May 2013 Archives

Bald Head Island's Generator Society

From Our State magazine, a well-written piece about idyllic Bald Head Island. Sounds pretty nice:

Toward the ends of many afternoons, they all came together, usually gathering on East Beach, for what they took to calling TPP, or Total Population Parties. The kids’ job was to collect a mess of driftwood to make a fire. The women brought hush puppies and coleslaw. The men cooked the fish they caught that day or boiled a big pot of shrimp or made chowder from fresh clams. They ate and told stories and jokes. They played guitar and sang songs. They even shared some coveted “diamonds” for drinks.

The sun set.

Night fell.

Out came the ghost crabs skittering on the sand and the bright white stars in the sky.

At the Dunlaps’ by the beach, where they almost never ran their generator for light, the adults lit the lanterns, probably a dozen or so latched to the walls, 6 or 7 feet off the floor. They played Monopoly or dominoes or checkers or chess. The kids ran up and down the beach, around on the dunes, just enough light from the moon. They clambered up a ladder to the wide, flat deck on the roof of the house. From there, they could see the hulking cargo ships, with their blinking lights, coming in off the Atlantic and approaching the mouth of the river. They went back down in the house and grabbed all the cushions, dragged them back up to the deck, and finally closed their eyes.

Seems like the island’s got some advocates worried about climate change, too.

Bald Head Island Conservancy has developed a comprehensive public outreach campaign to help educate community members about the potential impacts of climate change to the island and individual choices that can help improve the socioecological system’s resilience. Staff work with community members to identify tangible solutions to future problems. The Conservancy has attained funding to build a research and educational facility and is developing a knowledge sharing network, the Coastal Barrier Island Network, with other barrier islands to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and lessons learned as communities begin to adapt to climate change.

Read more here.

Stories To Mark 60 Years Since First Summit Of Everest

slayers among men.

From SFGate:

Nepal celebrated the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest on Wednesday by honoring climbers who followed in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Among them was Italian Reinhold Messner, the first climber to scale Everest without using bottled oxygen and the first person to climb all of the world’s 14 highest peaks.

“I am here in Nepal again for filming … not any more for climbing,” Messner said, adding he did reach the base camp of Mount Kanchenjunga during his visit. “I am full of energy and full of enthusiasm for this country.”

Nepalese officials offered flower garlands and scarfs to the climbers who took part in the ceremony. They were taken around Katmandu on horse-drawn carriages followed by hundreds of people who marched holding banners to mark the anniversary.

Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953. Since then thousands of people have reached the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak.

and from NPR:

On this, the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit of the world’s tallest mountain, there’s plenty of news about Mount Everest. Here are six stories [NPR] found interesting.

Music! New Music! Volcano Choir (Justin Vernon) and David Byrne & St. Vincent!

Happy Monday morning. First up, from Volcano Choir, a teaser of a new album and a new song.

Next, a free EP from David Byrne and Annie Clark. The page requires flash to download the EP (boo!).

Merry Christmas.

New Boards of Canada (!!!): Reach for the Dead

Do the kids even know about Boards of Canada? The new album, Tomorrow’s Harvest, is due out June 11. Exciting.

Tesla pays back US government early

NYTimes Dealbook:

Tesla, the maker of electric cars, paid off a $465 million loan on Wednesday that the Energy Department made in 2010. The repayment is a lift to the Obama administration, whose clean-energy loan programs faced criticism after the collapse of Solyndra, the solar panel maker. The company, using money it raised last week in the markets, is repaying the government nine years before its loan was due.

“Today’s repayment is the latest indication that the Energy Department’s portfolio of more than 30 loans is delivering big results for the American economy while costing far less than anticipated,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said in a statement.

Less coverage than hoped for across the big media outlets.

