The Spider Carpet and Some Thoughts About Passion

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Opinions on November 24th, 2009 by MadDog
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Life is about passion. I can’t imagine life without a few things burning me up from the inside out. Love, art, service . . . the list goes on. I’m fascinated by the things that people do because their passion drives them to do so. Sure, there is often  money involved, sometimes big money. That’s okay. It doesn’t detract from the amazement we experience when we see remarkable results of human passion simply because someone made a living from it. That’s a given.

From the 2 October issue of Science, the a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science comes this fascinating image and story:

The Amazing Spider Carpet from Lamba Weaving in Madagascar (Image: AMNH/R.Mickens)

A million female Madagascar golden orb spiders contributed their golden silk to this one-of-a-kind textile that went on display last month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. More than 80 people spent 4 years on the work, collecting spiders in the wild, drawing silk from immobilized (and later freed) arachnids with hand-powered machines, and twisting hundreds of spider lines to make each thread. The 3.4-by-1.2-meter tapestry is on loan from Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, who founded Lamba, a weaving enterprise in Madagascar.

I’m hoping that my journalistic license will allow me to escape the ire of the AAAS for filching their image and quoting a paragraph of text. I’ll give them a plug by mentioning that, if you’re a student or a post-doc, you can get a subscription for a limited time for just US$50 a year. That’s 51 issues of one of the finest science journals on the planet. What a deal! I paid over US$200 for my last subscription.

Let’s get the calculator out (can’t do this stuff in my head any more). Well, huh! A million spiders . . . I don’t know where to plug that in. Let’s set the spiders aside. I doubt if spider passion contributed much to this carpet (A Buddhist might disagree.)

Okay, it says that 80 people spent four years on the work. Let’s keep the numbers conservative. Let’s say that each person, on the average, worked 20 hours a week for 40 weeks a year. Hmm . . . 80 people times 20 hours times 40 weeks times 4 years . . . that’s 256,000 hours! A quarter of a million hours! A single person working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a years would take 128 years to finish the job (check my numbers).

Think about that while you contemplate this rather sombre sunrise at Coconut Point:

A Coconut Point Sunrise

Is the world any better off because of this achievement? Not a whit. Are a lot of ordinary people all excited about it? Probably not. Is it an intelligentsia thing? Of course. It appeals to rich folk, artsy types and science geeks. So, what’s it worth?

Well, (and you knew this was coming), let me tell you what I think.

Most of us face the daily grind and that’s about all that we will ever have. It’s simply too draining to exert much effort to pursue things which we may passionately desire to do, because putting food on the table and taking care of business is all we can manage. We need people who can somehow overcome these obstacles (no matter the means) and deliver to us remarkable achievements that inspire us.

Maybe they did it for money. Maybe they did it for love.

No matter. Though they didn’t know it, they also did it for me.

UPDATE: I found three very nice links with much more information about the Spider Carpet here, here and here.

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Paper, Wood and the Prince of Nature

Posted in Opinions on November 8th, 2009 by MadDog
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Today is Sunday. I’m not really here. I’m up at Blueblood recuperating from the wedding yesterday. This is a phantom post.

Before I begin today’s hypocritical sermon, let me show you the surreal scene in from of my house at 05:30:Purple and Red SunriseToo much purple, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t make it look any better, so I left it the way it was. I guess I still have a few things to learn about Photoshop. The fifteen second exposures on the three frames did make the water nice and glassy.

First, I’ll admit that I believe that anybody who suggests that we should stop chopping up trees to make paper is an idiot. The world runs on paper. We could get by without fossil fuels (nukes are fine with me), but civilisation, as we know it, would collapse without paper. Unfortunately in the extreme is that nobody has figured out any commercially useful way to make paper without cutting trees up into tiny bits. So, we have to live with this:

Prince of Nature full of chipped logs

This is an absolutely huge  ship full of chopped up trees. I can’t even imagine how many trees are there, but the trucks run up and down our access road 24 hours a day for months to make enough chips for a ship load. By the way, the ship parks nearly in front of our house which would be just about directly on the other side of the ship from where the middle tug boat is sitting.

