Saturday, 28 February 2009

Caught in the light

A single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart. ~ Hal Borland

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore
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Friday, 27 February 2009

Plant power

Do you remember your biology lessons?  All about photosynthesis?  We used to do an experiment that involved taping a piece of foil on to a plant's green leaf.  After a time we tested the leaf for starch, and lo and behold, the leaf that had been hidden from the sun had no starch. And that was supposed to prove that green leaves needed the sun to produce starch using the magical process of photosynthesis.

Although that seems something of a leap of faith now (how? why? couldn't foil have some mystical de-starching properties?), at the age of 12 it seemed a satisfactory demonstration and amazing that plants could change sunlight into starch.  Green plants can do this, trap the power of the sun and convert it into food.  It is the original green energy, a source of solar power, though we didn't think to call it that then.

How great it would be if we could use green plants as sources of solar power, or if we could trap energy in the same way that they do.  It isn't so very far fetched as it might seem.  Scientists have used nano-technology to create devices that mimic the functions of the molecules involved in the photosynthesis cycle.  They have made a  photovoltaic device that can absorb light and efficiently convert it to electric current.

"These are early days but the possibilities for the application of this technology for environmentally-friendly energy production are very exciting."

You can read the research paper in Physical Review Letters.  I don't think I'll attempt it myself because I can't even understand the title: Photocurrent Enhancement in Hybrid Nanocrystal Quantum-Dot p-i-n Photovoltaic Devices.


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Thursday, 26 February 2009

A Powerful Noise

Hanh is an HIV-positive widow in Vietnam. Nada, a survivor of the Bosnian war. And Jacqueline works the slums of Bamako, Mali. Three very different lives. Three vastly different worlds. But they share something in common: Power. These women are each overcoming gender barriers to rise up and claim a voice in their societies. Through their empowerment and ability to empower others, Hanh, Nada and Jacqueline are sparking remarkable changes. Fighting AIDS. Rebuilding communities. Educating girls.

Help CARE help them make A Powerful Noise.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Rome Impressions


Victor Emmanuel Monument





dome in Santa Maria Maggiore



Rome skyline

Monday, 23 February 2009

Two years of hunting

Enough is enough. For precisely two years now I have been a PhotoHunter, very nearly without break, but I have decided to stop. The feeling of dismay when I saw people had already posted, before I'd even looked to see the theme, was a clear message.

They have been an enjoyable two years so I thought I'd pick out a few of my favourite PhotoHunt entries.

From Shadows

From Hanging

From Lazy

From Narrow

From, appropriately, Favourite, though I spelt it the American way.

From Long

From Water

Those are my favourite photos from the series. There was also the set of photos in Small which has to be seen as a sequence of pictures. I would have done it differently now, but I still like the story. And finally, there was this one, Thirteen.

It brings back memories of trying to explain time switches and thermostats to a commenter with an over-active sense of the absurd.

While I've been taking part, not only have I developed an interest in photography but I've met many friends along the way, so my thanks are due to tnchick for running the PhotoHunt. I may return in time, but for now it's goodbye.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

A powerful voice

Labor migration has been a historical fact of life throughout West Africa. While trade routes have long been a part of the regional economy, patterns of labor migration were established during the colonial period, which is still evident today. Mali is the third poorest nation in the world, according to the Human Development Index. As a result, it is common for people to migrate from Mali to other countries, such as Côte d’Ivorie, or from rural Mali to urban centers, such as the capital of Bamako.

Education in Mali is supposedly compulsory and free up to age 12. Still, classrooms are overcrowded, and many times led by untrained teachers who use sub-standard curriculums. In addition, students are left with the responsibility to purchase uniforms and supplies. When taking into account rates of enrollment, attendance and completion, the education system of Mali is ranked exceptionally low, especially among girls.

For most Malian parents, it is more economically beneficial to the family if their children work, rather than attend school. In 2002, nearly half of children ages 10 to 14 were part of the Mali work force. They often migrate to find work. Usually, the migration begins as a voluntary act to earn income for the family and/or to accumulate a dowry; often these children end up in an involuntary life of exploitation and servitude.

Many children who make their way to the capital city of Bamako end up becoming one of the city’s "street kids." The average age of these children is 15, and they have no form of adult supervision. While the literacy rate in Mali is altogether very low, the female literacy rate is much lower than that of males. So girls are less able to handle life on the city streets and are more susceptible to being forced into domestic servitude. In Africa, 85 percent of child domestic workers are girls.

Domestic servants are discriminated against, often contracted unwillingly to employers, and are worked long hours for little to no pay. Lack of governmental oversight subjects domestic servants and girls working on the street to unchecked sexual harassment and abuse. There are a number of laws to curb the exploitation of child labor and the trafficking of children, but enforcement is virtually non-existent. Unless, there are significant measures to enforce those laws, the same heartbreaking story will play over and over for domestic servants and other "street kids."

