Every little bit counts

Did you know that there’s a gigantic concentration of trash that’s swirling around between California and Hawaii? The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a stunning conglomeration of trash that is now reputed to cover an area twice the size of Texas, or possibly three times the size of France. Appalling!


Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Fascinating video about how they measure the volume of trash:

I recently listened to another fascinating episode of the “Science Vs” podcast titled “Plastics: The Final Straw?”. The tale of where our plastics go and what havoc they wreak is not for the faint-hearted. The show also discusses a question that had puzzled me a bit – how could that much plastic possibly end up in the ocean? Apparently, much of it is trash that folks drop in a street gutter, and then washes into a storm drain, which may at times bypass wastewater treatment (or be in a community that lacks it) and get expelled directly into the ocean.

There are efforts underway to try to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, thankfully. But I couldn’t get the idea of that trash out of my mind. And so on my next evening walk, I took a leftover grocery bag and my grabber tool with me:


(This isn’t my exact tool but you get the idea.)

And as I walked, I used it to pick up any trash I found on the street and put it in my bag. In half an hour of walking, I filled the bag TWICE! (I was able to dump it halfway through in an actual garbage can.) Again, appalling!

It was also fascinating to see what kind of trash was on the street. Our streets are actually quite clean, with weekly street sweepers coming through. I found the densest concentration of trash when I passed near the middle school :( And by far, overall, the biggest trash constituent was plastics. I collected a paper plate, a crushed soda can, and some napkins, but the huge majority was plastic cups, lids, straws, chip bags, food wrappers, etc. (I also found part of a pair of novelty sunglasses (plastic) and a pencil (not plastic).) In many cases, the items were near to or partly sucked into a storm drain already. The whole time, all I could think of was that mountain of trash in the ocean, and how unnecessary and avoidable it is.

But now, at least, I can tidy up the streets on my way to tidy up the library shelves. :)

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.

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