A Bit Of Merlin’s Backstory

Heather Wolf. Illustration by João Fazenda

Five years ago David Owen wrote a short article that fit well with the recycling and upcycling themes we frequently cover so we linked to it. Since then his writing caught my eye again on a related theme, and then earlier this year wrote one of my favorite profiles of recent years. This week I am drawn to his work again. Seth first introduced us to Merlin, after his three years working at the Lab of Ornithology. Merlin has been improving, and we have given it a few more looks since then. But today I am happy to learn more about the app’s backstory:

Meet Merlin, the Bird-Identifying App

How Heather Wolf, a part-time juggling impresario, turned her birding habit into an app that pegs species—even on the Brooklyn Bridge—using both images and birdsong.

Heather Wolf earned a degree in sociology at U.C.L.A., then spent six years playing electric bass in a travelling band. She earned a master’s degree in information science, moved to Brooklyn, and worked as a software developer for a company based in Manhattan. Continue reading

The New Race In Wind Energy, Between Fixed And Floating Turbines

The world’s first floating wind farm 15 miles offshore of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland. The 30 megawatt installation can power approximately 20,000 households Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

Wind, of all the alternative energy sources we pay attention to, requires vast areas for generation. So water has become the go-to place to place the turbines. It looks like the new race is whether to have the turbines fixed or floating:

Floating wind turbines could open up vast ocean tracts for renewable power

Technology could help power a clean energy transition if it can overcome hurdles of cost, design and opposition from fishing

In the stormy waters of the North Sea, 15 miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, five floating offshore wind turbines stretch 574 feet (175 metres) above the water. The world’s first floating windfarm, a 30 megawatt facility run by the Norwegian company Equinor, has only been in operation since 2017 but has already broken UK records for energy output. Continue reading

Peak Oil & Consequences

Donald Pols, director of the environmental group Milieudefensie, celebrates on May 26 after a court in the Netherlands ordered Shell to slash its emissions. REMKO DE WAAL / ANP / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The hug says all you need to know. Our kids, our grandchildren, and generations to follow will all be wondering why we we fiddled so long while carbon burned. The consequences of choices we make now related to the future of fossil fuel use are epic:

Amid Troubles for Fossil Fuels, Has the Era of ‘Peak Oil’ Arrived?

For years, analysts have predicted that rising world oil consumption would peak and start declining in the coming decades. But with a recent string of setbacks for big oil companies and the rapid advance of electric vehicles, some now say that “peak oil” is already here.

An oil platform facility operated by French oil giant Total in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Angola in 2018. RODGER BOSCH / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

May was arguably the worst month ever for big oil — and the best for its opponents — as courts and corporate shareholders sided with environmental activists to humble the biggest of the fossil-fuel giants, culminating in “Black Wednesday.”

Electric taxis line up at a train station in Shenzhen, China in October, 2019. NIKADA VIA GETTY IMAGES

On that day, May 26, three events occurred that would have seemed nearly impossible not long ago: activists angry at ExxonMobil’s climate policies won three seats on its board of directors; Chevron shareholders voted to force the company to start cutting emissions; and a judge in the Netherlands ruled that Shell must slash its emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

So what’s next for big oil? Is the game up? Have we reached peak oil? Continue reading

Methane Leaks Plugged With Help From Above

Thanks to Public Broadcasting Service (USA) for this:

Satellites seek out methane leaks from pipelines, oil fields, landfills and farms

Satellite imagery shows a Russian gas pipeline (left) and highlights huge amounts of methane (right) being emitted from the pipeline on September 6, 2019. Kayrros and Modified Copernicus Data, 2019

The threat was invisible to the eye: tons of methane billowing skyward, blown out by natural gas pipelines snaking across Siberia. In the past, those plumes of potent greenhouse gas released by Russian petroleum operations last year might have gone unnoticed. But armed with powerful new imaging technology, a methane-hunting satellite sniffed out the emissions and tracked them to their sources.

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, a growing fleet of satellites is now aiming to help close the valve on methane by identifying such leaks from space. The mission is critical, with a series of recent reports sounding an increasingly urgent call to cut methane emissions. Continue reading

Moonshot To Meatless

Peter Prato for The New York Times

Last month I learned enough from Ezra Klein’s food-related conversation with Mark Bittman to share the podcast episode. I listen to his podcast for the quality of his discussions with knowledgeable guests. But he is also a great essayist and yesterday he published an op-ed essay that is worth a read on a topic we have linked to many times:

Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat

It wouldn’t actually take that much of an investment for Biden to get us headed in the right direction.

