Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is my iPhone worth all the pollution in China?

The morning began with the sun rays gleaming in an odd yellowish hue.  A smoky day that would ruin my walk.

I hoped that the air would clear up, but it got worse.  Mid-afternoon, when I stepped out to get the mail, I yelled out to the neighbor across the street who was out on the porch: "stop smoking. It is killing me."

"Oh crap, I thought it was you" came the quick retort.

Another neighbor who was walking by chipped in with "it is Tim back there with his cigar.  His dog is even worse."

We laughed.

We could laugh about it because though the smoke--from the forest fires a few miles away--made our lives unpleasant, we knew it was temporary.  As the fires die down, and as the wind shifts, we will be back in paradise.

I attempted the walk, but gave up on that barely two minutes into it--inhaling the smoky air was putting a strain on my system.  If I cannot handle the little bit of smoke and particulate matter in the air for a day and have to even forego my favorite walk by the river, I cannot even begin to imagine the horror stories from China that I read about!
The environmental costs also are on display. The roads leading to Jizhong's mines, power plants and coal-preparation plants are covered in dust and soot, and large coal trucks drive in and out, kicking up debris.
Outside many of the company's compounds are plots of land where farmers grow apples, peanuts and corn to sell to local markets, and some landholders complain that the soot makes their crops unsalable.
"The ash from the power plant's chimneys is too much," said 67-year-old Yang Hexiao, who lives just outside a Jizhong power plant in Xingtai. "My clothes are covered in ash. The grain I dry on the roof is covered in ash."
I imagine myself traveling in Xingtai.  As I typically do when I travel, I will walk around the place observing people and things and taking photos and making mental notes.  Throughout all that, I will be breathing in the highly toxic air.  And might not ever come back alive!  (In that case, I bet quite a few of my colleagues will gladly pay for my trip to Xingtai ... hehehe!)

Are jobs worth all the destruction?  Do we love the latest iPhone and curved screen TVs and all other products from China so much that we don't care about the destruction, which is no exaggeration, to life and the natural environment there?

It is not Mandarin that we all need to learn, but one German word: Energiewende (pronounced in-ur-GEE-vend-uh)

Maybe one day I will be able to walk the streets of Xingtai without worrying about my lungs.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Energiewende is the zeitgeist word. No schadenfreude, please

What if globally we are at, or at least close to, that worst point along the environmental Kuznets Curve, and things could only get better from now on?

Of course, I could be--and for all I know--completely wrong.  But then, keep this in mind: Nobody. Knows. Anything.

We try to make order of the chaos that the world is by connecting the dots.  It is, however, to some extent like how we connect the celestial dots--the stars--and give them "shapes."  But, we could connect the stars differently and come up with completely different shapes, right?  Of course, I am using the stars analogy only for illustrative purposes--here on earth, we can confirm with the passing of time whether or not the shape that I create is wrong and whether somebody else's is correct.

I suppose I am connecting a few dots out of my optimism.  A wish that we might be on to a path of screwing up the natural environment a tad less, and make it better.

It all begins with the world's factory--China--where "environmental anxiety is spreading."
This growing anxiety is reflected in the rising frequency of environmental protests. In the past year, people have taken to the streets in cities throughout the country to protest the building of coal-fired power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, waste incinerators, and the like. According to Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s political and legislative affairs committee, pollution is now the leading cause of social unrest in China.
Why this budding environmental consciousness now? The answer is simple: 2013 was, by any accounting, one horrific year for the environment. ...
China’s environment is a disaster. But by casting a bright light on the country’s severe pollution problems, the crises of the past year have stirred a greater environmental consciousness in the people. At the same time, they have spurred the country’s leaders to take more aggressive environmental action.
There is hope.

Meanwhile, the big European industrial power, Germany, continues to wage its seemingly lone war against climate change:
Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.
The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition.
Germany's efforts involve China too:
Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.
But, it does not mean that all is well.  There is a catch:
Much concern is focused on Germany's reliance on brown coal, which harms the environment more than other types of coal, for a secure and affordable power supply. Last year lignite was the single biggest source of German power, generating 25.8 percent, and it has risen every year since 2010.
Greenpeace says no other country in the world extracts and converts as much brown coal into electricity as Germany.
"Germany is making itself a laughing stock because it hasn't set limits on brown coal," said Greenpeace's Karsten Smid, who wants the government to say when it will phase it out.
These lignite-based power plants (which is why Germans were technical advisers for the industry in the town where I grew up) are needed because, more than anything else, the renewables are intermittent.

I am confident a majority on this planet are in a situation where we can echo this:
“Indeed, the German people are paying significant money,” said Markus Steigenberger, an analyst at Agora, the think tank. “But in Germany, we can afford this — we are a rich country. It’s a gift to the world.”
Germany is not the only rich country, right?  We can all afford to begin to afford to experiment with Energiewende (pronounced in-ur-GEE-vend-uh) and make it a century of carbon in other ways than merely burning it up:

Monday, September 15, 2014

I so want Scotland to break free. Jack the Union (Jack)!

