Swans are debate lords confirmed

Anybody who knows anything about swans knows that they are, as a whole, cantankerous assholes who will murder you if they get the chance. Science has now confirmed that they like squabbling so much, they’ll even sacrifice sleep for it.

Scientists studied the behaviour of mute and whooper swans, to see how they used their time and energy.

Watching four key behaviours – aggression, foraging, maintenance (preening, cleaning and oiling feathers) and resting – they found a “trade-off” between aggression and rest, meaning that “increased aggression is achieved at the expense of resting”.

The study, by the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), could help managers of nature reserves design habitats that reduce the need for aggression.

“These swans use aggression if there’s competition over foraging areas,” said Dr Paul Rose, from the University of Exeter and WWT.

“Our findings show this this requires a trade-off, and that both species reduce resting time to allow for this aggression.

“This was the strongest trade-off we found, but there was also a trade-off for both species between foraging and resting.

“However, there was no apparent trade-off between some behaviours, such as aggression and foraging, and aggression and maintenance.”

I find this unreasonably interesting. While some humans do skimp on activities in the “maintenance” category (I’m terrible about remembering to oil my feathers), I know I’m not alone in having sacrificed rest for the sake of a squabble. Internet fights aren’t going to help me make ends meet, even as a professional blogger, but they often feel important at the moment. I think they trigger instinctive emotional responses. Amusingly, I think that there’s more for us here than just a feeling of kinship with ornery dinosaurs. The researchers didn’t just quantify what swans will give up for a good fight, they also gave some thoughts on how to reduce swanflict in the future:

“By providing enough foraging spots for the birds, we can reduce the need for aggression around desirable feeding spots, giving them more time to rest,” Dr Rose said.

“This can help to ensure that migratory species don’t ‘push out’ non-migratory species when they mix in the same wintering locations.

Same.

But seriously – this feels very similar to the way our society deliberately makes life harder for us, so that we’ll sacrifice sleep, and compete with each other to survive. The answer is the same for us as it is for the swans – we have the resources to make sure that competition isn’t necessary for survival. That would peaceful co-existence far easier, but it would also mean that in those situations where there we do want to use competition, it’d be much more about excelling for the sake of excellence, rather than desperately fighting to win some sense of security and accomplishment.

We’re swans, is what I’m saying, and we need to redistribute foraging spots. Be sure to check back here for more deep insights into the similarities between humans and birds. This counts as evolutionary psychology, right?


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Americans are eating so much excess meat, their pee is poisoning the water.

I’ve known for a while that the American diet tends to have too much protein. A lot of emphasis is placed on meat, in our culture, and the focus on making U.S.ians lose weight has often guided people to eat fewer carbohydrates, but as much protein as we want. For me, that was compounded by the knowledge that muscle burns more calories than fat, so in my mind, anything I could do to ensure my body could build muscle easily, would also help me burn calories.

The reality is that we humans tend to be fairly efficient creatures, and when we consume too much protein, our body just pisses it away.

Literally.

 Balancing how much protein you eat with the amount your body needs could reduce nitrogen releases to aquatic systems in the U.S. by 12% and overall nitrogen losses to air and water by 4%, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

Protein consumption in the United States, from both plant and animal sources, ranks among the highest in the world. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, said that if Americans ate protein at recommended amounts, projected nitrogen excretion rates in 2055 would be 27% less than they are today despite population growth.

The study is the first to estimate how much protein consumption contributes to excess nitrogen in the environment through human waste. It also indicates that coastal cities have the largest potential to reduce nitrogen excretions headed for their watersheds.

“It turns out that many of us don’t need as much protein as we eat, and that has repercussions for our health and aquatic ecosystems,” said lead author Maya Almaraz, a research affiliate with the UC Davis Institute of the Environment. “If we could reduce that to an amount appropriate to our health, we could better protect our environmental resources.”

