Spilling the truth about science in the news

7 05 2010

So when was the last time you saw a news story about sound science or environmental issues?

Okay, now might not be a good time to ask that question, considering we are in the midst of trying to figure out how to contain the thousands of gallons of oil that are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP‘s rented oil rig, Deepwater Horizon.

In case you’ve been in a coma for the past two weeks or finishing up your graduate degree, here’s what happened. On April 20th., 2010 the oil rig, which is on lease from Transocean caught on fire and eventually collapsed and sank into the gulf.


Video courtesy of AlJazeera

Apparently a safeguard called a “blowout preventer” failed to controlled the natural gas bubble or “kick” that can occur when capping these wells with cement and sent these unfortunate affects into motion. The reason for the failure is unknown at this time until the companies responsible can do a more thorough investigation into the disaster.

Most of the stories you are probably finding in the news is more about politics and economics of the spill that the environmental effects. Bloomberg reported that BP has lost $30 million dollars as a result of the spill as of today and will lose more as the days go on.

BP had asked the U.S. government for assistance in the clean up but were initially rejected by President Obama. Yet, the Obama Adminstration
did sign off on expanding offshore drilling this past March in the hopes of pushing forward energy and climate legislation that would lead the country beyond our reliance on petroleum. And of course, the federal government is now spending money to oversee the cleanup.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Economics and politics should be put on the backburner of this situation for the time being. The main concern for both the companies involved and the government should be on protecting the surround habitats from the effects this spill will have on their ecosystems.

I can assure you that the fishermen who are volunteering their ships and services to aid in the cleanup have these ecosystems as the forefront of their concern. Their livelihoods are dependent on it.

AP Photo/The Times Picayune, Ted Jackson

It seems the only time the biological science are mentioned in the news are when catastrophes such as this occur. The one scientific story that has developed from all this, and was reported in the May 5th issue of the New York Times is the use of chemical dispersants that have been thrown onto the spill in order to help contain it, with seemingly little forethought to the adverse affects.

Very little is known about these dispersants and what chemicals go into the manufacturing of them as the companies that produce them say there a “proprietary” ingredients that they want to guard for commercial reasons. What should be propriety are these companies responsibility to be sure that they aren’t doing more harm than good to the ecosystems they insist they are helping to protect.

Why is the public so misinformed about topics such as this? With the amount of oil drilling that is done on daily basis it must be assumed that spills such as the one April 20th are bound to happen and the possible solutions such as chemical dispersants should be understood by the general public so they can help shape policy to handle these situations in ways that best suit them and the environments they live in.

This is the problem with scientific journalism in today’s age. The public is poorly informed. These are issues that affect citizens everyday lives. You don’t think they do? Ask the fishermen on the gulf coast if this concerns them.

Dr. Janet MacFall, associate professor of Elon University’s Environmental Studies department feels that the public relies on the news for such information when she says that, ” the majority of citizens don’t read scientific journals for news about science”, their primary resource for scientific information is going to be news organizations.

Because the gulf coast fishermen live hand in hand with their environments, they understand what is and isn’t best for the ecology of the areas live. They have even suggested using hay instead of chemical dispersants because it is cheap, would effectively absorb the oil, environmentally friendly, and sustainable. An ideal solution for all parties involved. They’ve been doing their own research for decades and even centuries by living within these ecosystems.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Instead of building the $365 million rig, and spending BP spending $500,000 a day to rent it (Bloomberg), they could be putting that money into research and development of alternative and sustainable energy sources, as I’m sure President Obama and the citizens he is suppose to serve hoped they would. Besides the continuous “empty talk” commercials these oil companies air on TV, saying they are working on developing these alternatives, they need to be showing the public what they are coming up with and beginning to implementing it, not just talking about it.

Where are we, as citizens going to get sound science news in the near future. Perhaps it will be from citizens themselves. Dr. Jeffrey Coker of Elon’s Biology department feels that, “citizens are capable of conducting sound research and sharing with the public their findings.