I have never been to Scotland, and I doubt I will ever get there.  Despite all my longing for travel to far off places that have their own long and rich histories, that part of the world has never fascinated me enough to day dream about a Scottish lass.

I suppose there is one connection to Scotland that I can think of.  My accent.  No, not because the English I speak is as hard to understand as one spoken with the full-throated Scottish accent.  Apparently my accent is not the stereotypical Indian accent that people expect to hear.  Can't blame them when anything about me is far from stereotypical ;)  Once, at the end of a conference session, as I was exiting the room, another guy who was about my age said that my accent intrigued him.  "Obviously you are from India, but you seem to have picked up a Scottish accent too.  Did you live in Scotland for a while?"  He should know about Scottish accents--he said he was from Scotland.

So, there, that qualifies me to blog about Scotland!

I am all in support of an independent Scotland for a very simple reason.  We are so much wrapped up with the idea of globalization that we forget we are humans and we like, we love, identities.  Identities especially when there is a long and rich history of the peoples.  Economics--being materially well off--does matter to us, yes.  But, we seem to overlook that we do not live on bread alone.  There is a lot more than mere material satisfaction that makes us human.  Identity--religious, ethnic, linguistic, ... and often these are also intertwined.

Scotland is a prime example.  There are more in the queue: Basque, Catalonia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Kashmir, Balochistan, ... it is a long list.  You cannot convince them to stay put in whatever political union they are by merely offering economic arguments:
the economic arguments against independence seem not to be working — and may even be backfiring. I think I know why. Telling a Scot, “You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,” has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial. If you went into a Glasgow pub tonight and said to the average Glaswegian, “If you down that beer, you’ll get your head kicked in,” he would react by draining his glass to the dregs and telling the barman, “Same again.”
No, it is not some crank basing it on the stereotype of a Scot who walks around drunk with whiskey.  Ok, it is a crank, but an accomplished intellectual, Niall Ferguson, who knows a thing or two about Scotland, and yet is baffled with the momentum that the "Yes" campaign has picked up:
With days remaining before the Scottish electorate votes on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom, the result is too close to call.
Born in Glasgow, but having spent most of my life in England and America, I am rather baffled, too
Another Scotland-born author, who also now lives in the US, writes that "the idea of nationalism has also been redefined by this vote":
Foreign nationals who are resident, however, can vote. If you live in Scotland, you are taken to be part of the project that is Scotlandyou are taken to be Scottish. (This is a fairly well-established idea, culturally. When I offered work to anthologies of Scottish writing as an up-and-coming author, submissions were usually sought using a form of words along the lines of “if you are Scottish by birth, residence, or choice…”) This definition of national identityI would hope not an unfamiliar one to citizens of the great melting pothas been echoed in Scottish parliamentary efforts to produce a country which is now perceived by immigrants as being one of the more welcoming areas of the UKwhich is, admittedly, an increasingly racist entity. So a “Yes” vote isn’t a return to the SNP’s beliefs during the 1930sthe beliefs they’d like us to forgetwhich involved disturbing yearnings for an Aryan future. There is a tiny wild-eyed fringe of people who will vote “Yes” on a kind of racist autopilot, but they are a minority.The “No” vote largely reflects a secure type of Scottishness under a British umbrella, a fear that now is not the time to do something riskyfinancially or otherwiseand a lack of trust in Scotland’s available politicians. There is an ugly minority of “No” voters who are wedded to the brand of Unionism familiar to Northern Irelandthe one that’s about Empire supremacy and a feeling that rampant savages may overwhelm the white Protestant barricades at any moment. The “Yes” votersand I would be one of them if I could votemay detect also traces of post-Empire low self-esteem in the “No” camp.
Add me to that list of people who would love to watch the old British Empire get another kick in its ass. Er, make that "arse." ;)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's in a name? Try Kim! Or, how about Venkataramasubramanian?

One of the many practical issues that a global village idiot like me has to deal with as we move away from the cultures and traditions in which we were raised is this: from reading a name, how do we know whether it is male or female?

I laugh now thinking about the months and years when I continued to be fresh-off-the-boat.  But, it was not easy then and was quite stressful.

The first was with a Kim.  As a political junkie, I had known that Kim is a common Korean last name.  But then there was also Kim Bassinger; how could a young man forget this Kim!  Yet, I was stumped when I had to address an application for financial support to a Kim "lastname."  I checked with my professor, Jim.  He politely said something like "I think it is a female and you might want to use Ms."

Years later, here in Oregon, as is my practice, I scanned through the rosters before the first day of classes, to check for any familiar names of students I might have had before and for names that could potentially stump me.  I walked into one of the classes and as they introduced myself I was checking off the names in my printout.  It turned out that the student with the name "Kym" was male!