The human body requires protein. But when a body takes in more protein than it needs, excess amino acids break it down into nitrogen, which is excreted mostly through urine and released through the wastewater system. This brings additional nitrogen into waterways, which can result in toxic algal blooms, oxygen-starved “dead zones” and polluted drinking water.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that eating too much protein can also cause health problems. Kidney stones are first on the list, which makes sense, given what our bodies do with the excess, but when it comes to eating red meat, too much can also increase your risk of colon cancer. We already know that cows in particular are major methane emitters, and livestock in general are more energy-intensive to raise, simply by virtue of being animals, and not plants.

In fact, for all I downplay individual action in favor of systemic change, this is one case where there’s almost certainly no downside. The exception to mention up front is that some people simply need meat to be healthy. That’s one reason I want it to be available, even in my “ideal world”, and why food in general should be free at the point of access, so that those with uncommon restrictions don’t have to pay more just to live. That said, eating less meat would benefit the health and the finances of most U.S. residents.

This is one of those times where a country that valued human life would be funding a PR campaign to this end, but at the very least we can spread the word on our own. This is an easy answer, and honestly it’s one we’ve known for a very long time. As with all dietary advice, your exact needs are going to vary person to person, and the whole reason I like this as a form of individual action is that it’s something that will make people’s individual lives better, and possibly more affordable. That would be nullified if you were to make your diet less healthy.

I also want to say that as someone who’s struggled with his weight for his entire life, I get that changing your diet – especially eating less food – is not always an easy ask. Our bodies make us suffer for losing weight, even if doing so makes us more healthy, and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about that beyond developing ways to cope.

But personally, I’ve found the combination of environmental impact and overall concern for my health to be a pretty good motivator in getting me to eat less protein in general, and less meat in particular.


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Video: The fishing cat

Took today off, so you get a video about one of my all-time favorite cat species! I’m also trying a slightly new thing with these, where I’m throwing in some of what Wikipedia has to say about the organism in question:

The fishing cat has a deep yellowish-grey fur with black lines and spots. Two stripes are on the cheeks, and two above the eyes running to the neck with broken lines on the forehead. It has two rows of spots around the throat. The spots on the shoulder are longitudinal, and those on the sides, limbs and tail are roundish.[4] The background colour of its fur varies between individuals from yellowish tawny to ashy grey, and the size of the stripes from narrow to broad. The fur on the belly is lighter than on the back and sides. The short and rounded ears are set low on the head, and the back of the ears bear a white spot. The tail is short, less than half the length of head and body, and with a few black rings at the end.[10] As an aquatic adaptation, the fur is layered. A short, dense layer provides a water barrier and thermal insulation, while another layer of protruding long guard hairs provides its pattern and glossy sheen.[11]

[…]

The fishing cat is broadly but discontinuously distributed in South and Southeast Asia.[1] It is strongly associated with wetlands, inhabiting swamps and marshy areas around oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks and mangrove forests; it seems less abundant around smaller, fast-moving watercourses. Most records are from lowland areas.[2]

A little good news, for a change

California governor Gavin Newsom has announced that California will be producing its own insulin. This hasn’t been done, yet, but apparently Newsom has committed to spending $100,000,000, split evenly between building new insulin manufacturing facilities, and “the development of low-cost insulin products”. This is good. This could be the crack in the dam that ends the hostage situation pharmaceutical corporations currently have with people whose lives depend on medication.

You won’t believe this one weird trick that lets you build a better wind turbine with less material!

Ok, I’m sorry for the headline, it’s just…

You know how sometimes you see an innovation that’s so obvious, you wonder why it wasn’t just always done that way? Maybe this is my ignorance speaking, but this feels like one of those times.

Traditional upwind turbines face the incoming wind, and to avoid being blown into the tower, their blades must be sufficiently stiff. It requires a lot of material to build these relatively thick and massive blades, which drives up their cost. Turbine blades on downwind rotors, however, face away from the wind, so there’s less risk of them hitting the tower when the winds pick up. This means they can be lighter and more flexible, which requires less material and therefore less money to make. These downwind blades can also then bend instead of break in the face of strong winds—much like palm trees.

