Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sleeping With Swine Flu

"If this turns out to be swine flu, would you still sleep with me or would you sleep on the couch?" My wife had come home from work looking like death warmed over, with barely enough energy to finish her dinner. She'd heard rumors of students and teachers coming down with H1N1 at the school where she works, but nothing had been confirmed. I dismissed her question at the time, saying we'd take it as it comes, and though it wasn't yet 8 o'clock, I started coaxing her toward bed.   

A story I wrote in today's Boston Globe Magazine charts my thought process later in the evening as I weigh whether or not I should join Rachel in bed and why, if one of us is to be banished to the couch, she assumes it would be me.

Rachel and I are regular readers of the "Coupling" stories written by local writers on the back page of each week's Sunday magazine.  I didn't figure I'd ever have anything to contribute, but when I got to thinking about the swine flu question she'd posed to me, it seemed like such an obvious fit I just had to submit it. Click Here to Read More..

Vacuum Tube Solar Hot Water Comes to Cambridge

One of the first home improvements Rachel and I made when we purchased our condo here in Cambridge this spring was a solar hot water installation on our rooftop.

The system we had put in uses vacuum tubes, a newer, more efficient type of solar collector than the black box flat panels of old. As a writer covering energy and the environment in Cambridge and China, I'd spent the past three years tracing this new and exotic technology back to the factories and cities in China where they are surprisingly commonplace. 

I first read about the tubes three years ago in a story in the Boston Globe. A family in Newbury, MA was using a massive installation to provide hot water and heat for their giant barn of a house.  A photo that went with the story showed their installation covered in frost on a cold winter day. Somehow, despite the cold, the tubes were still kicking out 120 to 160 degree water.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

DOE Bets $150 Million on Clean Tech

If you had $150 million to spend on boundary-busting energy research, where would you put the cash? The US Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has committed that amount with one lofty aim: to transform the planet's energy future: But which technologies are its best bets?
To find the answers, check out a story I wrote this week in New Scientist.
This was an interesting story to write in that the Department of Energy had just dolled out millions of dollars for projects so risky that most were expected to fail, yet even if a few succeeded, they could have a transformative effect on the planet's energy future.
What made the story more interesting is the vast majority of recipients, from industry giants to little known start up companies, had such a strong financial interest in keeping their projects under wraps that few would divulge what they were working on, even after they received secured funding.
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Gore At Harvard

Former US Vice President Al Gore wasn't quite ready to give up telling inconvenient truths as he discussed his latest book Our Choice: A plan to solve the global climate crisis at Harvard this weekend.

Gore took the stage to a standing ovation before a capacity crowd at the First Parrish Church Meetinghouse in Harvard Square on 7 November to discuss his compilation of "all of the most effective solutions that are available now and that together will solve this crisis".
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Out of Guangxi

Check out the story I wrote for New Scientist this week on what Chinese paleontologists believe to be a 110,000 yr old human jaw bone (see photo on right).

If their claims about the fossil they found in China's southern Guangxi province prove true, it would raise some interesting questions about human origins.

Specifically it could challenge the widely held belief that modern humans are the direct descendents of Homo sapiens that migrated out of Africa around 100,000 years ago.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obama At MIT

Check out the story I wrote and filmed for New Scientist of President Obama's address at MIT on Friday.
Prior to his clean energy speech, the cynics had already written it off as a token "official" event to justify private funderaisers he would attend later in the day for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
While there may be some truth to their claims, his arrival inside MIT's Kresge Auditorium created a buzz that was nothing short of flipping the switch on Alcator C-Mod, the University's nuclear fusion reactor.

Obama faces some tough challenges, increasing skepticism, and looming deadlines as he and others look to move climate legislation through Congress.  Here's hoping they succeed.  
image credit: Shepard Fairey & AP Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Clean Beams

Consumers may never hear of Advanced Electron Beams, but the technology the company has developed could fundamentally change the way everyday products are made in processes that could save millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Check out the following story I wrote about the company for Technology Review; Clean Tech's Hot New Tool

AEB replaces the heat and/or chemicals that are typically used to drive industrial reactions with electron beams.

For example, car manufacturers today use massive ovens to bake paint onto car bodies.  If you zap the paint pigment with a cloud of electrons instead, you can get the paint to stick to the body panels with no heat in a process that uses 90 percent less energy.  AEB isn't the first to make electron beams by a long shot, but if all works out, their smaller, cheaper beams may be the first to make it main stream.

Image Credit; Advanced Electron Beams

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Sunday, October 18, 2009


I recently co-authored the following feature for New Scientist profiling some of the hottest new technologies for a cleaner, less energy intensive world.

