Category Archives: Modernity

Molasses Spill Destroys Hawaii Reef

Image from

Image from

Sometimes it seems like we can’t even touch the ocean without causing some sort of environmental disaster. British Petroleum poisons the Gulf of Mexico, our ships might be deafening whales, and now even molasses is killing fish. That’s what’s been happening off Honululu’s Sand Island harbor since September 9th, 2013, when a faulty pipe caused over 200,000 gallons of molasses that was supposed to go on a ship to be dumped into the harbor instead.

Turns out, molasses is pretty bad for fish. Instead of sitting on top of the water like oil does, the molasses immediately sank to the bottom of the reef, suffocating anything unlucky enough to be caught in it. Worse still, the sudden influx of pure sugar might be causing an algal and bacterial bloom. These guys suck all the oxygen out of the water and can even be harmful to human health.

Goddamnit molasses, stop accidentally killing things.

Officials say that there’s not much they can do to help out here. It’s not like they can scoop it out or try to contain it like an oil spill, which means they have to sit back and wait for the ocean currents to do the majority of the work. Luckily, most of the fish population should recover quickly as newcomers help repopulate the reef but the immobile animals, like the corals that help build the reef, may take years or even decades to recover.

The company that manages molasses shipping out of the port, Matson Navigation Co, has stepped up and claimed responsibility for the accident, saying that any recovery efforts will be paid out of their pocket and that they will take steps to make sure this never happens again, even if it means abandoning their molasses operations.

Hopefully, the reef will recover quickly. Preliminary fly-overs already look better. Hawaii’s reefs host hundreds of different fish species, including angelfish, bigeyes, blennies, butterflyfish, sunfish and jacks. These species are important to both the fishing and tourism industry in Hawaii. Any large scale disaster has the potential to seriously affect people’s livelihoods.

Not to mention, you know, the fish’s.

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Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Modernity


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Dogs feel Okay about Robots

Turns out, dogs like robots – if we let they know they’re okay. This is according to a new study from Germany that set out to test how animals would react to robotic helpers. To do this, the researchers put the dogs in a room with a human and a robot, watched, and waited.

As their study concludes, it turns out that the dogs mostly take their cues from us.

If the humans acted like the machines were, well, machines – ignoring it, typing on its keyboard, etc – the dogs weren’t that interested in the robot. Even if it started making noises or using one of it’s insanely creepy mechanical claw-hands to try to point at various dog treats hidden in the room. But if the person acted friendly towards it – talked to it, shook it’s (creepy, fake, monstrous) hand – the dog was much more keen on it. The dogs spent much more time around “friendly” robots and were better at finding hidden food.

These were not good-looking machines, by the way. The dogs were definitely not working off sight. Imagine the front bit of a treadmill on wheels if you taped hospital gloves to it and gave it sentience. And, while the robot was never as successful as a human along was, the researches did show that there was a clear difference.

I’m not sure what the application of this technology is, but it’s pretty cool to think about. Maybe it’s just practice for when robots take over the world. After all, just because we’re all either dead or subjugated doesn’t mean our pets should have to suffer.

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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Modernity


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Mickey Finn

Mickey Finn. Local business owner, bartender. Lived in Chicago. Ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden from 1896 to 1903. Famous for his drinks. Not a good man – in trouble with the law more than once. Liked to be on the slip. It was said that you could find things at his place – money, girls, goods. Mickey was a fence. From what the underworld would tell you, a successful one.

Apocryphal story. Good one though. Goes like this. Mickey Finn liked to add special ingredients to his drinks. Called it the “white stuff”. Probably chloral hydrate. Very bad for you. Sedative. Put it in alcohol – even worse. Knocks you out cold. Gives you amnesia. Later used in Jonestown.

Once victim was anaesthetized Mickey would carry them to the back room. Rob them. Dump the body in an alley. Victim wouldn’t remember what happened. Finn paid off cops to keep them off his back. Not enough though. Eventually shut down.

Story continued though. Stayed in the loop. People liked it. Origin of the phrase “slip a mickey“. Possibly. Either way. People like stories. They like having a villian. Attach a face to a name – story lives on.

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Posted by on August 15, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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Seafood Menus a Treasure Trove of Oceanic Information

A tuna steak at the Pike Place Market was more expensive than their halibut. Halibut was more expensive than cod. Cod was more expensive than rockfish. Rockfish was the cheapest. Therefore, I ate rockfish. I only dreamt of tuna. Fish prices are largely determined by rarity and as tuna and other species become overfished and expensive, it makes sense to start eating other, more abundant kinds.

Meanwhile, three researchers from Duke University wanted to know what fish populations in Hawaii used to look like. But government data and market surveys failed to provide enough information. So they hit on another market proxy – seafood restaurant menus.

The team analyzed over 300 menus from more than 100 restaurants dating back to at least the 1940’s. Most of the menus had been kept as souvenirs or art and were donated from private collections. The menus revealed that back in the 1940’s many restaurants were still offering local or reef-dwelling species, but as time wore on these were slowly replaced by larger, oceanic fish such as tuna and swordfish. By 1970, most restaurants had stopped offering reef fish altogether.

This sudden decline was striking, but the numbers seemed trustworthy.“Historical ecology typically focuses on supply side information,” said Loren McClenachan, who co-authored the study. “Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side, perhaps a modern equivalent to archeological middens, in that they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time.”

Population studies are important tools for both ecological studies and the fishing industry as a whole.