Where I find the irony in this story (more to come later) is in the name of the ship, the Prince of Nature.  Your mileage may vary according to how generally disgruntled you are concerning the chopping up of trees for paper. My general feeling is that we must do it, so we’d better find the least damaging way to go about obtaining this resource. In the case of this company (It’s called Japan and Niugini Timber – JANT.) I think that they’re doing it in the least disgusting way that we can manage, given the general condition of the forestry industry in PNG, upon which it’s simply too dangerous for me to comment.

When we first came to PNG in 1981, JANT was just roaring to life. They were clear-cutting tropical rain forest with a vengeance. Now, at least to outward appearances, that has changed. All of the trees that I see coming in on the trucks, with very few exceptions, are small diameter eucalypts which are grown on monoculture plantations. This is, of course, still devastating to the ecology, but at least it is the lesser of two evils.

The Prince of Nature . . . uh huh

Prince of Nature,  indeed. Could you think of a more hypocritical name?

Okay, we lived through that one with no blood on the floor. Now we’re going to get down and dirty. Here we have another ship. Victory  is its name and there’s precious little irony in that:

Logger ship "Victory"

The owners of the cargo of this ship have, indeed, enjoyed a grisly victory over the people of PNG. You’re looking at a ship carrying an absolute fortune of some of the finest quality tropical timber left on the planet. I’m disgusted  to look at it. I would not be quite  so disgusted if I believed that the people who gave it up were not getting (I have to subdue some Army talk here) cheated  quite so badly. We all know who made the big money here. I don’t have to say it.

Maybe some erstwhile Christians out there will remember the story of Jacob and Esau. I’ll skip over all the religious stuff and get to the core of it. Isaac, the father of the two brothers, had an estate the value of which was incalculable. Esau was the older of the two and stood to grab it all when Isaac died. One day Esau came in from wherever and was feeling a little peckish. He saw his brother cooking a meal, and begged for food. Crafty Jacob told Esau that he could have a cup of soup if he swore to hand over his birthright. Esau said, “Sure, no worries.” Dumb, eh? Everything, everything,  for a cup of soup:

Logger ship "Victory" carrying someone's birthright

And, you know that the big men who sell the birthright of their people, their children and the generations to come will say. “Ah yes, but we still have our land.” (and our shiny new cars) Fools!  Your land is worth nothing  without the ecology that supported your ancestors and may, sooner that we might expect, have to be your sole source of lifegiving sustenance and shelter from the hell to come. Your land is now simply a pile of dirt that will shortly be washed into the sea along with your entire culture.

Tirade complete. Conscience nearly clear.

Here is a little cheerier sunrise:


With a little hint of fire.

In our hearts, we know it’s coming.

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Our Reefs – Our Life – for Our Way

Posted in Opinions, Under the Sea on October 1st, 2009 by MadDog
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I just submitted an article to Our Way,  the in-flight magazine of Airlines PNG with the title Our Reefs – Our Life.  It addresses the issue of “The Other Carbon Dioxide Problem” that is gradually sneaking into the news. Today, I’ll give you a (very) condensed version of the article and show you the fifteen images that go with it. Sorry if it seems a little disjointed. I just jerked out whole sections of text to make it short enough for a readable post. The original ran about 1,600 words.  [please read the UPDATE at the end of the post]

Covering more than 5.4 million square kilometres of the Southwest Pacific, one percent of the Earth‘s surface, the Coral Triangle extends from Indonesia in the west to the Solomon Islands in the east and the Philippines in the north. It contains more than 3,000 species of fish. More than 600 species of reef-building coral, seventy-five percent of all coral species on Earth, abide here.

The hottest debate involves the complex issue of the Carbon Cycle. Carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid. This happens as rain falls through the atmosphere. You can perform a simple experiment in your kitchen to understand why this is important. Fill a glass half full of water and add a few spoons of vinegar. Vinegar is acidic. It will be your substitute for the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean water. Drop a small sea shell into the glass. When you come back in a few hours you will see bubbles forming on the sea shell and rising to the surface of the water. These bubbles are carbon dioxide.

The animal that once inhabited the sea shell worked very hard to build its house by extracting carbon from the sea water to form calcium carbonate, one of the primary structural materials of the ocean. If you had put the sea shell in plain water, nothing would have happened. However, because the water is acidic, it is reversing the building process by pulling the carbon away from the calcium carbonate, combining it once again with oxygen, and releasing it again into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Research has disclosed that in the past 250 years the oceans have absorbed about 530 billion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide, triggering a thirty percent increase in ocean acidity.

