Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More Bad News for The Big 3

The amount of time the Big 3 Automakers have to get their act together on energy efficient transport just got a lot shorter.

On Monday a Chinese automaker began selling the world's first mass produced, plug-in-electric vehicle. The car, The F3DM by BYD—Build Your Dream—sells in China for $22,000 and gets 62 miles on battery-only power. The Volt, GM’s plug in hybrid will cost twice as much, get a third fewer miles to the battery, and won’t come out for another two to three years.

Interestingly, BYD rose from the ashes of a bankrupt state-owned auto company it purchased in 2003; recession be damned, let the Big 3 fail if they must so that someday they, or their successors, might make something relevant.
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Friday, December 12, 2008

Why We Should Let the Big Three Fail

[This blog originally appeared in New Scientist. See the original here.]

The second attempt at a federal bailout for the Big 3 US automakers fell apart early this morning when their union refused to trim their workers' rather cushy benefits packages.

I say good riddance. Let the dinosaurs die. It's time for auto industry version 2.0.

One alternative getting a lot of attention recently is Better Place, a Silicon Valley start-up with a business model that could quickly turn the automotive industry on its head.

Basically, it's a refueling system for all-electric vehicles that, if successful, would lead to a complete gutting of the internal combustion engine.

Better Place doesn't sell cars; rather, it sets up a national grid of refueling stations, ideally powered by renewable energy. Drivers swap out their drained batteries for fresh ones at their stations in a matter of minutes and pay Better Place by the mile, like buying minutes for a cell phone.

Israel, Denmark, Australia, and, as of last week, Hawaii are all on board. Renault-Nissan will provide the cars with the easy-to-swap batteries, and Japan is testing the company's stations for a remake of their transport system.

Tom Friedman plugged this new model earlier this week - and dissed what was then a likely bailout for the Big 3 - in an editorial for the New York Times saying:

"Our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay... into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes... into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle... into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet."
The Better Place model may be a part of the solution, but until heavy, steel-body autos go on a serious diet, battery-driven cars are going to be prohibitively expensive.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute gave a great talk at Harvard last week on Hypercars or ultralight vehicles made of advanced composites (that is, carbon fibre instead of steel) that, by virtue of their light weight, are 3-5 times more fuel-efficient.

Advanced composite car ideas have been batted around for years: GM did a one-off concept car back in 1992, but it seems no one has been able to get the economics right for mass production. Until, perhaps, now.

This summer, a Japanese paper reported that Nissan, Honda, and Toray - the largest carbon fibre manufacturer in the world - are coming together with the goal of making vehicles 40% lighter than today's models.

Last week I proposed giving the Big 3 whatever they asked for so long as the money was tied to significant CAFE standard increases. Now, I'm taking it back. The automotive industry is changing too quickly and GM, Ford, and Chrysler are too far behind.

I say if the US is going to compete in a new, fuel-efficient world, it will be with scrappy start-ups that aren't tied to 20th-century pensions. What do you think?
(image: Wikimedia Commons)
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chu On This!

[This story originally appeared in New Scientist. See the 0riginal Here.]

"Chu is the man!" "Chu gets it!" "Chu is hardcore!"

The eco-blogosphere is caught in an orgiastic frenzy over the pending announcement of Nobel laureate and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab director Steven Chu as US energy secretary.

So what's all the excitement about?

First, Chu would be the first person with a Nobel Prize in science to ever serve in the cabinet of a US president. The only other Nobel laureate in such a position was US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

But what makes Chu "hardcore" is the full-on assault he's launched against climate change since taking the helm of Lawrence Berkeley in 2004.

His homepage says he is on a "mission" to make the national lab "the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy".

In the past four years, he's formed some cutting-edge energy science centres, including the Joint BioEnergy Institute and the Energy Biosciences Institute. One of them, Helios, will draw on synthetic biology, a discipline that aims to rewrite the basic operating instructions of living cells, to produce new sources of clean energy.