By putting science in their own hands, citizens will be more informed of issues that are important to them and more likely to take action, much like the fisherman offering their assistance in the gulf coast oil spill.

The more we talk about this spill in the news, perhaps we can persuade these oil companies to take more proactive actions and responsibility for what they are doing to harm ecosystems and our livelihoods. It is clear that with efforts such as those mentioned above, the horizon of the deep water won’t be so murky.

For a live tracker and video stream of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico which can be downloaded and embedded into your website visit the PBS website.

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Altruistic Media

24 04 2010

The other day my classmate Paul gave a presentation about game theory and it’s role in interactive media.  Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.  He was enlightening us on how users in an interactive world feed off of each other and help one another regarding the creation and sharing of multimedia content and applications.

Game theory plays a large role in the field of ecology in that relationships with in a community revolve around this theory, which in the biological world is more commonly referred to as altruism.  Coincidentally, altruism has something I’ve been thinking about and relating to the Internet and interactive media throughout this past semester of graduate school.

Altruism is the enhancement of the fitness of an unrelated individual by acts that reduce the evolutionary fitness of the altruistic individual.  Examples of altruism include individuals of the same  species preening one another (removes parasites from another), hunting cooperatively (helps to provide food with no guarantee they will get food of their own) , or giving warning signals to each other in the presence of danger (one individual attracts the attention of the predator by warning others).  All this behavior benefits the species as a whole.

We all know that most of us are willing to lay down our lives to save the live of one of our relatives.  This is a basic form of altruism.  However, altruism plays a large role in communities of unrelated individuals.  For example, in olive baboon (Papio anubis) communities when a female comes into heat a male will form a consort relationship with her, following her around await an opportunity to mate with her.  Sometimes an unattached male will enlist the help of another male to fight with the consort male so that he may attempt to mate with the female.  This behavior would then be reciprocated in turn at a future time.

I’m not going to go into the more specific theories of altruism in that they can be rather complicated and mind blowing in understanding relationships within a society.  I only want to point out that this type of behavior is mimicked in interactive media.

Generally, if a user needs an add-on, plug-in, or application to accomplish a goal, they can easily find a free version online.  There are thousands of people out there that are creating these applications which they make openly available to society as a whole without gaining any benefit, in this case money.

Although, these individuals may be seen a parasitic to large media companies who are hell-bent on protecting their own – their own content and delivery of said content- they are helping society and the communities they exist in by providing free information and knowledge to the group.  They are essentially aiding the evolution of interactive media through generativity which is explained in Jonathan Zittrain‘s book, The Future of the Internet.

This behavior should be embraced by large media companies as they too may benefit from this generativity.  Just as in many species of ants in which sterile females exist only as workers who’s sole existence is to help the queen and the colony as a whole, those developing free applications and content, with no financial benefit may be the workers that create the newest technology that would aid media companies in creating better content and delivering that content to larger audiences or groups of consumers.

All this is just another example of digital media mimicking biology and proof that by doing so, interactive media will evolve into a greater entity that will make our communities and society as a whole stronger and more survivable.





Costa Rica and Earth University, LaFlor: Day 3/Part 2

17 01 2010

Jan. 09, 2010

Buena Vista Lodge

We are leaving beautiful Guanacaste National Park and on our way to Buena Vista Lodge in Rincon de La Vieja National Park.  We are traveling down a dirt road for about 25 minutes when we reach a fork in the road.  Bennicio stops between the fork and is not completely sure which way to go.  Naturally he takes the road not taken.  Robert Frost would be proud.

Unfortunately, the road not taken is not taken for a reason cause it was a dead end at some fenced encampment at the top of a peak.  Fortunately the employees there were nice enough to open the gate so we could turn around.

Thirty minutes later, after an steep climb up another peak and an amazing view were reached our destination.  We pull in to the ranch like entrance and meander up to the lodge.  We pull up to the office and are greeted with glasses of mango juice.  After checking in we head down to our rooms which are cabin like buildings make completely of high grade wood that resembles teak, a common wood found in rainforests.  After a quick shower and downloading of my photos to my hard drive, I am off to the Sunset Bar for some cocktails with my classmates.

