of money laundering investigations on you, Jarvanka. My asshole just got so tight!
“‘You realize where this is going,’ Bannon continued, ‘This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann first and he is a money laundering guy. Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face … It goes through all the Kushner shit. They’re going to roll those two guys up and play me or trade me.
“‘It was clear where Mueller and his team were going,’ said Bannon: they would trace a money trail through Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Jared Kushner and roll one or all of them on the president. ‘Its Shakespearean,’ he said…”
So now, while Rachel Maddow, The New York Times and The Washington Post rush to report the focus of Mueller’s investigation is narrowing laser-like to the Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., Kushner and a Russian lawyer offering to broker dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a softening of the US stance on adoption of Russian orphans (it turned out there was no dirt, they just used that as an excuse to get the meeting), the 10-to-the-nth million readers of Fire and Fury know better.

They are following the money.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Yarrow's Spiderweb

At the farmhouse kitchen sink, looking out a window at the front yard, I saw suspended, hanging in air, a long, thin twig and slender leaf. Slight, intermittent breezes moved the dangling tree debris about, made it obvious against the gray sky. It hung about head-height above the lawn, bobbed up and down and around a few inches.
I guessed the twig was attached to a very thin thread of spider or caterpillar silk. But with no tree branches at least 30, likely 40 feet above the twig, this was a very long thread. The length and strength of this nearly invisible, whisker-thin strand of spiral protein impressed me. To stretch so far, to remain whole, tugged by breezes, tiny coiled-coil protein fibers, with amazing strength and flexibility.
Next day, out the kitchen window, I saw the twig was still bobbing slightly at head-height. This strength and persistence further impressed me.
Feet planted, I started to take photos. Suddenly, the twig flew at me — swung directly at me, forced me to bend back. I almost fell, stumbled sideways, tried to set my feet, snap another photo. I had to wait for the twig to stop swinging, and hold position long enough to snap the shutter.
I managed to click the shutter twice, when a new breeze blew the twig at me again — this time more vigorously, and I had to step backward. The twig blew higher, for longer time while I tried snapping photos of an erratic moving object.
Eventually, wind relaxed, twig returned to hang over the bare patch, I tapped the shutter button again. In the vigorous wind, I thought the thread had stretched and lengthened. But surprise — its height hardly changed! Evermore impressed by the tenacious strength of almost-invisible spiral biostructure.
Suddenly, a third time, the twig twirled toward me. Forced to evade it, I stopped snapping photos. Three times wind blew this bobbling body straight at me, forcing me to hobble and stumble around to get my photos.
Astonished the almost invisible thread didn’t break, I assumed the force of the wind had stretched the slender strand of silk, lengthened its coiled proteins, by inches, even a foot. I expected the twig to swing back closer to the ground. But the wind passed, the twig sank, slightly low at first, then slowly rose back head-high, as if the thread stretched, then recoiled and tightened.
Is a spiritual intelligence embedded in this land? Is this ghostly trick or treat by a twig a Halloween gift from a poltergeist? A mystery message from an Earth Spirit? My respect deepened for spiders and caterpillars. Amazing a single strand of spider thread kept twig and leaf suspended head-high in two cool, moist, unsettled days.
— David Yarrow, November 2017 (edited with permission)

Spider silk arrives at the end of an unbroken 400 million year strand of continuous evolution. Some silks are for structural support, others protective enclosures. Some absorb energy, others transmit vibration.

Each spider and each type of silk, produced from different glands and spin techniques, has a set of mechanical properties optimized for its function. A dragline silk, the kind observed by David Yarrow, is produced in the Large Ampullate gland and has tensile strength greater than high-grade steel alloy. Draglines are for the web’s outer rim and spokes and also the lifeline by which spiders dangle.

Spiders make webs that can span rivers but the strands are so thin and light they could circle the earth and still weigh less than 500 grams (18 oz.). If while transecting the Earth the strand crossed the poles or the Sahara it would not weaken. Dragline silks can hold their strength below −40 °C (−40 °F) and up to 220 °C (428 °F) — more than twice the boiling point of water.