Jacqueline Dembele Goita, also known as Madame Urbain, is one of the lucky ones. Born in Mali, during an era when it was almost unheard of for girls to go to school in the impoverished country, Madame Urbain’s father sent her to school. Today, she uses her education to help hundreds of girls and young women, who flock to the capital city of Bamako every year in search of a better life.


Saturday, 21 February 2009

PhotoHunt: warm

I was largely without inspiration this week - the recent weather hasn't helped to make me feel warm, even though it's not as cold as many places. So I've resorted to photos I could find from earlier this year.

The glowing warmth of autumn colours.

And the fiery warmth of late summer flowers.

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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Love locks

A taster of my trip to Rome, and it comes as a romantic little story, which appeals to my romantic little heart.

As I was trying to take pictures of the Trevi Fountain, I noticed all these padlocks attached to the railing of the nearby Church, Saints Vincenzo e Anastasio.  Although the symbolism seems clear - there are names written on them, sometimes with dates, sometimes with hearts - I wanted to find out why they are there.

Although it's an old tradition in many places, in Rome it became a craze with the release of a film in which a young couple wrote their names on a lock, chained it around a lamppost and threw the key into the river so that their love would be locked forever.  Locks and chains started appearing around a lamppost on the Ponte Milvio, to the extent that the lamppost almost collapsed and the authorities had to provide an alternative place for them.  The church by the Trevi fountain has now become popular for the romantic love locks, the keys being thrown into the fountain.  As fast as the authorities try to remove them, new ones appear in their place.
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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Portrait of a girl (detail)

Quite some time ago Elaine of Old Age is a Bitch did one of those question and answer memes.  I remember thinking I would be answering no to almost all the questions.  One of them was  "Have you ever had your portrait painted?".  I wondered how many people would be able to answer yes to that.  Then I remembered.  I could.  My mother had my portrait painted when I was 8 years old, by a friend of hers.  It has been hidden away for years and only came to light when we were sorting out my mother's things last year.

I have cropped it, so you're missing the gem of the little sailor dress my mother insisted I wore.  There are limits to my revelations.

I don't believe I ever really looked like that, and I most certainly don't now, but in a rash moment I signed up for Twitter and decided to use it as my avatar.  Now I'm wondering whether to use it as my avatar on the blog because I'm tiring of the greenish globe now.   Any thoughts on whether I should change or not?

Sunday, 15 February 2009


By the time you read this, all being well, I will be in Rome.  First stop, the Trevi Fountain.

Picture from Wikimedia

I'll be back later in the week with my own pictures.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

My valentine

I didn't intend a Valentine's Day post because to me it's not an important event.  I'm slipping this one in while I should be doing other things because I'm intrigued by different ways of marking the day.

When my sons were small they used to come home from school with offerings such as the one above.  That was created with care and love by my elder son, when he could barely write, so it has survived several moves and I've had it a lifetime.  I took it to be a way for the teachers to teach children about significant dates and at the same time have some craft practice.

Then when it comes to teenage years, Valentine cards fly around, and there are great discussions about how many people have got, and more importantly, from whom.  As teenagers become young adults, the pairing off begins and Valentines are for lovers.

And that's the sum total of my experience of Valentine's Day.  As far as I'm concerned, it is a time for lovers to tell each other how much they mean to each other, not a time to send out greetings to all and sundry, not a time for greeting friends and acquaintances. To me, saying "Happy Valentine's Day" sounds odd, a little like saying "Happy Ides of March".  To me, it's a day that some people may mark more or less privately, but by no means everyone.  Yes, couples may go out for a meal together but it would be unlikely, I think, for them to go in a group.

So, finally I get to my point, and that is to ask is Valentine's Day an actual celebration in some countries?  Would you greet you neighbour with "Happy Valentine's Day" in the same way as you would wish them a happy New Year?  In what way is the day marked?
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Friday, 13 February 2009

PhotoHunt: nautical

A busy weekend for me, so I'm happy to be able to find a few pictures in my files that would fit the bill - of, or relating to ships, shipping, sailors. I suppose the first two from France aren't strictly ships, but they are relating to sailors. And the third in England may be in permanent dry-dock, but it most certainly is a ship.

A misty day on the Ile de Ré, west coast of France, New Year's Eve 2007.

A sunny autumn day in Marseillan, on the south coast of France, 2009.

HMS Victory in the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth 2008.

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Neglected tropical diseases

Distant places - forgotten lives

This is the list of diseases which are covered by the Neglected Topical Diseases Department of the World Health Organisation.

Buruli Ulcer
Chagas disease
Human African trypanosomiasis
Lymphatic filariasis
Soil transmitted helminthiasis
Neglected zoonotic diseases

One of these, human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, is caused by parasites called trypanasomes. The parasites enter the body from tsetse fly bites. During Stage 1, they stay in the bloodstream. At this stage fever, headaches, joint pains, and itching may occur. It can be cured but is rarely diagnosed. During Stage 2 it enters the nervous system and is fatal without treament. Until now the treatment for Stage 2 has been very toxic and hard to administer.