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Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Modernity


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Cyborg Snail Batteries

In Dresden Codak the protagonist, Kim Ross, is a cyborg scientist who designed and wears her own protheses. An attack from time colonists (don’t ask) left her sans left arm, both legs, and one eyeball. And while her cyborg attachments don’t give her, say, superstrength, they work admirably. She doesn’t even seem to miss the original limbs. Part of this comfort may come from the fact that the prostheses are self-powered – they can flex, bend, and pull on their own. They don’t even need batteries, instead they run on her own internal blood sugar. Which apparently translates into pancakes.

This is a real thing.

At least, the blood sugar thing is.

Not the time colonists.

That’d be silly.

Evgeny Katz (and man, can you come up with a better scientist name than Evgeny Katz?) of Clarkston University just released a report on their cyborg snail batteries. They implanted biofuel cells into a living snail that are powered by free glucose, which the snail can regenerate simply through eating and resting.

I swear I’m not making this up.

Here. There’s a picture.

cyborg snail electricity biofuel

The snail, for it’s part, seems to be doing fine.

This opens up the possibility of attaching real electrical devices to living animals. This could either be used to help power new forms of prostheses or, possibly, military cyborg insects.

You can’t fake this stuff.

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Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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What Goes into Alcohol

I was one of those people who, at 17 decided that I was never going to get drunk. I grew up in a small town where there were only three things to do – get drunk, get high, or get pregnant – so I fled from alcohol as some sort of personal test.

Now, though, my standards have relaxed a bit. I still tend to reach for a coffee over a beer, but I’ve learned to appreciate the occasional drink. Alcohol is the third most popular drink in the world after all, falling only behind tea and water itself, so it’s nearly impossible to totally avoid it. If you don’t like beer, maybe you’re partial to whiskey, or wine. The huge range of drinks isn’t surprising. Unlike coffee or tea, alcohol isn’t tied to one specific plant – humans have fermented and distilled alcohol from nearly ever conceivable sugar we can find.

I plan to go into more detail about specific drinks in the near future. Some have really contentious and interesting histories (see absinthe, or gin) or are as old as human civilization itself (see beer and wine). But for today, I thought I’d take a more holistic point of view and showcase the huge range of alcohol.

This table on Wikipedia is a good place to start. A universal truth of alcohol production is that you have to start with a sugar. Grains are a very popular base, as are fruit juices and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. They’re packed with different kinds of natural sugars such as fructose and sucrose that will go towards feeding the fermentation. Animal products usually don’t work, although honey and milk are interesting exceptions.

Fermentation is carried out by microorganisms that are purposefully introduced to the drink. Yeast is one of the most popular, but certain bacteria or fungi can also work. They eat the sugars, pooping out ethanol and certain gases as waste. It’s this ethanol that gives alcohol it’s kick and what gets you drunk. Some drinks, like beer, let the fermentation continue throughout the process. Others, like gin, interrupt the process and distill the alcohol further.

As for the additives and flavors, I had the pleasure of picking up The Drunken Botanist after hearing about it on NPR. It’s a deeper examination of each plant that goes into alcohols. I’m not going to go into the details here (simply because so many different plants go into drinks), but if you get a chance, pick it up, you might like it. A huge number of herbs, fruits, and even woods are used to give alcohol distinct flavors.

Personally, my favorite drink comes from malt barley, distilled, and flavored with oak wood. See if you can figure  out which one it is.


Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Modernity, Natural History


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Guano Mining

Bird shit stinks. I’ve had the exquisite pleasure of encountering a lot of poop in my life and nothing smells worse than bird shit. My neighbor – a racist and a thief – had a chicken coop that we had to watch while he was away. It was small, dark – little more than a man-made cave with more than a dozen stinking, angry chickens crammed inside, brooding over their own excrement. If you could take ten years of mistreatment and pain and turn it solid, it would smell like that chicken coop.

So it’s surprising to learn that the desire for bird excrement has actually fueled an incredible international industry. Guano mining is a cheap source of extremely useful chemicals known as nitrates and phosphates. Nitrates go into fertilizer and gunpowder. Phosphates are used in industrial chemicals, medicines, and foods. Coca-cola has phosphoric acid in it. Guess where that phosphorus might have come from?

These chemicals have been an object of desire for ages. The ancient Inca used it to enhance their crops. In 1856 the U.S. Congress passed an act specifically for guano excavation that let anyone claim any unoccupied guano islands for themselves – as long as they sold the guano exclusively to America.

This need for guano came to a head on a small island in the South Pacific called Nauru. Nauru is one of the most remote nations on Earth. It’s nearest neighbor is more than 300 km (186 mi) away. It clocks in with a measly 9,000 residents – only the Vatican has fewer people within it’s borders. Nauru was as close as you could be to an island paradise – far away from everyone else, lush beaches, dense forest, warm, balmy breezes wafting across the island.

That is, until the late 19th century, when a chance geological encounter revealed that nearly the entire island was made of guano-rich rock deposits. Within five years a dedicated mining company had started literally digging the island out from underneath it’s inhabitants. I’ll leave most of the details where I originally found them – an amazing story on This American Life, which you can find here and which I highly recommend. Today, Nauru is nearly mined out and a textbook case of environmental disaster. Corruption has nearly bankrupt the entire nation and the forests are gone. All that’s left are these inhabitable limestone spires that erupt from the broken ground.


All for bird shit.

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Posted by on April 8, 2013 in Modernity


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