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Mother Nature's Violent and Poisonous Underworld or: Stick a cork in it!

When miserable winter weather arrives, the footloose northern mineral collector sets off for warmer climes, so I went again to southern Japan: Kagoshima prefecture, the first area to rebel against the Shogun and his samurai in the 1860s and thus turn Japan from feudalism into the modern country it is today. Want to see what "modern" means? Your first chance is in the public restrooms in Kagoshima airport: doors that close properly (Hello, La Guardia? Kennedy?), electrically warmed toilet seats, and robotic cleaning gizmos that eliminate the need for toilet paper. (Sorry, no more details on that in a mineral article!) Well, the "warmer climes" part cheated me this year. As I write these lines in Kagoshima airport, waiting for my flight home, I can see snow falling outside on the palm trees and tea plantations - a rather incongruous sight. 

Hunting for Platinum in the Kitchen, or… How a very good plan went awry.

Platinum group minerals (PGMs) are among my favorites – Physically and chemically tough species, resistant to acid attack, capable of surviving many miles of very rough travel down raging creeks. Did you know that if, god forbid, your house should burn down, the native platinum group nuggets in your collection will be among the only half dozen or so mineral species that survive to be sifted intact from the ashes? All your other minerals will either melt, burn, crack or crumble to dust. And did I mention RARE? Forget native gold – common as dirt, relatively speaking – I can find traces of mere gold in almost every river, all over the world. But the platinum group minerals (platinum, iridium, osmium, ruthenium, palladium, rhodium and their alloys) are really much harder to find than gold. And as for those mystical fools who believe in the healing energy of quartz and other crystals... Forget it; platinum is the only mineral with true mystical powers – Owning a handful of PGM nuggets magically turns even a wimpy geek like me into a macho man. 

Mining tourmaline in North Korea, and similar acts of mineralogical desperation.

“Ore”, as we all know, is not a mineralogical word; it is an economic term. An ore is a rock that can be profitably exploited for its mineral content, so a rock that qualifies as ore at a given time and place is not necessarily ore at a different time and place. Just because a rock contains gold, for example, doesn’t mean it is “gold ore”; it might be a small deposit so far from a road that the road construction would cost more than the metal is worth, or the gold might be in a mineral species which is difficult to process, like jonassonite. A lot of factors enter into the calculation: value of the element in question (prices can be volatile), borrowing costs for start-up capital, labour costs, chemical processing, distance from markets, surrounding land values, environmental regulations, and so on. And the economics can get really weird when the flow of free trade is interrupted... 

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