I’m a vegan, but I’m also a realist. There’s no chance humanity is going to give up meat, en masse, anytime soon. That said, we can’t just wish away the risks of industrial animal agriculture. If we don’t end this system, soon, terrible things will happen to us and to the planet. Terrible things are already happening. Continue reading

Protecting Small Businesses From Amazon’s Monopoly Power

I am responsible for managing a small enterprise. As we expanded into ecommerce some months ago, I looked into the advantages offered by Amazon’s fulfillment services. But the disadvantages, which I have been reading about and posting about here for some years outweighed the advantages.

Andy Jassy. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Having just read this op-ed on the same topic, I am more convinced than ever of the dangers Amazon poses to companies like ours. Maureen Tkacik, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, does an an additional service by highlighting the efforts of Congresswoman Lucy McBath (who Amie had the good fortune to be able to campaign for and who our family voted for when we resided in her district during her first campaign) to hold the company accountable:

What Jeff Bezos Hath Wrought

The Amazon founder prepares to step back just as Washington turns up the heat on the mega-retailer and cloud company.

If I had to guess who inspired Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, to kick himself upstairs and appoint Andy Jassy, a deputy, as his successor as chief executive, I might wager that at least part of the blame can be laid on Lucy McBath, the freshman Georgia congresswoman, and her understated grilling of one of the world’s richest men at a July hearing held by the House antitrust subcommittee. Continue reading

Geographic Information Systems, Tool For Conservation

Burhans realized that the Church had lost track of its vast landholdings. Photograph by Isabel Magowan for The New Yorker

When I was a doctoral student I was introduced to geographic information systems. I became interested in how this tool might be of use in the hospitality industry. By the time I co-authored a second article about this, I already had my dissertation research focused on an entirely different topic, and I also had a job offer in Costa Rica to put that research to use. So, my GIS fascination was short-lived. But it was revived in the last couple of years as Seth focused his graduate school education on how to use this tool for land stewardship and natural resource management. So, reading this article by David Owen was a delight on multiple fronts. Foremost is the knowledge that the tool I found useful for business purposes has an equally powerful use for conservation:

How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change

Molly Burhans wants the Catholic Church to put its assets—which include farms, forests, oil wells, and millions of acres of land—to better use. But, first, she has to map them.

The role of the cartographer, according to Molly Burhans, is not just data analytics. “It’s also storytelling,” she said. Photograph by Isabel Magowan for The New Yorker

In the summer of 2016, Molly Burhans, a twenty-six-year-old cartographer and environmentalist from Connecticut, spoke at a Catholic conference in Nairobi, and she took advantage of her modest travel stipend to book her return trip through Rome. When she arrived, she got a room in the cheapest youth hostel she could find, and began sending e-mails to Vatican officials, asking if they’d be willing to meet with her. She wanted to discuss a project she’d been working on for months: documenting the global landholdings of the Catholic Church. To her surprise, she received an appointment in the office of the Secretariat of State.

On the day of the meeting, she couldn’t find the entrance that she’d been told to use. She hadn’t bought a sim card for her phone, so she couldn’t call for help, and, in a panic, she ran almost all the way around Vatican City. The day was hot, and she was sweating. At last, she spotted a monk, and she asked him for directions. He gave her a funny look: the entrance was a few steps away. A pair of Swiss Guards, in their blue, red, and yellow striped uniforms, led her to an elevator. She took it to the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, and walked down a long marble hallway. On the wall to her right were windows draped with gauzy curtains; to her left were enormous fresco maps, commissioned in the early sixteenth century, depicting the world as it was known then. Continue reading

Bike Sharing Effectively

Getty Images

Thanks to the BBC for this feature story:

Why some bike shares work and others don’t

Bicycle share schemes have had huge success in some cities and flopped spectacularly in others – what is it that makes or breaks a bike share?

A set of iconic photos from 2017 show brightly coloured fields which, at first glance, look like meadows filled with flowers in full bloom. It takes a while to register that the images aren’t of verdant fields, but ones filled with bicycles: hundreds and thousands of two-wheelers, stacked end-to-end in what came to be called China’s bicycle graveyards. Continue reading

Awesome Scientific Knowhow

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If you can suspend judgement for a moment the awe is overwhelming:

CRISPR and the Splice
to Survive

New gene-editing technology could be used to save species from extinction—or to eliminate them.