Over the past six years, in conjunction with collaborators at the University of Virginia, the University of Texas at Dallas, the Colorado School of Mines, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pao’s team has collaborated to develop the SUMR (Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor) turbine, a two-bladed, downwind rotor to test the performance of this lightweight concept in action. On June 10 at the American Control Conference, the CU researchers presented results from a new study of four years of real-world data from testing their 53.38 kilowatt demonstrator (SUMR-D) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Flatirons Campus, just south of Boulder, Colorado.

They found that their turbine performed consistently and efficiently during periods of peak wind gusts—a satisfactory result.

https://youtu.be/OBbyTFFecwM

This seems unequivocally good. I talk a lot about how we need to be preparing for a much more hostile climate, even as we work to reduce that hostility. A huge part of that is going to be having electricity that keeps working even when disaster strikes. Power plants that shut down during heat waves are already getting people killed, as is energy infrastructure that breaks in the cold. Conditions are changing, and our best shot at saving lives is to change our infrastructure ahead of that change.

Wind turbines that keep working in high winds, plus a grid that can withstand hurricanes, could move us from storms meaning a power outage, to storms meaning a power surplus!

I also like this because it goes into the design of the controller that makes sure the blades are facing the correct direction. The oldest windmills had to be directed manually. I think the next upgrade after that was a sail that could align the rotor to the wind like a weathervane. After that, we got fascinating arrangements of wooden gears and the like. All of those innovations are cool in their own right, but it’s good that we’ve got more advanced systems, to deal with a more chaotic climate.

One of the trickiest elements of wind energy generation is dealing with not enough or too much wind at one time. When wind speeds are too low, a turbine can’t produce a useful amount of energy. When gusts are too fast, they can push the limits of a turbine’s capacity, causing it to shut down to avoid a system overload.

The inconsistency of wind speed has plagued wind energy since its inception; the lost time spent shutting down the system leads to less energy generated and less efficient production.

Key to Pao’s innovative contributions are improvements to the controller—the part of the turbine that determines when to be more or less aggressive in power production.

“We like to think of the controller as essentially the brain of the system,” said Pao, senior author on the study and fellow at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI).

This hidden brain aims to produce efficient wind energy at low cost and with low wear and tear. The feedback controller does this by using measurements of how the system is performing, and then adjusting to better improve the performance, said Pao.

The yaw controller makes sure the turbine is facing the correct direction, the blade pitch controller determines the direction of the blades (dependent on the wind speeds), and the generator torque controller decides how much power to pull off the turbine and onto the grid. While it controls physical components of the turbine, these controllers are essentially a software algorithm that tells the motors what to do.

Pao’s group is not only turning the turbine around to reduce damage from strong winds, but working behind the scenes on its software to maximize the system’s ability to keep running during peak wind events.

“Our work attempts to predict the likelihood or the probability of peak wind gusts occurring, and then tries to mitigate the speed peaks by acting before they happen,” said Phadnis.

NREL’s Flatirons Campus’ was the perfect place to test this in action, as it’s strategically placed to receive the strong winds which shoot out across Highway 93 and onto the mesa, after being funneled through Eldorado Canyon directly to the west.

There, the researchers found that, even through extensive experimental testing, peak generator speeds were below the threshold for their operational controller to keep the turbine running.

In a separate collaboration, Pao and her research group have been working with the University of Oldenburg in Germany to assess the utility of sensors that scan ahead of the turbine to measure the wind coming in and of advanced controllers that command the turbine to respond proactively.