Happy Towel Day

Today is Towel Day, in honor of Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Last Chance to See, the Dirk Gently series, etc. Why Towels?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Stray thoughts from Kathmandu

It’s a little odd being back in Kathmandu. Much feels the same — congestion, pollution, tourists. Silent places pepper the roads, close to and worlds from busy intersections. Beautiful old crumbling Rana palaces, inhabited by the packs of wild dogs that still control the city. It feels as though it would be easy to fall into old work and life patterns - a welcome thought.

Familiar haunts have been reoriented, reorganized, redistributed, relocated. Some roads have gone from crudely paved to stone tiled. The palace — on lock down during past lives here — is open, a museum to an abolished monarchy, its end initiated in violent bloodshed.

A spot we visited often, for tourists of all ilk, once lived down a little alley. It still lives in the same place, but the alley has transformed. It has widened, opening up into a brick megaplex full of shops catering to tourists. It is like many of the paths here that converge on large central squares and are often adorned with stuppas, small shrines, and clotheslines.

On the streets, traffic appears much the same — though far fewer UN vehicles plow through intersections and around corners. Perhaps the UN mission here has been downsized. Perhaps my sample size of two days is far too small.

Fat, almond-shaped rain spewed from the sky yesterday for four and a half hours. “Pre-monsoon,” the hotel staff said. Memory must have erased the Kathmandu monsoon from my neurons — I have no recollection of rain like that. The streets filled with inches of water. Shops closed their front gates in an attempt to keep the rain out. Fellow KGH residents - with plans for meals out and about dashed - congregated in the small, overpriced, hotel restaurant.

Near Bishal Bazaar, Tip Top Tailors still serves the ultimate, mouth-scorching samosa. Amidst hundreds of similarly named tailors, on a bustling and wide road, two small signs point down a corridor to the legendary snack vendor. The largest clue that you’re in the right place is a steady stream of people entering and existing a narrow alley (which, like others, opens into a wide courtyard, this one with rich smells swirling about). Wandering there yesterday, old muscle memories guided me right to the spot. Another nice bit of delight.

Despite the gradual expansion of the city through the entire valley, KTM is still a small place. It’s unsurprising, then, that I ran into an old friend today. Now married to a Nepali, he runs an environmental consulting firm in Kathmandu, and is pulling off feats with rainwater harvesting, biosands, and soon cookstoves. He’s transformed — still American, but Nepali, too.

Into the fire — off to Delhi in four short hours. Temperature don’t seem to drop below 90-95, even in the early morning.

David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon

Robert Krulwich, at his blog, points to a dramatization of DFW’s commencement speech to the class of 2005 at Kenyon college. Excerpted below (read the full transcript).

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

The Ranbaxy Boondoggle

Cover-ups. A corporate culture not only lacking ethics but endorsing and encouraging amoral behavior. Unfettered greed. And excellent reporting by Katherine Eban at Fortune on Ranbaxy’s atrocious behavior. I remember not long ago reading about how much of a boon Ranbaxy could be for PEPFAR and for getting good medicines to those most in need.

Shameful behavior and a slow and unacceptable response from the US FDA. Kudos to the employees and auditors who brought the abuses to light.

The two men strolled into the hall to order tea from white-uniformed waiters. As they returned, Kumar said, “We are in big trouble,” and motioned for Thakur to be quiet. Back in his office, Kumar handed him a letter from the World Health Organization. It summarized the results of an inspection that WHO had done at Vimta Laboratories, an Indian company that Ranbaxy hired to administer clinical tests of its AIDS medicine. The inspection had focused on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that Ranbaxy was selling to the South African government to save the lives of its AIDS-ravaged population.

As Thakur read, his jaw dropped. The WHO had uncovered what seemed to the two men to be astonishing fraud. The Vimta tests appeared to be fabricated. Test results from separate patients, which normally would have differed from one another, were identical, as if xeroxed.

Thakur listened intently. Kumar had not even gotten to the really bad news. On the plane back to India, his traveling companion, another Ranbaxy executive, confided that the problem was not limited to Vimta or to those ARV drugs.

