Monday Morning, Shifting Gears

In these pages the impacts of the pandemic have not been a regular feature, but since early on it was clear we would be feeling the impact for a long time. Each passing week has given us reason to think about how we can adjust what we do. Click the image to the right for a conversation with an illustrator who captures that spirit of adjustment in his own context. At the end of the conversation you can see past cover illustrations that have themes related to bicycles. Not a bad way to start a new week:

As covid-19 infection rates have risen in New York, and the city braces for winter, it can be hard to see a reason for optimism. For his latest New Yorker cover, R. Kikuo Johnson finds one: the welcome surge of cycling across the boroughs. We recently talked to Johnson about biking, working from home, and one of his favorite views in the city.

This is such a lovely image amid dark times. Was there a moment when inspiration struck?

When I think of New York City, the first image that comes to mind is the view from the Williamsburg Bridge. From the top, you see the whole city at once: skyscrapers, graffiti, at least four bridges, the Statue of Liberty, sweating crowds in a rush. Continue reading

How Cities Can Adapt to New High Temperatures

Image by PBS

Image by

We already know that climate change is no longer something to be concerned about for the future, but rather a very present danger. There are ways they can adapt, and part of that involves becoming more sustainable, as some are already doing. But one thing we hadn’t learned much about until now is the impact of increasing heat on the urban environment. Madeline Ostrander writes:

Katy Schneider, the former deputy mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, lives near Eastern Parkway, which forms one strand of her city’s necklace of green. Spending time on the leafy boulevard can make Louisville seem deceptively lush and shady, even when midsummer heat bakes the downtown. But about five years ago, Schneider was surprised to learn that the city had a shortage of trees. In the spring of 2011, students at the University of Louisville surveyed the local canopy and found that it had about thirteen per cent fewer trees than the average for metropolitan areas in the region.

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Sanitation’s Reincarnations

Still from video by The New Yorker

Still from video by The New Yorker

Some trash can be found and then turned into art, like the pieces of plastic that were built into sculptures at the National Zoo. Other trash is not necessarily garbage, but merely objects that someone doesn’t have the space or energy to take care of, and that man’s trash can become another man’s treasure. A man who worked for the New York Department of Sanitation for about thirty years spent a good part of his career collecting and curating things people threw away, but which caught his eye as interesting treasures, as David Owen explains:

Saving Treasures from the Trash

A Sanitation worker shows off the notable items he has rescued from curbs and bins over the course of thirty years.

Nelson Molina grew up in a housing project in East Harlem, in an apartment where his mother still lives. “Starting when I was nine years old, in 1962, I had a passion for picking up,” he said recently. “I had, like, a three-block radius. I would look through the garbage and pick up toys that people threw out, and I would fix them. I had two brothers and three sisters, and I was like Santa Claus to them.” Continue reading

Seaweed Farming to Start in Costa Rica

Red (despite the color) seaweed in spaghetti style. Photo © Ricardo Radulovich, UCR professor

A little less than a year ago, I read a very interesting article in The New Yorker about growing seaweed in Long Island Sound, off the shore of Connecticut, that held inspiring information on the environmental effects of farming the marine macroalgae: it absorbs excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide from the ocean, all of which otherwise negatively affect the ecosystem’s health. Seaweed also can be a solid source of protein, vitamin B12, Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and fiber. So growing it is good for the oceans as well as our bodies.

Today, I was reminded about Dana Goodyear’s piece from last November as I read a headline on the University of Costa Rica’s webpage announcing that researchers from their School of Agricultural Engineering and Biosystems, after years of trial studies, will be promoting the growth of seaweed farming off of both coasts of Costa Rica, where they hope it will become a significant food source for the country. Continue reading

Bikes Starting to be Made in USA Again

This latest post in our common bicycle theme is not about any novel designs or materials being used to make the pedal-powered machines, but rather a feature from The New Yorker website on the new bicycle manufacturing scene in the US, particularly in Detroit, where a crashed automobile industry left a city in dire need of revival. Omar Mouallem writes:

In 1896, the Detroit Wheelmen opened an ornate new clubhouse, complete with an auditorium and a bowling alley. The Detroit Free Press called it “the most modern club house of any cycling organization in the west.” Its forty-thousand-dollar cost (about $1.1 million today) was paid for by the club’s four hundred and fifty members, who included John and Horace Dodge, the co-owners of Evans & Dodge Bicycle Company, one of more than three hundred U.S. manufacturers during the bike boom of the eighteen-nineties.

