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Photo: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash.

Oh, what have we done? We are on our way to ruining Planet Earth with our activities. Let’s see if understanding the extent of the problem can help us rectify it.

At Slate, the online magazine, Niranjana Rajalakshmi writes about plastic in the ocean.

“Richard Kirby, a marine biologist based in Plymouth, England, was looking at zooplankton wriggling under a microscope when he spotted something else: shreds of plastic pieces interlaced with the tiny creatures.

“This wasn’t unusual to Kirby. He’d collected the sample off the sea of Plymouth for the purpose of raising awareness about microplastic pollution in oceans. Examining plankton is routine for Kirby, and so is observing microplastics in his samples.

“Plastic pollution in oceans has been increasing at an alarming rate over the years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 88 percent of marine species have been affected by plastic contamination.

“People are familiar with seabirds dying from eating cigarette lighters, or turtles suffocating as a result of mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, but there is very little awareness about plastics that harm creatures at a smaller level, Kirby explains.

Ingesting microplastic can even kill plankton that are crucial sources of food to other marine life, including fish.

“This is because plankton cannot get a sufficient amount of food into their guts if they’re already occupied by little shreds of plastic. …

“Says Kirby. ‘You can even find plastics in plankton samples collected in Antarctica, for example.’ Plastic shreds from clothing are a significant polluter at the micro level. Microplastic can also come from tires, road markings, and personal care products.

“Plankton aren’t mistaking microplastics for food, exactly, says Bill Perry, an associate professor of biology at Illinois State University. They are filter-feeding, during which they extract small pieces of food and particles from the water. In doing so, they gather up microplastics, too.

“The damage that microplastics cause is not just confined to microscopic marine organisms like plankton. In fact, it is more pronounced in species that are located higher in the food chain, explains Perry, and which eat smaller creatures that have themselves consumed microplastics. …

“Eating microplastics, as you might imagine, is not very good for marine animals. Fishes can face problems with growth and reproduction, says Grace Saba, an associate professor who also researches organismal ecology at Rutgers University. Their guts start to have more and more plastic and less food, and they don’t have enough energy to put toward growth and reproduction like they would if they weren’t eating microplastics.

“The microplastic problem is only going to get worse: A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency projects that the amount of microplastics in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean will rise by 3.9 times in 2030 as compared to the microplastics level in 2008 in the region.

“Once microplastics enter the ocean’s food chain, it’s hard for them to leave. Individual animals may excrete microplastics, but ‘the thing about poop in the ocean is that it serves as a food source for marine animals, including plankton and filter feeders,’ Saba explains. In this way, microplastics get continuously recycled. Marine scientists in the future will probably be spotting microplastics in their samples, too.”

Sigh. I do small things to cut down on plastic use, but then suddenly I need plastic bins or some other big plastic thing. What do you do to cut back? A couple of my friends have been studying the issue (one who volunteers with the Sierra Club, another who is with a progressive political group in Massachusetts) and are concluding that recycling doesn’t work.

More at Slate, here. Follow Dr. Kirby @PlanktonPundit on Twitter.

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Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
Suzanne and Kate on Cape Cod. They laugh a lot.

When I saw today’s article by Teddy Amenabar at the Washington Post, I knew it would be blog material. That’s not just because friends have been important to me since childhood (Hello, Hannah!), but because I’ve been learning about the particular virtues that conversation with friends has for older people. There’s the value of relaxing, having fun. But there are also cognitive benefits from focusing on what friends are saying and responding thoughtfully.

Amenabar writes, “One of the more surprising findings in the science of relationships is that both romance and friendship often start the same way — with a spark. … A growing body of research shows friends are essential to a healthy life — and they are just as important for our well-being as healthy eating habits or a good night’s sleep.

“ ‘We’ve always had this hierarchy of love with romantic love at the top and friendship seen as second class,’ said Marisa G. Franco, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends. …

“Platonic love trumps romantic love in a number of ways. People with strong friendships tend to have better mental health and studies suggest they’re in better physical health, as well. Researchers have found large social networks lower our risk of premature death more than exercise or dieting alone.

A six-year study of 736 middle-aged Swedish men found having a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease — but having friends did.

“A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a lot of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with few friends. Notably, having a social network of children and relatives did not affect survival rates. …

“There are multiple theories about the association between friendship and better health. Part of the effect may be due to the fact that it’s easier for healthy people to make friends. A strong social network could be an indicator that someone has more access to medical care. And, someone with more friends may just have a better support system to get a ride to the doctor’s office.

“But there is also a psychological effect of friendship that likely plays a role. Friends help us cope with stress. In one study at the University of Virginia, many people were intimidated at the prospect of climbing a steep hill. But researchers found that when people were standing next to a friend, they rated the hill less challenging than those who were alone.

Brain imaging studies suggest that friendship affects brain systems associated with reward, stress and negative emotions, offering an explanation for why social connection benefits mental health and well-being. Friendship even seems to affect our immune response. In one remarkable study, 276 healthy volunteers were given nose drops containing a cold virus. Those with diverse social ties were less likely to develop cold symptoms. …

“Friends don’t just appear out of thin air, Franco said. Here’s her advice for making new connections and maintaining the old ones.

Take the initiative. Trust your gut when you’re meeting new people. We’re particularly good at knowing when someone is a potential new friend (remember that spark). And, you should assume people like you. We often underestimate how positively others think of us, Franco said. …

Start with a text. Start small by scrolling through your phone and shooting a text message to an old friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with.

Show your gratitude. If a potential friend reaches out to you to grab coffee or pizza, tell them how happy you are they reached out, and that you appreciate the effort, Franco said. In a University of Utah study, researchers asked 70 college freshman to keep a check list of certain interactions — like going to see a movie together or calling just to say hello — they did with new friends. After three months, the researchers found that close friendships were more likely to form when the pairs expressed affection to each other. …

Invite friends to things you’ve already planned. If it’s hard to find time for friends, think of the tasks you already have to accomplish and tag on a friend, Franco said. The next time you workout at the gym, for example, you could invite someone to join. ‘Ask yourself: Are there parts of your day right now that you’re doing anyway that you can just do in community with other people?’ Franco said.

Join a book club, take a class or play a sport. Regular interaction with people who share the same interests as you could lead to friendship. Another University of Maryland study that found cadets who sat next to each other in police academy were more likely to become close friends. …

“While having friends is good for your health, not having them can be detrimental.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. For older women, loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of heart disease by as much as 27 percent.

“Loneliness is essentially the perceived gap between the relationships you have and the relationships you want in your life, said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.

“A 2018 study found that loneliness is common across age groups. … Social media can exacerbate our perception of loneliness by bombarding us with photos and videos of friends and acquaintances seemingly spending their time without us, said Poswolsky.

“[Said] Poswolsky, ‘No one feels like they can talk about it because there’s a lot of shame associated with loneliness.’

Billy Baker, the author of We Need to Hang Out, a memoir of his personal journey to find new friends as a middle-aged man, said he realized he needed to build beyond the lifelong friendships he made in high school or college.

“Baker said he didn’t have very many people he could call in the middle of the night if there was an emergency. To remedy this, he started a fraternity for neighborhood dads to meet every Wednesday night, and the group now gets together on other days and on the weekends.

“Baker said he’s spent years ‘checking off so many other boxes,’ to be a good father and husband, but he’s never had ‘hanging out with my buddies’ on the list.

“ ‘We all know how to do this,’ he said. ‘What very often happens in those moments is you feel that spark with someone and you say: “Hey, we should grab a beer some time!” But, how often do you go grab that beer?’ ”

As Suzanne and her fellow Girl Scouts used to sing,

“Make new friends
“But keep the old.
“One is silver
“And the other gold.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Alex Bakley via Washington Post and Italy 24.
Herman Cruse is a school bus driver who is a regular volunteer in classes at Middle Township Elementary No. 1 in Cape May Court House, N.J.

I like that every week the Washington Post sends subscribers a collection of upbeat stories it calls “The Optimist.” It’s good to be reminded that there are people doing kind and generous things every day. We just don’t hear about them often.

Today’s story, by Cathy Free. is about a school bus driver who was concerned when a child on his bus was discouraged about reading. It’s about how his decision to help out led to a whole new avocation.

“New Jersey school bus driver Herman Cruse noticed that a kindergartner seemed a little sad and out of sorts during one morning ride to Middle Township Elementary #1.

“ ‘Bus drivers are the eyes and ears of students when they’re away from home,’ said Cruse, 55, who drives students of all ages for Middle Township Public Schools in Cape May Court House, N.J.

“ ‘We have an uncanny gift to discern what kids are feeling,’ he said.

