Making Barrels High-tech

Kyle Guyer prepared to flip a barrel during toasting at the Missouri Cooperage operation of Independent Stave in Lebanon, Missouri. Lasers and infrared cameras have refined the toasting process to give the customer a desired flavor profile.
Credit August Kryger for The New York Times

Every now and then we find interesting stories from the world of distilleries. Maybe it’s a small mescal brewer, or a giant liquor corporation giving back in some way, or the history of traditional London gin, or people making beer out of wasted bread. In the world of wine and certain spirits, oak barrels are imperative to the process of aging the drink, and the technology involved in cooperage has changed a lot in the last couple years, even as barrels look exactly as they did hundreds of years ago. Clay Risen reports for the New York Times:

SALEM, Mo. — Standing on a wooded hillside in the Ozarks, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, Brad Boswell watches a chain-saw-wielding logger make several deft cuts at the base of a 100-foot white oak. The logger points to a clearing down the slope and, with one final, quick slash, sends the tree falling, exactly where he pointed.

Mr. Boswell scrambles over to look at the swirls and loops that make up the tree’s cross section. If they’re consistent, and the wood doesn’t show scars from fire damage or disease, it will most likely end up in some of the hundreds of thousands of barrels that his 1,500-person company, Independent Stave, turns out every year.

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Rhode Island’s Offshore Wind Turbines Completed

One of five turbines that make up the Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind farm in the United States, off the Rhode Island coast. Credit Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Less than a month ago we shared the story in WIRED about the Block Island Deepwater Wind farm, and now, construction is finished! That may seem like trivial news to Europeans with coastline who have been enjoying offshore wind power for years now, but given that this is the first project of its kind in the US, it’s an exciting sign of progress to come in renewables for a nation with one of the largest carbon footprints. Justin Gillis reports for the New York Times:

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — The towering machines stand a few miles from shore, in a precise line across the seafloor, as rigid in the ocean breeze as sailors reporting for duty.

The blades are locked in place for now, but sometime in October, they will be turned loose to capture the power of the wind. And then, after weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.

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Slacklining in Rio

Image of Giovanna Petrucci via

I wrote about slacklining last year, as James did the year before that, but we were nowhere near the class of skill practiced by professional slackers like those in Rio de Janeiro, where lots of young people go to the beaches and enjoy the relatively new sport in a much more acrobatic fashion than the simple balancing I’ve been doing in back yards and college campuses. Anna Jean Kaiser reports on the world champion of slacklining, an eighteen-year-old girl who practices in her hometown at Ipanema Beach:

RIO DE JANEIRO — Bouncing in the air above the sand of Ipanema Beach, not an Olympic venue in sight, is one of the most remarkable athletes in the world who has nothing to do with the Rio Games. Her name is Giovanna Petrucci, and her acrobatics rival those of the gymnasts and divers competing across this city.

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Op-Ed: US National Protected Lands at Risk

From the New York Times, president of the Wilderness Society Jamie Williams writes an opinion editorial titled “Don’t Give Away Our Wildlife Refuges.” Perhaps given the global crisis I read the final word as refugees accidentally, so I was expecting something else entirely – maybe animals that are displaced by climate change. Instead, I learned that there is a relatively strong segment of the US Congress and state legislatures that are constantly trying to undermine the country’s system of public protected lands, sometimes in ways that could lead to the park or refuge’s destruction:

Tucked into the fiscal relief package for Puerto Rico this spring was a provision to give away a national treasure that belongs to all Americans — 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal had nothing to do with the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. But it would have handed an important victory to extremists in Congress and state legislatures who want to grab national lands and turn them over to the states to be sold or leased.

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New Mosquito Trap Tested With Mixed Success

A mosquito trap that runs on solar electricity and mimics human odor as bait. Credit Alexandra Hiscox via NYTimes

We’ve seen solar power used for many things here, but not yet as a source of power for insect trapping.  On the island of Rusinga in Lake Victoria, Kenya, scientists from the Netherlands, Kenya, and Switzerland tested new traps that use electricity from solar panels to release a chemical similar to the carbon dioxide we exhale (which attracts mosquitos) and a blend of chemicals that mimic human odor (which also draws in the blood-suckers) as bait for the disease-bearing biters. From the New York Times:

Although the traps appeared quite effective at lowering mosquito populations, they had some significant drawbacks.

Because they need power from rooftop solar panels, they are relatively expensive. Still, the panels appealed to residents who could also use them to power a light bulb or charge a cellphone.

