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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Our oldest friend

Dog skull dates back 33,000 years

An ancient dog skull, preserved in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia for 33,000 years, presents some of the oldest known evidence of dog domestication and, together with equally ancient dog remains from a cave in Belgium, indicates that domestication of dogs may have occurred repeatedly in different geographic locations rather than with a single domestication event.

In other words, man's best friends may have originated from more than one ancient ancestor, contrary to what some DNA evidence previously has indicated.

"Both the Belgian find and the Siberian find are domesticated species based on morphological characteristics," said Greg Hodgins, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and co-author of the study that reports the find.

"Essentially, wolves have long thin snouts and their teeth are not crowded, and domestication results in this shortening of the snout and widening of the jaws and crowding of the teeth."

The Altai Mountain skull is extraordinarily well preserved, said Hodgins, enabling scientists to make multiple measurements of the skull, teeth and mandibles that might not be possible on less well-preserved remains. "The argument that it is domesticated is pretty solid," said Hodgins. "What's interesting is that it doesn't appear to be an ancestor of modern dogs." [...]

At 33,000 years old, the Siberian skull predates a period known as the Last Glacial Maximum, or LGM, which occurred between about 26,000 and 19,000 years ago when the ice sheets of Earth's last ice age reached their greatest extent and severely disrupted the living patterns of humans and animals alive during that time. Neither the Belgian nor the Siberian domesticated lineages appear to have survived the LGM.

However, the two skulls indicate that the domestication of dogs by humans occurred repeatedly throughout early human history at different geographical locations, which could mean that modern dogs have multiple ancestors rather than a single common ancestor.

"In terms of human history, before the last glacial maximum people were living with wolves or canid species in widely separated geographical areas of Euro-Asia, and had been living with them long enough that they were actually changing evolutionarily," said Hodgins. "And then climate change happened, human habitation patterns changed and those relationships with those particular lineages of animals apparently didn't survive."

"The interesting thing is that typically we think of domestication as being cows, sheep and goats, things that produce food through meat or secondary agricultural products such as milk, cheese and wool and things like that," said Hodgins.

"Those are different relationships than humans may have with dogs. The dogs are not necessarily providing products or meat. They are probably providing protection, companionship and perhaps helping on the hunt. And it's really interesting that this appears to have happened first out of all human relationships with animals."
(From EurekAlert, 24 January 2012)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Over the peak: the limits of fossil fuel

Caption: Trips to the Kruger National Park are getting more expensive!

Sometime back in 2008, I think, I wrote about the shocking things that had happened to oil prices - they'd leapt from a 'norm' of $35-40 a barrel a couple of years earlier to a new norm of around $70-80. Now the new norm seems to be around $100. All just as predicted by peak-oil experts. Here's some new corroborating evidence:

Commentary in Nature: Can economy bear what oil prices have in store?

Stop wrangling over global warming and instead reduce fossil-fuel use for the sake of the global economy.

That's the message from two scientists, one from the University of Washington and one from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who say in the current issue of the journal Nature (Jan. 26) that the economic pain of a flattening oil supply will trump the environment as a reason to curb the use of fossil fuels.

"Given our fossil-fuel dependent economies, this is more urgent and has a shorter time frame than global climate change," says James W. Murray, UW professor of oceanography, who wrote the Nature commentary with David King, director of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

The "tipping point" for oil supply appears to have occurred around 2005, says Murray, who compared world crude oil production with world prices going back to 1998. Before 2005, supply of regular crude oil was elastic and increased in response to price increases. Since then, production appears to have hit a wall at 75 million barrels per day in spite of price increases of 15 percent each year.

"As a result, prices swing wildly in response to small changes in demand," the co-authors wrote. "Others have remarked on this step change in the economies of oil around the year 2005, but the point needs to be lodged more firmly in the minds of policy makers."

For those who argue that oil reserves have been increasing, that more crude oil will be available in the future, the co-authors wrote: "The true volume of global proved reserves is clouded by secrecy; forecasts by state oil companies are not audited and appear to be exaggerated. More importantly, reserves often take 6 - 10 years to drill and develop before they become part of the supply, by which time older fields have become depleted." Production at oil fields around the world is declining between 4.5 percent and 6.7 percent per year, they wrote.

"For the economy, it's production that matters, not how much oil might be in the ground," Murray says. In the U.S., for example, production as a percentage of total reserves went from 9 percent to 6 percent in the last 30 years.

"We've already gotten the easy oil, the oil that can be produced cheaply," he says. "It used to be we'd drill a well and the oil would flow out, now we have to go through all these complicated and expensive procedures to produce the oil."

The same is true of alternative sources such as tar sands or "fracking" for shale gas, Murray says, where supplies may be exaggerated and production is expensive. Take the promise of shale gas and oil: A New York Times investigative piece last June reported that "the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells."

Production at shale gas wells can drop 60 to 90 percent in the first year of operation, according to a world expert on shale gas who was one of the sources for the commentary piece. Murray and King built their commentary using data and information from more than 15 international and U.S. government reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, reports from groups such as the National Research Council and Brookings Institution and association findings.

Stagnant oil supplies and volatile prices take a toll on the world economy. Of the 11 recessions in the U.S. since World War II, ten were preceded by a spike in oil prices, the commentary noted.

"Historically, there has been a tight link between oil production and global economic growth," the co-authors wrote. "If oil production can't grow, the implication is that the economy can't grow either."

