Saturday, August 31, 2013

En Route to Caracas

On the DFW to CCS flight (December 10, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 10, 2004 ---

Venezuela is a fascinating country with a breathtaking beautiful nature and warm people. Is also a country of contrasts, with a large section of the population living in degrading slums, and a minority enjoying a standard of life comparable with the rich elites of Northern America or Europe. In recent years Venezuela has lived through a stormy political phase in which a leftist government supported by the lower classes is strongly opposed by the high and middle classes. This conflict has led in April 2002 to a coup organized by the media and the industrial elite, with the probable support of the CIA. The coup failed for the divisions between its promoters and because of the extraordinary support that the government still had among the Venezuelan people, but in the next years the conflict continued on the social, economical and political arena, and culminated a few months ago with a recall referendum called by the opposition to remove the president Chavez from power. The referendum also failed confirming once more the vast support that the government policies enjoy between the large majority of poor venezuelan. All these conflicts reflect deeply in many aspect of the venezuelan society, and will be present in my photos and their stories.

The Mississippi Delta
The diary start with the trip from Boston to Caracas. This was a long trip. We left home in Boston at 7AM to get an earlier flight to Dallas, with a connection three hours later for Cacaras. Not the most direct route, but the only one we could find with tickets bought using free miles. I spent most of the first flight sleeping (I had to work until late the day before, trying frantically to finish all I could before leaving), and then reading on the second flight. Mayli found a book about the years that Albert Einstein spent in Berlin from just before WWI until he was forced to flee with the advent of Nazism. A sort of scientific biography mixed with sociology. It is a very interesting book, as it shows how a highly civilized society could descent into barbarism and surrender itself to a group of murderous fanatics. I still have to finish it (I guess I will have again time on my way back) but so far is very instructive. The only moment I wasn’t reading was when looking at the sun was setting over the clouds and the sea, and a little time before that, when we were flying above the beautiful arabesques of Alabama or Louisiana marshes.

We arrived in La Guaira (the city where the airport of Caracas is located) very late at night. Mayli’s father came to pick us up and drove us to the city. La Guaira is a city on the coast, about 45 minutes from Caracas, from which it is separated by a mountain (Sierra del Avila). A highway passing through a narrow valley connects Caracas to the coast, and its airport. As usual entering Caracas at night from La Guaira offers a view which is at the same time magnificent and frightening. Caracas is a very large city, with a population over 4 millions, more than half of which living in shantytowns made of brick or carton shacks (called ranchitos). These shantytowns hang on the slopes of the mountains surrounding Caracas (and in periods of intense tropical rains are at risk of mudslides, as it happened in December 1999, when between 30 and 50 thousand people were killed). The ranchitos do not have public services (electricity is typically stolen from nearby power lines) and grew exponentially in the last decades without an organized plan. As a result, they appear from the highway as an anarchy of Christmas lights, extending everywhere around the high rise modern buildings of the city. The photo below shows a similar view taken a few days later from within the city.

We will be in Venezuela until December 29. I will try to post a new story every day, even if in some case (like for this post) I will have to do it retroactively, as tomorrow we will leave for Los Roques, and archipelago of thousands of islands surrounded by a coralline barrier off the coast of Venezuela. I don’t expect to find internet there, but I will post photos from that paradise that I already visited a few years ago upon my return to Caracas.

Slums around Caracas at night (December 17, 2004)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2004 Venezuela Diary

Caracas, Venezuela (December 16, 2004)

In 2004 we spent our summer holidays in Mayli's country, Venezuela. At the time I was experimenting with the previous incarnation of this photoblog, and decided to document our trip by posting one photo each day, as an excuse to tell some story of what we were doing and seeing. The diary was popular at the time, but then disappeared from the internet when at the same time the server hosting my site crashed, I changed university (starting an all-time-consuming tenure-track) and moved to another city (where for years our internet connection was too bad to support a new server). I thought that the blog, and the venezuelan diary, were gone for good. However, no good deed ever gets unpunished and, as they say, once you put something on the internet, it is not possible to remove it in a complete way. Sure enough, all text from my old photoblog is actually still available from the "Wayback Machine", including the "Venezuela Diary". Since the resurrection of my photoblog (consequence of acquiring a new computer, getting tenure and fiber internet at home), it is time to put back the travel diary of that trip to Venezuela, similarly to what I have already done with my "Japan Diary".

One word of caution: a lot has changed in Venezuela since 2004, and most importantly my own attitude with respect to what is happening in Venezuela has changed as well. In 2004 Venezuela was in its fifth year of its "Bolivarian Revolution", the political process that followed the 1999 democratic election of Hugo Chavez as president of the country. In 2004 the political conflict in the country was at its highest, following a failed recalled referendum just a few months before, a disabling lockout of the national oil industry two years before and a failed coup d'état in April 2002 when Chavez was briefly imprisoned and the head of the Chamber of Commerce installed by a faction of the military in his place. When I traveled in Venezuela in 2004, the Chavez government was a hugely popular socially progressive movement under siege by strong economic interests within Venezuela and abroad, and under threat of being undemocratically overthrown by corrupted opposition parties. 

