offset \ˈȯf-ˌset\ noun

a force or influence that makes an opposing force ineffective or less effective

Farming practices

In the current state of affairs, the primary economic sector is no exception to adopting the common mantra of the "return on investment". One of the fundamental pillars of the civilization is to have a strong influx of food, which leads us straight to the agriculture, the cornerstone of the primary sector. It is mostly due to the "return on investment", combined with the advancements in technology, that the agriculture has gone in the direction of using pesticides, monocultures, choosing quantity over quality etc., just to increase the profit.

However, doing agriculture without synthetic help can still lower the costs and increase the yield. It boils down to making choices to do so and taking other factors, not just the ROI, into consideration when making them. This is important to know because, while organic agriculture can lead to increasing the profit, this is far from the only benefit it can produce.

Aiding the biodiversity easily comes to mind. A lot of things come to mind when you're not thinking only about yourself. Environment and the ecosystem should be included in the thought process as well.

I remember when I was a kid how I learned about some of the agricultural practices from my parents and grandparents. They used a crop rotation system which enabled the natural nitrogen fixation. Approximately one third of the field was always planted with something that would bind the naturally occurring nitrogen from the atmosphere in the soil beneath. Usually it was the red clover (Trifolium pratense) which was used as fodder and green manure.


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Most of the plant species used for this belong to the legume family. Interestingly, another plant that falls into this category is soybean, and even if you have no livestock to feed, it can be used as food for humans as well.

There are other tricks I remember my grandpa employing, like using empty bottles half-buried in the ground to repel moles with channeled wind noise or whitewashing the trunks of fruit trees to protect them from sun scald and, subsequently, pests.

Without going for profit, a family can usually live, vegan-style, off of food crops planted in a field. For those who don't live in the country, there are options like window farms, which I talked about before, that allow you to grow food in your city apartment, if additional options are desirable. Depending on the conditions, going for more expensive crops can lower the expenses of your household and provide a welcome supplement to the food you buy.

To recap and expand the options here:

Natural nitrogen fixation
Some plant species, like the ones belonging to the legumes family, can fixate the nitrogen occurring in the atmosphere to the soil using specialized root nodules.
Green manure
Biomass remaining from previously planted crops can be used to enrich the field when those crops decompose. Planting specialized plants like the ones mentioned above and then using them as green manure can easily double the benefits for the soil.
Pest management
Planting cover crops can help eliminate unwanted weeds and stop soil erosion. Row covers can be used to physically stop the spread of pests and such, as well as augment the microclimate for the plants you grow. Crop rotation can help control the population and type of insects in the garden, and setting up insect hotels can ensure the presence of those insects that are required for the pollination of some plants; bumblebees for instance. It is important to attract the ones who pollinate and the ones that compete with other insects for food or are even higher in the food chain. Do think about biodiversity, though.
Companion planting
Some combinations of plants being planted together can attract good and deter bad insects, alleviating the need for pesticides. It's a form of polyculture and is beneficial as is. Because plants can grow in synergy and without stepping on each other's toes so to speak, you can plant densely to reduce unwanted weed, increase the beneficial biodiversity and, subsequently, increase the yield as well. Good neighbors can easily be planted together in your own garden or field.
Composting
Organic kitchen waste, usually coming from plants, can be used to make a fertilizer. Good candidates are peels and even tea bags. Never use meat, though. It's not meant for that. The compost is usually produced in an aerated composting heap - vermicomposting for example - but other methods for composting exist if you'd like to look into them.

Humans tend to shit where they eat. This holds particularly true in case of the common practice to use human feces as manure, which often leads to E. coli poisoning that we read about in the news. Don't do that. Human biowaste is a health hazard. That said, there are mechanisms that convert human biowaste to manure. Look for information on composting toilets, but be wary. I wouldn't recommend it.

Organic farming, permaculture, vegan organic gardening are key here if you want to look into that kind of agriculture. To expand it even further, you can look into agroecology. The point is, with the problems our civilization is facing in the great extinction we're in, it is important to keep the biodiversity we have, the food chain and the entire ecosystem in equilibrium. We should be worried about the future of our food, lest we might lose it.

The species here are not thriving anywhere else in the universe, yet we keep failing the planet and need to do something about it. Frozen zoos and seed vaults like the one in Svalbard are a backup plan in case of a cataclysm, but we don't have to resort to that scenario to motivate us, even though there's a chance it might lurk somewhere outside the door we're at. We can only align ourselves with nature or we will perish.

Another interesting proof of the organic gardening viability comes from Reganold and Watcher from the Washington State University. They have analyzed some important parameters in agriculture such as:

  • yield
  • soil quality
  • energy use
  • biodiversity
  • water pollution
  • costs
  • ecosystem services
  • employment
  • quality
  • pesticides
  • exposure of workers to pesticides

It is clear that the organic way of farming can benefit the above parameters easily and it is more sustainable. Higher prices are justified because the return is greater as well.

