Friday, July 26, 2013

My sense of "home"

It's the normal question that seems to follow the standard small-talk of getting to know someone in the United States:

"Hello." pause for the reciprocated greeting What's your name? pause for the response and the returning of the question. respond with your name. Where are you from?" pause for the response and the returning of the question. respond with where you are from.

It is with this question of, "Where are you from?" that I get hung up, because I don't have a good answer. I despise the question, "Where are you from?" and let me explain why:

I'm not from anywhere in particular. At least, not in the way that most people I encounter have understood the idea behind their question. To many, the question is roughly equivalent to, "Where were you born?" "Where did you grow up?" and "Where do you call home?" And - to many people (especially those who don't have families of their own) - the answer to at least two of the three questions is likely the same place. (And for many people I've encountered, the answer is the same for all three.)

I understand why the question is helpful: it gives the questioner a short-hand version of "getting to know you." I mean, if I meet a person who's from Boston, I know (or think I know) so many things about them. If they like baseball, they're likely a Red Sox fan. If they like football, likely a Patriots fan. If they like basket ball, they're likely a Celtics fan. Etc. Etc. Etc. And - heck - if I knew even more about the Boston area, I could even ask them what part of the city they're from (or even if they are from Boston itself, and not the greater Boston area).

But I'm not like that. The answers that I would have to give to those three implied questions would be, "I wasn't born where I grew up," "I grew up in seven countries on three continents," and "I call pretty much anywhere I've lived for more than 1 month 'home'". These answers aren't really conducive to people getting to have anything to go on when trying to get to the short-hand of "getting to know you." Indeed, when I've answered truthfully the locations I was born. grew up in, and felt at home in, most people look resentful or lost or put off (and some of them - I learned later - thought that I was trying to be arrogant by listing off so many different places so quickly and nonchalantly).

In short, I despise the question, "Where are you from?" because the truthful answers I give are nothing that most people want to hear.

And then I saw this video, where Pico Iyer eloquently explains why:

One excerpt really spoke to me:
Home has really less to do with a piece of soil than with a piece of soul. If somebody suddenly asks me, "Where is your home?" I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be. And I've always felt this way...
The stats that Iyer points out about people like me (a member of "this great, floating tribe" - even if only in spirit):
The number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220,000,000. That's an almost impossible number to imagine, but that means that if you took the whole population of Canada and the whole population of Australia and then the whole population of Australia again and the whole population of Canada again and doubled that number, you would still have fewer people than would belong to this great, floating tribe. And the number of us who live outside the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly - by 64 million just in the last 12 years - that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans. Already, we represent the fifth largest nation on earth.
And that's kewl. But what he says about the children of those people who are part of that great, floating nation really, really hit home for me:
The typical person that I'll meet today [in the world's biggest cities] would be - say - at half-Korean, half-German young woman and living in Paris, and as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.
I can definitely relate to that statement, being half-Japanese, half-American, growing up in many different large cities around the world. But Iyer continues.
So [the young woman and young guy] become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City. ... or Edinburgh. And the little girl who arises out of their union will of course be not-Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful, and constantly evolving mix of all those places.
That sounds just about what I expect for my future. However, I wonder if I can get a "Great, Floating Tribe" passport...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Just what is nature anyway?

The concept of "nature" is pernicious in how slippery it is - how unable one is to pin it down with a definite definition. Much like how Justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity, nature is something that falls more into the category of, "I know it when I see it."

The definition is more liberal than the dictionary one of: "the natural world as it exists without human beings or civilization," since people like to "get out into nature," and that area doesn't become "not-nature" whilst they are out in it. However - to most - a city park isn't (really) "nature" - although it can be natural.

It seems that - for many Americans - "nature" is somewhere close(ish) to the idea of "the natural world... without human beings...", but with certain allowances. (Especially since I'd imagine that no one - if they sit down and think about it - can really say that there is any place on earth that does not truly "exist without human beings." Indeed, many things can be considered to be "very natural" and even "nature" that are actually deliberate human (and human civilization) constructions. Indeed, New York City's Central Park is - to many - both a "park" and "nature." And - for a more personal example - the University of Michigan's Saginaw Forest is - to many of its visitors - a natural area (even though it's actually a highly artificial forestry farm that has many direct and indirect human impacts).

Presently, there is a question about whether the City of Ann Arbor should put in an art installation at the recently constructed Cascades on the Huron River.

People's comments from the Facebook story are illuminating in how they perceive this obviously completely artificial, man-made structure:
  • "Keep it natural. If I want to see art ill go downtown to the museum."
  • "Bad idea. Nature is beautiful art without modification"
  • "Lets keep it natural art, plant some really pretty flowers."
  • "I don't think that this us a place for it. Keep it in its natural state."
  • "Leave it natural"
  • "good grief. The "Artists" have more than enough venue in A2, leave Mother Nature's gallery alone."
  • "Humans, especially the ones in charge feel a deep seeded need to destroy everything good and beautiful in the world. The only art that should go there are the skulls of the people who first suggested putting art in."
  • "Let nature be natural"
On the site's comments section, there were far fewer people making direct comparisons of the Cascades to being nature. These were the closest, though:
  • "Idiotic waste of the taxpayer's money! Art does not belong in what should be a Natural Area."
  • "How about something architectural?" 
  • "Isn't the natural setting art enough ?" 
  • "Ugh. I really don't want to see some cheesy, non-local art awkwardly perched atop some rocks as I go through the cascades. The rocks and plants are already beautiful. This is a really undesirable idea, as most other commenters will surely agree."
There were a few comments on both the Facebook page and the story that indicated that the Cascades are actually constructed and not-natural, but compared to the number of comments that indicated the Cascades a natural, they were few and far between.