Since then many things have changed. First of all, Chavez himself has died, after a long and mysterious illness (mysterious because of his refusal to acknowledge the nature of his disease), during which he left the country to be treated in Cuba for prolonged periods of time. This dramatic epilogue came after years of heightened cult of personality, with Chavez assuming a growing concentration of power, amid purges aimed to remove dissenting voices from his entourage, increasing corruption and inefficiency at all levels of government, cases of human rights violations and widespread suppression of the freedom of the press. Today Venezuela is a society less free than it was in 2004, its economy and infrastructure are in shambles and the post-Chavez "bolivarian" government has a lock on the legislative, judicial and executive power that prevents the country from being a functioning democracy.

That said, the travel diary that I am going to re-published in this web site should be read in the context of the situation as it was in 2004. From time to time I will try to complement the original text with updated information that was not available when the diary was originally written, but for the most part I will try to preserve the spirit and the thoughts I had in that December of almost a decade ago. The first installment of the diary will appear in the next post.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Still Hot

Granada, Spain (September 7, 2011)

I should stop complaining about the sweltering weather and embrace it. Fall will soon be here, and winter will follow, and who knows it may be another one of these freezing cold winters when the temperature in Ames is lower than the summer temperature on Mars (it happens, for real). In fact this morning when I was at The Cafe I checked out the local newspaper. It must have been a slow news day because the article on the first page was declaring that the forecast for the next winter will be extreme cold and lots of snow. Now, I do not mind that (I like snow and going cross country skiing with Kero) but given how difficult is to make long term weather predictions I wondered how they could know. It turns out that the source of the prediction is the "Farmers Almanac", that claims an impressive 80% accuracy in this kind of predictions. Impressive indeed, given that our best mathematical models cannot predict the weather past 8 days better than the 30 years average (i.e. they cannot say if it will be cold or hot, humid or dry past a week or so). So I kept reading. Apparently the Farmers Almanac uses the number of sunspots, phases of the moon and positions of the planets for making their predictions, all combined with a secret mathematical formula that has been passed along through generations of "weather prognosticators" concealing their identity with the pseudonym "Caleb Weatherbee". If I only had known, instead of spending all this money on climate science, meteorological satellites and expensive supercomputers we could have just figured out everything by reading the horoscope in the Sunday paper! Or maybe no?

The photo above was in the old (arabic) part of Grenada, a really beautiful city in Spain I visited a couple of years ago for a scientific meeting on variable stars (I wonder if those stars are also included in the secret formula of the Farmers Almanac). It has an illustrious history, and some wonderful arabic architecture (like the famous Alhambra). The day I took the photo was really hot, but dry, not moist like here. The kind of hot weather I like.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Ames, IA (July 15, 2010)

As predicted, summer is back, with a vengeance. The last few days have been unseasonably hot, with 80% humidity leading to a heat index of 44ºC (that's 110ºF). I know somebody that likes sweltering weather like this... well that's not for me and I am ready for some nice fall weather! Do you want to exchange? This (hopefully last) heat wave comes after a relatively cold summer and a very wet spring. It kind of compensates, and is not unprecedented: in the last 125 years the thermometer rose above 100ºF in Des Moines at least six times. I guess that if the 5 previous generations living here could take it without air conditioning I should probably shut up and enjoy the the weather!

Late spring in Ames
The photos above and at the left were taken both at the Ada Hayden park in Ames. The one above was taken right in the middle of summer, when temperatures like this are more normal. The one on the left was instead taken in late spring, when the little patch of restored prairie in the park was blooming. As I mentioned before, the park is named after Ada Hayden, a botanist and conservationist that was the curator of the herbarium at my University at the beginning of the XX Century (she was also the first woman to get the Ph.D. at Iowa State). Her activity was crucial to promote the conservation of the remnants of the prairie that once occupied all the Great Plains. In 1940 the State of Iowa set aside $100 to Hayden for gasoline to drive around and identify what was left of the original prairie in the State. Thanks of her drives Iowa still has some of its original prairie. Some of these surviving patches she identified are still there, like the Hayden Prairie State Preserve in northern Iowa on the border with Minnesota.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Prairie Restoration

Moore Memorial Park, Ames, Iowa (January 14, 2012)

I wrote before about Moore Memorial Park in Ames. The park is located vey close to my house, and is the place where I usually walk Kero in the morning. Situated on land donated to the city by Fern and Bertha Moore, the park occupies what once was a dairy farm. It is crossed by a creek meandering in between slow rolling hills.

A neat thing in the park is that a sizable portion of it is being kept as restored prairie. Tall grass prairie once occupied most of the US Great Plains, the land that was roamed by bisons and the nomadic tribes that were hunting them. Most of this prairie has now disappeared, converted into industrial farms. Illinois alone once held over 35,000 square miles of prairie: today the grand total for the state is about 3 miles of original prairie. An inland sea of grasses and forbs (most wildflowers and legumes), the prairie was a hotspot of diversity, and was crucial to preserve the fertile topsoil from erosion, store water during excessive rainfall and preserve life during droughts, temperature extremes and native insects pests. It is not by chance that, once the prairie was finally removed at the end of the XIX century, a severe drought in the '30s transformed the midwest into the Dust Bowl, when 75% of the topsoil was blown away, causing the economic collapse of the region.

