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Sherry Turkle on time and the pandemic: "a liminal time, a time out of time"

Sherry Turkle, author and professor, spoke about her memoirs on Fresh Air. An astonishing story. She ended with a reflection on the pandemic that really resonated:

... this experience, you know, of the pandemic, it's what the great anthropologist Victor Turner called a liminal time. It's like a time out of time. It's a time betwixt and between where you get a chance - the rules are broken and you get a chance to reassess what you really need. And I think that's what we have now. We have a chance to come back and not be wowed by technology and reassess the virtue of the human and relationships and to act more deliberately in our relationship with them.

Another way I would put that is that we've had a chance to kind of step away from our country and see it at a distance in so many areas of life - in race relations, in political relations, in gender relations and also in our relationships with our technology. And seeing things fresh and seeing them anew gives us a chance to come back and act more deliberately in all of these areas. And that's why, even though this has been such a frightening and alienating experience, I think it also is a chance to start fresh. And I end up feeling optimistic about the future.

Aerosols in the Skies after Krakatoa

Pechuel-Loesche Cloud Shadow With Red Diffusion Light During the Disturbance Period (Midday) -- Jena, April 24th 1884

While looking for art for our walls, I stumbled upon the image above, from

a German book published in 1888 -- Untersuchungen über Dämmerungserscheinungen: zur Erklärung der nach dem Krakatau-Ausbruch beobachteten atmosphärisch-optischen Störung, which roughly translates as "Studies on twilight phenomena: to explain the atmospheric-optical disturbance observed after the Krakatau eruption". 1

The book is by Johann Kiessling, "a scientist from Hamburg nearly unknown to science historians" who sought to "find the physical laws governing normal twilight phenomena and those of the extraordinary phenomena in the disturbed interval 1882-1886," during and after the eruption of Krakatoa. Among his findings, many of which still have relevance today2:

Kiessling also did experiments with ammonia hydrate and with smoke particles. He burnt sulphur and found that the developing sulphuric acid strongly promotes condensation.

According to Kiessling diffraction rings develop due to 'reflection' in homogeneous fog--today we speak of light backscattering; he wanted to explain by them the ring-like counter-twilight. In his experiments, the light source was electric arc light. The diffracted light was strongly polarized. Richarz, who, two decades later, studied the similar atmospheric phenomena called 'glory', considered Kiessling's experiments as giving a suitable explanation of these phenomena.

By a further study of reports collected by the naval observatory and by shipping companies, and by considering and evaluating all available material, Kiessling could definitely trace the distribution and the path of the Krakatoa smoke masses together with their condensation products. He had correspondence even from Peking and Tokyo. He argued that the dust and fog clouds encircled the Earth twice or three times from the east towards the west with a velocity of about 40 ms-1. He could further show that such an air current does exist in the high atmosphere parallel with the Equator. Some parts of the cloud separated from the main mass and propagated northwards and southwards, respectively, and then diffused to the whole temperate zone. The dust masses disappeared after two to three years due to fall-out.

Clearly a slouch. In his tome, the original version of which can be downloaded from ETH Zurich's library, the last pages are "a wonderful series of chromolithographs from watercolour images by Eduard Pechuël-Loesche." The images are incredible and available in high resolution at Google Arts & Culture. A number are posted below.

Circular Twilight Glow at Sunrise -- Hereroland (present-day Namibia), September 4th 1884

Red Sunset at the End of the Rainy Season (Evening) -- Loango Coast (present-day Republic of Congo) April 1st 1875

  1. The Public Domain Review

  1. Schröder W. and Wiederkehr K-. H. 2000. Johann Kiessling, the Krakatoa event and the development of atmosheric optics after 1883. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 54249-258

Towards safe drinking water and clean cooking for all

Isha Ray, writing with and channeling the late Kirk R. Smith, in Lancet Global Health:

In the past 40 decades, there have been many innovations in the development of low-cost and efficacious technologies for WASH and household air pollution, but many of these technologies have been associated with disappointing health outcomes, often because low-income households have either not adopted, or inconsistently adopted, these technologies. In this Viewpoint, we argue that public health researchers (ourselves included) have had an oversimplified understanding of poverty; our work has not focused on insights into the lived experience of poverty, with its uncertainties, stresses from constant scarcity, and attendant fears. Such insights are central to understanding why technologies for safe water or clean cooking are unused by so many households that could benefit from them. We argue that, rather than improved versions of household-scale delivery models, transformative investments in safe water and clean cooking for all require utility-scale service models.