“When Cruse asked the kindergartner what was wrong, he said the boy explained that he wasn’t able to complete his reading assignment because his parents were busy with his four siblings at home. It was hard to find one-on-one time to practice reading with his mom or dad, he told Cruse.

“Cruse said an idea popped into his mind.

‘I told him, “Listen, I have some free time, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to come to the school and read with you,” ‘ he said.

“Cruse received permission from the 6-year-old’s teacher, Alex Bakley, to show up at her kindergarten classroom the following week. When he walked in, he said the boy shouted, ‘Hey, that’s my bus driver!’

“ ‘We went into a quiet corner and began reading together,’ Cruse said. … ‘So he read to me, I read to him and we read together, and from there, it took on a life of its own. … A second student wanted to read to me, then a third. All these kids were going to the teacher asking, “Can I read with Mr. Herman?” ‘

“Almost two years later, Cruse now volunteers to help Bakley’s 18 kindergarten students and another kindergarten class with reading two days a week, and on a third day, he tutors the school’s first- and second-graders. After dropping the kids off at school, of course. …

“Middle Township Elementary Principal Christian Paskalides said every child at the school looks up to Cruse, both on and off the school bus. … ‘Positive adult interactions can sometimes dictate a child’s day, and a bus driver is the first and last adult interaction for most students other than family,’ Paskalides added. ‘This is more than just a job to Herman — he’s a great role model and mentor.’

“Cruse said he’s never wanted to be anything other than a bus driver. … Because he lives in Egg Harbor City, N.J., about 40 miles away, it didn’t make sense for him to drive home after delivering students to high school, middle school and elementary school, he said. … ‘Instead, I’d hang out at the gym, go the library or sit in my car and go to sleep to fill up the time,’ Cruse said.

“It wasn’t until he offered to help the kindergartner on his bus last year that he realized there was something more rewarding he could be doing, he said. Cruse had spent a lot of time reading to his own five children when they were growing up.

“ ‘They’d say, “Dad, how come you read so much?” and I’d say, “Come on over and find out,” ‘ he said. ‘I’d tell them, “The book is always better than the movie.” There’s nothing better than time spent with a good book.’ …

“When Bakley showed him the round table where children would read to him in her classroom, he pulled up a small chair and made himself at home, he said. … He spends about 20 minutes reading books with each child on a rotating basis, and he also challenges them to word games like alphabet bingo.

“LaCotia Ruiz said her son Kingsly, 5, is more excited about books since he started reading with Cruse.

“ ‘Kingsly had a rough time with reading at the beginning of the school year, but he’s doing much better because of this fun one-on-one time,’ Ruiz said. ‘In the morning he wakes up excited and says, “I’m going to read with Mr. Herman!” ‘ she said. …

“ ‘There’s now another bus driver who wants to help me out between his routes,’ [Cruse] said. “What started out as a way to kill time has now blossomed into a way to make a difference in the heart of a child.’ ”

Props to him and props to that first kindergartner, too. I’m going out on a limb here and opine that the little boy sensed he could reveal his problem to this adult and maybe have something good happen. More at the Post, here.

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Nature has messages for those who want to hear.

Wildfires have have shown Californians the dark side of Nature, especially how it fights back when it has reached the limits of its tolerance for human destructiveness. Today’s article shows the residents of the obliterated town of Paradise gaining strength from the healing side of Nature.

Sarah Kaplan reported at the Washington Post, “Laura Nelson was dreading this drive. It’s bad enough seeing the mailboxes for houses that no longer exist, the dusty roads lined with the blackened skeletons of trees. But the day is also bone-dry and scorching, the smoke from a distant fire casting a too-familiar pallor over the landscape. Her car bumps over rough patches of pavement — places where the asphalt was melted by vehicles engulfed in flames.

“It has been four years since Nelson navigated these roads while fleeing the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. And still, every return to Paradise is a reminder that she can never truly go home.

“When the Camp Fire incinerated Nelson’s Northern California town, it plunged the community into a mental health crisis. Butte County already had one of the highest rates of childhood trauma in the stateand the sudden loss of home and kinship left residents at high risk of depression. The author of one study on the fire’s aftermath said survivors experienced PTSD at rates on par with veterans of war.

“They are not alone: Research increasingly shows that victims of climate change disasters are left with deep psychological wounds — from anxiety after hurricanes to surges in suicide during heat waves — that the nation’s disaster response agencies are ill-prepared to treat.

“But in the burned and battered forests near Paradise, a small program run by California State University at Chico is using nature therapy walks to help fire survivors recover.

“Drawing on the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing,’ the community-led walks test a fraught premise: That the site of survivors’ worst memories can become a source of solace. That landscapes still threatened by ever-rising temperatures may hold a remedy to the anguish that climate change will bring. …

“After the dual ordeals of fleeing from fire and navigating an overburdened disaster bureaucracy, participants say the program has helped relieve some of their pain.

“ ‘The forest is the therapist,’ Nelson says. ‘Nature knows how to heal.’ …

“As she approaches the shaded entrance to Paradise Lake park — a rare patch of the forest left mostly untouched by fire — she feels her pulse ease ever so slightly. There is something reassuring about the sweet scent of fir needles, the cool breeze of the lake, the chatter of sparrows and squirrels.

“Suddenly, Nelson is glad she came. She needs this morning in nature, she realizes, to restore some of what she lost when Paradise burned. She yearns to feel at home again in this wounded, warming world.

“In the woods beside Paradise Lake, Blake Ellis stands amid a circle of survivors, breathing deep. As program manager of the Chico State ecotherapy program, she has guided scores of forest therapy walks. But this one feels especially freighted with meaning. …

“Ellis doesn’t know what memories they have brought to this moment. But she knows her job is to create a ‘safe container’ for their pain.

“The fire started around dawn on Nov. 8, 2018, when a faulty piece of electrical equipment sent a spark into the parched vegetation of the northern Sierra foothills. …

“The streets in Paradise weren’t designed to carry tens of thousands of evacuees at a moment’s notice. LeeAnn Schlaf saw families crammed into sedans, boats pulled by trailers, trucks carrying dogs and cats and chickens. Some people had abandoned their vehicles and started to walk. She couldn’t understand why. Then Schlaf turned onto the Skyway and was confronted by a ‘tunnel of fire. …

“After introductions, Ellis leads the forest therapy group along the lakeside trail to a flat, open stretch of ground. The water is so still it looks like a mirror, perfectly doubling the trees, the clouds, the smoke-streaked sky.

“ ‘Find a nice, cozy, comfortable spot,’ Ellis says. … ‘Begin by simply bringing your awareness to your breath. Simply noticing what it’s like to breathe.’ …

“Ellis’s goal in this moment is to help the participants feel grounded. To anchor them in a safe and peaceful present, even as they are buffeted by the traumas of their past.

Studies have found that as many as 40 percent of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a disaster, said psychologist Karla Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

“Survivors often remain hypervigilant, their bodies pulsing with stress hormones long after the threat has subsided. Vivid memories of the disaster can disrupt their sleep and haunt their days. Untreated, their suffering may begin to calcify into something more deep-seated and persistent. …

“In the moment when they are most in need of stability and compassion, Vermeulen said, survivors too often find themselves at the mercy of a convoluted bureaucracy that climate change has stretched increasingly thin. …

“Accessing the few resources that are available requires survivors to complete reams of paperwork, adding to their stress levels. It may take months or even years to get approved for government assistance, exacerbating peoples’ sense that they will never be safe again. …

“Years later, Schlaf still worries something will happen to her house every time she goes on vacation. She compulsively checks that the knobs on her stove are turned off. Though it was her life’s dream to live in the woods, now she is uneasy among too many trees. …

“But sitting in the sunshine beside Paradise Lake, Schlaf notices how calm she feels. She looks at the reflection of tall, dark pines quivering on the lake surface. For what feels like the first time in a long time, the forest doesn’t make her fearful.”

More at the Post, here. Hat tip: Earle.

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Photo: MJ Gautrau/ University of Maine.
BioHome3D, the first 3D-printed home made entirely of organic, renewable materials, was unveiled on Nov. 21 at the University of Maine’s Orono campus.

I wonder if writer Laura Graves, blogging from what she calls the Hinterlands of Central Maine, has heard about this initiative in her state. It actually looks like a good idea for any state (or nation). See what you think.

Maya Homan writes at the Boston Globe, “How do you create lots of affordable housing with limited materials, labor, and other resources? One group of researchers at the University of Maine has come up with a proposed solution: hook up a 3D printer.

“The United States faces rising rents and housing shortages, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Maine has its own unique, overlapping challenges: The state needs another estimated 20,000 homes to meet the current demand for low-income housing. It also has the oldest average population in the nation, with a median age of 44.7, an issue that exacerbates the state’s labor shortage. With pandemic-related supply chain issues and rising costs of raw materials, the already-expensive housing market has surged.