I remember reading a while back about how concentrated solar thermal plants were getting better because advanced sensors and computing meant you could have a field of small (relatively), flat mirrors that would re-align themselves to keep the reflected light focused on the same point throughout the day. Prior to that, solar furnaces had to use large parabolic mirrors , which work, but which are harder to construct and transport, and less efficient at tracking the sun. It stands to reason that similar advances have been made for wind energy, but I honestly hadn’t thought much about it till now.

I hope this team gets all the support they need to advance this. The article is cautious about the likelihood of their design being adopted over the turbines we’re used to, and I’m sure that the problems of capitalism will be a big obstacle, beyond whatever engineering problems may exist. That said, the possibility of wind power that uses less material, while also working in a wider variety of conditions, feels like an obvious win.


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Video: Let’s talk about the end of any pretense to democracy in the United States

If this court decides that this doctrine should be in effect, then your vote no longer matters. That is not an overstatement.
-Beau of the Fifth Column

At this point, I don’t think anyone worth consideration will pretend that the United States was a free and democratic society before 1964 or so. The existence of explicit, legislative racial segregation makes the very suggestion absurd. I would also argue that we haven’t have democracy (even the representative sort) since then, both in terms of general participation in governance, and in terms of the government’s responsiveness to the wants and needs of the people. Intentional hold-overs from the Segregation era, like redlining and white supremacist policing, combine with gerrymandering and capitalism to keep power in the hands of the same people who’ve always held it in this society.

I think that some form of direct democracy is what we need. Representative democracy has shown itself to be far too vulnerable to the abuses of the upper class, and looking at history, I think that was by design. It was a way to protect the privilege and power of those at the top. It let some new people into the club and complicated the process of ruling, as did the adoption of capitalism, but that was a price worth paying for making sure the club retained its benefits.

That said, representative democracy – even the vicious parody of it that we’ve had in my lifetime – is better than what may soon be in store for the United States.

At issue is the “independent state legislature theory” (ISLT), which the Brennan Center for Justice describes as a “baseless” concept “making the rounds in conservative legal circles” that posits congressional elections can only be regulated by a state’s lawmakers, not its judiciary—or even its constitution.

Prominent purveyors of former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”—most notably, Ginni Thomas, a right-wing activist and wife of Justice Clarence Thomas—have invoked the dubious theory when pushing state lawmakers to help overturn President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

“In Moore, North Carolina lawmakers argue they essentially get a ‘free pass’ to violate state constitutional protections against partisan gerrymandering when drawing districts which undeniably hurt voters,” said Riggs. “We will vigorously fight these claims and instead advocate on behalf of North Carolinians to prove what the ‘independent state legislature theory’ has been all along—a fringe, desperate, and anti-democratic attack by a gerrymandered legislature.”

Joshua Douglas, an election law professor at University of Kentucky, called Moore an “extremely dangerous case in that it could take away state constitutional limits on state legislatures when they enact restrictive voting rules.”

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a plaintiff in the Mooresaid in a statement that “in a radical power grab, self-serving politicians want to defy our state’s highest court and impose illegal voting districts upon the people of North Carolina.”

“We must stop this dangerous attack on our freedom to vote,” he added.

I would say this looks like a return to the Segregation era – and it may well mean that in some states – but I think it’s likely to be both different, and worse in a number of ways. With climate catastrophe looming, and global ecosystems already collapsing, the stakes are getting higher every year. When I look at what’s happening, and at the multi-generational effort that has gone into making all this happen, I have to assume that they’re also thinking about how to prevent their power grab from being undone.

As always, I think Beau’s take on this is worth considering.

In some ways, this doesn’t change anything. We still need to organize. We still need to work to bring about real democracy, for the sake of our survival. This is another symptom of the systemic problems that we’ve been trying to solve all along. It’s also a new level of bad when it comes to the amount of work that needs doing, and the danger of doing that work. The biggest reason I write about this sort of thing is that I want to provide tools that can help persuade people of the need for action that goes far beyond the boundaries of what our liberal society told us was “acceptable.


