Archive for December, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different: Traffic

I decided to mix things up a bit around here.  Instead of my normal news post, I will be writing a story.  I hope you enjoy.

We started this whole operation almost five years ago.  We set up a front: a small exotic pet store which specialized in corals and tropical fish.  The store was fully operational.  Customers walked in and out without a clue of the ulterior motives we had.  I ordered fish that were nearly impossible to obtain in the United States.  Then, after what seemed to be an eternity of waiting, we launched our trap.

I sent a letter to one Anson Wong.  We had first heard his name when we interviewed animal traffickers.  Initially, we thought that he was simply a big player in the game.  Eventually, however, we learned that he wasn’t just a big player.  He was the player: the man who organized almost all foreign animal trafficking in South eastern Asia.


Animal trafficking may not seem like a particularly big deal, but believe me, this is no simple import/export business.  International treaties like CITIES are in place to prevent the trafficking of endangered animals, but they don’t have any teeth.  First off, many countries do not abide by the rules because they did not sign it.  Also, it allows people to trade the animals if they were bred in captivity.  The problem here is that many people simply claim that their animal was “bred in captivity,” even though it was caught in the wild.  Once captured, the market is fairly specific for each animal.  Bears have their gall bladders removed for traditional medicines.  Tigers and big cats are killed for their pelts.  Monkeys are captured as pets.  Reptiles killed for skins and sometimes sold as pets.   The way these creatures are collected is also cruel.  Most traders will kill animals just for the parts with monetary value.  If an animal must be kept alive, they will commonly kill babies’ mothers and fathers and simply take the baby out of the wild.

I worked undercover in Wong’s organization for some time.  He, like most organized crime leaders, and make no mistake, it is highly organized, Wong bordered on megalomania.  I was supposed to be his biographer.  Wong showed me his captive breeding zoos.  They were little more than cages placed in his large estate.  There was no great difficulty in seeing through the mirage.  These animals were not bred in captivity.  There is a certain look in a wild animal’s eye when it is imprisoned.  It seems to ask, “Why?”  In one of our last meetings, Wong told me that he had to leave the country for a time to take care of some business.  I asked him where he was going.

“India,” he retorted.  “An associate tells me that I can have some tigers.”

“Tigers,” I thought to myself, “There are only about 4,000 left in the wild.  And I could guess what the tiger’s fate was going to be.  Tigers cost $6,000 annually to keep, but a bullet costs only a few cents.  The math is easy.

Before he left in his plane, he grabbed my shoulder.

“I have shown you much of my world.  Some people would like it dearly to see me behind bars for my….work.  Just remember, bad things happen to people who betray me.”

A chill went up my spine.  Wong was not one to make empty threats.  However, immediately on his departure, I went to the chief Wildlife Department official.  I told her that I had information regarding Anson Wong.  She laughed.  I asked for an explanation of her giggle.

“He is my friend,”  she simply replied.

I studied her face.  She did not blink.  Her smile displayed two rows of slightly angled white teeth.

“Nevermind,” I quickly said and turned and left.  Wong has his hand in every government agency I later learned.  His influence was far-reaching and solid as a rock.  If anything was going to be done, it would have to be in the United States.  Unfortunately, that meant for us to get charges to stick, we would need to catch him in the act.  But there was a hitch.  Wong never traveled with his animals.  It was always done through middle men.  We needed a good plan for this to work.


My letter told Wong that I was a rare fish dealer and wanted to get some corals to add to my inventory.  This seemed like a low enough rung from which to start off.  We did not want to make a splash.  One toe at a time.  We also asked for a list of what he had to offer.  A month letter, we had a letter back.  It included a list of corals, including a few endangered ones.  We were on our way.  We ordered the endangered ones and asked to see what he had in way of fish and small reptiles.  He gladly complied with a similar list.  After another two years of correspondence, gaining Wong’s trust, we asked for a favor.

We had a “friend who was interested in Komodo Dragons.”  She “wanted” to meet Wong to set up a deal.  No good, he replied, he does not do business deals face to face, much less in North America.  But, she insisted.  Komodo dragons do not have a huge market as they are so conspicuous, so Wong did not want to lose this one.  After haggling on a location, we settled on Mexico, a country not known for its strict animal law enforcement.

It was a warm morning.  I waited outside of the airport tunnel entrance with a group of Mexican soldiers behind me.  Wong walked around the tunnel.  He had a Hawaiian shirt on, as though expecting to have some fun in the sun.  I greeted him with a smile and handcuffs.

“Hello old friend.”  I chided.