Better World: Top Tech For a Cleaner Planet 

It was a fun project to work on and one that got me scouring the planet for the best in Clean-Tech.   

Not every new development that I proposed made the cut, but, one in particular that deserves honorable mention is EcoRock; a new type of drywall (or sheet rock) that requires 80 percent less energy to manufacture than the conventional stuff.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Love That Dirty Water

"Raw sewage flowed from outmoded wastewater treatment plants. Toxic discharges from industrial facilities colored the river pink and orange. Fish kills, submerged cars and appliances, leaching riverbank landfills, and noxious odors were routine occurrences." -Charles River History, Charles River Watershed Association

The river Charles has come a long way since the above description
from the 1960s. The EPA now gives it a B+ in its annual Charles River Report Card, up from a D just 14 years ago.

Rachel and I spent the afternoon with friends Ben and Heather paddling a section of the river in Newton, MA, about 10 miles west of Cambridge.

The river still has room for improvement--and additional cleanup efforts are underway--but I'd give our afternoon an A+.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dash for Green Cash

If you invested in green funds the past couple years, you likely lost your shirt--even more so than others--in the current recession according to an article in today's Boston Globe. But the smart money today, the article goes on to say, is in another type of green investing; eco-improvements on your home that will reduce your cost of living.

Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in Massachusetts. I've been looking into installing solar photovoltaic panels on our condo and with the combination of state and federal tax credits and rebates, they are practically giving the stuff away.

From what I can tell, a 5 kw, $50,000 system that would cover all of our electric needs and allow us to sell back to the grid would cost $12,000 after a $22,000 state rebate, a 30 % federal tax credit (with no cap), and a 15 % state tax credit (with a cap at $1000).

Unfortunately, it seems too many people have caught on to how good of a deal this is and starting tomorrow night at midnight the state is scaling back its rebate. The 50K system that currently goes for $12,000, will now come in at $15,500.

Anybody want to spot me 12K by midnight tomorrow?

image courtesy of Wikimedia

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Monday, September 28, 2009

21st Century Barnraising

For Centuries New Englanders have gathered to help their neighbors raise barns. This past Sunday my wife, Rachel, and I joined a group of our fellow Cantabrigian's in raising the energy efficiency of a neighbor's home.

For over a year the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) has organized monthly weatherization parties for buildings here in Cambridge, MA. The hosting home provides the food, local weatherization companies donate insulation, caulk, foam, and other weatherizing essentials, and volunteers provide free labor in exchange for learning how to better insulate their own home.

Each barnraising starts and ends with a "blower door" test to determine how airtight or leaky the building is. I'd heard about blower doors before but I'd never seen one in action. It's essentially an airtight collapsible door with a large fan in the middle of it (see photo). To run a test you jam the blower door into the building's front entrance, shut all other doors and windows, and then fire up the fan which tries to pump additional air into the building. Air flow monitors connected to the fan tell you how much air is being pumped in, which in turn tells you how leaky the building is.

What I learned from the test is that even with all doors and windows closed, buildings, even well insulated buildings, still leak a massive amount of air. Based on Sunday's pre-weatherization test, all of the tiny cracks and gaps in the three story home's window frames, door frames, and various other joints throughout its walls added up to the equivalent of a gaping 40" by 10" hole.

The core HEET team, including some pro insulators, gave us our marching orders; seal up as many cracks as possible and reduce that gap!

Three hours and a half dozen boxes of pizza later, they ran a second blower test and air flow through the building had decreased by 25 percent! Not bad for an afternoon's work.

For anyone interested in joining in the fun, HEET is planning a massive weatherization blow out next month to coincide with the International Day of Climate Action on October 24.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

First Sip

Check out a couple of white headed langurs in southern China as they come down out of the trees to drink from a recently built pond at the Chongzuo EcoPark in Guangxi Province, China.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

King Cobra III

A couple days after our recent run-in with a king cobra, Pan pulled the snake out of the freezer for a full dissection.

He and his assistants spent a couple hours weighing, measuring, counting rings, extracting venom, and IDing organs. The cobra was likely 2-3 years old—on the cusp of breeding age—was just shy of 2 meters long, weighed 900 g (2 lbs), and had 56 dark bands from head to tail.

Like all king cobras
, it likely fed exclusively on other snakes and may have limited its diet even further to a single species.

At one point Pan entertained thoughts of extracting the cobra's venom and injecting it, bit by bit, into a pig or water buffalo to cultivate antivenom. If someone was then bit on the reserve, they could simply withdraw some blood from the by-then-resistant animal and inject it into the stricken person.—Snake antivenom available in hospitals worldwide is obtained in more or less the same way, by slowly building up venom antibodies in a horse or sheep.

I figure Pan, who had a successful lab career before turning to conservation biology, would have as good a chance as anybody at hacking his own antivenom.

