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Monday, April 30, 2018


NASA is going to Mars again, this time with the first spaceship dedicated to digging deep below the surface to find out what's shaking on the red planet.

GUEST BLOG / By Amanda Barnett, CNN--InSight spacecraft is scheduled to launch May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on an Atlas V 401 rocket. The launch window opens at 4:05 a.m. PT (7:05 a.m. ET).
It will be the first NASA mission launched to another planet from the West Coast, and it'll be visible to millions in Southern California from Santa Maria to San Diego. NASA's previous interplanetary missions were launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
If it all goes as planned, after a six-month journey, the 790-pound (358-kilogram) probe will land on November 26, joining five other NASA spacecraft operating on and above Mars.
The mission's principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, told CNN via email that he was "already pretty crazy about Mars" when he was 8 or so, and his excitement about sending a spacecraft there "is really starting to get intense!"
Banerdt said he thinks InSight will fill the last gaping hole in NASA's exploration of Mars.
"We have mapped the surface of the entire planet in terms of visible features, topography, gravity and magnetic fields," he said.
"We have studied the atmosphere, both globally and at the surface. We have roved around the surface at four different places, studying the geology and piecing together the history of the surface. But until now, the vast regions of the planet deeper than a few miles, or so, (have) been almost completely unknown to us."
He added, "InSight will change that with a single stroke."
InSight will help scientists draw the first detailed map of the interior of Mars, and Banerdt said it's hard to overstate how much science that map will create.
So, how do you study a planet that's 75 million miles (121 million kilometers) away?
InSight doesn't have wheels, so once it lands it stays put. It can't roll around gathering up dirt to study. But it does have a 7.8-foot-long (2.4-meter) robotic arm. The arm will place a seismometer on the ground to detect "marsquakes" (think earthquakes, but on Mars, of course).
Another instrument will dig 16 feet (5 meters) into the ground, deeper than any instrument ever sent to Mars.
The arm has a camera that will snap color 3-D images, and there's a second camera on the spaceship's body that will provide wide-angle views.
"The first image will be taken less than an hour after touchdown and should be available on Earth within the first day," Banerdt said. "We should have images of the landing area within a week."
InSight will use its radio system to measure the wobble of Mars' north pole to help scientists learn more about the shape of the planet.
And finally, Banerdt said, InSight "will have one of the best weather stations ever placed on Mars, measuring pressure, wind and temperature around the clock for at least a Martian year."
InSight's primary mission is for two years, but if all goes well, Banerdt said he'll ask for an extension.
This new NASA spaceship won't be going alone to Mars. Two suitcase-size spacecraft will be launched on the same rocket. They will trail behind InSight and will orbit Mars as part of a NASA experiment to see whether they can be used to relay data back to Earth.

The small spacecraft, called Mars Cube One, or MarCO-A and B, "have opened up a whole new frontier for space," chief engineer Andy Klesh told CNN. He said this mission will be a "critical test of this new type of spacecraft and how NASA might use it to explore the solar system in the future."

Sunday, April 29, 2018


Book Review by Jennifer Silva Redmond
In 1974, a novel called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, was published by Robert M. Pirsig and went on to become a modern classic. In his review of the book in The New Yorker that same year, George Steiner stated that the book was “densely put together. It lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse… It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.”
I recently read Last Days in Ocean Beach ($14.95, CityWorks Press, April 2018) by Jim Miller and I can already tell this is the sort of novel that “lodges in the mind,” not to mention making me see, in my landscape, both “order and menace.”
The looming menace is climate change and the extinction of species due to global warming and all the ecological (and economic) disasters that comes with it. The book’s protagonist, William, is a scientist working at a local think tank, trying to bring Joe Q Public—immersed in our fast-food-and-fast-cars culture—out of his La-Z-Boy and spur him to action.
Jim Miller