How do you restore a prairie? You use the same force of nature that have acted on it for eons: fire. Prairie grasses and forbs are adapted to the periodic fires that naturally swept the prairie, by having deep root systems that can survive a grass fire. Other invasive species (including bushes and trees) are not. By applying periodic burns (every few years), one can selectively remove the invasive species making space for the native plants (and naturally fertilizing the soil in the process). At every passage the fraction of native, fire resistant, plants will increase, until the ecosystem is restored to a status as close as possible to the native grassland. The photo above was taken in the middle of winter (two years ago, when unfortunately we didn't have much snow at all, prelude to a severe drought during the summer). As you can see all the grass is very dry, perfect fuel for fires triggered by chance lightening. Or by the park caretakers, that at the beginning of spring walk around yielding flame throwers, setting everything on fire, to let a renewed prairie emerge from the ashes.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hotel Connoisseur

Chicago, IL (July 4, 2013)

The dog in the photo is Kero, short for Kerokai. He is our four legged family member and is a Samoyed. Samoyeds are a northern dog breed, akin to Malamutes and Huskies. It is one of the most ancient dog breeds, originally bred by the Samoyedic people (northern Siberia). The Samoyedic people are nomadic and their dogs were (still are) used to help herding their reindeers, pull their sledges and keep an eye on their kids. Differently than other sledge dogs, Samoyeds were allowed to stay at night inside the tent, to warm their occupants in the long arctic nights (Sammys have a very thick and warm double coat, that can be actually used as wool in knitting). Because of this origins, Sammys are perfect family dogs: they adore kids (and actually sometimes try to herd them, just for the fun) and want to be involved in every aspect of family life. Sammys are also very funny and have a keen sense of humor. I don't think they really mean to be humorous, it is just that they have a lot of behaviors and antics that are very human-like and uncannily funny (and sometimes a little exasperating). They are certainly high maintenance dogs, mainly because they pretend almost constant attention (never let a samoyed get bored).

The photo above proves the point. We travel a lot and when possible (i.e. when it is a road trip) Kero travels with us. Traveling with a 50 pounds dog requires some planning, because most hotels don't accept dogs. The problem is that Kero doesn't just want any hotel, he has his preferred brands, and the one pictured above is his favorite hotel, the Warrenville Hyatt House (yes he has expensive tastes, ouch)! I have no idea why, but that Hyatt is the only hotel he likes in the whole Chicago area, and if we use another one he complains quite loudly (Samoyeds howls like wolves), which is something you don't generally want your dog to do in a hotel. Fortunately, since Mayli is affiliated with Fermilab, she has a preferred rate with the Hyatt, which is what saves us from going bankrupted because of the lodging pretensions of our dog. Oh well...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Plant Behavior

Monte Amiata, Italy (September 16, 2009)

One of the best use I have for the iPad is to watch PBS (the US public TV) programs. In a country where everything is extremely commercialized, PBS is one of the gems of public service (another one being NPR, the public radio). Being public doesn't mean that PBS and NPR are entirely paid by the government. In fact only 15 to 20% of their funding comes from the federal government, the rest being provided by micro-donations from the public, as well as sponsorship of individual programs from foundations and corporations. The reason why I like PBS and NPR is not (just) that they are free and devoid of commercials, but most importantly that their programming is very high quality and touches topics that are generally avoided by commercial broadcasters. Some of these topics are of course not the favorite of a certain political side, and in this crazy-cut-it-all mania PBS and NPR have been repeatedly threatened of being defunded (most infamously by a certain presidential candidate during an electoral debate). Among my favorite programs are NOVA (science), Frontline (investigative journalism) and Nature (you guess this one).

I am writing about this because the Nature program I saw a couple of nights ago was simply mind-boggling. The title was "What Plants Talk About", and the topic was plants behavior. Plants what? Yes behavior like in animal behavior. It turns out that even if plants do not possess a nervous system like animals, they have a range of mechanisms to interact actively with their environment, and to communicate one with the other. We usually don't see all this because it happens on a time scale significantly longer than animal interactions, but the the program show an impressive array of cases in which plants have a very animal-like behavior.

New Zealand forest
What would you think if I say that plants tend their young? This is what Douglas fir trees in a British Columbia forest appear to be doing, by providing nutrients to its seedlings through their root system. Or how other plants share resources with genetically related individuals while at the same time compete fiercely with unrelated plants (how do they know who is family)? Or how plants' roots forage like animal herbivores? That's what the roots of plants filmed at high speed appear to do, snaking around and "tasting" the soil, stopping temporarily only when they find a patch of nutrients to absorb. Or that some plants cry for help when under attacks, alerting their neighbors and calling for reinforcements? This is what the wild tobacco plant does, changing from a nocturnal to a diurnal flowering plant depending on the kind of predators that are around (and "telling" the other plants around to do the same before they are attacked), and tagging the offending insects with a substance that attracts their own predators. The fact that all these behaviors happen through chemical signaling, rather than through the "senses" that we associate with animal communications, and that the processes that are involved in plants decision-making are also based on chemical reactions, rather than electrochemical signals as in animals' nervous system, does not make all this less impressive. It actually makes it even more remarkable, considering that we are talking about organisms that are essentially stuck where their roots are, and despite this limitation had developed survival strategies that are very complex and sophisticated.