Calculations from the International Monetary Fund, for example, say that to achieve a 4 percent growth in the global economy in the next five years, oil production must increase about 3 percent a year.

"Yet to achieve that will require either an heroic increase in oil production, ... increased efficiency of oil use, more energy-efficient growth or rapid substitution of other fuel sources," according to the commentary. "Economists and politicians continually debate policies that will lead to a return to economic growth. But because they have failed to recognize that the high price of energy is a central problem, they haven't identified the necessary solutions: weaning society off fossil fuel."

The commentary concludes: "This will be a decades-long transformation and we need to start immediately. Emphasizing the short-term economic imperative from oil prices must be enough to push governments into action now."

Cyclone Funso

Here's the beast that caused all the trouble in Hoedspruit and the Lowveld of South Africa. NASA published a stunning satellite image here:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Who Owns the World?

World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, 2011

By Nick Buxton, Transnational Institute, January 27, 2012

This week as the world's elites met in the swiss skiing village of Davos, Transational Institute's (TNI) Corporate Power project launched a series of powerful infographics, to expose the Global 0.001%, the corporations they run and the cost of corporate power.

The infographics can be seen here:

Some of the most compelling stats that stand out from the infographics are:
• 8 of the top 10 richest companies in the world are fossil fuel companies
• 1% of the world's companies, almost all banks, control 40% of the shares of the world's major corporations
• 0.15% of the world's population control two-thirds of world GDP, and with their assets could pay the costs of universal and primary school education for 190 year.
• A tiny percentage of the global population, 0.001%, control $15.4 trillion dollars.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sweet difference

Yes, there IS a difference between sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup:

CU School of Medicine researchers look at effects of 2 common sweeteners on the body

AURORA, Colo. (Jan. 23, 2012) - With growing concern that excessive levels of fructose may pose a great health risk – causing high blood pressure, kidney disease and diabetes – researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, along with their colleagues at the University of Florida, set out to see if two common sweeteners in western diets differ in their effects on the body in the first few hours after ingestion. The study, recently published in the journal Metabolism, took a closer look at high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and table sugar (sucrose) and was led by Dr MyPhuong Le (now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado) and Dr Julie Johnson, a Professor of Pharmacogenomics at the University of Florida.

Both HFCS and sucrose have historically been considered to have nearly identical effects on the body. But this study finds that indeed there is a difference between the two. They found that the makeup of the sugars resulted in differences in how much fructose was absorbed into the circulation, and which could have potential impact on one's health. Sucrose is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose that is bonded together as a disaccharide (complex carbohydrate) and HFCS is a mixture of free fructose (55%) and free glucose (45%). It's the difference in fructose amount that appears to create the ill health effects on the body.

Their study was conducted at the University of Florida, where they evaluated 40 men and women who were given 24 ounces of HFCS- or sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Careful measurements showed that the HFCS sweetened soft drinks resulted in significantly higher fructose levels than the sugar-sweetened drinks. Fructose is also known to increase uric acid levels that have been implicated in blood pressure, and the HFCS-sweetened drinks also resulted in a higher uric acid level and a 3 mm Hg greater rise in systolic blood pressure.

Dr Richard Johnson, a coauthor in the study and Chief of the Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension at the University of Colorado, commented "Although both sweeteners are often considered the same in terms of their biological effects, this study demonstrates that there are subtle differences. Soft drinks containing HFCS result in slightly higher blood levels of fructose than sucrose-sweetened drinks, "said Johnson. "The next step is for new studies to address whether the long-term effects of these two sweeteners are different."

Friday, January 20, 2012


Now I can eat a little dairy again, I'm dying to make my favourite salad:

Marvellous mielie salad
If your guests like blue cheeses, this is very moreish.
Serves 4
1 red onion, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 red pepper, deseeded and diced
3 baby cucumbers, sliced lengthways into quarters and then sliced
10-20 black olives, cut into quarters
½ cup fresh mielies, stripped from the cob and lightly cooked (you can also heat frozen mielies)
Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled – this really is to taste. Some people love this cheese, others find it too much, so you might want to serve it on the side instead of mixing in.
1/3 cup avocado or grapeseed oil
1/6 cup white balsamic vinegar
A dash of Turkish-fig-infused balsamic vinegar or
A dash of raspberry vinegar
1/3 tspn brown sugar

Mix all the salad ingredients together (leaving out the cheese if preferred). Mix the vinaigrette and stir into the salad just before serving (don’t use it all; the salad should not be overly wet). Serve with crusty fresh bread.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Call me a tree hugger, would you?

The first tree huggers were 294 men and 69 women belonging to the Bishnois branch of Hinduism, who, in 1730, died while trying to protect the trees in their village from being turned into the raw material for building a palace. They literally clung to the trees, while being slaughtered by the foresters. But their action led to a royal decree prohibiting the cutting of trees in any Bishnoi village. And now those villages are virtual wooded oases amidst an otherwise desert landscape. Not only that, the Bishnois inspired the Chipko movement (which means “to cling”) that started in the 1970s, when a group of peasant women in Northeast India threw their arms around trees designated to be cut down. Within a few years, this tactic, also known as tree satyagraha, had spread across India, ultimately forcing reforms in forestry and a moratorium on tree felling in Himalayan regions.
Bryan Farrell, Waging Nonviolence
Posted on January 9, 2012, Alternet