In 2007, Chu co-authored "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", a report put out by the National Academy of Sciences that called for an energy agency similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) as a way to fund developments in renewable energy.

The same year, he co-chaired a report commissioned by the governments of China and Brazil outlining steps they could take toward a sustainable energy future. With Chu, who is a Chinese-American researcher and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, heading the DOE, I wouldn't be surprised to see further collaborations on this front in the coming years.

The only possible blemish in Chu's eco-career was sealing the deal on a $500 million biofuel development handout from oil giant BP for the national lab, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois that some felt would compromise the institutions' academic integrity.

Check out a video of Chu speaking at the National Clean Energy Summit in August. He seems like a bit of a numbers wonk, but is adamant about energy efficiency and clean energy research and development. Who better to lead the world's biggest assemblage of scientists developing renewable power?

Phil McKenna, correspondent (Image: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab/Roy Kaltschmidt)

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's Beginning To Feel Like 1980 Again

[Some great historical perspective on the Big 3 Bailout by Elizabeth Kolbert in the Talk of The Town in this week's New Yorker. See the top of the story below. Kolbert gets after Obama for not taking a strong stand on the issue but then fails to do so herself. I say give the Big 3 everything they want, but this time break the boom-bust-cycle by tying the money to a significant CAFE standard increase.]

The Secretary of Transportation’s report to Congress begins on a dark note. “Over the past year, the domestic auto industry has experienced sharply reduced sales and profitability, large indefinite layoffs, and increased market penetration by imports,” it states. “The shift in consumer preferences towards smaller, more fuel-efficient passenger cars and light trucks . . . appears to be permanent, and the industry will spend massive amounts of money to retool to produce the motor vehicles that the public now wants.” The revenue to pay for this retooling, though, will have to come from sales of just the sort of cars that the public is no longer buying—a situation, the report observes, bound to produce “financial strain.”

“To improve the overall future prospects for the domestic motor vehicle manufacturers, a quality and price competitive motor vehicle must be produced,” the report warns. “If this is not accomplished, the long term outlook for the industry is bleak.”

The Secretary’s report was delivered to Congress in 1980, a year after what may soon become known as the first Chrysler bailout... --Get the full story here. Copyright © 2008 CondéNet

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crazy Green Ideas

Check out this video I made for New Scientist on a cool new X-Prize competition challenging people to come up with alternative energy ideas.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Energy From The Deep

[The following is a story I wrote on Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion [OTEC] for NewScientist.com]

OTEC only makes sense where the temp. dif. between surface and deep water exceeds 20

FOR a company whose business is rocket science Lockheed Martin has been paying unusual attention to plumbing of late. The aerospace giant has kept its engineers occupied for the past 12 months poring over designs for what amounts to a very long fibreglass pipe.

It is, of course, no ordinary pipe but an integral part of the technology behind Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), a clean, renewable energy source that has the potential to free many economies from their dependence on oil.

"This has the potential to become the biggest source of renewable energy in the world," says Robert Cohen, who headed the US federal ocean thermal energy programme in the early 1970s...

[Get the full story here. Copyright Newscientist.com (Image:www.xenesys.com) ]

It's been fun writing about these once-orphaned renewable energy schemes that got a lot of RnD $ back in the day and are now getting a serious second look. I wrote one a couple years back on algae biofuel that feeds on CO2 exhaust that now looks like it might become a reality. In both cases, retired DOE guys who headed up the research in the 70s are suddenly in hot demand as they are the only ones with any hands on experience.
After this story on OTEC went to press, I heard that Taiwan is going in with Lockheed on their 10MW pilot plant off Hawaii.


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Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Kennedy Back in the White House?

[The following is a blog I wrote for NewScientist.com Check out the original here]

President-elect Barack Obama has short listed firebrand environmental lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr as a potential head of the US Environmental Protection Agency according to the Washington Post and Bloomberg.