Odin, in Norse mythology, is an extremely powerful god who’s also a trickster. He has only one eye, having sacrificed the other for wisdom. Among his many talents, he can wake the dead, calm storms, cure the sick, and blind his enemies. Not infrequently, he transforms himself into an animal; as a snake, he acquires the gift of poetry, which he transfers to people, inadvertently.

The Odin, in Oakland, California, is a company that sells genetic-engineering kits. The company’s founder, Josiah Zayner, sports a side-swept undercut, multiple piercings, and a tattoo that urges: “Create Something Beautiful.” He holds a Ph.D. in biophysics and is a well-known provocateur. Continue reading

The Ministry For The Future, Reviewed In Yale Climate Connections

Yale Climate Connections is a nonpartisan, multimedia service providing daily broadcast radio programming and original web-based reporting, commentary, and analysis on the issue of climate change, one of the greatest challenges and stories confronting modern society.

Today, within the time I have enjoyed my first cup of coffee, I have made two discoveries: a new (to me) source for stories to share here (click the banner above to go to Yale Climate Connections) and a book review that gets me wondering whether science fiction is a genre I have time for after all (I thought not, but click the image below to go to the review for yourself).

(Kim Stanley Robinson inset photo: Gage Skidmore)

In The Ministry for the Future, his twentieth novel, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson creates something truly remarkable: a credible, very-near future in which humans effectively solve the problem of climate change.

Climate lukewarmers may be tempted to interpret this upbeat summary as support for their technological optimism. That would be a mistake. Though it ends well, the story Robinson tells is harrowing.

I first heard about the book yesterday in a conversation with the author:

The most important book I’ve read this year

How climate change will force humanity to rethink capitalism, borders, terrorism, and currency.

That conversation was also a kind of review, but it was not until I looked for more information about the book this morning, and found that review by Michael Svoboda, that I got thinking about the genre of science fiction, and the sub-genre of climate fiction.

Beware Of “This Is Big” & Other Snappy Catchphrases

The Miniature Science series of ads, created last year by the very talented folks at BBDO on behalf of their client ExxonMobil, are snappy.

By now most people who pay attention to climate science are aware of ExxonMobil’s active role in creating doubt about the emerging facts that their own scientists established about mankind’s impact on climate. In addition to actors like that giant petrochemical company, there are also behind-the-scenes, complicit creatives who have provided essential messaging to strengthen the deception. In a new essay, Bill McKibben turns his attention to those folks, and expects accountability:

If money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns, then P.R. campaigns and snappy catchphrases are the kindling. Illustration by Lia Liao

When “Creatives” Turn Destructive: Image-Makers and the Climate Crisis

Past sins are past no more: an overdue historical recalibration is under way, with monuments being pulled down, dorms renamed, restitution offered. People did things, bad things; even across the span of centuries, they’re being held to account, and there’s something noble about that. The Reverend Robert W. Lee IV, for instance, recently backed the removal of his famous ancestor’s statue from Richmond, Virginia. The memorial, he wrote, “is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.” Such a response raises an uncomfortable question: What are we doing now that our descendants will need to apologize for? Might we be able to get ahead of the sin this time? Continue reading

Technology Facilitating Museum Collaboration

Our thanks to Samantha Sarafin for news on 21st century technology allowing museums to share artisanal glass from earlier centuries, among other things:

A model of how museums can share their collections more widely

3D images of 19th-century glass marine invertebrates go online

Five researchers set out three years ago to capture the full beauty of a museum’s famous glass models through images. Continue reading

Where Your Music Collection Comes From, And Goes To

I caught up on reading I had missed when it was first published. It is rare for me to miss a Dylan profile, but in May, 1999 I was preparing for our first lodge management project, so no wonder. Alex Ross avoids the tedium that makes me often wish I had not bothered with a Dylan profile. I recommend the profile whether or not you care about Dylan. If not just for clear writing, the quality of the cultural observation transcends the main subject.