I found the best part of the program towards the end. Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, the one working on the Douglas fir trees nurturing their young, tells how one day she went to the theatre to see the Avatar movie. The film has a scene in which the protagonists seek refuge under a "mother three" that keeps alive the whole ecosystem in the Avatar world. She said that once she saw that scene she exclaimed "they have read my papers!". The movie was perfectly describing what she sees every day when she work in the forest, and discovers how these trees communicate one with the others, sharing resources through an underground network that touches all the other creatures in the forest, making it like a huge interconnected multi-organism. Like Pandora.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Los pirañas de Maracaibo

Claudia (Merida, VE, January 4, 2009)

Venezuela is a special place. It is a young country (almost one third of the population is less than 15 years old) and as such it has the dreams, energy and optimism of youth embedded in its social fabric. It is a nation of contrasts: one of the main oil exporters in the world, it has a significant fraction of its population living precariously in shantytowns that are washed downhill during tropical downpours. I don't want to get into the minefield of the political and social situation that the country is living today (this is for another long post), but the result of the current instability is a high level of crime that is affecting just about everybody.

The venezuelan situation is clearly not unique. Think of the drug gang wars in other latin american cities (or certain suburbs in South Chicago). What makes venezuelan crimes really special are the same enterprising qualities that make venezuelan one of the most entrepreneurial people in the world. Take the pirañas of Maracaibo.

Maracaibo is the second largest city in the country, on the shores of the homonymous lake opening on the caribbean sea, and at the center of one of the historical oil fields in Venezuela. The pirañas are a gang of thieves of hairs. Yes, that was not a typo. I really mean hairs, the filamentary stuff that grows in the head of most people. Maracaibo is now at the center of an epidemic of hair thievery.

What happens is that Venezuela is a country whose inhabitants are particularly keen on taking care of themselves. It is estimated that Venezuelan spend one fifth of their disposable income in beauty products, making Venezuela the largest consumer of cosmetics and personal care products in the world (9.3% share of the world market, according to a 2004 industry trade report). Venezuelan need and depend on their cosmetic products. The problem with this, however, is that most cosmetics are produced outside the country, and need to be imported and paid in foreign currency (US dollars). The venezuelan government, however, has instituted a strict exchange control that severely limits the amount of currency available for foreign trade, leading to a scarcity of imported products among which, you guessed, cosmetics (along with other essentials like toilet paper). Scarcity makes prices go up, and as a consequence cosmetics are now very expensive, and this includes hair extensions, now fetching over $200 on the black market.

And this is how we got to the pirañas in Maracaibo. Hairs have become a valuable commodity, and an easy one to steal: there are now many reports of women that are rounded by hair-thieving gangsters that order them to collect their hair in a ponytail, which is then cut with a razor blade. So far the phenomenon seems to be restricted to Maracaibo, but it has the characteristics of an epidemic, to the point that the venezuelan president felt the need to address the problem on television. And some genius has already proposed to outlaw hair extensions altogether, as if that would stop the black market of stolen hairs.

In the photo above is a cousin of Mayli: she doesn't live in Maracaibo so her beautiful hairs are safe. The photo below shows a section of Caracas at night: the little luminous dots on the horizon are lights in the shantytowns surrounding the city. Many of those light are stolen, in the sense that those neighborhoods are not served by the electric utilities: residents often highjack power from the grid with pirated connections to the electric power line.

Caracas, Venezuela (December 17, 2004)

Friday, August 16, 2013


Arizona (October 11, 2009)

You may find it hard to believe, but I never took a plane until I was in my second year in graduate school. The fact is that people in Italy don't travel very much. My family, for example, never went to a vacation abroad. Not even France, that is just a few kilometers across the border from where they live. When I was in college, I traveled mostly within Italy, and exclusively by train (the only medium I could afford). Only when I started graduate school I begin going to conferences and observation trips, and that enlarged significantly my travel horizon. The first air trip I made was to attend a conference to the Canary Islands. I still remember the feeling of exhilaration when the plane took off and I was pressed against my seat, with the ground receding away at a sharp angle. I can only imagine what it must be, feeling the power of a rocket headed to Earth orbit: well, that first flight could as well have been directed to the Moon. Since then, I never stopped flying. Being an astronomer certainly helped in finding exotic locations to go: we have this thing for deserts and volcanos, so the best telescopes are placed in the highlands of Chile, the american Southwest or the tropical Hawaii. The advent of space astronomy, and the internet allowing remote operation of telescopes, have somewhat reduced this need for physical travel. Teaching commitments also limit my ability to travel when I have classes. Still it is rare for me not having a few flights booked at any given time.