As a prosecuting attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and environmental watchdog Riverkeeper, Kennedy - the nephew of former US President John F Kennedy - boasts an impressive track record as protector of the nation's waters, air and open spaces.

One could even argue that he has already served as the de facto EPA head for the last 8 years, as Bush appointees used the Cabinet seat to plunder public lands for oil and gas, gut the Endangered Species Act, and block CO2 emission regulations.

Kennedy is the highest-profile candidate among a number of individuals being considered for the position, including Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles, former Sierra Club president and environmental activist Lisa Renstrom, and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty.

Yet, surprisingly, Wired.com considers him the worst possible of the potential picks: "His environmental track record is excellent, but he's clung to the vaccines-causing-autism-hypothesis long after large-scale epidemiological studies have discredited it as anything but a statistically insignificant cause."

Wired goes on to argue that heading such a large organisation as the EPA, with its thousands of employees and a $7.2 billion budget, might be too big a jump for the relatively small potatoes environmental defense lawyer. But then again, imagine what an ace environmental prosecutor could do with a $7.2 billion budget and thousands of staffers. We may yet have an Environmental Protection Agency that is worthy of its name.

Copyright Newscientist.com (Image: www.robertfkennedyjr.com)

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Beijing Smog Blog, An Update

"Like a giant kid who's been holding a fart in during a three week [now nine week] elevator ride, Beijing has apparently relaxed its many industrial sphincters and let a big one rip." -Imagethief

My brother Gene just returned from his first trip to Beijing. He arrived a few days after emergency measures to clean Beijing's air for the Olympics and Paralympics ended on Sept 21. The following, including three photos taken 1 day, 3 days, and 5 days after a rainstorm, is what he reports.

Beijing - America in a different (and hazier) font.
Beijing is pretty much America at this point. I'm sure smaller cities and especially cities in Western China are very much, not America, but Beijing is. It's a great city. Massive in size. Very much on-the-move. It's an exciting and busy place to be. The food is great and plentiful. The history is rich and long and apparently if you were in charge in Beijing ... you built another palace inside the Forbidden City. I think every castle of Europe could fit inside the Forbidden City. There is some great new architecture that's really impressive: from the bird's nest and the water cube to the CCTV building and more. I met with several people at different high-tech companies and they were all very helpful in aiding our understanding of doing business here, and they were all very excited to be part of this raging economy.

The following are the differences between Beijing and America as I see it.

Air quality: Indoor air quality with all the smoking is disgusting - ok, I'm a spoiled Californian who never has to experience indoor smoke at home. Outdoor air quality - well see the pictures attached. The first was taken the day after it rained. The rain scrubs all the particles out of the air. The second photo was taken two days later. Ouch. I went for a run today and I am wondering how many cigarette-equivalents I have just inhaled. I don't think I could live here because of the air.

Language - ok, that one is obvious.

Red. Ok, people, I know red is the big, important color in China, but seriously - explore the color palette a bit more.

Traffic. They are way more 'green' than Americans in that there are tons of people who bike or ride small mopeds which guys in America could never be seen riding. They drive their cars on the freeways like one would drive a bike - as though crashing into something is not likely to cause any damage. Therefore going backwards on the freeway, dropping off passengers in the middle of the freeway, or getting to a freeway exit and stopping at that mid-point between taking the exit and staying on the freeway are all completely normal.

Food. The waitresses will wait forever for you to give an order. In the US if you aren't ready to state your entire party's order back-to-back, they say "I'll give you a minute and come back". Chinese menus, of course, are gi-normous with about 150 different options. The waitresses are all too willing to hang out, answer questions, watch you rub your chin, turn the page, discuss with each other ... they are very patient. Of course there are a few things I've eaten here that would not be on a menu in America: bull bladder, pig trotter (foot), chicken feet, some kind of frog and marinated pig's ear. They were all good. The food here is awesome. Even 'fast food' in China can include vegetables. When's the last time you got broccoli at a fast food restaurant?