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Conservationists and Climate Change

Deforestation in Peru, photo via the American Bird Conservancy’s habitat loss webpage

Almost two weeks ago, we shared a story from Conservation Magazine that covered a recent discussion piece published in the academic journal Biological Conservation, which was titled, “From biodiversity-based conservation to an ethic of bio-proportionality.” The author argued that the word ‘biodiversity’ limited conservationists to too small a goal in policy changes; in her opinion, ‘bioproportionality’ would be a better baseline. Today, we consider another contrasting view on conservation and what it should focus on when biodiversity is threatened, this time sourced from a commentary article in Nature, and covered by environmental writer Michelle Nijhuis for the New Yorker:

In January of this year, James Watson, an Australian scientist who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, noticed an image that had been tweeted by a friend of his, a physician in Sydney. With a chain of progressively larger circles, it illustrated the relative frequency of causes of death among Australians, from the vanishingly rare (war, pregnancy and birth, murder) to the extremely common (respiratory disorders, cancer, heart disease). It was a simple but striking depiction of comparative risk. “I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done something like this for the rest of nature?’ ” Watson recalled.

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Figs and Ficus

Photo by Milo Inman

A past employee who used to be a regular contributor here, writing about all things Indian – and in particular, from Kerala – would publish frequently about plants and animals, among other subjects, and once, he wrote three posts in quick succession about three trees in the Ficus genus: the Elephant Ear, the Country Fig, and the Sacred Bodhi. The following month, another author here wrote on his feelings about ficus. This week, journalist Ben Crair writes about figs for the New Yorker:

The produce section of the grocery store is a botanical disaster. Most people know that a tomato is technically a fruit, but so is an eggplant, a cucumber, and a spaghetti squash. A banana, which grows from a flower with a single ovary, is actually a berry, while a strawberry, which grows from a flower with several ovaries, isn’t a berry at all but an aggregate fruit. The most confusing classification, though, will start showing up on American shelves this month. Shoppers will find mission figs with the grapes, kiwis, and other fruit, but a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses. Although many people dismiss figs as a geriatric delicacy or the sticky stuff inside bad cookies, they are, in fact, something awesome: enclosed flowers that bloom modestly inward, unlike the flamboyant showoffs on other plants. Bite a fig in half and you’ll discover a core of tiny blossoms.

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Moringa: Superfood?

A moringa tree (tallest plant in the back left of the photo)

There’s a Moringa tree in the coffee plot at Xandari’s west farm area, and the head gardener José Luis always points it out to guests as a plant with dozens of healthy properties, in addition to its value as a shade-provider to the coffee shrubs. The genus of trees is beginning to be touted as a “miracle tree” and superfood in the United States, but has yet to really catch on among the denizens of developing nations in the dryland tropics, where Moringa grows best. Amanda Little writes for the New Yorker:

On the western margin of Agua Caliente [Mexico], Mark Olson, a professor of evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has a farm. “It may look like a shitty little field with runty little trees in a random little town, but it’s an amazing scientific resource,” Olson said, as he led me through the hilly, hardscrabble acre that constitutes the International Moringa Germplasm Collection. This is the world’s largest and most diverse aggregate of trees from the genus Moringa, which Olson believes are “uniquely suited to feeding poor and undernourished populations of the dryland tropics, especially in the era of climate change.”

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A Just So Story by DNA

A few years ago we shared a story similar to the one below, where Kipling’s Just So Stories were linked with reporting on modern evolutionary biology; a year before that, at the beginning of this blog’s start in India, we discussed Kipling’s ties to that country and its wildlife. From the New Yorker‘s Elements section comes the story “How the Giraffe Got Its Neck,” by Anthony Lydgate:

It’s difficult to know what to make of the giraffe. It shuffles like a camel (right legs forward, then left legs) but runs like a rabbit (hind legs forward, then front legs). Its distinctive aroma repulses many ticks but enchants certain people. It bellows, hisses, and moans in the wild, and in captivity it hums in the dark. It naps with its head aloft but sleeps like a swan, with its head on its haunches. Had Aristotle ever seen a giraffe, he might have said that it was the product of an interspecies dalliance at the watering hole, which he thought of as a kind of zoological swingers’ club—a place where “bastard animals are born to heterogeneous pairs.”