Wong’s face fell momentarily.  He knew the game was up.  But then, surprisingly, he smiled at me.

“Well done.  You really had me going there.  But no worries.  Just let my wife know that I will be gone for a while and that she should take over the store during my absence…”

For nearly two years Anson fought extradition to the U.S., but eventually he signed plea agreements, admitting to crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 250 years in prison and a $12.5-million fine. On June 7, 2001, U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins sentenced him to 71 months in U.S. federal prison (with credit for 34 months served), fined him $60,000, and banned him from selling animals to anyone in the U.S. for three years after his prison release.  His main company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, continued to ship despite the ban. Now that he’s free, Anson has launched a new wildlife venture, a zoo that promises to be his most audacious enterprise yet.

This story is, for the most part, sadly true.  To get the full story, check out http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/01/asian-wildlife/christy-text/1

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Science and Soul: Nopenhagen

Science News in Brief

The discovery of a 4.4 million year old fossil skeleton that may have belonged to an early human ancestor was discovered in October.  Now, this discovery is hailed by the journal Science, as the greatest scientific breakthrough of the year.


The Copenhagen Climate Summit has come to a close and here are some of the stipulations the loose agreement includes:

  1. recognition to limit temperature rises to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
  2. promises to deliver 30 billion dollars of aid for developing nations over the next three years, and 100 billion by 2020.
  3. includes a method for verifying industrialised nations’ reduction of emissions.

Turd Polishing: Making something crappy look better than it actually is.  That is how I define the above agreement.  It doesn’t look as if it will help much at all.  We are willing to admit there is a problem (the first step), but not willing to change.

Members of the European Space Agency have given final approval to plans to explore Mars.  The mission is to depart in 2018.

Mars Attacks: There have been 15 rovers sent to Mars.  There have been 6 manned missions to the moon.  One seems to interest scientists more than the other.

Cool Creature

The Northern blue-tongued skink, or Tiliqua scincoides intermedia, grows to 24 inches long, making it the largest of the blue tongued lizards.  These azure tongued beasties live in forests, woodlands, and grasslands of Northern Australia.  It is diurnal, and hunts for insects, snails, fruits, berries and wildflowers during the day.  At night, they are much less active and can be found resting in the hollows of logs.

Don't stick your tongue out at me.

Feature Story

Sorry I have once again neglected to post for a week, but exams take precedence.

Anyway, I have decided to post about the Copenhagen Climate Summit: formerly known as Hopenhagen, now seen as Nopenhagen.

I will now admit that I don’t really think that I should blog about this.  So much has already been said about Copenhagen that I will probably just wind up repeating what you have heard.  So, I just want to share with you what I consider an excellent assessment of the Summit.

By Amy Goodman

Denmark is the home of renowned children’s author Hans Christian Andersen. Copenhagen is dotted with historical spots where Andersen lived and wrote. “The Little Mermaid” was one of his most famous tales, published in 1837, along with “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

As the United Nations’ climate summit, called “COP 15,” enters its final week, with more than 100 world leaders arriving amid growing protests, the notion that a binding agreement will come from this conference looks more and more like a fairy tale.

The reality is harsher. Negotiations have repeatedly broken down, with divisions between the global North, or industrialized countries, and the global South. Leading the North is the United States, the world’s greatest polluter, historically, and a leader in per capita carbon emissions. Among the Southern nations are several groupings, including the least-developed countries, or LDCs; African nations; and nations from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States. These are places where millions live on the edge, directly impacted by climate change, dealing with the effects, from cyclones and droughts to erosion and floods. Tuvalu, near Fiji, and other island nations, for example, are concerned that rising sea levels will wipe their countries off the map.

New conceptions of the crisis are emerging at COP 15. People are speaking of climate justice, climate debt and climate refugees. Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva was among those who addressed a climate justice rally of 100,000 Saturday in Copenhagen. Afterward, I asked her to respond to U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing, who said the Obama administration is willing to pay its fair share, but added that donors “don’t have unlimited largesse to disburse.” Shiva responded, “I think it’s time for the U.S. to stop seeing itself as a donor and recognize itself as a polluter, a polluter who must pay. … This is not about charity. This is about justice.”

Shiva went on: “A climate refugee is someone who has been uprooted from their home, from their livelihoods, because of climate instability. It could be people who’ve had to leave their agriculture because of extended drought. It could be communities in the Himalayas who are having to leave their villages, either because flash floods are washing out their villages or because streams are disappearing.”