In the months before Kirk passed away, this topic -- the combination of WASH and HAP interventions, the merging of decades of thinking about usage, service delivery, affordability, and quality of interventions -- was a common theme. See also 'Let the "A" in WASH Stand for Air: Integrating Research and Interventions to Improve Household Air Pollution (HAP) and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) in Low-Income Settings.'

an aside: I think they must have meant "the past 40 years" or "past 4 decades" -- but also Kirk worked on these issues with such mental intensity and productive output it may as well have been 40 decades.

John Balmes: Don't Let a Killer Pollutant Loose

Professor John Balmes, close colleague and friend, and physician member of the California Air Resources Board:

PM 2.5 kills people. There has been little dispute that microscopic particulate matter in air pollution penetrates into the deepest parts of the lungs and contributes to the early deaths each year of thousands of people in the United States with heart and lung disease.

One recent study called PM 2.5 “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s own website says: “Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms.”

Which makes it deeply troubling that the very people at the helm of the Trump administration’s E.P.A. responsible for protecting public health and the environment are now pursuing a course that would make the air we breathe even more hazardous.

Indian Election Analysis: Election manifestos feature air plan but little action on ground

A new report titled “Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India” released by Climate Trends also highlighted that members of parliament in 14 Indian cities, among the most polluted cities globally as per the WHO 2018 urban air quality database, have done little to get their cities to comply with safe air quality standards locally.

“The manifestos of both the national parties have proven that political parties cannot ignore and neglect air pollution related health emergency any more. This rhetoric is a good sign. But the bigger question is - if this electoral promise will translate into strong enough political will to push for hard action with accountability and show results,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment. Delhi’s air pollution levels recorded a fall in 2018 because of multiple strategies, she added.

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Climate Change, Scientific Consensus

Priceless. More, please.

British Path�'s films on smog and air pollution

From Variety:

British Path�, the U.K. newsreel archive company, has uploaded its entire 100-year collection of 85,000 historic films in high resolution to YouTube.

The collection, which spans 1896 to 1976, comprises some 3,500 hours of historical footage of major events, notable figures, fashion, travel, sports and culture. It includes extensive film from both World War I and World War II.

Naturally, I looked for some videos about smog, air pollution, and the environment. The Archive doesn’t disappoint. There are pieces called “The Smog Menace”, “Smog Detector”, and a documentary called “Guilty Chimneys” (part 1 + 2, part 3).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the archive beyond smog and air pollution. Pretty cool.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

The great Beijing 'fog': dispatches from around the web

Dashiell Bennett, at The Atlantic Wire:

Chinese officials have shut down factories and ordered cars off the roads to try and save their capital city after spending three straight days under a cloud of toxic smog. Visibility has been as low as 100 yards in some parts of the city, as an increase in winter coal burning, combined with low wind conditions pushed the nation’s already crushing pollution problems to dangerous levels.

To put the current crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level of airborne particulates to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). On Saturday, readings in Beijing reached 993 ug/m3. The head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said “The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday.”

James Fallows at the Atlantic, highlighting excerpts from an English-language version of an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper:

It’s worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports — calling it “fog,” saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:

“The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods…

“The government cannot always think about how to intervene to ‘guide public opinion.’ It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.

“The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed.”

Additional interesting coverage at Live From Beijing, with reasonable explanations of what all the numbers mean.

Finally, a set of photos at WSJ’s China Real Time Report and a summary of the Chinese media response to the ongoing “airpocalypse.”

Beijing's Air Quality hits "Crazy Bad" status again

From the NYT:

The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Pollution levels in Beijing had been creeping up for days, and readings were regularly surging above 300 by midweek. The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday. The next day, people working in office towers in downtown Beijing found it impossible to make out skyscrapers just a few blocks away. Some city residents scoured stores in search of masks and air filters.

Revisiting the old, real-time graph I created from the Twitter data:

The magnitude of the pollution is somewhat hard to comprehend. We often see levels as high as these peaks in unventilated, indoor spaces where people cook using solid fuels (like wood, grass, or dung). To imagine concentrations like that at ambient levels is terrifying from a public health perspective. Health data from Beijing in the coming weeks should back this up — if it is made accessible. Indicates a clear need for some sort of action to preserve population level health, especially amongst the most vulnerable.