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Concluding 2017, looking forward to 2018

This year has been one of some personal transitions, hence less posting on this blog than originally planned. As 2017 comes to a close, I wanted to touch on a couple of topics among several related to the blog content.

IY2017First, 2017 is the U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Usually I try to get out quick mentions of such observances early in the year, but this time had planned a longer treatment mentioning two places I know in different ways – Djenné, Mali and Lijiang, Yunnan, China. That material will have to come out later in different form. However the topic of this year will remain important even as the calendar changes.

Early in the year, I posted several “why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) questions about policies that seemed ill-considered. That is beyond the level of agreement or disagreement on particulars, but questions about the soundness of decisions from whatever viewpoint. Very quickly it became apparent that any attempt to continue such inquiries would become all-consuming. That in itself is a comment. In any event, I’m not planning any further WAWDTs for now.

Looking forward to a productive 2018, and sharing ideas and information here on Multidisciplinary Perspectives.

 

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Late Ming China & the contemporary United States

Listening to a recorded course on Chinese history* a few months ago, I was struck by how descriptions of “gridlock” in the late Ming dynasty government of China sounded much like the US government in recent years. Typically, Americans draw comparisons – apt or not – with ancient Rome, but perhaps late Ming China (which fell in 1644) might also offer some cautionary lessons.

Some comments by the course instructor, Prof. Kenneth J. Hammond, stood out in this regard:

  • “New ideas about integrity and individualism contributed to a moralization of political life that let to gridlock in government.”
  • “… debates and controversies at [the royal] court tended to be framed not as issues for compromise and pragmatism but as black-and-white moral issues.”
  • some groups “came to act almost like political parties in pursuit of their moral programs, treating their political rivals as agents of evil rather than simply gentlemen with differing ideas.”

Wang YangmingAccording to Prof. Hammond, this situation had its origins in the thinking of the prominent neo-Confucian philosopher and court official, Wang Yangming 王阳明 (1472-1529), who held that all individuals have an “innate knowledge of the good.”

Being neither an expert in Chinese history nor a student of Eastern philosophy, I am not in a position to comment in depth on this interpretation. However, the influence of Wang Yangming’s moral intuitionism among the literati in China at that time, the inability of the government to grapple with multiple problems, and the ultimate end of the Ming dynasty, are all known facts.

Recent politics in the US has been marked by extreme, intransigent positions, mainly on the part of an influential minority, and a tendency for two main partisan sides to talk less and even impugn the motives of the other. The influence of one particular thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), on some members of the US government, is arguably a key factor in this devolution.

This is admittedly a shallow comparison, but not much worse than many comparisons of the US and Rome. The advantage of looking at a range of possible past parallels to one’s current situation is in drawing lessons from them so as not to repeat history.


* Kenneth J. Hammond, 2004, From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, The Great Courses. (CDs & course book; the quoted passages come from lecture 24 “Gridlock and Crisis”)

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After digitizing libraries, translating knowledge?

Nine years ago I asked the question “Can we localize entire libraries?” In the wake of the National Library of Norway‘s (Nasjonalbiblioteket) digitization of its holdings and collaboration with Nigeria on materials in the latter’s languages, it seems like time to review what mass digitization could mean for translation of knowledge into diverse languages.

My original question in 2008 came from looking at trends in digitizing books – notably Google Books – and machine translation (MT). It elicited some interesting responses, including Kirtee Vashi’s mention of an Asia Online project planning to link these two trends.

Book scanners. Source: TecheBlog.com

In the ensuing years, Google Books’ digitization program – the biggest and most promising book digitization effort – ran into controversy over rights to reproduce copyrighted materials beginning in 2008. This ultimately has put their entire vision of digital access to a vast library of works in doubt. And the unrelated Asia Online project, which used statistical MT to translate 3.5 million pages of the English Wikipedia into Thai, was stopped in mid-2011 in the aftermath of a changed political situation in Thailand and funding issues.  (Asia Online has since become Omniscien Technologies)

So while the technologies for digitization and for MT – the two pieces in localizing libraries of information – are established and improving, each has encountered some combination of legal, political , or funding issues limiting their use individually for mass expansion of access to knowledge, as well as their potential use in tandem.

However, could the Norwegian program, announced in 2013, and the project it has with Nigeria, announced earlier this year, introduce a new dynamic, at least for mass digitization? Could and should large national libraries take the lead in this area?