So it is quite exceptional that is being almost one year since my last flight. That after a crazy 2012 summer when I didn't stay for more than a week at home in between continuous back-to-back trips: San Francisco, D.C., Japan, Anchorage, Rome (3 days, without even being able to visit my parents), D.C. again, Baltimore. Then, since last August, nothing that required taking a plane. One of the reasons is the sequestration (the insane idea that the US government has to cut everything by a blanket 10%), that forced NASA to cancel a meeting where I was supposed to speak and converted three panel reviews I was supposed to attend in person into remote teleconferencing event (cheaper, yes, but not as efficient). So there you go, my four air trips of the summer canceled by the US Congress. The flying drought has finally ended, as I have now in schedule at least 3 new work trips in the US and Europe, but it has been an unusually long stretch in which I had been with my feet firmly planted on firm ground.

There are two things I like most when traveling (that is true for both trains and planes). The first one is that for the time I am in my seat I don't have to make any decision. Somebody else is driving. I sometimes suffer from decision overload, and a brief time in which I can just seat back and relax is like the best vacation. The second thing is related to the first: as I seat back I can tilt my head towards the window, and look at the world passing by. Trains give a more intimate view of the outside world, like watching TV. At least in Italy and US the trains are slow enough, especially when crossing cities, that you can see people living out their everyday life. Sometimes you pass close enough to house blocks that you can actually have a short voyeuristic glimpse of their private life. And then you leave the cities and immerse yourself in the landscape scrolling outside, like an alive hypnotizing screensaver. This is all lost when you are on a plane, tens of thousands of feet above the ground, isolated from the world below by a curtain of clouds. But if the clouds dissipate, then the landscape comes back with a vengeance and is converted by distance into pure abstract art. That's when I take out my camera.

The photo above was taken somewhere during a flight between Boston and Los Angeles. I am not sure where, but it was probably after flying over Arizona. It could be a closeup of a slab of marble, if it weren't for the thin wavy road crossing the flood plains coming down from the mountains on the right. It could be Mars. It has the colors and the dryness. I am left wondering what it would be like driving along that road, under the baking Sun on Earth, or the thin poisonous air of Mars freezing in the distant Sun.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where is my Summer?

Ames, IA (July 28, 2013)

Unicorn Golden Bee
My father was commenting today that the temperatures in Italy (he lives in a small village in the Alps) are now unusually low (15ºC = 60ºF last night), for being close to "Ferragosto" (15 of August), and that the summer must be ending. If that's the case then summer in Iowa is also a goner: our minimum temperature yesterday night was below 12ºC (54ºF). Is this unusual? Well, it is a little on the cold side but it is not unprecedented (record minimum cold temperature in August according to Wikipedia has been 4ºC = 40ºF) and I would not be surprised if we get more hot sweltering weather (35ºC at night with 80% humidity) before the end of the month. So, where is it global warming when you need it? Well that's about the climate, not the weather. What is steadily increasing is the global average, and to see that you need to average over a sufficient number of years. Blaming individual data points (the weather here and today) to climate change is a little tricky: local weather does what it wants. In fact one of the consequences of climate change is precisely to increase the local variability: put more energy in the system and it will move out of equilibrium, enhancing its oscillations around a slowly increasing average. So, don't trust somebody saying that global warming must have stopped because today is cold: that's not what climate change is responsible for. On a separate note, I can officially announce the discovery that unicorns exist! They are golden and they fly, indeed. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Celestial Poo

Ames, IA (July 27, 2013)

Since we are talking about bugs, I found this interesting news in yesterday rss feeds. Catholics parishioners in Fresno, California, made it to the news when they claimed that a tree next to their church was crying. Now, weeping statues are quite common in catholic lore, but a crying tree seemed to me quite a novelty. According to the parishioners, the tree started crying when a parishioner asked for a miracle to cure her illness. Since then the tree is allegedly crying in sync with the worshipper's prayers. Now, where are the bugs in this story, you may ask? Well, it turns out that what is dropping from the tree are not exactly tears, but actual droppings, from aphids secreting a sugar-rich sticky liquid (honeydew) as they feed on the plant's sap. In the right season, when there are enough aphids, the amount of honeydew they secrete is massive enough that it can indeed resemble as if their tree is crying. Although some of the parishioners are well aware of the physical explanation for the phenomenon, they still believe it is a miracle, which they see in how the tree started "crying" exactly when a miracle was pleaded. I guess an entomologist's poo can as well be worshippers' tears!