“Enter BioHome3D, the first 3D-printed home made entirely of organic, renewable materials.

“The prototype, which was created by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, has been in the works for three years, according to founding director Habib Dagher. It is 600 square feet in total, with a modern, unvaulted barrel roof, and a wide front porch with white shiplap exterior walls. The interior contains an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining area with grooved wooden walls and tall windows. The single bedroom doubles as an office, and a tiled bathroom completes the space.

“The materials used to manufacture the 3D-printed home also help address another issue in Maine: the shuttering of several pulp and paper mills that once processed residual sawdust and other byproducts from local sawmills. …

“Dagher said, ‘We asked ourselves, could we print a home with that material?’ The answer, thus far, has been yes.

“The prototype, which was unveiled Nov. 21 at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, is now undergoing tests to see how the building fares during Maine’s harsh winters. …

“Dagher’s lab is building on over two decades of research into using biomaterials to create sound structures. Though Dagher’s lab is not the first to 3D print a house, they are the first to use a 3D printer to create the entirety of the structure, as well as the first to use environmentally friendly and reusable materials.

“ ‘The walls, the floor, the roof are all bio-based, and it’s 100 percent recyclable,’ Dagher said. …

“While there are certain drawbacks to using engineered materials over natural ones — fire safety being one — Dagher said the homes have displayed an added durability throughout different climates, as well as increased resistance to termites. …

“The homes are designed using modular construction, meaning that individual rooms are manufactured indoors and driven to the construction site, where they can be quickly assembled. Dagher hopes that this method will help cut down on construction time, as builders will not be as impacted by weather conditions.

“As the project is still in the testing phase, there aren’t yet definitive estimates for how many people will be needed to construct the homes, or how much each tiny house will cost to manufacture. However, Dagher said the use of sustainable materials and the ability to 3D print the structure ‘really changes the game in terms of how we think of housing content and how we think of construction.’

“Though the research process is far from over, ‘we’ve learned a lot,’ he said. ‘We’ve learned what not to do, as well as what to do, and the learning has not ended.’

“The lab’s next steps are to build a manufacturing plant (which Dagher affectionately nicknamed the ‘factory of the future’) to be able to produce the homes en masse. Once the factory is up and running, they hope to be able to 3D print a home within 48 hours, and move on to larger projects like housing developments.

“ ‘There’s a lot of potential, not only to solve a crisis in Maine, but to assist in a solution to the housing crisis nationally as well,’ he said.”

More at the Globe, here. See also my 2018 post on a different kind of 3-D house in the Netherlands, here.

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Selfie: Stuga40.
Because English is limited in the realm of relationships, I refer to Stuga40 as “my son-in-law’s mother.” But if we spoke Yiddish, I could use the handy word machatainista.

I wish the English language had more words to describe our extended-family relationships. My friend Jeanne laughed at me when I referred to Charlie as “my sister’s widower” instead of as “my brother-in-law.” But I have more than one brother-in-law. The other one is my husband’s brother.

At a senior community where Erik’s mother joined us for a tour, I caused the marketing director a puzzled moment until she translated for herself that “my son-in-law’s mother” meant “my daughter’s mother-in-law.”

A Yiddish word for that connection exists, machatainista, but if I were to use it, few people would understand me. (And I am not sure how to pronounce it.)

At the online magazine Slate, Jason Feifer digs into the subtleties.

“My parents and my wife’s parents have a good relationship,” he writes. “It’s nice. It’s rare. And they use a word to describe each other: machatunim. We hear it a lot. My wife’s dad, at home: ‘I spoke to the machatunim today.’ My wife’s mom, in an email to my dad: ‘I’m so glad we’re machatunim.’ My wife and I roll our eyes at this. Here we have a classic case of secular American Jews deploying a Yiddish word as a little secret handshake, sharing their delight that both their kids married Jewish. …

“But there’s another, more pragmatic reason they use this word: It’s super convenient. The word means ‘the parents of my child’s spouse.’ There’s no English equivalent, which makes describing this relationship otherwise kind of challenging. What else would they say? Co-in-laws? That barely makes sense. My parents would have to say something clunky like, ‘our son’s wife’s parents.’ …

“Why doesn’t English contain a word for this very common relationship?

“English actually lacks lots of familial concepts that other languages have. Consider Croatian: Ujak means an uncle on your mother’s side, and stric means an uncle on your father’s side. This kind of distinction is common around the world, but in English, we just have one word: uncle. Urdu goes deeper, with words for people three degrees away from you. Your husband’s elder brother’s wife, for example, is jethani, and your husband’s younger brother’s wife is devrani. A Pakistani friend of mine learned Urdu as a child, then picked up English by watching TV, and our vague language drove her nuts. …

“But English is highly detailed when compared with, say, many languages in the Pacific. In some cultures there, no version of words like uncle exists at all. ‘They work on a system of generations,’ says William Foley, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney. If your dad has brothers, you just call them all ‘father.’ …

“Why do we have words for different kinds of relatives at all? ‘There’s a biological bedrock to it,’ says Foley. Societies want to avoid incest, and they want to establish lineage so they know how property and land gets passed down. When a constellation of relatives is given titles, the people in those societies are drawing a map — this person is good for marrying, this one isn’t, these folks get my money when I die, and those folks are out of luck. There are countless ways of accomplishing this, of course, so societies just develop the words that meet their needs. Are multiple generations of a family living together, say? Then they might need more specific words to identify each other. …

“ ‘The relationship you have to in-laws has an awful lot to do with the mating practices and the locality practices after marriage,’ Foley says. The more time someone is likely to spend with their in-laws after marriage, the more complex terms a culture is likely to have for them.

“In Yiddish-speaking cultures — particularly ultra-Orthodox communities in prewar Europe — marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom only meet a few times before their wedding. ‘The goal is to get matched with a family that is equal to or above one’s own family in terms of lineage, money, success, popularity, etc,’ says Ayala Fader, an anthropology professor at Fordham University who studies Jewish ethnography. That means the in-laws are developing a relationship just as purpose-filled as the bride and groom’s. They need a word to use to refer to each other, and they got machatunim. (Yiddish isn’t the only language with a word for this. Spanish has consuegros, for example, which likely developed for different reasons.) …

“English once contained other words about the families of married couples. In early medieval society, a beef between two people could easily spark a generations-long Hatfield-and-McCoys-style feud. So, some families tried to solve things with a high-drama union: One family’s daughter or sister was married off to the other family’s son or brother, and she was called a freoðu-webbe (translation: ‘peace weaver’). 

“What happened after that is a little fuzzy; the records aren’t totally clear. But [Andrew Rabin, a professor of old English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky] says this is how it possibly went down: ‘Peace-weaving relationships are almost always depicted as ending in failure, often because my sister has stabbed you in the marriage bed — sorry!’ And so, to keep everyone alive, a second trade was put in place: When the freoðu-webbe gave birth to a son, that son might be handed over to be raised by her brother. The boy was called a ‘sweostor-sunu,’ which literally means ‘sister’s son,’ but the relationship between an uncle and a sweostor-sunu is different than it is today: The uncle was a patron, godfather, even a foster father, but could also represent a threat. ‘In some sense, what we’re looking at resembles an exchange of hostages: My female relative goes off to live with your family, but then the son of that union is returned to be fostered by me and my family. Implicitly, if an accident happens to befall my sister, your son might end up being equally accident prone.’ …

“So, let us all be thankful we no longer have freoðu-webbes and sweostor-sunus. Those words can die off with the traditions that necessitated them. But we still do have both sets of in-laws in our lives, and an English word for them might be nice. Then again, maybe it’s not necessary: English, after all, is a notorious word thief. Around the 12th century, we took the words niece, nephew, and cousin from French, and those words have served us well. (Before that, there was no single word for any of those types of relationships. A niece was simply called a bróþor-dohtor, or brother’s-daughter, for example.)

“So why not steal another word now? Machatunim does the job. Machatunim it is. Our parents — and oh, how they’ll love to hear this — were right all along.”

I’m all for it. But I like machatainista better for Stuga40 because it is even more precise. It is not just for Erik’s parent. It’s for his mother.

How about you? Do you have special words for these relationships?

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Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine via Reuters Connect.
Ukrainian soldiers capture the moment when Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the liberated city of Kherson on Nov. 14, 2022. War is hell, but soldiers rejoice when they can, even putting dance videos on TikTok.

When the Ukrainian oligarch gave up control of U24 news and the volunteer social-media team I was on disbanded in May, I knew that the outlet would be managed by the government. Now a new law makes it official that freedom of the press is out, at least for now. (See New York Times article here.)