The book’s setting is the naturally beautiful but somewhat seedy town of Ocean Beach, on the literal edge of this country. As the Pacific Ocean beats at the coastline outside his door, William—and the denizens of the other tiny beachside studio apartments like the one he dwells in—simply try to make it through each day. Not all of the other characters are contemplating such crucially important themes as William, but each of them is facing the end of something.
Miller can really write, and he knows what he’s talking about. A college professor of both English and Labor Studies, his previous books (including the vital and gritty novel Flash) have all taken on issues of social justice in some way; the book he co-wrote with Kelly Mayhew and Mike Davis, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See reveals the underbelly of the tourist-magnet we call home. Reading Last Days in Ocean Beach, I was reminded of lines from the Eagles’ song “The Last Paradise” — “Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Don’t expect to get immediately grabbed by the action in this book—Miller eschews the contemporary trend of catering to the basest instincts of readers by throwing corpses, shoot-outs, or nude bodies into chapter one (often page one). No, this reading experience is slower-paced and more gradual—like meeting an odd and eccentric character on a cross-country bus ride, where first impressions soon give way to grudging respect, and eventually to heartfelt admiration.
Unlike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this slim novel won’t require weeks of reading time, and, once I was hooked, I found it hard to put down. I hope that the young people I hear from who say they “don’t really read novels,” will invest a few hours in the pleasure of well-chosen words, deeply considered ideas, and meaningful conversations. The subject could not be more important for them —and for all of us on the planet—and the time to learn to care about it is now.

Last Days in Ocean Beach by Jim Miller ($14.95, CityWorks Press, April 2018). Buy the book at at Verbatim Books in North Park and Book Catapult in South Park. Or find it at the City Works Press website at  Meet the author at Tiger!Tiger! tavern in North Park on May 6th from 4-7. He will also be doing a fundraiser for San Diego 350, an environmental group, on May 12th from 4-6 PM at Torque Moto Café in North Park.

North Park's Verbatim Books

Book Catapult in South Park

Saturday, April 28, 2018


Turrialba, Costa Rica

GUEST BLOG / By Lynne Banker, WEAVERS COFFEE BLOG-- At the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica, you can touch the history of coffee — and also, if the optimists have their way, part of its future. Here, spread across 25 acres, are coffee trees that take you back to coffee's origins.

"The story starts in Africa, no? East Africa," says Eduardo Somarriba, a researcher at the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education, CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica, as we walk through long rows of small coffee trees.

These trees came directly from forests in Africa. Each one is identified by number, and its origin is recorded in a catalog. Carlos Cordero, another scientist here, chooses one tree at random and looks it up. It shows that the seed that grew into this tree came from the highlands of Ethiopia, near the city of Jimma. Scientists from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization collected that seed and brought it here to CATIE in June 1965.

This tree is from the species Coffea arabica, the most commonly grown coffee species. But not far away, CATIE also has samples of another species — Coffea canephora, often called robusta coffee. The robusta trees are bigger. They're also hardier than arabica plants. Such trees are widely grown in Vietnam and parts of Africa, typically at lower altitudes than arabica trees. But robusta coffee has a bitter taste, and some coffee purists look down on it.

CATIE's collection is like a botanical storage vault, preserving a piece of coffee's ancient and wild African past. They're collected from places where such trees have grown since prehistoric times, evolving a whole spectrum of different genetic forms. In most of the world, you can't find such variety. Today's commercial coffee production is based on only a tiny slice of it.

Over many centuries, humans selected a few favorite coffee trees for their use. Arab traders brought them from Africa to the Middle East. In the 1700s, Europeans brought two specific genetic strains of Coffea arabica to Latin America.

"We got the Bourbon and also the Typica line, and then combinations between these two," says Somarriba. Those two types of trees — just those two — are the ancestors of much of the coffee in Latin America and even in the world. In fact, there's a lot more genetic variety in this one little field at CATIE than there is in all the coffee plantations of Central America and South America — and that's a problem.