Silks are extremely ductile — able to stretch 5 times their relaxed length without breaking. They are adhesive — created by a two-compound pyriform secretion from the Flagelliform gland. They are spun into patterns that polymerise under ambient conditions, become functional immediately, and are usable indefinitely. They are waterproof but biodegradable, versatile and fungal resistant while remaining compatible with most other materials in the environment. At the end of their life, many webs are simply consumed again by the spider to reclaim the embodied metabolic energy.

A spider web preserved in amber, thought to be 110 million years old, shows evidence of a perfect “orb” web, the most famous, circular kind one thinks of when imagining spider webs. An examination of the drift of those genes thought to be used to produce the web-spinning behavior suggests that orb spinning was in an advanced state as long as 136 million years ago.  Wikipedia

Some wandering spiders will leave a largely continuous trail of silk impregnated with pheromones that the opposite sex can follow to find a mate. They may also produce sperm webs or egg webs. Some webs are impregnated with venom. Some water-borne spiders build a diving bell of silk. Some canopy spiders balloon or kite on airborne weaves.

All these miraculous feats are made possible by carbon. The silken strands are woven from amino acids, primarily glycine (C2H5NO2 ) and alanine (C3H7NO2). Credit must go to the spider for the way in which these are arranged. Silk production is a pultrusion, similar to extrusion, with the subtlety being that the force is induced by pulling from the glands rather than being squeezed out. As a thread is pulled away from the body of a spider, whether by the spider’s legs or by the spider falling under its own weight, shear stress and ion and pH changes induce the liquid silk to undergo a phase transition and condense into a solid protein fiber with specialized molecular organization. Depending on the gland that crafted the protein and controlled movements within the spinnerets, the silk can be for dragline, adhesion lines, temporary scaffolding, attachment points, the web frame, egg sacs, capture spiral, or prey cocoon.

Silks are often referred to as a block co-polymer. The short side chained alanine is mainly found in the crystalline domains — giving strength. Glycine is mostly found in the elastic semi-amorphous regions with their helical and beta turn structures. These two carbon chains interplay to give spider silk some of its extraordinary properties, but the carbon rings in pyrrolidine (CH2)4NH keep the silk moist and gluey while also warding off ants. Other enzymes protect the lines from fungi and bacteria that might otherwise digest the proteins.

New applications are being discovered for its mechanical, conducting, electrical, biocompatibility and immunologic properties. Spider silk has been experimentally used in garment weaves, electrical sensor and actuating devices, suture threads, biomimetic muscles, nerve regeneration, and ligament tissue repair.

Nicola Maria Pugno at the University of Trento and a team of researchers in Italy and the UK found a way to incorporate carbon nanotubes and graphene into spider silk and increase its strength and toughness beyond anything that has been possible before. The resulting material has properties such as fracture strength and toughness higher than anything ever measured.

Pugno’s team collected 15 Pholcidae spiders from the Italian countryside, sprayed the spiders with water containing carbon nanotubes or flakes and then measured the mechanical properties of the silk the spiders produced.

Giving spiders water that is infused with carbon made them weave silk stronger than any known fiber. Could this lead to a new class of bionic materials? As yet, no one has been able to make this work commercially, but not for lack of trying. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (Trading Symbol: KBLB) is focused on commercialization of genetically engineered spider silk.