So, are the Cascades natural? I'd say that it definitely doesn't match the dictionary definition. However, the reconstructed river channel that was built as a bypass around Argo Dam is definitely more natural than a stormwater canal. And as the plantings in the Cascades grow in and the channel settles into its new configuration, it will continue to become increasingly naturalized.

At what point, though does a naturalized artificial landscape become "nature"? I'd argue that it will never become the nature of the dictionary definition. (And - arguably - it was never that type of nature once the first human being entered the area, thousands of years ago.) Indeed, I'd argue that the objective definition given by the dictionary is completely artificial and conceptual (and also associated with a rather ... problematic ... management and policy history in which native peoples and multi-generational families were evicted from "natural areas" in order to try and reconstruct this definition of "nature"). Indeed, since it is so completely artificial and conceptual, it cannot actually be found anywhere on Earth, and that's why - perhaps - people eschew the purist dictionary definition and instead opt for following the completely subjective definition of, "I know it when I see it."

Friday, July 12, 2013

What innumeracy (and lack of government oversight) can lead to: Wildly outrageous numbers masquerading as fact

Much like a lack of understanding relatively small changes over relatively long periods of time (such as with evolution or with inflation) can cause some people to make massively incorrect assertions, so, too, can a lack of the ability to grasp really large numbers lead to making assertions that are orders of magnitude implausible (or even impossible).

I read a story at PhysOrg about a new piece of research out of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan:
The idea of corporate social responsibility to manage common-pool resources such as water, forests and pastures is flawed, says a University of Michigan researcher.

Aneel Karnani, associate professor of strategy at the U-M Stephen M. Ross School of Business, says that when a common-pool resource is left without any enforced property rights, it results in degradation and destruction of the resource.

Karnani uses an in-depth case study to make his point—groundwater use by Coca-Cola Co. at its Kaladera plant in the state of Rajasthan in India. The groundwater level in Kaladera has dropped significantly from 9 to 39 meters below ground in the last 20 years.
The plant operates four bore wells that are 100 meters deep. In its early years of operation, the plant withdrew about 200,000 cubic meters of groundwater per year. In recent years, the company has reduced its water usage to about 100,000 cubic meters annually, or about 0.2 percent of total water extraction.


Coca-Cola says the Kaladera plant's water consumption is minimal and has little impact on the local groundwater regime. It also says it has built rainwater harvesting structures around Kaladera that recharge the groundwater aquifers with 15 times the volume of the water extracted by the plant.
The story doesn't go into the numbers much further than what I present above, but - immediately - the numbers look kinda "hinky" to me. Why? Well, 200,000 cubic meters per year is a lot of water extraction. (100,000 cmy is also pretty big.) Just how big is 100,000 cmy?

Well, the number of 2L bottles of Coke that 100,000 cubic meters per year will fill is 50 million bottles of Coke, which is equivalent to 3.2 bottles of Coke every second. (That's equivalent to a little more than 9.5 cans of Coke every second!)

That means that - in order to actually "recharge groundwater aquifers with 15 times the volume of the water extracted by the plant" using "rainwater harvesting structures around Kaladera", the Kaladera plant will need to collect 1,500,000 cubic meters per year.

Is that feasible?

Well, we need to know what the annual precipitation is in that area in order to determine the amount of rainfall that would need to be captured to reach 1.5 million cubic meters.

Looking at Google Maps, we find that the Kaladera plant is located in the Jaipur district of the Indian state of Rajastan. According to India's Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, the Jaipur district is in a "semi-arid" region that receives an average of 563.8 mm of rainfall each year (Wikipedia's page on Jaipur district cites 668 mm, based on BBC Weather). Converting this into meters, we get 0.5638 m (0.668 m), and if we then divide this number by 1,500,000 cubic meters, we can find the area necessary to capture "15 times the volume of the water extracted by the plant":

The plant would need a rainwater harvesting system that covers an area of 2,660,517 square meters (2,245,508 square meters), or roughly 2.7 square kilometers (2.2 square kilometers).

And this doesn't even take into account losses due to evaporation and interception!

So, does Coca-Cola's assertion that it's recharging the aquifer with "15 times the volume of water extracted by the plant" through only using "rainwater harvesting structures around Kaladera" seem feasible? Nope. Not at all. Not unless Coca-Cola has over 2 square kilometers of land set aside for the sole purpose of collecting all rainwater that falls on the landscape. And - at least from Google Maps - it doesn't look like the Coca-Cola plant's foot print is even 0.5 square kilometer.