The acidity of the oceans remained relatively constant over the last 20 million years. Projections now indicate that ocean acidity will double by the year 2100. Go back to your kitchen and try that little experiment again using twice as much vinegar.

A healthy ocean takes huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air and puts it safely on the bottom. As free-swimming creatures die, their remains, containing carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, sink to the depths and are effectively removed from the cycle until tectonic movements subduct them under plates and spew them out of volcanoes again as fresh carbon dioxide. This recycling of carbon takes hundreds of millions of years.

The other important carbon sequestration action of the ocean occurs when creatures use carbon as one of the primary building materials of coral reefs. The effect is the same. Carbon dioxide is removed from our atmosphere and put somewhere more useful and less harmful. An ocean that is too acidic not only cannot play its role in the Carbon Cycle by putting carbon in a safe place, but instead releases yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of the release of the gas as you saw in the experiment.

A more immediate danger is that the very ability of sea life to reproduce and grow properly is seriously impaired by the increased acidity. Researchers are now finding many more examples of the ways in which ocean life will be stunted and diminished by the increased acidity. Doomsayers predict dead oceans. Dead oceans mean a dead planet.

Atmospheric contamination by the effects of man’s continuing efforts to consume the entire planet are global, but here in Madang, as in countless other places around the world, our life-giving reefs are threatened by local sources of poison. Even as you read this, a debate rages in Madang between the conservation-minded and commercial interests, in the form of a mining company, concerning the relative safety of dumping tailings into Astrolabe Bay, our cradle of life.

The mining company reports that the depth at which the massive quantities of intensely poisonous heavy metals and other noxious substances are dumped is safe because it is below the layer at which surface waters and deep waters mix. Other reports say the opposite. The point is that the killing substances are going into the ocean. It matters little, over the long term, how deep.

To this writer, the debate itself seems insane. The idea of dumping any poisons anywhere into the oceans that sustain life on our planet seems to be madness and those desiring to do it in the name of profit and those governments allowing it need to be called upon to explain and justify such action. UPDATE: Recent reports on safe submarine tailings disposals and the specific plans for this case seem to me to support the position that there will be no significant environmental damage. Not being a scientist, I can only accept that the current plan is acceptable, considering and balancing the desparate need for development.

As individuals, we concern ourselves with our own futures and those of our children, their children, and future generations. Corporations and, apparently, governments have little concern for the distant future. Can we trust those whose primary concern is the presentation of the next annual report at a stockholders’ meeting or the next governmental election to have the future of our grandchildren at the top of their agendas? Let them prove to us that they are trustworthy.

History shows us clearly that we have the power, as collectives of like-minded and concerned individuals utilising the tools of our democracy in a peacefull manner, to force sweeping changes of policy. Does the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ring a bell? We can take back control of our future.

Do we care enough? Are we brave enough to do so?

Well, that’s about half of what I wrote. You’ve seen many of these images already on Madang – Ples Bilong Mi:

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.

UPDATE: My good friend Kyle Harris emailed me in time to keep me from making a fool of myself. I’ll have to do a bit of rewriting before the article is published. The oceans are not, in any way acidic, nor are they likely to be in the near future. On the scale that science uses (the pH scale), where water is neutral, the oceans are alkaline, not acidic. I know this, of course, but my article, as written, makes a dog’s breakfast of it. I should be saying that the ocean is becomming more acidic in the sense that it is less alkaline – it’s moving towards neutral. Since ocean life is used to the alkalinity, the move towards neutral (less alkaline – more acidic) requires that they adapt or die. If the move is too fast, then adaptiation is not possible – there’s just not enough time. I also need to make it clear that the vinegar demonstration is completely unscientific – it’s just a trick. Kyle mentioned studies that indicate that the oceans will not likely reach neutral (pH 7) and move onto the acidic side of the pH scale until about 2200. You’ll have to wait longer than that to see seashells bubbling carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Though I have no defense, and Kyle is absolutely right, I’ll mention that I just Googled “more acidic” and ocean and got 56.000 hits. Aparantly I’m not the only one using the term.