Pre-reported news: I was lucky enough to be here when the Chinese astronauts (Taikonauts) took off and did the space walk. There was much excitement about this at our office and we watched the space walk live through the internet. Prior to the astronauts even leaving the earth, however, the Xinhua news agency reported the mission a success, noting that they 'captured the target' 12 seconds ahead of plan, and even included dialogue that the astronauts said to each other. The Chinese team in my office said it's common to have stories that describe how things will be before they happen. Like America, the engineers I work with here are a bit cynical on the manned space mission. They said "Yeah, China wins bronze in space-walking" and they ridiculed how some Chinese official tried to convince people that there was some scientific reason to do the mission. Sounds similar to the debate in the U.S. whenever manned space programs are announced.

Mao: They say that people over 50 like Mao better than Deng and people under 50 like Deng better than Mao. Let's see, Mao killed more people than anyone else in history combined. Deng changed China to capitalism and brought more people out of poverty than anyone else in history combined. Well, I guess people over 50 in America have their odd bouts of nostalgia too.

I asked my guys here how they thought China would change the world in the next 20-50 years. guy said the world would change China more than the other way around. A few stressed that China loves peace and it would not be changing the world in the way America has been. One expressed that China might bring a lot of help to Africa where they have been investing heavily. I said I wished America would be influenced by Chinese art and culture and particularly that we could learn to be more patient and long-term in our planning, like the Chinese appear to be.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Pan Wenshi and the White-Headed Langurs

Rachel and I returned from the PRC to the People's Republic of Cambridge about a month ago, however, a story I reported over the summer just came out in today's New York Times.

It Takes Just One Village to Save a Species

Published: September 22, 2008

CHONGZUO, China — Long ago, in the poverty-stricken hills of southern China, a village banished its children to the forest to feed on wild fruits and leaves. Years later, when food stores improved, the children’s parents returned to the woods to reclaim their young.

To their surprise, their offspring had adapted to forest life remarkably well; the children’s white headdresses had dissolved into fur, tails grew from their spines and they refused to come home...Click here for full story copyright, New York Times.

Story Behind the Story

Perhaps China's greatest environmental success story to date, this was also a really fun piece to report. The Nongguan Nature Reserve with its mind bending karsts and tropical forests is absolutely amazing, and I got to experience it with Rachel who was able to join me for my visit.

I'd known of Pan's prior work with pandas for some time but hadn't heard what he'd been up to recently, until a good friend visited the reserve and told me I really ought to check it out. Thanks for the tip, Ollie!

Check out the following video I shot in the Chongzuo Eco-park and hear Pan tell how alpha males patch themselves up after bloody battles with other males.

Langur and landscape photos used with permission from Peking University Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Redwoods of Beijing

I was hiking through a valley in a remote corner of the Beijing Botanical Gardens the other morning when I had this strange feeling that I was walking through a redwood grove. Turns out I was! A short walk from the yoga retreat there is a stand of dawn redwoods that were planted here in the 1970s. The trees are a distant cousin of the redwoods found on the West Coast and were thought to be extinct until the 1940s when they were rediscovered in southwestern China. Dawn redwoods are a lot heartier than true sequoias and are thus able to make it here in the northern China climate. All of the trees I saw still looked on the relatively young and scrawny side, but no one really knows just how big they can get. I may have to check back in in another 50 years or so.

While on the topic of trees once thought to be lost only to be rediscovered in China, it turns out ginkgos--the trees now found in city parks the world over--have a similar story. It seems that for much of the last 1000 years the only place these trees could be found was inside the courtyards of Chinese and Japanese temples. The trees were "discovered" by Europeans in the 17th century in Japan and quickly spread around the world thereafter. The temple where Rachel often teaches (see photos on the right side of this blog) has a massive ginkgo that easily predates the Euro discovery.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