Both inside and outside the summit there is a diverse cross section of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, from indigenous-peoples delegations to environmental and youth groups. Their separate but connected efforts have been coalescing into a new movement, a movement for climate justice. Broad consensus exists among the NGOs and the global South that any agreement coming out of the U.N. process must be fair, ambitious and binding, or as they put it, “FAB.”

The Bella Center itself, where the summit is being held, is said by the U.N. to be at capacity. Thousands of people line up daily in the cold, vainly hoping to get in to the Bella of the Beast. Thousands more, from the NGOs, are having their access stripped, ostensibly to make room for visiting heads of state, their entourages and security.

Outside, Copenhagen is seeing an unprecedented police crackdown, with the largest and most expensive security operation in Denmark’s history. More than 1,200 people were detained over the weekend, and as this column goes to press, targeted arrests of protest organizers and police raids of public protest convergence spaces are being reported. Heavy-handed police tactics give another meaning to “COP 15.”

After South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at a candlelight vigil for children, I asked whether he thought President Barack Obama was following through on climate change. He responded: “We hope he will, yes. He has given the world a great deal of hope. I have said he’s now a Nobel laureate—become what you are.”

Last week, as a polar bear ice statue melted downtown, revealing the dinosaur skeleton hidden within, a small ice replica of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue sat outside the Bella Center, melting. She is now gone. Obama is making his second attempt to win a prize in Copenhagen, after the Chicago Olympics embarrassment. Unless he uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new determination that carbon dioxide is a public health hazard and nails down a fair, ambitious and binding agreement, we may see Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” played out on the global stage.

The Cosmic Perspective

When will we ever learn?  I will be the first to admit that we cannot “prove” that global warming is occurring.  But, there are two problems with doing nothing.  First, we have very strong evidence to support that assessment.  The so-called “Climategate,” has been largely debunked as overblown sensationalism and nitpicking on the part of climate change deniers.  At this point, countless studies have been done and the most of the ones not backed by large corporations indicate that the climate is most definitely warming:

Second, we don’t have time to wait and see.  We need to act now if we wish to avert the worst that could occur.  I like to use the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.  If I see a mushroom in the forest, I will not eat it if I am not sure that it is safe.  Likewise, we should not continue on our track of aggressively using up fossil fuels to power our excess.

The entire Copenhagen summit was a debate between developed and undeveloped nations.  Developed nations decry developing nations for using dirty energy to advance their states, while developing nations yell back that developed nations use much more fossil fuels per capita and are already developed, so who are they to say others should not.  After much back and forth nothing much has been done. The developed accord is toothless, and not even binding at that!  It looks unlikely to contain temperature rises to within the 2 degree Celsius  climate change threshold that UN scientists say is needed to avert serious climate change.  Nor will it bring back the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per billion, the level that scientists believe is the maximum to avert the aforementioned 2 degree change.  Unfortunately, since we are insulated by the bubble of wealth, we do not yet feel the effects of this oncoming storm.  But eventually, every bubble pops.  Will we be ready to deal with it?  Perhaps the one silver lining that I can draw from this meeting is that globally, we have recognized that there is a problem.  Now, we must act and make actual attempts to fix it.

For all of you not up to date, I suggest you check out Democracy Now! for unbiased news and real journalism:


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Science & Soul: Cellular Automata

Science News in Brief

Turns out that the Iron Curtain helped isolate Eastern Europe from more than the Western world.  It also blocked the import of alien bird species.  Restrictions on the movement of people and trade in Soviet bloc countries prevented invasive birds being imported, a problem which has plagued much of Western Europe.

There is a difference: An introduced, alien, exotic, non-indigenous, or non-native species is one found outside its native range, having been brought their by humans through deliberate or accidental means.  Invasive species are introduced, but also have a detrimental effect on the environment.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a statement that the emails hacked from scientists’ computers did not contain information which indicated that human created greenhouse gases were not a factor in global warming.

Quirky Quote: “There is an anti-change group. There is an anti-reform group. There is an anti-science group, there is a flat Earth group, if I may say so, over the scientific evidence for climate change.” –Gordon Brown

Researchers have released a study showing that there are large variations in the amount of carbon being absorbed in the North Atlantic: as much as 10%.   They are still doing research to understand what causes these differences.  Currently, the ocean absorbs about half of carbon emissions from human activities.

Apocalypse Scenario: Here’s a nice positive feedback loop for ya: as the climate warms, the ability of liquids to absorb gases decreases (think pop cold vs pop warm), increasing global temperatures, decreasing the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide…crap.