The idea of digitizing libraries has generally been advocated in terms of access to knowledge, without particular reference to the languages in which publications are written. But languages are critical not only for access to knowledge, but also for facilitating scholarship and the interfacing of ways of knowing. Hence the need to associate mass digitization and MT.

There is at least one proposed project mentioning the potential for translation of books that have been digitized – Internet Archive’s initiative to digitize 4 million books (a semifinalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100 & Change grant competition).

Any such digital data produced by the Nasjonalbiblioteket, Google Books, Internet Archive, or any other organization could be translated with MT into other languages, with a few caveats (quality of optical character recognition [OCR]; how well resourced a particular language is; and of course the accuracy of the MT). This means that potentially any mass digitization could be mass translated into a large number of languages, given legal cover and sufficient funding.

What about the accuracy of MT, and how useful could mass MT of mass digitization be if there are inaccuracies? These are critical questions for any project to use MT to translate digitizations. Responses could reference, for instance, domain-specific MT, which is generally more accurate than general MT, provided of course that the material matches the domain used. Or perhaps some system for post-editing could be devised.

This is an exciting area that needs more attention and policy support. Books and other production in print can be digitized on a mass scale, making the knowledge in them more widely available. Digitized text can be machine translated into other languages, and the quality of that can be made high enough for use by speakers of the target languages. As much as the printing press revolutionized access to knowledge of that age, so too the potential to digitize and translate what is in print promises another revolution benefiting more people directly.

 

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CFP: Language and Development 2017

The 12th biennial Language and Development Conference (LDC) will be held in Dakar, Senegal, on 27-29 November 2017. The call for participation (CFP) deadline has been extended to 31 May (apologies as I’m just catching up on this).

The theme of this edition of the conference is: Language and the Sustainable Development Goals.

From the concept note for the conference (emphasis in original):
“Sustainable development is increasingly viewed not only from an economic perspective, but also from social and environmental perspectives. All three dimensions are important to ensure that human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality. As language and communication are crucial to how societies grow, work together and become more inclusive, the conference will seek to explore the role of language in a range of interlinking aspects of development. It will do this by focussing on three of the goals:

  • SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
  • SDG 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all
  • SDG 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies”

“The conference programme will also take into consideration other cross cutting goals, notably SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries.”

The conference has 3 sub-themes:

  • Multilingualism for Quality, Equitable and Inclusive Education
  • Language, Skills and Sustainable Economic Growth
  • Communication, Peace and Justice

The British Council is hosting this conference (it apparently has been involved in almost all the previous ones), in partnership with le Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche et le Ministère de l’Education Nationale du Sénégal, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), UNESCO, the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) and SIL Africa, along with others.

For additional information, see the website of the LDC series, and a posting on this blog about the 2015 LDC.

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A hidden class of “bike-to-workers”?

On the eve of the annual “Bike to Work Day” – which this year is observed nationally in the US on 19 May 2017 (with some exceptions like Chicago and Colorado) – here’s a quick look at a couple of aspects of bicycling that don’t seem to get much attention:

  • people who bike to work regularly, largely out of necessity; and
  • unavailability of bike racks, which seems to affect the latter most.

The question is whether there is a kind of second class of bicyclists overlooked both by events such as Bike to Work and by longer-term planning and installation of infrastructure for bicycling.

First, about Bike to Work Day – it is part of the League of American Bicyclists‘ initiative for National Bike Month and National Bike to Work Week (15-19 May this year), all of which apparently go back to 1956, as ways of promoting bicycling. In the Washington, DC area, which concerns me in this case, Bike to Work Day is a popular and well supported event, with volunteers working “pit-stops” on bike routes, food and drink available, and giveaways. Altogether a great way to encourage commuters to at least try bicycling, or to get back on their bikes as weather warms up.

But what about people who bike to work pretty much every day on less frequented routes?.

Lycra or jeans

Several years ago I observed in Vienna, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, how there seemed to be two separate groups of bicyclists – one with better bikes perhaps in lycra, often seen on the bicycle-friendly W&OD Trail, and another with less expensive bikes, perhaps in jeans, more likely seen along the commercial main street. The latter group apparently included people commuting to lower paying jobs in shops and restaurants. Although I was not able to verify this through any systematic research, one did notice here and there bikes locked up behind or near shops. Also, research done by others has noted use of bicycles by “day laborers” in northern Virginia (a situation perhaps similar to what one finds in other areas like Los Angeles).

Where are the bike racks?