Today I am happy to have read another article by Alex Ross, this one much shorter. If you watch the video above it will give a good indication of whether you will find the article worth your while. It reviews the ideas in the book to the left, which offers a great segue from yesterday’s post. We are learning to be more aware of where the things we consume come from, and what it took to produce them, store them, deliver them, and the footprint they leave from production and after consumption:

Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Continue reading

Consider Switching Your Search Engine

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Christian Kroll was inspired to change the direction of his life after travelling through India

I remember testing Ecosia in 2013, when we were based in India. For some reason I no longer recall it did not remain my default search engine then. But after reading again about it now–and more about its founder’s ideas and expectations, and most importantly his actions–I was intrigued enough to do another test. Not exhaustive, but I compared the search results on Ecosia versus Google for a bunch of words and phrases that are of interest to me. Since Ecosia is connected to Bing I did not need to compare those results. Result? I have just made Ecosia my default search engine, for the reasons Mr. Kroll expected I would. And if for any reason I decide to switch back, this time I will report why here. But I do not expect to. This is an attempt to be consistent with my own expectations. Thanks to Suzanne Bearne for bringing this/him back to my attention:

The search engine boss who wants to help us all plant trees

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It supports 20 tree-planting projects in 15 different countries. Photo: JOSHI GOTTLIEN.

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Christian Kroll, the founder and chief executive of internet search engine Ecosia.

Christian Kroll wants nothing less than to change the world.

“I want to make the world a greener, better place,” he says.

“I also want to prove that there is a more ethical alternative to the kind of greedy capitalism that is coming close to destroying the planet.” Continue reading

Counting Turtles


Great Barrier Reef LogoAt first glance, it looks like art. As most great nature photography, whether amateur or taken by professionals, often does. But this is tech-driven professional science. Thanks to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation for this primer:

COUNTING TURTLES IS A SCIENCE

So how do you count more than 64,000 turtles at once?

With drones – and now we have the science to prove it.

Our Raine Island Recovery Project researchers are investigating the best way to count all the turtles at the world’s largest green turtle nesting area. The highly respected PLOS ONE journal has just published their findings (see the paper). Continue reading

Field of Greens

merlin_166576017_fdfde446-ce22-48ee-8e65-4cfcd0d01c1a-mobileMasterAt3x.jpg

Assembly required: Sweetgreen’s hexagonal, compostable bowls have become status markers. Rozette Rago for The New York Times

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Illustration by Gluekit; Photographs by Philip Cheung for The New York Time

It is not the first time we are linking out to a story on this company, but thanks to the New York Times for In a Burger World, Can Sweetgreen Scale Up?for a more in depth look at them.

And for that matter, for a theme we care deeply about, which is that we should all be putting more thought into the food we eat, and how it is packaged.

The market is rewarding those companies paying attention to these themes:

Squashing the competition: A worker preparing zucchini.  Rozette Rago for The New York Times

The chain that made salads chic, modular and ecologically conscious now wants to sell you a lot of other stuff.

On a Wednesday morning last fall, several executives at Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, gathered around a conference table at their headquarters here. They were discussing a new store format, called Sweetgreen 3.0, that had recently been introduced in New York City after two years of planning. At Sweetgreen’s other 102 locations, customers brave queues that, at peak lunch, can make T.S.A. lines look tame. Up front, employees assemble Harvest Bowls, Kale Caesars and infinite customized variants from a spread of freshly prepared ingredients, in a ritual that has become a hallmark of the modern midday meal.

At 3.0, to increase efficiency, the action had been moved offstage, to a kitchen in the rear. Customers give orders to a tablet-wielding “ambassador,” if they haven’t done so ahead of time with their smartphones, retrieving their salads from alphabetized shelves. While they wait they can mull adding one of the Sweetgreen baseball caps or $37 bottles of olive oil on display to the tab.

Many of the changes being tested at 3.0 seem crucial to realizing the ambitious plans of Sweetgreen’s co-founder and chief executive, Jonathan Neman. With its prescient mobile technology strategy, the company hopes to become something bigger — much, much bigger — than a boutique urban chain serving arugula to health nuts and yoga moms. Continue reading

Mr. Trash Wheel Is Going Strong

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Since 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has collected approximately twelve hundred and thirty-three tons of trash and debris that otherwise would have flowed into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Photograph by Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

Thanks to a writer who never disappoints for this update to an inspiring story we lost track of:

The Promise of Mr. Trash Wheel

By Carolyn Kormann

John Kellett, the former director of Baltimore’s Maritime Museum, used to cross a footbridge over Jones Falls, the largest tributary feeding into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, every day on his way to work. “When it rained, there was a river of trash flowing down,” he told me. He had spent twenty years working on the harbor, primarily in environmental education and shipbuilding, and had a deep knowledge of its hydrodynamics and history. City officials, he told me, “said they were open to ideas, so I started sketching.” He drew plans for a machine powered by an old-fashioned water wheel—a technology that had once been a staple throughout the city—designed to intercept trash at the mouth of Jones Falls, which is the main source of harbor pollution. A prototype was installed in 2008. By 2014, Kellett’s invention was reborn as Mr. Trash Wheel—a fifty-foot-long machine, weighing nearly a hundred thousand pounds, that resembles a friendly mollusk, with giant, googly eyes and its own Twitter account.