Naturally, I am worried about that. Freedom of the press should not be a luxury only for peacetime. But I don’t feel I have the right to judge, and I am waiting to hear what some of our Ukrainian colleagues have to say.

In the meantime, I want to share the playful videos from Insider, where you can see Ukrainian soldiers relaxing with goofy dance videos that get put on TikTok.

In early December, Andrew Lloyd wrote, “Across social media, videos showing what appear to be Ukrainian soldiers taking part in lighthearted trends and dances are going viral, drawing a mixed response. 

The most viral video in the genre appears to be a 23-second clip shared by the official Twitter account for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on December 5. It shows a person in military attire performing a dance in the snow while what sounds like gunshots could be heard in the background. …

“The same account had previously shared a 21-second clip of a soldier dancing on the hood of what appeared to be a military vehicle, which was viewed over 285,000 times, and included the caption, ‘Morale is high.’ 

“The videos have received a mixed reaction from Twitter commenters, some of whom expressed exasperation with the soldiers.

” ‘What is the point of these dancing videos,’ one comment with over 1,400 likes said. ‘War is hell, soldiers in trenches are freezing to death and most likely are not thinking about pikachu dance.’ …

“But another commenter with over 700 likes came to their defense. ‘Maybe, just maybe, it is to help cope with that hell.’ 

One Twitter user wrote, ‘For those of you who think this is bad: Not sure if you’ve ever been in a combat zone, but I have. … People do things to have some semblance of fun, joy, and normalcy when we could.’

“In the comments, some Twitter users also shared older footage of soldiers dancing and photos of soldiers engaging in ‘silliness in WW2’ in response to the dancing video. Similar videos have also circulated on TikTok, although they don’t appear to have been posted by official accounts. 

“One user who goes by @diyak_yuriy has posted three videos in the past month showing a person dressed in what appears to be a Ukrainian military uniform. … Diyak Yuiry, the 24-year-old dancer behind the account, told Insider he’s been in the military for more than three years and he was ‘very grateful to everyone’ who watched his TikTok and left comments. …

“Viewers seemed to have a more positive response on TikTok [than on Twitter]. One comment with over 1,800 likes said, ‘Damn! These Ukrainians do have a sense of humor. I’m rooting for you,’ while a comment with over 200 likes said, ‘You can’t break a brave soldier’s spirit. Keep on dancing.’

“Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but Vladimir Putin’s troops have since lost half more than half the territory they had initially gained, the BBC reported in November. 

“Half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was damaged or destroyed as a result of attacks from Russia, which caused a ‘devastating energy crisis,’ according to Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe.”

More at Insider, here. No firewall.

Because Ukraine’s media is currently under government control, it is not possible to be sure this dance video is a real thing. But I have to enjoy it anyway.

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Photo: Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor.
A jogger runs on a path in Babcock Ranch, Florida, on Nov. 3, 2022. Babcock Ranch, which calls itself America’s first solar-powered town, survived Hurricane Ian with little to no damage.

When does the bottom line get in the way of building something to last? Too often.

But there are always outliers. At the Christian Science Monitor, I learned recently about housing developers in Florida who give “careful consideration of how the built environment will respond to an increasingly harsh climate.”

Stephanie Hanes writes, “As Hurricane Ian moved toward Florida’s west coast in late September, Amy Wicks drove around this rapidly growing community, trying to figure out what she hadn’t thought of yet. She checked for any debris that might be blocking water runoff paths; she took note of the restored wetlands; she hoped that no alligators had taken up residence in the drain pipes.

“Eventually, she returned to her own home here, hunkered down with her husband and three children, and listened as freight train winds moved over Babcock Ranch, a 4-year-old planned community some 20 miles inland from Fort Myers. At that point, she says, she could only hope that the unique storm water system she had designed and monitored over the past decade would be up for the task. …

“The storm sat overhead for nearly 10 hours, dumping more than a foot of rain on this swath of old Florida cattle ranches and newly built cul-de-sacs.

“By the time it subsided, it was clear that something extraordinary had taken place in Babcock Ranch. Created as a sort of laboratory for green development in Florida, and intentionally designed to survive extreme weather, the town proved remarkably resilient in the face of a Category 4 hurricane.

“Unlike surrounding areas, it did not flood, in large part because of Ms. Wicks’ years of planning and her unique stormwater management design that mimicked natural systems rather than fighting them. It did not lose power, thanks not only to its 700,000-panel solar grid and battery backup system, but also to the power line hardening developers undertook with their utility provider, Florida Power and Light. And because Babcock Ranch owns and operates its own water plant, which also survived the storm, it was the only town in Charlotte County that did not go under a boil-water alert. …

“Across the state, there is a small but growing effort to build more resilient communities in Florida – an effort to shift a yearslong pattern of rapid development that many here say exacerbates water shortages and other environmental risks. …

“With a constant flow of new homebuyers – an average of nearly 1,000 people move to Florida each day, according to oft-repeated state statistics – developers have tried to acquire as much land as possible, and as quickly as possible. That often means buying up faded ranches or long-ignored swaths of swamps and forest – green-covered lands that must be flattened and cleared to make way for housing developments and roads and shopping centers.

“Indeed, to meet building codes that require homes to be graded above street level, developers will typically bulldoze the landscape, dig storm ponds, and then use the fill from those holes to prep building sites, explains Timothee Sallin, co-CEO of Cherrylake, a landscape company working across the Southeast that has become a leader in sustainable design.

“Traditionally, developers would replant that denuded landscape with the types of species that outsiders tend to think about when they imagine Florida – green St. Augustine grass, colorful azaleas, draping bougainvillea. The problem, Mr. Sallin says, is that these plants aren’t native to the state, so they require a lot of inputs to stay healthy, such as water, fertilizer, and pesticides. They also struggle to thrive in soil devoid of organic material and nutrients.

“ ‘The developers have to mass grade a site to build efficiently and economically,’ he says. ‘The most efficient thing to do is to raze it and bring in fill. But that creates soils that are difficult to work with.’

“Meanwhile, because the natural topography of the land has been erased, and the natural water collection systems of wetlands and marshes eliminated, the man-made drainage system becomes the only way to capture water. This can be a problem in some storms – particularly those with unusually heavy rains thanks to climate change.

“All of this, says [Jennison Kipp, a resource economist with the University of Florida and the state coordinator for Sustainable Floridians] creates a system without resilience, suffering from both too much and too little water. ‘The landscapes are on life support,’ she says. …

“According to the state’s central water authority, the region will face a 235 million gallon a day shortfall by 2035 unless demand and usage patterns change. This is one of the reasons why when 27,000 acres of ranch land came up for development just south of Orlando – part of a 300,000 acre swath owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – executives at the development company Tavistock decided to approach the project differently. …

“To plan Sunbridge, which is about two-thirds the size of Washington, D.C., [Clint Beaty, senior vice president of operations for Tavistock and the lead on the Sunbridge project] and others at Tavistock coordinated with representatives from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Sustainable Floridians, and other groups. They came up with a plan to use native landscaping – even eschewing the popular St. Augustine grass for the more drought and heat resilient (although occasionally browner) Bahia grass. They are saving and relocating some of the old live oak trees on the property. All of the new homes will be wired for solar panels and electric vehicle plug-ins, and one model house version boasts Tesla solar shingles and a battery backup system.

“Meanwhile, to help move away from fertilizers, scientists have built a living laboratory along a walking path at the development’s community center, called Basecamp, where they are testing the viability of different species of native plants as well as different sorts of compost amendments to soil and the impact on pollinator species. Mr. Beaty is also working to figure out how to arrange for large scale composting and food-waste recycling for the community.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall. Subscriptions welcome.

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Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Globe.
Apprentices learning how to plaster inside Forge, a trade school that helps students move right into a job.

The kinds of people I follow on social media are always saying that there is no shortage of labor right now, just a shortage of decent pay. So my next thought is, How do people qualify themselves for decent pay, especially young people who don’t go to college?

Investigating one approach, Scott Kirsner writes at the Boston Globe about a trade school that is hiring its graduates.

“In a building next to the Mass. Pike in Newton, two construction crews are at work. Enter the front door, labeled with a sheet of paper that says ‘Forge,’ and a crew is renovating a 1960s-era office space that will eventually house software developers, customer service staffers, and a finance department.

“But go through another door, and you’re in a high-ceilinged industrial space. Here, 10 apprentices are toting lumber, measuring walls, and hanging sheetrock. But this crew is part of a 12-week program that teaches the basics of construction and pays them $15 per hour as they learn.

“Founded in late 2020, Forge is a startup that runs a new kind of trade school but also seeks to employ the graduates. And the company has raised nearly $28 million, some of it from the Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corp., to train more workers and expand to a second city, likely Tampa. Founder Mark Kasdorf says his goal is to employ 100,000 people in 10 years.