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Turns Out the Red Wolf is Part Gray, Part Coyote

John Woodhouse Audubon – Red Texas Wolf – Google Art Project via WikiMedia Commons

Last time I recall linking to a story with gray wolves, it was in the context of rewilding. And though I haven’t written about the red wolf before, it’s another North American species that is protected under US federal law in the Endangered Species Act. But new genetic research published last week on the DNA of North American wolf genomes is showing that the red wolf is in fact a hybrid species; a mix of gray wolf and coyote. The same goes for the Eastern gray wolf, another protected species. Carl Zimmer reports for the New York Times:

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species. Continue reading

Common Ancestor found for Hair, Scales, and Feathers

The dark spots stained blue are placodes, which develop into scales, feathers and hair. The animals from left to right are a mouse, snake, chicken and crocodile. Credit Nicolas Di-Poï, Michel C. Milinkovitch and Athanasia Tzika

For some time now it’s been known that hair and feathers share a root, but the link between scales and feathers was not so clear. New research published in Science Advances shows that all three growths do, in fact, share a common ancestor. Nicholas St. Fleur reports for the New York Times:

Reptiles have scales. Birds have feathers. Mammals have hair. How did we get them?

For a long time scientists thought the spikes, plumage and fur characteristic of these groups originated independently of each other. But a study published Friday suggests that they all evolved from a common ancestor some 320 million years ago.

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To Hunt a Newt

Dr. Grant holds a red-spotted newt from Beebe Pond in Sunderland, Vt., this month. Credit Jim Cole/Associated Press

Salamanders and newts have shown up on the blog before as an important environmental health indicator, an animal family that is fun to look at and look for, and a group of species at risk due to imported/exported diseases made possible by the pet trade. From the New York Times Science section this week, we’re learning even more about these slippery amphibians:

Warren Pond in southern Connecticut, bordered by shady oaks and maples, is a lovely place to fish for bass or sunfish. Or, if the mood strikes you, to hunt the Eastern red-spotted newt.

Why one would want to hunt newts is a valid question. But for Evan Grant, who was stalking the banks of Warren Pond this month, scanning the water through polarized sunglasses, the answer is that many species of salamander in the United States, including the newts he was seeking, may be on the brink of a deadly fungal assault, much like one that has devastated some frog and toad populations worldwide.

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Private Property in the US

The sand hills of Alberta © Ken Ilgunas via NYTimes

We’d never given this issue much thought, but the idea of private property remaining accessible to others who will act responsibly as passersby is an interesting one. If nothing is damaged and the goal is simply to get from one place to the other, or enjoy nature without borders, then why not? Ken Ilgunas writes an opinion editorial for the Sunday edition of the New York Times:

A COUPLE of years ago, I trespassed across America. I’d set out to hike the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been planned to stretch over a thousand miles over the Great Plains, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. To walk the pipe’s route, roads wouldn’t do. I’d have to cross fields, hop barbed-wire fences and camp in cow pastures — much of it on private property.

I’d figured that walking across the heartland would probably be unlawful, unprecedented and a little bit crazy. We Americans, after all, are forbidden from entering most of our private lands. But in some European countries, walking almost wherever you want is not only ordinary but perfectly acceptable.

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US Currency Change Coming

We’ve reported on the positive alterations of currency before, when it was the British five-pound note that was becoming plastic instead of plant fiber. That was good news in terms of ecological footprint, because the plastic notes should live longer and thereby save materials in the long run. In the case of the US change with the five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills, the impact is less on the environment and more in the social arena: women would feature on paper currency for the first time in modern history. From the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday announced the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century, proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, and to add women and civil rights leaders to the $5 and $10 notes.

Mr. Lew may have reneged on a commitment he made last year to make a woman the face of the $10 bill, opting instead to keep Alexander Hamilton, to the delight of a fan base swollen with enthusiasm over a Broadway rap musical named after and based on the life of the first Treasury secretary.

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Endangered Natural History

The Spectrum of Life, at the American Museum of Natural History, an evolutionary trip through the amazing diversity of life on Earth. Credit Matthew Pillbury/Benrubi Gallery

We’ve said often that we’re die-hard supporters of natural history museums before, and even quite recently. So it’s nice to see yet another article championing the role these institutions can have in scientific discoveries, education, and more. Here’s an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times by Richard Conniff, highlighting some threats to some US museums:

When people talk about natural history museums, they almost always roll out the well-worn descriptive “dusty,” to the great exasperation of a curator I know. Maybe he’s annoyed because he’s spent large sums of his museum’s money building decidedly un-dusty climate-controlled storage sites, and the word implies neglect. (“Let me know,” the curator advises by email, “if you want to hear me rant for an hour or so on this topic.”)

