Sunday, January 31, 2010

Unapologetic insubordinate

Howard Zinn was, and will forever be one of the noblest and most courageous defenders of Truth the world has known. (GW)

Saying goodbye to my friend Howard Zinn

By Alice Walker
Boston Globe
January 31, 2010

On hearing the news of his death.

Me: Howie, where did you go?

Howie: What do you mean, where did I go? As soon as I died, I went back to Boston.

I met Howard Zinn in 1961, my first year at Spelman College in Atlanta. He was the tall, rangy, good-looking professor that many of the girls at Spelman swooned over. My African roommate and I got a good look at him every day when he came for his mail in the post office just beneath our dormitory window. He was always in motion, but would stop frequently to talk to the many students and administrators and total strangers that seemed attracted to his energy of non-hesitation to engage. We met formally when some members of my class were being honored and I was among them. I don’t remember what we were being honored for, but Howard and I ended up sitting next to each other. He remembered this later; I did not. He was the first white person I’d sat next to; we talked. He claimed I was “ironic.’’ I was surprised he did not feel white.

I knew nothing of immigrants (which his parents were) or of Jews. Nothing of his father’s and his own working class background. Nothing of his awareness of poverty and slums. Nothing of why a white person could exist in America and not feel white: i.e., heavy, oppressive, threatening, and almost inevitably insensitive to the feelings of a person of color. The whole of Georgia was segregated at that time; and in coming to Spelman I had had a run-in with the Greyhound bus driver (white as described above) who had forced me to sit in the back of the bus. This moment had changed my life, though how that would play out was of course uncertain to a 17-year-old.

One way it did play out was that the very next summer I was on my way to the Soviet Union to see how white those folks were and to tell as many of them as I could, even if they were white, that I did not agree to my country’s notions of bombing them. I didn’t see a lot of generals, but children and women and men and old people of both sexes were everywhere. They were usually smiling and offering flowers or vodka. There was no “iron curtain’’ between us, as I’d been told to expect by Georgia media. I love to tell the story of how I was so ignorant at the time I didn’t have a clue who folks were queuing up to see in Lenin’s tomb; nor did I even know what the Kremlin was. I also didn’t speak a word of Russian.

Coming back to Spelman, I discovered Howard Zinn was teaching a course on Russian History and Literature and a little of the language. I signed up for it, though I was only a sophomore and the course was for juniors (as I recall). I had loved Russian Literature since I discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevsky back in the school library in Putnam County, Georgia. As for the Russian language, as with any language, I most wanted to learn to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.

Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise, he loved what he was teaching and clearly wanted his students to love it also. We did. My mother, who earned $17 a week working 12-hour days as a maid, had somehow managed to buy a typewriter for me and I had learned typing in school. I said hardly a word in class (as Howie would later recall), but inspired by his warm and brilliant ability to communicate ideas and conundrums and passions of the characters and complexities of Russian life in the 19th century, I flew back to my room after class and wrote my response to what I was learning about these writers and their stories that I adored. He was proud of my paper, and, in his enthusiastic fashion, waved it about. I learned later there were those among other professors at the school who thought that I could not possibly have written it. His rejoinder: “Why, there’s nobody else in Atlanta who could have written it!’’

It would be hard not to love anyone who stood in one’s corner like this.

Under the direction of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) many students at Spelman joined the effort to desegregate Atlanta. Naturally, I joined this movement. Howie, taller than most of us, was constantly in our midst, and usually somewhere in front. Because I was at Spelman on scholarship, a scholarship that would be revoked if I were jailed, my participation caused me a good bit of anxiety. Still, knowing that Howard and others of our professors, the amazingly courageous and generous Staughton Lynd, for instance, my other history teacher, supported the students in our struggle, made it possible to carry on. But then, while he and his family were away from campus for the summer, Howard Zinn was fired. He was fired for “insubordination.’’

Yes, he would later say, with a classic Howie shrug, I was guilty.

For me, and for many poorer students in my position, students on scholarship who also worked in the Movement to free us from centuries of white supremacy and second-class citizenship, it was a disaster. I wrote a letter to the administration that was published in the school paper pointing out the error of their decision. I wrote it through tears of anger and frustration. It was these tears, which appeared unannounced whenever I thought of this injustice to Howard and his family - whom I had met and also loved - that were observed by Staughton Lynd, who realized instantly that a) there was every chance I was headed toward a breakdown; and b) the administration would quickly find a reason to expel me from school. Added to the stress, which nobody knew about, was the fact that I was working for a well-respected older man who, knowing I had to work in order to pay for everything I needed as a young woman in school, was regularly molesting me. Lucky for me he was very old, and his imagination was stronger than his grasp. As a farm girl and no stranger to manual labor, I could type his papers with one hand while holding him off with the other. What rankled so much, then as now, is how much others respected, even venerated him.

Perhaps this was one of many births of my feminism. A feminism/womanism that never seemed odd to Howard Zinn, who encouraged his Spelman students, all of them women, to name and challenge oppression of any sort. This encouragement would come in handy, when, years later, writing my second novel, “Meridian,’’ I could explore the misuse of gender-based power from the perspective of having experienced it.

With Staughton Lynd’s help, and after he had consulted with Howie (I did not know this), I was accepted to finish my college education at Sarah Lawrence College, a place of which I had never heard. I went off in the middle of winter, without a warm coat or shoes and ice and snow greeted me. But also Staughton’s mother, Helen Lynd, who immediately provided money for the coat and shoes I needed, as well as a blanket that had been her son’s.

In my solitary room, and knowing no one on campus, I hunkered down to write. Letters to the Zinns, first of all. To inform them I had been liberated from Spelman, as they had been, and had landed.

I was Howard’s student for only a semester, but in fact, I have learned from him all my life. His way with resistance: steady, persistent, impersonal, often with humor, is a teaching I cherish. Whenever I’ve been arrested, I’ve thought of him. I see policemen as victims of the very system they’re hired to defend, as I know he did. I see soldiers in the same way. In some ways, Howie was an extension of my father, whom he never met. My father was also an activist as a young man and was one of the first black men unconnected to white ancestry or power to vote in our backwoods county; he had to pass by three white men holding shotguns in order to do this. By the time I went off to college, the last of eight children, he was exhausted and broken. But these men were connected in ways clearer to me now as I’ve become older than my father was when he died. They each saw injustice as something to be acknowledged, confronted, and changed if at all possible. And they looked for signs of humanity in their opponents and spoke to that. They both possessed a sense of humor and love of a good story that made them charismatic teachers. I recently discovered, and it amuses me, that their birth dates are close, though my father was 13 years older.

Howie and I planned to rendezvous in Berkeley in March, when he came out to spend a few weeks with his grandchildren. In April we planned to be on a panel with Gloria Steinem and Bernice Reagon at an event in New Orleans for Amnesty International. I had decided not to go, but Howie said if I didn’t come he would “sorely miss’’ me. I wrote back that in that case I would certainly be there as “soreness of any sort’’ was not to be tolerated.

Over the years I’ve been in the habit of sending freshly written poems to Roz and Howie. After her death, I continued to send the occasional poem to Howie. Last week, after the Supreme Court’s decision to let corporations offer unlimited financing to electoral candidates, I wrote a poem about what I would do if I were president, called: “If I Was President: ‘Were’ For Those Who Prefer It.’ ’’ My first act as president, given that corporations may well buy all elections in America from now on, would be to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, both men accused of murders I’ve felt they did not commit; both men in prison for sadistically long periods of time.

Howie’s response, and the last word he communicated to me, was “Wonderful.’’ I imagined him hurriedly typing it, then flying, even at 87, out the door.

The question remains: Where do our friends and loved ones go when they die?

They can’t all go back to Boston, or wherever they’ve lived their most intense life.

