Monthly Archives: January 2014

Dwindling Monarchs

ElRosario_aerialIn December we visited the wintering spot for monarch butterflies.Last week, I blogged about the butterflies we saw. It was impressive but apparently there should have been many more butterflies than we saw according to an article in the NYT yesterday about the dwindling number of the butterflies over the last five years.

The aerial picture here gives you an idea of the number of butterflies in one spot in Mexico, the orange-colored trees look that way because there are so many orange monarch butterflies clinging to each tree!

Below is a shortened excerpt of the NYT article:

Mexico is the southern terminus of an age-old migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles in which monarch butterflies shuttle back and forth between  summertime havens in Canada and a single winter home in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains,. It is now in danger of effectively vanishing.

An internal compass guides the butterflies each fall to a small cluster of mountains where ideal temperatures and humidity allow them to rest, clinging to trees by the millions like brilliant orange capes. Then in March they set out on the 2,500-mile-plus trip north, breeding and dying along the way. It’s their descendants that actually complete the migration.

At their peak in 1996, the monarchs occupied nearly 45 acres of forest. …the span of forest inhabited by the overwintering monarchs shrank last month to less than two acres. Not only was that a record low, but it was just 56 percent of last year’s total, which was itself a record low. This is the third straight year of steep declines…

Over time, the number of butterflies has varied from year to year, sometimes wildly, but the decrease in the size of the migration in the last decade has been steep and generally steady.

The latest drop is best explained by a two-year stretch of bad weather. But the loss of habitat is a far more daunting problem. Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed which has rapidly disappeared from the Great Plains over the last decade.

As corn prices have risen, farmers have planted tens of millions of acres of idle land along the monarchs’ path and increased use of herbicides on fields of herbicide resistant corn all but wiping out milkweed that once sprouted between rows of corn and soybean.

Now the monarchs must travel farther and use more energy to find places to lay their eggs. With their body fat depleted, the butterflies lay fewer eggs, or die before they have a chance to reproduce.

The monarchs are the most visible victims of the habitat loss. A wide variety of pollinators and other insects, including many beneficial to farmers, are also disappearing along with the predators that feed on them.


crack walkerHere’s my excerpt of speculation about the year 2035. It’s based on trends people see who’re trying to alleviate the suffering among the world’s poor:

Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to debunk three pervasive myths about helping the poorest people:

“Poor countries are doomed to stay poor.”
“Foreign aid is a big waste.”
“Saving lives leads to overpopulation.”

These myths pop up at international conferences and social gatherings, reflecting a dim view of the future. It says the world isn’t improving but staying poor and sick, and getting overcrowded.

But the Gates make a case for the opposite – the world is getting better, and in two decades it’ll be better still, speculating that by 2035 there’ll be almost no poor countries in the world.

Most all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors. And all countries can benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.

But they think not all low-income countries will make it to middle-income status by 2035. A few countries will be held back by war, politics, or geography (landlocked nations in central Africa). And wealth inequality will still be a problem: There will be poor people in every region.

But most people will live in countries that are self-sufficient. Every nation in South America, Asia, and Central America (except maybe Haiti), and most in coastal Africa, will have joined the ranks of today’s middle- income nations. More than 70 percent of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today. Nearly 90 percent will have a higher income than India does today.

It’ll be a remarkable achievement. Sixty years ago most countries in the world were poor. In the next two decades, desperately poor countries will become the exception rather than the rule. Billions of people will have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The idea that this will happen during our lifetime is simply amazing.

Small Brains and Large Distances

monarchs-sky-370_11892_1We’re home after checking out the monarch butterfly wintering area in the mountains of central Mexico. It may sound silly – visiting a butterfly sanctuary, but it’s a special event that could be wiped out one day by environmental pressures.

We visited the butterfly sanctuary on a Monday and were the only people there besides our guide and a sanctuary guard. It is a little hard to get to, it’s a two plus mile hike up to around 10,000 feet, which deters visitor traffic.

Once you’re there you’ll find a few areas about 75 feet square in which most of the pine trees have branches that seem to be sagging because the butterflies are so densely huddled in to regulate their exposure to the cold. The butterfly laden branches look more like giant thick dreadlocks than pine tree branches. There were millions of butterflies there and it’s hard to imagine the scene not long ago when there were sometimes around a billion butterflies in the migration.

The sanctuary areas are cool in the day but when the sun comes out the butterflies  begin sort of vibrating to warm up before taking to the sky in numbers you can’t imagine. It’s magical, surrounded around and above by so many butterflies flying that their thousands of beating wings make enough noise to hear.

In the Spring, the butterflies head north from Mexico to the Gulf coast of the US where they reproduce and die. The offspring then continue north. The slow trip North goes on until the  fourth generation (the great-grand kids) images it to Canada. Then, somehow, late in the Fall a long trip back to the small remote area in the mountains of central Mexico starts. Their journey is the longest migration in the insect world.