What brings me back to this topic is noting recently – or really taking the time to notice – bikes locked to trees in a couple of shopping centers near another northern Virginia suburb, Falls Church. This is actually not that uncommon, but often easy to miss (as for instance the photo below on right, where the bikes were in an area screened from the shops).

In Seven Corners area east of Falls Church (l.) & at The Shops at West Falls Church (r.)

It is my impression that there are relatively few shopping areas that have bike racks or installed stands for parking bicycles. The same was true of Vienna – where I recall personally having to lock up my bike against sign posts or railings when going into a store – and of Falls Church, especially outside of the downtown area (where some bike stands have been installed by the city).

Bike stands at different locations along Broad Street, Falls Church City, VA

One can easily get the impression that bike racks are a priority only in certain higher traffic areas and/or with certain types of cyclists in mind. Or at best that their locations are not thought through too thoroughly. Running an errand one Sunday midday along the main street of Falls Church, I noted several empty bike stands (two of which pictured above), but then a little farther away, two bikes and a one-wheel trailer locked up against an awning support in front of an eatery.

Bicycles & trailer locked to awning support, Broadale VIllage Shopping Center, Falls Church City

So there are really two levels of discussion on bike racks:

  1. Which areas do get them, and which simply don’t.
  2. Within the areas that do, how well placed they are for people to use.

On both levels, there are decisions about either public expenditure on racks or ordinances requiring residential or commercial properties to include provision for bicycle parking and locking. Within the city of Falls Church, there is a bicycle master plan that considers placement of racks. Outside, it is apparently another matter (both of the locations with bikes locked to trees happened to be just over the boundary in Fairfax County, a huge jurisdiction).

Who counts in planning for bicycles?

It’s not a coincidence that the pattern of provision for bicycle parking – racks or stands – facilitates certain kinds of use of bicycles more than others. The higher level regional planning for bicycle infrastructure, processes of input into policy, and the local decisions about what is installed where for bicycles all seem to happen without input from people who ride bikes to a local job where they have to lock them to trees or fences or whatever. Those same people are also the ones for which just about every day is a bike to work day.

Admittedly, part of the issue is numbers. If only a couple of people ride bikes to each small shopping area, it is not likely that they’ll get a rack for parking. On the other hand, a couple of bikes each day represents a steady traffic, perhaps enough to justify putting in some kind of rack. Still, it would probably take shoppers and restaurant clients biking in some numbers and complaining about lack of places to lock their bicycles for there to be a change. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

Another perspective is that adding bike racks in places where one sees bicycles locked to trees and whatnot would in addition to helping those less visible cyclists, also facilitate more people biking to those locations.

Maybe that’s something to think about on Bike to Work Day…

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Earth Day 2017: Let’s stop industrial-scale burning of wood for energy

EarthDay2017This year’s Earth Day (22 April 2017) has as its theme “Environmental & Climate Literacy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that environmental and climate literacy require attention to the impact of industrial scale burning of forests, and the question of whether it makes sense as an investment in reducing carbon emissions.

Yesterday there were articles in the press celebrating Britain’s first full day of energy without burning coal since 1882. You have to dig in some articles (not all) to find out that they’re still doing a lot of burning to produce energy, including of imported pelletized wood, which comes mainly from a combination of waste wood (which is limited in quantity) and cutting forests in the southeast United States.

The rationale for cutting, processing, transporting, and burning massive amounts of wood to generate electricity is that it is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning the wood can be accounted as part of a cycle with growing trees (which captures carbon, as part of the natural plant growth process).

But is burning wood on this scale really carbon neutral? And are other externalities, such as environmental impact at points of harvest, adequately taken into account? Should industrialized countries, which otherwise have been pretty good about managing forests – and have been preaching to developing nations about forest conservation and management – be exploiting its forest resources as “nature’s powerhouse” (in the terms of FAO‘s unfortunate slogan for International Day of Forests last month)?

In a recent article entitled “Can We Have Our Forests and Burn Them Too?,” former CIFOR director-general Frances Seymour questions the rush to use wood for power generation based on the current approach to carbon accounting. and points out that the carbon cycle for trees is a very long one. A study by Chatham House, “The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests,” analyzes the accounting issues in more detail, concluding among other things, that “a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.” Similar issues are summarized in a paper on the Friends of the Earth-UK site entitled “Burning Wood for Power Generation The Key Issues Explained.”

The push to burn wood to generate energy, in short, is policy-driven (the science of the matter being read in a way favorable to certain outcomes), and may actually be worse in total impact than cleaner fossil fuels.