Still, I'm not sure I'd want the blood of a barnyard animal injected in me and hope I never have to choose between that and trying to hold out for an additional 2 hours to get to the nearest hospital. Then again, future bite victims may not have the luxury of weighing such options as Pan wasn’t able to extract enough venom for the experiment.

After the dissection was completed, Pan gave the gal bladder to Jintong, the park worker who accidentally ran over the snake. In Chinese medicine, snake gall bladder is thought to improve eyesight and Jintong said he would put it in alcohol and share it with his family and friends.

This being China, we then divvied up the snake meat with Jintong and his family, chopped it, fried it in oil, added a dash of salt and hot pepper, and ate it.

It was pretty bony, like a small fish, and I hate to say it, but it really did taste like chicken.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

King Cobra II

I started walking back to my room at the Chongzuo EcoPark the other evening after watching the langurs come down the mountain to their roost.
It was a warm evening and I'd stayed watching them settle into their cliff face caves a bit longer than usual. By the time I began the roughly 15 minute hike back to the reserve's headquarters, it was already quite dark.
I hadn't bothered to pack a flashlight as I knew the path fairly well and preferred to let the moonlight guide me.
Then, I started thinking about all the warnings I'd recently read about cobras. I flipped open my cell phone for what little light it offered and grabbed the first stick I could find.
After a couple minutes of fumbling around, Jintong, one of the reserve's staff, drove towards me driving an electric cart. He said he'd just run over a snake and proceeded to unfurl a very recently deceased, very large king cobra. He hit the snake on the path I was about to walk down, about 100 meters from my room.
Then, before I thought to ask for a ride, anywhere, he drove on. I froze, convinced every branch and twig I saw on the path before me was a king cobra.

Pan told me afterwards that I needed to be especially careful this time of year. The temperature here on the edge of the tropics was just starting to rise and snakes were beginning to come out in the evenings to lie in open paths warmed by the sun.

Rachel would later tell me it snowed again in Boston and that sounded pretty nice to me.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Chicken Coop

Not far from the entrance to the Chongzuo EcoPark there is a collapsing cinder block building that once served as the living quarters for biologist Pan Wenshi and his students.
I’ve seen animal enclosures in Chinese zoos that are nicer than this.

The building—an abandoned army barracks—had no running water, no electricity, no door, and a gaping hole in one wall. Pan’s bed, shown here, was a thin wicker mat laid over a row of boards. Stumps and logs were used for seats and benches. Field notes were compiled by candlelight, and when it rained, water flowed into the building.
In 2000, the county government took pity on Pan and, to honor what he'd done for surrounding villages, they spent $1 million on park improvements, including a rather architecturally inspired research facility and living space.
Until recently, the cinder block building and its Spartan furnishings served as a museum of the not-so-good-ol’ days of '96 to '00. Since my last visit, it received a long overdue conversion to its current use; a chicken coop.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Pat's

Happy St. Patty’s Day from the PRC. I took a break from monkeying around in Chongzuo to spend a couple days in Yangshuo, China.
Yangshuo was a once gorgeous, now overrun mountain town on the Li river in southern China that has been a backpacker mecca since us laowai started descending on the country in droves in the 1990s.
The place is by no means the quiet retreat it once was, but anyplace serving the pride of St. Jame's Gate on March 17 works for me.
I spent the evening with Paul, an Englishman, and Joe, a local kid all of 10 years old.
Paul has taught English here for the last three years. He makes close to $1000 a month teaching business English in one of Yangshou’s many private schools. At this pay, he says he lives well; enough to eat out each night at the many restaurants catering to foreign tourists. He says he can’t stomach the local food, but he has a Chinese girlfriend and says the weather here beats dreary ol’ England any day.
Paul can’t stay long though as it’s “quiz”, or trivia, night at another nearby pub.

Joe is friend of Paul’s and, based on his English skills, I get the feeling this isn’t his first night hanging out at The Alley Bar. When Paul called him on his lack of green, he ran home and put on the sweater seen here. –When I ask Joe what St. Patty’s is all about, he says it’s when people wear green and drink stuff from Ireland. He says there is more to it than that, but he can’t remember the rest.
Joe first learned English from a Australian and does a wicked rendition of Crocodile Dundee's “that’s not a knife, this is a knife”.
His favorite sport is rollerblading.
“I get nice air,” he says.

Out of the blue, Joe hits me with the following riddle.
“Who is too rich?” he asks.
“Bill Gates,” I counter knowing China’s obsession with the world’s richest man.
“No, a river; it has banks on both sides.”
I go to give the kid a high five but he counters with “down low”, and then, withdrawing his hand, “too slow.”
Something tells me that of the two of them, Joe has the better gig.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

King Cobra

I could see moving to Chongzuo--the weather is nice enough, the food is delicious, and the wildlife can't be beat--if it weren't for the snakes.