“Kasdorf thinks that can happen by creating a new kind of ‘on-ramp’ to the construction trades for so-called Generation Z workers just now entering their twenties.

“ ‘The types of employers in the trades today are incompatible with Gen Z, from big builders like Suffolk to the union to a 65-year-old operator of a plumbing general contracting company. They don’t like Gen Z, and Gen Z doesn’t like them.’ Kasdorf says nearly one-third of Forge’s graduates so far have been women. ‘They’ll tell you that there’s no on-ramps for them,’ he says. …

“Kasdorf sold a previous company, Intrepid Labs, to the consulting giant Accenture in 2017. … When Kasdorf left Accenture to start Forge, he raised money from Boston Seed Capital and was focusing on creating technology for ‘augmented reality’ glasses. … [But] he realized that ‘we’re running out of skilled tradespeople in the US,’ especially as an older generation begins to retire.

“The company changed its focus in February 2021, to ‘building a private trade school where we’re training the next generation of trades worker for America,’ he says, and surrounding them with technology like those augmented reality glasses. …

“One early student, Nick Claude, was managing a bar in Hingham when he heard about the opportunity from a customer who worked for Forge. Claude says he ‘had wanted to get into the trades. … He reached out to 30 or 40 tradespeople, but found ‘many weren’t willing to take on strangers they don’t know.’

“The 12-week program has students build their own workbench, and then they move on to working on simulated houses, learning how to frame a house, install roofing, and add flashing. They install tile and faux-wood flooring and learn to hang sheetrock, plaster walls, and add molding. Kasdorf says about 70 percent of the apprentices finish the program and move into paid positions with Forge, earning $21 an hour and health insurance. (Forge guarantees them 32 hours a week of work.)

“The company sends its alumni out on window replacement jobs, or one-day bathroom refits, typically subcontracting for a larger brand. … Forge also buys houses in the Boston area, dispatches crews to renovate them, and then flips them. The company seeks to buy $300,000 to $400,000 starter homes that it can resell for $600,000. He says that the worse shape a house is in, the better it is for Forge: ‘We want houses that need a lot of labor — it’s more training opportunities for our people.’ …

“Using technology is still part of the picture, Kasdorf says. Twice a day, at noon and 4 p.m., someone on each crew dons an augmented reality headset for a quality check. That allows a supervisor at the office in Newton to ‘see’ the work that has been done remotely, ask questions, and address any problems that have cropped up. …

“Forge has a long way to go to show that it can profitably train and employ thousands of tradespeople. (At present, the company has 90 employees.) But it is working on a major problem — there were more than 400,000 open jobs nationally in construction in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a recent article from McKinsey & Co. highlighted ‘a persistent labor shortfall’ in the sector that could become even worse in the wake of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will funnel billions into new transportation projects. …

“ ‘The demand is strong’ for people with skills in carpentry and other trades,” says Tom Fischer of the North Atlantic State’s Carpenters Training Fund, adding that he would never knock a training program just because it is small — every bit helps.

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM Staff
Collections at the Field Museum include more than 100,000 birds killed in collisions with buildings in Chicago,” the Christian Science Monitor reports. “Each bird is stuffed and tagged.”

I learned decades ago that if small birds start flying into my windows, I need to hang up images of hawks or cats to warn them away. Sometimes I bought images of predators from Audubon or Duncraft. Other times I cut shapes out of black cardboard.

For skyscrapers, it’s not so easy, even though suburban homes kill more birds. At the Christian Science Monitor, Richard Mertens writes about the skyscraper challenge.

“The bird lies on its side, a clump of feathers no bigger than a crumpled leaf. It’s just a dark speck on the concrete, with massive glass and steel skyscrapers rising above it in the pre-dawn light.

“Annette Prince sees it at once. She hurries over and lifts it gently in her right hand. It has a slender bill, a tuft of yellow on its rump, and dark eyes that show no glimmer of life. A yellow-rumped warbler, bound for the warmth of the Caribbean or the American South, has met its end in Chicago’s Loop. …

“In the contest between birds and cities, the cities are winning. Scientists estimate that, on average, at least a million birds die in collisions with buildings each day in the United States – and as many as a billion a year. Most perish during the spring and fall migrations in which vast numbers journey up and down the continent, flying mainly at night. City lights attract and disorient them, and many end up crashing into windows, not just the sides of gleaming office towers but suburban patio doors as well. The problem, then, is twofold: lights and glass.

The light from ever-expanding cities is disrupting the movement of creatures that evolved to migrate in the dark, using the stars and the Earth’s magnetism as their guides.

“And the modern architectural penchant for glass has proved deadly for them. Most glass is invisible to birds, appearing either as clear air to fly through or as a reflection of the trees and sky behind them.

“There are growing efforts to make cities safer for birds. The National Audubon Society’s Lights Out programs, in which owners and managers agree to switch off exterior lights during migration, have spread to 45 U.S. cities. Architects and developers are learning how to make buildings bird-friendly by using specially treated glass that birds can see. Grassroots activists like Ms. Prince are monitoring collisions, pressuring businesses and local officials to take bird safety seriously, and in some places asking homeowners to consider their own windows. Scientists say more birds die by hitting houses – urban and rural – than by striking downtown skyscrapers.

“For many conservationists, the issue is far more than birds. … ‘It’s a proxy for a much bigger problem of our stewardship of the planet,’ says Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and an expert on bird collisions. …

“A 2019 study by the Cornell Lab concluded that the North American bird population had declined by 29%, more than 3 billion birds, over the previous half-century. The biggest reason, scientists say, is probably habitat loss. Feral cats also kill birds – by some estimates more than windows – as do collisions with vehicles and power lines. But the combination of buildings and city lights is deadly.

“By this measure, Chicago may be the deadliest city of all. According to a 2019 study, Chicago endangers more migrating birds than any American city, followed by Dallas and Houston. It’s a matter of lighting, but also geography. Chicago sits on the Lake Michigan shore and within the Mississippi Flyway, a broad path that funnels migrating birds from as far as the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, Central America, and beyond.

“Yet if Chicago is one of the worst cities for birds, it’s also one of the best. It has produced a strong response in defense of avian migrants, including a well-established Lights Out program and architects who use bird-friendly designs. It also has some of the most determined advocates for bird safety in the country. Ms. Prince’s group started with just a handful of volunteers two decades ago and has grown to more than 150. These monitors take turns patrolling a square mile or more of downtown Chicago, searching at daybreak for dead or wounded birds. It’s difficult, labor-intensive work, and few cities can match the scale of the effort.

“If a bird is alive, monitors take it to a rehabilitation center in the suburbs. They take the dead ones to Chicago’s Field Museum, where volunteers prepare them for storage in the museum’s collections.  Over the years, the museum has acquired more than 100,000 birds this way. Songbirds, especially warblers and sparrows, are the most common, but bird kills encompass as many as 170 species.

“The monitors also work with building managers to reduce collisions. Turning off exterior lighting is a start. The lights of entryways, lobbies, and glassed-in atria also attract birds. Moreover, birds drawn to a city typically spend a day or two there, pausing to rest and feed before continuing their journey. Most collisions happen on the lower floors, during the day. Monitors encourage building managers to dim interior lights, move plants away from windows, and apply speckled film to clear glass so birds can see it.

“Geoffrey Credi was one of the first to embrace this effort. Two decades ago, Mr. Credi, director of operations at Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower in downtown Chicago, attended a symposium about birds and buildings. He was surprised to discover that his building, which overlooks Grant Park, was considered one of the worst in town. He already knew there was a problem. Collision monitors and custodial staff had found birds outside. Mr. Credi threw himself into efforts to make the building safer. He and his staff began to track where birds were hitting. They had speckled film applied to clear-glass entryways. An olive tree in an atrium attracted birds, so Mr. Credi had it moved. …

“The effect of city lights on birds is well established. One of the most dramatic examples involves the 9/11 memorial in New York. The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s ‘Tribute in Light’ consists of two columns of light shining into the night, a symbol of the fallen towers. It’s switched on once a year to mark the anniversary.

“Members of NYC Audubon and others were alarmed when it was first turned on in 2002. Videos show hundreds of birds circling and crossing through the light, like insects in a car beam. Radar and ground observation revealed that the number of birds in lower Manhattan increased from around 500 to as many as 15,700. Conservationists reached a compromise with the museum. Monitors would consult radar and watch the sky. When the number of birds in the beams exceeds 1,000 in 20 minutes, the organizers would turn off the lights for 20 minutes.

“ ‘There was an immediate reduction,’ says Dr. Farnsworth. Some years, he says, the lights go off eight times on the tribute night. Other years, when migration is low, they stay on all night.