I fell asleep, after leaking tears for Howie most of the day: my sweetheart’s shirt was luckily absorbent and available to me, and after tossing and turning almost all night, I had the following dream: We (Someone and I) were looking for the place we go to when we die. After quite a long walk, we encountered it. What we saw was this astonishingly gigantic collection of people and creatures: birds and foxes, butterflies and dogs, cats and beings I’ve never seen awake, and they were moving toward us in total joy at our coming. We were happy too. But there was nothing to support any of us, no land, no water, nothing. We ourselves were all of it: our own earth. And I woke up knowing that this is where we go when we die. We go back to where we came from: inside all of us.

Goodbye, Howie. Beloved. Hello.

Alice Walker is known for her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple.’’ © 2010 by Alice Walker

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Music of the spheres

As a young child I had dreams of being an astronomer. Shortly after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958 I decided I wanted to be a rocket scientist (honest). Then, in 1959 the Mercury Project -- the nation's first human spaceflight program was launched and (you guessed it) I had visions of being an astronaut.

I wonder if I had the chance as a child to see and hear the Houston Symphony's performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" I would have dreamt of being a composer.

There's no question that the performing and visual arts can do much to bridge the gap between what British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow called the "two cultures" -- science and the humanities. (GW)

The Symphony as a Vessel to Visit Other Worlds

The British composer Gustav Holst was an astrology buff when he composed his most famous work, “The Planets,” in 1914-16. His portraits of the planets were inspired by their mythological names and astrological associations. The Earth is not included because the suite is about what the seven other planets (Pluto had not yet been discovered) meant to earthlings. What the planets might actually be like was not the point.

So what would Holst have thought about “The Planets — an HD Odyssey,” presented by the Austrian conductor Hans Graf and the excellent Houston Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night? As the orchestra played a vibrantly colorful performance of the suite on a stage with dimmed lighting, video was shown of the actual planets taken from explorations of the solar system over the last 35 years, mostly from NASA projects.

The images in the movie, produced and directed by Duncan Copp, were often astonishing. Photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics were combined to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.

Still, I had to multi-task to appreciate this odyssey. The riveting video tended to overwhelm Holst’s nearly 60-minute suite. There is, of course, a film-score-like quality to the music, and combining it with imagery has been done before, though not to my mind with such sophistication.

Still, as the conductor Simon Rattle wrote in the liner notes for his exciting live 2006 recording of “The Planets” with the Berlin Philharmonic, it is not Holst’s fault that every film composer took the score as “their toolbox, and stole shamelessly.” Now that the work is out of copyright, “they don’t even bother to change the notes,” Mr. Rattle added.

“The Planets” is inventive and ingeniously orchestrated, with resonances of Debussy and even early Schoenberg. And for all of the music’s effectiveness at evoking the mythos of the solar system, there is something charmingly British about the suite, especially “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” You imagine hardy Brits after a cricket match lifting mugs of ale, troops parading in patriotic triumph, and nostalgic episodes of country life in the Cotswolds.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” is a like a brilliant, scintillating scherzo, with the orchestral colorings of Debussy’s “Jeux” yet ominously spiked with sledgehammer chords.

In a filmed introduction to the performance with snippets of interviews with people from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., one scientist says that Holst “got Venus all wrong,” because he had “no idea that Venus was such a hellish place.” True.

But Holst’s diaphanous, harmonically Impressionist “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is utterly alluring music, beautifully played here, and certainly evokes the human fancy of what Venus might be like as we see it from the earth. And the work ends rapturously with the ethereal “Neptune, the Mystic,” which concludes with the haunting strands of an offstage women’s chorus (here, members of the Houston Symphony Chorus).

Mr. Graf is now in his eighth season in Houston, and his orchestra is in good shape. The program began with Stravinsky’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” a glittering early work from 1907-08 in which the 25-year-old composer reveals his debt to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but also his enthralled awareness of Debussy and Ravel.

Ending the first half with Henri Dutilleux’s “Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou la nuit étoilée” (Timbres, Space, Movement, or ‘The Starry Night’) was a great idea. That elusive yet inexorable piece from the mid-1970s, revised in 1990 and scored intriguingly for orchestra without violins and violas, had a cosmic allure that ideally complemented the Holst. And no attention-grabbing videos.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The legacy of a "generation of amputees"

Yesterday's post addressed the need to rebuild Haiti's devastated infrastructure. There is, of course, a more urgent need and that is to help rebuild its people. It strikes me that someone should at least be thinking about how some of the money being raised to help in the Haitian relief effort could be used to establish a program to provide prosthetics to those who have lost limbs.

I admit that I have no idea what the costs or logistics of doing something like this would entail, but the concept of developing a state-of-the-art medical center that would address this problem that has implications for generations should at least be under consideration. Maybe/hopefully it already is. (GW)

Now Haiti must bear burden of generation of amputees

By Kim Sengupta in Port-au-Prince
The Independent
January 29, 2010

In a nation where manual labour is the main source of income, life just got harder

Marie Guerduy was selling bread on the street when the earthquake struck, and the wall of one of Port-au-Prince's ramshackle buildings fell on top of her. She lay, trapped, overnight. When they found her next morning, it might have seemed things were getting better. Now she sits in a makeshift tent, amid the chaos of the city's hospital, and mourns the life she says she has lost. For Marie Guerduy has lost her leg. She will sell bread no more.

"My life is over," she says. "I have nothing but fear for the future. Who will feed my baby, who will look after my poor father and mother? Why has God done this to me?"

Ms Guerduy, 40, is not the only one facing such a bleak future. As well as mourning the dead, Haiti must now face the legacy of a "generation of amputees" as a result of the terrible injuries suffered by thousands in the devastating earthquake.

The number of people left with crushed limbs was one of the highest in recent times in a disaster. And the overwhelming number of cases faced by the medical services in the aftermath of the tremors meant doctors often had little choice but to amputate arms and legs which could have been saved in a Western country.

The task of coping with the huge numbers of disabled falls on one of the poorest countries in the world, where manual labour is the only form of income for the vast majority of the population. Many of the victims, who will no longer be able to work, were sole breadwinners.

The only place in the country which produced prosthetics is now under rubble. International aid groups are attempting to organise imports but, given the huge problems they face with bringing in essentials such as food and water, that is seen as very much a long-term goal.

There were already around 800,000 Haitians with disabilities before the earthquake. It is not known how many more there are now but officials say there will be a massive increase. Eric Doubt, executive director of Healing Hands for Haiti International, said: "The handicapped in Haiti have been largely unattended to or abandoned by their governments, and there are very few medical organisations who attend to them. So you can see the scale of the problem we are facing."

At Port-au-Prince's overflowing hospitals, medical staff are having to carry out repeat operations on many of the amputees. Discharged from hospital the first time, they ended up contracting infections on the streets because their homes have been destroyed. "This is worse than a war zone, believe me - I have worked in war zones," said Dr Beat Kehrer, a surgeon coordinating the Swiss medical team, standing next to the wreckage of the nurses' quarter which collapsed killing 153 staff.

"In a combat situation you have rushes of injured coming in, but there are gaps in between. Here it has been never-ending. We have had to save people in the quickest way and that has meant amputations.

"In the future you can see almost two countries developing here, a generation of amputees and others who suffered bad injuries, and those who got through the earthquake all right."

Dr Bruce Mintz, 53, from New Jersey, in the US, said: "We have had to deal with hundreds of amputations here. I have been involved in 200 myself. There are certainly more limb damages here than in other natural disasters that we've come across. What's called the guillotine method is used for the operation, but then there is revision because of infection. It's pretty desperate. I've worked in Third World emergencies, but I've seen nothing like this."

Marie Guerduy is still coming to terms with the consequences. She has a three-year-old son, Jean-Charles. Her 22-year-old daughter, Dassy-Marie, says she will now have to look after the extended family of eight. "That will be for the rest of my life, but I do not even have a job, so I do not know what to do," she said.

Nor does her neighbour on the next bed, Girold Morancy. He looked after his family of seven out of the meagre income from his stall. He, too, has been brutally disfigured, losing his left leg below the knee. Deaf since boyhood, the new disability means his chances of finding employment are effectively over at the age of 18.

