Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Epic Slaying of the Serpent

The colossal snake slithered slowly, deliberately, forward, towards the cowering children. Nothing now stood between him and his helpless victims. He advanced in for the kill. Suddenly, a figure moved between the beast and his prey. A tall, lean man, moonlight glinting off his balding head, looked down at the snake with merciless eyes. “Not tonight,” a deep, monotone rumbled. Forked tongue flicking through the air, the now-hesitant serpent watched with his black, soulless eyes as the American drew his cheap, Taiwanese sword. The crescent moon’s dull orange light shimmered off the grade-C steel, throwing a blood-red reflection back into the snake's slitted eyes. There was no turning back now. He reared up, opening his mouth and extending his fangs. It was kill or be killed. How had it come to this?

Five minutes before this Homeric encounter, the snake had lain coiled in his dank den, brooding. He could feel the it. Tonight was the night. Finally those happy children at the PMS (Partnership Ministry Society) student’s hostel would pay. Pay for all their joy and happiness that was so unattainable to him. Learning at a great school, playing soccer and laughing after class; if he could not have that joy then no one would. He had seen them while he was hunting rats through the rice fields. Running between the palm trees in their school uniforms, playing marbles, older kids helping the younger ones; it was more than he could bear. He would share his pain with the world. This was beyond good and evil. This was about fear. This was about power. He would let nothing stop him from fulfilling his evil obsession.

With the sound of dead, rustling leaves, he extended his powerful coils, moving out of his hole and into the night. The cool night breeze barely slowed him. As he slithered toward the lights and laughter of the hostel he tasted a new scent on the air. The scent of someone other than the children and hostel workers. Someone… foreign. The smell of this new nationality gave him pause- it reminded him of something. A vague feeling of his antithesis, of an ideal long forgotten. Was it freedom? Perhaps justice? Could it be equality?

A shudder ran down his lusterless, scaly body. Such noble and altruistic ideals had no place in his foul heart. The serpent forced the thoughts from his pea-sized brain. This was no time for distractions.

He moved easily through the grass and under the bamboo fence, into the packed-dirt yard in front of the two story concrete dormitory. Krystal, a small boy, saw him first. With a blood curdling scream he took flight, dashing from the yard onto the porch. The others panicked as they followed Krystal’s terrified stare to the image of evil incarnate that seethed out of the long grass into what had been, only moments before, their care-free sanctuary. In ecstasy, the serpent paused, savoring the moment. It really was better to be feared than loved. Better to rule a hell than serve in heaven.

Reclining contentedly on a wooden sofa in the hostel keeper’s living room, Travis was quietly reading a newspaper when he heard the scream. Instantly his Nordic warrior blood was ignited. The fearsome Viking spirit, which has long lain dormant within him, was roused. Neural circuits switched over in a nanosecond from relaxed introspection to a heightened, nearly pre-cognizant, level of awareness as the adrenaline mainlined. He leapt from his seat and rushing toward the sounds of distress, grabbing the mystic blade (complete with bottle opener), which his host had shown him earlier, from beside the door as he went.

As he emerged, he saw the hideous aggregation of all things unholy gliding across the smooth dirt toward the quaking children. Swiftly, he moved forward and stepped in front of the serpent, drawing his blade. “Not tonight.”

Hissing, fangs extended, the snake surged forward. The cold steel blade swung in a swift, powerful arc through the night sky. It found its mark. Blood and sand shot forth as the earth shook. The serpent writhed in its death thralls, its malevolent head nearly cleaved from its convulsing body. The children’s cheers rose like a storm. Again, the blade traced its terrible arc and again it struck with awe-inspiring power and precision.

(If you look really closely you can see the snake in front of my feet)

Seeing the fiend’s head completely cleaved from its twitching corpse, the children’s joyous cries redoubled; their hostel was saved! Travis raised his mighty, sanguinary blade high above his head and let loose a triumphant bellow that would have made Aires himself shudder. He had slain the beast!

Drums and cameras were brought forth to celebrate and record the heroic feat. There was much dancing and merrymaking. The children laughed and sang ancient ballads as they heaped laurels and kisses upon the victorious warrior.

When Travis reached down and picked up all 30 enormous inches of the now headless snake's body, its scaly length slowly wound itself around his calloused fist. An ebbing embrace that seemed a final acceptance of the superior moral might that had ended his brief reign of terror. Unnoticed by the crowds of cheering onlookers, a single tear ran down Travis’s cheek, falling from his beard into the sand and mixing with the serpent’s blood. Freedom truly is not free, he thought. You’re welcome India.

(Not to be wasteful, we cooked and ate it afterwards)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Search of the Green Helix

You know what sucks? 40,000 kids dying everyday as a result of inadequate nutrition. That sucks. Unfortunately, unless we start getting creative or stop reproducing so much, this horrendous statistic is only going to get worse. Our planet can only support so many people.

According to the Economist, the world’s population should stabilize around 9 billion. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, but even if this conservative estimate proves to be accurate, and we really should hope that it does, then that means adding another 30% to the 6 billion souls the earth is already struggling to support.