I'd recommend a read through that article. Chances are that people tend to ignore the parameters mentioned above because of the minimax mantra I mentioned in the beginning of this article and they shouldn't. We can all live better if we put at least some effort into it, not even a lot of it.

The Great Barrier Reef

The bleaching continues. Coupled with the prospect of the extinction of the half of the species this century, the future is bleak at best.

Marine biologists confirm that the bleaching can be seen off the coast of Cairns and just looking at the images of the bleaching happening was not enough for me. I had to see it for myself.

I was on a trip from Ireland to Cairns, Australia. Because most of my attention was turned to the voyage and preparations for it, I was having difficulties focusing on writing. Hence this article comes now.

What little I could see in the beginning of March this year unfortunately proved to be in accordance with the articles I'm referencing. The bleaching effect by my personal estimate is somewhat around 65% at best where we were (Hastings Reef: -16.5163312; 145.9873392). The reef is a spectacular sight to see, but a sad one, considering the situation.


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Vesna and I were snorkeling and scuba diving and took a semi-submersible with the tour's marine biologist. They confirmed that the situation was "very bad". Nobody bothered to ask about the bleaching except me, which was disappointing. Seems like people don't understand the gravity of the situation.


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The normal color of the coral should veer to brown, because of the zooxanthellae, but they get expelled by the coral when it's stressed.


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If the situation continues, we will destroy a system that has been here even before humans started using the letters. It just shows the effect we have had on the environment in such a short time we've been here.

Vantage point

The resource overshoot. We are familiar with these words. We use them to define a point in a year when we consume more than the environment regenerates.

The Earth had its overshoot moment a couple of months ago. August the 8th was this year's Earth overshoot day. We are not very good as a species. We have an Earth hour to raise the awareness of the problems we're facing as a civilization, but this remains a superficial action if noting is learnt from it. Furthermore, it can raise the problem on a different front. For example, some people will light candles instead and contribute to the carbon footprint they leave and the sole action of turning the lights off has no goal of lowering the energy demand.

The biocapacity of the planet is, however, finite. We are bound by the laws of physics and the resources aren't regenerated indefinitely. Most of them have a peak we can reach easily.

The peak term comes from the Hubbert peak theory. In 1956, M. King Hubbert figured out that the oil extraction in the US follows a bell shaped curve. The extraction of oil gradually starts increasing and peaks at a certain point in time. After the peak, the extraction gradually declines until the pumps exhaust the well and the production stops. As one pump follows this curve, so does the entire oil field, as well as the whole country, meaning that the economy of the whole nation reflects it.

Extensive coal mining, which preceded the oil, also followed the same process, but the oil is easier to extract, store and use.

The prediction Hubbert had was that the US would reach peak oil some time between the 1966 and the 1971. The theory held and the peak happened; although, the downward slope was mitigated by other things.

Following the ephemeralization process, the technology improved and the oil was supposed to be replaced by the nuclear energy, but seeing the WMDs that the humanity created back in WW2, in 1945, the people protested against it and the exploitation continued. To further this, the accidents of the plants like the one in Chernobyl, in 1986, didn't help.

The US had to expand its oil dependency by importing it from different places in the world, finding new wells, using methods like hydraulic fracturing, but the exhaustion is bound to eventually happen. From a single pump to a field to a country, the theory would encompass the whole world, where all the oil would be extracted and in the end spent. This would lead to an energy crisis, and, not to mention, the environmental disaster since the carbon trapped inside the earth would be released by the combustion of the fossil fuel.

We live in the oil age. Considering the commodity and accessibility of oil, the alternatives that were supposed to come after it, were, unfortunately, not invested in, not to say that the current system is in the way, pushing the economy to keep the existing oil lobby and vice-versa. R. Buckminster Fuller once said:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Also consider what David Goodstein, a physics professor from Caltech said:

... you would have to build 10,000 of the largest power plants that are feasible by engineering standards in order to replace the 10 terawatts of fossil fuel we're burning today ... that's a staggering amount and if you did that, the known reserves of uranium would last for 10 to 20 years at that burn rate. So, it's at best a bridging technology ... You can use the rest of the uranium to breed plutonium 239 then we'd have at least 100 times as much fuel to use. But that means you're making plutonium, which is an extremely dangerous thing to do in the dangerous world that we live in.

The environmental cost of extracting and using the oil is too great for the human species. The alternative must be the renewables since they are able to power the planet without the danger of becoming exhausted for the foreseeable time. Wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy come naturally to mind. Of course, we'd have to consider how and where we gain the energy.

A resource like oil is not that problematic since it's not essential for the survival of the species, but when we talk about things like water, we're moving into the domain of fear.

What I want to say is that the peak is not exclusive to oil. It is inherently connected to any kind of finite resource on this planet and can eventually lead to a catastrophe. Furthermore, the problems I'm mentioning here are current, not distant, and we're not doing much to prevent them. If the planet, the civilization, cannot cope with the stressors like an energy crisis, famine, water scarcity, health related problems, poverty, overpopulation, biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, unemployment, debt, those things will inevitably lead to its downfall.