Mr Morancy's 28-year-old sister, Claudette, said: "We have a little brother who is 11 months old. His name is Jameson. Our father is 70 years old. I have to somehow find money for everyone now and also look after Girold, he is helpless. How am I going to do this?"

In another part of the hospital, Angelie Basson was fanning her 11-year-old son, Louis, who has lost part of his left arm. "He was in much pain. It was such a bad thing to happen but I am just so glad he is alive," said Ms Basson, 36 , who suffered cuts and bruises to her head when part of the ceiling at their home collapsed.

The hospital has faced a deluge of injured since the "day of catastrophe", as the Haitians call it, two weeks ago, and it is now overflowing with dispossessed humanity. Several hundred patients have refused to stay indoors because of fear of aftershock and have dragged their cots and mattresses outside to a "ward" which has become known as the "Forest". Semi-naked men and women wash themselves in the open, with no space for privacy. Among all this move international medical teams; armed troops from US Airborne and scientologists in yellow T-shirts hugging startled relatives of patients.

Beatrix Moran, a nurse of Haitian descent based in New York who returned to the island to help, was looking after the tent with amputees. Putting her arm around the weeping Ms Guerduy, she said: "One of the worst things is that there are no social workers here. There is no one to comfort these people, so we have to try to fulfil that role as well. I try to tell them things will be all right, but you know just how hard life will be for these people."

Ms Moran had been paying for the education of a young orphan girl for the last five years with the aim of adopting her and taking her back to the US. But the orphanage where 14-year-old Laura was staying has been destroyed and her fate is unknown.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Ms Moran said: "I know I shouldn't cry, and I should be strong for the others. But I am very worried. We are all suffering here, this is a terrible, terrible situation. We live in a cursed land."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is being green is an extravagance Haiti can't afford?

Survivors miracalously continue to be pulled from the rubble in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that toppled Haiti's capital sixteen days ago. But even as these examples of human spirit inspire us Haitian officials must quickly turn their attention to the process of rebuilding from the bottom up.

Haiti has some significant renewable energy resources. Could/Should wind and solar be part of their strategy for rebuilding its shattered infrastructure? There was a lot of talk about making New Orleans a model "green" city after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina. But talk was all that happened. (GW)

Wind power a viable, but unreliable source of energy in quake shattered Haiti

By: Sunny Freeman
The Canadian Press
January 25, 2010

TORONTO - Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister is eyeing the potential for wind power along Haiti's coastline as part of the effort to improve the earthquake ravaged country's capacity for power production.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Monday technology will be an important element of rebuilding in Haiti after its infrastructure was devastated in the Jan. 12 earthquake that has left most of the Caribbean country in ruins.

Wind power could reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels, the minister said before a conference on Haitian reconstruction in Montreal.

But experts say that while wind energy should be part of a long-term energy strategy for Haiti, it is too expensive and unreliable as a short-term source of power to fuel reconstruction.

Andrew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation,who specializes in Haiti, said Cannon was not the first person to raise wind power as an option for Haiti.

The island's geography and a strong air stream makes wind power a viable possibility, he said. But he added, it requires a massive capital investment and a tremendous amount of infrastructure.

"There's no silver bullet for Haiti's energy needs. Wind would be one of a series of different options, I think its worth considering solar power as well."

Before the quake struck, non-profit groups were installing solar panels on the roofs of Haitian schools, as a self-sustaining source of power that doesn't require a massive infrastructure investment like wind farms, he said.

Haiti needs to consider several other sources of energy, including importing charcoal from a neighbouring country. The country's forests have been plundered to supply charcoal for cooking for the 80 per cent of Haitians who are desperately poor and cannot afford electricity.

Haiti's mainly thermal and hydroelectric plants supply only a fraction of the energy required and even those who can afford to be on the grid receive power for only half the day. Many rely on expensive and polluting diesel generators.

"One of the challenges for Haiti will be to engage in a reforestation plan, while at the same time offering people an alternative source of fuel for cooking their food so that trees aren't cut down again," he said.

"And that's the appeal of something like wind or solar... it's potentially a source of energy that in time could replace charcoal."

Robert Evans, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, said wind is an expensive type of energy production, that has been heavily subsidized in countries where it has been integrated.

Wind power is intermittent and works at full power capacity only one-third of the time fossil fuel plants do, and a back up source of power would be crucial, he said.

"It really only makes sense to integrate it into an existing situation where you've got the availability of back up power of some kind."

Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe said being green is an extravagance Haiti can't afford.

"For Haiti that needs to rebuild its infrastructure, this is the last thing they need, they need to get their economy up so they can have jobs, they don't need to be wasting money on an unreliable power source."

But Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association said small island states are ideal for wind farms because wind is stronger in areas where land meets sea, adding Cuba and other Caribbean countries have already invested in wind energy.

"There are examples of how wind is making real contributions in countries that face those sort of climatic circumstances and development circumstances," he said.

Hornung said Cannon's suggestion could also represent an opportunity for Canada's small wind turbine manufacturers.

"We hope its an indication of role that wind energy can play...there's a fairly broad consensus that if you're looking to improve the environmental sustainability of your electricity system that wind is a sound choice."

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told delegates in Montreal Monday his government has set up six committees to deal with the crisis, including sanitation and energy. But it could take as long as three or four months to restore electricity in Port-au-Prince, which is now using generators.

Even before the quake destroyed Haiti's infrastructure, it had the lowest coverage of electricity in the Western Hemisphere, according to a 2006 study from the Inter-American Development Bank. Only about 10 per cent of its 8.5 million people had access to limited services.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Duralex tumbler is (at least) half full again

Good design is important. But a well-designed product does not necessarily ensure either initial acceptance or enduring success. The history of the Duralex tumbler provides a valuable case study of the external factors that can influence and even derail products that are extremely well-designed, serviceable, and highly popular with proven track records.

The following short history featured in The Independent doesn't touch on environmental or energy issues associated with the factory where the tumblers are manufactured. Perhaps that will be the topic of a future article and post. (GW)

Duralex - the glass tumbler that would not be broken

By John Lichfield
The Independent
January 27, 2010

A French design classic has been saved from extinction by new investors who are determined to have the famous brand name on everyone's lips once again. John Lichfield reports from La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin

This is the story of a glass that bounced. The Duralex is the favourite glass of American Yuppies but also of Afghan tribesmen. It has been described as the "ultimate drinking vessel created by man". Its elegant, conical shape has long been recognised as a design classic which screams "France" just as much as the Eiffel Tower or a waiter in a long, white apron.

At one time the fluted, almost unbreakable, Duralex "Picardie", and its equally tough sister, the straighter Duralex "Gigogne", could be found in every French café, school canteen or works cafeteria. The tumblers were exhibited in art museums; they were the subject of a dozen learned essays on the principles of simple, satisfying, functional design.

The original publicity for the glasses in the Fifties claimed that they could be "used as hammers". They were more often associated with knocking back cloudy glasses of pastis from zinc bars. Duralex glasses spread all over the world and especially to the Middle East (where the smaller ones were regarded as perfect for sipping tea). There is a photograph of Osama bin Laden holding a Duralex Picardie tumbler.

Marketing managers are usually ready to die or, worse, pay large sums of money, for that kind of brand recognition. And yet 18 months ago, the Duralex name appeared to have been smashed into a thousand pieces. Despite the iconic status of the brand, the French parent company had been abused and exploited, and then mishandled, by two foreign buyers over a period of 11 years (Kraft and Cadbury management please note).

Competition from Chinese and Indonesian imitations; lack of capital investment; failure to understand, or to make proper use of, its own mythical status pushed Duralex to the verge of bankruptcy in 2005 and again in 2008. "Vintage" (ie Seventies and Eighties) Duralex glasses became greatly prized and commanded high prices on eBay. Internet designistas and lovers of classic kitchenware posted poignant blogs bemoaning the fact that their beloved Picardie and Gigogne tumblers seemed to have vanished from the market. And then, abruptly, Duralex bounced back, like one of its glasses hitting the floor of a school canteen. The San Francisco-based household and kitchen chain, Williams-Sonoma, a high temple of understated elegance for American Yuppiedom, announced triumphantly a few months ago that it was selling the Picardie and Gigogne again.