World Record In The Bird's Nest

Rache and I took in a night of track and field last night at the Bird's Nest. It was really fun to get inside the Olympic Green after all of the hype we've been exposed to here this summer. Watching an Olympic track and field event is a lot like a 3, or perhaps 5, ring circus. There were often several events--discus, long jump, pole vault, steeple chase--all going on at the same time, often while the awards ceremony from a prior event was under way.
Highlights from the evening included seeing Jamaican sprinter Usain-The-Lightning-Bolt crush the competition, again, this time in the 200 meter quarterfinals, and seeing Lolo Jones do the same in the women's 100 meter hurdles warm up. Yet what made the evening truly unforgettable was seeing women's pole vaulting superstar Elena Isinbaeva clear 5.05 meters to set another world record!
Enclosed are some photos from the evening. Our seats were up near the rafters for the majority of the night, but towards the end of the evening--just before Isinbaeva attempted to set her 24th straight world record--we snuck down to just above track level.

Other Olympic Odds and Ends

Earlier in the eve. we watched through binoculars as Brazilian pole vaulter Fabiana Murer was throwing a fit about something.--At one point she stood in front of Chinese pole vaulter Gao Shuying physically barring her from her next vault. It turns out that someone misplaced one of Murer's poles and it was nowhere to be found. In the end, she had to use a longer pole than she wanted to and wasn't able to clear the bar in all subsequent attempts.

I missed this one watching CCTV, but my cousin Rob points out that the first US finisher in the woman's marathon on Monday was Blake Russell. I interviewed Blake, a resident of Marina, CA, a few years back for the Monterey County Weekly. As part of the interview she let me run with her for a 1/2 mile or so until she finished her warm up and left me in the dust. She seems to have overcome some nasty foot injuries from last year and hopefully we'll be hearing more from her again soon.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Usain Bolt, Julian Marley, and Rachel

Rache and I were at a party hosted by the Jamaican Embassy the other night to watch Usain Bolt set another world record in the 100 meters. We watched on a giant projection screen as Bolt not only dusted the competition and set a new world record, but did so with one shoe untied and jogging the last 30 meters.
After the race we were all hanging out waiting for the second half of the evening's entertainment--Bob Marley's son, Julian, and his band--to show up .
There was a group of dreadlocked Rastas hanging out near the stage and, as this is a rather unusual sight in the PRC, I had Rache and a friend pose for a photo with them.
When the band started up we realized the guys they'd just had their picture taken with were Julian and his right hand man! (see photos). It was a pretty amazing concert, a Bob Marley cover band led by one of his [many] sons for a crowd of less than 100.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Phelps, Deng Linlin, Georgian Brazilians and other musings

[The following post comes from guest blogger MeanGene; my brother]

Michael Phelps, who tied Paavo Nurmi (among others) in 9 gold medals, has this in common with the Finnish runner - the ability to bounce back quickly and do it again. Paavo Nurmi, in 1920's, won gold and set world records in the 1500m and 3000m races in one day. But "one day" is misleading. He had only 26 minutes to rest between these races. He won 3 other golds in the same Olympics with 1500m as his shortest run.
Another athlete with this remarkable ability to bounce back is Lance Armstrong. We don't know about Paavo Nurmi, because he died in the 70's, but Lance and Michael Phelps have an ability to remove lactic acid from their bodies at a rate seen in almost no other athletes. In fact, a scientist studying lactic acid in swimmers has tested 5000 other swimmers and always found a lactic acid level, post-competition, from 10-15 millimoles/liter, whereas Phelps level is about 5. Last night they showed Phelp's schedule for a day in which he got 2 more golds and 2 more world records and it included total swimming (including competition, warm up, training) of 5 miles. --Check this story for more freak of nature Olympians.

The best display of team camaraderie - the Croatian water polo team (men's) have all grown moustaches. (I can't find a picture, wish I could).

Synchronized Diving (the Chinese are like mirrors) has made me think of synchronized swimming, which reminded me of this Saturday Night Live skit.

