alternatives to systemic herbicides

If you really need to kill a tree, you can do it with a systemic herbicide like butoxyethyl ester. This is scary stuff because it gets taken up into the entire root, stem, and leaf system of a plant, and lingers for at least six months. It can cause colateral damage, contaminate soil and groundwater, and you can’t eat, compost, or burn anything that contains it. An alternative, for trees with a single trunk at least, is to cut the tree down to a stump and inject it with epsom salts.

Epsom salts is nothing more than magnesium sulphate, people use it in their baths to relax, and gardeners use it as a supplementary nutrient to rectify magnesium deficiencies in plants and trees. It’s also readily available, cheap and completely safe for people and the environment.

Large amounts of Epsom salts will draw moisture out of a stump much like an over-application of fertilizer does to roots, eventually drying it out, after which it will just naturally rot away. Any magnesium released into the soil will just be taken up by plants – magnesium is the key element in chlorophyll which allows plants to photosynthesize and makes leaves green.

music and the brain

Evidence continues to mount that musical training is good for the brain:

According to a new Canadian study led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests, a benefit that has already been observed in young people with musical training…

Among the different cognitive functions that can diminish with age is the ability to comprehend speech. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss. Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system which supports the ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech – weakens in later years.

Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition. The Rotman study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.


One thing my limited experience living abroad taught me is humility about my ability to interpret geopolitical events. The facts themselves are not always accessible through media reports, and even if the facts are clear there are points of view to take into account. I have read media accounts of events I personally experienced, like elections and demonstrations, in both the foreign media and the U.S. media, and often felt that they were not an accurate depiction of what I saw with my own eyes. So taking all that into account, I am somewhat agnostic when trying to interpret events in countries I have never set foot in, where local media is tightly controlled, and where U.S. media and government probably have limited access to accurate local information. All that said, I am interested and trying to make sense of the events surrounding Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For one thing, I have a ticket on Qatar Airways later in the year so it does affect me personally. And for another, any risk of war and especially nuclear war in the Middle East affects everyone on Earth personally. So here goes:

I have always assumed that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar represented a monolithic geopolitical force. And I generally thought the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey were part of this block for most purposes most of the time. Clearly I was wrong about that. Saudi Arabia’s alliances are contradictory. For one thing, they are publicly an enemy of Israel. But they and Israel have a common ally in the United States and a common enemy in Iran, the Syrian government, elements in Iraq, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia. Saudi Arabia is closely allied with Pakistan’s military and according to many independent media accounts has bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program. During the Cold War the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan worked together to fund and equip the Afghan resistance, elements of which later mutated into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, and became public enemy #1 for the United States. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the rest of the Arab world seem to have a complex relationship with these groups, where governments see them as a threat but portions of the population support them. Then you have the complex relationships between the United States and various groups in Iraq and Syria, wars that seemingly have three or more sides. Then of course there is the complicated Israel-Palestine situation, which fuels a lot of anger in populations throughout the region, and which governments talk a lot about but seem to take very little action.

So the Middle East is a mess and very hard for those of us outside the region to interpret. And none of what I just said comes close to explaining the situation in Qatar. Those of us outside the region should all have a certain humility in understanding that there is a lot we don’t understand. My two cents is that the United States should err on the side of not interfering militarily but also work very hard through the UN to work on arms reductions and especially prevent nuclear proliferation.

“fleur de lawn”

This “flowering lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum. The lawn below is clearly mowed, so I don’t think anyone is claiming this mix is maintenance free, just a bit more drought tolerant, ecologically valuable, and visually interesting mix than a typical lawn, which might have a chance of slipping past your homeowner’s association. From a quick search, the yarrow and baby blue eyes are natives while the others are introduced. Which isn’t a problem for me in and of itself, as I am enjoying watching native bees feast on a mix of clover and yarrow right before my very eyes.

“Fleur de Lawn” –


Here’s a new article from Ecological Economics on the idea of decoupling human progress from energy use. In other words, the idea that we can continue to improve the quality of our lives and society without continuing to produce and consume ever more energy, materials, and stuff. To do this requires distinguishing needs from wants, which goes against the grain of mainstream economics.

A Framework for Decoupling Human Need Satisfaction From Energy Use

Climate change poses great challenges to modern societies, central amongst which is to decouple human need satisfaction from energy use. Energy systems are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the services provided by energy (such as heating, power, transport and lighting) are vital to support human development. To address this challenge, we advocate for a eudaimonic need-centred understanding of human well-being, as opposed to hedonic subjective views of well-being. We also argue for a shift in the way we analyse energy demand, from energy throughput to energy services. By adopting these perspectives on either end of the wellbeing-energy spectrum, a “double decoupling” potential can be uncovered. We present a novel analytic framework and showcase several methodological approaches for analysing the relationship between, and decoupling of, energy services and human needs. We conclude by proposing future directions of research in this area based on the analytic framework.

Finnish-ing school

Certain countries just lend themselves to English puns. Hungary? Try some Turkey Chile fried in Greece. The Finnish must get particularly tired of this sort of thing. But luckily they can be smug in the knowledge that their schools are good.

Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best…

Children at this and other Finnish public schools are given not only basic subject instruction in math, language and science, but learning-through-play-based preschools and kindergartens, training in second languages, arts, crafts, music, physical education, ethics, and, amazingly, as many as four outdoor free-play breaks per day, each lasting 15 minutes between classes, no matter how cold or wet the weather is. Educators and parents here believe that these breaks are a powerful engine of learning that improves almost all the “metrics” that matter most for children in school – executive function, concentration and cognitive focus, behavior, well-being, attendance, physical health, and yes, test scores, too.

The homework load for children in Finland varies by teacher, but is lighter overall than most other developed countries. This insight is supported by research, which has found little academic benefit in childhood for any more than brief sessions of homework until around high school.

The Allure of Battle

This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:

History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.

Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.

Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.