What happened? The Independent set out into darkest and deepest central France - to an untidy, industrial estate on the edge of the city of Orleans - to find out. We discovered a large factory, almost a foundry. It is here that Duralex glasses and other lines of "tempered-glass" kitchenware are forged in an "oven" the size of an apartment block. We watched as dollops of molten fire - a blend of sand, lime and aluminium-oxide - turned instantly into plates. Once cooled, they were deliberately dropped from a height or plunged into freezing water. There were no breakages. Only part of the factory site is still in use; there are 210 people at work, compared with 1,400 people at the height of Duralex's commercial strength in the Seventies and Eighties. But the future of the brand once again seems assured.

"We have a mythical brand, yes, but even a mythical brand is no good if you do everything wrong," said the new president of Duralex International, Antoine Ioannides. "For 18 months we have been doing some things right again. The brand itself was so strong that we were always confident that, if allowed to express itself, it could succeed. We are very happy with how things are going."

Since a buyout in July 2008, led by Mr Ioannides, his two brothers and a couple of senior members of Duralex management, sales have boomed. In France, where Duralex's market share had collapsed by 75 per cent, the glasses are back in canteens and on supermarket shelves (sales are up 12 per cent in a falling market). Sales in Europe as a whole are up 16 per cent (except in Britain, of which more later). Duralex is in negotiations with Ikea, which usually prefers to source its products in the developing world. Sales in the US, partly through Williams-Sonoma, are surging.

But how could such a strong brand have fallen so low in the first place?

The Duralex brand-name was imprinted on the minds of French boys and girls from the day that they learned to read. For decades, a game has been played in French school canteens. Every child at a table would read out the serial number stamped with the Duralex logo on the bottom of their water glass. The number - anything between 1 and 48 - became that child's "age" for that lunchtime. The "youngest" had to fetch the water for the rest of the table.

The design guru Patrick Taylor lists the Duralex Picardie tumbler alongside the great classics of design such as the Swiss army knife and Levi jeans. On his design website, he speaks about the Picardie glass (designed in 1954 by a person unknown) as a wine taster might speak of a fine Burgundy.

"The upper part of the side is smooth surfaced and curves gently outwards at the part that goes into your mouth, as if to encourage the liquid on its way. The rounded edge of the lip of the glass is especially comfortable against your lips because, for durability, the glass is comparatively thick. But the glass has just the right weight, and the feel of the ridges between the flutings makes it seem thinner and more delicate than it actually is..."

How could such a popular paragon among glasses almost go bust? Frédéric Morin-Payé has worked for the company for 13 years and is commercial director in the new team. He says the company suffered from competition from China, Indonesia and other European factories, which learned how to make glasses which looked broadly the same. Worse, the company was bought out in 1997 by an Italian glass company which made use of Duralex's reputation and export contacts in 100 countries, but neglected to market the brand and starved the factory of investment.

The Italians were bought out in turn by a Turkish businessman in 2005. "He had the best of intentions but got everything wrong," Mr Morin-Payé said. "Because we were already big in the Middle East, he decided to concentrate his efforts there, selling a small range of products into a low-price market."

Since the change of management in 2008, Duralex continues to be big in the Middle East. Its largest export market is - believe it or not - Afghanistan where Duralex is the default tea glass, even in the most far-flung villages. (Hence the photo of Osama bin Laden with a Picardie).

However, the rebuilt company has also revived sales to what Mr Ioannides calls the "bobo" (Bourgeois Bohemian) markets in Europe and the US. British sales are relatively sluggish because, he complains, the dominant UK supermarket chains prefer other glass manufacturers whom they can bully into selling under the supermarket brand name.

Duralex expects its turnover to rise 70 per cent this year. The cheaper Middle East sales, which were two thirds of total production two years ago, should soon drop to 30 per cent, without falling in volume terms.

Bo-bos, or Yuppies, in the US and the Netherlands, and even Britain, can have the satisfaction, once again, of drinking from the same mythical glass as French schoolchildren and Afghan tribesmen and Osama bin Laden.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dogged determination

We've been told forever that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. However, it never dawned on us that they might be able to teach themselves some. Is it possible that in a world without humans the subways might run on time? (GW)

Moscow's Stray Dogs Evolving Greater Intelligence, Including a Mastery of the Subway

By Stuart Fox

Popular Science

January 21, 2010

For every 300 Muscovites, there's a stray dog wandering the streets of Russia's capital. And according to Andrei Poyarkov, a researcher at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, the fierce pressure of urban living has driven the dogs to evolve wolf-like traits, increased intelligence, and even the ability to navigate the subway.

Poyarkov has studied the dogs, which number about 35,000, for the last 30 years. Over that time, he observed the stray dog population lose the spotted coats, wagging tails, and friendliness that separate dogs from wolves, while at the same time evolving social structures and behaviors optimized to four ecological niches occupied by what Poyarkov calls guard dogs, scavengers, wild dogs, and beggars.

The guard dogs follow around, and receive food from, the security personnel at Moscow's many fenced in sites. They think the guards are their masters, and serve as semi-feral assistants. The scavengers roam the city eating garbage. The wild dogs are the most wolf-like, hunting mice, rats, and cats under the cover of night.

But beggar dogs have evolved the most specialized behavior. Relying on scraps of food from commuters, the beggar dogs can not only recognize which humans are most likely to give them something to eat, but have evolved to ride the subway. Using scents, and the ability to recognize the train conductor's names for different stops, they incorporate many stations into their territories.

Additionally, Poyarkov says the pack structure of the beggars reflects a reliance on brain over brawn for survival. In the beggar packs, the smartest dog, not the most physically dominant, occupies the alpha male position.

The evolution of Moscow's stray dogs has been going on since at least the mid-1800s, when Russian writers first mentioned the stray dog problem in the city. And that evolution has been propelled by deadly selective pressure. Most of the strays arrive on the streets as rejected house pets. Of those dogs kicked out of their homes, Poyarkov estimates fewer than 3 percent live long enough to breed. To survive those odds, a dog really does have to be the fittest.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Bucky Fuller was one of the first people to point out the different "gestation rates" for innovation that exist for different industries. The Housing industry is one of the very slowest in adopting n changes. The Aeronautical industry is at the other end of the spectrum -- constantly on the lookout and aggressively pursuing innovations that will reduce weight, improve efficiency and safety and drive down costs.

Boeing's latest jetliner -- the 787 promises to revolutinize airline design. It completed the initial airworthiness testing last week. What makes it so special?(GW)

Boeing's new 787 jetliner: How it works

Published in the September 2006 issue.

The company that ushered in the age of affordable commercial flight with the 707 in 1957 is trying to revolutionize the industry again. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner combines lightweight materials with advanced communications systems and thrifty engines--the company claims the 787 will burn 20 percent less fuel than the comparably sized 767. The innovations also include a completely new manufacturing process. Huge sections of fuselage are produced around the world, then flown via the specially designed 747 Large Cargo Freighter to Everett, Wash., for final assembly. Shown here is the 787-8, scheduled for takeoff in 2008. The 787-3 and 787-9 variants, for shorter and extended hops, respectively, will follow in 2010.

The quiet, ultraefficient General Electric GEnx is one of two engine options on the 787. (The other is Rolls-Royce’s Trent 1000.) The GEnx uses an all-composite fan case and blades, as well as nozzles that spin a fuel/air mixture into the engine core, producing thrust at lower temperatures with fewer hydrocarbon emissions.

FLIGHT DECK The 787 cockpit has dual

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge The 787's cockpit.
head-up displays and electronic flight bags (EFB), which hold digital versions of the pilot’s maps, charts and manuals. The EFBs also offer ground navigation systems that help flight crews negotiate unfamiliar airports. Reducing pilot error during taxiing will help cut the risk of runway collisions.

