Ancient DNA

After I am long dead, I hope that anthropologist discover my fossil remains and do whatever future scientists will do to figure help understand humanity. Never know what that might be.

I went to a lecture today at Smithsonian about ancient DNA. The speaker was David Reich who wrote a book, “Who We Are & How We Got Here,” about the subject. The field is been revolutionized in the last few years, so much of what we thought we knew has been overtaken by events. In the last ten years, testing DNA has become 100,000 times cheaper. Scientist can now test DNA from ancient human remains and compare them with other ancient and modern populations.

One surprising finding is that modern populations often are not much related to the “original” inhabitants of their regions. People have always moved and they have always mixed. This brings us to another truth. Groups as we define them just did not exist in the past. The mixing and moving has created our modern populations and they are never permanent. To take the dust to dust analogy, people and our ethnicity are based on dust. They come together for a short time but are recreated again and again each time in different ways.

We know a lot more about European populations than others because the science has been concentrated in Europe. In “deep time” – 5000 – 6000 years ago – there are four identifiable groups. Back then, these groups were more different from each other than East Asians are different from Western Europeans are today. The four groups from what is now Iran, Levant, Western European hunters and gatherers and people of the steppe north of the Black Sea. These groups mixed and matched to produce today’s European populations. Genetic diversity has been declining as people mix.

An interesting finding was that Western European populations are related to American native populations. Did they cross the Atlantic? Probably not. Rather both Native Americans and Western Europeans had common ancestors in a “ghost population.” This was a population in what is now Russia that is no longer extant as a population, but has left its genes in populations in America and Europe.

When you talk about genetics, somebody will bring up race. Reich was questioned about why he did not use the term. He explained that the term is meaninglessly imprecise but loaded with imputed meaning. Genetically, there is no such thing as a race, at least as we define it. He mentioned categories like “Hispanic” as especially meaningless from a genetic point of view.

The more we learn about genetics, the more we see that all human categories are impermanent. I like this idea, since it fits my historical conception. My belief is that when anything passes from living memory, it become the common heritage of humanity – good, bad or neutral, we are all one people.

My first picture is the lecture, held at the Smithsonian Indian Museum. Next two pictures are the Museum of the American Indian and last is the White House.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Ancient DNA

Hyperloop Coming Sooner

I heard of the hyperloop, but didn’t know much about it, nor did I think it was something feasible in the near term.  The discussion at AEI – “Is the hyperloop the future of transportation” – cleared up a few things for me.

The keynote speaker was the dynamic Maryland transportation secretary and the chairman of the Maryland Transportation Authority, Pete Rahn.  He did a very smart thing before starting his talk.  He went around and introduced himself to the guests in the front couple of rows.  I was among them. It made us pay more attention and feel closer to the subject and the man explaining it.  He started off talking about the alternatives.   The status quo is not working well, what with congestion growing all the time.  Mr. Rahn studied maglev in Japan.  They are very smooth and fast, but probably impractical for Maryland & Washington.  Maglev are expensive, and they take up a lot of space.  It is unlikely that they could get the space.

Mr. Rahn said that the future is not far off for hyperloop. In fact, it is almost here. Work has started on a near New York Avenue in the District. The advantage of hyperloop is that it is underground.  This is not a panacea. There are lots of things underground that need be considered. That is why the hyperloop will follow MD 295 to Baltimore.  There are fewer property owners to consider.  It should have no impact on the road above. The idea is for it to reach New York.

Hyperloop will compete mostly with Amtrak.  Private autos have the advantage of flexibility.  What I did not know is that hyperloop will also carry freight.  I had envisioned pods something like the size of private cars.  In fact, they will be more like airlines.  The freight pods must be designed to be intermodal, or the hyperloop needs be designed to take standard container sizes.  This is not a problem for the width, but length might be a problem around curves.  The containers do not bend.

The discussion session addressed specifics.  With time, they may add more stops.  Maybe little pods could join with trains and split off as appropriate.  For example, you might join the train on pod coming from Union Station riding in pod A. Once on the train, you could move to pod B being dropped off from the train in Columbia, MD.  I envision one of those cartoon that shows how red blood cells move through the circulatory system.

A prototype Hyperloop will be tested literally in a couple days, on April 17 in France.  It will go only 1.4 kilometers (less than a mile) but it will show the concept.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Hyperloop Coming Sooner

Sustainable Water at Wilson Center

Went to “Sustainable Water, Resilient Communities: Solutions for Dirty Water” at Wilson Center today. I will put links to the program in the comments.