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Artisanal Toys

Anker index1.jpg

Box Set of Anchor Stone Blocks

In The New Yorker‘s book review last week, Alexandra Lange discussed Amy F. Ogata’s new book “Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America,” focusing on the diverse materials and malleability of toy design over the past several decades.

With increasingly commercialized handmade, all-natural toys on the market, Lange asks, “Do toys need to be as artisanal as our food?”

Nearly two years ago now, Meg wrote about Tegu, wooden magnetic building blocks that support conservation and Hondurans in poverty. Tegu blocks seem to be a perfect blend of the artisanal qualities that wood bring to a toy, while the magnets inside add the opportunity for creativity that simple wooden rectangles and squares might not (unless they have the Lego-like studs that Mokulock does).

anker-1.jpgWhat about stone toys?

You don’t hear much about those, it seems to me. Heavy to carry around, more dangerous as projectiles, and requiring more machinery to produce, playthings built from stone might seem even more cumbersome and antiquated than wooden toys to a child brought up on shiny plastics and polymers. But the stone Anker/Anchor blocks (a box cover of which is pictured at the top of this post, and one of my own creations from these blocks is here to the right) made from quartz sand, chalk, linseed oil, and color pigment, are still able to merit $200+ asking prices on eBay, although part of their appeal comes from their relative–or perceived–antiqueness. Continue reading

Bollywood Century

As several of us prepare to celebrate a couple years of residence in India, and this site approaches its first birthday, a certain theme song (and equally essential accompanying dance) comes to mind.  Therefore, a big thanks to The New Yorker‘s James Pomerantz for posting this reminder:

While it may seem like just yesterday that the silent film “Shree Pundalik” was released in Mumbai, May 18th marks the hundredth anniversary of what many consider to be the first Indian film made. The past century has seen India grow to become the world’s largest producer of films…

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Gold’s Glitter Illuminated

Back at about the time when Michael and Seth had posted their first reflections on this site, and Michael had just encountered his own first truly unusual finding in southern India, the newspapers across India were starting to report on this.  It took me months to be sure it was a true story.  And finally, about Thanksgiving time (USA holiday calendar) I took a moment to reflect on it.  I could not be happier to find that The New Yorker has done the kind of homework I had not had time to do.  If you are not yet a subscriber, now might be a good time to reconsider. Continue reading

Saving Rhyme and Reason

For me, reading has always been a route out of a chaotic world.  That doesn’t mean that I read “fluff”. Far from it.  (Anyone familiar with The Iliad  or Beowulf, knows that neither Sam Peckinpah nor Akira Kurosawa invented the specificity or depiction of violence.)  But whether sitting with my children and reading aloud, or better still, sitting with my children while we all read individually, books bring an intangible into our lives by opening doors that remain available to us indefinitely.

Frequently the educational systems in many parts of the world pressure students into making choices that seem almost binary; the “science track” or “business track” for example, setting them on an educational road that is fundamentally an express lane highway, with little chance of turn offs and detours.  These systems produce very smart people in their fields, but it doesn’t easily provide opportunities for reaching full potential. Continue reading


Hans Gigginger photo from The New Yorker

I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater.  In fact, I will easily go so far as to call myself a “foodie”.  I’ve spent my adult life living on various continents, trying to understand the history and culture of the cuisine wherever I was living.  I’ve patiently explained my dinner party plans to vendors at Parisian fromageries (in hopes they will approve and allow me to complete my purchase).  I’ve “mastered” what I like to call Kitchen Croatian, or a knowledge of food nouns in that language, to be able to market and somewhat communicate recipes to kitchen staff while living there.  Malayalam still totally eludes me, but it is one of the world’s most difficult languages after all, so please don’t hold that against me.

But to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never eaten a bug Continue reading