“What do you mean?” asked Thakur, barely able to grasp what Kumar was saying.

The problem, said Kumar, went deeper. He directed Thakur to put aside his other responsibilities and go through the company’s portfolio — ultimately, every drug, every market, every production line — and uncover the truth about Ranbaxy’s testing practices and where the company’s liabilities lay.

Reflections from Pokhara

Mornings have a consistency here, and ordered patterns take hold easily. As the sun rises, young and old alike dot the trail around Fewa Lake. Meditators face the green grey tal, their backs warmed by the sun. Water gently swishes against yellow, blue, and red dinghies. Boys and girls practice karate on a soccer field, jabbing at invisible foes in the distant, lush jungle hillsides. Hotels and cafes stir, staff setting tables with a practiced stillness. Others, meanwhile, splash water on sandy patio tiles, sloughing off the dregs of the past day’s monsoon. A man with an old hiking poll limps assuredly down the path. Every morning we pass each other; today, we knowingly make eye contact, confident in a shared, unspoken secret - that these moments, between the bustle of the daily and the quiet of the night, are precious.

On occasion, in the far distance, the craggy Himalaya emerge through thick clouds. Their summits melt into the heavens, with snow packed peaks camouflaged by puffy atmospheres. Their unmovable enormity seems impossible, their suddenness shocking. Nearly as quickly, they go back into hiding. Their indescribability evokes Ansel Adams: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” More precious moments, as the mind is briefly hushed by the scale of the scene.

Between 3 and 4 pm many days, the temperatures cool quickly, the skies darken, and winds pick up. Faint thunder gets closer and closer and closer until the deluge begins. Sometimes the rains last an hour, other times they last longer. The water cleans the air, thick humidity displacing the civilized smells of burnt plastic and exhaust and industry.

When we leave the office, the rains have usually paused. Our taxis perform regular miracles, weaving through wide lanes populated by all manner of beasts - bicycles, water buffalo, chickens, scooters and motorcycles, men and women and children, and sometimes boys on camels or ponies.

We eat as the sun sets. It rises again, and the cycle begins anew, an anything but boring repetition.

Murakami on the Boston marathon bombings

Haruki Murakami, author and avid runner, in the New Yorker:

Why? I can’t help asking. Why did a happy, peaceful occasion like the marathon have to be trampled on in such an awful, bloody way? Although the perpetrators have been identified, the answer to that question is still unclear. But their hatred and depravity have mangled our hearts and our minds. Even if we were to get an answer, it likely wouldn’t help.

To overcome this kind of trauma takes time, time during which we need to look ahead positively. Hiding the wounds, or searching for a dramatic cure, won’t lead to any real solution. Seeking revenge won’t bring relief, either. We need to remember the wounds, never turn our gaze away from the pain, and—honestly, conscientiously, quietly—accumulate our own histories. It may take time, but time is our ally.

For me, it’s through running, running every single day, that I grieve for those whose lives were lost and for those who were injured on Boylston Street. This is the only personal message I can send them. I know it’s not much, but I hope that my voice gets through. I hope, too, that the Boston Marathon will recover from its wounds, and that those twenty-six miles will again seem beautiful, natural, free.

Soderbergh on Cinema and parallels with doing science

Steven Soderbergh recently gave a “State of the Cinema” talk at the San Francisco International Film Festival (embedded above, transcript here). If you’re interested in film, cinema, and the arts, it’s worth a read. Soderbergh is an excellent, intelligent storyteller.

The passages below stood out — mainly because I think his description of art, and of cinema, parallel creative scientific thinking nicely. We face some of the same problems of “entrenched ideology” — the scientific enterprise can be slow to respond to alternative viewpoints. Second, there’s a similar and interesting distinction between science and “Science” that resembles the distinction he draws between cinema and movies.

Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

Now we finally arrive at the subject of this rant, which is the state of cinema. First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say “Fuck yeah!” The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

via daring fireball

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