I got to stand up and ask my question about biosolids, but mostly it was just fun to listen.

I had a couple take-aways from each speaker.

Moderator Eric Viala had a good point about helping people. We are all about saving lives, but if we have to save the same people over-and-over, maybe we are not getting anywhere. We might reconsider our approach.

Sasha Koo-Oshima re-framed waste. Wastewater is an undervalued resource, she said. We should start calling sewage plants “Resource Recovery Facilities.” This is really true, especially re biosolids.

Robyn Fischer reminded us to pay attention to women. Women make a lot of the decisions about water use. Beyond that, the best way to curb population growth is to educate and empower women.

My favorite was Jon Winsten. He advocated incentives to farmers, pay for performance. he pointed out that prescriptive regulations reduce productivity and are often not effective. We get better results by being flexible. Giving farmers choices recruits their intelligence and ingenuity.

A problem is that non-point source pollution is hard to measure, so we often have to pay for process. They do some things and we have reasonable faith that it works. Best management practices are good, but they can be made better by proactive measures by farmers who know their land better than anyone else.

Winsten argued for a mixed program where farmers get payments for the good things they do on their farms (ecological services) but also a bonus for the total watershed. This helps them think bigger and maybe recruit their fellow farmers. Nobody is trusted as much as a neighbor.

Finally, Jon Freedman talked about his company, Suez. They can clean water to make it drink quality. The problem is not the purity, but the perception. People just do not like to drink water that is recycled. It is a PR problem.

All water is recycled. No new water, at least not much, has come to earth in more than 4 billion years. All the water we drink has been through billions of kidneys and mixed with oceans of shit and yet it comes back to use clean as rain.

Water is generally under priced. We hear talk about water as a human right and SOME water is. But if we make it generally a right, we will surely make it scarce. We need a price on water.

Wilson does good programs. I often attend and learn each time. My picture shows Jon Winsten speaking in front of the panel.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Sustainable Water at Wilson Center

Zuni Pine Barrens

Attended a wonderful program at the Zuni Pine Barrens, hosted by Lytton Musselman, from Old Dominion University and Cecil Frost, from University of North Carolina. It is always great to be in with experts who are passionate about what they do.

We looked at longleaf restoration, which is how and why I got the invitation and went, but I learned a lot more.

Cecil pointed to a pond pine savanna. I did not know such a thing existed. He explained that the pond pine was fire adapted but in ways different from longleaf. The pond pine is resistant to fire, like the longleaf, but the similarities end there.

Unlike other pines, pond pines can and do sprout from roots and will send out lateral branches after a fire. This means that pond pines can survive hotter fires, but less frequent ones. They burn to the roots and come back.

Pond pine savannas exist next to longleaf, but they do not overlap much. The difference is the water table. A higher water table favors pond pine, as they are more tolerant of the wet. Beyond that, the higher water table tends to make the vegetation a little less flammable. This leads to a longer time interval between fires, but they are hotter when they come, since there is more to burn.

This particular place was burned by accident Easter of last year. A prescribed fire got a little out of hand and burned hot through pond pine, burning off or turning yellow most of the needles even to the tops of the trees and burning the smaller trees to the ground.

My pictures show the pond pine savanna. Notice the sprouts from the roots of trees burned to the ground. I admit that I have trouble telling pond pines from loblolly pines. When the experts were there showing me, I could do it, but my expertise does not persist. But the experts told me these were pond pines. They showed some characteristics, such as the sucker branches in picture #3 and the ground spouting in picture #2.

Longleaf were exploited from “naval stores”. Naval stores include things used by navies, i.e. tar, pitch & turpentine. Virginia and the Carolinas became important sources for the Royal Navy after their access to supplies in the Baltic became more difficult.

Naval stores was a big industry for a couple hundred years. You can see the remnants when you find a road called “Pitch Kettle Road,” as there is in Brunswick Country. Picture #4 shows a tar kiln. It looks like just a mound now. What they did was pile pine wood, cover it with dirt and then set it on fire. It slow cooks, a lot like making charcoal. Pine tar comes out and is collected in barrels. To make pitch, you cook the tar – refine it. Turpentine is distilled from this.

Pitch, tar and turpentine was used for lubrication and sealing. Today most of this stuff is made from petroleum products.