This is not at all surprising. All myths find their origin in some natural phenomena. Myths are created as part of the human drive to explain the world, when the actual cause of phenomena is beyond our immediate understanding. Our brain is tuned to see patterns (especial faces), even when there is no pattern: better err on the safe side seeing a leopard where there are only shadows, than missing the predator and ending up as its lunch. So we tend to develop fantastic stories to explain the extraordinary facts of everyday life, building in the process the sacred and profane mythology that so much permeates all human cultures. There is actually nothing wrong with that: those myths are what make human cultures interesting, regardless to their very mundane origin. I still enjoy reading Garcia-Marquez "One hundred years of solitude" even though I know that his magic realism is nothing else than his grandmother tales. Myths are what give depths to the soul of human cultures. They enrich us. Provided, of course, that they don't get into the way in our decision making when, being a naturalistic explanation available, we need to get past our myths to be able to make informed decisions about our future.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

More Bugs

Ames, IA (Aug 4, 2013)

Every time I step into my garden with the camera and macro lens I find some new kind of bug that I didn't notice before. Take the butterfly above, for example. I have no idea of her name (I mean the species) and in fact when I saw her from a distance it didn't look like much. But then close up it is quite interesting, almost as airy as a moth, but diurnal as any other butterfly visiting my flowers during the day. Flowers that are still suffering from the japanese invasion, btw (you can see some of the petals all munched up by the green monster that are raiding my garden).

Another bee
I also saw more bees. Felt actually. Yesterday, just before sunset, I was in the garden cleaning up the roses from the japanese beetles (that's what they seem to like most these days). Since they clump by the dozens on single flowers, I found that the best way to get rid of them is to grab the entire infested flowers in my hand, and then unceremoniously dispose of the whole thing. Well I learned that there is a reason why gardeners use gardener's gloves while doing this kind of things: one of the flower was hosting not just beetles but also a nice bee like the one in the photo of the left. Not a honey bee, again, but still a bee with sting and all. Of course she was not happy in finding herself in my closed hand, and she rapidly found a very effective way of persuading me to let her free. Fortunately she didn't left her sting implanted in my fingers. Fortunately for me as the pain didn't last more than 5 minutes, but also for her, since she would have died if her sting had gotten stuck in my finger. Still it wasn't entirely pleasant. Anyway, I guess I learned my lesson: look at your bugs before getting too close.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Dead Marshes

Lake Trasimeno, Italy (Sept 16, 2009)

There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo, Sam and Gollum need to traverse the Dead Marshes. These almost impassable marshes had been, an age before, the theatre of a bloody battle during the last alliance between Elves and Men, when the forces of Mordor were first defeated. The corpses of the fallen soldiers still lingered in the water, amid will-o'-the-wisps enchanting the travelers and luring them to join the dead form eternity. It is said that Tolkien imagined the Dead Marshes based on his horrific experience during WWI, and in particular the battle of the Somme where he witnessed the corpse of his dead companions languishing in the mud.

The photo above shows the location of another crucial battle that over 2200 years ago almost changed the course of history in the mediterranean. During the Battle of Lake Trasimeno Hannibal executed the largest and most successful ambush in history, and delivered one of the most devastating defeats ever suffered by the Roman Republic. It is a story worth telling.

In case you forgot, Hannibal Barca was the greatest general in history, still studied and admired in present-day military academies (WWII general Patton believed he was the re-incarnation of Hannibal, go figure). He was the leading carthaginian commander during the Second Punic war, when Rome and Carthage battled each other for the supremacy in the Mediterranean. In one of the boldest military actions ever recorded, Hannibal crossed into Europe through the strait of Gibraltar, traveled through Iberia and Gaul (modern day Spain and France) and finally crossed the Alps into Italy, with an army of 37,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants. The Romans, that had planned to battle the Carthaginians in Iberia, were taken by surprise, and suffered a defeat in northern Italy on the shores of the river Trebia. With that victory Hannibal was free to march south unchallenged, and the desperate Romans struggled to raise a new army to stop the carthaginian general before he could reach Rome. A 100 miles north of Rome, Lake Trasimeno was the location chosen by the roman consul Gaius Flaminius to engage Hannibal's army.

It didn't go well. Flaminius's pride led him to a rush attack, against the advice of his generals, in an unfavorable location between the marshes bordering the lake and the hills behind. Hannibal in fact provoked this turn of events, by sending a small portion of his forces to skirmish with the romans, attracting their vanguard away from the main infantry. As soon as the roman forces were divided and dispersed in the narrow corridor between the marshes and the hills, the bulk of the carthaginian forces attacked from their hiding positions in the heavily forested hills. The result was devastating for the romans, with the total annihilation of their 30,000 strong army, against 2,500 carthaginian losses. The victory gave Hannibal the undisputed control of most of Italy, with the romans resorting to a war of attrition trying to slow down the inevitable march of the carthaginians on their city. It also opened the stage for the battle of Cannae the following year, when Hannibal delivered an even more terrible defeat to the Romans, causing them to despair to the point that they resorted to human sacrifice to plead the favor of their gods. 

In the end it was Rome who won the war. Hannibal after Cannae didn't take immediate advantage of the situation and let the romans enough time to rebuild yet again their home army. Hannibal was ultimately defeated by politics, recalled to Carthage before he could finally conquer the romans. A battle in Zama, in the North African coast, sealed the fate for Carthage. Unable to continue the fight for the supremacy in the Mediterranean, the city had to accept an onerous peace treaty. Hannibal after the war had a second career as Carthaginian politician and statist, until he was eventually forced to exile by the romans, and died by poisoning himself to avoid surrending to his mortal foes. He left behind a suicide note, saying: "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death".