“Meanwhile, architects are beginning to design buildings that reduce bird collisions. Jeanne Gang, a prominent Chicago architect, is well known for her efforts. Her designs do not eschew glass, but modify it in critical places to discourage collisions. On lower floors, the glass is fritted – printed in the factory with a ceramic pattern that is both durable and visible to birds.

“A simple pattern consists of lots of small dots. But other patterns work, too. Glass on a dormitory complex that Ms. Gang designed for the University of Chicago is imprinted with pale white chevrons, making an aesthetic element out of a safety feature. Elsewhere in the building, decorative steel panels screen the glass. Retractable shades reduce transparency. At glass corners, vertical shields eliminate the see-through effect that is perilous for birds. …

“The world of bird-friendly architecture is evolving rapidly. Glass companies are coming out with more products, including glass imprinted with patterns only visible to humans under ultraviolet light. Birds can see the patterns; people can’t. Architects also are finding new ways to reconcile the competing demands of function, aesthetics, and economics. At the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, architects used fritted glass to reduce sunlight into the building and save on energy bills. The pattern also reduces bird collisions.”

Lots more at the Monitor, here. No firewall, but subscriptions are solicited.

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Photo: Harv Greenberg via Etsy.
How to illustrate a story on the brain’s mysterious remembering and forgetting? Do you approve of this shot of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon for the purpose?

As forgetful moments become more common for me, I tend to think of them only as bad news. This article by Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto at BBC Future asks me to look on the bright side.

“On 25 February 1988, at a performance in Worcester, Massachusetts,” they write, “Bruce Springsteen forgot the opening lines to his all-time greatest hit, ‘Born to Run.’

“According to the conventional wisdom about the nature of forgetting, set down in the decades straddling the turn of 20th Century, this simply should not have happened. Forgetting seems like the inevitable consequence of entropy: where memory formation represents a sort of order in our brains that inevitably turns to disorder. …

“In such a model, the preservation of information like song lyrics requires constant upkeep – which, in the case of ‘Born to Run,’ no one could accuse Springsteen of neglecting. … According to the entropic model of forgetting, such a slip-up made little sense. … Schools and education systems around the world had been built based on the best psychological theories of the early 20th Century. If these models of learning – and its supposed opposite number, forgetting – were wrong, who could tell how many learners had been done a disservice? …

“Efforts to explain forgetting date back to the late 1800s, when psychological researchers began – slowly, at first – to incorporate mathematical tools into their experiments. The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied his own powers of recall by memorising long series of nonsense syllables, then recording how well he remembered them as time elapsed. His ability to summon up this meaningless information, he discovered, sloped downward over time in a curved distribution: he lost most of his hard-won syllables quickly, but a small percentage of them persisted in his memory long after his initial memorization efforts.

“These results seemed to support the intuitive idea that forgetting was the result of the simple erosion of information. But even in these early efforts, wrinkles appeared in the data suggesting that there might be more to forgetting than met the eye. Importantly, the timing of Ebbinghaus’s rehearsals wielded enormous influence over how well he remembered items, with a spaced-out practice schedule outperforming rehearsal sessions that were bunched together.

“This finding was mysterious, hinting at some unexplained requirements of the memorizing mind, but at the same time it was unsurprising. Indeed, the benefits of spacing out one’s studies were known to most students. …

“In Ebbinghaus’s time [quantitative] methods were the exception in psychological research, but a generation later, they were rapidly gaining adherents. Perhaps no psychologist was more responsible for this change than Columbia University’s number-loving psychologist Edward L. Thorndike. … His research laid the groundwork for the influential mid-century movement in psychology known as Behaviorism, which attempts to explain behaviors purely as a function of environmental conditioning, not any intervening mental processes. …

“From his observations he produced three basic laws of learning for human and non-human animals alike. These concerned how the brain ‘stamps in‘ associations (which he dubbed his Law of Effect); under what conditions learning occurs (his Law of Readiness); and how memories are maintained or forgotten: his Law of Exercise, which breaks down into sub-theories of use and disuse. …

“Thorndike’s theory of forgetting largely aligned with Ebbinghaus’s observations, except it didn’t account for the still-mysterious fact that spaced rehearsal of information seemed to steel-plate information against forgetfulness. It would take decades for cognitive scientists to come up with a model of forgetting that satisfactorily accounted for this issue. …

“In both the standardization of education and the ongoing research into learning, forgetting became something of a sideshow. Its status began to improve, however, thanks to two separate research traditions begun in the 1960s and 1970s. One operates at the level of neurons and is detectable through tiny electrodes implanted in cells, while the other operates at the level of cognitive psychology and is detectable through cleverly designed quizzes.

“At the cellular level, Eric Kandel, in a Nobel-winning series of studies, demonstrated that memories are preserved in the form of strengthened connections between neurons. Training regimes, he showed, whether conducted on intact, living, learning animals, or by electrically prodding neurons in a dish, create such beefed-up connections. And, as Ebbinghaus first observed, training (or rehearsal, or study) with extra time scheduled in between led these connections to be longer-lasting. This is a fact that holds true throughout the animal kingdom, from sea slugs to mammals. …

“At the cellular level, part of the answer may be that some of the mechanisms involved in preserving memories seem to require downtime: recharging periods, in effect, before neurons can get back to the work of strengthening their connections.

“A different, yet perhaps complementary, answer is forthcoming in the research tradition of cognitive psychology. Here, a variety of studies suggest that gaps in one’s rehearsal or study schedule are so helpful because, counterintuitively, they create the opportunity for a salutary bit of forgetting. To understanding how forgetting can be useful, it’s important to first recognize that a memory is never simply strong or weak.

Forgetting, it seemed, was less like a cliff slowly collapsing into the sea, and more like a house deep in the woods that becomes harder and harder to find.

“Rather, the ease with which you can summon up a memory (its retrieval strength) is different from how fully represented it is in your mind (its storage strength). The name of your parent, for instance, would be one example of a memory with both high storage and retrieval strength. A phone number you held in your head only momentarily a decade ago could be said to have low storage and retrieval strength. The name of someone you met a party mere minutes ago might have high retrieval but low storage strength. …

“Psychologists became aware of the distinction between storage and retrieval as early as the 1930s, when John Alexander McGeoch, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, tasked study subjects with memorizing pairs of unrelated words. For example, every time I say pencil, for instance, you say chessboard. That task became far more difficult, he discovered, when, before asking his subjects to recite what they’d memorized, he confronted them with decoy pairs: pencil and cheese, pencil and table. The decoy pairs, it seemed, competed with the true pair for the memorizer’s attention.

“As this line of research gained traction, the metaphor for forgetting changed. Forgetting, it seemed, was less like a cliff slowly collapsing into the sea, and more like a house deep in the woods that becomes harder and harder to find. The house might be perfectly sound – that is, its storage strength remains high – but if the path leading to it becomes surrounded by equally plausible paths leading the wrong way, one’s formerly clear mental map can transform into a maze.

“In Springsteen’s case, it’s easy to see how his mental wayfinding might have gotten thrown off track. ‘The reason for the muff, apparently was that he was concentrating so much on the spoken introduction, telling the audience how the song has assumed a new meaning to him over the years,’ the Los Angeles Times’ music critic wrote several days after the event. The new introduction meant he was approaching the same old memory from a different set of cues: a different starting point. Suddenly, the once-reliable path to the opening lines of the song was surrounded by false starts. But soon, the lyrics came roaring back.” The idea is that now the memory is more accessible and the heightened accessibility will stick around. 

Pretty cool stuff. More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Dave Burke/SOM.
Floating wetlands along the Chicago River’s Wild Mile.

Here’s an idea whose time has come. Now that we know the role of wetlands in cleaning up pollutants, why not create wetlands where they’re needed most? Having read today’s article, I’m not sure how I feel about the use of phragmites, so often considered an invasive weed. But I’m glad it’s so good at absorbing pollution.

Susan Cosier reports at YaleEnvironment360, “As cities around the world look to rid their waterways of remaining pollution, researchers are installing artificial islands brimming with grasses and sedges. The islands’ surfaces attract wildlife, while the underwater plant roots absorb contaminants and support aquatic life.

“Five small islands roughly the size of backyard swimming pools float next to the concrete riverbank of Bubbly Creek, a stretch of the Chicago River named for the gas that once rose to the surface after stockyards dumped animal waste and byproducts into the waterway. Clumps of short, native grasses and plants, including sedges, swamp milkweed, and queen of the prairie, rise from a gravel-like material spread across each artificial island’s surface.

A few rectangles cut from their middles hold bottomless baskets, structures that will, project designers hope, provide an attachment surface for freshwater mussels that once flourished in the river.