This teaches me a lesson. When I’m dealing with a complex subject, oversimplification is worse that not saying anythign at all. Thanks, Kyle.

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A Big Hole and a Simpsons Sky

Posted in Opinions on July 24th, 2009 by MadDog
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Yesterday was a day of tragedy and heartbreak at the office. Any time that you start fooling around with servers (if you don’t know what they are, then thank your lucky stars) there is bound to be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I went home last night demoralised, broken hearted, and in a big hurry to the fridge for a cold brewski. I take my job too seriously – far too seriously.

Today didn’t start out much better. Nevertheless, by the end of the day my co-worker, Mike Herchenroeder and I had brutalised the boxes sufficiently that most everything seemed to be working again.

When I say that I take my job too seriously, I do so with a certain sort of pride. I want to be the guy who gets things done. I’m not patting myself on the back (long time since my arms would bend that far), but I think that it’s important to actually do some of the stuff that my job requires me to do. I don’t want to be known as a slacker. I particularly don’t want to be known as the kind of slacker who causes this:

The Big Hole after a moderate rain

That is, of course, the big hole that I showed to you a few days ago. I thought that you’d like to see it after a week:

The Big Hole a WEEK after the rain

Actually, it takes a lot of slackers working in close cooperation to let an entire town fall to pieces. I wonder if they have a union. We see it month-by-month here in Madang. Everything is falling apart. Eunie has me running around all over Madang taking photos for a full-page advertisement in one of the major newspapers. The Madang Chamber of Commerce and Industry has held several meetings to which those who are responsible for these problems would be able to explain their deficiencies. How many of them do you think have shown up for the meetings?

Vehicles are not the only things to suffer from the action (whoops, make that inaction)  of the slackers. The whole area of the corner at the Air Niugini office is a minefield of mud and putrid water. There is no way for a pedestrian to avoid it. I spent a quarter hour this morning cleaning my sandals and feet of foul smelling mud after a trip to ChemCare:

Nowhere to avoid the Big Hole for pedestrians

I wonder what the response is going to be when names are named in the newspaper? Anger is my guess. Well, I have a bit of news for the slackers. The people can get angry also. The slackers are outnumbered.

Now, because it’s Friday and we had moderate success today taming the wicked server trolls, I’ll show you a happy sky:

Eunie says thie is a "Simpsons Sky"

A few days ago, as we were turning into the LUSHIP compound where we live, Eunie said, “A Simpsons sky.” I think I went like, “Huh?” She pointed out the driver-side window and repeated the phrase. Sure enough, over the coconut trees and the big mountain of wood chips was a perfect Simpson Sky.

In the words of Cow from Cow and Chicken,  “Happy, happy, joy, joy!”

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The Poisonous Playground

Posted in Dangerous, Opinions on July 18th, 2009 by MadDog
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Maybe it’s the weather. I don’t know. I seem overly grumpy and prone to critical thinking lately. Here is how it looked this morning out over Tab Anchorage:

Brooding sky over Tab Anchorage

You’d be grumpy and out-of-sorts too if you had to see that and compare it with the same image in the post here.

But, that’s not what I’m here to complain about today. If fact, I have something far more serious to complain about. Have a look at this:

Poisonous Playground

On first inspection, it seems to be only some rather decrepit looking playground equipment. It’s not the seemingly poor condition of the equipment that’s the problem. Mould will grow on anything and everything here. Things get mouldy and nasty looking very quickly. If you stand still long enough mould will glue you to the ground. No, it’s not the mould that I’m complaining about.

We went through a mild season of hell when our friend Val Jerram was arranging for the free playground equipment to be sent up through Rotary International as a gift to the children of Madang. As with most such operations, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Finally however, the playground equipment was installed and happy kids were using it.

So what thanks for such generosity was provided by the so-called caretakers of our town?  See the nasty looking jumble of colour a few metres from the playground equipment? That is the horrible, disease-laden garbage from the town market a couple of squares away.

What a perfect spot for it. It’s right next to the lily pond and just at the end of the botanical garden. If the kids get bored playing, they can probably find a snack to keep their energy up.

No wonder I’m grumpy.