BODY Composite fibers--carbon graphite, held together by epoxy--account for 50 percent of the overall fuselage, versus the 9 percent in the 777, making the 787 lighter and stronger than aluminum-body aircraft.

WINGS The 787’s sweptback wings with variable-camber trailing edges give the craft 2 percent more lift compared to the 767. The Dreamliner’s wings are longer than those of other planes its size, allowing them to flex more. Flaps, electric anti-icing and other systems are mounted on a single piece, simplifying maintenance and reducing the odds of failure.

CARGO STORAGE The flat underside of the fuselage allows the 787 to fit 45 percent more cargo than the 767 does.

PRESSURIZATION Unlike aluminum aircraft, which maintain a cabin pressure of 8000 ft., the 787’s more resiliant composite body can be pressurized to 6000 ft. The 787 reduces complexity by pressurizing the cabin using electric compressors, rather than bleed air from the engines.

CLIMATE CONTROL Airplane air-conditioning systems tend to dehydrate passengers. But the Dreamliner’s noncorrosive body construction allows for higher, more comfortable humidity levels.

SENSORS Many of the sensors in the Dreamliner are connected wirelessly to a central data processor. For instance, an “active gust alleviation” system uses sensors to measure turbulence at the nose, then instantly adjusts wing flaps to counter it.

DIAGNOSTICS A self-monitoring diagnostic system sends real-time data to technicians on the ground via a wireless broadband link. The system can predict mechanical problems, meaning less time in the hangar and fewer delays.

CABIN Although the interior of the Dreamliner

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge The 787's cabin.
is only 15 in. wider than that of similar aircraft, the extra space does allow for larger seats and a smidgen of extra room in aisles. Lavatories will be bigger as well, with limited wheelchair access. The most noticeable increase, however, will be in the overhead bins, which will each hold four roll-aboard bags.

Windows will be 18.5 in. tall, the largest on any commercial plane, and have electronically adjustable electrochromic dimmers. An on-board wireless network will stream entertainment to seatback screens and allow passengers to surf the Web over a 250Kbps satellite connection.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Slimey networks

Networks are all the rage these days. Facebook to Linkedin are just two of the more popular vehicles designed to keep people in touch with one another. Although viewed this as the latest Internet-inspired innovations truth is, Nature has been networking successfully and efficiently for billions of years.

In another example of what can be considered biomimicry, scientists are attempting to understand the principles of effective networking by observing how it works in the natural world. As you can see from today's post, inspiration can come from some very unlikely sources.

By the way, if you want to learn more about all this, Oxford University Press has just released an outstanding series of books under the heading of "Nature's Patterns" that you may want to check out. (GW)

Engineers 'can learn from slime'

BBC News
January 24, 2010

The way fungus-like slime moulds grow could help engineers design wireless communication networks.

Scientists drew this conclusion after observing a slime mould as it grew into a network that was almost identical to the Tokyo rail system.

The scientists describe their ideas for "biologically inspired networks" in the journal Science.

They have incorporated the slime mould's efficient strategy into a mathematical formula.

This "slime formula" could help engineers develop better, more efficient designs.

Efficient slime

The single amoeboid cells of slime moulds fuse and spread into a network as they feed and grow.

"These biological networks have been honed by many cycles of evolutionary selection pressure," wrote the researchers in their article.

The research team, led by Dr Atsushi Tero from Hokkaido University, Japan, wanted to capture this evolved efficiency, which they say could be used to inform human engineering decisions.

The scientists put the slime to the test by allowing it to grow on a wet surface on which they placed oat flakes in locations that corresponded to the cities surrounding Tokyo.

They placed the slime mould, Physarum polycephalum , in the centre.

As it grew outwards, it organised itself into a network around the food that closely resembled the train network connecting Tokyo to its surrounding cities.

The researchers then converted this growth "strategy" into a mathematical formula.

The researchers say that this model could provide a starting point for improving the efficiency and even decreasing the cost of "self-organised networks", such as computer and mobile communication networks that are not centrally controlled.

Mould solves maze

One of the researchers, Dr Mark Fricker from Oxford University, UK, told BBC News that the whole idea of using slime moulds in this way came from Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a scientist also based at Hokkaido University.

A decade ago, Dr Nakagaki showed that the slime could find the most efficient way through a maze.

"Toshi has been working on getting them to solve all sorts of problems," said Dr Fricker, "and extending that work to show they form robust networks."

Professor Wolfgang Marwan of Otto von Guericke University, Germany - who was not connected to the research - described the significance of the findings.

The researcher, writing in the journal, said: "The work provides a fascinating and convincing example that biologically inspired mathematical models can lead to completely new, highly efficient algorithms... for applications in such areas as computer science."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

“In my mind, it’s something that connects me to my childhood”

My first exposure to community organizing was as a volunteer with a group called Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG ) that helped residents in the poorest communities in Boston gain access to resources (including land) to create community gardens. In 1982 "A Handbook of Community Gardening" was published, written by members of BUG. The following quote from Mattapan community gardener Gareth Kincaid opens chapter 1:
"A community garden is like a bumblebee. The laws of aerodynamics say that the way it's built, a bumblebee can't fly. That's why we use the bumblebee as our garden's symbol. Everyone told us we couldn't make a community garden work in the city, but we did!"
Thanks to loyal blog follower and best bud Bruce for turning me on to this wonderful story. (GW)

‘A small United Nations’

Larger community garden nourishes refugees

By Aaron Nicodemus
Telegram & Gazette
January 22, 2010

WORCESTER — In her native Democratic Republic of the Congo, Christine Kindeke and her family always grew their own food.

“In the Congo, most of the income of a family comes from farming,” she said. The knowledge of how to farm, when to plant a particular crop and what methods work best from year to year is passed down from parent to child.

But when she arrived in the United States as a refugee several years ago, that connection to the earth was broken. Living first in New Hampshire and later in Worcester, she had no way to plant the seeds that she had brought with her from Congo. The seeds are from a spinach-like vegetable called biteku-teku in Kikongo, her native tongue.

Last year, she planted those seeds in a small community garden in front of Goddard School of Science and Technology, and harvested a good crop. This year, she has bigger plans.

Through a joint venture of Lutheran Social Services and Silvermine Farm in Sutton, funded with a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, refugees such as Ms. Kindeke who have resettled in Worcester will be able to grow their own crops. The farm has agreed to lease four acres to Lutheran Social Services at $50 per acre, which the agency plans to split up into quarter- and half-acre plots. Quarter-acre plots will go to individual refugees who have shown success in community gardens, while half-acre lots will go to groups of refugees from particular countries, such as Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Iraq, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We’ll have a small United Nations on the ground,” she said.

The organizers hope the project will help provide refugees with a way to make a living.

“We’re hoping that the plots do well enough to have some for themselves, and sell some product to markets and stores,” said Joshua Lohnes, director of refugee employment at Lutheran Social Services.

Martha Cole, owner of Silvermine Farm, said the farm has leased out the four acres in the past, most recently last year to a first-time farmer.

When asked if it would be an inconvenience to have so many people farming those four acres, she laughed.

“I’ve only been farming myself for four years, so I feel like a first-time farmer myself,” she said. “I’m thrilled to have other farmers on the farm. I think they can teach me as much as I could teach them.”

Mr. Lohnes said that in the past, his agency has placed refugees as seasonal farmworkers at local farms, such as Bigelow Nurseries in Northboro. Some refugees have had success selling some of their produce, but the gardens are generally too small to produce enough to live on. The agency, with a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, was able to provide support for 12 community gardens throughout the city. The partnership with Silvermine Farm is a natural extension of the garden project, he said.

“Refugees are so keen on getting land and farming it. It’s what their parents did,” he said. “But the barriers are huge.”

There is, of course, the language barrier, a refugee who can speak English might have trouble finding the right word for “eggplant,” “tractor,” or “plow.” Many refugees come to the U.S. unfamiliar with local growing seasons and unaccustomed to the four to six months of dormancy that is a New England winter.