Cool Creature: Superb Fairywren

Cute Superb Fairywren

The Superb Fairywren, Malurus cyaneus,  is a a small bird found across south-eastern Australia.  The male of the species has a bright blue head, back and tail, with a dark mask, and buff belly.  The female, however are a dull brown colour.  This example of sexual dimorphism is fairly common in the bird world.  The bird is known for its strange mating behavior.  The male wren will pluck yellow flower petals and display them to females.  Although it is socially monogamous, in that they will form fairly regular pairings, but one male will father many chicks with multiple females.  And, he will help raise most, if not all of them.  This causes a rather complex social dynamic.

Feature Story: Cellular Automata

So this is my first post where I talk about what I do as a bioengineer.  People often tell me, “So you mess with genes and stuff, right?”  First, nobody is “messing” with anything.  Second, not really.  I specifically enjoy working with complex ecological systems.  I work to better understand the causes and effects of environmental changes due to natural and human-caused events. Bioengineering allows me to have a holistic look at ecological systems.  Emergent behaviors result from nonlinear interactions between individuals in these ecological systems.  Eventually, I plan to do field research as well as computer modelling to help change the many problems our environment faces.   One of my tools as a bioengineer is cellullar automata.  Have no fear: this is not going to be a trip down molecular biology lane.  Not necessarily anyway.

Networks are built when individuals interact with their local neighborhood, their surroundings.  Thus, range and links are important in a network.  If a system is a complex system with multiple networks, nonlinear interactions among individuals can spontaneously create patterns from an initially random or uniform area. A grid model made up of many individuals represented by cells, or automata (us engineers like to make things complicated sounding), whose possible states are finite and distinct can be updated based on a function which refers to the state of each automata’s neighbors.

Perhaps a good way to explain this is to delve right into an example.  Image a 100 x 100 grid.  This represents a theater.  Each grid space represents a person in the theater.  We want to test the effects of fire on the movie goers.  Let’s say that if 4  people or more around an individual is scared, the middle person is scared.  Otherwise, the cell’s status is normal.  By using a computer program, we can quickly perform multiple iterations of these tests on each of the 10,000 individuals in the test to see if there is any emergent behavior.  Emergent behavior is such that results from nonlinear interactions between autonomous agents in a complex system. That is, it is neither completely random nor completely structured.

So how does this relate to the environment you ask.  Well, I recently completed a project to model ecological succession from bare soil.  Each individual tree species is predisposed to a certain environment.  In turn, each tree affects the environment.  For example, most climax trees are shade tolerant, that is, they grow well in light deficient conditions.  This allows them to grow where there are already a number of pioneer (fast-growing, light-loving) trees.  They in turn create more shade, helping climax trees compete against pioneer trees.  In developing my model, I decided to focus on three main variables which determine plant growth: the soil’s water content, the soil’s pH, and the amount of light in the area.  I also chose the most common trees in an Eastern deciduous forest as my possible states.  To account for the possible variables in the environment, I calculated the amount of trees surrounding a given cell.  The higher the number of trees, the higher the amount of shade, and the less sunlight will reach the trees. I also totaled the number of trees surrounding each cell to calculate water usage.  The more trees there were (as opposed to blank spaces), the less water there was for that area of land.  There are no units for the variables per se, but they can be interpreted as described above.  I then developed a function which would analyze the current state of a cell and compute what the future state of the cell will be.  So, if the current state in the cell is bare soil, then it will either continue to be bare soil or a tree will grow there.  The simulation began with a white field (all blank) as would a piece of land after a disaster leaving bare ground.  In the next time step, pioneer trees came on the scene.  Following this, a few climax trees appeared, and more pioneer trees grew, removing many more of the plots of bare ground.  In the subsequent time steps, more climax trees grew and ultimately dominated the field in the simulation.  By the tenth time step, there was some flux, but most of the trees were of the climax varieties.  There would always be some pioneer trees.  When a tree “died” and resulted in open ground, the first trees to fill the gap would often be pioneer trees, but these are quickly weeded out.  Thus, I used cellular automata to model a biological phenomenon involving emergent behavior.

Secondary Succession: A Cellular Automata Application

Cosmic Perspective

What am I, as a bioengineer, doing with this information?  In my example, I modeled secondary succession, an already understood process.  However, there are other applications.  I know individuals who have used this technique to model forest fires based on forest density.  I have seen the effects of the surroundings on a cell’s (living cell, that is) processes modeled to test new drugs.  The future is truly limitless, but we must understand that we must also ask ourselves whether or not our methods are being applied in such a way to help, rather than harm, the world.  Science is useless without ethics.

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