Lake Bolsena
If you travel now in the area where these battles were fought, you won't see a trace of the bloodshed. Unlike in the Lord of the Ring, the spirits of the dead have long disappeared from the past battlefields, and their corpses have dissolved in the calm waters of the lake. Only some of the toponyms in the area betray their violent past: "Sanguineto" ("Blood River", a small stream entering the lake), "Ossaia" ("Charnel House"), "Sepultaglia" ("Sepulcre"), "Pian di Marte" ("Plain of Battle"), to mention just a few. The area is beautiful, with the green and marbled Apennine mountains providing a backdrop to rolling hills and numerous lakes. The scenery is the one you find in the background of renaissance painting, behind the virgin with the scary god-child and the lady with the funny smile. It is a place I have enjoyed many time to wander about, from one hill to the next, around hairpin curves and gentle slopes covered with wheat. These days, traveling through this region evokes peace, and not terror. We may never be completely beyond our worst homicidal instinct (the same Lake Trasimeno was the site of a capital battle during WWII, two millennia after the fight of Hannibal and Gaius Flaminius) but, at least for some time, we can relax staring at the mirror-like surface of the Lake, without being enchanted by the ghosts of a violent past, Mordor exiled from our mind and our heart.

Tuscany, Italy (Sept 16, 2009)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Salita al Castello

Saluzzo, Italy (Aug 20, 2006)

The best time for tourism in Italy is early fall, when the weather is still warm but not too hot, and cuisine is at its best (wine, truffles). Still, most tourists visit Italy in the Summer, when everything is closed 'per ferie' (vacations) and the 'afa' (sultry stagnant air) clogs your lungs and cooks your brain. This is a good description for the day I took the photo above: hot, humid and with nobody around. Except for one guy sitting on a small desk tucked away in the shade of a thick brick medieval wall. Reading a book, enjoying the barely existing breeze funneled by the narrow 'vicolo' in Saluzzo, a small town in northern Italy not far from the place my family is from.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Monsters from Outer Space

Tentacled Alien Monster in Ames, IA (Aug 4, 2013)

The other night, when I was writing about the green monsters infestation in my garden, it came to my mind how common is our fascination with monsters. It is something that can be found in any culture, and at any time. It doesn't matter what we believe and what we know, there is always a corner of our mind where the shadow lurks, ready to conjure some supernatural being as an explanation to something we cannot explain otherwise. Many of these monsters have a base in reality, but become larger and more mysterious, magical, terrifying as their story gets repeated and recreated from mouth to ear to a new mouth. As strange and alien as they may seem, though, these monsters are nothing else than the projection of our minds. As such they retain the familiarity of our experience, fear, emotions. This familiarity makes them less alien, in the end. They are part of us.

I was thinking of this as I was watching the trailer of "The Europa Report", a science fiction movie that came out in the last few days. I still didn't see the movie, so don't worry, you won't find here any spoiler, just speculations. The movie tells the story of a mission to Europa, one of the four main moons of Jupiter. Europa is a world of ice and fire. It is close enough to Jupiter than its core is heated by tidal effects, but far enough that this internal heat is not sufficient to keep its surface above water's freezing temperature. The result is that Europa is covered by a thick crust of ice, under which it is believed to exist a vast ocean of liquid water, possibly rich of mineral and oxygen brought up by its underwater vulcanism powered by its tidal heat. The conditions on Europa may be, in fact, quite similar to the conditions that are found on Earth at the bottom of our oceans. These are conditions where life can exist, which is something that makes Europa the grand prize of planetary exploration, the best site where we can look for extraterrestrial life. Genuine alien monsters. Without having watched the movie, I don't know if the crew landing on that moon and penetrating the ice will find anything alive. I wish one day we could put together enough resources and technology to go and see for real. By judging at the resilience of life on every nook and cranny on Earth's surface, oceans and rocks, I am led to believe that the emergence of life is something as inevitable as sunset being followed by sunrise. But we really don't know, because we have only one example to refer to (Earth) and a statistics of one doesn't really count.

The question however remains: if we will find life outside our planet, will it be monsters ready to pounce on us, eat us, or use us as incubators for their larvae like the monsters in the Alien movie series? I seriously doubt that. The building blocks of all life on Earth are proteins, and proteins are made with smaller blocks called amino acids. All eukaryote cells (cells like the one in animals and plants) are mades with just 21 different amino acids. These 21 amino acids are however just a small portion of all possible known amino acids, In fact we know how to build about 500 different amino acids using the same basic arrangement of atoms of the 21 used by eukaryote life. Not only that, but each amino acid can exist in two symmetric forms (left- or right-handed): all eukaryote life uses the left-handed form of these 21 amino acids. This is not entirely surprising, as all life on Earth has evolved from a common ancestor, starting from the same building blocks. An effective ecosystem requires its members to be able to eat each other which has preserved the need of using the same set of chemicals through all different species. The end result is that life on Earth is remarkable homogeneous.