The last photo shows Cecil and Lytton talking about their favorite stump. Lytton counted the rings and this tree was more than 300 years old when it was cut. Problem is that they do not know when it was cut, but it was at least 50 years ago. These longleaf stumps do not decay easily. They are dense, with rings close together, because the trees grew slowly, and they are infused with the precursors of naval stores, which inhibit decay. It would burn, however. They burn these woods frequently, but before each burn somebody goes out and rakes away the needles to avoid the fire. You an see that this was a big tree.

Old longleaf dense wood was called “light wood,” not because of weight but rather because it could be used as a torch, light in the pre-flashlight days. The resin burns a long time leaving the wood intact for a decent time.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | 1 Comment

Forest Visit March 2018

It was cold & windy today on the farms. I have said before but will say again that this is the least attractive time of the year on the farms, but one of the best times to look around, since it never is so open as now.

My longleaf are okay. The ones we burned a few months ago have buds, hard to see but there. The ones on last year’s burn also have buds. I could not see the top buds, since they were over my head, but I got a picture of a branch. Both are below.

I spent a lot of time pulling vines. It is good exercise & satisfying, but ineffective. I am not going to stop the vine pulling, but I think I will spray Diamond Grove at the end of this growing season for thinning in 2019-20. The spray will take out most of the vines and give the trees a year to put on extra weight. The benefits will continue after the thinning, as the remaining trees will get to take full advantage of the sunlight, space and water w/o vine competition.

The longleaf show up well now against the yellow grass and the generally dead stalks. There are a few empty places where we need to plant replacements. I am going to get the kids to help. I need to make paths so that they don’t get hung up on the brambles. I want to make the experience as pleasant as possible. It is hard work enough w/o hostile brambles. Best would be to burn, but I want to get them in the ground by November and I doubt it will be a good burning opportunity after growing season but before November. The stalks and brambles will not be dry enough.

The fire burned off the lower branches, which is as it should be. I think that when they get their growth this year, they will be spectacular.

My last picture is Diamond Grove Road. You can see my car at the end of the road for size comparison. I usually take the picture from the other direction. Because of the peculiarities of road construction in 1960, the road goes through our land instead of being the boundary. We own about 100 yards in on the east side of the picture, so we can keep it looking nice on both sides.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Forest Visit March 2018

Smithfield, North Carolina

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Smithfield, North Carolina

Charleston Visit March 9-13, 2018 – Audubon Swamp & Swig & Swine

Swig & Swine

We had supper today at Swig & Swine, very good pulled pork and beer. I had a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Pale Ale. It had a unique taste. I would not want to drink it all the time, but it was good to have this one.

My other pictures are from Magnolia Plantation. Spring is coming.

Audubon Swamp

Visited Audubon Swamp near Charleston. It was full of birds and people taking pictures and watching those birds. It is a beautiful place in general. We saw snowy egrets, great blue herons and something called a snake bird, among others.

The snake bird got its name because it swims just under the water and its long neck looks to observers like a fast moving snake.

There were also lots of turtles and a few alligators. I used to be afraid of alligators and I still would be if I was in the water, but they just don’t do very much most of the time.They are not much fun to watch. Most of the time, you cannot see but a few parts of the animals. They look like logs. I suppose they could be dangerous if you just stepped on one and I would not be eager to camp on the ground where they might come ashore.




Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Charleston Visit March 9-13, 2018 – Audubon Swamp & Swig & Swine

Bodenhamer Farms in Rowland, NC

When I found out that my longleaf pine came from Bodenhamer Farms in Rowland, NC, I called to see if I could see where my trees were born.

There I met some of the friendliest people ever. There was not much to see, since this is the time when most of the last year’s seedlings are shipped and the new ones are just seeds, but I did get to see some of the plugs.

Louie Bodenhamer showed me the mycorrhizal fungi on the plugs. Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil in a symbiotic relationship with roots. The fungi can reach farther and provide nutrients for the growing plant. In return, the plant provides sugars from its photosynthesis.

It is only recently (recent decades) that we have appreciated how this works. Herbicides and even plowing the soil can break up and kill mycorrhizal fungi. This loss is responsible for significant loss in practical fertility and plant vigor, but it was difficult to detect in soil chemistry, since chemically everything is there, just not working.