“Three thousand square feet in total, these artificial wetlands are part of an effort to clean up a portion of a river that has long served the interests of industry. This floating wetland project is one of many proliferating around the world as cities increasingly look to green infrastructure to address toxic legacies. …

“Like natural wetlands, floating versions provide a range of ecosystem services. They filter sediment and contaminants from stormwater, and laboratory experiments show that some plants have the ability to lock up some chemicals and metals found in acid mine drainage. These systems take up excess agricultural nutrients that can lead to algal blooms and dead zones, and recent research suggests they could be used to reduce manmade contaminants that persist in the environment. Though it’s difficult to quantify the exact benefits these systems offer, and they have limitations as a tool in remediating polluted waterways, they could provide another option, researchers say.

“Nick Wesley, executive director of Urban Rivers, a nonprofit working with the Shedd Aquarium on the Chicago project, believes floating systems are a natural fit for the urban environment. …. ‘We’re trying to [restore] what the naturalized river would be.’ In many cities, he continues, floating wetlands could provide a low-cost alternative to conventional infrastructure projects because they’re modular and easy to install and to monitor.

“Wesley’s group began, in 2018, with a floating wetlands project on the Chicago River’s North Branch. Called the Wild Mile, the installation aims to improve water quality and has already begun attracting invertebrates, including mollusks and crustaceans. Last month, the group expanded to the shores of Bubbly Creek. Urban Rivers, Shedd employees, and a team of volunteers bolted together polyethylene and metal frames, draped them with matting, dropped them in the water, added plants, and anchored the islands to the river bottom so they stay in place as the roots grow into the water. …

“Floating wetlands ‘are having a bit of a moment,’ says Richard Grosshans, a research scientist with the International Institute for Sustainable Development who works on the floating structures. ‘They function very similarly to a natural wetland: they have the same processes, plants and microorganisms, bacteria and algae.’ …

“Floating wetlands were first tested in retention ponds, the kind often located near developments to hold stormwater, to see if they filtered pollution. ‘The front end of it was, “Will they work? How well do they work? And what plants should we recommend?” ‘ says Sarah White, an environmental toxicologist and horticulturalist at Clemson University who has worked on floating wetlands since 2006. Partnering with researchers at Virginia Tech, White found that the wetland plants she tested not only did well in ponds with lots of nutrient pollution, but the adaptable, resilient plants actually thrived. She did not always choose native plants, opting instead for those that would make the islands more attractive, so that more urban planners would use them.

“In the early 2010s, Chris Walker, a researcher at the University of South Australia, began testing floating wetlands in wastewater, quantifying the pollutants that four species of plants took up in their tissues and improvements to water quality. Two species, twig rush Baumea articulata and the common reed Phragmites australis, showed the highest uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus of any floating wetland research to date. …

“His team also started testing the ability of floating wetlands to filter out emerging contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are not always filtered by treatment plants and are linked to elevated cholesterol levels, problems with reproductive health, and kidney and testicular cancers. The reed Phragmites australis placed in a floating wetland began absorbing the pollutant into its tissues in less than a month. …

“In Boston, Max Rome, a PhD student at Northeastern University, is attempting to quantify the benefits of wetlands that have been floating since 2020 in the Charles River, another historically degraded waterway. He found that one acre of wetland can absorb the nutrient pollution — usually dumped into the river via stormwater — from seven to 15 acres of dense urban development.

“Rome is also looking into whether floating wetlands can create small pockets of improved water quality or habitat that allow certain native species, like freshwater sponges, to regain a toehold in the river. To do that, he monitored water quality near the wetlands and compared it to other places in the river.

“ ‘The last generation did a really good job of dealing with point source pollution — and it was a huge task,’ he says, referring to the success of the Clean Water Act in reducing effluent from discharge pipes. His generation has a new job, he adds: grappling with ‘ecological restoration of these degraded water bodies at the same time that we do pollution reduction,’ something the wetlands could help address.”

More at YaleEnvironment360, here. Lovely pictures. No firewall.

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Photo: Thorsten Becker via Wikimedia.
Fairy circles in Namibia, Africa. According to the New York Times, Namibia’s fairy circles may become “embedded within a matrix of fresh green grasses” during the rainy season.

Have you ever wondered about “fairy circles”? So have a lot of other people, scientists included. If you search on the term at this blog, you can see that I have been trying to keep readers abreast of the latest news about fairy circles as it becomes available. Today’s report is by Rachel Nuwer at the New York Times.

“The strange, barren spots pepper the vast Namib Desert, which stretches from southern Angola to northern South Africa. They are known as ‘fairy circles,’ and for a natural phenomenon with such a whimsical name, scientific debates over their origins have been heated.

“ ‘The to and fro between opposing camps has often been nothing less than vitriolic,’ said Michael Cramer, an ecophysiologist at the University of Cape Town who has studied fairy circles.

“Despite decades of research, no consensus exists about the origin of the mysterious formations. Theories have included poisonous gases, noxious bushes and plant-killing microbes or fungi. Two of the explanations — the circles are made by termites, or they result from plants competing over limited water — have dominated the scientific debate. …

“A rigorous study published in October will not end this fight, but it does seem to give the water-related hypothesis a clear lead over the termite theory.

“ ‘Plants are forced to create these circles to redistribute water to maximize their chances of survival,’ said Stephan Getzin, an ecologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany and an author of the study. ‘We call it ecosystem engineering.’

“The Namib Desert is one of the driest places in the world, usually receiving only a few inches of rain each year. Researchers first proposed in 2004 that plants, in competition for water in this harsh ecosystem, may self-organize into fairy circles — an idea originally adapted from pattern-formation theory developed by the mathematician Alan Turing.

“Over the past decade, Dr. Getzin and others have published more than a dozen papers in support of the hypothesis, known as plant water stress.

“For their latest study, Dr. Getzin and his colleagues spent three years examining fairy circles at 10 study sites across 620 miles of desert. One of those years, 2020, was a drought, while 2021 and 2022 were exceptionally rainy — a lucky break that permitted the researchers to compare different conditions, Dr. Getzin said.

“They used soil moisture sensors to collect continuous readings every 30 minutes of water content in the sand in and around fairy circles. They also examined hundreds of individual grass shoots and roots excavated at various intervals from within the circles and the surrounding areas.

After rain, the researchers found that grasses germinated both inside and outside fairy circles, but that within about 20 days virtually all of the young shoots inside a circle had died.

“They also found that the top eight inches of soil within fairy circles quickly dried out, something they hypothesize is caused when established plants surrounding fairy circles actively draw water toward them.

“Plants are constantly transpiring — or losing water — through their leaves. Their roots, meanwhile, take water in. In Namibia’s sandy soil, this creates a vacuum effect that moves water from the interior of fairy circles toward the plants’ roots at the circle’s fringe and beyond. …

“The new paper also speaks to the termite hypothesis, which has been championed by Norbert Jürgens, an ecologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany. He reported in 2013 that fairy circles were in fact generated by sand termites that damage grass roots.

“In the new paper, Dr. Getzin and his colleagues noted that termites were conspicuously missing from their study sites, and that they found no signs of root damage in grass that died after rainfall.

“ ‘We can say the reason is not termites, because there were no termites present at all,’ Dr. Getzin said. ‘The reason is desiccation.’

“Dr. Jürgens declined a request to comment.

“Walter Tschinkel, an entomologist at Florida State University who was not involved in the research but who has published papers in support of the water-stress hypothesis, said the new findings provided ‘more nails in the termite coffin.’ …

“Yvette Naudé, an analytical chemist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa who was not involved in the research, agreed that the new study seemed to confirm that, ‘contrary to popular belief, termite activity does not cause the fairy circles.’ …

“Advocates of the water-stress hypothesis still need to contend with other explanations, Dr. Naudé said. She continues to suspect, based on earlier studies, that something about the composition of fairy circle soil is inhibiting plant growth. …

“One of the reasons so many different fairy circle theories persist, Dr. Cramer said, is that it is exceedingly difficult to prove causation for ‘a long-lived ecological pattern that cannot be replicated in the lab.’ To finally put the debate to rest, he called for ‘some manipulative experiments to test the ideas in the field.’ “

Ready to take sides? Read more at the Times, here. Personally, I will always believe the circles are created by fairies, and no amount of rigorous science will change my view.

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Photo: קלאופטרה.
Part of “Matanya’s graduation project” at Wikipedia. See amusing answers to the perennial question “Why did the chicken cross the road?

The way the people at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY, talk about the animals they study reminds me so much of the naturalist Sy Montgomery, a frequent visitor to Boston Public Radio. I only ever heard her speak disparagingly of one critter, and it was one without a brain. To her, all creatures have personalities, even souls.

Emily Anthes reported recently at the New York Times about the Farm Sanctuary.

“It was a crisp October day at Farm Sanctuary, and inside the small, red barn, the chicken people were restless.