The reserve's walking paths are lined with billboards warning visitors of king cobras and urging them to stick to the main paths. Like most people, though, I tend to take warning signs aimed at tourists with a grain of salt.

But just to be safe, I did some Googling the other day to find out just what these snakes are all about.

A children's educational website informs me that;
-The king cobra holds a record length of 5.58 m (18.3ft) for a venomous snake.
-It has a head as big as a man’s hand and can stand tall enough to look you straight in the eye.
-the king’s venom is actually less lethal than a common cobra’s. However, the king makes up for it by delivering more venom per bite...enough to kill an elephant or 20 people.

"Tigerhomes" notes;
-Nearly ALL snakes will avoid man…there are however snakes known to aggressively attack man such as the King Cobra of Southeast Asia…

Medicine On-Line weighs in with;
"The most common and earliest symptom following snake bite is fright, particularly of rapid and unpleasant death. Owing to fright, a victim attempts 'flight' which unfortunately results in enhanced systemic absorption of venom. These emotional manifestations develop extremely rapidly (almost instantaneous) and may produce psychological shock and even death."

And here, again from Medicine On-Line, is the kicker;

"On an average - cobras and sea snakes result in about 10% mortality [28]-ranging from 5-15 hours following bite."

I don't think I'll be straying from any paths again anytime soon...

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bulbuls, Wagtails, and Great Tits!

There is a saying about the people of southern China that they eat anything with four limbs except tables, anything that flies except airplanes, and anything that swims except ships.
Perhaps, but birding in southern China's Chongzuo EcoPark is nonetheless amazing!
Noisy flocks of red-whiskered bulbuls are found in spades in the reserve’s trees and tall grass. The birds remind me of the Steller's jays that steal French fries off the plates of unwary diners at Nepenthe in Big Sur, California.
The following images—courtesy of the Peking University Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute—are all birds I’ve seen here this past week.
red-whiskered bulbul above

common tailorbird

great tit

cattle egret

white breasted waterhen

white wagtail

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dr. Pan's Secret Lair

At first glance, the Chongzuo EcoPark, where biologist Pan Wenshi studies white-headed langurs, appears as timeless as a Chinese landscape painting. Rugged karst peaks shoot straight out of rice paddies and sugar cane fields tended by villagers and their water buffalo. It's a scene that seems little changed for thousands of years.

The reality, however, is much more interesting.

The Chongzuo EcoPark is a former military base that was in the process of being decommissioned when Pan first arrived thirteen years ago.
Few signs of the area’s military past remain except for a massive munitions storage depot carved into the middle of one of the reserve’s mountains.

Six-inch-thick steel reinforced cement doors guard the entrance to the now abandoned depot, but much of the inside remains a natural limestone cave.

On one side of the mountain the cave opens to a cliff face about 70 meters above the valley floor where a langur family roosts most nights. Pan's assistants—LiJun, JinTong, and Lin—recently drilled a couple of cameras into the cliff face for some close up observations.

The Chinese biologist is fascinated by sociobiology, the theory that certain social behaviors—such as the practice of infanticide by male langurs—are evolutionarily advantageous.

With these cameras—which connect to a tent-enclosed-desktop inside the cave—he hopes to unlock the secrets of the animal's monkey business.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Back in Chongzuo

I wrote a story last fall on Pan Wenshi—China's founding father of conservation biology—and the white headed langur, an endangered monkey he’s spent the past decade trying to save.

At the time, Pan told me I really should come back in late winter when the year’s newborns still have their bright, canary yellow fur. I knew that Pan and his students also do an annual census of the langurs through the winter months, so when the chance came for me to make a return visit, I jumped on it.

I’m now mid-way through a two-week stay at the Chongzuo Eco Park, a 24-square km nature reserve a stone’s throw from the Vietnam border in southern China. The very phrase Chinese-nature-reserve may sound like a complete contradiction of terms, but this tiny island of biodiversity—in a country that is admittedly otherwise choking on its own pollution—is absolutely breathtaking.

When Pan arrived here 13 years ago, locals were well on their way to poaching the last remaining langurs, felling what was left of their forest habitat for firewood, and blasting their mountain home into limestone quarries.

Over the past decade, however, he’s had phenomenal success working with surrounding villages to help bring them out of poverty and to foster in them an interest in wildlife protection. The end result has been rapid reforestation within the reserve and a five-fold increase in the langur’s population--including one really cute newborn that we’ve been watching the past few days.


Images of langur and reserve courtesy of Peking University Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute.

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