The problem with commercializing spider silk has always been the ornery attitude of spiders. As the Italian researchers described it:
Unlike the case of the largely available silkworm silks, large-scale spider farming and synthetic production of spider silk still remain to be achieved, due to its complex structure and the territorial and cannibalistic nature of spiders. Moreover, naturally spun fibres, obtained by forcible spinning, harvesting or extracting spidroin from glands, have reduced mechanical characteristics with respect to naturally-spun ones, due to the CO2 anaesthesia of spiders and the consequent loss of active control of their silk spinning. Research to improve the mechanical, conductive or magnetic properties of spider silk has been limited. This is due to the difficulty of developing an adequate spinning methodology, balancing extrusion, drawing, yield and purity. … Attempts to improve or modify the mechanical, magnetic and electrical properties of spider silk have been reported, using techniques such as melt-spinning, templating, powder coating, atomic layer deposition and iodine doping, but they remain to be adequately perfected, especially at large scale, using naturally spun spider silk fibres.
The graphine doping test was proof of just how hard spider farming can be.
The best mechanical performances are observed for the samples after the first collection. The second collection does not show mechanical enhancement with respect to the first or to RS [control], probably due to a physiological spider weakening during segregation, since neither additional food nor water were available during the experimental period, except SWNTs and graphene dispersions. In the cases marked with an asterisk in Figs. 5b,c, the second collection was impossible since the corresponding spiders died. Note that spider 5 died after the first treated dragline silk collection, but was able to spin the silk with the maximum increment in mechanical performance, whereas spider 7 spun the silk with the highest absolute values and survived.
Kraig Labs was originally interested in competing with the Chinese raw silk market worth $3–5 billion per year. After inserting genes from the golden orb weaving spider into silkworm strains, the lab produced 20 separate caterpillar clones, each with unique properties, able to spin silk with the strength, flexibility and resiliency of spider silk. Now Kraig is looking at the much larger, $120 billion technical textiles market. A 3rd generation modified silkworm is expected to spin fibers exceeding the strength of spiders’ and may incorporate gene sequences that release an antibiotic and to develop sutures and bandages that help patients to heal faster and to reduce scarring.

For those concerned about the risks of genetically engineered spiderpillars being scaled into the trillions, the company’s choice of a trademark will not be reassuring — Monster Silk®.

This story, though, is not about genetic engineering. The story is about carbon. Life depends on carbon. What we term “organic chemistry” is shorthand for carbon chains and the molecular structure of living things. For a variety of reasons, life cannot arise from silicon or any similar element with covalent bonding. If can only come from carbon, formed only under the special conditions of the death of a star.

After a radiant life lasting billions of years, a star runs out of hydrogen. It begins to cool, change color, and expand into a red giant. At its core, helium is compressed until the forces are strong enough to begin fusing nuclei (proton-neutron pairs or “alpha particles”) to form larger atoms such as carbon. The red giant begins to collapse until the central temperature rises to 108 million °Kelvin, seven times hotter than the core of our Sun. This creates a situation called triple-alpha, by which nucleosynthesis of heavier elements begins. The power released by the birth of carbon is approximately proportional to the star’s core temperature taken to the 40th power and the density squared. As such extreme temperature spikes it causes the reaction rate of fusion to spike. This positive feedback cycle becomes a runaway until the fuel is exhausted.

This process — a “helium flash” — lasts only seconds but burns 60–80 percent of the helium in the star’s core. During the flash, the star’s energy production can reach approximately 100 billion solar luminosities, comparable to the luminosity of a whole galaxy. Compared to a birth of helium, the birth of carbon is as royalty.

Arriving on the solar wind some 4 billion years ago, carbon stardust lingered for a time in Earth’s atmosphere before hitching a ride on a raindrop and falling into the ancient oceans. There it bonded with hydrogen to form some of the earliest chain molecules we call “organic.” As these molecules formed nucleoproteins and began to reproduce themselves, the oceans came alive with a carbon food web. Carbon became a common denominator of all known life that followed.

Arachnids emerged at least 380 million years ago from crab-like chelicerate ancestors. They were among the first to leave the sea and move out onto land; the oldest known land arthropods. Indeed, they helped form the land by building the first soils.

We are, like spiders, carbon creations that have learned to use carbon as tools. We harvest it for food, we burn it for fuel, and lately, we have even relearned the lost skill of building soil with it.

We inhabit an era when the natural carbon cycle has been disrupted. We can take credit for that. Now we are compelled to learn to put it back the way it was. We won’t do that by breaking the rules. We just might if we can learn from David Yarrow, and spiders, and remember that carbon is our friend.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. A version of this essay may appear in my next book, Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.




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