Scientists don’t know how an insect with a small brain navigates such a large distance, to a special spot in Mexico the butterfly has never been to, because no individual butterfly makes a complete round trip! Their great grandparents made the trip the year before but they died after reproducing on the Gulf coast after leaving Mexico. The how and why of the migration is still a mystery.

Many things are working against the monarch butterflies’ annual migration. Most of the flowers important to the monarchs, especially milkweed, are weeds people try to control with herbicides. And there’s occasional illegal logging within their Mexican sanctuaries disturbing the delicate temperature regulation there, making the butterflies susceptible to freezing to death. Increasing urbanization and farming along their path can cause problems. Plus being better at gliding and soaring, than flying by flapping their wings, makes butterflies need the right weather for flying, they just aren’t very efficient flyers.

Researchers didn’t even know where the monarch butterflies were migrating to until the 1970’s. With luck and the awareness of people, the Monarchs will be able to continue their amazing migration for as long as possible.

Commonplace books

notebookI’ve been keeping “commonplace books” since my teens but until recently I didn’t know they had a name.

A commonplace book is a hodgepodge of someone’s collected ideas, quotes, snippets of overheard conversation, observations, or info that reflects your particular interests. Commonplace books are a way of compiling, organizing, and remembering knowledge – traditionally it’s been by writing. Basically you’re backing up your brain.

Its name, the commonplace book, is unfortunate because its meaning isn’t obvious these days. The name comes from Latin and has persisted for hundreds of years. Famous, and not famous, people have kept commonplace books, for example Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, HL Mencken, and Bill Gates.

Keeping a commonplace book isn’t complicated. When you’re reading something that really hits you, jot it down. It can just be bits of writing you find inspiring or interesting. Maybe a piece of advice, a recommendation, a pointer, or someone’s (maybe your own) insight.

You can use stuff from your commonplace book later to help with ideas for writing, talks, or projects. Commonplace books can be reorganized into a more meaningful patterns sometimes.  Some people even use index cards instead of a a book so they can better reorganize  their hodgepodge of ideas into something more connected and accessible to them.

Using a cheap notebook is a good idea so you won’t feel intimidated about putting ideas into a fancy journal. I also now use the internet for saving things, although writing something down is the better way.

What isn’t a commonplace book? Commonplace books aren’t journals, diaries, or a record of your travels that would normally be introspective and in chronological order.

Here’re two examples of recent additions for my commonplace book. First, a short one about reading and books:

Seeing someone reading a book you love is seeing a book recommending a person.

And here’s a longer clipping about exercise research:

What’s supported by the research is: train hard. The rest is hard to prove. Lots of approaches work. There’s no justification for being committed to just one way. More research is needed on things like frequency of training and whether split or whole body training is best.

…looking at the evidence (in scientific studies) you find:

intensity matters – recruiting as many fibers as possible
one set per exercise
any sort of resistance seems OK (free weights, machines or bodyweight)
concentric, eccentric or isometric contractions all work
repetition speed is important in that you need to maintain tension on the muscles
rest between sets and exercises doesn’t matter much
full range of motion isn’t that important
doing endurance exercise at the same time doesn’t hold things back
muscles and parts of muscles grow at different rates
a few weeks off won’t make your gains disappear and might help when you train again.

Your reward from having commonplace books far outweighs your effort in creating them.

Back in the saddle

airplane in wireFinally, on a trip to the States I was able to buy a new computer. It’s a 13″ MacBook Air. Then we lost our internet connection and I got the flu as the connection returned. But all’s well now, I’m back in the saddle.

Not having a computer for two months taught me a couple of lessons which might be useful. The first was my idea of being able to get along with just having a tablet. Being a minimalist the idea of having a small device that does it all is appealing, but it turns out not to be practical. Basically, iPads aren’t full function computers. Especially when it comes to typing and manipulating text. It’s like trying to get by with a crescent wrench in place of a socket set. You can do it, but it’s frustrating if you know what using the proper tools is like.

I was happy to have had the iPad to use for a couple of months before I could get my hands on a new computer and to put the one small computer idea to the test. But ultimately the iPad is a good backup and travel companion.

The other lesson I learned was that external hard drives, your info backup, have a lifespan of about three years. I’d dutifully backed up my computer every three weeks or so for years. But when I bought my new computer and tried to import the backed up info – nothing! The Genius bar dude who was trying to help me said he always replaces backup drives after no more than three years. Mine was older than that and dead.

I still may be able to retrieve the data from my dead drive. But from here on I’m replacing my external drives early. Especially on the coast, I imagine the small moving parts in there clumping up like table salt in a salt shaker.