Proffesor Motley mentioned to me as we were unpacking that he had a feeling that there was much more to this place that we could see.  He couldn’t have been more right.  I am heading up to the bar with camera in hand (of course) and am not enjoying the uphill trek to the bar which is off a ways behind the lodge.  Upon reaching the bar, I realized that it was worth the hike and pain in my feet.

I am presented with one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life.  Sunset Bar sits atop a peak looking over a valley and other mountain peaks as the sun was setting.  My breath is completely taken away and my body covered with goosebumps.

View from the Sunset Bar at Buena Vista (Beautiful View) Lodge

Sitting here enjoying this amazing scene before me as I sip on a Tequilla Sunrise talking to Will and Emily about how incredible this trip has been already and how lucky we are to be in this beautiful country.

The sun is now setting behind the mountains in the distance and I’m on to round two, or is it three?  I can’t remember this sunset is so distracting.  Alex has introduced some of us to a drink the bartenders recommend to him that has been dubbed Hombre Fuerte.  This drink is like jet fuel and seems to change colors as you go through it.  The five of us who got one each have one at a different level and different color. Will, Matt squared, and Alex have decided to chug the last ¼ of their drinks and it didn’t go well.  You try and chug 3 oz. of jet fuel.  Not a good idea even though the guys tried to do it another three times out excitement of the day.

I invited Bennicio over from the bar to join us at the table to finish watching the sunset and enjoy each other’s company and conversation.  After an hour of conversing and laughing it’s time for dinner so we are off.

Dinner consists of a buffet of everything under the sun, rice, black beans, chicken, fish, yucca, Spanish meatballs, baby corn and leche for desert, not to mention the extraordinary Costa Rican coffee.

After more mind-blowing food and pleasant conversation around the dinner table we are heading back to Sunset Bar for some drinks, music, and dancing.  I have to say that the highlight of dancing for me has to be dancing with Silvia who was teaching me some Latin moves that I didn’t already know.  We are having such a great time dancing with each other and socializing with the bartenders who by the way are so friendly and fun.  It’s easy to tell they are genuine and not just mocking us, sometimes-pretentious American tourists.  They are helping to teach us Spanish, making jokes, making us laugh, making great drinks, and plain making this experience at Buena Vista that much better.

I can’t even express in words how nice the people of this country are.  They are so caring and inviting.  The want you to enjoy their country as much as possible and seem to understand how magical this place it to foreigners.  You can see they truly live the pura vida.

Well we are pretty consumed and off to bed to enjoy the activities Beuna Vista Lodge has to offer.  Hasta luego!






Costa Rica and Earth University, LaFlor: Day 3/Part 1

12 01 2010

Jan. 09, 2010

Guanacasted National Park/Buena Vista Resort

Pura Vida from Costa Rica!  It’s 5:30 A.M. and I’m waiting to hear from the howlers but we must have beat them to awaking.  I think we are their alarm clock today as they start howling during breakfast.

For breakfast we are enjoying eggs, rice, beans, fresh cheese, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and probably the best orange juice and coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life.

After breakfast we are off to Guanacaste National Park to do some hiking and sightseeing with our guide for the day, Luis.  Also joining us is Ali, who arrived last night, who is a geologist from east Africa helping LaFlor look for locations on the property to create natural reservoirs to store water from the local watershed to use for the irrigation of LaFlor’s crops.

We are on the bus and beginning our 45 minute journey to the mountains.  Fifteen minutes into the drive Luis has us pull over on this dirt road to explain how the vegetation is changing a we begin our ascent towards the range.

This change in vegetation what is referred to as succession is a result of the of the change in temperature and water availability as you move higher up the mountain.  The rainforest in the part of Costa Rica we are in is slightly different than what most people would consider a rain forest.  Costa Rica is divided centrally by a mountain range that runs from the north to south through the majority of the country.  As the weather moves from the east, the heavy, water-filled clouds need to release their moisture in the form of  rain in order to ascend and cross over the mountains.  As a result there is less precipitation on the west side of the range, resulting in what is called a “dry” rainforest.