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Abolish the police

Is that too much for you?

Do you honestly think cops do more good than harm? Based on what? We need first responders, but we don’t need cops any more than we need the ruling class the cops defend. So many of the crises of our time come from the failed experiment of putting our political power in the hands of “representatives”, in the hopes that they will use it wisely.

They haven’t.

Police are just the tip of the bloody iceberg, but they’re a horror show all by themselves. Police lie, constantly. Police murder family pets. Police steal more from Americans than burglars do. Police kill people every day, and for every one they kill, many more are traumatized, injured, maimed, or have their lives ruined by a bullshit arrest on their record, or by cops making them late for something important. Cops also have open contempt for the constitution, if you happen to care about that thing. They exist to uphold and defend the current power structure, and nothing more.

We spend obscene amounts of money on the police, and that doesn’t go towards keeping us safe. It goes towards keeping the ruling class in power, and keeping them safe from us, even as they drive us towards extinction. Start with defunding them, and redistributing that money to things that actually help the communities, and reduce the incentives for crimes that actually cause harm. As with so much else, we know how to make a better world – we just can’t actually do it while we’re governed by those who would lose their power in making that world.


If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Be on the lookout for people spreading the propaganda of a fascist terrorist

I don’t have a lot to say about the Chicago shooting. It’s yet another act of terrorism by a white American fascist. These will continue to happen until some time after the fascists feel certain that they have no open support from the general public or from the ruling class. My proposed course of action hasn’t changed. There is, however, one thing that I believe is important to highlight:

This seems like a pretty clear-cut attempt to add fuel to the fire of American transphobia. There’s already an effort underway to erase trans people from U.S. society, and to paint them as every kind of villain, evidence be damned. I’ve seen headlines focusing on the fact the shooter “wore women’s clothes”, but they all seem to be claiming that the clothes were an attempt to blend in.

I suppose it’s possible that there’s some truth to that, but given the nature of online fascist discourse, I think Erin Reed’s reading in the above tweet is more than reasonable. It’s also playing on a pretty common trope in media. Everyone is in danger from this fascist movement, but the amount of danger depends on what stage we’re at, and whether you’re seen as an ally to the victims of the moment. Fascists have always preferred targets with little to no political power, and trans people are pretty much always at the top of that list. Pointing out propaganda can help defuse it, and I think more people should be on the lookout for this sort of thing.

And right now the most important thing you can do, is figure out how to join and/or support anti-fascist activity. I’m all in favor of rehabilitating fascists, but that must come after they have no power to hurt anyone. The top priority has to be stopping them.

Reminder: Making real progress on climate change would cost less than 1% of global GDP, but we’re still not doing it.

The world needs to quadruple its annual investment in nature if the climate, biodiversity and land degradation crises are to be tackled by the middle of the century, according to a new UN report.

Boy, that sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? We need to quadruple what we’re currently investing! What does that look like in terms of what economists call “real numbers?

Investing just 0.1% of global GDP every year in restorative agriculture, forests, pollution management and protected areas to close a $4.1tn (£2.9tn) financial gap by 2050 could avoid the breakdown of natural ecosystem “services” such as clean water, food and flood protection, the report said.

I did badly in calculus. Honestly, most math after basic geometry and algebra was pretty rough for me. I’m saying this because maybe my numbers are off here. It sure seems like what this article is saying, is that in response to a crisis that scientists are increasingly telling us could destroy our civilization within just a few decades, the world is investing 0.025% of its GDP? Am I reading that right?