Big plants, big impact, small energy?

Among the big biomass/wood burning energy plants in Britain are Drax and Steven’s Croft. (BiofuelWatch has a map of all plants). Taken together, they seem to be having a big impact on forests and the “biomass market” (see for instance this EU press release about the potential impact of Drax), but surprisingly not accounting for that big a proportion of Britain’s overall energy – only 6.7% on the coal-free day, according to the UK Electricity National Control Centre (thanks to Steve Patterson for the pointer):

And the conversion of facilities from coal-burning to wood-burning was expensive (again regarding Drax, see this critical opinion piece). Might it not have made more sense to convert to gas and/or invest in other non-burning renewables?

“Transgenic” forests in the future?

As bad as the pelletizing of forests for electricity generation is today, it could get worse. Research on genetically engineered trees aims to enhance growth and change wood characteristics, with one of the main aims being production for energy (pellets but also biofuel). The continued use of wood to generate power on an industrial scale will generate funds and interest in further developing and planting these organisms, unfortunately probably without regard to impacts on the environment.  (Two older pieces give some perspectives – in The Guardian, 2012, and Earth Island via Salon, 2013.)

Missing the “sweet spot” for wood energy

I have some small experience with wood energy, and my perspective on the larger issues comes in part from two sources. The first began with work on forestry projects in Mali and Guinea which had as part of their purpose, helping rural people grow trees for firewood to use in cooking, rather than cutting natural growth. I’ve maintained an interest and awareness of the problems involved in this source of energy, and various programs and proposals to ameliorate environmental, health, and other problems associated with it. The second is installing and using a fireplace insert in our home, which uses purchased local firewood (coming from cleared and fallen trees in the region), as well as smaller branches and in a couple of instances fallen trees near our residence.

Five key concepts are involved here (I discussed four of these – not transfer – in more detail in the post, “Biofuels reconsidered“):

  1. local;
  2. small scale;
  3. minimal processing;
  4. more direct transfer of heat energy; and
  5. use of waste – that is wood that would otherwise go into a landfill, I am told.

When you get these five together, that’s what I’d consider the “sweet spot” for wood energy, the optimal position for energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable wood use. Sometimes it is hard to stay in that spot, or next to impossible, such as in communities in West Africa I have known – so small scale plantations, and medium-distance transport of wood becomes necessary. Or in the US, the market drives producing wood for fireplaces and firepits (those small mesh-packaged batches of split wood for sale outside supermarkets).

On the scale of, say, Drax and its suppliers, however, they’re off on all counts, pretty much by design: long distance between supply and use; very large scale; medium processing (not as bad as wood to liquid biofuel); indirect transfer (the heat released from burning only indirectly produces electricity, so there is energy loss); and due to the scale of demand, live trees are harvested and plantations made, with all kinds of externalities. Industrial scale burning of wood for energy in advanced economies, in other words, misses all the five criteria for optimal energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. So, if the “carbon neutrality” of this practice is also contested, why are we doing this?

Decoupling forests and energy

Which brings me back to the FAO’s disheartening – from the point of a former (re)forester and lifelong environmentalist – slogan for International Day of Forests (IDoF) on March 21: “The forest: nature’s powerhouse.” Their effort to link the small-scale household use of firewood (which for many is a simple necessity, not a preference) with industrial scale power generation from pelletized forests was misguided, in my opinion (and I believe that of many others). Their attempt to point to a long-term role of forests in energy generation and need for policy support to that end seems shortsighted. Do we really expect to devote a significant percentage of our dwindling forest lands to inefficient energy generation? (I annotated their infographic, which is included at the end of this post.)

Wood energy is a reality for many today, but it is not a vision for long-term development. It is time to plan for the gradual split between energy – the technology for which is “ephemeralizing” away from burning and combustion – and forests – which have critically important climatic roles in addition to supplying wood and other forest products for our use.

Of course, we will always like to sit by a wood fire on a cold night or at a campsite, or to grill over charcoal, but that kind of use should be as close to the “sweet spot” of optimization as possible.

Ms. Seymour in her article cited above had a memorable summation of the arguments she made (it’s not a long read, and highly recommended): “Whether temperate or tropical, we can’t have our forests and burn them too.” Hopefully FAO and other major agencies and organizations concerned with the future of forests and/or energy will take that assessment to heart.

Comments on FAO infographic “Forests and Energy” from IDoF 2017.

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