The environmental disaster is already underway with the great Holocene extinction. We are losing two thirds of the biodiversity as I type this. If the civilization as we know it doesn't end in a war, we might very well be facing a disaster on other fronts. Time for talking is apparently done. The time for action is now.

GIMP and Leaflet

I needed to run the Leaflet library in JavaScript using a custom tileset for a small video game Vesna and I are working on. Leaflet's usage is pretty straightforward and the details on using it can be seen in the official documentation. The bare minimum is just to create a new map, assign it some custom tiles and point it to an element in the webpage (a div with an id "map"), for example like this:

var map = L.map('map').setView([0.0, -0.0], 4);
L.tileLayer('./{z}/{x}/{y}.jpeg', {
    maxZoom: 4
}).addTo(map);

You need to have a custom tileset in the proper location for this to work and the tileset needs to be created from an image. Every tile is placed in specific x and y coordinates on the 2d plane and the zoom level it is in. Preparing an image for this to work requires slicing it and copying the tiles to their respective locations. I decided to automate the process.

Considering I dabble with various 2D imaging applications and program in Python, GIMP seemed like the perfect choice here since it has a mechanism for creating plug-ins with Python. Some people will create the image in GIMP itself and just run the plug-in.

To start off, you want to have the biggest resolution of the initial image. Mine is a square image 4096 pixels in width and height. Using tiles of 256 pixels width and height it can achieve 4 zoom levels. When you go down, 3 is 2048, 2 is 1024, 1 is 512 and zoom level 0 is 256, just like the original tile size. Because it's exponential, it quickly drains the resources so you might want to go small.

The algorithm for this prepares the image for usage in the resolution required for the chosen zoom level just in case. The output is a JPEG quality image of 90%. After that, it goes from the set zoom level, makes the tiles for it in the specified x and y coordinates using loops, scales the original image down and loops again until it reaches zoom level 0.

This algorithm runs on my system for quite some time if the zoom level is big. I tried to parallelize it, but I had problems:

  1. You cannot pickle the image in GIMP and pass it to another process. It ends up being of "None" type and you cannot pass a reference to the worker with GIMP.
  2. If you skip GIMP altogether and use PIL or Pillow, you can parallelize it on multiple cores, but heavy disk I/O just kills it as far as I can see. Accessing an image from a temporary folder is slower in this case so I tried the third option.
  3. Pickling with PIL or Pillow works. However, pickling an object of 16384x16384 pixels and distributing it to workers brings my system to a crawl. It just exhausts the RAM completely, starts consuming the swap and exhausts it as well.

In the end, I just gave up and decided that half an hour (or less, if the image is not that big) is not so bad. I committed the resulting GIMP plug-in for exporting the Leaflet tiles in the repository on Bitbucket. You can contribute, if you'd like, but if not, installing it is not a problem. I tested it on Ubuntu, GIMP versions 2.8 and 2.9 for now. You need to put the .py file in your plug-ins directory, which is usually in your home folder, under .config/GIMP/2.9/plug-ins (if you're on 2.9 version). After copying the file, make sure it's executable and run GIMP. It will show in the filters section, under Leaflet submenu. Open an image first and activate the plug-in. Using it is a pretty straightforward process.

365

As you are already aware, I started the "a-sketch-a-day" 365 challenge on the 7th of September last year. I can now say that the challenge is completed and I didn't miss a day no matter how difficult it was sometimes. I can recall drawing at 4 AM because for one reason or another I happened to be awake still and there was that one more thing to do that day. There were good and bad moments and you can see the progress on my DeviantArt scraps page.

Here is one of the more representative works I did:


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Considering I have to balance the everyday life commitments and the mandatory day job, I realize that it has to be enough. I cannot say that I've become proficient, but there's an improvement. After the challenge I can finally engage in creating some different artworks. I plan to continue more or less the same habit, but instead of a sketch per day, I'd try doing artwork that takes several days to complete. Proper lines and colors and all.

I am currently enrolled in the Painter club by Karen Bonaker and I follow the lessons almost immediately after they're posted but I still haven't put anything up for critique. I don't feel ready. Mostly because I don't experiment enough. My art priorities are not perfectly aligned with the course, but I still enjoy it.

People say that it takes about three weeks of doing something non-stop to make a habit of it. I think it's three weeks before you stop whining and obsessing over what you're doing. You just do it and don't stop. Even though I'm not as strict with myself anymore, like I was during the challenge, I retained the need, so to speak, to do something every day.

I made a list of things to work on after the challenge. Some of it is art, some of it is programming. I felt the need to have a structured approach to things. I will probably detail some of the things I've learned from the challenge, art-wise, in the future. For now, I'm focused on one GIMP plug-in I'm working on, but more about that in the next post.