About twenty minutes from our destination and Luis has the bus pull over again and we get out next to the Colorado River which passes through LaFlor.  This is the source of LaFlor’s water used in irrigation and this particular location is where a lot of there water sample are collected to test for quality.  He follow Luis down a path and withing seconds we are standing atop a 40 foot gorge carved out by the river and complete with ancient petroglyphs.

After our quick stop at the river we have reached our destination at Guanacaste National Park and I am pumped and ready to attack this climb, full army pack and all.  We begin the ascent, then descent, then ascent again working our way through the trail and are amazed at the various flora found in the pre-mountainous level of the the volcano.

I have to admit, it’s very hard to watch where you are going and your footing while constantly being tempted to look around and the splendor of the forest.  Ahead I heard the scream of Emily and as I approach I see everyone tending to Linda who slipped on a rock while crossing the river and busting her lip and scraping her knee.  I have to tell you Linda is tiny in stature but HUGE in heart and adventure.  Not a single complaint or expression comes out of her mouth or from her face.  That is one tough girl.

After a few minutes of making sure she is okay, we continue on and quickly reach the next level of succession which included flora that would be more familiar in a temperate region of the world such as North America.

Our LaFlor host Luis guiding us through the trail

After a few minutes we reached the next level of succession resembling grasslands.  This point in two and a half hours into our hike and we take a break to enjoy the amazing view and take out my first aid kit to clean up Linda’s scratches  (and people mocked me for hiking with all my gear).  I have to be honest, the view from up hear was so stunning that I got a little emotional as goosebumps covered my body.

After our quick break we and on the move and heading down a descent to our final destination, a stunning 120 foot waterfall.  I’m the last one arriving at the waterfall as I am constantly talking pictures, and am almost knocked over as I came around the corner of the trail and see one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.  It took me less than a minute to get changed into my swim suit and get into the cold yet invigorating water below the fall.  I’m even daring enough to swim my camera out the fall to get some pictures from directly below.

After an hour or so of swimming and lunch we are off the head back to the bus.  I’m not sure how this is possible but we are doing more climbing up as we head back down the mountain.  I am exhausted as we reach the end of the trip back and my legs feel like Jello.  About 45 minutes from the base camp I come across a tree I noticed when we first entered the forest that rose about 60 or 70 feet in the air and bent almost horizontally towards the top.  On the way in I thought to myself that would be a awesome tree to climb as it was covered in thick vines.  As I return to it, I remind myself that I may never have this opportunity again, so I begin to climb up with camera in tow.  This is so cool…I’m climbing a tree in a Costa Rican rainforest, Bear Grylls style.  Without any fear what so ever, only exhilaration, I reach the top and am greeted by a colony of army ants that aren’t as excited about my accomplishment as I am.  With little regard for the red buggers with giant mandibles that are ripping into my flesh I proceed to take pictures of the top of the canopy and Phillip and Emily below.

I am so amped that I climbed that tree.  I am sure living this trip to the fullest as I had hoped I would.  Pura Vida!  Well, I’ve caught up to the rest of the group and I’m ready to get off my feet and get some water.  This has been one of the best days of my life and can’t imagine what is to come in the following week.  Stay tuned for more, I have a feeling there is a lot of it. 





Costa Rica and Earth University, LaFlor: Day 1

9 01 2010

Jan. 7, 2010

I am in San Jose, Costa Rica!!!  As part of Elon University’s Interactive Media program, myself and 10 of my classmates are spending 10 days of our winter-term class in Costa Rica working on a project for Earth University.  Earth University teaches students as well as farmers about sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation.

My classmates and I departed from Elon University at 4 a.m. this morning and headed to Raleigh-Durham International Airport to begin our journey south.  Within a couple of hours we were descending into the cloud covered mountains of San Jose during our approach.