Even the Chinese guys in my office think their gymnasts are underage. There is much discussion on the web about Deng Linlin who some think is missing a tooth, meaning one of her adult teeth has not grown in yet. The story is that a Korean gymnast a few years ago got busted for that when she gave a big smile on the podium. It later came out that she was listed as being 15 years old three years in a row. At the very least, the Olympic committee should call the event "Girls Gymnastics" instead of womens. The more I hear about all the hell they go through at a young age, (from a neighbor who is a former gymnast), the more I don't want to watch.

While there have always been athletes on the US team who were born elsewhere, historically it has been immigration. Increasingly it looks like people try out for their own team, and if they don't make it, hustle to another country where they can. In a very timely match, the Georgian women's beach volleyball played the Russian women's beach volleyball today. The Georgians won, of course, the two woman team were both from Brazil. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Froggfurter's Adventures

I am proud to announce that my wife Rachel--aka The Froggfurter--has been keeping her own blog of our adventures here in the PRC. Check it out! She has lots of great photos--from bathroom stalls to Buddhist temples--and fascinating insights into life as the exotic yogini at a Beijing yoga retreat. (my apologies for not pointing you to her site sooner!)

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Mask on, mask off?

[The Following is a blog I wrote for New Scientist. Check out the original here]

Is Beijing's air safe to breathe?

Members of the US Olympic team came under fire earlier this week for embarrassing their Chinese hosts... by parading through Beijing airport with anti-smog masks covering their faces from ear to ear.

But with the Games' Opening Ceremonies less than a day away, the question remains whether such precautions are a good idea, or worthy of the apology the team members later made to Chinese officials.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the emergency anti-pollution measures enacted on 20 July - pulling half the cars off Beijing's streets, halting construction, shutting down factories - are having little to no effect on the city's pollution levels.

A frequently-updated chart of the city's Air Pollution Index (API), compiled by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Rhode Island in the US, has found no correlation between the emergency measures and the air quality. In fact, pollution levels nearly doubled in the first week following the 20th, before subsiding.

The reason, says Kenneth Rahn of the University of Rhode Island, has everything to do with wind, and little to do with local pollution prevention measures.

So long as the winds continue to blow out of the south - where the forest of coal-fired plants that powers Beijing is located - air quality in Beijing will continue to worsen, until northern winds out of Mongolia clear the skies. It's a pattern that repeats itself about every two weeks during the summer, and as the Games are about to begin, Beijing is one week into foul air buildup.

But just how bad are pollution levels in the city right now? It depends on who you ask. Most days the API has remained below 100, the magic safe number, as determined by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Yet each country's measurement of API is a little different, making it hard to say just how foul things really are. BeijingAirblog does a good job of converting Beijing's figures to US and Hong Kong API measurements. It finds that the city's current air pollution would register as moderate in the US and, surprisingly, high in Hong Kong.

Walking through central Beijing on Monday afternoon - early in the current week-long pollution buildup - I found pea-soup skies and a sun that disappeared behind a thick haze at 5:30, nearly two hours before actual sunset.

If I were an athlete, I think I'd make whatever apologies were necessary, but give them through the best mask I could find on any days I didn't see blue skies overhead. Still, I wouldn't be pointing any fingers; I doubt the API of Los Angeles in 1984 was much better than today's Beijing.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Eclipse over the Great Wall

Check out the following videos I made of the August 1 total solar eclipse. To take in the event I traveled to the very western end of the Great Wall at a place called Jiayuguan. There, I watched the eclipse with more than 100 others from the top of a Ming Dynasty fort on the edge of the Gobi desert. Totally amazing!

Check out the full story here. Videos © New Scientist. Eclipse image courtesy of Alphonse Sterling, NASA.