The largest barrier, though, is access to arable land. The vast majority of refugees being resettled in Central Massachusetts live in urban Worcester. Refugee farming projects so far have been limited to the community gardens scattered throughout the city.

Jenga and Jashu Samal, a husband and wife from Bhutan, grew vegetables last summer in a small plot to the side of the Worcester Public Schools Adult Education Building.

“In our country, we are always eating fresh vegetables,” said Mr. Samal. They grew potatoes, spinach, hot chili peppers, beans, radishes, broccoli, cucumbers and other vegetables in the community garden, with a harvest that sustained them from June to October. They each have part-time jobs at a Federal Express facility in Northboro, but they want to spend their off-hours working the fields.

“It’s our exercise, it passes the time,” Mr. Samal said. “If there’s no job, we can go to the farm.”

He said that among older Bhutanese, farming is ingrained in their culture. During the 17 years he and his wife spent in a refugee camp, they tended to a small garden and put plants in pots. His grandmother grew figs in the camp, he said.

“The young people, they get jobs, but the older people, they like to farm,” he said.

Ms. Kindeke said her friends and family derive benefits from farming beyond the crops they grow.

“You want to teach the young people about farming. You want them to get the experience — to touch the soil, to touch the things they grow,” she said. “In my mind, it’s something that connects me to my childhood.” Mr. Lohnes said anyone wishing to donate money to the project, or to donate farm implements and equipment, can call him at (774) 242-4339.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fate of the wild bumble bee in question

There is one disease that is apparently a threat to every living species on the planet. It's called greed. (GW)

Last Chance to Save Wild Bumble Bees

Did Commercialization Kill the Bees?

By Adam Federman
January 21, 2010

In the early 1990s, the USDA conducted risk assessments of the interstate transport of bumble bees for commercial greenhouse pollination, particularly tomatoes. Because of the risk of introducing non-native pests and diseases into new areas, they concluded that commercially reared bumble bees should not be shipped beyond their native range (They also prohibited the importation of bumble bees from outside the country, with the exception of Canada). At the time, it seemed a simple solution to growing concerns that the fledgling industry had taken off before adequate regulatory measures were put in place.

There was already some concern that the genie had gotten out of the bottle. Between 1992 and 1994, queens of two North American species—Bombus impatiens and Bombus occidentalis—were sent to Europe where they were reared in facilities along side European bumble bees. The colonies were then shipped back to the United States and distributed for crop pollination.

Fast forward to 1997. The commercial bumble bee rearing industry in North America suffers such catastrophic losses of Bombus occidentalis, a western bumble bee that it wipes out nearly its entire stock. In the following years, scientists begin to observe the precipitous decline of several North American bumble bee species, all belonging to the same subgenus. Dr. Robbin Thorp, a bee researcher and Professor Emeritus at UC Davis, upon learning of the commercial declines wonders if there is some connection. Could the wild bees be dying of the same disease that swept through commercial facilities?

Thorp has come up with a thesis: that the recent decline of four North American bumble bee species is the result of a pathogen brought into the country by bees that were shipped to Europe. In short, he argues that the North American bees acquired a selectively virulent strain of Nosema bombi, a gut pathogen, while being reared alongside the European bumble bee Bombus terrestris. When the bees were sent back to the US and distributed, the pathogen made its way into the wild, decimating several closely related species.

This all ties back to the USDA’s attempt to regulate the interstate shipment of bees because, in 1998, after commercial stocks of Bombus occidentalis were wiped out the industry was left with a single North American product: Bombus impatiens, an eastern bumble bee whose range extends from Maine to southern Florida. In 1998, USDA, against its own risk assessments, allowed the shipment of impatiens throughout the country. The largest greenhouse tomato-producing states – Arizona, Texas, and Colorado – are all states in which the bee is not native. It has been well documented that commercial bees can easily escape from greenhouses if necessary precautions are not taken.

In a story that I wrote for CounterPunch last fall, Wayne Wehling, senior entomologist at the USDA-APHIS, said that they still agreed with their earlier risk assessments.

“Certainly we have been all over the board with that,” he told me. “And I think we’ve been all over the board largely because of the lack of clarity in the regulatory authority as to what our capacities really are.”

To help clarify what the USDA Department of Animal Plant Health Inspection Service should be doing to protect our wild bees, the Xerces Society, a non-profit conservation group that focuses on protecting invertebrates, has filed a petition asking the USDA to regulate the interstate movement of bumble bees and to require that commercial breeders demonstrate that their bees are disease free. Along with the NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, and Dr. Thorp, they write that, “The continued shipment of bumble bee pollinators to areas outside of their native ranges poses a grave threat to the wild populations of closely related bumble bee species. Without better regulation, we are likely to continue to see catastrophic declines, and possibly extinctions, of bumble bee pollinators.”

APHIS is under no obligation to respond but Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director at Xerces said in an email that, “Our hope is that pressure from various sectors (scientists, conservation orgs, sustainable agriculture groups, policy makers and others) coupled with this petition will encourage them to promulgate new regulations.” According to USDA-APHIS, they are currently reviewing the petition to “determine our response.” Perhaps when they do respond, they’ll better clarify their regulatory authority.

Adam Federman is a contributing writer to Earth Island Journal, where this article originally appeared. His last article for the magazine was on illegal logging in Siberia. He can be reached at:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Investing in ifrastructure is costly, failing to do so will be even costlier

The study cited in today's post focuses on wind energy, but it is really about infrastructure. Why is it that the political leaders in this country are unwilling or unable to muster the leadership and call for the investments in the nation's infrastructure that are so sorely needed?

The electric grid is just one case in point. Take a look around at our roads, bridges and port facilities. (GW)

Expanding Use of Wind Power Feasible, but May Be Costly

WASHINGTON — Wind could replace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024, according to a study released Wednesday by the Energy Department.

But doing so would require a reorganization of the power grid and a significant increase in costs. And it would have only a modest impact on cutting emissions linked to global warming, the study found.

The Energy Department under President Obama has been a proponent of renewable energy, and the study tackles one of the biggest questions involving wind energy: How much can the power system use and still remain stable, given that the amount of electricity generated by wind turbines is as fickle as the breeze?

The answer, according to the study, is that heavy reliance on wind energy is “technically feasible” but will require significant expansion of the power grid.

That expansion would require spending about $93 billion in today’s dollars, according to David Corbus, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which supervised the study. He said that sum, large as it is on its face, was “really, really small compared to other major costs” in the power system.

A bigger obstacle is how to overcome a political impasse over building power lines, and how to find, and finance, sites for 10 times more generating capacity. The study did not address those questions.

Adding wind gets progressively more difficult as the amount used rises because of wind’s intermittent nature and the need for back-up power generation, according to the study. Without a better grid, the system would often waste large amounts of wind power because at many times during the year, the power grid would not be able to handle the amount of power that wind turbines were putting out.

But the amount of wasted wind energy, and the amount of backup needed, would decline as grid connections got better, the study said. A better grid, Mr. Corbus said, would also lead to fewer blackouts.

The conclusions are hypothetical, because almost all planning for power lines in North America is based on local considerations, not those half a continent away. Critical to enlarging the use of renewable energy, according to the study, is a better planning approach that takes account of the whole country’s needs.

The study covers the Eastern Interconnection, which delivers electricity to about 70 percent of the United States population. It covers North America from Halifax to New Orleans, and from Miami to Fargo, N.D. A parallel study for west of the Rockies is under way; the third North American grid covers most of Texas, which is already heavily dependent on wind.

While it is based on engineering, the study wades into a dispute between grid operators and energy producers in the Great Plains and those in the East, especially New York and New England.

Midwestern companies want to blanket parts of the Great Plains with windmills. They argue that the region could produce about 25 percent more power than comparable sites in the East because of stronger winds.

But the Eastern interests say that they can build turbines offshore, where wind is steady and predictable and distances to big cities are short. The governors of 10 eastern states entered the argument on May 4, 2009, sending a letter to Congress asking that no special provisions be made to build additional power lines to bring Midwestern energy to the East, because that would preclude wind farm development in their states.

