A new use for human corpses

Here’s a neat idea – use composting techniques to take care of our own dead bodies.

In this TED talk, Katrina Spade makes a compelling argument for a new way of managing the corpse part of dying. I’ve long been a fan of cremation over burial, for the reasons she explains, but she also makes good points about the downside of how cremation consumes a lot of energy and generates, effectively, human ash pollution.

The idea of “re-composing” bodies, in ways that allow your molecules to be broken down and eventually used to nurture new life, is refreshing! I also like the idea that bereaved family and friends can have whatever kind of ceremony they like as part of the send-off of the body. For those who like to visit gravesites in remembrance of those who are gone, why not designate a location of positive memories with the deceased (a favorite beach or park, or the site of a graduation or wedding proposal or other significant event), or even have a shrine set aside inside the home (I’ve always liked this idea anyway).

Wired wrote an article about this last year that contains some diagrams about how the envisioned recomposition center would look and operate: Inside the Machine that will turn your Corpse into Compost

And for the current status of the project, check out Urban Death Project (a slightly more creepy name than “Urban Recomposer” or other alternatives). They already demonstrated success in composting six cadavers, and it looks like they are starting the next pilot project this month. This will be fascinating to follow!

U.S. concentration camps in WWII

Did you know that the U.S. had its own concentration camps during WWII? Every time I re-encounter this fact, I am amazed anew. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order and 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in camps in the western U.S. By the way, almost half of the 68 civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were Japanese Americans. (A total of 2,403 Americans died that day.)

In the 1980s, an investigation determined that the decision to put Japanese Americans in camps had little grounding in any evidence of disloyalty and was instead due to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” (Senate Bill 1009, 1987). This led to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 that apologized and authorized reparations for camp survivors.

Today’s debates about immigration, deportation, and refugees are held in the context of constant background fear about terrorism. Our history shows us that our country, just like any other, can be moved to acts we later regret out of fear and concerns about national security. We can claim no inherent moral superiority.

In addition to knowing facts, like how many people were groundlessly incarcerated, it is helpful to hear about individual experiences. The Densho digital archive collects stories of Japanese Americans with a particular focus on their incarceration in American concentration camps in WWII. Densho provides more than 900 video interviews as well as photos, documents, and camp newspapers. The photo at right is of the Manzanar concentration camp in California, taken by Ansel Adams.

The interviews talk about how people were rounded up, life in the camps, and the impact of that experience. As just one example, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga talked about giving birth to her daughter while living in a camp. She was unable to persuade the camp to provide canned milk for her daughter, who was allergic to powdered milk. Yet some internees had access to art classes, or softball games as shown at left (I love this picture).

One detail of personal interest I learned is that one of the Citizen Isolation Centers (where “so-called troublemakers” were sent from the concentration camps) was located near my hometown of Moab, Utah.

These interviews are fascinating and educational. I look forward to listening to more of them. Perhaps the stories shared in this collection can help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

Fighting fire from the air

In late June, a forest fire came within a mile of my house. I stood outside transfixed, watching the firefighting planes dive and drop red fire retardant in a scarlet line on the hillside to keep the fire from reaching us. Truly awe-inspiring!

I’m now preparing to interview one of those pilots, for a course project. California’s state firefighting organization is CalFire, which employs helicopter pilots year-round and airplane pilots seasonally. CalFire has 23 Grumman S-2T airtankers that drop the fire retardant, and two of them are based nearby at the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base. You can browse California’s most recent fires.

This is not an easy job, and the qualifications are steep – 1500 hours of flying experience, 1200 of which as pilot in command. To pilot an airtanker, you must also have commercial, multi-engine, and instrument ratings. You have to be willing to fly low and slow, in steep terrain, with powerful winds and in the heat. Any one of those is a risk factor, and combining them all together makes for some of the most challenging flying out there.

Aerobatic pilot superstar Patty Wagstaff has also joined CalFire: she doesn’t fly the large airtankers but instead flies smaller tactical aircraft, in which she helps the flight supervisor monitor the fire and coordinate its response. Talk about precision ground reference maneuvers!

But the job is risky (pilots die), and the planes are expensive, and there is some debate about whether they are a cost-effective way to fight fires. Yet by now the public expects to see them out there on the front lines, and I can attest that it was very cheering to see them keeping that fire away from my home. (It is impossible to see all of the ground firefighters from the same distance, sadly!)