Getting to the eclipse site was totally nuts. I flew into Dunhuang, a couple hundred kilometers further west of Jiayuguan on a flight full of eclipse chasers from Germany and the US.
In the days leading up to the 1st, thousands of eclipsers were pouring into the region from all over the world and local officials started to freak! We were told that entrance into the special Eclipse Cities they set up in the desert would now be road blocked and only those with prearranged permits would be allowed in. One group I was hoping to join for the event had to find a new viewing site after the place they'd been planning to use for a year was suddenly barred to foreigners a week before the event.
I couldn't really figure out what the big deal was until someone pointed out that the eclipse path cut through a lot of closed off military land including Jiuquan, the launch site of China's two recent manned space flights. Getting worked up over countless foreigners pouring across the desert with giant telescoping cameras suddenly started to make a lot more sense.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Take Cover!

Rachel and I were taking a cab home from a day in the big city Monday night when all of the sudden what seemed to be anti aircraft missiles started going off all around us. It was dark and pouring rain but the flames from the rockets were less than 50 yards away and the noise was deafening. We quickly realized that these were cloud seeding rockets.

My first thought was they were practicing inducing heavy rainfall here in the hills west of town to reduce the amount of rain from falling on Beijing. Olympic planners have launched a full scale assault on the weather to try to prevent rain from ruining the opening ceremonies and other outdoor events.

Talking with our hosts the next morning, however, they informed us that the rockets in our neighborhood are for hail prevention. They say the anti-rain rockets are further west into the hills and the rockets launched here are to prevent hail stones from forming and taking out the fruit trees in the many nearby orchards.

So the Chinese use cloud seeding rockets to induce rain, to prevent rain in other places, and, it seems, to prevent hail stones from forming.

Pretty savvy weather commanders here in the Middle Kingdom, eh? Perhaps not.

William Langewiesche has a great article in Vanity Fair profiling the country's top rainmakers and tracing the long history of cloud seeding back to its roots in the States. His final conclusion is it likely has little to no affect but sure packs a powerful sense of control.

[Photo by Calum MacLeod, lifted from USA TODAY]. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Big Sur Blaze

In a brief departure from our time in China, I just wanted to point out a link on the fires that are burning in Big Sur, CA. I just saw a slide show from the Monterey Herald that shows my former employers, Joe and Kelly of the Ventana Wilderness Society. In the slideshow they return to Big Sur after a mandatory evacuation to find their condor release facilities burned to the ground. It looks like lots of rebuilding is in store, but, fortunately, they were able to get themselves and all of the birds out in time.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Beijing Smog Blog

The Olympics are exactly one month away and the games have already begun.
We’re told that on July 1, 300,000 heavy polluting trucks, most of which roll into the city at night, were banned from Beijing.

Yet so far, nothing seems to have changed. If anything, it may have gotten worse.

Beijing smog watcher and reporter James Fallows suspects factories have increased production in recent months in order to reach their quotas before a forced 2-month shut down begins on July 20. Fallows has been taking semi-regular picture’s of Beijing’s air from his apartment window since moving to town last fall. Based on his images—see a couple pasted here—he may be on to something.

For a bit of contrast I’ve included a photo, taken July 2 from our little Shangri-La here in the western suburbs. Visibility changes day by day—more a reflection of humidity than anything else, though it’s often hard to tell when you’re swimming in it.

The real test for the city will come after July 20 when, in addition to closing factories, half the city’s cars will be pulled on any given day,
major construction will halt, and, supposedly, even spray painting
will be banned. If local measures don’t clear the air, it seems that factories across much of northern China will also shut down.

As fun as it is see if such a polluted city can clear its skies for a fleeting moment, I’m also encouraged to read that not all of the measures are temporary. Again, Fallows tells us that between 2000 and 2006—a time when Beijing’s population increased by 50 percent and paved roads doubled—the levels of all major pollutants—including ozone, nitrous oxide, benzene, etc—dropped. He attributes much of this to both a closing-or relocating-of the heaviest polluting factories and, more significantly, the introduction of tough auto emissions standards that surpass those of the US.