Five years later, Mr. Trash Wheel has spawned three replicas around Baltimore—Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and another that was announced last week but has yet to be named or installed in the water. Continue reading

Technology & Conservation

TrailBlaz.jpgYesterday’s post, on the application of technology in the interest of conservation, came just in time for this podcast episode by Walter Isaacson to enter my feed.

Listening to it took me straight back, seven years, to when I first learned about the benefits elephants were deriving from new technology, at the same time we (family, and interns and employees) were spending large amounts of time in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Technology, broadly speaking, has gotten us into the mess we are in, so why not expect it to get us out of it?

Conservation: Next Generation Technology

EPISODE SUMMARY

Technology and nature used to reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But like our environment, that relationship has changed over the years and the two have a cyclical relationship of preservation and innovation. The commitment to conserve and heal our diverse ecosystems has pushed technology further and with urgency. Because there’s no time to waste. From the American Great Plains and the African Sahara to the furthest depths in the ocean, we’re talking to the trailblazers who are innovating everyday to save the planet.

Bioacoustics & Conservation

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The AudioMoth recording device in New Forest National Park, in the U.K., where it is searching for sounds of the New Forest cicada. COURTESY OF ALEX ROGERS

Yale e360 shares more on the value of new recording technology as it relates to conservation:

Listening to Nature: The Emerging Field of Bioacoustics

Researchers are increasingly placing microphones in forests and other ecosystems to monitor birds, insects, frogs, and other animals. As the technology advances and becomes less costly, proponents argue, bioacoustics is poised to become an important remote-sensing tool for conservation.

Mitch Aide, a tropical ecologist based in Puerto Rico, thinks we should listen to the earth a lot more than we do now — and not just listen to it, but record and store its sounds on a massive scale. His aims are not spiritual, but scientific: He, his colleagues, and other experts are developing and deploying audio recorders, data transmission systems, and new artificial intelligence software that together are rapidly expanding scientists’ ability to understand ecosystems by listening to them.

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A 20-second spectrogram, showing various audio frequencies, from Puerto Rico includes the calls of these six species. COURTESY OF SIEVE ANALYTICS

Today, Aide can nail a cheap digital audio recorder to a tree in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Forest and transmit its recordings to a computer running prototype software, which indicates almost in real time whether any of 25 species of frogs and birds are vocalizing in the forest. The system’s apparent simplicity belies its power – Aide thinks that it and similar systems will allow scientists to monitor ecosystems in ways we can’t yet imagine.

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A golden-browed chlorophonia (Chlorophonia callophrys) in Costa Rica. SHUTTERSTOCK

He dreams that one day soon, audio recordings of natural soundscapes will be like rainfall and temperature data, collected from a worldwide network of permanent stations, widely available for analysis, and permanently archived. Each clip will be “like a museum specimen,” he said, “but containing many species.” Aide says scientists will be able to efficiently determine how species are moving or changing in response to global warming, habitat destruction, or human disturbance, and chart population shifts over large areas. Continue reading

Drones Sound Like Bees To Wild Animals

Our links to stories in Cool Green Science have been among the most abundant of all our sources. This may be due to the publication’s commitment to finding stories that highlight positive change in our approach to understanding, respecting, protecting the environment. Here is another:

Gustavo Lozada wants to change your mind about using drones around wildlife.

Lozada, technology manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, knows that many people think that increasing drone use will only harass and terrify wild animals. He also knows it doesn’t have to be that way, and that drones can be a really important tool in wildlife research and protection. The videos in this blog, he hopes, will show that drones do not have to disturb the peace.

To be clear, Lozada knows that much drone use is detrimental to wildlife. He points to a recent viral video that showed a small cub trying repeatedly to scale slick, snowy slopes to reach its obviously distressed mother. The video was widely shared as showing the cub’s pluck and determination.

But researchers and animal lovers questioned that narrative, as reported in a National Geographic story titled “Viral bear video shows dark side of filming animals with drones.” The article notes that the whole reason the cub found itself in its predicament was likely because it was terrified of the drone filming it. Continue reading