“A rooster, or maybe two, yodeled somewhere out of sight. A bruiser of a turkey strutted through an open door, tail feathers spread like an ornamental fan. And a penned flock of white-feathered hens emitted tiny, intermittent squeaks, an asynchronous symphony of chicken sneezes.

“The hens were experiencing a flare-up of a chronic respiratory condition, said Sasha Prasad-Shreckengast, the sanctuary’s manager of research and animal welfare, who was preparing to enter the chicken pen. She donned gloves and shoe covers, threw on a pair of blue scrubs and then slipped inside, squatting to bring herself face-to-face with the first hen who approached.

“ ‘Who are you?’ she cooed.

“Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast meant the question literally. She was trying to find the birds that were enrolled in her study: an investigation into whether chickens — animals not often heralded for their brainpower — enjoy learning.

“But her question was also the big philosophical one driving the new, in-house research team at Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit that has spent more than 35 years trying to end animal agriculture. …

“A growing body of research suggests that farmed species are brainy beings: Chickens can anticipate the future, goats appear to solicit help from humans, and pigs may pick up on one another’s emotions.

“But scientists still know far less about the minds of chickens or cows than they do about those of apes or dogs, said Christian Nawroth, a scientist studying behavior and cognition at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. ‘I’m still baffled how little we know about farm animals, given the amount or the numbers that we keep,’ he said. …

‘They have their own desires, and their own wants and preferences and needs, and their own inner lives — the same way that human people do,’ said Lauri Torgerson-White, the sanctuary’s director of research.

“Now the sanctuary is trying to collect enough data to convince the general public of the humanity of animals.

“ ‘Our hope,’ Ms. Torgerson-White said, ‘is that through utilizing really rigorous methodologies, we are able to uncover pieces of information about the inner lives of farmed animals that can be used to really change hearts and minds about how these animals are used by society.’

“The sanctuary is conducting the research in accordance with its own strict ethical standards, which include giving the animals the right to choose whether or not to participate in studies. Consequently, the researchers have sometimes found themselves grappling with the very thing that they are keen to demonstrate: that animals have minds of their own.

“And today, the birds in ‘West Chicken’ seemed a bit under the weather. Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast crossed her fingers that a few of them might still be up for a brief demonstration. …

“Farm Sanctuary began not as a home for rescued animals but with a group of young activists working to expose animal cruelty at farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses.

“ ‘We lived in a school bus on a tofu farm for a couple of years,’ said Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of the organization. But in the course of its investigations, the group kept stumbling upon ‘living animals left for dead,’ he recalled. ‘And so we started rescuing them.’ …

“In 2020, the organization, which now houses about 700 animals, began assembling an internal research team. The goal was to assemble more evidence that, as Mr. Baur put it, ‘these animals are more than just pieces of meat. There’s emotion there.

‘There is individual personality there. There’s somebody, not something.’

“The research team worked with Lori Gruen, an animal ethicist at Wesleyan University, to develop a set of ethics guidelines. The goal, Dr. Gruen explained, was to create a framework for conducting animal research ‘without dominance, without control, without instrumentalization.’

“Among other stipulations, the guidelines prohibit invasive procedures — forbidding even blood draws unless they are medically necessary — and state that the studies must benefit the animals. And participation? It’s voluntary. …

“The idea is not entirely novel. Zoo animals, for instance, are often trained to cooperate in their own health care, as well as in studies that might stem from it. But such practices remain far from the norm.

“For the researchers at Farm Sanctuary, voluntary participation was not only an ethical imperative but also, they thought, a path to better science. Many prior studies have been conducted on farms or in laboratories, settings in which stress or fear might affect animals’ behavior or even impair their cognitive performance, the researchers note.

“ ‘Our hope is that they’re able to tell us more about what the upper limits are for their cognition and emotional capacities and social structures because of the environment that they’re in and because of the way we are performing the research,’ Ms. Torgerson-White said.

“Although the approach is unconventional, outside scientists described the sanctuary’s ethical guidelines as admirable and its research questions as interesting.”

“ ‘The idea that you could study these species, who are usually only studied in sort of pseudofarm conditions, in more naturalistic environments that actually meet not just their needs but even their most arcane preferences — I think they’re right,’ said Georgia Mason, who directs the Campbell Center for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph. ‘I think that really allows you to do something special.’ ”

More at the Times, here. You might also be interested in this op-ed at the Times by Sarah Smarsh on the difference between “harvesting” animals on small farms and harvesting them in the big, industrialized farms that dominate our food supply.

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Photo: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, founded the Small Planet Institute, which focuses on social solutions to environmental, hunger, and political challenges.

The environmental radio show Living on Earth is staying on top of concerns about our global food system and the role it plays in “environmental crises like global warming and water pollution even as it fails to adequately feed billions of people.” Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé recently joined host Steve Curwood to discuss how “embracing the plant world in our diets connects to climate, health, and democracy.”

“STEVE CURWOOD: Our present food system is polluting and wasteful. For starters, about a third is thrown away, tossed from kitchens and plates in rich places and spoiled where people can’t afford to refrigerate. And many industrial growing systems pollute and waste as well, using too much water, land and chemicals in ways that also add to climate disaster. Yet around the world more than 2 billion people are food insecure.

“Fifty years ago Frances Moore Lappé wrote the bestselling Diet for a Small Planet in a bid to address the hunger crisis, and along the way she seeded a plant-centered food revolution in the kitchens of America. She joins me now from Belmont, Massachusetts. … Frankie, just to be clear, what is a plant-centered diet?

“FRANCES MOORE: Well, it’s embracing the plant world. When I moved from meat, you know I grew up in Texas cow town, right. So people said oh you’re giving up so much and I said, no, no, no, it’s the plant world that has all the taste differences, the color, the shapes, the textures, you know, it’s where all the yummy stuff is. And so for me being plant centered is I don’t follow recipes a lot but going into the kitchen and looking, you know, seeing what’s there and finding out spices and herbs I love and for example, I turned a basic beans and rice dish into an Italian dish by just changing the herbs that are used in it. It’s called Roman Rice and Beans in Diet for a Small Planet. …

“CURWOOD: So what’s changed in the last 50 years since you wrote Diet for a Small Planet? …

“MOORE: We’re sort of moving in two directions at once because we’ve got it now we know what to do and all over the world, people are aligning with nature to grow our food [but] the dominant extractive approach that is so dangerous and so unnecessary is still going strong. …

“Our food system globally contributes about 37% of greenhouse gas emissions and about 40% of that is from the livestock sector. So that’s a huge contribution. And now I’m calling it a plant- and planet-centered diet because if we really addressed this crisis and grew a healthy plant-centered diet, that would cut the agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by about two-thirds. A professor at the University of Minnesota calculated that it would be the equivalent to removing basically all the vehicles off the planet.

“CURWOOD: Now, people listening to us need to be reassured that you’re not saying you can never eat meat, you’re just telling us to make it a rare occasion. …

“MOORE: I really want to be big tent and to welcome people if they are eager to align with their body because there’s a lot of evidence that this plant-centered stuff is really good for us. … Any step we can take, I celebrate.

“CURWOOD: Now, the meat production industry has gone to great lengths to concentrate operations. …

“MOORE: What woke me up at age 26 [was] that I saw meat production as a protein factory in reverse. Consider this, we use about 80% of our agricultural land to produce livestock, but they give to us only 18% of our calories. So right there, that is pretty darn inefficient and for beef, one estimate says that of the grains fed to livestock we get about 3% to 5% of the calories and protein that we eat from all of that grain that gets fed to livestock in this country. So it’s really hard to imagine anything less efficient. …

“CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit more about the the health risk of red meat.

“MOORE: Well, I was actually shocked to learn recently that the WHO, the World Health Organization, has deemed red meat a probable carcinogen. And when I looked into it a bit that has to do with heme iron in red meat. … And then on processed meat, the WHO has deemed processed meat a carcinogen. …

“CURWOOD: Why [is] the food we eat is also linked to the health of our democracy in your view? …

“MOORE: Our democracy [is] the taproot crisis and we also have a living-planet crisis and we also have an economic crisis [of] concentration of wealth, but the taproot is democracy, because that is the way that we make decisions together to solve problems. [If] we’re going to solve these huge problems of our environment and the impact of farming on climate change, which is quite significant, we have to have democracy. And what we have now I think of as a very corrupted form because private interests those who are benefiting very much from fossil fuels and from the meat-production industry and [they] have tremendous power in Washington. There are now 20 corporate lobbyists in Washington for every single person that you and I elect to represent us in Washington. That is problematic, that is what I call a corrupted system, and that’s why I think it’s so important, Steve, we’ve got to solve these problems, and we’ve got to have democracy to solve them.”

More on that at Living on Earth, here. No firewall.

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