Over the years, I have learnt to be careful with Robin and Pat and Taylor and Jordan--one can never assume the gender with those names.  But, these days life is getting more and more complicated as parents aim for creative names and spellings for their children.  There was a Michael, but a female student.

I have never had to wonder what people in an alien culture might think about names like mine.  I experienced that right from my first day in this adopted country of mine.

I do miss some old names.  A favorite from the old country was the multi-syllable Sivaramakrishnan.  In graduate school, my adviser once gave me a copy of a book authored by a Sivaramakrishnan and told me that he was not even going to attempt pronouncing the name.  He knew the author was a guy because of the bio on the book jacket!

Growing up in India, I was fascinated by a name: Zbigniew Brzezinski.  Now, with that kind of a name, it really does not matter if a male or a female answered the call--you just don't mess with a person walking around with that name and it is simply "Yes, ma'am. Uh, yes, sir. Uh, sorry. Yes!"

BTW, why so many Kims in Korea--like the recent golf winner Kim Hyo-Joo? (Quick, do you know if the name Kim Hyo-Joo is of a male or a female?  Keep in mind that the surname comes first.)
As in many other parts of the world, surnames were a rarity until the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). They remained the privilege of royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) only. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have the luxury of a family name. ... The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.
As family names such as Lee and Kim were among those used by royalty in ancient Korea, they were preferred by provincial elites and, later, commoners when plumping for a last name.
What an interesting life I have lived, and you have also lived, so far away from our respective old traditions, right?

Thus ends the blog-post by this writer who was once formally referred to, during the ritualistic Hindu Brahminical ceremonies, as Venkataramasubramanian, which is definitely a testosterone-filled manly man's name! ;)

Don't know much about geography. Don't know much about, well, everything.

The Onion made fun of bloggers like me:
So, of course, here I am returning to my blog after a break of, gasp, two days!

BTW, if there is nobody to read a blogger's post, then does the blog post make that philosophical noise in the forest? ;)

Anyway, two months ago, I remarked on how much even the attention-paying few realize that yesterday's news becomes quickly forgotten:
We live in a world in which yesterday's news is not merely yesterday's news but feels like something that might have happened back in the Jurassic Age! 
Apparently, I was not the only one to think along those lines, though it does almost always feel that way in my world.  In today's paper, I read this commentary, where the author writes that "even dedicated news junkies are bound to tune things out" because of the sheer volume of events:
A look back at this year shows just how fickle the public’s attention can be. Several stories have peaked in the news, but no two have commanded the same peaks of attention at the same time.
Google Trends tracks how often people search for keywords — including those related to major events — all over the world. Back in March, the conflict in Ukraine grabbed the world’s attention, but it was largely forgotten when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared.
It wasn’t that the action in Ukraine or its global importance diminished, as we would see later in the year. Audiences and news organizations simply switched head space and resources to the other story.
Two stories could not claim the same peak of attention at the same time.
Then, in July, the fighting in Gaza ramped up along with its audience. But just as it was heading for a Google Trends peak as high as those of Ukraine and MH370, something else happened: the downing of another Malaysia Airlines jet in Ukraine. With two big stories developing simultaneously — the plane was shot down on the same day Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza — neither managed the heights of attention of Ukraine and MH370 earlier in the year.
Within weeks, however, attention shifted again. An outbreak of ebola in West Africa wiped almost everything else off the map. In August, there was another change. Ebola dropped well off its peak, as the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., began to capture eyes from around the world.
Then, as the Islamic State has advanced farther across Syria and Iraq and has committed horrific crimes, it has pulled readers and viewers away from ebola and other stories. Of course, none of this has any impact on whether the deaths from ebola are mounting (they are) or concern from public health officials is growing (it is).
Forget the "average" person.  What about the experts?  No, I am not referring to Thomas Friedman.  And, no, by experts I am not pointing to where John McCain drools.  I am referring to real experts like, well, me.  Hahaha!  Ok, seriously, what do the experts think?  Here is Dan Drezner, who has now started moonlighting at the Washington Post, opining that nobody knows anything:
Let me be blunt:  I didn’t expect a lot of this to go down in this fashion. After all, I’ve been relatively upbeat about global economic governance, and I was hopeful that as the developed economies recovered, so would their ability to tamp down geopolitical tensions.  Oops.
It has been one awful year. Just when it seemed like we were all settling into more peaceful and friendly ways, kaboom!

Drezner ends it with an important piece of advice:
when the world seems like an uncertain place and you’re looking for some guru to help explain what the world will look like in 2015, please remember:  Nobody. Knows. Anything.
If that is the case, then is it even worth following the news?

YES, DAMMIT!  Don't ever take your eyes off the world news.  Otherwise, the McCains and the Friedmans of the world will screw us even more than they have.

Ok, I exaggerated.  Ignore the world news.  Ignore the Onion.  READ THIS BLOG! ;)