A bee in my garden!
This doesn't mean, however, that the same evolutionary solution must be found every time that life emerges. This is what worked and survived on Earth, with the specific challenges of Earth environment through the ages. Life on Europa, Mars on any other exoplanet of exomoon will likely find different challenges and different environments, so the evolutionary result may be quite different than our 21 left-handed amino acids. They may use any of the other 500 amino acids to make proteins. They may be right-handed. And if this is the case, I doubt that we will find monsters ready to devour us to satiate their infinite hunger for human flesh: our meat will likely be like poison for them, evolved to prey on different chemicals in a different ecological niche. That doesn't mean, of course, that the Europa Report movie, even if it manages to be scientifically correct (local aliens not really interested in eating us) will be a boring flick without monsters. Ghosts scare people to death even if they cannot touch them. Sharks sometime attack people even if human meat is not of a good taste for them: sharks usually bite people when they are provoked, or when they confuse swimmers for seals, and spit after biting (not that this is of much consolation for the person that is bitten). Alien monsters may provide the thrill for a successful sci-fi movie even if they cannot successfully eat us!

The alien-tentacled-monster above is just the stamen filaments of a flower in my garden: not very alien and not very monstrous. But monsters exists in our mind, so we can see them anywhere. Also, there is something else I found today in my garden: a bee! See photographic proof on the left. Not a run-of-the-mill western honey bee, but a bee nevertheless. There is still hope.

Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto as photographed by my students last fall

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Out of Wood

St. Paul, MN (Jul 31, 2013)

St. Paul in Minnesota has a power plant smack at the center of the city. You would think they are crazy, right? Well no, the plant is actually there to reduce, rather than increase, urban pollution, saving energy in the process. The plant is powered by biomass. Basically organic trash, mostly wood chips obtained by disposing dead trees and branches. This is carbon that would be released anyway as CO2 into the atmosphere as the wood decomposes, so burning it is actually carbon-neutral. The best part of the story, however, is that this is a cogeneration plant. A typical power plant wastes up to 60% of the energy produced as waste heat. Cogeneration plants use the waste energy to heat the buildings nearby (district heating), pushing in this way the efficiency above 80%. That saves a lot of energy in winter (it is cold in Minnesota), and cleans the air because one central plant is much more efficient than many smaller burners for each individual building.

But it gets even better: power plants need to be kept running all the time to maintain their peak efficiency, even though at night the need for energy is lower. The St. Paul plant uses this excess energy to chill large amount of water, that is then used to cool in summer the same buildings that are heated in winter (district cooling). All this is not really new: a cogeneration (gas powered) district heating plant has been operating in my hometown for at least 30 years, heating the houses of half million people (half of the total city population). My university also has a cogeneration plant since 1891 (yes XIX century, that's not a typo) that heats and cools the whole campus (and provides it with electricity). But for some reasons I never thought to take a picture of the ugly cogeneration gas plant in Torino, or the even uglier coal cogeneration plant at Iowa State, so here it is, the one in St. Paul. Plus it gives me an excuse to show the St. Paul panorama at the bottom (taken from the Guthrie Theatre terrace), and the photo on the left, showing my sister and one of my nieces. The photo is in punishment because she (my little niece Letizia) is making a point in hiding when I try to take a picture of her, but I was sneaky and fast, and I got her just fine!

From the Guthrie Theatre balcony (Aug 2, 2013)

Friday, August 2, 2013

On the two sides of the Glass

Minnesota Zoo (July 29, 2013)

No, I wasn't going to be eaten. This big guy here was behind a thick glass. The plumes of steam emerging from the ground were not actual geysers from the siberian pacific coast. What the heck, we all were at the Minnesota Zoo. Well, I always had an ambivalent attitude towards zoo. I don't think wild animals that need a large natural range should be in enclosed artificial spaces. I remember, when I was a kid, there was a zoo in my hometown Torino. It was quite sad, with large cats (I am talking about lions and tigers) pacing back and forth inside concrete cells with iron bars. Alienation. In the end the zoo was closed. That zoo certainly deserved to be closed, but did the animals got better off by the zoo closing? Maybe some of them got to be transferred, but for many of them that couldn't be moved the closure of their prison meant a death sentence. Great, uh?

On the other hand, the kind of zoo that was in my city would be unheard of today. Modern zoos have exhibit spaces that are designed to mimic as close as possible the natural environment where the animals were living (I could have fooled you with the photo above, right?). Zoo's animals are never caught in the wild, but are either born in other zoos or rescued animals that would have died if left in the wild. Zoo's animal generally have a longer lifespan than their wild brethren, because of veterinary care, absence of predators, reliable source of food. Modern zoos focus on conservancy, and help preserving endangered species with breeding programs aimed to maintain a viable population within zoos and in the wild. Closing all zoos and freeing their animals won't do any good to their long term survival, if their wild environment keeps being destroyed, as it is the case for many species that are typically found in zoos. It is however a thin line: after all zoos need money to survive, and for that they need visitors, which means entertaining exposition, and that may conflict with the needs of the animals being exposed. There is a tension between conservancy and entertainment. So, zoos are not the same as the circus that was in my old city, and they absolve an important mission. Still, it would be nice that there wasn't the need of keeping a big spotted cat behind a glass wall, where even with the best intentions she will never be the cat she was intended to be.


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