The disease has been recorded as occurring in 36 countries, all in sub-Saharan Africa. It is endemic in southeast Uganda and western Kenya and kills more than 40,000 Africans a year

This is a video from BBC World showing the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the moment.

Every day, over 35,000 people die from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and most neglected diseases such as kala azar, Chagas disease, and sleeping sickness. They die needlessly. Huge advances in science and technology have helped reduce the infectious disease burden in developed nations. But for the poor and neglected, the current model of drug development has not brought the hope of new medicines and diagnostics. The poor cannot pay premium prices for their treatment so no drug company will develop the cures that the poverty stricken developing world needs.

One of the organisations working on tropical neglected diseases, including sleeping sickness, is DNDi, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative. It was established by:
  • Médecins sans Frontières has directly witnessed the human cost of the lack of drugs for neglected diseases;
  • the Pasteur Institute in France;
  • the UNDP/World Bank/WHO’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases works on 10 neglected infectious diseases that affect poor and marginalized populations;
  • the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation;
  • the Indian Council for Medical Research;
  • the Kenya Medical Research Institute;
  • the Malaysian Ministry of Health.
DNDi works to develop new drugs or new formulations of existing drugs for patients suffering from the most neglected communicable diseases. DNDi’s success depends on support from foundations, governments and individuals.
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Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bilingual children

As anyone who uses Google knows, it was 200 years ago today that Charles Darwin was born.  Charles Darwin may, or may not, become relevant to this post.

There was no mention of Darwin on this morning's BBC Breakfast news, but there was a feature about bilingual education.  For the last 20 years there has been a steady increase in the numbers of pupils in the UK who are taught in Irish, Welsh, or Scots Gaelic.  Devolution of powers from Westminster has meant increasing differentiation of education and has allowed schools to teach in any of these languages.

During the programme it was said that there is evidence that children who are brought up bilingual have higher IQs.  The implication was that bilingualism increases IQ.  As usual the BBC gives no evidence, nor can I find anything at all about the feature.

It may be true that a bilingual upbringing will increase IQ but there could well be other factors at work. 
  • Perhaps only intelligent children cope well enough to stay in bilingual education.
  • Perhaps having a second language somehow helps children perforn well in IQ tests.
  • Perhaps (and this is where Darwin may possibly come in) parents most likely to raise/educate their children bilingually are above average intelligence themselves, and their children would be intelligent regardless.
Does anyone whose children are bilingual have any views on this?  Anonymous j, I know, has bilingual children - are you there Anonymous j? 

I'm absolutely sure knowing a second language is a huge benefit in many ways and I'm delighted that my as-yet-hypothetical grandchildren will be truly bilingual.  I just wonder what the real evidence is that it causes a rise in IQ. Actually, I have all sorts of questions, such as
  • What is the definition of bilingualism?
  • Is there an age constraint on becoming bilingual?
  • Are children brought up in England now at a grave disadvantage?
Fascinating subject.  I jsut wish I could find out more.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Spring sprang sprung

To my great delight, there are signs that spring, if it hasn't quite sprung, it is at least on its way.  Now that the snow has retreated some of the braver spring flowers are showing their faces.

A drift of snowdrops.  I think these are the most elegant of flowers, and to be the forerunner of spring makes them a double delight.

The snowdrop, winter's timid child  
~Mary Robinson

The aconites hide beneath a bush.  A burst of colour for the still dark days.

Aconite, the first of all,
Who is so very, very small;
Who is so golden-haired and good,
And wears a bib, as babies should.
~Jan Struther.

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Monday, 9 February 2009

Eco babble

There is a whole new vocabulary that is growing up in and around the world of climate change and environmental awareness.  It seems to be along the same lines as techno-babble and psycho-babble.  I always think these words and phrases that specialists use are there more to create an aura of mystery, of exclusivity, than to clarify anything.

So, here we are then, some definitions supplied by IRIN and illustrations supplied by me (with a little help from Flickr).  Some more apt than others, because it did become a challenge...

Greenwashing.  This is the process by which assorted products or businesses acquire an eco-friendly spin.  An example would be the way John Lewis touted its waste disposal unit as being green, as I reported last year.

Ecoflation.  Inflation caused by environmental problems such as deforestation or water scarcity.

Precycle.  Reducing waste by changing buying habits to cut down on waste such as making sure any packaging is recyclable.

Locavore.  A person who eats as much locally produced food as possible.

Energy-exia.  Refers to people who keep their energy consumption down to a bare minimum.

Photo from Flickr/Martin Ujlaki

Green audit.  The assessment  of the environmental impact of any activity or product.

Eco-hacking.  An effort to change the environment by large scale projects such reflecting sunlight back.

Photo from Flickr/LollyKnit

Green jobs.  Jobs in environmentally friendly businesses such as renewable energy.

Global weirding.  A term for the extremes of weather which seem to be happening all over the world these days.

Some of these words and phrases are working their way into normal vocabulary, some I've heard once or twice, but many are new to me.  Will energy-exia ever succeed as a word?  It doesn't exactly slip off the tongue.
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