Fertilizers and biomass

Whenever I see harvest pictures like this, I always think about mass redistribution.


That is, this corn is transported to my plate from, let’s say, Iowa. And more corn like it keeps coming every year, harvest after harvest. Every year Iowa gets shaved a little thinner, its sweet abundance getting hacked off and carted away to the four corners of the hungry corn-eating globe. Won’t Iowa eventually be scraped down to a barren parking lot? That corn was originally little seeds in the ground. What did the corn eat so that I can eat it? Is there enough corn food to keep the party going?

There’s plenty of Iowa to go around, but still, something is getting sent away. What is it? The good news is that water and carbon, two of the heaviest parts of the crop, come straight from the sky in the form of rain and carbon dioxide. But there are some other things that are sucked out of the soil and not replaced. What are they?

Fertilizer bags tell the story. Each bag is labeled with three numbers, say 20-5-10. These three numbers correspond to the amount of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash (potassium) in the mix. Fertilizer is, and is carefully designed to be, Gatorade for soil. It replaces what the soil sweats away every harvest. Stop fertilizing and your farm productivity would crash. You might think that nitrogen, also being abundant in the atmosphere, would be easy enough for plants to suck from the sky like carbon dioxide. But sadly no plants (without some bacterial help) have ever figured out this trick, so humans have to spend fantastic amounts of energy putting atmospheric nitrogen into a “fixed” form that the plants can eat. Potassium is easy enough to come by, but it turns out that our phosphate supplies are petering out.

I know, it’s yet another alarmist peak-this or peak-that story. But we shouldn’t really be surprised by the Peak Phosphorus story. The earth’s population is so large that we have to keep a very big food-making machine running at top speed all the time. It can’t break down, and every year we have to make it run faster still. A lot of things have to work just right; there’s always going to be a weakest link. As long as we have adequate energy, we’ll have fixed nitrogen for our plants. But phosphates need energy and phosphate rocks, and if we’re not careful we can run right through our supplies. Science News has a recent article on this: Salvage Job.

Sensing an opportunity for profit, farmers sought more fertilizer to nourish their fields. But high oil prices had increased the cost of processing phosphate rock, which provides a key ingredient in fertilizer. With rising demand and tight supply, phosphate rock prices leaped from about $45 per metric ton to $80, then $135, then $367 — a roughly 700 percent spike in just one year.

All those bags of fertilizer have to come from somewhere…

On failure

Many years ago, while browsing at Wordsworth Bookstore in Cambridge (long since shuttered, which gives you an idea of how many years ago) I came across The Education of a Speculator by Victor Niederhoffer. The book fascinated me in a horrifying kind of way because the author of this autobiography was so unbelievably, so nauseatingly arrogant. Harvard graduate, five-time U.S. champion squash player, absurdly wealthy Wall Street speculator. The hubris was so over the top that I wished bad things would happen to him.

Bad things did happen to him.

In 1997 Victor Niederhoffer had a spectacular fall from financial grace. The market turned against him and he was crushed. His business closed, he mortgaged his house and sold his antique silver collection. I cried tiny tears.

But really, this only made him more interesting. It certainly made him more sympathetic. Love him or hate him, this is a guy with some stories to tell. Over on Slate, Kathryn Schulz has interviewed him, and sure enough, he’s a great talker: Hoodoos, Hedge Funds, and Alibis: Victor Niederhoffer on Being Wrong.

It got me thinking about success, failure, and heroes. What does failure really teach us? We can admire the ones who make good decisions and prosper. But our heroes? Our heroes are the ones who make bad decisions and get away with it. For this we lionize them, not for their wisdom or their prowess but for their luck. For the fact that the gods smiled on them even as others were swallowed whole. This is the spark we long to touch. To be beautiful without effort. To sin and be loved.

In the end, life is just one damn thing after another, and we put our own purpose to the chaos, threading improbable stories through the wreckage. Pretending that causality is more than just the funny places where the holes line up and the sunlight filters through.

I’ve always had a distaste for the cautionary “don’t do what I did” tales of the penitent felon or the recovering drug-addled rock star. “Look here!” I want to say. “I’m reading your damn book because you did what you did.” But I am drawn to these lurid stories as much as the next person. It’s the nature of pornography. The rock star in remission says “Kids, don’t take the drugs that I took.” But he’s really saying, “Take these drugs and maybe you too will write a best-selling memoir!”

Mister, we paid you to take those drugs. You would have failed us not to brag about it. But please don’t be pious in your reform. Your contrition on the far side of debauchery is the song of a siren. It serves you, but it does not serve your audience. Guns always sell best after a massacre.

The robot that discovered a sonnet

From the Boston Globe last week, I learned about the marvelous Pentametron, the robot poet of Twitter. Here’s how it works. The Pentametron is a program written by the artist Ranjit Bhatnagar (a.k.a. @moonmilk). It screens Twitter for tweets that happen to match the familiar five foot pattern of iambic pentameter. Then it pairs tweets that happen to rhyme. The happenstance is twofold, and the couplets that result are remarkably charming.

The Globe article reminds us that this poetic form has a noble tradition, going back to the Dada and Surrealist movements. Art is where you find it, and it depends as much on the attitude of the observer as anything else. But there’s something especially sweet in these fleeting telegraphic messages from the real world, caught in a butterfly net and pinned wing to wing. Try this one:

I always give the pizza guy a tip.
I’m ready for a REAL relationship!

The @pentametron Twitter account has a constantly updated list of couplets. Here’s one from tonight.

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

To this poetic bricolage, I decided to add another layer. Here are some of @moonmilk’s couplets with images I found via Google image search. I entered the exact text of each line and grabbed one of the top images.

Who has a charger for the iPhone 5?
French Bulldogs are the cutest dogs alive

I don’t remember ever learning this…
That hesitation right before a kiss.

Im losing everyone and everything
I wonder what tomorrows gonna bring.

Winter exit strategies

“How far can you drive into a one mile tunnel?” goes an old riddle. Answer: Only half a mile. After that, you’re starting to drive out again. Mr. Groundhog rides shotgun on our cross-quarter day between winter and spring. From his vantage, he’s supposed to tell us something of the subjective experience of the winter that remains. But we know what he’s really telling us. Whether or not there’s weather or not, the the winter tide is slack and now must ebb. And ebb she will.