Seriously, though, I’m not surprised. I should say that this article is from last spring, but this isn’t the first time numbers like this have come up, and I think it’s something worth remembering from time to time. It’s not just that we’re not doing enough, it’s that we’re not even doing the bare minimum. I think that estimation of what would be required is far too low, but we haven’t even tried it. It’s not just that our leaders are too greedy and deluded do use their power to make the world better for everyone, it’s that they can’t even be bothered to decrease their pathological hoarding by even a fraction of a percent. Being rich isn’t enough, they have to be constantly getting richer, and they need to do that faster than anyone else. What’s really mind-boggling to me is that if they did invest their collective trillions in really dealing with climate change, they would become international heroes, and they would still almost certainly be obscenely wealthy. They’d still be rich even if they met my standards, and ended poverty around the world, too.

At this point, I think that the fact that they still haven’t done that means that they’re actually incapable of doing it. That means that it will not happen unless their hand is forced, either by total disaster, or by the masses. They really do seem to be aiming for a world in which they rule a shattered wasteland from their high-tech fortresses. Why else would we still be on this path when it would take so little for them to change our course?

The State of Finance for Nature report, produced by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD), said a total investment of $8.1tn was required to maintain the biodiversity and natural habitats vital to human civilisation, reaching $536bn a year by 2050, projected to be about 0.13% of global GDP.

More than that, this analysis backs up one of the points I’ve been hammering for a while now (and I’m far from alone). We need to invest in the protection and stewardship of biodiversity.

More than half of global GDP relies on high-functioning biodiversity but about a fifth of countries are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to the destruction of the natural world, according to an analysis by the insurance firm Swiss Re last year. Australia, Israel and South Africa were among the most threatened.

The Unep report, which looked at terrestrial nature-based solutions, urges governments to repurpose billions of dollars of damaging agricultural and fossil fuel subsidies to benefit nature and integrate the financial value of nature in decision-making. By 2050, governments and the private sector will need to spend $203bn on the management, conservation and restoration of forests around the world.

“The dependency of global GDP on nature is abstract but what we really mean are livelihoods, jobs, people’s ability to feed themselves, and water security,” said Teresa Hartmann, the WEF lead on climate and nature. “If we don’t do this, there are irreversible damages. The four-trillion gap we describe cannot be filled later on. There will be irreversible damages to biodiversity that we can no longer fix.”

The report follows a warning by leading scientists in January that the planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” because of ignorance and inaction.

“The way that we use natural resources for food, textiles, wood, fibre and so on, that needs to change,” Hartmann said. “Everybody’s talking about an energy transition at the heart of everybody’s understanding of climate change. Nobody’s talking about a land-use change transition. We cannot afford to continue exploiting and producing as we do now.”

About $133bn is invested in nature every year, often by national governments. Nearly two-thirds of that is spent on forest and peatland restoration, regenerative agriculture and natural pollution-control systems.

The report’s authors said nature and climate should be high on government lending conditions as part of the expansion of investment, also citing the example of Costa Rica’s tax on petrol, which is used to finance its reforestation programme. Private investment in nature-based solutions accounts for only about 14% of the current total, according to the report, which said it needed to be scaled up through carbon markets, sustainable agricultural and forestry supply chains, and private finance.

Ivo Mulder, head of Unep’s climate finance unit, said: “At the moment, emission levels are equal or par to pre-Covid levels. So despite what everybody’s saying, both businesses and governments have been building back as usual.
“The question is: how serious are we about investing in nature-based solutions, both from a government and business perspective? Failing to do so will probably stop us from meeting the Paris climate agreement and deplete biodiversity further.”

This is the flip side of the “we know what we need to do, and how to do it; what’s missing is a desire to do it on the part of those people in whose hands we’ve concentrated most of our species’ collective power. That means that we need to take back that power if we want anything to change, and that – as always – comes down to organizing. I was talking to a friend recently about the frustrations of trying to motivate comfortable people to direct action, and while I still have very little experience myself, it seems like we really do need to start a new kind of political system from scratch. It’s going to be painfully slow, especially as we watch our rulers destroy the world around us, but I don’t see another way forward. The one bit of encouragement I can offer from this is that even if this analysis is far too optimistic about the investment that’s needed, building a better world is still well within our material capacity.


If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!