The new study, conducted by the EnerNex Corporation, of Knoxville, Tenn., is the first major effort to compare those assertions. It found that in the “reference” case, with new windmills being built to satisfy state-by-state requirements for renewable energy, total yearly electricity costs in the Eastern Interconnection would be about $125 billion (in today’s dollars) in 2024. That would bring wind’s share to about 6 percent of electricity. Building windmills in the Midwest to get to 20 percent, with matching transmission lines, would raise that to about $140 billion, and building offshore would bring costs of about $150 billion.

Thomas Rumsey, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator, the grid operator, said that building a better transmission system to the West would be a pathway for bringing in more coal energy, as well as wind energy. New York, he said, would focus on better connections to Quebec, which has hydroelectric power and the potential for significant wind generation.

Regardless of where the windmills are built, the projected global warming benefits are modest: a drop of about 4.5 percent in emissions, at best. If no additional wind machines are built, carbon emissions will rise.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Tibet's Water Will Save China"

The title of today's post comes from an extremely controversial publication released in China in 2005. Tensions are growing over dwindling water resources resulting from rapidly melting glaciers of the Himalayan Mountains. Triggered by climate change, this situation is heating up the cold war between China and India. It may also be a harbinger of water wars that will inevitably increase in the wake of the failed climate talks in Copenhagen. (GW)

Land of blue gold

By Isabel Hilton

New Statesman
January 18, 2010

In a region fraught with mutual distrust, anxieties over water supply are raising tensions between India and China. For exiled Tibetans, these developments carry their own threat

Almost anything the Dalai Lama does can trigger protests from Beijing. But his November 2009 visit to the disputed territory of Tawang, in the remote north-east Indian state of Arun­a­chal Pradesh, was felt with particular resonance in China's capital. Relations between India and China have been bad-tempered for months, with nationalists on both sides urging their respective governments to act tough.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Tawang - which China sees as southern Tibet, and which was the birthplace of his eccentric but talented predecessor, the sixth Dalai Lama - reminds Beijing that this was once Tibetan territory. The current Dalai Lama first came through these parts in 1959, as a young refugee fleeing Chinese rule. He never returned to Lhasa. India's open-hearted hospitality to exiled Tibet­ans has annoyed Beijing ever since.

Arunachal Pradesh, nearly 33,000 square miles of lightly populated mountain and valley, is claimed by both India and China. Its people, largely Buddhist and ethnically Monpa, speak a language similar to Tibetan and have suffered long years of neglect by both states: a condition they no doubt prefer to being fought over. During the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962, Chinese troops occupied Tawang for more than a month. Now, China is reasserting its claim. India, in turn, is claiming more than 14,700 square miles of Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin, near the Kashmir border. Talks between the two countries have been held repeatedly over the past four years without resolution.

Today, the line of actual control is heavily patrolled by both nations: on the Indian side by troops housed in ramshackle, temporary huts, and on the Chinese by soldiers in concrete barracks marching along well-paved roads. The contrast has not escaped the notice of local people and is taken as a signal of intent.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Arunachal Pradesh and the warm welcome he received from his devout Monpa following are symbolic of the antagonism. But Beijing also issued a strong protest when the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Arunachal Pradesh last October during an election campaign.

Historically, China is Pakistan's ally and many in India believe that China maintains pressure along the 2,500-mile border that the two countries share to keep Indian forces tied down. There have been alarming reports in the Indian press of repeated incursions across the line of control by Chinese troops. The Indian government plays these incidents down, pointing out that the boundary is not only disputed but also ill-defined, and that these incursions need not be taken as provocation.

Behind the immediate stresses, there is jockeying for regional and international influence by two large, utterly developing economies, built on radically different political philosophies and lying in a region with both live and frozen conflicts. After 1962, relations were hostile for decades: China and Pakistan became ­allies, and India turned for support to China's enemy, the USSR.

The end of the cold war brought new conflicts based on ethnicity and religion, in a region with four nuclear powers. Recently, India has been alarmed by China's increasing presence in Sri Lanka and Nepal, historically Indian spheres of influence. Now, there is another factor to complicate relations - the impact of climate change on states divided by political boundaries but united in their dependence on the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers for water, essential both for security and life itself.

Just a few miles across the line that divides Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet, the powerful torrent of what becomes the Brahmaputra River enters one of the most dramatic passages of its 2,000-mile journey to the Bay of Bengal. Rising on the slopes of the holy mountain of Kailash in western Tibet, it flows east, along the northern flank of the Himalayas, then enters one of the deepest gorges in the world, executing a hairpin bend before roaring south into Arunachal Pradesh.

To the engineers dominating the upper echelons of Chinese politics, who have the twin concerns of meeting China's ever-growing demand for energy and its need for water, the great bend of the Brahmaputra seems to offer an irresistible temptation.

Dammed if they do

Damming the great bend of the Brahmaputra is an idea with a long pedigree. It was first suggested as one of a series of global "megaprojects" by the Japanese in the 1970s. More recently, the Chinese government has made occasional reference to the plan. Though it remains a drawing-board idea, India suspects it is moving up the Chinese list of priorities.

Anxieties about China's intentions were inflamed in 2005 by the publication of the provocatively titled Tibet's Water Will Save China. Though it was not an official statement of policy, it was written by a former officer of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Li Ling, and its wide circulation gave it sufficient stature in Indian eyes to merit careful scrutiny. Ling's enthusiasm for diverting Tibet's rivers, including the Brahmaputra, to northern China to alleviate the acute water crisis there fitted enough of the facts to set alarm bells ringing.

In many ways, it is an implausible project, but China's engineering record and its demonstrated love of ambitious dam projects are troubling to its neighbours, so much so, that many in India's security establishment have said that if China were to dam the Brahmaputra, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Doubts about the feasibility of the project, including those expressed by the more sober Indian civil engineers, have not dampened wider fears. For India, concern about China's ambitions for the Himalayan region rivals - and is linked to - its long-standing enmity with Pakistan. In the heated atmosphere of mutual suspicion, water has taken its place as a critical national security concern.

At a meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Bangalore in October, India sought, and reportedly received, reassurances over the Brahmaputra. China, Indian officials were told, is a responsible country that would not harm the interests of its neighbours. But reports that remote sensing has detected the beginnings of construction on the river at Zangmu, Tibet, continue to circulate.

Both India and China suffer long-term anxieties over water, now rendered more acute by the rapid melting of the glaciers of the Himalayas (from which all of the great rivers of Asia derive to some degree). In a region fraught with mutual suspicion and reciprocal bad faith, there are no source-to-sink, trans-boundary water management agreements in place and, currently, little prospect of any being negotiated to manage the sharing of what threatens to be a rapidly diminishing supply.

The dispute works both ways. While India protests about Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which include roads and a £7.8bn dam, India has its own plans to dam the Brahmaputra in Aruna­chal Pradesh, which China opposes. India has drawn up plans for 42 dams in Arunachal Pradesh, which have the potential to produce nearly 28,000 megawatts of hydropower, equivalent to the entire hydro capacity built by India in the past 60 years.

The dispute over the dams went international in June when China attempted to block an Asian Development Bank loan that included £37m for projects in Arunachal Pra­desh. The bank should not invest, China said, as the state was disputed territory. India responded by saying that it would finance the projects itself and stepped up its military presence in the region, deploying another 60,000 troops to the neighbouring state of Assam in addition to the 40,000 already stationed there. The shadow war games rapidly spread across the Himalayas, as China initiated military exercises. In September, India responded by stepping up the state of alert on the line of control in Kashmir.

The status of India's legal claim to Arunachal Pradesh is complicated and rests on the unresolved argument about the historic status of Tibet. It centres initially on an exchange of notes during the negotiation of the Simla Accord in 1914, under Henry McMahon, the then foreign secretary of British India. China, Tibet and Britain negotiated the accord, which resulted in the contentious McMahon Line that, for the British at least, defined the border between India and Tibet. The Tibetans conceded the territory that became Arunachal Pradesh to British India in return for a British promise, never honoured, to recognise Tibetan autonomy.