The reason we should be worrying (and many are) about this is because the finite resources on our little blue sphere are rapidly dwindling. If everyone consumed as much resources as the average American we would need about 2.5 earths, and the middle class in the developing world, and their desire for western luxuries is growing quickly. China is buying up huge swaths of arable land in Africa to help supply its 1.3 billion citizens with food but a great deal of the ‘Forgotten Continent’s’ land is also threatened by the creeping menace of desertification. Companies that mine potash, the base for most fertilizers, are seen as some of the best prospects around to invest in. Add to that the changing weather patterns and glacial melt that is caused by global warming and it starts looking like future wars might be fought over farm land and fresh water instead of oil.

So what do we do? One strategy that could help is to grow more edible algae. Specifically spirulina. A lot of you may already be familiar with this little green helix. Humans have been using it for over a millennia and it has been at health food stores in the US for decades. In spite of this it has yet to receive a true, large-scale following.
This is unfortunate because this incredible stuff is some of the densest complete protein you can get. It doubles its biomass every 2 to 5 days and provides 400 times more protein per acre than beef. It thrives in warm temperatures and can grow in high alkaline water (up to a PH of 11) and brine; environments where almost nothing else can survive. This means it can grow in deserts and coastal areas and, unlike most crops, does not require the clearing of any fertile land. Because of its high quantities of vitamins and minerals --particularly vitamin A, iron and zinc- when a group of 500 malnourished children in southern India received a supplemental tablespoon of spirulina a day for 150 days the prevalence in new cases of common eye disease dropped from 80% to 10%.

Goverments all over the world, particularly in Asia, started to recognize the algae potential as early as the 1970s and began large-scale, commercial production. Our lovely green friend, however, has yet to find more than a niche market in rich countries.

The government of India has set a good example in the developing world with an inter-departmental program, called the All India Coordinated Project on Algae. The AICPA is designed to encourage small-scale algae production across the country for both human and livestock consumption. The project is a start but it, along with the rest of the Indian agricultural sector, still has a long way to go before it reaches its potential. Even though the subcontinent has enough arable land to become a major food exporter, because of politics and lack a of resources, it is barely self-sufficient.

So, up in northeast India, we have decided to do our own small part to trying to help the situation. I am going to figure out a way to both grow spirulina and trap carbon!

The only issues to overcome are to figure out a way to pump CO2 through the water, circulate it enough to get the maximum yield of algae, and heat the water- the northeast is cold in the winter. Now, these wouldn’t be problems if we had money; you could just build a green house and buy CO2 canisters. But money is tight and the point of this project is to make a sustainable example that’s easy to replicate.

So my idea is to kill 4 birds with one stone. I want to use the exhaust from our 35 kW generator to heat the water, circulate it, provide the necessary CO2 and trap some of the carbon from the exhaust in the spirulina. My idea, which is still very much that, is to get a barrel of water, fill it with spirulina, snake a heat transfer pipe carrying the exhaust through the tank and bring the exhaust to a gas separator to isolate the CO2, then bubble it through the water. If the water is not circulated enough by the bubbles then I’m thinking to use a paddle wheel that is either powered by the generator itself or by the exhaust. I would use the exhaust by putting a spin-wheel in the tube; which would then drive a crankshaft to spin the paddle wheel. The carbon from the generators emissions would be trapped in the spirulina itself, which is 3 times as efficient at fixing carbon as a forest of equal area.

There are several hurdles in between me and my fully-functioning, model mini-spirulina farm. Probably the biggest is the gas separator. I have no idea if you can even make something that can effectively filter diesel exhaust, let alone how to build one. It’s also very important to get this part right as the algae absorbs everything you put in the water. A catalytic converter, if it’s not already in the generator, would help but would still leave me a long ways from isolating the CO2. The other problems aren’t so much whether or not I can do it, but how. I need to figure out how much water the exhaust can heat (the generator uses about 6 liters of diesel an hour), how best to position and shape the heat transfer tube and how to set up the tank itself. The problem there is that the more I insulate the tank the less sunlight it will get and visa versa. Spirulina needs a lot of sunlight and temperatures between 25C and 40C to grow. The generator is also in a brick shed so attaching the tank directly to the unit won’t work.

My formal education in physics stopped in high school, and in thermodynamics it’s non-existent, so I don’t even know where to start on figuring out the heat problem. Physics message boards require a greater understanding of the terminology than I have and, since I don’t have time to teach myself thermodynamics, I have enlisted the help of several of my elite network of physicist friends (made up of a very smart cousin and an equally gifted Beloiter). However, I am also appealing to you, the reader. If you or anyone you know has any knowledge that might help with this I would very much appreciate any guidance. I’ll even carve your name into the tank.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Ethics of Trying to Help

There is a very important question that anyone who wants to work in an NGO/charity needs to ask themselves . Why do I want to help? On the surface this may seem a simple question, but I have found that finding a satisfactory answer is anything but.