I’m very much looking forward to talking to one of these pilots in person! So many questions to ask. :)

The black Harry Potter

In Profiling a Book Collection, middle-school librarian Julia B. Chambers discussed a content survey she and some volunteers did of the school’s collection, along with some preliminary results. I wasn’t terribly surprised by her observation that

“Our protagonists are mostly Caucasian and more likely female, with only three in the entire collection demonstrating gender questioning or ambiguity. Two-thirds of our collection feature characters from middle- or high-income families (of which almost all are nuclear in structure). And most of our literary characters are straight (only 13 books featured LBGTQ characters.)”

I don’t know whether these demographics are representative of The Athenian School in Danville, California, where Julia serves as librarian, or whether it’s representative of the available books out there, or whether any of that really matters. Selecting books for a library collection is a non-trivial task, with any number of competing philosophies urging one heuristic or another.

But then she started talking about race. And race in the context of fantasy:

“At quick glance, most of our titles featuring African American characters are historical fiction with themes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or Civil Rights struggles. The black Harry Potters are simply not there.”

Who *are* the black Harry Potters? I racked my brain to try to come up with any non-Caucasian wizard-type protagonists in any books I’ve ever read. I came up with two, neither of whom are black:




Do magic-wielding youth from other cultures and ethnicities truly not exist? Or are they chronicled in books written in other languages, enjoyed by those with the ability to read them, but locked away from those who can fluently read only English, until the glittering hand of some translator should set them free?

Do share the non-Caucasian wizarding books I’ve overlooked, forgotten, or not yet encountered.

Be an Anthropologist to spot human ingenuity

I’m reading “The Ten Faces of Innovation” for my class on Maker Spaces. The book was written by Tom Kelley, the CEO of IDEO, a design firm that by definition is invested in being creative. Kelley begins by demonizing the Devil’s Advocate, which he claims “may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” Critical thinking is good, but the DA is just too negative and squashes creativity.

Instead, Kelley identifies ten different “faces” (or roles) that people can employ to generate new ideas, solve problems, and otherwise innovate. Here I’d like to focus on just one, the Anthropologist, and the interesting view of the world that it encapsulates. (Possibly I find it interesting because it is so foreign to my usual modus operandi.)

Anthropologists gain inspiration by watching people. They observe them struggling with metro turnstiles or pushing that door instead of pulling it. In watching how people interact with the world, they learn not only what things are problematic but also what creative workarounds people already have devised. I figure an Anthropologist was behind the hands-free liftgate feature of my new car: he or she probably watched people approach their car with both arms full of stuff, then fumble or have to put things down to open the back. Now I can just swing my foot under the bumper and the liftgate opens automatically. Bingo!

An example of learning from workarounds might be the pave where they walk approach of planting the quad with grass, waiting a week while people walk the paths they want to walk, and only then pouring cement to create the sidewalks to match.

Kelley suggests an exercise to allow you to try out the Anthropologist face (or hat, or glasses, or whatnot):

“If you take a close look at your world, you’ll notice clever people playing the modern-day role of fix-it man. We’ve all seen the Post-it note with a helpful little instruction on top of the photocopier or the handwritten sign taped to the front of the reception desk.

To see how many exist in your world, try this exercise one day. Write down every fix you see at work, at home, or out on the town. Watch for things that have been duct-taped or bolted on. Look for add-on signs that explain what’s broken or how a machine really works.” (p. 29)

So, I did this.

My first observation was that post-its are rampant. The walls and the computer monitors in our Mars rover tactical operations room are filled with post-its. They include tips on how to disable the screen saver, how to “fix” the projected image when the refresh rate is wrong, who to call for certain problems, etc. In a meeting room, I found that the light switch was annotated with a sticker that says “Off: click down.” The light switch is a slider, which makes it seem like you can turn it off by sliding it all the way down. It’s dim enough at that point that it’s hard to tell whether it’s on or off. But instead you have to press hard enough to make it click before the light turns all the way off. I’m guessing that there was a lot of energy wasted before someone decided to just add the “click down” instruction. Solved!

In the break room, I found the following amusing sign taped to a cabinet above the sink:

“Please, only water-soluble liquids in sink.

Anything else will clog it.

Ok, so H2SO4 is water soluble,
but don’t put it down the drain either!”

Note that these are not just commands being inflicted on others. In most cases, they are work-arounds developed to address a design or use flaw. When the problem itself can’t or won’t be fixed, people step in to indicate how to deal with it. These are generous acts that may transpire between people that never meet face to face… but benefit regardless.

What fix-its have you seen today?

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