Tilt your head to the left

We arrived at 2:30 p.m. in San Jose and were greeted with warmth not only from the sun but also from the Latin population.  As my first extended trip to a foreign country, I was amazed and delighted, upon our arrival at San Jose International Airport to see the place buzzing with activity.  Hundreds of Costa Ricans outside the airport awaiting the arrival of their loved ones, cheering and singing.  It was a sight I have never seen at any airport in the United States.  I couldn’t help but smile.

We were shown to the coolest mini bus I have ever seen.  A white and baby blue two-tone Toyota Cruiser with a retro look and hinted back to the time of the micro-bus.  We were taken to downtown San Jose and dropped off at the Costa Rica Backpackers youth hostel on 6th St.  This is my first time experiencing a hostel and I have to say it is an incredible place.  The staff and other guest are as interesting and friendly as you could possible imagine.  The vibes I am getting from this place is exhilarating.

Upon checking in to the hostel we departed for a wonderful dinner at Nuesta Tierra two blocks down the road where I was treated to authentic Costa Rican cuisine.  I had beef strips with bacon, onion, sweet peppers, and fried plantains on tortillas.  This was my first time tasting plantains, but now I assure you it won’t be my last.  They are fantastic.

After dinner we returned to the hostel to enjoy happy hour at the hostel with my classmates and other guests.  The people here are so open and friendly.  I feel as safe as I would on Elon’s campus.

I write this as all my other classmates have headed to bed after a long day of travel and lack of sleep and can’t wait for the nine days ahead.

Tomorrow morning we head to Liberia, Costa Rica where Earth University’s LaFlor Campus is located.  There we are going to videotape and photograph the campus as well as interview it’s students and professors about what it is they do at the LaFlor campus.  We will gather information about their efforts in sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation education so we can develop a new LaFlor website to promote their cause.

Considering this first day has already brought great job I can only imagine what we will experience in the coming days.  This is already turning out to be the greatest adventure of my life, and for a cause that is near and dear to my heart.

Be sure to keep up with my upcoming blog updates from Costa Rica.  Talk to you soon.





Darwin’s New Best Friend

18 11 2009

Charles Darwin could only imagine the vastness of information that now exists about species of plants, animals, and insects that have been compiled in the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).

Homepage of the Encyclopedia of Life

The Encyclopedia of Life is a biological wiki that was launched in 2007.  It is a catalog of all the known and soon to be discovered organisms of Earth.  It was the idea of biologist E.O. Wilson when he presented the notion of harnessing the power of the Internet at a TED conference in March of 2007.

His vision was to create an endless record of the 1.8 million known species of plants, animals, and insects that can be used to serve students, scientists, and general public.

The TED conference was his platform to get the attention of the scientific community to help fund the project which is expected to cost $110.5 million.  Within two months of his appearance at the conference, 5 science foundations announced a $50 million initial grant to get the project rolling.

The website is a wiki-based platform who’s content is created by both experts in the fields of biology and ecology as well a amateur naturalists.  The wiki is overseen by a handful of scientists that examine the content for accuracy.  A wiki, for those of you who don’t know, is a website that allows easy creation and editing of content of any number of interlinked Web pages by anyone with access to the Internet.

The Encyclopedia of Life is not just a list of all the species known to man, each species is given its own page to allow for the maximum amount of information on that species to be provided.

The Twig Girdling Beetle page.

The site is a way of educating us on the importance of conservation and sustainability and how every organism on Earth has a direct or indirect affect on human life.  The need to understand the symbiosis between us and other creatures that share this world with us is so important for the survival of the human race.

The fact that the site is a wiki it allows the general public to participate in it’s creation giving them the power to influence and inform others.  It empowers people to care about the content the message being conveyed.  Because of this the public can educate themselves of the importance of conservation and encourage them to act in a responsible manner when it comes to saving this amazing planet we live on.

If we continue to be careless and abuse Mother Earth we could be destroying organisms that could provide medications that could possibly eradicate all known human diseases.  What a waste that would be.

I hope in Darwin’s honor, the first EOL page created was for Darwin’s Finches?