One month to go and part of me is counting down the days, anxiously waiting for the skyline of the city to magically open up before me. Another part of me saw the above satellite image (also from Fallow’s blog) showing all of northern China obscured by a thick haze and wonders if such a feat is really possible.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Monday, July 7, 2008

Great Wall

So much for my plans to be the first photographed doing a push-up in the buff on The Wall this summer...
From Xinhua's "Odd News";
"Guangdong TV host Ou Zhihang does pushups on the Great Wall. He said in his blog: 'I love my country, I also love my body. I contrast my tiny body with the 'miracle of the world' through the popular exercise -- pushup.' (Photo: Ou Zhihang blog)"

Phil Click Here to Read More..


Great Article in today's New York Times on the Buddhist Caves of Dunhuang, a true treasure of the Silk Road in northwestern China.
I spent a few days biking out to the caves from Dunhuang in June of 2000 and was sad to read that opening the caves to tourists has caused the artwork to rapidly deteriorate. If you get a chance, get there before 2011 when, according to the article, they will close most all of the caves and turn the experience into a virtual tour. (Photos by Sun Zhijun and Lois Conner of the Dunhuang Academy as lifted from the Times)

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th!

Here's a few photos from the Fragrant Hills park and our new local pub. The woman with Rachel on the chairlift is Barbara, a yoga teacher from Montreal who just arrived for the summer and whose son will compete in the Olympics on the Canadian water polo team.

Phil Click Here to Read More..

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Fragrant Hills of Beijing

It’s taken me four times to China to find this place, but well worth the wait. We’ve been here a week now and Rachel and I are still blown away at how beautiful, quiet, and even green our new home is. And we’re still in Beijing! I didn’t think such a place was possible…

We’re staying at Mountain Yoga a yoga retreat 20km due west of downtown Beijing and seemingly worlds away from the soot, smog, and crowds of the city.

We arrived last Sunday eve going right past the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube aquatics center on our way through town. The air in the city center seemed as bad as ever—picture a thick fog that makes your eyes burn. Still there are a lot of changes in the works that, with a little luck, should still bring things around in time for the Games. (More on that too come.)

But first, what, you ask, is a Chinese yoga retreat like?

Picture a traditional Chinese compound with an open-air courtyard in the middle and rooms off to each side. Guests stay in the smaller rooms and the largest room, an elevated studio along the courtyard’s entire north face is reserved for yoga.

A typical day starts with Rachel leading an hour-long class for a few guests and me before breakfast. A cook provides three yummy vegetarian meals a day (ironically, none of the staff are vegetarian and they sneak us all meat dishes when no guests are around). After breakfast there are calligraphy or painting classes for the guests, which Rachel has been able sit in on as well. When no guests are here, breakfast is followed by “Karma Yoga” –a fantastic euphemism for sweeping, mopping, and cleaning toilets. We like it when we have visitors☺

A few times a week Rachel and Gyan, the head of the center, teach an online yoga-English course with a live video feed that allows viewers to follow along and text in questions. Gyan, a Chinese guy who goes by an Indian name he was given by a visiting yogi, has been running the online course for a couple months now. He only has a few regular viewers at the moment--Chinese yoga teachers in Beijing who teach to foreigners—but is hopeful that it will catch on.

When it hasn’t been raining—a massive hurricane hit southeastern China last week dumping rain on us every day since we’ve arrived—we’ve been getting in some great hikes. Mountain Yoga is one of the last buildings at the base of a steep range of hills that run north to south along the city’s entire western border. The Beijing Botanical Gardens are just down the street and, as a result, much of the hillside near us has been set aside for forest conservation. The end result is some amazing birding—a rarity in a country that has caged, eaten, or, likely, poisoned most of its feathered friends.

Link of the week;

Sexy Beijing a tongue in cheek take on Sex in the City, Beijing style. The night after we watched our first episode the show’s star, Anna Sophie, was one of Rachel’s students here at the retreat.—Neither of us recognized her without the glasses.

-This is my first blog ever, please send me a comment and let me know what you think!

Phil Click Here to Read More..