Soil is a living medium, at least when it is right. It is not mere chemistry and cannot be treated as this. The old saying that we feed the soil and it feeds us makes a lot of sense. And a big part of living soil is mycorrhizal fungi.

You can add this to your soil and this is a promising new field of fertilizer. It might also be good to let it grow.

I will buy some seedlings from Louie Bodenhamer this fall. He thinks that the best time to plant is October or November. This is what I hear from my friends at TNC too (they told me to get them in before Christmas) and what I have read. The natural seed fall for longleaf is autumn. They get a head start over the winter, taking advantage of winter rains and less evaporation is the colder weather.

I can fit a few thousand seedlings in my SUV. Each box (see picture) has just over 300 seedlings. I will ask the kids to help plant, so Mariza Matel, Alex Matel & Espen, please take note. Brunswick County is real great place in fall. It will be fun, the promise of the future and a blessing for today.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Bodenhamer Farms in Rowland, NC

The Fate of Rome

The great thing about ancient history is that we learn more every year. History is not just out there to be discovered. It is the creation of historians, who fit a narrative to events that are otherwise just one darn thing after another. The narrative is necessary. It may not be wrong, but always incomplete. We seek to come closer to truth, knowing that we never get there.

Recent advances in the science of genomics and climate science have made possible an understanding of ancient history not possible even a decade ago. Human events play out on a changing stage. The climate and the disease load has changed a lot during our history and it has made a difference. History is contingent. There is no such thing as fate or destiny. Shit happens. But it happens in patterns that we can try to understand.

The Roman Empire flourished during a particularly favorable climatic time. It was warmer and wetter than the time before or after. The author calls the period in the first and second century as the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO). From the time of Augustus until the reign of Marcus Aurelius there were also no pandemics. These conditions changes about AD 180. Roman leaders made some good and bad choices, but their margin for error was smaller.

Events outside the Empire also were affected by rapid climate change. Warmer and wetter weather on the Eurasian steppes got cooler and drier, inducing movements of peoples. The Huns burst out of Central Asia pushing everybody else.

In the course of one lifetime, the “eternal empire” was disintegrating. The author contends that the Empire in the West fell from 404-410 and not 476, when the last emperor was deposed. It was more a decay than a decline & fall.

The Romans lost control of their borders after the defeat and death of Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378. The Barbarians did not plan to destroy the Empire. They just wanted a piece of the action. Absent the challenges of climate change, disease and the attendant demographic challenges, the Empire might have survived.

An interesting contingency is the plague of Justinian. Justinian was in process of reestablishing Roman power, when his base was destroyed by the plague. Recent DNA analysis indicates that this was indeed the black death, bubonic plague.

The interesting contingency here is that it hit the Romans hard, but did not as much affect the steppe nomads of thinly populated areas like Arabia. Had the plague not hit when it did, Roman power would have been reestablished and Islam never would have spread as it did.

One more thing to recall. The Roman Empire evolved into a territorial state. All people of the Empire became Roman citizens in AD 212. People living in Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor or Gaul were citizens. It was like California, Texas or Florida being integral parts of the USA, although they were not original members. Most of the Empire’s leadership came from outside Italy after the 1st Century. Some former parts of the Empire were never run as well after the fall of the Empire.

Anyway, good book. I have been reading these things since at least 1966, when I borrowed my father’s copy of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.” It continues to be an interesting period.

BTW – I suggest that Michael W. Fox take a look at this book. He mentioned studying with William McNeill. This is the kind of book that takes the big sweep too and the author frequently refers to McNeill as a source and inspiration.

The Fate of Rome

Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on The Fate of Rome

The Third Wave

Just finished “The Third Wave” on The Great Courses. Lots of interesting ideas.

I like the concept of “impact investing”, where you try to do something useful while making money. My tree farming is like that. I need to make money to keep the land, but profit is an empowering factor, not a goal.

As our society becomes more affluent, we have the luxury of not seeking maximum profit. Actually, I like to put that a different way. My forestry enterprise is astonishingly profitable. It is just that not all the profit comes in the form of money.

Case also talks about the rise of the rest. He thinks that the entrepreneurial energy will disperse from Silicon Valley, New York & Boston. In this, he is talking like the authors of “The Smartest Places on Earth” another book I recommend.

Anyway, I recommend the course. The Great Courses Plus is worth getting in general. I watch an episode while I am running on the machine at Gold’s Gym. It accomplishes two goals in one.

The Third Wave

Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on The Third Wave