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Lake Madang – More Shame for the So-Called Managers

Posted in Opinions on July 17th, 2009 by MadDog
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The only thing that we need to do in Madang to remind ourselves that the town has had no effective management for decades is to wait for rain. Lately, since the dry season seems to have been eaten by global warming, we don’t have long to wait. In fact, though the grass should be getting a little brown by now, we’ve had no hint of a dry here.

If I look out the front door of my office after a moderate rain, this is what I see:

Lake Madang - Decades of mismanagement, corruption, and laziness

What you can’t see, for all the water, is the 40cm deep holes in the road that have made it nearly impassable.

Here’s what causes it:

Water, water and no way to the sea

The large ditch full of water is not supposed to be full of water. It is supposed to drain into the ocean. The outlets to the sea are plugged up by sediment and who knows what else, so the water has no place to go when it rains. This situation has been exactly the same for at least 15 years.

For pity’s sake, how long does it take to fix a problem like this. It is the same with roads (falling to pieces day by day), sanitation (no garbage collection now for weeks) and every other area of infrastructure that you can think of.

Every time it rains our town management is shamed

The problem is no longer one of inconvenience. In back of our office building (the cream-coloured building in the middle image) the septic system is backing up and overflowing because of the extremely high ground water level.

As of Monday, every manager who will not speak to me or fails to return my calls will be named here every time he does it. A lot of people in Madang are sick of seeing out beautiful town dissolve in a putrid bath of corruption, mismanagement and simple laziness.

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More People Who Will Kill You for Money

Posted in Opinions on July 13th, 2009 by MadDog
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Well, here I go again, playing the dicey game of “Nail the Quack to the Wall.”

Today I went quack hunting again at the market. I couldn’t find anybody selling treated mosquito nets, though I searched the entire market. I really wanted to nail one of those slugs. If you’re not getting it, let me explain. Insecticide treated bed nets flow into the country from outside agencies for free distribution. Guess what. Surprise, surprise, there are criminals who get their greasy hands on the distribution network and, of course, the outcome is easy to figure. The people who are supposed to get them for free end up paying (or not) for them at the market. Maybe I’ll catch one later.

What are treated bed nets? Simply the most effective preventative known for malaria, which is trying to kill us all, but ends up usually killing only those who can’t afford preventatives or treatment. I’ve had it seven times, and I’m not dead yet. I have access to expensive medicines for treatment and I sleep in a sealed air-conditioned bedroom. What chance do others have? Yeah, let’s steal the free bed nets and them make the poorest of the poor pay for them – or die.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of people around who will kill you for money. Got cancer, a dose of clap, syphilis, TB?  Is your appendix about to burst? This lady can “help you”. Help you into the next world, that is:

A quack - Madang, Papua New Guinea

Note the carefully blurred official looking name tag. I blurred it to protect myself, not her. Lighting should strike her (lightly – just to knock some sense into her). I don’t mean that I actually want  lightning to strike her, but if it has to strike somebody  around Madang in the near future, then I’d say that she’s a logical candidate. It would save lives. She’d be collateral damage in the war against gross immorality – the kind that kills people.

The name tag has the name of her company, which I will not disclose, her name and photo as a “Sales Representative”, and it includes an image of the official state emblem, a bird of paradise with a drum and spears.

Imagine if you are unimaginably poor, ignorant of all modern medical theory, and susceptible to the wildest claims concerning “traditional remedies”. And you’ve got TB, as if you needed more problems. This woman claims she can cure you. What she can really do is keep you from getting a proper course of antibiotics that could very likely make you well again. The minute you start to take her “medicine”, you are doomed.

The guy running this horror show wasn’t around when I snapped this shot. However, as soon as I walked away, he came out of the store and tried to ask me what I was doing. I just kept walking:

A quack's advertisement - Madang, Papua New Guinea

Well, why not just claim to cure everything?  If I were going to do it, that’s what I’d do. If you’re going to lie, lie big.

Since I started walking around harassing these people a couple of times a month, I’ve noticed that many have removed HIV/AIDS from their signs. I nailed them specifically on that one, because I figured, if it came down to police and court cases, they would be pounded hardest on that claim.

I always ask the same question of anybody who doubts that these people are liars. If any one of them had a genuine cure for any one of the diseases that he claims that he can cure, then why is he not filthy rich?