To start with, there is a degree of narcissism just in the assumption that you can help. That I, the white savior, can ride in and help usher these poor, backwards people into modernity. Help them to become more like me. But what makes me so special? Why do we know what’s best for them?

Our culture feeds into this idea of American exceptionalism. Take movies like The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves or Avatar. A disaffected, ruggedly individualistic white hero is assimilated into a group of noble savages whom he then leads to salvation because they are incapable of achieving this themselves. Avatar was the highest grossing movie ever. We eat this stuff up.

The problem with this is, as the old saying goes, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Our feelings of God-given superiority, often coupled with the desire to save the aboriginals from themselves, have led to such shining examples of western values as slavery, colonialism and the U.S.A’s genocide of the Native Americans. Well, you may say, that was a long time ago we don’t do that kind of thing anymore. Well, I would hypothetically respond, there are several billion people who may disagree and say that structural adjustment loans and sweatshops are just new paint on old ideas. That crux of Samuel Huntington’s Modernization theory, that all underdeveloped states need to do is mimic the ascent of the US and western Europe, does not seem too effective or popular to the people that it was designed to help.

The desire to do good and help can have negative consequences even when our hearts are in the right place and the ideas seems good. One example of this was when an NGO set out to empower a group of African women by introducing a new species of yam into their village. Harvesting yams traditionally had been the role of women and it was thought that this new super yam, which was bigger and required less space and water than its indigenous relative, would give these women something to sell. Since they wouldn’t be as reliant on their husbands for money they could start taking more control over their lives. Sounds great right? Well it didn’t quite work out that way. The men saw that the women were making real money on these yams so they took it upon themselves to harvest the plants themselves. So the women went from having a little to having nothing. That, and it turned out that in that type of soil the yams produced cyanide, which then ran off into the local water sources.

Another more large scale example of the best intentions run a muck can be seen in African famine relief. Everyone probably remembers the terrible famine in east Africa in the late 1990s (there is another one happening now if you need a refresher). The pictures of skeletal children with blank stares and flies in their eyes with captions asking for your donations. The news reports about how many hundreds of thousands had died and how many million more were at risk. Well if they are starving then lets give ‘em food! That’s what you do when people are hungry, right? And that’s what we did, and in the short term it probably saved thousands if not millions of lives. So what’s the problem? Well the problem is that we shipped all that food from America and Europe, we didn’t buy any of it there. That meant that, since it’s pretty hard to compete with free, what little agricultural infrastructure was left was destroyed. All those 50 and 100 pound bags of grain with USA stamped on the side was just a band-aid on a broken leg. Because of it when the next famine came it was far worse.

There is a whole school of thought that preaches that trying to help in poor areas only creates dependency. That in the end it only perpetuates poverty by undermining the target groups self-esteem and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by implicitly saying they are incapable of doing it themselves. Though this can and does happen, if aid is done right it doesn’t have to.

What the above examples show is not that people shouldn’t help each other, or that we in the rich world don’t have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than us. We do. The point is that we need to stop, think and check our ego before we try. Most of the time the easiest solution is not the best one and it’s the people in the effected communities that know best what’s going to help them, not us. If really we want to help, we should be focusing on empowering people by finding out, from them, what they need. Helping communities them to help themselves.

Thankfully, this is starting to happen. The World Food Organization is now buying whatever relief supplies they can from the effected areas and investing in infrastructure that should help soften the impact of the next crisis. NGO’s are now asking the communities they serve how they can help rather than telling them how they will. But even with this, the line between genuinely helping and hurting through creating dependency is very thin.

As for me, I keep asking myself this question of why and I don’t always like the answer. Yes, I’m asking people what they need and what they think the best way to get it is, but I would be lying if I said that how the project will reflect on me isn’t a criteria. There is deep, almost desperate need I feel to prove to myself and the world that I can be good at and find meaning in something other than the academic studying that has filled my life to this point. An articulation of a sort of early mid-life identity crisis of who am I, and integral to that, where do I belong? And though most of the stuff I’m working on looks really promising, at the end of the day there is a part of me that thinks, "who the hell am I to help these people?" I haven’t been out of college for 2 years and have almost no practical experience to speak of. I’m basing hospital HR policy on my experience working the graveyard shift at a gyros restaurant! But there is a bigger part of me that says that if it works it works and you have to start somewhere.

In the end, I think a very wise Peace Corp. volunteer best summarized volunteering when he told me about his time abroad. He and his fellow workers had arrived in country with amazing visions of how they were going to make a big, lasting difference. They were fresh out of college and had all kinds of innovative ideas on ways to bring prosperity and engagement to the little country that would be there home for the next 24 months. This optimism, however, quickly slammed into reality. The enormity and complexity of the issues started to come into focus. “By the end of it,” he told me, “you realize that, at best, you will improve the lives of a handful of people and that the people you meet will probably have a more positive and lasting effect on you then you will on them. They were the best two years of my life.”