Chinese water torture

China rejected the Simla Accord and insists that Tibet did not have the status to sign any international agreement. If India were to rest its case on the accord, it would imply that Delhi recognised Tibet's authority to negotiate and conclude international agreements: a step that Beijing would take as severe provocation. The British, at the time, insisted on a distinction ­between China's acknowledged "suzerainty" over Tibet and full sovereignty, but the picture was further complicated last year when the Foreign Office abandoned the distinction, for current policy at least, as "anachronistic".

After Simla, neither side paid much attention to the disputed territory, and the Tawang monastery continued to pay taxes to Tibet until the 1950s. Shifting regional geopolitics have made this, and other Himalayan regions, the focus of potentially dangerous rivalries.

For the Tibetans in exile, these developments carry their own threat. Rising tension between their Indian hosts and Beijing is not good news. India has been a generous host to some 150,000 Tibetans who now live there, to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile, and to refugees who continue to arrive.

Yet there are voices in India which argue that, in the face of China's growing assertiveness, the cost to India of this spiritual and material solidarity is getting higher. It is not hard to find Indian analysts who believe that both India and China need a comprehensive agreement on the main points of contention between them - the border and the disputed territories, the fair management of declining water supplies, and the scientific and technical co-operation that such agreements would demand.

The question that many ask, but nobody has yet answered, is whether the price of a comprehensive agreement will be the special status and security that India's Tibetan exiles have enjoyed for more than half a century. Such a bargain would certainly please Beijing. For India, it is still a long way from official policy, but some argue it would be a price worth paying.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Voodoo pest control

Thirty or so years ago, Colleen Armstrong and Kathi Ryan patrolled the inner sanctum of the Cape Cod Ark at the New Alchemy Institute. The Ark was a remarkable structure integrating passive solar greenhouse design inspired by Nature with aquaculture and agricultural systems. They were able to produce food year-round without the need of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Colleen and Kathi made sure that the lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, parsley, endive, beets and turnip greens survived and thrived in the comfortable confines of the Ark throughout the winter. Integrated pest management was a critical part of their strategy. Their toolkit of safe, non-toxic approaches to controlling pests including enlisting the services of Encarsia formosa -- a parasitic wasp that kept white flies in check. (GW)

Voodoo wasps that could save the world

By Steve Connor
The Independent
January 15, 2010

Genetic breakthrough could enable scientists to unleash armies of insects on deadly crop pests

They are so small that most people have never even seen them, yet "voodoo wasps" are about to be recruited big time in the war on agricultural pests as part of the wider effort to boost food production in the 21st century.

The wasps are only 1 or 2 millimetres long fully-grown but they have an ability to paralyse and destroy other insects, including many of the most destructive crop pests, by delivering a zombie-inducing venom in their sting.

Now scientists believe they have made the breakthrough that will enable them to recruit vast armies of voodoo wasps to search and destroy farm pests on a scale that could boost crop yields without polluting the wider environment with insecticides.

The researchers have decoded the full genomes of three species of parasitic wasp, which could lead to the development of powerful new ways of deploying these tiny insects against the vast range of pests that destroy billions of tonnes of valuable crops each year.

There are more than 600,000 species of parasitic voodoo wasps and they already play a critical role as a natural regulator of insect populations. However, scientists believe that the decoding of their genomes will open the door to new and better better ways of targeting them against specific pests.

"These genome sequences will be a major tool for agricultural pest control. Many people may not realise how dependent humans are on these tiny wasps which protect our food crops and save billions of dollars each year by reducing crop loss," said Chris Smith of San Francisco State University, a member of the research team.

The three wasps all belong to the Nasonia genus and are strictly speaking "parasitoid" species, meaning that they lay their eggs inside the paralysed bodies of other insects, keeping them alive long enough for the wasp larvae to grow and mature into adults as they feed off the living flesh of their "zombie" host.

"Parasitic wasps attack and kill pest insects, but many people don't even notice them or know of their important role in keeping pest numbers down. We owe them a lot. If it weren't for parasitoids and other natural enemies, we would be knee-deep in pest insects," said Professor John Werren of the University of Rochester, who led the study published in the journal Science.

"If we can harness their full potential, they would be vastly preferable to chemical pesticides which broadly kill or poison many organisms in the environment. We basically broadcast toxins into the environment - pesticides to control in a very non-specific way a large number of pests. As a result the environment is exposed to these toxins, and we are as well."

The scientists hope that deciphering the genomes of the Nasonia wasps will enable them to find the insect genes involved in directing a wasp to attack a specific insect, with the aim of understanding how to manipulate such attacks. The researchers also hope to identify the chemical nature of the venoms used by the wasps to paralyse their hosts, a development that could also lead to new drugs for human medicine.

Parasitoid wasps are already used as natural pesticides. Last year, for instance, scientists in the US released thousands of parasitic wasps to attack the olive fruit fly, which is decimating the olive groves of California. The wasp is harmless to people, pets and plants.

Scientists also believe that knowing the genomes of the Nasonia wasps will help in the fight against human diseases that are carried by insects. It may be easier to control the disease-carrying insect using the parasitic wasps, rather than targeting the disease itself.

Insects: Back from extinction

They do sea eagles. They do red kites. They do corncrakes. And now, they're doing bumblebees.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, not content with successfully reintroducing some of Britain's most charismatic and endangered bird species, is turning its attention to insects. With the help of conservation partners, it is bringing back endangered species of bees, crickets, hoverflies and moths on its vast national network of nature reserves.

It is the RSPB's contribution to 2010 as a special wildlife year - this is the International Year of Biodiversity - and opens up the possibility of much wider restoration of lost wildlife species in Britain than has hitherto been considered practicable.

The list of insects to be brought back is headed by the short-tailed bumblebee, now extinct - it was once widespread in the south of England but disappeared as a result of changes in farming methods, with the last recorded UK population being in 1988.

However, populations taken to New Zealand by British settlers a century ago have survived and some will be brought back for release this summer on the RSPB's Dungeness reserve in Kent, with the help of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Natural England, and Hymettus, a bees and wasps conservation group.

Another project, also in cooperation with Natural England, will be the reintroduction of field crickets to the RSPB reserves at Farnham Heath, Surrey and Pulborough Brooks, West Sussex in April. Field cricket populations have declined severely due to loss of habitats such as lowland heathland and grassland, and were at their lowest point in the late 1980s after they were reduced to a single surviving colony of just 100 individuals in Sussex.

In Scotland, the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage will be laying the groundwork for a planned reintroduction of the threatened pine hoverfly to the RSPB's Abernethy reserve in 2011. One of Britain's most endangered insects, the pine hoverfly only breeds in the hollows of tree stumps created by fungi, and changes in forestry practices have led to a crash in its population.

Also in Scotland, the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation this year will establish a captive breeding programme in an attempt to create a sustainable population of the rare dark bordered beauty moth, which lives in aspen woodland and heathland, currently only in two colonies in Scotland and one in northern England. If this is successful the moths will be released at a Scottish RSPB reserve next year.

"The B in our name stands for birds - and we stand up for birds wherever we can - but our work covers all kinds of wildlife," said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Director of Conservation. "No conservation organisation worth its salt concentrates on just one species and ignores all others. 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and that chimes perfectly with our efforts to protect whole ecosystems on our reserves from the smallest bug to the tallest tree.

"We have recorded more than 13,000 different species on our 200 reserves, and only three per cent of those are birds. I'm very excited that they will soon become home to some of the country's most endangered insects."

There was also a longer-term reason for the reintroductions, Dr Avery said - climate change, which would see many creatures seeking to move northwards. Some species, especially birds, would be able to do this easily, but others would not. "Over the next few decades we may have to move species to where they need to be, rather than where they are," he said.

Michael McCarthy