This genetic uniformity of cultivated coffee makes the industry more vulnerable to shocks like a changing climate, or disease. The industry has put all its eggs, so to speak, in one genetic basket.

Right now, one disease in particular is devastating coffee fields across Central America and parts of South America. It's called leaf rust. The damage is obvious. Emilia Umana, a coffee expert who works for the company ECOM Trading, stops her car in the middle of a lonely road in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica and points toward a mountainside right ahead of us. "See how many trees don't have leaves anymore? That's leaf rust," she says.

The entire field seems to have been stripped bare. Those fields won't produce a harvest this year. Several countries, including Costa Rica and Guatemala, have declared it a national agricultural emergency. Millions of farmers are looking for answers. One potential answer could involve breeding new varieties of coffee that can fend off the disease.

A few such varieties already exist and increasing numbers of farmers are turning to them. Umana stops her car again to show me an example. "Look at those plants," she says, pointing to a few with orange spots on their leaves. "That's leaf rust. And see the other ones, that don't have any? Those are leaf rust-resistant plants."

The variety is called Catimor. Umana says that if she were a farmer, she'd only grow such trees. "I love them. They're really tough. They're like the John Deere of coffee! Unfortunately, Catimor is not a perfect solution. In fact, some people say it could be the downfall of coffee. One of its grandparents is from the robusta side of the coffee family, and you can taste that robusta bitterness in its beans.

Researchers are hoping to create something better — a plant as tough as Catimor, with beans sweet enough for any taste test. Maybe what they need to fight leaf rust — or to adapt to a warming planet — are genes that lie concealed in the collections of coffee trees at CATIE.

Coffee leaf rust
It's also possible, says CATIE's Somarriba, that genetic solutions could be found in the forests of Africa, where coffee grows wild. "We have to really go back to the forest, capture what is in the wild, bring them into the science, to somehow save this genetic variability," he says.

Up to now, money for such efforts has been scarce. Very few of the coffee trees in CATIE's collections have been studied carefully and their genetic makeup analyzed. Even less effort has gone into studying the many coffee species, relatives of arabica and robusta, that aren't even grown commercially.

Somarriba says tropical trees have been neglected. "Coffee and cocoa — some people call them orphan crops. We have an international center for wheat and maize, but we don't have one for coffee," he says. Some people in the coffee industry now are trying to end this neglect — and not just to fend off threats like leaf rust.

These seedlings at CATIE (multiplied through advanced laboratory techniques) represent a new experimental line of coffee that's resistant to leaf blight. Peter Giuliano, from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, says the genetic storehouse at CATIE, or in African forests, may also contain treasures of taste. "One of the biggest stories of the last five years in the coffee industry is the discovery of a variety called Geisha," he says.

Geisha was part of CATIE's collection of Ethiopian trees, in fact. Seeds from that tree found their way to a farm in Panama, and a few years ago, by accident, coffee connoisseurs found that this variety, grown in that environment, had a unique and wonderful taste. It quickly became "a rock star in the coffee world," says Giuliano. It sold for incredible prices at auctions.

Geisha or Gesha is a variety of bean from the Gesha village in Ethiopia. It is considered to produce a very aromatic and floral cup of coffee and the demand for it has grown in recent years. It was imported from Costa Rica to Panama in the Boquete region.

Earlier this month, Giuliano organized a big meeting of the Specialty Coffee Association focused on coffee genetics. Some of the biggest names in the high-end coffee business gathered to learn about leaf rust, conserving what's left of forests in Ethiopia and breeding new varieties.

Giuliano says it was a heavy dose of science for a roomful of business people and coffee lovers, "but everyone was up for it, and really inspired. And now we can make good decisions about how to grapple with these problems that we're facing."

They've already made one decision. Many coffee roasters, are helping to fund a new scientific effort called World Coffee Research. One of its first projects will be a genetic analysis of CATIE's coffee collections.