February 17, 2014

All the students were concentrated in one section of the domed stadium, roaring and chanting like a single organism.

The Leftovers
By Tom Perrotta

Did not love this book but I'm looking forward to its series adaptation, coming to HBO this summer. (I liked the pilot.)

Anyway, it's kind of fun to recognize your alma mater being described in a fictional book, hence this excerpt:

"Three years ago, when he first arrived at college, Tom had been just like everybody else -- a normal American kid, a B+ student who wanted to major in business, pledge a cool frat, drink a ton of beer, and hook up with as many reasonably hot girls as possible. He'd felt homesick for the first couple of days, nostalgic for the familiar streets and buildings of Mapleton, his parents and sister, and all his old buddies, scattered to institutions of higher learning across the country, but he knew the sadness was temporary, and even kind of healthy. It bothered him when he met other freshmen who spoke about their hometowns, and sometimes even their families, with casual disdain, as if they'd spent the first eighteen years of their lives in prison and had finally busted out.
The Saturday after classes began, he got drunk and went to a football game with a big gang from his floor, his face painted half orange and half blue. All the students were concentrated in one section of the domed stadium, roaring and chanting like a single organism. It was exhilarating to melt into the crowd like that, to feel his identity dissolving into something bigger and more powerful. The Orange won, and that night, at a frat kegger, he met a girl whose face was painted the same as his, went home with her, and discovered that college life exceeded his highest expectations. He could still vividly remember the feeling of walking home from her dorm as the sun came up, his shoes untied, his socks and boxers missing in action, the spontaneous high five he exchanged with a guy who staggered past him on the quad like a mirror image, the smack of their palms echoing triumphantly in the early-morning silence.
A month later, it was all over. School was canceled on October 15th; they were given seven days to pack up their stuff and vacate the campus. That final week existed in his memory as a blur of baffled farewells--the dorm slowly emptying, the muffled sound of someone crying behind a closed door, the soft curses people uttered as they pocketed their phones. There were a few desperate parties, one of which ended in a sickening brawl, and a hastily arranged memorial service in the Dome, at which the Chancellor solemnly recited the names of the university victims of what people had just begun to call the Sudden Departure." (p. 49-50)

"They developed two remarkable inventions--agriculture and antibiotics--some fifty million years before people did."

Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate
By Jack Ewing

Excerpts from the chapter about leaf-cutter ants because I saw these cool creatures in action on my trip during a night walk in a Monteverde rainforest. It was awesome:

"An average leaf-cutter colony with approximately five million ants is from 3 to 6 meters (10 to 20 feet) deep. Digging and moving the amount of earth necessary to create such a colony is a colossal task comparable to the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt. One researcher measured and weighed the dirt that the ants had excavated and piled into a mound on top of their average-size colony. The leaf-cutter ants had, over a period of about five years, carried to the surface 22 cubic meters (29 cubic yards) of earth weighing over 30 tons -- about two large dump truck loads.
The shaft exits in the mound are always situated so that rain will drain away from the openings. The principal ant entrances are located away from the mound of dirt, usually lower. In order to create air flow and control the humidity and temperature, the ants pile all their refuse, including dead ant bodies, unused leaves and other useless organic matter, in large chambers near the bottom of the city. As it decomposes, this material heats up and raises the temperature of the surrounding air, which then rises through the labyrinth of tunnels leading to the top of the mound. The rising air creates a draft which draws in fresh air from over 1,000 vents. The temperature and humidity of the chambers will vary according to their distance from the hot air flow. The fungus is cultivated in chambers which are located where optimum conditions exist." (p. 41)

"All the members of the colony contribute directly or indirectly to the cultivation of the fungus. The most obvious of the seven distinct castes of Atta cephalots are the leaf carriers marching through the forest with their green parasol-like cargo.* When they arrive at the colony and deposit their leaf crescents, another caste takes over: the cleaners. Each leaf fragment is meticulously scraped and licked until clean. Later it is cut into smaller pieces, chewed, mixed with saliva and formed into a soft wad. The ants then place some fungus starter material, called mycelia, on the medium and place it beside other newly planted fungus in a suitable chamber.
From that point another caste, the fungus caretakers, step in and take over the process. These ants are responsible for keeping the fungus clean and free from impurities and infection. They do this partially by physically removing any foreign life form that tries to grow on either the medium or the bread-like fungus. But they have a few other tricks up their sleeves. A recent article in the New York Times entitled "Ants, Mushrooms and Mold: An Evolutionary Arms Race" by Nicholas Wade, tells us that the leaf-cutter fungus has long been plagued by a mold that is capable of wiping out the entire food supply of the colony in just a couple of days. However, the ants have an ally who helps them combat this enemy. A bacterium that lives in a patch on the ant's skin produces an antibiotic that controls the mold. In Wade's words, referring to the leaf-cutters: "They developed two remarkable inventions--agriculture and antibiotics--some fifty million years before people did. Beyond that, they have learned how to handle technologies more skillfully than the bumbling civilization above their heads. They can grow a monoculture--a genetically homogeneous crop, something that in human hands generally leads to disasters like the Irish potato famine--and they have also learned how to deploy an antibiotic without the target pest's becoming resistant to it."" (p.42-3)

*what I saw!

February 07, 2014

Monkeys are made of chocolate.

Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica
By Jack Ewing

The older I get, and especially lately, the more conscious I feel about the environment, about animals, about humans & how we treat each other and our surroundings.

Not in any way that makes me feel compelled to impose how I feel on anyone else, but in the way that I have recognized how at peace I feel when I'm surrounded by nature and feel a strong desire to be around it more. And I always have, but lately I feel more compassion and sensitive to the good treatment of animals. Gradually, I've begun to feel an aversion to zoos and silly human luxuries like horse-drawn carriages, and I sob when I watch documentaries like Blackfish, a film about the capture & mistreatment of killer whales for the Sea Worlds of the world.

Anyway, tomorrow I leave for a week-long trip to Costa Rica. This has been a trip I've been dying to take for years and my friend bought me this book for my birthday in October to prepare. Very interesting, though it concentrates on Hacienda Baru, a site I will not be visiting. Jack Ewing, who primarily came to Costa Rica approximately 40 years ago to farm on the land, has instead devoted his life to restoring the natural forests and ensuring the safety and protection of the animals (many endangered) in their habitats. The book is comprised of many anecdotes divided by chapters about each of the species, all of which are very fascinating. Have run out of time but maybe I'll post an excerpt or two when I return.