Worse, this rumored dustiness reinforces the widespread notion that natural history museums are about the past — just a place to display bugs and brontosaurs. Visitors may go there to be entertained, or even awe-struck, but they are often completely unaware that curators behind the scenes are conducting research into climate change, species extinction and other pressing concerns of our day. That lack of awareness is one reason these museums are now routinely being pushed to the brink. Even the National Science Foundation, long a stalwart of federal support for these museums, announced this month that it was suspending funding for natural history collections as it conducts a yearlong budget review.

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How to Prevent Extinction

Illustration by Jon Han for the New York Times

In last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, the eminent ecologist E. O. Wilson–who we’ve posted about several times in the past for his inspiring and erudite thoughts on nature and biophilia–wrote an opinion editorial on “The Global Solution to Extinction,” in which he partly reminisced about his studies in biology, and also offered his suggestion on how to prevent further extinctions: increase the area of nature refuges, or in other words, boost habitat conservation. Here’s an excerpt of the first half of his piece:

DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11-year-old living with my family in a low-income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety.

Seventy-six years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw.

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Wild Tomatoes Reduce Need for Pesticides

Cherry tomatoes growing at Xandari Resort © J.L. Zainaldin

We’re always on the lookout for non-chemical ways to deter pests from agricultural areas, and researchers in the UK are finding yet another method that doesn’t involve spraying plants with poisons that can adversely affect local wildlife (i.e., bees) or the people eating them. It may seem like a no-brainer, but here it is: breed commercial tomatoes with wild ones to increase pest resistance! Sindya Bhanoo summarizes the research for the New York Times:

Whiteflies are the scourge of many farms, damaging tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other crops. Now, researchers in Britain report that a species of wild tomato is more resistant to the pest than its commercial counterparts.

The wild type, the currant tomato, is closely related to domestic varieties, “so we could crossbreed to introduce the resistance,” said Thomas McDaniel, a biologist and doctoral student at Newcastle University in England and a co-author of the study, published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. “Another method would be genetic engineering, if we identified the genes.”

The researchers studied Trialeurodes vaporariorum, a species of whitefly that often attacks tomatoes grown in greenhouses. Whiteflies damage tomato plants by extracting the plant’s sap, which contains vital nutrients; by leaving a sticky substance on the plant’s surface that attracts mold; and by transmitting viruses through their saliva.

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Green Investing Sees Boost from NY State


Wind turbines seen across the Central Valley from Xandari Resort, Costa Rica

We’ve been hearing about divestment from fossil fuels for a while now, whether it be from university endowment funds (and full or partial divestment), and also featured a story from the Guardian about Bill Gates, who argued that divestment would have little impact, and rather backing green energy and investing in high-risk technologies makes more of a difference in combatting climate change.

In last week’s Opinion pages of the New York Times, Tina Rosenberg describes New York State’s new Common Retirement Fund, which is the United States’ third-largest pension fund and will put $2 billion into a Goldman Sachs investment fund that selects companies to invest in with smaller carbon footprints but have similar risk and return to typical benchmark index funds. From the sound of it, greener investment opportunities will start becoming more common and easily accessible to those of us without Bill Gates levels of money to invest in the higher-risk technologies:

Goldman created the investment fund only for New York State. But similar funds
introduced in 2014 or 2015 are open to other investors, although they have not yet attracted the capital to match New York State’s investment. And more are likely to come — especially after New York’s vote of confidence in a form of green investing that may become mainstream.

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Sifting Through Food Memories

Dabbawala,the lifeline of Mumbai.

The Indian city of Mumbai is home to the ‘dabbawala’ service wherein boxes of hot lunch make their way from homes to customers’ offices.   PHOTO: Satyaki Ghosh

Food memories. Absolutely universal, absolutely distinctive. Across cultures, across borders. United by the emotions they evoke – nostalgia, love, warmth, hope. While travel memories are notched up by the miles, they are bound to feature a food memory or two. Of cultures, smells, people, faces, history.  Jacques Pepin, noted French chef, writes of his in The New York Times:

There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. My earliest memories of food go back to the time of the Second World War. My mother took me to a farm for the summer school vacation when I was 6 years old with the knowledge that I would be lodged and fed there. I cried after she left and felt sad, but the fermière took me to the barn to milk the cow. That warm, foamy glass of milk is my first true memory of food and shaped the rest of my life.

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What The Age Of Humans Looks Like

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Soybeans harvested at a farm in Tangara da Serra, in western Brazil. CreditPaulo Whitaker/Reuters

The Science section this week in the New York Times takes a very big picture look at human impact on the earth, putting in terms of geological time:

Welcome to the “Anthropocene” — a new epoch in our planet’s 4.5 billion year history. Thanks to the colossal changes humans have made since the mid-20th century, Earth has now entered a distinct age from the Holocene epoch, which started 11,700 years ago as the ice age thawed. That’s according to an argument made by a team of scientistsfrom the Anthropocene Working Group. Scientists say an epoch ends following an event – like the asteroid that demolished the dinosaurs and ended the late Cretaceous Epoch 66 million years ago – that altered the underlying rock and sedimentary layers so significantly that its remnants can be observed across the globe. In a paper published Thursday in Science, the researchers presented evidence for why they think mankind’s marks over the past 65 years ushered in a new geological time period. Here are a few examples: Continue reading

Meet the Godwit in North Korea

A godwit made international headlines in 2007 when she was confirmed to have flown for seven days and nights without stopping to a feeding ground in China. That was the longest nonstop flight by a land bird ever recorded. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A godwit made international headlines in 2007 when she was confirmed to have flown for seven days and nights without stopping to a feeding ground in China. That was the longest nonstop flight by a land bird ever recorded. 

To the untrained eye, it’s just a lot of birds on an otherwise deserted stretch of muddy, flat coastline. But for ornithologists, North Korea’s west coast is a little piece of paradise each spring — and both the birds and a dedicated group of birdwatchers travel a long way to get there. The birds being watched aren’t exactly household names — bar-tailed godwits (Limosa Iapponica), great knots (Calidris Tenuirostris) and dunlins (Calidris Alpina).

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How do you Say “Butterfly” in Malayalam?

Photo by James Zainaldin

We have a history of sharing butterfly photos here, primarily from Kerala (ചിതശലഭം, by the way, is Malayalam script for “citaśalabhaṁ,” or butterfly) and Costa Rica (“mariposa” being the Spanish name for the insects) but also in miscellaneous nature posts by our contributors. We also have a bit of a connection to the Smithsonian Institution, and are always happy to hear about friendly, creative polyglots, in this case from the New York Times:

Amid Butterflies, a Bit of a Lingua Franca at the Natural History Museum

 20, 2015

On a recent Sunday, Holly Tooker stood by the transparent wall inside the Butterfly Conservatory, at the American Museum of Natural History. It was, as always, 81 degrees with 78 percent humidity, and it had been a busy morning. Nearby, a giant Danainae butterfly perched on a

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Avian Alarm Calls

A Tufted Titmouse calling in flight.

When you’re walking in the woods or even on a city block, chances are you’ll hear birds chirping at some point. Whatever they’re trying to communicate, it certainly isn’t the joyous celebration of life that cartoons and our active imaginations often make out birdsong to be. Males might be trying to attract a mate, individuals could be declaring their territory, and if it’s the right time of year, chicks may be begging for food. Another reason for a bird to vocalize is to create an alarm call in the interest of its general foraging flock, whether to flee from or mob a potential predator.

I’ve watched small birds like sparrows and chickadees mob a pygmy owl, crows, and a Red-tailed Hawk, but I’ve never had the chance to experience the beginning of the action, which apparently starts with just one alarm call, which turn out to be variable enough in some cases to communicate predator size and danger. Christopher Solomon reports for the New York Times‘ science section:

MISSOULA, Mont. — In the backyard of a woodsy home outside this college town, small birds — black-capped chickadees, mountain chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches — flitted to and from the yard’s feeder. They were oblivious to a curious stand nearby, topped by a curtain that was painted to resemble bark.

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Libraries of Life

Elsie, a former teaching assistant for Cornell’s ornithology course, holds up an Impeyan Pheasant skin specimen. Photo by Rebecca Snow.

At Raxa Collective we’ve always been big admirers of museums, whether focussed on art, culture, or nature. In today’s op-ed section of the New York Times, two biologists write about the importance of natural history museums. The authors, Larry M. Page and Nathan K. Lujan, argue that funding shouldn’t be cut from these types of institutions and that the active collection of specimens from the wild should not be curtailed:

These specimen collections serve as the bedrock of our system of taxonomy — the rules by which we classify life — and are integral to our understanding of the threats, origins and interrelationships of biodiversity. And yet, thanks to budget cutbacks, misplaced ethical critiques, public misconceptions and government regulations that restrict scientists while failing to restrict environmental exploitation, the continued maintenance and growth of these libraries is in danger.

Though most visitors never know they are there, natural history collections are as critical to modern biologists as libraries are to journalists and historians. Indeed, like good literature, each museum specimen allows reinterpretation by every person who examines it.

A couple of our contributors–myself included–are currently working for the Smithsonian Institution, and our supervisor is the curator of birds Continue reading